Wondering why we are so afraid to say: “I need rest,” or better yet, why do we feel judged when we do say it? As I have been pondering this question, I feel like shedding the stigma attached to self-care.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a soloist in an ensemble of a German Opera house? I recently caught up with Nina van Essen who has been at Staatsoper Hannover since 2019, and she was happy to share some wisdom that she has picked up so far along the way.
Many emerging singers dream of landing a fest contract (A fest contract means you are “fixed” in one ensemble for the duration of a contract, which usually starts at 1-2 years) without really knowing what it is all about. Nina van Essen started her contract almost straight out of school, which is exceptional, but she is doing very well and thriving. I caught her performance as Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel back in December of 2019, and I was very proud to see her on stage.
I have been Nina’s coach, duo partner, and friend for almost five years. She is a wonderful mezzo-soprano with incredible artistic instincts. When she was in her studies, she was always one of the most hard-working people in the program. We have since transitioned from a teacher-student relationship to a friendship. I was happy to catch up with her recently and thought I would ask her about her experience in “the real world”. Here is what she had to share.
When did you decide to pursue a career in Opera?
Nina: I have the feeling that opera chose me. I was always interested in storytelling. When I discovered that being a character on stage would allow me the “freedom” to crawl into someone else’s skin and do things that I otherwise would never do in my own life, I thought: “Hey, that’s amazing!” I feel like I’m not the real me when I am in that moment. The more I was doing it, the more I started to feel post-performance like I had just been on an adventure -those are the good moments.
Next to your training, what has helped you become such a well-rounded artist?
Nina: Thank you for calling me that!
Especially since the pandemic, I realized that you could not make art from an “I have to” place. I needed to let go of all sorts of expectations that I seem to put upon myself. Coming from a place of connectedness, acceptance, and love of music is the only way to provoke emotion in your listeners. My particular struggle has always been that I tend to over-focus, which causes me to get stuck at times. Being focused is helpful when you need to get something done, and it can be challenging when you have to let all of that go on stage, especially since singing, for me, is very much an act of letting go.
Finding challenges outside of my training has never been difficult. I have always had an interest in learning new languages; I am always striving to improve my vocal technique-and not be blind to possible progress; I live life and enjoy the moment (Go all the way or don’t do it at all!). I also love to try new things (super scary, but necessary!). I make sure to spend time with people I care about and who give me energy. These things will always be part of my process, and it is a beautiful journey. The most important thing is to remind myself when I don’t meet my own expectations to not beat myself up about it. After all, I am the one setting my own goals (mostly), and so I can also be the one to take them off of my own plate.
When did you start your first fest contract?
Nina: It feels like my first fest contract has only just started. I started in the summer of 2019 at the Staatsoper Hannover, and I am still here.
What was it like stepping into an ensemble for the first time?
Nina: Unbelievably exciting and scary at the same time!
I was fresh out of school, having just finished a Master’s degree in opera, I was 25 years old, and I had only one season between the time I finished my studies and the start of my contract in which to prepare. I spent that season getting ready while keeping up with a full performing schedule. My first season in Hannover started with a full and demanding program, so yeah, it was full steam ahead!
How many roles did you sing during your first season, and how did you prepare for this undertaking?
Nina: In my first season, I was contracted to sing: Zweite Dame in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, the role of Page der Herodias in Straus’s Salome, Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. I was scheduled to end the season singing the role of the Second Secretary to Mao in Nixon in China, but the performance, unfortunately, was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead, we prepared Martin’s Le Vin herbé, in which I sang Branghien.
I started to prepare most of the roles as soon as I received my contract and before arriving in Hannover. I traveled to Italy in summer 2019 to coach Rosina and, luckily, I had previously sung the Zweite Dame and Hänsel during my studies. The theatre gives us access to many excellent and helpful coaches, so I never have to study alone. The house also keeps an eye on your improvements, and your “Studienleiter” (study leader) will always be there if you need more piano preparation. I am very grateful that I had already performed the role of Hänsel since I was contracted to do a run of Hänsel und Gretel at the same time as I was rehearsing Rosina. Vocal guidance is something very personal, and if you feel like you need a teacher, you have to take care of that yourself.
What is a typical day like when you are part of an ensemble?
Nina: It varies quite a bit. You will have periods of having just one coaching a day (depending on how many roles you are scheduled to sing), but mainly the operas overlap with one another. There are all sorts of different kinds of contracts. In Germany, no matter your age, when you start your first fest contract, they usually give you an “anfanger” contract (beginner contract) with a minimum salary and a maximum amount of performances- which is more or less forty-five (45) performances. Performing so much gives you a lot of experience.
In my case, my “normal” schedule has always been: Morning session rehearsals from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and evening stage rehearsals from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm for one production, all the while preparing the next production. Sometimes, with performances at night (for yet another opera) which doesn’t necessarily allow you to miss the morning session for the show you are rehearsing.
Most German houses work with a morning and evening schedule because some people have families, and the lunch break is considered sacred. In the beginning, I thought this was a lot of break time, but I soon discovered that this break was essential in order to prepare upcoming projects and, most importantly, to REST! I must say; they will sometimes use it for costume fittings or promotion videos etc.
What has been the biggest challenge of being an ensemble singer in a house?
Nina: Keeping vocally and mentally healthy by learning to say “no” to undoable things and always keeping an eye on what you need for your development has been a challenge. When you start to feel like you are compromising your vocal technique or physical and mental health, it is essential to have a team to keep you in your “creative” space (including your teacher, your coach, physiotherapist…). It is your responsibility to keep yourself healthy, and no one comes to check on you to see if you are doing okay.
Stay true to yourself. You make your art, and that comes from a profound and personal place. No one can tell you in what state of mind you need to be. Mostly anything is negotiable, and there are always ways to take things off your plate like double casts, understudies, and requesting more coaching (musical or language). If you have a good agent, you can also set all of that in black and white in your contract before you begin a new season.
Usually, they inform you of the roles the house would like you to sing by the spring before the new season begins, but a lot can still change, especially now. The theater typically re-negotiates your contract in October to see if they will keep you for another season.
What has been your biggest “expectation versus reality” moment during your time at the Opera House?
Nina: While getting ready for the start of my contract, I was very prepared and focused on what was coming, but I experienced a lot of stress that I mostly put on myself. Letting go and just waiting to see what the stage directors and conductors will be like and what they would expect of me has been the reality. I tried not to start with lots of “I have to’s” which has been eye-opening.
The feeling of repeating a show 7 to 14 times can be a fantastic experience, but it asks a lot from your memory and stamina. Sometimes shows are spread all over the season while you are already busy with something else. That was new for me, and I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to keep a show always “fresh.”
When debuting a role, I needed much more mental preparation than I thought I would need. My expectation of debuting Rosina, for example, was something like: “I rehearse six weeks, and doing shows of something else in the middle is fine since I know Hansel inside out”. I didn’t realize that I also needed “after show rest,” and I wasn’t getting enough of that. In addition, my stamina was not yet ready, so I started to go to the gym more to the point where I got a bit obsessive, which resulted in more stress rather than release. Now, I realize that it had more to do with trust, and only I can build that with my sweat and blood.
What is the level of German you need to have to work in a house like Hannover?
Nina: It’s best if you already speak basic German. I happened to have a slightly better grasp of the language than most of my colleagues, and in this house, it didn’t seem to be a requirement. But then, if you don’t have a basic level, you end up not understanding emails and meetings which are in German. I think it is indispensable to learn the language of the country in which I am living. I believe it is possible to learn rather quickly when you get here, but I would recommend making an effort to know enough German before starting a fest contract.
If you have a good command of the language, the house will ask you to speak on the radio or with some regular visitors to the opera house, and then it’s best if you can make yourself understood. Our house offers weekly German lessons, which is excellent, but I don’t think that is the case everywhere.
What is the one thing you wish you knew about being fest in a house, but didn’t know?
