Feedback, to ask or not to ask

It’s a tricky one. On the one hand audition feedback helps us develop, lets us improve our audition technique and can be a balm on a declined audition. On the other it can reinforce our insecurities or even create new ones.

I recently auditioned with my go to aria, Susanna, and felt it went well. I had some nerves, but I held it together and sang nicely, to the best of my ability that day. I had pinned quite a lot to the audition, already knowing what the same people had thought of other singers I know (and we all have our own little league tables in our heads).

Shortly afterwards, I received a rejection, which stung as per, but also an offer of feedback. I was heartened, reasoning that, as an organisation for young singers, their feedback would be constructive and useful. How wrong I was. They tore me to shreds. Susanna, my go to, the aria all my coaches have said is perfect for me, the aria I felt I could audition with immediately upon waking up, the aria for all occasions was apparently ‘obviously unsuitable for my voice’ and I should ‘never’ audition with it. I had not sensed any of this in the audition, I had been pleased with my singing. It was a very harsh anti-climax.

I suppose I should have been more careful, I could have shielded myself from their potentially destructive opinions. But then, how would we learn? Every session we go to, with every coach or teacher, every audition, we are asking for another person’s very subjective opinion.

I can’t hide from the impact of this audition. I received the feedback just before going into another audition and it definitely impacted on my performance. I didn’t get that gig either.

It’s been nearly 2 months now and I’ve still not sung Susanna since.

 

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

I’m about to give you all of my money
And all I’m askin’ in return, honey
Is to give me my propers

Yes, Aretha, that about sums it up. I’m SO fed up of not being respected.

Here I am, struggling singer, aspiring artist, tormented bohemian, and there are you ‘the company’, ‘the panel’, ‘the competition’. I would suggest that for every audition I apply for I spend a minimum of an hour (often many more) researching the company, finding the right email address, investigating the show and whether any roles suit me, checking the competition guidelines, writing up a programme, crafting the perfect application email, filling in your intensely detailed online form. Then I pay for my travel, my competition entry fee, my accompanist, my warm up room, your warm up room. But I don’t mind, this is my job after all. When I became a singer I knew there were costs involved, I just counted myself lucky that none of my textbooks cost over £50 and my annual licensing fees weren’t a huge percentage of my income. But I still pay, prosectively, for opportunities which benefit others at least as much as myself.

I do the audition, you do the audition, there we both are in the room, conducting our business transaction as equals. You need me (or those like me) and I need you (or those like you). Between us we perpetuate the industry. ‘Thank you,’ say you, blankly, ‘have a nice day,’ I reply.

Then it comes, the email. ‘Due to the high number of applications it is not possible to provide feedback’. ‘Due to the high number of applications we cannot send an email to each applicant, please check the website at this extremely specific and somehow rather late time’.

What I read: ‘Due to the high number of applications we feel so powerful and important that we can disrespect your effort and time.’

If they wrote notes in the audition can’t I just have a copy of those? If they didn’t write them, how in God’s name did they make a decision? I put at least an hour’s time, plus practice, plus travel, plus warm up plus audition plus getting home into this audition but you can’t afford me 5 minutes to forward an email? Isn’t that kind of your job?

It’s even worse with competitions. Entry fee £40, admin time per applicant, 8 seconds.

I suppose my point is that in an industry where we are obliged to be extra respectful, where an incorrectly formatted cover letter can be the difference between audition and the recycle bin, why is it all so one sided?

Post Script: Honorable mention for several companies who completely bucked this trend and restored my faith in artists and management alike.

I’m back!

So, it’s been a while. Since last time I was here I have:

Moved to another city

Done loads of freelance choral and solo work

Got married (woop!)

Moved to another city in another country

Studied for and achieved my Masters

Moved back to England, to another city

Been in some operas

Sat in my pyjamas worrying about my life choices.

 

Now, you may think that the main activity was the study, or the singing. But no. It was the pyjamas. The endless cups of tea. The worry. I’m writing this because, as I believe I have said before, we all project a rose-tinted, super successful version of ourselves both on social media and in real life interactions. I’m writing this because someone out there, freelancing in whatever field, needs me to say it’s ok. It happens.

 

Heaven knows I wish there was someone here to say it to me.

About an audition.

Yesterday I auditioned for a postgraduate course I wanted to study on. I was the first audition of the second day, 11am. I was at the venue by 9am, drinking tea, preening, practicing walking in my shoes, warming my voice up and practicing with my accompanist. The audition eventually began at 11:20am and at 11:30am I trotted merrily out feeling rather pleased with how I showed myself.

The audition process began some time ago with a lot of consideration of the right programme of arias. What should I show off? Are they contrasted enough? Should I just learn all new rep? This was followed by the inevitable learning of three new, splendid, beloved arias. Now, learning arias for audition is not quick and easy. Think many lessons, coaching sessions, snatched moments with piano students. Then there is the audition itself, this time overseas. I booked a Eurostar ticket, hotel room, withdrew euros, researched intercity trains. All in all, this audition has cost me a lot of time and money.

