It Doesn't Matter Where You Start
I love sports analogies. Sports and classical singing have a lot in common. Both are built on the private sacrifice of the individual. With the singer, much time is spent either alone or with others drilling certain aspects of the art. On the practice field, the environment is very controlled and geared toward the learning and understanding of certain moves or techniques. The object of this kind of practices is to have technical adjustments become totally ingrained within our minds and our bodies so that they become habit. Ideally, you don’t need to stop and thin in order to adjust during a game or performance.
Why do I love sports analogies? Because the parallel what it is we do as singers. Athletes and singers feed off of the excitement of a game or performance. We plan and practice and rehearse every day to a point in which everything is synchronized in a wonderful way.
On performance night- despite the best laid plans- things can change. One of your colleagues might want a fast or slower tempo than what has been rehearsed. This is your opportunity to make an adjustment that increases the dramatic effect between you and the audience, bringing the performance to such a high level that there is an unexplained excitement in the air. But the opposite can also occur. The performance can feel forced or lack that spontaneous inspiration for which we all search. As a performer, your impression could be that you were fantastic after a concert while the audience may have felt that the performance was merely adequate. We also have those disappointing nights when we think that we have “phoned it in,” yet our friends, families, and colleagues come backstage excited because we spoke to them, moved them. That’s what it’s all about. We never really know how we come across. The only option is to sing our best and not worry so much about the results.
Back to that sports analogy: take baseball. Imagine that you got a hit one out of four times. A batting average like this would indicate that you’re at the top of your game. In baseball, if you’re hitting safely 30 percent of the times you’re at bat, you end up in the Hall of Fame.
Likewise, a singer who is winning one out of 10 auditions is doing exceedingly well- fantastic odds, actually, for a singer who is either in school or just graduated.
As an associate professor at The Ohio State University for over 25 years, I have seen countless singers go through the audition process and watched how they react to audition and competition feedback, including the constant drip of No, thank you letters. It’s easy to understand why someone would be discouraged- especially at the university level, which is the hardest time for many singes. Everyone is vying for a coveted Young Artist Program position. Winning allows singers to feel good about themselves and to feel validated as singers.
What do you do when you’re repeatedly told, “No,” yet you know that singing is what you really want to do?
Perhaps you are true Bel Canto singers in a college or university program with an avant-garde performance theory. This might not be the best fit for you, and it will be difficult to stand out in such a college program. Take that understanding and move forward. Realize that you just need more time with your voice, more time to allow everything to come into balance so that people can really see what it is that you have to offer.
To be frank, there is no way to look into a crystal ball. As you continue to pursue a singing career, you will see all kinds of singers who are successful. The landscape across academic institutions tells many stories of singers who didn’t do much performing in college and yet went on to have fantastic careers.
Conversely, there are singers who come to degree programs and enter with high expectations from faculty that these are going to be the top singes of their generation. And, yet, it doesn’t work out for them. How can we possibly deal with the uncertainty? It is critical to understand that at almost every level people are judging you as a singer, and that the criteria for selection are diverse.
You could be the greatest apple in the world- but if they want an orange, you’re out of luck. A director might hire another singer who is shorter or taller, lighter or darker. He might want someone with more crossover ability rather than someone who sing purely opera. When you’re not chosen, it might just mean that you’re not what they need at that point.
During the annual NFL draft, teams are able to take college players from every kind of school and from every position. There is a hailstorm of reporting about each and every player. How high can they jump? How fast can they run? What are their states? Judged on so many different points, the players are measured and rated.
But the one thing that the NF; and critics cannot measure is the “it” factor that we always talk about- the competitiveness, the will, and the drive to succeed. A football player can possess all the talent in the world, but if he can’t stick with it during the hard times (when it’s easier to quit, his talent is moot.
One can look at those who came into the NFL draft with high expectations, drafted in the first 10 perhaps, and given big money. Then “poof,” they’re gone within a few years. Things sometimes don’t work out. Even for players who won national championships in college. Players may have found success in the college system, but in the professional world, their abilities didn’t translate.
On the other side of the coin there are those who were drafted much later and without any hullabaloo (one of my favorite Maria Callas words). They were further down on the draft list. And, yet, within a year or two something happens-they land on the right pro team that needs just that kind of player to fill that position.
Tom Brady, the quarterback for the New England Patriots, is arguably one of the most successful quarterbacks today. Upon entering the University of Michigan, he was seventh in line for the quarterback position. Few people can name the players who were ahead of him there. He finally won the starting position during his junior and senior years and had a good record. Despite all of that, he was chosen as the 199th pick of the 2000 NF draft. He began as the fourth-string quarterback at New England and was second string by the end of his rookie year. Now he is a three-time Super Bowl champion holding many other awards and personal records.
So, in reality, it doesn’t matter where you start. It matters where you finish. On those challenging days when you receive yet another rejection letter in the mail, listen to yourself and then ask yourself why it is that you sing. Then get back out on the playing field. It is all about our beautiful art, the wonderful music, and exceeding our own expectations.
Published in Classical Singer, February 2015