Ask Erda: You Are Not The Boss of Me

When I give workshops on the business aspects of singing, the very first session is entitled “Welcome, CEOs.” If you’ll forgive a little New-Age-speak, it’s about owning your power, your voice, your art, and your career. This is an especially difficult concept for many singers, whose training reflects an almost constant message that singers are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to knowing what’s right for their voices and their careers, that they have few choices for education and career track, and that they’d better toe the line or they won’t get hired. Singers often develop a sense of hopelessness, a heavy dependency on others for their personal success, or worse, a victim mentality. It’s like remaining in perpetual childhood.

Nonsense. As my little brother used to say on a regular basis, “You’re not the boss of me.” If you’re not in charge of your education, your career, and the development of your voice, in the end, no one will be. Your teachers, coaches, and managers are only yours for the time you pay them to work with you. Certainly they advise you, sympathize with you, invest in you psychologically, and want you to succeed—but they can’t do it for you, and it’s not their job to tell you what to do anyway. It is their job to help you discover your voice and guide you in your career choices, but success or failure is up to you.

No one knows your voice better than you do—you’re the only one on the inside, the only one who lives with it every day. No one knows better than you what circumstances you can live with and what makes you happy or miserable. No one knows better than you what goals you should be aiming for. Don’t let anyone tell you that they do.

I am not suggesting that anyone should necessarily go against the advice of their teachers, coaches, conductors, directors, or managers. What I am saying is that you must be in charge. You are the decision maker; they are your trusted and valuable advisors. If you find yourself clashing with their advice on an ongoing basis, then it’s time for a major reassessment of your own abilities and your relationship with the adviser in question. If you can’t trust their opinions, why are you paying them to guide you?

Truckloads of chutzpah are required to stand up for yourself, especially when you’re starting out and don’t really know what you’re doing. But when I recall moments when I’ve stood up to people—the voice teacher who wasn’t paying attention in lessons, the patronizing coach, the opera company administrator who didn’t want to pay me what I was worth (pre-management), the manager who wanted me to sing a Fach that would have ruined my voice—I realize that everything, eventually, worked out in my favor. (Switched to a much better teacher, established a terrific working relationship with the coach who then introduced me to my first manager, got more money and subsequent gigs from the opera company, found a manager who agreed with me on Fach). And when I did those things, I was so green you could’ve grown potatoes on my head.

Another singer, who wished to remain anonymous, shared his/her own story about taking control. This graduate student was told that because he/she needed to lose 25 pounds, he/she would not be cast in a leading role for which he/she was well suited. Furthermore, because of weight alone, this singer was channeled into character roles and told that his/her strengths lay there. The singer was terribly frustrated and unhappy. “I withdrew from all opera productions, went into the studio with my teacher and the practice room with myself, and came away with an awesome recital and a hell of a lot more respect for myself,” wrote the singer. “The positive energy I was able to create by removing myself from the environment was amazing.” This singer has enrolled in another program and is singing leads.

“This is never to say that you should avoid situations,” the singer writes. “This is to say that ultimately, you are responsible for your voice and your life. If singing with someone is making you miserable, get out. In a way, I am glad for what happened to me. It has made me figure out what it is I’m doing, why I want to do it, and just what I will put up with from people. And, at the end of the day, I can say that I am singing in order to fulfill a need within myself, and no one else.”

Of course, in order to make this philosophy work for you, you must be brutally honest with yourself. You must be ruthless in your assessment of your vocal abilities, the state of your technique, your appearance, your acting ability, and your business sense. If you are failing over and over again, you have to embrace the possibility that it just might be you, and do what you can to diagnose and treat the problem. How do you do that? And how do you go about taking control?

Take stock, and be brutal with yourself.

Are you hearing different criticisms from different people, or the same thing over and over? Are you clashing with your advisers because you don’t really believe in them, or because they’re not telling you what you want to hear? Are you looking for the magic button that will fix everything that’s wrong and turn you into a successful singer? What’s the difference between you and the people who are being hired for the roles you want?

Be educated and informed.

Don’t wait for someone to point out what roles you should be learning, what YAP you should be applying for, or which opera company is doing your repertoire next season. Do some research every day. Check your progress against other singers at your level. Thanks to the Internet, there are more resources at your fingertips than ever before. Learn how to use them.

Surround yourself with advisers you can trust

Don’t settle for teachers, coaches, or managers who don’t really support you. It’s your time, money, and effort. Yes, it’s a lot of trouble to change schools, studios, managers, or locations, but ultimately, if you don’t make needed changes, you will have wasted precious commodities and still not have what you need.

If you find yourself in a situation where you must confront someone, plan ahead of time what you want to say.

Say it firmly, politely, and respectfully (keep emotion out of the equation if you can), and then stop talking. It doesn’t pay to burn any bridges, so always leave the other person a way to save face. If they try to argue or dissuade you, simply repeat that you respect their opinion, but after careful consideration, you’re going in a different direction. Don’t argue, and don’t give into emotion. Remember, this is a business transaction.

It’s not easy to contradict advice from someone who is more successful and established than yourself (especially if you fear there may be consequences, such as the person not wishing to work with you in the future, or declining to advise you further). You may feel that you don’t have the knowledge, or the financial or emotional resources, to change voice studios, schools, or managers, to turn down a profitable Zerlina because you’re really a Donna Elvira, or to tell a manager that despite the fact that you look like a heldentenor, you sing Tamino and feel that 23 is a little too young to be learning Siegfried anyway. But look past the moment, and imagine yourself five years from now if you do this thing you really think isn’t right. Then imagine what it would be like to take the freedom, and the responsibility, for yourself, your voice, and your career. Imagine—just imagine—being the Boss of You.

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.