A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Rule One

There has recently been some uproar in our small community over an employee of a leading British conservatoire sending out a very poorly written set of guidelines for getting on in the musical profession. It was a hodge-podge of conflicting advice that included several offensive terms, but also made no attempt to explain the grim reality of the profession it portrayed (and let’s not kid ourselves: most of the broad stereotyping, casual sexism, toxic competitiveness, etc, that the memo described, cemented, and almost encouraged; is sadly true). As a conversation-starter at a symposium, it would have worked brilliantly and kicked off a debate on how we could strive to make our world better. But as a memo circulated by email with no context, only pearls of wisdom in the vein of ‘what happens on tour stays on tour’, it just sends the message: this is the world you’re entering, conform or fail!

It’s sad. We can do so much better, and it should start at conservatoire. Music should be a collaborative quest for the betterment of mankind through beauty… not a cess-pit of one-upmanship and insincere high-school posturing. 

I’ve always felt conservatoires didn’t adequately prepare students for some of the harsher realities of the profession, but obviously this isn’t the way to do it. Even some of the more light-hearted elements of the memo, which focussed on the social aspect of music-making, only serve to take the fun out of it! Telling students to be the life and soul of the party (but avoid getting a bad reputation, obviously) is a recipe for a generation of young people who will fail by trying too hard to be ‘fun’. Rather than just allow themselves to be infected by the fun of their slightly older colleagues through listening to anecdotes, advice, etc. 

So here’s my advice to students (or anyone else for that matter), and hopefully it’ll be a lot shorter than that memo (though my preamble has already made that unlikely). You’re about to enter a world of pain! Studies have shown you’re 3x more likely than a ‘normal person’ to suffer from depression as a musician. You will face rejection, sexism, racism, section-ism, instrument-ism, etc. You will also meet wonderful people along the way, have great banter, make memorable music, so it’s not all bad. Focus on the good stuff, be patient, be kind to yourself, learn as you go. And in all your interactions with others - there’s only one rule you need follow. My friends and I call it Rule One (I have unashamedly stolen it from a good mate of mine).

Rule One = Don’t be a dick!

Always judge yourself by Rule One. Is coming to a rehearsal underprepared ‘being a dick’ to my colleagues? Yes! Don’t do it. Is talking about so-and-so behind their back ‘being a dick’? Probably! Try not to. Is warming up in a shared dressing room when your mate has a migraine ‘being a dick’? Yeah, try to find a better place! Infecting everyone with a plague just to avoid missing out on a show fee? I refer you to Rule One. Is flirting with a colleague when you’re married ‘being a dick’? Sometimes, most often, and definitely if that colleague is your ‘underling’, and going beyond flirting earns you a capital D. Is calling someone out for ‘being a dick’ constitute a breach of Rule One? Unfortunately the answer is quite often ‘probably’ ;)


It is a simple rule at heart though, and may well be all you need to be a valued member of our community. I’m willing to bet it’ll serve you better in the long run than any elaborate ‘networking tactics’, in your well-being as much as in your career.

Monday, 31 July 2017

The show that almost didn't happen

This blog post is for myself, as much as it is for anyone out there who reads it. I'm writing these thoughts down so that I can always come back to them and remember what happened last week. I've been gushy about performances and projects before, sometimes even humbled, but I truly think my experiences in Dartmoor prison may have been the most formative I've had to date. That's why I'll try as hard as I can to refrain from gushing and just put down as honest and bare a personal account as I can.

To put the whole thing in context for you, the premise (as relayed to me by the organiser - Adam Green) was simple - we put on a reduced version of Carmen in Dartmoor Prison, with a chorus made up of inmates. I had done quite a lot of outreach work before with ETO and Garsington Opera, and it had always been very rewarding, so of course I agreed to take part, looking forward to the warm feeling you get from 'giving back'.

