If experience is the best teacher, then experiences of eight established singers provide excellent lessons for today’s college freshmen so they have guidance as they pursue singing careers and can avoid some of the same challenges and mistakes. Classical Singer asked these artists what they wish they had known upon entering college, as well as what advice they have for students, including course suggestions.
A few answers were common, such as thorough preparation in Italian, Spanish, French and German attained by immersion in intensive programs and—if possible—visiting other countries. Also mentioned were business skills (such as the complexities of taxes and tax deductions), maintaining a good diet, sleeping as much as possible (for both rest and improved memorization), walking, exercising, and drinking a lot of water (for good vocal hygiene and to replace the moisture lost to air conditioning and heating). Below are more than 30 other ideas.
Bass Raymond Aceto
An immense amount of study is required. “One must be impeccably prepared in both music and language. I learned to speak Italian, German, and French before I was 25—they have not only helped me with my career musically, but also have been lifesavers when I have spent time in those countries,” Aceto says.
Be prepared. “Opera companies do not have time to teach you your music, nor do they want to. Word travels fast about young singers who are prepared and those who are not,” he says.
Learn the art of auditioning. When starting a career, you’ll do more auditioning than working. Aceto recommends finding a good director or someone associated with casting who can advise you on the entire process.
Tenor Robert Brubaker
Master the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). “Once you memorize the sounds of IPA, it is much easier to learn correct diction of other languages. Also, most pronunciation books use IPA,” he says.
Familiarize yourself with the music school system. Brubaker observed that top opera companies and agents seem to pay more attention to students and artists from certain schools and apprenticeship programs than others. “I would not presume to list the current preferred schools and programs, but research as best you can. Getting into a preferred school or program won’t guarantee success, but it can help you be heard by the most important people,” he says.
Identify when a manager has stopped managing you. This can be a double-edged sword: if your manager stops responding to your calls and e-mails and it becomes a pattern, consider moving on. However, a new manager every year does not look good.
Use good judgment when making first impressions. Because you can rarely change a bad first impression, Brubaker advises not being afraid of canceling an audition if you are not feeling well. “You cannot overdo this and become known as someone who cancels all the time, but be smart about presenting yourself the first time,” he says.
Soprano Kallen Esperian, 2011-12 artist in residence in the Department of Music at the University of Mississippi
Discipline in vocal hygiene helps maintain a long-term career. Esperian offers numerous tips for preserving your voice: never sing so much that the instrument suffers, give yourself sufficient vocal rest, exercise, wear a scarf in cold weather, pace yourself to be your best at the end of an opera, and do not sing when you are sick.
Be knowledgeable about the history of the art form and the great singers of the past. What made legendary singers unique? “You’ll recognize a great voice within three to five measures. My question to students would be, ‘Why do you think these singers made the choices they did?’ You don’t want to copy them, but there is so much to be learned,” Esperian says. The history of opera is crucial, so she urges you to listen to every recording you can. If you are unfamiliar with a language, follow a libretto.
Do not be afraid. You will feel judged, but a singing career is about singing with joy. “Everyone in the audience wants you to do well,” Esperian says. Never be afraid to look an audience member in the eye (she hastens to add that she is not the first artist to say that). “Sing to the people. That’s why they’re there. An operatic voice is a rare gift, and you’re there to share,” she says.
An operatic career is not about becoming or being a star. It is about loving the art form and sharing your gift. Focus on the quality, not number, of your performances and enjoy your career because it will not last forever.
Bass-baritone Gerald Finley
Develop a sense of where your voice lies naturally. “Be gentle on your range,” Finley advises. “Work with a trusted teacher to find the middle of your voice—where it feels most natural to make a sound at the quietest level—and work outward.” Men should test their falsetto: the cords are relaxed and, when ill, a doctor examining your throat will need you to make this sound.
It’s all about the freedom and strength of breath flow. “Singing is a natural extension of your voice,” Finley says. He emphasizes the importance of developing breathing techniques. The control must be based in the diaphragm, not the throat or neck.
Repertoire can help and hinder development. Because repertoire choices are critical, you should question why you are singing a piece if it feels uncomfortable.
Be yourself. “Your voice is unlike any other, even if people suggest that you sound like [someone else]. Relax about your colleagues’ progress,” Finley says. Remember, your body and pace of development are unique.
Your inner artist needs feeding. History, language, and culture are fundamental to the art of singing, so read, visit museums, and be curious about the world.
Attend live performances. “Go to the best performances you can afford. The sheer energy in a live performance will inspire you,” Finley says.