Nina: You cannot do any other work besides the work itemized in your contract unless you negotiate it with the house way in advance. You have to work very hard and at the same time take care of YOURSELF first because you WILL meet your limits.
Something wonderful that I didn’t expect is the family you will build within the theatre. Everyone who works in the house is, in some way, totally devoted to their work, and it is palpable. It’s never dull. You’re constantly surrounded by inspiring people. It can give you a lot of comfort to see the regular audience members recognize you and come back every other week; this way, you can make a genuine impact on the community.
I wish I had known how important consistency is before I arrived here. I used to practice whenever I needed to. Now I have had to build more of a routine that allows me to perform at my optimal best. My routine includes exercise, mental care, time off, playing around with some light/folk singing, healthy cooking, practicing repertoire, and trusting myself; I always end up knowing my score more than enough to be considered prepared. If you have a steady routine already that you can rely on, that will help you get into the busy schedule of being in an ensemble.
What would be your most significant piece of advice to singers looking to get a fest contract?
Nina: Settle your technique. Make sure you know what your voice can and cannot do. Of course, it will change while you develop.
Learn the language and be willing to give your all while you are festing.
Festing gives you security and a monthly income but hardly any freedom, so make sure you like the theatre and the city because you will be spending most of your time there.
I would advise doing many fest auditions. All the German houses are somehow connected, and there are always casting directors associated with multiple theaters. Don’t be hesitant to step into this scary process. I was super young and felt not at all “ready,” but I learned so much from just doing it. You will be overwhelmed with responsibility unless you are prepared and really can handle it.
The easiest way to get a contract is going through an agent since theatres sometimes don’t invite singers to audition who do not have one. That doesn’t mean that you have to stay with this agent forever, but it does mean they take around 10 % of your income. This will be worth it especially when you are in a position where you need to negotiate something in your contract.
There are C, B, and A houses. It’s up to you where you want to audition. They all have different pros and cons. For example, If you start in a smaller house, you might sing more significant roles than if you start in a bigger house. Both are interesting.
Finally, never lose your curiosity and eagerness to learn, even if sometimes you feel like you’re part of a machine. Keep challenging yourself; your last performance is your standard. And remember, you are part of a team. You see the same makeup and costume people and you all contribute to the show. Please give them the same energy as they give to you. You are an “ensemble” after all.
What is coming up for you?
Nina: I am preparing Dorabella in Mozarts Cosi fan Tutte. We start rehearsals next week and we will (hopefully) perform until July.
Something occurred to me during these exceptional times and it has lead me on a new journey. I think that artists don’t get enough of a chance to talk about how they “shape” their minds so I recently started a podcast, “Mind your Mind” because I discovered when I began to sing professionally that training your mind is as important as training your voice.
About Nina van Essen’s podcast “Mind your Mind for Artists”
“Sharing some insights that I wish I would have had during my conservatory studies. Every episode I will talk to different artists from performers to designers and more, about their tricks and tips to live their most focused life and perform their best.”
Stay tuned for the first episode with Psychiatrist/violinist/politician Esther van Fenema
Art work: Eileen O’Neill
“Sing everything like you are singing bel canto” is something I repeat frequently. Bel canto means “beautiful singing,” but it also means to sing everything with smooth phrasing and as legato as possible. Legato is the connected and uninterrupted production of sound, and it requires the singer to understand which vowels and consonants they are singing and how these relate to each other. How do you achieve this if you are not singing in Italian? More specifically, how do you accomplish this while singing in French? Without diving into the numerous French liaison rules, here is a quick explanation of three different ways you can link words in your French singing.
The word vowel is taken from the Latin word vox, meaning voice. For singers, a proper understanding of all the vowels in every language t is at the top of the list of essential things to know. The unvoiced consonant stops or blocks the vowel completely, while the voiced consonant partially stops the vowel which causes an audible adjustment to the vocalic flow. Unlike English or German, French seems to run together with no clear separation between words, making French, much like Italian, a very singable language. The legato in the French language is the constant vowel flow within words and between words. This word-to-word flow is achieved by linking words to each other, known as “liaison.”
Here are three methods of linking up words in French:
Liaison occurs when the usually silent final consonant is pronounced because it is followed by a word starting with a vowel or a mute h. Please note, we never pronounce the “h” sounds in French as we do in English (like in the word “hat.”) For more on the h in French, click here as I have dedicated an entire blog post to this letter, which is not pronounced in French, ironically.
Elle est arrivée avec un homme (She arrived with a man) [ɛl‿ɛt͜͜͜͜ ariˈve aˈvɛk‿ œ̃n‿ɔmə]
Notice that the t of est and the n of un are in liaison with the following vowels. Usually, these final consonants would be silent (see example below).
Example: Il est venu avec un cadeau (He came with a gift) [il‿ɛ vəˈny avɛk‿œ̃ kaˈdo]
The t of est is now silent as is the n of un because consonants instead of vowels follow them.
The singer, working with liaison, should make the now sounded consonant rapidly and quite late because we don’t want to emphasize the liaison. It should also not alter or shorten the vowel preceding it. The use of liaison is more present in lyric diction rather than in spoken French. In everyday speech too much use of liaison makes someone sound quite stiff and old-fashioned. There are quite a few rules related to liaison; some are optional, some are mandatory, and some are forbidden. In some cases, a wrong liaison (for example, making a z sound instead of a t) or choosing not to make a mandatory liaison can demonstrate a lack of taste or education.
When using liaison, be aware that some phonetic changes occur with the consonant affected.
- The s becomes a z: Les amis (the friends) 
- The d becomes a t: Le grand arbre (the tall tree) 
- The x becomes a z: Deux amis (two friends) 
- The f becomes a v: Neuf heures (nine hours) 
Be sure not to get confused with these phonetic changes as they should not change the word’s meaning.
Sans amour (without love) [sɑ̃z‿aˈmur]
Sens exatasié (senses in extasy)[sɑ̃s‿ɛkstɑˈzje]
As we can see, in the first example, the liaison from the s in the word sans meaning without the s is always silent, but in the second example, we always pronounce the s in the word sens meaning senses; we are just linking the words to each other.
Elision is the omission of a final, unstressed -e in a word followed by a word beginning with a vowel or a mute h.
Example; Elle est assise depuis une heure (She has been sitting for an hour) [ɛl‿ɛt‿aˈsizə dəˈpɥiz‿yn‿œrə]
Here we make elision on the final e of elle because the following word, est ,starts with an e, so the l of elle is sounded right before the word est. Elision is commonly used both in lyric diction and in everyday speech.
- LINKING UP or “enchaînement”
Linking up or enchaînement occurs when we pronounce the final consonant, whether a vowel follows it or not. It is neither an elision or liaison, and it happens pretty naturally in singing and speaking.
Example il est ici (he is here) [ilɛt‿iˈsi]
The link between il and est is just that, a link. You do not need to show the link in your IPA translation only from a liaison or an elision.
As you get more familiar with liaison, you will have the knowledge needed to opt-out of some liaisons that seem excessive. To quote Pierre Bernac (see below), who was an authority on “French Mélodie”: “There are a great number of cases when the liaison is optional, and left to the taste of the performer.” However, for a singer to know when they can leave out a liaison, they must have a thorough knowledge of singing in French.
Consulting a French Lyric Diction coach or an excellent French diction manual will be the best course of action rather than asking a friend who speaks French. Everyday French does not necessarily require the knowledge of the relatively large set of rules used for singing in French. There are many things to consider when singing in French, so always make sure you cover all your bases.
Did you know:
An excellent book to start building your library is The Interpretation of French Song by Pierre Bernac. He explores the musical analysis and suggested liaisons in the texts to help you find your way with French Mélodie.
Pierre Bernac (12 January 1899 – 17 October 1979) was a French singer, a baryton-martin, known as an interpreter of the French mélodie. He had a close artistic association with Francis Poulenc, with whom he performed in France and abroad. Poulenc wrote 90 songs for him during their 25-year musical partnership.
