1. You listen to it all but YOU decide on the takeaway. There's a lot of input for singers. We're expected to consume a LOT of information, advice, feedback. (I should know. I'm one of the people frequently running my mouth. People ask, I tell. Well, sometimes I just tell). Successful people look at the information at their disposal, they look at the source and decide whether it is trustworthy, they sift through and decide what supports their mission and their artistic view --- or what might change it --- and they use that. The rest, they toss.
Young singers especially get pulled in a lot of different directions with an overwhelming amount of advice and opinion. My suggestions are these: look for a consensus in what people tell you. The truth lies somewhere in there. Also, form a viewpoint and stick with it unless it stops making sense to you; you can always revise it. Don't be deaf and blind and stubborn, but be firm.
2. You have a viewpoint and you want and need to share it. You might be one of those people who is born knowing what you want to say and how you want to say it, or it might take you a while to find or refine your voice, but we are all artists for one reason: we need to communicate. Part of the artist's journey is to figure out what we want and need to say, and how we are going to do it; and part of learning to market that is to find out what parts of ourselves and our art people respond to the most. If you have a deeply convicted point of view, even if it is not the most advantageous to you commercially, you will still get people to respond.
3. You've developed a brand. I know, I know. it seems a bit silly; a bit of overkill. But all branding means is capitalizing on what makes you stand out. What is distinctive about what you do?
That can be hard to figure out at first, so if you want to start with something relatively easy, start with your look. Think about Donald Trump and what comes to mind? The bad combover and the pink tie. If I mention the Golden Arches you're immediately jonsing for some frozen potato sticks fried in ancient vegetable oil and coated in your lifetime allowance of sodium. These things are part of The Donald's and The McDonald's respective brands, and they are immediately recognizable. You don't have to go crazy with it (and you shouldn't --- quirky canNOT be manufactured), but think about what fits, really fits you, and play with it.
Think about your repertoire. Think about aspects of your personality. Ask yourself why you should be hired over someone else. If you don't know the answers to these questions, you can't expect the person doing the hiring to know, either. Ask, then start tinkering until you have something that really fits.
4. You educate yourself about the industry and how business is conducted. A lot of artists think that marketing themselves is somehow dirty and somehow interferes or dilutes their great ART. Most of us don't like doing the business stuff. It's not the fun part; it's not what feeds our souls. And certainly there are some people who can do nothing but concentrate on making art and somehow the world discovers and elevates them; but most of us have to get out there and make the world pay attention.
Being a good businessperson and attending to your career does not make you a sellout as an artist and it doesn't mean you neglect your art --- it just means that you take care of your career in addition to making art. It's not more important than making art. It's just an element of what you must do to sell your art.
Education in the business of singing is not always readily available, but some of the things you can do include:
- Reading industry publications: Opera News, Classical Singer, the Opera America publications, Musical America, and if you want to sing overseas, the Deutsche Buhnen Jahrbuch and the British Musical Yearbook.*
- Reading blogs and forums written not just by famous people, but by in-the-trenches singers who are doing what you want to do. Familiarizing yourself with their ideas, their challenges, their struggles, their progress up the ladder.
- Sitting down with colleagues who are further up the ladder than you and picking their brains. Hint: do your homework first and come armed with specific questions, not vague generalities.
- Attending continuing education opportunities such as master classes, workshops, lectures, training programs that offer you specifically what you need.
5. You're immensely curious and you devour knowledge. You want to know everything about the opera you're singing, not just what's on the page in the score. You know about the composer, the librettist, and the source material. You research the period and know what people wore and ate, the types of tools and everyday items they used, where they lived, what their life expectancy was, what the political climate was like, and what their social status is and what that means. You are interested in other art forms and cultures, and you have a variety of interests outside of the arts, too. You study other languages and cultures. You participate in your world.
6. You're proactive and goal-oriented. You don't sit around and wait for opportunities to come to you; you go out and find or make them. You look for auditions (and you know the difference between ones which are currently appropriate for you and which are not). When you don't have a project, you create one. You stay in touch with your contacts and your mentors. You go to concerts, plays, operas, and recitals in your area. Your name is usually on someone's lips simply because you are always out there doing.
7. You define your mission and you define success for yourself. After the first and second articles, a lot of people asked, "What is professional, anyway? Who gets to define what is success?" Some won't agree with me, but in my opinion if you are getting paid to sing, whether it's a church job or self-produced concerts or on the opera stage, you're a professional singer. And I am a firm believer that you are the only person who can decide what defines success for you. You are the one who gets to decide what your life should look like and how singing should fit into it.
Within those definitions, there is room for strata. The term "professional" comes with a set of standards attached, in terms of a certain level of training, skill, knowledge, and behaviors; but this is subjective and more difficult to define; and at any rate, that's another discussion. However, the more times you've been around the block (orchestra pit?) the more polished you're likely to be, though we certainly can all cite colleagues who should know better and apparently don't, or don't care. As for success in professional terms, obviously some enjoy a higher level than others, but it doesn't mean they're happier or more fulfilled, or that another singer is "less than" because they're not zooming around the world. Our business, after all, is a very subjective one.
It may not seem like it from all I've written, but ultimately, I believe your best bet is to learn the rules so you can judge when best to break them, and to be an individual --- a judicious, well-researched individual. In my opinion, if you can do that, you have every chance of reaching your goals -- whatever they may be.