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

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 out there, 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.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Tao of Singing

If I ever write a book on singing, that's what I'll call it*. And it won't really be about singing. I've never really found books on singing to be all that helpful. Jerome Hynes' 'The Four Voices of Man' gave me a few interesting ideas to explore with my teacher, but the others I've tried reading didn't really fire up my imagination or inspire me all that much. I'm currently working my way through 'We Sang Better' by James Anderson, where I found this line:
'It would seem that some philosophical mastery of self is developed when learning to sing well'

And indeed, the book emphasises the need for ease, patience, adhering to nature, not taking shortcuts, not manufacturing sound, etc. All things which are actually quite hard to achieve in the conservatoire-freelance model of singing 'career', where no one really has time to sit down and think about bringing about any kind of mastery of self. We work hard to achieve incremental goals, like assessment marks or successful auditions, and in order to do so we need to sound like opera singers pretty much from our late teens and early twenties. According to James Anderson, such a singing culture would have given 'the greats' of 1800-1960 cause for deep despair. And indeed, to those who don't quite fit the mould, who fall by the wayside on the conservatoire-YAP-stardom trail, it is all too easy to succumb to bouts of self-doubt and deeply sad frustration. In a world where singers are effectively mass-produced, we have become an expendable commodity, not without some worth, but easily replaceable nonetheless. If you see yourself as one of many, it's hard to find, cultivate and retain that spark which makes you unique. It's much easier to try and imitate those who have gone before, but imitate only that which is on the surface - their education and career choices, or the sound they make. It's harder to get to the core of what set the successful ones apart, be it dumb luck, or a unique brilliance which isn't actually a product of the singer-assembly-line, but something they've held onto despite that one-size-fits-all schooling.

So how does one take a step back from the operatic rat-race and find a zone where along with singing technique comes a philosophical mastery of self? Perhaps we've gone so far the wrong way, that we need to turn that idea on its head and say that to learn to sing well requires some philosophical mastery of self. After all, we are not machines, and even if we were, machines sometimes inexplicably need to be reset - switched off and on again. Our personal philosophy (and everyone has one, though few bother to try and articulate it) is like our Operating System, and as artists we really need a robust and bug-free OS. Something simple that doesn't clutter our minds, but only focusses on thoughts and ideas that actually work. Ideas that bring calm and optimism, even if they seem naive. 

If I were to write 'The Tao of Singing' it would be the singer's 'Little Book of Calm' (I recommend watching the relevant episode of Black Books). Debunking a few myths that have us 21st century singers tied up in knots, offering a more individual look at professional development and self-assessment, counselling patience and a look to the long game (the goal should be to be the last singer standing at 65, not the first one on the big stage at 25), pointing out the joy that can be found in singing at any level (which we so often forget to acknowledge or don't allow ourselves to experience), maybe even offering some reductive ideas about singing technique (I don't think it's as complicated as some of us make it out to be)... In my head it's a good book. 

Unfortunately it doesn't exist yet. It may never come to be. There is however a book out there that can be a balm for anyone who read the above and thought 'I need some of that in my life'. It's a book I came across in my mid teens and which I reread recently, it's short, funny, uplifting and calming. It's called 'The Tao of Pooh' by Benjamin Hoff and it explains the basic principles of Taoism through the characters from 'Winnie the Pooh'. It's a great first step to realigning ones view of the world, of the singing career, or whatever else may be confusing you. And it's a fun read. Give it a go, it may be the best book on singing you'll ever read, even though singing is never mentioned. 

Here are some quotes to support the above statement. Try reading them as though a singing teacher was saying them in a masterclass:
“The surest way to become Tense, Awkward, and Confused is to develop a mind that tries too hard - one that thinks too much.”
“Things just happen in the right way, at the right time. At least when you let them, when you work with circumstances instead of saying, 'This isn't supposed to be happening this way,' and trying harder to make it happen some other way.” 
“It means that Tao doesn't force or interfere with things, but lets them work in their own way, to produce results naturally. Then whatever needs to be done is done.” 
“Things may get a little odd at times, but they work out. You don't have to try very hard to make them work out; you just let them.” 

And my personal favourite:

“Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully.
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever."
"And he has Brain."
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has Brain."
There was a long silence.
"I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything.” 

