First published in Classical Singer.
I often become very frustrated with the apparent reality that hyper-extroverted, schmoozy singers get more attention and opportunities than the more conservative, "down to earth" types. What are your observations about the distinction between being a good networker and a friendly, out-going person, and being (harsh, I know) superficial and grossly in need of attention, off stage and on?
Sincere or Schmooze?
Schmooze or lose, baby. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Someone who is an attention hog or psychic vampire (sucking the energy out of everyone around them) is hard to compete with at their own game, at which they are experts. What you have to do is be the opposite --- casual, down-to-earth, modest but assertive, terribly charming--- and work the side of the room farthest away from the screamer. Also, you have to catch your schmooze target when Mr. Or Miss Lookatmelookatmelookatme isn’t around. If you’re forced to compete, avoid a power struggle (you’ll lose). Wait until they take a breath and then change the subject to a) focus on the listeners, in which case you may be able to edge Lookatme out of the conversation, or b) a topic that will subtly lead up to YOU.
Schmoozing has an undeserved bad reputation. It’s not an undesirable thing, although there are certainly insincere people who do it both badly and well (and perhaps that’s where the reputation comes from).
Schmoozing is both a talent and a developable skill. Some people are born schmoozers. They know how to insinuate themselves into conversations naturally and easily. They know how to make small talk, they like it, and they’re good at it. They know how to casually drop information they want others to know into the conversation, how to ask for an introduction, how to get information they want, all without being obnoxious or obvious. Good schmoozers are charming and sincere; they tell good stories, and they listen. They show a genuine interest in other people. All that, or else they’re very, very good at faking it.
If you’re not a natural schmoozer, you can learn to be, and increase your comfort level with it over time. First, work on your attitude. Often we’re afraid to approach people because we feel we’re intruding on them, asking for something to which we’re perhaps not entitled. What if instead, you thought of yourself as having something wonderful to offer? What if, instead of thinking that you must be insincere or flattering or sucking up, you developed a genuine interest in the people you’re approaching?
Next, develop the skills mentioned above. At parties, ask someone in the company to introduce you to everyone --- the publicity guy is usually a really good person to do this. He’s a natural schmoozer, guaranteed, and besides, it’s his job. Make a point of talking to the people in your immediate vicinity. Ask that older gentleman what the pin on his lapel means. Compliment a lady on her dress. Ask them if they enjoyed the opera, which are their favorites, where they’re originally from, what brought them here, do they have family in the area. If no one has introduced you, introduce yourself by name AND by character. Once you’ve made friends, ask them to introduce you to other people.
For more intimate situations such as rehearsals or chance meetings, be prepared with intelligent questions or remarks for the person you hope to cultivate. A tiny bit of well-constructed, sincere flattery goes a long way. Tell the schmoozee that you value his opinion and would like to get it over drinks or coffee --- if that’s appropriate. Of course, you must be perceptive about his mood and your timing. Your cause will only suffer if you try to schmooze someone who’s distracted, or in a bad temper, or a hurry.
Part of being a good schmoozer is knowing when to stop. If you aren’t getting anywhere, if the rumor mill is starting to crank out the word “suck-up” in conjunction with your name, back off. Not everybody is going to like you or your product. Give it a good try and then save your energy for those who either do, or can be convinced.
As a singer whose resume reflects a relative lack of experience for my age, I feel that auditioners often see me as unqualified. What are some strategies I can use to convince them to take a chance on me?
Untraditional but not Untalented
Dear Uniquely Talented,
At the risk of sounding very rude (which is not my intention), are you sure that your auditioners are making that assumption? How do you know that it’s your age, as opposed to your lack of experience, that’s discouraging them? Are you certain that you ARE qualified for this particular opportunity?
These are difficult and unpleasant questions, but you must ask yourself and try to give as honest an assessment as possible. When you’re not getting hired, one of the first things you have to ask yourself is: Are my skills at the level I think they are? Am I auditioning appropriately? Am I offering them what they need to see to hire me for this type of role? Have a consultation with a reputable expert who is not a member of your usual team and can therefore be objective --- a conductor who works with singers and also may coach, an agent, a respected teacher.
In other words, first make sure that the problem is the one you think it is. If it’s your lack of experience that’s making them hesitate, well, that’s a legitimate concern. Employers are reluctant to take chances even on experienced singers who they don’t already know --- that’s why we need managers and networking. So if lack of experience is holding you back, look hard at the list of where you’re auditioning and see what the very next step up the ladder would be for you. That should be your goal.
Another question --- why is your age an issue? Unless you’re a forty-year-old soubrette (or you just look like one), or you’re auditioning for a young artist’s program which has age requirements, no one should be asking your age and you certainly shouldn’t volunteer it. If you’re auditioning for a young artist’s program and you are 1) well past the age when most people do YAPs and 2) a member of a well-populated fach, I’m afraid you’re in for a really hard sell. Your choices are limited. Either lie convincingly about your age (and be able to back it up) or expend the time, money, and energy you’ve been spending on YAP auditions on mainstage auditions --- at an appropriate level. Don’t forget to go in for symphonies and chorus soloist gigs.
If you’ve tried all that, and you’re sure it’s not .. ahem … you, then try being sneaky.
• Ask pointblank what you can do to get heard. What would it take? Caution: this must be done politely and respectfully, at an appropriate time, without a hint of desperation.
• Attempt to approach the auditioners through a non-audition situation, such as a coaching. Once they experience your talent, they may change their minds. You also may be in a good position to ask the above question.
• Get the best recommendations you can muster, and include them in the next materials packet you send. Also, get the recommenders to make a phone call on your behalf.
• Along those same lines, who do you know who could network for you with these people? Maybe your voice teacher sang for them in the eighties and they really liked her? Maybe you worked with the conductor in a summer workshop somewhere? Maybe one of your colleagues sings there all the time, and you can find out what they like?
• Perhaps you need to give it some time. If you’ve been hammering on this particular door for a while now, give it a break. Go off somewhere else and put your energy in another direction. Get some experience elsewhere. Make sure the buzz of your success gets back to the stubborn ones. Let some time pass. Try again.
If all else fails, realize that sometimes you just have to accept that your particular product doesn’t appeal or fit the needs of a certain employer. Don’t spend too many of your resources beating your head against the wall. Redirect your energy towards something that seems more possible. Keep trying to move that one, tiny step ahead towards your goal.