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!

"Do You Get Nervous?" Stagefright and Performance Anxiety

on . Posted in Singing

Yesterday, 3 times in 24 hours came the question "Do you get nervous?"

Stagefright, a/k/a performance anxiety is very real for many musicians and can be debilitating. Rumors circulate about singers' superstitions before shows, some singers get snippy, others get quiet. Everybody has a different reaction before a show, whether it's business-as-usual or prayer & meditation and every singer's pre-show process must be respected.

There have been 3 stages to this in my life.

First was "Excited Nervousness." In school, in community theater, in college it was always excited nervousness--I was pumped to do the show or sing the concert and I was a little bit nervous. I always knew it was going to be OK and I always knew if I messed up, it was only that one time and later I would do better.

Second was "Can't Stop Shaking & Feel Really Sick" until my first aria or first entrance was done. I mean really shaky. It was not fun. And what I've come to realize was that a lot of it was due to the "marriage" I was in--because if I did anything my ex-"husband" deemed odd, or he was unfamiliar with as a non-musician, not only did I need to deal with processing the concert itself, but then I had to deal with him. This was all extremely unpleasant and was accompanied by his increased nervousness at every one of my performances while we were "married." In his eyes, I was supposed to take care of him before I went onstage...when I was supposed to be focusing on my singing, my collaborative pianist, and our work together. This doesn't just happen with abusive husbands, though, it happens with partners, siblings, parents. We could also call this stage mom syndrome. It can be debilitating. And it can last for years.

I venture to say the good majority of the stagefright and performance anxiety that people experience is other people's projections that we have taken on as our own. (This was very true in my case and the further away I am from that "marriage," the less stagefright I have.) If you think "I have to be nervous for this," then you most likely will be. However, if you think "I need to be the essence of calm and collected for this," then you will be.

Here's the key to counter stagefright:  the vast majority of audience members, conductors, auditioners and other performers actually want you to be successful! Think of the auditioner sitting in a theatre, no windows, for hours on end listening to auditionees who are trained in singing...only no one is really selling it. And suddenly a singer walks in, confident, smartly dressed, with a confident introduction, singing really well. THAT is the woman that the auditioner will hire!

So forget this "I'm nervous" spiel--you're there to be wildly successful and while it is about you, it's not about you--it's about what you can do. So go do it already!

OK, the third phase is this:  Get movin', I am at home on the stage and can we get this show on the road?!

The more you perform, whether it's concentratedly performing at home in your living room when you're prepping for an audition, in an audition, or whatever your creative musical outlet is, the easier it gets. You grow in experience every time you sing and over time you accumulate the emotional knowledge you need to just do what you need to do.

Do Soloists Have to Wear Black? A Gown Buying Guide for Gals

on . Posted in Singing

The answer is no, soloists do not have to wear black! Here we’re talking about professional soloists who are hired-in from other locations and come in for a special program or a concert on a series. (See my previous blog post “Why Do Musicians Always Wear Black” for ensemble wardrobe topics.)


Soloists determine their own wardrobe. For men, the hiring organization chooses tux or tails, cummerbund or not, maybe a vest, and no matter what they are dressed and ready to go in short order. ‘nuff said about the men. For women there are a few more choices.


As I wrote yesterday, black is black is black is black and it’s instantly dressier than a lot of other options. A black dress is an easy and elegant choice. But it’s not the only choice (see #3 below).


Here are a few rules of thumb to follow when choosing a dress or gown:


1. Choose a dress that suits your body type.

Nothing looks more professional and elegant than a fancy piece of clothing that suits you to a T! Plus, you may wear this gown dozens of times. Buy a gown you will want to wear concert after concert after concert.Blue_gown

2. Choose a color that flatters your skin, hair, and eyes.

You’re standing up front and all eyes are on you, so choose colors you know compliment you well. If you’re unsure, ask a professional in a reputable dress shop for a color recommendation. A professional will be able to give you great advice!


