Charles Wesley Evans
“An elegant, mellifluous and expressive baritone” (New York Times), Charles Wesley Evans has been applauded by The Miami Herald as “the peak of the night’s solo work” and “a warm, strong baritone” by the Washington Post. This Georgia-born baritone began singing professionally at the age of 11 as a chorister at The American Boychoir School in Princeton, New Jersey where he performed nationally and internationally under the baton of notable conductors, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, James Levine, John Williams and Vladimir Spivakov. With a versatility that ranges from the Baroque to Gospel and African-American Spirituals, he has engaged a myriad of audiences with performances of song that are programmed to intrigue the novice and feed the soul of the avid concert goer.His solo work has offered opportunities across the US with the Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Austin Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony, Delaware Philharmonic, Berkshire Baroque, the Dryden Ensemble, Princeton Pro Musica, Music in Somerset Hills, and the Masterworks Chorus and orchestra in Carnegie Hall. He is a passionate supporter and performer of professional choral practices and is a proud member of the Carmel Bach Festival Chorale (Carmel, CA), Grammy-nominated Seraphic Fire (Miami, FL), The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Grammy-award winning ensemble Conspirare (Austin, TX). His singing has been broadcast on New York Public Radio, South Florida Public Radio, California Public Radio and Classical MPR (Minnesota).He has served on the voice faculties of the University of South Florida, University of Tampa and is currently artist faculty for the Aspen Music Festival (Professional Choral Institute) and Director of Choral and Vocal Studies at Choate Rosemary Hall. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, GA with further study at the Boston Conservatory of Music and Westminster Choir College of Rider University (Princeton, NJ).
Where are you from?
How did you get into music?
It was kind of like a limb. My mother's an organist. My brother is a music teacher. My two sisters are sopranos. We kind of come to Earth singing. So the second that I could actually make sense of pitch, I was singing.
Where did you attend your undergraduate studies?
Brevard College was my first school in Brevard, North Carolina. I moved from there in my second year to Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Georgia, and I found a really, really phenomenal teacher there, T. N. Retif. So I spent my undergraduate career there.
What undergraduate degrees do you hold?
I hold a Bachelor of Arts in Music and a minor in Psychology.
Did you do any young artists programs during undergraduate studies?
I did not.
Did you do any professional choral institutions while in undergraduate studies?
No, they did not exist.
What are some things (besides YAP/PCI) that you did to build your resume as an undergraduate student?
Well, a lot of the success of building a resume in undergraduate, especially in a small, rural area, was the teacher finding opportunities that I didn't know existed. So I did my first Messiah when I was a senior in high school. I did a number of recitals and competitions across the Southeast. Generally, you meet new colleagues that are also seniors that you'll know for the rest of your life at these conventions and competitions. You're competing against them and other teachers in the state are seeing you and suggesting you for certain master classes with noted pedagogs. People who will come to the area that you might be able to do potential graduate study with or have reputations as really fine teachers.
The teacher put me on the forefront of what was happening in voice in the state and that kind of formulated a little young artists program for me as a soloist.
What are some of the most useful ways for undergraduates to spend their time to prepare them for the next step?
First of all, I'm a big advocate for finding a really, really good teacher and hopefully, they'll be committed to guiding their students with regard to certainly a rock solid technical foundation. Building that foundation is key in freshman and sophomore year. One of the most devastating things for me to see is a student being rushed through repertoire that can wait until their junior or senior year when they’re understanding of the vocal mechanism is more clear. So if you find the proper teacher, they're able to not only solidify or get you grounded, but also choose appropriate repertoire. Hopefully, they have some knowledge of what repertoire is the proper solo rep. that you should be working on at the time, to present for auditions during your junior or senior year for graduate study, young artist programs or for these new things like Professional Choral Institutes that are popping up around the world. They should have the knowledge to share with you, and start working that music in such a way that by the time you start creating your mp3s and information packets to send to these places, the music has already been worked really well and is in the body. I think that's the top of the list when you're a young singer, becoming as technically proficient as possible, learning how to practice and understanding what you should and shouldn’t be singing at that age.
How important is GPA in undergraduate studies?
I think that's always important. I will say some of the best singers and artists are horrible students. I'm not saying I'm one of the best singer-artists in the world, but I was not a good student. But if you handed me a piece of music, I would make music for you. Unabashedly, it was just something that was inside of me, but then when it came down to academics, it was rough. One thing that I did not know as an undergraduate was that there were so many resources on campus for tutoring. If you needed to be motivated just to sit down and study because sometimes all we want to do is work on our art songs or work on our arias, it takes someone holding us accountable. Our professors and teachers can't always be there. There are tutorial programs at all these colleges and universities that I did not know about that you can take advantage of.