Bernac was well known as a teacher; among the singers who studied with him were Elly Ameling, Grace Bumbry, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Carol Neblett, Jessye Norman, and Gérard Souzay. He gave masterclasses in France, Britain and the US.
Bernac wrote two highly regarded books about the interpretation of mélodies in general and Poulenc’s in particular.
Pierre Bernac – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Bernac
A friend of mine posted this little photo on social media the other day, and it gave me the push I needed to finish writing this post that I have been working on for a while:
I have devoted my life to being a collaborative artist. After years and years studying by myself in a practice room to become a soloist, I eventually discovered that I don’t enjoy playing alone. I was always drawn to chamber music, vocal repertoire, and ultimately, the vocal arts stole my heart. I am very passionate about my work with singers, especially young singers and emerging professionals. It is a gratifying and exciting career.
As a collaborator, you learn to put your ego aside and work with others, some natural collaborators and some who are not. You learn to accept some personality traits that may not correspond to your own and you learn to cope with your recital partners’ stress levels as you put your own aside. You even know to be a calming force for them during their preparation or while on stage. Sometimes you play fiendishly complex music only not to be noticed even when you play it perfectly because that is what you trained to do. When a few select people notice you after performances (very often those who have studied the piano), you don’t mind not being the center of attention since it is all part of the “gig.” The rewards far surpass what some may perceive as negative experiences. I have a previous blog post detailing my thoughts on this matter: What am I?
For a long time and still today to some extent, the singer-friendly pianist is seen as someone who could not make it as a soloist or a chamber musician, looked down on by soloists. However, that could not be further from the truth. I see playing with singers as a calling. I studied languages, poetry, various styles, conventions in singing, conducting, and prompting because this is all part of this multi-faceted career. So much more is expected of a collaborative pianist than people realize. More often than not, we have to be the most prepared and knowledgeable person in the room, all the while staying modest. Having three degrees in solo performance, I don’t regret choosing to go into the collaborative arts for one moment.
When playing with our colleagues, our artistic voices should unite to make a cohesive musical impression. To achieve this, the pianist must play with conviction, confidence, and a complete and deep understanding of the text. This kind of preparation adds to the depth and layers of any performance.
I have noticed that some things are missing in young singers’ overall training, as it relates to professional etiquette to the collaborative partner. I am fortunate enough to work with colleagues who teach their students how to treat a singer-friendly pianist. Still, we can’t expect young singers or instrumentalists to understand how to cultivate their collaborative partner relationships if we are not helping them learn, or leading by example. Hopefully, these following points will help put those who need it on the right track.
- Equal partnership: The collaborative pianist is your equal, and you should see them as such. When you are on stage with your collaborative partner, you share the performance as a team, no matter the singer’s level or the pianist; you are a team at that moment in time. We shouldn’t forget that the composers (mostly pianists themselves) gave the piano an important voice in the composition. As I always say: “You are only as good as the person you are performing with”, so it is essential that whatever you do on stage, you do together!
- Repertoire: When you throw new repertoire at your pianist a few days before a performance, decide to do a transposed version of your piece at the last minute, or if there is no time to rehearse together, please be aware that the pianist can refuse to do this on short notice. Performing art-song repertoire requires time, discussion, agreements. Sure, your pianist can probably “wing it” with you, but you should both want to dig deeper than that for performance. Remember that you are both performing, and both need preparation time together.
- Know your score: This is so important! Know your score ( I know, I wrote it twice), and by this, I mean all of it, not just your line. Take the time to look at the piano score closely. Frequently the majority of the information from the composer is written in the piano score. You will also better understand your entrances and what you should hear to draw your inspiration from to sing your phrase. Know the piano part as well as you know your part. This goes for when you sing with an orchestra as well. Keep your eye out for a future post on this!
- Forget the old-fashioned “lead and follow” approach: There are times when the singer creates the moment and times when the pianist creates the moment. Performance should be musically satisfying for both artists. This is achieved by discussing the musical agreements you will make with your partner, as in rubato, ritenuto, tempo, color choices, by examining the meaning of the text and deciding what you both wish to convey. A unified idea of the piece will only make it more convincing to your audience. Of course there is always room for spontaneity in a performance, and that comes with time together and experience.
- Qualifications: Collaborative pianists have extensive study not only in song and opera but as accomplished soloists. They have chosen the career path of collaborating with others and are committed to doing that with you out of a genuine desire to make music with others. They can sight-read with expression; they are flexible, good listeners, and are capable of learning mountains of music in the short-term. Keep in mind that while you are learning your recital, the pianist is probably learning your program alongside several more demanding programs.
- Contacting a pianist: When you have the date of your performance, be sure to communicate with the pianist in a timely fashion. Provide the date, venue, and budget available for the concert. Plan a rehearsal schedule. An ensemble can only be successful with the appropriate amount of rehearsals to prepare for a performance.
- Gratitude is an attitude: It is always appropriate to thank the pianist after a performance regardless of how you may feel after the performance. If the pianist had not agreed to play with you, you could have not been singing in the performance, so gratitude for the service is really a good place to start.
Here is a list of pet peeves pianists have. I wish I could say these rarely happen, but they happen more often than you think. It is just because people don’t realize that they are doing this; after all, the thing the collaborative pianist does best is “make it work.” I know there are probably different peeves that people have, but these are the ones that I feel are important to mention for now.
- Your Score: When providing music to your pianist, please make sure that all the notes are printed on the page, including the bass line and key/time signature. I used to accept less than perfect scores and fill in what is missing or find an alternate score. These days, I am upfront if a score is not clear and tell the singer that they need to provide a better copy. I also give a better score to the singer when I have it. It is an excellent idea to keep a file of clean and clear PDFs of your scores to send to your collaborative partner. Be sure that the PDFs are the same edition you are using.
- Nodding: When in performance, try to avoid the “nod to the pianist to start playing”. It feels uncomfortable, and it breaks the mood and flow of the performance, not to mention, the pianist also has to feel ready to start and may need a little more time to put themselves in that mind space. Discuss with your pianist ahead of time when possible what you do to prepare between selections. Usually, the pianist can tell by looking at your profile when you are ready to start singing
- The Vanna White hand gesture: You finish singing, the audience applauds, and you bow; you turn to your pianist and extend an arm as a presentation. This is one of my personal biggest pet peeves. As partners, we should bow together. I always suggest that when the singer is done, they look over to me or wait for me to stand, and we bow together. This presentational gesture, however well-meaning may have been done in the past when collaborative pianists were not seen as equal performing partners, but is a bit out of place in today’s performance practice.
Vanna White: is an American television personality and film actress known as the hostess of Wheel of Fortune
- Preparation: Come to your rehearsals/coaching sessions fully prepared. We never expect to be teaching you notes, pitches, and rhythms; these are your tasks to complete even before you make an appointment with a pianist. A good performer should anticipate their entrances to prepare in time and ready to make musical decisions.
- The “Well..on the recording” argument: Please try and avoid using this phrase. We need to find our interpretation of the piece and a tempo suitable to both of our ideas of the interpretation. We are creating a moment and should not be copying it from a recording, no matter how beautiful it may be!
- Posting on Social Media: There is nothing more alarming than scrolling through your social media feed and seeing a video clip of yourself playing out of the blue. When you perform with anyone on stage, please make sure you have permission to publish the clip before you share it. If they give you permission to post it, please identify them respectfully in the post. It is considered bad form not to mention the other people in your clip.
What you can expect from your Collaborative Pianist:
- Preparation: If you have provided your program well in advance, the pianist should be exceptionally well prepared both musically and textually for the rehearsal to be productive. They should know their translation of the text and the context of the pieces you are performing. They should also have already formed an idea of their artistic contribution to the performance.
