As a voice teacher in the Philadelphia region, I am lucky to have several young students who do professional work as singers and actors. New students and their parents often ask me about going pro. Here are some thoughts and resources to get you started.
When I was in high school, Steven Spielberg came to the town where I lived to make a movie. For weeks the newspaper was full of stories about movie stars, casting calls, set building, and filming locations. Some people I knew signed up to be extras in the film, and I decided I wanted to be a movie extra someday.
Well, “someday” has arrived … almost. I’m not going to be in a movie. Instead, I’m going to be an extra on ABC’s new 1960s period drama “Pan Am.” The show, which stars Christina Ricci, is a big budget production about the lives of stewardesses aboard the pioneering airline. The pilot episode reportedly cost $10 million dollars to make.
According to the New York Times:
“Pan Am” takes place in New York, Paris and London, and practically every scene is shot in lush, golden light. The series is a paean to a more prosperous and confident era; even an airline terminal looks like a movie dream sequence about 1960s heaven.
I’m not exactly sure why I decided that now was the time to become a movie extra. I remember seeing a few casting calls posted online over the summer, and I started researching opportunities. As typically happens, once I decided to pursue the idea, I became somewhat obsessed. I started out looking for gigs in Philadelphia, but quickly realized that my chances would be better in New York City. Eventually, I created a profile on www.castingnetworks.com. I checked the site daily and started responding to listings.
Steiner Studios in BrooklynOn Monday, I received an email from Grant Wilfley Casting, a New York City-based casting company, offering me the opportunity to be an extra on “Pan Am.” I quickly accepted and rearranged my teaching schedule so that I could travel to NYC for a fitting the next day. The show is primarily filmed at Steiner Studios, located at the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard. The studio’s website describes it as “the largest and most sophisticated studio complex outside of Hollywood.”
I had never been to a movie studio before and was surprised by how huge it was. Driving into the parking lot felt like arriving at an airport. A guard at the gate directed me to Stage 3 (pictured), where I signed in and took an elevator to the third floor. After filling out some paperwork, I had my measurements taken. A woman pulled two outfits for me and looked over some items I had brought along. (I had been instructed to bring - among other things - vintage-looking jewelry, shoes, skirts, and sweaters.) Both outfits - skirt suits reminiscent of Mad Men’s Trudy Campbell - fit beautifully.
The two scenes for which I’ve been hired shoot this Monday and Tuesday. Both take place in a London hotel. I am excited for the opportunity. Until I started teaching voice two years ago, I worked in public relations for an opera school and a major symphony orchestra. I loved getting to see the inner workings of creative endeavors that most people only experience passively. Teaching private singing lessons is a somewhat lonely job, and I am thrilled to explore the worlds of TV and film. The process has hardly started, but I’ve already learned so much. Here are a few discoveries that surprised me.
At Steiner Studios, November 20111. It’s not hard to become an extra. I assumed that before becoming an extra, I would need to mail my resume and headshot to casting agencies and attend several open call auditions. Since Philadelphia is not a major movie center, I figured it could be a few years before my efforts paid off. But the process is actually so much simpler - if you’re willing to travel. Apparently, experience isn’t necessary and opportunities are plentiful. Since booking the Pan Am gig earlier this week, I have been contacted by casting companies about extra work on Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit, The Dark Knight Rises (the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) and The Silver Linings Playbook (a feature film starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro).
2. Extras aren’t volunteers. I’m actually going to get paid to hang out on the set of a TV show! Of course, I am not a union member and the pay isn’t great. (I’ll make $100 per 11 hours worked, not including the six-hour commute from my home to Brooklyn.) Still … I’m going to get paid to hang out on the set of a TV show.
3. Extras are booked at the last minute. I guess there’s a reason that extra work is easy to get. It requires two things most people don’t have: large blocks of free time and a flexible schedule. Official call times are available only after the previous day’s filming has finished. Opportunities are generally posted online a day or so before the shoot takes place. I have even seen afternoon gigs posted the morning of a shoot!
