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So You Want to Be a Singer

What It Takes to Become a Professional Singer

A real look at a challenging career choice

Define Yourself

If you’re serious about pursuing a singing career, consider the following points carefully as you embark on this challenging career path.

Success is a relative term. To make matters even more complicated, the recent popularity of shows such as American Idol and Internet pop sensations on YouTube have permanently altered our understanding of what it means to be a successful singer. After hearing about Justin Bieber or Carrie Underwood, it’s tempting for a singer to think they’ve failed if they haven’t been playing to sold-out concert halls by age 16, or haven’t skyrocketed to fame over a few short months. Such “rags to riches” tales are exciting, but they only apply to a very small percentage of the singing world and are pretty unrealistic. (Think of how many thousands of people audition for American Idol and how many have actually developed a career as a result of the show.) You probably won’t be the next Avril Lavigne, but that doesn’t mean you’re any less talented or that you won’t be successful.

Work on defining success for yourself. This is an important part of the work of a singer, and all singers have to face it sooner or later. World-renowned soprano Renée Fleming has said it took her years to “pull together a genuine sense of…what [she] wanted” as a vocalist.

So, what do you want to get out of singing? Do you want to sing purely for your own enjoyment? Do you want to be a professional (that is, someone who gets paid to perform on a regular basis)? Do you want to be respected in a particular vocal field? Or are you after a large international career?

Be careful that your idea of success isn’t molded by other people. If you’re happy singing in a cabaret show every now and then but your folks think you should be the next big opera star, make sure the choices you end up making are geared toward your definition of success and not theirs. Keeping your eye on your own personal concept of success is a key step in maintaining a happy and healthy singing life.

Know Yourself

Once you have your definition of success in place, remind yourself that achievement at any level takes time. Go slowly and be good to yourself. If you want to be on Broadway, perhaps auditioning for a top-notch show in New York when you haven’t even had a voice lesson is not a good idea. A lot of work has to be done between the moment you decide you want to sing and the moment you become a polished performer.

Get to know your limitations and embrace them. If you’re just starting out, you may not be auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera any time soon, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t do so after years of extensive preparation. Set goals for yourself based on your experience. When in doubt, start small. Audition for your school chorus before you go out for the lead in the school musical. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn with each new performance opportunity, no matter how trivial it seems.

As important as it is to take things one at a time, it’s also important to be true to your own instincts. If you feel you’re ready to take things to the next level, say with an important audition, then go for it. Consult the experts around you, such as your teacher or your vocal coach, but use their advice as guidance rather than gospel.

Have Fun

Now for the fun part—deciding what you want to sing. Think about the kind of singing you want to do. What would make you happy? Do you pine to be a country western diva? Do you see yourself as more of the indie singer-songwriter type? Maybe you’re interested in an operatic career? The possibilities are endless, but it’s important to make this decision at some point because it will inform many of your choices as you head toward a career.

That said, be flexible. You don’t have to stick with one genre—you may wake up one day and decide that, although you’ve been studying as an operatic soprano, you really just want to sing torch songs (pop-style love ballads) in nightclubs. In addition, singers are often asked to sing in a variety of musical styles. Follow your dreams, but be open to trying new things.

Do the Work

After you’ve considered all of the issues above, it’s time to tackle the nuts and bolts of singing. Singing is not an inborn talent, it’s something that has to be cultivated and worked on (no matter which type of singing you choose to pursue) or else you run the risk of severely damaging your voice. “But I never hurt my voice,” you might say, “I always sing in my comfort zone.” Truth is, you may be subtly adjusting the muscles in your throat in ways you don’t even realize to create a sound that’s pleasing to you. These little adjustments can have a cumulative effect. A teacher can help prevent that from happening. Translation? Sorry, but you need to take private lessons.

In addition to shaping your vocal technique, a teacher can guide you through the ins and outs of music itself (e.g., pitches, rhythms, phrasing). Some singers like to brag that they’ve never learned to read music. Newsflash: Very few people are going to want to work with those singers. The mechanics of music are part of your job. Would you expect a lawyer or a doctor to start practicing without the help of intensive study? Of course not! So don’t expect you can be a singer without doing the work. Start becoming a musician today. Learn the basics of theory, harmony, and rhythm. This will take a lot of patience and perseverance, but you’ll be thankful later.

Credits

Writers

Eleni Hagen
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Sources

Dornemann, Joan with Maria Ciaccia. Complete Preparation: A Guide to Auditioning for Opera. New York: Excalibur Publishing, 1992.

Emmons, Shirley and Alma Thomas. Power Performance for Singers: Transcending the Barriers. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Eustis, Lynn. The Singer’s Ego: Finding Balance Between Music and Life. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2005.

Kosarin, Oscar. The Singing Actor: How to Be a Success in Musical Theater and Nightclubs. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.

Oliver, Donald. How to Audition for the Musical Theatre. Lyme, NH: Smith and Kraus, Inc., 1995.

Owens, Richard. The Professional Singer’s Guide to New York. Dallas, TX: American Institute of Musical Studies, 1984.

Stohrer, Sharon. The Singer’s Companion. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Works Cited

Fleming, Renée. The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer. New York: Viking, Penguin Group, 2004.

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