On my 30th birthday, I offer 30 pieces of singing advice I would give my younger self.
In my 20s, I discovered singing is magic. It's well recognized that singing is as emotional and at is physical, but I had no idea just what a valuable tool of transformation it can be. Much of my personal growth and development over the past decade can be directly attributed to my singing journey.
After some reflection about what I've learned (disclaimer: I would do absolutely nothing differently, because I am so grateful for these lessons and how everything has turned out), I've split this list into the following categories: voice, acting, relationships, personal growth and learning.
1. Invest time developing your support.
This was glazed over at the beginning of my singing journey and lead to some quite severe technical issues down the line. You absolutely cannot sing efficiently if you don't have balanced, flexible support. I see the same thing time and time again when teaching my students too.
2. Singing softly doesn't mean you should come off the voice.
Treat dynamics as a color, not decibels. It's very tempting to either drop your support, or start to aspirate (whisper), but these will start to take a toll on your voice. You can think of soft as "silvery", "special" or "sweet" to achieve the impression you are after without sacrificing your technique. Besides, dynamics are relative!
3. Include coloratura in your development- even if you hate it.
Coloratura drills (fast, florid runs) can be frustrating to practice, and if your voice anything like mine (i.e. build like a panda) is can sometimes be disheartening when your vocal folds can't keep up with the speed of your brain. But keep with it, it's soooo good for the health of your voice and it does get easier. Include collie in your singing diet, even if it's not present in your repertoire.
4. Learn to mark.
It's surprising how many young singers haven't even heard of marking. In short, it's a mode of singing where you are engaging the same technique and amount of energy you normally would, but you aren't singing full voice. It becomes particularly important when you are rehearsing for a stage productions (oftentimes you will be singing the same few lines over and over again), but should be mastered early, plus it's helpful for your own practice.
5. Silent practice is your friend.
In tandem with marking, embrace silent practice. You should only vocalize for a reasonable amount of time per day (vocal folds are small, delicate muscles), but there are times when more practice is necessary. Or perhaps you find yourself in a place where you need to keep the noise down. Many studies have demonstrated that the brain can't really tell the difference between thinking in detail about an action, and physically doing that action. Experiments in both athletes and musicians show that the "thinking" group and the "doing" group have almost identical progress. So close your eyes and just imagine you are singing!
6. Text first, melody second
If I had a dollar every time I've heard this from a coach... but it's true. Maybe it seems boring, but often the more you start to dive into the character and text, it does begin to get quite fascinating and it leaves you with a deeper knowledge of the piece and a unique dramatic perspective. My process when learning a new role starts with researching the piece, translating the text, reading it dramatically, looking for subtext, then listening to lots of different recordings to see how others singers have approached it. Only then will I start note-bashing, singing the melody on vowels and working on articulation, before finally actually singing with the text. It's more involved than just jumping in and singing, but the process is so worth it.
7. Stretch arias are ok, but be mindful of not imprinting habits on future rep.
This might be a controversial opinion. In my personal experience "stretch" arias have been responsible for almost every technical breakthrough I've had. A stretch aria is a piece that is currently outside of your skill-level, whether it be more technically advanced, or perhaps slightly heavier than your current fach (voice type). Exercise caution when practicing these, listen to your body and don't go overboard. I'd recommend limiting your practice time on these, not just out of vocal safety, but also because there's a chance you may actually sing this repertoire in future and you will want to approach it with a clean slate. There are a few arias I sing now which started as stretch arias and I needed time to un-learn some technique I had outgrown that had hung around in muscle memory from all those years ago. A well-targeted stretch aria could be thing you need to help you reach the next level, but use them sparingly.
8. Take the less obvious choice.
This is such an easy adjustment, but it makes worlds of difference to your acting. If the text has a line that is overtly sad, think about how you can incorporate something which is the complete opposite. Could it be bittersweet? Could you be comforted reminiscing about the past, even if it's sad? Could you be enjoying catharsis? The same goes for something obviously happy. Could you feel anxious that the thing your character wanted is actually coming true? Could you feel undeserving or guilty that something good is happening? Or perhaps you sense something foreboding around the corner. The audience won't know exactly your inner narrative surrounding this, but they will see the nuance to your acting and be drawn in to your performance, crafting their own interpretation of what you are presenting.
