We all start out on our career paths with such enthusiasm and belief in our being able to manifest the singing career of our dreams. Because we don’t have the hindsight, perspective or experience of knowing what making a living as a singer in a full blown career will entail, we naturally stick to our idealized version of that dream which we continue to focus on. Not a bad thing. If you are at all like me, even if someone gives the information or advice in advance, I often need to experience it for myself to really understand what it means to me personally. Again, not a bad thing. However, often we find ourselves trying too hard to make something happen, grabbing at everything that comes our way, thinking we might miss some opportunity for a job even thought it creates agonizing stress, an out of balance life style and possibly just plane ole burn out. Our dream can seem far away and unattainable when we audition over and over again and never seem get the job or win the competition. We often feel we are the only one experiencing all of these frustrations – these emotional ups and downs; we are the only one failing to make our dream happen. We can lose our enthusiasm and resolve after hearing for the 100th time that we are too old, too tall, to short, too fat, too something – make it up. We feel it is hard with these types of comments to be taken seriously. Believe me when I say, all of these situations have already been experienced, then told and retold as stories by famous and not so famous singers over the years. So you can take comfort in the fact that you are not the “lone ranger”.
But remember, if you want to sing and perform there are many varied ways to have a career. Which way is right for you?
“He that would have the fruit must climb the tree.”
~ Thomas Fuller, M.D.
Seriously pursuing any type of career, not just having a “job”, requires commitment, a doable plan of action, lots of sacrifices, focus, the ability to deal with the high and low points, and the tenacity to not always take “no” for an answer. And of course it goes without saying if you are pursuing a singing career; you first must have the talent, vocal technique, musicality and natural dramatic instincts to enter the arena. You have to love making music.
Many singers, both current and of yesteryear, hold the same philosophy that being self-disciplined, understanding the spiritual harmony within yourself and your surroundings and having the support of friends and/or family, is of paramount importance in maintaining balance in the life style required of having a singing career of any style.
We all come to our career by different paths. As they say about our dear, late Beverly Sills, “She became an overnight star in 1966, thirty-three years after she began singing in public and nineteen after her operatic debut.” She had to audition 9 times before she was hired at the Met.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Joyce DiDonato, the current reigning coloratura mezzo, didn’t have a stellar beginning. She watched as others around her won the awards and accolades. She viewed herself as being way down on the second or third tier of want-to-be singers after failing to land a manger or get even one job from the many auditions she did. Even when she did get management, and it was a world wide manager, she auditioned for 12 houses before she was offered a job on her 13th try. She was not deemed the next superstar, but continued to gain confidence “from the inside out” as she made her slow and steady climb to the top. This allowed her to become an experienced, seasoned performer before she had to put it all on the line.
Doing the homework to find out and understand what kind of a life style a singing career entails is a good thing before you jump in. This allows you to take a hard, objective look at what you are willing and able to commit too. And, if you start to achieve your goals and find that it is not really what how you want to live, there is no shame in changing course. What is really important is being happy both within and without so you become the example of that to the world no matter what career you choose. That is powerful!
Let’s take a look at some of the career possibilities out there. I am only going to give you a few ideas of how your career might look, and then it is up to you to find other examples so you make the right choice for you. It will be so much more fun and an easier journey when you create a career path that you know will work for your personal needs, with your desired life style in mind. The bottom line is, when you reach 80 and look back at your life, how do you want to feel about the time you have spent thus far here on planet earth? Was life full, rich, balanced, with few regrets and rewarding in most ways? Did you spend your time, energy and money in a way that contributed to your happiness as well as that of others? Was the journey worth it?
“A career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night.”
~ Marilyn Monroe
Full Blown – World Wide “A” House Career, Making your entire living as an Opera Singer. – Once you have paid your dues and have hit the fast track in this industry, your life style will change. On the upside of having this style of career, one of the first things to happen is, you will have a full Management Team supporting you. They will take care of most of the planning and business aspects of your career, giving you more time and energy to focus on learning new music and performing. Just because you have this team in place doesn’t mean you don’t have to remain involved in the business aspects of your career by being a very “hands on” business owner and performer and involved in the decision making. Otherwise you might find your life and career spinning out of control. You must remember that you are the CEO and President of your company and have the final word on what happens in the planning of your life and career.
Some of the down sides of this life style could be: never getting used to living out of a suitcase and wearing the same cloths over and over, staying in hotels each with it’s own brand of mattresses to get used to, always eating out while trying to eat healthy so you don’t get sick, sometimes not remembering where you are geographically or which opera house or symphony you are performing with because they all look, sound, feel and smell the same, endless traveling, and often times, being lonely. It’s possible that after finishing a performance you catch the red-eye flight to the next gig which could be in a different country with rehearsals soon after you land or perhaps a recording date. And you must stay vocally healthy; deal with possible allergies because you are always in different climates. You have to get used to the changing temperatures that can go from really hot where you just were, to the freezing temperatures where you will be next, and always be learning new music. No matter what the career, this style of life is very tedious and hard physically, mentally and spiritually. If having an intimate relationship is important to you, it will take a very special partner to keep it going with a career like this. You rarely see each other, talk occasionally always being aware of the differing time zones and spend most of your holidays working. Vacations are few and far between. Your colleagues and often times, patrons of the arts become your friends. From my own experience I know that there were times when singing became just another job and I would love to have been able to stop everything and go home. All the applause, accolades, adoring fans, great reviews, record sales, interviews, money, etc. are not enough to fill the void inside. This style of career is not for the faint of heart.
