Information and resources to get you started on your journey to a performing career!
Below are the answers to the most often-asked questions Cindy’s received over the years and a list of resources on a variety of singing-related topics.
If you're a young singer (or know someone considering a degree in vocal music), be sure to check out The Student Singer’s Starter Kit for everything you need to know about choosing a school, a teacher, and getting the most out of a music education!
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A PROFESSIONAL SINGER? WHAT CHALLENGES DO I FACE?
Being a professional singer means a life of contradictions and compromises. It's a lot of hustle and heartbreak. It's also glorious fun. Over and over you will hear from people that the art of singing is incomparable, wonderful, compelling. It's the business of singing that can be hateful.
The up side: you get to sing some of the greatest music the world has ever known. You get to work with wonderful, creative, interesting people. You get to travel and make amazing, crazy friends. People you don't know make over you. There's a certain amount of glamour, fancy parties and beautiful locales. You're your own boss. People are paying you money to do what you love.
The down side: everything you've heard about how competitive and difficult performing is to break into and maintain is true. You may find yourself at the mercy of mean or unscrupulous people who rank higher in the business than you. You spend a lot of time on the road, living expensively out of a suitcase and not spending time with your loved ones. Fancy parties stop being so glamorous and begin to feel like work after you've been to a few of them.
You are constantly interviewing for your next job, and always looking for that next opportunity. You are in a highly competitive field with many, many qualified applicants. You may be perfect for a job and lose it anyway because the people hearing you didn't like the dress you were wearing or thought you could stand to lose 10 pounds.
You have to be able to co-exist with quite a lot of uncertainty. It can be hard to plan ahead, especially long-term, because you never know from year to year where you'll be or what you'll be doing. I often hear from non-singers, "I don't know how you live with all that uncertainty!" It works for me. I'd rather be doing this than be stuck in an office from 9 to 5 every bloody day. A professional singer has to be something of a free spirit --- with lots of patience, resilience, and thick, thick skin.
The conventional wisdom in a nutshell is that the art of singing is unmatchable in its splendor; but the business of singing sucks. I agree with this assessment. Making the art is indescribably wonderful. Getting to a point where you can be paid to make the art, and keep being paid, and being paid to make the art you want to make the way you want to make and where you want to make it --- that's the heartbreaker. The business is rife with drawbacks, difficulties, and hardships. Here are just a few:
Stiff competition for jobs.
Generally low-paying unless you hit the upper echelons.
Lots of time on the road away from loved ones.
Lots of time on the road coddling your voice in a hotel room because the slightest cold will affect how you sing and whether you actually CAN sing (and if you don't sing, you don't get paid).
Lots of people of varying degrees of niceness and morality in positions of power in the business, and guess what? You have to make them happy.
Time-consuming. Singing is a full-time career, whether or not you have to have a day job to support it. Somehow you have to make ends meet and still find time to practice, make calls, send out resumes, make demo recordings ... and live your life.
Singing professionally is hard, hard, hard at every level --- more difficult than anyone who hasn't tried it can imagine. I don't say this to discourage young singers, but to give them a heads-up. After all, everyone has a different definition of success, and frequently we find as we grow and experience life that our definitions change. Ultimately, you must decide what balance makes you happy!
Need more help? Here's a blog about resources for singers.
WHEN IS IT OKAY TO FOLLOW UP ON AUDITIONS?
Truth be told, if they want you, most of the time you’re going to hear from a company pretty quickly. But there are extenuating circumstances, so if you want to be proactive and follow up, here’s a good timeline to follow.
For Young Artist Programs and pay-to-sings:
Audition requests: follow up by email or phone no more than two weeks before the audition is scheduled to take place.
Audition results: follow up by email or phone no earlier than two weeks after the last advertised audition. (Follow up is psychologically very hard to do, and no one enjoys it, but it's necessary, especially when you don't have an agent. Consider it part of your education, learning how to self-manage).
For mainstage (unmanaged singers only; managed singers should allow their agents to follow up):
Audition inquiries: follow up by email or phone about two weeks after submitting the request.
Audition results: follow up by email or phone about two weeks after the audition, unless it’s the holidays--- then wait until the haze of New Year’s has cleared away and people are getting back to work!
Here's a little more help with learning how to follow up!
WHAT CAN I DO IF I CAN'T GET ANYONE TO HIRE ME?
It can be really tough to get a singing career off the ground; and all artists go through dry periods when they aren’t getting a lot of work. Unfortunately, there are no magic formulas, no quick fix. But there are some things you can do.
If you aren't getting hired at the level you want to be, there are several things you can do.
1. Take inventory of your skills, with special notice of your strengths and weaknesses.
2. Evaluate the competition and where you stand in comparison.
3. Reassess the level at which you’re currently auditioning and make sure it’s appropriate for your
skill level and experience.
4. Outline your goals and take 'em one step at a time.
5. Create work for yourself.
Need more help? Hey, this is what I do!
HOW DO I FIGURE OUT MY VOICE TYPE?
Determining your Fach is overrated for beginners --- in fact, it can be detrimental. When you’re starting out, just concentrate on learning to sing well and singing things that you feel and sound great in. Later, when your technique is well-established and your artistry begins to really develop, you can refine your repertoire under the guidance of your teacher and coach, with feedback from other industry professionals that gives you clues as to what you are marketable for. And you will need to decide, at least temporarily, what general Fach you fall into before you go out and try to market yourself for singing work. How can you audition for opera roles if you don't have any idea of what you can sing?
But here's a hint: find out what you sing, and sing WELL, and don't worry too much about labels. For one thing, the type of voice hired for certain repertoire may differ greatly house by house. For another, people are going to hire you to sing what they think you sound good singing. You do not need to write "Fifi LeBouvier, Lyric Soprano" on all your materials. "Fifi LeBouvier, Soprano", is enough. They will judge your voice type by your offerings --- and by how well they suit you.
That said, your audition arias have to make senses as a group. You can't offer "Mi chiamano Mimi" and the Immolation Scene at the same audition, even if you sing both really well --- the judges will think you don't know what you're doing. It's ok to offer one thing that's a bit of a stretch, to show where you think you might be in a few years, especially as a young artist. But all in all, your audition repertoire should show a general sense of direction.
HOW DO I CHOOSE A SCHOOL?
First of all, do your homework. You are going to need to do some research. Start by asking yourself some questions:
What are my goals in higher education?
Would I be happier at a conservatory, focusing strictly on music; or would I be better off getting an undergraduate degree at a university where I can get a more rounded education?
Would I be better suited to a big school or a small one? Big city or smaller?
How far away from home am I willing to live?
How much money do I have to spend, and where can I get scholarships?
Do the schools I am interested in have voice teachers who I want to study with and who are willing to take me on?
