Classical singers: there's more than one path

[The purpose of this post is to share some thoughts about the various paths of classical singing. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the corollary careers of many classical singers, such as voice teaching, church work, voice-over work, studio work, etc. More on those in a future post, perhaps?]

To quote Mikado, “I’ve got a little list…” In advising my students about YAPs, I noticed that most listings of the programs are all mushed together—opera-heavy programs next to song-heavy programs, etc. How is one to tell these apart? It got me thinking: as I see it, there are 8 primary avenues that classical singers can pursue.

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Here’s the kicker: Most classical singers I know pursue 3-4 of these, and almost none of them pursue all of them.

Early on in your training, it’s wise to not “pigeon-hole” yourself. Your voice, your taste, your exposure to styles/periods/languages… it all needs to develop. BUT, the world is big, and time/finances are finite. At some point, it can save a LOT of heartache for a singer to decide where the intersection of their talent, skill, and taste lies. For me, I figured out [through the help of my first great vocal mentor, the terrific Steven Stolen], that mine would be a career of art song + oratorio/concert work + early music. My background as a trumpet player and my early exposure through a top-flight children’s choir bolstered my musicianship chops, and thus new music was added to the mix for me. And rather by accident, I landed my first gig [and then another, and another, etc] in the pro choral singing world. That ecosystem didn’t even exist when I graduated from college, and so it was not on anyone’s radar screen as a legitimate avenue for professional singers. Fortunately, that has changed drastically!

Note: I am not at all suggesting that I wholesale exclude other genres—I love to sing opera when it’s right for my voice and the timing works with the rest of my life. I love singing jazz standards, but not as a main line of my career, etc.

I now use the above list, and when the time is right with each student, we discuss which of these will be the primary avenues they pursue. Seeing 3 or 4 checkmarks on this list then empowers them—spend your time and money on YAPs, competitions, etc. that play to your strengths. If you have no interest or aptitude for new music, then for goodness’ sake don’t pursue it. If musical theater was your first love, then cross over, child! If musical theater makes you want to hurl, then take a hard pass and don’t apologize! Don’t feel bad for a second that your list is different than other singers. You do you. I hope the list above can help you (or your students) to thoughtfully forge their path in the classical singing world!

Kyle Ferrill teaches voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Memphis, SongFest, and the Interlochen Arts Camp and performs around the country, primarily in art song and oratorio.