It's been a couple of days, and to be perfectly honest, I don't have that warm feeling. The project was indescribably amazing and worthwhile, and the high I was on directly after the performance was probably the biggest I've ever had. I also feel and believe we managed to make a positive impact on the people we worked with, prisoners and guards alike, and they on us. I will always remember the zeal and abandon that our chorus performed with, the energy they gave me during the Toreador was electrifying, and goes to show how powerful the art of performing music can be (but also made me feel that in every performance I've ever given, I could have given more, held less back, been more invested in the joy of what I do). Through their sheer focus and enthusiasm, the chorus truly became the stars of the show, and their smiles in the curtain call as they bowed will stay with me forever. Plus the sound they made! Every time someone asked 'yeah, but can they actually sing?', I smiled the same smile Adam did when I asked him the same question, and replied 'just you wait until you hear them'. Visceral, full-bodied and joyous, I can only describe it as the sound of freedom... The freedom to express yourself in the most extrovert way imaginable; the vocalised joy of working together in a group; the sound of people forgetting who and where they are...

And here we come to why I'm not filled with a warm glow, despite being genuinely in awe of the experience we all shared. We all worked together on this piece. The prisoners worked on their back stories from day to day, and handed Tom (our director) pages of 'question and answer' homework every morning. During rehearsals there wasn't really any feeling of there being 'us' and 'them'. We joked, laughed, explored, played, sang, drank tea, everything as a group of artists. In tea breaks the music making would continue, someone grabbing a guitar and a small group launching into pop songs, or our pianist and an inmate playing showtunes on the piano together. And then the call would end, and we'd go home, while they'd be marched back to their cells, just at the point when normally a company would go for a quick one down the pub. The magic would always end so abruptly. Once, when we got stopped mid-rehearsal because there was an ongoing incident elsewhere in the prison and everyone had to be taken back to their cells for roll call, I actually cried. When we arrived on the day of the show only to be turned away with the words 'there's an ongoing incident, we can't let you in and we don't know if the show will happen' I couldn't believe we may not actually see the guys again... Thankfully, due to the determination of the prison staff to go make Carmen happen, it did go ahead.

I don't even remember what I was expecting before the first day of rehearsals with the inmates. I was nervous, perhaps slightly frightened... But after hearing them sing, chatting with them, I quickly realised - they are just people. We all have in us the capacity for all things human - good or evil, regret or obstinance, indifference or empathy. Of course, I realise there are reasons for them being where they are, and that prisons aren't supposed to be nice places. But I did find myself thinking as we went on a guided tour of the facility - nobody deserves this, there must be a better way... 

To be fair to HMP Dartmoor, talking to the governors and guards, you get a feeling that they do want to do what they can to help the prisoners. There are courses in tiling, woodwork, bricklaying, and other qualifications the inmates can study for in order to have a chance of getting work after release. The atmosphere is respectful, even friendly. Everyone there is doing what they can to address the myriad of issues that crop up in a place like that - mental health issues, self-harm (the prison has pet ferrets that apparently help self-harming inmates), contraband, violence, a horrible drug called 'spice' that is so strong it can even affect guards who accidentally inhale it, the dietary requirements of each individual inmate (for the £1.30 the prison has to spend daily per prisoner on food), the need to exercise, and even the needs of pre-op transgender prisoners (one of whom was in our chorus). There is a lot of good will in that place. But the building is ancient and damp, the cells tiny, the number of staff inadequate (on weekends, when the prison operates on a reduced staffing, there aren't enough guards to let more than a small number of prisoners out of their cells, so most will be locked in their tiny room from Friday evening to Monday morning).

So while I feel immense pride in what our chorus accomplished, and gratitude for the chance to be involved in such a great project, I can't help thinking about how they must be dealing with the post-show come down (which all of us get) in that place. I simply have to have faith that they can hang on to the memory of that onstage feeling and go back to the world we created in the prison chapel, and that they can keep that feeling of freedom they had. I miss them... 

One of our more shy chorus members came up to me before the show and handed me a folded piece of paper. 'This is a letter for all of you professionals, can you share it with them? Just please don't read it until after you've left, I'm too embarrassed...' I won't quote much from it, suffice it to say I cried reading it. He signed off with this:

'Thank you for treating us all like equals.'


Damn right. We all are.





http://www.prisonchoirproject.co.uk





Friday, 10 March 2017

A (rare) day in the life of a cover

Covering has to be one of the most difficult things we can be asked to do. It's an important part of any young singer's initiation though, because what it boils down to is condensed craft and nerves of steel.

