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

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…’

On health

So this week I am on tour with a group I sing for. We’re a small ensemble singing a slightly complicated programme which we have been touring around on and off for a few months and will continue to tour for the foreseeable future. The balance within the ensemble has been hard to achieve with a varied programme, but we have worked hard and each person is now pulling their own weight, supporting their colleagues and contributing to something beautiful. We are a well oiled, 12 person machine, each part as indispensable as the next.

I am ill.

This is a disaster. I think. Or a secret. Or a fact of life. How do I know how to deal with this?

From a purely professional point of view, the show must go on. Although I don’t feel great, I can still sing to a high enough standard to perform the show and not let my colleagues (and public…) down. I managed the show last night and am immensely grateful for a scheduled day off today for resting and the purely medicinal administering of detective dramas. The greater problem for me is how I interact with my colleagues.

As singers we all guard our health jealously, so is it appropriate for me to socialise with them, hang around in the dressing room, stand close in rehearsals? I’m not sneezing or coughing a lot, only occasionally, and I’m not sure I’m still contagious, but it’s just that, I’m not sure.

The reactions of my colleagues have been very interesting. The most caring offering sympathy and drugs, preferring to greet me with a hug despite my warnings and generally making me feel better and loved. Some didn’t notice I was ill. Perhaps I covered it well, didn’t allow it to affect my professional behaviour, held my dignity (and sneezing) in public places. Or perhaps they just don’t notice me?

The worst ones are the ‘fortress of health’ types. The ones who, on hearing a cough on a train promptly change carriage. The ones who carry hand gel to offer to colleagues who look a little pale. The ones who in a joking, but not joking way lean in and say, ‘if I get ill I will put a bomb in your room…’ (true story from yesterday…)

It’s a hard balance, I don’t know whether I should try to hide my illness, so that it doesn’t count as a black mark against my name, so that I can continue to enjoy the social perks of artistic life, so that I can avoid the snide remarks and black looks. Or should I just invest in a bell and move to the singers equivalent of a leper colony?

It seems to me that it’s hard to win, but I’ll be better tomorrow…

Reasons to love my job number 1 of millions.

You know what’s great? Today is chilly but sunny, half term, Monday, all the things that add up to a great day out with my friends and their kids. If I worked 9-5 I would have to stay in the office until dusk, when everything is closed and children are tired. As it is, I went out this morning with my friends, enjoyed this unexpected sunshine and shifted my work back to this afternoon and evening.

I’ve even taken advantage of my energy today to clean the kitchen floor.

Never let me say I don’t like being a singer.