So I would say absolutely, you want to do the best possible work that you can in all of your studies, but you also need to recognize when you need someone else to hold you accountable. You need to spend a little bit more time with those services that are in your tuition, frankly. I had no clue. So yes, I do believe that it is important to do the best you possibly can and when you need assistance or help, don’t be prideful and overlook the fact that there are resources on campus that will help you excel. I mean, where there’s a B, there could be an A. Where there were Ds, there could be Cs, but it's important to recognize that those resources really do exist on campus, and they are there for you. So if you're able to go, it's likely that the GPA will be boosted.
At the end of the day, if you're on your way into graduate school and you've done good study and you're singing really well, but your GPA is 2.75 and another singer who doesn't have the longevity that you have, they’re likely to take a chance on [you]. So I would say do your best and if your best is 2.75 and you've been lining up the voice and working on the proper rep, chances are you're going to do very well going to graduate study. But bottom line, utilize the resources that are available to you on campus.
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?
Interesting question. My point, bottom line, you go to the school for the teacher. Those teachers who are in the circuit, and when I say the circuit, even if they're not a part of NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing), etc. they're constantly sending out information on new young artists programs, auditions, master classes and vocal health programs/seminars. They're constantly sending out emails with regard to the master classes that their students should attend or sing. So they're getting the same information from these huge universities, at their smaller institutions, where you can give more personal attention. Also, you may find that small school has a better pedagogue. That is what you need.
You need to always reach out to your colleagues and talk to them about teachers. Yes, we have CCM. Yes, we have the Curtis Institute of Music, Boston Conservatory, New England Conservatory and all these other schools where the name just kind of turns heads, but there's not always a true pedagogue there teaching the voice how to work for three decades. I think that's most important. So you can find a phenomenal teacher at, for instance, Shenandoah University, which is one of the few universities that size that has a concentrated area in voice ped. Program. If that's where you found your teacher and you do the work, you will be noticed. Your teacher is going to put you on the path with all these kids from CCM or Rice University and you're going to be running right alongside them.
How do you find a voice teacher that you would like to study with?
You need to utilize the resources that you have. I've taught voice. You get to know in the circuit who people are sending their students to. For instance, I've taught undergraduates and graduates, and I always have some idea of who I want my students to look into. A lot of it is based on the conversations from other teachers and singers that I respect. I know their practices. I know their approach to their performance and to their vocal health. So I utilize my resources, so that I can send my students to a good teacher that I know cares a lot more about the students vocal health more so than putting them on a stage to win a competition and make a name for the teacher. You know, so I have to utilize my network.
Is it more beneficial to attend graduate school or gain experience right out of undergraduate studies?
That varies. I have a number of colleagues who, like myself, started freelancing in New York City. New York City happens to have a number of professional choral ensembles right in the area. I met the right people at the right time. It was around the time that I didn't even know that having this type of career existed. This was around 2007. So the choir that I sang with, The Choir of Trinity Church Wall Street, was a choir full of all of the bosses of the New York City choral area. From that choir, because of the work that I was doing there such as showing up prepared. Along with this, my solo work was in good shape. Some of those people who were in my choir who were my friends were also artistic directors of other ensembles around the city. So, from my work at Trinity, I didn't have to give them an audition tape. I basically had been auditioning for them without knowing. So they just started sending me contracts.
It just continued to spiral. Seraphic Fire heard me on a webcast from Trinity Church. We had a full concert series, and they were always internationally webcast. I didn't know they were watching, but they liked what they heard 10 years ago, and I started receiving contracts from them because of just being seen and heard. So it was a lot of being in the right place at the right time. You always have to be mindful of the fact that you never know who's around you. You always want to be at the top of your game as best you can. A lot of my opportunities came from singing with other professionals who also had artistic director positions.
Should you pay for graduate school or should they pay you?
Ideally, no. They should be paying you. It’s different for everyone. However, especially for the doctoral program, you should not ever have to pay. The master's degree can be kind of a toss-up. If you're lucky enough to gain an assistantship where you are assisting the music department in the offices, or if they're giving you a private studio, or if you are teaching a course, those are the most ideal programs, because those are the programs that offer scholarships and stipends along with work experience. If that doesn't happen, because it's so competitive, you should always have a plan B. There are plenty of good teachers all over this country and some of them might be right in your backdoor at a state school. Master’s programs at state schools cost almost nothing. There are so many schools with so many students attempting to get in.
A school like Shenandoah University, which is a good school, but the secret’s not totally out yet. You might find a great pedagogue there, and you might be more likely to get an assistantship there with a lot of work experience. That means once you're out of the graduate program, you have almost two years of work experience. So when you apply for a position at a college, it doesn't show that you've just been in school and you haven't worked. They are giving you two years worth of experience for your resume that propels you ahead of someone else who's graduated from CCM or wherever, who's just been singing and not teaching.
How important is it to have a master’s degree?