Do the school and the community it's in offer sufficient performing opportunities?
For people who want to be performers, the most important choice is the teacher, not the school. To make connections with teachers, you need to visit the schools you're interested in and take a sample lesson; and also observe other people's lessons and studio classes. You can also participate in summer workshops, where you get more time to work with teachers. Aspen, Tanglewood, Brevard, and the Seagle Colony all offer programs for high school kids, and they are all reputable programs. You must research pay-to-sing programs carefully to make sure they offer what you need and want, and have a good reputation.
Every school is very different and a lot of what you get out of them is going to depend on what environment suits you best, and whether you really connect with your teacher. Your education and the training of your voice is YOUR responsibility, so choose wisely. Don't be afraid to re-evaluate whether the school and teacher you've chose are meeting your goals, and don't be afraid to make changes if your goals aren't being met.
For step-by-step guidance on choosing a school, check out my book.
CAN YOU RECOMMEND ANY INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIALS FOR BEGINNERS?
Sorry, but you simply can't learn to sing properly from books, tapes, or Wikihow articles. They are a waste of time and money unless you use them in conjunction with a good teacher; and anything that promises to teach you singing in "6 Easy Lessons" is quite simply worthless.
Learning to sing is a process. You need personal feedback and demonstration to learn to sing properly. You might as well learn to do it right from the beginning rather than get it wrong and then have to undo what you've already learned --- a painful, slow, expensive process.
If you can't afford private voice lessons, look for a singing class at a community music school, where lessons and classes are often more affordable than going through a private source; and sometimes scholarships are available. Look at junior or smaller colleges with music programs in your area as well. Also, check with NATS(National Association of Teachers of Singing) for teachers in your area who might offer group lessons. Or approach a grad student at a local university --- often they are great teachers, but charge less than an established professional.
Another option is to find a teacher who will accept barter. Maybe you have skills or products a voice teacher would take in exchange for lessons. In the past, I’ve bartered for lessons with aesthetician, personal trainer, and massage therapist!
HOW DO I LEARN A NEW ROLE?
Everybody has a slightly different technique. Experiment; you'll figure out what works best for you in time. Here's what I like to do:
First, I read the score cover to cover, sometimes while listening to a recording.
Then, I translate the sucker. Word for word. Usually I just do the scenes I'm in, and later when I have time and the inclination, I do the rest.
I like to find and read the source material if at all possible.
I make sure I can pronounce all the language with ease.
I learn the rhythms on a neutral syllable, intoning them so as to reinforce support and legato.
I intone the words in rhythm (no singing, but support and legato).
I learn the pitches on a neutral syllable, from the back of the piece to the beginning.
I put language, rhythm and pitch together, still working from the back of the score forward.
By the time I reach the first page, it's memorized. This is a slow and painstaking way to learn (and I do cheat when it gets too boring) but it is also very, very thorough.
Once I've learned all the notes and have started to sing it into my voice a bit, I will sing the ensembles along with several different good recordings, to be sure I get the color of the orchestra in my ear and understand aurally where my place is in the ensemble. I also use this to test memorization. You just have to be really careful not to get too attached to any one recording, so that when you're with a live conductor you're able to take his tempi and interpretation without feeling weird about it. For important roles/company debuts, I will sometimes hire a conductor and pianist, and invite friends to sing through the score with me before I have to show up for rehearsals.
Good luck and have a great time!
HOW DO I FIND AUDITIONS?
Researching and arranging auditions is a vital skill for every singer. Of course it’s easier if you have an agent, but until you do, you need to know how to fend for yourself.
Chances are, as a young artist, your first auditions will mostly be for pay-to-sings and Young Artist Programs. You may also have mainstage auditions for small local companies, and others for chorus or church jobs.
New York City has always been the mecca for auditions. Many YAPs, big regional opera houses, and smaller companies make an annual pilgrimage to hear singers there - though not as many as in past years. YAPs and pay-to-sing programs often tour their auditions to major cities, and some accept video auditions, at least for preliminary rounds. However, if you don’t live near NYC, chances are at some point you will need to travel there to audition.
The major times for year for auditions in the US are September – early December, and early spring. If you're on the Young Artist circuit, December has historically been the most important time for young artists to be in New York.
It can be very difficult to get heard if you are not managed. Some houses do reserve a certain number of slots for unmanaged singers; or will hear you if they have cancellations; and some will allow you to "crash" if they have the time. How can you find these auditions?
Listings. YAPTracker is the #1 listing for auditions (and not just young artist programs). Classical SingerMagazine also has an auditions listing.
Research. Use online directories to find the URLs of opera companies and programs, or just Google “opera companies (your state)”. Some online directories include:
- OPERA America Membership
- Musical America Directory
- Opera Glass
Schmooze. Talk to other singers, coaches/accompanists (especially the NY ones. You should establish a relationship with one or two good NY coaches and work with them when you go to town), teachers, conductors, opera company admins you've worked with before --- anyone you know who's in the business. Find out where they're auditioning/playing/conducting etc.
Use social media. Facebook and other platforms make it easy to cultivate relationships with industry professionals; and you can glean a lot of information about upcoming seasons, auditions, and who’s working where. (Please note: it’s not appropriate to make professional inquiries of Facebook friends unless you’ve been specifically invited to do so --- save those inquiries for email). You can also join Facebook groups like the New New Forum for Classical Singers, a group of nearly 5,000 singers and industry professionals, where much information is shared and where you can ask about auditions and other professional matters.
Know which companies to target - generally no more than a step above the level at which you have already worked; they produce the repertoire you have to offer. Write a great cover letter, send your press kit, and hope for the best.
HOW LONG DO I HAVE TO KEEP "PAYING MY DUES"?
Think of your career as a long, long, long staircase. Every time you get to another landing, you get to enjoy it while you look down at the long way you've come, and then you realize there's a long way to go up. And on every level, there's a new set of dues to pay.
My path from school to regular work was fairly short because I lucked out and got into the Chicago apprenticeship almost immediately; and after that I was able to get a lot of gigs here and there. But what I discovered was that there can be dry spells even in a career that's going pretty well. You spend one season working constantly only to wake up the next fall and realize that you don't have any work because you were too busy working to audition (this is always a problem). Or, you find yourself going through a vocal transition. Or your agent isn't really working for you anymore and you have to get out there and find someone who does. Or any of a million different things.
The path is different for everybody, and you'll save yourself a lot of angst if you don't beat yourself up for not being where someone else is. On the other hand, comparisons can be valuable tools --- you can look at someone else who started off in the same place as you and see what they might have that you don't. However, I don't think that whether or not you make it into a YAP is necessarily a good indicator. Yes, there tends to be a certain level of accomplishment in YAPs, but there are so many other factors and a lot of it just depends on what the company needs that season.
