What Are the Takeways of Singing in a Masterclass

Series: Frequently Asked Questions-Part 1

I have reached out on the social media platforms for singers to ask me their burning questions. From these, I will create the “Frequently Asked Questions” series. If any of you have any questions, feel free to send me a message and maybe they will appear in a future post!

Question: “Should I apply to sing in masterclasses? What can I expect?” -Anonymous Soprano

What is a Masterclass, and why take part in one?

In the world of music, we love masterclasses! A masterclass is essentially a class given to advanced students of a particular discipline by an expert of that discipline while fellow students or an audience observes. The main difference between a class and the masterclass is how it is set-up. It is a cross between giving/taking a lesson and performing. In a singing masterclass, the student will typically perform an aria or a song, and then the master will share advice on how to sing the aria or song.

When the masterclass is open to a general audience, the master can give more “general-public friendly” advice to the singer. The goal is to simultaneously entertain an audience who is made up of fans of the master and singing aficionados as well as give the singer nuggets of information that they can take with them. A private masterclass given at educational institutions, with students in the audience is less about the “show” and more about the work.

There are several reasons singers choose to participate in a masterclass.

  1. You are a fan of the singer/coach/director/conductor giving the class: You admire their work, their career and, you identify with them on an organic level. You genuinely want to learn from them.
  2. Networking: Although this should not be the main reason to participate in a masterclass, it is a significant consideration. A high profile masterclass can put you in a spotlight, suddenly singing for a vast audience that may include future employers. Beware: If the masterclass performance goes well, that is great, but if it goes badly, it just happened in front of that same audience. Nota bene: These days, masterclasses can be streamed online or filmed and distributed.
  3. It is something singers like to put on their résumé under the title “Masterclasses”: To be quite honest, when I read a résumé, I am not entirely interested in your masterclass experience, so I don’t consider this section too much.
  4. Requirement: You are asked to sing in the class by your studio program or your institution

If you don’t want to sing in a masterclass, or maybe you are just not ready yet to be selected, attending it can be just as rewarding if not more because you don’t have to cope with the pressure of performing and you can absorb all the information. As an auditor, think of doing the following:

  1. Bring a notebook and write down notes, advice from the master and points that can help you in your journey.
  2. Learn repertoire, note the pieces performed, maybe even find repertoire you aspire to sing.
  3. Let the atmosphere inspire you and leave the class motivated.
  4. Connect with like-minded people.

How to prepare to sing in a masterclass

After being chosen and deciding that you want to sing in a masterclass, you should consider the following to be adequately prepared. Remember that although you are there to learn, you also want to do everything you can to show yourself in the best possible light.

  1. Choose repertoire you know well: Polish your selection and make sure you have had a lot of experience singing it. Being in a masterclass situation can sometimes throw you off. You don’t want the extra pressure of singing an underprepared piece.
  2. Know your translation: Be capable of fluently translating the text starting at any given point of the piece.
  3. Be prepared to stop at any time. The master will (hopefully) stop you often. Make sure that even if you are stopped after every two bars, it doesn’t throw you off.
  4. Be prepared to take criticism: This is very important. Although masterclasses are meant to be a learning environment, this does not mean you will only get positive feedback from the master. Be prepared to take this criticism gracefully. Be open to try new things suggested by the master, and do it all with a smile even when you disagree.
  5. Don’t expect to retain all of what you have done in your 20-minute session. Although you will hold on to some tips and information, many of the new concepts that worked in the moment, might not work again unless you apply it long term with a teacher. They will be in a file stored away in your brain, and perhaps they will pop out of nowhere when you are ready for them in the future.
  6. Most important: Already have a solid grasp on your vocal technique. While the master teacher gives their pointers and advice, the expectation is that you can produce a change quite quickly without completely unraveling, and this can only be achieved, if your technique is solid enough to try new concepts.

