Shark-proofing for singers

One of the biggest complaints singers have is about how predatory the business is. Education literally costs a small fortune and when you graduate, you are not assured of being marketable as a singer, In fact, if you were unlucky enough to have a poor teacher who trained you in the wrong Fach or imparted bad vocal technique, you might actually have years and thousands of dollars' worth  of remedial work ahead of you before you can be marketable. Fees to audition for competitions, programs, and young artists' programs can be exorbitant and/or simply add up.  Some businesses ask artists to work for "exposure" instead of money. And some companies and managements that purport to be professional actually charge for auditions, asking singers, who already shoulder their own business expenses, to subsidize their cost of doing business.

Some of the people who are perpetrating these practices actually have honorable intentions and believe they are helping singers; others are caught up in systems or organizations over which they exert little control. Others don't care and are doing it because they can get away with it and will always find fodder.

Sadly, there are always going to be singers who will fall prey to predatory practices because their passion for performing outweighs their ability and they are desperate for any opportunity,  or because they do not possess a clear understanding of how the business works, or both. But if you're serious about navigating what can seem like shark-infested waters, part of your job is to learn how to avoid being a snack. Here are some ideas about how to accomplish that.

1. PERSONAL ASSESSMENT

When you're embarking on any new enterprise, you need to have a clear understanding of where you're coming from. Start by assessing your goals and resources --- personal (relationships, lifestyle, etc.), professional (make sure they are realistic and measurable), and financial (reality check --- the money to pursue your goals has to come from somewhere) --- and making sure these goals align with each other and the resources are there and compatible with your goals. 

When considering spending money on a project or service, ask yourself first what EXACTLY you need and desire. By defining exactly what you hope to gain, you will be in a better position to ask the right questions and determine which opportunities best fit your needs.

I've recently discovered a TERRIFIC and FREE online course on entrepreneurship for musicians, sponsored by University of Miami's Frost School of Music. Even if all you do is listen to the lectures, it's well worth your time. 

2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Whether you're investigating a training program, a new teacher, or an agent, you need to acquire some base knowledge first. Armed with a list of your resources, goals, and needs, you're ready to find out whether the opportunity being offered is a good fit. But you also need a good working knowledge of the business at hand, and what expectations are realistic. This doesn't happen overnight, and you can't get it all off the internet. Some of it just comes from the school of hard knocks. However, you can be smart about it and use the resources nearest to you. Talk to your voice teachers, choir directors, business people, other singers (especially those further  along in their careers than you) , conductors, stage directors, administrators --- anyone can be a contact and a source of  information. You'll get some conflicting information, so look for consensus and check out claims. Remember that anything that sounds too good to be true, is. 

Here are some resources to help gain perspective on various aspects of performance education and the business:

EDUCATION

The Student Singer's Starter's Kit (my self-published book; it's currently out of print, but if enough people are interested,  I will re-issue it as a download; and I have a few hard copies left for sale. If you'd like a copy or are interested in a download, email me).

Classical Singer Magazine and the Classical Singer Convention: CS is pretty much the only magazine geared toward singers' interests, and they are especially valuable for high school and college aged singers, as is their annual convention. They offer a well-attended college expo, as well as competitions and special classes for high school and college singers. 

My own relevant articles: 

Are Voice Students Lazy?  - Why don't students take more advantage of the opportunities presented to them? 

Ten Things - 10 things you should do before you graduate

Why You're Not Going to be a Professional Opera Singer - parts I, II, & III

Selected articles published in Classical Singer (you'll need a subscription to access the archives):

Progress vs Preparedness (May 2012)

Careers for Performers (July 2013)

The Entrepreneurial Artist (March 2012)

 THE BUSINESS

Cindy Sadler's Resources for Singers - a free listing of resources and services of interest to singers. 

Laura Claycomb's Young Artist Corner - soprano Laura Claycomb offers all kinds of resources and advice based on her own international career. 

Kim Witman's by-now-famous Wolf Trap Opera Blog - a candid view of what goes into creating a summer YAP and the audition process

Opera America offers courses, lectures, publications, and an archive of articles of great use to singers at all levels of development. 

My articles:

The Secret Lives of Singers - singers and day jobs

Us vs Them (parts I, II, & III) - the controversy over application and auditions fees (be sure to read all three parts)

How Much Did Your Last Job Interview Set You Back? - expenses of an opera career

Why You Shouldn't Sing for Your Supper - on singing for free

 Articles in the Classical Singer archives

Protection for Independent Singers (September 2015)

How to Reboot Your Singing Career (November 2014)

A Roadmap for Your Career Part I: (April 2014)

A Roadmap for Your Career Part II (May 2014)

3. ASK QUESTIONS

Sometimes singers are afraid that if they ask too many questions (or any at all) they will somehow offend the powers that be. If a person in authority is annoyed with you for simply asking questions --- especially a teacher, an agent, or anyone at all who is asking you to pay for their services ---  that is a red flag and you should be cautious about entering into a professional relationship with a potentially volatile, abusive, or controlling person. As long as your questions are reasonable, well-timed, and aren't excessive or inappropriate, you should never have fear of asking them. Your questions should be :

  • Researched. Don't ask someone for an answer that can easily be found by Googling or doing a little reading. And make sure you're clear on what you want to ask before you approach someone.
  • Specific. Ask for clarification on a point, not for someone to educate you about a broad topic. 
  • Well-Timed. Don't grab someone on their way out the door or when they're clearly in the middle of something. Don't trap someone on the elevator. Ask if you can email them or take them for coffee later.
  • Reasonable. If you're asking a lot of questions, especially follow-up, you need to make sure it's ok or offer to compensate someone for their time. 

