Different Paths

There are different roads for different people – every singer I know has a different story of how he or she started a career. There is NO ONE sure-fire way, and I have by no means outlined every possibility here, just some ideas. I know plenty of people that did all the big deal apprentice programs, won all the young artist awards and contests, who are now languishing in bad regional opera houses, or have since given up on singing. So much is luck, but someone once told me that luck is “where preparedness meets opportunity.” I would add that DRIVE plays a huge role in who “makes it” or not.

Waiting for voice to mature?

I don’t really believe in this. I just think that most voices need WORK technically to get them in shape. People who are expecting their voices to miraculously burnish and zing and ping and project once they hit (enter number here!) age, are barking up the wrong tree. Even an 18-year-old can sing well, if taught well. And there are fachs for every voice in every phase, I think. Perhaps one day you may BE a full lyric soprano, or a dramatic, but in the meantime, you can probably do the lighter lyric repertoire really well. Nobody’s voice ever ARRIVES at that perfect point – we’re always developing and changing. So don’t “wait” on your voice to mature, work on your technique and sing what is currently within your abilities to do well!! There’s no reason to sing something badly right now that you’re sure is going to EVENTUALLY be your fach; it makes more sense to do what you can now, and do it well. Check out the fach pages on tenorland if you don’t have any idea what I mean by fach…


Graduate school can sometimes be spinning your wheels. It is in schools’ best interests to encourage you to go to more school! They’re feathering their own nests!! I didn’t go to grad school, and I think I’m extremely well-prepared. ;-) Don’t expect a school or a program to prepare you for the road ahead. Find out what you need to work on the most to reach your potential, and do what will allow you to hone in on that. Listen to people – are you getting the exact same feedback from different people? Even if it’s something you don’t want to hear, knowing yourself and your voice – strengths and weaknesses – is the first step.

Perhaps a grad school or program will provide exactly the atmosphere you need to prepare. Always have your goals and needs in the forefront. If you’re going to have to spend most of your grad program working on projects that have nothing to do with what you need to work on, then that program is not for you. But if something is going to further your base of culture and your knowledge of life, it can’t but help you as a performer. How can you mirror life and culture if you don’t KNOW it??


I have some friends who took their education into their own hands – they knew they just needed some work on their voices, so they took private lessons, while coaching with people they trusted. This takes a lot of self-knowledge, discipline and dedication, besides concentration! There are grants to be had (Rotary, Fulbright etc….) for this kind of private study. Check out Musical America for study grants and scholarships. You must be highly motivated to do something like this, otherwise, you may just waste your time and money. Some people NEED deadlines and tests set up for them; others don’t. Some people just need to work on repertoire, some just technique, some just acting or movement. EVERYONE needs lots and lots of coaching, classes, experience, workshops, whatever in acting – – acting is not just a small little “add-on” to your singing, it is a necessary cornerstone to an operatic career. You don’t necessarily need to do a “program” to learn these skills. Get to know yourself and what you need, or what you don’t need! But, maybe a well-balanced program is exactly what you need. Do your homework.

Criterion for choosing a program

I will most likely miss some important things, but here are some of my criterion for choosing a program. The criterion need not all be included in the specific program you do, but be included in the POSSIBILITIES of the program: what you glean from a school, program or course of study is the most important, not what the bare requirements of a degree are. You should use the school for its purpose – to learn – and mold the possibilities of a school to your needs. You should create your educational program to suit your needs, even if that means taking classes outside of your degree, taking classes for no credit, setting up your own special projects, or taking a little longer to graduate.

TEACHER works on breath hones in on known problems can answer specific technical questions clearly in a manner you understand imagery or instructions make sense to you can tell you specific purpose of vocal exercises given you make noticeable progress (through feedback at juries from other teachers, by comments by judges/results at competitions, by quality of assignments in opera class, etc…)

ACTING every semester something – it will never be enough to master everything! Alexander Technique Improvisation Movement Games Stanislavsky Method Stage Combat Fencing

Dance/Movement – basic dances minuet waltz especially court dances basic tumbling stretching Yoga

Language Diction for German, Italian, French – one semester each Diction for some slavic languages possible Don’t just take “Language for singers” learn a language – more than just a semester, you should be conversant! Possibility of study abroad? Italian language German language French language Russian language (if this rep interests you)

Performance Opportunity –  Recitals – one a year at least; Is there a possibility to get your butt onstage every semester?  Will your degree type get opportunity in roles? or just chorus? Do you realistically have a chance with the competition to get a role? Will required choral obligations take an inordinate bulk of your time? (You are not in school to learn how to blend!)

