Stress is not the answer

I wrote the following in 2015 after having an epiphany at age 64.

This post is about stress and anxiety. Just read on, I’ll get to it…

This week I have had the best sleep I’ve had in a long time. And dreams. I’ve had a lifelong history of seemingly requiring less sleep than the “average” person. Even as a baby my mother always said I did not like to sleep. My earliest memories of sleep were lying in bed with my mind racing, thinking about stuff and unable or unwilling to go to sleep. Sleep has often seemed like a vile necessity. Something that took me away from doing and thinking. As a young(er) adult, I slept 4-5 hours at night. Sometimes 6, but seldom more. As I have aged, my sleep needs have been more along the lines of 6-7 hours. Then I am awake.

In recent years, worry, stress and anxiety have been my bedtime companions, replacing my previous think/philosophize/create mode as I should have been going to sleep. While the latter was always invigorating and engaging, the former has been debilitating. I know many people suffer from stress and anxiety. I want to offer up something I recently discovered.

You are in control of your stress. There is nothing in life that is stressful unless you allow it to be. Think about the things in your life that create stress for you. How would they be affected if you simply did not stress about them? Would those situations be worse? No. Would they be better? No. Your stress does not affect anything external. Stress and anxiety fix nothing. They change nothing. Except your state of mind and health. There is absolutely (and I mean that literally) nothing in the world that stress can change. Nothing.

This is not to say that there are not things in life that need attention. If something needs fixing, then fix it. Or not. But do not stress about it. If you cannot change it, then learn to accept it. Even in matters of life and death, stress will not help. Action might. But again, if it is out of your control, then let it go. This does not mean being passive. Quite the contrary. Take charge. Allow your dissatisfaction to spur you to action. Stress is not action.

Take a deep breath, and think about whatever it is that causes you stress. Look it in the eye and vow to either change it or accept it. But also vow to be in control. To relax. To not stress yourself. It has taken me many years to come to this realization and since I have, I have felt so much better. I am human and I sometimes find myself stressing over something. When I do, I mentally sit myself down and have a chat with myself. I remind myself to either change it or accept it. I do not like the things I cannot change that I wish I could, but stress does not change anything except my state of mind. And I do not want that state of mind.

I sleep better since I had this epiphany several months ago. I still struggle with sleep sometimes, but I am back to lying awake thinking and creating, not stressing. Mostly. My wish for you is that you understand this in your life long before I did. I wish I had known this twenty years ago—or more!

Why is Opera in Distress?

© Michael Sylvester 2014

This is an opinion piece and the opinions offered are mine. They are not backed up by empirical evidence. These are my observations and conclusions. Feel free to agree or disagree.

I started to title this piece “why is opera in decline,” but it occurred to me that “decline” was too strong a word. It is, nevertheless, in distress. In recent years we have witnessed the closure of various opera companies across the USA and worldwide, and those that remain often speak about declining audiences and donations. The most recent has been San Diego Opera shutting its doors just one year shy of its 50th Anniversary. Maddeningly, they are closing preemptively. They see their incoming funds declining and the audience base shrinking and rather than reformat themselves, they would rather close. It seems a strange choice, but it is pointless to speculate without knowing the details.

There are many possible reasons for opera’s current malaise. But at the heart of most of the probable reasons is diminishing audiences. If performances were uniformly sold-out and additional performances clamored for, we would not be in this situation. So why are audience members dwindling?

Time and time again we hear that the opera audience is dying off (literally) and that younger patrons are not popping up to take their place. So, why is that? As time marches on, young people become older people, but if they are not opera fans at 20, 30 or 40, will they be fans at 55 or 65? Some perhaps, but my guess is on the whole, no, they will not. So why are our current senior citizens more opera inclined than our younger generations?

My conclusion is pop music. At 62, I’m in that so-to-be senior citizen demographic. But I’m at the younger end of it. When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, whom did I hear singing on the radio? Singers like Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Pat Boone, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday…I could go on, but do you get the picture? These singers used their voices in a classical to quasi-classical way. Many of them were probably classically trained to some extent. Even the King himself, Elvis Presley, knew how to sing in a more classical way. If you don’t believe me, listen to the very end of his “It’s now or never” and you will hear a beautifully sung high Ab on the word “love” that many young tenors would love to emulate.

By hearing these voices in the pop music, it was not a big leap to hearing them in classical music. There was a familiarity, a continuity that made listening to opera not so strange. The generations older than me heard even more of this. They were even closer to the source. When we went to concerts by local groups or artists, it was classically oriented quite often. When we went to church or the synagogue, the singing and the music were classical in nature. High school choirs sang classical music mostly.

