One Singer’s Convention : The Ups and Downs of Competing, Performing and Studying at This Year's Classical Singer Convention

When I registered for the Classical Singer Convention a few months back, I wasn’t sure what I was hoping to get out of it—a job? inspiration? information? encouragement?—but a voice inside me said: “Go!” So I went.

As it turns out, I got all of the above, and something more: A sense of clarity about my career and art. “Cockeyed optimist,” you say? Not quite. Read on.

Convention Heartbreak: Not advancing in the competition.

On Friday, my first day of the convention, I participated in the Audition/Competition. I felt great going into it. I had worked intensely on two new arias that I thought showed my strengths. I had done an audition in my home town of San Francisco the day before leaving for New York and had sung both of the new arias, I thought, quite well. My warm-up felt good. I had a new red suit. I had done everything I could to be well prepared. Coming out of the Convention audition, I was sure I had sung my best.

Later that evening, I went to see the list of those advancing to the next round—my name wasn’t on it. For years I have said and believed that when it comes to auditions “you never know.” Even if you sing well, you never know what the auditioners are looking for, or even if they are paying attention. (This time, the judges had chattered a lot as I sang.) Generally, I try to take rejection lightly and move on, but something about this hit me hard. Perhaps it was jet lag. Perhaps, surrounded by so many other singers, I felt free to have my feelings.

Whatever the reason, I spent the late part of the evening nursing tears and watching the movie Elf, starring Will Ferrell, a film about a complete innocent who comes to New York City and is unscathed by all the harshness around him. I wondered if I was as naive as that character. Briefly, I considered doing one of two things: Getting on the next plane home, or heading downtown to my favorite spot for espresso martinis. But I was scheduled to sing in the morning, so I decided to get some sleep.

Lesson: We invest a lot of emotion in what we do, and sometimes that means feeling disappointment deeply.

Convention Mojo: Getting hired for a private party by a passing New Yorker who heard my Spotlight Recital.

Day two. Every day the Convention featured a series of mini-concerts called “Spotlight Recitals.” Singers could sign up ahead of time for 10-minute slots with a pianist and perform right in the center of the exhibitors. My recital Saturday morning went well. I got some nice feedback and it felt good to get right back on the horse.

Around midday, I was sitting in the back of a packed, stuffy room, listening to a panel of artistic and general directors field questions. People asked what the panel members look for on résumés, how soon singers should follow up after an audition, and how persistent is too persistent. The room was getting hotter and I grew impatient. As knowledgeable as the panel was, it became clear to me that they could not provide the direction and reassurance many of the singers seemed hungry for.

Around this time, someone on the panel said that the best thing to do is get in front of people and perform every chance you get. This made sense to me—and besides, I couldn’t take the airless room any longer. I went back out to the area for the spotlight recitals. The pianist was just standing around, singerless, so I suggested we have another go. This time, I really had fun performing.

After my set, a New Yorker approached me. She had heard my voice from the eighth floor and come down to listen. She asked if she and her husband could hire me to perform at a party. We briefly discussed rates and availability and I gave her my card and a CD. That felt so nice that later in the day, when a space was open, I did yet another spotlight recital. Again, I received some nice feedback from other singers and conventioneers.

Less than 24 hours after my big disappointment, my heart was overflowing with the joy of singing.

By the time I got home from the airport Sunday, the passing New Yorker had left a message, wanting to set a date. We have since made arrangements, and the next time I come to New York, the cost of my voice lessons will be defrayed by the income from the party. Now that’s Convention mojo!

It is a shame when we sing and pour our hearts out to those who seem disinterested. It hurts. But it would be an even bigger shame to have a voice and not use it to sing for people who might find it the thrill of a lifetime, people who need to hear us as much as we need to be heard.

Lesson: Follow your instincts. If one room feels too stuffy, step outside for some air.

Convention Inspiration: Timothy Noble’s concert on Saturday night

The concert for the conventioneers Saturday night was an education for me on many topics: How to use a microphone well and selectively, allowing for speech-level singing or full high notes as the moment calls for. How to collaborate with a pianist using respect and good humor. How to communicate with an audience with humility and generosity.

Over the course of the evening, Mr. Noble shared things about his career trajectory, even his difficulty with his wardrobe—but the thing that touched me the most was the candor with which he spoke about the ups and downs of his personal life.

I recently had the opportunity to observe a master class given by Frederica Von Stade. She was working with a singer on the text of a song, emphasizing the importance of getting every word across, when she looked at the audience and said, shrugging her shoulders: “We’re just storytellers, after all.” At the concert on Saturday, Timothy Noble seemed to me to embody that spirit. Weaving together beautiful music and personal narrative, he revealed himself, and in so doing revealed something about all of us, something about strength and frailty, and what it means to be human.

Lesson: Tell the story.

Convention Challenge: Working with Timothy Noble at his master class on Sunday

By Sunday morning, I was pretty tired. It seemed as if I’d been at the Convention for ages. I got up to sing at Mr. Noble’s master class and sang one of my new arias. He started to work with me, telling me that he was hearing too much air forced through the sound and didn’t think I was supporting consistently. He placed his hands on my rib cage and challenged me not to collapse as I sang the phrase. I put my hands on his ribs and felt as he supported a phrase. His critique was helpful technically. He also worked with me on connecting the vowels more continuously.

None of these suggestions were new to me, but there was something powerful and emphatic about what he was saying. He wasn’t saying, “support and sing through the vowel.” He was saying, “support and sing through the vowel all the time!” It was more of a challenge than an instruction, and one I intend to take up. He gave me a hug when I finished, and the embrace seemed to say: “It’s possible! If I can do it, so can you.”

Lesson: A good teacher helps reveal what, deep down, we already know to be true.

Convention postscript

When I look back at the three days of the convention, I feel content. I listened and absorbed new ideas. I sang as well as I could, based on my personal and artistic goals. I took time to process and rest when I needed to. Translation: I did my thing.

I also received a lot of information on how to be a better singer, and a lot of encouragement that I am, already, a successful singer. When I signed up for the Convention, I debated about whether to participate in the competition and recitals. Perhaps, I wondered, it would be better just to attend classes and focus on being a student. In the end, however, going back and forth between the two roles—performer and student—is more the nature of being a singer and artist. Being around experts and other singers helps stimulate scrutiny and improvement, and being in front of an audience reminds us of the gift we are working so hard to cultivate.

Enjoy your studies and your performances. See you at next year’s Convention!

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.