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

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.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Finding a pressure-release-valve

I've been on holiday these past couple of months, although perhaps a more appropriate term would be 'funemployment'. Such was the joy of having a contract that pretty much ruled out any Summer festival activity worth staying in the UK for, so a while back I decided to be kind to myself and allow there to be 2 months in my life that I will just not worry about.

It's only natural for freelancers to worry. We feel that if we're not working then the end is nigh! We watch our savings (no, I'm not joking, though I understand why you thought I might be ;) ) melt away, while social media is full of our peers doing exciting stuff for money (or at least either exciting stuff, or stuff for money). Or just anything to be doing something. And yes, if you let yourself worry about the fact that you're not getting anything on the old CV at the moment, then you run the risk of even being jealous of people you know are in unrewarding shows for offensively low fees.

To be honest, I didn't know how I'd cope with this holiday. I'm a thinker and a worrier, plus I'm just coming out of my adventure with moderate clinical depression, so it could have gone either way. But today I'm here to tell you that it's been amazing! To have time to myself, time to spend with friends and family, to sleep in one place for longer than 6 days (my last 2 contracts were pretty long tours). I could have decided to stick around in London and very proactively look for smaller festival work, which I've done before, and emails always come in with invitations to audition for interesting projects that go on over the Summer. I'm glad I didn't.

The time I've had now has allowed me to reflect on a few things. Firstly, on one of the last words of encouragement imparted on me by my head of department and vocal coach - 'You're the kind of singer who'll always have work'. Not 'You'll go far!' or ' You'll be on the big stages in no time', or 'You have a world-class voice'. At the time I thought: fair enough, but I want more. But what more is there? Big theatres? Massive productions?

I remember walking out to do a step-out solo in a Prom a few years back, looking out at the massive RAH audience and thinking 'yeah! this is pretty cool!' while at the same time trying to will my knees into stillness. It was cool, and was a undeniably a bigger rush than I've had doing smaller venues, but every venue still gives some sort of rush, and the Prom has since been replaced by a new highlight in my memory: over 200 school-kids singing along with ETO's Shackleton's Cat so loudly that I could't hear my colleagues or the band any more and I just thought to myself 'oh well, we'll all get back together after this number, so why not just ride this wave of enthusiasm for now'. School hall beats Royal Albert Hall.

What I'm clumsily trying to say is that good work at any level will hopefully give you a rush like this every now and again (let's be honest, it doesn't happen in every gig) and top up your drive. I firmly believe this, you just have to be open to receiving it, rather than grumbling away that you'd rather be somewhere else.

I certainly seem to be employable, and being asked back to various places has given me confidence in my employability, which takes the pressure off my freelance neuroses and makes it easier to be open to those unexpected hits of awesomeness. I've also put a considerable amount of effort and investment into finding alternative revenue streams. I've not gotten a day job, or a temp job, because I really want to spend my life either working with music or relaxing with nature. So until I figure out this singing technique malarkey to a level that will enable me to fulfil my dream of teaching (and it's a very specific dream, which doesn't revolve around taking people through their grade x exams), I've poured a lot of my energy into recording musicians. It lets me participate in the amazing work of others, to bear witness and shine a light on the progress of my returning clients. I love it, I'm good at it, and it earns me some money, all of which keeps me happy and afloat, and... Yep, takes pressure off the 'main job'.

I talk to my friends about this stuff quite often, and I've noticed that the happiest singers I know, are the ones who have something more important in their life than singing. I'm talking about the ones with babies ;) They have such a healthy and invigorating attitude to life, and it spills over into how they go about their careers. They are kinder to themselves, because they aren't doing it to cater to their own ego or lofty dreams of the Met stage, but they're doing it for the ones back home.

Not seeing any babies in the immediate future, but in awe of this healthy attitude, I've decided to fill the gaps in my life with things that may not be more important to me than singing, but are just as important and just as rewarding. And it took some 'me time' to figure out what could get me out of bed in the morning other than 'the career'.

