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Assessing Your Career: Calling Upon Your Network
Diana Hossack
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It is difficult to be both an artist and a business person. You need to say something uniquely “you” to an audience –– and when you come off the stage, you have to put on a business hat and be the president of your own corporation. You have to make sense out of your experience –– but you don’t necessarily have to do this alone. It is crucial to surround yourself with a strong network of advisors.

On May 3 - 4, 2003, OPERA America held its 5th Annual Singer Workshop, Building a Career: Strategies for Success, in San Francisco. The following remarks are excerpted from the session Assessing Your Career: Calling Upon Your Network. In this panel discussion, a singer, teacher, coach, artist manager, and general director consider how to surround yourself with a strong network of advisors. This session was moderated by Diana Hossack, managing director of OPERA America. Panelists included John Anderson, Herbert Barrett Management; Robert Bailey, formerly of Portland Opera; Erie Mills, soprano; Carol Castel, voice teacher; and Marcie Stapp, coach.

What kinds of people make up a singer’s network?

Robert Bailey: The important thing is to have a diverse network, with a variety of opinions and thoughts. Pull together these thoughts, ideas, perceptions, insights, and come up with your own decisions. Find people who can understand the challenges of your profession — who can talk to you and share with you and express those kinds of concerns with you.

Erie Mills: You, the singer, are the center of your wheel, and out from you come all these spokes. If one of the spokes is missing, the wheel doesn’t function as well. Having said that, I would say your wheel should include a voice teacher, a coach or several coaches, family (spouse, parents), artist manager, publicist, dress designer (ladies), and hair/image designer.

John Anderson: A physician is someone very important in your network because all you have are the two little pieces of gristle in your throat. You need to protect them. Your physical trainer is also very important.

Carol Castel: I think one of the most difficult things for singers to understand is that they are making choices about who they surround themselves with. Keep in mind you are a business, and you are the CEO. You have to step out of it and say, “Who is it that’s holding me back here?” Is there someone holding you back? Are they feeding into your fear? It’s very important that you realize that you are the one hiring the team.

In your role as voice teacher, how have you been helpful to singers?

CC: I try hard to get my students to have a huge support network. My goal is to get them out there — like a very good parent. The voice teacher/student relationship can be a dangerous relationship for a couple of reasons. When you start to take lessons, the voice teacher is the only person on your team. There is no set path, so you are greatly influenced by the path your teacher took. As you branch out, sometimes the teacher doesn’t want to let go of that power. You need to have someone on your team who will always tell you the truth — for your sake, not for theirs. They know enough about the business to know if you are doing well.

We don’t make the transition from student to professional because we don’t take the initiative. There’s no excuse anymore. There is so much information out there. Are you in the right town? Have you run out of things you need to know from a particular teacher? You shouldn’t be so emotionally invested in it that you can’t make these decisions for yourself.

How is a coach important to a singer’s network?

Marcie Stapp: Coaches are very important. If you have one coach, you should branch out and try to work with a lot of people. No single coach can offer all the expertise of the music and languages, etc. Experiment and see who is able to help you best. In many ways, I think coaches are the best people to assess voice teachers. If you ask singer friends for a recommendation, they know their voice teacher and maybe a couple of others. If you ask voice teachers, they don’t know firsthand what other voice teachers do as much as the coaches do. Specifically, coaches can help in cases where people are wanting to change voice teachers or want to find a voice teacher. There are some bad voice teachers out there, and if I know that there are 20 people who come through my studio whose voice has been damaged by a particular teacher, I think it’s my duty to at least point that out. If you want some kind of information about the musical world, talk to a lot of coaches. We’ve dealt with so many different students from different studios, that we see patterns, and if we see one teacher consistently producing wonderful students over the year — or the converse — then I think we have a pretty good firsthand opinion.

What is the role of the artist manager in a singer’s network?

JA: A good manager does not want to abuse young voices and is willing to make the investment in time and energy to build a healthy career. You tell the singer when you think something is not right for him or her. I try to be very careful to keep singers from singing the wrong roles. Protecting the artist is as important as getting the artist work. I also am a firm believer that you must make time for rest, study, and time for relationships.

What is the role of the administrator in a singer’s network?

RB: To be honest, I think the general director or artistic director can exploit and utilize what they can get their hands on to make a show work. That doesn’t always work the best for the singer. I’ve used people I knew could do the role and get through it that day. We’d all love to be thoughtful about the welfare of everybody, but the reality is that we, too, run a business. We have a show to put on at a certain time, and we have to use the best thing we can get our hands on to do it. In the end, if you are hired to do a role, it’s based on how well you do the role. That said, when you are trying to assess the full potential of a performer, a lot of things are helpful — if they’ve studied dance and acting, fencing, etc. — I may make a different assumption about them. But, it still all comes down to how well you sing the piece on that particular day.

What is the role of the family in a singer’s network?

EM: You pay other people. You don’t pay your family. I come from a very non-musical family, but it was very important, being the first child to go to college, that I make a living. I told my father that I was going to major in music, and to him that meant being a music teacher. Which is funny now, because 25 years later I am a music teacher. I make far less money as a teacher than a singer. Your family loves you no matter what, which is the good news.

RB: I know of a young singer who worked with us who got into a bind. That singer had a very loving and supportive spouse and family that moved in and handled a lot of aspects that the singer couldn’t. Each of you will run into a crisis. I could tick off a whole handful of names that were very talented but crashed and burned. Look at every relationship you have as a quality relationship.

How do you advise singers, once they leave the academic realm, to select a voice teacher or a coach?

CC: I think it’s like anything else in life in that you have to know what you want. You have to know what your goals are. If anyone were to ask me, “What’s the meaning of life?” I’d say the reason we are here is to have our needs met. You divide that into your personal needs being met and your artistic needs being met. Be sure you know (and this is very important in picking a teacher) the difference between your personal needs and your artistic needs. Are you going to a teacher because you’re afraid of the business?

