"Sing something for me--RIGHT NOW!"

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People really do say this to singers. It's SO ODD! It's like saying "You're an accountant? Do my taxes. NOW!" Or saying to a landscape architect, "Landscape my property. NOW!" Who likes to be put on the spot like that?

Who puts people on the spot like that, anyway?

Here are a few answers I've heard, ranging from downright sassy to politely diplomatic. Because I honestly don't know what the most appropriate response is, but maybe different demands can be answered with different responses.

The Sassy Response

One of the best responses to this was from my friend Susannah in Grad school at the Manhattan School of Music. She was working in an office and many people demanded she sings something right there--on the spot. She responded smiling with, "I charge by the note." They stopped demanding.

Another friend from college, Joe, responds with some variation of "I'm sorry, the monkey only dances if you put money in the cup." (Ouch!)

The Commercial Response

"If you would like to hear me sing, just put my name in at iTunes and you can download any of 3 songs I have there." Unfortunately, that didn't stop the pushy people from pleading, so I gave them a free download card. (What happened next is a WHOLE other blog article...) They finally left me alone because someone else distracted them. By playing the song previews on iTunes. Go figure.

Give 'em What They Want

Amazingly, a couple of my friends actually break into song, like "O sole mio" or whatever they have in their head at that moment. Amazing.

The Diplomatic Response

David, a friend of mine whose skill ranges from enchanting 60s folk medley to lovely early English song, will frequently respond with "I'm not warmed up and I don't want to damage my voice." Very fact-based, very diplomatic. Like Marta, who simply says, "Sorry, I'm off-duty." (That's my favorite so far.)

The Audience-Building Response

From fellow mezzo MajaLisa:  "I can't sing for you now, but you are welcome to come hear me at my upcoming performance of ________. If you want to give me your email address, I can add you to my newsletter." NICE, MajaLisa, very nice! We can learn from this woman!

A Parent's Response

Leave it to a parent-singer-conductor to give the most entertaing response:  "When people demand that I sing for them, I break into a lively rendition of "The Wheels on the Bus (Go 'Round and 'Round)" and insist they do the actions with me."

 

"My high school choir director told me I couldn’t sing, but my kids love it when I sing to them. Should I take voice lessons?"

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YES!

I can barely express HOW OFTEN I have heard this from adult voice students. People have come to lessons fearful and practically trembling because they so badly want to sing and someone once told them they couldn’t or they shouldn’t. For these students, it’s a particularly meaningful journey as we explore their voice and their musical creativity together.

As a music teacher, as a voice teacher, as an advocate for the arts, it’s baffling to me that so many people have this experience in their school music program. Thank goodness this isn’t true for a lot of the high school teachers I know today! HOWEVER, this has been a very common obstacle to a lot of people who love to sing. So what do you do?

1. SING. If you like to sing, then SING. Sing in the shower, sing in the car, sing when you’re home alone, sing out on a walk through the forest, sing with your kids, sing in your place of worship, join the choir, join a community choir, join a community theater troupe, sing with the music at the grocery store, sing as you craft, sing as you file papers.

2. Remember that your voice in high school was different than it was now. Everybody’s voice changes with time, our physical health, and our physical development (remember, our voices don’t fully develop until we are 30-45 years old).

3. Find a voice teacher you can get to know, you like well from the beginning, and you can come to trust. Use the voice teacher search at the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) site, search on the internet, ask your choir director for a recommendation, ask a musician friend, and set up first one month of lessons.

Over the course of 4 lessons, you should be able to get a good feeling for this voice instructor and how well you’ll work together over time. If you do like this first teacher, stay. Enjoy the beautiful music you will make together. If you aren’t sure or definitely don’t care for this teacher, go ahead and set up another month’s worth of lessons with a different teacher and re-evaluate after those 4 lessons.

4. The real work is up to you. No voice teacher can make you sing perfectly or make your voice anything in particular (in fact, the NATS code of ethicsprohibits voice teachers from making any such promises (Section II Nr 6))—the work is up to you. This is why it is so important to find a teacher you trust so you can break through the barriers created when that one person said XYZ so long ago. Find a great voice instructor FOR YOU, sing sing sing, and enjoy the journey!