That is another question that is so individual. Personally, I haven't finished mine. I'm almost finished with it. But it actually did not matter at all, when it came to my singing career. Some guy from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra could be sitting around listening when you've done a great performance and done good work. All of a sudden, you start hearing from them, and they don't care if you have a master's degree, to be quite honest. The most important thing about the master's degree is that it is just another thing in your toolbox to have. I'm sure Sara, James, Patrick, and Scott can talk about being able to teach at the University and College level, where it is almost a definite requirement these days.
So I do think it is important. I do not think that it is impossible to have a career doing what we do, or just being an opera singer, or just concertizing. No, you absolutely don't have to have it. If you finish undergraduate, and you're not totally sure where you want to live, because there are certain pockets of the country where it's easier to get into the professional choral singing world like New York City or in Boston. I think if the work that you're doing as an undergraduate singer is going well, I think it's really smart to go on to another good teacher in a graduate program almost immediately. That's one of my biggest regrets: not going directly into my master's degree. So yeah, I think it's important, but I do not think that if you are able to get work and you're doing well, that is something that you absolutely have to have. But if you're looking way, way, way, way down the road, and you think, “I'm going to want to teach and not travel for the rest of my life.” Yes, absolutely.
How important is it to have a doctoral degree?
Again, colleges these days, because they're competing against each other, the more doctors they have on faculty, the more competitive they are. Now mind you, just because someone has a doctorate does not mean they can teach. That doesn’t even really mean they can sing. I have worked with them. They have had studios right next to mine. I think if it's in you, after that master's degree, take a break. Your singing is going well. If there's a program that suits your lifestyle for a DMA, I think you should absolutely take that opportunity. I think you should get the highest level degree you are comfortable with. But at the same time, if the career is going well, and you’re feeling like, “Okay, this can be something that I can see myself doing and retiring.” You’ll might sing 15 years, concertizing and in professional choral world. If you have something like arts admin that you've been doing also, the admin position is a solid position that you can retire with. You might not find yourself needing a doctorate, but it depends a lot on your vision for your life. If you see yourself teaching in a college, teaching voice, doing coursework, running away every once in a while to do a symphony performance doing a Brahms Requiem or something like that, the DMA is valuable.
Where did you attend your graduate studies?
Boston Conservatory for a year. Then I spent three years at Westminster Choir College.
What graduate degrees do you hold?
None. I'm very close to finishing the degree at Westminster. Only 12 credit hours shy. I stopped because of a lot of family things that were happening at the time, and it was so stressful. But at the exact same time my career as a soloist and also as a professional choral singer was really taking off. I found myself just wanting to not juggle both. I certainly enjoyed being in New York, making music and getting tons of solo work and building the resume. I just made the choice that I will be back one day to take care of it.
Did you do any young artists programs during graduate studies?
No. I would count the professional work that I was doing in graduate school as young artist work, but it was professional work. But it was work that most or all of my master's degree colleagues weren't doing. A number of them are running off to do opera young artists programs, but I was actually working at a time when most grad students weren’t.
Did you do any Professional Choral Institutes (or similar programs for choral studies) during graduate studies?
You know what, if they existed, I totally would have done it.
What are some things (besides YAP/PCI) that you did to build your resume as a graduate student?
As a graduate student, I was lucky enough to be between Philadelphia and New York, and Princeton, New Jersey. It is a musical nucleus of a number of different levels. You have to humble yourself. You can't expect to start off at the top. So there are opportunities as a soloist that I took that were Messiah Sings where they have a ton of people come in and they'll have four soloists, and they pay you $200, if anything at all. There were other opportunities around the area and this was because of someone who heard me do one of these Messiah Sings. I got one of the biggest professional things I did. It was a Brahms Requiem with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. A lot of that was because of the conductor who called me in to do the Messiah Sing. The other conductor of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra was there. So that turned into an actual professional opportunity with a major orchestra.
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 can't say how important it is to reach out to those before you and find time with them and talk to them. Every path is not going to be the same for all of us, but there are some key things like knowing how to make a decent recording, or artist packet, or publicity packet to send out; discussing whether or not you need a website; staying abreast of all of these different opportunities to visit master classes and to visit pedagogical master classes in particular. There are programs (three or four of them around the country) where you can just go there for two or three weeks and study the instrument scientifically. It's so important that they stay on top of seeing those which are listed in Classical Singer, Early Music America, even Opera News. Have access to those publications, or even simply when you're in the music building, we have things posted all over the board. We get these posters from all these things that we’re signed up for. Read them. A lot of them don't cost anything, and they're actually very good. A lot of them are in Europe. So I would utilize your elders and people who have fought through this before, but also stay on top of things that aren't necessarily singing opportunities like educational opportunities in the summer.
How important is GPA in graduate studies?
