SARA GUTTENBERG, soprano, is highly sought after as a soloist and chamber artist, charming critics and audiences with her “vocal finesse” (South Florida Sun-Sentinel) and “soaring tones” (Miami Herald). Guttenberg is a member of Seraphic Fire and the Berwick Chorus of the Oregon Bach Festival. Known for her vocal versatility, she has performed and recorded music of multiple vocal genres. She is also a featured soloist on Naxos recordings of William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which earned four GRAMMY® awards. Guttenberg has sung under the batons of Nicholas McGegan, Michael Tilson Thomas, John Nelson, Leonard Slatkin, and Helmuth Rilling. Currently, she is pursuing a doctoral degree in Choral Conducting at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Previously, she spent seven years teaching at Southern Utah University, where she conducted multiple ensembles in addition to teaching choral music education classes and applied voice. Guttenberg holds Master’s degrees in Voice Performance and Choral Conducting from University of Michigan, and a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Where are you from?
I am from Jefferson, Wisconsin, which is a little farm town between Madison and Milwaukee.
How did you get into music?
My mom is a lifetime musician. She has both a bachelor's and a master's degree in Music Education and has had the same church job since I was about six months old. I grew up singing in church and started piano lessons when I was five. I started flute in the fifth grade. I did choir and band all through high school. I was sort of a big fish in a little town because my town has just now broken the 7,000 [people] barrier, but I think it was 6,500 [people] when I went to high school.
Where did you attend your undergraduate studies?
University of Wisconsin - Madison.
What undergraduate degrees do you hold?
My degree is in Music Education, but I also have a major in Music Performance, which they don't let you do anymore because I'm pretty sure I broke it. There was a lot of negotiating. I'm a smooth talker.
Did you do any young artists programs during undergraduate studies?
I don't think I ever did at that point. This was the late 90s. There wasn't really anything like this at the time. I knew I wasn't an opera singer. Aspen used to have a local chamber music program, but that went away. It was still there, I think, in the early 2000s. I think I applied for that once but I didn't get in. I applied to Tanglewood once and I was like the last cut. I also just didn't have a lot of money. As an undergrad, particularly because I was doing both majors, I was often getting general education courses done in the summer and working. I did a semester of French for four hours a day for four weeks.
What are some things (besides YAP/PCI) that you did to build your resume as an undergraduate student?
Get a church job, without a doubt. I was very lucky that there was a church in Madison that, at that point, had a quartet they would hire that were ringers in the choir. They also had their own service at 8 AM on Sunday mornings. The church choir was pretty good and could do pretty good divisi. I would often be rewriting anthems at 7:20 in the morning, you know. If you were wrong, you were the only one on your part. It was a lot of early morning singing, but it was also a lot of having to be independent and reading stuff.
What are some of the most useful ways for undergraduate students to spend their time to prepare themselves for the “next step?”
Well, it depends on what the next step is. If you're thinking about ensemble singing or any singing, get a church job, just simply because there’ll be solo opportunities. It's going to force you to improve your reading. It's going to force you to think about how to sing within an ensemble and not stick out too much.
Young artists programs are great without a doubt. I think when you're a soprano or alto it's always going to be harder because there are always more sopranos and altos. In terms of funding for a lot of young artists programs, that's often really sticky unless you're one of the best. I think it's looking for things outside of the box. Maybe you don't go to Aspen. Maybe you do this little opera Institute in Southern Illinois that's only two weeks long. Or this one up in Portland that’s two weeks long or this one down in Texas. There are things that you can do that are not the whole summer that are not going to cost you five grand, where you still can get a whole lot of stuff.
In addition, if you are looking into being any sort of teacher, I think a really good idea is to look in the summertime to see if you can be a counselor at any of those high school music camps. Wisconsin has the second oldest music camp in the country and I was there for 10 years. I went five years as a student and I was there five more years as a counselor and assistant. I assisted great choral directors, musical theatre people, and voice classes. That was really good to apply what I was doing in my classes as a Music Ed person. I was getting to watch this amazing choral conductor run this rehearsal and going, "Wow, I never would have thought to do it that way. It doesn't work with my personality, but that's a really interesting thing to think about."
So I think anything you can do to just see more, and that doesn't have to be in a typical $3,000 to $5,000 summer program, necessarily. Those are great, but there are also a ton of other things too. Even if you're just like, “I'm going to go to Santa Fe for a weekend and I'm going to see two shows.” I mean, I saw Patricia Racette early on in her career, singing her first Violetta and it was like, “Oh my God. Who is this woman?” because I didn't know who she was. Especially if you are going to school in a place that doesn't have a lot of stuff going on. We were lucky in Madison that Chicago was three hours away. We would even get free tickets from donors. So we’d hop in my car and drive to Chicago and go watch Tristan und Isolde at Chicago Lyric in the back row.
How important is GPA in undergraduate studies?
