The New York City Subway system is a very special place. When you spend two hours in this world on a daily basis, you learn to deal with certain discomforts. For example, the N/Q/R platform at Times Square will always be perfumed with the essence of urine. Also, if you’re tight on time, it can be expected that a fellow passenger will decide it’s a good time to cause some sort of disturbance (which will usually cause a 20 minute delay until police arrive.) And, of course, the ever-enduring battle of subway temperature regulation.
I can deal with smells. I can deal with the occasional time crunch. But the one battle I cannot seem to win is my private war I have with wintertime subway temperature regulation. Perhaps it is my Nordic roots…but I HATE to be too warm and I hate sweating even more. I have come to terms with the sweaty nature of summertime in the city. Whether you are above-ground or underground, it is three long months of feeling like you live inside a dog’s mouth. At least in the summer you know and expect that you will be clammy and sweaty along with the rest of New York. In the winter months, you are volleyed like a sad little ping pong ball between temperature extremes. There is no winning. I find myself relentlessly checking my weather app before leaving in the morning. If it is in the 40’s, I stick with the fall jacket and freeze on my walk to the station in the interest of not sweating once I step into the overheated subway car. On super cold days I have to succumb to the winter jacket so I don’t turn into a human icicle on my walk to the station only to let it become my personal perspiration prison once I cross the threshold of those sliding doors. It sounds so silly, I know. But when you live with it everyday, the problem can seem of greatest magnitude. This is why Autumn is the best season in NYC and why people write songs about it. Forget the beautiful leaves in Central Park and crisp autumn air. Autumn in New York is song-worthy because it is the only time the subway temperatures are in a comfortable sync with the great outdoors.
Some may say, “Why not just take your coat off?” In rush hour that is most often not a realistic possibility. The less you have to hold, the better. As an alternative, you are left looking out the subway window at the winter weather, bundled in your puffy jacket, glistening with sweat, whilst your shiny, sweaty nose is stuck in some dude’s equally sweaty armpit. To add insult to injury, you are pushed further into the armpit by the people behind you. Next thing, you find yourself complacent and strangely content. You begin to daydream of life as an amphibian and how wonderful it would be to have the benefits of cold blood running through your overheated veins. It isn’t likely that humans will start developing cold-blooded characteristics… nor do I foresee a fashion trend of temperature-regulated body suits in our near future. So, for the time being, I will continue to choose my discomfort on a daily basis.
Much like on the subway, we are going to have to choose which discomforts we want to deal with along the road to pursuing our dreams. Nothing worth pursuing will be without challenges and it is our job to choose the discomforts that befit our journey in the best way possible. I am a firm believer that discomforts are usually the greatest catalysts for personal growth.
Pictured above is Birgit Nilsson in the starring role of a rarely performed opera called
“Die Temp”(The Temp) by Richard Strauss.
I think the biggest discomfort for most artists today is having to work outside of their field to earn income in between engagements. You don’t often hear of lawyers having to temp in between trials. Unfortunately, as an opera singer, it is a different story. The Opera business today is more competitive than ever before. More singers, fewer jobs…the same amount of passion. As a result, Opera singers may very well be the most diversely experienced group that exists in the workforce. I know of singers who dabble in entrepreneurship, law, home improvement, transcription, photography, makeup artistry, physical fitness, child care, and (of course) temping, in between singing engagements. To be fair, these side-jobs aren’t always a discomfort and can serve as amazing outlets for a host of other talents.
Luciano Pavarotti in Act II, scene 1 of “The Manny” by Donizetti
James Morris as the lead in “Der Cater Waiter” by Richard Wagner
Fiorenza Cossotto in the “La barista” -Verdi’s greatest masterpiece.
But today we are talking about discomforts, and it is a very uncomfortable reality that in order to keep building your career as an artist, you’re probably going to have to do work that has absolutely nothing to do with your expertise as a musician. Sometimes it will be work you enjoy, and sometimes not. This is where choosing your discomfort comes into play. You have to be wise when choosing this necessary side-work. It needs to leave you with adequate time for study, practice, and growth. Discomforts are, indeed, a big part of life, but it is important to remember that we can make them work for us instead of the other way around. Choose a discomfort that serves your goals, then take what you learn from that discomfort and let it color and fuel your artistry.
It isn’t my goal to paint the life of an artist as synonymous with martyrdom. The life of an artist can be indescribably wonderful. However, it is a fact that sacrifices tend to play a larger role in this career than in others. Discomforts to the artist can manifest in many ways ranging from excessive travel and being away from loved ones, to dealing with specific challenges presented by certain voice types, to working full time at an office while trying to learn/memorize a 4 hour opera. There will be discomforts- that is a fact. But, discomfort be damned, if we stay the course, the subway train of life will eventually get us where we want to go. And it will be worth it…even if we have to be stuck in an armpit for the majority of the trip.
It is my opinion that the rewards that come from creating art and sending it out into the world far outweigh any discomfort we may have to endure along the way. So let us find comfort in that fact. As artists, what we create is spiritual food and as long as we are creating, regardless of circumstance, we will be satisfied. I am thankful for the discomforts of my past and welcome the discomforts of my future, because I am confident that as long as I continue to create, I will always find fulfillment and inspiration. What discomfort brings to the table will never be capable of eclipsing the drive of an artist or the benefits of their art.
Make today the day you get comfy with your discomfort. Plan to keep sending your brand of art out into the world, no matter how uncomfortable you may be. Perhaps the more discomfort we endure… the more moving our art will become.