Very. They do not mess around with that. You cannot get below the average in there. You have to have a 3.0 or above or you're in danger of being dismissed. The course load itself isn't as heavy in graduate school each semester, because they're giving you opportunities to teach. They're giving you opportunities to do administrative things. They want to try and find that balance. They also know that the study that you're going to be doing in graduate school needs more time to go deeper. So that's why the number of credit hours are so few. It seems like few, but when you start writing all the papers and reading 70 pages a night for each course, it seems like 19 hours. But your GPA is extremely important, and I think the way that they balance it is by trying to make sure that you have the opportunity to do that without a huge battle. It's a balance of being able to really absorb that information. If you're staying on top of it, you should manage that B average, but it becomes a problem when it goes below that.
How do you get auditions?
The last major audition I had was in 2007, and it was for the Trinity choir. Almost everything else that I have done since then was because a conductor took me with them to do a work, wherever that may be around the country. Other conductors are speaking to that conductor, and that conductor is suggesting you for work. For that particular audition, it was very typical. You sight-read. You sang a couple of contrasting pieces. It was Trinity Church in New York again, and most of what they did was early stuff at the time. So it was a contrast of early pieces with the artistic director and an accompanist that they provided.
Do you need an agent?
My close friends have lasted about 10 years without one. I don't have one. As time goes on your perspective on what it is you want changes. I think that after about 10 years, even though you've been getting solo opportunities, you might find yourself wanting mostly solo opportunities. So oftentimes, they will sing for agents and most times be picked up by an agent and they'll start doing mostly individual solo work around the world.
What pieces do you choose to prepare (range, technique, etc.)?
I always research the conductor, if I am actually singing for a conductor. I read about them. I look at their season on their website. What are they mostly doing? Is it mostly early stuff? Is it mostly new music? Is it romantic? You can learn a lot about that conductor and that group based on the research that you do. Based on that, if it's something that is suitable for my voice, I'll keep it simple. If it's Bach and Handel that they specialize in, I will find some of these Handel arias and any number of Bach arias from the B minor or the St. Matthew. There's a number of cantatas with absolutely beautiful artists in them, and some of them are kind of standard. If you dare do one of those, you best do a good job of it. So I'll generally choose some standards, depending on what these people this conductor specializes in. It just makes no sense if it's a Handel-Haydn situation like they have up in Boston, to go in there and and bring in like a Ned Rorem piece. They won't think you did your research. They won't have as much respect for you. But if you sing beautifully enough, they'll figure it out.
How many pieces do you present?
It depends on the person. I'm always ready for three. If I had three with contrasting styles, and that means, if it's early, maybe a Bach and a Handel. It could be Scarlotti and Brevi or Vivaldi. All of these early composers. I would look for something that had a lot of coloratura, something that moves and dances, and then something that will allow sostenuto and show line. Then at the bottom, generally, it’s just two things they want to hear. I would sing an English art song, especially if the others were in German and Italian. Most people want to hear some English as well, which would maybe be a newer English piece.
What material do you bring with you into the room (paperwork, resume, binder of music, etc.)?
At this point, I would have a binder of music just in case the accompanist that has been provided and you don't bring your own. I would have an extra set for them. I would have my set, but I likely wouldn't use it. It always depends. If it's oratorio, they absolutely won't care. Sometimes you will come out onto a big stage where it might actually happen and you sing for these people and their expectation is, because that's the practice, that you would utilize your music. You absolutely don't have to, but I would definitely have two sets of music. The resume and all those other things you've already sent ahead. I would always have an extra pack in my in my folder, but chances are, you no longer need to give that to them. They're going to have it. They're gonna start reading this the second they say your name and you walk out on stage. So most importantly, two sets of music. One with really, really, really clear copies for your pianist. You want to be very respectful to them, so you want to make sure what you give them is legible.
What is the first thing you do when you walk into the room?
I walk into the room like I own it. I walk into the [audition] room with confidence. I think that the second they see you take the stage, they are sizing you up. So even if that day, you're not feeling great, and there's a little bit of concern, you have to think, “I am the best baritone or soprano or mezzo soprano in the world.” That means so much. The way that you take the stage and the way that you're dressed is extremely important. You want to wear a nice suit if it's that formal of an audition where there are three people like the like American Idol sitting out there watching you. If it’s an individual audition, generally, as long as you're clean, it’s not that huge of a deal. They want to hear the voice and they want to hear the sight reading and all that stuff.
What is the audition process like when auditioning to be part of a professional choral ensemble?
Generally, it's what I call a press packet. A really good headshot that is relatively current, within five years, and a good likeness of yourself. Maybe on the back of that, and this can be done in a number of ways, list the work that you have done as a soloist, the works that you have done as a professional choral artist, the coaches that you have had, the teachers that you have had, and you can either put education at the bottom, or education at the top with your full name.
