So...first off...I am not an accountant, tax expert, money-manager, or any other financial service professional. None of this is intended to be comprehensive financial advice, and there are probably some things (especially related to taxes) that could bear more explanation from such a person. I am only sharing what I have learned based on my own experience and what has seemed to work for me so far. But here it is...the discussion about money as it pertains to being a professional voice teacher.
First, you need to figure out what to charge. If you are working in a school district, the district might set the rate you are allowed to charge. If not, you need to determine that. One of the biggest determining factors is the “going rate” in the area where you are setting up your studio. You don’t want to be vastly more expensive than the other teachers in your area, or you probably won’t attract too many students (unless you happen to be famous already). Conversely, if you undercut the competition you might attract more students, but you could also find yourself overworked and underpaid. Aside from that, it is important that you are accurately valuing your own work and training–even as a new teacher, your knowledge and expertise is not worthless. As mentioned previously, you also need to figure out how much money you need to make from your voice studio. That may sound a bit too “business-y” for the creative type, but the bottom line here is you ARE creating a business. You may love what you do, and you may be excited every day to inspire your students and help them grow, but the bills don’t pay themselves. The more you can approach the financial side of this like any other business, the easier it is to enjoy the teaching part. Because there are so many factors that go into price, I can’t give a specific dollar amount as a recommendation. That being said, I think it’s far more common for beginning (and even more experienced) teachers to undervalue their work and not charge enough. As long as you are within the general market value for your area (assuming you aren’t working from a school district pay scale), that’s a good place to start. Over time you can (and should) raise your rate as the economy changes, but you just have to have a place to start.
One of the hardest parts of running a studio can be the back end. That includes invoicing, taxes, tracking expenses...you know, the really fun stuff. The problem we all tend to have upon graduating with our voice degrees is that we didn’t really study anything about running a voice studio as a business. This is not a criticism of the music schools out there–it’s just something that there isn’t time to add to the coursework. There are many great resources out there, including The Private Voice Studio Handbook (Joan Frey Boytim). That has some great information, although I admit I disagree with some items in there too. There are also different ways you can handle the organization and bookkeeping of your studio–here is what I use. It should be noted that while many of the products and services I use are from the Intuit company, this is not a sponsored post (although...if they want to sponsor me, I wouldn’t say no!).
For invoicing and payments, I use Paypal. This has definitely helped me streamline my invoice process, which used to take me a whole lot longer. You can do batch invoices, easily send reminders, keep track of payments, allow people to make partial payments as needed...it’s a great system in my opinion. Most people pay online from the Paypal invoice, but of course I still accept checks, bank transfers, Zelle, Venmo, etc. You can still track payment on an invoice even if they don’t pay through Paypal. There is a small fee for each payment, which can add up, but those are tax-deductible. Originally I tried to just add a “service fee” to the invoice to cover that, but it never quite added up, so I just went with the deduction route. The amount of time this saves me in both invoice creation and tracking is well worth the fee, in my opinion. Tax note: when you process a certain amount of money through Paypal, they will issue you a Schedule-K document for tax time–don’t forget to include that when you do your taxes!
For tracking my overall income and business expenses, I use QuickBooks Self-Employed. This is a great program (can be used on a computer AND as a phone app) for tracking your expenses as they happen and categorizing them. You can even scan in receipts to attach to charges, and make rules for recurring payments so you don’t have to manually track everything. It is an excellent tool for us self-employed types who have a lot of overlap between personal and professional money usage. That way you can really keep those deductible expenses organized and get as much benefit come tax time. It is so much less stressful to keep track as you go, rather than waiting until the end of the year. You can also use this to track business mileage and make quarterly tax payments (more on that in a bit). Now, this program even as an invoice feature–it didn’t when I first began using it, so I have stuck with Paypal. I imagine this operates very similarly. Once you have gotten all of your transactions figured out for a tax year, you can even export the data to TurboTax so you can streamline your tax filing.
One of the most important things to track in your studio is the lessons themselves. You may think you will remember everything, but...you won’t. Especially once your studio grows beyond 20-25 students. With 50+ students in any given year, there is no way I can possibly keep track without help. I use a simple Excel spreadsheet and I mark off each scheduled lesson as it happens. That way, I can quickly glance through and see who is owed a makeup lesson, who has unexcused absences, etc. Staying on top of this makes it very easy should you ever have to answer questions about students needing to make up lessons, and it also gives you one place to check it all out, rather than flipping back through your calendar or planner (yes, I still use an actual paper planner–and I love it). Spreadsheets are also great for tracking repertoire, event entries, or even notes about upcoming payments that might deviate from the norm (lesson credits, extra lessons to add, etc.).