- Communication: Sometimes we are busy, and it takes a while to get back to messages (sometimes we need a nudge), but if a pianist constantly does not reply, move on to the next person on your list.
- Openness: Your sessions are filled with discussions and musical experimentations. Preparing a recital together is a two-way street, no matter the singer’s level or the pianist. You both have a stakein the process.
- Support: That is at the core of what we do as collaborative pianists. We are there to be with you in your preparation and on stage. You should have a good feeling when you work with the pianist. You should feel free and welcome to engage in musical discussions and choices.
- Knowing the vocal line: The singer-friendly pianist should be fully able to sing the score’s vocal line. It is rarely a beautiful sound, but it is part of the job. Only by singing it and playing the piano part simultaneously can you fully understand the space needed to sing a phrase or take an organic breath or how fast you can sing the text. The collaborative pianist who can do this is head and shoulders above the rest.
- Always gives their best: The collaborative pianist always gives their best and treats the music with the utmost respect, even if they are playing something straightforward or a piece they have played for twenty years or more. They give the same intensity to every score they find in front of them to deliver the very best performance they can provide.
Being a collaborative artist is extremely rewarding. It is like a calling for most of us, and we would never want it any other way! It is one of the most intimate musical settings, dependent on communication and mutual respect. As a singer, you will always need a collaborative pianist, and there is no way around this. I hope these tips can help you maintain and cherish the pianists in your life and help them cherish you in return.
Social media is a big part of our lives. I would not say that I am an expert at navigating social media platforms, but I have been responsible for content for a few organizations and for my own professional use. With everyone – including colleagues and potential employers – now owning some form of social media account, how can you ensure that you effectively build your professional network and engage in exciting discussions while maintaining appropriate professional behavior?
Whatever you put on your social media accounts is a direct reflection of you – so, it is good to know how to use it strategically and responsibly. Technology is impacting the arts in much the same way it is affecting our daily lives. It is in a constant state of flux, and the adoption of multiple platforms is the driving force in marketing trends and opera performance practices. Many cultural fields that may not have traditionally engaged in technology use are now adopting and embracing it to reach, engage, and attract audiences. This fact has never been so evident than during this pandemic when social media is almost the only connection artists, schools and companies have with their audiences. Artists are caught between two worlds: A hundreds-of-years-old art form and technologically advanced platforms.
As a young emerging artist, what should you be putting out into the world? What is appropriate content? You may already have accounts, and a firm grasp of how to put yourself out there, but here are a few suggestions of how you may want to look at building your Social Media presence:
Creating a Digital Persona
Step 1: Develop your “Brand” (“branding” describes the process of creating a recognizable name or image attached to your work)
- Who are you? What makes you unique?What do you do?
- What do you want to highlight about yourself? What makes you stand out?
- Create a digital portfolio of your work. (Start with what you have and build on it.)
- A professional headshot you can use for all platfroms including your website
- Video(s) of a performance(s): It is important that you only post recordings which show you in the best possible light because everyone is watching. Make sure to regularly replace them with current content.
- Photos of yourself in action in opera productions; concerts; etc
Step 2: Research: Look around and draw inspiration from what you see.
- How are other performers in the arts utilizing Social Media?
- Whose profile is interesting and why? Analyze their techniques and what draws you to their content.
- What can you take as inspiration from these accounts without becoming an exact copy?
- Which technology platform(s) will give you access to the audience you want to engage?
- Watch tutorials on how to use the different platforms. Choose platforms that are interesting to you.
- Start with one platform and build your brand.
Step 3: Start Using Social Media
- Start small: choose one platform and create your account.
- Include interesting posts and information: Save photos of your cute pets and your culinary skills for your private account. You will want to look at your professional profile as a business card-what you put out into your professional network.
- Keep your message/content focused on a clear subject. If you are a singer, you want to be seen as a singer.
- Numbers will increase in time: Don’t worry about how many followers you have. This takes time, so be patient!
- Make sure that your Brand always drives your social media presence.
- Have an identifiable name. Choose a name that is related to your field (Many singers use their full name and voice type)
- Each account you use should represent your brand; if possible, use the same name and photos on all your accounts.
- Think about the feel and look of your account
- Use the same banner or profile images (make it easy to tell which performer is attached to your account)
- Use a similar account name which also builds brand recognition.
- As your account becomes more advanced, you may wish to create an email address for professional correspondence. It is a good idea to set this up initially – even if you will not be using it right away – as it enables you to create an account that matches your brand name.
- Link accounts. This way, your audience can find you on multiple platforms. You can also encourage responses on various media platforms and engage with multiple audience groups.
- Keep information up-to-date on all of your accounts. Refresh clips regularly as your voice grows and you become more professional.
Step 4: Keep Track of New Trends
- Don’t get complacent – review your numbers and decide which responses matter most to you overall.
- Keep track of new technology and explore new social media trends and concepts. Not every trend fits everyone, but it is good to stay informed.
- Regularly post fresh and engaging content but be careful not to over-post as this can make your audience uncomfortable, and eventually, they may end up unfollowing you. Posting for the sake of posting is not how you keep your content fresh.
- Be yourself. The things that make you unique are the things that make you stand out from the rest of the “noise” online.
Pitfalls of Social Media
The significant amount of data available via social media platforms makes it very easy for the public to develop a perception (positive and/or negative!) about a singer based solely on their digital content. Therefore, you should decide which aspects of your life you would like to share on social media and which elements to keep private. Filtering your message before posting it is of the utmost importance. Social media can influence your standing with an employer and potentially affect your present and/or future employment status. Professionalism in posted content and online interaction is essential and helps the singer retain and build a positive reputation.
A Simple Rule to Follow: Never post anything online that is damaging or negative regarding a production; performance; director; conductor; administrative staff; faculty; fellow singer; costume worn in a performance; etc. An opera company may not discuss the consequences of a negative post with you. However, posts of this nature can lead to professional disaster(s) for future seasons.
Social Media Platforms Currently in Popular Use
It is a good idea to set up a professional page to keep private and professional posts separate. You can still post professional content on your private page, but I would discourage photos of a personal nature on your professional profile.
- Suggested frequency of use: post content 1-2 times per week or on special occasions (concerts, events, or announcements)
- Types of posts: Articles, photos, concert announcements
- Goal: These posts show up on your contact’s newsfeed. Ask yourself: what would you want to see from a performer as you are scrolling through your feed? In other words, what do your followers want to see vs. what you may want to post
- Profile: Your two photos (profile and cover) should immediately tell followers about you or your story. Ensure that the photos are related to your profession (i.e., a headshot and a photo of a performance) to let followers know what to expect should they decide to “like” your page.
- Suggested frequency: Every 24-48 hours or periodically
- Types of posts: This is the visual diary of your artistic journey. Keep captions short and hashtags relevant to what is in the photo (people swipe through their feed much faster on Instagram).
- Goal: Visually represent an emotion or an important moment in your journey. Stay loyal to your brand.
- Instagram stories and reels: These are a more spontaneous version of your feed. Even though the stories vanish after 24 hours, be responsible and only post things that cannot come back to haunt you. The screenshot function exists, and nobody is safe from it and remember…everyone is watching!
- Tips: IG takeovers generate more followers and can be fun. Generally, a company or an organization invites you to do a takeover as a form of promotion, so it is good that you become familiar with this medium.
- Suggested frequency: There is no real limit on the frequency of posting on Twitter. The platform was designed for prolific posting.
- Types of posts: Text-focused, but also great for sharing articles and other links
- Goal: Quick shoutouts to other artists, articles, or thoughts about your art. Mentions (@) and hashtags (#) are a huge part of building a Twitter audience.
- Suggested frequency: 1-3/month
- Types of posts: This is your platform to showcase/share your performances. Your presence here is the quickest way for people to get to hear what you do.
- Goal: High-quality videos that show you in the best possible light.
- Profile: Create a YouTube channel with a nice photo and good content.
