Seven Questions Singers get asked at parties…
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
“ So, what do you do? ” asks the vaguely bored looking human you find yourself standing next to you at your friend’s party. “ I’m a classical singer ” you answer, and their eyes light up, “ Oooooh!! ” Then the questions begin … what, when, who, how, why? You’re an opera singer - like Phantom of the Opera? But what do you do for a real job? Aren’t all opera singers hugely fat? Are you allowed to drink and smoke? Is it too late for me to become a singer too?!
It’s fun to have a job that people are so interested in, but often I’m left wondering how best to answer people’s questions. So here goes! Here’s some of those questions answered, just to make up for all those times I lied and said I work in I.T. …
" You’re a singer? But what do you do for a real job?! "
Hard as it may be to believe, but singing is a “real job”! You get hired either by an opera house or a professional ensemble, you learn your music, perform it or record it, and get paid. Singers don’t usually work 9 to 5, and definitely don’t get rich very often (!), but it is indeed possible to live from singing alone!
In the classical singing world (NB. all of the questions here relate to the classical music scene, as that’s where I work, the jazz scene is completely different) there’s few stable full-time jobs, and many people make a ‘patchwork’ career from concerts, recordings and teaching, and from both solo and ensemble work. In Germany, 38% of singing graduates go on to get a permanent singing job (whether in a choir or as a soloist) and 53% become freelance.* So its seat of the pants stuff - you’ve got to be prepared for a very unstable lifestyle, where a pay check is like gold dust and you often feel like you’re constantly negotiating how to gather your next month’s rent.
My career so far has consisted of 3 years on a permanent contract in an opera chorus (in Bern, Switzerland), followed by 7 years freelancing, and then 2 years on a 50% contract with the radio choir in Hamburg. The difference between an opera chorus and a radio choir? The opera chorus are the bunch of people in the background of an opera scene, making musical oohs and aahs at whatever the soloists are doing. There’s usually a fixed chorus of singers attached to each opera house. A radio choir, on the other hand, sings mainly concerts rather than operas, many of which are streamed on the radio, funnily enough ;-)
“ You’re an opera singer? Like Phantom of the Opera? ”
Nope. Just to confuse the issue, Phantom of the Opera is actually classed as musical theatre rather than opera. What’s the difference? Well, if we want to talk in stereotypes, musicals are showy all-singing, all-dancing spectacles, complete with catchy tunes, emotive storylines and jazz-hands, that light up Broadway and the West End. Operas, on the other hand, are more famous for their rotund warbling divas, huge orchestras, melodramatic storylines and arguably elitist audiences. As with most stereotypes, these only tell part of the story but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. You don’t have to be posh to enjoy opera, and there are a lot of catchy tunes!
One good way of breaking it down is that musical theatre has more emphasis on the words, whilst opera has more emphasis on the music. Operas will often be sung from start to finish, with no spoken text, whereas musicals have many breaks for dialogue and often for dance too. (The line between the two art forms is increasingly blurred however, and there are many exceptions to prove this rule - Carmen and Fidelio are examples of operas that include spoken text, whilst Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar are musicals without spoken text.)
Opera is accompanied by a full-scale classical orchestra, whereas musical theatre often has a big band or jazz band, with keyboard, guitars and drums. In terms of singing, opera and musical theatre demand completely different techniques, mainly because musical theatre is usually miked, whereas opera isn’t. To put it simply, musical theatre singers use their chest voice whilst opera singers (and classical singers in general) use their head voice. And here’s the technical bit: musical theatre singers use a technique called ‘belting’, where the chest voice is trained to sing above the ‘passaggio’ (the natural break that each voice has between the higher part of the voice and the lower part of the voice), whereas opera singers sing almost exclusively in their ‘head voice’, relying on vibrato rather than a microphone to amplify the sound.
Singers will usually decide early on in their training which singing style suits them best, and will be trained in only one of the two techniques (for me this happened aged 18, when my teacher advised me that my voice was better suited to classical than to musicals or jazz). Most music conservatoires offer separate courses for opera, musical theatre and for jazz singing.