Things that can happen in a masterclass

  1. While singing in a masterclass you may have the lesson of your life; the master gets you to sing as you have never sung before. In 20 minutes, they say all the things that get you to make the most wonderful sounds you have ever made. Afterward, you take this to your teacher, and you are not able to reproduce the sounds you made before. The reason for this is simple enough: the concepts introduced to you in a 20-minute session with a master need to be followed-up weekly to integrate it into your vocal technique. In the class, the master is helping you along, coaching you through the concept, but unless this is followed-up long-term, it will probably not stick. If your regular teacher is attending the masterclass, they can help you translate this concept into your current technical journey.
  2. The master may tell you that you are not the voice type you present yourself to be, maybe not directly, but a statement like: “Are you sure you are a mezzo-soprano?” or “I think you are potentially a dramatic soprano voice” and this raises many questions for you. Just because a master says this, does not mean you should run out and change your fach. They may be right, but you should discuss it with your voice teacher and your coach to see what they say about this. They are your team, they see you every week, and they know your voice inside and out. They will guide you through this. While in the masterclass, accept these statements without too much comment (the last thing you want to do is start a discussion because it will eat into your allocated time) and then speak with your trusted team afterward.
  3. Although masterclasses are generally positive and very worthwhile experiences, the master teacher may be very demanding, and they can seem impatient. It is important to keep your composure at all times. Years ago, I played for a masterclass where the master teacher was not particularly interested in one of the voices. He was very hard on the student and it did not yield good results-in fact-we were all uncomfortable. The singer, however, never lost his composure and gained the admiration of the audience.

What you can expect to take away from a Masterclass:

I often give masterclasses and I have also played in hundreds of them. They can be a celebration where singers and singer friendly people come together to explore new things:

  1. Nuggets of valuable information: You will retain many of the concepts presented to you, such as stylistic advice, diction advice, and technical tips. This information from people at the top of their field will be with you forever! I suggest making notes immediately after the class so that you don’t forget what was said. Nota bene: recording is sometimes prohibited, so always ask the organizers if you may record the session.
  2. An unforgettable experience: Meeting and singing for someone you respect is a surreal experience. It can feel both wonderful and crazy. You may catch yourself thinking: “I can’t believe I am singing for [insert name]” the whole time.
  3. A performance opportunity: This is simple enough. In any masterclass situation, you get to perform in front of an audience.
  4. Inspiration and motivation: If the master teacher is good, you will feel inspired. They will bring out things in your singing and artistry. It will then motivate you to work on them. After inspiring masterclasses, the students run to a practice room to continue the work.

All conservatories, universities, and summer programs have some form of masterclass series. Even in this present time of the global pandemic, Masterclasses survive online, and it is even easier to get top-level people to give the classes. An online experience can be just as informative and exciting as it is in person.

It is important to connect with people at the top of their profession such as elite singers, teachers, coaches, directors and conductors. You will learn so much by singing in this kind of situation about where you are in your current journey. You will also learn by auditing a masterclass about how you will handle it when you participate in a masterclass in the future. The reward is what you make of the experience!

Gambling With Your Repertoire Choices: Is it worth the risk?

One of the biggest dilemmas a young singer faces is the dreaded aria list! What should you be keeping in mind when preparing to audition? Is there a strategy? When deciding what repertoire to bring to an audition, you must always be realistic: sing what you sing well! If you are not certain that a specific piece suits your voice, or that you can sing it well under ANY circumstances (i.e. not having the time or a place to warm up; you’re feeling a little under the weather; having a pianist who doesn’t know the piece; etc) then leave it off of your list. The most important thing is to show yourself in the best possible light.


When you sing/work on your aria list with your coach and voice teacher you can trust their opinion on what suits your voice best. They can certainly advise you on your fach (your specific voice type) and keeping the chosen repertoire within the guidelines of the fach. More importantly, however, you should propose repertoire for your list on the basis that you can sing it well. You may have an ideal list for your fach, and it may look great on paper – however, make sure that you can also sing every single aria that you present extremely well. Also, sing through the roles to know that if a panel casts you based on a certain aria, to be sure that the role is well within your capabilities.

