Not so long ago, when you heard that a renowned singer was teaching, you could picture the classes: following a time-honored format, the students would bring in arias they were working on, and after having their phrasing dissected and their notions of the character’s motivations probed, they would leave with fresh ideas about everything from expression to tone color.
Soprano Dawn Upshaw has done plenty of that kind of teaching, but as the artistic director of the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at Bard College Conservatory of Music since 2006, she has presided over a very different kind of course as well — a professional development workshop in which her singers learn how to write press releases and choose photos and think about how to create performance opportunities. They meet with managers, arts administrators and critics and hold mock auditions with representatives from management agencies giving them feedback.
They also have weekly tutorials in the Alexander Technique — a way of using the body’s muscles rationally (applied here with particular attention to breathing) — and meetings with a life coach for what Upshaw describes as “mind, body and spirit work.” This is not the course of study that Maria Callas — or, for that matter, Upshaw herself — followed.
“No, there was nothing like this when I was starting out,” she says. “And it’s a different world today. But this is not just about teaching them to promote themselves. It’s not. The whole idea is to get them to pay attention to their inner artist and their outer artist. It’s a little bit about developing a profile and learning how to share that — how to represent yourself to others. But it’s primarily about figuring out who you are and why you want to sing. Most of them are in school in the hope that they will be able to make a living doing this. But there is no single path to doing that, and I feel that this course encourages them to find paths of their own.”
Upshaw’s course is part of an important sea change in the education of young performers, instrumentalists as well as singers. Gradually, conservatories and university music schools across the U.S. have come around to the notion that for young musicians today, the standard training — a grounding in technique, repertory and interpretation, along with music theory and history — is only part of the toolbox. Most now take the view that for musicians who hope to make careers in an increasingly competitive and rapidly changing performance world, an understanding of how that world works is crucial.
“It’s important to recognize that success as a professional musician requires more than technical training,” says bass-baritone Jan Opalach, who teaches at the Eastman School of Music and counsels his students on career issues but does not teach courses in them. “They need fluency with emerging technologies, social media. Networking is very different now than it was. It’s faster, and in some ways it’s detrimental, because kids expect to be successful yesterday. It’s American Idol syndrome — ‘If I can just get the opportunity, I can be a success.’ But whether you regard these as positive or negative developments, the crucial thing is that kids cannot stay in a practice room for four years and then say, ‘Okay, I’m ready now.'”
That rose-tinted view of career-building is apparently endemic. Angela Beeching, who spent seventeen years running the New England Conservatory Career Services Center, and in recent years has been overseeing the Center for Music Entrepreneurship at the Manhattan School of Music, said that young singers, particularly, have trouble realistically imagining the paths their careers are likely to take.
“I think one of the tough things for singers,” she said, “is that it’s a long haul before the voice is really developed, and they feel pressure and uncertainty about what’s in store for them. They don’t know. We ask them to do a vision essay — to imagine the life that they hope to be living five years after they finish their formal education. And it’s a tough assignment, because they imagine they’ll be going to grad school and then get into a young-artists program and start working with an opera company. But they may, at that point, still be doing entry-level auditions. What they need is to hear from speakers, including young alumni, about what those years are like. And they need to realize that there are ways they can create performance opportunities for themselves.”
Besides running the Manhattan School’s entrepreneurial programs, Beeching has compiled her ideas and observations in Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music (Oxford University Press). She notes, as well, that her colleague at Manhattan, Gordon Ostrowski, the assistant dean of opera studies/opera production, leads what Beeching calls “boot camp for singers” every fall. For the program, an intensive Professional Development Series for Vocalists, Ostrowski ropes in teachers and administrators from other departments, as well as professionals from outside the school, to give his students perspective on a broad range of issues beyond singing itself. “This is all in the opening sequence of the fall semester,” says Ostrowski. “At one time, the career training at Manhattan was isolated to this program. But now Angela Beeching and Casey Dunn give music business classes, and students are offered an expanding variety of programs all year long.”
Mikael Eliasen, the head of the vocal studies department at the Curtis Institute and the artistic director of the Curtis Opera Theater, weaves classes on building careers into a performance-driven curriculum — an approach similar in some ways to Ostrowski’s. Eliasen stages four operas every year, each with a different director and a different design team, and with casts in which more and less experienced students are thrown together. That combination of elements alone, Eliasen says, gives his students a great deal of practical experience. Along the way, the impresario and manager Matthew Epstein, as well as Gianna Rolandi — until recently director of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s young-artist program, the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center — and representatives from management firms and opera houses, have offered seminars on auditioning and other subjects.