One quick note on studio management software: I know there are different programs out there designed to help with all of these things, like Music Teacher’s Helper (I’m sure there are others too). Since I haven’t personally used any of these, I can’t speak to their effectiveness, or even pros and cons. If you want to give them a try, go for it!
Next up: TAXES. Everyone’s favorite topic. Again, I’m not a financial professional of any kind, so I can only speak to what I do that seems to work so far. The first year I began my voice studio, I was completely lost. Up until then, I had always just sat down with my dad over spring break and done my taxes–the paperwork was simple (as simple as tax paperwork could get, anyway), and it only took part of an evening. But once I started my business, I had no idea exactly what paperwork I needed to fill out, how to categorize things, and it had already consumed several weekends of my life trying to figure it out. Enter TurboTax. This was an absolute life-saver that first year, and I’ve used it ever since. I admit, we have something of a love-hate relationship. Sometimes it seems to be flawless and easy, and then sometimes it keeps telling me something needs to be filled out or something is missing, then it takes me back to that item but doesn’t EXACTLY tell me which line item is wrong or how. Last year there was even some difficulty with processing the imported info from QuickBooks, so I had to amend the return. Granted, that was annoying when I got that email from them, but it meant that I actually got some money back so it worked out all right in the end. Overall, I’ve been happy with this one, and it always works out in the end. Furthermore, while it is an added fee, you can have the return reviewed by a real human if you want, and you can also add the “Audit Defense” option, which will help you out if you ever get audited (luckily I haven’t had to use that service so far, although I always pay for it). As long as you have your tax info organized (keep all those 1099-MISC and related forms), you can tackle this without too much trouble. It also doesn’t hurt to make some notes for yourself if there is a particular issue from one year that you want to remember the next year.
The most important thing to remember is that you do have to pay self-employment tax as a part of being...you guessed it...self-employed. This means that while you personally might not owe much in taxes, you as a business are having to pay both the employer and employee contribution to Social Security on the federal level, and of course if your state has income tax you owe that too. I’m sure a tax pro could go into more detail, but just make sure you are saving money to cover those taxes. If you make a certain amount of money, TurboTax (or your tax professional of choice) will probably recommend making estimated quarterly payments. If you don’t do this, you might be assessed a small penalty come tax time. I still haven’t figured out how it’s fair for the IRS to force you to pay quarterly (if they get the total amount all at once or quarterly, who cares, right?), but they do. So if you can, I do recommend doing this. When you file your taxes, your return will have 4 “Estimated Payment Vouchers” where they tell you what you should pay each quarter. QuickBooks Self-Employed will also show you a recommended amount–this number tends to be higher than the IRS recommendation. Either way, if you make the quarterly payments, it does give you the illusion of owing less at tax time because it’s already paid in. Otherwise, make sure you are saving enough money aside so you can pay the full bill when taxes are due!
One final note about taxes: deductions are so important to help reduce your taxable income. You just want to be sure that you are following the correct rules for what you can and can’t deduct! This is where QuickBooks Self-Employed can really help. They have a ton of categories when you are tracking business expenses, and can provide info on what sorts of things can be put in each category. Aside from using their info, a quick internet search can provide you info whenever you are wondering the age-old question, “Can I deduct this?”
At the end of the day, you want a system for managing your finances, organizing your schedule, and keeping track of the back end of your business. Whatever that looks like, it will make you a whole lot less stressed on the front end if this is taken care of. It doesn’t have to be exactly what I use (or what anyone else uses), as long as it works for you and saves you time. It’s not always fun, and I will be the first to admit I drag my feet sometimes when I think of the invoices I have to send or the taxes I have to file, but building a healthy business for yourself is the goal, and this is a necessary part of that. Of course, if you happen to have enough in the budget to pay someone else to do some of this stuff, that’s another option, but it is certainly doable on your own.
Well...a new school year has begun, and it’s time to get back to the busy schedule after a relatively relaxed summer break. Even though this is my 10th year with my voice studio, and I routinely have a good number of returning students each year, it’s always a relief once I’ve gone into the schools, made the voice lesson pitch, and see how many kids I’ll actually be teaching. The usual jigsaw puzzle of building a schedule is always a challenge, and this year proved to be no different–if anything, a bit more challenging due to the number of kids and the time I have to teach them. As I was working on that project, I thought it might be good to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of running your own voice studio and how that can fit in with other creative work. After all, most singers will end up teaching in some capacity, whether they run a large studio or just have a few students in between gigs. This first post will deal with starting your studio and building the schedule.
