Performers on Pause: Singers Reflect on the Value and Challenges of Breaks

 

Considering taking a break from singing? Afraid there will be consequences to your career development? Read on to hear from singers who took breaks for very different reasons, about their decision to take a break, and what returning was like for them.

 

Any serious singer knows how much work and effort is involved in the pursuit of a performing career, so long breaks might seem counterproductive. But many singers find them helpful and, in some cases, necessary. Soprano Emily Cox had no choice but to take a break when she experienced vocal hemorrhaging during college. A different factor led to her second, longer break: the performance stipends and ticket-profit payments she was earning in Colorado were not sufficient to make a living, so she decided to return to her hometown in Indiana and move back in with her parents.

Soprano Monica Camafreita also took a break after encountering financial difficulties. “I couldn’t keep up with long, unorganized rehearsal and performance schedules while making very little money and also working full-time in order to make ends meet,” she recalls. “It was making me too stressed, and singing wasn’t making me happy anymore.” Her break lasted 12 years.

Tenor James Pike took a yearlong break after a string of challenging and discouraging performance experiences during the 2021–2022 season, when he was plagued with anxiety.

Contralto Imelda Bogue paused from pursuing an opera career after working with a famous teacher who “had no idea what to do with a contralto voice.” As she remembers, “It was less of a decision than a collapse. I was too demoralized to audition and too broke and disgusted to take a chance on another teacher.”

Child-rearing interupted the performing career of soprano Amanda Keil. It was only during the pandemic that she found herself with time to practice. Conversely, it was the pandemic that led to a pause by soprano Judith Rodriguez, who found it difficult to navigate a singing career amid so much uncertainty, widespread health concerns, and the cessation of live performances.

What the Breaks Entailed

Most of these singers continued to do some light singing during their breaks, even as they put their career pursuits on hold. Rodriguez reports that practicing during her break helped cheer her up. Some singers kept their church jobs. But Pike was the only one who continued to take lessons. He was less strict with his schedule, however, allowing himself to skip practicing for days or weeks if he wished. “I gave myself the freedom to allow the desire to sing to fuel the action of the work of singing,” he says.

Meanwhile, Pike focused on family and worked on addressing his performance-related anxiety, first with a therapist/spiritual director and subsequently with a wellness coach. He describes the break as “a huge boon” for his mental health.

Other singers found their breaks valuable but difficult. Camafreita says her break was necessary for her sanity, but she missed singing. Despite the financial security she attained, she “felt very empty.” Bogue remembers singing hymns by herself with a piano and crying mid-hymn because she wasn’t singing opera. And Cox appreciated the opportunity to put a little distance between herself and her music, but she also felt isolated living in an area with few artistic resources.

The Reentry Process

Mixed feelings inspired reentries into the world of singing. “I need to make music every day,” says Keil. “It’s like a medical condition.” She finally had the opportunity to start practicing seriously again when the pandemic hit. During the shutdowns, she decided to learn Schubert’s Winterreise. Eventually she performed it in recitals. She has also added jazz and standards to her repertoire and participates in open mics in her area.

Camafreita’s reentry began with singing lessons and a performance in a student recital. “After that first time back onstage, I knew I’d never leave it again,” she remembers. “It filled that void that I had been ignoring for so long.”

Pike decided to return to singing when he started getting a “nagging feeling” that he needed to be back in front of people sharing his story, charism, talent, and vocation with others. 

Bogue’s reentry stemmed from what she calls a “last-ditch effort.” She sang in a masterclass for an agent she had long admired. When she finished singing “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion,” she expected him to tell her that she had no business singing. Instead, he said, “Excellent.” This gave her the confidence to start auditioning again, and soon she was taking on solid regional work. Getting back in shape was not difficult for her, but her fortune in finding a “one-in-a-million” voice teacher increased the momentum.

Cox’s return came via crossover. She applied online for a local audition and was cast as Marian Paroo in The Music Man. Fortunately, she knew exactly how to get back into shape—she simply followed many of the techniques she learned when she had been recovering from her vocal hemorrhaging during college. Cox found that crossover work was an excellent way to ease back into the operatic world: these experiences gave her opportunities to experiment with her voice and explore different ways she could communicate with it.

During her reentry, Cox became more selective about her auditions. “Instead of just auditioning to sing another ingenue role I wanted on my resume, I was auditioning to work with a particular director to learn a particular skill or technique they were known for,” she says. “I never would have been able to make the mental shift in my process if I didn’t have a break from singing.”

Keil, too, evaluates every opportunity carefully, especially since she does not face the financial constraints she faced in college. Today, instead of asking herself, “How can I compete?” she asks, “How do my skills best fit with local opportunities?” She considers this approach “the long game.”

There are downsides to breaks, of course. Although Camafreita appreciates the financial security that accompanied her 12-year break, she wishes that she hadn’t let it go so long. By the time she started singing again, she was ineligible for most YAPs. “Without YAPs on your resume, most well regarded companies and agents won’t even grant you an audition,” she points out. “I’ve managed to get in the game somewhat, but I am still very far behind my peers.”

Advice

Despite the obstacles her break posed to her singing career, Camafreita advocates breaks for those who need them. “My advice is to always do what is best for you no matter what, because no one else will look out for you,” she says. “There are many different levels of ‘success’ and not only one path to satisfaction. Also, it’s never too late to start again. I’m middle aged now but I am singing more than ever, and I don’t feel the pressure of making a living from singing, which is difficult even in the best of times.”

“Breaks are important,” says Pike. “This art form is demanding mentally, emotionally, and physically, and you need to allow yourself the space to recover. Depending on the length of the break, you might need to do a little more legwork to get going again, but coming back refreshed and healthy will make you a better singer, colleague, storyteller, and artist.”

Rodriguez takes a similar view. “If you need a break, take one and take it for as long as you need,” she suggests. “Our society will always be in need of music and artistry.  We will also be ready to hear you when you are ready to return.”

Cox recommends that singers ready to return from a break ask themselves some tough questions. One is: Are you coming back because you truly can’t live without performing? The answer could be revealing. As she notes, “COVID was a massive game changer for many of us, and if the answer is ‘no,’ then we need to be honest with ourselves and know that changes in priorities are OK.” 

Pike also advocates asking tough questions, and he warns that answers may not be readily evident. Therefore, he suggests that singers who are unsure about whether singing is still the right career should take time to determine their answer. “You will again be in a much more secure place mentally and emotionally if you know you have done the work to decide your path,” he says.

Singers also have to consider practicalities. “This industry is not easy—it takes a lot of energy and dedication and, more than anything, it requires a steady and regular flow of finances to support yourself,” Cox states. Such practicalities prompt another tough question: “What is your overall plan for sustainability?” To answer this question knowledgably, singers should heed Cox’s advice to take business classes and acquaint themselves with basic tax laws in their state.

If you decide to take a break, don’t beat yourself up about it. “You’re always a singer,” says Keil. “Take the space and the time to figure out how you’ll get back on track.”

Bogue agrees. “Even if you’re on a break, you’re still a singer,” she says. “You can get in touch with the reasons why singing means so much to you, its value, through the hills and valleys of real life.” She emphasizes that “your art will be more valuable and reach more people if you’ve lived the things you’re singing about.” And she encourages singers: “Do what you need to do. Music will be waiting, and hope will return.”

Rachel Antman

Rachel Antman is a communications consultant, writer, and mezzo-soprano based in New York City. For more information, visit http://www.saygency.com.