That's tough. It does and it doesn't. I would say that if you are a really talented singer, it generally doesn't unless it's going to keep you from getting the things that you need to get to. However, I have had a couple of friends in the last couple of years who really struggled in undergrad and then in their master's to the point where, even though vocally they were qualified, they were denied admission to DMA programs simply because the academic work was not there. I mean, I'll be honest, my undergraduate transcript has some grades that are not great. Not in my music classes, but in some of the general education classes that by the end, I was like, "I don't care." I remember telling my parents during my last semester of classes, "I'm taking this German class. I am not going to do any of the homework and I'm going to get a C. I'll do fine on the test. I have a recital to work on. I just want to warn you. It’'s not because I don't get German, but I just have to do this.
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 really depends on what you want and how comfortable you are taking out student loans. I went to Wisconsin where I was a Music Ed person and didn't sing a whole ton. So when I applied to Michigan, I knew that the chances of me getting money were slim to none. I had a long talk with my folks after we decided to go and we said that after a year, I was going to ask my instructors to be really blunt with me, and if they didn't think I had what it takes to have a career, then I'd be done and cut my losses. It wasn't worth taking up more loans to finish this master’s if the general consensus seemed to be that this is not the right career path for me.
I was ready to answer those hard questions and to hear them, just because I think that it's too easy these days to get accepted to a big school and pay a ton of money and then what happens? I'll be paying off those Michigan loans until I’m 80, but I have no regret doing it because I went in with my eyes open and knew that by going there, it was putting me into a much bigger pond. I wanted to see if I could swim, and I maybe swam a different direction than a lot of my fellow master’s voice students did, but I still made it around the pool. That's a really bad metaphor.
How do you find a voice teacher that you would like to study with?
I mean, a lot of it is word of mouth, but I really think it's helpful to go take a lesson. You can find the most amazing teacher in the middle of nowhere Kansas, and you could find an okay teacher at a top-five conservatory. You know, what is okay for you might be fantastic for somebody else. Everybody has different personalities or different teaching styles.
I sort of lucked into Carmen [Pelton] at Michigan because she was new when I started. She was very good friends with my current teacher and my current teacher’s wife, who was my teacher at the time. She said, “I think this will work really well for you. I think the personalities will work,” and it was good. She was a fantastic teacher and I still keep in touch with her. I was really lucky that that sort of worked out that way.
I do think it's helpful to talk to people, but also know your own personality and learning styles. I think I took two lessons when I was out there. The other teacher was really great, but [used] way more fluffy cloud imagery. I'm a “pretty imagery” person, but it was too much for me. It just got to be, “What are you saying? Can you just say real words?” and that's okay. For some people that totally works. I also wouldn't do well with the teacher who is constantly talking about my cricothyroid muscles, you know. I need to have something that is sort of a balance of both. So that’s the thing. It's just figuring out what your style is.
So I would say when you're doing auditions, talk to those teachers about getting lessons [with them]. In a perfect world, try to go at a different time, because in those audition periods, everybody is wanting lessons from all [of] those people.
There's also no shame or blame in deferring. If you go, [and they tell you], "We don't have money for you this year, but you could be competitive next year." Okay, maybe I'll take a year and work or maybe I'll move to the state and gain residency. You got to put in your time and, unfortunately, that costs money, which sucks. But I really think that if you especially know that the chances of you having to pay something for your master's degree are higher than not, you [have] to put in that time so you make sure you're not wasting $80,000 on a degree with the teacher [that you think is only okay].
Is it more beneficial to attend graduate school or gain experience right out of undergraduate studies?
You're going to get lots of different answers on this one. I took a year off. When I finished my undergrad, I had student taught [my] last semester and I knew at that point that I did not want to teach public school. I knew that if I did, I would do it for two years, get burnt out, hate it, and never do music again. I just knew that about myself that, at that point, I was not ready.
So I got a job working in a music store and also teaching some lessons. After a couple of months, I [decided] that I needed to go back to school. For some people, going straight through really works. I would really caution anybody from going straight through undergrad to a doctorate. I don't really think that's a good idea for a lot of reasons, which I'm sure we'll get to later.
I think if you audition and you get someplace good, and it feels right, and you want to go, great. But I would not hesitate to look into taking a couple of years off to continue to study privately just to be an adult for a while and get your own health insurance, and live in your own apartment, and find that sort of stability as a person before you go right on to a master's. But again, that was my [path], and that's not for everybody.
Should you pay for graduate school or should they pay you?
Again, that's tough. Do not pay for a doctorate. Do not pay for a doctorate. Do not pay for a doctorate. I should tattoo that on my arm. I think for your master’s, you have to go into it with open eyes. Knowing that there are schools that will go, “Yeah! We really want to have you, but we can't give you any money.” I think [when] you apply to master’s programs, you should apply to no more than five or six. Have one which is a “gimme” school [that] you know [you’ll] get into [and be] pretty confident that they're going to offer [you] money. [Have] three or four where you think you're going to be competitive. [Have] one pie in the sky. Then see what happens because then you have options. Then you can also play the game and say, “Well, hey, middle of the road school. My backup school is offering me a full ride. Can you do any better?” And it may work and it may not, but then you have options.
How important is it to have a master’s degree?