Let’s say you’ve moved to a new city after graduation, you don’t know anyone, and you are wanting to get started teaching. Where I am, the local school districts have programs for private lesson teachers in the schools. We operate as independent contractors, the parents pay us directly, and we get to teach in practice rooms or other spaces on campus. The advantages of this: a guaranteed pool of kids to draw from for lessons (especially helpful when you are new in town and no one knows who you are), ability to teach during the school day (which would normally be unavailable for school-age students), and an easy introduction into some of the voice teaching/choir directing community in the area. I’d definitely recommend starting here–email the local school district fine arts department (or perhaps look up local high schools/middle schools and email choir directors directly). This could be a great way to reach out even if you don’t have such a program–you could still build a studio based on getting students sent your way by their directors.
Church choir directors are also another possible resource–you never know who might be looking to boost the skills of their volunteer members. In addition, this could give you the inside track on a potential church job if you are looking for one. Of course there are also voice lesson options online, such as Takelessons or Lessonface (I’m sure there are others). I have been fortunate enough to not really need to explore the online teaching world beyond the virtual lessons I did during the pandemic. Full disclosure: I do have profiles on both of those sites, but so far haven’t had any real traffic directed my way (nor have I needed to pursue that). Obviously the advantage of building an online studio is the ease of working from home, and working with students from all over, not just in your local area. Whether you set up a profile on one of those platforms, you definitely want to think about virtual lessons as an option for your studio, even if it’s just to take care of make-up lessons. We live in the future, folks.
In terms of other places to reach out to look for students, here are a few other ideas: local theater groups, community choruses, opera companies, private schools...basically anywhere there is a group of singers who might need instruction. Here in Texas, another quick way to get in touch with folks is using the Region contact information from the Texas Music Educator’s Association–every public school choir director will be involved in that, so it’s a great way to quickly network. I’m sure there are others I’m missing. Building a studio from scratch, even when you have access to in-school lesson programs, is work. To put it simply, you have to hustle. And it’s not necessarily about having a cute logo and marketing on your website, although such things are nice touches. It’s about reaching out and making connections, and then showing up to do the work reliably and with consistent communication.
Once you’ve got students, then you have to build your teaching schedule. You need to figure out how many students you want to see on a weekly basis–most likely determined by how much you need to make. Checking out the local rates for voice teachers is also important–you don’t want to be priced way higher than the average, especially as a new teacher, but you don’t want to undersell your skills and undercut the local market just to attract students. You also need to consider what other sources of income you have. Church jobs? Opera/choir gigs? Side work with another business? All of that can determine how much money your voice studio needs to generate. One more note on the money: running your voice studio will also take some time on the bookkeeping end of things, so don’t forget that you’ll have to spend time invoicing, scheduling, and communicating with parents/students. That stuff doesn’t take a HUGE amount of time, but it still is crucial to have some room in your schedule for that.
The biggest challenge I have had to overcome in these past 10 years is building a schedule where I am busy but not overworked. For several years the mindset was “fit in as many students as possible”. And when you are starting out a voice studio, you do want a schedule that actually makes you enough money, and you also want to get your name out to as many people as possible, so you can grow. But after several years of saying yes to just about everything (that included opera, church job, accompanying choirs, doing auditions...it was a full list), I was at a point where during the school year I had no days off. None. Occasionally I might have a day when there was no school, but usually those days were full of doing makeup lessons.
To the average, logical, clear-thinking mind, that’s obviously not sustainable. But to me, it was just “a challenge”. I like to think of myself as incredibly capable, able to handle any project or workload thrown my way. I also hate asking or help or admitting that maybe I can’t do it all. Furthermore, I want to make sure that every student is taken care of–if they want to take lessons, I want to be available to do that! But I had finally reached a point in spring of 2020 (just before...you know...) that I was going to give up one day of teaching for the next school year, just so I could have a day for my own sanity. And then of course the pandemic forced me to hold to that decision.
This school year, I was once again faced with a challenge: my schedule filled up quickly, and the initial draft had me adding back in a half day, so instead of 4 days of teaching, I was going to be at 4.5. Thanks to some discussions with some very helpful people in my circle of friends and family, I realized I was doing the same thing I had done before that became unsustainable. Old habits die hard. But after several more revisions, I was able to adjust the schedule to fit what I needed (it’s still plenty full), and have a wait list for a few students. I hated the idea at first, and I felt SO guilty for taking time where I technically could fit them in. But I did it. And now that the schedule is built and the year is getting underway, I know it was the right call.
