ANDY BERRY believes that vocal music is vital because it testifies to the power of collaboration, the importance of the present moment, and the beauty of our shared humanity. He currently occupies the twelfth and lowest chair in the two-time GRAMMY-winning vocal ensemble Chanticleer, and he is proud to join the group for his second season. He has performed as a soloist with the Santa Fe Opera, the Pittsburgh Opera, the Vietnam National Ballet and Opera Orchestra, the Central City Opera, and Singapore’s Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, among others. His favorite past performances include the title character in Massenet's Don Quichotte, the Archangel Raphael in Haydn’s The Creation, Isacio in the second U.S. performance of Handel’s Riccardo Primo, and Kōbun Otogawa (cover) / ensemble in the GRAMMY-winning world premiere of Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Andy earned his M.M. in voice/opera from the Yale School of Music and a B.S. in psychology/neuroscience cum laude from Yale College. In 2016, he won second place in the Metropolitan Opera National Council's Northeast Regional Final, as well as the David L. Kasdon Award for one outstanding singer in the Yale School of Music. He has appeared on FOX’s Glee as well as NBC’s America’s Got Talent. As an undergraduate, Andy directed the Yale Whiffenpoofs and served as an assistant conductor to the Yale Glee Club. He was born and raised in Cabin John, MD, just outside of Washington, D.C., and he now celebrates his (half) Japanese heritage living in Japantown, San Francisco.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Cabin John, Maryland, which is just outside of Washington D.C.
How did you get into music?
I sang in chorus starting in elementary school, and, looking back, I was really into it. In middle school, I got really kind of jazzed about part singing and further grew my love of choir. Then in seventh grade, I got the lead in the musical Little Shop of Horrors, which made me catch a real performance bug. I started voice lessons soon after that, which exposed me to classical vocal music and made me fall in love with making that kind of big, operatic sound.
I credit things like a school field trip to see Holst's The Planets at the Kennedy Center. Or my parents bringing me to various kinds of ballets and musicals and live performances. Sometimes I was into it and sometimes not, but that kind of exposure definitely made live performance part of who I was.
Where did you attend your undergraduate studies?
What undergraduate degrees do you hold?
A Bachelor of Science in psychology/neuroscience.
Did you do any young artists programs during undergraduate studies?
Yes. My first young artist program was at Opera on the Avalon, which is in Newfoundland, Canada. That was the summer after my junior year. I had just sung my first opera that year with the Yale Baroque Opera Project. That summer was a big moment for me deciding that music could be a possible path, because, at the time, I was studying psychology and looking around and seeing all these people from like, Manhattan School of Music, McGill, Indiana, and Eastman and not feeling very far behind them because of the voice lessons and the classes I’d been taking as an undergrad. That was a turning point for me. Hearing their stories about what they expected out of a career made me think it could be for me.
Also at Yale, you take a year off to sing with the all-senior Whiffenpoofs. That was, you know, definitely not a young artists program, but I was the group’s music director, and my whole life became about being a part of and running a musical organization. Our business manager, also a student, was running a $500,000 budget that we raised ourselves through performances. It was a year of performing hundreds of concerts all over the world, and it showed me how much I enjoyed one possible kind of life as a musician. The entrepreneurship was intoxicating.
How did you find out about these programs?
Through a voice teacher, I guess? That's interesting that you asked that question. I haven't thought about it, because I was totally ignorant. I had no idea what was out there. My voice teacher at the time was a Canadian baritone, who was a grad student at Yale. He said, “This is a cool program for singers at your level. Give it a shot.” And the rest was history, I guess.
How beneficial were these programs?
Was Opera on the Avalon worth it? I mean, for me, yes. Like, where else was I going to be putting on Gianni Schicchi or whatever? Where else was I going to get real coaching and network with all kinds of new people? It’s possible that at the time it felt so useful because I just didn't have many other outlets. So maybe if you're coming from a place that does a lot of staged performances, it might not be so worth it? It depends on the singer. You know, as much as there are all kinds of individual nitpicks I might have about one program or another, the key benefit of any young artist program is the network and connections that come with it. More opinions and more ears hearing you is almost always a good thing.
Did you do any Professional Choral Institutes (or similar programs for choral studies) during undergraduate studies?
What are some things (besides YAP/PCI) that you did to build your resume as an undergraduate student?
I mean, that a cappella stuff. You know, I was studying psychology, but my soul was in the music. I was in the Glee Club, which sounds like something silly, but that's Yale’s serious classical music 80-voice mixed choir. They do very high-quality music and are led by a man named Jeff Douma, who I still think of as a really important mentor and person whose leadership inspires me to this day. I was doing that while also being a part of the Spizzwinks, which was my underclassman a cappella group. That was something that consumed my life completely, even though it was not exactly vocalism that had that much in common with opera singing.
Also doing operas at school. I mean, we had a specific opera theatre at the college that was sort of just us [undergrads] figuring it out. I mean, we had some faculty support, but it was largely self-driven. Like, a bunch of undergrads put on The Marriage of Figaro with one faculty adviser who was the stage director. I also sang with this baroque opera project that is one of the most well-funded organizations on campus, for some reason. We put on gorgeous productions of Monteverdi operas. I did a few of those.
What are some of the most useful ways for undergraduate students to spend their time to prepare themselves for the “next step” (not necessarily to build their resume)?
