Do I want a vocal career, or do I just want to learn to sing well?

My professional experience spans more than 40 years, with a Master’s degree from Juilliard in piano, private voice study, eight years as Assistant Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, appearances as conductor with American companies such as the Dallas Opera, and performances as conductor and as baritone in Germany.   I have known the music business at many levels.  During this time I have coached singers of all ages and abilities, from high school students to young professionals, famous professionals, and many who just enjoy singing.

Learning to sing adds a lot of depth to a person.  It is such a revealing form of self-expression that we conquer a lot of demons at every level of study.  Even someone who has no intention of singing publicly gains in self-esteem by learning to sing, and this carries over into their performance at job interviews, their ability to speak in public, to communicate in the work place and countless other ways.  And then the music is so rewarding.  Anyone who works on their own music tends to listen to all music more closely, hears more and gets more pleasure from it, the same way an amateur tennis player appreciates a match from Wimbledon more than someone who never held a racket.

I encourage everyone to learn to sing, but I don’t push students to pursue a career in singing unless they are fully aware of the role luck plays in making it.  But even without choosing the career goal a singer can perform on a professional level if they are willing to master the skills.  The original meaning of the word “amateur” was “lover or devotee of an art form.”  It did not mean “amateurish, poorly executed.”  In fact, the ability to make a living in music the way we do now is rather recent in the history of music.  Formerly most musicians were patronized by the nobility, the church, or had means of their own.

It has always been hard to break into the international music scene and anyone needs a lot of luck to get to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, but is easy to arrange one’s own smaller scale performances.  There are many opportunities –for example, libraries often have concert series featuring local performers.  Maybe it costs the singer more to prepare such a concert than the fee (if any) covers, but it is a chance to be the best you can be and entertain your public.

Qualities that make an amateur performance memorable are the same qualities necessary to start a career:  a good expressive voice, strong acting training, foreign language mastery and musicianship.  This may seem daunting, but think of a period of several years to get a good start and a lifetime to keep increasing your abilities and deepen your understanding of music.  Let’s not forget that music is an art form and we need to become artists, even if only “part-time.”   Voice alone doesn’t guarantee moving any audience emotionally, nor is it a shoo-in to a professional engagement.  A performer has to communicate as an actor by convincingly portraying different characters, use words idiomatically, whether in English or any other language, and musically express the rhythms and nuances of phrasing indicated by the composers.

The main requirement is desire.  Any student who really desires to become a good performer will succeed at some level.  Some will master complex operatic arias; others will be more than content just to learn to sing a popular song convincingly.  I respect all good performers at any level because they are giving the audience something of great value:   a part of themselves.

David Leighton

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