On the surface, when accepting a cover as part of a contract, you think it's all going to be great. You'll learn it, rehearse it, do a cover run, and then probably not go on. Easy. I've covered before, and gone on too, and I've even written about it, and it's not that simple even if you do get the luxury of rehearsals and a cover run on set. You'll have to deal with not having done it for 2 months for instance.

This was very much not the case yesterday, though. Yesterday, I went on in a show, having had no rehearsals on my cover (I'm singing chorus in said show, and a role in the other main stage production, as well as doing an education opera - the schedule can only accommodate so much), and to make matters scarier still, I was (and still am) ill. Not as ill as the principal, but still ill. When you think of covering, you think 'if they're ill, I'll go on'. You sort of assume you'll obviously be in the form of your life and it'll be wonderful. But actually, if you're in the show anyway, a company bug may grip you both, and it's just a question of who is at what stage of the illness. As a matter of fact, on this occasion, 3 days earlier my own cover was on standby. Never assume anything.

So I got the call after breakfast and immediately life was put on hold. So much for my plan to catch up on admin or rest after opening night of Patience. Nope, laptop away, Tosca score out (or, in this case, onscreen), headphones in. OK, so this is happening. It very quickly turns out that my bedroom isn't the ideal place to get into the right frame of mind, so I leave to set up camp in the theatre. On the tube people turn their heads, as I've got all my scenes looped on a playlist and am inevitably humming along. It's not often you'll hear someone murmuring the baritone interjections in 'Recondita armonia' on the Victoria line (with added coughs). I'm in the theatre by 2pm, go over costume with wardrobe, chat through the blocking with the assistant director, move my portable pharmacy to the principals' dressing room, go shopping, warm up, make nasal rinse, make ginger tea, all the while humming and counting my way through the music. At 3.30pm I get a coaching with the assistant conductor, sing through it, chat about the tempi, the spots where I need to catch the maestro's beat, then I do the tricky chorus scene one more time, and we agree there's nothing more to be done here. It's almost 4pm, so I go to sit in the stalls and watch the set get screwed into place, waiting for what will be my Stage & (no)Piano. I get 20 minutes or so to walk the scenes I've only ever watched a few times, which is fine, we'd talked through it an hour ago and I'd been imagining it, so I'm more or less on top of the geography. People start coming in for the balance call (or as far as I'm concerned - dress rehearsal), I chat to the maestro, who says we'll do what we can in the short time we have with the orchestra, but we may not do all of it because he has to give our leading lady some time - it's her first show (the role is double-cast and this is show number 2). Everyone wishes me well and it suddenly seems like my going on for a small role is a big deal. Yikes. Balance call is at 5.20pm and we do a good 2/3 of my stuff, with mistakes aplenty because I've never done it with a conductor before. Right, grab assistant conductor afterwards and dissect said mistakes and get him to show me what I can expect to see from the podium in those bits. Eat soup. Decide against eating soup halfway through. Walk my blocking in the dressing room again. Mime conducting myself through the mistakes from the balance call. 7pm get into costume. 7.25pm go down into the wings. 7.30pm Angelotti is on and this is really happening. 7.45pm or so, first scene is done and I can go up and worry about the tricky bit. 8pm go down and do the tricky bit and the interrogation scene. Suddenly, I'm in the wings and it's over... Or at least it would be, if I didn't now have to go change into my chorus costumes and do all the stuff I normally do ;)

It wasn't perfect. You can't get that in half a day, there's a reason rehearsals take weeks. But I didn't make any of the glaring mistakes from the balance call, nor did I stop, or hesitate after an unsteady entry. The cold, while annoying, wasn't debilitating. I came off feeling like I'd done what was required, and that's a hell of a good feeling. It was the first time I've been nervous in the wings for years, but also the first time in a long time I've been that excited while performing.

Now, time for some quick words advice for covers that came to me as I was lying in bed afterwards:

1. Be able to sing/hum ALL of it. Including other people's lines. This normally comes naturally over the course of rehearsals, but if you don't get to rehearse bit by bit, over and over again, then you need to get there yourself. Knowing it all gives you anchor points in case something goes wrong, it is often more natural than counting if entrances are tricky, and it also means you know the scene and therefore can be present. If you can't sing the whole thing on your own (your part, the orchestra and other singers in between), then you'll be a lot more worried out there.

