Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Voices in Your Head

Ach, [should I have put a slight pause in there, there is a comma, but there’s no rest, I feel like I do it different every other damn time] ich fühl’s [ugh, I have to get that vowel more closed, why won’t my mouth just do what I want it to] es ist [spin it, spin it, spin it] verschwunden [I did say ‘schwunden’, right? Because sometimes I want to say ‘stunden’ for some godforsaken reason]

You don’t even want to know the mixture of wishes, prayers, and expletives I fire off when I get around to that Bon “liebe.” Pamina’s aria is particularly fraught for me. I learned it too early, performed it for a conductor that wanted to take it way too fast, and dig it out every couple years to see whether the anxiety has melted off yet.

I pace the practice room, pleading with myself to release these ingrained habits and allow my new technical know-how to fix this piece that I really, really need to figure out how to sing well. I threaten, cajole and try to trick my reflexes; I record myself and listen over and over again, trying to dissect the places where I go wrong. The aria just has a lot of baggage for me and I’m pretty brutal on myself when assessing what’s going wrong.  

I feel fortunate that historically I have been able to relegate those inner voices to the practice room. That I can make the rehearsal room and the performance space places where I can be present in my character and an empathetic listener to my onstage colleagues. Competitions have been no exception. I talk to myself before I go onstage. I remind myself that I’m here because I love performing. If I don’t move on, I am in basically the same situation than I was before I walked out on stage. If it goes well, that’s money in my pocket.

Being the stubborn ass that I am, I decide to bring Pamina out for competitions regularly. This year, I was actually quite successful, moving on in a major national competition with Pamina as my starter. This made me feel like maybe I was making some headway with my Mozart struggles, UNTIL I got the judges’ feedback. They were really critical of all of the same things I am in the aria, and their words stung and stuck with me like never before.

Perhaps it’s because I am performing less these days. Perhaps it’s because I was diving straight into a new role; one that wasn’t truly written for my voice type, but I got into rehearsals for my next show and those judgmental voices were front and center. They were second-guessing every high note, killing my legato, and actually messing with my stage presence. I was pissed.

So I thought back to college, when my voice teacher (to this day one of the smartest women I know) made us read The Inner Game of Tennis. Not once, not twice, but THREE times. The Inner Game of Tennis teaches us about the difference between Self One (who knows how to do the thing we’re doing) and Self Two (who gets off on judging the performance of Self One). I can’t recommend this book highly enough for singers. Three readings had sunk in deep enough that I was able to take a good look at my voices’ criticisms, address them in the practice room, and then tell them to take a hike!

It might be one of the greatest challenges of our singing lives to take inventory of how we talk to ourselves, but it’s a very important dynamic to be aware of. Yes, be aware of your current technical goals and the steps you need to take to get there, but don’t measure your self-worth by a single practice session. Yes, strive for your best onstage, but don’t let a memory slip or a moment of distraction derail a whole performance. Yes, go out for all the auditions you can afford, but don’t give up if your career isn’t taking the shape you’ve always thought it would. You have to be your own, biggest cheerleaders in this business so don’t let the voices sabotage your success!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Character Work = Contract

By Christi Amonson

Several years ago I learned a valuable lesson. Something most of us have heard, but need to learn for ourselves. I had two auditions in one afternoon at Lincoln Center. After the first audition, I went early to the second audition, hoping to be worked in early. I could not, so I sat outside the door and listened to auditions for approximately two hours. What did I hear? More than ten sopranos sang Caro Nome, which was my opening aria. Listening through the door, every version of “my” aria sounded accurate and even worse, beautiful. For a hot second I thought about singing something else on my list, but enough coaches had condemned the idea of second-guessing repertoire choices in the heat of the audition, so I stayed my course. As I sat there realizing I would need to walk in that room confident that my rendition of the aria was worth listening to again – I had to wonder what would set me apart. It was a light bulb moment when I realized that among a sea of pretty girls with lovely, well-trained voices, it is the character work that will get the contract.

