The Music Major Minute: Significance – A Singer’s Super Power

The Music Major Minute: Significance – A Singer’s Super Power

With classes back in session and deadlines for the end of the semester already looming, the search for artistic integrity can be pushed aside. Read on for a reminder of how to check in with yourself and recall why it is you sing.


Why do you sing classical music?

  • I’ve been told I have a beautiful voice
  • I can authentically express myself in classical music
  • My teacher tells me with more technique, I’ll be able to make it
  • I love it
  • All of the above

Have you been told you have a beautiful voice? Have you been challenged to develop your technique? Is this the medium where you can authentically express yourself? Do you love the music? Hopefully the answer is yes to “all of the above.” If you are majoring in music and pursuing a singing career, you are rightfully dreaming of success. For the sake of this article, we are defining success at the student level: doing “the work,” performing your best, and learning to connect with your audience. Your reward? Graduation and the beginning of your happily ever after. 

When we choose to do the work, we can create significance. Significance is a lasting value that will validate your efforts. Significance will help you connect to your music and allow you to share a part of yourself with the audience. At the end of the day, the end of the recital, or the end of the degree, I believe significance is why we choose to sing classical music. Singing beautifully and sharing your truth with compelling artistry is the holy grail for feeling significant.  

Choosing to Sing

Most American classical singers have crossed over from a more popular form: music our parents listened to on the radio or maybe worship music in our churches, music theatre programs in school, or folk songs that were sung to us when we were young. If you were introduced to music lessons early on, your story might be more straightforward. But many of today’s singers listened to popular music with ease long before they sat at a piano bench or analyzed aria orchestrations. 

Whether you heard an inspirational performance or a teacher facilitated your connection to classical singing, at some point you recognized this genre as something you want to pursue and you bring all of your musical experiences to the table. Your musical prowess is a product of the unique soundtrack of your life. Embracing the crossover adds nuance to classical music that will engage audiences and keep the classics relevant. There is nothing quite as thrilling as a live performance when a singer is in the zone—sharing that thrill with the audience keeps everyone wanting more.

Choosing to Do the Work

In a recent “Music Major Minute” column, I interviewed Michael Chipman, author of Sing Your Way through College. He cautioned prospective vocal music majors that vocal training extends well beyond college and through your twenties. Money-making contracts might not be offered for several years as you refine your vocal, acting, and auditioning techniques plus language studies and movement for stage. No one will tell you this is easy. Edith Bers, chair of the Juilliard voice department, advises that it takes about 10 years of rigorous training to begin a classical vocal career. Building your “total package” is a marathon that requires grit, commitment, and motivation—everything you are learning in college and more. Your time in college is the beginning of your career, and your motivation will set the tone for…wait for it… the work!

Choosing Significance

It could be said that choosing significance is a byproduct of choosing to do the work. But there are moments that I find choosing significance adjusts how we work. The work begins with daily practice. The search for artistic integrity is 24/7. The mindful young artist finds ways to bring art into their practice and continue the evolution of their interpretive process for every single performance. For extra credit, define performance here:_______________________. 

Did you include your juries? Auditions? Studio Class? Competitions? Community Events? A performance is every time you sing, no matter the size of the audience. When you do your work for your performances, you are vibing with ancient philosophers like Seneca the Younger, who said, “Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation.” 

The work begins with daily practice, and that includes learning accurate notes and rhythms as well as translating texts. Every singer is taught to translate their songs and arias, and this work happens daily until there is automatic recall for every phrase. But “I knew it in the practice room,” is not good enough when you step on stage. When you are performing, you either know what the words mean or you don’t. First, we must be accurate before we can make artistic choices. It is crucial to know the meanings of your words in order to share a story with your audience.

Megan Koch, 1st place winner of the Classical Young Artist/Emerging Pro divisional at the 2022 CS Music Vocal Competition.