Sing for Free—A How-to Guide for Creating a Singing Donation Budget

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In 5 Tips for Taking a Gig (or Not!) I brought up this rule of thumb (from Ratgeber Freie) on taking or turning down a gig:

Does it make me happy? Does it make me rich? Or does it make me proud?

There are gigs that definitely won’t make you rich AND they are incredibly valuable. Because it’s inevitable that people will call you up during the year and say, “We don’t have a lot of money, but…” or even “We don’t have any money, would you sing this as a favor?” Sing for free? I think not!

 

But hold on for a sec.

 

There are a couple of situations in which it is appropriate to sing for very little money or even, yes, for free. And there is a limit, which I will get to.

  1. The Goose Bumps. A gig pays next-to-nothing, but you get goose bumps and the “oh-my-goodness” chills when you read the text and play through the score. This is NOT the “oh, wow, that’d be so cool…” reaction. This is the “Stop the train, where did THIS come from?!” reaction. This kind of situation happens maybe once a year…if even that often! So d o it. Do the work. Sing it. Pour your heart out. You won’t regret it.

2. Favors. You already know when it’s time to “sing a favor.” Your best friend’s wedding. Your Great-Uncle’s funeral. A short project for a musician friend. Know when it’s time to ask for a favor, and know when it’s time to return one. And know when it’s time to pay into the favor bank because you might need one in the future.

 

 

TIP: Keep the reigns tight on favors. And don’t ‘spread the word’ about them, either. Your reputation as a professional, paid performer depends on it. Maintaining a professional reputation is key to your success; once people know that you are a paid professional, they tend not to call you for freebies and cheapies. However, word does get around if you sing for cheap or for free; this devalues your work, our industry, and eventually, people don't think of you as a professional, but an amateur.

3. Donations. And here’s what I mean by donation:  A) you sing once a year at your church, for free, and are doing special programming; it’s one rehearsal and the church services. Or B) A non-profit organization asks you to sing a program at their event and you forego an honorarium (or donate it directly back to the non-profit). You need to clearly communicate that these are clearly donations and not favors.

To put it in monetary terms, think of a budget worksheet. In every budget worksheet you’ll see the section “Donations,” a percentage of your yearly income. If your yearly percentage works out to be $200 and you made two, $100 donations in March, you’re done for the year. That means, come Christmas, when everybody and their brother starts calling for a donation, and your budget hasn’t changed, you need to say no. One appropriate response is “I’ve already made my donations for the year.” This is the same and wholly appropriate for making Singing Donations. If you haven’t yet, it’s time to create a Singing Donation Budget.

 

Creating your Singing Donation Budget

 

Look at previous years’ schedules:

  1. How much singing did you do and how much did you get paid for it? Calculate what your average hourly pay was. (And since we singers operate as independent contractors, remember that this is *gross* income.)
  2. How many Singing Donations did you make?

Calculate roughly how much time previous years’ Singing Donations took. How much time did you need to schedule rehearsals? Mail music to the accompanist? Did you have to special order music ahead of time from a publisher far away? How many rehearsals were there? How many hours of rehearsals did you have?

 

Calculate how much you donated by taking the hours you spent on Singing Donations and multiply it by your average hourly pay (#1). That’s how much money you donated by way of Singing Donations last year. Now, is how many Singing Donations you made (#2) proportional to the total amount of gigs you had?

 

Take some time and let this sink in. Make a truthful decision about how many Singing Donations you will make in the next year that’s aligned with your yearly budget, your other financial (cash) donations, and your time budget. (I’ll talk time budget in another Open Intervals post.)