2. Learn to conduct it, or watch the conductor if you can. Rehearsing with piano is one thing, but the orchestra sounds nothing like it. Standing on stage it also sounds nothing like the recordings. If you can spend some time watching a monitor with the conductor in stage & orchestras or shows, rather than watching the stage, you'll be glad you did. Fewer things will catch you by surprise.

3. Watch from the wings (or from behind in a rehearsal room), not from the stalls. It's good to see it from the stage's perspective at least once or twice.

4. Once you're on, that's it, there's only one way it can go, so stop thinking. Mistakes are ok, just move on. And know that everyone around you up there, and in the pit and wings, will help you in any way they can.

5. Don't imagine you'll always be on top form when you go on ;) 'That's not how the Force works', so be mentally prepared for it, otherwise a cold can add an extra bit of stress that you definitely won't need.


PS I'm sure a lot of my ETO colleagues, who did all they could to support me last night, will be reading this, and to all of you - Thank You!

PPS Covering is easy if the leading man gives you a good luck card with all your blocking drawn on it ;)




Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Have you brought any Mozart?

This post will no doubt be preaching to the choir, but having sat on a panel late last year and had discussions with my agent regarding my own audition repertoire, I thought it would be good to muse on the subject here. Auditions are an odd thing and putting together a set of arias that maximise your chances of employment often feels like a game of guessing the mindset of a mythical everypanel, while at the same time second-guessing your choices after every audition. If you're here expecting a recipe for the perfect audition portfolio, you're out of luck, I'm afraid. All I have to offer is more questions. I do hope that asking these in relation to each of your go-to or potential arias might just help you settle on a few choices and, as a result, give you some peace of mind. It might not, though...

Can you sing every note?

The most important question, and yet so often overlooked. I sang the Count's aria for years and with the stress of an audition I often struggled with what baritones often refer to as 'that %^&$ bottom A'. Coaches always said not to worry, because for one thing many top tier baritones did Count on the world's top stages with 'nothing down there', and therefore panels don't care about that as long as you have a stonking top F#. The thing is, if I fudge a note, regardless of whether the panel care (and despite what some coaches say, they might) - I do care, and it may put me off.

Same goes for coloratura. Don't be fooled by recordings or live performances of singers who have what I'd call 'approximate coloratura'. Just because they get away with it, doesn't mean you will in an audition. The truth is, with all these things, we need to set higher standards for ourselves as singers than what we're exposed to, especially in the polite British culture where coddling by teachers/coaches/music staff is a pleasant but not particularly constructive norm. If we don't expect more of ourselves then we're risking a decline in vocal standards across the board. But I was supposed to write about auditions...

Can you sing it any time day or night, with a 3-year-old at the piano?

The key to auditions is consistency, so make sure most of your rep is prepared so solidly that it is foolproof even at a 9am audition (yes, I've had one of those). You can have one aria that you only bring out when you feel the power flowing through you, though personally I prefer to stick to the solid stuff rather than vocal acrobatics I can't always nail. It's better to sing an immaculate Papageno or Masetto (so-called easy arias) than a pretty good Largo al factotum.

Is it controversial?

There is a reason most casting professionals recommend presenting standard repertoire. It gives them an instant frame of reference. From what you sing, they can extrapolate what roles you may be suitable for. Within standard repertoire, there are controversial arias - ones that can be sung in vastly different ways, about which everyone has strong opinions. This can refer to tempo, ornamentation, volume, character, etc. These are probably best avoided. If you take something to coaches and get the idea each coach wants it differently - find a new aria.

Do you care?

Why are you singing it? If it's just because someone told you it suits you, then don't bother. You need to enjoy singing the aria, otherwise how are the panel supposed to enjoy listening to you? Find joy in the singing, find something you care about and can identify with in the character. Don't take an aria just because you feel you should offer a Mozart/bel canto/German piece, for instance.

What does it show?