I think [it is] very important. I think that there's more finessing you get in a Vocal Performance master’s in terms of diction and in terms of repertoire. I have conductor friends who will say, “I can tell the singers I work with who do not have a master’s because their languages are not as polished.” That's not the case for everybody, but, again, it goes through having to work that stuff more specifically than you have to do in undergraduate courses. I think also from a pedagogical standpoint too, [you want] to have more time with a really great teacher where you're getting weekly lessons that you're not having to shell out cash for. Also knowing that at some point, we're all going to teach, [makes it important] to take yet another chunk of vocal pedagogy classes. I think it's a good idea.
How important is it to have a doctoral degree?
That's changing now. I mean, the academic market is changing all the time as institutions are really trying to figure out how tenure works and if it works. It's getting harder and harder and harder to do that. That being said, if you want to teach at the collegiate level, unless you're Renee Fleming, you're not going to get there without a doctorate. Schools are pumping out way more doctorates than there are jobs. So [you need to] be aware. I know a guy who teaches high school band in Madison who has a doctorate. He makes serious bank teaching high school band because he's at the top of the pay thing and he loves high school. I think he got the DMA because he just wanted to, and he's making fantastic money doing so. Don't go get a DMA just to keep taking lessons or [if you're thinking], "I don't know what else to do." That's a bad reason to go get a DMA. There was a 10-year gap between when I finished my master's and when I started my doctorate. So there was a lot of living in those 10 years.
Where did you attend your graduate studies?
The University of Michigan.
What graduate degrees do you hold?
I have a master's in voice and a master's in choral conducting.
Did you do any young artists programs during graduate studies?
No, but I did start singing for the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus the summer after my second year of grad school. That was basically my first pro gig. Tom Trenney, who's also a conductor, that's now based in Nebraska, started a semi-pro group in the Detroit area at the time. He had hired me as one of his ringers, so I was doing that as well. So no, not young artists programs, but that was my first year of many at OBF.
What are some things (besides YAP/PCI) that you did to build your resume as a graduate student?
As a singer, I got pretty well known for having a really good ear, so I did a lot of new music stuff when I was in my master's degree. [I] got along with the composers and did a bunch of that stuff and that resulted in some opportunities. You'll find that a lot of people in the ensemble circuit tend to have done a lot of early and a lot of new because it sort of takes a similar sort of brainpower and similar instruments as well. The Ann Arbor early music community was not awesome, but I did what I could. The harpsichord guy and I did a couple of things together. With conducting, I was just busy. At that point, Michigan only took three to four choral conducting grad students a year. So you were on all the time; you really didn't have any time to reflect because it was podium time daily and usually twice daily.
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)?
Vocal stamina is key. Knowing how to take care of your body, how to take care of your instrument, and figuring out psychologically who you are [are all important]. That comparison game that we all play in undergrad gets much worse in grad school. I think it’s key to figure out that your path may not be the same as everybody else's and that's okay. Obviously, all the standard things that would apply. Practice. All the stuff that you learn in undergrad that you finally start doing in your grad school time. It is one of those things where you have to start being more responsible for yourself. So grad students, if you don't put in the time to take care of your music and your instrument and yourself, you're going to crash and burn. We've seen people who are really talented who have left the field and we’ve seen people who I never thought were going to make it who are now doing way more than anybody else. You don't know how it works out.
How important is GPA in graduate studies?
If you're looking at getting a doctorate later, it can really mess with you. It doesn't mean you have to get straight A's. In the long term, if you are a good student, people will remember you. The diction guy at Michigan just retired and I worked with him from ‘01-'04 and I wrote letters for both of his tenure reviews because he contacted me like five years later, and then ten years later, you know. It's things like that where it comes back. So it's how you make an impression that way. I maybe did not make an impression like, "Oh, yeah, she was such a great singer," because I'm not an opera singer and Michigan is pretty much an opera school. I'm remembered for many different things and that's fine.
How do you get auditions?
The last real audition I did was reauditioning at Oregon Bach Festival. Seraphic Fire was word of mouth. It was way at the beginning. It was the spring of 2006. When my friend Paul recommended me to Patrick Quigley, he contacted me. I sent the recordings and he hired me for the next season and that was that. Same with the other groups I've sung with. Someone has given them my name, I've sent them recordings, and that's been it. Now, if you want to do more than I do, you gotta hustle. You're always doing things like that. I've been around a long time and I get enough work from the people that I already work for that I kind of just don't. I've never sung in Santa Fe. I've never done Conspirare. I know them and I could apply and I probably would get hired, but I am comfortable with the amount of work that I have.
Do you need an agent?
As an ensemble person, no, unless you are really trying to get out there as a solo singer — that can be great. It's imperative to make sure if you still want to do ensemble singing, to come up with a contract where maybe they'll stay out of that stuff because you don't want them to take 20% of that [ensemble payment], but you do want them to go find you a $9,000 symphony gig.
What pieces do you choose to prepare (Range, technique, etc.)?
A choral audition, at this point, will ask you to show something with movement and something with lyricism. So I tend to pick usually some sort of Baroque Aria, usually oratorio. And then, I'm a big French girl, so [I'll choose] some sort of late 19th, early 20th-century French song that shows lyricism. It's also picking repertoire for me that makes sense. I'm not a high soprano, but I'm not a mezzo either. I have a crisis every three years. It's just not my voice. So it's sort of picking rep that shows what I can do, but it's not going to make them think that I have something that I don't.
How many pieces do you present?
