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First published in Classical Singer.

Dear Erda,

Why are singers so easily taken advantage of?

Poorer but Wiser


Dear Wiser,

There are two main reasons why singers allow themselves to be taken in by the predators who see us, blinded in our struggles to make our dreams come true, as easy targets.


Lack of Information

The first is that singers, as a rule, are not educated consumers, at least not when they start out. A business education is rarely available in school or conservatory, and young singers simply don't know what questions they should be asking. They are also often naive and don't do enough research when getting ready to spend their money.

Let’s say you plan to buy an expensive item, like a car. Wouldn’t you read up on that car, ask around, test drive several if you could? You wouldn't just walk into the dealership and plunk down a hefty check, trusting the nice salesman to fix you up because he's a professional and knows more about cars than you do and is willing to give you financing … would you?

But that's exactly the sort of things singers do all the time. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

- This program will accept me --- wheee, there goes my $2500, and what's this? I only get one half hour voice lesson a week? The role I was promised is triple cast? I'll be singing it in a working barn with accordion accompaniment? Well, okay. If I make a big stink the people running this program will ruin my career.

- I’m paying $25,000 a year for my education, but my voice teacher comes late to my lessons and screams at me and after two years of study with her, I still have intonation problems and can’t access my top. But I’m afraid to switch studios.

- This manager says he can make me a star in just a few years, and all I have to do is pay him $150 a month upfront; and wait a minute, here’s a bill for $350 for my Musical America ad and $200 a month for his glossy four-color brochure … ok, that could all be legitimate, but where are all these auditions he’s supposed to be getting me? I mean, the ones I couldn’t already get for myself?

Sometimes the information you need to make educated decisions is only available in the school of hard knocks. Sometimes, however, a little research will save you a lot of time, money, and heartache. In addition to research --- googling names on the Net, checking Musical America to see who’s who, sitting in on other people’s voice lessons, plain ol’ asking around --- an attitude adjustment is frequently in order. Decide that you are the person in charge of your own education and your own career. You’re driving this very expensive car. Listen to your mechanic’s advice, but ultimately, you be the one to say when you need to stop for gas, get a tune-up, or take a road trip, and you be the one to decide which garage should service it.

The sooner singers stop concentrating on how hard it is to get ahead in the business or flailing around grabbing at every proffered magic elixir, and start developing their self-perception and their artistry instead, the fewer singers will be getting taken for an unpleasant and expensive ride.


Desperation Mentality

The second major reason singers are taken advantage of is that because often they are acting out of desperation. They believe that if only they can get into the right program, or study with the right teacher, or sign with the right manager, or just get something --- anything-- on their resumes, they'll move up the ladder. They think they are Ready to Go, and can't understand why no one will hire them. So they get desperate and grasp at anything.

Here’s a little earthquake for you --- if you aren’t getting hired, maybe you aren’t Ready to Go, at least not for the jobs you’re applying for. Maybe you need to pull in your horns a little bit and do some serious self-assessment. Listen to and look at the singers who are getting the jobs you want, and listen with an analytical rather than a critical ear. There’s a reason they’re beating you out, and until you find it and fix it, it will keep happening.

Part of that self-assessment may include looking at your team. How long have you been with your current teacher and how long has it been since you feel you’ve made significant progress? Do you have a history of studio-skipping? Do you tend to blame your lack of success or progress on other people more than on yourself? What do you do for your career on a daily basis? Are you working on developing a career as much as you are on developing your technique and package?

Despair comes from not having faith in yourself and from failure to plan adequately. There’s no doubt that singing is a discouraging and difficult business. It’s important to have faith in your talent, in the product you have to offer, in yourself; and having faith is not the same thing as having a big ego or being arrogant. Having faith in yourself means valuing your talent and skills honestly, in the clear light of day, and not being afraid to let other people know that you value them.

Many times have I heard the wailing and gnashing of teeth from young singers fresh out of conservatory or years out of conservatory and now stuck in the temp ghetto --- “I just don’t know what to do next!” If you have a carefully constructed plan for your career, you have a structure, goals, and a yardstick for measuring your progress. You know what to do next, or what you believe you should do next, and you can gauge whether you’re on the right track. By identifying your goals and the steps you need to take to achieve them, you are breaking down an overwhelming mess into small, manageable pieces.

We singers tend to get obsessed and make our lives completely and utterly about our careers. Everything revolves around The Career. You're doing that crummy soul-sucking day job to support The Career. You can't go on vacation with your sweetie because you'll miss your church job and that's bad for The Career. It's unhealthy to live that way --- for anyone, not just for singers. Life is not a dress rehearsal, as the saying goes. If you're slogging along in misery day after day, not getting where you want to go, maybe it's time to look up and see what you can change to make the day to day less miserable, or to find a different route. What's the point of living in a trap?

If we concentrated more on bringing balance into our lives, on working on the artistry instead of worrying about The Career so much ... we would all be a lot less desperate and less likely to make expensive or foolish mistakes. Yes, we need to be out there working as singers, but that doesn't mean taking every opportunity that comes. It doesn't mean taking a bad or dishonest manager just to get a manager. It doesn't mean spending $500 to have someone look over your materials and make a few lame suggestions. It doesn't mean doing a program that costs you hundreds or thousands of dollars and doesn't deliver what it promised. It doesn't mean allowing people to disrespect you on a personal or professional level.

Yes, there are not plenty of predators out there, eager and ready to prey on singers' naivete and desperation. There are times when everything looks really good, and we've done our homework as best we can, and we put down our money and still get taken.

But I truly believe that if we strengthen ourselves and educate ourselves and refuse to fall into the pit of despair, that will happen less and less often. I think we all need to poke our heads out of the box on a regular basis, look around, and see what we can do to make our lives better --- not just The Career.