Dream Deferred: Stories about hitting roadblocks

This week we present two stories about people who had to accept a delay in their personal journeys.

Part 1: Veterinarian Rodrigo Solis thinks he's found the perfect job -- taking care of horses in the Mexican Army -- until a new commander takes over.

Rodrigo Solis received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in Mexico in 2006 and spent one semester abroad studying at the University of California-Davis. He then went on to earn a Master’s of Sustainable Development at the Technological Institute of Higher Studies Monterrey. He’s currently a 5th year PhD candidate in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University in Canada where he studies monarch butterfly conservation. Since 2018, he has been a fellow at the ReNewZoo graduate training program. He recently started a part-time position with eButterfly, an online citizen science platform that tracks butterflies across North America.

Part 2: Weeks before an important performance, opera singer Laura Crocco notices there's something wrong with her voice.

Laura Crocco is an Australian researcher in music performance and human movement science. She graduated with a Bachelor of Music (Voice Performance) and a Master of Applied Science (Health Science) from The University of Sydney and is now preparing to commence doctoral studies in 2020. The demanding nature of elite music training that she encountered during her undergraduate studies prompted her research interest in how the science of human motor learning may improve the way we train musicians. Laura aims to provide evidence-based professional development for music performance teachers in higher education so as to encourage student autonomy, improve performance and nurture the wellbeing of our future musicians. She is passionate about encouraging music teachers and students to recognise the current issues in one-to-one training, and showing them through her published works, presentations and masterclasses how more systematic and objective research may serve as an ally to the field. Laura often presses buttons on an accordion and hopes to one day convert an old upright piano into a mini-bar.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Rodrigo Solis

So one thing that I was going to say, and I’m just going to give this introduction, is I am a veterinarian from Mexico.  I studied there.  I’m a specialist in horses.  So that was a side note. 

But anyway, I had my dream job.  Just as any other regular soldier in the Mexican army, I used a green camouflage uniform everyday with long, black cavalry boots.  But I was just not any regular soldier.  I was also a veterinarian.  I served as a veterinarian there.  I was just getting paid as a soldier but working as a vet.  It was great.  It was amazing.  It was my dream job.  But I guess, as any other dream, sooner or later you have to wake up.  That happened to me nine months later. 

What happened was that the commander in chief of the unit that I was in retired and the new commander that came in, he had this aversion against civilians, professional civilians joining the ranks and getting special treatment, just as was my case.  So what I remember even him telling once like, “Oh, these civilians, they have their life too easy and they just want to come here.  If they want to join the army, they're going to learn the army ways.” 

So the first order that he had when he got there was to take me out of the clinic that I was in charge of.  It was just an amazing clinic where I was taking care of more than 200 beautiful horses.  Anyway, he took me out, kicked me out of that clinic and sent me to the stables as a stall cleaner. 

Rodrigo Solis shares his story with the Story Collider audience at Fox Cabaret in Vancouver, BC in April 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

Rodrigo Solis shares his story with the Story Collider audience at Fox Cabaret in Vancouver, BC in April 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

On top of that, he kind of enjoyed every day or every time that he could arresting me.  An ‘arrest’ in the army means that you have to stay sometimes two weeks straight working 20 hours a day.  In my case that was an endless cycle of having my hands filled with thorns after unloading trucks and trucks of hay bales and getting them all bloody after loading trucks and trucks of horses manure. 

I remember while I was doing that I was just thinking to myself how come seven years of getting prepared on being a vet made me to end up there.  Regardless, I just kept shoveling trying to prove to everyone that I deserved to be put back in the clinic.  That never happened. 

Anyway, around that same time, the war on drugs in Mexico was at its worst.  I guess the drop that spilled the water was when my commander was asked to send some personnel to support.  Of course, guess whose name was on top of the list? 

Before I could even say goodbye to anyone, I was sent to Juarez, which is a city in the border between Mexico and the U.S. that was pretty much the epicenter of the drug problem back then.  When I got there, I could feel this mix of adrenaline and stress all over.  Our routine everyday was just to go out and patrol the city, trying to push the cartels outside the city limits.

After two weeks or so of doing that, this day came that we came out, we’re driving and suddenly two trucks just passed us by and closed the road.  Several guys just came down the trucks and without any apparent reason they started shooting at us.  Of course we fought back.  Maybe it was just a couple of minutes but felt like an eternity to me. 

But finally, we were able to repel fire and that was the moment when the person that was next to me, he told me, “Hey, are you okay?” 

And I realized, I felt my shirt it was wet.  I realized that actually a bullet hit on a light pole, rebounded and hit me in the back.  So yeah, I was shot. 

