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Finding Your Voice: A Journey Beyond Music School

In this blog post, I want to talk about the challenges singers face in breaking free from the student mindset after graduating from conservatories and universities. I'll share my experiences working with singers at various levels, explore the reasons behind this struggle, and offer insights on how to find your unique artistic identity. No matter how long it's been since you were in school, if you find yourself still thinking like a student, this post is for you.

I’ve worked as a stage director and acting coach for a number of academic institutions in my long (and wide-raging) career. Some of them are of a really high training level, others not so much. But I’ve always approached my work, no matter where I am or how talented the singer may be, by focussing on who the person is in front of me, and what we’re working on together.

But I’ve found time and again that no matter how long it’s been since they were in school, working for their degrees, many singers still hadn’t psychologically left off being a student, and still operate from a student’s point of view.

The conservatories and universities I’ve worked for all had the same challenges: a heavy course-load for each student singer, the singer going from class to class, teacher to coach to instructor, day after day and sometimes into the night. And by going from a voice lesson to a music theory class to a Italian diction class, to a rehearsal for the opera workshop or the opera theater performance, the singer is getting a lot of different opinions about themselves and their work, but not much help in finding their own personal artistry.

Years ago, I was holding an acting seminar at a very big, well-known university opera program. I said something to the class about “finding your sense of your own artistry”, and a very bright mezzo said from the back of the room said “We’re too busy memorizing words and music and then spitting them out, to have any time to work on our ‘artistry’!” It wasn’t said with any bitterness or sense of entitlement, but it did resonate with me just what kind of pressure the singers in the program were experiencing. I don’t mean that these programs intend to do the student singers actual harm. The problem is, there is so little time in a school schedule to give the students and the teachers a chance to get to know one another, or to give each one of them the kind of personal attention a developing artist needs.

Classical vocal music demands more of one than any other art form: you have to have a flawless, reliable vocal technique, the ability to read and understand music, the understanding of several foreign languages, as well as an ability to sing these languages with the correct understandable pronunciation. And on top of all of that, singers are supposed to be credible actors, yet there is no emphasis placed on what acting actually entails, because somehow a singer is supposed to figure that out on their own!

Although no longer in school, yet sometimes they still can’t translate their words, or very many of them, into English or their own language. Most of them haven’t had any reliable acting training beyond having been directed in a production at the undergrad or grad level. This is not training in anything other than to do what the director wants. But

In a coaching, I ask a lot of questions about the character and the circumstances they are in in order to get to know how the singer thinks and feels, and not to try to give me the right answer, but rather, how they actually think and feel instinctively. Sadly a singer recently said to me, “No one has ever asked me what I thought!”

So here’s what you can do: make friends with your characters. Start by reading the synopsis, and then reading the entirely libretto in your own language’s translation. Get interested! Look at what they say, and whom they’re saying it to, and why. What kind of words do they use? Not just a translation, but look at how they mean what they mean. How is their scene partner making them feel?

Remember, you must work with people who have won your trust! Pull the audience into understanding your character, the motives, what they’re trying to do or to get. Take responsibility for what you do, and don’t leave it up to others to tell you whether you’re getting it ‘right’ or getting it ‘wrong’. Get it right with what’s right for you! You aren’t trying to earn a degree anymore — you did that already. Now it’s time for you to find your curiosity and interest in your work!

If you're looking to deepen your understanding of acting and singing beyond the classroom, reach out for in-person, online and group coaching here.

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Together, we can unlock your potential and ensure your artistic voice isn't just heard but resonates deeply with your audience.

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