On the pathway to living a creative life, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic, advises, “Don’t worry about following your passion; instead, follow your curiosity.” Let’s talk about how comfort, inertia, and fear stand in the way of our growth, and how a concept as amorphous as possibility just might lay a solid foundation towards progress.
I’m going to tell you a story. Much like fable, it has a moral at the end.
For the past 20 years, I’ve been a private voice teacher. After paying my dues as a performer, gigging in countless conceivable venues and situations, and after teaching at an arts’ high school Voice Department for a couple years following grad school while simultaneously running a private voice studio, I’d relocated to a new city. With the opportunity to reinvent my voice studio, I found myself avoiding seeking out performance opportunities as well as employment options at local schools; instead, I focused on building up my new private studio into a robust and rewarding business.
For the next decade plus, I remained there. As I grew my family, my studio waxed and waned with students as apt with the times, and I happily carried on teaching and momming. I was satisfied as a wage earner, satisfied as a caregiver, and made time to pursue other activities such as yoga, reading, and writing.
As my daughters grew into school-aged children, they needed less of my time and attention, until finally I found myself with small buckets of empty time during the day. As any independent voice teacher knows, it’s hard to fill a 9am time slot every day of the week. I began taking more continuing education courses, excited to learn more and bring more to my current and future voice students. I began volunteering more time at my daughters’ school, purposefully paring down other commitments so that I could spend my buckets of time in ways that filled me with a sense of conscious contribution.
One day, I waved good morning to a friend on campus—a fellow parent. “You’re here bright and early!” I said, as Fatima cheerily stood outside the 4th grade classroom.
“I’m subbing today,” she replied, shrugging and laughing.
Something inside me set into motion—was it curiosity? Jealousy? Wonderment? Years previously, I’d joked with a fellow parent that in another life, I’d be a Waldorf teacher. The curriculum is filled with so many beautiful aspects to develop the whole human: art, music, nature, story and myth, rhythms and cycles, movement, harmony, synthesis.
I needed to know more.
Fatima explained how she’d accidentally eased her way into this role, having shown up in various capacities that eventually placed her into the position of a substitute teacher the school could call upon.
“Huh,” how interesting, I thought, tucking the notion away in the back of my mind to visit at another far-off time, meanwhile, shuddering at the idea of teaching a large group, standing up in front of a classroom again… an introvert’s nightmare. Back to my cozy private studio I went, happily teaching 1-on-1 lessons, enjoying the attunement with the single person in front of me, knowing I excelled in my work.
Sure, with every new student there were nerves—in both of us. Students are invariably nervous the first few lessons, having to navigate the vulnerable scenario of singing in front of a new voice teacher. And before meeting every new student, butterflies of anticipation would flap around in my belly, my introverted soul responding to the upcoming task of coming to know a new person. What will this person be like? What will their goals be? Learning style? Personality? Sense of humor? Emotional land mines? Will I know enough to teach them?
Every new student is a new mystery to unravel. An enormous part of my role as an independent voice teacher is to identify and attune myself to the core aspects of every student; I adapt my language, teaching tools, jokes, and manner to help each student feel comfortable in my space. It takes empathy, clarity, compassion, and effort. To arrange oneself in relation to another human is challenging work, but it’s work that I know; and there is comfort in the familiar.
Fast-forward to spring when my oldest daughter—then a 6th grader—signed up for the middle school soccer team. Another itch awoke in me as I sat on the grass observing her first practice. The sound of the soccer ball when kicked hard with the laces, the plastic tap of shin guards, the gait of a runner dribbling the ball over blades of grass… I’d last touched a soccer ball over two decades earlier, after playing for 15 consecutive years. Ironically, I’d given up soccer for singing. After graduating high school with a 4.3 GPA, as varsity captain, and playing on an intense competitive travel team, others of my teammates were slated to continue college ball; at the time, I’d slowly been moving towards the arts, towards music, and couldn’t wait to hang up my cleats and pursue the crazy notion that I just might be able to sing.
Now, the middle school soccer team stood in front of me, with my daughter running among them, and two other parents—dads—who’d volunteered to coach the team. When we chatted after practice, my nostalgia and excitement must have shown because these guys invited me to assistant coach.
“No, no, no,” I objected. I’m not a coach. I don’t do groups. I don’t do leadership. That’s too much responsibility, too much time, too much extroversion, just too much. “But maybe I’ll show up sometimes to help out…?” I weakly offered.
“Sure, anytime,” they replied, giving me an easy out.
The next practice I showed up wearing my 20-year-old cleats and when he broke the players into small groups for drills, the head coach said, “Your group goes with Coach Marisa.”