- Tips: The titles of your videos let people know what they will be viewing. List your name and other vital information, for example, your pianist, your ensemble, the date of the recording.
- Use extreme care in choosing your material. Regularly delete videos that do not portray you in your most current state or vocal and artistic development.
Be mindful of what you are posting on these platforms. The most important thing is to be true to yourself. You want to show your online professional personality, but you don’t want people to fail to recognize you when they meet you in person. Here are a few of my what-NOT-to-post tips:
- Copying others: Be inspired by other accounts-remain true to yourself, and do not copy other accounts. You don’t have to recreate yourself for social media, and it should not feel like a chore to create your content.
- Don’t post anything overly calculated: Unnatural poses and setups stick out like a sore thumb and are not your most authentic voice.
- Repetitiveness: Captions like “best cast ever!” get old when you use it in each and every post.
- Negativity: Refrain from venting about your problems on your professional feed.
- Consent: If you post about others or have other people in your photo and/or video, don’t post unless you get consent from the other individuals involved. That is just common courtesy.
- Negative or hateful comments: If you are getting these kinds of comments, congratulations, you have arrived! It is a sign of success, and the more visible you are, the more people take it upon themselves to tell you what they think. The best course of action as a young emerging singer is not to engage or separate yourself from them by blocking them if it gets too heavy.
The amount of time and effort devoted to creating a well-executed digital persona also impacts its success level. The most engaging online content consists of genuine observations, photographs of performances, and experiences that provide the audience with a real connection to the artist.
As we embrace and use Social Media and all technological advances in the arts, it is crucial to keep in mind that it will be accessible to everyone and they will all have an opinion. Content that is personalized and genuine stands out from the online “noise” generated by millions of users. Keeping a narrow and focused message format is vital to attracting people to your accounts. There is a fine line between posting content that is genuinely engaging and posting content for content’s sake. The adage of “quality over quantity” will serve you well as you work to develop a strategic and effective professional social media presence!
I am currently working on Le Nozze di Figaro with my students. For some of them, it is their first experience singing “recitativo”. I always love this process, especially with recits as beautiful as those written by Mozart in this opera.
Recitativo, an Italian term commonly known in English as “recitative” or “recit” for short, is a style of delivery used in opera, oratorio, and cantata. In a recitative, the singer is allowed the freedom to adopt speech’s ordinary rhythm and delivery (as ordinary as it can be while singing it). In an opera setting, the recitative is where the story develops because it carries the text’s emotion and moves the story along. Whereas the aria is more reflective, telling the audience about the character’s thoughts and intentions.
There are two principal types of recitative:
“recitativo secco” or “dry recit”
- This style of recit is sung with a free (written out) rhythm dictated by the accents of the words.
- The accompaniment is a “continuo” (harpsichord and cello and in the baroque style, sometimes organ), which is chordal and straightforward. However, in the classical period, the harpsichordist can be invited to ornament.
- In the bel canto period, the pianoforte is the accompaniment.
- The melody approximates speech by using only a few pitches.
In this recit preceding this lovely duet between the Contessa and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, we find a typical recitativo secco. You can hear that both singers adapt to a more “spoken” freedom with the text, but all the while singing with their full instruments. The spoken like quality is created with the words, pauses, tempo of the text and not by taking away the vocal quality.
“recitativo accompagnato” or “accompanied recit”
- This style of recit is sung with a stricter rhythm.
- There is a more involved orchestral accompaniment.
- It appears in dramatically important moments.
- This type of recit’s character is more emotional.
- The vocal line is melodic and typically leads into a formal aria.
- An “arioso” is also a form of “recitativo accompagnato” in lyrical form. The words are still the driving force, but there is a more ornate and expressive melody.
In this example of recitativo accompagnato, Fleming as the Contessa gives us a fully sung recitativo with all the spoken language’s color while never compromising her voice.
An appoggiatura is an Italian term to indicate a musical ornament that consists of an added non-chord note in a melody that is resolved to the chord’s regular note. This added note is typically one degree higher or lower than the principal note and can be chromatically altered. The term comes from the Italian verb appoggiare, “to lean upon.”
In the Classical repertoire, singers are expected to add these ornaments within the body of a recitative even if they are not written in the score. Some editions give you options written above the staff but these are suggestions and you can decide if you would wish to add them or leave them out :
Remember when adding your appoggiatura to a phrase to look at the text and how the added note will affect the text. Will it weaken the statement when it is meant to be strong? Does it help your question sound like a question? The decision to add these should be text and character-driven to make it most effective.
How to Approach Singing Recitativo
A singer learns about recitative from the beginning of their formal training; however, there is often not much help beyond the basic understanding until you are confronted with performing it. At this point, the singer must find a teacher, coach, or conductor who understands and has experience with the subject. Decisions on adding appoggiatura in recitatives can help shape the text’s inflection; that being said, always be prepared to remove them or add more at your first musical run-through with a conductor. There are strong opinions and tastes regarding this practice, so it is in an artist’s best interest to remain flexible.
Tips on how to learn a recitative:
- Translate the text; not just a word-for-word translation, but use words you would use in your daily life. This translation is of the utmost importance because the recitative is text-driven, and your connection to the text and how you express it is based on your translation.
- Make a phonetic translation of the text and meet with a diction coach. You will work on the natural pronunciation, inflection, and meaning of the text.
- Speak the text in rhythm until you know it inside and out, develop your muscles for the language, and you will attain a natural inflection. Test yourself by writing the text or reciting it while doing a mundane household chore, independent of the notes and rhythm.
- Start learning the notes slowly with the text.
- Take it to your voice teacher and put it in your vocal mechanism before adding any vocal “effects” . You mustn’t skip this step. Learn to sing it before you sing it!
- The next step is to work with your vocal coach. Your coach should be able to play and sing all the other replies so that you can rehearse your timing and entrances before going into your first musical rehearsal with the conductor and cast.
- You will inevitably be asked to “speak more” when you are working on “secco”. Please be careful with this. The “parlando” aspect of the recitative is the last layer of your preparation. With your voice teacher and coach’s help, you should first build the recitative into your voice in a technically healthy way before adding any “speech like” effects. Be careful not to go entirely to the “parlando” side of the recitative because continually going back and forth between “speechy” and “sung” will prevent you from keeping your voice fresh throughout a performance.
- Learn the rhythm to recitativo secco very carefully. After you have done so, you will sing it with a more natural flow, but it is always easier to loosen up when you know something inside out, but if you haven’t learned it the way it is written on the page first, it isn’t easy to go back if a conductor asks you to do so.
- Some conductors observe all rests in recits, and some require you to go through specific musical rests that break up a grammatical phrase. While there is some truth to the fact that composers had to observe time signature, which is why some musical rests are in the bar, you should always try and adapt to the conductor’s preference, even if/when you disagree with them.
Being able to sing recitatives convincingly separates the good from the great. Try following these steps the next time you learn a recitative and try to go too quickly: “Make haste slowly!” is an excellent rule to follow when learning/preparing recitatives.
A common point of confusion in French Lyric Diction is knowing when to pronounce the -ill(es), -il(s) as a Yod [j], and when do we pronounce this double “ll” combo as just one “l” [l]. There is a method to this madness, and it is not so complicated.
If the term”Yod” or “j-glide” is stumping you, you can check out one of my past blog posts on the subject of semi-consonants to catch up!
First, we should look at when we pronounce “i” as a Yod.
i or ï is pronounced as a [j] when preceded by a single consonant when it is in front of an a, e, o, or eu. Beware: not when it is in the middle of a word -ie- in some verbs and their derivatives or as the last sound of the word -ie.
Avant de quitter ces lieux, sol natal de mes aïeux (Before leaving this place, native soil of my ancestors), Valentin’s aria from Faust by Gounod
[aˈvɑ̃ də kiˈte sɛ ljø sɔl naˈtal də mɛz‿aˈjø]
In the example above, in the words “lieux” and “aïeux”, the i and ï are pronounced as a glide. Both of these vowels are in front of eu.
