Younger Artist Advice

It’s no secret that I teach voice, and have been a working professional singer for well over 10 years, which means that I am now in a position where students are asking me for advice about singing, and possibly pursuing a career in music. I find myself repeating a log of things, so I thought Id gather them in one place. Hold onto your butts…

Tribune photo by Aaron Piper| Donata Cucinotta sits in her home in Seymour.

So if you’re in high school, or even college and thinking about pursuing a degree in voice let me share with you the advice my professor Dr. Randie Blooding gave me my freshman year at Ithaca College. He looked me in the eye and said “If you can think of anything else you want to do with your life, you should go do that thing, because this is too hard. If you think you might want to try photography one day, then you should go do that and sing on the side. The fact that you can even think of anything else means that ultimately, this is not for you.” 

I left that lesson and burst into tears and cried myself to sleep for a week. I was never the most talented person in my high school, nor was I in my college class but I just LOVED singing so much I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do ever. So after every setback I would double down and reinvest in my product, myself. That meant taking a harsh look in the mirror: what was I good at? What needed to be improved?

“The struggle is REAL” the harsh reality of this business is that not everyone will make it and those that do will probably not have made it on talent alone.  It takes grit.  It takes getting knocked down and getting back up.  It takes having some of your fantasies shattered, redefining what “success” means and reforming your dreams.

A lot of people will use sports analogies when talking about opera singers:  they are athletes, some have “raw talent,” they all need hustle, and they all eventually rely on some luck.  The truth is that most baseball players, for instance, spend their lives in the minor leagues – probably with “day jobs” and VERY supportive families or spouses.  The ones who become super stars?  A large proportion do indeed have a special talent, but an even larger portion of MAJOR-leaguers have hustle more than their equally-talented peers, and all of them have relied on more than a little bit of luck to get to the biggest stage.

A big part of life – but especially a life in the performing arts – is failure.  You will fail 10 times more often than you will succeed.  You will be rejected:  casually, callously, and sometimes with prejudice.  Sometimes it will be fair, sometimes it will be a mystery.  Even when it is fair it will still hurt. Deciding if you are up for that should be a major focus when deciding to pursue this as a career, because the only thing you have control over is how you deal with those failures, those rejections.  If you are not prepared to really dig in, to have to fight for it over and over again, then you need to make some tough choices.  Because the other thing that is true for those athletes is that whether they are world-famous or riding the bench in their small-town minor league while driving for Uber – they all LOVE the game.  They love it to the point that they have to do it.  It is not an all or none decision.  You can be a teacher, a biologist, a nurse, doctor, lawyer, whatever… and still be a musician, a really good musician.  

I love the game. I love singing. And because of that, I’ve managed to crawl my way to the middle.

See? I love the game! Here I am singing for the Indiana Pacers

What did I do after my college voice teacher told me that? I doubled down. I took French, Italian and German as an elective. I listened to or watched a new opera at the library every weekend or better yet, went to a live performance. I auditioned for EVERYTHING just for the experience. I decided to learn a role in undergrad (a role I will subsequently never sing, but it was a huge learning experience). At Ithaca, I couldn’t make it into the select Choir, but I took it onto myself to learn a full Opera role. I looked for a church job to improve my sight reading. 

This is what I still do, when my plans are punched in the face:  I challenge myself even further.  I bug my teachers and coaches, I learn a new role just because, I re-read a score I think I already know until I know it even better, I listen to something new, I go to the library (online or in person) to watch a new opera, every opera, I listen to new recordings or old ones, I find a new church gig, I look for another audition, I look local, driving distance, flying distance… maybe some of these, maybe all, I do have to strategize and use my time intelligently, I pour over musical America and send out my materials, I organize a recital, I submit to a fringe festival but I DO SOMETHING… even if it is to just keep going with what I’ve got.

I have fewer “new” things I can do at this stage in my life, but if you’re in grad school or younger, you have SO many new things you can do.  You should not have idle time on your hands unless you want idle time.  The world is literally at your fingertips, especially with THE INTERNET. You can’t wait for someone else to tell you where to explore next.  You just have to walk out your door, log in, or do something.

Don’t WAIT for opportunities.  Go find them.  Maybe create them yourself.

It’s important to know that these struggles are the same at EVERY level of the business. Even some of the best – people I know, people who sing at THE MET – still feel this way in any given week. Check out Luca’s Meachem’s The Baritone Blog. The man is a mega star and STILL struggles with how to fill down time. I also recommend listening to the Operabiz podcast with Daniel Welch as well as Hook Push and Pray with Nicholas Brownlee (I am still recovering from Sarah Gartland’s episode). These are real professionals sharing their experience with you can it costs you nothing!

Whatever you decide to do with this it is going to make you better, stronger, and you will know with more certainty who you are going to become in the future – not just as a musician, but as a person.