4. Not all extra parts are created equal. Extras are meant to be seen and not heard. However, not all extra work is the same. Background extras aren’t much more than scenery. They may sit in a restaurant where the lead characters dine, or walk by stars on the street. But their faces may not even be visible and they are not listed in the credits. Featured extras are given more prominent positions and are actually recognizable on camera, but they do not speak. If an extra is given a line, he or she is immediately upgraded to the position (and pay grade) of actor.
5. Extra work doesn’t necessarily lead to acting roles. From what I’ve read, it’s easy to become an extra but difficult to make the leap from extra to actor. Extra work is often looked down upon by actors, even though many actors work as extras. In general, extra work doesn’t involve acting and isn’t listed on an acting resume. However, beginning actors may be encouraged to do some extra work to learn about the business and observe the workings of a set.
6. Finally, I want to share this hilarious music video about life as an extra. It is a parody of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Enjoy!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to be a great voice teacher, so I was excited to see that the latest issue of Opera News focuses on education. It includes a great piece by vocal coach and frequent Opera News contributor Scott Barnes. Here’s my favorite quote from the article.
Ultimately, the path to being a good singing teacher is not so different from the one that leads to being a good psychotherapist – empathy, an avid interest in process as well as product, the flexibility to adjust vocabulary in order to achieve understanding, technical as well as instinctive knowledge, and driving curiosity.
–Scott Barnes, Opera News, July 2009
I wrote in my previous post that finding the right voice teacher is the most important decision an aspiring singer can make. I included some ideas on what to look for in a teacher. But how do you go about finding that person? Here are a few ideas.
- Ask singers you admire: Not all teachers advertise their studios, so word of mouth is probably the best way to find a voice teacher. If you go to a concert or club where a local singer performs, ask if the singer gives lessons. If not, maybe the singer can recommend a friend who teaches or even put you in contact with her or his own teacher.
- Ask a musician: These people can probably recommend someone: your school choir/band/orchestra director or music teacher, the music director or cantor at your church or place of worship, your piano teacher, or your friend’s piano teacher.
- Find a community music school: There are thousands of community arts schools (nonprofit, non-degree granting, community-based institutions) in the United States. Many of their teachers are experienced performers with multiple degrees and years of teaching experience. Prices are often on the low end. Find a school near you at www.nationalguild.org.
- Contact your local college or university: Many professors supplement their salaries by giving private lessons. You can also inquire whether any advanced students teach voice. (If cost is a concern, keep in mind that students will certainly charge less their professors do.) Ask for a graduate student, an advanced undergrad, or someone who has taken classes in vocal pedagogy or music education. (“Vocal pedagogy” means the study of teaching singing.) The downside to studying with a college student is that he or she could leave the area after graduation.
- Ask friends and family: You never know who’s taken singing lessons until you ask.
- Check Craigslist: Teachers who need to fill spots in their studios often post on Craigslist. You might not find much information on the teacher’s experience, but you can always ask questions by phone or email.
- Call your local music store: Many stores offer lessons onsite. Others keep a list of area music teachers on hand.
- Visit www.nats.org: The National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) has strict requirements for its members. Teachers need to have a college degree or equivalent experience and must abide by a Code of Ethics. The NATS website allows you to search for members in your state or hometown.
- Visit www.classicalsinger.com: Classical Singer magazine is a great source for anyone who wants to sing classical music or opera. You can search the site for a teacher in your area.
- Visit www.mtna.org: The Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) is a professional organization for music teachers who are employed by a school or who teach privately. You can find members at www.mtna.org. Keep in mind, though, that MTNA doesn’t screen its members. However, teachers can choose to go through the group’s thorough certification process.
- Visit other websites. Two popular websites list music teachers: www.musicstaff.com and www.privatelessons.com. In my experience, however, there aren’t many voice teachers on the sites, and those that are listed seem somewhat underqualified.
- Ask a voice doctor: This may seem like an odd source, but laryngologists (voice doctors) often work closely with voice teachers to help singers who’ve had vocal trouble. A teacher with experience in vocal rehabilitation is a great choice if you suspect something might be wrong with your vocal cords. See my previous post on finding a voice doctor.