I think it's a good idea just to concentrate on getting up that next step, getting to that next level. Decide what that is for you, and then figure out what the little steps are that you need to get you there. Then take one of those baby steps at a time. Breaking big goals down into little ones really helps.
How about free VIP access to resources and answers about climbing that career ladder?
IS IT TRUE THAT SUCCESSFUL OPERA SINGERS CAN'T BE MARRIED OR HAVE A PERSONAL LIFE?
It's simply untrue that successful opera singers can't have personal lives or long-term relationships. What boring, unhappy, unbalanced people we would be if we didn't! I am very happily married to a software engineer. He is extremely supportive of my career, even when it takes me away from him for long periods of time (which is hard on both of us)! Many of my colleagues are married or in long-term relationships. When we're on the road, we spend a lot of money on long distance and plane tickets for weekend visits. When we're together, that time is extra special.
Superstar soprano Renee Fleming is a mom; when her babies were little she took them with her on out of town gigs and had a nanny stay with them in the dressing room or hotel. I've known a number of colleagues who traveled with their entire families; often the partner who wasn't working at the moment home schooled the kids or was the primary caretaker.
People who claim that opera singers must be married to their art will probably also argue that personal lives get in the way of creating art. I think this is ridiculous. As artists, we need to LIVE life, not restrict ourselves from it. We need to get out there and wallow in it. And we need BALANCE to stay healthy, sane, and productive. That means a refuge from the craziness of the industry; a semblance of normality in a sometimes very unreal lifestyle; and what better to offer you that stability than a happy relationship and strongly developed personal life?
To those who claim that our art demands total sacrifice, I respond that in these busy times, there are plenty of couples who spend a lot of time apart and who have very emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually demanding careers. It's not just singing couples, either! Think about all the lawyers and executives who regularly work twelve-hour days and go on business trips all the time. My big brother is one of these, and on a day-to-day basis, he makes sure he is home to tuck the kids into bed, even if he has to go back to the office afterwards, and the weekends are dedicated to family time.
It is eminently do-able, and one person does not necessarily have to sacrifice his or her career for the other. You will certainly make sacrifices; but they are generally negotiable to some degree. The important thing is to find out what works for you and your partner. If you listen to each other and respect each other's needs and wishes, you'll be able to work just about anything out.
Above all, listen to your heart. There are people who are happiest alone or in a series of relationships. There are others who absolutely need to be in a loving relationship to be at their best. Choose what is right for you and don't worry about the naysayers.
I CAN SING MY OWN LINE JUST FINE, BUT PUT ME NEXT TO OTHER SOLOISTS AND I GET CONFUSED. HOW DO I LEARN TO SING IN AN ENSEMBLE?
Ensemble singing can be tough when you're starting out. So here is Auntie Cindy's prescription for learning to sing ensemble:
1. Make sure you know your own line COLD.
2. Once you know your own line backwards, forwards, upside down and in reverse, sing it very slowly while you play the soprano, bass, or tenor line along on the piano. Listen carefully to how the harmonies fit together. Note where you are above or below the other lines. Note where you are doubling another line. Note where your pitch sounds weird with someone else's. Go over each of these points until you're very, very comfortable singing your own line strongly against the piano.
3. Once you can sing your own line with confidence against another voice played on the piano, add a second voice; then a third if you can manage it. BTW, there is NO SUBSTITUTE for doing this yourself, without the help of a third party. First of all, having a third party for this process will make you nervous and frustrated, because it is somewhat painstaking and you're already embarrassed about having difficulty with it. Second, you need to do this at your own pace, as many times as it takes, and the whole point is for YOU to figure it out and teach your ear to hear your part in relationship to the other lines.
4. Once you can more or less sing your own part while you play the other lines on the piano, THEN take it to a coach and get them to help you by adding in all the voices at the right tempo in little chunks at a time. When you can do that, add the accompaniment.
5. Sit down next to the CD player with your score, a pencil, your keyboard, and a big glass of your favorite beverage. Play a short section of the score and play your own line along on the keyboard. Sing your line along with the recording while you play it on the keyboard. Listen to how you fit with the other vocal lines and the orchestra (this is going to sound very different than the piano, because there are so many different colors now; but you should be very secure with your own line by this time and even if you get off, you will probably be able to find your way back).
6. When you can pick out your line and sing it well against the recording with the help of the keyboard, try it without. Then just keep plugging away, noting points of particular difficulty. Take these to your coach and ask for help --- what especially can you listen for to help you get your pitch, etc. Continue to practice with the CD and the keyboard as necessary. Also, you might want to use more than one recording for this practice, since you don't want to get married to one singer's interpretation or one conductor's tempi.
Now, if none of this works for you ... I would respectfully suggest you look into an ear training course, because that's what the issue is (along with inexperience. And that's curable.)
Are you looking for performance and training opportunities?
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION ABOUT BEING AN OPERA SINGER?
Here are a few more great resources for you:
Classical Singer Magazine
The premiere (and only) American magazine by and for singers. Articles and an audition listing, as well as an annual convention.
Classical Vocal Repertoire - hard copy scores and downloadable PDFS
Glendower Jones and Classical Vocal Repertoire are national treasures. If it can be gotten, Glendower can get it or already has it. He is a one-man encyclopedia of information about published music and the last bastion of personal service. Singers in the know always #GetItFromGlendower.
The New New Forum for Classical Singers (Facebook group)
Besides being the best forum for singers and a great place to ask questions, there are some interesting and educational documents on file. You need permission to join the group – make sure you either PM one of the admins or that your profile shows that you are an opera singer. Also, be sure to read the group description and rules before posting!
This organization offers a series of guides for developing singers, a newsletter, membership discounts, courses and master classes, and many other services. Their beautiful New York space is a favorite for auditions, and you can even borrow scores from the library!
The Sybaritic Singer
Mezzo-soprano Meghen Ihnen serves up intelligent discourse and business advice on a variety of musical subjects.
Senior Director Kim Witman’s blog is a must-read for all working singers.
This subscription audition info service is the single best investment you’ll make as a developing or unmanaged artists. It features thousands of auditions listings for young artist programs, vocal competitions, training programs, and even mainstage opera; and you can track your auditions, receive audition and deadline notifications, and even conveniently apply for opportunities through their service.
What started out as a small organization of singers helping each other get auditions and education has grown into a singer-run producing organization. BSR still sponsors an annual audition-thon featuring local producers, and offers classes, articles, discounts for Classical Singer Magazine and health insurance, personal web pages, and a host of other goodies for members. They also produce well-reviewed and respected shows. Membership is a must for New England singers!
Specializing in performance issues and managing performance anxiety.
A treasure trove of online, downloadable scores, including many full operas.
