Since I was 13, I wanted to be an opera singer.
[quiet opera music plays]
I know that sounds very strange and very specific, but I was sort of a strange kid growing up. Um, I didn't really quite fit the mold. I got bullied and teased pretty often and I was looking for an identity. So one day it was announced in my sixth grade choir meeting, we had this time where we would leave class and we'd all go and have choir. And so it was announced that during the Christmas recital, we would be singing a song that involved a solo and that there would be auditions after school. No one ever told me I could sing and I had never sung anywhere except for the choir and then just to myself at home, listening to the radio and trying to imitate what I heard, but I thought, I think I can sing. I think this might be my chance.
So I went and I auditioned and I walked home that day and my parents asked me, "So, how was your day?" And I said, "Oh, well, I auditioned for a solo today," and they said, "You can sing?" And I said, "I think I can." And they said, "Well, what did you do?" And I said, "Well, I decided I'd sing "Hero" by Mariah Carey." And you know, I, I just, I let it go. And I closed my eyes and I shook my head and they thought that was very funny. Well, it turns out that I, I got that solo. And so the Christmas recital came along and I walked up to the front and I sang my solo and I felt alive in a way that I had never felt before; there was an energy in the room and I could sense, and it was palpable and I loved it. I loved the feeling of performing and I knew, okay, I think singing might be my thing.
And so I auditioned for the top choir in seventh grade and seventh graders didn't usually get in, but I got in and my choir director encouraged me to enter a solo competition. So we would be adjudicated by a panel of experienced voice teachers. And they told me, "You could take this more seriously if you want, maybe you could take voice lessons." So I thought, yes, I think so. And so I told my mom and she connected me with a local voice teacher and we started training classically and I started to listen to opera, become more interested, and became my identity, because through feeling like an outcast, somebody who didn't belong, at least I knew who I was. I was the girl who sang. So the bullying, the loneliness, the rejection, the feeling of being an outsider, it didn't feel as bad knowing I could do something special. I could do something that was different than what anybody else that I knew could do.
So I sang at all of the football games, I would sing the national anthem. Sometimes I would sing on the intercom in the morning and I even got my own special song at graduation. I sang "Time to Say Goodbye." And I, I felt like this was who I was and I clung to it. So I got into a conservatory and I was going to study voice and become an opera singer. And I was thrilled. I was so excited, but then my experience did not match what I had expected. I struggled. I struggled deeply at the conservatory. And in spite of all of my struggle, I finally felt like around sophomore year that I, I got this. So there's this process in a conservatory called sophomore proficiency where you basically audition to be able to do your junior recital. And you audition before all of the voice faculty at the conservatory. So I went and I felt like, again, like the Christmas recital, I felt like I nailed it.
I felt alive. I felt so in tune with the music as I sang for my sophomore proficiency, I was sure I passed. About a week later my voice teacher called me into her office and she said, have a seat. During voice lessons you don't sit. So I knew something was up. And she said, "Charissa, you didn't pass." And I said, "Why?" And so she started to explain, but I didn't hear anything she said, it was just sound waves passing over me and all of the emotion just welling up inside me and my throat was tight. So after she was done talking, I said, "Okay, thank you." And I went outside and found the local park and that was, oddly enough, the most private place where I could go and cry because I had two roommates and I just wrestled. I thought, what, what do I do now? Who am I now?
Um, this was a pretty big obstacle. This was a huge failure. And so I thought, okay, I guess this means that I'm not supposed to do this after all. I guess this part of my dream, this part of my identity is dead. And so I got, I switched my major. I got a degree. I, I went on and lived my life and I had just a regular job, but I was bored and unsatisfied, of course. And so one day when I was walking down the street in La Mesa on La Mesa Boulevard, I went into this used bookstore and they were playing classical music.
[Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca plays]
They were playing Mozart. I can't remember which piece it was, but I knew it at the time immediately. And so I went over to the counter and I said, "Oh, I noticed that you're playing this Mozart piece. I love this piece." And he goes, "You're awfully young to be interested in classical music." And then we just started talking. And I think I talked that man's ear off because I just was so hungry to talk to anybody about my love for music because that wasn't a part of my life anymore. And he also talked to me about some of my other interests, my interests in philosophy and theology and history. And he said, "You know, there's this, there are these kinds of books. There's this field called musicology. Have you heard of it?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Oh, well, there are these books that we have in the back that are on musicology. I think that you would find them interesting." And so by way of backstory, while I struggled at the conservatory, I was always told I was a smart singer and that I was too analytical that I was too in my head. My voice teacher would just say, "I wish I could just get you out of your own head."
And sometimes some of my other professors would say, "You'd be great at musicology," which when you want to be a performer is like a slap in the face. It feels like they're saying you're not good enough, but here's something academic that you could do. Um, so I, I ignored that. I thought, oh gosh, my mind is my obstacle. That's my hindrance. And so anyway, fast forward to this moment in the bookstore with the bookstore owner, his name was Maxwell, I still remember cuz the store's called Maxwell's House of Books. He showed me these musicology books and all of a sudden I felt alive again but in a different way than I did on the stage, because now all those parts of me that I believed were my obstacles, that I believed were inconveniences about who I was, things that I needed to get out of the way to get my dream, I realized that those things could be incorporated into my love of music, into a unique path for myself, something that made me special or unique.
And so I realized at that moment that my supposed failure wasn't a failure. It was a redirection. I realized that all those parts of me that I had shut down or tried to shut down were actually an important part of who I was and what I was meant to do. And so I, I now think of failure not as an end or as a dream that has died, but rather it's more like a compass and it showed me a different way, even if that way was a bit circuitous.