Well, auditions like that normally just want two [pieces], but it just depends on what they asked for.
What material do you bring with you into the room (paperwork, resume, binder of music, etc.)?
I’ll bring a resume. I don't really bring a headshot unless they ask. I mean, they have the internet. But seriously, they often don't need or want paper copies. You just send everything electronically, which is great.
What is the first thing you do when you walk into the room?
I introduce myself. I say, "Hi." I go shake hands with the people who I'm auditioning for. I go talk to the pianist, I find out their name if I don't know them already, and I talk about tempo. I think it's imperative to show that everyone in that room is important. Even if it's the pianist or even if it's just the [person] watching the auditions. I think you never know what someone is going to come back to later. If I've treated someone with respect and they are early on in their career and later on, they're the executive director of some group that I'm working with, they'll remember that. I think it's important to remember that everybody deserves professionalism no matter what level they are.
What is the audition process like when auditioning to be part of a professional choral ensemble?
These days, it's pretty much just recordings. It’s usually just two contrasting pieces. There are a couple of groups that have very specific vocalises that they want you to do. Oregon Bach Festival was one of those, but I never had to do that since I auditioned in that guy's living room. I think Santa Fe uses the same thing from what I remember. That will sometimes take a long time to record. I think if they just say something like vocalises, I would always ask them to be more specific about what they want. Knowing that, the recordings, for example, that we get here [at Seraphic Fire’s Professional Choral Institute] are all over the map. I kind of wish people would ask and say, “Well, what do you want? What do you want to hear?” Because there are things that will immediately show up in your technical prowess and your technical problems. Sometimes the vocalises are better than the rep and sometimes vice versa, you know?
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?
Once, a long time ago. After I finished my master's, I taught middle school for a year and met my husband, my boyfriend at the time, and he got a postdoc at the University of Florida. He's a physicist. After a year, my job ended because I was covering for someone interim, and then I moved to Florida with him and there wasn't really anything for me to do in Gainesville. There was a 60% high school job open at the time, but like it was mostly piano. And, you know, when it's 60%, you're going to be there all the time and not really going to get paid and it's just like, “No.” So at that point, because we weren't married and this was before the ACA, I applied for a bunch of clerical jobs within the University of Florida. I ended up working for an educational grant for two years, and after my first year, I met PDQ [Patrick Dupré Quigley]. Then I started going down to Miami for about a week at a time and my boss was gracious enough to let me just go unpaid. I would still do work on the side when I was down there, I was just an administrative assistant. It was pretty decent money. Actually, in the second year, I was making more money than my husband, the postdoc, which was hilarious. But it was nice to have that. Could I be doing that right now? I probably should be doing that right now, yes, but in terms of balance in my life and for my family, when I'm home, I'm home. I'm a mom, I'm a wife, and I'm practicing.
Do you take private voice lessons as a professional musician?
Yes, and I would say if you're not, that's a bad idea.
How do you find a teacher?
Well, sometimes you have to just look around and find one. I really struggled when we lived in Utah for seven years and there was no one around me. I wasn't about to study with my colleagues, because that would be weird, and BYU and the University of Utah were a good four-hour drive. So for a big chunk of that time, I wasn't studying, and that was problematic for a while. My friend started working there as a coach and he's top of the line. So when I would coach with him, he would kick my trash everywhere and it was almost as good as having a voice lesson, which was pretty great. Then when we came back from Utah, I was doing my coursework for my doctorate, so I was having regular voice lessons. Now that I'm not there full time, I try to have a check-in with Paul at least every four to six weeks. It's been about three months right now, which is bad. So when I get home, I will have a lesson!
What’s an average cost for a professional voice teacher?
Well, it depends on where you live. It really depends on where you live. Frankly, more money doesn't always mean better. You know, you might find a teacher who really clicks with you and they're $45 an hour. Or if I really love them and they're 200 bucks a lesson, I'm going to fly to New York to have a lesson with them every six months because it's worth it. You know, it depends on finding what clicks with you.
Do you have to bring your own accompanist?
I don't usually with Paul, but if I really wanted to work repertoire, I probably would find somebody and pay somebody to come. If I just need a tune-up and to look at some things, my teacher can hack enough to get through it. But, if I was preparing something for an audition or for a gig, I might call somebody and say, "Hey, can I pay you to come in for half an hour?"
How important is solo classical training to choral singing? How important is choral training to solo classical singing?
Essential. Well, solo classical training to choral singing, totally. I think, going into ensemble singing, if your technique is not rock solid, you're going to struggle really, really quickly. It requires long days, and if you can't sing five, six hours a day and not be dead the next day, you're going to have problems. It's having to really know your own technique. It's being able to access so many different colors of the palette in terms of, you know, can I do this more whitish straight tone? Can I do straight tone with some color? Can I do a little shimmer vibrato? Can I do a full vibrato? You will have a more [successful] career as an ensemble singer the more different ways that you can sing. You know, I sort of endeavor to be the best generalist I can. I can give you a good Bach Aria, but I'll sing the heck out of the Brahms Requiem. Vice versa, I mean, I know there are lots of opera people who would say, “Oh, I hated choir blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” I think as long as you're in an ensemble in an institution, it's the responsibility of the singer, but also of the institution to have the singers sing in ensembles. I just think, you know, we're all going to have a church job at some point. And if you don't know how to do that, you're just saying, “Okay, well, I guess I won't try for those gigs.” And so you're either not doing a church job or you're working for a lawyer 30 hours a week doing whatever.