I tried to hide the smile that immediately lit across my face. Was it possible I could be this person? Coach Marisa?
I finished out the season, adorned with cleats and a whistle, and then went on to assistant coach my daughter’s rec team in the fall, as well as the 4th and 5th grade fall Soccer Club at school, with plans to coach the middle school team again in spring. Parents who didn’t know me from other venues assumed that soccer has been a normal, regular part of my life all this time. I, meanwhile, continued to be astonished by this dormant skill that had burst forth with no warning or invitation. When the universe presented this possibility to me, had I remained comfortable, I would have missed it. I could have easily let the opportunity go by, staying on course with my everyday, known, capacities. I could have let fear of this personal challenge prevent me from having such a rewarding experience, growing into a new dimension of myself.
At the beginning of this school year, a parent survey went out, asking us to list our skills and area of interest to make contributions through our time and volunteerism. One of the check boxes read: substitute teaching.
There it was again. A possibility.
I considered… would checking this box be rash? Would I be able to tiptoe back out, receding into the shadows of my comfortably constructed life? Or could it be an amazingly rewarding challenge, just as coaching soccer had been?
I’d accepted the role of coach because I saw aspects of myself in my two co-coaches. I saw that Cody and Lee were parents as well, juggling the responsibilities of their careers, their families, and their dedication to our school, and that they enjoyed the sport of soccer and looked forward to sharing their knowledge with the team. Yes, I could see myself in all of that.
I thought about my friend Fatima subbing last year, and how akin our natures were. She too loves to write, to sing, to practice yoga. She loves her daughters and our school. She’s busy with work, balancing her life to accomplish everything that working mothers accomplish—both the visible and physical contributions of ferrying children, gathering groceries, preparing and cooking meals, as well as the fathomless invisible energies put forth into calendar keeping, remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and holiday gifts, keeping tabs on homework and due dates, and washing the favorite pair of leggings by Monday morning.
I could see myself in Fatima and could see the possibility of myself standing in front of a classroom to teach at this beautiful Waldorf school. With three daughters in three grades there, and after chaperoning field trips, attending school festivals and events, and coaching the soccer team, I knew plenty of these kids. Would they eat me alive, the introvert with no classroom management skills who has worked in a 1-on-1 studio environment for the past 20 years? Perhaps, but I decided it was worth the risk. I checked that box.
Now, with a 7th grade daughter, we are considering high schools, some of them private with tuition that would require me to bring in more income. As I filled out my substitute teacher employment application, tax forms, and arranged for a Livescan and TB test, I smiled with satisfaction at the culmination of events that led me to this point—culling my schedule of extraneous responsibilities, wanting to find more ways to bring in money on a part-time basis, desiring to give more to my daughters’ school, saying yes to the challenge of coaching, and now, stepping into new possibilities. What would subbing be like? I’d loved teaching music—how would it feel to teach all sorts of subjects?
The day I turned in my official paperwork, I was called to sub 1st grade. I made a point of connecting with each child on the playground and learning every name so that by the time they lined up to enter the classroom, I could greet them individually. Yes, at a few points, I was asking children to stop shrieking and rolling around on the floor, and 8 of them asked to go to the bathroom at the same time. But when I began singing some autumn season songs I’d brought in, and told them that when I wasn’t subbing, I was teaching people to sing, they became magically focused. For that portion of the morning, they were with me. An accomplishment.
Another day I taught 6th grade. I marveled aloud at how still and quiet they were in comparison to 1st grade since they weren’t squirming, screaming, and rolling on the floor—they immediately offered to, with the earnest sarcasm of tweens. We all laughed together and went on to grammar and ancient Rome. As I wrote on the chalkboard, I felt like myself. Yes, I was teaching a group (!), but I was joking with them. There was an ease I hadn’t anticipated to find so soon. I’d expected more nerves and more fear, more displacement, but I could slip into this role—not yet with the ease of well-worn slippers, but definitely with enough comfort to break in over time.
Walking through the school office one day, the school director asked if he could see me in his office. Gulp. Not that I’d ever been a kid who was sent to the principal’s office for trouble, but still. When you’re sitting across the boss, you know who’s in charge.
Well, the boss (actually a very kind, easygoing person) offered me another subbing role, and perhaps even a permanent position:
Would I be interested in subbing for choir when needed?
“Sure, I’m happy to. Just stick me in a room with a piano and I’m good to go.”
Might I be interested in permanently taking the position of choir director?
“No.” No way.
The objection came out before he even finished the question—perhaps a bit harshly.