Depending on where you are auditioning, you may be asked to present a list of between 3 – 5 arias in different languages and styles. The arias should also be diversified in terms of showing everything your voice can do at that particular time in your development. I would advise against including any “work-in-progress” arias as these tend to always sound unfinished and depending on a panel’s imagination (or lack of imagination in many cases) may not always work in your favor. Remember, you are applying for a job, show your potential employer what you can do at this moment.

Normally, in an audition situation, the panel allows you to choose which aria you would like to sing first – however, that is not always the case. In my experiences both playing for auditions and sitting on audition panels, I have seen instances in which the singer announced at the start of his/her audition: “I would like to begin with [enter aria title]”, only to have the audition jury say: “Actually, could you please start with this other aria instead?”

There are various reasons for an audition panel to do this: you could be the 20th soprano of the day who wants to start her audition with “Adieu, notre petite table” from Massenet’s Manon and the audition panel just can’t bear to hear one more performance of it; or, they might prefer to hear you sing something else from your list because they will be producing/casting the opera from which that specific aria comes and they would like to know if you could be a contender for a role in their production; or, the aria you chose to start with is exceedingly long and the audition panel is simply pressed for time. And, the list of reasons goes on…

Fortunately, this does not occur that frequently, and, audition panels usually let you sing through your first-choice aria out of courtesy. Generally, audition panels know quite quickly-sometimes within the first few bars of your first selection- if they are interested in you or not so don’t be alarmed if you are only asked to sing one aria. Sometimes, if time permits, they will ask to hear a second aria. If you sing only one aria, this does not mean that you did not sing well, so don’t despair! I know many singers who have gotten a job by singing only one aria in their audition. It is not a good idea to try and over-analyze their choices, doing this will just give you far too much anxiety. Just as I have seen singers get the role from one aria, I have seen singers not get the role after singing two or more.

If you did not necessarily sing well in your first aria, and the panel decides to hear a second aria, it is certainly possible to turn your audition around – so, always do your best and leave your mistakes in the past! If you get the opportunity to sing three arias, this is generally a good sign: they liked you and were intrigued by what you had on your list and what you could do vocally and artistically. However, this does not necessarily mean you have landed a job – it can simply mean that they wanted to hear your voice in different musical settings, or to see if you would become a bit more comfortable the more you sang.

IS THERE A STRATEGY?

No, there isn’t. You can always try to guess what the audition panel will want to hear, and many singers try to do this but don’t count on your guessing to be 100% accurate. Strategizing your audition will not help you feel more comfortable, it will just add to this already stressful and unnatural situation. Your best plan is to be excellent in all aspects of your singing and preparation.


1. The Gamble

So, you have your arias (in the following scenario, three) picked out, and you think to yourself: “Well, if I start with this aria which is fast and in Italian, they will most likely want to hear that other one as a second selection because it is slow and in French. My third aria is also Italian and fast, they will most definitely not want to hear it.” This is a dangerous approach. It is like gambling: You place your bet, sometimes you win, but most often, you lose!

Storytime:

I was once in an audition in which a singer put an aria on their list that they did not know from memory. I think we would all agree that this was not a good plan; however, the singer assumed that the audition panel would never ask for that aria, since it was similar in style and tempo to the aria the singer had chosen to sing first. Well, the audition panel asked for the unprepared aria and the singer was caught redhanded. This is not a position you want to be in. Needless to say, the singer did not get the job.

2.Playing the “long aria” card:


If you decide to put an aria on your list that is extremely long, for example, Zerbinetta’s aria; Anne Trulove’s aria “No Word from Tom”, or Tatyana’s Letter Scene, please be prepared to sing it ALL. It is not wise to put long arias on your list and assume that the audition panel won’t ask for the entire piece simply because it is long. They can ask for a part of the aria, or indeed, the full aria.