What is it about us mezzos and info-sharing? Read both of these talented artists for been-there-done-that advice and advocacy.
Superstar mezzo Joyce DiDonato’s YouTube channel has teaching and inspirational videos, as well as clips of her performances.
OK, sopranos do their part with the advice and help, too. Lots of terrific advice for young singers in Laura’s Young Singers’ Corner!
Voice teacher and fitness coach Claudia Friedlander blogs about vocal technique and industry topics.
Natalie Bradley is a highly talented young soprano, equally talented voice teacher, and newlywed who blogs about her studio and struggles to support herself as a young artist. She has some great advice for teachers and singers alike.
Articles and videos to help young musicians learn the business, sponsored by Carnegie Hall.
Coach Mikhail Hallak’s invaluable and intelligent vlog about the music business.
Opera/Musical Theatre voice teacher Susan Eichhorn Young’s musings on honing your craft.
Mezzo-soprano (see? SEE?) Candice Shaughnessy’s blog is dedicated to “aggressively finding ways of creating income and methods of living that will work for me as an opera singer”.
If you can get past the distasteful name and Brunnhilde-gives-a-blowjob logo, you''ll find interviews, articles, reviews, and fun silliness on all aspects of the opera world, written in a lighthearted style by young singers, for young singers.
Free registration for this slick site featuring articles, news, performance calendar, and various services.
Composer Glenn Winters, Virginia Opera’s Community Outreach Director, offers up in-depth character analyses and other worthy operatic musings.
Articles and reviews on opera and singing-related topics.
Renaissance man Fred Plotkin’s blog on all things opera --- news, reviews, commentary, and more.
Articles, videos, searchable listing of opera companies and artists, and a newsletter.
And every art song resource you could ever wish for (thanks to Juliana Hall for sharing this list!):
I’M FRUSTRATED AND SCARED AND NOT SURE I’M ON A LEVEL WITH OTHER SINGERS MY AGE. WHAT’S MISSING FROM MY EDUCATION? WHAT DO I DO NEXT?
Singing can be a scary, overwhelming business, and it's not weird or unusual for you to feel a bit frustrated and unsure of where to look next. It’s smart to take a look around and see what might be missing from your education, and while you're still in college is a good time to do it. But if you're post-college, you can still continue your education through private instruction, reading, workshops, and networking with your colleagues.
Colleagues are a terrific resource. There is always someone who's been there before you and knows more than you, and is usually happy to help when you ask nicely. Talk to as many other singers as you can --- particularly those who are ahead of you in the game. Get their opinions and listen to their experiences. At first it may seem frustrating, because you will hear so much contradictory advice. You have to look for a consensus, and you have to assess the information you're given and decide what is right for YOU. Even if you're a student, YOU are the CEO of your corporation. You are in charge of your career, your voice, and your life. And believe it or not, you know what's best for you!
Try not to worry about being on the same level as the other singers. It’s fine to use the information to see where you’ve been and where you need to go, but beating yourself up is self-defeating and counter-productive. Be a good business person and disregard the things that won't help you; or as my friend Kellie says, "Bless it and release it!"
Concentrate on yourself and compete with yourself. In the world of professional singing, there are so many elements going into who gets hired, and it is not always the most talented person or even the right person for the job! You let yourself in for endless frustration by trying to "keep up". Besides, school isn’t the same as real life. 85% of the singers who are big shots at school won't be big shots once they get into the big pond. And there will be some surprises --- people who no one thought would succeed turn out to have the best careers.
Now, about not knowing what to do next. You do what anyone does when they need to become an expert on something --- research, research, research! --- and learn about the business of singing. You’re pretty much on your own, though resources are available. (You’re in the right place --- lots of free resources on this site).
A good summer training program or Young Artist’s Program will help you gain some of the knowledge you need. Look for one where you will be working with people who are connected --- this will help you later. Check each program you're interested in very carefully to make sure that it has a good reputation and that it offers what you most need and want.
Your research should give you an idea of the direction you need to head next. Try to establish where you are in comparison to other people your age/experience level without beating yourself up or worrying about it. You need a reference point so you’ll know what companies and agents will be likely to hear you right now.
Work on establishing connections. The music business is all about networking. You get more work from networking than from auditions!
Finally, don’t get overwhelmed. A director friend of mine, Marc Verzatt, says, "Do one thing every day for your career." It’s good advice. Keeps you moving forward, breaks the work down into manageable tasks. And you’re worth the investment!
OVER-30 SINGER JUST STARTING OUT, WHAT ARE MY CHANCES OF HAVING A SINGING CAREER? WHERE DO I BEGIN?
There are many factors that go into determining your chances of a career, not the least of which is just plain luck. The first step is to assess your goals. What kind of singing career do you want? Do you want to be a big star at the Met? Do you want to have a solid career singing in regional houses? Would you be happy singing in the chorus of a major opera house and doing solo work on the side? Do you want to do mostly local stuff and teach voice on the side? Depending on how developed you are technically, how good your package is, and your voice type, some of these goals might be more realistic than others. Define for yourself your ideal, and what you'd be happy to settle for.
The next step is to assess your current skill level and package. Just having some vocal training and a lot of nice feedback from teachers and coaches does not mean you are ready for the big time. Before you can begin any kind of career, you have to have a solid vocal technique. The older you are (and look), the harder it's going to be to get started if your technique is not absolutely ready to go. Over 30 is a little late to start. That doesn't mean it's too late, but it does mean that you have some catching up to do, and some of the traditional aides/paths to a singing career might not be open to you (more on that later). So, take a good hard look at yourself. How close are you to technical solidity? What other training do you have? How are your languages? How is your musicianship? Do you have any stage experience? Have you learned any full roles? What do you have to offer an opera company right now? Why should they hire you right now?
These are questions you must answer for yourself first, because your potential employers will be asking them, too. I strongly suggest going outside your regular circle of teachers, coaches, and supporters for this kind of assessment, especially if you've been beating down doors for a while without much success. You may need a fresh perspective on your strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes the people we work closely with are no longer objective enough to help us.
What voice type are you? If you're a soprano who sings soubrette roles, for instance, you've got a lot of younger, fresher competition who more closely fit the "type". On the other hand, if you are a rare voice type --- a dramatic soprano, a bass, a contralto, a dramatic tenor, or a Wagnerian anything --- that might be a different story. I have a basso friend who never took a lesson before age 40. He did have extensive instrumental training and he speaks several languages fluently. He also had a successful business to support himself and his family. He joined an opera chorus for a while, then got himself an agent and started doing small local gigs, which quickly became bigger local gigs, then not-so-local gigs. Then he moved to Germany and worked his way up from the smallest houses to the biggest, where he is a regular. So it's not impossible to start late --- but you need to have other skills in place to help you along.