But it’s more than that. This audition has cost me personally. I have poured my soul into these three wonderful arias. In order to do justice to an audition you have to want it, believe in it. I believed that I was good enough to sing for this panel, good enough for them to like me, good enough for them to take me.

But they didn’t.

We were told to expect a phone call if we were to progress to the next round. I waited in, anxiously, trying not to watch the time or my phone, but the minutes kept on ticking by and eventually I was forced to realise I had not made the cut.

What a feeling. After two months almost exclusively devoted to preparing myself for this panel, after all my hard work, research, planning, money (uncouth but true) and time this panel had looked at me for less than ten minutes and decided they didn’t need to hear any more. I felt cheated. I could have shown them much more in the freer, longer second round. What if I’d chosen a different opening aria? Why did they make the choice they did? Most of all I felt that I had failed.

In the run up to the audition (’the audition’these words seem to be accompanied by thunder inside my head each time I write them, infer from that what you will) I discussed it with many non singing friends and family members, who all said, ‘oh, they’d be silly not to take you’ to which I blithely replied, ‘well, you never know what they’re looking for,’ ‘you can’t know who you’re up against,’ or ‘if they’ve already got one of my fach on the course then they don’t need me.’ It seemed so clear cut. Even directly after my audition I thought to myself, ‘well, I’m very pleased with how I sang, if they don’t take me it can’t be because I sang badly.’ How easy it is to be rational when ignorant.

As soon as I realised I was a reject, an unsuccessful auditionee, the decision became personal. I know, and can say out loud with much conviction, that it is not a personal decision. The panel know nothing about me personally, only the brief vocal snapshot I prepared for them, how can it be personal? But it doesn’t stop it feeling so.

The evening was one of the biggest anti climaxes I’ve ever experienced. I was so confident that I really thought I could at least get to the second round. Without that confidence I could never audition, indeed should never audition. That confidence needs to ooze from you to the panel unapologetically. However, it’s a double edged sword. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried, it felt like a year of my life which I had hoped would be wonderful was now a void of unknowns. As a singer, a year of secure routine is tricky to come by and much sought after, but here I am again, bobbing about on the freelancing sea.

Anyway, I know it wasn’t personal. I know I sang well. I know the panel had a tough decision to whittle down from 55 applicants to the very few they choose to take. I know I’m not a failure.

But it might take a little while for me to believe it again.

Prizes

I used to be a bit against singing competitions, I thought singing should be about making music for joy, for everyone, a supportive, communal activity. I found the idea of taking this beautiful art and turning it into a competitive contest very troubling.

However, once I got to music college I realised that singing professionally is exactly that. Every audition is a competition between you and the other candidates, every performance is a competition against every other performance the audience have heard. Competitions and prizes are a microcosm of our professional world.

Although I have now embraced competitive singing as a good performance platform, networking opportunity and CV plumper, I still struggle with the amount of personal investment involved. Unlike auditions each competition tends to have a very specific repertoire set, so each competition can represent hours of extra research, learning, practice and coaching. Although, naturally, I also put in all this effort for auditions, I have a basic set of well rehearsed, comfortable arias to choose from for auditions which I recycle as much as possible to give myself my best chance of success. A competition might involve 3 different programmes of specialist repertoire, each polished to perfection before the competition so much as begins. I usually end up with a real emotional connection to my programme which can introduce problems as well as benefits. The emotional connection raises the stakes hugely. The thought of how much I love my final round programme helps me to sing my best in the semi final, however, it also means the anti climax is all the bigger if I’m not selected.

I find it is so important to remember that, like our entire profession, competitions are subjective. It isn’t possible to please everyone and if the people you please, how ever many they may be, are not on the panel, then you won’t win. Equally, you can’t predict who will be in competition with you or what they can bring, which may be exactly what the panel are looking for. I have competed in prizes where the winner has been chosen on interpretation, programme choices, technique, stage presence, even how nice their dress was. I could not have predicted what the panel were after before I sang, so my only hope is to sing my best, perform my best, be my best, and hope they like it. And if they don’t, as long as I was happy with my performance who can do more?

That said, it is a difficult creed to live by. Being judged slightly less favourably than your peers is tough, particularly at the moment of adjudication, when months of preparation, tension and build up are potentially swept away in less than a minute. The adrenalin dump is huge, so allow yourself a brief wallow when you get to bed, mourn your beautiful programme for a moment, then realise how well you did in getting so far in the first place.