Storytime:

I was playing for auditions and as I was rehearsing with one of the singers I noticed that she had Zerbinetta’s full aria (which is at least 13 minutes) on her list. I suggested that we just start each section to briefly set tempi, to which she replied that she did not think they would ask for it all. Surprised by this, I said: “Well…you never know, so be prepared!”. We then just started each section of the aria. Sure enough, much to her surprise, the panel asked for the full aria. Luckily, she did an amazing job with it; however, it could have gone the other way.

Sometimes, auditions are running on time – or, the audition panel has extra time because of cancellations and they would enjoy hearing these longer arias. These arias are wonderful and show a great deal.

If you only want to sing one part of the aria, you should make note of that on
the handed in repertoire list by writing down the text of exactly from which point in the aria you would like to start.

For example:
Zerbinetta’s Aria “So war es mit pagliazzo” Ariadne auf Naxos R. Strauss

This way the panel knows that you would like to perform from this point in the aria until the end, and not the full aria.


3. Sing as if you have all the time in the world!

If the full title of the aria is on your list and the audition panel asks for it, my advice is just to sing it and let them decide if/when to stop you. If they ask to hear your very long Händel aria, I would not advise you to say the following: “It is quite long, do you want to hear all of it or should I just start at the B section?” Of course, you are trying to be helpful by doing this, but trust me, if you are auditioning in reputable houses, the chances are very good that the audition panel knows the length of your repertoire, so, please let them make that decision themselves. Assume that they want to hear you sing the full aria and sing like you have all the time in the world. If they decide to stop you, you will know it. I have seen singers start an aria, and just wondering after every phrase: “Is this where they will stop me?” At times, even if the panel says that they will stop you, they often don’t, take it as a compliment, they are enjoying your performance!

What about video auditions?

We all have to do video auditions, but especially now during the current global pandemic. When making pre-recorded video auditions or live auditions via Zoom, I would advise that the same advice applies as above. However, with a recording, there is a bit more control. You can re-take if things don’t go so well, you can fix your hair if it looks strange, or you can just scrap it all and do it on another day if you are having a bad singing day!

Aria choices for your video recordings

When recording, I don’t recommend choosing excessively long arias. Singing on a recording requires very different energy and mind-set than doing a live audition. When singing live, we know that once it is out, there is no going back, but the knowledge that we can go back on a recording makes it very difficult to be happy with what we have done. Not to mention, the more takes you have to do, the less fresh your voice will feel and sound. Choose arias that show all of your voice, but that are shorter.

For example:

Mimì’s act III aria “Donde lieta uscì” From Puccini’s La bohème

This aria is short and has a lot of “bang for your buck”, as they say. It has legato lines, a great opportunity to be expressive, and some beautiful high notes. Best of all, it is short, clocking at approximately a little over 3 minutes, so even if you have to do several takes during a recording session, it is not going to exhaust you too much.

Another important point to remember is that a panel listening to your video audition is probably not listening to the full arias. When you are auditioning live, you have a captive audience. Sure, they can be writing down comments or looking in their files while you are singing, but they are in the room and you will finish at least one aria. With video submissions, panels are at times left on their own to listen to hundreds of video recordings, or sometimes they do it as a group, either way, in all my experiences doing this, it is common practice to listen to big sections, but not necessarily the full aria. They know the spots they want to hear, and they generally click around the take to get to the good stuff.

5.Aria order

Just as in a live audition, order your selections on your video audition file in the order of what was the best take of the best aria. Always put your best foot forward. The first notes a panel hears will determine a lot. Even if all your takes were amazing, you know there is always one that you like better than the others. If you are not sure, or if you are the type of singer who just cannot listen to themselves, ask your team. Your voice teacher and your coach will be honest with you and you trust them not to let you send something out which does not show you at your best.

In Conclusion

Auditioning is almost an art form, the more you do it, the better you become, or at the very least, the better you learn to cope with it. The people on the other side of the table, or at their screens, all want the same thing: to be moved by your singing. Don’t try to strategize and cut corners, do your best, trust yourself and your team to help you along! Remember that you are selling yourself as a product – believe in your product, and they will too!