TIP:  Take a fashionista friend with you. It’s more fun and you can spend some quality time together.

And yes, I frequently choose blue. Not only is it a great color for me, it brings out the blue in my eyes and represents my branding.

3. If you are singing for a more solemn occasion, it is not absolutely necessary to wear black.

Black is an excellent choice, and may be requested by the concert presenter, however dark gray, wine red, dark green, chocolate brown, and dark blue are all appropriate choices and look stunning on stage.

The rule of thumb I learned for solemn occasions is “black is perfectly suitable, and other than that, all other dark colors are also appropriate.” Since the orchestra behind you will most likely be in black, you’ll stand out where you’re supposed to…up front!


4.Make it interesting.

Get creative—people remember your (appropriate) creative choices.

5. Only ever purchase a second-hand dress if it is truly like new.

I have seen such dresses on fellow soloists and they look smashing! HOWEVER, don’t waste your money on a dress that looks, well, pretty good…but has a snag here or there…or has a small tear and you know you won’t take the time to go to a tailor. People notice and it doesn’t leave a good impression. A sub-par dress is the mark of a singer who is less-than-invested in her own career.

6. Have fun with it because let’s face it—it’s fun!

The days of Jane Lunchbox dressing up for dancing at galas or getting into the latest dress fashion for a Friday night dance are out. When else do we get to be glammed up and have hundreds if not thousands of people watching us shine?

The technical aspects of gowns are JUST AS IMPORTANT as the gown itself:

Kirsten_in_black_combo7. Find a tailor who does quality work.

And go to that tailor for every dress you possibly can. This relationship can make or break a dress. (Trust me, I know, and I know it from bad experience. I have one gown that was literally destroyed by a tailor.)

TIP:  Ask your friends and colleagues for a tailor. Customers of quality tailors are typically long-term, extremely loyal customers.

Soprano Kirsten Watson, to the left, needed a jacket for this (fantastic) dress. She found material that matched the accent fabric and her tailor turned it into a fantastic jacket. This is gown shopping at its best!

8. Buy appropriate undergarments.

Check for panty lines. Have a bra sewn into the dress. Buy a full-body slip and/or lined bra if you even think you might-possibly-maybe-someday need it for that dress.

Ladies, I have seen a light-colored dress on a woman with inappropriate undergarments. So did all 80 people in the audience. Unfortunately no one remembers what she sang.

9. Cover up the girls. Seriously.

There’s nothing worse than a woman with a heaving bosom singing a pious, reverent aria in the middle of an oratorio. It’s unprofessional and inappropriate. Buy a minimizer bra, a camisole, or have some extra material sewn in to the neckline. Find a complimentary scarf and pin it into your dress if you have no other option.

10. Have the dress shop steam your new gown before you take it home.

They should do this anyway if the dress is wrinkled, but if not, ask them. In my opinion, there should be no charge for this simple service.

11. Always use a reputable dry cleaners with staff who are experienced in cleaning quality gowns.

Yes, I know this through experience as well and my dress is in great shape!


12. Use your dry cleaner well!

When purchasing a like-new, used gown, have it cleaned as soon as you purchase it and it will be ready to go when you need it.

13. Two last words:  dress bag.

Spend the extra couple of bucks to get a large, cloth dress bag. Dry cleaner bags tear easily anyway, and this way you can store multiple gowns at home worry- and dust-free.

Why Do Musicians Always Wear Black?

on . Posted in Singing

A musician’s motto: Black is black is black is black.

Somewhere along the line, black clothing became the standard for performing musicians. It’s easy on the eyes, looks pretty much the same on different fabrics, and looks just fine on almost everyone.




An ensemble dressed completely in black looks unified. If they’re all wearing a different color it’s sometimes too much stimulation. If everyone is wearing black, then it’s easier to concentrate on the music they are making and the expressions on their faces. Not every ensemble chooses all black, and there are choirs or concerts for which people wear different colors and it can be absolutely delightful when paired with upbeat repertoire!




