Anyone who has ever piloted an aircraft appreciates Virgin Atlantic’s catchy slogan of the early 2000s: You Never Forget Your First Time. Flying is magical. It’s one of those rare experiences that exceeds the hype of its depiction in movies and video games. As an operatic tenor, I always say flying is one of the activities I credit—along with high school debate—for improving my career and advancing me as a person. It has given me an appreciation for mindfulness and procedure. Dare I even say, it’s elevated me (horrible pun intended).
I’ve been in love with airplanes for as long as I can remember. One of the first things I did after I passed my driver’s test was take a solo car trip to the fence at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to watch the planes take off and land. For plane lovers, seeing a B747-400 headed for Narita roar down runway 30L is always a joy. When I made the national circuit debate team in high school, I was thrilled because it meant I would get to travel (via plane, of course) all over the country to competitions. Instead of doodling when I was bored, like other teenagers, I mapped out intricate, nonexistent commercial flight plans—something I still catch myself doing today.
In my early 30s, I finally made the decision to get my private pilot’s license. I have always felt the inherent need to understand the science behind flying: How do planes get off the ground, and how are they able to travel so far? As an opera singer, my fascination with music began with understanding the science of sound. Now, flying and singing have a symbiotic relationship for me. Planes are constructed to use momentum and propulsion in a way that cars are not—air pressure and energy around the wings give the plane a lift. Similarly, voices need to be propelled and launched. Proper air pressure/air flow and a grounding of the body allow the voice to flow unencumbered. Two pieces of flesh inside the throat producing perfect sound without a microphone carries the same intrigue for me as pondering how a 2,600-pound aircraft can maintain an elevation of 17,500 feet for almost 5 hours.
Especially recently, I’ve found that my flying and singing are mutually re-enforcing. Flying compels you to leave all of your emotional concerns about work, family and friends on the ground because operating an aircraft demands 100 percent of your attention. One must be ready to adapt to a changing flight plan, including diversions and other contingencies—like losing all the radios for the majority of a cross-country trip (yes, it’s happened to me)—which are essential not only for experience building but survival. Letting the mind wander could result in a fatal error.
A mistake on stage might not carry the same stakes, but it could be a slow death to a career. I learned in the infancy of my opera career that the ability to exhibit laser focus is essential to success. If you are not present, then you might blow a high note, miss a musical entrance, or (heaven forbid) forget to come onstage. I will never forget the mistake I made when I was performing “Faust” at the Paris Opera several years ago. At the time, I was leading an arts-oriented organization, and my mind was focused on the recent termination of an employee. Seconds after stepping onstage, I staggered through error after error until I could compartmentalize the issue that was distracting me. Flying has given me the muscle memory for mindfulness. Whenever I’m working, whether in San Francisco, New York, or London, I schedule time to find a field, rent a plane, and fly. Flying always reminds me of what it feels like to work free of distractions, and I channel that mindset into my singing.
Flying is not only a great exercise in mindfulness; it also has emphasized the importance of learning how to operate within a framework of rules. Flying is fundamentally process-oriented. Pilots must learn about airplane systems, weather, navigating maps and directories, effectively communicating issues over the radio, planning and negotiating and managing myriad psychological variables. While the rules remain the same, no two trips in the air will ever be identical, making it crucial to know where the rules end and adaptability has to begin.
It’s no different onstage. No single live performance is ever the same, and you are under an immense amount of pressure to collaborate with a group of people to deliver a stellar product. Like learning the thousands of rules for flying, understanding the markings that a composer lays out, reproducing the stage movements of a director, and knowing how to project your voice over the force of a 92-instrument orchestra in a hall of 4,000 is an art that requires rigid adherence to the rules and respect for technical training. You can’t wing it. At the same time, you have to be prepared for storms, malfunctions and mistakes. Flying gives you the confidence to tackle them by rewarding those who adhere to procedure and remain adaptable within the confines of the prescribed rules.
I never imagined that I would grow up to be a professional opera singer who regularly flies airplanes. In a world that is full of distraction and clutter, it is a rare gift to find a craft that teaches you mindfulness and how special truly existing in the present can be. I’ve been lucky enough to find two.
Learn more about pilot and opera singer Michael Fabiano at michaelfabianotenor.com.
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