You want to send a clear main message - I can sing. The secondary message is - these are the things I can sing. Ideally you want to keep that second one as broad as possible while maintaining its clarity. I used to audition with Pelleas' tower scene, thinking it showed I could do French, difficult music and high singing. I was promptly told that all it shows is that I can sing Pelleas. That's not all that useful outside of a specific audition for the role. Then when putting together a 3-5 aria set, don't necessarily think each piece should show something different. They'll only hear one or two, and will want to look at your other offered options and be able to imagine how you'd sing them. If you offer 3 different fachs, they'll just be confused as to what jobs you're trying to go for.

Can you do the role now?

If not, probably don't bother offering the aria. There may be exceptions (specifically  covers / young artist productions), but offering Father from Hansel and Gretel at the age of 25 can send the wrong message - namely 'this guy has no clue'.

Do you know it too well?

The danger with overly familiar rep is that it can become under-energised in terms of performance, or a bit vague musically. Make sure you tighten all the screws every now and again. It's also good for the soul to introduce a new aria into circulation once in a while.

Of course, this mostly applies to general auditions. If you're going for a specific role, take the appropriate aria, on copy if necessary, plus pieces that are complimentary to that role. Taking a Handel coloratura aria to a Marcello audition is like bringing a knife... you know.

Well, that's it from me on this subject for now. I'm assuming singers out there can figure out their own equivalents for all my baritone aria references, otherwise they probably need more help than I can provide in a blog. In closing - don't blindly follow advice from teachers/coaches, listen to your instrument (it'll let you know if you're not ready for something yet, as long as you're not blinded by arrogance), and set high standards for yourself.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Why are you recording?

This Autumn is an odd one for me. For the first time in my life I turned down employment singing, in order to devote time to something else - producing recordings. Don't get me wrong, the singing (lessons, auditions, practice) is all going on as well, but for over the few weeks I've held about a dozen recording sessions, and there are more in the diary, which means I'm now focussing on this branch of my career more than I ever have before. What follows are some observations and thoughts that come from this newfound focus.

One of the first things that a lot of young singers don't quite appreciate is that recording, much like auditioning, is a skill that improves every time you do it. It may all be singing at its core, but we all know that singing in a room on our own, or with our teacher, is different than singing on stage, or in a rehearsal room, or in front of an audition panel. The appearance of a microphone (or 3) and cameras is a set of circumstances that I don't think many (if any) of us have been prepared for over the course of our singing studies. They can be intimidating for a whole host of reasons, but the first and foremost for a lot of us starting out in the profession, is the sheer novelty. Plus there's a guy in headphones operating all this high-tech gear! It takes some getting used to, and you have to trust me - that's ok. If you find it hard, you're not alone, and it gets easier each time you do it. It also helps if you have a clear idea as to why you're putting yourself through the financial and mental burden of putting yourself down on tape (or at least digital file).

Why are you recording? On the surface - because it has become expected of singers to have a demo reel, or at least some audio tracks that show what they sound like. Agents will insist on their singers getting professional-quality recordings made so that they can refer companies to them. Singers without agents may find that to apply for certain programmes, or even to get auditions for agents/companies, they will be asked to send in a recording. That's the prosaic reason we singers spend money we don't have on recordings which will be out of date within a year. A good recording will work for you. I got signed to an agent off the strength of my simple demo reel, I know people who have gotten work straight out of a simple video of them singing an aria. It is now the norm, everyone's doing them.

However, if your only reply to 'why are you recording' is the above, then depending on your experience, you may be setting yourself up for a disappointment. Peer pressure isn't the best motivator, and I often hear 'I hate doing this, but everyone seems to want recordings'. Yikes! Whatever happened to all that oh-so-healthy narcissism that all singers are supposed to have? It evaporates just when it might come in handy...

Being relatively inexperienced at something and feeling bullied into doing it - it's not ideal, is it? Allow me to offer some tips.

So you haven't recorded before? OK. It can be scary, but rationally it shouldn't be. Remind yourself that, unlike in an audition, you get to go again. You can sing until you deliver the best that you can (on that particular day :P ). You can cheat, splice, rest in between sections to keep the voice fresh. Everyone does it, because the fact is that listening to recordings is a harsher way of judging singers, because the baseline for that judgement is set by commercial CDs, where the great singers did in fact cheat (certainly from the 80s onwards). So do yourself a favour and don't be harsh on yourself for not being perfect. No one ever has been, so why should you?