The most important skills that I took from undergrad were the leadership skills and people skills. And I mean, I think that there's something really important about learning very good critical thinking skills, writing skills, and communication skills in college, because these are things that maybe do give you an advantage over people who only like grind voice lessons and diction classes. Although, in many ways, I am coming at undergrad with an outsider’s perspective [having pursued an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, as opposed to music].
Honestly, the likelihood that somebody in undergrad is actually studying the performance skills that they're going to need in their professional life seems a little low to me, frankly. You know, for me, it's so much more about those entrepreneurship skills that you get to learn. There's something about conservatory that seems to stifle a certain kind of creativity. Like, there was something about undergrad at a non-conservatory, I think...maybe people were not spoon-feeding things to us. So there was a certain kind of entrepreneurial energy and a kind of ownership that was required to put anything on, which can be really hard to find at a conservatory. I think a lot of pure conservatory settings, as crucial as they are to people's vocal development, don’t teach the skills that a lot of people are missing as professionals. Things like how to write a good email or how to be an entrepreneur.
How important is GPA in undergraduate studies?
I mean, if you're trying to go into performance, the audition is all that matters. When I was applying to grad school, nobody asked about a single standardized test, and I’m sure they didn’t really care about my transcript. But that's, you know, a very narrow answer for only performers. I mean, if you're talking education programs, I feel like they probably would care. If I'm in an opera company, I will never ask you your GPA. But for a music educator who's going into a master's program? I don’t really know, but I figure it’s more important.
APPLYING TO GRADUATE SCHOOL
Does attending a more acclaimed yet competitive school provide more opportunities in the long run as opposed to a smaller school with more individual opportunities?
I think it's a big question. I did attend the Yale School of Music for grad school, which I guess is considered “acclaimed yet competitive.” It sort of depends on who you are and the path you want to be on. On the one hand, there's a lot of truth to the fact that you sort of just need to go where the teacher is that you truly mesh with. Where the teacher is that you believe is most going to help you, regardless of the school’s prestige. On the other hand, I think the chances that a 22-year-old knows what they need from a teacher are slim.
Right out of undergrad, the likelihood that you're on the path to technique that's going to get you to the Met is slim, I guess. You might know when you have chemistry with somebody, and that is valuable. But we get so married to the way our undergrad teacher talks and we get married to how we think of our voice. And I think that then we just start seeking people who will kind of confirm the ideas we already have. So sometimes I wonder about the advice to choose a school based only on teacher, because maybe what you really need is someone who’s going to give you a technical wake-up call instead of speaking the voice lesson language you’re already comfortable with. But, if somebody makes you uncomfortable or the fit is obviously bad, then probably trust that instinct.
The teaching at YSM was very good, but the things that really stick with me were these “industry” experiences. For example, we spent two weeks at the end of each year singing for managers from big-time artist management companies, people who run prestigious young artist programs, people who run small opera companies, and we’d get feedback on the spot. And you're getting this “industry” feedback for the first time ever. It was like, “Who cares about your voice?” The feedback I got was verbatim things like, “Well, you know, I hear those bass notes, but you just look like a bass-baritone.” Or, “Well, that tie really makes you look like a banker.” “You could stand to unbutton one more shirt button.” And you're like, “How is this what you care about?” It was a wake-up call.
Yale Opera was very good to me. There are about 14 singers between masters’ students and those pursuing more advanced degrees. Once you get in, you never audition. Fourteen people roll in, and they try to structure it so that over the course of the two years or three years that you're there, everyone's getting equal stage time. And everyone receives a stipend instead of paying to attend. Those kinds of opportunities were, in some ways I guess, tied to how prestigious (and well-funded) the school is.
If the question you are specifically asking is, does the school you attended affect your future auditions? And that answer is kind of no. You can hear a good voice on a pre-screen in seconds. You can hear a good voice in an audition in seconds. So they'll know where you went to school, and that might get you past the pre-screen. Maybe after listening to the prescreen, they were like, “Well, that wasn't so hot, but, you know, they went to Juilliard, why not give them a shot?” In general, resume pieces might get you in the door - someone important at some time thought you were really good. But the resume alone is not going to get you the job ever. The audition will.
How do you find a voice teacher that you would like to study with?
You have to take a lesson with them. I think that's the only way. Some more prestigious institutions might not give you the time of day until you get in and you're in the process of choosing a place. Or maybe they'll be like, “Oh, yeah, totally take a prospective lesson.” Just depends on the place.
Is it more beneficial to attend graduate school or to gain experience right out of undergraduate studies?
I think it really depends on where you are. Speaking for me personally, coming from a non-music degree, I felt like I had no choice but to get a music degree. I mean, the opera world and Broadway are completely different stories. Like, if you're trying to go to Broadway, maybe you're in your physical prime right out of undergrad. You have to just kind of get out there and go. On the other hand, you know, maybe in opera, there's something about gaming out like, “Well, I'm a bass, so I’m going to start singing my core rep on stage in my 30s, so let me meter out my degrees.” Or something like that.
For a lot of people, grad school is the place where you build the network that supports you at the start of your career. It’s also the place where you get to fill in the gaps of the huge amount of language, acting, movement, and vocal skills required of this job. I was in a place where I felt like I needed the [music] degree to take auditions at all.
Should you pay for graduate school or should they pay you?
This is a question that is also different for everybody, I guess. For some people, it's maybe not such a huge deal to have to pay for their degree, but for a lot of people, it is. It speaks to an unfortunate reality about the career in general -- some people who come from money have a huge advantage in terms of available opportunities.