The French “h”: What’s the deal?

One of the most frequently asked questions I get during a coaching session on French repertoire is: “What do I do with the “h”? My regular students can recite this rule at any time in any place. It is one of the rules that I drill into them!

The French language went through changes phonologically between it’s origin, Latin, into what we know now as Early Old French. One of the major changes was the loss of the “h” consonant. It briefly made a comeback when germanic words were introduced into the French language, but the aspirate h ceased to be pronounced once more in either the 16th or the 17th century and this hasn’t changed since then.

Since the phonological behavior of aspirate h words cannot be predicted through spelling, usage requires a considerable amount of memorization or a bit of research. In the past, the misuse of the “h” was often used to size up someone’s education and social status. In modern usage, the knowledge of how we treat the “h” in “liaison” is more indicative of formal French, but it is not so present in less guarded speech. In general, the use of “liaison” is also losing ground in the less formal or slang use in the French language all around.

Interesting facts about the “h”

  • In all French words that begin with h, the following letter is a vowel.
  • Most aspirated-h words are derived from Germanic languages, for example, La haine (hatred) [laǀɛnə] Note: a tiny stop is recommended before the word “haine”
  • The h is generally not aspirated in words of Latin and Greek origin, for example, hystérique (hysterical) [histeˈrikə]
  • There are numerous exceptions, and etymology often cannot explain them satisfactorily. This makes it very difficult to find a pattern.
  • When in doubt, look it up in a French dictionary. When you do, you will see an asterisk (*) next to the word, and this indicates that the “h” is aspirate.
Dictionaire Larousse en ligne

What is the difference between aspirate and nonaspirate

It is important to note that the “h” is never sounded in the French language, not in speech, and not in singing! So why do we have to know if it is aspirate or nonaspirate? In French, the letter “h” permits or forbids “liaison” furthermore its presence can mean a slight soft reattacking of the vowel-sound.

Example:

Qui dans les halliers humides te cueille! (Who in the damp thickets gather you!)

IPA: [ki dɑ̃ lɛ| aˈliez ͜ yˈmide tə kœjə]

Note that before the word “halliers” there is a slight stop and no liaison because the “h” is an aspirate h. Before the word “humides” there is a liaison because this “h” is nonaspirate.

Sound file

As stated above, in normal everyday speech, a native French speaker would probably opt out of using a liaison, and most words which are nonaspirate, as they already instinctively recognize them and link them. While singing, however, it is very important to use the appropriate diction. When in doubt, just look it up in the dictionary for the asterisk (*), and remember the rule: It is forbidden to make a liaison on a word beginning with an aspirate “h”!

Preparing Your Scores For Auditions

Do’s and Don’ts

As I regularly work with young singers going out on their first auditions, I get the recurring question on how to collaborate with the variable and unknown entity: the pianist. In an audition situation, many things are out of your control, like the acoustics, the travel mishaps, the quality of the pianist who is playing for your audition, or your health. Some things are entirely in your control like, your preparation, being organized, and how you treat the pianist who is playing your audition. In this post, I have assembled a list of a few Do’s and Don’ts to help your pianist to help you!

First, in this day and age, it is a terrific idea to have scanned copies of your arias in your computer, ready to go at any moment. Sometimes, the pianist will receive from the organization the list of  repertoire in advance of your audition (sometimes not). If they have, they may look at the repertoire and see what they will be required to play at the audition. Some pianists are so busy that they just simply don’t have time to look at the music, but many pianists like to prepare when they have the opportunity to do so. Even if they know the arias, they sometimes like to get their fingers to remember them the night  before. So, if the organization contacts you about providing them with certain music on your  repertoire list (especially if it is non-standard), and you already have all of your repertoire scanned  into your computer and ready to be sent off to them, then you will be ahead of the game and save yourself some stress.