You can say, “ I really am good at coloratura; I can move my voice really well. Since I have a high voice, I want to go to a teacher that understands that kind of technique.” Talk to your friends — who do they study with? Who has a studio that turns out voices that are similar to yours? Talk to that teacher and say, “I want you to listen to me. I want you to tell me what you think that I’m doing that’s good, and what I am doing that needs help. As a teaching professional, what would you do, what would you fix first? What do you feel that I’m in need of?” Can you sing all the high notes in your repertory? Can you sing it fast? Can you open all the resonance you feel in your body? If you can’t, this is self-knowledge. Somewhere inside you, you know the truth. Make friends with that and you’ll go farther. Then you’ll get your professional needs met. That’s what a teacher should be doing for you. And if they’re not, and they don’t want to see you get what you need, then maybe the rapport is not a healthy one. I don’t think you should study with someone unless you feel they really like your voice, and really love to work with you and get excited about your accomplishments.

MS: I teach all the lyric diction classes at the San Francisco Conservatory. I’m reminded of an incident in which the clinician, a well-known baritone, was helping the singer with a particular note. He felt that she was spreading the vowel and made that remark. She turned around and said, “That’s because my coach told me that was a bright “I” in French so I had to sing it that way.” He strode elegantly to the front of the stage and looked at the audience and said, “Let’s get one thing straight — there are some very dangerous people in this business called diction teachers…” Then he took another step forward “ … and the worst of them are the ones who write books.” He didn’t understand that I had written a book on diction. And the curious thing is, I not only agreed with his remark and appreciated his remark, I understood his remark much better than I think any of my students did. He went on to explain that most people who write books about diction for singers are not singers, possibly not very familiar with singers at all, sometimes not even musicians. They write a book about how to sing in German and people go out and read it, and they get very confused. It’s not that the people who wrote it were incompetent, but they don’t have either the experience or broad enough expertise to apply that to singing diction. So, my only comment is to look for people with a lot of experience. Shop around, and try to get broad experience. People come into my studio and sing a particular way “because my coach told me to.” I say, “Do you understand why?” They respond, “Well, no, but they told me to do it that way.” That’s a very dangerous rut to get into.

Now that you know what your network should be — people that you select, a diversified group of people with broad experience, that you have a rapport with, who will tell you the truth and want to see you move forward — how do you use your network to assess your skills and how your skills fit into the landscape of the field that we’ve been talking about?

JA: You must find the group of people you can absolutely trust, and be willing to take what they have to offer at face value. Only you can do that. If you are going to react badly to honest criticism, develop a thicker skin. If you are going to bask in the great compliments you receive, you have to believe the bad stuff as well. Don’t make your network so big that when your manager calls and you say, “I’ll get back to you,” that it takes too long to check with everyone. Do not have such a vast array of people. If you trust what the people that you have selected have to say, and trust yourself, you should instinctively know what is good and bad for you. The first time you try to do something and it hurts, talk to someone. The first time you’ve sung through a whole role and you’re gasping at the end, go talk to somebody. Maybe you’re not ready. Maybe you should try something and then put it up on the shelf for a while. There are places that you shouldn’t go with a role and roles you should never do. That’s what you have to formulate for yourself. You are not defined by your network so much as you are defined by your own experience. The network is always valued.

As you meet people, keep track of them. You can collect a few business cards, write to a person after you’ve left a place and say, “Thank you for the great experience, and I’d like to work here again.” If you keep them in mind and let them know that you think of them, they will think of you. As soon as one show is over and everybody has hit the road, the general director is busy with the next production, next cast, two seasons down the road. Whether he thinks of you for two seasons down the road or not depends on the impression you made while you were there. Were you a good citizen? Were you prepared? Did you come totally off book and turn in a stunning performance? Did you work well with a difficult director or unimaginative director and put your own input into it? You’ll be remembered. That is networking, too — how you behave yourself. That is the responsibility of the singer — to be his own CEO.

EM: I just think that another set of ears is so important. I do think you can get into trouble if you are working all the time and not having those checkups. I really do think you need to build into your schedule some rest and preparation time. Yes, you do go by feel, but your feelings are going to change, for women especially — having babies, etc., those things men will never know. Just like you would have an annual checkup for your health, you should do the same thing vocally. This is what your network/ team/ wheel is all about. You need to see yourself in the eyes of the person who knows a particular perspective, whether it be your singing or acting or behavior or physical health or spiritual health. You need someone who knows you and has worked with you before. You need to be able to look in their face and see yourself as they represent you. It’s human mirroring. We learn so much about ourselves and who we are and where we are by doing that. The isolation thing just doesn’t work.

How do you manage yourself as the “center of your wheel?”

EM: When I say you are the center of your wheel, it means you have a great deal of responsibility. You have to have self-awareness. Nobody’s going to do your singing for you or do your auditioning for you.

If you are going to be a professional, it means that there is a level below which you never fall. Very few people will make it. 500 people apply, they hear 300, of those 300, they pick 26. So, what are the odds? Part of it is being self-knowledgeable. You can be perfectly happy in your life not being a star — not even making a living as a singer. There are other alternatives. There are other fields you can go into. Look at the general managers who were singers. As singers, we seem to have a great deal of personality, knowledge — so there are other things we can do. Everything you do won’t be top notch. You break up with a boyfriend, your cat dies, you get a flat tire on the way to the audition… etc. It really boils down to you. I can’t tell you the number of singers that I either coach or teach that don’t have a clue. They have Violetta’s soul and the voice of Despina. You have to know the kind of voice you have. You have to be self-aware.
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