You also have to look at your support system, financial and emotional. Do you have commitments that might limit your flexibility, such as a home with an expensive mortgage, a partner who wants you there day-to-day, children? Do you have some money put aside? How are you going to pay for this very expensive singing career? Singing is NOT a high-dollar career, unless you make it very, very big. Most aspiring singers have a day job to help them make it in between engagements. Will you be able to do this with your current commitments? Do you have a supportive family and friends? You'll need them. What about your significant other? You should know starting out that some of the traditional roads to a career, such as Young Artist's Programs and major competitions, may be closed to you as an older singer. Pay-to-sing programs would be available, but can be expensive.
All this can take an emotional toll. Do you have the personal resources and support system to withstand this, and other, hardships?
I am not in any way trying to discourage anyone from seeking a singing career. Only you can decide what's right for you. No matter how hard you think it's going to be, I promise you it will be harder. That may not ultimately matter, if you're truly "called" to the singing lifestyle. But you have to do some soul-searching and some major research before you can make an informed decision.
For more ideas about jumpstarting a late-blooming career, go here.
THEY SAY I'M "TOO YOUNG" FOR A YAP -- BUT I 'M READY TO SING SOMETHING!
If you have done a number of auditions and have heard the same feedback from several people, not just one or two, you know you need to pay attention to the criticism. Always look for a consensus of opinion. It's impossible to make a "diagnosis" without hearing a singer, but for what it's worth, here's my two cents.
While twenty-three is young as singers go, it certainly isn't too young to do a pay-to-sing or an apprenticeship. In fact, many YAPs have multiple levels of participation, with a sort of junior level for people in or right out of college (generally you do chorus, cover comprimarios or leads, maybe get to sing a small role or a student production, and do lots of concerts and scenes programs). This leads me to wonder whether the YAPs you have sung for are really saying that you aren't quite developed enough as a singer to handle their programs, which can be very vigorous. Having studied roles is not the same as having performed them. I know, it's a Catch-22! Have you discussed the results of your auditions with your teacher and with the YAPs? If not too much time has passed, you could write a very nice, brief letter asking for feedback, specifically, why they think you are too young. Avoid being confrontational; thank them for their encouragement. But try to find out what it is they find lacking.
If you don't already have them, it's time to get some full role performances under your belt. Have you done any pay-to-sing programs which allow you to sing full roles? Perhaps that's where your focus should be. Application deadlines are usually in the fall and auditions are often in November-December-January for programs that start in the summer. Look at www.classicalsinger.com and www.operaam.org. In the event that you can't get into a reputable pay-to-sing (and you MUST research them carefully, as some are a rip-off), how about getting your singer pals together and presenting an opera showcase this summer? Find a coach and create your own pay-to-sing. Pick an opera YOU really want to do and put together a modest staged production; or a scenes program (do one act from each of three different operas --- gives everybody a chance to star).
The point is --- and this goes for singers who are past the YAP stage as well --- if you can't sing for pay, pay to sing, and if you can't pay to sing, make up your own "program"! Organize church recital series, opera scenes programs, and showcases. Put together a short version of an opera and tour nursing homes and schools. Audition for community theater musical productions. Form your OWN community theater. Organize benefit concerts for your favorite cause and get all the publicity you can. Get your experience in any way you can, and when you've got something on your resume, try to take the next step up. Even if you're not making money, you are adding to your experience and your resume, and this may help you land a paying engagement, or show you a new direction you'd never previously considered.
DO I HAVE TO BE RICH TO BE A SINGER? HOW CAN I SUPPORT MYSELF?
Singing is an expensive business. Here's a brief list of some of the professional expenses you may incur:
- Voice lessons and musical or dramatic coachings
- Audition fees
- Accompanist fees for auditions
- Musical scores
- Practice space rental
- Travel, transportation, hotel, dining and entertainment expenses for out of town auditions
- Travel, hotels, transportation, housing, dining and entertainment expenses for out of town jobs
- Long distance, cell phone, and internet access charges while away from loved ones
- Concert and audition attire
- Manager's commission (10% for opera, 15% for concert)
- Postage for express and/or standard mailings seeking auditions or for publicity
- Materials (resume, bio, reviews) including professional headshots
- Copies of production photos
- Professional tax preparation
- Website design and maintenance
These items add up quickly, and most people also have major student loans or credit card debt to pay off. Therefore, most aspiring singers (and even some pretty successful ones) must have a "day job" to support themselves while pursuing their dream. In fact, that most professional musicians depend on multiple income streams in addition to performing.
Many singers choose to temp, although the market is not what it used to be. It doesn't usually pay well or provide good benefits (though some temp agencies do offer a few bennies for their regular temps), but it provides flexibility. How are your computer skills? You need a reasonable command of software programs such as Word, LotusNotes, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, and Access. Legal secretaries often make the best money, especially in bigger cities. If you have computer and office skills and good typing, you will be able to temp anywhere you go and have the freedom to take off and pursue your singing whenever you need to. If you don't have skills like these, acquire them! You'll need work that is flexible.
Other people choose to find a steady job that allows them some flexibility. I have friends who work fulltime as legal secretaries for large firms who like them so much, they will give them time off for rehearsals and performances; and other companies will let you take a leave of absence to go out of town. In between singing jobs, I maintain a voice studio. Other people may teach, have a church job, maybe conduct. I know someone else who cleans houses and can set his own hours. Flexible work is out there. It's usually not the best paying and often doesn't have benefits, but it will allow you to pursue your dream.
Increasingly, people are finding jobs that allow them to work from home and have some flexibility. Many kinds of consulting work, sales, and self-employment areas such as photography, massage therapy, web design, graphic design, editing, technical writing, etc. permit flexibility. Of course, if you’re working for yourself, you also have to spend a considerable amount time administering and marketing your business.
You might want to check out my blog on prioritizing your finances.
I’M NOT MAKING IT IN THE US. SHOULD I GO TO EUROPE?
Short answer? If the only reason you want to go to Europe is because you can't get hired in the States: No.
Europe is a can of worms. In the past, it was often said that American singers were welcome and even prized. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of many communist borders, that's not as true as it once was. Add to the many fine Western European singers already in the German market, a large number of experienced and accomplished Eastern European singers. On top of that, post 9/11 the world market is just not what it was. Being an American singer in Europe probably won't be a disadvantage, but it won't be an advantage either.
It's not my intention to be brutal, but this is something you have to think long and hard about, because if you go to Europe you will be spending months of your life and thousands of dollars. Consider: if you aren't getting hired here, is Europe going to be any better for you? And are you ready to handle the difficulties of the audition process (which are not any easier overseas) in a foreign environment and language?
Here are several factors to consider in deciding whether to go to Europe.