9. It's more about your point of view than your voice
Beautiful singing without substance is really boring. Audiences don't listen to singing for the voices, they want to be told a story. Given that all of this repertoire has been performed thousands of times before, you need to establish your own unique point of view. That's why point 6 and 8 are important. Work on your technique in the practice room enough that you allow yourself the necessary brain-space to concentrate on your story telling when performing.
10. Spend time working on body awareness
This might sound a bit wild, but spend some time alone dancing. No mirrors, you can even dim the lights if you want to. Put on some music (if you need ideas, I tend to search for "ecstatic dance" sets on YouTube) and concentrate on moving one part of your body at a time, consider incorporating Laban movement analysis. It doesn't matter at all what this looks like, it's about developing body awareness and freedom of movement. I think it's great for your soul, but it also translates to the stage as well, particularly if you feel stiff and awkward.
11. Don’t make musical movements, make dramatic movements
"But what do I do with my hands?!" This definitely used to be me. The previous point helped with this a huge amount, but so does the process of working dramatically on the text before learning the music. As you speak through the text, gesture as you would if you were telling this story to a child, get really colorful and invested in the language. With the intensity on the acting, you'll naturally gesture in a certain way. Take note of how you are doing this and then let it inform how you want to move when you are singing. Please, please, please do not allow the music to determine how you gesture. It takes away from the strength of your story-telling and makes it very hard for your colleagues to connect with you dramatically onstage.
12. Have a balanced relationship with your teacher
Find a teacher who wants to see you succeed because they genuinely care for you, not because they care about the reputation of their studio. Find a teacher who values and appreciates your hard work, not someone who takes credit for your achievements. Find a teacher who is secure enough that they support and encourage you to pursue other educational activities, even if it means working with another teacher in the short-term. Find a teacher who doesn't use the guise of being "brutally honest" as a means of emotional abuse. Find a teacher who can tell when you need to be challenged, and when you need to be nurtured. Strangely enough, this can actually be a little tricky to come by. Don't feel you need to put up with abuse in order to develop your craft; there are some very experienced teachers out there who are beautifully supportive.
13. When you strongly disagree with the director
Sometimes you won't see eye-to-eye with a director, even after a lot of discussion about ideas. If you can't come to a happy medium and have no choice but to go with an interpretation of your character that you really don't like, there is still hope. Develop a secret subtext for why your character is acting this way. You can use a similar method to point 8. You can take the direction you've been given, find contrasting emotions or dramatic motivations and then build in a hidden inner narrative. Sometimes actually having a parameter can make you more creative.
14. Assemble a trusted team
It takes a village to raise a singer. Aside from your primary voice teacher, it's useful to find a trusted music, language and acting coaches. Oftentimes your teacher will have people they've worked in tandem with before that they can recommend to you, and this is a great place to start. But ultimately the choice is yours. Everyone is different, and these relationships will always be unique. Assemble a team of experts who best help you grow.
15. Have an informed reason for everything.
This is useful for all your professional music relationships, but I find it's particularly important for when you work with conductors. Research the hell out of your music; read the books, listen and analyze the recordingsI. Adhere to point 6. Have a point of view on how you want to sing this music and have a strong argument to back this up. If someone like a conductor asks you to do something a certain way that you don't agree with, politely state your case, and 9 times out of 10 they will go along with your idea.
16. Yes, and...
You may have heard of this maxim of improvisation. It's such an important attitude to have when on stage and working with your colleagues. "Yes" is non-verbally accepting your colleague's dramatic idea, and the "and" is what you then offer in response. Singing on stage is playtime and you can really achieve your best work with adopting this open and proactive mindset. There's nothing more stimulating than the magic of two "yes, and" singers making art together. Value your fellow singers' creative input.
17. It’s a difficult industry and people are prone to scarcity complex and jealousy.
I wish I didn't have to say this, but it's a sad truth. In music, there is limited funding and limited jobs. This breeds an atmosphere of scarcity and creates a lot of competitiveness. It can hurt when a singer you think is a friend becomes jealous and unpleasant when something good happens to you. And perhaps you might feel conflicted yourself when you wonder why your friends are enjoying success and you aren't. Keep in mind we are all walking hand-in-hand to make art together, we all love singing and that's beautiful! The world is what it is, and all you can do is keep shining your light, know your value isn't determined by the outcome of auditions, and stay authentically you. The music world is hard enough as it is, let's be kind to one another.