Get used to recordings. If it's your first time, get some mates together and record one or two arias each, the one(s) you know best, the one(s) you can sing the socks off if woken up in the middle of the night. The things you enjoy singing, because joy translates to tape in a way that technique doesn't. Your pieces don't have to be difficult, they just need to show your voice. If the powers that be want to hear you sing difficult stuff, they'll ask you for it when they offer you that audition. For now, your recording only needs to say 'hi, this is what I sound like', not 'look at what I can do'. Fireworks are better live, and that goes for the vocal kind as well.

Record stuff you love singing, find a reason to record it. Believe that you're recording something in a way that it's never been sung before. After all, it's true - no one has heard a recording of your voice singing it! But also, put as much of a stamp on it as you dare. Annoyed that everyone breathes in a place that makes no musical sense? Show the world the way. Do you feel a phrase needs more time or stretch than anyone ever gives it? Or the opposite, you just wish it was simple and respectful of the composer's wishes, rather than self-indulgent? Get it on record and put it online! Be the change you want to hear ;) That's a great reason to want to record.

Or, stripped of the higher purpose, if it's just about doing what's expected, then make it easy for yourself. Forget it's a recording, just audition. Say you don't want the fancy cheating mumbo-jumbo, just to show what you are like without the bells and whistles, but with good quality. Sing each thing twice and leave it at that, pick the better take (it's what I ended up doing myself last time). It'll be imperfect - but in a good way. You'll tick the box and not go crazy doing so.

Always remember, the only thing you can ever achieve in a recording session is your best on the day. It may be 60% of your full best, and that's fine. Let it be fine. Then do it again when you can afford to, it'll be better. You'll be more used to the process, you'll have had some lessons in the meantime. Re-record the same repertoire, why not? And harness some of that narcissism that you pretend isn't there, but that actually got you where you are. Enjoy the fact that you sound better than last time, enjoy the time you get to spend on an aria to nail it as best you can... on the day ;) Joy of singing looks good on video, and it sounds good too. So don't deny the guy in headphones (or the internet) your joy and everything else you have to offer. And don't beat yourself up if it's not the best you've ever sung. Better a joyous 70% than a technique-fest of self-doubt that'll only get you up to 72% if you're lucky.

And just to end on a downer (not really, I hope) - the fact that you've recorded something doesn't mean you have to share it with others. I've made some demos myself that I never ended up using, but they were worth it as part of the learning curve. Pricey, sure, but not a waste.

Never believe that anything you do is a waste, it all feeds into the next great thing.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Are we a doomed generation of singers?

The other day I had 3 conversations with different people (an agent, an older colleague and one of my vocal peers) and in each of these chats I heard 'there just isn't enough work to go round'. It looks like it's pretty much official - times are hard.

As far as I can see there are two main reasons for this. Cuts to arts spending have meant that smaller opera companies aren't getting enough funding to pay performers properly, hence the rising number of profit-share projects, while larger companies have over the past few years capped their fees. This means that there now isn't a great deal of difference money-wise between working at the big six opera companies and at smaller outfits (Summer festivals or touring companies). In some ways it's a good thing - the country's top singers can be heard singing for smaller companies, thus evening out the standard of singing/performing across the board. However, with quite a few medium-sized and small/touring outfits dealing with their own funding cuts, there is less opera being put on, and young singers looking to make their mark and get seen on stage are competing in auditions with established pros, YAP alumni, singers who already have good reputations in the business.

You can't blame companies for going for a known quality, someone whom they've seen deliver the goods. There aren't many risk-taking casting people out there, although that's a misnomer, because if someone in casting knows their stuff, there shouldn't be much risk involved. The average standard of singing amongst conservatoire graduates is quite high and remarkably even, and often the only thing that sets the 'A-list' singers above them in a company's eyes is the reputation I mentioned, plus maybe a competition or YAP on their CV. My bold theory is that you could find any number of singers up to the task of matching anyone who gets cast in the UK these days. That's how many good singers there are out there, and yet remarkably few are breaking through, because there are fewer jobs, and everyone is competing for those that are left, rather than there being an entry-level tier and an established-pro tier of employment opportunities.