“ What, you mean you can actually ‘study’ singing at university level? ”
Yup! If you want to become a professional classical singer, it’s expected that you study at least for a Bachelors in singing, and ideally also a Masters. It’s often said to take a minimum of six years to build up a good vocal technique. In the end, it's to do with training your muscles to be able to run vocal marathons and perform vocal backflips, so this takes some time! How can just singing be enough to fill a whole Masters programme? Well, there’s a lot of different elements involved in being a professional musician - just opening your mouth and making nice noises ain’t gonna cut it. Here’s a run-down of some of the different courses a singing student takes:
Language classes - learning how to pronounce (and ideally also understand!) the various languages you have to sing in: French, German and Italian. This often involves learning parts of the international phonetic alphabet (that’s all those squiggles next to words in the dictionary - its a rather handy standardised method of annotating speech sounds in written form).
Music theory - the mathematical side of music. Learning about harmony, counterpoint, intervals, tuning, chord-building, rhythm, tonal systems, pitch systems, ornamentation, orchestration… the list goes on. Also ear-training (training the ears to identify different pitches, rhythms and intervals), and the basics of composition (writing music) and conducting (directing an ensemble/ choir) as well.
Music history - studying the different periods in the history of music and the historical context behind musical movements. Also the different rules and conventions that apply to the performance of music from each era.
Acting class, and sometimes dance too. These are obviously central to a career on the stage.
Second study instrument - this is meant to complement your singing studies and no one expects you to be performing at a high level afterwards! Piano especially can be very useful for singers, as learning new repertoire is pretty difficult without being able to bash out the notes on a piano first.
Individual singing lessons - working on your vocal technique, plus coaching sessions with a pianist, where you work on intonation, timing, pronunciation and interpretation.
Performance class / Masterclasses - this involves practicing performing in front of an audience, and giving feedback to your colleagues. This is a huge part of learning to perform, as stage fright can really get in the way, and your fellow students can be the most intimidating people to sing in front of, so it's good practice!
Ensemble singing / Choir - learning to sing as part of a group, whether with other singers or in a chamber ensemble (a group of instrumentalists) This involves a whole different set of skills to solo singing - you have to blend your voice with your colleagues and create a homogenous sound.
The Business side - learning how to navigate the world of the freelance musician: creating a website, putting together enticing and coherent concert programmes, negotiating contracts, dealing with the entrepreneurial and financial side of being your own boss.
As with any university degree, you have to take various exams at the end. These consist of a concert performance, a written thesis and various theory/ listening/ musical analysis/ language exams.
“ Surely either you can sing or you can’t sing - it's not something you can learn is it? ”
Having a Maserati in the garage doesn’t guarantee you a place in Formula 1. It takes years of training to be able to drive it to a competitive level. Similarly, being born with a naturally strong singing voice, though it is definitely an advantage and may speed up the process of learning to sing, doesn’t mean you don’t have to work at it. And just because you feel like you don’t have a naturally strong voice doesn’t mean that with lessons and practice you can’t learn to sing well.
Some peoples’ physiology intrinsically helps or hinders them in terms of singing, as with anything physical - if you have longer legs you can probably run faster, and if you have long vocal chords you can sing lower. But regardless what kind of a voice you start with, it’ll take years of practice before you can fill a theatre with your voice night after night and not be croaky afterwards.
Often people think they can’t sing when they have difficulty singing along with a tune on the radio. But this is often due to other factors - the song is too low or too high for your voice, or you just can’t remember the tune! Just as you have to warm up your muscles before you run the 100 metres, you have to warm up your voice before you sing a hard piece, and especially a piece that’s a bit higher or lower than the sweet spot in your voice (your ‘range’).
...So if you get up in the morning and try to sing along to the high bits in Bohemian Rhapsody, and instead some kind of swoopy growl comes out, this doesn’t actually mean you can’t sing! It more likely means you had one too many beers last night...
“ How do you go about learning to sing? ”
Learning to sing involves training the vocal folds to be strong and durable, and able to withstand singing for a long time without getting tired. We manipulate the singing apparatus (vocal folds, larynx, tongue, jaw, diaphragm, soft palate…) into positions they wouldn’t naturally go into, in order to create the maximum resonating space in the body and thus to create the fullest, healthiest and best tone we can. Like with a sport, singing has a lot to do with muscle memory, and so in order to improve you really need to practice regularly to build up your technique.
Singing relies hugely on our ability to control our breathing and engage various muscles that are otherwise pretty lazy when we are just talking. The shallow breaths we take in everyday life aren’t sufficient to support the singing voice, so the main focus at the start is usually on connecting your voice with your diaphragm so that you sing with ‘support’. This is similar to actors or public speakers learning to throw their voices to the back of the audience in a healthy way that doesn’t result in feeling croaky afterwards. It involves lots of bizarre sounding exercises, where the general rule is - the more ridiculous you feel, the better the exercise is working!