The point of that story is simple: figure out what your schedule will allow, factor in your other gigs and income sources, and don’t over-schedule yourself. You do no one any favors by being overworked and burnt out, and if you allow no time for downtime or making up lessons, you’ll find that you might have to cancel something anyway due to illness or some such, or you’ll have to credit fees for lessons you are just unable to make up. As long as your bills are paid, and you feel like you are able to be an effective teacher, leave yourself some room to enjoy your art as well. And beyond that, leave a little room to spend time with friends, recharge, and just...be (that is becoming something of a theme in my advice...hmmm).
This is just the first of a few posts on this topic–up next: the business side of the studio...you know, the really FUN stuff that all creative types love.
The World Can Wait
As a teacher who works with students in public schools, my yearly calendar is still pretty much the same as it has been my whole life. Busy during the academic school year, then a slower few months of summer vacation until the cycle starts anew. The summer is not exactly a time of doing nothing, but my student load is considerably lower, and it is nice to have some quiet time to just think.
The school year is usually pretty hectic, so once the summer hits, I do try to force myself to slow down and enjoy that new pace. I actually have time to sit and enjoy a cup of tea in the morning, maybe do some reading, or go out and water my garden and tend the plants. Most days I find myself doing all three. This slow start really sets me up for a more relaxed and focused day, regardless of how busy my day will be. This is something I hope to take with me into next school year–finding a small daily ritual to get started slowly. That may be a no-brainer for many people, but it’s not something I’ve consistently done over the years, and I do notice a difference.
If you are a busy creator/artist/musician/dancer of any stripe, finding that quiet head space from which to approach your craft is pretty important. And this can be pretty hard to come by when you are running your own business on top of the general creative work that IS your business. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or unable to focus, or you feel like your creative juices just aren’t flowing, take a look at your daily routine. It doesn’t matter exactly how, but starting your day with a few moments of quiet can be the solution to so many problems.
I know that’s hard to do for everyone, regardless of the field, and then if you are also a parent...yikes. But if you are able, take a week and try starting every day with some quite time. Drink tea, read a book, pray, spend time out in your backyard/garden...whatever it is, see if you feel a difference after several days of intentional quiet time. One critical element (in my opinion): DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR PHONE. From the time you get out of bed, don’t open your email, don’t check for messages, don’t check the news, don’t check any social media apps. Take the time to be in the quiet by yourself. Just BE. It’s amazing how all that stuff quickly crowds out any sort of inner peace, and it certainly can wreak havoc on your own sense of self (without you even realizing it). You have to take the time to greet yourself each day before you can greet the world.
So that’s my homework for myself this summer: spend a little time each morning just being quiet, tending my garden, and talking to God. I don’t have all the answers to life, and I definitely make as many mistakes as anyone else, but it seems like God + nature + silence = a good place to start.
School's out...at last!
After the last entry, in true end-of-school-year fashion, work did indeed get crazy. That last month was jam-packed with teaching, rehearsals, choir shows, recitals, State Solo & Ensemble, church job...it was a lot. So needless to say, that whole “work-life balance” project got shelved for a bit. But now that summer is upon us, and I’m organizing the schedule for teaching, it is definitely a time to prioritize balance. But before that, I am taking some time this week to rest and recharge, and reflecting on this past school year.
Overall, it was a great year. There were so many highs, not least of which was returning to in-person teaching and performing. It certainly wasn’t easy, but just as I noticed at the beginning of the year, working with my students in-person was just so much better than virtual teaching. Virtual teaching is great for convenience, and it will certainly remain an option in my studio for those that really need it. I am so grateful that I was able to use it throughout the pandemic to keep my studio going. But now that I’ve been back in person with my kids, I never want to be so completely cut off from them again.
Speaking of my students, I am truly blessed to be working with such fantastic kids. My studio is full of tremendously talented students who are also really fun and interesting people. That’s not to say that every day isn’t a challenge, and as human beings everyone can have ups and downs. Those middle-school and high-school years are full of voice cracks, drama, hormones, stress, and any number of complications (as we all know from when WE were those ages). And full-disclosure: there are days when my own motivation or energy is low, and I will come to school not really looking forward to a full day of teaching. But then I get to the first lesson, and I talk to my students, and as we connect and begin to work, something clicks, and suddenly I’m not feeling so tired or unmotivated. It’s a different kind of energy than performing, but my students certainly help keep me going, and when we get those magic moments where a breakthrough happens, or I get to see them deliver a great performance–those are exciting for me as well.
The students joke about my regular “script”: “How’s it going? Anything new and exciting in your life?” It’s true, that’s how I start pretty much every lesson, but I really do want to know how things are going with them. It’s the human connection that is the foundation of all the vocal work we do. I am so proud of all of my kids for returning to school with such enthusiasm, and for going with me when I push them and don’t let them settle for mediocrity. We have had quite a year, and I really am excited for next year!
