Francine Brocious is an author based in Pennsylvania. Her writing style is built upon self-reflection, and she recently wrote the book, “All About Me: A Journey of Self-Reflection,” which encourages others to dive deeply within themselves. She and I have known each other since 1999, when we both were music majors at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Below, she shares with me her experiences with music, and development as a vocalist.
- How long have you been making music?
Since I was very young. My parents said I’d wake them up by humming in my crib!
- When did you know that you wanted to make a career out of music?
When I was in high school, I joined choir and had a wonderful choral director. I got very involved in all choir things. I loved the director, and I found I actually had skill with things like sightreading and learning songs easily. I also loved the choral sound and the excitement of doing the concerts. I loved the social aspect as well—feeling like I was included in a larger group and doing something that felt bigger than myself. After my high school experience, I decided that I wanted to be a music teacher just like my director.
My father could play by ear on the piano. He never formally studied, and his sense of rhythm was…questionable. But he always (eventually) found the right chords to play things like simple rock-and-roll tunes and such. Both my parents sang in church, generally in the congregation, and then later Mom sang in the choir. (Pop sang loudly, and he’d hold out the second vowel of any diphthong for as long as possible!) One day, when I was probably 5 or 6, my parents found me trying to plunk out the Sesame Street theme song by ear on the piano. They made me take piano lessons from then on.
- What were some of your earliest experiences with music?
I hated practicing piano! I would always wait until about half an hour before each weekly lesson. After my parents divorced, Mom made me keep studying. I didn’t really have a say in the matter. But I never felt prepared for my lessons, and my teachers would always comment on that and tell me to practice more. It was always obvious that I hadn’t. This cycle likely reinforced a sense of self-sabotage and guilt in me from a very early age, in addition to other guilt I was getting from my mother for other reasons. I just learned to deal with it and accepted it as normal, because I could never get out of taking the lessons.
I also hated the severe stage fright I got for each yearly piano recital. I was never told how to manage this, or given the impression that I was still an okay person even if I messed up. It wasn’t that Mom would scold me if I made mistakes. By that time, I’d become my own little perfectionist and didn’t want to make any mistakes, yet, that’s all that would happen when I would freeze up or my hands would shake at the piano. I was told to do my best, but I knew it wasn’t my best, and I hated the whole process. I hated getting compliments from people who meant well, and Mom just brushed off how uncomfortable I felt as well.
Otherwise, besides that, I remember liking school music classes. I remember in maybe 3rd or 4th grade, consciously realizing that I was one of the only students who was singing in tune with my teacher and the piano when we learned new songs. I also remember seeing the movie “Mary Poppins” in 3rd grade in music class and becoming obsessed with it. I loved Julie Andrews’ voice. I probably watched that movie 90 times that year after I got a video of it from my grandma for Christmas!
- What role does music play in your life?
Currently, I still sing, mainly just at home for my own enjoyment, although this semester I’m excited to be back in a community choir. For fun, I’ve been studying, on my own, the solo parts of the chosen large work we’re performing. Even if I never get to sing them in a performance, it’s very satisfying to know that after all these years, I can actually sing them well! I also still love to listen to music and have created a very unique Pandora station filled mainly with inspirational current pop songs, 40s jazz standards, and even some calypso/reggae! My husband and I attend choral and instrumental concerts several times a year as well.
- How has your relationship with music evolved as you’ve gotten older?
As with music, so with life—that is so true for me! I started studying voice for fun in high school and continued in college, pursing music education. I ended up switching out of my music education major when I saw a local elementary school concert on TV and realized that it really wasn’t for me. I graduated with a vocal performance degree. I’d had big dreams of being on the Met stage someday, but I never actually landed a performance role in college, other than my required recitals! I was terrified to practice in the non-soundproof practice rooms. I had a very rigid body, and the severe stage fright continued. So I never was fully ready to learn the technique that would allow me to sing as expressively as I’d always hoped I could.
Recently, I realized how much my musical life revolved around unconsciously trying to find other mother-figures after dealing with a mom who was emotionally unavailable, not nurturing, and very guilting and controlling. Most of my music teachers filled a mother-figure role at any given point in my life. The lessons I learned from those relationships and many others have helped lead me into what I feel I am being called to do in this world right now.