Coaching –  not just for graduate students once a week; at least more than one coach on staff.  The possibility to try out different coaches… IS there an accompanying major, or coaching major for pianists? – good sign not just coaching with piano students, but accompanying students and staff

Solid Music History & Theory – Cornerstone to your musicianship – – pay attention!

Period Style –  Are there specializations in Baroque, Classical, Modern, Renaissance Music, if that interests you.

Vocal Pedagogy – You may want or need to teach in the future. This will show you physiognomy of throat, help you understand your own technique; Doctor, heal thyself!

“Extras” that helped me SO much!

  • Psychology
  • Literature (In foreign languages, too)
  • Politics/World History Biblical/Ancient text studies
  • Mythology!

PUBLIC SPEAKING! You should learn how to SPEAK. As singers, we are not trained to use our voices to speak, and yet we use our fine-tuned instrument in the worst of ways every day doing just that. Learn how to speak in the right range and with breath support so that you will not be ruining your voice on your days off by bad speaking habits. Work with a speech therapist if you must, but this is VERY VERY IMPORTANT to learn in your formative years, so you can build healthy speaking habits for your voice’s longevity.

SCHOLARSHIP – My thought has always been that you should have a merit scholarship of some sort, wherever you go. No two ways about it. Otherwise, you are going to be the smallest fish in that pond. The school you attend needs to believe in you enough to pay you something, even if it’s a pittance, to come there, and believe that you will be one of its outstanding students enough to back it up with money. If you are not that high a priority, you may always be relegated to the back row of the chorus at your univeristy, get the stinky teacher, and be the “untalented” full tuition paying schmoe who’s making it possible to pay for all the scholarships for the talented people. See what I mean? You not only need to find a good school, but be competitive within that school. If you’re way in above your head already in undergrad, how can you ever expect to find your footing? You need to find someplace that’s the right level and the right size to allow you the opportunity to shine at least a bit. A merit scholarship is one way for a school to signify to you that you are valuable to them.


The first thing you look for always should be your teacher. Try her/him out, see if he/she hones in on what you KNOW are your problems, offers you some sound advice (works on breath and tension, because that’s almost always the root of all our problems as singers) but doesn’t give you a “quick fix.” Some people can give you a “miraculous” quick fix, which only deals with a problem on a surface level, but tends to impress impressionable young singers and do nothing for them in the long run. Remember: most problems will take time and muscle memory to overcome – not just one lesson. Also, see other students of this teacher, and see what they feel they’ve learned from him/her. There may be a teacher that has made huge strides with students that started off singing horribly! Some teachers have gained their reputations from students who naturally had great voices, and then they tend to get all the best students! Of course they have good results! They get the pick of the crop.


Don’t pick a school for its program. Pick a school for a teacher, and then make sure the program’s for you! More easily said than done, I know, but you must be tenacious about getting the best vocal and musical education possible. Do not accept to do a program at a school if you can not study with the teacher you want. And DO NOT hesitate to change teachers at your school, or even to change schools if you feel you are not making the progress you need. You are not there to stroke some teacher’s ego, and you should not have to worry about how you leaving a studio will affect your teacher. If you aren’t making progress with your teacher, he/she should be honest enough to realize that and wish you well with someone else.

A teacher should also be recommending appropriate repertoire to you – not just repertoire that will win local competitions, etc… and give THEM glory. Do not ignore if two or more outside, unrelated sources give you the exact same feedback about repertoire or vocal problems!

Picking a teacher depends on chemistry and the teacher’s “way” with you – – some fabulous teachers do not work well with some students. It is all about who gives you the combination of technique with imagery that helps you get the right sound coming out of your mouth.