This year was also a fantastic one because I got to see my colleagues again. In the virtual times we might see each other once or twice a semester if we set up a meeting, and I really missed seeing my fellow voice teachers and the choir directors. Even if it’s just a quick “hello” in the morning, or a brief conversation at the end of the day, it was definitely a huge boost to my mood to see people in-person and know that we are all right here in the same place working together toward a shared mission. Just like the students were really excited to see each other and return to school, we teachers were excited to see our own friends at work again! And no matter how hard this year was, we kept each other going, and...WE MADE IT!!
The last big hurdle for the year for me is usually doing my spring voice recitals. The prep-work, the emails, the planning for the receptions, practicing the students’ music, doing programs, scheduling...there is a lot that goes into it. I am fortunate to have some great help, but I always feel like those two recitals are the final mountains to climb, and once I survive that, it’s all smooth(ish) sailing. This year was the return to live in-person recitals, and I could not have asked for a better end to the year. There were mistakes, little memory slips, some wrong notes...but being together in the same room, hearing the kids singing live...it was magic. It was the same supportive atmosphere as always–something I really want to continue to cultivate in my studio–and everyone had a good time.
So now, having survived a year back in the physical trenches, it is time to look ahead. We’ve got TMEA music, summer lessons, Solo & Ensemble, NATS, recitals, choir concerts, musicals, church job, opera...the grind returns. I welcome the work and the challenge, but I also know that I am going to try to make sure I stay present in each moment, enjoying each experience as it happens. You never know the things you can lose or miss, so always take that time to look around WHILE you are doing the thing (whatever that thing is).
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my career in this pandemic, and to examine my relationship with performing music. As you might guess, it’s complicated. I love performing. I find it fulfilling, inspiring, and uplifting, and I love rising to meet the challenges presented by a project. However, my commitment to performing has taken a lot of time, energy, sacrifice, and financial investment. I have had to give a lot to this art form in order to be able to reap some of the benefits of being a gigging musician. My rule is simple: I will keep doing this thing as long as it fulfills me and as long as I can have fun. When I don’t enjoy it, that will be a good sign that I might need to stop. Or at least take a break. So far, I have always enjoyed it. As the world opens back up and performing comes back more and more, I still feel like that enjoyment is there and I am truly excited to return to more live performances and explore new projects.
But there’s a catch. Now that I’ve had some forced downtime, and I’ve been able to readjust my life to allow for more, well, LIVING...I am not as willing to give all of that up. Pre-pandemic, I was working way too many hours, teaching way too many students, juggling that with a church job, accompanying choirs, and then my opera career on top of that. As I’ve said before, it was an unsustainable workload, and if there is one good thing the pandemic did, it was force me to slow down. Now I can honestly say that my desire for a slightly more balanced life factors into my decisions.
Do I want to take on opera gigs and return to the stage? Of course. But do I also want time to pursue my own interests or musical projects, to hang out with my friends, to play D&D? Yes. I am no longer willing to completely sacrifice ALL of my time for work. [Insert laugh here for my friends and family who still think I am too busy with work.] I know, I know. Even with this mental shift, I’m still working a lot. But from my perspective, it still feels like less, and I feel like I now have some head space to commit to something other than my job.
I think we all have realized that we can’t just live to work. It is definitely a luxury to be able to think this way, and I recognize that not everyone can decide to take more “me time”. And full disclosure–I still need to actually work to earn a living. I can’t just sit back and go fully in the other direction. But I am much more committed to finding where that real balance exists for me, and finding ways to incorporate time and space to just BREATHE into my life. I want time to enjoy dinner with friends, or go on a walk, or sit and read a book, or just...sit and think. I want to be able to enrich my life by the fulfilling artistic projects I take, and in turn bring to my craft the enrichment that only comes from actually LIVING. I’m not saying it will be an easy change, and I certainly will still be working A LOT. After all, any small business owner will tell you that their free time has to go back into building their business. But I am promising myself to make more of an effort and hold a firmer line on those work-life boundaries. If the term “workaholic” applies to you, I hope you’ll consider figuring out a better balance for yourselves in life. We can never forget the important value of hard work, but we should not let work consume our lives. Find the balance (that’s one of those unending quest items), and that is the key to a happier and more fulfilling life.
Gigs and Gratitude
This weekend...I have a gig! Yes, at long last, I will be getting on a stage and singing for a live audience. As a soloist. I haven’t done that since 2020. The virtual opera performances were wonderful in the interim, and of course I’ve been singing at church, but...this feels special.
