Empowering Your Summer Plans

This article was originally published in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

Adrian Dunn teaching a Masterclass with CS Music.



ind practical ideas for reaching out and creating opportunities in COVID-19 and beyond.

We are living in a time of turbulence and transformation. And amid all the pivoting, upending, and anxiety, we are adapting quickly. There will be things that leap ahead of schedule into semipermanence: telehealth, online therapy, and many other personal services.

Much of this is good and will be impactful and beneficial in terms of convenience and access throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are, of course, many services and experiences that fare better and more effectively live and in-person. Presumably, most of us who’ve been attempting YouTube-assisted in-home haircuts will transition back to the salon, and singers will return largely to in-person training programs, Young Artist Programs (YAPs), and conservatory practice rooms and rehearsal halls.

And while there is much to tout and celebrate about online instruction—how it’s allowed so many of us to collaborate, stay connected, and continue taking and teaching voice lessons—it is fair to posit that most of us are both eager and anxious to get back to primarily live training experiences for careers in live music making. This discussion is neither to argue about the future of streaming performances and audience trends nor to make arguments for the efficacy of the online experience. Rather, the aim here is to make some suggestions for the present moment and for the immediate future—specifically, for summer 2021. And if some of what’s discussed here proves helpful, post-pandemic, all the better!

The Elephant in the Room

For those applying to YAPs right now, planning can feel tentative at best. Outside of the usual agita of “Will they pick me?” “I’ve auditioned for them twice before,” and “I’ll age out of this one after this season,” etc., there’s an ongoing question as to what may or may not happen altogether in the summer of 2021. And that is elephant number one—it’s not Babar, it’s COVID-19.

Applying and proceeding as if programs will be up and running is prudent. So much can change so quickly, and we’re always better off with some options geared toward destination training. We’re also poised for positive experiences—not to mention better mental health and wellness—when additional options and alternatives can be easily accessed. I don’t have an elephant name for this (perhaps Babar has a cousin?).

On the chance that a YAP isn’t in the cards for you this summer—either because of social distancing measures or a “thanks, but no thanks” letter—do yourself a favor and take a moment to honor the disappointment for a day or two, but then spring into action with some actionable steps aimed at creating a key component or two of what you were after all along. Specifically, sit down and make a list of what you truly want/wanted out of a particular YAP or two.

For some, it’s far more on the networking side—with directors, conductors, etc. For others, it’s to get intensive time with a coach or specialist in their Fach. And for many, it’s to add a role or two to the résumé or to be immersed in a different culture and language. Regardless, it’s a good idea to get practical and be pragmatic in making some DIY-style plans for bringing YAP experiences a little closer to home (and to our ring lights and laptops).

Simple Steps for Planning

For much of 2020, we adapted to an online and home-centered life. At first, we were all pivoting, adjusting, commiserating, and coping. As time passed, we modified and adjusted while creating new, semi-normal circumstances. Post-pivot, it became abundantly clear that access to people, resources, and experiences became available in ways we’d not anticipated, as celebrities and luminaries became special Zoom guests in class, and workshops had all-star panels that non-COVID-19 time scheduling and travel would most likely not allow. In short, access and accessibility have shifted dramatically.

Access to Luminaries and Proposing an Intimate Masterclass or Workshop

Suppose your experiential desire was to glean some wisdom and inspiration from an opera legend or theatrical innovator at a particular YAP—and maybe not exclusively specific to your aria package or personal vocal technique. What’s stopping you from reaching out to an idol or two? If you’re grounded at home, it’s probable that your idol is staying put somewhere as well and unexpectedly available and eager to engage. Facebook, management websites, and online searches can guide you swiftly to the appropriate contact information and, often, our teachers know many of these practitioners and can help us make a connection.

Next, make a plan that includes some friends and colleagues. These may be a couple of singers from your studio at school or singers and/or student collaborative pianists from a previous summer program. Once you’ve assembled this cohort, pick two or three luminaries to reach out to with a request for a group class or workshop. You might propose this as a masterclass or Q&A depending on the discipline of the person you’ve approached.

