A note of advice: if you’re ever thinking of starting a blog in which you interview people, start by interviewing a life-coach. The warmth, passion and understanding that ran through my conversation with Elena Armijo was nothing short of inspiring. Her journey is so unique and beautiful. From discovering a new voice fach and cultivating a flourishing coaching career outside of music, I loved hearing her story and am so excited to share her thoughts with you.
“Before I came off the road, when I was working full-time as a mezzo, it was all about where can I get more work and how can I get my calendar full?” A few years into her blossoming singing career, Elena realized that though her schedule was full, certain other aspects of her life were not. “It was probably the third year that I was singing professionally in New York, and I’d had consistent work, but I was miserable. I remember being on the road and I was exhausted. I’d been through like two relationships in a year. I was making money, but I was breaking even…I just was working really hard and I wasn’t sure why.” Around that same time she also began experiencing vocal fatigue. “I knew from all the roles that I had sung that if I was singing Suzuki and getting tired, something was up. For a while I thought I must not be singing well; it must be my technique, I must have nodes… I came off the road, I came back to New York and got three different opinions from teachers, and I went to see two different vocal coaches and all of them were like, ‘nothing is wrong with your technique, you’re just singing higher music. Your voice is moving in a direction that is higher than you’re used to.’” And so this Suzuki’s butterfly transformation began (sorry guys, I can’t help myself sometimes).
I don’t think I chose. The choice was in letting go of something that wasn’t working and being not afraid of choosing something different.
“I came off the road and I hired a life coach and we worked together for about four months, and I quickly discovered that everything I’d done in opera to that point was used to prove to the world that I could. So, it was all about proving my self-worth or that by achievement I was worthy and loved, and clearly that was all about me…When I finally owned that part of it and took a look at how I created it this way, it was time to get to work to actually kind of fill in those parts myself and detach my worth from my job. That’s been a long process, but once I did that, I could come back to music and approach it from something that I just truly love as a gift to the world, but also as a gift to myself.” While working with her life coach, Elena continued to experiment with soprano repertoire. “They were really coinciding, but I would say hiring the life coach was part of the impetus for this breakdown in singing, and as I worked through it, I quickly became aware that they were right and that the voice wasn’t as tired when I was singing higher rep.”
The inspiration to begin training as a life coach, however, came from another opera singer friend who was in life coach training. “I was super resistant,” Elena recalls. “I was like ‘no, not my thing’ but after watching all of the transformations she did in a year and knowing the work that I had still to do, I thought, ‘ok, I’ll do it.’ I had no clue when I signed up that I was going to fall in love with coaching.” So, what began as an attempt to better understand her own life quickly became an inspiration to empower others to change their lives as well.
“I’ve always got my eye out for what people really yearn for and desire that they’ve forgotten about, some kind of dream that they gave up on, or something that they think is impossible.”
Her coaching training was also supporting her through her fach change. “So then it became a year long journey while I was training to become a coach, which was perfect, right, because while you’re training to be a coach all you do is learn about you and everything that’s in your way. So that whole year I studied what it might be like to become a lyric soprano and what kind of soprano I might become. I don’t think I chose. The choice was in letting go of something that wasn’t working and being not afraid of choosing something different. Not even knowing what that different would be. And I can say probably after a year and a half of work I can start to see where I fit more, and honestly it was a huge mental shift. I thought ‘I can spend a couple months in this rep and I’ll be fine,’ and I have to say it wasn’t even a character shift per say, it was hard, it was the idea that now you had to lead an entire group of people, where as a mezzo I was always a side-kick or a supporting role. So it was a huge transition mentally to step into, ‘oh wait a minute you are the top of the harmonic phrase leading the chord underneath you.’ That was scary. To me that was a big responsibility and totally different than what I had done before. So that’s when I made the transition and from there it’s just been getting comfortable in the new skin.”
Elena’s flourishing Life Coach business, Coaching with Elena, is now 4 years old. She works with people at high levels in their own fields, whether they’re singers, athletes, politicians, lawyers, etc. and guess what: “they’re dealing with the same things. They live lonely lives at the top of their professions because they haven’t taken a look at what they want. They’ve come from fear and ‘I need to’ and ‘I must.’” Elena explained that her goal as a life coach is not to “fix them,” but to help them uncover what it is they really desire and how to help them overcome the barriers and limiting beliefs that have kept them from what they truly want in life. “I’ve always got my eye out for what people really yearn for and desire that they’ve forgotten about, some kind of dream that they gave up on, or something that they think is impossible. That’s usually the thing that lights their fire, that makes their eyes sparkle and their soul light up, and if we look at those things, then we start to uncover where in your life are you doing that thing or where are you missing it…It’s all based on what do you want. What do you want to choose and how do we remind you to choose it everyday instead of forget.”
“I never thought I’d find any thing I love as much as music in the world, and coaching is the only thing that I would consider a close, close second to music, and the thing is I feel like it’s only enriched me as an artist.”