If you are reading this article, you probably have an idea of what character work means to you. Translating your aria, learning the opera plot, understanding the relationships within the story, etc. These are the basics. They do not necessarily translate in performance. True communication in performance is hard to nail down because it is completely subjective. We have no control over our adjudicators, auditioners, or audience and whether they are hungry, angry, worried about a deadline, or God knows what. We only have control over our preparation and technical prowess to ensure the best performance we can give in the moment.

As a singer and a teacher, I find the most successful character work that enhances our singing and is palpable in performance comes from specific ideas.
  • To raise the stakes, put your character analysis in first person – “I” am madly in love, not “Gilda” is madly in love.
  • Describe your character with specific adjectives; avoid generalizations – “I am in love” is ok, but, “I am a virgin aching for that tenor offstage” will probably garner more attention and suddenly your breaths and high notes will have significantly more meaning!
  • Set your scene in the introduction or your recitative. Look around and “see” the sunset or the grassy meadow or the prison bars. “Feel” the cold air or the warmth of your lover’s breath. “Hear” the cathedral bells in the distance or the lone call of an owl on that pretty night.
  • Step into your character’s shoes – are you sick? Elated? Out of breath? Depressed? Your body language tells your audience exactly what is going on. You will not get to sing your death aria in a chaise lounge in your audition, but you can hold on to the piano for strength or stagger one step when you feel weak. Your imagination is crucial to create the physical vitality of your character!
  • Decide where you will commit to a change of thought in the aria – your character must change during the course of the aria. Be different at the end – resolve, commit, give up, give in, whatever – but DECIDE and go for it!
Invest in a coach that will work with you on your presentation and use a mirror! If you do not enjoy watching your performance why would anyone else? Investigate your character’s relationship and find an equivalent that you can relate to while singing. The Stanislavski acting method teaches actors to use “the moment before.” What just happened in the opera is the reason you are singing the present aria. Method acting includes using past experiences that you can relive in the moment. In Alexander technique, singing actors learn to remove tensions from the body and use their instrument efficiently. In all of these techniques and the many more that are out there, the mirror is your friend. The mirror does not lie and take your money at the end of the hour. The mirror shows you what you are doing with your face, your hands, and your body. If you do not like it, you can adjust what you are doing until you say to yourself, “Damn, I’d hire that vixen!” I understand, we all hate the mirror, but it can save you big money if you simply LOOK and see what weird thing your hand is doing that has nothing to do with the thought you wanted to convey!

For me, character work comes last, after I have mastered the notes and the text. If you can worry about all that while you strive to overcome the emotions of the murder you just committed on stage, good for you. Most of us need to work on one thing at a time! We know there are hundreds of singers vying for every job. We must sing accurately and deliver our own unique and beautiful sound. After that, it is the character we bring to the audition that will likely get or lose us the job. There isn’t a “right” way to do this, but there is a “wrong” way and that is to do nothing. There are a handful of arias we all sing. Dare to try it your way. If you give your audience a piece of yourself in your aria, they will love YOU.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Get Your Coins: Taxes and Keeping it Organized

FULL DISCLAIMER:   I am NOT an accountant. These are simply things that have helped me and other colleagues to prepare for tax season. 

Taxes…Why is it important for us to keep track of our finances?  It’s easy for the creative types to dislike and/or avoid the details that get in the way of our creative process. I would like to call myself a highly organized person, but I am really just a clumsy, messy person under the guise of  order. I have been burned before as a result of my lack of organization! 

So, why is it important to keep track of our finances as artists?  We are private, small business owners! You happen to be the CEO of Your Awesome Voice, Inc. That means that we get to make our own schedules and do what we love. But, this also means we have to be diligent about keeping record of our expenses so that we don’t get screwed out of our hard earned coins come tax time! That Chanel Lipstick in “La Sensuelle” that makes you feel like a rock-star and helps you to nail ALL your auditions, is an investment you can’t make when your nickels are reduced to pennies.  