But we do not make a glide in the future tense conjugation of verbs like “oublier” (to forget) [ubliˈe]
J’oublierai (I shall forget) also does not have a glide; in fact, the e vanishes in pronunciation. I often hear [ʒubliəˈre], but the correct way to pronounce this word and other words like it is: [ʒubliˈre]
When -ie- is at the end of a word, it is simply [i] unless the composer gave a note value to the schwa, in which case it will be [iə], and we should not hear a glide between these vowels.
il, ill, ll : When do these letters make a Yod?
- il, ill, and ll make a glide when at the end of a word in the following combinations: -ail,-eil, -ueil, -oeil- and euil.
- il sounds as a glide in the middle of words in the following combinations: -aill-, -eill-, -euill-, -ouill-, -ueill- and oeill otherwise, it is pronounced as [ij].
Un deuil amer (bitter mourning) [œ̃dœj‿aˈmɛr]
but in the word fille, we add an [i] in front of the glide; otherwise, there would be no vowel in the word: jeune fille (young girl) [ʒœnə fijə]
List of Exceptions:
As anyone who has ever studied the French language or French diction knows, there are many rules to follow, but there are just as many exceptions to the rules, if not more.
When il(s) is at the end of a word and follows a consonant, the i is [i], and the l is sometimes silent and sometimes sounded.
The following is pronounced without an l or a glide.
- gentil (nice) [ʒɑ̃ˈti] N.B: You should not confuse this gentil with its feminine version gentille [ʒɑ̃ˈtijə] which is pronounced with a glide.
- fusil (gun) [fy’zi]
- grésil (hail) [gre’zi]
- sourcil (eyebrow) [sur’si]
The following is pronounced without a glide but with an l
- cil (eyelash) [sil]
- fil (thread) [fil] or fils [fil] (the plural form of thread and pronounced exactly the same as the singular form) and not to be confused with fils (son or sons) [fis], which is pronounced without an l, but with an s whether it be singular or plural.
You could memorize this list, consult a French dictionary for the IPA translation on these more special words, or refer back to this post.
The exception also applies to the ll in the following words and their derivatives:
- mille (thousand) [milə] Derivatives: million, milliers, milliards…
- ville (city) [vilə] Derivatives: village, villageois, villagoise
- tranquille (tranquil) [trɑ̃ˈkilə] Derivatives: tranquillité, tranquillement
If you don’t want to forget, memorize this phrase: Milles villes tranquilles: “A thousand tranquil cities” then you will remember that every word belonging to the family of these three words in French are pronounced as [l] rather than a [j].
These tips should help you navigate the world of “glide or not to glide” when it comes to the YOd and how to avoid making mistakes while singing, or speaking!
My favorite French dictionary online
We don’t always have a dictionary in our pockets, and let’s face the fact that we are in a digital age, no matter how much we love actual books. My favorite French dictionary online is the Larousse: https://www.larousse.fr/ This dictionary has been my go-to since as long as I can remember, it has it all, and the online version is quite good to work with.
What is Vocalic Harmonization?
Maybe you have heard this term before, or perhaps it is new to you. When I coach people for the first time, it always seems like they are familiar with Vocalic Harmonization, but they are not sure how to use it. It is a term used in linguistics when applying the rhyming of closely related vowels in the same or words that follow each other. It is also known as “vowel harmony”. The practice of vocalic harmonization is most often used in the French vocal repertoire for linguistic refinement and ease of vocal production. Most frequently in French singing, we harmonize [ɛ] with [e] and [œ] with [ø]
For example: “aimer” [ɛˈme] becomes [eˈme] or Heureux [œˈrø] becomes [øˈrø]
As you can see in the examples above, the unstressed, open vowel-sound closes to rhyme with the following stressed, closed vowel, not the opposite. Remember, it is the final syllable that is stressed in French, except when that syllable is a schwa-sound [ə] because a schwa can never be stressed. In this case it is the syllable before the schwa that gets the stress.
les, tes, ses, mes, ces…
the possibility of vocalic harmonization also exists in closing the [ɛ] in short words such as les, tes, ces, etc. (these are articles or possessive adjectives). When a closed vowel immediately follows these, they can be closed to an [e].
For example: les étés [lɛz‿eˈte] would become [lez‿eˈte]
The article “les” is harmonized to the closed [e] in “étés”
These harmonized syllables must never be accented or overly closed, and at times they only are slightly closed on the way to their closed neighboring vowel-sound, and over-closing the harmonized vowel can result in obscuring the text. The idea is that it should feel natural and sound authentic since vocalic harmonization occurs in everyday speech but not deliberately. Many native French speakers do not even realize that they are doing this.
Some French words are almost always harmonized. For example, the following words would have all open vowels in the first syllable if we followed the diction rules, but they are sung and spoken with vocalic harmonization:
aimer (to love) [ɛˈme] becomes [eˈme]
baiser (to kiss) [bɛˈze] becomes [beˈze]
heureux (or heureuse) (happy) [œˈrø] becomes [øˈrø]
Vowel harmonization should not be systematic. It is a completely optional choice left to the singer. In cases where it can help the legato line, it is recommended to harmonize the vowels as sometimes it is easier to get through a phrase with fewer vowel changes.
Let’s take a look at “Lydia” by Fauré. In this text we find this line: “Laisse tes baisers de colombe”
The “tes baisers” can be sung as all closed [e] but the “laisse”” remains an open [ɛ] because the vowel following it is not a closed vowel.
[lɛsə tɛ bɛˈze] becomes [lɛsə te bɛeze]
Speak it out loud both ways and see the difference for yourself.
I would also go further and say if you have an article or possessive adjective (les, des, mes, tes ses) and the following word begins with a closed [o] or any vowel that has a closed feeling such as [i], [ø] [õ] [y] or [o], you can apply vocalic harmonization.
Again in in “Lydia by Fauré:
“Lydia, sur tes roses joues” you can harmonize the “tes” which would typically be [tɛ] to a closed [te] to match the closed [o] sounds of [rozə]. But, the “mes” in “mes amours” in the same song stays [ɛ] because a closed vowel-sound does not follow it.
Here is the text of Fauré’s Lydia where I will highlight the vocalic harmonizations:
Lydia, sur tes roses joues
Et sur ton col frais et si blanc
L’or fluide que tu dénoues;
Le jour qui lui est le meilleur
Oublions l’éternelle tombe
Laisse tes baisers de colombe
Chanter sur ta lèvre en fleur.
Un lys caché répand sans cesse
Une odeur divine en ton sein;
Les délices comme un essaim
Sortent de toi, jeune déesse
Je t’aime et meurs, ô mes amours,
Mon âme en baisers m’est ravie
O Lydia, rends-moi la vie,
Que je puisse mourir toujours!
In this recording of Véronique Gens and Roger Vignoles, you can hear the use of vocalic harmonization as highlightede above.
Try not to over-use vocalic harmonization. Remember, it should not obscure the text, and it should be helpful to the singing. If you are not sure if something should be harmonized or not, ask your French diction coach, or listen to several recordings to see what the consensus is. Just know that some coaches don’t apply vowel harmony and there are differing opinions on the matter. Since it happens in everyday speech, and I have seen it help so many singers in their legato and ease of singing, I generally encourage vocalic harmonization when appropriate.
I have been living in Europe for over 11 years, and very often, people want to have a consultation with me to ask me questions about studying in Europe. Typically, they consider doing their Master’s degree and want to know information on schools, costs, programs, and work opportunities after their studies. Looking forward to life starting up again after Covid-19 is more under control, it is good to plan ahead, and many of you are already planning to audition in Europe (online). I put together a list of things to consider.
