Leveling the Playing Field with Technology Created by Singers for Singers

Leveling the Playing Field with Technology Created by Singers for Singers

Technology updates abound that can help classical singers with their education and careers. In this article, learn about new apps that can help you succeed, including <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/cs-music/id1559386833" target="_blank">the new CS Music App</a>.


There’s an old song that says, “Time is filled with swift transition.” But the classical music world often seems to struggle—or refuse—to adjust and keep up. In a world that is ever more reliant on automation and easy access to information, it’s pretty clear that technology hasn’t been leveraged in the classical music world to share knowledge in the most innovative, efficient, or helpful ways possible.

Some would argue that this is a result of efforts to gatekeep the genre, and others would say it’s an effort to preserve it. Regardless, these efforts often come across as rigidity and an intentional lack of transparency. This poses a problem for singers struggling to forge paths in a changing world but in a genre all too often insistent on staying the same. 

It’s not that information isn’t anywhere, it’s that it’s everywhere! From programs to deadlines, repertoire requirements to age limits, good teachers to predatory programs…there’s so much, ever-changing information that singers need to know and refresh each year, with each new audition season. Add to that the delicate balance of keeping up with current trends and taboos, history, and common knowledge. There is a plethora of things singers are simply supposed to know in a field with history that spans centuries and continents. So how do we keep up?

Alex Stoddard, CEO of CS Music—the home of Classical Singer Magazine—sees a path in singers helping singers. CS Music has developed a new app that is free for singers to do just that. “It’s an app being built for singers by a singer,” said Stoddard. 

That singer is Jordan Reynolds. Reynolds is also a songwriter and developer who has been working on the CS Music website for two years. Stoddard brought the idea of an app to Reynolds, with a desire to make the information on the CS Music website more accessible. “I think the strength of the app is the listings it provides, Reynold’s said. “The most important one for artists is the opportunities listing, where you can go and search by filters—paid opportunities, location, musical theatre vs. classical, and all that.”

App users can search audition listings and browse Classical Singer Magazine articles. Soon those articles will be listed by categories, including health, auditions, or school-related topics. A new feature also gives singers access to teacher lists.

A unique highlight of the CS Music website is the ability for singers to make free profiles that can include bios, pictures, videos, and more. These profiles can be built, edited, and accessed on the new app and can also be used to connect singers with organizations. There are over 2,000 organizations listed on the CS Music website. Many organizations, such as schools offering scholarships, use these profiles to find candidates. Candidates can also proactively share their profile page with organizations they are interested in, with a private message attached.

Artists who already have profiles on the website can use the same login information on the app. Reynolds sees it becoming an easily accessible resumé, of sorts, that singers can share to give a quick and organized preview of their talent and work. Technology is a game changer. But it has to be used well for it to work well. It can be used to create equity or increase inequity. Many singers have begun to shun fee-based subscriptions and are seeking other pathways to learn about and organize opportunities.

Sensing the frustration and anxiety shared by many singers, Melanie Ashkar, a mezzo-soprano and administrator for the Soloist Coalition Young Artists (SCYA), created the SCYA’s Audition Resource List. Ashkar compiled information about application deadlines, prescreening requirements, fees, audition dates, and more and then disseminated it in a public Google Doc, accessible to any interested singers, teachers, or organizations.

“When you’re just starting out, you’ve only probably heard of the festivals that your teacher told you about,” said Ashkar, “and so you don’t even know where to look, necessarily. I remember the days before YAP [Young Artist Program] Tracker when I was searching summer opera programs. So [we’re] trying to make it so that if you don’t have that insider knowledge yet, you can still find what you need.

“For singers who are younger or who have not yet gotten into a big program, this way they get all the same information as the people who have done six YAPs, or the people who are currently in a top YAP and have direct access to those people,” she said. “This way, everyone can have the same information and there’s not that imbalance.”

Elizabeth McConnaughey, a soprano who also works in the tech industry as a senior technical recruiter, says this kind of access to information offers “tremendous power.” 

“We say ‘knowledge is power,’” she notes, “Well, knowledge is having data. It’s having facts you can point to that inform your decision making. Right now, a lot of young singers are making decisions in the dark. They are relying on what their teachers are telling them, they are relying on what’s being advertised to them, they are relying on word of mouth recommendations or hoping that a school name will get them an audition or position. They’re not actually looking at the data.”

McConnaughey sees data as the pathway to change. Seeing the wide array of products and avenues in tech, she believes the music industry is pretty significantly behind the curve. But she was pleasantly surprised at the number of musicians who are working in tech and working to make data transparent.

“I think one of the most productive things I’ve seen has been Zach Finkelstein (The Middle Class Artist) and the data reports that he has gathered on various positions. By making that data transparent, he is ultimately helping empower a lot of singers out there to make informed decisions about the opportunities they pursue—and even make informed decisions about whether or not they want to pursue music full time.

