Showing Singers the Ropes

Chelsea Morris is a soprano poised for professional greatness.

Recently hailed for her “radiant” New York City recital debut at Merkin Concert Hall by and noted for her “luscious soprano voice” by the Chicago Tribune, this young artist already has hundreds of credits to her name in concert and opera and is known as a fierce vocal competitor.

But all of that hard work, discipline, and talent in spades didn’t get her there alone.

“My mentors are extremely important sources of encouragement and a source to discuss ideas for repertoire and career planning,” Morris says. “A good mentor is someone who is supportive and invested but who will push for you and tell you the truth. A mentor, professionally, is someone who invests in you as a person and helps guide your development.”

For singers of all levels, mentors play an important role—arguably, the most important one when it comes to guiding and developing singers through the challenging ropes that come with obtaining a fledgling career on both concert and operatic stages.

From those first nuggets of encouragement from an inspiring voice teacher to the carefully dispensed wisdom of vocal coaches, conductors, directors and, eventually, managers, good mentors can help take the pipe dream of a young talent brimming with potential and turn it into a reality.

But how does one find these individuals? How does a singer weed out the plethora of opinions that emerge the further they get established in their education and careers? And when are there just too many cooks in the kitchen?

“There is a lot to wade through,” Morris admits, “and a mentor can help provide some clarity and inspiration, especially if they have been in your shoes before. The most important quality for me is someone who strongly believes in my talent, who is willing to advocate for me, and who connects with me on a personal and artistic level. As you work with more and more people, I think [certain ones] begin to stand out to you as a special connection.”

What Makes a Mentor?
According to Ana De Archuleta, a manager with ADA Artist Management and one of the most sought-after by rising young artists in opera, a mentor should be defined as a trustworthy professional in the business who is interested in the artist’s career development and has the knowledge and the networking capabilities to not only guide a singer but to connect them.

“It has to be someone you can trust and who can provide guidance and advice, connections, and the willingness to use them at the right time,” says De Archuleta, who previously performed as an instrumentalist, a dancer, an operatic stage manager, an assistant director, an opera chorister and, eventually, an opera soloist before stepping into the role of manager. “And, it has to be someone with whom an exchange of money is not involved.”

The latter makes an interesting case for individuals such as voice teachers and vocal coaches who, in most circumstances, are compensated for the role they play in a singer’s technical growth and artistic development. However, teachers and coaches remain essential partners when it comes to proper training, De Archuleta says, particularly in those early years and as budding singers continue progressing toward blooming professional careers.

“Teachers can be great mentors,” De Archuleta says. “They will bring something different to the table. They don’t have to be active in the business to know about art. They will nurture your artistic views and keep you improving. But ideally you want a mix of people on your team. [Teachers] are your first mentors, usually, before you find more business-minded ones at a later time.”

Darren Keith Woods calls these individuals a singer’s “board of directors.”

“Some teachers do keep up with the ropes of the profession and are still out there performing while they teach,” Woods says. “Many, however, have been in academia for a long time, and even their suggestions of repertoire are not what we want to hear or are necessarily correct for the voice of the singers. I think they are and should be a part of the singer’s board of directors, but only one voice on the board.”

Woods is the artistic director of Seagle Music Colony, an advanced training ground for emerging young talent, as well as the general director for Fort Worth Opera. He also has been described by countless within the industry as a leading mentor to young operatic hopefuls.

Before stepping into leadership positions as an arts administrator and director, Woods was molded as an opera singer by a variety of mentors. Today, he strives to pay back the good fortune he found in his mentors to a new generation of young artists eager to break into the business of singing.

“I think a mentor is someone who believes that they must pass on the knowledge and opportunity they have had to other people,” Woods says. “People who are extremely gifted can get lost. I believe that those of us who have had the good fortune to have success in this business need to pass it on.”

Woods says that he began mentoring the day he took on the role of general director of Seagle Music Colony 20 years ago. “I was presented with 19 young, fresh singers and knew that they would be depending on me and the faculty for information,” he recounts. “When a singer is accepted into Seagle Music Colony or the Fort Worth Opera Studio, I tell them that they will have me forever as a resource and advocate and a friend—in other words, I am their mentor.”

And being a good mentor, Woods says, means keeping ego out of it. “I need to look at what the artists need and see if I can help provide it or foster it,” he continues. “If I can’t, I can suggest someone who can. It means giving the artists what they need and not what they want. Sometimes, young artists who are ambitious will not know what the right path is. It is our job to guide them, whether or not they take the advice.”

How Does One Find a Good Mentor?
Knowing how to define a mentor is only half the battle. When it comes to finding those individuals who take a genuine interest in a singer’s professional growth and artistic development, there are key elements to keep in mind. And singers likely will find that the further they progress, the more opinions there are to take into consideration—as well as to filter out.