So my advice to anyone reading this who's panicking about gaps in their diary, why not choose one of those gaps and make a pact with yourself not to worry about that particular one and see what it brings to your life... You might just find (or build) a pressure release valve that will keep you from blowing your top when the going really gets tough.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Man's worst friend

It's taken a few attempts to write this post, especially as it is the sequel to an unexpectedly viral blog I wrote some time ago... I often feel the urge to write about my ongoing struggle with depression when I have a bad day, when I find it hard to talk to people and yet feel an overwhelming need to try and make myself understood... I find writing easier, because (unlike in conversation) I don't choke up and retreat into myself. On good days I sometimes find the fact that I'm on 'happy pills' quite funny (in a surreal ironic kind of way), and it's when I was in that state of mind that I posted a photo on social media that, while lighthearted, broadcast to all my online acquaintances that I was on antidepressants.

It's not just the depression I want to talk about, but the response I've been experiencing since 'coming out' with it. For me personally, the moment when I could be open and almost casual about a problem that has by all accounts defined my life for the past year or two was a massive turning point. I proved to myself that I could, (given counselling, medication and an incredible network of friends) do my job, prepare music, participate in rehearsals and be a valuable member of 'the team' despite this (at its worst, crippling) handicap. I thought 'OK, I'm somehow managing a life, my depression will not have to be an excuse, so why hide such an important struggle and add the stress of keeping it a secret to my list of troubles'.

By the response I got from a casual mention of pills, I can say there are a lot more people who never made the choice to be vocal about their depression than I would have ever believed possible. We are everywhere. Among the struggling frustrated artists, sure (as you'd expect?), but also among those who by all accounts are at the top of their game, with secure international careers. 

I posted an inconsequential status update and received an unbelievable outpouring of support from the most tenuous of facebook contacts! It was truly overwhelming. And unexpected. Why? We are in an 'industry' that boasts an incredible concentration of sensitive souls. Depression is a surprisingly prevalent condition in the population in general. We singers face rejection on a regular basis, we often live our lives away from home for long stretches (I write this post as an expat currently doing a national tour) - making relationships and family life hard to maintain, a vast majority of us are freelance - meaning we constantly worry about how to fill the diary with paid work... 

If you're in this business chances are you know a few closet depressives yourself. They may not want (or need) to admit it to anyone, or like me they couldn't face up to it themselves for years. I just put on my bravest face, but was forever dwelling on perceived failures and shortcomings, and even if I recognised the good in my life, the successes, I felt undeserving and was convinced someone would find me out as such, and take away what little I felt I had (and what a self-fulfilling prophecy that is!). I came to believe that it's just how the world is, my lot in life. I had never considered depression, until it got so bad I could no longer function. But now I'm treating it, and there are days, even longer stretches, that I feel like I'm myself again. 

It's not about being sad, or disappointed if you fail at something, or about not being able to have fun. It's something that dwells underneath all that, eating away at you. And it comes in as many varieties as there are people, so my experience with it is just that - my personal experience.

But what has been huge help to me was that outpouring of supportive messages I mentioned, and knowing I'm not alone. Just knowing others got through it, people I know and admire, helped. So for everyone who, like me, is trying to house-train their black dog - it's been done, there are people out there who've beaten it, and we'll damn well beat it too. And if you're a singer, try to remember that you're not doing this because you happen to be good at it and need to make a living. We do it because we love it. It's just a bit too easy to lose sight of that...

Monday, 6 April 2015

How to survive recordings

I'm gearing up to write something much more profound in the near future. Readers may have noticed it's been a while, and a lot has been going on that I will want to address on here one way or another. However today I've decided to touch on something purely practical.

As well as singing, I own and operate a mobile recording setup which I use to record audio and video demos for other classical performers. I've been doing a fairly steady trade in this for a while now and would like to share some thoughts, as it's becoming an increasingly important part of singers' career management.

Recordings are no longer just a vanity project. They're becoming a pretty standard part of many application processes these days. It cuts cost for the institutions, because they don't have to arrange a venue or stewards, and also they often won't need to get all adjudicators to be free on the same day, but rather they can listen to submitted recordings at will and make shortlists that they can then discuss. It's an understandable consideration from their point of view, but it instantly makes the playing field unfair. While many of these places will say that a recording made in a practice room with a Zoom-type recorder will be fine (some even go so far as to say they prefer these), the harsh truth is that a well-engineered recording in a good venue will instantly sound better, and the subconscious impact of this is something no panel will be immune to. And that's before we even touch on editing, whereby you can record a piece multiple times and 'stitch together' something that shows the listener the best of what you can do. More on that later.

