Friday, May 11, 2012

Own Your Dream

As a singer, it’s easy to find yourself dreaming of winning a reality singing competition and becoming an instant celebrity, or getting discovered singing karaoke and getting a shot at being the next big thing in music. In fact, it seems almost everyone harbors a dream to be a rock star, whether they’re a singer or not.

But, to be more specific, it seems to be like the dream is always to be THE STAR, the one out in front, the individual at the center of the attention. I have these dreams too, of course, but lately I’ve begun questioning whether that’s where I really want to be. Looking back at my career to date, I realized that I’m always striving to make others look good, working behind the scenes in support of that star out in front.

When I was doing theatre, I loved stage management and working on a backstage crew – ensuring the actors’ props were clean, unbroken, and in their proper place, or getting a light or sound cue just right to achieve the mood or feeling the designer had intended. It wasn’t about me being in the spotlight – it was about making sure that the people who were, looked good.

Even in my corporate career, I have the same tendencies. I find myself striving to always give credit to others for their ideas and contributions, framing my boss in the best possible light, bringing things to people’s attention to help them avert a possible sticky situation, and being willing to take the blame when things go wrong if I had any part in the cause, to make sure someone else doesn’t take the hit. I tend to avoid highlighting my own accomplishments, and instead focus on teamwork and others’ achievements.

So I got to thinking, if this is how I prefer to work – being out of the spotlight, making others look good – maybe this is how I should approach music. Maybe what I want to do is be a background vocalist. The idea of it is really appealing – it feels less vulnerable than being the main singer in the spotlight, but still requires a lot of talent and dedication and hard work. Singing backup also involves a lot of harmonization, which I love doing – I remember back in high school, my best friend Christine and I used to always sing along with the radio while driving, and I would always take the harmony line while she sang melody. Even back then, I was drawn to the supporting role. ;)

When I found myself contemplating this idea, though, I somehow felt like it was less worthy of being my dream than the idea of wanting to be a lead singer. Who dreams of being a backup singer rather than the star? I felt like it was a cop-out dream, like I was too scared of reaching for the “real thing” and instead taking my dreams down a notch to make them less audacious or bold, or like I figured it took less talent to be a backup, so it was a better fit for unqualified little me.

Then a funny thing happened. Not long after all these thoughts were rolling around my brain, during one of my voice lessons, my teacher and I got on the subject of current popular singers, and out of nowhere, she said, “Wow, I would LOVE to be a backup singer for someone like that.” I couldn’t believe it – this is someone who has sung opera all over the globe, whose voice is out-of-this-world amazing, and she was wishing to be a backup singer.

I asked her, didn’t she think it was somehow less of an aspiration? And she asked me, “Are you crazy?” She pointed out that backup singers don’t work any less hard than leads, and there are a lot of advantages to being a backup – having the opportunity to sing for a living and go on tour while not carrying the burden of a show the way a lead singer does, getting the chance to sing harmonies versus melodies, and not being subjected to same level of scrutiny in terms of appearance (i.e. not having to be the Hollywood standard of blonde, buxom and size 0).

While I know that I shouldn’t have to look to others to validate my own thoughts or dreams, I was really grateful to hear my super-talented and accomplished voice teacher share her point of view on this. It helped me realize two things: first, that aspiring to be a background singer is absolutely a worthy and worthwhile dream.

But second, and maybe more important, was my understanding that I shouldn’t doubt my own thoughts or aspirations. If I want to pursue a certain type of career or role or interest, I shouldn’t let myself doubt it or bring it down, just because it may not be the usual thing or what everyone else dreams about or even what I think I “should” be working towards.

This comes back to an idea that keeps presenting itself to me lately in books, blogs and conversations – each of us can only be ourselves and no one else – and no one else can be us. As Dr. Seuss wrote, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

I think what it all comes down to is, I need to learn how to be myself, accept myself for who I am, and be the best me, the Me-est Me, I can be. And whether that means being a lead singer or a backup singer or a different kind of musician altogether, I have to remember that my dreams are mine and no one else’s – mine alone to dream up, validate, and make come true.

If this post rings true for you, leave a comment and tell me why, or share your own uniquely-you dream.


  1. Jenn, what you wrote really hit home. I love doing things for others, and making things run smoothly, out of the spotlight. I guess this is why I too am in theatre. I always wanted to be a production manager, but who says that?
    Well this really made me think about the type of person I am, and where I may want to go someday. Maybe I have found my dream job of theatre and teaching...who knows.

    1. April - LOTS of people "say that"! :) Being a production manager is an awesome role, and something worthy of aspiring to for sure! Don't doubt your own dream or question who you are - if it's who you are, own it and live it!

      Haha - look at me preaching what I'm still trying to convince myself of! ;) Thanks for your comment - it truly helps me see that I'm not alone in the way I may doubt my own aspirations, and strengthens my resolve to be the me-est me I can be.

  2. I wrestle with this same issue, but in a different way and I think one my mistakes is that I think of it in a binary, either/or way. When I photograph I feel like I'm a passive participant, capturing the scene before me but not entirely creating it. Then when I write I am creating a world all my own without the aid of a safety net.

    After all, wasn't Sheryl Crow a backup singer for Prince once? And Gloria Reuben left a starring role on ER when it was in it's prime to sing backup for Tina Turner. In short, you don't have to chose FOREVER, just for this minute or this day.

    1. Brian - what a fantastic point you make, that is SO true. I tend to be a little extreme as well in my thinking - e.g. what do I want to do FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE??? (Cue a big thunder roll of doom here)

      I think I need to re-calibrate my understanding of what an aspiration or goal is - it's not an endpoint, a destination, the end-all-be-all. It's something to aim for, and can easily be one of many things (like your writing and photography), or may change over time, like you pointed out.

      I just read an interesting blog post about aspirations this morning, all about aiming for PROGRESS rather than the "final" achievement, which also speaks to this general subject. I don't agree with all his points, but it was a thought-provoking read for me - here it is:

  3. People always to chase your dreams but there are times your dreams need to chase you.

  4. People always to chase your dreams but there are times your dreams need to chase you.

  5. Hey!
    I am loving your blog. I'll still sussing out what I'm going to be doing in the next phase of my career/life. I did reach a similar conclusion to what you are discussing. I definitely don't want to head up my own research lab (lead singer). I either want to stay a backup singer (staff scientist/manager of a core lab) or switching to something totally off the bench. Right now I'm thinking about doing an administrative internship at NIH that would allow me to use my science in an administrative/management way. We'll see what happens, but I'm thinking long term about science policy or tech transfer (patent type stuff). This would allow me to use my science but have more of a 9-to-5 kind of job. No long nights, no weekends, more family time. :-) We'll see!
    LOVE YOU!!