Ask Erda: : Ten Things You Need to Know before You Graduate

Having spent most of your life in the heavily scheduled, regimented environment of school, life after graduation can feel overwhelming, especially for a freelancer. While many graduates go almost immediately into a structured 9-to-5 job, an artist finds herself suddenly in charge of . . . well, everything.

Not only are you making your own schedule, you’re managing yourself—researching and applying for auditions, deciding what roles you should be working on, negotiating contracts—all while maintaining a household and relationships and working a sustenance job with hours that may or may not interfere with the singing business you are trying to begin. Come to think of it, “overwhelming” may not be a sufficient description for this transitional period of life! While it will certainly be challenging, it doesn’t have to engulf you.

Before you don that cap and gown, here are 10 things that will help you structure your life after school and jumpstart your singing career.

1. A Simple Business Plan
In addition to launching your life as a professional artist, you are also launching a small business, of which you are more or less the sole employee. Starting a business requires funding and a plan, and it’s never too early to start acquiring these.

First, decide what your mission is—what do you hope to accomplish by entering the singing business? Why are you doing all this? Include both financial and artistic goals in your mission statement. It will give you a frame of reference for goal setting and decision making about opportunities that come your way.

Next, evaluate your current resources, including time, money, skills, and experience. What do you have right now that will enable you to pursue your goals? What are you lacking, and how can you get it? The answers to these questions, too, will help you determine your next step, which is to decide what goals to pursue. Should you audition for grad school or Young Artist Programs? Should you work for a while, build up a bankroll, and study privately? Should you take that teaching job? Let your mission statement guide you.

Finally, list all the intermediate steps you need to accomplish to reach each of your goals and then work on some of them every day. Give yourself a deadline for each goal and micro-goal. If you work consistently, you will see steady progress and results.

Of course, this is a very simplified version of a business plan, but it’s enough to get you started.

2. A Budget
It’s probably no surprise that singing is an expensive business. Voice lessons, coachings, application fees, travel, pianists, concert attire—the list goes on and on. If you’re not already budgeting, now’s the time to start. As a freelancer, it can be difficult to predict exactly how much income you’ll have coming in each month, but keeping a budget can certainly help you estimate. It will also help you see exactly how much you must spend—food, car insurance and gas or public transportation pass, rent, bills, etc.—and how much you have left over to invest in your singing career. For a free budget geared to singers, visit www.classicalsinger.com/budget.

3. An Income Stream (or Three)
Most professional musicians, even those who are well established, have more than one income stream. The number of people who make 100 percent of their income from performing is relatively small. As an emerging artist, you may find yourself working a day job as well as several small, regular music gigs such as church jobs, teaching, or (part-time) professional chorus work.

While it may not be what you dreamed of, it’s normal. Just make sure you set yourself up in jobs that offer some flexibility so you can get away for lessons, auditions, and singing gigs. Now is the time to develop special skills and perhaps get some training which allows you to work from home—or anywhere with Internet access.

4. A Contacts Database and Networking Skills
Auditioning is a necessary part of our business—but it’s not the only, or even the most important, way to get jobs. And even if you are getting most of your jobs through auditions, chances are contacts are what will get you those auditions.

Make it a practice to keep a database of people you know or meet—voice teachers, coaches, conductors, stage directors, patrons, artistic administrators, choir directors, other singers—anyone you come in contact with that has an interest in you or in the arts. Cultivate them as friends and mentors. Learn how to keep in touch casually but regularly—and make sure you do it.

5. A Working Knowledge of Resources and How to Research
Managing your own career requires a great deal of research. You need to know how to prepare a role dramatically as well as musically—how to find a rare score and how to evaluate the competition and determine which producers are most likely to hire someone with your particular package.

Fortunately, most companies have websites which can be mined for information, and you can always pick up the phone to ask questions you can’t find the answers to yourself, such as “Can you tell me who will be hearing the auditions on Saturday?” There is also a wealth of information on a variety of topics available in various publications and websites.