If you feel it’s not working out with your teacher, try to ask as neutral an outside opinion as possible about your singing, maybe get them to come listen to a lesson, and most of all, trust your own gut feelings. Do as much research as possible into your teacher and his/her students. Ask the students what exactly the teacher has worked on with them and how, how they feel they have improved, what the teacher’s strengths AND weaknesses are (We’re all only human!) and try him/her out before deciding he/she is the one for you! See what recommending people’s reservations are about this teacher – it is often good to see what the negative sides are about a teacher, too… Watch someone else’s lesson, to see if the teacher has some “stock” problems/answers for all his/her students. It is not impertinent to request a lesson with a teacher – the teacher needs to see if he/she gets along with YOU, too! Be careful of school politics – – i.e. teachers telling you that you aren’t making the kind of progress with your teacher that you would if you were studying with THEM.

Learning roles

I can’t stress enough how important it is to set goals for yourself to learn entire roles. This is usually something that’s ignored in schools, unless you’re doing a role in a production there. Don’t just learn the aria, look at the entire role. Read (plow!) through it one day with your favorite coach or piano major. If something really appeals to you, learn the whole thing. It will make an incredible mark on your interpretation of the aria(s)! Knowing the whole shebang is something you can put on your resume, even if you’ve done absolutely nothing on stage. You can have a column for “ROLES LEARNED” instead of a big NOTHING on your resume! And learn something in the original language. I never understand why schools keep insisting on doing productions in English, since the students can’t use the role in English in the future. The only show done with any regularity in a standard English translation is “Die Fledermaus.” Even if you have the opportunity to do that “Boheme” or whatever in English, it will undoubtedly be a different translation. So learn your roles in the original language. It looks impressive on your resume!

What is a coach?

A coach is different from a voice teacher in that they work with you on style, language, pound out notes sometimes to help you learn things. They are pianist, repetiteur, accompanist, and someone to catch you when you get sloppy about the music. Sometimes they can even tell you how to go about something vocally or musically so that you surmount technical problems. You go to your teacher for technique. However, a coach is a pianist who works through your music with you and corrects musical, stylistic and linguistic mistakes that your teacher sometimes can’t get to in your lessons. Coaches do not normally help you with technique. Coaching usually costs less than voice lessons (depending on the coach, of course!)

When learning a role, I work at least a few times with a teacher, but more importantly, work intensively with different coaches to learn the role. Coaches can sing the other roles of the opera to give me cues, they can tell me that certain parts may need more OOMPH or that I can dare to be much softer because of the orchestration, and they can argue with me about what they think the tempi should be. Coaches who have worked in opera houses have a wealth of experience from playing rehearsals, and can tell you, “Well, when I did this opera with Maestro X, he took this section at double the tempo that came before it…” or “Great Italian Soprano X took this ending up an octave – why don’t you try that?”

Find coaches you trust. They will be your ears throughout your career. You can never hear what you sound like from the outside, and a coach (or conductor) can tell you if what you think sounds fabulous even carries to the first row! A good coach is someone you feel comfortable with, that you feel improves your singing, interpretation, etc…, and doesn’t play mind games with you. A good coach helps you find the interpretation that YOU want to bring forward within the framework of the music – he/she doesn’t just say “this is how it’s done.” Style is a guideline, not a straightjacket. A good coach will tell you in a supportive way that you’re not doing something right, or if you’re developing bad habits. A good coach will not feel the need to say something just to have something to say. If it’s good, he/she will just leave it. A good coach is NOT just a fine pianist, but a fine musician who can tell you about style, language, nuance, and help you learn more about yourself in the meantime. Only problem is that the really good ones often become conductors and then don’t have much time to coach!

A good vocal program should include coaching at least once a week. Don’t waste your coachings on just pounding out notes – prepare as for a voice lesson, (do the note-woodshedding on your own with a piano) so you can work on style and “pulling it together” during your coaching.


I remember thinking that my conducting class in undergrad was such a joke. *I* would never be a choir director, I thought! Besides many of my colleagues ending up directing choirs eventually in some capacity, I realize now I needed to pay better attention to understand the mechanics of conducting so I could better follow a conductor! It is SO important to learn how to sing with an orchestra and with a conductor.