The preparation process has felt pretty normal–score study on your own, hammer out notes, work on lines...the list goes on. But once we started our group rehearsals, it was instantly different. Aside from seeing friends I’ve not seen since before the pandemic, which was definitely a nice perk, being back in a live rehearsal like this just felt right. It really illustrates the difference between keeping up with someone on social media and actually interacting with them in real life. I’ve seen many of these people in posts and updates over the past 2 years, but I haven’t seen them face-to-face. That immediate personal connection, being able to talk about life on the brief breaks, laughing together as a cast when someone cracks a joke or does something truly hilarious in an aria or duet...I missed those things so much.
Speaking for myself, that first rehearsal felt so familiar and instantly comfortable. It felt like no time had passed, although we all know that A LOT has happened since the world was last “normal.” It wasn’t perfect, we all made mistakes, and we all went home thinking about the stuff we needed to tweak and improve. But there was a tremendous feeling of gratitude for being back in a live rehearsal setting, preparing to put on a show. I am very fortunate to have my life filled with music all the time, but this definitely scratched that itch in a way that hasn’t totally been scratched since the before-times.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: live every day with a grateful heart, and try as best you can to live IN each moment and appreciate them as they happen. We have all lost a lot in these past few years, and there is tremendous upheaval and suffering throughout the world. If you can bring a little joy to the world through your music, your art, your writing, your...whatever...do it. And even if the small corner of the world that is reached by your creativity is only one other person, or even if it’s only yourself, still keep creating and sharing.
Reunions & Reflections...
After a much-needed break over the holidays and the new year, the time has come to once again add to this little corner of the internet. I was definitely ready for a break after a very busy fall semester. Although, now that I think of it, between teaching, my church job, and music prep, the actual downtime was in short supply! Nevertheless, it was a good reflective Christmas, and what better time to start writing again but the new year?
I look at the new year not only as a time of new beginnings, but also a time to reflect on the past. It just so happens that as I write this, I’m back in Lubbock for a choir reunion. Aside from preparing for the concert, this will definitely be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and hopefully a bit of a creative boost. We could certainly all use an infusion of new creative energy from time to time, and certainly after the past 2 years, it’s needed! When your work is making music, it can sometimes be easy to forget that it isn’t just a chore–it’s an opportunity to make magic happen.
When I think back on my life as a musician, one of the most wonderful times was the four years of my undergrad. Everything about the training of becoming a professional musician was new and exciting. I had just had the real epiphany that THIS was my path, and this was the first step in that journey. Choir was a large part of this amazing time. No matter what I was doing–University Choir, Men’s Choir, Madrigal Singers...I was being fed a wealth of fantastic music both new and old, and I was blessed with AMAZING choir directors. It was a choral experience that was rather like being in All-State every day. I was continually challenged, inspired, and uplifted, and I began to truly understand how music could change both the performers and the audience.
Before I went to college, I got all sorts of advice from my parents (much appreciated), and one thing that stuck with me about being a music major was something my mom said (she was also a music major). She told me, “Make sure you really enjoy every musical experience you get in college...it’ll never be like that ever again.” And she was absolutely right. That isn’t meant to sound morbid or depressing. I have had so many wonderful and transformative musical experiences and opportunities since I graduated. But it was during undergrad that I first began to explore the wider world of music, and that time will always be a singular and magical one.
This reunion will allow me to revisit some music I have not sung in over ten years, and see how it is transformed by the life we all bring to it once again. We sang in this choir and experienced this music when we were young, eager, and bright-eyed about the future. Since then, we’ve all aged, learned, moved, and just, well, lived. We have changed. In so many ways we are not the same people we were back then...and yet, in just as many ways, we ARE the same people. We reunite now because the same thing that called to us and inspired us back then still speaks to our hearts and minds today. We bring with us a deepened collective emotional depth, and I cannot wait to see where that can take us!
So. Why the nostalgic rambling about my old college choir? Not just because I’m back in my old college town and I’m going to see old college friends and sing with our old choir director. Although, certainly, there will be a lot of feels from all of those elements. But more than that, I think it is important to remember to truly enjoy what you are doing now. No matter what it is, it will never be like that again, for good or ill. When you are blessed with the chance to have amazing experiences and make wonderful friendships, don’t take it for granted. As any adult will tell you, someday you will look back on “the good old days” with fondness, even if in the moment the days don’t seem so great. We would all do a lot better if we tried, just a bit, to see the days as “good” while they happen, rather than waiting until they also become “old.”
And...one more thing...wishing Dr. John Dickson a fantastic retirement, and exciting new chapters ahead! You have changed many lives through your work in music, and I am forever grateful that I got to be a part of that!
Count your blessings...