Many companies and organizations that hire you for Your Awesome Voice, Inc. are non-profit. As a result, you are usually asked to fill out a W-9 Form and you receive a check from the organization that has not been taxed. However, this does not mean you will not be asked to pay taxes on that money in the future!!! So, to keep as much money in your pocket as you can, here are some tips:

1. Save your receipts!
Saving your receipts from your gigs helps greatly in write-offs when it comes to doing your taxes. I usually separate receipts into categories (travel, food, etc) that are placed into bags and then are placed in a dated manila folder that is also dated with the name of the gig along with any copies of forms I was asked to sign (contracts, tax forms, accident reports, etc.) so that the information is all in one place. 
A few things that you might be able to write-off (this list is not inclusive):
  • food and meals purchased
  • gifts purchased for your colleagues (chocolates, thank you notes, flowers, etc.) 
  • any purchases used solely for the gig
  • travel expenses
*Note: If you were given a travel stipend or per diem for food, those expenses are not write-offs.  

2. Track your mileage for auditions and gigs.
If you drive, rent cars, fly, or do any traveling for your auditions, keep track of it! You’re able to write a number of these things off as a business expense. 

3. Keep receipts for any purchases related to your business.
That $20 receipt for tabs and highlighters for your scores counts as a business purchase. That Traviata score you had to replace that you meticulously tabbed and highlighted after your water bottle decided to open itself in your bag? Yeah, that counts, too.  

4. Save all records of forms and contracts.  

I have all of this stuff “saved." Now what?  

Organize it. Organize it.  Organize it. 
It’s very easy to "save" a receipt and then forget what its purpose is and as a result it becomes a bookmark in that one book you bought for that thing that you don’t read anymore. I have found that keeping either an envelope marked clearly with the name of the gig or a plastic sandwich bag works wonders when you are on the go! Concerning mileage tracking, I’ve seen those cute little black books they sell at Office Depot, but this girl needs another book to go in her giant bag like she needs another person telling her to audition for American Idol. I simply write the mileage in my planner on the date that I traveled. That means I also have the name of the gig as well as the date so I can transfer that information to my envelope during my great office purge every month.  

I know this sounds like a hassle, but it makes your accountant smile when you come in around tax time. It also allows you to be more concerned with staying a super Sexi Soprano at Your Awesome Voice, Inc. #stayfamous

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Priority Scheduling

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As singers, we can be some of the busiest people on the planet. When pursuing an opera career most of us are not blessed with great wealth, so we have at least three or four jobs on top of our job as an opera singer, and prioritizing can be difficult.

Here are a few ideas to help you with managing your time as an opera singer:

Use a calendar. Most people can use their fancy computers or phones to keep their calendars updated, but even if you are technically challenged it’s okay, because you can still buy any type of day planner that you can think of. The important thing is to find a calendar that works for you, and use it!

Color Code your calendar. Use different colors for each job, and make sure everything is up to date to your best ability. Even if one of your jobs is consistent, make sure it is always listed on your calendar, because it will help you plan out your day.

If at all possible, set up your schedule with your best paying jobs. If you can, make it so that you still have two days off a week, so you still have “your weekend.” “Your weekend” can be used to travel to New York for lessons, or to catch up on other opera singing pursuits, or for actual time off to rest and spend time with family.

Okay, those are the basics. Here are the tricky ones:

Make a To-Do-List. The first to-do list you make should include everything that needs to get done from this moment until the end of time (or as far into the future as you can think). Make the list in categories. Write each job you have across the top of the page (you may need a lot of pages), and then list the things you need to get done under each category. Always include singing as a category. After coming up with your list, mark items by priority. Do any of these items have a deadline? If so, put them on your calendar. List the actual deadline, and then write down what day you will get it done on your calendar, based on when you have time to do it. Waiting until the last minute is not always the best option, but if you don’t make a list and prioritize, procrastination will happen.