Before you even arrived to audition for them, most of the time, you've already sent sound bites of your singing. That's generally how they make their decision in a lot of these groups. You don't go to them, unless you're lucky enough knowing that they're in your town. You reach out to them and say, “Can I do a coaching with you?” and they say “Yes.” That in itself is an audition. With professional choral ensembles, because everyone's so spread out, there's no requirement, most of the time, for you to fly there to sing for them. So make sure that the things that you send in are really good quality and let other people listen to your things. You don't want to be the only ear listening to your singing. The balance of you and your collaborative pianist. The repertoire you chose. You want to run that by people that you respect.
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 didn't have to, but I was burned out after undergraduate from competing and all these things my teacher was involving me in, which were all fantastic. So [after undergraduate school], I went into social work for maybe three years. The first year I only did a few little solo things at Christmas, and the following year, I auditioned for a local professional ensemble. I was a mental health counselor at that time, and they would let me leave during what was kind of my dinner break, but I would stay an hour and a half longer. They would let me drive 15 minutes away to practice with this ensemble and come back to work. So that's when I started mixing it up. And, again, I didn't have to. I just knew at that point in my life, I couldn't do music full time because I needed a mental health break from it. This was kind of the door opening for what's happening now. So I did work in mental health, and it's good to have another trade that you enjoy. Even if you continue to [sing] for 20 years, you need other outlets.
Do you take private voice lessons as a professional musician?
It's funny. It's easier to do that when you are in a program. It’s harder to do when you're hopping on a plane to this thing and then hopping on a plane to that thing, but you can make a way. So, through my colleagues in Seraphic Fire, I found a really, really fine teacher with a great reputation in Miami. So I would make time to see her when I could when I was there. Same thing in any area of the country where I've lived. I’ve found a coach [there]. Even if you're not feeling like you're having any issues, there could be [technical] things that you're not hearing. So yes, it is wise to have a coach that you can reach out to, and definitely a teacher that you check in with. You don't have to see them once a week — you probably won't have time to do that — but there should be an ear [or] a pedagogue that you trust.
How do you find a teacher?
Word of mouth. One of the singers that stood out to me most recently was two years ago when Clara Osowski started [singing] with us in Seraphic Fire. I'm always watching new singers and a lot of times, you can tell a lot just by watching them in the first rehearsal. Within the first three days, I wanted to talk to her about who she had worked with. Because of her, I met this wonderful teacher in Iowa — Stephen Swanson. So, generally, it takes watching and listening to other singers, and also knowing where they came from. A lot of people will tell you a story about themselves where they say, “Oh my gosh, I had struggled until 30, and then all of a sudden this light bulb went off!” Then a conversation opens up about who helped them with that light bulb, and then a teacher is mentioned to you. So a lot of it is word of mouth.
What’s an average cost for a professional voice teacher?
It depends on the area of the country. So, [in Missouri], it might be $60. In New York City, it might be $150, because a lot of these people are renting the space that they're teaching in, or they think they're the best teacher on the planet. But on average in New York City, it would be between $120 and $150 for an hour.
Do you have to bring your own accompanist?
Not always. That will depend on who it is because some teachers are more skilled at listening and playing or they are just happy playing the bass line while they listen to the voice. That gives them the opportunity to truly listen. If you’re concertizing and thinking about recitals, which is a good idea, you will want to find a good collaborative pianist and schedule the lessons around that time that the pianist can be there with you. That continues to give you time to connect. If your teacher or coach doesn’t know them already, this gives them the opportunity to get to know your collaborative pianist, but also get to know the two of you together. It's very important that you have a close relationship if you're going to be doing recitals where you take your accompanist with you. It’s really important that you work together alone, but also with your teacher as much as possible.
How important is solo classical training to choral singing? How important is choral training to solo classical singing?
I believe they're one in the same. Much like musical theatre, we utilize the same faculties with regard to a good foundation for each style. I think learning to be a classical singer is learning to be any kind of singer. I think once you've learned that foundation, you can do nearly any kind of singing in a healthy way. So classical singing and the way that we build the foundation from that style of teaching with the 24 Italian art songs or Schubert lieder (all those first year, second year things) are the building blocks for you to be able to ease in and out of ensemble singing.
Ensemble singing makes your ear even sharper with regard to language and how sound is traveling outside of your body. Most of the time, if there is a problem with regard to a section unifying their sound, it has to do with a technical issue that somebody in the section is having. They're not just having that technical issue in there. They're having a technical issue all around the board. It's self discovery when you find that you're having issues with ensemble singing. I think both of them together do mighty things with regard to your self discovery as a singer.
It also is more exploration into vocal pedagogy and the things you never thought that you would have to know. I feel very blessed to be able to sing opera if I feel like it, or art song rep, gospel, musical theatre, and also stand in my section and sing as well. It has a lot to do with the fact that I had really good teaching as an undergraduate student, but also just having the appreciation that I have for ensemble singing. So I took the time to just explore if I felt uncomfortable years ago. “Well, what is it that I am doing wrong?” I could feel the sensations when things got uncomfortable. Both of them together just made me more aware and a better vocal pedagogue.
