Too big for one’s (vocal) britches.

We’re in Chicago on our annual audition tour (Day #7, City #3), hearing folks a few blocks away from Millennium Park. At this point we’ve heard somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 singers on the tour thus far. In between singers I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking. Thinking about my own career path, about higher education and its role in a performer’s career, about the arts as a job market. My head is pretty muddled, and I have many more questions than answers.

Many young people (And I’m talking more about the Studio program in specific, although these tendencies do hold their own against the Filene Young Artist candidates to some degree) on this tour have brought repertoire that is, bluntly, not quite right for them. They’re doing their best, they are prepared, but in many cases they’re fighting a fight that they just cannot win. Now, I don’t mean that these pieces aren’t right for them to study – I actually believe that studying rep that’s outside of your fach – heck, even stuff that you’ll never, ever, EVER sing is ok. Learning about music (nay, about anything) in a visceral way is always beneficial. When I would start to lose interest in my piano studies, for example, my high-school piano teacher (the sainted Jeanne Baker from Slippery Rock University) would dangle a piece that was technically way over my head in front of me: it would challenge me in a way that was more exciting than repertoire that was more within reach. But she never let me play that stuff on my recitals – two different contexts, two different types of pieces.

I’m talking about young singers auditioning with repertoire that’s too heavy, that feels constantly one step out of reach, that has a thick orchestration that would swallow their voices 75% of the time and only allow the highest or loudest notes to be heard.

Now, I will attribute a certain amount of this repertoire madness to these singers being young and headstrong – I can guess that as a 20-something I was likely difficult to reason with. (Mom, you don’t need to weigh in on that…) And sometime I’m sure they just say “What the hell! I’m going to put it on my list!” But I must attribute some of it to bad/misguided advice.

Here’s the thing: schools traffic in potential. Faculty in voice programs need to have a bit of ESP to determine which young voices are going to blossom into significant talents. However, even as someone who works at a training program, I still am charged to see these folks as professionals, as potential employees – regardless of their “emerging” status. I can’t put aside the practicalities of their performance to see their potential. The two things have to be in line. So when the aria is technically a step out of reach or two fachs too big, the professional picture that is painted is murky; it leaves me with more questions asked than answered.

Before you think me unsympathetic, I know university professors have their work cut out for them; instilling a healthy, consistent technique in young singers in a short handful of years, preparing them to enter a shrinking job market, pushing the necessity of good health, of continued study, of artistic and vocal development. Distractions are many, hours are long, pay is low and most of them do it for love of the art more than any other reason.

But I might also see university music departments that seem to be balancing their budgets on the backs of their vocal majors, pretending to prepare them for careers in this economy when their faculty  – gifted teachers, without question – have more traction with the glory days of opera or their own fledgling careers than the current, problematic national landscape. Students are taught that they can either perform, or teach, with their skill set, and not much else in between.

Two. Choices.

I also understand not being able to be all things to all students, to having to narrow curricular focus in order to delve into a topic deeply. But to do so, at the exclusion of coursework/knowledge that will enable students to work, to professionally present their very best selves, is shortsighted at best, deeply wrong at worst.

I have pals and readers here who teach, so I’d like to open up the dialogue. Am I wrong? Is there anything to be done?

More questions:

  1. Students, are you having conversations with your professors about what constitutes study material and what material best represents them in the wider world, and where the two diverge?
  2. Faculty members, are you aware of where your students fit in the national opera scene? Are you letting them know that, while they may sing Brangäne in a school production (poor example, but you get it, right?), that doesn’t mean that they’re hirable as Brangäne at a professional company?
  3. How do we, as an invested community, prepare artists for the realities of today’s economy while also developing informed consumers of the art form?

Big questions. No easy answers.

You know, when I was in undergrad we had a cut system – at the end of every year, certain students would be “invited” to change majors to Humanities or something else. I remember thinking it was horrifically cruel, but in retrospect I think it may have been valuable: to have one’s path be questioned, to take in the weight of that invitation and decide to either explore another field or to dig in, knowing that more was demanded.

Am I way off base? Do you have thoughts as to how we can address this in a larger way? What programs are doing a good job of preparing young singers for the profession? Who is giving good advice? Comments or email – I’m all ears.

3 thoughts on “Too big for one’s (vocal) britches.

  1. Hurm. Lots of tough questions. I like to think I’m pretty realistic with students. Unless they’re super-duper-zuper stars I pretty much tell them straight up that they won’t make their entire living by singing, even at the top of their game (unless they have a lot more financial resources than I ever had.) Where I’m teaching now I’m not churning out the kind of people you’re hearing (yet), and my last school was producing more music theatre performers than opera stars. But I can speak from my highly individualized perspective, being someone who stresses the breadth of opportunities that a music degree may offer, as well as the need to give oneself permission to consider performance opportunities outside one’s comfort zone and/or preparatory background – it’s often a tough call.

    In school programs, if a director is sensitive to the needs of the students, which I like to think I am, there is plenty of literature available to provide for interesting educational experiences, enjoyable audience experiences, and not-harmful-to-young-voices experiences (I’m very proud of not programming “Angelica” this year, despite having a billion women. But not one Angelica.)

    I try to be aware of the realities of the opera world, and try to steer students toward what they should be singing, but will admit to being somewhat reliant on you all in the real world. I can steer a student toward her correct fach and say “you can study this Angelica aria, but no one will hire you for this for another ten years” and in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “I don’t need to worry about this because no one would ever hire her to sing Angelica,” and then someone (less sensitive to these things than you) hires her to sing Angelica. And then she either thinks I’m full of shit, or sings it and comes back in a few years with vocal problems.

    So that doesn’t really answer your questions. I think lots of us are giving good and sensible advice, but have no assurance that the advice is always followed. It was much clearer when dealing with music theatre students, where “fach” as it were is as much determined by physical look as by voice type. (And maybe that’s not entirely confined to music theatre anymore. As a lyric baritone I made a lot of money singing buffo roles that were too low for me, because I was portly and could kind of act.)

    There is a big and recent push to teach entrepreneurial skills in music programs – it maybe is recent enough not to have caught up with you yet in auditions. But I think the trend in coming years will be for singers not to push the boundaries of their abilities but to capitalize on them, and if they don’t find an opportunity that suits their skill set they will create their own.

    • Thanks for the wonderful, thoughtful reply.

      When I think about the teachers I know (you included), I’m reassured about the advice that students are being given. (regardless of whether they actually take it – that’s more of a wild card, for sure! I’m living proof.) I get disheartened when I see folks who are obviously smart and musical and have lots of things going for them casting their energies in directions that can’t pay off. I don’t actually know if the problem is fixable or if I’m just getting too soft after listening for several years.

      Your 3rd paragraph is the crux, isn’t it? There’s a bit of churn-and-burn in some opera companies in regard to young singers.

      Big questions indeed. And no answers. (We’re so fired.) 🙂

      Thanks again for the great reply.

  2. I’m reminded of a master class I saw recently with Flicka. A grad student got up and sang Madame Flora’s aria. Knocked it out of the park, probably could have pulled off that rep for five or six seasons, or longer. And all Flicka said was (I paraphrase) “please slow down and be careful”. So maybe even thoughtful teachers can send a student in a viable direction that a pro will consider unsustainable.

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