Thanksgiving. A holiday all about food, family, and (hopefully) being mindful of all of the blessings we have in life. Because we all have blessings, whether they are immediately obvious or not. Sometimes we just need to shift our perspective a bit, and we might actually find that we have a great deal to be thankful for. I’ve talked about the struggles of being an artist, of the challenges faced, the sacrifices made. But there are also some incredible gifts that we should never forget.
1. The thrilling sensation of singing (or playing music in general). When I am singing well, and everything is lining up, it is a feeling that is like nothing else. The idea of a “performance high” is a real thing. That’s not to say that I am carried away in an ocean of euphoric bliss, but it does feel pretty great. What in incredible gift it is to be able to sing and express through music. It’s the best kind of cathartic experience, and no matter how frustrated I may be with the process, I hope I never forget how much I enjoy it, and how blessed I am to have the talent.
2. The amazing wealth of music in the world that we get to learn and perform. There are several centuries of music in the operatic repertoire alone, but when you add in to that all the other music I sing, ranging from Gregorian chant to contemporary repertoire, it’s A LOT. How wonderful it is to live in a time when we not only have access to so much repertoire, but also how easy it is to listen to it and to find out about it. My last post was about the difficulty of choosing repertoire–never forget that it is also an incredible gift to have so many options.
3. The magic of collaborating with other musicians to create art. Rehearsals are hard, scheduling can be a nightmare, and we are often overworked and underpaid. But we get together with other musicians to perform an opera or a choir concert or some such...it really is magical. We are all unique, and we all bring our unique talents to bear, and then we join those talents together in service of a single artistic vision. That is something that I didn’t even realize was so important until the pandemic happened and we suddenly were unable to do it.
There are so many more things I have to be thankful for, both as a musician AND as a regular old human being, but these are three essentials for any creative, I feel. We should never take our art for granted, and we should never let ourselves become too jaded to be open to the joy and power of music. Always remember that being an artist is a gift and a privilege, and we have an incredible opportunity to change lives with what we do–for ourselves and for others. So as we head into this hectic holiday season, let’s remember to count our own blessings, and also let us also BE a blessing in someone else’s life.
Choosing new projects
For creative folks, whatever their particular brand of art, choosing a new project is hard. Especially as a singer, our projects are so often determined by the next gig. But how do we choose what to do in between gigs? As we all know, it can be hard to be motivated to keep working on projects (or choose new ones) if there is no pressure of a hard start date or concert performance. On the one hand, you definitely feel the pressure to create SOMETHING, but on the other hand, you don’t have a specific purpose for it yet, so why not just keep on binging that show on Netflix?
First you have to wade through a sea of options. Do you start working on a song cycle for possible recitals? Do you crack open that opera score that has been staring at you for months and have a go at a new role? Do you dive headlong into research to find some undiscovered gem? Do you focus on revamping and refining your audition package with some new arias? There are so many choices, and there is only so much time in the day to get the work done.
You also have to deal with setting your own goals with no external push. This will help determine (in part) what you work on, but even once you’ve made a choice it’s still there, looming. Should you focus on exploring work of an unknown composer and creating a recital based around that? Should you only choose music that speaks to you on a personal level–the whole “does this spark joy” approach? Should you be focusing on refining a role you’ve sung before, or should you work on adding a new role to your repertoire? In that aria package, what are you trying to showcase about your voice and your “brand” as a singer?
Obviously there is much to unpack and consider, and there isn’t one right answer here. I’m actually in a bit of that quandary myself–I find myself wanting to choose something new to work on, but I have not really committed to a new project yet. I’m still in the limbo phase where anything is possible because no choices have been made. The trouble is, if I’m not careful, I’ll just stay right here, and never make a choice. It’s so easy for any of us to get overwhelmed by the choices available, so we choose instead to do nothing.
So how do you go about choosing?
I tend to start with projects that I know I HAVE to do, such as an upcoming performance job or some other event. Those are the ones that are easy, because you have a deadline, responsibilities, and someone else is generally in charge. So that hardly counts for our purposes here.
Once I make it through those, I just start listening to music. Whether it’s in a voice lesson when I am helping my own students choose repertoire, unwinding after a workday with some Youtube listening, or even just listening on the classical radio station. I encounter a composer, or a piece, or sometime both, that really gets to me. And then I start a quick internet search to find out more about the composer (if it’s an unknown one), and start to build out from there. You never know what sort of wonderful music you can uncover if you just stop to listen. I’m currently in the listening phase myself - hopefully some concrete ideas will rise to the top!
