The Singer’s Library : Strategies for the 21st-Century Singer

The Singer’s Library : Strategies for the 21st-Century Singer

The experience is so common it has become predictable. A young student, passionate about singing, earns a degree in vocal performance, continues studying in graduate school, and then joins the troves of others auditioning for jobs as opera singers.

After a length of time, when sustainable employment is difficult to come by, frustration sets in. Compounded by the need to earn a living, the singer walks away from the profession and never looks back.

Susan Mohini Kane relates to this experience. In her book The 21st-Century Singer: Making the Leap from the University into the World (Oxford University Press 2015), she recalls how her desire to sing guided her through three degrees in vocal performance. After her education, she started auditioning and trying to make a living as a singer but, lured by the prospect of health insurance, she found herself returning to university life—this time as a professor.

When she began seeing the same trend in her students, sticking close to the university instead of aiming toward a singing career, she started digging and discovered just how little chance one has to make a living in opera. Not only were high percentages of students with degrees in vocal performance taking careers outside the field of music, many were giving up singing entirely.

In an effort to encourage singers to “make the world a better place with your singing,” Kane filled The 21st-Century Singer with strategies she uncovered that are designed to help singers find inspiration, innovation, and the impetus to build singing careers.

Many have bemoaned the waning performance opportunities and the overall declining interest in opera and classical music. Still, your book is optimistic about the many ways singers can make a living in this modern climate. How did you come to that conclusion?

First of all, I don’t think there is a declining interest in opera and classical music. Audiences in live theaters are declining, but one should not infer that this declining audience is due to lack of interest. Those audiences are still getting their music, just no longer in live venues—at least not as much as before. I was heartened to find a huge number of opera and classical singing fans on Twitter.

Instead of bemoaning waning performance opportunities, singers who are making it now have learned to enlarge the definition of “the stage” to include all the platforms demanded by today’s audiences.

As you do workshops, are people generally open to hearing this message?

I find that singers are so relieved to be asked what they want to do with their singing that they are willing and even enthusiastic about exploring this new approach.

Many of your ideas, like creating an artistic mission statement, are designed to help give singers focus or a direction to their career pursuits. In your experience, do you feel this is something many singers lack?

In my experience, many singers—even singers who have their master’s degrees or artist diplomas—do not have a specific career mission or direction. Many do whatever their voice teachers, coaches, stage directors, or music directors suggest as a next step. In my experience, most singers don’t have the habit of checking in with themselves or a clear idea of what they want to do—so when a specific suggestion is offered, they will simply move heaven and earth to do it.

Most of us are so excited that we have been asked to do something with our singing that we simply comply without thinking of what it really means to our careers or to our lives. Tragically, if no suggestion is made, most singers follow the traditional path until they can no longer sustain it. There is an element of being honest with yourself and really following your instincts as a singer that is crucial for success no matter what path you take.

Is there a tendency to cast too wide a net when just starting out in the professional world?

I’m not sure there is too wide a net for singers to cast. If you, as a singer, know what you want to sing and what you have to offer through your singing, then it is important to sing wherever and whenever you can. Especially when you are just starting out, if you are anchored in your mission and you perform a lot, then those who love your singing as much as you do will show themselves. At first you won’t know who those people are. Singers must cast a wide net to find their audiences and gain experience when first starting out.

A significant part of chapter 1 goes beyond skills, auditions, and repertoire to address a singer’s overall sense of well-being. Elements like balancing life goals with career goals and identifying personal truths and values are at the heart of your process rather than at the periphery. Why is this so important? How does it tie in to a career as a performer?

Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation stated in a keynote speech for Americans for the Arts that an artist must provide a solution, meaning, value, or example with her art or no one will need it. If no one needs it, then no one will pay her. This is what I call “service.” So if you do not serve people with your art, no one will pay you, and you cannot serve others if your own needs are not met. Therefore, a singer cannot be successful for very long unless her needs are met. This is actually true for everyone, not just singers.

