The Everyday Voice

I would like to start with a revelation. Despite appearances, and I know this will come as a great shock to you, I am not Anna Netrebko. And the sad fact – I hate to be the one to break it to you – is that neither are you.

Given that there are currently only a handful of genuine superstars in the world of opera amongst the tens of thousands of singers working in the profession, it is statistically quite unlikely that anybody reading this, myself included, is ever going to experience that stratospheric level of success.

I apologise for beginning so negatively, but the first truth any aspiring singer needs to face is that, these days, only a chosen few will ever achieve great fame and financial reward in our profession, no matter how good a singer they are.

The days when contract singers at the major opera companies were household names, and could command large fees from singing a relatively small repertoire of roles are long gone.

Opera today is about more for less.

Today, singers are expected to regularly perform to a much higher standard than the singers of yesteryear. Park and bark productions are now mercifully rare, and singers are expected to be competent singing-actors, capable of giving detailed and nuanced character studies, in addition to producing beautiful sounds, across a much wider range of repertoire.

And, owing to the present global financial situation, we are expected to do this for less and less remuneration with every passing year.

All across the world, purse strings are being tightened, funding is being cut, productions cancelled. Opera, make no mistake, is a luxury profession, and, in the current financial market, it is struggling to justify its existence.

It’s a pretty gloomy picture, I admit. So where do we, the non-superstars, fit in? What can we hope to achieve?

The good news is that, despite all the doom and gloom, if you’re motivated, you can still do well.

Luck, or the lack of it, many people will tell you is what makes or breaks a career. I don’t believe that. Luck may present you with an opportunity, true, but it is not luck which will enable you to take advantage of it. It is preparation.

Of all the skills an opera singer must develop, none is more important than a reliable technique. You’ll notice I did not say a good technique, or a perfect technique, but a reliable one.

Over the years, I have met too many singers who have become obsessed with perfecting their 100% voice, by which I mean, the sound that they produce when they are at their absolute peak of vocal and physical health. However, it is important to realise that a working singer rarely gets the chance to take to the stage under ideal conditions.

All too often you are fighting off a cold, or hay-fever, or you’re jet-lagged, or you’ve had a terrible night’s sleep, or you are exhausted from a busy schedule. It is surprising and a little alarming to realise just how few opportunities you will ever have to perform at your absolute best. Hans Hotter once joked that his voice was only at its best about 4 days a year, and on two of them, he didn’t even have a show!

Any opera singer is far better-off developing what I call The Everyday Voice. The highest level which you can consistently maintain in adverse conditions. Personally I try to aim for about 80% of my optimum. Some days I can do better, some not quite as well, but on average I reckon I can sing to about 80% of my full strength most of the time.

So, what does that realistically mean?

Well, for starters, it means setting your pride aside. It means learning to live with making the odd rancid sound, learning to accept a few bumps and warts. It means battling through the gunge when you have a cold, and know that you are producing an acceptable sound without causing your voice harm. It means realising that what you are hearing inside your head is not what the audience is hearing out front. It means that, sooner or later, you will perform a spectacular crack and yodel in front of a very large number of witnesses. But, most importantly, it means recognising that, whilst you are unlikely to bring down the house when you take your curtain call, you will at least have a few extra quid in the bank to help pay the mortgage.

I believe that too many singers today get reputations as cancellers, and they do so because they are chasing an unrealistic and unattainable ideal. When the conditions are less than perfect, they cannot cope, and end up cancelling. But, if you work hard at developing your everyday voice, you will be surprised by the level of consistency it is possible to achieve. Just look at Placido Domingo.

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people compare his technique unfavourably with Pavarotti’s, yet Placido has arguably had the greatest operatic career of all time. Why? Because he figured out a way to sing at a consistently high standard day-in-day-out. Even today, when most singers his age are cashing their pension cheques, he maintains a schedule that would cripple most singers half his age.

His secret? Not a perfect voice, but an excellent “everyday” one, consistent and reliable.

In developing an everyday voice, you will find it’s not just performances but also auditions that become a whole lot easier. Beating yourself up for not producing perfect singing in the most imperfect of circumstances is futile and unproductive. Learning to accept your flaws as a singer is very liberating, and is the necessary first step in overcoming them.