Is it better to work for a multitude of different choirs or stay based with a full-time choir based out of one location?
Again, that's a question with regard to where you live. I have friends in Boston who are able to stay around Boston because there are so many different professional ensembles. So it's easier to stay close to home and get work from a number of different ensembles. For the first question, yes. It is beneficial to have a number of ensembles on your roster, because, honestly, that's just more checks coming into you. A lot of times in pockets like Boston and pockets like New York, these artistic directors get to know each other and they know when they might be able to pull a singer from this group and that group. They start to coordinate, even if it's San Diego Bach Collegium, and Seraphic Fire, and Skylark. That's how you build your schedule as a concert artist.
How much of an understanding do you need of other languages/how important is it?
It’s extremely important. Now, it's not likely that at by the end of undergraduate we're going to know Italian, German, and French. However, it is important that you know how to speak it and actually be able to do the IPA or visually see these words and just be able to sing them. We sight-read things in German, we sight-read things in French, but luckily not Russian. We get a coach in for that and start all of the IPA stuff. But it's really important, particularly with German and French, to at least be able to see a sentence and speak that sentence. You may not understand every word until you put your translations in, but it's important that you know how to actually speak the language and have an understanding of it with regard to syllabic stress.
Is it better to stay in the United States or go to Europe to sing/study?
Well, that's a good question. What I have understood from friends of mine who are from the United Kingdom is that you'll be paid much better in the United States for professional ensemble singing. With regard to teaching, I think they have some fine teachers, but that would be an exploration to take. If you have the opportunity to study there, and you go for the teacher, no problem at all. With regard to work, I think it's much more close knit than even our ensembles are. So it's a little bit harder to get in.
How do you manage and prevent vocal fatigue while performing demanding amounts of music?
Abiding by sensation. It's the study that we do at the undergraduate level and master’s level that builds stamina. Know what your limitations are. Be able to lean on your colleagues. I’ve leaned on James Bass and John Buffett for years. We know our instruments so well that we can talk about who's going to sing what, especially if it's a piece that takes tremendous breath support. There are just three of us. So you have to be connected with your colleagues in your section.
You can't ever stop exercising your instrument. You may find as you get older that all these cartiledges will start to settle, and it's easier to take off in the morning and sing an early church service or an early ensemble performance, which we've had to do a few times with the Seraphic Fire. You have to think of yourself like an athlete. These people who are off to the Olympics are training daily. I would suggest vocalizing 10 minutes a day at least six days a week before your rehearsals, so that all of these things are moving and working the way that they should. You will find that they fall into place much easier after you’re 30.
What are some remedies for curing short term altercations to the voice (sore throat, cold, etc.)?
Well, my first go to is rest. Sometimes we don't have that. I'm just going to be old school. Take the salt water as hot as you possibly can without hurting yourself. Gargle twice a day — morning and night. It will kill germs like nobody's business. Sometimes when you're traveling non stop, the body gets tired. You're in this fuselage with fake air at 35,000 feet all the time, taking in all this recycled air. You're drying up. So it's important that if you're feeling not feeling well, and it's a sore throat, I would use that as a remedy.
I would never take something like Chloraseptic, which is numbing, and sing. I wouldn't take blood thinning pain relievers and sing. You could feel as if you're ready to sing, because the pain reliever is working. But you shouldn't. I would look into zinc. Zinc is very good and natural. Sometimes the chords are inflamed. When you're having a hard time through the registers, they're just a little thick and inflamed. There is a supplement for that and it works really well.
How important is it for a singer to exercise consistently?
It's important. Your body is your instrument. The entire thing. We're not violin players. We're not trombonists. They get to take their instrument and put it in a box and carry it next to them. They can have a terrible cold or laryngitis and not be able to speak but still do this great concert at Carnegie Hall. Our instrument lives inside of us. You have to know the instrument. Your body is a temple. The better shape your body is in, the better shape your voice will be.
How important is it for a singer to follow a specific diet and what foods and drinks should be avoided?
When I was a kid, I was working as a little professional boy singer. They told us, “No milk or fried foods right before concerts.” Those were the two biggies, but as I've gotten older, I've learned a lot by being around so many professionals and seeing them all eat and drink the exact same thing. I’ve been watching our bodies react to those things in different ways. When you're starting out, it'll be a bit of exploration to know just how much of whatever this is I can have and feel okay in the morning. You have to be mindful of your body, and if milk causes a lot of phlegm, stay away from it. If it doesn't, you're not one of those people that has to be bothered with it at all. If having two bourbons doesn't bother you the next day and doesn't affect your body in any way, you're just one of those people.
How does alcohol affect your singing short and long term?
