One of my favorite things about social media is connecting with singers from around the world. A number of singers I hear from have trouble reaching that next level in their career and need some perspective. Everyone has their own specific career goals and tries to take the necessary steps to reach those goals, but sometimes we don’t know where that next step lies and what might be stopping us from getting there.
From the outside, it may look like my talent allowed me to stride through my career like a hot knife through butter, but that’s definitely not the case. It’s easy to see the final product of a performer and not the long list of failures, sacrifices, and hardships that go along with it.
So, no matter what level you may be at, here are some things that may be getting in your way and some lessons I had to learn while navigating this difficult career.
Lesson #1: Be Afraid Of NOT Trying
The defining moments of my career are not the big flashy debuts or awards I’ve won—they happened when I put myself out there when the odds were stacked against me.
Like when I competed for a scholarship in high school and won $1,000 towards my first year of college. This was vital to me because I couldn’t afford school. My voice teacher encouraged me because she saw something in me, but at that point in my singing, my own opinions weren’t as positive as hers. I had to step outside the comfort zone of putting myself down and minimizing my own talent in order to make others feel comfortable. It’s not polite to brag on oneself in the South. Even then I felt a voice deep within me, though—an unexplainable courage to take a risk towards something bigger than myself and accept my right to something more. That emerging confidence was what pushed me to believe my voice teacher and try. With that scholarship, I gained the confidence to audition for 3 schools.
I chose App State as the only school I could afford and the rest is history. However, if I didn’t take that first step towards my career and continue to believe in myself by taking risks, I wouldn’t be the singer I am today.
Some of us may feel like we’re not ready and that can be true for opera singers since our voices need time to develop. Whether you are ready or not, you can still work towards being the best version of your current self. Most colleges and YAPs don’t expect you to be a finished product. Some even prefer for you to have a raw ability that they can mold and shape so that they can claim to be a facilitator in your rise to stardom. That’s why you need to be willing to take every opportunity that comes your way. Remember, we miss 100% of the shots we don’t take.
Lesson #2: Singing Comes First
As singers, we need a big dose of confidence. I find mine in my singing. From day one, I’ve invested the majority of my time and money in my voice. I never cut corners when it came to singing and I never made excuses when a performance or audition didn’t go well.
Don’t be emotional or defensive about what you need to work on. That way you can get down to the business of fixing it. Detach yourself from your singing persona and get ’er done!
When you hear a singer do something truly impressive in a large hall (not a small rehearsal room), ask them questions. If they have killer high notes, ask what their approach is. If they have sick coloratura, find out how they do it. Just a simple question can go a long way for your singing.
If I’m honest, I probably learned more from bad singers than good ones. If someone sings the same rep as you and sounds rough on a certain passage you can self-evaluate, then give extra thought to singing that passage beautifully. If someone’s coloratura isn’t working, diagnose the problem and try not to fall into the same pit as them. Of course, always keep in mind to not be an ass about it and keep it to yourself.
Lesson #3: A Big Slice of Sacrifice
Developing your voice takes time and you need lots of it to pursue this career. That means having other major priorities in life such as your own family can be a huge challenge. It can be done but at the ripe, young age of 25, it’s that much harder to establish yourself while feeding some babies. It’s just the truth that it’s harder, but it can be done.
One of the most important things I had for my career was my willingness to uproot my life for any opportunity that was better than the one I was currently in.
Coupled with that, I had to have the ability to recognize a better opportunity when it came along. If I knew it would bring me to a higher level, I wouldn’t question it and I gave up on my location, my relationships, and my financial situation. If I didn’t know which offer was better for me, I’d consult my committee.
Since I was 14 years old, I haven’t had a summer off—whether it was an opera summer program, singing waiter gigs, or installing liner pools. I went to 3 universities for 8 years. I didn’t get married until I was 38 because I personally didn’t have the ability to commit the time and energy a happy relationship needs. I’m 40 now and I still haven’t had children. That may change soon but until now, my career has come first and foremost. These are some examples of the types of sacrifice and dedication you need for this arduous career.
No matter where you live, you have to leave at some point if you want to be an opera singer. Even if you live in a major metropolis, you can’t make a career in opera by never traveling. You have to know this before committing to the lifestyle and accept that your suitcase will be your home, even after you’ve “made it.”
No reason or excuse kept me back. No matter what point you’re at in your career, there are always sacrifices to be made. The desire to better yourself at any cost must always be there.
Lesson #4: Think Outside The Box
When opportunities are scarce, you have to be crafty and clever, and invent your own.
Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, even if it doesn’t exist yet. Sing for anyone who may take you to that next level: voice teachers, stage directors, casting agents, conductors, coaches, etc. If you’re in the chorus of a show ask to understudy the part that matches your voice type. If they already have an understudy, then ask to sit in on rehearsals, be a second understudy, build a set or help with lighting. Anything to get your foot in the door. Have the courage and gumption to seek out any opportunity or person in charge, introduce yourself, and politely ask for some of their time to get feedback.
My M.O. as a voice student was, “who do I need to sing for?”, or, “who do I need to impress?” Even when I would get the opportunity, it didn’t always pan out into something else but there were a few moments where that bravery paid off. Those are the moments I’m talking about that every singer needs to make for themselves. Even today, I think, “who do I need to sing for to get to the next level?” and let me tell you, there’s always somebody who hasn’t heard you and you need to sing for.
I’m always impressed by the singers who write to me and ask for a voice lesson or video feedback. It’s those kinds of go-getters who put themselves out there that have what it takes for this career. I try my best to give constructive criticism but it’s up to them not only to reach out to me but to make my instructions work for them.
A good example of creating opportunities was when I was a student at Appalachian State. I visited an ex-girlfriend in Rochester who was a music student at Eastman, and I decided to take a chance and sing for the head of the voice faculty, John Maloy. I mean, when else would I get the opportunity to sing for another voice teacher, especially someone at such a prestigious institution? My friend, who I had met at the Ohio Light Opera, studied voice with him and I asked him to put in a good word for me. He kindly squeezed me in at the end of his teaching day and I sang my favorite art song for him.
From that short 10-minute session in his office, I ended up uprooting my entire life in Boone, North Carolina and moving across the country in a rental truck with only $80 in my pocket to attend Eastman as a voice student. If I didn’t take that risk, who knows what would have happened. The point is, I was uncomfortable. I was scared. I had to push myself even if I didn’t feel like I was perfect. There was a drive within me that paid off and made me act on my ambitions to be the best singer I could be.
I’ve seen a lot of people reach out to me personally about their location and how they lack opportunity. It’s time to think outside the box. You can audition for a small part in your local company. You can sing a solo in your choir for the first time. You can unofficially cover a role. You can take a short trip and audition for a program. You can record videos of yourself singing, post them on YouTube and send them out. You can contact your favorite baritone and ask for some feedback.
Something like these ideas could lead to a life-changing opportunity. You never know until you try!
Lesson #5: Loyal To A Fault
Many of our business relationships become personal ones: our voice teachers, coaches, agents, etc. become close to us and it’s easy to blur those lines between professional and pal. Your voice teacher and agent are technically employed by you, but they’re helping cultivate your voice and career and it’s more of a collaboration. So when things aren’t going as well as they should be, it’s hard to speak up and admit there’s a problem.
This personally was a tough one for me to learn. At times, I was a little too loyal to my relationships and I believe that set my career back a few years.
Talking voice teachers here, if you’re not moving upward and forward in your vocal progress or you’re not seeing significant results within 6 months, you need to quit the comfort zone that you’ve created for yourself and find another opportunity. I know this is hard but it’s necessary and you have to be honest with yourself.
Every great voice teacher is not a good fit for every student. Even though they might be trying to help you, they may not be necessarily succeeding at it. And if that’s true, then the harsh reality is they’re “not succeeding” on your behalf and you need to make a change.
Lesson #6: Be Self-Aware
I never thought I was a good singer merely because of my natural ability. An even more important component to performing is a realistic awareness of your true abilities.
After a performance, it’s vital to acknowledge and analyze what just happened. When something went well, I’d try my best to make a habit of it. Yet at other times when the opposite would happen, I’d have to acknowledge it as well whether or not it was in my control.
When phlegm happens, I know it’s out of my control and not a reflection of myself as a performer and I try to fix it for next time. However, if it’s a true mistake (like I didn’t make it to the end of a phrase or cracked a note) then I make mental notes during a performance and analyze it afterward without taking it personally. I separate myself from my voice in order to succeed as much as possible and take constructive criticism for what it is.
If you’re having trouble figuring out that next step, remember that your committee can help you.
Now What Have We Learned?
To quote Karamo Brown from one of my favorite TV shows Queer Eye, “failure is not the opposite of success but part of it,” and in opera, it couldn’t be more true.
You have to step outside of your comfort zone. You have to take a risk. If you’re not getting the results you want, push yourself and try something new or different. Once you clearly see what that step is, do your best to achieve it and act upon your new goals.
Whatever your next level may be, this applies to everyone.
Personally, my next goal is worldwide recognition. I want to be known at every major company in the world and that’s a huge task. I understand that I may have to put myself out there in a new way and change some things about me and my career choices but I’m trying.
I’m opening up about this because I want people to know that this journey never stops and that’s the beauty of it.
What do you think? Did you find this article interesting, entertaining, or helpful? Feel free to chime in with a comment below.