Is it better to work for a multitude of different choirs or stay based with a full-time choir based out of one location?
Well, frankly, outside of Boston and New York, there aren't a lot of opportunities when you are not a man. Chanticleer and Cantus are really all that’s there these days in terms of full-time work. In New York, there is also St. Thomas, which is a men and boys job. They pretty much want you to be around 90% of the time. You can take other gigs, but this job is one of the highest paying church jobs in New York. They don't want you to miss a lot of weekends and they have a rule of how much you can miss. There are jobs in New York where you could make enough working at Trinity Wall Street because they have so many things going on that you really could just work there and have enough. I love that this world has developed in the last 10 to 15 years so that there are all of these groups that are really contract-based. So you might be in Miami and then directly fly to Tucson and do a gig there. And then maybe you're in Cape Cod with Skylark. It's not as important anymore to have to stay based with a full-time choir. It's very possible to live where you want to live as long as you have access to a major airport.
How much of an understanding do you need of other languages/how important is it?
Hugely important. I think you have to be really good in French, German, Italian and the ways of Latin. Latin is the killer. You've got French Latin or then there is a 15th-century Spanish Latin. There are so many different ways, and I have learned most of them on the job. I would love if there was more instruction on [languages] because working with different languages is going to happen wherever you go. “How do I do this Spanish song?” and all that kind of stuff. Now some of those are more fringe stuff, but in terms of ensemble singing, French, Italian, German, Russian, and then all those different forms of Latin are important to know. I had a gig in Korea last year and I learned a whole bunch of stuff there because we sang in Korean. Next year, we have a Scandinavian concert, in which, I'm assuming, we’ll be singing Finnish and maybe some Estonian. I don't really know what's going to happen, so I'll learn when I get there.
Is it better to stay in the United States or go to Europe to sing/study?
That's not something I really can answer. The British choral world is hard to crack into. I mean, there are ways to do it. But I've also had friends who have moved there for other reasons, like with a spouse, and it's been hard to crack the market. It really just kind of depends on, a lot of times, luck. I mean, like the BBC Singers, unless you've got perfect pitch, you're not going to get in. I have a friend who sings with the National Danish choir and I know people who sing in groups in Germany and in groups throughout England and things like that, but it does take time. So if you've got the financial stability to do that, great, but if you don't, that's up to you. You know, I think there has been such a buildup of more high-quality ensembles in the [United States] in the last two decades that, I mean, it's really up to you.
As a conductor, how easy is it to transfer conducting methods between genres (oratorio, orchestral, choral)?
I mean, I think a lot of it is the same. I know for me, personally, no matter what I'm conducting, I always start with a stick because my technique is better there. Then I can put the stick down and do things with my hands if I don't want to use the baton for something. But I know, for me, my technique is always better with the stick. So I will always start there and I'll practice there. One of my strengths as a conductor is that my hands are really expressive and I tend to show a lot of breath when I'm conducting, which means people really like to sing for me. You know, some people would say it's too big. Be that as it may, a big part of Jerry Blackstone's teaching was just that — showing breath and showing space. Are there times that you do have to be a bit more clean, for instance, when you're in front of an orchestra? For sure, but I feel like I have that because, with Jerry, we always started with the baton. So I have a ton of baton experience and the hands came later, which I think is not really often the case with choral people. But I strongly think that the [baton] is going to get your technique set for anything.
How have you diversified your ability to conduct and teach different genres of music?
Studying and listening. I mean, the listening is key, as is going to see stuff. I will never forget the time that I saw La Pasión según San Marcos, I mean, that piece is crazy! And so unlike anything else in the repertoire. Seeing that and watching how she conducted all of those things was [so helpful]. It's so easy to be in this box of classical music, but that's not what choral music is about anymore. There's so much out there that people are starting to use and incorporate as they are writing these larger pieces, and I think that you just have to go listen to stuff and, you know, go back and listen to old recordings of things, too. Yeah, we don't sing like the Gregg Smith Singers anymore, but there was still something to that. What did they do that nobody else did? It’s important to be listening, going to see stuff, and watching conductors.
How important is it to get to know other professionals and major names in the field of conducting?
I mean, I think it's a good idea. I probably don't know as many as [James Bass] does, because he's been primarily a conductor. And that's what I'm getting my doctorate in, but that's never been my primary focus professionally. But I do think that it is helpful. I know a lot of mostly collegiate choral conductors, but the network is there. And there's always — as in any field — that thing where if you know who you know, it is helpful. Sometimes that's frustrating, but you kind of have to be willing to go with that.
What is it like to teach at an esteemed university?
I guess the University of Wisconsin is pretty esteemed. It was really great to be able to teach there. I was there as a grad student, but there were times when both of the choral directors went out for a big chunk of time due to personal health. So I've conducted every group at that University at one time or another, maybe not always in performance, but in most of them, yes, I did conduct. To have to go up there and try to get that respect is huge, and I think it's just being confident in yourself as a person and not trying to put on a show of what you think you're supposed to be like. Just be yourself.