Some pianists have very distinct preferences when it comes to sheet music. Here are some of my own personal Do’s and Don’ts: 

  • Do tape your music into a big accordion-like document or four-ring binder (Europe): My experience here in Europe is that people arrive with these long “accordion-like” document, the pages are taped (in order) along the seams to fold out. The pianist opens it like a book and can turn the pages, or spread out the pages if this is their preference. When I first arrived in Europe, this method was so strange to me, but I am now used to it. I have also seen, although less frequently, music put into a 4 ring binder.
  • Do use a three-ring binder  (North America): Place your pages, back to back in this binder. If you are unsure how to do any of this adequately, ask your coach, they will be happy to show you!
  • Don’t use loose pages. They are, in my opinion, very risky. I played an audition once in which the singer presented me with loose pages. He was singing a contemporary aria in Swedish, which is one of the languages I do not speak or read. The pages were not numbered.  Halfway through his audition, we were  suddenly no longer together musically and we had to stop. The pages were inverted. How  was I to know? In another instance, the singer placed a stack of loose leaf pages on my piano, and when we got to the end of the aria, at least 4 pages were missing-they were still in her bag. Additionally, loose pages can fall/blow over if there is a draft in the room. Some countries accept and prefer this “loose page” method, however, I feel it is much too risky. Whatever you can control in an audition situation (like pages staying on the piano),  you should take steps to do so!
  • Don’t use the two-ring binders that you find in Europe. The pages kind of just hang there  and the pianist ends up having to read with a crooked head. 
  • Don’t use glossy plastic page covers. They may keep your music nice and clean, but they produce a glare that makes the music impossible to read. All the pianists I know really despise these plastic page covers. 
  • Do mark your music with important markings like breaths, ritenuto, rubato, accelerando, musical cuts, and cadenzas. We are collaborators – not mind readers – so, please give us  the information we need to help us help you. 
  • Do use a copy of your music that is as clean as possible. Other than the above-mentioned  markings, We are not particularly interested in whatever analogy your voice teacher used to  get you to make the space you needed to sing a particular note. For the  audition, we just need to see the music as clearly as possible to best serve you as you audition for your job! 
  • Don’t conduct or snap your fingers to show tempo to your pianist. The best way to show your tempo is to  quietly sing to your pianist the first line of your aria with text – DON’T sing the orchestral  introduction to the pianist before you start your audition. In all my years of playing auditions, I have rarely gotten an accurate tempo from someone singing the orchestral  introduction. This can and should be rehearsed so that you give the most accurate tempo to your aria.
  • Do use a good edition of the reduction. Not sure? Ask your coach what he/she would  rather play from. I have also had instances where the singer brought in two different  editions and gave me the choice. Nice! Extra points!
  • Do use your 10-minute courtesy rehearsal to set tempi and not to run through entire arias. There is simply no time, and also, please save your voice for when it counts. If the  pianist wants to run through arias, make sure you can mark, or simply ask if you can do spot-checks. 
  • Don’t spring a transposition on the pianist. If you are singing an aria that is written in 440  and you want to sing it in 415, don’t expect that the provided pianist will be able to transpose at sight. Some of us can and some of us can’t. Ask the company about this way  in advance of your audition, or you can plan to provide the pianist with a transposed score. Please be aware that your provided pianist has probably been playing rehearsals and  auditions all day long, with very few breaks, and that this may be the second, third, or  fourth day in a row of auditions. If this is the case, he/she will likely be tired and less alert.  Put all possible advantages on your side: provide your pianist with as much  help/information as you can, because we are there to support you! When we are playing, we are thinking 100% about the singer – we don’t want to split my attention between the singer  and trying to read a score that is not clear or struggling with last minute transposition.
  • Do mark clearly where the introduction should start if it is very long. You can simply do this by writing “Start here” with an arrow or a star.
  • Do check to see that all piano notes are visible on the bottom, top, and sides of the pages as well as everything else (time signature, key signature, etc).
  • Do remember to be courteous, professional, and friendly because you never know what position  that pianist plays in the grand scheme of things. They may just have a say in the house’s choice of  which singers get hired! Whatever happens, remember to be gracious.