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09/22/2013

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Late Blooming Soprano

I felt compelled to write this, because while I agree in principle, I don't think it's entirely productive to make generalizations like this.

Because I was one of those lazy students.

I came to college in the early 90s with practically NO skills except a love of and talent for singing, and undergrad was not only a whirl of massive-learning-curve experiences (Music theory! Pedagogy! Diction! Piano skills! Orchestration!) but learning to live on my own after coming from a sheltered existence, how to manage my time, how to study on my own schedule and cook for myself, and on top of that, figuring out out WHO I WAS.

And THEN there was the pressure of improving my voice, getting the courage to change and possibly sound bad for a bit while getting used to a new approach, and having to perform with that going on, when my whole personality was tied up with my voice. If I couldn't sing well, even temporarily, if I couldn't rely on my voice, who was I? I may have missed a few amazing opportunities due to tiredness or burnout, but I also caught plenty.

I thank heaven that I had patient teachers who saw through my "laziness" to my passion and were willing to put up with the mistakes and the underpreparedness firmly but without judgement. Because judgement (criticism of who you are, not what you do), which is rife in the opera business, is death to creative freedom and artistic expression.

And when I left undergrad I was only 21, which is barely toddlerhood in the opera world, despite the flavor-of-the-month prodigies that explode upon the opera world nowadays only to disappear just as quickly. I was barely getting started.

If I had felt a compulsion to develop my technique as quickly as possible, to be SuperSoubrette and hit the Met straight out of undergrad, I would have not only been frustrated, but would have burnt out spectacularly. We're all about the young hot thing nowadays in the opera world, but art for each individual has its own schedule. And sure, some do manage to do it quickly, but that wasn't my path.

When I went to grad school in NYC I had emotional meltdowns on a regular basis. The city and the school was enormously stressful and enormously competitive. Yes, it toughened me up, but I needed to develop coping mechanisms before that happened. I needed to learn that *I* was not my voice, and I needed to have a life outside of school to teach me that. My understanding teachers talked me off the metaphorical ledge and helped me cultivate confidence in myself in the face of an uncaring business. This meant that I did not always milk every single potential experience I could have had in grad school and beyond. But I got what I MOST NEEDED according to where I was at that moment. I gradually learned how to start learning for myself, how to start seeking things out. When I was ready to do it, when I felt confident and safe, when I was satisfied that I had the basics down.

It might have taken me longer than the average light soprano to build a career, but one of my very wise and understanding teachers told me that there is no one way to a singing career. There may be a narrow window for one path to a major international career, but there are other ways to get there, and other destinations besides. I succeeded when I was ready to and not a moment sooner.

(And I had mega advantages - a college fund, scholarships, many many wonderful people who believed in me despite my mistakes, and a certain bullheaded persistent belief that doing anything else was not an option. Without those it would have taken me much longer, or never happened at all.)

I make a living from my performing career now and I love every second of it. I've also started a second career helping young singers develop the courage they need to make the changes they were too scared, too overwhelmed, or too busy growing as a person to accomplish in undergrad.

I see it as my life's mission to be a voice of sanity, perspective, and support for these young singers facing a hyperjudgemental, daunting music world. I want to give them the understanding I sometimes wished for as I was busy growing up during my studies, and never let them forget, regardless whether their studies take them to the stage of the Met, to the chorus, or to the audience, why they are studying voice in the first place:

Because they love it.

(P.S. I love what you suggest about students seeking out their own performing opportunities. That was so much less of an option when I was starting out, but I have done it since, and it's tremendously empowering.)

Kimberly

Wonderful article! You said, "Education is not something that happens to you." Unfortunately during elementary, middle and high school that is exactly what is going on. Your parents send you to Kindergarten and for 13 years education just happens to you. You are fed a boxed curriculum that allows for little to no deviations or extra exploration based on your interests. There is not time for many questions or diving deeper into subjects because you have to work so hard to meet the common standard. Then you graduate and are told to find your passion, make something of yourself and follow your dreams. But there was no time for passions or dreams because you spent 8 hours in school and four doing homework. Are students lazy? Maybe, probably. But a more likely scenario is that they haven't been taught to dream, seek after passions, ask questions or think for themselves. They've been told what to do their whole lives. There are a lucky few who break the mold or their parents did and taught them to. We have been taught to think of school and education as something to " get through", survive and endure in hopes we can get where we want to go. Instead we need to allow children the freedom to ask questions, dive deeper into topics that interest them so they can discover their passions early and always have the desire to learn and seek out more knowledge. It HAS to start before college or we are going to continue to see the behavior you described above.

Lee Anne

Here's a related perspective: I went to school because I loved music, and singing was my way to express that. I did ok in undergrad, but when I got out, I was totally at sea because I wasn't interested in the performing piece - and that was the focus of the program. But I was interested in working in the field, and it took me a long while before I could figure that out.

