Watching singers aspire

dornemannYesterday morning I got to sit in on one session of a two day workshop for young singers organised by the International Resource Centre for Performing Artists.  The workshop featured Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor Joan Dornemann.  The singers were all unknown to me but seemed, for the most part, to be recent graduates in their early to mid 20s and from what I could gather a fairly wide range of backgrounds in terms of origin and musical education.

The session really split into two parts.  The first hour or so was devoted to general career advice, much of it to do with coping with different national cultures or generally building a reputation for oneself as a good colleague.  Perhaps oddly, what struck me was how similar the issues singers face are to those I experienced working in international management consulting; how to handle different cultural norms about hierarchy and formality for example.  Americans are informal but hierarchical while Germans are very formal but respect expertise over rank (my observation not Joan’s!).  Even stuff on how to handle auditions parallelled a lot of what I experienced in consulting.  It would probably be true in any branch of “show business”; at least “show business” as Deal and Kennedy defined it.  Joan was actually very funny in this segment.  It’s stuff it’s easy to be pompous about and she wasn’t.

She also spent quite a bit of time on “how to learn a role”.  If people really do what she advises I’m surprised they ever find time to sleep.  It was one of many points in the day when I was wondering why anyone wants to be an opera singer.

The rest of the morning was taken up with individual feedback sessions.  Four or five of the singers sang an aria with piano accompaniment and then got feedback from Joan.  Curiously all were sopranos and the rep was restricted to French and Italian by design.  Perhaps unsurprisingly it all also fell in an arc from Mozart to verismo.  What was interesting was what Joan picked up on and how she chose to deal with it.  She’s very New York; essentially kind but, by Toronto standards, incredibly blunt.  One woman, who had recently had a baby, was told flat out to go back and learn to sing in tune again.  I haven’t heard anything quite that direct since my clarinet teacher told me he’d write my report as soon as he had learned to spell “pathetic”.  She was right, of course.  The woman’s basic physical apparatus and technique needed post baby reconstruction and I really believe that to say that was a necessary and essentially kind thing to do.

She also asked incredibly sharp questions and was prepared to spend enormous time and patience on what seemed, often, like really small points of technique.  But I guess that’s part of what takes a singer out of the pack and gets them noticed.  This part of the session wass quite a revelation for a non-specialist like myself.  I just don’t normally spend much time thinking about how to accent Italian vowels and the like.

I guess I came away with two thoughts.  First, I think it’s wonderful that there is an organisation putting on these kind of events for young singers.  If I had had a similar resource early in my consulting career rather than having to learn the hard way I’d be richer and happier (and probably not writing this blog).  Second and more negatively, why do so many people try so hard to make it as a professional singer?  It’s brutally hard work, insanely competitive and not especially well paid or secure even if you are in the 0.0001% of aspiring singers who really make the grade.  People must know whether they really have the chops or not.  I knew by the time I was 20 that I could probably get a university teaching job in my field (mathematics) if I worked hard enough but I was never going to win a Fields Medal.  So I didn’t pursue that route.  There really does seem to be some insane head banging going on in the music world.

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One thought on “Watching singers aspire

  1. As a former aspiring opera singer, I can further your comment on the insanity of pursuing an opera career, at least pursuing it to be your full time gig. I’m still singing for the enjoyment of singing, but making very little money at it. I couldn’t deal with the insanity that you mentioned, but it took me until the age of 29 to figure that out for myself.
    We need more individuals like Joan – bluntness pays off in the long run, if you treat it as the advice that it is and not an attack on your instrument. That is hard for 20some year olds to hear. The individuals that take the advice to heart usually come out ahead, while the ones that don’t usually end up sidelined. That, of course, is a generalization. But I don’t imagine it’s too far from the truth.

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