Short term, it's dehydrating. If you don't drink enough water, it's dehydrating. Now an excessive amount, that's a new problem. If you're drinking an excessive amount every single day, you will find yourself fatigued. If the body is fatigued, chances are the voice will be fatigued. It's not going to support the voice the way that it normally does. I would say, have everything in moderation. I'm not one of those people who would say, “You have to cut this out completely.” What you have to do is learn what is okay for your chemical makeup. So I would go lower on the end of the alcohol, but I would drink double the water of whatever alcohol and stay hydrated. Stay hydrated.
How much does touring and traveling with high vocal demands affect you?
It affects me more mentally than it does vocally. I rarely get vocally fatigued, but being around people and being social constantly, you find yourself needing to purge. You just need that personal time and quiet time. The people around you who become your friends and your family begin to understand that your personality needs that and they don't take offense to it. It can be grueling on the body coming out of one hotel and hopping on a bus or hopping in a rental car and then pulling bags. It has taken a toll on me physically. It's great when you show up and they take your bags and you just hop in your town car and just go. But that's not always the case. So it's affected me less vocally but more physically and mentally.
FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS
How has being a professional musician affected your relationships?
It has not been good. I have to be honest. It is a blessing when two people meet and [can make] that balance work really well when one's on the road a lot and the other one's home or if both of them are on the road. But that's just my individual story where I think that being away, for instance, for a month in July for the past 13 years [would not work.] This was on the heels of a season where I was already gone for a time. So it didn't work for me then, but I have seen it work for many, many friends of mine who [have relationships as] an engineer and a singer, or a trombonist and a singer and they're both traveling.
Is it hard to balance a relationship with another professional musician?
I would, ideally, never like to do that because as singers, we can be a lot. That can work, though. Example: there are two tenors with the exact same fach who are married and have an absolutely wonderful relationship. It's so individual. I don't think that two singers together is automatic demise. You have to be careful and understand what it is that you're getting into, and you have to work very hard to make time for one another.
Would it be difficult to have a partner and children as a professional musician?
Yes. Personally for me, it would. I would have a hard time being away too much. I need to foster that relationship with my children. But again, there are a number of professional singers who work that out. You at least have to have, in my opinion, one parent that is practical and home. If you go away for a week, every couple of months, it is not a big deal. With the schedule that I have been keeping? Absolutely not. I couldn't possibly do it. I would have to slow down.
What is the best way to market yourself as a musician?
You want to be known as a good colleague. You want to be known as the colleague or the singer that shows up prepared. The second you show up to a rehearsal that you've been hired to sing as the section leader and soloist or just the soloist, and you're tripping over different phrases over and over again, and they're having to restart and restart and restart, you're likely not to be asked back. So [some] of the best ways to market yourself is being prompt on answering your emails back and forth, being prompt on meeting the deadlines for the contracts when they want them, and showing up dependably. That calms them down and they know that they can trust you. If they don't think that they can trust you, you're already ruining your reputation.
How important is it to network?
I'm not one of those people, personally, that runs to the reception, hoping to meet this person and that person so hopefully I can get work. I never have been that way. My networking has always been what I presented when I stood on stage. Also, hopefully, when they meet me, they don't think of me as a complete jerk. I'm pleasant, I'm collegial, but my personal networking has been what I have presented on stage and trying to make sure that that is the best of who I am. Then seeing it and hearing it sells the product. But at the same time, there was a lot of networking that I suppose came to me luckily, when I started out. It was all in that first major ensemble that I was in. There were so many artistic directors and I was able to make friendships with them in a casual way, but also have them see what I could do as a singer and as an artist.
Do you think that it is necessary to have an active social media?
It can't hurt. I don't think that it does a ton for those in the world of concert music or professional choral music. It hasn't made much of a difference in my career for what I wanted. It's always nice. I feel like if you're an ensemble singer, it's more the responsibility of the ensemble to make sure that they're taking care of their social media, but it never hurts to have a fan base. So if you are an Instagramer and you're in Copenhagen with this wonderful group, you find that posting those things inspires other people and you gain a following. Again, through that following or through that solo of yours that was posted, someone may see that. So I think it is to your benefit.
Is it important to have a website?
Okay, I'm going to say yes, but at this time in my life, I still don't have one. They're so easy to do and to come by. If you do have one, you can do them so well these days. You can build them yourself. You, again, want to make sure that you have someone taking a look at it. You want someone listening to those sound bites, because that website might be someone's first impression of you. It may not be them seeing you on stage. It may be that website. I can't tell you how many times where there could have been more opportunities. I’ve met people on planes. You talk to them about what you're doing, because if you take the music out and start looking through it, people want to know why and it starts conversation. I don't take music out anymore. But I've started conversations with very large business owners who work around the world who wanted to know, “Well, how can I get in touch with you? We have huge events where we need singers and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” I have to admit, I probably missed out on some of the big experiences because I either couldn't find my business card or I couldn't point them to a website. I could say, “This is my name and there’s some YouTube stuff.” But it makes you seem a lot more official, professional, and like a person of note, if you do have a website.