Basically, find some music that speaks to you, and go from there. If you choose music based on what you WANT to sing, rather than what is “expected” of you for auditions, you’ll generally show better in auditions because you actually like what you are presenting. There is no magic formula that works for everyone. We all have to do the work ourselves to discover who we are as artists. This in turn can help guide us toward the kind of music we want to perform or the type of art we want to create. Unless you are preparing for an audition or competition that is asking for specific repertoire, the world really is your oyster in terms of song selection.
Rather than thinking of project selection as something you HAVE to do, think of it as something you GET to do. If you think about the situation in a positive mentality, then you can perhaps even enjoy the phases of the project when you have no idea what’s going on yet! It should be noted: this largely listening-based approach is what tends to help me as a classical singer. If your creative output doesn’t involve wading through centuries of music, your approach to project selection could be very different. The bottom line is, try to enjoy the freedom of the process as you cast about for a new project. Accept inspiration as it comes, and never limit yourself by what you think you “should” do. Taking ownership of all of the stages of your own creative process is the key to finding fulfillment in your ongoing artistic journey.
Audition Analysis for All Ages
Auditions don’t always go the way we want them to. More often than not, they result in some form of “no,” and we are left to wonder what exactly we could have done differently. One of the hardest lessons to learn as a performer is that usually you will never know the reason you didn’t get a gig or advance to the next round of a competition. And you still have to keep going anyway. It’s even more maddening when you realize that in many cases the audition result had less to do with you and your shortcomings and more to do with external factors beyond your control. Maybe you remind a judge on a panel of an ex. Maybe the judges are a bit hangry because they haven’t had lunch. Maybe the judges are a bit sleepy because they JUST had lunch. Maybe the judges know they are looking for someone taller or shorter than you. Or maybe the auditions are being held because they have to hold them as per union rules, but in fact the role(s) for the show have already been cast.
Regardless of the reason you didn’t get the gig or advance in the competition, there is always something you can learn from the process. Even if you DID get the gig (or advance to the next round of competition), you should still try to learn as much as you can from the experience. This is true at any level, whether you are a student involved in the TMEA audition process, an aspiring opera singer doing the Met Competition, a pop singer auditioning for The Voice, or someone trying out for a role in the community theater production of The Sound of Music. It is important to ask yourself a few questions:
1. How was my preparation? Did I do everything I could to be ready for this audition?
2. How did I feel before/during/after the audition?
3. What were my goals for this audition, and did I accomplish them?
4. What would I like to improve or change for a next audition?
There are many more questions to think about, but these cover a basic analysis of the preparation for the audition, the audition itself, and preparation for future auditions. I find that taking this slightly clinical approach can not only help you learn, but can also help you process the emotional roller coaster that goes along with auditioning. You are absolutely allowed to wallow in a bit of self-pity if it doesn’t work out, or celebrate if it does. Feel all the feelings. But having a system to analyze things can help everything feel a bit less personal, and can keep you in a healthier headspace. It never feels great to get a rejection, but if you know that you have some potential learning in that moment, and you have a specific series of test questions to ask yourself to get those analytical juices flowing, you can sometimes move past disappointment a bit more quickly.
The key to a successful “postmortem” of an audition is honesty, especially in regards to question #1. No human being is immune to slacking off from time to time, and we all have days when the practicing just doesn’t happen. That's normal. But there is a certain amount of prep work that each person needs to do to be ready for auditions (or any other event). If you did not meet that need in your own preparation process, then you know that is one of the first things to improve for the next audition. Deep down, we all KNOW whether or not we did the work. We may not like to admit it, but we know.
Analyzing how you feel throughout the audition process can be really helpful in recognizing how nerves are affecting your performance. Do you feel sick to your stomach before you go in the room? Do your palms get clammy? Does your mouth suddenly get dry? Did your mind go blank, or was it racing through a million bad scenarios at once? Did your breath suddenly become really shallow and you feel like you can’t sing those long phrases you practiced? If you can recognize your own brand of nerves, then you can acknowledge it as a part of your process. Then it becomes more “normal” in your mindset and you can more easily deal with it. That’s not to say that you will ALWAYS have the same nervous response, but in general you’ll notice patterns. Once you recognize the patterns, you get a clearer picture of your own process, and knowing your own process is one of the biggest keys to building a healthy and sustainable technique.
If you take away nothing else, take away this: the only thing you can truly set against nerves is solid preparation, and the only way to develop solid preparation habits is to analyze your own process and figure out what works and what doesn’t. This daily work is a grind sometimes, and the audience will never know or celebrate your own mastery of your nerves. But in the end, the quiet confidence that comes from true self-knowledge and strong foundational work is a wonderful feeling to have when you walk into that audition room to face a panel of judges (or maybe just a blue tarp).