* I have fond memories of reading and putting into practice 'The Tao of Kayaking' back when I was learning to white-water kayak. It was all about never fighting the river's current, but using it to get where you wanted to go. You can't win with Nature (though of course being an arrogant species, we often think we can), you can only work with it.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

What is it that you actually want?

Auditions. Yuck! We all hate them. Some of us are good at them, others really struggle to show their best in that horrendously artificial environment. How good you are at auditions doesn't always reflect how good you are at the job of being a singer, because it doesn't have all that much in common with the process of rehearsing and performing an opera. Auditions don't afford you the opportunity to show if you're a good colleague, conscientious worker,a collaborative artist, quick to learn blocking or incorporate notes... You can show whether or not you can sing, and to an extent whether or not you can perform to a pretend audience. But you show one or two aspects of both of these - you give one reading of each piece you sing, despite the fact that 'on the job' you'll be experimenting with many different ones in collaboration with the MD, the director, cast members, designers, etc, and being married to your one reading can be very frustrating to everyone involved. You've heard the 'this is how I sing it' horror stories about legendary divas.

We all have to live with the fact that competition is fierce and we won't get all the jobs. But I for one prefer not to get a job for a solid reason. If I'm not on form in an audition, the rejection is easier to palate. If I feel I showed my best to the panel, then a rejection without feedback stings. If I get feedback that I can relate my audition experience to, then it's ok, I wasn't the right fit, and that's fine. But there are times when you get feedback that enrages you. 'He sang it very impressively, but it was a very conservative performance'. 

I make a choice about who the character is, say in this case an aristocrat, so a poised presence, not extrovert, with subtle flashes of emotion corresponding to the words. He's so important he doesn't need to do much, he draws people in, he isn't demonstrative. He's upper class, this is not a semaphore character. The audition room isn't vast, the venue the company will be performing in is fairly intimate as well, everyone will be able to see the subtleties. I also don't want to look like an overacting prat. So that's my choice, and I took it too far for that panel on that day. Damn.

And all I can think reading that feedback is: I wish they'd stopped me and asked for more. Or had me sing it again with some notes from them. Given me a shot at doing it their way. Checked to see if I respond to feedback on the fly. Instead they hear a second aria. Should I have made a polar opposite choice and overacted that one so they would think I can also do the middle ground and all the shades in between?

I have had auditions in which the panel was more involved. I once did an audition for Jonathan Miller, where he stopped me after verse one of 'Bella siccome un'angelo' and said to pretend he was Don Pasquale. He came out from behind the desk and reacted to every line I sang. When I got to the final round of the Opera North chorus auditions it took all day and consisted of a one-to-one coaching with a member of their music staff, a lovely informal interview with their chorus manager and head of casting, and then an audition run by a director who had me stage 3 different approaches to my aria. 

Those and similar experiences are the auditions I remember fondly, regardless of whether I get the job or not, because I feel that the panel have actually met me and had a proper taste of what I'm about. It feels fair. Walking into a strange room, singing to the dead eyes of disinterested or politely-indulgent people behind a desk, getting a 'thank you' and walking out with no idea of whether what just happened lined up with what they were looking for from the pieces I sang... Not so much.

I wish panels took more of a hands on approach. I feel they may be missing out, not only on my vast talents and superlative modesty*, but on lots of my favourite colleagues who confess to struggling in auditions, but whom I personally often rate a cut above some of the people who get the jobs, because they bring all the extra stuff to the table in the rehearsal room and on stage. And their standard of singing is just as high as that of the lucky job-getters, as are their instruments. Auditions are not the best way of casting anything, unless they're linked with previous experience of working with the singers in question and seeing them perform in real-world circumstances. But that means new faces are at a disadvantage, so to give them a chance I really think devoting 3-4 minutes of a 10min audition slot to doing a bit of a workshop on their aria would give employers a better idea of what kind of singer they're dealing with. But hey, that's just one man's opinion...

* sarcasm

Go go gadget score!

It's been a while (again, sorry) and what's more this entry will be purely functional rather than deeply philosophical. You'll have to wait until next week for something deeper, but I promise it's coming (spoiler: it'll be about auditions).

This post has been a long time coming, as I've been using my iPad for the bulk of my singing work for 5 years now. I was finally nudged to post it after being yet again asked how I get my scores onto the tablet, and why I bother.