Let's say you don't go to grad school. You're trying to get jobs, and you're having to pay anyway for voice lessons and coachings, which are ridiculously expensive in the professional world. The thing about grad school is that no matter what, it is time that you are just focusing on you. In undergrad, you're still somehow on that academic train that started in kindergarten. I mean, there's something about grad school that feels like you're really getting ready for your job.
But, you know, ultimately, this is not a profession that turns around financial gains quickly. And although once out of school, I was able to live on my wages as a young artist at Pittsburgh Opera, or Santa Fe Opera, and now of course here with Chanticleer, I kind of don't know how I would have managed if I had been paying off student loans. I think that it would have significantly impacted my quality of life. I mean, I don't know how much people are really paying per month to be honest, because I was so blessed with my grad school experience. It sounds very hard, though, and it’s a burden that a lot of people can have until they are well into their 40s. That's something that you just have to decide for yourself; whether that's something you can afford, I mean.
How important is it to have a master’s degree?
I think it really depends. As I said, for many the master’s degree is what provides the initial network for a career. I certainly would never have had the opportunities I've had without everything that happened to me through Yale Opera, which then made Central City happen, which made Pittsburgh Opera happen, which made Sante Fe Opera happen. For whatever it’s worth, almost every opera singer I encounter has a Master’s degree, but that’s not to say it’s necessary to a career.
Where did you attend your graduate studies?
The Yale School of Music.
What graduate degrees do you hold?
I have a Master of Music in voice/opera.
Did you do any young artists programs during graduate studies?
In grad school, I did just one, which was the Central City young artists program. That was very worth it, I felt. There was something about being paid to be in performing in repertory, while also receiving training, that was very rewarding. It was also fascinating to get a window into what it takes to keep a professional opera company running. I think that any opportunity that you have to sing for more people, to be in front of more people, and to get more stage experience is huge. I mean, you only get experience by doing it. So the more opportunities that you have to do it, and to be paid to do it, the better.
Networking by the way doesn’t just mean with coaches or voice teachers. I found it extremely useful to meet other aspiring professional singers with all different kinds of backgrounds and ideas of where they were and what their future might be. Friendships formed at various young artist programs can be lifelong!
What are some things (besides YAP/PCI) that you did to build your resume as a graduate student?
I honestly wasn't doing much more than just kind of riding that ride. I mean, I was getting lots of roles on my resume, because we were doing two fully staged shows a year and a set of substantial scenes, like full acts from operas, every year. And so I was just clocking up those roles, and doing all the things like diction, music theory, history. Getting my Russian right. Getting my German right. I mean, that was one thing about Yale that I really am grateful for. I think the language was so good, and that is something that is really quite important in opera especially.
The only resume-building I really did outside of school as a student was the Met competition. I won second in our regional final in the northeast. That was a huge financial and confidence boost as a 24 year-old. I didn’t do many other competitions because I was a young bass, like, I was not trying to put myself out there too much. I mean, you get one chance to make a first impression. And, you know, these industry people, like managers for example, are tracking your progress like hawks. Their job is to remember faces and stuff. So like, I sang for somebody at Yale, then they heard me in Santa Fe years later, and they were able to talk to me about how I sounded at Santa Fe versus years ago. They do love to see growth, but they definitely remember that first impression. So I was kind of laying low on competitions.
What are some of the most useful ways for graduate students to spend their time to prepare themselves for the “next step” (not necessarily to build their resume)?
I think that grad school is best used to tend to your voice. You are in this little cocoon with full permission to focus entirely on self-improvement. I mean, once you start working regularly, it’s hard to mess around with your technique as radically. Once a Chanticleer program is touring, for example, I am not taking big risks with my vocalism, because the show has to succeed, and maybe I only know it will succeed if I sing the way that’s worked in the past. Same was true once an opera production started its run. You can't really risk experimenting to have some big vocal breakthrough on-stage, because it’s just gotta come out every night. I mean, of course in every show you’re trying to live in the moment and sing your best. But I'm just saying that, once you hit the “real” world, there are so many things on your mind other than your voice - your rent, your health insurance, your family life, how you’re going to get to the next gig - whereas in grad school you really can focus on really getting in there and changing the way you sing.
How do you get auditions?
I guess, YAP tracker? I guess you also hear about opportunities from your voice teachers and your colleagues. I mean, my colleagues were hugely important, especially at Yale Opera. It was all about my network. They're all talking about these things. “Oh, are you sending your applications for this competition?” I'm like, “What's that?” But, you know, honestly, for a young opera singer, if you're going to get an audition, it is probably through YAP tracker.
Do you need an agent?
If you want to be a solo, opera singer, yes, because a lot of companies simply won't hear you for principal auditions without one. Also, having to negotiate your own fee, your own worth... It's an uncomfortable interaction. I think a lot of people don't like it.
Do you need an agent to get work period? You better not. You can only get an agent when the agent sees that you get work on your own. You don't need an agent until you're getting too much work to manage yourself. That agent is probably not going to sign somebody who has not sung in at least a few regional opera houses. It's possible that they'll take you without the experience, but it's hard to imagine how you might even get through the door in that situation. Emailing somebody and saying, “I have a master's degree.” That will probably do nothing. All the managers say something like, “You don’t need a manager until you have something to manage.”
And by the way, you have to pay your agent a commission off of every gig once you sign one, 10% off the top of opera, 20% off the top of concert work. So unless your work is very consistent, it’s in a way very expensive to have an agent. And by the way, you should never have an agent who charges a monthly retainer to keep you on their roster. The commission should be enough.
What pieces do you choose to prepare (range, technique, etc.)?