That audition feeling

No, not that audition feeling. I’m talking about the good one, the ‘I just nailed that’ feeling. That delicious sensation you get when you waltz out of an audition having sung your best and walk, even float, down the road whistling the tricky bit where you saw the panel smile. On the other hand, is it actually a different feeling from the audition feeling we’re all familiar with, the dread, the wobbling knees, the collapsed support, that feeling?

I auditioned recently for the BBC Singers dep list. It was an audition I was very nervous about, I know a lot of people on the list and I was afraid of being the only one who didn’t make it. I hadn’t sight read for a long time and had had a bad experience at the last choral audition I did. To compound it all I had auditioned before and made it to the second round but not been able to complete the final stage of the audition due to other contracts. I walked into the audition room very anxious.

But I also walked in feeling prepared. I had worked hard, I had practiced my arias to perfection, thought about all my previous feedback, listened back to my practice sessions, brushed up my sight reading and visualised the audition in detail.

The audition went well, I was pleased and as I tripped merrily down the road afterwards I thought to myself, ‘gosh, how super my job is, I feel fantastic!’

Not something I usually think on audition days. I wondered to myself, was I feeling good because I aced the audition, or did I ace the audition because I felt good?

Soprano for sale

So this week I realised that of all the summer operas I applied for (think all of them) not one wants to audition me for chorus. I’m trying so hard not to take it personally, but I know plenty of people who got auditions straight out of college and went straight into the chorus and so to be here with 3 years post college experience, a solid, if not crammed, CV and goodish technique and not even be asked to audition is hard. I keep saying, ‘I’m sure it’s nothing I’ve done, they’ve just got a million applications for a few spaces’ but I can’t help but question whether there is a problem with my CV or its formatting, was my cover email ok, did I send it at precisely the right moment, should I have followed up? Maybe none of it would have made any difference, but it’ll have to be cheap food and drink next summer with nothing to sustain us so far.

Although this job is sometimes so fun there are some very bleak moments, like when having sent over 100 emails to opera companies and choral societies you are only invited to one audition which you can’t make anyway.

Moan over but not finished.

Audition advice from the greats

This arrived on my Facebook page via Audition Oracle

I love these things in particular:

Remember the panel are well intentioned- they want to cast someone and they’re hoping it’s you!

Mean what you say, say what you mean

People come to enter your world, you don’t need to prove anything or go anywhere

Sorry for the dodgy link, I’m a bit new at all this…

Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Thomas Hampson talk auditions

Packing for overseas tours

Today: packing advice for overseas travel.

When I travel abroad I have 2 lists (oh, I do love a lost) to pack from. One is called ‘to pack: clothes’ and is written ad hoc for each trip about an hour before I pack, the other is called ‘to pack: other’ and is written in stone (or however it is that an iPad makes it appear on my screen’

There are a few things I like to take which are specific to singing/business travel, I.e. I wouldn’t bother on a holiday.

iPad dock: I like to listen to music, podcasts, talks, audiobooks, the dock just makes it easier

Plastic tub: particularly in a self catering place it’s nice to make your own lunch, but annoying to have to buy a new receptacle every trip

Salt and pepper: again, so useful in self catering, but surprisingly expensive if you only use a week’s worth then leave them behind. Oil and balsamic etc on the other hand I tend to buy a bottle and share with my colleagues. I sometimes like to travel with some mixed herbs, but as I’m sure you can imagine a small bag of chopped green foliage is not something to be caught with in an airport so I usually only do this within the uk…

Facemasks: in fact just a few nice pamper type things, nail varnish and remover, leave in hair conditioner, foot scrub, for those evenings when you’re alone and homesick and need some me time after a concert

BBC iPlayer downloads: I love this feature of iPlayer, Auntie stops me getting UK withdrawal symptoms

Hand knitted socks: I use these instead of slippers, but I used to take my slippers when I had some. It’s just so comforting to have something to wear in your room, so it feels a little more like home

Obviously I pack all the normal stuff too, but these are my extras for a pleasurable tour.

Making the most or the least

I am very lucky in my career in that I get to travel a lot. Usually within Europe, but occasionally further afield, too. Today I am in Brussels, a city I come to reasonably often. Brussels is a beautiful, historic, cultural, vibrant city. So what edifying experience do I have planned for today? Nothing. Unless you count sitting in my b&b watching detective dramas.

Am I doing the right thing? Should I be out making the most of being in a city which most Brits think of as a holiday destination? Is it ok to take it for granted, in a way, that I can come back another time?

When I am in a new city, or somewhere further away, I tend to sightsee, hit the museums, get lost in back streets, struggle with the language etc. However, in these cities I know well, or at least visit frequently, I just chalk them up to a business trip and forget the plethora of activities around me. I always say to myself, I’ll bring the boy one day, we’ll see it together, sightseeing solo is sad.

Am I right? Or ungrateful?

My usual line is ‘it will still be here next time, and if it isn’t, you’ve got bigger things to worry about than not having seen Atomium…’