It all started in 2011 in Banff, where I saw a tenor colleague taking his iPad into a coaching... It was an instant case of 'I want one!'. And while I do, of course, use my tablet for all the usual browsing, email, video consumption, games, etc, it has actually become my musical workhorse, to the point where I can't really remember how I used to function as a singer without it. I did function, and I probably could again, but it really has become an essential tool in my workflow. And I'll tell you why ;)

First of all, the Apple naysayers will ask why an iPad? Well, there are 2 reasons. The first is the 4:3 aspect ratio of the screen (not widescreen), which means that when you view sheet music on it, it corresponds to the dimensions of a standard sheet of paper. The second takes me into a list of all the apps I use, said list being the main reason behind this post.

Only available on iOS, this app is what I fire up 99% of the time I work on any music. It's a pdf-viewer first and foremost. You scan in music, download it from IMSLP, buy digital copies, or get pdfs any number of other ways (straight from a composer's laptop), and forScore displays them on your iPad. What sets it apart from other pdf-viewers are the various things you can now do:
- Annotate - you can write on your score! Both with the ipad keyboard and with your finger/stylus. You can scribble, draw, in any colour you like, and also highlight. You can save a version of your score with your singery notes, and then write in staging notes on another version, etc.
- Share - you can send scores from your iPad by email, either with or without your scribblings
- Listen - you can assign recordings from your music library (the Music app, including the wealth of Apple Music) to a score and listen back to them while perusing the score. You can even slow them down (while preserving pitch) and loop sections.
- Play - forScore has a built in piano instrument, so you can play an onscreen keyboard
- Record - there's also an audio recorder, so you can record lessons, rehearsals, practice sessions, and these are attached to whatever score you are performing

Avid Scorch 
Simply put, this app plays back Sibelius files as you read the score. The sounds it uses for playback are horrible and always metronomically precise, but if you're learning contemporary music and your piano chops aren't quite up to the task of giving yourself an idea of how the thing is meant to sound, Scorch comes to the rescue. You can adjust the tempo to practise and also change the volume of parts in the score. It's fiddly and certainly not perfect, but it is useful.

To answer the question of how I get scores into forScore, I always ask my employers if they happen to have access to pdf files of the music. More and more often they do, which is great news for e-musicians (or should that be iMusicians?), providing you treat these as hired scores if they're in copyright: delete them after your contract is up. If the employer doesn't have a pdf score, I will try IMSLP, which I'm sure most musicians are familiar with. Failing that, I scan in hard copy scores I already own as and when I need them, for which I use TurboScan on my phone. It lets me take photos of each page and converts them to pdf. If you take 3 photos of each page, the app cleverly focuses on different areas, so you're guaranteed a high quality scan. I did own a conventional scanner, but have found this method is actually quicker for me, and lets me send the pdfs to my iPad over AirDrop very conveniently. I scan at a rate of around 100 pages per hour, so yes, getting an entire score over to pdf is a time investment, but I've found it to be very much worth it.

I also own and sometimes use music notation apps Notion and NotateMe, the latter having a useful feature called PhotoScore, which lets you take a photo of a page of music and have the app play it back. Besides that it's always handy to have a free piano app and whatever dictaphone app your tablet/phone comes with. Spotify also deserves a mention, though it isn't compatible with forScore in the way that Apple Music is.

With all these goodies loaded onto your iPad you can be productive practically anywhere you go, as long as you have headphones and don't mind the occasional weird glance from people around you as you hum or sotto voce falsetto your way through an opera in public. If you're doing a contract where you rehearse 3-4 operas, frequently more than 1 a day, you'll save yourself some back-ache by only carrying a tablet rather than 600 pages worth of scores. You'll always have copies of your audition pieces to hand, ready to print (with or without your scribbled annotations, for which pianists will be grateful). The battery generally lasts a full day of music use with no problems (just be professional and don't play games during rehearsals) and forScore is a very stable app, I've even performed from it on occasion (though I try to avoid it just in case something did go wrong). For lessons, coachings, music learning and rehearsals the iPad can be a wonderful tool, so if you already own one, why not give it a go? And I'm pretty sure there are Android equivalents to the apps listed above just a quick google away for those who don't buy into the Apple hype ;)

