Despite the solitary hours of practice and the lonely job title of “soloist,” a singer’s life is fundamentally one of community. Performing a piece of music is always a group endeavor. Even a solo show becomes a group experience when the audience is present. Depending upon the complexity of the work, the size of the group, and the amount of time spent together in rehearsal, performance, and between-times companionship, these various groups can become like families.
There are many theories on why people clap at the end of a performance. The one I like best is that during a performance, as a collective experience occurs, we are all joined together, especially at the heart. We clap when the performance is over, hands at our hearts, to break through the collective and return to our individual selves. (That is why that moment of silence that sometimes occurs before people applaud is so precious.)
As singers, we are privileged to experience these moments of unity often. Like the blood ties of a family that unite despite differences, the shared experience of making music is a strong bond. American singers work mainly on a freelance basis, often singing for an opera company, a chorus, an orchestra, a church, and a school all within the course of a season. However varied these settings, or diverse the members of the group, it is possible for a singer to, as it is called in Buddhism, “take refuge in community.” And each of the singer’s communities offers its own sort of support.
That sense of community can sometimes initially be hard to sense. The rehearsal and performance process, which represents the singer’s highest level of ability and achievement, is a setting that may be the most challenging and most conditional a singer can experience. If you can’t perform up to par, you won’t be accepted into the group or may have a negative experience. But, just as a loving parent who is appropriately strict can benefit a child’s sense of self, an artistic community that challenges you to be your very best can be a wonderful thing.
Getting to that level may even feel like coming home, as it did to several members of a prestigious Young Artist Program I interviewed recently. When I asked these young singers about their experiences working together over the course of a summer, they all agreed that the sort of competition and divisiveness they felt at conservatory was absent in the program. They expressed a feeling that now there was a sense that they were all working and wanting to do well for the company, which allowed them to be happy and supportive of one another’s successes.
It is an interesting phenomenon that, even in what can be a competitive business, a group of people working together can become so closely bonded. However exclusive a casting or hiring process may be, once you embark on putting on a concert or show—especially if you feel that the environment permits you to do your best work—all are united in a common goal. And as careers go on, relationships that seemed transitory become lasting, as many singers on the road become a sort of “pick-up game” of a family when they find themselves together in a strange town.
Another type of singer’s community is the voice studio. I studied for many years with the same teacher, and those in his studio felt connected to him and to a place we felt was nurturing to our talents. When the teacher died very suddenly, it was beautiful to see how we came together as a community to honor his memory. To this day, I feel a kinship with these singers because I know that we came from the same lineage and share love and gratitude for our time with that teacher. Even years later, far from the home of that studio, I am happy to see my teacher’s students’ names appear on rosters and cast lists and am still friends with many of them.
A singer who is a guest artist can play the role of “honored guest” within an ensemble or chorus that has worked together for years and is, in essence, a family. As guest soloist with community choruses, a singer is appreciated and welcomed for helping to realize the group’s musical effort and social highpoint of a season. In church jobs, singers can receive a very deep appreciation as guests because we are enriching and supporting peoples’ spiritual practice.
If you think about what a family is at its most essential, it is a place where you are always welcome. As the saying goes, “Family is where they have to take you in.” (And vice versa.) If you look at the world of vocal music, there truly is a place for everyone. I recently attended a concert of a large community chorus which has a “no audition” policy. All are welcome. I was delighted to see a former student of mine singing with them. She had come to me after a stroke to learn how to use her voice again. She made great strides but still had obvious worry about not having the voice she used to have. But with this group, she was welcomed with open arms and can sing happily, for the love of it. Similarly, the minister at my church job recently confided to the choir that a teacher had asked him as a child to either listen or mouth the words. Now he is very happy to have a place to sing.
Professional singers have the ability to create a group of people who share their artistic and musical values, a place where they feel at home. Such was the case when tenor Jeffrey Thomas helped to found American Bach Soloists to specialize in the repertoire he most loved. I also know of a recently founded all-male ensemble, created by an excellent group of well traveled choral singers who wanted an intimate, dedicated, local ensemble.
Truly, anyone who wants to sing can find or make a place to do it.
In the animal kingdom, the importance of the group is obvious. Wolves fear separation from the pack as certain death. Geese fly in formation to maximize wind currents, with the birds in the back honking to spur on the geese in the lead. Well known horse “whisperer” Monty Roberts is able to use his understanding of horses’ ways of communicating and their desire to be a part of a herd to invite them to make the choice to “join up” with him.
As animals ourselves, we naturally feel a sense of responsibility, care, and connection for the communities we participate in. We want to be included and to feel the bond. And just as Roberts can bring a wild horse around in less than an hour’s time, the connection that music offers is almost immediate. Instead of lamenting the transient nature of a freelance singer, we might look at what an honor it is to be an important part of so many, many families.
I recently witnessed some very skillful parenting. A father interceded in a quickly escalating war between young siblings over some chicken nuggets. He explained in a calm voice, “Any time we have food, it is for sharing.” He repeated with emphasis: “All food is for sharing.” Likewise, any time we have a song to sing, it is to be shared. All songs are for sharing.