When envisioning the lives of the great singers, we see them through a rosy haze and believe their lives were ideal. We imagine they were born with perfect voices, received accolades at an early age, never had serious vocal issues, sang consistently well throughout their lives and retired only after a 50 year career, still singing at their peak. Believing this idealized version (that often the great singers wanted to propagate) is very damaging for singers, because they don’t see the parallels between the life experiences of great singers with their own experiences. It is the very commonality of the singer’s struggles that can empower, when understood. The truth is that the great singers also had challenges to overcome in their pursuit of a professional singing career. When singers realize that their own experiences are shared with such luminaries, they can hold their heads high and keep moving forward.
Vocal talent can be difficult to recognize when it is hidden behind technical issues that mask the true instrument. Because of this, very talented singers are often told they are not talented. This happened to great singers, as well, who were told that they should find another field of endeavor. Had they listened, the world would be a poorer place. People are fond of passing judgment and making pronouncements about the career potential of voices, but the truth is that no one really knows who will make it or not. If you feel absolutely certain deep inside yourself that you have vocal talent to offer to the world, it is worth exploring and developing. The world needs all types of voices. Just be willing to do the hard work and make the necessary sacrifices to reach your goals.
Many voices do not develop early and therefore do not sound “complete” when singers are college or even graduate school age. Technical issues can also affect development significantly. These singers can easily become discouraged when other singers get the solos, better roles, better grades and more compliments from both peers and faculty. The great singers experienced this, as well. Kirsten Flagstad was singing professionally in a small opera house in Norway, but as a lyric soprano with an airy voice until she got expert vocal technical training. Becoming a classical singer is a long path. You have to be patient, put in the required work and realize that your only true competition is yourself.
There are a few singers naturally blessed with the exact right vocal coordination necessary for a healthy tone who managed to have professional careers. Victoria de los Angeles was one of them. She studied as a young singer, but then halted her voice lessons at the age of 18, believing herself to be technically finished. She never studied with a teacher again. Her early recordings are excellent, but a lack of vibrancy and freedom crept into the voice from her lack of a guiding hand. However, the vast majority of the great singers were not blessed with perfect coordination, but instead had to work to develop their voices and continue to monitor their vocal techniques throughout their careers, making necessary adjustments and changes along the way, in order to ensure their vocal health and longevity. Enrico Caruso, one of the greatest tenors who ever lived, had to work very hard to develop his voice and as a consequence, had a great deal of technical understanding that served him well in maintaining an excellent, healthy technique. All singers should approach their voices with an impartial, scientific curiosity, being willing to experiment and work in a detailed way on vocal technique. This is the job of being a singer! Often, a singer’s ability to transfer helpful technical instruction to his or her voice is the determining factor for career viability. Since the great singers accomplished this, it is up to you to do the same and become an expert on technique.
Lack of Self-confidence
It is difficult for singers to feel confident about their own voices. You the singer can never truly hear what your voice sounds like to others, creating a need for outside input. When this input is mixed or negative, it can adversely affect singer’s ego and self-confidence. This has happened with the great singers as well. When Birgit Nilsson auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, Sweden and she was so intimidated by the beautiful voices of the other singers that she did her audition and then ran out of the room. Building up a support system of professionals, colleagues, family and friends can give you positive, constructive feedback on your voice is of paramount importance for any singer. You can’t healthily develop your voice and sense of self-confidence in a vacuum.
Not all singers have the good fortune of having a strong musical background. For those that do, it is extremely helpful. The ideal is always for any singer to develop his or her musicianship skills when young and then continue to hone them as time goes on. But there have been many professional singers who had neither a strong musical background nor excellent musicianship skills who did extremely well. There are ways to compensate. Luciano Pavarotti was one of those. He never even learned to read music and instead had to be taught every single note he sang by a coach, along with all of the words, dynamics, musical inflections, etc., which he then memorized by rote. He is the opposite of Kirsten Flagstad, who grew up in a musical family, was given operatic scores as presents as a child, and even at the height of her career would look at the score of that night’s performance and consistently find new musical nuances to incorporate into her interpretation. So, there is a whole range of skill level feasible for professional singers. If your musicianship skills are not what they need to be, make efforts to improve them, but don’t discount a performance career for yourself. Just figure out what is lacking and find ways to bring your performances up to the level of those with more advanced musicianship skills.
So many singers struggle for professional recognition while auditioning, doing competitions, one-off oratorio gigs, occasional roles and supplementing their income with non-musical work. This is the norm for singers, because it can take a while to get recognition and reach the next level. Some singers never do. Who will get that type of recognition is due to a number of factors, some of which are luck, timing, connections and being in the right place at the right time. John Shirley-Quirk had been studying and doing some performing while working as a chemistry teacher and then happened to perform an oratorio gig with Peter Pears. Benjamin Britten was in the audience and heard him. Because of that one performance, Shirley-Quirk was hired to sing in a performance of one of Britten’s operas, launching his career, and subsequently Britten wrote several roles for him. Martina Arroyo worked in the New York City Department of Welfare while studying and competing. Then she won the Metropolitan Opera Competition and her singing career took off. What this can teach singers is that it is important to sing in public as often as possible to maximize your opportunities of being heard by someone influential enough to help your career. No performance is too small to do your very best, because you never know…..