Good luck in your search for a voice teacher! And remember - always ask about a teacher’s credentials before you sign up for lessons!
This is part two in my “Learning to Sing” series.
Finding the right voice teacher is the most important choice an aspiring singer can make. Your teacher will guide you through the process of exploring, developing, and training your voice. The right teacher will help you grow in a nurturing yet challenging environment. The wrong teacher can harm your self-esteem, dash your hopes (or inflate them with false promises) and even damage your vocal cords!
Some fields have formal training or evaluation processes to determine whether a person is qualified to practice that profession. Singing does not. That means anyone can call herself a voice teacher as long as someone is willing to pay her for lessons. It’s up to you – the student – to decide whether a teacher has what it takes to teach you.
So what should you look for in a voice teacher?
- Training – This is usually the first thing people look at when evaluating a voice teacher. You’ll want to know that your teacher has received thorough training in areas such as music theory, music history, vocal literature (songs, opera, musicals, etc.), languages (if you want to sing classical/opera), and vocal technique. Look for a B.A. or B.M. in music or vocal performance. Many teachers will have master’s degrees in voice or music education and may also have certification in some form of bodywork (usually yoga, Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais method, or Fitzmaurice Voicework). While training is essential, keep in mind that degrees from top schools don’t automatically make someone a great teacher. The best singers and teachers learn from a combination of formal education, private study, personal experience, professional development, and trial and error.
- Performing experience – Many teachers are also active performers. Others have given up performing to focus on teaching. Both types can be excellent teachers. Singers stop performing for a number of reasons: finances, health, family, lifestyle, etc. Often a singer will discover that his or her personality is better suited to the teaching studio than to the stage. Ideally, a teacher will have at least some performing experience. As with degrees, however, keep in mind that performing credentials alone don’t guarantee great teaching. An opera singer with international performing credits may be better at communicating with a large audience than describing vocal concepts to a beginning singer.
- Teaching success – The number one question you’ll want to ask about a potential teacher is whether that person’s students are successful. Do the teacher’s students win competitions, get accepted into good music schools, have performing careers, or become respected teachers? Whatever your immediate goals are as a singer, make sure your teacher has helped other singers achieve similar success.
- Singing style – Before you commit to a teacher, find out if he or she teaches the singing style you want to learn. If you want to sing pop, don’t study with someone who only teaches opera singers. If your dream is to sing on Broadway, find someone whose students are successful in musical theater. Some teachers successfully teach a wide variety of singing styles. (I know of a voice teacher in NYC who has famous students in pop, musical theater, and opera.) Others prefer to specialize in one style. Be sure to ask about a teacher’s experience with the style you love best. Or, if you’re not sure what style you prefer, find a teacher who’s comfortable with multiple styles.
- Specialties – Many teachers end up specializing in one or more areas, while others prefer to teach a variety of students and voice types. For example, some teachers prefer beginning students and others only teach professionals. Voice teachers with training in speech or voice pathology may work exclusively with singers who have a history of vocal trouble. Some teachers may even choose to only teach students of their gender or voice type. Singers also have similar preferences. Some sopranos, for example, only want to study with other sopranos.
- Personality – Maybe personality isn’t essential for everyone. (I suppose if you’re open minded, you can learn from anyone.) But I find it much easier to trust, connect with, and learn from someone I like, admire, and want to please. I’ve had several teachers who I never really connected with personally, and I didn’t make great progress with them. Several times, I’ve declined to study with successful teachers I didn’t connect with.
As you search for a voice teacher, here are some thoughts on several types of teachers to avoid:
- Anyone who makes unrealistic promises. “Become a star in 6 weeks!” “Sing like a pro in one month!” “Guaranteed to increase your vocal range!” An honest teacher will tell you that learning to sing takes time. And no one can make promises about your voice without hearing you first. If it sounds too good to be true, it is!
- Anyone who only teaches online. Online lessons are fine in some circumstances, but I wouldn’t recommend them for a beginner – or for the beginning of a new singer/teacher relationship. Some might call me old-fashioned, but it’s essential that your teacher see you sing and hear your voice without distortion. Plus, you’ll get to know each other better and establish a stronger rapport by meeting in person.