Fast forward to last week, when I went back to my alma mater to talk to the music students. That program in particular has changed to define success as a career in/around music, and has new structures in place to shepherd young people into finding their true sweet spot, on or offstage. I talked with folks who were pretty put together about their prospects and interests, and some who were obviously still figuring things out.

The point, (sorry to take so long to get there) is that I think oftentimes that 'lazy' is a manifestation of someone who loves music, but is ambivalent about some key aspect of profession and can't figure out where their skills/preferences/temperament fit in.

Susan

With the amount of credits singers are expected to take for a degree that have absolutely nothing to do with a career, coupled with the fact that they may have to hold down a few jobs while in college. What do you expect them to do? It's hard enough to support yourself through college, cut the kids a break. Would I have gone to a Warren Jones master class? Yes, I did go to some concerts he played but if it had conflicted with my job to pay the rent most likely would not have and I would not have been happy about having to make that choice.

There are hard choices to be made and I would hardly call anyone meeting all the degree requirements lazy. (even if they don't have to work their way through school, anyone who does work their way through school is heroic!) I commend students for doing it at all!!! (remember this includes the daily practice etc... It's a time of growth and exploration.)

How about the schools be more outgoing in getting them before the public and helping them bridge the gap between college and career. It's the colleges that I believe are lazy in this regard, they throw them out to the wolves. And the faculty think the STUDENTS are lazy??? This is nothing but egomania. There are lazy students to be sure but in a music program there is too much to do, ensemble requirements, advanced theory you will never use, all sorts of things that have nothing to do with a singing career. Overall music students are anything but lazy, they are the exact opposite.

I vehemently object to this notion.

Cindy

Wow, there are such great comments on this post! Thank you, everyone, for contributing your thoughts. I think this is a really useful discussion to have.

Susan: earning a degree is certainly an accomplishment. I don't disagree with you that there's a lot of work (I took 17-20 hours a semester as an undergrad, and that didn't count rehearsals!). And I agree with you that schools in general could be doing a LOT more to help prep students for a career. That's one of my soapbox issues --- in fact, one of the things I do with my workshop is try to fill in that educational gap for students --- and it's a whole 'nother blog post. :) I don't teach at a university any more but I do work with a lot of university students, and there do seem to be an awful lot of them who want to just do the bare minimum they have to in order to get that piece of paper; or else, there are the ones with the big egos who have had a certain amount of success in the very small pond of school and think they're ready to take on the world, so they can't be bothered to seek out other perspectives.

Perhaps I should have also said, there are plenty of lazy teachers, too! Because that certainly is true.

Lee Anne --- thanks for this great perspective. I am SO glad to hear that your alma mater has changed its focus to define success in a musical field. When I was in school, it was the same --- if you weren't singing opera at the Met, you were a loser --- and that simply isn't true. Ironically, my own beloved teacher, Mignon Dunn, a regular at the Met, used to tell all the kids in the opera class that there were MANY ways to be successful in music, and singing opera was only one. She was the only person in my education who told singers that chorus was a good job! In my workshops, I make a big deal out of telling students that they must define success for themselves (and we also have a big segment on different types of careers in music).

Kimberly - you've hit the nail on the head with one of the major problems in our educational system. It's NOT built to encourage independent thought. I was very lucky to have parents who encouraged me to explore, try things out, and figure things out. What do you think universities can do to help students break out of the box?

Late Blooming Soprano --- thank you for sharing your story! It doesn't sound to me like you were lazy at all. :) I'd like to clarify that I didn't mean singers should rush through their education, but they can't dawdle either. I've worked with a lot of people who left school and then "took a few years off". When they finally are ready to try for a career, they haven't been studying, they're singing their old college repertoire which they often have matured out of, they haven't kept up contacts, and they're either close to or already have aged out of Young Artist Programs. Now, it's not always a hopeless cause, but it certainly makes it a LOT harder to get started. You have to stay on it. And we all know those singers who just never seem to get their techniques together, and suddenly they're 35 years old and cannot get hired.

Betty S Turner

I taught voice on the college level for many years in a smaller liberal arts university. I believe that a career in performance takes a specific type of personality, one that has a drive to put singing first. These students are generally the ones that take full advantage of opportunities during college. Singers come to college to major in music because they love to sing, but not all have the performance personality. There are many careers open to those other personalities-teaching in schools, teaching in home studios, music therapy, music business etc.. Sometimes the disciplines learned in a music major serve well outside of careers in music. Regardless of the career chosen, the many difficult courses in theory, music history etc. help create a "good" musician which is necessary. I agree that we teachers need to have patience with young singers as they find their voice and the direction that they want and need to go.

Susan

My point is they don't have time to find out other prospectives, its the schools job to prepare them to know how and where to find work, even provide inital contacts. I still object to your premise. If someone is suffering from big fish in small pond syndrome that too is something the school needs to address and teach them about the world.

I know professional singers who never attended university for music at all. Since people are paying all this money they need to be taught the artform as well as the business. In each of these premises the school (not the voice teacher or student) is to blame.

