Learning to Listen

I can’t believe it’s the last week. The Taos Opera Institute is almost over!  Last week, our guest artist was Jacque Trussel, head of the voice department at the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase. He began his first class with an illustration: John Gibney volunteered and was instructed to “do whatever you need to do to not fall over” while Jacque pushed strongly on his shoulders. Naturally, John let one foot step backward, and leaned forward with as much strength as necessary to match Jacque’s pressure. How long could he have held it there? How exhausting would that be over time? Then, Jacque reminded him that he never said he couldn’t move, but just not to fall over. He pushed again, and John began to simply walk backwards in an S pattern around the room as Jacque guided him. Sure, it’s a little scary to walk backwards, but John just needed to trust that his best interests were at heart, and to “go with the flow.” How much easier can things be if we could just trust those who love us and want the best for us instead of resisting? How much more could we grow?


Jacque continued with several other nuggets related to performing (quotes are paraphrased), which I found to be quite pertinent to my own life:


“Often times the director (or performer) tries to impose their own ego on the work, rather than examining the text and music to find the true meaning.”  [Usually resulting in a less effective performance.]

How many times do I try to make my own way, rather than really seeking what I was created to be and do?


“The audience believes that everything you do, you mean to do. Let’s not do things that don’t mean anything, or may mean something we don’t intend.” [mostly referring to gestures, or other effects of body language]

Am I really “walking the walk?” What might I be communicating to the world by my actions that I don’t intend?


“Do you live in concepts or awareness? Are you really listening? Be a good listener!”

Am I living by simply reacting to whatever comes my way, or do I allow space for self-awareness? How can I be a better listener?


“Act out of awareness with your partner, not out of your own concepts. Don’t resist. You’ll look bad.” [Meaning, if I think my scene partner is supposed to argue with what I say, but he instead agrees, and I keep on trying to prove my point, I’m the one that looks stupid.]

How might I be trying to push my own agenda, and probably failing, instead of “going with the flow,” and walking in God’s ways for me?


“You can learn about all these things (languages, technique, etc.) but if the core isn’t in line, it will all fall apart.”

I may have gained knowledge of the Bible, or relationship and communication techniques, but if I don’t keep coming back to the Lord for guidance, I will fall apart. Am I aligned with Him?


“Be a channel, or a conduit; find your inner child. Pay attention to the still small voice. Don’t edit ideas– the surest way to block creativity.”

Do I have the child-like faith? Am I listening to God? Might I be trying to “quench the Spirit?”


In my time of solitude and silence today I was asked to imagine God asking me “What are you doing here, Cassandra?” “Why have you come away to be with me?” “What is drawing you into deeper relationship with me?” At first I thought it might be to simply "be transformed.” But I had a feeling it would be more specific than that. I knew I had to wait. I knew I had to listen. And then that was it. I need to learn to listen! To wait, and to trust! The wheels started turning and then it all became clear. My teachers keep telling me to take more time. “Take more time on the high notes.” “Let them bloom.” “Don’t rush the short notes.” “Give them they’re full value!” “Let the audience hear the quality of your voice before you get to the long, held note.” They may be different words, but they’re essentially saying the same thing. “Just wait!”


Last week I worked on The Composer’s Aria from Ariadne auf Naxos. It was definitely a stretch for me, but the piece featured concepts I knew I really needed to work on, and my teachers had confidence in me. One of the toughest things in this aria is to simply stay grounded. The melody continues to rise, getting higher and bigger and the phrases, longer. If I look closely, however, the actual composer, Richard Strauss, does allow time to rest and regroup. There are beats or even full measures of rest here and there. Time to rest and breathe is actually written in the music!  The root of all my difficulties lived in not allowing myself to really rest and release in those moments. I was afraid that if I let go of trying to control my own breath, I would lose everything. I can only imagine Robert Mills’ (my coach last week, and from ASU! woot woot!) frustration every time I sped through those quarter note triplets. He can see beyond what I could fathom, but I couldn't yet.  “Take more time and enjoy it!”  The words read “Before the shining throne” for goodness sake! Might that be a clue? Then, on the night of my first performance in the church, I saw the beautiful stained glass cross right in front of me. It was as if God was using every tactic possible for me to understand this concept. Even still, I rushed right through the last page, basically skipped some rests, and my larynx probably ended up in my forehead (that’s a bad thing). “Let every note ring!” I would hear. Robert can listen objectively. He knows how it’s supposed to go. He has the correct rhythms right in front of him. He’s heard it a million times and has a pretty darn good idea of what works best. Why wouldn’t I trust him? My teacher last week, Brad Williams, knows how the high notes feel. He’s explained it to tons of singers who have gone on to succeed. Why wouldn’t I trust him?