With conductors, you need to learn how to follow a STICK. Most choir directors direct with their hands, even when they are in front of an orchestra with a baton in their hands. Following a conductor with a baton, who is used to directing orchestras, can be a daunting task. Your breath needs to be prepared before he’s even done his/her upbeat so that the sound (usually your vowel) can start directly on the downbeat. You should try and learn to start your consonants before the beat, so the vowel starts directly on the downbeat. I would recommend doing some of your song or aria repertoire (where possible) with a metronome, to get used to being rhythmically accountable to something outside of yourself. Since in school, most of us sing with piano, and the pianists are desperately trying to follow us, we are not so used to being held accountable to SOMEONE ELSE’S BEAT. You have to learn how to keep with the baton (and to be able to use your peripheral vision to stay with the baton) while acting your life out onstage. As the musicians who were onstage with me in Giulio Cesare recently can attest, it’s a lot harder than you think! You can not be listening to the orchestra in the pit – you need to follow the baton. If you are just listening for your music, by the time the sound waves from the orchestra go out in the hall and wash back up onto the stage, you could be a beat behind them or worse already. The acoustic of halls is different, but your best bet is to WATCH the conductor and not listen.


Tuning your voice to an orchestra requires being in the TOP part of your pitch. The vibrato ideally is not going through the middle part of the pitch, but the upper part of the pitch. Listen to Pavarotti singing with orchestra and you’ll see what I mean. He consciously pitches everything to the upper part of the pitch, so it will cut and carry further.


  1. study Italian, or German, or French, (or Russian, these days!) check out programs in the summer IN those countries to perfect your spoken foreign language.
  2. other stuff
  3. Go to library, read publications and books – see below for list
  4. Listen to your friends – see who’s casting & when & where – get friend’s opinions of where it’s nice to work, and with whom.
  5. Audition! ClassicalSinger.com (formerly The New York Opera Newsletter) – has great articles, tells of auditions… check it out!!
  6. See what’s going on in the world of opera and music (who is where as musical director, general director, etc…) what people are saying about different directors and conductors, etc… Opera America online .


Directory of Music Faculties In Colleges and Universities, U.S. and Canada. Ref. ML13 C6. Includes each institution’s address and phone number, degrees offered, and a list of faculty members with their area(s) of specialty. E-mail addresses are also included for many schools. Arranged by state, indexed by faculty teaching area, faculty members’ names, graduate degrees, and institution name.
The Schirmer Guide to Schools of Music and Conservatories Throughout the World. 1988. Ref. ML12 U8 1988 c.2 Profiles each institution briefly, giving information on contacts, academics, facilities, special programs, and finances. Includes indexes of programs of study and instruments taught. Arranged by state and country.

Musical America International Directory of the Performing Arts Ref. ML12 A1 M8 Includes listings for arts administration degree programs, music schools, and departments. Includes listings for managers, orchestras, opera companies, choral groups, dance companies, performance series, festivals, contests, foundations, awards, record companies, services and non-profit organizations, state arts agencies, music publishers, performing facilities, and music periodicals. MY FAVORITE REFERENCE GUIDE! I could EAT this book!! Yummmm. For subscription information call: 800.547.8753. Sign up for their blog, for insider info:  Musicalamerica.com

National Association of Schools of Music Directory. Stacks ML27 U5 N1542. Issued annually. Lists member institutions, with addresses and degrees offered.
Stern’s Performing Arts Directory Ref. GV1580 D1922 Lists dance companies (ballet, jazz, modern, liturgical, mime, and others), dance schools, choreographers, dance teachers, music ensembles (pop, jazz, ethnic, classical, early music) and orchestras, opera companies, composers, conductors, and many performing arts services and resources.
Opera Companies of the World: 1992. Ref. ML12 O63 1992
International Who’s Who In Music and Musicians’ Directory Ref. ML105 W6192
Who’s Who in American Music: Classical Ref. ML106 U3 W6 1985
Sunday, May 20, 2007