Is it better to stay in the United States or go to Europe to study/conduct?
I think it depends on what you want. I mean, there are some great conductors in Europe and they get good sounds out of their choirs. But conducting techniques are very different across the pond. You know, if you watch videos of the [famous] British conductors, there's no pattern in their conducting, it's just dancing. So if you're trying to break out of only relying on a cue, and you want something that's going to force you to get out of the box, then great. There are some great conductors, but it's realizing that when you go there, it's not going to be anything like you've seen in your undergraduate classes or graduate classes, frankly.
How do you manage and prevent vocal fatigue while performing demanding amounts of music?
Warm-up every day. No doubt. Not only for singing, but for speaking. For me, that's a fatiguing thing. But making sure I do a little bit of strong work every morning, no matter even if it's just hanging out at home talking to my son. I still need to make sure that I'm speaking well and on my breath. Always, always warming up and just always practicing consistently. It doesn't even have to be that I'm practicing [repertoire], but I spend time every day to sort of see what my baseline is for that day. If you're not working on [the voice] regularly, it's going to go [away] quickly.
What are some remedies for curing short term altercations to the voice (sore throat, cold, etc.)?
I think most definitely steaming is a great thing. That's easy to do in any hotel room. You just turn on the hot shower and you sit in the bathroom, close the door, and fog up like crazy. I always travel with a portable humidifier that does cold air because I find that it’s better and it's usually healthier. I always travel with a personal nebulizer, which has been amazing. Totally worth it. I always have whatever drugs I might need for any sort of upper respiratory thing, knowing that there are states where you can't get them. I have my allergy meds that I have just in case, even if it's not my time of year, maybe it is in this other climate because it's winter in Wisconsin and summer in Miami.
How important is it for a singer to exercise consistently?
I think it's important. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. But it's super important because your body is part of what we're doing. This is our instrument case. I think for a lot of people, it's a huge stress release. It's not for me. I hate it. But a couple of years ago, I was working with a trainer and she came up with a bunch of routines that I could do in a hotel room. So I always travel with a foam roller. So I have a whole 30-minute thing that uses the bed for this, the chair for this, the foam roller for this. Things that I can do, knowing that hotel gyms can totally vary. You might be at a homestay where there is no such thing as a home gym. I'm sorry, I'm not walking or running outside of Miami. No. So I think it's just figuring out what you need to do. Personally, I have a stretching thing that I do every day that, for me, is really essential.
How important is it for a singer to follow a specific diet and what foods and drinks should be avoided?
Everyone is sort of different. A huge chunk of singers struggle with acid reflux, mainly because of how we use our musculature that surrounds that area. It's very, very common and a lot of the drugs that are given for reflux are not really meant to be [used] for long term because they can have long term side effects. Some people are really able to combat things like acid reflux by figuring out what triggers their acid flow and by making sure they're always sleeping up at an angle. That's huge. That's hard when you're on the road. Getting your head of your bed up higher than your feet will be huge. Also, be conscious of not eating right before bedtime. I have an opera singer friend who, when she was gigging a lot from home, bought a papasan chair because she would get home from rehearsal at 11 [PM] and be starving. But then if she ate that late, she'd have horrible heartburn the next day. So she eats and then sleeps for a couple of hours in the chair. For me, personally, I have to really watch it when I have things with tomatoes and peppers because that really affects me. Everybody's different. Everybody has things that affect them.
How does alcohol affect your singing short and long term?
Well, I'm not much of a drinker. I mean, maybe once or twice a month. It's not my thing. I don't ever drink to get drunk, so I don't really notice an effect the next day. For me, it's more about an environment where there's drinking, because it's typically a loud bar and I will be toast the next day. So I very rarely go out on gigs because usually the bars that people want to go to are places that are really loud. I know my own voice and I know that for me, I cannot be in a super loud bar and then be able to sing what I need to do at noon the next day. It's not worth it.
How much does touring and traveling with high vocal demands affect you?
It's a huge reason why I don't do it all the time. I think I probably could [do it] vocally, but even before my husband and kid, I just liked being home. I'm a homebody. I like my bed. I'm on the road about 100 days a year and that's enough. That's plenty for me and it is fatiguing because you're in hotel rooms and people's homes where you can't control how the humidity is or what the smells are if you are sensitive to things like that. If you are somebody who is on the road a lot, it's figuring out how to set up home wherever you are. Whether it's traveling with your own pillow or traveling with your own blah, blah, blah, whatever. Everybody's got their stuff. But I was on the road way more than normal this spring. This was an experiment because I'd never been on the road that much. It was too much. I was just burned out. I would be gone for a couple of weeks and home for maybe six days. Gone for ten days and home for six days. Gone for ten days and home for two weeks. It was too much.
FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS
How has being a professional musician affected your relationships?