Make a Daily To-Do List. This should be done nightly. Your first to-do list might be extremely overwhelming, which is why we make daily to-do lists. Make the list at the end of the night, before you go to bed, so when you wake up in the morning you have a plan of action.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew in a day. This is why the calendar is really helpful.  Look at how many hours you have during the day to actually get things done. Write down hourly what you will do.  
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EX: 9am – wake up
9:30am – exercise
10am – shower
11am – eat brunch
11:30 - E-mails
1:00 – Research and apply for auditions
2:00 – Practice
3:00 – E-mails
3:30 – Leave for work
4:00 – Teach
6:30 – Church Gig
8:00 – Dinner
8:30 – Emails – computer work – study music
9:30 – Spend time with friends/family
11:30 - Bed

When people write out a schedule, they are more likely to accomplish it.  The more specific you can be the better. Use your long to-do list to fill in your daily to-do list, and prioritize what needs to get done first.

Prioritize your memorization. Make a list of all the shows and concerts you are studying for. Decide how much time you will need for each, then set dates and deadlines for when you will have each show memorized. Work strategically to reach your goals. Practice what is coming up, not just what you feel like working on in the moment.

Stick to your plan, and see how wonderful it feels to be productive! It will give you the energy to get everything done.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Rise of the Small Opera Company, Part Five: NY Opera Exchange

1. What year was your company founded and by whom?  

NY Opera Exchange was founded in 2010 by Justin Werner, Rebecca Stump and Alden Gatt to provide opportunities for emerging singers, instrumentalists, directors, designers and conductors to learn, perform and connect with audiences.

  1. What is the mission of your company?
To make opera accessible and enrich the community by presenting relevant, fully-staged operatic productions in New York City .

  1. Who makes up your creative team and staff? What are their backgrounds?
One of the things that makes us unique is that our creative team is made up of everyone on staff. We believe that a good idea can come from anywhere and we encourage staff and production members, as well as singers and orchestra musicians to contribute to the development of the company. This leads to richer, more diverse ideas across our production and marketing efforts. 

  1. What do you see as being your most important contribution to the opera industry?
Our biggest contribution is that we focus on creating a personal connection with each and every person who comes into contact with our company. A personal connection isn't created by asking people to merely audition or come to your show - it's created by showing individuals you care about them and what they have to contribute as human beings. It is helping them find the meaning of the opera for themselves and empowering them to tell the story as they see and understand it. It is through this connection that we will be able to break down the barriers that exists in making opera accessible. 

  1. What kind of opera do you produce? Describe your opera productions.
As our mission statement says, our goal is to make opera accessible. The best way to make opera accessible to is perform pieces that are part of the standard repertoire.  Because much of the opera being performed in New York (outside of some of the larger companies) is contemporary, there are few options for opera goers (as well as artists) to learn (and perform) the standard repertoire. We believe that if opera is to remain relevant, we need to emphasize the tradition of standard repertoire, by providing an accessible alternative to larger companies. 

  1. What kind of performers do you look for in casting?
We look for performers who are going to be the right fit - both musically and culturally. One of our largest differentiators is that we genuinely like everyone we work with and it's critical that we keep it that way. Having an attitude problem or a reputation for not working well with others is a big no-no when we're casting - and you can bet we do our research.

  1. Do you feel like you are reaching a new audience? Is it growing? What is the audience response?
We are gaining a lot of tracking with our audience - and it's constantly expanding. In addition to increasing our fan-base on Facebook by nearly 50% in Q4 of 2014, nearly all four of our performances of Die Fledermaus sold out. Audience feedback is consistently positive and many audience members return and bring their friends to another one of our productions.