The unfairness of recordings as a screening method mostly stems from the cost. To put things bluntly - the more you can spend, the better the result will be. If you can't afford a proper recording session, you are at a disadvantage. A fully professional recording of 3 pieces can run you as much as (or even more than) £1000*. Now take into account that as a young singer you are hopefully improving at a rapid pace, that super-expensive recording will be out of date (as far as your singing chops are concerned) within 6 months. Plus if you apply to something with set pieces you'll most likely have to record again specifically for that.

For everyone who now feels doomed to fail because they can't afford the star treatment, breathe and relax. No one can. Also there is the law of diminishing returns to take into account. Stepping up from practice room to church/concert hall, from upright piano to concert grand, from Zoom to proper studio microphones/preamps/AD-converters, are big steps that will instantly transform what you hear. Editing, processing, extra microphones, better and better gear, professional recording studio spaces, all make a difference, but it won't be as staggering as the steps I mentioned earlier. So here is Jan's list of priorities when you're spending money, designed to help you only spend it on things that matter. The further down the list we go, the less impact these things will have, though if you can afford them, do go for it!

1) The pianist and rehearsal time - if you aren't a good ensemble, there's no point. If you aren't consistent in your tempi and dynamics, then editing will be a pain for the engineer, which means he'll charge you for more time.

2) The piano - uprights and baby grands need a lot of help in post-production in order to make them sound good and form any kind of musical support for your voice to float upon and shine. This will also end up costing you for the engineer's time, or you'll just end up with a plonky honky-tonk sound.

3) The space - small rooms are horrible. They can be salvaged by close-mic'ing and reverb, but it'll never sound the same as a proper hall. If you can't manage a concert hall, at least find a church with a good piano. High ceilings, non-square shapes, varied wall textures are guidelines to consider without getting into a protracted discussion about acoustics (diminishing returns, remember?). If in doubt, go big or go home. A big but boomy acoustic can be dealt with through clever microphone placement, a small room can only be smothered in processing.

4) The gear - Zooms are fine if used well. I started out using Zooms, but have been reinvesting all my earnings into better equipment, because it makes a huge difference to me as an engineer. The sound you get from a portable recorder will be ok for most people and if that's all you've got, go for it. Just learn how to use your recorder, experiment with placements, listen back to test recordings before you start laying down your demo. It'll be fine. A pro setup will be much, much better. It'll have depth, no hiss in the background, it'll sound spacier, richer, crisper, it'll have more dynamic range... And in the hands of an engineer it'll require less processing. When I used Zooms I felt compelled to tinker with the sound to make it sound better. Now I have better gear, I spend less time tinkering, and end up charging for less time, while getting infinitely better results.

5) Someone who knows how to use the gear - Even if you're not going to do much editing and post-production, having an engineer for the recording session is a worthwhile investment. Most often points 4 and 5 go hand in hand, because engineers bring with them some good equipment. Having them there means that the only thing you're thinking about is the music and your performance. They deal with the technical stuff that is otherwise a distraction. Their job is to make you sound as good on the recording as you do in real life. If they're musicians as well, they can be an invaluable extra pair of ears to give you feedback and suggest what needs going over again, and what doesn't even if you were unsure about it.

6) Time - recording is knackering. Give yourself time to rest between pieces, and ideally between takes. Microphones have a way of picking up tiredness in the voice that audiences, coaches and panels rarely do. It must be something in the way we listen to recordings and what we've come to expect of them from what we get in commercial CDs. Also, if you can, plan your recordings well in advance of your deadlines, in case you get ill or aren't on form. That way if you have to cancel, or only get 2 good pieces rather than the 3 you need because you tire yourself out, you have time to give it another go. Bluntness time again - in one session (1.5-2h) you can get a maximum of 3 pieces done, I've had people try for more and bin the extra ones, and even out of those 3 more than half the time you'll hear which one was recorded third. The more time you have, the more you can rest. Calmness is key when recording.

