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Why you're not going to be a professional opera singer ... part 2

Wow. What a great response from singers, teachers, colleagues, people who were in the business and left, people who studied and then decided not to go into the business ... so many thoughtful and valuable comments on Part 1. I am both thrilled and humbled to see the dialogue that is resulting from my thoughts set down in the previous blog post. Thank you to everyone who commented here, on Reddit, on FaceBook, or in private messages to me ... and as people who all love singing and opera, let's keep the dialogue going.

Many people eloquently expressed that they felt the article didn't cover all the bases; and they're right. It wasn't intended to. It is directed primarily towards singers in the their studies or the very beginning of their careers and was inspired by many, many conversations with working singers, teachers, opera company administrators, and other industry professionals. It is also directed very specifically to those singers who want the all-singing, all-the-time career path ... which is but one of many valid choices.

Some folks expressed displeasure at what they feel is too much negativity. Sure, the title is a bit sensational --- made ya look, didn't it? It's the way of the Internet and it got a lot more hits than Ten Things,  gentle suggestions for getting the  most out of your education and addressing some of the shortcomings of our educational system which we must overcome.

I don't write these things to be mean or hurtful. I believe in tough love with the emphasis on love.  I also believe in humor, compassion, and lending a helping hand to anyone who wants to enjoy opera at any level of participation.  I want to get people's attention and make them think. I want young people who are going into this business to make the very most of their time, money, and other resources and get a good start so they have the best possible chance at being successful --- however they define that.

It has always been one of my tenets that every one of us has to define success for ourselves. One of the first things I tell singers who attend my workshops is that we singers must take ownership of our art and our careers and behave like CEOs of our own small businesses --- and that includes deciding how YOU want to fulfill your own dream.

Clearly I could have done a better job of introducing my thoughts and providing context, especially for first-time readers. Lesson learned. So let's see if I can hit a few more of the bases this time. Here they are --- more reasons why you might not make it as a professional singer.

1. Singing is a really, really, really expensive business, and it never stops being expensive. Educating yourself; continuing education via voice lessons, coachings, training programs; travel to auditions; warm-up space; headshots; commissions; living expenses on the road ... the list of expenses goes on and on. If you're starting a career in major debt, via student loans and/or credit cards, it's that much harder. Very few singers behave as if they are preparing to be small business owners --- and yet that is exactly what you, as an artist, are doing. It helps to realize this early on and plan accordingly.

Of course we all have to pay the rent and buy the food, and life isn't really worth living if you can't have the occasional pair of awesome shoes or  a night out with friends. My point is, you have to have a plan and you have to figure out how you're going to pay for your expensive career on top of these things. You have to find a way to avoid debt as much as possible, build up a nest egg, and have some flexibility in your day job so that you can attend auditions and take time to do gigs.

This is not in any way easy. But it's what you sign on for when you decide to go for the big career, or even the fulltime regional career.

2. Schools and teachers cannot teach you everything you need to know. Many young singers don't realize this, and think if they just faithfully fulfill their degree requirements, they will walk out with a piece of paper in their hands and a job will be waiting for them.  That's not happening in most professions these days, let alone singing.

Schools have criteria they must meet; and your voice teacher's main job is to teach you to sing, though we often look to our teachers for information and our first contacts in the business. And most teachers I know are very generous with their extracurricular help; but it's still not enough.

You have to educate yourself about the business to a large degree, and it's a lot to take on. Start by doing a lot of research and asking a lot of questions.  Find out what your professional publications are and read them (I listed some resources in the previous article). . And yes, take advantage of continuing education resources when they come your way. Summer training programs and YAPs aren't just important because you get to have more voice lessons and sing roles. You also make contacts that may help you down the line.

3. Our educational institutions could be doing a much better job. Academia has its own requirements, and while many of them are logical and beneficial, when it comes to training people for careers in performance, sometimes those requirements handicap the institution in its ability to provide a good education.

Academic achievements are not sufficient in and of themselves to make a successful professional performer. Knowing the precise location and function of the cricothyroid muscle or being able to write a tone row  is not going to get you a singing job (any more than being a great singer means you're automatically  qualified to teach). There is something dramaticall wrong about a preference to hire, as a voice teacher, a freshly minted DMA who has never sung on the professional stage and has no non-academic credentials over someone  might lack a degree but has a distinguished performing resume and a studio full of successful private students. 

There is something wrong about an institution which discourages its voice faculty from performing at the highest level  because it means they can't teach their students on a weekly basis.  (This happens all the time --- a colleague of mine was recently forced to choose between his voice studio and his singing career, and the losers are of course his students).  There's something wrong about an institution that has no faculty currently performing ---- if no one on the voice faculty has sung professionally for the past 15 years, they may be teaching great vocal technique but who is there to can help educate students about today's market and  help them get jobs in today's vastly changed and constantly shifting industry?

Does the institution teach Italian? (I've been hearing more and more often from young singers whose schools no longer do so). Does it provide enough performance opportunities so that most singers can get some sort of roles on their resumes before they graduate? Does the school encourage singers to seek outside educational and performance opportunities (many don't and furthermore, actively discourage it).

No single institution or teacher can, or should be expected, to be all things to all students. A certain amount of responsibility lies with the student to choose  the right place for himself. But educators also have a responsibility to guide and to provide the best they can.