“There are so many of them,” Woods says. “Even the good ones can get lost in all the white noise out there.”

Nicholas Hutchinson, executive director of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, lecturer in the voice department at DePaul University, and co-director of Friends Music Camp, prides himself on being one of the good ones through his close working relationship with singers as a mentor and collaborator.

“A mentor is a guide—someone who takes you from where you are and moves you closer to where you want to go,” Hutchinson says. “For the singers I work with, my most important job is to help them identify weaknesses and fix them. That sounds simplistic, but it really covers the range of issues I encounter, from musical and language issues to repertoire choices and decisions about where and when to audition. I also find I spend a lot of time helping singers get out of their own way. So much of the time, they do know how to do something or they do know what to do—they’ve just convinced themselves otherwise.”

Hutchinson says that his goal as a positive mentor is to be someone who can evaluate where the singer is in their training or career and help them take the next steps toward reaching their goals.
“[A mentor is] someone who you can trust to be completely honest with you about what’s good and what needs work and who never lets you get away with doing less than your best work all the time,” he says. “A good mentor also knows when you’ve learned everything from them that you can and helps you move on to someone else who can teach you more.”

Hutchinson acknowledges that making a transition from school to a professional career is difficult, as the pond gets much bigger and very quickly. This is where mentors can make a difference.

“It’s challenging to go from comparing yourself to the singers around you at one school to understanding how you fit in compared to all the singers in the world,” he says. “Having a mentor who can give you an honest look at how you stack up in the professional world—what’s strong, what’s weak, what has to be improved right now, and what will develop with time—is crucial to being able to take advantage of opportunities when they come along.”

Woods echoes that the most important thing to consider is that the mentor is someone who has the singer’s best interests at heart. “[You don’t want] someone who is looking to pad their own legacy through the success of the artist,” he says. “[You want] someone who can check their ego at the door and be there for the artist; someone with connections, who can really open doors for the artist; someone who will be there when [the artist] is not successful and can pick them up, help them with a new plan, and help to put them back on the path.”

For established tenor Eric Barry, this has proven essential. “This business is much more difficult than almost any young singer can imagine,” Barry says.

Barry came into this career later in life, after working on an MBA and having administrative experience in the arts. He believed, at the time, that experience would help ease him into his professional career as a singer. Still, he encountered some unexpected roadblocks.

“I felt confident tackling the possible curve balls this business would throw at me,” he says. “Looking back, I can say that my comprehension of this career somehow still fell short of reality. Any full-time performer could list dozens of hardships we experience that most other civilians never manage to consider, so a mentor is necessary to help guide a young performer through those tough life decisions while keeping a realistic bird’s-eye view on their overall happiness.

“The best mentors are seasoned and wise from having dealt with similar issues firsthand. Getting information from someone about the business is great, but having help from a source who has been through the same situations is invaluable. An effective mentor is honest, accessible, communicative, supportive, and truly interested in one’s success.”

Barry, a self-proclaimed “textbook over-thinker,” credits his mentors with helping not only artistically and professionally but spiritually as well. He said that it is important to him that they not only be his professional advocates but also his personal ones.

“My mentors are invaluable to me,” he says. “They are close friends who continue to play a very influential part in my life. Without them, I would certainly go crazy. Some of the most difficult decisions we make as performers tremendously affect our personal and professional lives simultaneously: Should I pursue this career? Where do I go to school? Should I move overseas? How greatly will my relationship affect my career or vice versa? What’s most important? Mentors have the great gift and daunting responsibility of looking at our situations from the outside—something that we are obviously incapable of doing [ourselves]. The most successful people in their respective fields have mentors, and I would strongly advise anyone who doesn’t have one to start giving this some thought. I challenge anyone reading this to think about personal and spiritual mentors, too.”

The “Too Many Cooks” Scenario
Throughout a singer’s career, they can—and will—come into contact with several would-be mentors. While it might be tempting, it’s important to develop the skills to be able to select which of the singer’s “board members” remain and which ones are removed.

“An artist’s board of directors should have no more than 3-4 people on it,” Woods says.

To Hutchinson, it’s a red flag when a singer has too many cooks in the kitchen. “They’re substituting the appearance of activity for actual mentoring and improvement,” he says. “I think a singer should have one mentor in each skill area. It’s fine to meet several different mentors before choosing one, and it’s fine to move on to a new mentor when you’ve learned everything you can from your current one. But trying to have multiple mentors in a given skill area is just asking to be confused rather than helped.”

Among Barry’s mentors are his voice teacher—who enjoyed a healthy career and continues to teach and also run a summer opera institute. Another is a renowned bass-baritone who continues to actively perform in some of the world’s leading opera houses after 30 years. The third, Barry credits as one of his closest friends, debuting leading roles in some of the largest opera houses throughout the world.