For instance, you might reach out to a director known for helping singers bring Shakespeare’s words to life. In your connection email to this director or their management, you might include a mini proposal requesting availability and the cost for a workshop or masterclass centering on arias/scenes from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Verdi’s Falstaff, and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The workshop might include spoken work on soliloquies from the original plays. Have a focus but remain open and flexible.

And be sure to mention that you are students seeking alternative ways in which to connect and learn outside of the traditional YAP setting. These folks usually, and deservedly, have high fees, but during these uncertain times and with the industry in such a state of flux, you might be pleasantly surprised by an artist’s willingness to meet and make it happen. Further still, removing the complications of travel and hotel—not to mention adding the convenience of Zoom—you’ll likely be able to connect with someone you otherwise wouldn’t.

How Do I/We Pay for This?

Once you know what you’re dealing with from a financial standpoint, determine as a group if it’s feasible to pool your resources in order to work and connect with the artist in question. I remember being inspired by a professor at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music as he reminisced about a time when he and his friends combined their money to pay for an hour or two with a famous jazz musician. They spent their time with the legend jamming, making music together, and connecting. And even though we emphasize one-on-one connecting in lessons and coachings so much of the time, we do learn so much from one another and from watching others learn—from having casual musical moments and conversations.

Keep in mind that even if you’re fortunate enough to attend a YAP where housing and many other expenses are covered, there’s still great expense involved from pretravel to the moment you get boots/character shoes on the ground. Factor in the one-off lessons and coachings we pay for with master clinicians outside of the program, and it adds up quickly. If the usual YAP isn’t in the cards this coming year, think about repurposing the money you would have spent in this way.

Similarly, there’s no shortage of artists, coaches, and teachers to approach as outlined above, and there’s really no limit to what you might propose or ask for. Keep it simple and specific, though. Remember, the aim here isn’t to start your own program or lure artists away from another—it’s largely to create some collaborative and artistic networking experiences outside of the traditional YAP setting. Something else to keep in mind here is that there is no YAP that always fits each Fach and specialty. In this particular setup, you may be able to create a mini-Wagner or -Purcell masterclass that may not have otherwise happened at your desired YAP.

Roles, Résumés, and Languages

And when it comes to role preparation and experience, you can’t replace staged scenes or a staged opera over Zoom. There aren’t Zoom stagehands and a live Zoom orchestra in your living room. A lot of the interpersonal exchanges don’t happen organically in the same way as you navigate experiencing a role onstage and off. Yet, online there is still opportunity for interpersonal interaction and to learn from the experience of another whose name may be synonymous with your dream role(s) and Fach.

When it comes to organizing something online with a singer or teacher in the context outlined above, consider narrowing the scope to someone who specializes in a particular role—someone in your Fach. Imagine spending a session or two with a renowned Mimì or Donna Anna with a few of your closest soprano friends/rivals (just kidding, sort of) working arias, asking questions, and talking about role strategy and pacing with someone whose experience has previously inspired you. Or, maybe you’re a countertenor, and you and two other countertenors want to do similar work on Oberon from “Midsummer” or Giulio Cesare with a leading countertenor known for those roles. Whatever the scenario, plan and reach out strategically and creatively.

Additionally, consider spending this time boning up on your languages using free or inexpensive apps like Duolingo, Babbel, and FluentU. Sure, they don’t replace the international destination YAP experience, but they do provide focus and keep you in the process of doing—it all adds up!

And don’t forget the simple, private career furthering work that helps us stay focused. Continue updating your résumé and materials to reflect innovative, online training and performing during these times, including roles studied (perhaps in a masterclass/workshop outline above). Also be mindful of the related social media aspects of all of this. If you take a screen grab of your cohort and invited diva or divo, be sure to get their permission/approval on if, where, and when you can post it.

These are extraordinary times for everyone in all fields. The temptation to throw our hands into the air and proclaim, “I’ll wait until things go back to normal,” is strong and understandable. But do your best to live and train one day at a time. Make sure you’re singing each day while keeping a strategic eye on the not so distant future. This way, the training and planning you do in these uncertain times can put you at or near the front of the line of readiness when we’re back on stages, in rehearsal halls, and talking about it all at the cast party.

Peter Thoresen

Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Mean Girls, and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is a voice professor at Pace University in New York City where he also maintains a thriving private studio. Thoresen holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com or @pthoresen1 on Instagram.