So You Want to Be a Singer

The Real Life of a Singer

Kickstarting your vocal career

Ready, Set...

Life as a vocalist can seem a bit overwhelming at the beginning. Try not to worry. No one ever learned the secret to a successful vocal career overnight. Here’s a crash course in Singing 101, including some tips on choosing the right teacher, improving your musicianship, and getting started financially.

Get a Teacher  

Choosing a voice teacher is not a process that should be taken lightly, as your emotional wellbeing and physical health are always at stake when you step into a voice studio. You and your family can find more detailed advice on selecting the right teacher here. Be aware, though, you can always change teachers if you find things aren’t working.

Once you begin lessons, start building a repertoire (that is, a list of stuff you sing and sing well). “What should I sing?” you ask? Consult your teacher. She will be your primary guide in this area. Often what you’d like to sing and what you should sing are two different things, and a teacher will help you choose repertoire that’s best for your voice.

You should always listen to your body, however. Do you feel absolutely exhausted after a certain piece? A little bit of fatigue is good (it shows you’re working), but exhaustion and pain are other matters entirely. If it’s taxing your voice physically, then the piece probably isn’t for you just yet. Remember your voice is always changing, so shelving a song for today doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to sing it in the future. For an illustration of this, think of the difference between an early recording of your favorite singer and a recording from the prime of his or her career.

Practice, Practice

Here’s where the real work begins. In addition to ironing out all of the musical kinks, like learning the melody and the proper rhythms, you will have to tap into your inner actor as you learn any particular piece of music (whether it be an aria from La Bohème or a song by Alicia Keyes). A large part of being a singer is being able to “put over a song,” that is, connecting to the music emotionally and conveying that emotion to your audience. Professor of musical theater and author Oscar Kosarin urges all singers to think of individual songs as mini-plays. Consider yourself as a character in such a play and approach your music by asking yourself:

  • Who am I supposed to be in this song? (Am I old or young? What do I do for a living? What kinds of things have happened to me?)
  • Why am I singing now? (What prompted this music? Why is it necessary for me to get my feelings out in this way at this moment?) Note: If you’re stuck on this question, teachers often suggest going through the song and choosing an active verb to go along with each phrase. Think to yourself, “At this point I’m loving, at this point I’m accusing, …” This may help you focus your emotions.
  • Who am I singing to? (Am I by myself? Am I singing to a boyfriend or girlfriend? A teacher? A friend?)

If you’ve chosen a piece from an opera or a musical, then a lot of the answers can be found in the script or libretto. As you prepare a song from a larger work, experts such as author and voice teacher Sharon Stohrer strongly advise listening to the full opera or musical and “concentrating on text, plot, and character.” In the case of opera, this often means doing a lot of translating. Get out your translation dictionaries and make sure you understand every word you and your fellow characters are saying.

Get Out There

Get as much performing experience as you can. Marketing yourself when you’re just starting out doesn’t have to be scary. As Ms. Stohrer puts it, “It simply means letting people in your daily life know that you are studying singing and…would enjoy opportunities to perform.” Good places to start are your local churches or synagogues, (this is especially good practice for classical singers), which are always looking for new choir members and/or soloists for weekly services.

If you tend more toward the singer-songwriter or pop genres, check out which local coffee houses or restaurants hire singers. Plenty of venues will host “open mic” events where you can strut your stuff without much pressure. You could even invest in making a good demo recording (with the help of backing tracks sold on CD or as MP3s) and post it on a music forum such as MySpace or even YouTube.

If you’re a bit more ambitious, you can always apply for vocal competitions and/or extensive summer programs that focus on performance practice. Voice competitions occur throughout the year and are available at almost every level, while summer programs usually cater to older high school and college students and are aimed more at building a career. Consult the magazine Classical Singer for information on summer programs and annual competitions, or the website for the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) for information on their prestigious regional competitions.

$upport Yourself

Voice lessons, recording sessions, diction classes––these things take money. A lot of money. If you have that kind of cash, then no need to worry. If not, don’t despair: There are plenty of financial avenues open to the aspiring singer, if you know where to look. Start by searching for scholarships in your hometown or county. Many charitable community members offer yearly scholarships for music students. These often require a small audition, perhaps followed by a finalist concert. Ask your school’s music teacher for information on applying for such programs. (Classical Singer’s website is a good resource for forum discussions on these kinds of scholarships, and the website Musical America has a national directory of grants for music students).

Conservatories and colleges are, likewise, willing to give scholarship money to their incoming music students if those students show sufficient need. If you’ve recently been accepted to school, contact the admissions office and ask about scholarship requirements. They may ask you to fill out a lengthy application, but it will be worth it if you get a break on your tuition.

Gigs are also helpful. Many churches and community organizations will pay you for your time. Don’t underestimate the power of a paying gig. Three Sundays in church can be converted into three vocal coachings. Be careful about the gigs you choose, however; agreeing to sing for a random patron who advertised on the Internet may be dangerous, and you may never see your money.

Last but not least, those competitions we talked about earlier often include cash prizes. If you’re serious about pursuing your studies, keep competing. Often even third-place winners walk away with something. Those prizes can add up to a lot.



Eleni Hagen
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor


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.

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.

Works Cited

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

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

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  

ArtsEdge is an education program of

The Kennedy Center 

with the support of

The US Department of Education 

ARTSEDGE, part of the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, is generously funded by David Rubenstein.

Additional support is provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee
for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.

The contents of this Web site were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not
necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.
Unless otherwise stated, ArtsEdge materials may be copied, modified and otherwise utilized for non-commercial educational purposes
provided that ArtsEdge and any authors listed in the materials are credited and provided that you permit others to use them in the same manner.

Change Background:

Connect with us!    EMAIL US | YouTube | Facebook | iTunes | MORE!

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  
    Privacy Policy
| Terms and Conditions


You are now leaving the ArtsEdge website. Thank you for visiting!

If you are not automatically transferred, please click the link below:

ArtsEdge and The Kennedy Center are in no way responsible for the content of the destination site, its ongoing availability, links to other site or the legality or accuracy of information on the site or its resources.