Every singer has different values that dictate a happy lifestyle for her. Some singers thrive on competition while others prefer cooperation. Some may love travel and living single while others want families and homes. If your career does not offer you the lifestyle you need to be happy and healthy (in mind, body, and spirit) then, of course, you will be unhappy and unable to do your best or sustain a long career no matter how talented or hardworking you are. When you are in conflict with yourself in a creative field, you cannot really be creative, either. In my experience, it is the non-musical issues that can ruin a singer much faster and more completely than musical or technical ones. As Jen Sincero says in her book You Are a Badass, life is ridiculous—why can’t you have everything you want?

What I hope singers will do is stop sacrificing their happiness and health to the opera gods. It is possible and preferable to have a happy, healthy life in singing.

Of course, everyone needs to pay their bills while working toward the career they desire. In chapter 2, you encourage singers to “Take the focus off dollars.” How do they keep this in check with the need to pay rent?

Money is a big issue. Everyone has very strong ideas about money: how much they have, how much they should have, what they’d need to do to get the money they want, whether or not they deserve it . . . and it goes on and on. The best way to sing badly is to put lots of pressure on your performance because of money. If this one audition means the difference between buying medicine for your mother or her being gravely ill, then your audition will not be done well. That is why I stress taking the focus off the dollars when you are singing. Think of value, not dollars—the value you give others with your performance and not the money they should give you.

Of course, everyone needs to pay the rent. This is why it is important to share resources with your fellow artists starting out instead of being in competition with them. Live at home, get a roommate or three, or do whatever you can to take down your expenses during the first part of your career while singing everywhere to log your 10,000 hours. It is actually a good thing to have to pay rent, etc.

Being practical about your singing business will help you make smart and practical decisions. If you have to take a day job, take a day singing job at a restaurant or church. If that’s not enough, go out busking or take on some students. If that’s not enough, pitch your singing to your local hospital or wellness center. Start a YouTube channel and charge admission. Start a Kickstarter campaign. Keep pitching and innovating until you do make enough money to pay the rent. Right now I have a dozen or so income streams. That’s the life of the 21st-century singer.

In chapter 3 you use the phrase “singing anywhere leads to singing everywhere.” Can you elaborate on this idea?

As I have said before, most singers graduate with very little actual performance experience. So, it is an actual deficiency that must be addressed. After graduation, a singer has lots of repertoire, so it is the perfect time to start singing that repertoire everywhere. This serves two purposes: 1) To get the experience that wasn’t offered in school and 2) To let lots of people hear you.

If no one knows you are a singer or how you sing, they cannot support you. The more you let yourself be seen as a singer, the better your chances that someone will become your patron, your audience, your collaborator, your client, your student, or your fan. If you can amortize each singing opportunity by putting it up on your Facebook page, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, etc., and handing out your business card, then people can know how to hire you for their events.

Only when people know you and your music will they begin to support you in all the ways you want and need to be successful.

You also reframe the definition of success beyond roles performed and paychecks collected. You write, “The point is to understand and know your own value as a unique human being with precious musical talent and to use that musical talent to make the world a better place. Framing your career as service to something bigger than yourself can put you on track and keep you on track.” Does this perspective take some pressure off the need to find “success” as it has been defined in the past?

Fred Kofman in his book Conscious Business says there is something called “success beyond success.” You can find it when you ask yourself what you want more than . . . (fill in the blank). So in our world, one example might be what do you want more than to win the Met auditions? Then take that answer and ask yourself what do you want more than that? And, again, more than that? Go all the way down until you find your answer that you want most of all.

Once you find your success beyond success, then you can pursue your career success free of outward pressures and with a clear sense of what true success means to you. Often simply taking that pressure off job performance will position a person to achieve outward success much more easily. Getting clear on what you really want out of life can change the direction from beating your head against the wall paying for audition after audition to starting your life and finding happiness using your singing skill to help others and singing opera!

For more information on the author and her book, visit

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /