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Progress vs. Preparedness

Originally published by Classical Singer magazine in May 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Over the years, a number of students have come to me needing technical overhauls, repertoire makeovers, or help recovering from a vocal injury or illness. Not many realized, at the start of our work together, how painstaking that work might be—or, ultimately, how rewarding. And not a few were rather surprised to hear my “diagnosis” of their vocal issues and my “prescription” for how to proceed. Some of them were willing to do the work; others became impatient and quit before the process was complete.

 Very few developing singers have the self-discipline and restraint to stick to slow-moving, highly detailed corrective work, especially when they want so very badly to perform professionally and hear the clock ticking away the moments of their careers. One highly motivated student, possessed of a good voice which had been damaged by poor training, worked very hard and made slow but steady progress. As the voice began to come together, heal, and develop, the singer was understandably anxious to move toward bigger goals, frequently suggesting ambitious repertoire and projects. Repeatedly, I found myself counseling patience and insisting, “Not yet.”

 My student was excited, and rightly so. This singer had done the long, slow, difficult homework. The voice was finally starting to work again, and better than it did before. After many months of painstaking work, it “felt great.” The singer was itching to audition and perform again.

Again and again, I had to be the bad guy and say, “Not yet.” The voice was better, but it was far from being ready for big projects and big repertoire, let alone the professional stage. There was still some repair and building to do. My student, understandably, found this very hard to accept.

When you’ve worked so very hard and made so much progress, it’s quite discouraging to be constantly redirected from what you think you need to do to reach your goals. Again and again, I hear from singers who are frustrated as they try to get their careers off the ground, who have spent hundreds of dollars on fruitless auditions in yet another season or have worked so hard but been passed over once again when their school operas are cast. Their universal cry is “But I’ve made so much progress!” That should count for something, shouldn’t it?

Of course it should, and it does. But the painful thing that most young singers don’t realize is that progress, while wonderful and important and worthy of all manner of celebration, does not equal preparedness. To put it another way, people don’t hire progress. They hire the person who is prepared to do the job, and do it spectacularly.

 It can be a difficult lesson, but singers absolutely must learn to understand their own package in context. To do that, we first must learn to detach ourselves somewhat. Without becoming numb, we must learn to take a step back from the emotions, ego, and longing so wrapped up in our efforts to become artists that people want to hire. We have to be able to separate our feelings about our voices and our studies, as well as our hopes and dreams for our careers, from the work we’re doing to develop an artistic product that is marketable.

Learning to self-evaluate is critical to a singer’s success. Professionals spend months on the road without benefit of voice lessons or coachings, with feedback coming only from the people in a position to influence future hiring. A professional has to have a solid, fact-based concept of how his voice works and what he needs to do—technically, artistically, and dramatically—in order to consistently present himself well.

Students can begin to develop a sense of perspective about their voices by attending performances, listening to many different recordings, and studying the development of well known singers in their Fachs. It’s particularly important to trace the repertoire of these singers throughout their careers. What were your idols singing when they were your age or at your career level? If you’re a 22-year-old soprano, you shouldn’t be basing your comparisons on what Freni sang when she was 45! But be very careful about attaching yourself to a Fach, especially when you’re a developing singer.

It is especially counterproductive for developing singers to be so focused on their Fach, and yet it’s something almost all young singers desperately wish to identify. It’s human nature to want to belong, to know where you fit in. It’s comforting. But young singers, sometimes led by misguided teachers, frequently adhere to a concept of Fach which may or may not be correct, may or may not be what people will actually hire them for, and may or may not be what they will end up singing when their voices and artistry mature.

It’s as if they want a road map to follow, one that will tell them at every point of the way what they “should” be doing. Again, it’s comforting. But voices are highly individual, and so is development! It can be quite damaging to adhere slavishly to a rigid interpretation of Fach, especially when the voice is developing. It’s far better to forget about labels and concentrate on figuring out not only what you sing very well, but where your voice can really shine. And that in itself takes a lot of work. In masterclasses at New York University, soprano Martina Arroyo counseled student singers and teachers to choose repertoire carefully and not to “go big” too soon—a classic error of impatient singers. Remember her wise words: “Protect your talent!”