I backpedaled. I explained how I’d been offered the role a few years ago, when the school was between choir directors. How I’d considered it and determined myself to not be the right person. How I’ve spent the past two decades teaching 1-on-1. You need solo rep for Classical? Musical Theatre? Pop/Rock? I’m your gal. But 4th to 8th grade choral repertoire? Not so much. And actual conducting… uh, I remember the basic patterns for 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time, and I loved singing in my college choirs, but no. I just haven’t garnered the time and experience needed for this job.
I left his office and continued my day… yet remained wondering.
Did I say no because I’m not actually the right person for this job? Or did I say no because I’m afraid? Because of inertia, defined as “a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged?” Because I’d rather be comfortable, doing the same private voice-teaching job I’ve done for 20 years?
Could I actually study up on choral repertoire over the summer, take some courses on conducting, read some books about middle school music programming, make some stumbles with repertoire selections and managing the large choral groups (whom my daughters inform me misbehave and cause mayhem on a regular basis), be terrified to step onstage to conduct during the winter and spring concerts, but actually make it through the other side, having conquered fears, having grown as a teacher and musician, and having done something new in my life?
But did I really want to?
As I began to explore, with curiosity, the possibilities that lay in this new, uncharted role, examining my response through the lens of comfort and fear vs. expansion and growth, a new set of possibilities emerged.
I remembered watching Lynn, the woman who’d taken the choir director position before COVID. She’d recently retired from directing the local children’s chorus for several decades. She commanded our school choirs in the best of ways. She was a truly exceptional conductor, pulling beautiful, full sounds out of these young singers. She was confident in her role and bestowed her gifts to our community. I remember thinking, “This is why I said no to the job. Because SHE is the right person.”
Now with Lynn having moved on, and news of the wonderful current choir director contemplating whether his workload has become too heavy to continue with choir, I sat, considering my own unique skills. Even though I theoretically could study up and give choir conducting a go, perhaps I should honor what I already know.
Instead of reconsidering the school director’s offer, I wrote him an email with a new proposal—filled with new possibilities. I offered three different ways to expand the school’s music program. The school currently offers two instrumental classes: Strings (violin or cello) and Guitar. I offered to present a group Voice class, outlining exactly what that would entail in terms of technique development, song work, expression, diction, and performance practice. I also offered Piano and Music Appreciation classes, describing the contents of each; included a link to my website, to learn more about my areas of focus; and attached an updated resume that highlights my experience performing and teaching in these subjects.
Sending that email felt damn good.
It felt like owning my talents and claiming my specialties, taking the initiative to open new doors to possibilities in ways that were exciting to me. These would still be new programs, new endeavors that would take planning and preparation, but I was the one leading the charge. If the director chose to pursue any of these proposed programs, I would still be required to foster my courage, to leave my comfort zone, and to take action. But I see myself in these programs. I see myself boldly standing in front of a group Voice, Piano, or Music Appreciation class, excited to share my knowledge and expertise.
Just as I eventually came to realize that the dread I felt about performing was not entirely made of stage fright—that I could manage with the right tactics, practice, and skills—but more about the lack of desire to continue pursuing a path that wasn’t meant for me. When I retired from performance, and focused on teaching, I became so much happier. All the years of performing were worth the effort because I had so much experience to share with my actively performing students—both the positives and negatives—but once I settled into who I was meant to become, my spirit settled. Teaching private voice has carried me through 20 years, through moves, marriage, births, and many stages of life, because it truly suits my personhood. No matter what ways I continue to branch out, to grow, to spread, to build new pathways, I have the foundation of my private studio to which I can return, recharge and recenter. The safe space of the studio has provided scaffolding, a stable structure in which I continue to develop, hone, and refine my musical, teaching, and interpersonal skills.
Sometimes being brave doesn’t mean saying yes to everything that is daunting. Sometimes it means having the self-awareness and courage to recognize where we truly thrive, saying no to one opportunity so that we create room for the right one. By navigating through the impulse of fear to examine with curiosity the possibility of becoming a choir director, investigating the intersections of self-limitation and self-knowledge, I opened a doorway to new possibilities: creating music programs that honor my true skills and knowledge, but that also push me to expand out of my comfort zone.
How does the story end? It doesn’t really matter. Whether or not the director approves my music program proposals, there will be a next time, with a set of new possibilities. Meanwhile, I’ve learned invaluable lessons about listening to my inner knowing while opening to the opportunities the universe offers.
The roads in this lifetime are winding. In our fellow travelers, we glimpse small, dazzling, shimmers—reflections of our possible selfhoods. Those beacons serve as guideposts, helping us move out of stagnation and passivity, lighting the pathways to our innermost bravery, adventure, and truth. How will you step into the power of your possibility?