7) Editing - if you've not skimped on the above, editing can be considered a luxury. It is a worthwhile luxury, don't get me wrong! Just bear in mind that if you did try to save money on the wrong things, then post-production will be a necessity rather than a bonus. If you've got all the right building blocks in place though, you can decide how little or much editing you'd like to do and run the recording session accordingly, saving the engineer's time and your own money.

The editing jigsaw

Now, whether or not we agree with editing has for the most part become redundant - everyone does it, and when done well, no one can tell. Taking the high road, while morally superior for some, equates to shooting yourself in the foot in terms of competition. Unless you're submitting a clearly unedited video recording no one will know or care. There is all sorts of magic that can be done, including substituting a single key note. Just try to be as consistent as you can in tempi. A metronome can be invaluable in this.

Here are some approaches to the recording session that will impact the way a piece is edited:

1) Recording whole takes in the hope of getting a keeper. Always try to get at least 2 down of each piece, in case something does need a bit of help, otherwise you'll be stuck with what you lay down. The pros are that if you're the kind of person who isn't precious about every little thing (or you're a super-consistent performer), whole takes save you time and money. Having 2 or 3 means you can splice the best sections of each, or even just pick the best 'top note' if you feel like it. You have options if necessary, but you're ideally going for an honest product. The con is that you will have to pace yourself throughout the piece, as in an audition, making sure you'll have enough steam to get through. It's honest, but not very exciting when in a recorded context.

2) Recording in sections. This ensures you sing each section fresh-voiced and with full engagement and energy. You just have to be careful to bear in mind the overarching musical story, but it means you can really go for those dynamics, diction, and even slightly vocally dubious effects that can be very exciting, because you can rest up in between sections. My favourite workflow based on this approach is to record a full performance, then go back and work through the piece, stopping when something can be done better and going back to get it as good as it can be, all the time taking breather-breaks.

3) Recording and listening. This takes time, but is how it's done in professional studios. Lay down the track, listen to it, make notes of what could be better, re-record offending sections or even the whole thing again, listen back, rinse and repeat until everyone is happy. It's time-consuming and expensive, but you have constant control over what you're recording and what will make it into the final product.

I try to involve my clients in the editing process insofar as I send them draft versions and ask for feedback, making sure I get the sound they want and they're happy with my choices from various takes. You know, customer satisfaction and contact is the key to repeat business ;) It does slow things down though, so when you're booking recordings and you want to have input in how they're edited, leave some time for it, otherwise you may have to trust the engineer if you want to have any hope of making the deadline ;)

I've been talking about audio all this time. Video either simplifies things because you need a 'perfect' unedited take, or it complicates things if you want to edit - you'll need at least 2 cameras to be able to switch between angles at edit points, and even then there's no guarantee it will be possible to do it subtly enough to not be noticed. Go for perfection if you can, which means really nail your prep (rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal!). Or be prepared to spend money...

* I do NOT charge that much ;) I'm a singer who also engineers recordings. I do it for some extra cash, yes, although as I've said, I'm still reinvesting all I earn until I have exactly the gear I want. But I also do it because I love voices, I love the challenge of it, and I love helping get the best out of people, both in terms of vocal sound, but also performance and interpretation. The microphone often has a debilitating effect on performers, but once you get over that (which I try to help with by creating a calm atmosphere) it gives wonderful creative possibilities that you don't always have when performing to an audience. Increasingly I try to coax singers to take advantage of this. And as a singer myself, I know we're all working to a budget, trying to get the best we can for what little we earn, even if in an ideal world we'd like to record a studio demo every 6 months just so they are in line with our technical progress... So with all that in mind I'm definitely not out to break anyone's bank.

Sunday, 21 December 2014


With Christmas approaching I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the bizarre social life we singers seem to lead. As I'm home in Poland at the moment, and in the rare position of being here for more than a week, I'm looking forward to catching up with all my non-singer friends. Having moved to the UK to sing, I suppose I'm subject to the realities of singer life more than most, as almost everyone I have met in my 5 years in Britain is from 'the industry'.