Speaking for auditions for grad school and most young artists programs, I would say you should choose your five that, no matter what, showcase you the best. They just want to hear what you sound like, where you are right now and what they might be able to teach you. They don’t necessarily need to hear whether you can sing whatever role or whether your aria package is marketable. Maybe you have a stretch aria on there that's like, “This is where I see myself in five years.” Some kind of big rep or whatever. But some places might see that as arrogant or precocious. It depends.
Ultimately, you're looking for something that kind of strikes a balance between risk and reward. You know, a note that happens 85% of the time, probably does not belong in the audition package, because, you know, you might have just gotten off the plane in Los Angeles to sing for the LA Opera, and your audition is in three hours. You may or may not be in that ideally warmed-up place (or mental space) to nail that risky note that only comes out most of the time.
But you know, if you're auditioning for a professional thing...Then, like, you better have woken up whenever you needed to in order to have that flashy high note that you’re doing because opera, unlike musical theatre, if you're doing La bohème, you know, you sing the aria from La bohème because that's the role that you're auditioning for. If you don’t, I think people usually wonder why you're not.
What materials do you bring with you into the room (paperwork, resume, binder of music, etc.)?
Most places these days will tell you quite specifically what they want from you. It will probably be some combination of your headshot, resume, and repertoire list. People are increasingly not asking you to print out expensive physical headshots anymore, but sometimes they do, so you may as well have one in your backpack at all times. Many singers incorporate a small version of their headshot at the top of their resume.
Yeah, you've got your audition package. It's customary that the number of pieces you choose to present is five, give or take. Five is the so-called magic number. That's classically like, Italian, French, German, English, and a wildcard. Have a nice sheet that’s clean and well-designed with those arias on it. Also make sure the pieces are spelled right, or whatever. In terms of the audition, it really depends on the place, but sometimes they'll have an audition monitor, who walks in and hands all that stuff to the panel, and you're just walking in with the binder. Other times, you might have walk over to the table and distribute your materials yourself. Some places will even have the pianist walks out with you, as if it’s a real recital. So you give them the binder, and all you have to do is walk to your mark.
What is the first thing you do when you walk into the room?
I guess you had to do it before you're walking in the room, but I think the most important thing is that you're smiling and that you're smiling with your eyes. I think you hear from a lot of people that they know before you have opened your mouth whether they're interested in hiring you or not. It's probably largely based on how you walked in, and whether you walked in with confidence and are warm and inviting. I make eye contact initially and maybe say, “Hello!” or “Good afternoon” or something on my way in. Once you hit your mark, you need to crisply introduce yourself and the aria you’re going to sing. “My name is Andy Berry, and I will sing “O Isis und Osiris” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.”
What is the audition process like when auditioning to be part of a professional choral ensemble?
Honestly, I have only a very narrow experience with that. I mean, my only experience is with Chanticleer and that is kind of its own 3-day beast. It involved two solo pieces, a three-hour rehearsal with all singers and auditionees, a couple social events, and an individual sight reading test slash interview. When you say professional choir though, I'm thinking something like Trinity Wall Street or another prestigious church choir like at the National Cathedral. Maybe something like Seraphic Fire. Whereas opera has a very standard formula that you want to learn, choral auditions will probably differ from place to place. Surely they’ll make you sight read something, which never happens in opera.
How do you keep positive after failures in the audition?
That's a very good question. First of all, it should be said that failures will happen, and they will happen often. So any artist must deal with this. One thing that really moved me during my time at Opera on the Avalon was Benjamin Butterfield’s concept of a “nope mechanism.” When something bad happens, you quickly learn what you can from it, then you throw it over your shoulder. You say, “Nope. Not going to dwell on that.” Because you can't, you know, unring the bell or whatever cliché you want to say. It happened, and so worrying about it can never change it. Even if you haven't heard the results yet! As you’re waiting for the callback or the cast list to go up, worrying about your audition isn’t going to change what it says. In life and in the arts, we must come to terms with only worrying about things that we can actually affect. So...what do you do instead? I dunno. Eat some ice cream or spend time with your friends or play a video game. Do whatever it is you do that makes you feel happy and calm and yourself.
WORK OUTSIDE THE MUSIC FIELD
Have you ever had to work a part-time or full-time job that does not involve music while on the track to becoming a professional musician (not including work done while in school)?
I couldn't really say yes, because after I graduated I went right to work at the Pittsburgh Opera and have supported myself through music since then. During college, I had non-musical jobs -- like an internship at the business school. I will say that it should never be seen as shameful to have a day job or a side hustle to keep the rent paid and food on the table.
Do you take private voice lessons as a professional musician?
Yes, for sure!
How do you find a teacher?
So when I was at the young artist program in Pittsburgh I was receiving some of the greatest “voice lessons” through coachings in that program. I’ve got to give a huge shout out to the Pittsburgh Opera, the incredible coaching staff, and Mark Trawka in particular who really made me rethink how I sang. The people at Pittsburgh Opera really cared about my growth and they put me in touch with a few different voice teachers in New York City, who were big deal voice teachers. I would make these awful seven-hour drives to New York City to take these voice lessons, and then drive right back to Pittsburgh, which I did for a little while until I finally found Arthur Levy, who I really clicked with.
When I was in Pittsburgh, I took lessons whenever I could find time between shows, which really boiled down to once a month or once every two months or so. But you know, luckily, Pittsburgh was paying for my lessons at the time because I think he charges between $150 or $180, or something like that. It’s expensive.
Santa Fe was a perfect place to learn what kinds of pedagogy worked for me, because they were bringing in amazing coaches and teachers on a rotating basis every few weeks. That kind of wide exposure, and being open to all of their very different kinds of feedback, was very helpful in my learning what ideas and teaching styles do and don’t work for me.
Since joining Chanticleer, I have not really done my due diligence about finding somebody in San Francisco. I took a lesson with Arthur between Christmas concerts in New York City in December, and it was a good lesson, but I know that I need somebody in San Francisco. Usually your network is the best way to find a new voice teacher. It might also be useful to see who the singers are who are one or two steps ahead of you career-wise, who they’re studying with, if you like their sound.
What’s an average cost for a professional voice teacher?
In a place like New York City, it is is probably somewhere between $100 and $200.
Do you have to bring your own accompanist?
It depends on the teacher, but I feel like most will probably have a relationship with their own accompanists.
How have you diversified your repertoire?
In graduate school, you should hopefully be exploring all kinds of different genres. I mean, often finding a good career is about finding your niche, and finding something that you do unlike anybody else. So hopefully you're just shooting a lot of darts out there when you’re in a safe place like grad school. In terms of how you diversify, you just diversify, you know? I look up new pieces, I ask people who know my voice what they think I should be looking at, I coach until I find what’s right.
Have you been able to transfer between genres easily, such as choral to opera and vice versa?
I think that really depends on your voice type, and it really depends on the ensemble that you're joining. I feel like basses and maybe baritones in a cappella groups and choral groups get to sing with something like their solo technique. It’s a bit more on the voice than, say, a lot of choral sopranos...There are plenty of opera singers who know how to sing in a healthy way in a chorus, but I feel like lower voices can get away with more spin than high voices in a choral setting.
In Chanticleer, I do feel that the physical skills of opera have been very transferable to my ensemble singing. My job is, essentially, to produce enough decibels to balance the eleven other people whose voices tend to be more favored by acoustics. Soprano voices just speak louder than bass voices in most acoustics. So I feel like a lot of my job involves using the skills I learned in opera to cut through an orchestra to now cut through the sopranists, altos, tenors, and baritones of Chanticleer.
The biggest challenge in switching for me, I would say, is that opera is a kind of singing where if you are doing it physically right, meaning as aerodynamically as possible and as acoustically healthily as possible, you are basically “correct.” Whereas in choral music, that is often not the case. There are a lot of times when somebody is asking you to make an effect, like straight tone, that is simply not going to result from everything in your vocal tract flapping around as freely as possible. So while it is usually possible to achieve those effects in a healthy way, it can be easy to default to something not as healthy or sustainable to achieve the effect I’m looking for. I’m still working on finding an idiom of singing, say, Renaissance polyphony that feels as totally sustainable for me as singing more freely or operatically.
How important is solo classical training to choral singing? How important is choral training to solo classical singing?
I personally think it was necessary for me to find the freest and most acoustically healthy way to pass air through my folds, so like opera or classical singing technique, before I was able to find a healthy way to achieve various “choral” effects like straight tone. I guess it’s not the same for everyone, but I think that in general, it’s easier to scale back a free voice than it is to free up a habitually tight one. That’s not to say that everyone is the same though.
This is difficult territory where a lot of traditionalist opera teachers or loyalists would say that you can't sing in a choir -- “that's for the birds” -- and it's gonna make you learn all these bad habits, which is kind of not wrong. I mean, in Chanticleer, if something is not tuning, I do sometimes find myself compromising something in my technique to quickly make the chord right. Even if it’s unconscious, when we’re singing in a group, we subsume ourselves to the needs of the group and its “blend,” which means that we will do some things that are not ideal for our personal vocal mechanism. Opera, on the other hand, is basically the pursuit of never doing something not-ideal for your vocal mechanism. This is a way in which these forms kind of clash, but I do believe a smart singer can be good at both.
I also believe that my time in Chanticleer has only improved my solo singing, just because singing is singing, and I have spent my time in this group just getting better at singing. One thing I will say about choral singing, which is sort of a tangent, is that college choir and other larger choruses can be great voice lessons in motion. You get to take huge risks. When you're singing Messiah in the chorus or something else that takes some real voice, like a Mozart Requiem, you have a lot of room to just mess around honestly, and that is very useful. I think a lot of my greatest vocal breakthroughs for solo singing happened in the time that I was in college choir or even church choir as a grad student, and I had the freedom to explore what was working for me and what wasn’t without being under an individual microscope.
How much of an understanding do you need of other languages/how important is it?
I'm pretty intense about this. I love nothing more than giving a song recital, which to me is basically a poetry recitation. I believe that you can easily see when a singer only has a vague understanding of what they're saying. Sentence translations are not enough. If you are thinking “I love you” when you sing, “ti amo,” you haven’t done the work. You need to know you’re saying, “you I love.” That’s maybe a too-simple example, but word order matters. The people who really make it are the people who really connect with the text and make their audiences feel things when they are singing. I don’t believe that happens if you are just thinking “this is the part where I should look sad” as you sing a sad sentence. You communicate by investing each individual word with its true meaning. That doesn’t mean you have to be fluent in the language, you just have to have done the work to really know what you’re saying at every specific moment.
To answer the question in a different way...in the States, you can totally get away with only being fluent in English. If you want to have a career in Germany, maybe you also can kind of get away with only really speaking English, because a lot of industry folks there do speak English. But, if there's a language to learn when pursuing opera, it's German, because that is where the jobs are plentiful and where a lot of the most exciting and adventurous opera is being made. And that is where many, many American singers will go, to kind of bridge the gap between young artist programs and their US return.
Is it better to stay in the United States or go to Europe to sing/study?
I do think that US schooling is very good, and I think that US young artist programs are pretty good. But maybe they're only best at preparing you for the US system...who knows. Europe does have more places where you can sing and make a living doing so. Their state funding for the arts is robust, and they'll take a risk on you and your voice in a way that say the Met or Chicago Lyric might not. The Met is probably not going to make a big gamble on someone relatively unknown, but maybe when they’ve seen somebody get a few credits in Germany they'll say, “Oh, cool, maybe they can sing this”, or something like that. In the States, we kind of put European sensibilities about the arts and classical music on a pedestal, so European credits can be very powerful on a resume. For a lot of people, Europe is really an important pivot point in their career, but it really depends on the person.
How do you manage and prevent vocal fatigue while performing demanding amounts of music?
I think the bottom line is that you have to get your technique right. Ultimately, a healthy technique is very sustainable. In terms of pure vocal fatigue, I think that if you're hitting the end of a night of opera singing and you're feeling really like, “Whoa, I'm in trouble”, then there’s something wrong with what you’re doing to make your sound. That's not to say that you shouldn’t ever feel tired or vocally drained, but I'm just saying that much of vocal health is just about how good you are at passing air through healthily, and without friction.
That all said, in opera rehearsal, I say don’t be afraid to mark. Obviously sing out for musical rehearsals, sing out occasionally when you are staging scenes, but if you are running one complicated bit of staging over and over, there’s really no need to give everything you have each time. It’s quite acceptable to mark in staging rehearsal.
In general, one of the greatest drawbacks to being a professional singer I think is that demand to constantly be caring for your instrument, which happens to be you. Maybe a violinist gets to put their instrument in a case after a show. But you have to live your life while also carrying your precious instrument around with you always. I think getting enough sleep every night is the most important part of that care, with consistent and healthy hydration a close second, and maybe healthy speaking technique third.
What are some remedies for curing short term altercations to the voice (sore throat, cold, etc.)?
In terms of like secrets, I mean, I don't know of one that I ever really believed in. You know, scientific studies show us that vitamin C for example doesn’t really cure or prevent colds. But I do really believe in the placebo effect. Honestly, whatever you believe is going to work for you is going to work for you. I once read some study about fish oil reducing your chances of getting a cold, and I took a supplement for a while. I don't know if it helped. Bottom line, hydrating, sleeping, and taking care of yourself are tried and true, and you just have to do them. Also, don’t be afraid to seek out an ENT, hopefully one who specializes in singers, if you’re feeling ill and a performance is fast approaching.
How important is it for a singer to exercise consistently?
I will say that I think that a lot of exercise skills have a direct correlation to singing skills. Weightlifting is one that some old school types really discourage, but for me it’s really made a huge difference in my understanding of singing. I think that singing essentially boils down to figuring out how to get the right stuff working, and how to stop the wrong stuff from working. The disadvantage is that all that “stuff” is inside your body, so you can’t really see what is or isn’t working. Weightlifting is very much about that concept in a much more easily observable way. If you're doing a bench press, you want to push with your chest assisted by your triceps, but all kinds of things like your shoulders want to help if you aren’t doing it right. So you start building those mind body connections, building mindfulness, in a way that is much easier to observe than in singing. Other forms of exercise like yoga or tai chi that more specifically focus on mindfulness and breath flow can also be incredible for singers if done right. Running can be a great meditation in motion, relaxed breathing, and body mechanics. So, yes! I think it is important for singers to exercise.
How important is it for a singer to follow a specific diet and what foods and drinks should be avoided?
I think this pretty personal. For instance, a lot of singers I speak to have problems with acid reflux, so if that’s the case then it’s important to avoid highly acidic foods. I do think it's very individual, though. I don’t mind eating cheese or drinking milk before a concert. Some people love a caffeine buzz when performing, others swear that coffee wrecks their voices. It’s very individual.
I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with having a glass of wine or a beer after a concert, even if you’re performing the next day. As long as you sleep and hydrate, it’ll be fine. I do though think it’s easy for singers to be very “work hard, play hard” and develop unhealthy relationships with alcohol or other substances. I really caution young singers, especially in school or at Young Artist Programs where everyone’s enabling everyone else, to be mindful of their relationship with substances like that.
How much does touring and traveling with high vocal demands affect you?
Oh, a lot. I think definitely the hardest part of Chanticleer is keeping yourself performance-ready while traveling. It’s hard not to feel pretty beaten up on tour. From just sitting in cars, sitting in buses, sitting in planes, not having any kind of routine, and sleeping in all these unfamiliar beds and pillows, I start to feel really beaten up. Planes and hotel rooms are also so, so drying. And Europe in the summer, trying to sleep with no air conditioning anywhere…?
It’s been good for me to learn how to sing on tour, actually. For me, the first thing to go when traveling is the sensation of looseness and relaxation that I need to sing low. And that’s all I do in this group! So I’ve had to do a lot of work to learn how to stay loose despite all that - mindfulness, stretching, baths, steam rooms, saunas. I’ve had to be much more aware of my posture and especially my sitting posture when driving or when on the plane. I get a lot of massages. I’ve also had to learn not to feel pressure to see various places or do the touristy things if I know that a low-key day of self-care is going to yield the much better concert.
FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS
How has being a professional musician affected your relationships?