As the number of available jobs has been declining, the intake into music colleges has been rising at a pretty staggering pace. Now, you may think that's a pretty daft state of affairs, and you'd be right, but there are reasons for this. Colleges need students to make money, and when they started offering more places, there were still relatively plenty of opportunities out there, although a keen observer would have already felt that 'winter was coming'. For a while it sort of worked. Now though, we are seeing hordes* of hungry young singers flooding the market, filling the Summer festival choruses and raising their standard to a level that used to be reserved exclusively for the likes of Glyndebourne or full-time opera choruses. Depending on the amount of rehearsal, these being scratch ensembles, the musical side of things doesn't always equal the aforementioned big players, though it certainly can on occasion, but the raw noise that the chorus masters around the country get to play with is astonishingly good. Young, technically solid singers, hungry for work, eager to please. However, most of these singers have set themselves a time-limit on how long they will be content to sing in choruses, and all the time they are looking for that small role or big break, auditioning, trying to get a foot in the door... and competing for these opportunities against guys they've already read about in 'Opera', or people 5-10 years their senior who walk into the audition knowing everyone on the panel. No wonder quite a few of my peers are taking breaks or quitting outright. How long can you bash your head against a wall for? Or try to get a foot in the door to a pretty crowded room...

Too many singers, not enough jobs. Tough times. Is there any hope on the horizon? Well, Germany recently increased its arts expenditure by 5%, the first EU country to do so since the financial crash. Will the UK follow this example? Maybe in the name of making Britain Great again, post-referendum? Well, one can hope, but to be honest it's not looking good. There seems to be very little political pride in high culture at the moment, and the arts aren't even on the list of issues being addressed by the government or the opposition at the moment. No one seems to care.

So in light of all this doom and gloom (see what I did there?), what keeps me going? Why am I standing facing this wall with a manic 'have at you' glint in my eyes? Well, for one thing I'm not in it for the money. None of us are. We're driven by a need to sing, to challenge ourselves, to push our voices to the limits of what they can do and then exceed those limits. Opera singing should be an olympic event! We singers have that same drive that pushes athletes to keep assaulting that personal best. But that's the ego of what we do, it's why I sing for my own benefit. But there's another benefit, the people we sing to.

I'll leave you with this story: I was recently in the mountains around Zawoja in Poland, doing a bit of hiking and spending the night in a house that belongs to an old hippy, where everyone is welcome and it's a place to share music, a love of nature and ideas. Myself and a guy I'd just met were at the stereo, each trying to convince the other that their taste in music had virtue. He was explaining electro-trance to me, I was responding with folk rock and heavy metal. It was almost midnight. Suddenly the door opens, and a guy walks in from the cold night, and asks what we're doing. We say we're discussing music, to which he says 'excellent, I've brought an opera'. Well, the guy I was having my deep meaningful analysis of the intricacies of EDM and distorted guitar tone had never seen an opera. Neither had my friend who was there with us. But the new visitor insisted, especially once he found out what I do for a living. We ended up watching a DVD of 'La traviata' from Salzburg with Netrebko and Villazon, in Italian (of course) with German subtitles, so it was my job to explain every scene in Polish. A narrated screening of Verdi. We got to the end around 3am and I turned to Mr Electro-psychodellic-trance and asked 'did you like it'. He responded with 'I'm sorry, I can't speak... too much emotion', tears in his eyes. That's why we do opera, no matter how tough the times.


* What is the collective noun for singers? 

Monday, 11 July 2016

The pitfalls of music college

I had a rehearsal today and this is the conversation I had with the pianist afterwards:
- Really great line you've got going...
- Thanks, it's what I never managed to learn in music college.
- Yeah, it's because in colleges, when they teach people who can't sing properly, they teach them to micro-manage little things to be able to sing rep, rather than teach them to, you know...
- Sing properly?
That's harsh, I know, but having been out for a few years now I hear things like this a lot. I swap notes on teachers with my colleagues and many of them, having been prodigies in college and without a doubt formidable singers, seek out teachers who proceed to strip them down to basics and build them back up.