So what are these realities? Well, for one thing you meet people either in college (or some other long-term educational course) or in productions. Music colleges tend to be quite highly strung environments, even though the order of the day is to pretend that's not the case. But we're artists being judged on a daily basis, and even if it's all done with the intention of helping us grow (or forcing us to), we will take it all quite personally. So your college colleagues will either be the ones that support you, undermine you, or just steer pretty much clear of you. Obviously the only ones worth hanging out with are the former, and while you still have a choice, just leave the rest to do their thing. The bond of college experiences faced and tackled together is usually one that lasts, and given a bit of effort can make for a lasting friendship. I'll come back to the effort part later on. The key thing for me about college was that (while I like to think I got on with most people) you can choose who you spend your time with. Call them cliques, or groups of well-meaning like-minded people, they are an inevitable fixture of a highly-strung environment full of neurotic arty-types. Just go with it and try not to take it personally is my one bit of advice if you're at music college, want to be friends with everyone, but are finding it a bit difficult.

Once you're out, the game changes a fair bit. At the start of your career you meet many new people. You meet them in rehearsals, and everyone is there to put on a show. You soon figure out that as you're all in it together, for hours on end in one room, there's not much scope for picking and choosing. You have to get on with everyone. Luckily, you are united by a common goal (the show), and perhaps even more so by common enemies. There is always adversity in any rehearsal process and nothing binds people together more effectively than being able to complain about what bothers us. It could be anything: a clueless director, overbearing conductor, impossible set, tricky music, boiling hot costume, poor coffee... Whatever it is, you all bond over it and quickly become a company, once you get past what Chris Gillett calls the dog-like bum-sniffing and posturing phase of the first few days (if you want an insight into what the life of a singer is really like, read 'Who's my Bottom'), and the unifying glue of adversity manifests itself.

The thing about 'friendships' forged in the face of adversity though (or forged through making something truly special, that also happens), is that once the show is over, you find yourself with little to talk about. To most people you say 'hope to work with you again soon' (in many cases you do actually mean it) but know that you won't be seeing them in a pub any time soon unless it's by chance. If you're fresh-faced and a bit naive, you'll say 'let's make sure to stay in touch', but I've found that most times, you just don't. Sorry. I have very many friends/colleagues who I love to work with, they're great fun to be around in rehearsals or in show runs, we regularly go to the pub while we work together, sometimes cinema trips and BBQs happen, I even trust them with bits of personal drama I may be going through... But the moment the last night afterparty is over, that's it. Until next time...

Sometimes you do stay in touch. It's hard to predict, most times it's with people you can have non-singery conversations, but that's not always enough. Friendship takes effort. In many ways it takes more effort than a romantic relationship, which of course needs nurturing, understanding, empathy, etc; but becomes a regular part of your life, one which you work at every day, hopefully growing closer and closer to that one person who can stand to listen to you retelling rehearsal stories that are only funny if you were there, or will be there to silently hug you when you've just got another rejection, or will understand when all you want to do is stick a soap on and order takeaway... Friendship on the other hand doesn't usually have the benefit of daily contact (once you're outside college), so it takes thought, willingness and sometimes a kick up the bum to just get on with it and meet up.

But here's what non-singers rarely understand. Even with all the best intentions in the world, if I'm rehearsing a show for 7 hours a day, I'm most often thinking about it almost 24/7. I sometimes carve out a bit of my weekend to catch up on admin (a horror that deserves its own blog post), but if I then go on to attend a social function, I'll have to use up valuable energy reserves to steer my mind away from the show I'm working on, or the catatonic state it wants to be in to regenerate, and force it to deal with conversation. And I would never call myself an antisocial kind of person, it's just that 'the job' takes over and one wants to be selfish with ones time...

Maybe it's a skill I need to develop. I'm getting better at admin (not constantly feeling I need to reply to everything ASAP), I worry less than I used to about things I can't control... And whenever I'm not in show mode I do try to catch up with my friends. Because without them, in the absence of a show, my life would be pretty empty. It's often said that the life of a singer is a lonely one. Certainly empty hotel rooms, solitary dressing rooms, or those moments you realise you're in a roomful of people you can't talk to about something really important to you; they are lonely. But most of the time you're actually being a singer you're having fun, laughing, joking, solving problems as a team, etc. It seems far from lonely. But I look at all the older, wiser singers who disappear the moment the stage manager releases us, because they have a home life (complete with friends) that they've figured out how to save their energy for, that regenerates them so much better than the pints some of us are heading out to get, or the mindless TV others of us are going to watch in order to clear our heads... I hope I figure out how they do it, because while I love my job, and I love my colleagues, I do find myself constantly apologising to my friends for neglecting them (and as many of my friends are singers themselves, they neglect me right back, with the same heartfelt and honest apologies).