“Between these three people, I have knowledge of how the business used to be, how it has changed and, effectively, where it is going,” Barry says. “I’ve allowed myself to get three very thorough perspectives from three knowledgeable and experienced friends. Sure, I’ll ask others questions here and there, but these are my trusted confidants whose advice and relationships I hold very close to my heart.”

“It’s important to know that mentors are guides, not decision makers,” Barry adds. “That’s something we’re stuck with—making the final call and subsequently accepting responsibility for whatever follows.”

And, Woods says, as in all boards, these are not necessarily lifetime positions.

“I think a singer’s board should consist of a teacher, a coach, a mentor, and a good friend who can be totally candid with the artist,” Woods says. “These are people who will be your sounding board and who will help with your strategic plan. These are the folks you turn to when you do a competition, and three judges tell you three points of view and none of them matches. They will help you sort it out.”

Also important to remember: The mentor is not there to grant a singer’s every wish.

“If you seek advice from me, and I tell you that I don’t think you’re ready for the opportunity, don’t try to talk me into changing my mind,” Woods says. “You can do whatever you want to in the end, but my advice is what you are asking for, and I am going to give you an honest, professional opinion.”

A singer also shouldn’t expect to gain everything from their mentors.

“I think that it’s important to understand that no one person is going to be able to give you everything you need for the whole length of your career,” Hutchinson says. “Someone who’s an amazing mentor for you right now may not be very helpful for you five years from now. You may also not be ready for a mentor who’s great at working with singers much more advanced than you. I’ve seen singers harmed by both of these situations. You have to know when to move on without feeling like you’re being disloyal. You also have to know when you’re in over your head and you’re just not ready for the demands that a particular mentor would make of you.

“Also, singers have to master so many different skills that it’s impossible for one person to be able to teach all of them,” Hutchinson continues. “The person who teaches you to sing beautifully isn’t necessarily going to be able to make you a great actor. The person who makes you a great actor might not have any connections in the musical world. You have to assemble a group of people who together can give you everything that you need.”

The Right Fit
According to Barry, mentors can come into singers’ lives naturally and through varying circumstances.

“For performers, mentors are often initially invited into our circles as teachers, coaches, and/or colleagues,” he says. “Once a connection has been established, it’s usually pretty easy to discern who might be the right fit for such a job. Having a candid conversation with that person and asking if they would be interested to give suggestions and advice later down the road would be a great place to start.”

Of course, not all advisers will cross a singer’s paths by chance, he says.

“Seeking out a trustworthy ally is certainly a smart decision for anyone who hasn’t established their own council,” Barry says. “A great place to start is by asking friends and colleagues for a personal recommendation. Ask who they turn to when in need of wisdom and advice. We are constantly surrounded by a network of artists, administrators, and educators, and everyone in this business has received help from someone in the past. Take a step in the right direction and simply ask for help.”

Hutchinson advises that singers not feel guilty when admitting that the fit isn’t right and that moving on is in their best interest.

“If you’re working as hard as you possibly can and you’re not improving, it’s not the right fit,” he says. “Move on. It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be a great mentor for someone else, but it’s not working for you. If you don’t feel challenged and inspired, it’s also not the right fit. The hard part about this is being really honest with yourself about whether you’re holding up your end of the relationship. Are you really working hard, focusing on improving your weaknesses, and taking the risk of doing something differently than you’ve always done it?”

Hutchinson adds that he believes it is crucial that singers not only be connected to peers but to people who are doing what the singer wants to do be doing.

“They’ll be able to tell you how they got there,” he says. “Even if you don’t follow exactly the same path, you can get a lot of good advice about how to move forward from them.”

Availability of the mentor also is a matter to consider.

“If correspondence isn’t being returned in a timely manner, a long-term relationship may not be the healthiest choice,” Barry says. “Of course, there are different kinds of mentors, and every relationship is different. But sometimes decisions have to be made quickly, and it’s comforting to know when someone we can trust is just a quick call, text, or e-mail away.”

Be wary, though, of those claiming to be mentors that don’t guide or encourage you in the right way or are misdirected by ego.

“If your mentor is angry with you for not getting the job, takes credit for your success, or pushes you in a direction you’re not ready for, it is time to get a new board member,” Woods says. “I am there to help, advise, and love these artists. Their path is their own to forge and create. I am merely a guide. It is a job that I cherish.”

But, De Archuleta says that even the best mentors can’t claim to hold all of the answers.

“Your mentors know you and your talent and have your best interest in mind,” she says. “At no point in our careers do we know everything. Even our mentors don’t know everything. But, ideally, they have years of experience to know more than you as to how to handle a situation, make strategic plans, and guide you.”

Megan Gloss

Megan Gloss is a classical singer and journalist based in the Midwest.