I was going to call this post 'Is music college worth it?', but ultimately decided against it. The truth is that going to music college is still the best way to get into the profession. It gives you something instantly recognisable on your CV, equips you with a set of contacts that you'd have to work incredibly long and hard to meet outside of that environment, and it immerses you in a blend of music-making and politics that will at some point probably beat some of the desire to sing out of you, or make you reassess the feasibility of your dream. All good things. If you survive college and still want to sing, you're doing well ;) It's not all bad, you'll make friends for life and the music will never fully leave you even if you decide on a different path. But is college the best place to learn to sing? Hmmm. Let's examine some of the pitfalls.

First off, if you don't have contacts at a college already, you will have little to no say in the matter of who will teach you. You will be assigned to someone, which is where luck comes in. Let's get this out in the open - I think there are more bad teachers out there than there are good ones. I also find that most people in the business either agree with me or go even further and say that truly good teachers are very hard to find. So if you are randomly assigned one, what do you reckon the chances of you being in the best hands are? Now, a distinction needs to be made between a bad teacher and a harmful one. Under a bad one, you'll simply progress more slowly, or not at all, or deceptively quickly but based on (or with a heap of) bad habits. With a harmful one, you will damage your instrument. You can, of course, change teachers, but it's a drawn out process at most colleges, and you'll have already wasted a lot of time and money before you realise a change is needed.

Money. College is expensive. Even with funding, it's ridiculous. Have a look at the fees and the amount of tuition you get. £9000/year gets you 30 singing lessons a year, plus other group activities like language, musicianship, and stagecraft classes. The going London rate for singing lessons is £70. Those 30 lessons will cost you £2100, leaving you with almost 7 grand to spend on coachings and language classes. Sure, you won't have access to a building to practice in, and you'll need to join a good music library too, plus you will have to think of a way to get some stage experience, but potentially you could get a lot more individual tuition outside college, and you'd be in complete control of the quality of said tuition. It can be done, and I know people who've done it, usually having already gained a degree in something other than singing. Actually, everyone upon leaving college does it, or should be doing it, because rest assured - we never stop learning (one way or another), and those who do quickly degenerate into poor singers.

There is one thing that college does reasonably well, though the means it employs aren't always the best - it's a good motivator. A course sets you goals and (regardless of how friendly and nurturing an atmosphere the institution strives for) puts you in competition with your peers. That is something that is difficult to match without a great deal of self-discipline. It's so nice to shift the responsibility for our own growth at least partly onto college, so we can then relax and do some studenty fun things, safe in the knowledge that if we don't actively fuck up, we are in the hands of a system that will keep us on an upward trajectory. It's safe. It is however not optimal in many ways, only one of which I'll now get into, before I bore you to death.

These goals that college sets are enforced by assessments. You will be judged according to a prescribed pace, on prescribed repertoire. You will be told what to sing, not only by your teacher and coaches, but also your department. Once you get far enough, you will be cast in roles, and not all of these will be appropriate for you at the time. Some people get lucky and only do suitable roles, others become the departmental work-horse (because they're dependable and have flexible voices) and do whatever roles happen to be needed to let some of the college stars shine. You may get lucky, but it is practically out of your hand. This is where my friend's observation holds true. In the whirl of college life, you will often find yourself working so hard and having so much to sing, that you will spend most of your time learning to sing the music in front of you, rather than learning to sing, period. And you will be doing it to deadlines, so you may end up doing it hurriedly, ergo sloppily. Your voice will cope, you'll still be young and strong in that youth, you will hopefully improve by being challenged and rising to those challenges, and you will be noticed for your successes. But be careful of the first signs of that youthful strength, stamina and flexibility beginning to fade. You may realise that you haven't been laying the best foundations for the superior strength, stamina and agility that is afforded by technique and experience, to take over.

There is no best way to learn to be a singer (after all, it's not just about the singing itself), there is only ever your way. Most mistakes and bad habits can be undone and fixed, and every experience you have (bad or good) will feed into the artist you become. But if you take nothing else from this text, do take a sense of responsibility for your own development. If you're unhappy in college, be brave enough to find another way. If you feel superbly comfortable in the conservatoire environment, take a step back and look at it critically, just to see if you aren't letting something slide.