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Dreams Come True: From Finding Your Thing To Work That Matters (with beautiful music!)

This is the last installment of my Dreams Come True series, and the story I’m going to share with you is almost too unbelievable to be true.

In this series, I’ve been writing about accomplished people who forged their own unique path to a thriving career. What’s special about them is that they were able to connect their essential selves to work they love. I’m sharing their stories so you can see how they got to where they are. They are inspiring – if they can do it, you can do it too.

For some people (OK, most people) it isn’t a straight path from birth to success. Like today’s subject, they’re doing the best they can but sometimes get sidetracked by uncertainty and self-doubt.

They end up going in a different direction for a while, until they realize that they can’t keep living a life that’s not right for them. Deep down, they know it’s time for a change.

Let me introduce you to world-class operatic tenor Carl Tanner. Carl started out as a truck driver and a bounty hunter before pursuing his dream of singing on stage.

Carl describes his early experiences with music, growing up in Virginia:

“My mom, she appreciated classical music. We had one of these old record players and once in a while she would buy a classical recording at garage sales – she didn’t know what it was, she couldn’t pronounce half the composers – but she’d play it in the house. What I loved was country music. We’d go every weekend to see my father’s brothers and sisters, we’d listen to country music. I mean, old country – Tom T. Hall, Willie Nelson, Charlie Pride, Charlie Rich. So I learned country music and I tried to sing along with it. As I got older, when my voice settled, I knew that I could sing and produce this sound that was really, really strong. I had no idea what I was doing or how to use it or anything about it, so I kept it to myself.”

“When my parents would leave the house, I’d start trying to sing Elvis songs. I was singing in the shower one day when I was 16 and my neighbor knocked on my door and said, you need to join the choir at school. I said, there’s no way in hell I would do that. I was a football player and a wrestler. She said, have you heard of this guy Pavarotti? You need to look him up – this guy started out with nothing and he just stumbled into music and you could be the same – this guy makes huge money. It planted a seed.”

“The following year when I picked my electives for junior year, the counselor said, you might want to take chorus. Well, you had to audition, so the first day the only thing I knew was Amazing Grace from church, and I knew only one verse. So, I auditioned for the choir director and he said, what key? And I said, what’s a key? He gave me a little intro and I started singing and about two measures into the piece he stopped and he said, don’t waste my time. I said, I know I’m terrible. He said, no – somebody set me up here, you’ve been singing probably professionally for a while, why would you come in here and waste my time? I know you’re not even going to stick with choir. You really have an amazing voice. I said, really? Thank you but I’m here because this is the first time I’d ever sung for anybody. He said, your voice won’t blend with the choir. Your voice is equivalent to a 30 year old man and you have this innate ability to sing correctly technically.”

Carl studied music in college but didn’t continue with it after graduation.

“I saw in my mother’s face that she wanted a child to go to college. Everything I did when I was younger I did for my parents. So I went and got a degree in music. It’s the only thing I knew how to do at the time. I got a degree in music and handed it to my mother and said, there’s a lot of reasons I don’t want to go and try to be a singer. I said, I saw the talent in school, I believe a lot of it is better than I am. They wanted it more, they enjoyed singing more. I always enjoyed singing but I felt it was too much work. Also, I was so close to my parents, I didn’t want to go anywhere. I stayed and got a job as a truck driver.”

“I loved driving, I had no boss. I loved being on the road. But it wasn’t paying the bills. I was complaining to a buddy of mine one night, and he said I know someone whose brother is a bounty hunter. I think the guy is looking for a partner. You should talk to him.”

Carl worked evenings and weekends as a bounty hunter, tracking down local fugitives. But after a couple of bounty hunter jobs went terribly awry, he reexamined his career choice. Two weeks later he moved to New York City.

“I walked into a restaurant called Bianchi and Margherita where waiters sang opera. I heard opera coming out, it was a Saturday night. I walked in and I sat at the bar. The bartender said, what do you want? I said, I’d like a Coke. He goes, Coke’s not good for your voice. I said, how the hell do you know I’m a singer? He said, no one your age walks in that door when they hear opera that’s not a singer. He hands me a Coke and goes, $8. I said, do you have something cheaper? He said, it’s free if you get up and sing. So I got up and sang and the whole wait staff and all the chefs came out and a guy comes over to me and shakes my hand and I realize he put money in my hand. He tells me about another place called Asti’s. I went in there and the guy said, you can sing one song. So I got up and I sang, and the place stopped and I got a standing ovation and the guy offered me a job. Then this guy comes over and hands me a card, he says, I’m the cofounder of the Santa Fe Opera, I’d like you to come and do an audition.”

He joined the Santa Fe Opera and appeared in productions across the country as he worked his way up the operatic ranks. It wasn’t easy when he started out.

“There are people out there that wouldn’t hire me because of my age. Some people took me seriously, and then some people said he’s already too old – we didn’t nurture him, he’s not really a nurtured opera singer. And then my back story comes out. And the powers that be, they looked at my career and they looked at me and they were like, he’s too blue collar. It was terrible.”

He's been singing for over twenty years now and is in demand around the world.

“If I would have started at 22, I’d be selling computers now. But I started when I was supposed to start. You know, it was a strange career path. Every day I wake up, I pinch myself, I’m making a living doing what I really love to do now but it took me a long time to get here.”

“I was born with this gift. I was given a gift and this is it. I believe everybody’s given a gift, we just need to find what it is.”

Thanks to the podcast How To Be Amazing for inviting Carl Tanner to share his story. Listen here.

{This is the last installment of my Dreams Come True series. In my previous posts you can read about living in a tropical island paradise with Susan Stone, zombie author Max Brooks, overnight editor Jade Walker, cruise ship artifact rescuer Peter Knego, midcentury pop culture expert Charles Phoenix, and cookbook author Ina Garten.}

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