For some musicians, raised in what they regard as a more idealistic time, such courses shift the focus of a young artist’s training from pure artistry to something more worldly and vocational (a term used disparagingly). Others object on practical terms. “The minute you try to introduce these classes into the core curriculum, there is some resistance,” says Edna Landau, who brought the managerial savvy she developed during a long career in artist management to the Colburn Conservatory of Music, in Los Angeles, where she was director of career development from 2008 until 2011. “There is a feeling that students will miss out on lessons, or practicing, or theory. They understand that this is necessary, but there is still resistance.”
Landau brought an unusual perspective to Colburn. Having founded IMG with Charles Hamlen in 1984 and built it into a powerhouse in classical-music management, she stepped down in 2007 and began a guest-speaking tour of conservatories, speaking about entrepreneurship and offering a backstage view of artist management. After a visit to Colburn, the school contacted her and asked if she would be interested in turning her lecture into a course. She turned it into three — “The Working Musician,” “The Teaching Musician” and “The Healthy Musician” — all required parts of the degree program.
“The idea of the curriculum,” Landau says, “was to give them 20/20 foresight — to prepare them for the road that lies ahead. We covered every practical aspect of a musician’s career — preparing resumés and bios, dealing with marketing and the internet, how to prepare for and approach competitions, commissioning new music and some of the entertainment-law aspects of your career.”
Upshaw’s and Landau’s courses are relative newcomers in a field that has been growing slowly — and experimentally, at first — for about three decades. The Juilliard School, which was once so thoroughly traditional that it refused to regard the classical guitar as a legitimate instrument, because its core repertory relied heavily on transcriptions, has actually been ahead of the curve in teaching its students the practicalities of building musical careers.
In the early 1990s, the school engaged publicist Mary Lou Falcone to teach a course for fourth-year undergraduates and first-year graduate students. The course is called “Completing the Singer,” although Falcone recently said that if it were up to her, its title would be “Reality 101.” Falcone, who runs the venerable publicity firm M. L. Falcone, comes to teaching with unimpeachable practical knowledge and connections. Her syllabus includes classes on her areas of day-to-day expertise — dealing with critics, how publicity works, what managers look for (with guests from the big agencies) and how to use Facebook and Twitter to your benefit. But there is also a purely musical component: at several points in the semester, the students are expected to perform in class, sometimes in the context of a tutorial on presentation, sometimes in mock auditions.
One thing Falcone insisted on, when accepting Juilliard’s invitation to teach, was that the course be mandatory — something Landau believes is important as well.
“If you’re a singer,” Falcone says, “and you have a choice of spending a couple of hours in a practice room or in a class that you don’t know what it’s about, what are you going to do? And secondly, I’m bringing in guests who have a variety of opinions that may or may not adhere to the school’s policies. But we need to tell it as we see it, and I feel it’s important for these students to hear those points of view.”
Not everyone agrees that these courses should be mandatory. Ramon Ricker, who directs the Eastman School’s Institute for Music Leadership and is the author of Lessons from a Street-Wise Professor: What You Won’t Learn at Most Music Schools (Soundown), describes his courses as “elective by design” and says about 33 percent of Eastman’s juniors, seniors and graduate students take them. “We want the students to vote with their feet. These are courses that are taught by experts, and most of them are capped at fifteen students.”
One interesting element of the program is independent summer study, for which the school offers grants. “The idea is to go some place and get training that isn’t offered at Eastman,” Ricker says. “We had one vocal student who applied for an internship in a Broadway theater, to see what that was like. Another took tap lessons, and a third spent a summer studying fencing, which is something we don’t offer but that can be useful in certain works.
“When we started offering these classes,” Ricker says, “music was being taught using a model that had not changed for seventy, eighty, 100 years. You take a one-on-one lesson, you sing in the choir, and you take theory, history, chamber music and a few humanities courses. But the world has changed, and many of us felt that there was no point in preparing our students for 1950s careers. We need to prepare them for today, and for fifty years into the future.”
Allan Kozinn (Opera News) / August, 2013