18. Listen to your judgement
I know I've spoken a lot already about assembling a trusted team of experts and researching your craft. This is a must. However, the point of all this is to elevate you to a point where you can make informed decisions. You're allowed to disagree with people. If you're a people-pleaser, this might be a difficult road. Even the most experienced and famous professionals may have advice that simply isn't a good fit for you personally. After all, they found their success doing something very specific that worked for them. Be open to learn, and have a go at implementing advice, but take it with a grain of salt. Ultimately, you are the one who lives with your voice 24/7, and you know yourself, and your voice, best.
19. Boxes can be helpful, but don't get stuck
The classical world looooves boxes. Depending on your voice type, you'll be advised on what to wear, how to present yourself and what pieces to sing. The older I get and the more places I sing, the more I realize it's bullshit. Each country has it's own idea of what these boxes are and what they should look like. Boxes can be helpful earlier in your journey when you're discovering repertoire, but after that point they are pretty meaningless. This connects with point 18, trust yourself and be authentic. Flog yourself to fit in a box and you're not going to stand out anyway. P.S. some of my favorite comments about my presentation "dramatic sopranos shouldn't wear floral print", "this dress looks 'off the rack'", "don't wear open-toed heels or the panel will be too distracted by your toes to listen to your singing"... yeh, seriously. Don't lose sleep over ridiculous comments like these.
20. Let go of the idea of fair
You did all the right things. You didn't get the job. That singer who is always late and never learns their music gets into a prestigious Young Artist Program. A singer who you look up to as being one of the greatest artists you know has been hitting the audition circuit for years and has never gotten anywhere. "Fair" is a subjective concept anyway, but feel the need to hold onto it and you are going to be very unhappy. Competitions and casting are seemingly completely random. You never know what is happening behind the scenes or what people are looking for. The best you can do is keep buying a lottery number and showing up, and perhaps it will be your turn next.
21. Rejection, or lack there of, is meaningless
Much like the last point, success is a bit like winning the lottery. And whilst you should absolutely celebrate when something great happens, understand your value as an artist hasn't changed as a result. It's exactly the same as when you are rejected. Embrace opportunities given to you, but learn to see rejection or acceptance as neutral. You don't want to find yourself in a loop where you measure your value on how many competitions you win or roles you get, you will be miserable.
22. There’s no shame in finding it's not for you
I remember when I was about 21 and in my first opera role, my colleague (who was substantially older and more experienced, someone I looked up to immensely) told me this was his last production; he was stopping singing. I just couldn't understand. When I asked why, he simply replied "I have a mortgage". In my mind, I couldn't see how someone could "give up" after they had come so far. I saw this many more times over the years. I noticed how the percentage of people from undergrad to post-grad and beyond who were still singing just kept dropping off. There seems to be some sort of stigma around the decision to stop singing, that giving up is shameful. That to stop singing means that you had failed. But I can honestly understand now, at age 30, with no financial security in a volatile industry rife with prejudice, toxicity and abuse, that the decision to leave is a very healthy one. Despite the odds, does pursuing singing professionally still make you happy? In my experience, yes. Singing makes me happy enough that I will still fight for it in this next chapter of my life, with the full realization of what I am sacrificing for that. But for many people, it's not worth it. And that decision should be supported. Your happiness comes first.
23. Your technical issues can give you an insight into what you need to heal
This is really interesting. I had a bit of an inkling about this after I had been teaching for a few years, and also reflecting on how personal factors were impacting my own singing. Oftentimes, you can trace certain muscular tension, or perhaps the holding something back, to a psychological root. Then I read The Body Keeps the Score (do read it yourself if you get the chance!) and it was really eye-opening. It's one thing to approach your singing on a purely technical level, but if you find you have an issue that's particularly persistent, consider perhaps digging deeper to find the psychological block that's pervasive in your life in a broader context.