But luckily enough it was not that bad.  The bullet didn’t go through.  But at least it spilled enough blood that I was sent to the hospital and then sent back home. 

So while I was in the hospital and then on my way back home, I started thinking and putting into balance all the bad things that had happened against all the good things because, ironically, being in the army was a safe place to be.  I mean, I had a secure job for the rest of my life.  I had extended health coverage for me, my family and even my parents.  And, on top of that, in the army, at least the Mexican army, you cannot quit before five years of serving.  If you do so, you are deemed as a deserter and that is punished by jail.  So yeah, I was stuck. 

I remember that time going every night to bed almost crying, feeling that everything was going so wrong but not knowing what to do, how to fix it.  After a few weeks of deliberation I decided I have to quit.  I will quit.  And I had a plan. 

See, there is this law in the army that says that a soldier can resign at any time from the army if they are not able to provide him with enough support of fulfilling his full potential. Having that in mind, I did my quick research and applied for a Master of Sciences Program on Sustainable Development.  Luckily enough I was accepted. 

With that acceptance letter, I submitted a petition to my commander for getting support from the army to get enrolled.  Of course he said no.  With that rejection letter, I submitted my resignation arguing that they were not supporting me.  Amazingly, they accepted it and a few days later I was already out of the army. 

Great.  I was out of the army and now ready to get to a Master of Science Program on Sustainable Development.  Wow, I felt that it was my second chance.  But that is not the end of the story. 

See, when I was applying for this program, I was way more focused in getting out of the army than actually doing my deep research on what the program was actually offering.  I knew that I liked taking care of animals.  I liked wildlife conservation so sustainable development kind of rings a bell.  But it was up until I started classes that I realized that it was way more into ecological engineering.  And all the profs and the classes there had that kind of expertise.  Nobody within the university actually knew anything about animals. 

The supervisor that was assigned to me, he suggested me to look for that expertise elsewhere to get an external supervisor.  So that day, I get back home, sat on my computer and just started emailing every NGO that I could think of.  Amazingly, the next day, the first email that I received back was from the World Wildlife Fund, WWF.  This was the Director of the monarch butterfly conservation program in Mexico.  He was inviting me to go to the monarch butterfly colonies and to see what they were doing to help them and see if I was interested in. 

Rodrigo Solis shares his story with the Story Collider audience at Fox Cabaret in Vancouver, BC in April 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

Rodrigo Solis shares his story with the Story Collider audience at Fox Cabaret in Vancouver, BC in April 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

Honestly, since I read the email, I was not interested at all.  I mean, I was a specialist in horses.  And back then, I had actually never seen a monarch butterfly before.  I didn’t know how they looked.  To be honest, back then I was not even able to tell the difference from a butterfly and a moth.  But anyway I guess desperate times call for desperate measures, so I accepted. 

Now, a few weeks later, December the 12th 2012, that was the day that changed my life.  That was the first day that I visited the colonies.  Coincidentally enough, that day, December the 12th is for Mexican culture quite important because it’s the day when the Virgin Mary is celebrated.  I’m not religious or anything but it’s when it is celebrated. 

So we woke up around 2:00 a.m. in the morning, really early, and started driving up the mountain through this windy dirt road.  A few minutes later, maybe half an hour, we saw this congregation of people just in the middle of the road, maybe 50 or 100, I don't know, and they were all dressed with indigenous attires, some and most of them with orange colors just as the monarchs. 

Then as we were driving around, I noticed that they were praying and dancing and they were doing all that around a little Virgin altar that was just on the side of the road.  That really shocked me how this little insect that I had never heard of before was actually moving the culture of the indigenous populations there has that power.  That really shocked me. 

Anyhow, we just kept driving up for a few more minutes, maybe an hour, until we got to where the road ended.  Maybe it was two hours before dawn.  And why were we there so early?  So every year WWF measures the area of the colonies so they can give an estimation of the population.  We were going to be doing that, measuring the colonies.  And that is done early in the morning before dawn break so the butterflies don’t get too disturbed. 

So maybe two hours before dawn break we came down the truck and started walking inside the forest and it was super cold, super cold and super dark and it was really foggy.  It was actually kind of hard to see just the trees in front of you.  But we kept walking, got to where the colonies where and we started measuring the trees, the colony. 

Then it started dawning.  With a little bit more of light, I noticed that the trees that we were measuring were covered by this almost perfect tapestry of butterflies, so perfect that it was almost impossible to see the tree underneath.  That really amazed me.  But then as the sun kept coming up, some shy beams of light started penetrating the forest and it was really easy to see them because of the fog. 