Bottom line: is this institution graduating performance majors who are employable as a rule, not as an exception?

4. It's not all in your hands. Even if you are a very good singer, even if you've read every publication and attended every master class and made every contact and done everything as right as you possibly can do, there are elements of timing and luck which are simply beyond your control.

I have a friend who is an amazing singer; wonderful actor; attractive; business savvy; good people. When I first met her (she was still in school) she stood out, radiating potential star power. And she achieved. She did a very high profile YAP and got to sing mainstage engagements with major names in the business. She gets great reviews  and people love her both on and off the stage. But she has had terrible luck with a certain area of the business, for various reasons, not one of which has anything to do with her talent, work ethic, or marketability. As a result, although she has a good career, it's not as big as it probably could have or should have been. It happens.

What stands out to me about this friend  is that she blooms where she is planted. She could have let any one of the setbacks she's experienced derail her, but singing is what she wants to do, so she figures out a way to move ahead on her own terms. And she enjoys her life.

 This business takes persistence. It also takes perspective.

 5. Sometimes you gotta drive, sometimes you gotta stop and smell the roses - but you gotta know which is which. Remember The Devil Wears Prada? I really hated Andy's friends, especially the boyfriend. They were jerks. They were happy enough to hear her crazy stories and get the swag from her sweet gig, but the minute she wasn't there for a birthday the whining started, and suddenly she was this uncaring bee-yotch because she was dedicating a hard year of her life to getting her career as a writer off the ground. If you are in the military, or if you're a doctor, or a recent addition to a law firm, guess what? Your family isn't going to see that much of you for a while, either. You work it out.

It's not exclusive to the opera business, but especially when you are trying to establish yourself, you have to put in a great deal of effort. I'm not saying you can never again take the time to go to a friend's wedding or be there for your kid's Easter pageant. However, when it comes down to a choice between a gig which pays the rent, puts a needed credit on your resume, and/or provides a stepping stone to the next level and something else, you have to make a difficult choice. 

 Of course career isn't the end all be all, but when you're getting started, you need to prioritize career, especially when you're working freelance. That doesn't mean never, ever choosing personal life over career, but you are going to have to miss out on some things in lieu of career-building opportunities. Sometimes you will choose your personal life, and if that means you miss an opportunity you just have to work a little harder and get the next one. It happened to me early on --- my grandmother was in the hospital and she clearly wasn't going to be coming out, and I passed on the opportunity to sing a small solo on a broadcast so that I could go home and be with her. It had its repercussions, but I don't regret my decision and I did eventually recover from it, professionally.

But I also gave up a lot in the beginning to focus on my career, and I don't regret that, either. Balance came a little later, when I was more or less up and running. Of course, the tough choices don't go away once you're better established, but you're usually in a better position to deal with them and possibly work out compromises.

6. You're a special snowflake in a blizzard of special snowflakes. There are a LOT of good singers out there, and competition is stiff. If you happen to reside in a heavily populated Fach, then making yourself stand out from the crowd is an even bigger challenge --- but once again, if you're making a go at the Big Career, this is what you're signing on for.

I met a young singer last year in Chautauqua --- actually, I met a whole slew of ridiculously talented young singers --- who is a really standout. Cree Carico is a light lyric soprano and I'm just sure she's going to be a big deal, because on top of the talent and training, she has, to use a buzzword,  developed a very distinctive brand. She has a unique look which really suits her personality and interests; she's fearless; she works her repertoire; and whatever she does, she completely goes for it.

This is the business nowadays, and this is how you distinguish yourself (beyond, of course, developing your talent). You must learn what it is you do well, what you are most marketable for, and how to get that message out to the people doing the hiring.

7. Whatever you're going to do, you must be honest with yourself about it. In university/conservatory, often the only "successful" path that is held up to us is the Big Singing Career. That path is pretty murky. I am very grateful for my teacher, Mignon Dunn, who despite having gone pretty much straight to the Met in her own career, told my undergraduate opera class that there were LOTS of ways to have a career as a singer, and enumerated them (something I now speak about a lot in my workshops).  But a lot of singers still buy into the concept that they must go for the Big Career, when the truth is that the BC is only accessible to a very small percentage of us.

To put it  simply, know your mission. You have to know why you're in this business and what you hope to accomplish. As Another_Jeremy pointed out in the comments for Part 1, you can be a fantastic artist without being in the business of making art. Being a good businessperson and a good artist aren't necessarily the same thing.

Nor are they mutually exclusive. If you're looking for the Big Career or even for the good solid Not So Big career, you need the skills of both. In order to use your resources --- time, money, all the talents at your disposal, all the support you have from various sources --- well, you need to have a goal and a realistic plan for how you're going to achieve that goal. You have to take concrete steps towards achieving that goal, and you have to be accountable to yourself for your progress (or lack thereof).

Your goal may change over time. This is okay. It may be that in the pursuit of your goal, you realize that what you really want has changed or become clearer to you.  Just be honest with yourself about it. Don't cling to something you aren't happy with because you don't know what else to do, or because you've been doing it so long and invested so much in it that you're afraid to stop. This is your life and you only get one go at it, so spend it doing what makes you feel happy and fulfilled.

Again, in all sincerity and good will, I wish you the best of luck.