Hmm. I mean, I think you could argue that both of my long-term relationships ended because of my career, but in neither case was it necessarily because my career was in singing. Many jobs require lots of travel or force couples into long-distance situations, which can put a big strain on even the most wonderful-seeming relationships. In terms of dating, I think it’s kind of fun to explore, like, whether you want to date somebody who’s in the industry or not. Dating outside the industry is fun and interesting, but sometimes on a first date you’re like, “I’m a classical singer,” and suddenly the dinner is going to be a lot about that when it really shouldn’t be, because you’re suddenly a kind of curiosity.
You know, we live such a different lifestyle than so many people. Most people work during the day and have the night off. A lot of singers have freer days and their hard commitments at night. So finding compatible relationships outside the industry can be interesting.
In terms of friends and family, I feel like my friends who work more “traditional” jobs are able to schedule time off to coincide with their friends’ weddings or family vacations in a way that I can’t. If I signed a contract a year ago and have a show the weekend of my friend’s wedding, I’m not going to be able to go to the wedding. That can be hard.
Is it hard to balance a relationship with a non-musician?
So thinking about my time in opera when I was in a young artist program, it felt very [normal] to date because I was solidly based Pittsburgh for two years. But then when you're a working contractor in the opera world, ideally, you’re traveling a lot, singing in Houston one month, and then you're in San Francisco for a month, and you're in Chicago for a month, and so one. So it is really hard to meet people and stay in touch with people.
Chanticleer is a different model, since we are solidly based in San Francisco, but then we’re out of town for half of the year. So we are here, but you go on a date with somebody and then it's like, “Well, see you in a month.” A lot of dating is about momentum in a certain way, and it might have been a fine first date, but by the time you get back and you're just kind of feeling cool about that person and it just kind of fizzles out. I did find myself in a wonderful relationship that was quite affected by Chanticleer. We were dating and the issue of travel loomed hugely. It created huge anxiety [in the] relationship, which eventually led to the end. You know, you have to find a partner who's extremely independent if you’re going to be away from them a lot of the time.
Would it be difficult to have a partner and children as a professional musician?
Specifically talking about a group like Chanticleer, I think that the prospect of children is one of the big things that makes people leave — when your priorities start to shift toward a partner who needs you more than just half the year. A half a year is a lot of time away. I remember feeling very sad when my mother would travel for work, and her trips were much shorter than mine. I would not want to put a child through that. But these questions are very individual and depend on the singer and their partner.
In the opera world, it's a whole other bag of worms. I mean, being a woman in opera, as in really any job, means that all your bosses are kind of watching you like you're a time bomb or something. It is shameful how poorly the opera industry treats its expecting and new mothers. I also read a lot about how much pregnancy and childbirth affect the voice and the body.
What is the best way to market yourself as a musician?
That is a very interesting question because it kind of depends on your audience. Is your audience the world at large, or is it say the opera companies who are actually paying the bills? In opera, I’d say the best way to market yourself is to be a great colleague and a great singer, so that when general directors or casting directors or agents or whatever are talking, your name comes up as someone who was competent and easy to work with. Good gigs lead to more good gigs. Instagram followers do not necessarily generate work.
Do you think that it is necessary to have an active social media?
Are you trying to, you know, build a brand, or whatever? A social media presence really helps that. It helps to have a platform and have a voice. Yeah, I mean, entrepreneurship is so important in music, so having more opportunities to have more people fall in love with your message and what you're trying to share with the world is better than fewer people. But in general, a lot of likes or shares or reposts do not pay the bills in opera.
Is it important to have a website?
Yes, the answer is yes. I think that it’s good if you have control over the first thing that comes up when you Google your name. And I think that, you know, having a website has a lot to offer. Nowadays, a lot of these opera people just click through a website, watch some videos, and like, that's the audition, or that's enough to get you into the audition room. It is important to have a professional website that makes a good impression. So, great to have a website, but do they care in the audition room if you have a website? No, not exactly, they just care if you sing well. But they may never have asked you in without seeing that YouTube video or whatever.
Is being a musician financially difficult?
Short answer: yes. I think that I have been extremely lucky, not having student debt and being paid a living wage by consistent singing work that allowed me to afford solo apartments in Pittsburgh and now in San Francisco. But for most, if you’re trying to sing right of school, just stringing gigs together, you’re probably very lucky if you’re breaking $25,000 a year in income (not profit!). Contractor life is very tough. You know, health care, in its current state, is very expensive. You're paying lots of money for plans that don't cover you out of state. So, for example, you live in New York, but you're gigging all over and you're paying hundreds of dollars in monthly premiums for these plans that don't even really help you if you get sick on the job in Arizona or wherever else you are. You also might be paying rent for an apartment you aren’t really living in.
Even if a solo opera singer is making six figures, after taxes and travel expenses and lessons and health insurance and coachings and dresses and tuxedos and whatnot, it really doesn’t feel like you’re making six figures. Ultimately, if your primary goal in life is to make a lot of money, it is simply true that music is not the path for you. That path is like tech or finance.
How beneficial is it to have an accountant that is adept at working with musicians in terms of taxes?
Learning how to do your taxes as a musician is like its own whole thing. If it’s your first time stringing gigs together, you know, these 1099 contractor gigs, and you weren’t setting aside money for self-employment taxes...Wow, that first tax season is an absolute gut punch. You have to learn how to find every possible penny to deduct without going so far that you invite an audit. These days there are a lot of resources to help learn how to do singer taxes, but schools, you know, should really be teaching you about your tax burden. That said, in the early stages of a career, it’s hard to imagine it making financial sense to hire an accountant instead of just getting really good at doing your own taxes.