• How good are your languages? You will need to sign contracts, take direction, and sing convincingly in the native language.
• Do you have several months and the money it takes to stay and travel in Europe for the audition season (usually the fall)?
• How solid is your technique, and can it withstand the rigors of a repertory-style house? European houses (particularly German) are notorious for running their singers into the ground with lots of performances and a rigid Fach system which may require you to sing roles that you wouldn't normally consider in the US.
• Are you prepared to sing roles outside your usual Fach? European houses are, in general, much smaller, so if you're usually a Musetta, you might find yourself singing Mimi over there. And you will need to prepare those things for your auditions.
• Are you prepared to do unusual, even bizarre concept productions? They're the norm in Europe, as opposed to more traditional stagings. I mention this because it's a difficult adjustment for some Americans.
• Are you allergic to smoke and can you deal, as a singer, with being in the presence of smoke on a regular basis? Many Europeans smoke like chimneys and it is EVERYWHERE, even backstage at the opera, even in rehearsals.
• How fit are you? European houses are as much, or more, looks-conscious than American ones. They want svelte singers.
Here are some resources for information about auditioning in Europe.
What the Fach? is currently the definitive guide for auditioning and working in the German-speaking countries, written by an ex-pat American singer who has been employed there for many years. It is available on Amazon.com.
The Deutches Bühnen Jahrbuch has listings and contact information for all the theaters in Germany.
The British Music Yearbook is the UK's answer to Musical America and a must-have resource for singers aspiring to work in the UK. Available through Rheingold Publishing. Visit their website, which also has free access to job listings, and a variety of other publications which might be of interest to UK singers.
Wikipedia offers a list of international opera companies.
There are many subscription sites which claim to bypass the need for agents and get singers auditions. I regard most of them with suspicion. TrueLinked is a Europe-based site which seems to actually work --- they also function as an agent and can negotiate contracts at a lower percentage that agents usually take. Read the fine print!The Musical Occasion is a service run by a singer. She provides letters and addresses for hundreds of European theaters. She gives you the letters already printed and ready to mail, in the appropriate language for the country in which you were applying.
Last but not least, see my resources page under European Auditions for lots of good information and tips from singers who have been there, done that.
Some additional advice from my (admittedly limited) personal experience with auditioning overseas:
Make sure your cell phone can receive calls in Europe without it costing you an arm and a leg. You’ll need to use the number for contacts from companies, and you don’t want to miss calls. Many services offer free texting within the network --- I love that I can text my husband when he’s in France visiting his parents!
Establish a European address BEFORE you get there and be sure to include the apartment # or name of the person you're subletting from. German companies will send back your materials if they don't choose to hear you.
You also absolutely MUST have a European fax number, because a lot of business is done by fax.
Contact agents first. Unlike in America, you can have multiple agents and you pay whoever gets you the contract. In Germany, there is a pecking order for agents and if you want to be heard by the top guy, you have to sing for him first. Sing for them, and then let them set up your auditions.
Get a Eurail pass BEFORE going over; you can't get them once there and they save you tons of money; plus they are all first class!
You need a 4 x 6 smiling headshot. They want to see you looking friendly and accessible. The standard American 8 x 10 is too flashy for Europe.
Europeans don't dress up as much as Americans do for auditions. Keep your audition outfit modest and simple. Under no circumstance wear anything sparkly! Don't wear too much makeup or do a fancy hairstyle either. They prefer a more natural look.
The typical German audition season is October - November, so you'll want to send out your materials early September. You'll probably need to be there October - December in order to be considered for roles. They want you THERE, where they can send you out on auditions. You can't come back to the US and wait for calls.
You will need to do lots and lots of research. See if you can find friends or colleagues who have worked in Europe and pick their brains! The best way to learn is to talk to people who have been or are now over there doing it.
HOW LOUD DO YOU NEED TO BE TO SING OPERA?
It's not about loudness, it's about focus, projection, and singing the appropriate repertoire. A trained opera singer can project over an orchestra and chorus and 5 other principals without the use of amplification, and be heard, IF she's singing the right repertoire for her voice, IF the cast is properly vocally balanced, IF the orchestra isn't allowed to play too loudly, and IF the acoustics of the hall are correct.
Your voice may be huge. It may be tiny. Unless it's teensy-weensy tiny, can't-be-heard-without-a-mike tiny, it's not something to worry about. And even if it is, there are several big name singers today who work all the time despite having tiny voices.
HOW MUCH PRACTICING SHOULD I DO EACH DAY?
If you're a beginner, you should practice vocal technique (warm ups, vocalises, and repertoire) a minimum of half an hour a day. That's technical work - it doesn't include translating, learning music, researching roles, etc. You probably shouldn't do more than one to two hours maximum, depending on how much else you're singing during the day (in class, voice lessons, chorus, etc.), the demands of the music, and whether you're preparing for a performance. You can and should do a lot of effective study without ever opening your mouth.
Translating, studying the score for rhythm, tempo, and dynamics, rehearsing the diction, researching the origins of the piece and performance practice - all these can be done without tiring your voice. And if you find yourself getting hoarse, or if something hurts, STOP. Talk to your teacher about how much you were practicing, what you were practicing, and how you were practicing to figure out what you need to tweak. Singing shouldn't hurt!
CAN I SING WHEN I HAVE A COLD?
Caveat: I'm not a doctor and do not give medical advice. That being said, here's what I have learned in my own experience. It's not very pleasant to sing with a cold, but it can be done. The danger is when you have drainage dripping on your vocal cords, which irritates them and causes them to swell, resulting in laryngitis. It's better not to sing on a cold, but as long as it's not in your throat you can do it safely. However, if you are hoarse or have a lot of drainage, it's better to stay off the vocal cords --- and that does mean no singing, minimal talking. If you must talk, don’t whisper. It hurts more than it helps.
WHY WOULD YOU NEED TO GET AN AGENT IF YOU WANTED TO BE A SINGER?
If you want to sing opera on anything greater than a local scale, you’ll need an agent. It’s very difficult to get auditions without one. There are so many singers out there, and opera companies are so understaffed, that that agents provide a sort of shortcut to finding the singers the producers want and need.
Managed singers are taken more seriously by the people doing the hiring. It's sort of a stamp of approval to have a manager/agent, even though there are some really bad singers who are managed and some really terrific ones who aren't. But this is not something you need to worry about as a beginning singer, or even as a college grad. Unlike pop singers, opera singers don’t attract agents (reputable agents, anyway) until they’ve begun to establish a career.
WHAT DO I NEED TO BE AN OPERA SINGER?