While building her career and working through her fach change Elena has continued to work on small passion projects in the music world, but this fall she’ll be auditioning and reintroducing herself as a lyric soprano. However, she’ll no longer be taking whatever role she can to fill her calendar. Instead she’ll pursue only the things she wants to do. “Now the whole paradigm has shifted, so now the music world responds to the thing that I’m putting out and the things that I want versus the things I have to do to survive.” She’s particularly looking forward to singing for contemporary opera companies such as American Opera Projects, Opera on Tap and New Music in NY, as well as orchestras. “I want to create partnerships with orchestras that do Messiahs at Christmas and all different kinds of things that are fun, and Christmas pops concerts, I love Christmas pops concerts, they’re my favorite…I really, really miss a full orchestra and that’s what my heart is craving, so I even thought maybe I’d have a wild project and may just go somewhere and hire somebody to do some recordings with orchestra, maybe in New Mexico or maybe reaching out to Princeton Youth Orchestra and see if maybe they’d be willing to record some arias with me, just something for fun…I really, really want to do fun things. So the number one priority, this season is fun. Whatever that means and however that falls into that category…because that’s how I want to spend my time with music, working with good people and singing some beautiful, beautiful stuff.”
As for managing her time between her full coaching schedule and pursuing music, Elena doesn’t seem worried. In fact, she seems fired up! “We’re taught in music schools all the time that if there’s something else you want to do in life, then you better go do that. I actually really have a hard time with that phrase now because first of all, I never thought I’d find any thing I love as much as music in the world, and coaching is the only thing that I would consider a close, close second to music, and the thing is I feel like it’s only enriched me as an artist…It’s having the desire and the courage to pursue it and let it be the thing that actually carries you through to what you want. I mean, I love that my clients are so flexible and that when I’m on a gig I can schedule around my rehearsal time, and I really enjoy my conversations so they’re not draining, you know, it’s not work to me, it’s an extension of what I love to do…I’m now at a point where coaching can fuel opera, to travel and be financially secure which is super important, but also to still demand that I get paid as a singer…If you want them both, you will create them and if you don’t, then you won’t.”
“As a singer you can’t hear yourself so no one ever questions having a voice teacher or a coach you’re like, ‘of course, because I just can’t’ and what humans don’t realize is that it’s the same thing for our psyche and our blind-spots; you just can’t.”
I had such an amazing and inspiring conversation with Elena and we spoke about so many things in the singing industry and the truth of creating our own experiences within it. I will likely post a follow-up blog with some of those thoughts, but for now I leave you with a few of Elena’s favorite things:
People who have helped/inspired you:
Michael Paul, voice teacher who she began working with before her fach change and who helped her through the transition
Josh Shaw from Pacific Opera, I love what they’re creating in LA and how different it all is and the spins that he brings to stuff and how outside of the box he thinks, and whether or not I ever work with him again is irrelevant to how I hold him and what I think of his work and what he’s doing for the industry…I love that company and they’re so much fun I think everyone should sing for them.
Favorite non-classical performers in NY:
Duwende, an acapella group whose most recent album is their 2nd volume of Michael Jackson cover songs.
Becca Stevens whose latest folk/pop album Regina is a study of Queens beginning with Elizabeth the 1st.
Favorite non-music resource:
Life-Coaching: “What I love about coaching is you always look for the possibility, something outside of what’s currently being told is only going to go a certain way. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying there’s always a thousand possibilities you haven’t thought of. And when you’re in your own stuff you can usually see only 2 ways that it can go. When you step away from it and get outside the box you’re in, you actually see that there are thousands of possibilities. You just have to be creative and get some support. I mean, listen, nobody can do this on their own. I didn’t see my blind spots. Nobody can see their blind-spots so that’s why I think coaching is so helpful. You have somebody who can actually be a non-biased party looking on the inside. Even for myself, whether I coach or not, I’ll probably have a coach for myself because she sees what I can’t see, and I’m human so I’m not always going to be able to see everything, I just won’t. She is the person that I trust to call me out on my blind spots; that’s what we have in voice teachers, that’s what we have in vocal coaches. It’s the same concept it’s just from a holistic view as opposed to just the career. As a singer you can’t hear yourself so no one ever questions having a voice teacher or a coach you’re like, ‘of course, because I just can’t’ and what humans don’t realize is that it’s the same thing for our psyche and our blind-spots; you just can’t. So having someone who can create awareness with you so over time you develop a pattern of choosing outside of it, it’s just like building muscle.”
Ideal Daily Routine:
“Wake up slowly, probably late, I take the dog out for a walk, make a fresh French press, I leisurely open emails and go up to my home office which is like a studio office so there’s lots of inspiration around like music and art I love I open emails. So I usually work for a couple hours and then I will go to the gym and then I’ll come back and do a couple coaching calls and then lunch. Then I’ll spend the afternoon doing and hour or so of practicing, and then back to some coaching calls and then in the evening I might do some more practicing/character work/whatever and from there then do something fun whether it be music or movies or friends or interesting stuff. That’s my ideal day and most of the time I get it.”
A bit of advice:
“You can’t climb a mountain on day one. It’s like building a muscle. Choose one thing that you can change in your routine. One small change at a time and you expand on that until you get enough courage and muscle built to make bigger changes in your life.”
Many thanks to the wonderful Elena Armijo. In speaking with her and learning her story, she challenged many of the misconceptions I’ve had about life as a classical musician: things like having a second career, time management, finding something that influences, supports and inspires her work as a singer, etc. She is a complete person with an interest in what it means to be fully human and what it takes to overcome our own imagined limitations. She is so warm and her presence is a point of supportive energy. I highly recommend having a cup of coffee with her when you get a chance.