What is a normal day like for a member of Chanticleer?
Oh, there are all kinds of different normal days. I mean, in San Francisco, if it’s a rehearsal day, rehearsal is 10:30 AM to 3:30 PM. So, I'll wake up, make coffee and usually two eggs, before going over whatever we’re going to work on that day. I'll probably work out after work, depending on the day of the week, and then do whatever I do in the evening. On a concert day, though, I am hopefully not setting an alarm so that I wake up when I naturally wake up. Then I will probably do some kind of workout, but not something hard. I'm definitely not trying to lift the heaviest I've lifted or break any records. There's something about the way that I think about singing and the kind of relaxation that I require — I can't do a [hard] workout and then still be in the right place for a concert. But some kind of physical activity is important for me to feel loose and warmed up.
I generally like to eat a big meal in the late afternoon and then not really eat a big meal before the concert. This group doesn't exactly allow for that, though. We are fed before concerts and are often not in a position to really eat before then. Maybe we were driving all day from the previous city. So, there's sometimes no way around that. After a concert, I usually hang out with some of the Chanticleer guys and maybe get a beer. Or, I'll wind down, I'll read, or I’ll play my Nintendo Switch. I'm somebody who gets pretty amped by a concert, so it takes a little while before the adrenaline fades and I’m able to sleep.
What’s it like being in Chanticleer for your first season?
It's been very rewarding. I think that it's been very rewarding because I really believe in choral music. I believe in the messages that choral music, and chamber music in particular, offer us us about collaboration. I think that we're in a position in the [United States] where people are feeling quite disconnected — [people are not] looking each other in the eye and having these soul-bearing and vulnerable moments. I find Chanticleer rewarding because we are showing people those vulnerable moments all the time. A tempo change is coming, a key change is coming, we have to coordinate a breath together. So we’re like trying to beam through our eyes and our whole bodies to each other [to communicate] how it’s going to go. I hope that is something the audience takes away from our concerts — the beauty of the presence and vulnerability required for our collaboration.
From a personal perspective, I think that it's really made me grow as a musician and as a singer. I mean, it's been extremely challenging in a lot of ways because it's such a different skill set from what I was doing [in the opera world]. The demands of pitch, of leadership — singing bass in this group requires a lot of leadership, because that's, you know, that's what outer voice-parts do. With no conductor, we have to lead ourselves and each other. That is a really cool challenge.
Where do you see yourself after Chanticleer?
Hmm. I'm not sure yet. I think that the more that I go, the more I'm seeing that singers are ultimately executors. We’re on the front line. Someone else is making the program, someone else is telling us basically how it should be sung. Especially as an opera singer, I missed a lot of the opportunities I had in college to mix leadership and organizational skils with singing. Actually, one thing I love about Chanticleer versus opera is how much I feel like the twelve of us have more say in the organization because we're permanently there as opposed to in opera where the singers are moving around all of the time. Chanticleer must deal with us and our needs, versus an opera company that knows you’re going to be gone in a month.
Some day I see myself in some kind of leadership or administrative role of some kind. I don't know if that would be at a university or in an arts organization, or something else. Politics is also on my mind. I am trying to be open to the possible paths my life my take and the opportunities that might present themselves. I think any musician must be kind of ready to go where the wind blows.
What are some things that you wish you knew while you were going through the process of becoming a professional musician?
Especially in opera, I would say that I wish I had been better prepared for the fact that the pure music-making was rarely going to be the thing taking up most of my mental space. I wish I had been better prepared for some of the draining mental aspects of the job. I was prepared for schmoozing and networking -- I was not prepared to be constantly questioning myself about whether I should allow an important librettist to leave his hand on my thigh at an important donor dinner, or whether I should have flirted back with the general director when he put his hand on my shoulder and said things that made me uncomfortable. Especially when, frankly, it does seem sometimes like people who participate in those kinds of flirtation do become the favorites of those people in power.
Of my colleagues who are comfortable enough to talk to me about these things, every woman, every gay man, and most straight men can point to at least one time they were made to feel uncomfortable in some sexual way by someone with power over them, and usually it’s many more instances. I’m not necessarily talking about cases of obvious sexual misconduct, but the opera world feels to me defined by this exhausting atmosphere in which young singers must constantly navigating the gray areas between “networking” and inappropriate behavior. I wish I had known better how to cope with the fact that, because singing is you and your body, there’s some way that your body becomes a commodity in the eyes of people making decisions. There is an objectification that I was surprised by and wish I had been better prepared for.
I was also not prepared for the rage I would feel, as a half-Japanese person, at un-thoughtful productions of things like Butterfly or Turandot, in which I’m forced to watch choristers run around in yellowface and raggedy geisha wigs, inhabiting every stereotype of Asian-ness they’ve ever internalized, whether subconscious or explicitly asked for as is so often the case. These productions filled with shuffling and head-bobbing Pings, Pangs, and Pongs. And the constant devil’s advocate conversations I would have with people for whom these issues are just a fun intellectual exercise whereas for me they were filled with hurt and negative emotion.
Anyway, it’s all complicated, but there was all this “real world” stuff -- these collisions between young, more “woke” people who want more ownership of their bodies and more respect toward marginalized communities butting heads with this very establishmentarian and risk-averse industry. I wish I knew how frustrated I would be by how slow social progress seems to come in the classical music industry and how much it would affect my state of mind.