When I was in high school and college, I used to love just the intellectual challenge of learning the music. I had talent with sightreading and have a great ear. Theory was always easy for me. But I wasn’t able or ready to open myself emotionally to what the music required until I was much older. After years of being shut down at home, I didn’t feel my voice had any value—literally and musically—even though I still wanted desperately to be heard. So I really didn’t know that “being expressive” was something that came out of a complex mixture of human experience and vulnerability, as well as physical, emotional, and perhaps spiritual freedom. Once I understood this intellectually, I became so frustrated that I couldn’t actually embody it.
It’s only been recently, after some additional study many years after college, that I feel I am really able to embody my expression so much more authentically. And now I also have the technique so that my body doesn’t get in the way. The last period of study was one I voluntarily chose, and I removed all pressure on myself to perform during that time. I also committed to serious practicing so that I could really see what my voice was actually capable of.
Interestingly, now that I actually have a “classically-trained” voice, it’s been challenging to sing in many regional groups. It physically hurts me now to sing straight tone for long—it’s very tense for me, and that’s what most choirs seem to require, either in their auditions or based on the rep that they choose. So right now I mainly sing overall at home for fun, as I don’t feel called to pursue advanced degrees or look into internships which are often open only to younger singers. The business, systemic aspect of that is frustrating. It would be nice if there were more open auditions for things, especially in the classical voice world. That way, there may be a greater chance for someone like me who hasn’t gone through the system properly, is more of a late bloomer, but still has the capabilities, training, and talent to do professional work. I do feel that my true life callings are elsewhere, but I certainly wouldn’t mind doing some professional singing work on the side from time to time, now that I feel confident and have the technical and expressive capabilities that would allow for it!
- What role does gender play in how you relate to music and the music business (or your chosen music-focused profession)?
I don’t know if gender has impacted me personally all that much in the music world, truthfully. I really think that subjectivity has impacted me the most. For instance, if a leader or director, regardless of gender, prefers a certain sound or genre of music, and my voice has different qualities or is better suited to other genres, that has impacted me. This may be less challenging in a professional setting, as certain singers get known for singing specific repertoire. Yet, in a choir setting, it becomes more challenging, as it can be very difficult to get so many singers with different levels of vocal experience to sing a particular genre with a certain technique or sound. There are also so many schools of thought within the teaching world, and many seem to believe that they have the “right” way. Yet, I’ve sensed that physical vocal freedom may be less valued in the professional music business at times than who someone knows or what they’ve previously done. There are many paths to find vocal freedom, I’m sure, as each individual singer is such a complex mix of physical structure, health, emotions, and life experiences. Yet, I personally place the most value in maintaining physical and vocal freedom long-term, as I believe that is what will enable a singer to keep singing well and pain-free for decades throughout their lifetime.
- What advice would you give young girls who are just developing a relationship with music (ie- performing, studying, composing)?
If you really enjoy the process (mostly)—if it is actually fun for you, definitely keep it up. Don’t do it because you feel forced by parents or anyone else, although I know this is inevitable at times if they won’t listen to you and you feel you have no way out. But allow yourself to find some aspect of music (or even something other than music) that can be your own—that can be enjoyable and free for you, no matter what else may be forced.
Know that if it is your biggest dream to be a professional musician, you can certainly pursue it. Know that your worth is separate from who you are as a musician, and it is separate from how anyone reacts to your expression or not. Whether or not you make that top school, whether or not people attend your concerts, whether or not you get picked over at auditions, you are still a valuable, worthy, loving, and wonderful human being. Nothing can ever change that. Even if the whole world would refuse to see or acknowledge your gift, you could still choose to share it because it is you and it is yours. No one can take your music, your gifts, or your spirit away from you, unless you allow them that power.
If music becomes not fun or you feel burnt out, give yourself time off—however long it takes. Try other things, both creative and not creative. What matters is that you feel that you can truthfully express yourself through music or through any other medium. And don’t ever let any person or any society tell you or make you feel like you should ever stop expressing yourself. We need you and your voice and your music, or you in any other way you want to express yourself—we need that now in this world more than ever.
You can read more of Francine’s work at http://www.francinebrocious.com.