Musicians play and perform at many different types of events and for this, we typically say the wardrobe requirement is “dress black.” This means look professional, wear nice clothing, and it must all be black. This is why musicians typically have copious amounts of black clothing in their wardrobe. It’s also easiest for an ensemble to match each other well if they are all wearing black.


For funerals and memorial services, musicians, like attendees, wear black. And although it may seem odd, musicians wear dress black for weddings even though it is a festive occasion (unless the wedding party has deemed otherwise). Black is black get the idea?

For more informal occasions, the combination of black pants or skirt and a black shirt already looks professional without being too dressy, and it’s a way for the musicians to separate themselves from the audience or crowd without having to figure out a new outfit for every performance.


Special Case:  Choirs


Many choirs have standard dress for their singers, and most typically there is one dress for all the ladies, which they purchase themselves, plus a standard accessory (a scarf or jewelry, perhaps).  Someone from the organization chooses which color hosiery and most often the guideline is simply “black shoes.”

TIP:  Be sure to polish your shoes before any performance, whether you are a soloist up front or you are in the back of the choir. People notice if you haven't shined your shoes, and it does not leave a good impression. Do it a day or two before and you won't have a chance to forget it!


I’ve discovered that the more ‘serious’ the repertoire and the higher professionalism of the choir, the more likely it is that they will have ONE particular dress for the ladies. However there are plenty of choirs and ensembles that have a standard for women such as this:  long, black skirt or wide-legged dress pants, ¾- or long-sleeved top, modest neckline, subtle jewelry. This also works very well when a specific standard of dressiness is required (and enforced) but having one dress for all the women isn't a logical choice.


For the men, it’s often a black suit or tux with a particular color bow-tie. Often it is also black, however if there is a particular color associated with the chorus, they may choose a different color. For instance, when I sang with the Gaechinger Kantorei in Stuttgart, the men were required to purchase their own burgundy red bow-tie. Use of a vest or a cummerbund is also specified by the choir or ensemble.


From Day to Night


Musicians lead busy lives and frequently leave the house in the morning only to return late in the evening after a day of teaching, rehearsing, and performing. Black travels well and is versatile and can go from the teacher’s studio to a dressy rehearsal and can be dressed up with fun jewelry or a pair of slacks changed out for a skirt in no time for a performance.




Check back TOMORROW for my next blogpost:  “Do Soloists Have to Wear Black?”

9.11.11 - A High Calling to Service

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If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. -Mother Teresa



On September 11, 2001 I don't think anyone thought about what the 10th Anniversary would be like. People I talk with about September 11th don't talk about the 10th Anniversary, they talk about what happened 10 years ago. We remember where we were, what happened, who we knew who was in New York or working in the Pentagon, or even whom we knew who was supposed to have been in the towers that day, or what story someone just read about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. We talk about the cloud, the dust, the stench. We tell the graphic, personal stories told amongst friends--the real stories of 9/11. We remember who in our group of friends took the first vacation or flight after 9/11, and we remember who hasn't flown since.

Sitting in rehearsal today, I noticed I'm not thinking about the future, I'm thinking about 10 years ago. I'm thinking about all the memories I haven't thought of for 10 years. I realized I have avoided thinking consciously about 9/11. And now, at the service of everyone at 9.11.11 - United We Stand tomorrow, I am forced to remember things I don't want to remember.

And that is the turning point--who am I to not want to remember? Who am I to not want to face the waves of emotions that tomorrow brings? There is work to be done. As musicians, performers, clergy, volunteers, we are at the service of those who do choose to remember. We are at the service of those who need to grieve. We are at the service of honoring the innocence that was lost, the people who are now deceased, the knowledge we have gained since, the truth that now stares us in the face. We are at the service of our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, because we are all created equal. We are at the service of grief itself, for when we've accepted our grief, we find out what wisdom is waiting for us on the other side.