But as the late 1960s gave way to the 1970s and 1980s pop music began to diverge. Rock music strayed from its acoustical roots and became more and more electronic and then more and more digital, bringing with it the ability to “create” sounds and voices in digital sound processing. Now voices don’t even need to sing on pitch, software can tune them up. Instruments are synthesized eliminating the need for human players (and the humanity they inject). The sound of a pop artist is tightly controlled and managed, it seems. So much money is on the line that record producers are afraid of anything natural, and therefore not easily manipulated.

Since our younger generations have grown up in this vocal climate, is it any wonder that operatic singing would seem just totally strange to them? They have no models of classical singing. It would be stranger if they did accept classical singing! It is so foreign to them. I have heard many westerners deride the sound of Asian and Middle Eastern music. And why? Because it is so foreign to their ears. Just as classical operatic singing is foreign to so many of our western younger generations. This is not a mystery.

So whom can we blame for this? Music education—or the lack of such—is often labeled as the culprit. And there is no question that music education is important for children for many different reasons. But exposing children to classical music or opera—while a good thing—will not turn most of them into opera fans any more than making them read Dickens will create a nation of literati. Yes, exposure is a good thing, but it won’t solve the problem. Let’s insist on good education that includes the arts, but let’s not blame bad education for opera’s distress.

This is not a conspiracy theory. There is no collusion or behind-closed-doors agreement to blame.  Nothing especially nefarious, just old fashioned money. The blame, as I see it, goes to the record labels and record producers. The entire recording and entertainment industry. This has been a long-held belief of mine. Just as so much of our culture does, this comes down to the lowest common denominator. If it has a beat and is catchy, it is good because it will sell. Classical music and opera, like reading Dickens, or Hemingway, or Salinger, takes effort and education. Additionally producing classical music and especially opera is expensive. If your job is to produce music for consumption, it’s a lot easier to produce something that will appeal to 80% of the public than something that will appeal to a smaller subset. And so year after year what gets produced and promoted is further and further from the classical model.

As I see it, the popular music and entertainment industry has killed classical music, including opera. Not intentionally or with malice. But by pushing easily ingested and highly manipulated entertainment, they have denied most people any model of classical music or operatic singing and made it a foreign sound to their ears.

Things change. That is the only thing we can count on. While I love the art form that was opera during most of the 20th century and I hate to see it diminished, opera will either change or die. The MET with their HD Theater broadcasts have either permanently harmed or saved opera, depending on your point of view. Certainly these movie theater performances are nothing like being in the actual theater live. The visceral experience of hearing a voice projected over an orchestra cannot be captured by a microphone attached to a singer. Traditional operatic singers train to project their voices out into a theater, which, if the house is good acoustically, will reinforce and embellish the sound, just like the sounding board on a piano or the body of a good violin. This cannot be captured and reproduced by a body mike or the sophisticated sound system of a movie theater. You have to feel it live to appreciate it. But the HD performances have exposed people to opera that might have never had the opportunity and allowed fans to see performances that they could not have gotten to in person.

This may be a possible future of opera. It is not a future I would appreciate, but if others become accustomed to the recording studio quality, then even live theater can use—as is already the case in musical theater—microphones to project the flimsy, but pretty voices of beautiful opera stars, who are able to do all manner of theatrical activity that traditional operatic singing, by nature of its athletic quality, would not allow. If younger audiences find this appealing, then this may be the future. Again, not one I would relish, but I’ll be gone or senile by then anyway. Which is where we started, with declining audiences as the older generations die off.

What would the audiences of Handel’s time—or Mozart’s time— think of a 1950 performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly or Verdi’s Otello? They would have been scandalized, I imagine. Times change. To stand in the way of change is to be trampled by its inexorable march forward. My wish is that opera goes back to what I love, but my most sincere hope is that it thrives in some form. I would prefer that over its demise.

English Diction Kickstarter project update

Dear Friends,

We are nearly at 90% of the goal with just 9 days to go in my Kickstarter project to complete, edit and publish my book, English Diction and Enunciation for North American Singers!

I have posted an update today with one last chapter, The Goals of Good Diction at

I need your help to get this thing over the goal line! Please consider supporting the project. There are some good Rewards for backers. If you don’t see one you like, just let me know what you’d be interested in.

Please pass this along to anyone who you think would be interested!

All the best,

Michael Sylvester

317-614-5850 (cell)

Please support my English diction book

Hello friends,

I have started a Kickstarter project at to help me complete, edit and publish my book, English Diction and Enunciation for North American Singers.