As a North-American singer, the idea of going to study in a foreign land can be very seductive. The rich history, the languages, the exotic feeling of living overseas-all these aspects seem like a dream, but thinking about making a move to Europe is one thing; doing it is another. By studying in Europe, you will be setting the course for your career. Living abroad, even for a couple of years, will significantly affect your future. All the experiences you will have will contribute to your artistic life and how you see the world. You will expand your cultural horizons and develop a more global mindset. You will hone in on your people skills and independence. The everyday challenges of dealing with a completely different culture and language will help you grow in so many ways. Living in a foreign country will take you out of your comfort zone by performing daily tasks such as getting groceries and setting up your bank account. These mundane chores can become mini-adventures when you live abroad. The prestige of a foreign degree can also improve your international prospects. Most European countries invest highly in their higher education systems, which lower costs while maintaining a high-quality education standard.
Compared to North America, the tuition fees in Europe are very low. Some European schools don’t even have tuition fees-it is free of charge! When there is a tuition fee in most countries, they are higher for international students than the domestic student, but still generally not as high as North America’s fees. Even with this as a big plus point, there are other costs to consider. Tuition fees in Europe don’t typically cover other expenses such as student insurance, books, and other supplies.
Click here for information on tuition fees in Europe.
Living and other expenses:
In addition to the program fees, studying abroad involves considerable costs:
- Airfare and other travel expenses: Weekends away to visit neighboring countries, trips home to see family, factor all this into your budget. It can make a significant dent in your finances.
- Student visa: Almost everyone who holds a non- EU/EEA nationality needs a visa when they want to stay in Europe for a longer time. Students are often required to apply for a student visa (or temporary resident visa for students). With this visa, you can stay in your host country for a fixed period. Click here to find out more on visa costs.
- Health insurance: This is a must because you don’t want to find yourself sick or injured in a foreign country without health insurance.
- Food: Although you can always find markets in Europe that have a “no frills” assortment, checking the cost of living is very important so that you are not surpised at the prices when you get here.
- Rent: This varies from country to country (For instance, in Amsterdam, it is quite expensive and there are not many apartments available). Click here for a helpful link on housing.
- Internet: This is a must for your school work and communicating with your loved ones.
- Entertainment: There is so much to see and do in a new country and in exciting cities like Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin. You can catch a world-class artist performing on any given night, have a night at the opera or a live concert by your favorite band. Although there is student pricing and rush tickets, you will want to budget a big chunk of your finances for these kinds of activities. They will richly contribute to your artistic growth and are a necessery part of your training.
Some schools in Europe offer scholarships, but they are not worth as much as in North America. Some scholarships may be available from your home government for students who want to study abroad. You can organize fundraising performances or crowdfunding to help out before you leave. If you think that you will want to get a side job to help cover costs, there are strict rules about that when you are on a student visa. Each country has its specific set of rules, so make sure you check what is possible before you go out and get a job. Click here for a helpful link with information.
Travel on the continent is easy:
One of the clear advantages of studying abroad is being near many of the world’s most exciting destinations thanks to cheap flights, trains and busses and short travel times. It is easy to take a train, spend a day, or make it a weekend trip, to a neighboring country, catch an opera or a concert, see some museums or soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the sites.
Building a network:
You will build a network by studying abroad, meeting people you would probably never have met at home. You will sing for people with influence in Europe. You will secure ties with professors and classmates that will undoubtedly be useful in the future. Many networking opportunities will come to you by being selected to participate in a masterclass or doing auditions. It is then your task to keep up with your network after your studies to continue to build upon them. These connections will turn out to be a valuable asset in the early days of your professional career!
Although you can easily choose to study in English, you will inevitably learn a new language through immersion. By being surrounded by a language, you will probably pick it up, but if you study the language and immerse yourself, there is an excellent opportunity to become fluent. Be sure to broaden your circle of friends and not always spend time with people who speak your native language. Most importantly, dare to speak the language, dare to make mistakes, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Part of learning a new language is all about making mistakes and learning from them. As singers, you will be so grateful that you dove into a new language; it will be an asset for the rest of your life!
Culture shock and depression
Culture shock is a real thing. It is a negative side-effect of living abroad. When you first land in your chosen country of study, there will be signs written in a very different language from English, different customs, and you will feel like you are on another planet. You will suddenly find yourself missing random things, like food that you never knew you liked so much in the first place, your bed, your friends back home. Yes, the first few months may feel like you are on an extended vacation doing some sightseeing, but then you start getting homesick, and you miss family and your culture. For instance, it is not so easy, or cheap, to fly home for Thanksgiving and so you spend it with classmates in your flat. It is fun, but you may feel an underlying feeling of homesickness. These feelings are all very normal. You may feel a little depressed, but it will pass. Keeping busy and getting to know people will make it soon feel a little bit more like “home”.
Once the “newness” of being here wears off, you may start to notice distinct cultural differences. Some you can adapt to, and others that are more difficult. Every culture is different, and although it will broaden your horizons to experience them, it doesn’t mean that you will adopt them as your own. Always remember that you are a guest in the country and it is not your job to change people around you to bend to your ways, you have to find a way to live with the cultural ways of your host country. You will also find that when you return to your home country, whether for a visit or for good, you will experience what is known as reverse culture shock, which is “the emotional and psychological distress suffered by some people when they return home after several years overseas. It can result in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar”. I have experience with this, especially having been in Europe for such a long time. When I return to Canada for a visit, I feel like a tourist.
If you can, I hope you do study abroad. There is so much to gain and so much to learn from doing so. However, if you are seriously considering this kind of move, please take your time, do your research. Don’t let the romantic idea get in the way of your reality. I recommend that if you choose to study abroad, take your studies very seriously. It is fun to be on a different continent, but the schools where I have worked take your commitment to your studies very seriously. Your goal is to be happy and satisfied with your learning and life experience while being a great ambassador for your home country!
What is success to you? We know what setbacks are, we have all had them. They are a part of being human and an important part of any worthwhile process, but why is it so difficult for us to define, or identify success? As musicians, we strive for perfection even with the full knowledge that perfection is not something realistically attainable in this field. There is no right or wrong, for that kind of absolute result, you have to turn to other disciplines. In music, sometimes the beauty is found or created through imperfection and setbacks.
Is success something that defines your happiness? Of course, we need some form of success as a motivator in life, I believe we are wired this way. What does success in your professional life look like? What does success in your personal life look like? Is being “famous” your idea of success, or is it making a good living doing what you love, feeling fulfilled and leading a meaningful life? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. It is all about self-reflection.
One of the aspects of succeeding is planning for setbacks and learning to identify them as your path to improvement and eventually achieving your idea of success, whatever that may mean to you.
Pitfalls of Perfectionism:
As I mentioned above, I think musicians have a deep desire to play or sing perfectly, without flaws or imperfections. One of the driving forces pushing us towards perfectionism is listening to studio recordings. They almost always sound flawless. Having been involved in recordings myself, I can tell you that there is so much which can be done digitally to fix even the tiniest imperfection. Even if one note is wrong in one bar, this can be spliced and replaced quite easily. This is normal, and it is part of the recording process. These recordings make for an exciting listening experience, but should not be used as the bar against which you measure yourself. This is when perfectionism becomes harmful to your process. I prefer to listen to live recordings made in front of an audience which show a true representation of what it is like to hear something being done in a performance.
This being said, just going for “good enough” does not lead you to reach the full extent of your potential. Striving for excellence can inspire greater achievements as opposed to perfectionism which is untouchable and never good enough. Seeking perfection and never reaching it can destroy your motivation and have psychological effects on your performance.
The following is a list of things I try to focus on to help me through setbacks or to help me reach my goals.
Setting realistic goals is an integral part of any process. I often talk to my students in terms of the “short game” and “long game” Your short game goal should be achievable within weeks. Let’s say you have a very long phrase to sing. Your short term goal would be to try to do it with a few strategic breaths all the while doing it beautifully. The long game goal, which may happen in 2 months, 6 months, or a year, is to do the phrase in question in one breath. Making smarter goals for yourself will help keep you motivated and when you achieve them, they will give you a reason to be proud, and chances to succeed will grow. Many goals we set for ourselves end up as failures because they are unrealistic and we don’t give ourselves enough time to reach them. So, yes, try to get to the ultimate goal, but do it in stages with challenging and attainable goals in the interim.