Following is a short list of important and interesting resources for singers:
• Classical Singer magazine
• The OPERA America publications, including the Artist ToolBox and Perspectives series (available on the OA website at www.OperaAmerica.org)
• The Musical America directory for general research on managers, companies, festivals, YAPs, and other need-to-know industry info (www.MusicalAmerica.com)
• www.YAPTracker.com for applications, tracking, and auditions
• www.TheBusinessofSinging.com Singers’ Resources page
• Kim Witman’s Wolf Trap Opera blog for an inside look at a YAP administrator’s thoughts (www.WolfTrapOpera.org)
• Technology for the Classical Singer blog: www.techfortheclassicalsinger.wordpress.com
• www.OperaStuff.com for a huge list of varied resources
• www.IMSLP.org for free downloadable scores

6. A Working Knowledge of Who’s Who in the Business
Sure, you know the names of the most famous singers and conductors—wonderful. But can you name five managers who represent young singers? Do you know who the current Lindemann Young Artists and Adler Fellows are, where they studied, and what repertoire they sing? The names of the people who are running Young Artist Programs and opera companies? Five well-known voice teachers and coaches in New York City?

Now is a great time to start figuring out where all the dots connect in this business. Networking is critical to your success, and it really helps if you know where people work and why they are important—not just the biggest names, but those who are getting, and giving, the jobs you hope to have soon. Read opera blogs, Opera News, and Musical America. Regularly check out opera company websites and see what they’re doing and who is doing it. Keep informed about the business you are spending so much time and money to become a part of.

7. The Beginnings of a Brand and a Package
“Brand” may be a fancy buzzword, but it’s a useful one. It helps the people doing the hiring figure out where you fit into their plan for their company. Your brand encompasses everything you present—your look, your personality, your unique voice and repertoire. This is all part of the package you are selling to producers. It shouldn’t be manufactured—it needs to be a representation of the very best of all you truly are.

Now is a great time to think about what your particular selling points are and how you can showcase them in the way you present yourself at auditions. This includes the repertoire you’re going to be singing. While it’s normal for young singers to have some esoteric selections on their aria list, and even a piece or two that may represent a stretch or a possible future Fach, the majority of your list should be things that you sing well now and show off the very best of your voice. If an aria isn’t exciting in your voice, you shouldn’t be singing it for auditions!

8. A Few Roles under Your Belt
It’s shocking how many singers graduate with advanced degrees and zero full-role experience on their résumés. Competition for roles at school can be fierce, just as it is in the professional world—but the fact remains that if you are training to be a professional singer, at some point you need role experience. If you aren’t getting it at school, get it somewhere—community theatre, summer training programs, or do-it-yourself productions.

Get together a group of friends, pitch in for a pianist, find a student director, and learn the opera of your dreams. Then perform it at your church or a retirement home. Besides, you need to know what is involved in learning a full role so well that you can fully inhabit it without worrying about pitches, rhythms, words, or vocal technique—often a challenge for young singers, and one of the things that makes the difference between a student and a professional.

9. Language Skills
Sure, you’ve probably dutifully studied French, Italian, and German, and perhaps even a little Russian and Spanish. Great! But in order to become a really excellent singer, you must have a command of Italian. It’s not enough to understand how to pronounce the words or to have decent diction. You need to really understand the cadence of the language in order to really understand how to sing legato. Furthermore, your facility in any language in which you sing regularly should be such that you can translate a score yourself with the help of a dictionary and the indispensable Nico Castel translations. And, certainly, if you plan to audition overseas, you’re going to need a much greater facility in the language of the country you’ll be singing in.

10. A Team (or, as Darren Keith Woods of the Fort Worth Opera Festival Calls It, a Board of Directors)
Every singer needs advisors, champions, and mentors—a team of experts who believe in you and are willing to offer advice or make a phone call on your behalf when appropriate. These might include your teacher and coach, a YAP or opera company administrator with whom you feel comfortable, a conductor you’ve worked with, a fellow singer who is further up the ladder than you, family members, and others who may have nothing at all to do with the music business.

You don’t need a slew of people—just a few whom you really trust and who have your best interest at heart. And you don’t need them all at once. In all likelihood, you’ll collect them over time, and personnel may change with your own needs and progress. Of course, you’ll need to be considerate of their time and effort—but if you treat them well, they will be invaluable to your career.

It may seem overwhelming to address this checklist before you leave school. But remember, you don’t have to complete it by tomorrow . . . just get started. If you work on each of these items, you will have a head start when you do graduate. Plus, there’s a great payoff: your transition to professional work will be easier, more efficient, and a lot more fun.

Cindy Sadler

Cindy Sadler is a professional singer, teacher, writer, director, and consultant. She is the founder and director of Spotlight on Opera, a community opera troupe and training program in Austin, Texas. Upcoming engagements include Marcellina in Le nozze di Figaro with the Jacksonville Symphony, alto soloist in Messiah with the Boise Philharmonic, and Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance with Portland Opera. For more information, please visit www.CindySadler.com and www.SpotlightOnOpera.com.