The basic training you need to become an opera singer (in addition to the usual music theory/history/musicianship skills you need to become a professional musician of any sort) include:
First and foremost, careful and thorough training of your voice. No one is interested in hiring you if you can't sing, no matter what your other skills may be. You must have a solid vocal technique and either a beautiful or a unique & interesting voice.
Talent. Skills you can learn; talent is either there or it isn't. Sometimes it's well-hidden, waiting for the right set of circumstances so it can blossom. If you're interested in something, you owe it to yourself to give any hidden talents a chance to thrive!
Mindset. You need a personality that thrives on uncertainty and change; you need a thick skin; you need to be a good schmoozer; you need truckloads of perseverance, among other things.
Knowledge of repertoire (including what is appropriate for you to sing at any particular point in your development), style, and performance practice.
Languages: French, Italian, German, English, Latin (and some Russian, Spanish, and Czech don't hurt). You must be able to sing in the first five languages well enough to be understood; preferably without an accent. You must understand enough of the grammar to translate your scores and take stage direction (even in the US, if you're working in one of the bigger houses, you may have a director or conductor who doesn't speak English).
Acting. Gone are the day s of "park and bark" --- today's singers must be good actors.
Stagecraft. You must understand what is expected of you on and off the stage; how to handle yourself to the best advantage, and most professionally.
Physical training. Today's singers are expected to look good as well as sound good. Singing is also an athletic activity. You have to stay in very good condition.
A really good teacher and coach who understand, support, and communicate with you.
Business, marketing, and publicity skills. You will need to manage your own career, whether or not you have an agent.
Oceans of luck.
There's more, but those are the basics. Not all of them can be obtained through formal education --- many are things you pick up once you leave school and begin experiencing life as a singer.
Want more insight on a successful performance career?
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR IN A VOICE TEACHER?
First, you should look for someone who really knows how to sing and has some experience performing on more than just a local level. (Not everyone will agree with me here, but this is my opinion). If the person is a bad singer, he or she cannot possibly be a good teacher. If there is an area of his or her voice that doesn't work properly --- they always sound fuzzy in the middle or can't quite get the top notes --- they will pass on those problems to their students. Try to hear the teacher sing if at all possible, or at the very least listen to some of his or her students.
Second, you should look for someone with a good knowledge of repertoire and pedagogy --- in other words, someone who knows how to teach. It's not enough to be a good singer --- you have to have the knowledge, training, and personality to be a good teacher as well. Later in your studies, you will also need someone who can help you make connections. But you will never find all things in one person. Be prepared to have more than one teacher in your career.
Thirdly, look for someone who is kind, supportive, patient, and secure. Under no circumstances should you put up with a teacher who yells, bullies, puts you down, threatens, or in any manner abuses you. Stay away from the guru types as well, the ones who want to run your whole life and make you go to their therapist; or the people who insist that they have the key to the One True Vocal Technique that they alone can teach; or people who spend all their time putting down other teachers, singers, and techniques ... you get the picture.
There are a lot of wierdos and charlatans with a Voice Teacher shingle hanging out, so investigate well. Talk to, and more importantly, LISTEN to their students, and to them if you can. If a teacher's students can't sing or demonstrate similar technical problems across the board, chances are they're being taught a faulty technique.
The Student Singer’s Starter Kit has detailed guidance on selecting a great teacher.
WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS FOR LEARNING TO SING IF I CAN'T AFFORD TO TAKE PRIVATE LESSONS?
Sorry, but you simply can't learn to sing properly from books and tapes. They are a waste of time and money unless you use them in conjunction with a good teacher; and anything that promises to teach you singing in "6 Easy Lessons" is quite simply worthless.
Learning to sing is a process. You need personal feedback and demonstration to learn to sing properly. You might as well learn to do it right from the beginning rather than get it wrong and then have to undo what you've already learned --- a painful and slow process for most people.
If you can't afford private voice lessons, look for a singing class at a community music school, where lessons and classes are often more affordable than going through a private source; and sometimes scholarships are available. Look at junior or smaller colleges with music programs in your area as well. Also, check with NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing, www.nats.org) for teachers in your area who might offer group lessons. Or approach a grad student at a local university --- often they are great teachers, but charge less than someone who's making a career of it.
Another option is to find a teacher who will accept barter. Maybe you have skills or products a voice teacher would take in exchange for lessons. One of my students is an aesthetician, and we trade voice lessons for facials! Another is a personal trainer and massage therapist; we trade lessons for training.
I’M NOT SURE HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A BIG FAMOUS SOLOIST, BUT I COULDN’T GIVE UP SINGING. WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS?
Singing is not something you choose to do. Singing chooses you. Singing is a lifestyle, not a career. If you are passionate about it and can't live without it, you'll find a way to make it a regular part of your life.
Who said we all have to be big stars at the Met in order to be successful working singers? There are plenty of professionals out there who work constantly and never make it above the regional level. Choristers in major opera houses make good money, have job stability and benefits, and still are able to pursue solo careers elsewhere. Most professional musicians do 4 or 5 different jobs simultaneously --- perform as soloists in opera or concert, direct a church music program, teach privately or in a school, participate in smaller ensembles.
Many people are very happy with local careers. One woman I went to school with works constantly with various festivals and concert venues and has made numerous recordings. She specializes in new music --- a niche she discovered and developed for herself. A conductor I work with regularly started out as a singer and had a Fest contract in Germany for many years. Now he conducts all over town with his own ensembles and as a guest; he directs one of the city’s largest church music programs, and sings 4-5 concert/oratorio gigs a year all over the country. I would call both of these people highly successful professional musicians. You can do that too, or you can go for the big time, or any combination of the two. It’s up to you to decide what kind of career will make you happy.
But if you come to a point where you realize you don't want the professional singing lifestyle, there is no shame and no failure involved in choosing something else. People change and so do goals. Singing can still be an important part of your life, even if it's not what you do for a living. My college roommate, an extremely talented singer with some major professional credits, decided 2-3 years ago that she was tired of pursuing the big solo career. She is perfectly happy singing in her church choir, and singing in several professional choruses (both opera and concert) that occasionally offer solo opportunities. She’s performing quite a lot, she still identifies herself primarily as a singer, and that’s what’s important to her.
WHAT ARE SOME WAYS IN WHICH I MIGHT DAMAGE MY VOICE?
Oversinging, singing incorrectly, screaming at the top of your lungs on a regular basis for long periods of time (like cheerleaders at a football game), smoking (cigarette smoke is bad enough, but pot is three times as bad), using illegal drugs, belting, singing a lot on certain kinds of medication (such as steroids).
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SINGING MUSICAL THEATER AND OPERA?
