“A nine year old girl, nicely dressed, on the stage of the Rachmaninow Conservatory in Paris, is just about to play her pieces for the end of the year audition on what seems like a giant black whale of a concert piano. The eight members of the jury grab their pens, papers and scores, ready to detect mistakes, technical flaws or good phrasing and produce a professional evaluation of the playing.
For a few endless seconds, there is total silence, it is boiling hot in the huge room filled with parents and families, a giant ceiling fan revolves in a hypnotizing fashion. The little girl’s heart beats like mad in her chest. Her throat is so tight she cannot swallow. She makes the vow never to go back on stage, ever, when she is big and can finally make decisions for herself.
Thirty years later: a woman has just sung a Schubert Lied in the “Salle des Fêtes” of a tiny Burgundian village. It was part of the local music school’s singing evening. It is a freezing winter night and the beautiful hills are covered in sparkling frost, but many villagers have come to listen.
At the end, a little group of elderly wine-growers or farmers approaches her cautiously. They tell her in a shy but very sincere way how touched they are by this song about the spring. They have never been to a concert, never thought they could understand such music and are amazed to discover that the sweetness of the approaching spring can be so universally and beautifully expressed.
The little girl and the woman are the same person. This person is me…”
(Excerpt from Le Chant Sans Chichis)
I always loved to draw and I always loved music. So, I became a graphic designer.
Doesn’t make sense, or does it? When I was in art school, there was a stigma attached to any desire to draw or paint figuratively. Illustration was considered a lowly occupation. You had to be an Art Director or a Designer of some kind, but not a pathetic doodler. So, like I said, I became a graphic designer.
Over the years, with the Internet, this industry changed, and I found myself needing to re-focus. What that meant, I came to see, what sorting out what I could create that would be completely unique to me—my set of skills, something I could make that would be, essentially, irreplaceable.
Swallowing the fear that told me to not venture into the “taboo” territory—that is pursuing the artist’s life—I found myself 35 years old and returning to my roots: taking singing lessons.
Have you ever thought about how vocal teachers educate their students? How they explain how to make the sounds they’re after? They can’t very well point out all the parts of the instrument their student needs to touch or fiddle with, since most of a singer’s “instrument” is inside their body. Well, the answer is this: images.
To grasp a better understanding, I started drawing these often funny or bizarre images, too, during this time. Not long after I began, I found I’d amassed over 100. Looking at them together inspired me to write a book unlike one I’d seen before: a humorous account of the journey to becoming a singer, told with empathy from an insider’s point of view.
This book became my first, “Le Chant Sans Chichis,” which a friend of mine published in 2010. To our shock and amazement, this little book of mine went on to tell 2,500 copies in its first few months.
But wait, what? An overnight success? C’est pas possible.
Here’s why this happened. It appealed to a specialized but relatively large public: choral singers. Almost every village has a choir in Europe and often when they order, they order for the whole choir—that means 20+ books at a time!
Another reason: distribution. My publisher friend traveled all over France—in every city he went to the local bookstores and deposited books. Most bookstores sold around 10 copies, providing they displayed the book on a table or in the window.
Note - for my second book, I published with a big publisher… I thought it would be perfect. Well in fact, they did zero promotion. What I learned? A big publisher guarantees no marketing push. When it comes to getting your work seen, that responsibility always lies with you.
Some more tips I’d like to share with anyone looking to publish a book…
1) Create a platform. You’ll need your followers’/community’s support.
2) Be your own PR person.
Pitch TV shows, radio shows, editors of magazines, etc.
3) THEN look for a publisher.
4) Know your target audience.
5) Have a plan to sell your book to them.
-i.e. Are you writing kids books? How could schools be interested in it?
-i.e. Do your themes relate to any popular topics? Like technology? How can you reach out to communities that exist around that?