Remember you are self-employed. Open a bank account specifically for work and be diligent about what you spend on anything that has to do with your singing. Find an accountant—he or she will help you through the tax forest you are about to encounter. Research the tax implications of studying or training overseas.
Opera is an international career. Be prepared to travel anywhere for auditions, courses, and career opportunities. Know the immigration rules for working in Europe.
Opera is a social career. Be friendly, courteous, and punctual and thank anyone who supports you. Relationships between artists and promoters are generally long lasting and fruitful.
A career consists of many levels. There are many ways to be involved in the singing world, so be realistic about your goals and how to achieve them. Getting an agent is not the end of your job, but part of how you will encounter those who hire you. Chorus work can be a useful stepping stone or financial bedrock.
An ENT specialist is your partner. “The doctor will be necessary at some point, so meet him or her while you are healthy to understand what your throat looks like when it is healthy,” Finley says.
Mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, professor of voice in the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University
Accustom yourself to spending time alone. Be prepared for loneliness on the road and for balancing career and family. “When you’re traveling, you pour your heart out in a performance and then you’re alone in your hotel or the place you’re renting. You feel disconnected and you need your free days to recover for the next show. An operatic career is not as romantic or glamorous as it seems,” she says.
Context is important. Research the lives of composers and poets so that you understand the background and circumstances of the pieces you sing.
True vocal technique and vocal health do exist. “I was clueless when I started college and I was in trouble for the long run,” Mentzer says, referring to bad habits and the fact that she simply sang as well as she could. She was not making progress in auditions and was referred to Norma Newton, who corrected her problems. “You can never work too much on the art of singing,” Mentzer says.
Try not to limit your range. Instead, sing what you can sing well. During her 20s, Mentzer was told she was a soprano, but her instinct told her she was a lyric mezzo. After she had her son, her voice became a full mezzo.
Seek advice for your opening aria in an audition. “Many of us want to sing things we love, but do not show off our strengths,” she says. For example, Mentzer wanted to open with one of Charlotte’s arias from Werther, but her strongest aria was Cherubino’s “Non so più,” which led to engagements.
Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni
Voice teachers should work for you, not vice versa, whether or not they are famous. Pisaroni, who studied under many bad teachers, says the important part is that the teacher’s approach works for you. “The first question people ask you during an audition is ‘What would you like to sing?’ and not ‘Whom did you study with?’” he says. His current approach is to test a teacher in the first lesson by deliberately singing a phrase wrong to see if the teacher notices the mistake.
Trust your instincts. Pisaroni also advises younger singers to carefully choose the people whom you will trust for constructive criticism and to plan your repertoire and calendar wisely.
Soprano Karen Slack
A singing career is not only about singing. You must be an all-around performer and actor and you must think about how you present your package. Record all lessons, coaching sessions, and performances and study them diligently.
Networking is extremely important. Because there are many singers—hence competition—remain fresh in people’s minds. Keep administrators you have relationships with updated on your performances and repertoire and correspond with colleagues you have worked with.
Think beyond having only an operatic career. Be open to unique opportunities outside of classical music (Slack had the opportunity to sing on the soundtrack of and perform in Tyler Perry’s 2010 movie For Colored Girls). Do not shy away from expanding your brand, because you are your business. Consider your other talents so that you can stay busy and inspired.
Soprano Carol Vaness, professor of voice in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University
Focus on vocal technique, but remember technique is not everything. You need to be well rounded, including having a grasp on languages, being able to translate texts, and understanding the literary world.
Practice consistently. Spend time on your voice every day.
Stay abreast of world news. Knowing the news keeps you connected to reality, which provides perspective and relief from the stresses of daily life. “Sometimes singers can lose touch with the meaning of a ‘real tragedy.’ They might have lost a job because they didn’t sing well, but the truth is, if they were really in touch with things happening in the world, they could see the difference,” Vaness says. “Knowing what’s happening enriches singers’ lives. Focus on the big picture and try to be patient.”
Be a “whole artist.” Keep your life and personality full. Be able to appreciate an activity like a good hike, because it is important to see and be a part of nature, a frequent subject of music.
All of the artists suggested courses that would benefit today’s rising singers, assuming these courses are available: ancient mythology (many operas are based on mythology), world history, all forms of dance (especially ballet), fight training, fencing, acting and improvisation, diction, song repertoire, business or economics, and building a Website. Remember, if your school does not offer a course, external organizations are superb outlets for exploring interests and skills.
With the commencement of the college years, singers have at least four years to maximize every opportunity, both inside and outside the classroom. Embrace these singers’ insights and use them to nurture your artistic development, and you will be on your way to a rewarding career.