Well, I am very lucky that I have a super, super supportive husband. He loves that I sing and he wishes he could see more, but there just isn't much where we live. He's a really great dad and he and my son have a really good relationship. It has allowed me to travel as much as I have been. Frankly, in my three years of my doctorate degree, we were pretty much living apart the whole three years because I was doing full course loads at Wisconsin. It took me three years of coursework because I was still gigging all the time. So for those three years, they were living like 90 minutes south. It was a lot of FaceTime and then hanging out on the weekends. That took a toll. That was hard. But again, a supportive partner that has a regular schedule is amazing. I know he gets lonely and I know he struggles with it. Every year before I sign contracts, we talk about it and I ask him, “Do you want me to do less?” I think it's just making sure that I communicate with him and now that my son is eight, also talking to him about it.
Would it be difficult to have a partner and children as a professional musician?
I mean, it's hard. It's a balance and it changes as they age. I mean, if you're a woman, are you going to travel with your baby? Are you breastfeeding? Are you not breastfeeding? I didn't [travel with my baby], so I actually started gigging three months after Matthew was born and he stayed home with my husband. It was horrible. I hated it, but it made way more sense for his stability and his regular routine for him to stay home. He's a kid that likes structure and has been that way since he was a baby. It makes more sense for him not to come with me, as much as I desperately missed them when I'm on the road. Technology is an amazing thing. I'm so glad that we have FaceTime and Skype and all that kind of stuff. Now my kid is eight and they have Messenger Kids where you have to approve every contact that they have, but now he will send me emojis and stupid pictures and videos. But it is hard. I have known many women who have had babies and taken off a couple of years and then gotten back on the circuit. I do know that as my son has actually gotten older, it's gotten harder because it's more disruptive to him now, even though he's got more things going on. So that's one of the reasons I stopped doing Oregon Bach Festival a couple of years ago. I just needed to be home in the summer. My husband as an academic job, so he's off in the summer. So now I can go to baseball games and soccer games and swim lessons. It's important for us to have a chunk of two or three months to just be a family.
What is the best way to market yourself as a musician?
I think even before marketing, you have got to be a good colleague and a good person and have your stuff ready all the time because so much of this business is word of mouth. If you get a reputation for being a crappy colleague, or for showing up unprepared, that gets around very, very quickly, and you will start to soon not be hired places. There are people that Patrick Quigley will never hire again. There are people [everywhere] who've been fired from a group, and then that gets you a reputation. If you are a difficult person to work with, it's too short of a time to have to deal with a personality who's just going to be fickle and mean and difficult, no matter how talented you are.
How important is it to network?
Very important. Like I said, every [professional] ensemble job that I've gotten has been word of mouth. Paul Max Tipton got me into Seraphic Fire. Kathryn Mueller got me into Tucson. My friend Brandon got me into Oregon Bach Festival. They contacted me. I did not contact them. Now, that's not really a reality, but I mean, I've gotten very lucky that way and as a result, probably a little lazy.
Do you think that it is necessary to have an active social media?
That's hard. I mean, I know that a lot of people in our business are starting to struggle with balancing their personal lives and their professional lives. I have a number of singer friends who have two accounts. I actually did for a while when I was teaching. I taught full time at Southern Utah University for seven years. I started a different account under that email because I don't want them seeing my personal Facebook. Luckily, I'm old enough that I didn't have it in college or grad school.
But I do think it's important to be out there. I do think it's important for people to see that they can contact you and talk to you. I think you should have an account, especially if your family or close friend network is really into social media, that you can still have privacy. Like for example, my friend, let's say her name is Jane Anne Martin. She has an account that is JA and then her mom's maiden name. So those of us who know her really well know that that's her real account. The one that's under her real name is more like people that she's met at master classes. She's not going to put super personal stuff there.
Is it important to have a website?
It is and I'm lame because I don't have one. Every year I go, “I need to build a website.” And every year I go, “I don't have any money and I don't have any time. And I suck.” I grew up when this was not a thing. I don't know what I'm doing. I have Squarespace and I tried that. I just have to pay somebody at some point, but every year I go, “I don't have $1,000.” Again, I don't work as much. I still need it because sometimes people have to hunt me down like, “We can't find any recordings of you.”
Is being a musician financially difficult?
It is. I think even if you are working full time on the road, 250-300 days a year, it takes a toll. You have to be really good about your taxes and you have to be really good about deducting everything. It's hard. If I was not married and did not have insurance through my husband, this would not be feasible, I would probably be teaching. I mean, you never know how your life would have gone had you made the right turn as opposed to the left or whatever. But it's really difficult to be a full-time freelancer. It's possible. A lot of my friends who are full-time freelancers do stuff on the side. Maybe they do social media for a group or maybe they do all the travel arrangements with one group and they get paid per hour. You've got to be very dedicated and very on all the time. Like I said, I really only do this part-time, and that's hard enough, but for me, being on the road all the time is just not something I want.
How beneficial is it to have an accountant that is adept at working with musicians in terms of taxes?
I think it's helpful. My accountant had never dealt with a musician before, but she dealt with plenty of people who are contractors, so it's pretty much the same thing. I actually did my own taxes for a really long time. It was not until we moved back to the Midwest, when my husband and son were living in Illinois, and I was going to school in Wisconsin and had school money when we actually went to an accountant because it was too much. It actually is not that hard to do it yourself with all the 1099s. It just takes time. But like I said, the accountant is someone who is really good friends with my brother, so she cuts us a deal.