 

Here are two Singing Donation Budget examples:

  1. Singer Susan determines that she won’t sing any big projects for little money this year, but she will do a church service for free at her own church. And she’s going to call up a music director friend who needs a favor returned and sing a short recital at that church for free. Singer Susan’s yearly Singing Donation Budget is full.
  2. Singer Sally received a HUGE favor from true friend Composer Caroline when Caroline recommended Sally for a gig; the gig came through to the tune of Holy-Huge-Honorarium. Sally knows Caroline needs a singer for a demo recording and offers her services in return. In addition to the Special Music Sally will sing at her church for 3 Christmas Eve services, she’s filled her Singing Donation Budget for the year.

We are professional singers, we have studied long and hard to be able to do what we do, and we deserve to be paid for it. We also deserve the opportunity to give to our communities, the people who support what we do, and we deserve the right to put appropriate boundaries around it, as with any healthy budget. It’s the path of giving and receiving; selling a service (our singing) and giving donations (as cash or as singing), just as any other business would do.

**

How Much Do Singers Need to Practice?

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How much a singer needs to practice truly depends on the person, the project, and the purpose.

 

The Person: Some singers want and need to practice every day, as it's such a strong part of their daily routine, their day would be incomplete without it. There are plenty of musicians who even take their instruments on vacation with them, as they want to keep their muscles in excellent shape. Other singers practice several times a week, and yet other singers practice only when they have a project or an upcoming audition, meaning they take days or weeks off without practicing. A singer's practice routine is very individual and unique. It takes creativity, time, and experimentation to develop a quality routine.

The Project: A project that's in a foreign language that's unfamiliar to the singer, say an English- and French-speaking singer learning a Russian opera or song, will take significantly longer to practice. Not only does a singer need to practice the melody and incorporate all the technical aspects of the piece, all while researching and learning about the history of it, but she needs to practice the Russian--first speaking, then speaking in rhythm, and then singing slowly and then up to tempo. Add memorization to the mix and you've got a lot of practicing!

 

The Purpose: The purpose of the practice session is also dependent on the singer and the project. If she's practicing for her own enjoyment, then anything goes! If she's practicing for a specific project, say the Russian opera mentioned above, then she will most likely be more concentrated, more focused, and more goal-oriented than when she's 'maintaining' her audition repertoire. When the purpose of practicing is maintaining audition repertoire, say 5 opera arias, then she will be experimenting more with keeping the pieces active and creative--remembering her memorization markers and feeling the text come alive again as she sings through the melody. We call this "re-creating" a piece and re-creation is in itself a main skill of performing.

 

In minutes, a practice session usually begins with a 5-15 minute warm-up, a chunk of practice time, and a cool-down of 2-3 minutes. Many singers practice for a total of 30-45 minutes at a time, and some singers can practice for even longer without tiring--their voices or their bodies. Many voice teachers advise practicing three times a day in 30-minute chunks. Personally, I'm a fan of a 45-55 minute practice session with a break in the middle.

 

And done right, a singer is going to be a bit tired after practicing (just as after a lesson or coaching)!

How Long Does it Take to Prepare for a Gig or a Concert?

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It truly depends on the piece and/or the program. A piece like Mahler's 2nd Symphony is larger and takes more time to 'sink in,' so even though that concert is in May, I've already begun working on it. When learning a new piece of music, whether it's as long as a symphony or as short as Barber's "Sure on this Shining Night," there are several, over-arching steps to piece preparation:

  1. Wood-Shedding. This is the initial get-to-know-you stage, where you play & sing through a piece, look up and write in translations, listen to a recording or two to get an idea of what the piece sounds like with a full orchestra, and research the text, composer, and history of the piece.
  2. In the Thick of It. In this stage, a soloist works with a coach/accompanist and/or voice teacher to really work the piece into her voice. This is often where the emotional development of a piece takes place, although hopefully there was an immediate emotional connection in the woodshedding process. This stage could be just an hour, or it could be months depending on the piece. (Sometimes getting a piece "into your voice" takes years!) Remember that we're developing muscle memory, which is vital for the actual memorization of a piece.
  3. Polish, Please! Here a soloist runs the piece from beginning to end OR starts at the end and works backward, e.g. in a 10-page piece, she sings the final 3 pages, then the last 6 pages, then the last 9 pages, then finally all 10 pages. Here the goal is to create a cohesive, over-arching feeling of the flow of the piece and to make some final technical and dramatic choices.