“The really happy person is the one who can enjoy the scenery, even when they have to take a detour.”
~ Sir James Jeans
European Career – If you are lucky enough to get a contract with one of the ensemble houses in Europe, life can be very good. This means you work with the same company and colleagues for the duration of your contract which could be for 1 to 3-5 years. You become part of the community you work in, learn to speak another language, can have a regular life with family, socialize with friends, and have a 6 week paid vacation and health insurance. When you go to work each day you know your schedule so you can easily fit in and manage taking care of your personal and family needs. Getting the notes and words down of a new opera is of course your job, but the opera house staff is always there to help with the preparation of learning music, plus the usual coaching. Because you know when you will be rehearsing and performing, it might be possible to arrange auditions at other houses where you would “guest”. This of course has to be arranged and approved by those that hold your current contract. Toward the end of your “fest” contract, you will want to try moving up to a more prestigious opera house by doing a round of auditions. Another step might be ,once you have paid your dues in this foreign country, it might be possible to just “guest” at different houses with particular roles for which you have become well know.
However, this type of European Career is harder to come by especially since the singers from the former eastern block countries are now also auditioning for these jobs. And in all honesty, I have to say that most European countries will hire their own countryman before they will hire a foreigner. However, don’t let that discourage you. It’s not impossible to get this type of job. And of course if you have a particular fach that is rarer than others, it’s a plus.
“If the career you have chosen has some unexpected inconvenience, console yourself by reflecting that no career is without them.”
~ Jane Fonda
Concert Singer – Recitalist – These are very specialized niche careers. I am happy to say that the popularity of the Recital is making a come back. In my time the big management companies also managed recital tours. There are some managers out there that are doing this now but you are going to have to beat the bushes to find them. You can also do this for yourself. If you contact the Arts and Humanities Counsel within a state, they often have grant monies to offer artists to present recitals and concerts throughout their state. Be prepared to talk about what your programs will consist of. Keep in mind that most of the people who will be your audience probably will not know much about opera or recital literature. It’s going to be your job to engage them with your programming skills. Even if it is normally in a foreign language, you might sing a song twice through, once in the original language and once in a good English translation. If there are one or more definite ethnic groups within the community, reach out to them with some of their songs or folk music. Be creative. Do your homework.
“Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday. Was it worth it?”
~ Mahatma Ghandi
Or you can contact the smaller communities themselves with a proposal to present a recital or concert. Most communities have an artist series that is generally made up of pianists or instrumentalists. Why not add some sizzle to their program with a recitalist. Tell them you will build a program around the history of their area, or maybe an all woman composer program or a program sung totally in English and always include some show tunes or folk songs to end with. This creates something for everyone. When the audience hears a song they understand and have heard before it makes them comfortable. So, use your imagination when building your programs. This is the fun part. Don’t be afraid to talk to the audience during your performance. Perhaps you can give them some background of the piece or perhaps a short translation of the song or an interesting fact about the composer and the time line in which it was composed. If you have no experience at planning a program, the internet is going to be your friend. Ask for advice from everyone. Then sit down and sort it out with your accompanist. You are a team, you are collaborators.
You also need to make money at what you do, so put on your managers hat and ask for your fee, plus housing and transportation. Housing could be staying at someone’s home; they may pay for your transportation with someone’s frequent flyer miles and you can always suggest this as a selling point. You and your accompanist will split the actual fee as you are a team and doing equal work.
“Once you do something you love, you never have to work again.”
~ Willie Hill
Make yourself and your accompanist very available to the community when you finally get a contract. Go to schools, churches, old folk’s homes, local organizations, etc to promote yourself and your upcoming recital-concert. If there is a piano handy, you might want to sing just one song to whet their appetites. Ask if all these people, young and old, would do you a big favor after they support you by coming to your recital/concert. Ask them each to email you a review of your performance. If there are some reviews that stand out you can then send them on to the sponsors of the recital/concert and if the program was not reviewed in the local newspaper, you can send them there as well. This would also be the time to hand out flyers. When you are out and about promoting your program, you are in the unique position of being able to spark the interest of those around you. Hearing a trained human voice and an accomplished pianist may be something completely new to them. It is your opportunity to capture their interest in supporting you by coming to your program. When you both present and represent your Personal Brand at all times, schmoozing and networking becomes a pleasure and the easy part of being performers. This helps others feel you have given them your undivided and very personal attention.
There are many “B” & “C” Orchestras out there. They usually do all the big works including Oratorios, Requiems, and programs of Scenes and Arias from Operas. If you check your Musical America you will find these really quite fine organizations to send your materials to. The information and suggestions I have given above work for this medium as well. Laying the groundwork for your return performance or perhaps a referral by those in power that you have just worked with to someone who can give you your next job will happen naturally if you consistently present and represent your unique and authentic Personal Brand. Everyone loves a win-win situation and that is what you are creating.
Knowing what style of a career will work for you is an important point to consider when thinking ahead to your goals and dreams. It’s valuable to do your homework on this subject as you move forward with your career, so you don’t waste your time, energy and money taking the wrong bend in the road. Yes, you get to create your own personal journey, but you don’t have to re-invent the whole bloody thing when there is the history of someone else’s career choices to possibly use as a map. So, make your journey as enjoyable and successful as possible. And by remaining flexible and curious you can avoid the angst and fear when you come across a detour sign.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
~ Mark Twain