Is being a musician financially difficult?
Certainly in the beginning because so much of this work is by word of mouth. You may find that there's not a ton of contracts coming in that first year. Though, it is really important to have something that you do that is kind of your bread and butter. The friends of mine who do office work were lucky enough to find positions that would release them for a week sometimes once a month to actually go and sing and they could work remotely during those times when you're not rehearsing. I think it is really important, especially in the beginning, to have another field, even if it's arts administration. I would definitely suggest taking courses in some arts admin stuff. You could work for an art admin institution. They're also more likely to let you spread your wings and continue building your solo career by releasing you when you get opportunities. So in the beginning, it’s definitely important to have something.
How beneficial is it to have an accountant that is adept at working with musicians in terms of taxes?
Hugely important. I did not learn until eight years [into the field] about all the tax cuts that I had coming to me. I did not know truly until then that holding onto receipts was really important. Things that you do during your trip towards the actual contract that you're going to can be written off. You need a professional in your life until you learn yourself. There's a number of my friends who've just learned the “ins and outs” of it. I can’t. I don't want to. But you absolutely can learn these things on your own. Part of that is just penciling in a business course while you're an undergraduate and digging deep and learning a lot more about finances that way. However, if you are able, it is really good to have someone to hand those taxes and receipts to so they can take care of it for you.
What is a normal day like for a member of Seraphic Fire?
If it's a week long contract with Seraphic Fire, and it's not a tour, we are called in and we fly in the day before, depending on our schedules, individually. We're called for an evening rehearsal of some sort maybe from 7:00 [P.M.] to 9:30 [P.M.] or 6:00 [P.M.] to 8:30 [P.M.] on the first day, and the following day is generally six hours of rehearsal with a two hour dinner break. That happens Monday and Tuesday, and by Wednesday, it’s a dress rehearsal and a concert. After that, if you're not a part of Seraphic Fire’s Educational Program where four people go around to different schools in the area during the day to teach students, you have a call. Sometimes we have to drive about an hour and a half to get to one of our venues, but if it's in Miami, you'll be called in for a soundcheck around 5:30 [P.M.] So you'll have that full day to do work if you have it, to explore the town, or to study your music if you need to. The call will be between 5:30 [P.M.] and 6:30 [P.M.], with a 7:30 [P.M.] concert. They're over in about an hour with no intermission, so you're finished around 8:30 [P.M.] or 8:45 [P.M.].
What is it like being with Seraphic Fire for 11 seasons?
It's gratifying. It's surreal, because I don’t know where the time went! I am hugely grateful, because I've met friends that I will have for the rest of my life. In this group, it's not just about the music. One of the things that makes singing together easier and more exciting is when you know the people around you so well. It's very intimate. But more than anything it’s daunting, because when I was an undergraduate, [Seraphic Fire] didn't exist. It just wasn't an option! So I'm hugely grateful for [Seraphic Fire] and that it has led to so many great opportunities. Patrick, being one of those conductors that, if he's happy with your work, will carry his singers with him. He's guest conducting with the San Francisco Symphony, New Jersey Symphony, Charlotte Symphony, and the list goes on and on. So yeah. A lot of emotions and a lot of happiness.
Where do you see yourself after Seraphic Fire?
Well, that's an interesting story, because I am at a place in my life where I'm wanting and creating change. So I just took a position at a boarding school as a choral director that starts, basically, next Monday. So I will be doing that full time. I had a full season already lined up, and I’ve had to pull back on all of those things. Where I would normally sing with Seraphic Fire seven to eight times a year, this year, I’ll be singing twice in the spring. So my life is already changing. So I see myself at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut, north of Yale, hopefully for quite a long time. I should be able to do at least two contracts with Seraphic Fire. But, ultimately, by doing programs [like Seraphic Fire’s Professional Choral Institute] and meeting the new generation, I am opening up the doors for you because there are just other things that I'd like to do with my life after 12 or 13 years. But I'll continue to be a soloist in different places.
What are some things you wish you knew while you were going through the process of becoming a professional musician?
All of these questions that you asked today. We had no resources. To continue on my path, there were absolutely no resources. I wish there was someone to talk about finances with, like an accountant. [I wish I had] someone who could explain, based on what I do for a living, the benefits to it and the things that aren't such a benefit. We did not have that. We didn't have this duel pedagogical approach to singing, either. You were a soloist and that was it. You couldn't discuss how a relationship would work with traveling all the time. [With regards to] almost everything that you asked, there were no resources. This is still relatively in its infancy in this country and in the world, so any and everything that you've asked were the questions that I needed answered back then.