I would really learn how to do your own. There's actually a great website that I believe is artstaxinfo.com. It's this lawyer who puts out all [of] these Excel spreadsheets for compiling all your expenses for the year and all of your income. So I started doing this in 2007 and I fill one of those out every year and I print it out and I hand it to my account. I'm like, "Here's all I'm deducting for per diem. Here's everything I'm deducting for rental cars," or anything that I've spent money on. I used to just do that for myself. I could [do it], it would probably take me about two days, but I could get it done and it would be fine. Has she probably found me more things to deduct? Probably. But it was all right for a while. I really would learn how to do it by yourself because at the beginning, it's not worth paying somebody.
What is a normal day like for a member of Seraphic Fire?
Well, it depends on what day of the week you're talking about. With a typical contract, we fly in on Sunday. We have a rehearsal and read-through that night and we kind of see how bad it is. It's scheduled for two and a half hours, but it rarely goes the full time when it's with [Patrick Quigley] or James [Bass]. It often goes the full time with a guest conductor. And then we have two two-and-a-half-hour rehearsals on Monday and Tuesday. That's what is scheduled, sometimes it's not all used, sometimes it all will be [used.] Then Wednesday is a dress rehearsal, which again, depending on the conductor, may just be tops and tails and then a concert. [That] is much appreciated because when it's a full dress and then a full concert, that's a whole lot. Then we have concerts Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and a Sunday matinee. And then if it's possible, you will fly out on Sunday night and then that's it, or you fly to the next gig where they start on Monday. So that's pretty much how it goes. Now, I do know that there has been some talk about changing the Seraphic [Fire] schedule to make the rehearsals a little bit longer so that we don't start on Sunday. Because it does make it difficult for people coming from another gig or they may have a Sunday matinee, or if they have a regular lucrative church job, it means cutting a whole weekend, which is a big chunk of money. But I don't know how that's going to go. There have been discussions, but nothing set yet.
What’s it like to be with Seraphic Fire for 14 seasons?
There's been a lot of living in these last 14 years. Things have come and gone. There have been years where I've done everything; there have been years where I haven't been contracted for everything; my voice has changed, and their preferences have changed. It's been really gratifying to work with [Patrick Quigley] since really the first year that he started flying people in regularly and just seeing it grow and seeing how my role has changed with the organization over the years. Now, when James [Bass] is not there, I'm it’s chorus master. As of this year, I'll be the Artistic Education Coordinator because we have an educational program and we teach in eight elementary schools four times a year. So I am leading those workshops all the time. I also know that any job I apply for, Patrick will write me a great letter. You know, so yeah!
Where do you see yourself after Seraphic Fire?
I have a real confidence problem when it comes to applying for academic jobs, which is really stupid. I know this, my brain knows this, but I convince myself out of every job. I really do. And this year, I'm like, "No. This has gotta change.” I know my degree is not done, but my coursework all is and I need to start applying for things. So eventually, I will be looking at a full-time academic job. Right now, I'm sort of going halves in that I really could do either voice or choral conducting. And if I want to continue to sing with groups, a voice [teacher] job makes more sense because it's way easier to reschedule voice lessons than it is to reschedule choir rehearsals. So it's balancing that and knowing that if I did go and get a full time conducting job, my chances of singing with [Seraphic Fire] are going to be pretty slim. It might be one gig a year and that hurts my heart. I mean, there are a lot of people on the circuit who do it because they're trying to [succeed] in solo careers and they're just making money, but I truly love it. I love ensemble singing; it's what I've always wanted to do. And eventually, it's going to be time for me to be done. I don't know when my time with [Seraphic Fire] will end and I hope it isn't anytime soon, but I also want to end it on my own terms.
What are some things you wish you knew while you were going through the process of becoming a professional musician?
Well, I mean, I've generally been a pretty nice person. So the good colleague thing, I think, is huge. I think some people have gotten bitten over the years trying to speak for themselves, but have done it in a way that has been out of line. People have very long memories and this world is very, very small. There's probably I would say, on the circuit, no more than 200 or 250 singers and if I don't know you, I have 65 friends in common with you and vice versa. So, if you get a reputation for being a not-nice person, being a pain to work with, or behaving in a way in rehearsal that people find frustrating, that is a huge thing. In this world, particularly because it is so small, it is essential that you know who you can trust and know who you can talk to and be free with that will stay in the cone of silence. I would say, knowing that it's important to invest in yourself, whether that be in terms of education, lessons, music, piano, technology, or all those things, that's important because you are the entity — you are the business. Also, just really keeping track of yourself. If it starts to become more of a job than something that you enjoy doing because it's really easy to get in this and to start to hate it. I've seen that happen a lot of times with people who are on the road a lot. It just starts to become a chore and I don't ever want that to happen to me. I don't take a gig simply because it's money. And I'm lucky, I mean, we don't have a lot of money, but I can do that generally. I think it's really important to be in tune with your own emotions and your needs for stability, anxiety, depression, and all that kind of stuff. You have to have somebody that you regularly talk to and that you think about not only your physical health, but your mental health. I think just [you should] really be in touch with who you are. I know those are not [necessarily] musical things, but it's more about just being secure in yourself as a person.