One book does not (often) a career make. And that is not the end of my story. My second book, and my current on-going job, came to me through my husband, Patrick. In 2014, Patrick, a harpsichordist and conductor, was asked to play in a music festival near us in Burgundy with some members of the Met Orchestra from NY, who, along with their concertmaster David Chan, grew to be friends of ours.
Later that year, when the Met Opera ran into financial troubles, musicians and chorus members realized the impetus lay on them to tell their own story and (hopefully) get their voices heard. That’s where I came in. I was asked to draw some cartoons to express some of their views with humour, which they planned on putting on their new website. Well, I began sketching, but—long story short—they reached an agreement and so my sketches never saw the light of day.
What came out of that though was not nothing, rather it was my carte blanche: the Sunday cartoon I now create for them, which showcases musicians and their lives, with a bit of depth and poetry, and a whole lot of reality (notably, because I’ve found that it’s often masked due to this misconstrued belief that perfection sells).
Years ago, before technology exploded, music-making was a form of entertainment that more people indulged in to pass the time; so was going to live, cultural events, the result of which was a more intimate relationship with artists. You see, they were known on a more personal level as their fans came out to support them in person, and incidentally saw the challenges of music-making firsthand. The human side of things shone through.
Now it’s different. Classical music has evolved to a newfound level of professionalism, and with that has come pressure and distance. Distance between the artists and their spectators. And pressure on artists to look and act a certain way to earn the pedestal they’ve been put up on. This pressure is felt most intensely by soloists and singers, whose agents reinforce the notion that iron bodies and nerves of steel market best.
What does this all mean? Of course, an extraordinary investment in diets, gym-time, fancy clothes, a social media presence, and more. Sound and look perfect, in other words, is what they’re told. Even when their reality is quite a bit different…
Most musicians experience profession induced stress.
There’s physical stress, to begin with, which stems from a repetition of gestures. Many instruments demand strange, asymmetrical postures, like the violin; while others put a lot of stress on the lips or tongue, like wind instruments.
Then, there’s the lack of sleep. Musicians must travel a lot, and work crazy hours. Even after a late performance, the likelihood of going back to your hotel to catch up on rest is not high. There’s often too much adrenaline in the bloodstream then, and with that comes the need to unwind by either first going to a pub with friends, or by staying up for a while on one’s own—in spite of the very late hour.
And the noise! Many musicians suffer from tinnitus or hearing loss after a while, which is not talked about—in fact, it’s become a huge taboo.
Don’t forget the nerves! It is highly demanding to play in front of a critical audience, but it’s even worse when you are recorded live on the radio or TV. Some take beta blockers but most deal with this issue using a variety of mental techniques. But trust me, even when they appear composed, the stress is still there simmering beneath the surface…
All of this I try to capture in my illustrations, speaking of which…
I work out of my home, which is a lovely 18th century house in Burgundy, in a small village where my husband and I moved 20 years ago. I love being able to work whenever I want, wearing any old clothes and without having anyone to “supervise” me or tell me to clean up my drawing desk, which is an indescribable mess!
I’m not a habits person; so I have no fixed rituals, but I do believe in creating regularly. People ask me now and then how I keep coming up with new ideas, and I tell them it’s from that: continued creation—as soon as I start drawing, ideas crystallize out of nowhere. Daydreaming is also important. So, looking out the window at my garden, at the nature, is essential for me.
The important takeaway here is this: never be afraid of who you really are, because it will save you in the end. You don’t have to do everything backwards as I did. You don’t have to do what society tells you to. Of course, this is easier said than done, for if you’re an artist, you are by definition a non-conformist—a strange assemblage of unusual qualities—and people have probably always wanted to put you into some kind of box. But if you can withstand that, if you can hold on to your passion and your true self, you’ll find yourself right where you need to be.
My first book was a bit of a misfit, itself. In fact, it was so much so that the bookstores didn’t know where to put it. In the illustrated books section, they wondered? In the “hobbies” section? In the end, when my business partner told them, “It fits no category, just put it on a table,” well, that’s when it sold the most.