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The art of hanging around

You'd think working as an opera singer involved a lot of singing, some acting, the odd dance, then champagne receptions after standing ovations, etc. In fact it mostly consists of hanging around. Come to think of it, it's astounding how much dead time there is in this job. It's not too bad if you're doing a 'small' piece like 'The Bear', involving only 3 people on stage, but the bigger the production, the less you end up being used in rehearsals (which make up the bulk of what the job actually entails). A director once told me that blocking a scene takes about ten times the length of the scene multiplied by the number of singers on stage, then doubled if it involves chorus. So a 3 minute aria can be put on its feet in half an hour (if the character is alone on stage, because otherwise you're dealing with extra bodies, moreover these belong to brains unfamiliar with an aria that isn't theirs- #singermentality). A 10-minute finale with 4 soloists and chorus though will work out to 10x4x10x2, which is over 13 hours. Call it 4 sessions (2 with just the soloists, and 2 with chorus). There is rarely this much time in a production period, which is why the larger the scene, the bigger the risk of it either becoming paint-by-numbers opera staging, or being slightly undercooked and relying on the nouse of the performers involved to basically, without the director holding their hands, do what needs to be done for it not to be crap.

So rehearsing takes a lot of time, and how much of that you'll end up actually doing something is pretty easy to work out. You divide it by the number of people on stage. Well, the chorus tends to be thought of as one mass, or a group of clumps, so the rule doesn't quite hold there, but you get the idea. And in the last Boheme I did each chorus member had their own 'track', their own character with very specific stories to play, and lots of individual onstage business. Needless to say that took a lot of time to rehearse. So in a 3-hour session you will actually be running material for 30-60 minutes. The rest will be notes. You will receive maybe 5-25 minutes worth of these. So potentially you are working for 35min, having tea for 15, and just standing there while others work for over 2 hours. Best case scenario you are still not being used half the time.

OK, I confess, I made all the math up. There are no hard and fast statistics, but the fact is that we do very little a lot of the time. Mostly we have to try to stay out of the way, which is a skill. Standing around is draining, your focus wanders, chatter starts, the room starts buzzing, and over time this wears down everyones patience, most noticeably the director's or the stage manager's, who will at one point probably explode. Student productions, professional companies, it doesn't matter, it's human nature. In many ways it's unavoidable, and at times rehearsal room humour, cracking jokes in the dead time, a bit of banter or even grumbling are simply needed to maintain sanity and any sense of being an ensemble. Still, it's worth practising the art of hanging around without contributing to the din. Once you're in tech rehearsals, where everyones patience has already been worn down to the nub, you want to be as zen as possible.

What can you do? Learn how to just stand their with your own thoughts and one ear open for when something is happening that may have an impact on your 'track'. Play silent games with other people, still with one ear open. Listen to the notes being given, even if they're not for you. If you can sit down, a lot of people do knitting (I kid you not, it's very on trend among opera singers). Practise catching yourself when you are getting a tad loud. Pick your battles, learn to read a room for how much defocusing you can get away with (purists may say 'none', but life tends to disagree). Learn who not to stand next to - either because they annoy you (which is draining), or because you get on too well and tend to default to banter (save that up for the pub or for when it's absolutely vital for maintaining sanity).

Then there are the smartphones. They are everywhere. Rehearsal rooms these days are full of people hanging around hunched over the small screens. On one hand it is something I was told in college is unacceptable, unprofessional, and when I took actual directorial notes on my iPad I risked getting the evil eye... Out here in the profession, all the big role principals do it, and it trickles down to everyone else. Hell, the conductors do it, even some directors. And here comes the other hand - it actually has virtues to it. It's quiet, unobtrusive, passes the time, and if you have a pdf reading app, you can have your score on there for quick reference for those awkward first runs of whole acts where nobody remembers how long there is until the next bit (and which bit comes next anyway?). Yes, there's a whiff of not being present in the space when you're tapping and swiping the phone, and not having it on silent is just plain wrong, but if practiced in moderation is it any worse than knitting or chatting? I don't know, depends on the rehearsal room. 

In rehearsals, as in life, the best philosophy is to do whatever you need for you, as long as it doesn't get in anyone's way. Yes, being rehired is often a function of how you conduct yourself in rehearsals, but being the quiet one in the corner who obnoxiously shushes everyone isn't necessarily going to get you anywhere. It's the fun people who are needed and valued, as long as they know when it's ok to be fun.