And I find myself missing some kind of community and the permanence that comes with it. Because when I'm not being a singer (which I urge all singers to try), when there is no show, that's when it gets lonely. At least I'm lucky and I get to be home with my family, and see some of my oldest friends, have pointless conversations, sing old songs around a fire, and be part of what I left back here: community. And I take comfort in thinking about all those slightly older, but so much wiser singers who managed to figure out a healthy balance between the joy of being a singer and the happiness of having a life outside singing. There's hope for me yet ;)

Friday, 31 October 2014

A survivor's guide to touring

I  wish this post's title didn't feel quite as literal as it does to me at the moment, as probably the defining memory of this tour (MWO Carmen) for me will be the collision we had on our way back for  one of the shows... But as everyone keeps telling me - these things happen, and I will try my best not to dwell on it in the following paragraphs, though it does stay with you. But it also makes you thankful for everything you have, which is ultimately a good thing.

So touring... It's a funny old thing. With the structure of this particular tour, we spend most of our time either driving or hanging around. Various company members have differing approaches to staying over after/before shows, but however you do it, it's very tiring. It's a kind of tiredness I'd not experienced before - it's not crippling, but it never leaves you, no matter how many days off you have. Maybe it's my body conserving energy for when I need it, which is my 5 minutes of glory on stage as Moralès and then all the ensemble scenes where 8 of us try to generate the impact of a full-sized chorus. But for the hour or so I spend on stage performing there are 3 hours hanging around and about 6 hours of driving to deal with.

In many ways these extra hours become the meat of life on tour. And you spend all this time with your cohort, sharing dressing rooms, cars, green rooms, hotels, cottages, etc. This is where I have to say that I have lucked out massively. I don't think I've ever worked with a better group of people. We have fun both off stage and on, with running in-jokes galore which do occasionally spill into the performances, which I think is great, because it keeps us on our toes and prevents the show from becoming stale (with a tour of this length it is a real concern). If you ever see me in person, do ask about that time with the rubber chicken ;)

But it doesn't take much imagination to envisage what it could be like if the company wasn't as like-minded and easy-going as we are. With no personal space, there would be nowhere to get away. It could end up being quite a trying time... But like I said, we lucked out.

So as this is supposed to be a 'guide', I suppose my first bit of advice would be - surround yourself with good colleagues... OK, so that's impossible, because we have no control over who we get cast alongside. I guess I could modify the advice to - be the best colleague you can be. It can be tempting to let yourself be a bit down and moan when you're tired, but it's infectious and in the long run unnecessary. If it has to be done, do it in private, or temper it with something positive. After all, you may be touring some of the country's smallest and most dilapidated venues in the worst weather in living memory, but it could always be worse - you could be stuck in an office. Face it - you're living many people's dream! Be thankful and smile.

Always bring your chargers. Running out of battery is no fun, especially as getting your head down over your small screen (or a book) may be the only approximation of personal space you're going to get, as well as being your line of communication with the outside world (which, despite the feeling that there is nothing outside the tour, is still spinning merrily).

Be kind to yourself on the days off. As tempting as it may be to try and 'get on with your life - do your admin, line up auditions, do said auditions, schedule lessons and coachings, or do teaching; it'll add to the tiredness, so pace yourself and accept that you deserve a half-day in bed with Netflix from time to time.

Book your accommodation in good time, as cheap rooms can be tough to find on short notice.

You may think touring is a good opportunity to do some sight-seeing and get to know the country. Hmmm... It's not worked out that way for me. If we have enough time for a walk, it's normally only as far as the nearest decent coffee or the shops. It may just be the way my mind works, but again it's that thing of conserving your energy for when you need it - the stage and the driving. That being said, driving around the UK in nice weather has been a joy, especially away from motorways - it really is a beautiful country.