 If you are serious about becoming an accomplished singer, you will have your flirtations and fantasies about your career and dream repertoire, much like little girls plan their dream weddings. But ultimately, when it comes to making decisions about what you should be studying and singing, you will approach it with a certain detachment. This enables you to really work and develop technique and to discover what your voice can really do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t flirt with your dream repertoire—who hasn’t belted out “Vissi d’arte” at a party, just for fun? But no professional can afford to become sentimental about repertoire. You and your teachers may have one idea about what you should be singing, but the market may have another—and if you want to work, you will have to embrace that.

One major mistake developing singers often make in choosing repertoire is relying on what feels “comfortable.” This is deceptive. Singing, as a rule, should feel relatively physically easy, and certainly you should be able to negotiate most of a role with ease and technical comfort. But some people use “comfort” to avoid addressing their technical difficulties. A role can be comfortable and still technically challenging! Ideally, your core repertoire should feel comfortable, but comfort is only one indicator of what you should be singing. Many singers can comfortably negotiate arias from a variety of Fachs. I once heard Marilyn Horne sing a beautiful “Mi chiamano Mimì” in a masterclass, not exactly one of her many famous roles! Baritone Mark Oswald’s students love to brag affectionately about his “Nessun dorma.” But these are isolated arias, not complete roles. You cannot judge your voice type from arias—arias can be deceptive. The real key to whether you can sing something credibly is whether you can sing the entire role with orchestra, without straining, without having difficulty being heard, without major technical flaws, and without completely exhausting yourself physically.

But even if you can sing the role comfortably and well, that’s not enough. As Robert Larsen of Simpson College and Des Moines Metro Opera famously tell his students, “Sparkle or die!” Your repertoire must show off what’s best about your voice. You must look for the “wow” factor. And if you’re having a hard time getting cast, while getting good feedback about your singing and technique, the “wow” factor might just be what’s missing.

A couple of years ago, a young soprano attended my opera training workshop. She was singing a lot of very lyric repertoire for which she was visually and vocally unsuited. There was nothing wrong with her basic technique, really, and she was completely comfortable singing these pieces; it was simply an undistinguished sound and it was getting her nowhere. Acting on a hunch, I gave her an aria from a heavier Fach and, lo and behold, suddenly, there was the special voice. Not only that, but this was a role she could be marketable in—physically, dramatically, and personality-wise—whereas her “leftover” repertoire from college was not.

Speaking of “leftover” repertoire, this is an issue for young singers. Some people, especially those with lighter voices, may sing the same repertoire they learned in college all their lives. Most do not. And even if you are vocally suited for a role such as, say, Alfredo or Lauretta, five or 10 years after you graduate, you may not look so much like an Alfredo or Lauretta anymore. Image and personality play a part in creating a brand that works for you and will help you get work.

Singing the right repertoire is, of course, not the end-all and be-all of whether you get work or not. I work with many aspiring singers and I find that often they simply have not developed the “ears” to know when they’re singing well and when they’re not. You need to be able to tell whether you are singing in tune and on the beat. You need to know what real legato sounds like and be able to perform it. Your languages need to be impeccable. You need to be able to sing a phrase simply and beautifully, without pressure or strain. Record yourself and listen—not just to yourself and your peers but to the pros, the people who are out there doing the job you hope to be doing.

Be willing to be ruthless with yourself—not cruel, but realistic and honest. Ask yourself whether the sound you are hearing yourself make is consistent with the sounds you hear from professional singers in live performance and on recordings. Ask yourself whether your voice can currently fulfill the requirements—all of them, not just most or some—of the roles you think you should be singing.

 If not, what is lacking? That’s what you need to fix, and if you can’t fix it in a reasonable amount of time, you should reconsider whether you’re singing the right repertoire and/or presenting yourself to the right audiences. Ask yourself too what you can bring to the stage as an artist that is both unique and well done. And don’t forget to celebrate your progress—while you continually evaluate your preparedness.