I am a loving father. I am a working singer. Can I be both?
May 31st 2019, 1:19 AM at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, WA was the most terrifying moment of my life. Remy Winston Finkelstein was pulled out of the womb, his face pale blue, arms limply hanging below his chest. As the doctors rushed him to a bassinet to administer CPR, all I could think was, “please, please let my boy live.” I knew I would give anything to protect him, to care for him, and to know him. I held my breath, closed my eyes and prayed. A minute later, I opened my eyes to a gasp, followed by a shocked, keening wail. I held him in my arms, tears streaming down my face, and fell in love.
For the past 12 weeks, I have been lucky and privileged enough to stay at home with my wife and my boy Remy. I’ve fed him, changed him, and grown to love him as fiercely as I love my wife of 14 years, Devora. I’ve learned Remy’s idiosyncratic cries, his foot stomps, his smiles, and his constant wonder at the world around him. Each week is a different journey, a new milestone. It’s been an incredible journey that has changed my life forever.
But I start touring again on September 10th. I’m a professional working singer and this season I have 83 days away from home on the books, along with about the same number of singing days at home -over 160 days of rehearsals and performances- and, of course, my full-time remote political consulting job. I’ll be going from full-time care to two full-time jobs again, with a flurry of seasonal travel in December and the Spring of 2020, when I’ll be releasing my second album, “Dark is Yonder Town.”
I‘m committed to being a full-time loving dad, but singing isn’t a fun side-gig: performing with musicians of the highest caliber, creating meaning and joy out of (literal) thin air is my life’s work. I would be completely lost without it.
How can I do both? How can I succeed as a father without giving up everything that gives my life meaning and joy?
For the first time in my professional career, my two most important core values -family and music- are directly at odds with each other. In economics, we call it a zero-sum game: family’s gain is music’s loss, and vice versa. I’m stuck in a zero-sum game.
My wife and I have every advantage at our disposal. We have a safe home for Remy; Devora has an extended maternity leave until November, which buys us time, and then hopefully we’ll get into a day care (still a financial gut-punch). My wife will go back to work and try and come with me when it makes financial sense, but that’s not often. We have family in Vancouver, BC, a three-hour drive away, that is coming to stay for longer trips. On paper it could work.
Still. 83 days away until June 2020. And it’s still early in my season- procrastinating administrators and sick tenors abound!
For future gigs, my wife and I have agreed on criteria for what I’m willing to take for travel beyond what I’ve already committed to, discussing it with her on a case-by-case basis. It must hit one of these three categories:
1) Symphonies. I’m never turning down symphonies. (This includes symphonic rep with ballet companies like “Carmina Burana”) I will say yes to anything they throw my way. (Including, for instance, the opera scene ‘Draco and Maria’ from the ‘Final Fantasy’ videogame. Yes, I have sung this with orchestra.) Symphony gigs don’t come around often and a few symphony relationships can provide the financial foundation for an entire season. And perhaps most importantly, they’re never more than five days of travel (compared with the endless, lonely road of the opera-only singer). A full-time symphonic season is the dream. Even three months a year can support a family. Right now, I land about 6 weeks a year of symphony solo work, and climbing.
2) Bach. I’m never turning down Bach. Never. It’s what I was born to do and if I had my way, I would be singing it 365 days a year. I want all of the Bach, everywhere.
3) Pro Choral/New Music. I love singing with pro choral groups like Conspirare. I discovered this career track in 2016 at the Carmel Bach Festival -wait, the chorus is making how much???- and it’s brought some of my happiest, most fulfilling career moments. For example, I toured “Considering Matthew Shepard”, a passion about the life and murder of an “ordinary boy.” The first night I performed it in Laramie, Wyoming on October 6, 2018, twenty years to the day and a few miles down the road from where he was beaten horribly, strung up on a fence, and left to die. After the show, a young gay teen from California stood up in the Q and A and told us, after hearing the story of Matthew Shepard, he “knew he wasn’t alone anymore.” I need to keep telling Matthew’s story.
What’s not on the travel list anymore are:
a) Scrappy organizations that don’t respect my time. “Come to NYC for $600 and pay your own way! Also find a place to stay. For a week. 12 hours of rehearsal. Also the rep will take you 50 hours to learn.”
I don’t have the luxury anymore to give away a week of my time for someone else’s dreams.
This was a non-zero amount of my seasons up until very recently, particularly in Canadian cities like Toronto and Ottawa that offer ridiculous travel stipends in the $150 Canadian or less ($0) range. To be fair, there are so many good singers in Montreal and Toronto who can commute, I don’t blame them.
b) Opera (travel). I just don’t know how I can justify a four-to-six-week contract for any amount of monies. I have one two-week contract this year and I’m still nervous about that. Even a week feels like forever away from my son. If something comes up in the region and my Vancouver family can tap in, I’d still be open to it on a case-by-case basis.
c) My extravagant solo projects that make little monies. I still plan on making albums every few years for my own creative outlets, but the plan of touring these for weeks or organizing concert series and coming home with bus fare isn’t going to work. If recital opportunities come up, I will consider them, but they will have to be either local or with people who respect my time.
d) Additional music travel for training, such as coachings with Bach specialists on the East Coast or to see my teacher Lorna MacDonald in Toronto, are no longer a priority. I'm in a good spot vocally right now. I have one good coach in Seattle who can help me stumble my way through modern rep, and I know the rest of my standard rep (Evangelist, Messiah, all the Mozart works) backwards and forwards.
e) Young Artist-y opportunities like competitions and early music training programs. Too expensive to get there, not enough monies when you win, and the gatekeepers at the competitions I would have a decent chance of winning (the Sheboygan Falls Tri-Annual Bach Fest) have all heard me sing or know me by my rep. A professional email and a video clip of my Bach does the trick just fine.
That’s the plan. Spend as much time with Remy as possible. Double down on musical career opportunities that provide my life meaning and joy and cut everything else that interferes with my family. Work two jobs. Build the perfect life for my boy. Re-evaluate in a year and, in the meantime, play the zero-sum game as long as I can.