Cindy

Susan, it is not my premise that voice students are (universally) lazy. As I wrote in the post, I do think that a lot of them are working very hard, but don't always have the right focus. Part of that is because they don't always receive the information they need; and here is where I think you and I do disgree: I believe that it IS up to the student to take responsibility --- ultimately --- for their own education, and that includes seeking outside sources, which, thanks to the Internet, are SO much easier to find than ever before.

I do completely agree with you that many schools are falling down on the job of teaching any sort of business training, and preparing the student for the reality of the business today. There are all kinds of reasons for that and something I hope to address in a future post. The school must bear some of the responsibility, but ultimately, it's the student's life, the student's career, and they have to have the passion to go out and find out what they need to know. It is not easy, and it may not be entirely fair, but it's reality.

Lori Fredrics


Thanks for writing this, Cindy. It really hits the mark. I would have felt the same way if I had been at the Warren Jones class and found it empty. In fact, when we were students at UT, I was shocked that few singers came to Souzay's open master classes when they were not singing. I often went to the section for which I was not officially registered as well as my own section. Maybe others didn't know who he was, maybe they didn't have in the forefront of their minds as I did, that I intended to teach, and therefore was interested in learning about repertoire I would never personally sing . Or maybe they really were not all that interested.

With the passing of our beloved Rose Taylor, I have vivid memories of her attendance at almost every voice performance, at least those that I attended. Why was she there? To support others and yes, to learn. We can all learn from the both triumphs of others and their mistakes.

These days more and more, I have to explain to students AND their parents, that NO, it is not ok for you/ your child to sing and run. That is come to a performance and leave in the middle after they have performed to be "someplace else really important".

What it comes down to is the normality of narcissism. When you point out why it is rude to do so (sing and run) and that it is not permitted, people do feel embarrassed and change their ways, unless they themselves are truly narcissistic and not simply in an unthinking societal pattern.

But in the long run our business teaches people that they are not the center of the universe pretty fast after they get beyond the stage where they are paying to sing (customers) and trying to be paid to sing (the product). So the problem eventually solves itself!

Susan

Each human is ultimately responsible for themselves, but universities take lots of money and do not offer the necessary survival skills or transition skills. In some ways this has gotten better but if you are going to take so much money you have an obligation to prepare them for the career you advertised. They should offer less advanced music theory requirments and a comuputer programing course so they can survive through auditioniong etc. The schools currently do little to nothing to educate their students to survive this transition. Some universities allow their choruses to be hired by professional orchestras, thus taking away jobs from their graduates and other singers who have attended university. The university bears responsiblilty to look out for the best interests of their students and alumni and should say no to these offers. I do not believe they do a good enough job of that. This is only one way in which universities are lazy in the support of their students. Universites need to change their way of educating. They are steeped in traditional requirements that are a waste of time and no longer relevant. Thus wasting the time of the student and preventing them from doing they could for themselves.

Susan

oops. of course i meant less advanced theory and make a computer programing course or something they can realistically do while auditioning... that would be useful

Brynne

Hey, Gen Y-er here. I have to say I'm getting a bit tired of hearing everyone's generalisations about "my" generation. Yes, some of us ARE lazy. Some of us are also extremely industrious and proactive. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, and we need a swift kick in the pants from someone like you before we start really working and focusing on the right things.
We all know that the truly lazy people won't ever get into the business. Hopefully they will find another career path - something that really fulfills them, and motivates them to work, because obviously singing isn't doing that for them. The rest of us? We all have our own paths and our own challenges, and if we really want to we will make a career - at our own time and our own pace.
I wish I knew half the things I know now when I was in undergrad. Hell, I wish I had half the motivation. But I didn't. Part of it was that I was ignorant and naïve about the industry and what I had to do to get ahead. Part of it was that I had some small inkling of what I needed to do and it seemed so huge that I was totally intimidated and overwhelmed. Part of it was that I was going through some personal stuff which took up a lot of physical and emotional energy (hey, who doesn't when they're growing up?) And yes, part of it was pure, old-fashioned laziness. Anyway, the point is, eventually I got the kick in the pants - at the right time, mind you, when I was ready to listen - and I started really working.
It's important to have some patience with young students, who are often going through intense growing pains and dealing with all kinds of new and overwhelming things. Chances are, they will get a kick in the pants when they need it, and THEN they'll be able to build a career with the maturity and determination that's so necessary for their success and long-term happiness. Or maybe they won't. And they'll find another path. Everyone is different, and there's enough pressure in this industry already without putting a deadline on starting your career.

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Where's Cindy Singing Next?

  • The Marquise de Berkenfield, La fille du regiment, Austin Opera 2017
    http://austinopera.org/tickets/#tabs-tickets-tab-1

Cindy on Stage

  • Mrs. Quickly, Sir John in Love, Boston
    I play dress-up for a living.

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