Then it happened.  Those beams of light, when they touched where the monarchs were, just as if they were little brushes of color, they would just revive the monarchs that were asleep.  They would start fluttering a little bit and showing that orange bright color that they had.  As soon as the beam would move away from them they would just go back to their slumber. 

While I was looking at that, I found myself thinking of that amazing journey that that little insect had come through in order to be there.  I mean some of them came all the way from Ontario enduring rains, droughts, wind on top of their delicate wings just in order to get there and be able to rest. 

So suddenly I realized that my journey, my own journey had not been that different from theirs.  I had also endured so many things.  I had to overcome so many obstacles and perhaps I still had to overcome so many more to get to the place where I actually belonged to.  I suddenly felt that everything that had happened to me, everything was making sense now.  I realized that everything was part of this larger scheme, that those humiliations, those endless days of shoveling poop, even that shot in the back, they were all part of the larger scheme that gave me the opportunity of being there,  experiencing that unique moment. 

Then suddenly my life started to regain sense and I decided, I felt that I then wanted to dedicate my life to take care of that wonderful insect.  Eight years later, well that happened eight years ago.  So eight years later I am almost done with my PhD and I’m still working with monarchs.  Thank you.


Part 2: Laura Crocco

I remember seeing my very first opera when I was 12 years old at the Sydney Opera House.  It’s called Cavalleria Rusticana.  I’m sure none of you know it, but it has one of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard.  It’s so delicate and nostalgic. 

My mom organized a minibus for some elderly Italians in our local community to go to Sydney every few months to see an Italian opera.  I was lucky enough to go along and score a seat next to them all.  I remember being in the theater just going it’s so grand and yet so cozy when the lights go down just before the curtain rises.  I absolutely loved it. 

I remember being in the top balcony row and as soon as the orchestra started playing, my mom turned to me and she saw that I was crying.  I knew in that moment that I wanted to be on that stage.  I knew even before the first tenor came on stage. 

I ended up going on to study classical singing.  I trained in it quite intensely.  I missed so many parties just to get a good night’s sleep before a performance.  I switched many delicious beers for a glass of water just to keep my instrument well hydrated.  It sounds tough but, as a classical musician, I willingly chose that life.  I chose it because I loved the skill, I loved the music, I loved the performance, I loved the art. 

Come the fourth and final year of my Bachelor of Music, practice became a chore.  It really did.  I never felt like I was singing well.  I was constantly in my head.  I was criticizing myself all the time.  Midway through that year, I developed a cold that became a pretty bad virus and I was in bed for two to three weeks in our July break.  It’s our winter break in July in Australia. 

Laura Crocco shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Burdock in Toronto, ON in April 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Laura Crocco shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Burdock in Toronto, ON in April 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

I went back to university after the break and my singing voice didn’t really feel the same.  It felt like I couldn’t control it the way I used to.  It went on for a little while so, though it was scary as a singer to admit, I thought I'd better go and see an ENT to have a checkup, an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.

This first ENT I saw, he didn’t see anything physically wrong, but he did notice that I was quite stressed and concerned about my instrument.  So he sent me to a performance psychologist, someone especially for professional voice users such as singers. 

A few sessions in and she was like, “Well, I can tell that that stress and concern is coming from the fact that you do have something wrong with your voice and now, on top of that, you've just been given a misdiagnosis.” 

Yeah, well, now I need to go and get a second opinion but, at that point, I didn’t have time.  I was a few weeks out for my final, qualifying 50-minute solo performance for university. 

I pushed, physically pushed through those final months and weeks of my degree.  My voice had become painful to the point where every time I went to make a sound, any sound, it felt like an elastic band was constantly hitting my vocal folds.  That’s exactly what it felt like.  Like someone had both their hands wrapped around my throat tightly, all the time, to the point where my speaking voice became really, really, really high.  I spoke like this all the time, annoying, but that was the only way I could speak comfortably at that point. 

The day my recital arrived, I was really trying to suppress my nervousness about what my voice was going to sound like that day.  I didn’t know what I was waking up with from day to day anymore.  I had no control.  But I was focused throughout my recital.  I got through it.  Usually, at the end of a performance I'd be really happy, but this time I felt nothing but relief that it was all over. 

My family and friends congratulated me but I knew that they heard something different.  My singing teacher is so supportive and caring and remains a dear friend until this day, but I knew that he was just as worried as I was. 

After years of high grades, I came out with a poor mark in my recital.  My examiners commented saying, “She needs to control her voice.  Her voice is so wobbly.  We didn’t know what pitch she was singing.” 