My parents, pastors, and mentors have understood the heart issues I’ve struggled with. Candi could recognize what my heart really desired when I tried to control my dating life in college. She had been there. But still, I didn’t listen. I didn’t wait. I didn’t trust. My heart was hurt in the process, and my habits became deeply ingrained. I didn’t allow myself the time (or take the time God was giving me) to rest and regroup before looking out for the next guy. God probably looked at me with an expression that said, “How silly you are! Don’t you know how much I love you? I will provide in my perfect timing!”  I’m sure now that God was with me then, pursued me, and loved me in the midst of my frenetic controlling. And then I met Gilbert. Partially following old habits, and also knowing I was moving in two months, we still fell for each other pretty quickly.  But God knew we needed to learn to be patient and wait before fully investing. For the duration of our first year together, He placed us thousands of miles apart, each in our own communities of growth. It was during that time we began to learn how to communicate, how to wait expectantly, and how to trust both each other and the Lord.  That time certainly prepared us for this month we've spent apart too! 


Even once something is “settled” (we're happily married after all!), it’s easy to fall back into our old ways if we don’t take the time to become aware of what’s happening–to wait, and listen for God's promptings. It would be easy to keep rushing those short notes, pinching the high notes, letting go of my support, and getting caught up in my breath. The muscle memory goes deep, and seems almost impossible to change. But now I know I need to first take the time to listen. I’m listening to my lesson recordings. I’m seeing the patterns in the advice from all the teachers and coaches. I'm starting to understand what it is I need to change, and now I actually need to commit to doing it. That’s the next step. And that’s where I need to trust. I need to stop resisting. I need to let God lead me, and just follow Him.


Sure, we all may hear advice from people that we don’t agree with. Sure, they may have their own agenda, whether it’s conscious or not. Sure, they may be flat wrong. But is that the majority? Is there really nothing I could learn from them? Probably not. My wise teacher at home, Leroy Kromm, advised me before I came to this program to go with the idea that everyone wants to help me, and no one is out to hurt me. Take everything they say graciously, and then test it against what you know is true, and aligned with “Nature’s Way” of singing. What a concept! One of the best checks for determining an urging from the Holy Spirit is to test it against God's word. How much smoother would it be to stop resisting everything I hear, and to just take it all in. The real beauty and comfort resides in knowing that there is a greater Truth to base everything on. I don’t have to live in the confusion of trying to figure out everything for myself. Most people that have been in the business longer, or have followed God longer probably know better than I do. I can listen to them, and trust them, and then ultimately trust God to help me sort out His path for me.  Thank God! 





Thankfully, my performance on Saturday night (granted it was in a town square gazebo with motorcycles buzzing by) went much better.  I was able to keep my focus better (maybe becuase I had to concentrate even harder on doing so!), I released when I took breaths, and I took much more time on stretching passages.  It's still certainly a work in progress and has a long way to go, but I'm celebrating small victories here! 

Singing "The Composer's Aria" accompanied by Robert Mills in the Taos Plaza
Singing "The Composer's Aria" accompanied by Robert Mills in the Taos Plaza

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Comments: 2
  • #1

    Stephen Schermitzler (Thursday, 27 June 2013 11:01)

    Just came across your blog, Cassandra...and it's a very beautiful and gentle reminder to keep things in perspective and to take things as they come. God does have a hand in everything, and things do work out perfectly in His time. And He does want us to experience, and then weigh, all the options we're presented. It only results in a more balanced approach once we DO find the right answers. And God has a way of making all things clear at just the right moment.

    I'm so happy for you and your career! You seem like you're in a very good place these days! :) Keep striving, and God bless!

  • #2

    Ryan Allais (Thursday, 27 June 2013 17:18)

    You are AWESOME and it was a pleasure to have met you here in Taos!! Nw you have some more followers for your website!!