This is a subject I am passionate about and well-qualified to address. I believe I am bringing a unique viewpoint on a subject that is too often the poor stepchild of foreign language diction training for classical singers. I have included "enunciation" in the title because this is the last step in using diction well and is often where singers fail. How often have we all heard singers that we could not understand? I address this in my book, which is now more than half written with the remaining sections in outline.

My goal is to have the writing completed and the editing begun by January 1, 2014 and the hard copy version done and published by late spring 2014. But the truly unique aspect of the book will be the e-book version, which will have clickable links to sounds and instructions. This will give the readers an opportunity to not only read, but also hear, the proper usage of English in classical singing!

Please go to and support this important book. You can choose from any number of rewards and your help will be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

Michael Sylvester

317-614-5850 (cell)

America’s Got Talent

Hello friends,

This is going out to everyone I have in my email list.

My voice student, Branden James, is appearing on the Semi-Finals of America’s Got Talent tomorrow evening (Tuesday, Sep 3 on NBC at 9 EST or 8 CST). He needs your votes, so please watch again and vote for Branden. He has put so much time, effort and money into appearing on AGT. He is a wonderful young man whose passion is classical crossover. I think he has a great future. Getting to the Finals of AGT will be huge! Please vote as many times as you can!!!

Here is a voting guide that Branden sent to me:

Voting Guide for Branden James

1. You can call, of course and vote up to 10 times per line. I expect the lines to be busy, and this is best executed later in the evening toward the end of the second hour of open lines. The number will be: 1-866-602-48 + The order I went in. So, If I went 1st, the last two digits are 01; If I went 5th, 05. If I went last, 12. You’re smart people. You’ll figure it out. : )

2. You can vote on the facebook app. Just go on facebook and look up the America’s Got Talent Voting App. You can vote there at least once, maybe more.

3. You can go to Half way down the page on the right side is an icon that says VOTE. Click on it. Anyone with a registered email address can vote UP TO TEN TIMES. This is very effective, of course. This site is accessible from computers and most smartphones.

4. For twitter users, you can vote once by tweeting: #voteAGT Branden James.

That means each person can vote up to 20+ times, potentially!

You’re welcome to forward this to friends and family members. Any help is appreciated!

Love you All. Thanks for helping me spread the word.

Follow me on YouTube and Twitter!
Twitter: @BrandenJMusic

Thanks for voting!

Michael Sylvester

Spreading the word…


This email is going out to essentially everyone I’ve ever had an email contact with, so please forgive me if it casts a very broad net!

One of my private voice students, Branden James, is appearing on America’s Got Talent tonight on NBC at 9 EST/8 CST. Branden is a wonderful crossover artist and I encourage you to tune in tonight and VOTE FOR BRANDEN. You may have to wait until near the end, as I suspect he may be late in the show.

Branden is a wonderful young man who has worked very hard to get to this place in life. He deserves your vote and your support. Thank you very much for your support!

GO, BRANDEN! VOTE FOR BRANDEN! America’s Got Talent, Tuesday, July 23 at 9 EST/8 CST on NBC.

Thank you in advance!cleardot.gif

Michael Sylvester


Welcome to my website. This is a work in progress. In time I hope to have a fairly complete record of my activities as an opera singer, and information about my teaching and other music-related ventures.

As a singer, I was very fortunate to have only three voice teachers in my entire life. The first two, David Blackburn, with whom I studied for several months in high school, and Robert Simpson, my teacher during my undergraduate schooling at Westminster Choir College, instilled in me a great respect for the music and drama of what I sang. They also trained my voice in a rather “natural” way, so that when I went on to study as a professional, my voice was something of a clean slate.

It was the legendary teacher Margaret Harshaw who trained my voice and instructed my mind in the manner of singing that served me well during the course of my career. I was fortunate to have studied with Harshaw from 1974 until her passing in 1997. Her legacy was handed down from the great 19th century teacher Manuel Garcia to her teacher, Anna Schoen-Rene. It is now my honor and duty to pass this knowledge on to the younger generation. I hope I am worthy.

During my many years as an opera singer, I worked with many great musicians. Some, like Georg Solti, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Bernard Haitink and  Julius Rudel, are well-known musicians, but I also had the pleasure to work with many other of the finest musicians of our time who were not such public names. I hope that in all of this I have learned from them what it is to make music from the notation on the page. This, too, I think I can pass along to my students, because to sing well and beautifully is only the beginning.

Making music out of the breath we inhale is the noble art form that I love.