This is a high calling for musicians, to be the ones who comfort those who grieve, to be the catalysts for their grieving process. We must remember first, so we can literally create the program to assist those who are grieving. We must face what needs to be faced and create the service that follows. We must lead the way to a better place. We must carry the vision for peace.

It is truly an honor to be of service to all the brothers and sisters in this world, for we must step up and be the first ones to change, to anticipate what will exist beyond grief. We must be the change we wish to see.

Music doesn't lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music. -Jimi Hendrix


5 Tips for Taking a Gig (or Not!)

on . Posted in Singing

Simplicity is key! One of the guiding principles suggested in Ratgeber Freie* for whether or not a gig is worth your while is

"Does it make me happy? Does it make me rich? Does it make me proud?"

and if the gig in front of you meets at least 2 of those 3 guidelines, it's a good idea to take it. If the gig only meets 1, then you ought to be pretty clear on why you're taking the gig--or why you're kindly turning it down.

It's a great way to decide whether to take a gig or not and that's where I usually start; in addition to that, here are several other basics I consider from the very first conversation:

1. Money, honey! This MUST be a clear, upfront, and open topic. If not, say no! Find out if the payment will be made at the first (or final) performance or if the check will be mailed within 1 (or 2) weeks of performance; this is usually stated in the contract, and concert organizers love to get contracts settled & out of the way asap. (Please refer to #3 for more information on this important factor.)
2. Location Where do the rehearsals take place? Where is the gig? Travel time and cost may be an important factor in deciding whether or not you can even make it there. Block off all the rehearsal time in your schedule now and plan extra time to get there and have time to eat if it's around a mealtime. In New York I took a gig and the organizer remembered on Friday night to tell me the next day's rehearsal started at 9 am in Queens--an hour and a half away! Keep in mind that you always need a written commitment, which brings me to #3.

3. Committment Is there a contract? Or at the very least a confirmation letter? Frequently emailed correspondence functions in this manner, but some people just aren't that great with planning. Go ahead and ask--it's your work and you have every right to know all the details. When in doubt, send a friendly, professional email stating all the information you have and ask them to simply reply and confirm it.
TIP:  If you need to charge something like a flight on a credit card, make sure you have a committment before you make the purchase! If you haven't been clear about your expectations with paychecks and reimbursements, it's too easy for people to be late in their payments or even worse, not to pay you at all.
4. Favors Only do favors for musician friends you know, have integrity, and who will be more than happy to pay you back. Worst case scenario:  you do a 'favor' (e.g. work for free) for someone you don't know that well, the music isn't that great, you have to work hard to fit it into your schedule, it stresses you out, and afterward you find out the other singers got paid or got another gig out of it and you didn't. It's too easy to get into a lose-lose situation this way. Donations of time & talent for worthy causes and fundraisers aside, you ARE a professional and working for free devalues your work and your industry. (More to that in this blog post.)
5. Tools If you're a guest singer at a workshop, for example, will the workshop be providing a piano/electric keyboard for you? You may or may not need to provide your own music stand and/or stand light. Do you have a sturdy, travel music stand? Do you have the right size black folder for your performance or do you need a new one so the bent corners of your coffee-stained score won't stick out? It's pretty amazing how many black folders and binders one singer can collect through various gigs, and somehow I always need a different folder. If you're a harpsichordist and you bring your own harpsichord, when can you bring it in to let it acclimate and tune it? I have a harpist friend who set aside a block of hours for every wedding she plays, as she needs to be there quite early to tune her harp, and then she tunes it again before she tunes it again.
Take it from me--it's easier to ask in the beginning than to find out later when you're deeper into the process and conversations can get unnecessarily sticky. And, well, take it from me because I've learned some of these things the hard way. Make sure you're on the same page from the start and all will be well!
* Ratgeber Freie is a handbook for freelancers in Germany which explains laws and regulations as well as services available for artists of all kinds (think business consultations and health insurance).