Musical theater technique generally requires a brighter, more forward-placed sound than is generally desirable in opera; and can involve less sustained, "talkier" singing at times. In some works, the technique is very similar to opera (this is referred to as "legit"). Then of course, there's belting --- bringing the chest voice up much higher than an opera singer would. Generally speaking, the tessitura of the music is quite a bit lower for the different voice types --- a MT alto might be asked to sing in what a classically trained singer would think of as a tenor or contralto range; but she would be belting. MT singing is not necessarily about vocal beauty, which is not to say that it's ugly, but merely that it is more important to express the text using a wide palette of sounds, some of which might be unmusical. Straight tone is often employed except for at the end of sustained notes. Also, MT technique generally requires miking to be heard.
Operatic singing is more concentrated on beauty and evenness of tone. The basic idea is to make all the tones match in all parts of your voice, and to sing with the greatest possible legato and with natural vibrato. Expressing the text is very important, but unmusical sounds are used rarely, only in special circumstances, for special emphasis. Vocal beauty is paramount. Generally speaking, opera singers do not require miking, although there are circumstances in which it is required.
My friend Susan Eichhorn Young is an expert on both types of singing!
CAN I GET A HEAD START ON COLLEGE BY TEACHING MYSELF TO SING FROM RECORDINGS?
Read, study, and listen as much as you can, but please do NOT try to teach yourself to sing by listening to recordings and imitating what you hear there. Instead of giving yourself a headstart, you may be unwittingly setting yourself back. If you really want to get a headstart, find a reputable teacher and begin voice lessons.
As I've stated elsewhere, singing is not something that can be learned from books and recordings. They are great tools which can enhance your study, but on their own they will do you more harm than good. You need feedback from a trained set of ears, and someone who knows what to look and listen for needs to monitor your progress. When you don't have feedback, it's very easy for little tensions and bad habits to creep in --- even for experienced singers! Also, when you listen to recordings, you are hearing singers at all levels of expertise, at different points in their careers, with different voice types. Just because it's on a recording does not mean it's good technique, or what YOU should sound like with your own voice. If you are 17 or 18, you do not need to be imitating the sound of a 40-year-old soprano. This could be extremely harmful to your technique --- it's very hard to unlearn bad habits. I feel very strongly about this because one of my most talented students tried to teach himself from recordings, and we have spent months trying to break the bad habits he picked up. It's been very frustrating for both of us.
The following are some very good technical questions from a self-taught HS singer. Unfortunately, technique questions can only be answered generally in an online forum, or in any other arena which does not involve one-on-one interaction. Learning to sing is a very individual process, and much depends on your relationship with your teacher and the language the two of you develop to describe technical issues.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU'RE "SINGING OPERA" CORRECTLY? DOES THE SOUND YOU PRODUCE FEEL AS IF IT WERE COMING FROM YOUR STOMACH AND SORT OF FILLS YOUR ENTIRE MOUTH?
Proper singing takes a lot of energy, but is relatively effortless in that the only muscles that should tire are your abdominals, which are responsible for your support (and they will only really tire after quite a lot of use). Support comes from the lowest point in your torso, and you should think of the breath as originating there as well, so you may well feel that the sound comes from there as well. It's different for everyone. However, the sound that YOU hear inside your head is not what your audience hears. You cannot judge your own voice by the sound you hear.
WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO PRACTICE DYNAMICS? WHEN I ATTEMPT TO SING OPERATICALLY, I ONLY GET GOOD RESONANCE IF I SING LOUD. WHEN I SING SOFT, I AM VERY BREATHY.
If you're breathy, it's because you're not supporting properly and not focussing the sound. Your teacher should be able to give you some exercises to help develop your support, as well as some exercises to focus your breath. One of my exercises is to do a mezza di voce on one tone, while alternating the vowels <u> and <i>, concentrating on keeping the crescendo/decrescendo absolutely even.
WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO INCREASE LUNG CAPACITY OR IMPROVE BREATH CONTROL? I WANT A LARGE SOUND, BUT I CAN'T SEEM TO GET MORE THAN TWO MEASURES OUT IN ONE BREATH. WHEN I TRY TO "SAVE" AIR, I FEEL AS IF I TIGHTEN MY THROAT --- CAN I HELP WITH MY LIPS?
You cannot manufacture a large sound, and this is one of the wrong ideas that listening to recordings without the benefit of a teacher to explain things gives you. You're trying to compare your progress to singers who are much older and much further advanced in training --- you aren't SUPPOSED to sound like that at this time in your life. Also, you can't really tell much about the size of a voice from a recording, in which the sound has been manipulated through the use of microphones and engineering techniques.
Your voice is what it is. You may or may not have a naturally big voice. Your natural voice will develop with time, training, and maturity (at 17 or 18 years old, you still have quite a bit of growing to do, and your voice will mature along with the rest of your body). As you train, you will be able to project more and your sound will increase in volume; you will also have more control over your dynamics.
Now, increasing your breath control comes with practice. The first thing you have to do is really learn to support (and this is an ongoing process which you'll work on all your life as a singer). It sounds to me like maybe you aren't supporting enough and you probably don't "spend" your breath properly. If you were my student, I'd have you make a sustained "ts" sound, hissing through your front teeth, and make the tone follow the path of that hiss. Then I'd have you sing without the hiss. I would also show you how to breathe very deeply and slowly in order to have more air to use.
You can't save breath. It must be focused and directed by use of the abdominal muscles. Your lip shape affects vowel sounds, but most of the work is done with the tongue, not the lips.
WHAT ARE SOME GOOD TECHNIQUES TO WORK ON FOR BREAKS AND GETTING RID OF THOSE AREAS WHERE MY SOUND IS VERY BREATHY?
Again, the breathiness occurs when you drop your support. I have my students sing a sustained "mi-me-ma-mo-mu", followed by "mieaou" on a single pitch, working on supporting all the way through the line and channeling the breath.
For negotiating breaks, it's usually easier to approach them from the top going down, very slowly, keeping absolute legato connection the entire time you're singing. That way you can feel when the "gears" start to shift, and learn to blend accordingly.
HOW DO YOU INCREASE VOCAL RANGE? I ESPECIALLY NEED HELP EXPANDING MY LOW REGISTER BECAUSE I HAVE TROUBLE GOING BEYOND MIDDLE C. ALSO, MY HIGH REGISTER TENDS TO CRACK SOMETIMES WHEN I'M NOT CAREFUL.
Your range will increase naturally as you develop your technique. It's good to stretch a little in both directions, but your teacher should guide you through this.
HOW DO YOU BUILD TECHNIQUE?
Very slowly, very carefully, over a long period of time. You start with lots of vocalises, graduate to simple songs, and eventually get to opera. If a teacher starts you off on opera, that person doesn't know what he/she is doing. I start my students off learning how to breath properly and support; singing without tension; proper posture; the proper embouchere for singing in different parts of their range; negotiating the breaks; singing with line. Support is the key.