Pay Attention

We are living in a content-driven society, where characters are on all of our devices. You might find a correlation for your art song’s climactic moment in a TikTok video. You might get inspiration for an evil opera character from a Netflix drama. This doesn’t mean scrolling can take the place of practice! Rather, I’m offering you an excuse to claim that social media and true crime shows are enriching your character studies! Pay attention and look for artistry everywhere—let great performances inspire your choices.

International opera director Daniel Helfgot authored a book that helped shape my approach to singing titled The Third Line: The Opera Singer as Interpreter. Helfgot details techniques for interpretation by using both text and music as the first and second lines that culminate in a singer’s imaginative third line: their interpretation. This technique can evolve with every performance and, ideally, singers know their music so well that their ideas fuel their connection to the music and the phrases bloom as if they were improvisational, not repeated by rote.

At the 2022 National NATS Conference, Craig Terry, pianist and music director of the Ryan Opera Center at Chicago Lyric, gave the keynote address and he spoke to the communication that singers share. He spoke about working with truly great, imaginative singers at the top of their game, like Joyce DiDonato and Stephanie Blythe, and how some recitals will live in his heart forever. Besides making beautiful sounds, superstar classical singers are master communicators. He talked about tailoring performances for audiences by considering who they are and what he can truthfully share in his playing. Terry’s incredible skill meets joy when he plays, and his Grammy award attests that this is a winning combination.

Our truth is not the same week by week, because we are growing, struggling, loving, hurting, questioning, overcoming, and living our sensitive artist existence. When you share your truth through your singing, your interpretation will be fluid, new, and relevant.

To carefully prepare for every single performance and strive to make significant connections with your audience, take time to consider your truth. Write answers in your music notes to these questions:

  • What do I want to say with my music? 
  • What do I want to share with my audience?

This approach goes beyond simply singing well. If you set an intention for your performance, you will practice vulnerability and open yourself for personal connections. This is our paycheck. Yes, I know you have to pay the rent and buy your coffee, but if you aren’t singing with your whole self, why are you singing? There are other professions that will offer a salary for mediocrity; music is not one of them. With respect and preparation for the performance process, your work will significantly impact your outcome.

Cydney Washington, 1st place winner of the Musical Theatre University/Pre Professional division at the 2022 CS Music Vocal Competition

Success Comes in Many Forms

“The final step is not success, it’s significance,”  says Viola Davis, Academy Award winning actress. 

Success for a freshman in college might look like straight As, an impeccable jury, and an increased scholarship. Or it might look like Cs and Bs, a jury with comments about incredible progress, and the encouragement to continue. We are all on different paths, and as long as we are choosing to do the work, the details shouldn’t matter. 

If I had mentioned the straight-A student was attending a community college and the C student was enrolled in a conservatory BFA program, your judgement of the Cs might garner more applause than the straight As. This is in no way intended to diminish the importance of smaller music programs! Study at any level is valuable, but there are competitive requirements at the conservatories that apply professional-level pressure. 

Know your reality. Strive to improve. Learn from your mistakes. How many times have we heard these adages? Why do I draw a repeat sign with Sharpie on my students’ hands when I send them to a practice room? The answer is the same for both questions: because we need reminders.

Natalie Corrigan, 1st place winner of the Classical University division at the 2022 CS Music Vocal Competition.

As humans, we are imperfect creatures. At our best, we are prepared, focused, open, curious, and kind. At our worst, we are … insert every jealous, self-deprecating thought you’ve ever had. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is a thief of joy.” Your joy is uniquely yours, and I hope you don’t allow comparison to steal it. Nurture your love for your art and strive to share it authentically with others. The more you share your love, the more you have for yourself­—and that is why I describe significance as a super power.

Earning your degree in music is a successful achievement. Beyond the university years, success will be yours to define. Relationships, performance contracts, continued study, and maybe a couple of part-time jobs with flexibility to be able to accept performance opportunities when they arise. As you do your work, you are choosing your own journey and defining for yourself why you sing.

Christi Amonson

Christi Amonson is a soprano, a stage director, a curious reader/writer, a professor of voice and opera at The College of Idaho, and a curator of food, hugs, and good times for her family.