Via singing simple exercises like scales, working up and down the voice, you can discover where your voice feels most comfortable and where you are naturally loudest. This comfortable area (your ‘vocal range’) can then be broadened, by gradually getting higher or lower. The aim is to have an equal smoothness and strength through the whole singing voice.
Once you have trained your ‘support’, you gradually work on singing as smoothly as you can (known as ‘legato’), and to create as round and healthy a sound as possible. You learn to sing with control from very quiet to very loud (‘dynamics’) and from very fast to very slow. Bit by bit you build up an instrument that can take on whatever technical challenges you throw at it.
You’re a singer, wow, you must live a pretty rock n roll lifestyle…
Well, in a word, no! In the classical world the lifestyle is more similar to that of a competitive sportsperson than a rock n roll star. A singer’s instrument is their body, so it needs to be looked after! Just as a violinist wraps up their violin in a cloth and keeps it in a case, avoiding leaving it somewhere too hot or too cold, a singer has to take similar precautions (more’s the pity!). The voice reflects how the body is feeling, whether it’s tiredness, excessive cold or heat, nervousness, or our good old friend the hangover. Hence the stereotype of the singing diva, complaining about the air conditioning drying out their voice, always going to bed early and never being seen without a scarf around their neck!
Having said that, the better your vocal technique is, the better you can cover up and compensate for external factors like heat and exhaustion. Sometimes it's unavoidable that you have to jump on stage after barely any sleep and a sore throat, and just hope the audience don’t notice anything amiss. And everybody’s physiology is different; some singers’ voices are more precarious than others - I have colleagues who sing like a dream after 3 hours sleep and having drunk their own weight in booze, and others whose voices suffer after a few hours in a highly air conditioned room.
Smoking is obviously not a great idea, as well as for the obvious health reasons, as it dries out and irritates the vocal cords, causing inflammation. I personally notice how much better I sound when I’m feeling well rested and fit. In the last few years I’ve started to get interested in yoga and running, and I really feel the positive impact it has on my voice.
Are there foods and drinks that are particularly good or bad for singing?
Each person’s body responds differently to certain foods, so it's difficult to make generalisations. The classic foods you’re advised not to eat before singing are those that clog the throat, like cheese or chocolate. They can stick to the vocal cords for a while after eating, so that the voice feels more like a hippo wading through a muddy swamp than a spritely gazelle… and needless to say, the latter is what we’re aiming for!
Unsurprisingly, singing too soon after you’ve eaten can be problematic, as with any physical activity. There’s not many songs that involve burping between notes, more’s the pity… thus it’s generally a good idea to leave at least an hour or two between eating and singing. This means you’re energized, but that your digestion is calm and won’t get in the way of the diaphragm workout you’re about to take on!
People who suffer from acid reflux have to be very careful about what foods they eat, as the acid can damage the throat and leave the voice feeling dry. A crucial part of vocal health is moisture. Singers are rarely seen without a water bottle in their hand, and its especially important in the run up to a performance or at times when your voice isn’t feeling so healthy. Water keeps the vocal cords moist so that they can vibrate freely and the sound can ring. So any foods or drinks that are dehydrating can have a negative impact on the voice. Having said that, I’m very partial to a pre-concert coffee and a pre concert choccy biccy, so some rules are made to be broken...
Like I said above, the magic ingredient for singing is water, looots of water. I remember one time at music college a colleague of mine got up to sing, slugging at her water bottle just before she started. “Too late!” shrieked the teacher, “It’s the water you drank earlier today and yesterday that would’ve made a difference!” And she was right - keeping hydrated in the days before a concert are more important than the last minute gulps you take just before you go on stage.
Ginger is great, because alongside all its other health benefits it’s also an anti-inflammatory, so is very good for swollen or tired voices. Honey’s antibacterial properties make it perfect for fighting sore-throat bugs, so the classic honey ginger lemon tea is always a favourite for singers. Pineapple is also an anti-inflammatory, and is good for clearing out the throat.
So there you go, 7 of your questions answered! I bet you wish you hadn't asked ;-)
* this comes from a 2011 article from the Goethe Institut