  1. Do you think opera is dying? 
Opera isn't dying. The biggest challenge, however, is the fragmentation of the entertainment industry. We have to realize that opera competes, not just against other operatic or classical music productions, but against popular movies, plays, musicals and television as well. We constantly have to ask ourselves, why would someone pay (more) money to see our production than they would to go see the latest Benedict Cumberbatch movie or stay home and watch football. For us, the answer is in what makes us different. We've built the NY Opera Exchange brand around making opera more accessible for people and that starts with making ourselves open and approachable. This manifests itself in everything we do - from our communications to our productions. At our performances, we offer a personalized experience where audience members have an opportunity to come, interact and build a relationship not only with the NY Opera Exchange brand, but with us as people as well. Whether it be serving free wine at intermission or starting a conversation with someone as they enter the venue, our number one focus is on creating a memorable experience for everyone who comes to one of our performances. 

For more information on NY Opera Exchange, visit their website: www.nyoperaexchange.com

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Find Your Path: The Road Less Traveled

By Stacy Dove

You go to off to college with your head full of dreams. Performance dreams. Dreams of bright lights, glamorous costumes and music-making. And once you get there you’re told the path to singing on those stages is through Young Artist Programs. But what if, you know … life happens. What if you decide to take a break, or you come to opera later than you hoped or … things just get in the way. You approach that dreaded 3-0 and suddenly no one wants to hear you anymore. You can’t book an audition to save your life. At least for YAPs. Or maybe you just don’t want to play the YAP game. Does that mean you can’t have a career?
Let me say that again just in case you didn’t understand me. No. Not doing the YAP circuit doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful career. As a matter of fact, doing all of the YAPs doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a career at all. When you go to school, you’re led to believe that there is one path. Undergrad -> pay-to-sing(s) -> Grad School -> small YAP -> bigger YAP (and then bigger and so on) -> competitions -> agent -> SUCCESS.  But is that what it really looks like? Even the most successful singers have a few squiggly lines to a successful career. And what does that even look like anyway?
So I’m not going to tell you how old I am, because then I’d have to kill you, and no one wants that to happen, right? But I will tell you that I didn’t sing classically at all in my 20s. By the time I was ready to sing any auditions at all, very few YAPs would even look at me. I was “old.” Now, having said that, I will tell you this: that doesn’t mean that none of them would give me a look. And some wonderful people hired me for their YAPs, and to them I’m forever grateful. They’ve given me the start to my career that I need. But I say that to say this … there are so, so many paths. And yours doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. In fact, it probably won’t. That path to “stardom” that we’re all led to believe everyone follows is only really followed by a handful of people. It’s a fairytale. If you want this career – really, truly want it – you’ve got to make your own path.
So if you’re not going to take the traditional path, what do you do? What does that path look like? Well there are a few options.
  1. Regional companies. There is something to be said for pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. And sometimes the best way to get work is to start at home. Begin in the chorus of local companies. Sing compramario roles with them. If you have a good relationship with the director, ask to cover mainstage roles. Do you know the worst thing that can happen when you ask someone for something? They can say no. If you’re going to die from one person saying “no” to you, you’ve chosen the wrong profession.
  2. Know how to market yourself. If a director/conductor/teacher/someone who can help your career asks you to stay in touch and let him know what you’re doing – DO IT. People generally don’t say these things just to “be nice.” How many people in this business do you know who give out generous compliments just to “be nice?” (I’ll tell you - the answer is zero.) Email local companies. Email people you’ve sung for. STAY IN TOUCH. It can and will lead to work. You just don’t know when.
  3. I’m going to say the words that you’re all dreading in your very souls. DMA-it. Do you want to sing? Did you finish your Master’s degree before you were 25? Do you think you might want to teach? Do you want more stage experience and have an offer for an assistantship with a stipend to attend a reputable program? DO IT. There are some people who will write you off – yes. But those are the same people who will probably close the door on you at 30. That doesn’t mean you have to tell them you’re working on a DMA. It also doesn’t mean you can’t have a career.
Look – there’s nothing wrong with the YAP circuit. There are WONDERFUL opportunities to be had and fabulous experiences to be gained. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way. You choose your path. You decide what your career will look like. You are so much more powerful than you realize. Choose your destiny. Find your path. There are enough of them for all of us.