Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Laura Johnston: The Importance of 'Emotion Work'

Thank you to Talent Trust recipient Laura Johnston for sharing her very personal reflections on the last year and her practice.

Laura was the winner of the 2020 Shelia K. Piercey (Legacy) Award.

For lack of a better word, the past year has been interesting. As I write this, St. John’s is at Alert Level 5 due to a recent outbreak. The city is in lockdown. Certain aspects of growth and my struggles during this time can be described as two sides of the same coin, and the intertwining of the two started in June 2020. You see, it was at this time that I met a man. A man with passion, knowledge, and kindness. A man who helped open my mind and my heart. This man is, of course, my voice teacher Neil Semer.

Check out his website and the website for his summer programs!

I will be talking about what I will call “emotion work.” My work with Neil encompasses so much more than this, but as I know now, without it, I would not have been able to make strides in terms of vocal mechanics and artistry. Now, I am not an athlete, but I cannot help but think that my emotion work is akin to aspects of sports psychology. That is, certain mental factors have a direct impact on performance.

The early days of this work were undoubtedly the most challenging. One of the reasons was I simply did not notice what I was feeling. To paraphrase Neil: There are no negative emotions. Emotions are just energies to be felt. Like so many others, I have been led to believe that emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger are bad and something to fix. For clarification, there is a difference between acting on emotion and feeling the emotion. So, when “negative” emotions would arise, I learned to ignore and suppress these feelings in the past. The thing is, if you ignore the emotion, the emotion does not go away. Before I could work with what I was feeling, I had to learn to recognize that it was there.

A section of page 85 of The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris which I am currently reading as part of my emotion work.

I would not be as far in my training if I didn’t have a love of singing. With this is a drive and desire to improve. Cue anxiety, frustration, and fear. To use an example, singing a closed [u] (sounds like oo in the word moo) has been a challenge for me. Neil would call me out, saying, “You are not doing what I am asking you to do. You are not doing the work.” In these moments, I would have thoughts such as “I hope I don’t screw this up” or “Am I actually saying the [u] vowel?” Instead of doing the work and being present in the moment of doing it, I would be trying to do it. Trying to do it is not the same thing as doing it. It took a while to deeply understand this concept. When I hear my voice now, compared to how I sounded before studying with Neil, it is tough to believe it is the same person singing. 

I will be sharing a more recent examples in the upcoming weeks on my Instagram account: @klaurajohnston

Follow me to learn about my progress!

My hard work has been gratifying. I do mean hard work. As most would attest, the past year has been hard. Along with the pandemic of COVID-19, there has been a pandemic of loneliness, depression, and fear. Living in the current global climate has given me a lot to work with in terms of emotion work. There are days I have been physically exhausted because of it. However, if there wasn’t a global pandemic, I believe there would have been different challenges in terms of my development. Performances and programs have been significantly reduced. I have not needed to learn as much repertoire, and my obligations are less. This has allowed me to focus on what I described above and other aspects of my technique.

Voice teacher Neil Semer and soprano Laura Johnston working on French vowel pronunciation.

A great deal of a singer’s work is in isolation. Hours of practice, language study, song analysis, and music listening are generally solitary activities. What is missing now are the times we perform together, how I miss collaboration with other musicians in person and the spontaneous conversations that arise about various works. It isn’t gone completely, but at times it seems as if it is. At times, I feel alone in my understanding and appreciation for the work that I do. The support from Nova Scotia Talent Trust gives me such a sense of validation. To me, it says, “You are not alone. We believe in the importance of arts. We believe in the work that you continue to do. We believe in you.” 

Thank you, NSTT! Your support means so much.

In the summer, I was having trouble recognizing my emotions since I had not spent a lot of time allowing myself to feel uncomfortable feelings. Before any practice session, I was to do about 10 minutes of this before singing. I cannot speak for other people’s experience, but in this first week the flood of emotion was so much that it was impossible for me to sing. By the third day of ugly cries, I contacted Neil to let him know what was happening, and we decided to give that exercise a rest until the next voice lesson. However, this marked the start of the commitment to this aspect of my voice training (and to myself). I am skipping numerous steps in this journey between then and now, but I now spend time checking in with what I am feeling before any singing. Some of my most successful lessons (i.e. committed to doing the work that was being asked and beautiful sounds emerging) were when I allowed myself to be sad or angry and sang through and with that energy.

Want to hear more about the Talent Trust? Please sign up for our newsletter.

Want to support the next generation of Nova Scotian artists? Donate today! (smile)

No comments:

Post a Comment