Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Pay-to-Sing Generation: Buyer Beware

By Shannon Langman

This is not a pro or against article, but a guide to making a decision for yourself and artistry. It is a pragmatic guide intended to help you organize your options as a singer in the current opera landscape.

This generation is particularly saturated with fantastic singers. Internet and social media have presented, to a vast array of new singers, exceptional access to opportunities that may not have been available in generations past. This business has always been competitive, but this generation has it’s own unique ladder to climb. Another new development for this generation is the sheer number of pay-to-sing programs popping up to fill the void for students wanting experience, resume builders, and connections.

With so many summer programs touting experiences in foreign countries, or opportunities to work with famous artists or coaches in the opera world, how do you choose? And how do you ensure you won’t be disappointed with your experience to make the hefty price tag worth it?

From my own experiences, and from the experiences of other singers, program directors, and teachers in researching this topic, there are many horror stories to counter the immeasurable positive experiences when it comes to “pay-to-sing” programs. Overall, it seems taboo to discuss the experience topic honestly and openly with program participants or workers. Yet, all seem to be in basic agreement, if you participate, it is mostly fueled by a pressure rather than need, and if you haven’t had an opportunity, you feel you have missed the boat and are behind in the game, even though there are plenty of great singers with careers on both sides of the coin. Time to shake out this invisible pressure by getting real about what you want and honest about what you expect.

Since most “pay-to-sings” are started by those who have the best of intentions, like teachers and opera business professionals, we must assume that they don’t also have a marketing degree so advertisement posters and/or websites may not give a detailed view of what you are paying for when you sign up. In addition, they are not staffed with customer service representatives to answer questions or field complaints. Ultimately, there doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer in your choices, but decide what is best for you.

I pose this challenge for singers: before beginning your decision making process, change your perspective. What if you thought of this as a vacation where you might learn something? Would that change your mindset and perhaps your expectations? Would that help you narrow down what programs you would apply to and pay for?

A great teacher and opera director gave this pearl of wisdom, “The surest way to torpedo an opera career is financial debt.” The gravity of this statement is that without income to pay off the debt accrued while learning your art form might have you working a 9-5 job without time or money to pursue your actual operatic career.

Take away: Buyer Beware. If you were to think of these extra programs as vacation planning rather than academia, how would you spend your money?

Quick Advice Guide to contemplate your pay-to-sing options:
  • First, write down what you want to gain from a summer experience. Be honest with yourself here. It’s okay to want to build connections, meet new people, and sing a role on stage. Adversely, if your impulse is to please someone else, like a teacher or coach that suggested said program, you will most likely be disappointed with the outcome and may not realize why.
  • Second, do your research. List what each program is offering, then look farther. This means research more than just what you can find online. These days, most programs are created and run by those in the opera field, not in marketing, and thus you may not find current, or in some cases any, information about actual expectations for any given program. Ask someone who has done the program to gain a perspective about what the experience was like. Be specific in your inquiry: find out about housing and food, transportation, and venues. Check out the New Forum For Classical Singers to see what is posted about various programs, especially budding programs that haven’t been around longer than a year or so.
  • Third, make sure you know the faculty and clinicians of the program. If there is a famous face that started the program or appears on the poster, it doesn’t necessarily mean that artist will actually be working with you or even be at the program. As part of your research, make it a point to find out the faculty and clinicians you will encounter in person.
  • Fourth, set a budget. Put an actual number down. This number shouldn’t limit you; depending on the program there are options to help you pay. Many programs offer loans or scholarships, and a well-timed fundraising concert is always a good idea! Planning a budget within your means can help you plan negotiations with a program.
  • Finally, pick a program. Add up how many of your initial desires match up with your research on each program. The best choice might be obvious from your list, or you may find that your priorities have changed. Either way, you will be more prepared for what to expect and less likely to be disappointed with your summer learning experience.

Alternative options: If your list finds you without a doable pay-to-sing program option, there are other areas to brainstorm to still get the most bang for your buck and time. For example, if language study is of high priority, sign yourself up for a language school in another country and immerse yourself in culture and language. Or stay home, study a role or vocal technical issue you have not had the time to give attention to with a coach or teacher that is in town. Along with your study, you could set a goal to get a website launched or take some dance and/or acting classes.

There is no one way to blaze your operatic trail, and with some foresight and planning, you can take a risk without risking it all. Don’t end up broke and underwhelmed, take control of your summer!

Shannon Langman is a photographer, writer, educator, and mezzo-soprano who runs her own businesses out of Houston Texas, with an intent and passion for inspiring young artists. Find out more at