Stagefright is something that affects everyone at some point or another, whether they admit it or not. It is a difficult thing to sing in front of an audience – period. What is most important is learning how to deal with stagefright by transforming it into helpful vs. harmful energy. That just takes experience – lots of opportunities to feel the effects of stagefright and get used to them in less high-stakes circumstances. There is no shame in experiencing stagefright. It affected a number of the great singers. Franco Corelli was a notable example. Even though his high notes were consistently glorious to the audience, they felt slightly precarious to him, which caused him to experience severe performance anxiety. He always managed to give great performances in spite of his bad stagefright, but it was extremely painful for him. Singers should realize that this is part of the profession and not judge themselves harshly for feeling anxious before a performance.
Ill-fitting Repertoire Pressure
A huge challenge for singers, both developing and in the midst of a performance career, is resisting the pressure to sing inappropriate repertoire. This can be severe, ranging from misguided teachers and coaches recommending the wrong rep to major conductors, music directors and managers offering a wonderful break to expand into new, ill-fitting roles. It is difficult to stand up to this type of pressure, especially when it is tied to new opportunities and greater success. However it is crucial that singers find a way to preserve their own vocal health. Sometimes it is the singers themselves who try to fit their voices to unsuitable repertoire. The history of opera in performance is littered with singers who suffered vocal issues and even shortened careers, because they sang inappropriate repertoire. Jose Carerras was one singer whose stellar lyric voice was affected adversely by singing the spinto tenor repertoire. His early recordings were fabulous, but his voice changed when he took on heavier roles, losing the freedom and sheen he had previously. Alfredo Kraus, also a lyric tenor, withstood the pressure to sing heavier rep and instead focused on singing the lyric roles he sang very well. He had a long and successful career singing around the world, because he performed what fit his voice like a glove.
Mid-career Technical Issues
Singers can be plagued by technical problems after launching a successful career. It is a myth that singers, once technically ready, can simply sing for decades without having to think about technique at all. There are too many variables and pressures associated with the profession and the vocal mechanism itself is simply too delicate to ignore long-term. Many of the great singers paid very close attention to their techniques and were able to make small changes to preserve their vocal health and career longevity. However some of the great singers did have technical issues mid-career, either from a lack of technical insight, insufficient training to begin with, the pressure of constant performances or singing inappropriate repertoire. Some of these great singers had to put on hold their careers and restudy. Others continued singing and their voices declined. If singers end up facing technical issues, it is imperative that they locate an excellent, qualified voice teacher to help them. If the first teacher doesn’t help, keep trying until you find someone who can. Singers cannot function at their best without outside ears to guide them. There is no shame in continuing to work on your voice throughout your entire life. After all, it is what the very best singers have done to preserve their voices.
It is also a myth that singers have to have perfect health in order to have a career. Many of the great singers had health issues they had to cope with on a daily basis, but they still managed to perform, at least most of the time. Joan Sutherland was well-known as having serious sinus problems and ended up having her sinuses scraped to try to solve the issue. Some singers were well known for canceling performances frequently. While hardly ideal, singing when sick can be dangerous and damage the vocal cords. It can also be damaging to your career to sing when sick. The critics and listening public can be unforgiving of a singer having a bad day. Do your best to understand your body, take good care of it and keep yourself in the best of health. Deal with health issues as they arise to minimize the impact on your voice. If you are sick and it is affecting your vocal quality, consider cancelling or having a substitute sing for you. A long healthy career is more important than any one performance.
This is a difficult topic, because there are two schools of thought. One school says that every voice type has approximately 20 years of a plateau after developing when it at its best. After that point, the voice begins a physiologically-based decline that cannot be altered. Another school says that, while there are naturally some changes that occur in the voice over time, the 20 year plateau time can be extended by maintaining a very healthy technique. I believe in the latter. Great singers of the past have proven that a long, healthy career is possible with an excellent technique. This is an extremely valuable lesson for all singers to learn about the power of technique.
On the other hand, there are also many singers who have gradually gotten worse technically during their careers, but continued to sing professionally through name recognition, popularity, charisma, etc. Also, a misunderstanding of what truly good singing is and a consequent acceptance of mediocre singing in its place by management and audiences kept these careers going precisely when the singers needed desperately to take a break and restudy. Voices do change over time, but should change only for reasons beyond the singer’s control, not from a lack of understanding or technique.
All singers face the same issues from the time they are developing as young singers until they finish their careers. It is very easy for singers to feel alone in their struggles, believing that others both had and are now having an easier time of it. Actually, the process is a challenging one for everybody. No one is immune to the difficulties. We just try to hide what is hard for us, instead of sharing. Singers should try to reach out to each other with understanding and compassion, because we are the only ones who have experienced the particular challenges we all have to face. We should not have to hide behind false fronts, when we are all have the same issues.
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