There is no such thing as a straight line to success. Setbacks are a huge part of the process. We learn from them, and we become stronger because of them. As you embark on your journey, accept that you will have setbacks -probably many of them. Permit yourself to fail. The only way forward is to work through these setbacks, and to not let them deter you from your ultimate goals. Maybe you sang an audition and you didn’t get the job or you received negative feedback. All you can do is learn from this, ask yourself what is constructive in the experience and what will help you reach your goals. Brush yourself off and get back to work. If you have chosen to be a singer, you have to be aware that you have chosen a highly competitive field where criticism is a big part of your everyday life. Setbacks are guaranteed. What is in your control is how you choose to react to the setback.
If you have attained your goals, playing the short or long game, evaluate and ask yourself why did you achieve them, what was the formula? Sometimes this is hard to pinpoint but worth analyzing the results. This type of self-assessment can help you in setting more goals in the future. As you would do when you complete any project, write a list of what was successful, and what could be improved on in other projects. Celebrate the successes and learn from the setbacks.
You are your own success story:
Success is a personal choice and looking at it as such instead of measuring it against other’s successes, or an unrealistic idea of what success should be will help you find your path. Learn what success means to you. Does it mean a Fest contract in an opera house? Does it mean singing in a professional chorus? Giving voice lessons? Working in an academic function? A change in perspective about your idea of success can lead to greater opportunities for you, and more importantly happiness and a meaningful life. Be willing to evolve, adapt, and change your goals and your ideas of success as you go. As we evolve as people, so do our goals and our idea of what makes us happy. You may have a five-year plan set up for yourself, but many things can happen between year one and year five!
As the saying goes: “Success isn’t final and failure isn’t fatal”. It is how you choose to move forward that counts. The important thing in life is to be happy and fulfilled. As a musician, the peer pressure of being “the best” and getting a lot of work and attention can skew our perception of what success means to us. Remember that failure and setbacks are keys to your success.
Your voice teacher just sent you your repertoire list. Is there a better feeling? Who doesn’t love cracking open a new score? You are tempted to just start singing it or digging around YouTube for a million different versions to listen to. But what would happen if you doen’t do that just yet? Try these following steps and see if you learn more effectively!
Step 1: Get a score
There are several places where you can procure a score.
1. If you are a student, you just can go to the library and check out the score. If the library does not have it, they will often order it for you.
2. There are online resources like IMSLP, which is free, but beware, some of the editions there are not the best ones and have many mistakes, or they not legible, or in a completely different language, so if you do download from IMSLP, always check your score with a good edition to make note of any mistakes or differences. However, in a pinch, it is a great resource.
3. If you can afford it, buy your score! Start building your musical library. By buying a score every once in a while, you will see how fast your library will grow and you will have it forever.
Step 2: Translate
So you have your score, the next step is to grab a pencil and your preferred dictionary, this can be an actual book or an online dictionary (When I say “dictionary” I don’t mean that you should find an online translation. There is a lot to be said for looking up each word. It is time-consuming but we tend to connect more to the text this way), and you start making your translation of the text. Remember, the tasks that you take the most time completing are usually the ones that are good for you, so try not to cut too many corners.
There are two types of translations:
- Word-for-word translation or literal translation: this will be the one you will want to work with. This is a translation of a text done by translating each word separately, without looking at how the words are used together in a phrase or sentence. This way, you know the meaning of the word you are singing in real-time and not the general meaning of the text.
- Poetic translation: This is a translation that is used to sing in another language other than the original language. It is grammatically accurate and it flows but beware, the words do not align with the words in the original text. For this, only the literal translation works. The translation that you find in opera scores (see below) are poetic translations made to fit the musical phrases.
- Phonetic transcription: Made with the International Phonetic Alphabet it sifts out the letters which are not sounded and shows you exactly which sounds you need to be singing. You want to be adding both the literal translation and the phonetic transcription into your score, not in a separate document.
This is what your score would look like after doing this:
Once you know your translations, start speaking the text in rhythm. No need to be singing just yet, so resist the urge! When you are singing in foreign languages, it is important to remember that your mouth and tongue are not used to making all the sounds you are asking them to make. By practicing the text in rhythm, you will have a much easier time when you get to the part where you add the melody. You can learn the melody without text, but only when the text and rhythm are flowing should you put it all together. Tip: When speaking the text in rhythm, use your supported speaking voice.
It is time to put it all together, start by doing everything slowly, and don’t try to do too much too quickly. This is where you have to practice patience. It will be tempting to just start singing it. Try to refrain from doing this just yet. Take the difficult passages and work on them first. I often advise my singers to start something from the end and work backward because this will feel like you are working faster. We all tend to start practicing at the beginning of a piece when we open the first page, but what often happens is that we end our practice session before we get to the end.
Try to alternate starting points:
- Day 1 start at the end of the piece
- Day 2: start at the beginning
- Day 3: Start in the middle
This way when you get to the parts you know, it feels like you are learning quite quickly.
Bring it to your voice lesson to work on it technically. You have done all the nitty-gritty work of learning the nuts and bolts of the piece in question, now it is time to get your technique involved. Take it to your voice teacher first and they will go through the piece with you and help you with how to technically work on the problem areas, breath management, and vowel placement. As the weeks go on, keep bringing it back to your voice teacher to add more layers to the work you are doing, colors, phrasing, and interpretation.
Try it with piano by bringing it to your coach. They will also work on the musical phrasing, the diction, the tempo and help you figure out where to breathe as well as discussing the intention of the text and the music. The coach will also help fix any rhythmical problems with which you may be struggling.
Maybe now that you have made your own opinion of the piece you are preparing, you can start listening to different versions of it on recording to get inspiration, to see how others interpret the music. I had not mentioned listening to it first, because it is more likely to be your own if you don’t have a preconceived idea of what the piece should sound like. The words that make me a bit concerned in a coaching session are: “…but on the recording…” It is not uncommon for young singers to come into the studio making the same errors that they have heard so many times on their favorite recording of the piece. If it is not an error, it can be just an interpretive choice of an established, much older artist that the younger singer is just not ready to do yet.
You are ready to memorize. Everyone has different methods of doing this. To some, memorization comes easy, for to others, and effort. Find the way that works best for you.
- Memorize the text: You can do this by writing it down without looking. Make it a daily exercise. I also recommend memorizing the spoken text without the music, or the rhythm, work on it as a monologue
- Rote repetition: Take a phrase and do it until you can repeat it perfectly three times in a row. If you make a mistake at the end of the third time through, start again for the first time.
- Repeat out of context: When you feel that the memorization is working, try to recite the text, or sing the song while doing another task like washing dishes, or making dinner.
- Bring it to your coach: Take it to your coaching and close the score. It is a safe place to try. Ask your coach to prompt you when needed, or just to stop if you go blank and let you remember the forgotten word or phrase.
You are ready to perform the piece or bring it to your first staging rehearsal to receive even more information. You have worked all of it out, you know your words, your diction, and the character of the selection. If you have done all of these steps you have done everything you can do to have a solid performance.
Be proud of your accomplishment, even if you have a memory slip, or you make a mistake. These things happen and are forgivable. Your journey is a long one, so try not to focus on the few things that went wrong and look at all the many things that did go right!
You may be thinking that this is a lot to go through to learn an aria, a song, or a role, but in truth, shouldn’t everything you want to do at the highest level possible take this much time? Why rush it? Learning something very well will save you a lot of re-learning in the future. Keep in mind that some steps won’t be as time-consuming as you think, and once you get used to this process, it will go by quicker than you think and the music you learn will stick! The deliberate process always yields the best results.