Here are some questions to get you started investigating --- they are by no means comprehensive.

Some things to ask about schools you're thinking of attending (especially as a performance major):

 What kind of solo performance opportunities do you offer? Do you do full opera productions with orchestra? Do you do scenes programs? Do  you offer training in acting? Do you offer business training and entrepreneurship for musicians? Do you offer Italian, German, and French (both language study and diction)? Who are some of your alumni and where are they performing? What Young Artists Programs did they do? Where is your faculty performing and how often? 

Some things to research about teachers you're interested in studying with:

Are they still performing? If not, how recently did they perform? Where do/did they perform --- locally, regionally, nationally, internationally? How much of each? Who are their distinguished students and where are they performing? Is there a distinctive "studio sound" or do the students of this teacher sound individual? Do they tend to have the same technical issues across the board? 

Some things to ask teachers you're interested in studying with:

What is your teaching philosophy? Is teaching breathing and support important to you? Do you tend to use imagery, vocal science, or a combination of both? Where did you learn to teach and what drew you to teaching? What are your specialties?

Some things to ask of training programs you're considering:

What exactly I am getting for my money, in terms of voice lessons, coachings, and classes per week? How do you determine who gets to sing on master classes? What classes do you offer? How many performance opportunities are there and of what nature (full operas with orchestra or piano, scenes programs, concerts, etc.)? What is the housing like? What is included and what additional expenses might I be expected to pay for? What is the average age and developmental level of your students? 

Some things to ask of Young Artist Programs: 

What are my obligations? Will I sing run-out concerts, chorus, covers, mainstage comprimarios, leading roles in YAP productions, patron parties, board meetings, publicity events? How often will I be performing? How long is a typical day? Is this an AGMA apprenticeship or an AGMA house? How much will I be paid? Will I be paid for mainstage roles in addition to my YAP stipend? What kind of training opportunities or classes will be offered? Is is possible to be released to go study with my teacher, do auditions, or take other jobs that don't interfere with your season? Is housing, transportation, and/or a food stipend provided?

Some things to research about managers you're considering signing with:

How many singers are on the roster? How many sing the same repertoire you do? What is the manager to singer ratio? Where do these singers work and how often? Are they getting work you can't get for yourself right now without a manager? Is the website professional-looking? Are the singer bios  and resumes well-written and correct in spelling, grammar, and pronunciation? Who is the website marketing to -- potential singers for the roster, or producers who might hire those singers? How long have these managers been in business and what is their background? What is their reputation among other singers and opera companies? 

Some things to ask of managers you're considering signing with: 

Where do you see me fitting in to your roster and into the business at large? What kinds of roles will you be sending me out for, and to which companies? What do you look for in singers you sign? What would you change about me? What companies do you have relationships with? Do you charge a fee for auditioning for you, and if so, what does it pay for (i.e. are you paying for a pianist, or are you simply subsidizing the management's business expenses by helping pay for the room, etc.)? If they offer feedback as part of the audition and you're paying to audition, how long/thorough is the feedback? Do you charge a retainer and if so, how much and what does it cover? How long is the duration of your contract? 

Some things to ask yourself about any of the above:

Does this opportunity help fulfill my goals or does it take me in a different direction? How well does it fit my list of goals, needs, and desires? Is there anything about it I really don't like or that doesn't fit, and if so, do the negatives outweigh the positives? Does this school/program/teacher/manager resonate with me personally? Do they seem to like me? Are they invested in me? Are they enthusiastic about me and my talent? Can I see myself being in a relationship with this person or entity for the next X number of years?

If all these questions and all this research seems like a lot of work to you, well, it is. But it will also help you make better decisions and use your resources wisely. Plus, you can always get help! Friends, parents, mentors can all help you make sense of the maze. If it still seems overwhelming and impossible, consider getting some professional help, such as a life or career coach. I offer career consultations and project coaching through The Business of Singing, and there are other services out there, too. Just remember --- research a career coach's services just as you would any other to make sure it's a good fit and use of your resources!

"Knowledge is power," said Francis Bacon back in the 1600s, and it's still true today. Singers must take ownership of their education and their careers, and that means treating yourself like a business starting now. So before you dive in, shark-proof yourself by insisting on knowing, and getting, what you're paying for; and proceeding with a realistic and well-considered plan.