I knew all these problems.  I knew.  But I couldn’t fix them because my instrument wasn’t responding.  There was something wrong.  And to top it off, I couldn’t tell anyone other than my singing teacher that there was something wrong.  I couldn’t tell the examiners that because I was afraid that if anyone knew that I had any hint of a vocal issue, as an opera singer, you're blacklisted in the music world.  And I was a student.  So I was left with this memory that I struggle with until this day of a final performance that was a vocal train wreck. 

A few weeks after that, I woke up and I couldn’t talk.  I was visiting my family for Christmas and I woke up, went into the kitchen, sat down, had coffee with my mom and I didn’t say a word.  My mom turned to me and she knew.  She knew exactly what was happening.  She’d see me in those recent weeks not being able to talk for very long anymore.  Even that was tiresome and painful.  My family and friends knew me as a singer so when I woke up that morning, my mom saw me lose a huge part of who I was and I felt bland inside. 

Immediately after that, I sought the opinion of another ENT.  This time, my vocal folds were quite swollen.  I had developed a polyp in one vocal fold, a blood vessel, but in order to get a diagnosis we really needed to get that swelling down.  So he sent me to see a speech pathologist and also so I could talk comfortably again. 

I remember being in the clinic.  I remember seeing it so clear.  I had to be the last patient that day.  I was in the waiting room on my own, it was raining, the receptionist had already gone home. 

The speech pathologist asked me why I wanted to be an opera singer.  I said, “Honestly, at this point in time, I have no idea why I wanted to be an opera singer.  Who wants to wear all that crap?”  I was like, “No.  No.  The heels, the gowns.  I don't know.” 

I felt really, truly, I felt so much self-loathing for having trained to be a musician for 20 years to end up being stopped by what was later diagnosed as being laryngeal nerve damage, that, what we know to this day, is generally permanent.  Stress and a viral infection were my potential causes.  And the damage, though it was mild as an opera singer, was enough to stop me considering a career at such an elite vocal level. 

Eight months into my voice therapy and I come to terms with that reality.  I couldn’t physically or emotionally do it anymore.  My speech pathologist and I had been having general conversations about what I had observed as a musician during my training, what I had observed by teaching and learning. 

Laura Crocco shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Burdock in Toronto, ON in April 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Laura Crocco shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Burdock in Toronto, ON in April 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Singers, especially classically singers at that elite level, don’t just have one singing teacher.  We have so many teachers.  Opera singers have many languages to learn so we have many language coaches, performance coaches, accompanists, master class teachers.  Over those four years of my bachelor, I had received so many different types of instruction, so much feedback, but varying feedback that I could no longer filter what I was being taught anymore. 

I had no motivation at all, I didn’t know what my goals were, and I came out not knowing my own instrument.  I didn’t know how to use it.  A bit counterproductive. 

Amongst all of this my speech pathologist thought that I had a research question that, if studied, could potentially improve how teachers teach musicians.  So she asked me if I'd ever consider doing a postgraduate research degree. 

My immediate response was, “I’m never setting foot in the music institution again.  You won’t catch me dead there.  No.”

She said, “No, I mean in health science.  You should come study with me and I'll be your supervisor.” 

Firstly, okay, science, yup.  I haven't had any science education since high school.  And, to top it off, I thought she was nuts for thinking that I could try and study a subjective art form using scientific methods. 

But she saw something in me.  At that point in time, I had nothing else to do but I also didn’t want anyone else to experience what I had, so shortly after that I enrolled for a Master of Applied Science research degree and was then adopted by an entire department of wonderful, wonderful speech pathologists. 

That was five years ago.  Today, I am a researcher in both music and health science, a bit of a hybrid but it’s fun. 

I was in Australia this past summer visiting my family.  I was on the beach, just had a dip in the ocean.  My mom came with me.  It was just before I was leaving to come back to Canada.  And when I came back to lay down next to her, she asked me, “Do you miss performing operatically?  You've loved music your entire life?”

Obviously, a big part of me wanted to say, “Yes, of course, I do,” but I didn’t.  Instead, I said to her, “I truly think that my voice disorder saved my love of music.  I get to enjoy it and listen to it, play different instruments stress free.  I don't need to worry about making it a sustainable career anymore.” 

But I also get to use my voice for something else and I’m just as passionate about.  I get to use science to improve how music performance teachers teach and to support our students in more of evidence-based ways.  That is unheard of in that field.  There aren’t many of them doing what I’m doing.  I don’t need to perform operatically to love music.  Thank you.