24. Question your resistances
What are you avoiding when it comes to singing? Can't stand speaking through the text? Practicing scales? Securing your high notes? It's time to question why. Your brain avoids something that it perceives as painful as a protective measure, but this stuff shouldn't be psychologically painful, so figure out why you feel this way. You are doing yourself a profound disservice with avoidance. If you need some help with this, I made a video about procrastination which you may find useful.
25. It’s a good thing that some people won’t like your work
I remember the first time I had a hate comment online and I was congratulated by one of the soloists at the national opera company, "you've made it!" she said. It's hard at first, but wear your hate comments like a badge of honor. You've invested time coming up with a strong and unique artistic perspective, and that means that people will develop some pretty strong feelings, both positive and negative, about your work. Like earlier when I likened my voice to a panda, some people find them super cute and endearing, and others will see them as blundering idiots who can't even figure out mating. Be proud that you have developed something unique and valuable, it won't change despite people's opinions.
26. Reviewers are often pretty clueless
On the topic of opinions, the same applies to reviews. The same as developing a neutral perspective like in point 21, take reviews with a grain of salt. Getting a good review is great because you can use it for your media presence, but keep it at that. Your value doesn't change based on good or bad reviews. Also, reviewers only see a tiny snapshot. They form an opinion based on one performance, they don't know anything that happened behind the scenes with preparation or direction. In addition, and perhaps this is also a controversial opinion, I fear the art of writing good reviews has pretty much died. Either reviewers are lazy, or they assume their readers are stupid. Read almost any review today and you will read about what the set looks like, the synopsis and if you're lucky a few short comments about the singers. They stay on the surface, there is no real thought or analysis into what the director is trying to say artistically, or how the costumes, set, lighting, music, and dramatic interpretations play into this. Even then, a thoughtful and well-written review is still just one person's opinion at the end of the day.
27. Listen to lots of recordings
One of the biggest mistakes young singers make it to listen to the same recording over and over again. This is problematic for a few reasons: a) you could be unwittingly learning someone's mistakes, b) you aren't developing your own unique point of view, c) you're missing out on an opportunity to learn about the history of the art form. It's really useful to have an understanding, particularly of the iconic, classic recordings, that have come before you so you can figure out what does and doesn't resonate with you and why.
28. Watch and participate in masterclasses
Masterclasses have their limitations because there is only so much you can learn in 20-30 minutes, but these limitations are also one of their strengths. The master is distilling their lifetime of experience into short and intense sessions, so it's a wonderful way of picking up and playing around with new perspectives and techniques. Watching your peers working on different issues is really valuable, not just for your own development, but also if you end up also teaching singing down the line, you have some tools in your arsenal to approach various concerns. You can find many wonderful masterclasses for free on YouTube from the likes of Joyce di Donato, Renee Fleming and Luciano Pavarotti.
29. Get as much stage time as possible
All of the work we do in lessons and the practice room is essential, but ultimately you really learn by doing. Once you start singing in productions you realize there is so much going on. You need to hit your lighting cues or you'll be in the dark, act in a way that the audience can understand what you're communicating even from the back row, know the moments you absolutely need to have contact with the conductor (without it detracting from the drama), how to pace yourself through the role, how to project your voice the most efficiently depending on the space, how to move in your costume in a way that's historically appropriate and without falling over, knowing how to react and highlight your colleagues at the right time and then when/how to shine yourself... the list goes on. Don't be afraid to ask your more experienced colleagues for advice, a lot of the time they find joy in helping young singers with their craft.
30. Anyone can sing
I strongly believe anyone with a healthy instrument can become a world-class singer. You have a unique story to tell and you are definitely physically capable of reaching an elite level. By far the biggest hurdle is your mind. Be prepared to be challenged in every aspect you can imagine. You need to develop the courage to be completely vulnerable and naked in the face of uncertainty and criticism. It's profoundly difficult. But through this challenging profession you learn volumes about yourself. Singing is like a pressure-cooker for self-development. It forces you to reflect deeply, develop resilience, and be open and proactive.
Music is rewarding beyond words, and I am so deeply thankful for the lessons singing has taught me over the past decade. If you're a young singer reading this, I'm sending you so much love. I pray singing continues to bring you joy and I wish you all the best on your life's journey. If you ever want to reach out for a chat, just send me an email, I'd be happy to be your opera big sister xo
Singing for Self-Care