All of this work must be done for thorough and complete preparation, however when done well, it is not 'work,' but PLAY. Music is temporal--it takes place over time--music doesn't simply exist on its own. It can't be placed on your desk or hung on your wall, those are different art forms. Therefore, music must be created and re-created every time it is performed and to achieve this, you create it whenever you  play with a piece of music.

There are times when a concert or a program is requested, or you fill in for someone else who is ill or had to cancel at the last minute. Sometimes, you may have just a week or two to get a new concert piece into your voice. It’s a great challenge! Songs of Praise & Thanksgiving, for example, was created, learned, practiced, and performed in under 8 weeks--and it's 65 minutes' worth of music. That is a short amount of time to learn a complete song program and when such situations come about, you must rely on your sight-singing skills, your collaborative skills, and practicing becomes more intense and it must also, ironically, become more playful.

So you may have months to prepare for a program, you may have just a few days, and it comes down to being up to the challenge to truly play. No matter how much time you have, enjoy the ride!

Are You a Guest Musician, Section Leader, or Ringer? And What is ‘Ringing,’ Anyway?

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Let’s work backwards. Ringing is the term we use when a professional singer joins a choir, say a church choir, for a kind of limited engagement. It’s usually one week here, maybe another week down the line, and the main job of the singer is to ‘fill out’ the section. Sometimes solo work is included, but frequently not. A ‘ringer’ (the person who ‘rings’) is really hired to be a strong voice leading a section of the ensemble.

 

In the case of a church choir, a ringer is asked to attend one rehearsal, usually a Wednesday night, and then a short rehearsal just prior to the Sunday service(s). (This is usually paid as two events, the rehearsal being one event and the church service(s) being one entire event, e.g. $50 per event x 2 events = $100.) Since this process is short, you can well imagine that a ringer needs to sight-read and be willing to jump in and really go for it. That’s part of what makes ringing so much fun and it’s always a treat to meet a new choir and also for them to meet you.

 

While you as a professional singer work in a different part of the singing profession, we’re all really a part of the same, huge, musical family. It’s sometimes like meeting distant cousins you didn’t know you had--and had so much in common with!

 

While ringing is paid, it’s not the same as a paid, section-leader position in a choir. A section leader has a contract for the season (roughly September through May), a schedule to adhere to, and certain tasks to perform during the year. Tasks may include cataloging and organizing music or even performing a certain number of solos. Section leaders may hold sectionals, short rehearsals for just one voice in the choir, like the Alto Section Leader rehearsing with only altos. Section leaders frequently work in their positions for years, building up a repertoire of ensemble music, a long-lasting relationship with the director/conductor, and a rapport with their section members. Community choirs and church choirs are such fantastic communities; they can really grow into families!

 

Guest musicians are hired-in musicians, be they singers or instrumentalists, who perform special music for a church service or concert. A guest musician would attend a choir rehearsal if they are performing with the choir, but they are typically independent in their functioning. The church may request a certain program, and frequently they simply ask the guest musician to bring in music that fits the theme of the day or the sermon topic. Frequently guest musicians rehearse or do a sound check on Sunday morning and perform one or two services before departing. That's it!

 

This is actually how I got to perform four songs from Spring Reverberations; when a church hired me as a guest musician, the minister requested music to fit the theme “Resisting Reasonable Atrocities.” Poetry written by a prisoner of war certainly fits that theme, and it was a great way to bring beautiful Vietnamese music to a new audience. And this one event has led to at least 3 other performances of Spring Reverberations, one of them being the first performance of the song cycle in its entirety! It’s great fun to see where one event might lead!

 

Ringing, section leading, and working as a guest musician are wonderful and different ways of bringing your solo and ensemble skills to new communities, whether they be in churches or in community choirs. It’s a solid way to keep up your sight-singing skills and to build relationships in our huge, musical community. And it’s true that you never know where it might lead!