There are some gadgets I've found come in handy, with the winner being a Bodum travel mug with built in cafetière. Freshly brewed coffee that stays warm for the entire drive back is a wonderful thing. That and a Pratchett audiobook.

So touring... Try it if you can. It's an experience.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Singing made me unhappy

So I’ve been out of full-time education for over a year now, Opera Works is a thing of the past too, and I’ve come to a realisation. For the past 3 years or so singing was making me unhappy. It had turned into a mind-game where I was trying to please everyone (my teachers, coaches, audition panels, employers, head of department, conductors, directors, etc) but getting very little return in terms of my own joy. I kept having to convince myself I was on my way to a better future, to a career as a working singer, I was paying my dues and that it was a necessary phase that would pass… But it just became the way I was. 

I would overthink everything, which wasn’t helped by all the lectures and Q&A sessions on my various courses that sold the line ‘if you do X you will be employable’. Sing this repertoire (even if you hate it, suck it up), wear this, walk like that, stand just so, shake hands with the panel (or actually never do!), do these ornaments, vibrate on every note, suck up to so and so… Follow the magical unwritten (but oft spoken of) rules and then everyone will want you. Except they don’t. All you see is people ‘doing it all wrong’ and getting what you have been striving for. To someone like me, who likes rules and patterns that order the world somehow, not being able to understand how success is achieved was frustrating and depressing. And it infected everything I love about my ‘job’. I didn’t even notice it happening (there were enough good things in my life apart from singing to keep me happy), but various recent events and circumstances have given me a ‘forced opportunity’ to assess and reevaluate my attitude as regards singing. 

The tipping point was the decision whether or not to apply to the NOS. A long time goal of mine, I have unsuccessfully auditioned for the programme twice, but also had the opportunity to closely observe friends get in and do the programme, as well as speak to alumni. I know what the programme is, how it works, what it does to and for people. I recently went in for a consultation (honestly - to assess my chances of getting in this time) and the penny dropped. I would hate this! I’ve only just gotten out of institutionalised training and started to rediscover the joy of singing for no one but myself (well, and my employers and audiences, but you know what I mean), found a really good teacher and embarked on a path of progress that is only measured against my own criteria, not anyone else’s. And here I was subjecting myself to judgement and hanging my hopes on the opinions of people who I don’t necessarily agree with half the time. That’s not to say that they’re wrong and I have a monopoly on truth, in fact they are right, but so am I. There is no one way to make it in this profession, nor is there one gospel of singing technique (even if there were only one ‘right’ way to sing, there are infinitely many ways of talking about it and assessing it). 

The half hour I spent in the studio that day was probably the most important experience in my singing life. I got positive feedback and some notes on what to improve (that I agree with wholeheartedly and am working on), but also a lot of opinion dressed up as fact, which is the way with schools and is to be expected. But I’ve been in school a very long time, and it made me unhappy when I finished my first degree, and again for the past 2-3 years… I don’t want it any more, I don’t want to go back to school*. I want to channel Sinatra and do it my way. 

Because what has taken me back from the brink of packing it in was the realisation that there is only one thing that really matters, one recipe for success, and also one goal that motivates me in a positive way because it’s mine, judged by me, and not geared towards pleasing anyone but me - get better at singing. For an over analytical thinker like me everything else is a distraction. Rep choices don’t solve vocal problems, they can only hide them. Audition wear doesn’t get you hired, and as important as first impressions are, 'self-conscious' is not the one you want to give. So to hell with the ‘rules’, just do the one thing no one will argue with or have contradictory opinions about - get better at singing. And don’t do it for your teacher, coach, or the panel. Do it for yourself, otherwise you’ll slowly go insane and be unhappy. 

Since I made this my one rule I’ve had more success in auditions, am enjoying performing again, am able to stand up for myself in situations I would have normally stayed quiet… And I’m happy. Also, I’m hopefully getting better at singing. 

* Not that there is anything wrong with NOS, colleges, or any of the courses out there. They provide fantastic training and I owe everything I am to the courses I’ve done. But they’re not for everyone, and doing them forever doesn’t mean you keep improving, so there has to be a time when you take the step into the real world… Not that singing has anything to do with the actual real world, but that’s a rant for another day.