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.

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

Unexpected pleasures

There are a lot of simple pleasures to be had in life if we only take time to appreciate them. Singing exposes me to lots of them, for which I am very grateful.

Beautiful landscapes seen from train windows, e.g Oxfordshire, train rides here are gorgeous
Opportunities to see long distance friends at gigs in their towns
Discovering new tea/coffee shops near oratorio gigs
An hour in the charity shops in a choral society town between rehearsal and gig
The compensatory lie-in after a late gig

These are just a few of the non-career related reasons I love my career.

Subjective escapism

I had a funny little thought which I thought I’d share on here.

I work quite a lot abroad, mostly in Europe, occasionally beyond. As a result I take loads of photos and put them on Facebook, mostly for my other half and mum to track me, but also cos seeing the world is great. I wondered if people I went to school with, i.e. non-singers, look at my photos and sigh, thinking, ‘how wonderful, I wish I could live like that…’

I only had this thought because I realised that my version of this is to look at their Facebook from my empty hotel room, after dinner alone, and see them coming home from work at 5.30pm, seeing their kids, walking the dog, having a Saturday day trip to the seaside, I feel just the same and sigh, ‘I wish I could live like that…’

I’m sure neither of us would swap given the chance, but it is funny how the grass truly is always greener.

Talk it up.

Just a little thoughtlet, I must try not to be the junior in conversations with colleagues. We are just that, equal colleagues, not student and master. The way we talk affects our opinion of ourselves deeply. If we continue to call ourselves ‘young singers’, ‘recently graduated’, ‘starting out’ we undermine our progress. We are singers, just as those who’ve been at it for 40 years are. Yes, we’re less experienced, no we’re not worth any less.

If in doubt, talk yourself up, not down.

Why this blog, then?

So, one of the main problems I have as a singer is a lack of personal confidence. This translates into the way I sing, stand, walk, audition etc. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not crippling, but to be the best singer I can, I need to ditch it.

I think a big part of this for all of us is how we view other singers. When I read my friends’ statuses on Facebook, when I see performers biogs at shows, when I chat to my friends in the pub, I hear about this fantastic contract, that concert in that great hall, the other amazing opportunity. It begins to seem that everyone we know is working all the time on projects we’d love to be in or with people we want to meet, or worse, with people we have met. In contrast to our own lives which we can view as a sporadic string of gigs strung together with days or weeks of unemployment, hours of teaching (which is great, but personally not my end goal) and interminable emailing sessions in our pyjamas.

This must change.

The only reason your friends’ and colleagues’ lives sound better? You’re getting the edited highlights. When was the last time you chatted to a colleague and they asked you, “so what have you got coming up?” and you replied, “meh, not much this week, might just sit around in my pjs doing practice and admin and not getting paid, you?”

Never!

This became very apparent to me when I chatted to a friend about her career. I felt very envious (and proud) that she had worked for several opera companies and seemed to be making such a good living, working all the time, away on long contracts, posting photos of cast parties and the like. It turns out she felt just the same way about me. We had both given the other, through Facebook, chatting and friends, the edited highlights of our lives and each was envious of the other. Equally, we’d both left out the parts where we’d struggled for rent between contracts or sung that underpaid gig for that terrible choral society.

I need to change how I see people’s careers. But I will also take their highlights as inspiration to try harder and be better.

I hope I can also help someone else with the same issue, so I’m going to try to be super honest on here about the ups and downs of being a young singer. I’ll rejoice when I get a great gig but I’ll also try to let you in on the other times. I want this to be a realistic representation of life after music college. I hope it’s ok.