Under audition stress, it is tempting for inexperienced singers to constantly offer excuses as to why they may not be singing their best. I cannot stress how much this undermines you in the eyes of audition panels. Ask yourself how the audience would feel if, before the start of the show, you walked onstage and reeled off a list of excuses as to why your performance might suck that evening. Nobody in their right mind would consider that acceptable, yet many young auditionees do exactly that when they find they cannot produce their perfect, 100% sound on command.

It is important to realise that audition panels are looking, not for the greatest voice they have ever heard, but for competent, reliable singers who are capable of delivering to a high standard across a variety of roles. They are seeking out confidence, security, and self-control as much as good singing and acting. Remember, their reputations rest upon the quality of their casting decisions.

Developing an Everyday Voice will give you confidence, a confidence that audition panels can spot a mile away. As with all relationships, trust is key to the relationships you should seek to develop with opera companies. They need to trust in your confidence, professionalism, and ability to deliver, and if you can provide them with that, you will, in all likelihood, find yourself invited back again and again in the future.

So, how does one develop an everyday voice? Well, there’s the rub. That process is different for everyone, so I’m afraid that’s up to you to figure out on your own. But here are a few things I’ve gleaned over the years. I hope they might serve as reference points to help you on your way.

1 – Never listen to yourself. What you hear in one acoustic is not what you will hear in another. Learn to sing through sensation rather than sound.
2 – When you practice, practice what you will be singing. Singers tire faster than instrumentalists. Use your practice time wisely.
3 – If you are rehearsing, sing out as much as possible. Marking will teach you nothing. Singing out is the only sure fire way to develop stamina.
4 – If you are not rehearsing, rest your voice as much as possible. As a singer you have limited resources. Rest is as important as practice.
5 – Do not practice the day before a performance. Sing through a few chunks of the opera just to keep the voice ticking over.
6 – Do not over-sing on the day of a performance. If you haven’t been marking in rehearsals the voice will be there. Trust it and don’t leave it in the dressing room.
7 – Do not over-exercise on the day of a performance. Opera is knackering if you commit to it properly. What you give to the gym, you take from your audience.
8 – Do not confuse mucus with tiredness. Fear will stop you singing before phlegm will.
9 – Do not confuse tiredness with illness. Know your limits. If a good night’s sleep doesn’t fix the problem, proceed cautiously.
10 – If you screw up, don’t dwell upon it. It’s opera, not brain surgery. Nobody dies. Except, of course, the soprano.

(From a talk I gave at The Singing Entrepreneur a while ago.)


15 thoughts on “The Everyday Voice

  1. Iain. Thanks for writing this. I know I spent a great deal of time doing all the things that one shouldn’t. Wise words from a wise and beautiful performer.

  2. This is such excellent advice. I stumbled over almost every single one of these issues when I was a student and starting out. I was often ill, thrashed myself for it and got depressed. Eventually I took refuge in the chorus and then learned all of these lessons, which apply just as much for chorus singers churning out 130 odd performances a year and a myriad of rehearsals, even if we don’t have the angst, the cold sweats, the depression and the financial insecurity. After more than twenty years in the profession, I am content with my chorus position, even if I never would have believed that all those years ago. Whether or not I would have had the talent to have a good career is irrelevant – as a competent musician without much ambition, I have stood on stage listening to many a soloist no more “deserving” than I was, but who, either instinctively or by dint of working it out came to the same conclusions that Iain has done, more or less successfully navigating the vagaries of phlegm, illness, awful directors and vain, incompetent managements with aplomb and just getting on with the job. The wonderful thing is, that when they realise that they aren’t going to be Netrebko or Pavarotti, many singers receive the freedom to develop into wonderful artists, enriching the lives of everyone who hears them.

  3. I do wish I had read this as a student and while I was still auditioning. Really good advice, though I would add about Domingo that what was incredibly consistent in his singing was emotion and musicality, both of which I felt less from Pavarotti

  4. Very interesting and informative indeed from a man with a marvellous voice, whom I’ve been lucky enough to hear live.

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