“Some other creative things I’ve seen: Dr. Lucas Wong has also been very inspired of late, especially by COVID and how that has forced so many musicians to learn how to collaborate remotely. He has a number of applications out there, specifically geared toward singers. There is his 4-D piano, which can actually play for singers in live time. There is also an IPA application that he’s created that will give you the IPA as well as read the text aloud, so you have the pronunciation. Lots of useful tools here that could really benefit singers.”

Tenor, and SCYA liaison, Elliott Paige says the organization has been conducting surveys to gather data. “We found that a lot of young artists—specifically young artists who are just starting grad school, just coming out of grad school—are feeling very unsure about what’s happening with these companies.”

McConnaughey, who says we should be using data to level the playing field, also says the data is out there: “This could be data on past applicants, data involving cost of pay-to-sings, or even the average age or ethnic demographics that a particular YAP hired or that a particular opera company hired. This data is out there, this knowledge is out there. But so much of it is just passed on through word of mouth and not readily documented. Or, if it is documented, the information is segmented—it hasn’t been integrated and brought together.”

She sees opportunity for technical developers to harness that data, even in a predictive way, to help singers make the best choices for their audition planning. She suggests that reporting data should be a joint effort between singers and opera companies: “Obviously there are going to be companies who are not going to be willing to provide that data. However, they should feel some pressure by those singers who are self-reporting the data, whether to confirm or deny it, and to make sure that it’s aligned. This is not to villainize opera companies. But this is to keep them transparent and to keep them honest with singers.”

Paige agrees with the need for data, including personal data. “It also helps those of us in the young artist community to be able to see the data that’s there,” he said. “Being able to look at YouTube analytics or video analytics to see who’s actually listening to my arias or, on my website, who is viewing me the most. Am I looked for more in LA or am I looked for more in NY?” 

The SCYA, Paige contends, has received reports that singers have posted materials to multiple companies, after paying application fees, only to realize that those materials hadn’t been viewed. “For a company to say, ‘We’ve reviewed your materials,’ then you expect the company to review the materials. And so technology allows us a space of transparency.”

The SCYA has made it its mission to provide a space for emerging artists to start conversations and access information about navigating the opera world. Aside from being a young artist, there are no stipulations, such as union membership, to join. The organization is open to anyone who identifies as a young artist, which they define as someone within seven years of their last young artist program [regardless of age]. The conversations go beyond logistics to issues such as culture, racial inequity, and concerns about COVID protocols.

Jorden Reynolds

“Our goal is to provide transparency, education, and advocacy for young artist singers,” said Paige. “A lot of that goal revolved around being a contact between the young artist and the company. And so as an organization it’s easier for us to reach out, instead of a young artist who may not feel comfortable. It’s easier for us as a collective to reach out and say, “Hey, we noticed that there isn’t anything posted about auditions…what’s going on?” 

Paige also says it’s important to have the Audition Resource List because it’s free and accessible to all singers. “All of these things that are supposed to be resources to singers are behind a paywall.” SCYA wants to make sure the information goes beyond any one space. They have goals to broaden the information in the list, extending it to yearlong programs and competitions.

Many singers have lamented the fees involved in the auditioning process and believe that companies are passing too many costs on to auditioning singers—often singers they have no intention of casting. Working in tech, McConnaughey has seen different approaches to the platforms companies in various industries use to accept applicants. She says some concerns about finances can be mitigated through platforms that require companies to pay for usage, instead of requiring applicants paying to apply. This could be especially helpful in classical music, with singers facing application fees but not being guaranteed auditions.

Reynold’s emphasized that while CS Music does have premium services and opportunities for a fee, many of the services—such as accessing opportunities and building a profile—are free, with the costs falling on organizations who want access to talent and advertising. Access to the full catalogue of articles or the print version of Classical Singer Magazine requires a subscription, but at any given time there is access to 25 articles through the app for free.

For the SCYA, utilizing technology to help singers address these issues doesn’t stop at the resource list. As singers returned to working in the pandemic, they hosted a health and safety panel with representatives from young artist programs. “We hosted it in a webinar format, so they could ask questions anonymously,” said Ashkar. “They could attend without having a picture up. And that seemed to reassure young artists a lot.”

The group has a public resources folder, accessible through Google Drive, with videos and notes from seminars, the resource list, and other items. Paige calls the SCYA’s resource list Ashkar’s “labor of love.” “The Soloist Coalition Young Artists worked on collecting the data, but really the main part of putting it all in, making sure it’s laid out, all that is due to Melanie.”

Likewise, when it comes to CS Music, Stoddard says it’s “not so much the specifics of the app, but what singers are doing to help fellow singers have access to more resources. In this case, we’re giving singers easier access to audition listings and articles. And we’ve created an easier way for singers to send their online profiles to schools and companies. We’re making a big push to create tools to help singers get recruited, and the app is one of the primary ones.

“Technology, though, will continue to change,” said Stoddard, “as will the bells and whistles of whatever platform. What doesn’t change is our constant focus on trying to give singers more and more resources and tools to find auditions, jobs, and scholarships.”

Brittani McNeill

Brittani McNeill is an operatic soprano, cross-genre performer, writer, and equity consultant who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She holds degrees in communication and music from East Carolina University, Morgan State University, and the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.