Monday, 21 September 2015

You need someone to invest in you

I think the title of this post could have been 'Life outside college - an intermediate guide', but in the end I went for a quote from the conversation which inspired this post (it's also not really a guide). When I first left college I was amazed at how little recent graduates knew about 'the opera profession'. Now I've been out a couple of years, I've worked with quite a few people who know a lot more, but also with singers who've been out of education for years, and yet still can't seem to figure out how to actually progress in their careers. Every contract, every catch-up with my peers inevitably features the questions 'What are you up to next? How did you get that? What would you do in my place? How do people get better work?'. The older, wiser singers offer little insight, even if they give you their life stories, because they'll always say '... but it was different in my day'. Even today, in the conversation we had in the green room that prompted me to write, the words 'it's all changed a lot from when I was starting out' were uttered. They were followed by: 'in 2007'. How much can change in 8 years?

I'm not going to get into that. However the speaker was a singer I've watched for a few years now, from afar and now from almost up close (we're not actually in the same show), and he talks a lot of sense (funnily enough that's also how he described our mutual singing teacher). Today, even though no one actually asked it, he answered the question of what it takes to get ahead in singing. His answer made sense, and it gave me hope and filled me with dread at the same time. He said 'you need someone to invest in you'.

Let's assume you've left college and are reasonably adept at singing. Good voice, eager, intelligent enough to follow basic stage directions (basically know your right from your left), consistent enough at auditions to get offered work. You'll probably end up in a chorus at one point or another. You may be surprised at the fact that you're surrounded by really excellent singers. You may even think the standard of the young chorus is every bit as high as that of the principals, sometimes maybe even higher. You'll wonder why these people aren't doing roles somewhere. Congratulations, you've reached level 1 as a professional singer. You're making money, maybe even enough to make rent and afford a London cinema once a year. You're doing chorus, small roles, the odd cover, all for established companies; but you're still freelance and getting some roles under your belt with small companies. What you want is for those people who offer you the covers and bit parts to actually start considering you for bigger roles, proper supporting characters at least. Or maybe still do covers, but for the big houses.

That would be level 2. You'd be a proper soloist. You may end up earning less than those on level 1 (something I've found to be true with a few companies - the money is better if you're doing more productions within a season, so a chorister can be earning more over a season than even a lead role), but you've stepped up the prestige ladder. You're surrounded by good singers, many of whom have been around a long time. A long time... Drifting between levels 2 and 3 (principals in big houses), subject to capped fees, shorter and shorter production periods, shrinking subsistence allowances, rising prices, etc. If you can get 4 good contracts in a year you're actually doing well enough to put money aside. Life is good.

There is also level 4, those deemed stars. They actually put bums on seats. Their name on a poster makes a production viable before it even starts rehearsing. They aren't subject to capped fees (even if a house say they've capped show fees for everyone, there are hilarious ways of getting around it). But there aren't many of them out there, and becoming one is subject to even stranger rules (if any) than the regular grinding route.

How do you get from one level to another? You see people stuck on one tier for years... They have what it takes to do better, they tick all the boxes, they are often a lot better than the guys actually getting the higher-level career.

In the end you have to accept it's not about how good you are. There are so many good singers out there, it's mind-boggling. You do have to be good, but what propels you on that career path is coming across someone who sees something in you that makes them want to invest in you. Be it the casting director who recommends you for an opera studio or YAP, a conductor who invites you to do some high-profile concerts, a director who request you be put on a short-list of candidates for a role, or an agent who believes in you enough to literally do everything they can to ram you down opera companies' throats until they give you an actual shot at a role. You need an advocate, because you can't be your own. No one likes a self-advocating singer ('Oh yeah, I could so do that role' is not a line that will ingratiate you with anyone). But if someone already established says 'actually, there's this young(ish) guy/girl who could do this really well', that may be worth a lot more than a good audition.

OK, I know what's coming. How do I find that person? You don't. You keep doing what you're doing, and if you're lucky - they'll find you. If you're not... either give up or keep doing what you're doing. You never know who will take enough of an interest in you to give you that boost up. It may be your next boss, but it could also be way down the line when one of your peers ditches singing to become an agent or go into casting, or a student conductor you really got on with makes it big and happens to have fond memories of a college show you did. The horrible thing is that as freelancers we feel our career is in our hands. It really isn't, so learn to enjoy where you are now, work hard, be nice to people, be yourself (unless that makes the previous point difficult ;) ), believe you're worth investing in, and cross those fingers.