REVIEW – The Singer’s Ego: Finding Balance Between Music and Life

I recently read Lynn Eustis’ above-titled book. Dr. Eustis is on the faculty of the University of North Texas and did 3 session on Mental Health and the Singer at the NATS conference in Salt Lake City this summer. They were excellent, often cathartic sessions on discussing just why singers are so neurotic. And how teachers can help and also harm their students in their growth as performers and as people. Based on Dr. Eustis’ engaging personality and the value of the information in these sessions, I ordered the book before I left Salt Lake City. I looked forward to how I could use her insights as both a singer and a teacher – in fact, the subtitle of the book is “A Guide for Singers and Those Who Teach and Work with Singers.” I finally got around to reading it on my recent mini-vacation.

The book is organized like a textbook, with questions following almost every chapter (except, interestingly enough, the one on the benefits of therapy, which I thought cried out for some self-analysis!). It is in two parts: Part 1 – the inner world of the singer; and Part 2 – the outer world. The book could be used with the college music student, and there are many things that would apply more to the singer starting out than to the … mature singer (i.e., me).

I found Part 1 particularly valuable. There were some extremely good points made about how singers are different from instrumentalists. I especially liked the analogy of how if an instrumentalist’s instrument breaks down on him before a performance, he can get it fixed! He can get another one if he has to. He might even have a backup instrument. Pianists are another story – a traveling concert pianist has to work on a different instrument everywhere he goes. If he’s famous, he can specify that he wants a Steinway or a Baldwin to play on, but it’s still a different instrument.

We are our instruments. If we get sick, don’t sleep well, need emergency dental work, get into an argument with someone on the day of a performance – our instrument is affected. We can’t go get another one. We have to either cancel or make do, and especially if we’ve been practicing under perfect conditions, and suddenly fate kicks us in the teeth, it’s heartbreaking.

Dr. Eustis doesn’t hold anything back. She admits that she is not a natural performer and that while she might have been the best singer at any given audition, she often didn’t get the part because she was considered “boring.” She had to work at inhabiting the music and letting it take her to the next level. Like her sessions at NATS this summer, her focus is on finding the truth in what you are singing. I found her analyses to be extremely insightful, inspiring, and often humorous.

But one thing about the book bothered me, and that happened in Part 2, the outer world. In the chapters regarding competition and relationships and the world of professional singing, she told stories about other singers who had done her wrong and how their actions affected her. I can appreciate that. I remember a fellow mezzo introducing me to a conductor and saying, “This is Christine Thomas. She’s a fine choral alto.” At which point I said, smiling, “And a mezzo soloist as well!” My problem was not with her telling these stories, my problem was the specificity of the stories.

At one point, she told a story about how a soprano in an apprenticeship program said something vile to her immediately before going on for the 2nd act, in which she had a major aria to sing that required intense focus. My problem was not with the story itself – it was that she said where it happened, which role she sang, which role the other girl sang and which opera. In this day of the internet, it is not hard to imagine that someone would say, “Gee, I wonder who that bitch was,” and with a couple of keystrokes, find out.

I did. I Googled Dr. Eustis, the role she mentioned, and the opera house. In 5 minutes, I had a review of the performance and I found the offending soprano. And then I found her website. If I could do it, so could a casting director. Or an agent. It was 20 years ago – the soprano could have had her own issues that year. Maybe since then she’s found Jesus. Or a new partner. Or better medication. Or she just grew up. Why bring this up now? And so specifically?

That specificity spoiled the book for me in some regards because it wasn’t necessary. She could have – she should have – kept it much more general. It would make her look better . And I don’t think she’s a petty person. I’ve met her – she’s not. I think it was a mistake, and one that her editor should’ve had her change. Telling these stories in a workshop is one thing – but print is forever.

I can recommend the book in so many ways. The insight into the singer’s mentality is invaluable – there is so much truth in this book (maybe too much truth) – and she offers the reader a great opportunity to become self-aware by answering the questions at the end of chapters. (What is my goal for my voice lesson? Besides getting there on time? Really, I’m supposed to have a goal? Oops!)

As I’ve said in the past, quoting the now-defunct TV show Eastwick, “I am here to inspire and facilitate.” And Dr. Eustis opens the book with an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the last two lines of which I found applicable to that thought:

“Leaving it you to prove and define it,

Expecting the main things from you.” 

I look forward to her upcoming follow-up, The Teacher’s Ego. 

2 thoughts on “REVIEW – The Singer’s Ego: Finding Balance Between Music and Life

  1. That was a very thorough review of the book. I agree with your point of contention, at least as you have described it. To be really mentally healthy in the long run, there has to be forgiveness of past wrongs — whether real or merely perceived. There's no point in writing anything that could cause another harm — either on purpose or accidentally — and special care should be taken to avoid that.

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  2. I had a hard time being honest about that element of the book because I didn't want to come across as petty. I really LIKE the author. I love the book up to that point. I blame the editor more than I blame the author – I can totally see writing it. But it's the job of the editor to say, \”Great story.. but can we edit it just a bit so that you don't come across as vindictive?\” Just like it's a director's job to rein in an actor who is being self-indulgent (or draw out one who needs to give more).

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