- Anyone who’s all about the money. Watch out for teachers who are overly keen on selling you their products (singing books, CDs, DVDs, pricey seminars, etc.). Everyone needs to make a living, but a committed teacher will put your interests ahead of merchandise sales.
A few years ago, a friend suggested that I consider studying with a well-known opera singer. This singer had sung major roles all over the world, he took students at my level, he found performance opportunities for many of his students, and several of his protégés were embarking on successful careers. His students spoke highly of him, and encouraged me to join his studio. I spoke to him on the phone, met him in person, and went to a master class he taught. I decided that he would have a lot to offer me. There was only one problem: I just didn’t like him.
As much as I respected his experience as a singer and his commitment to teaching, there were other things about him that turned me off: his loud humor, his disorganized manner, his rambling anecdotes, and his rather forceful personality. I felt that my quieter demeanor would be overwhelmed by this man’s larger-than-life persona. I decided to keep looking for a teacher, and I eventually found just the right person.
In your search for a teacher, remember to listen to your instincts. Never let anyone (or their impressive credentials) pressure you into studying with someone who doesn’t feel right for you. If you begin studies with a teacher and decide the relationship isn’t working, don’t be shy about ending it. It’s your money, your time, and your voice!
A lot of people come to my blog looking for information on how to sing. So far, my posts have focused more on my journey as a singer or on tips for people who are already singers or students of singing. Look for that focus to change somewhat in the coming months.
“Learning to Sing” series
I’ve written before that one of my goals is to eventually teach singing. I’ve taught voice lessons before (though not recently), so it seems like a natural topic to writing about here. After all, this is a site about finding the singing voice - not having it, not showing it off, not becoming famous for it. It’s a site about the process of improving as a singer. So why not start at the very beginning?
Why you need a voice teacher
I’ll give specific singing tips in later posts. For now, you should know that the best way to learn to sing is with a teacher. Yes, you can pick up some knowledge online, watch American Idol, listen to recordings, and sing along to your favorite songs. But here are a few reasons why you should consider finding a teacher if you’re serious about singing.
- A voice teacher can hear things you can’t. It’s tempting to think that nobody knows your voice as well as you do, but it’s actually not true. Your vocal cords are located in your throat, and the sounds they make resonate in your throat, mouth, head, and chest. Your body is a musical instrument, and your ears are attached to it. That means they can’t possibly hear your voice like others do. They’re too close! Singers have to learn the sensations of good singing and rely on the expert ears of a teacher.
- A voice teacher can see you sing. No, a teacher can’t see your vocal cords, but he or she can see a lot of your vocal instrument: your face, jaw, tongue, neck, ribcage, and abdomen. Good posture is essential for singing. A teacher can also spot signs of physical tension that can affect your sound. Another common problem teachers catch are distracting movements or “tics” like rocking back and forth while singing, clenching your hands, or standing on your toes for high notes.
- A voice teacher can guide your learning process. You could read a thousand books on singing and never improve as a singer, but a teacher can guide you in a way that knowledge can’t. A teacher, a book, or a DVD can all tell you how to breathe, but only a teacher can tell you if you’re doing it right or not. Also, a teacher will tailor lessons to your specific needs. Is your breathing fine, but your neck is tense? Do you have a huge vocal range, but places where the voice breaks? A wise teacher will determine what you need to work on and in what order and will match his or her teaching to your learning style.
- A voice teacher can help you work towards your goals. Do you want to join a choir, audition for a musical, become a pop star, or sing opera? Or maybe you just like singing and want to improve your voice. Whatever your goals are, a teacher can help you move in the right direction. He or she can also give you feedback on whether your goals are realistic. If they aren’t, your teacher can help you set new goals that are within your reach.
- A voice teacher can open up a whole new world! A lot of people start singing lessons without knowing quite what to expect. Singing seems simple enough, but it connects so many other areas. The best singers and teachers draw on knowledge from so many fields besides music: anatomy, bodywork (like yoga), health, psychology, speech and language, history, poetry, acting, theater, etc. You might get into singing for one reason, only to discover a new passion.
The Los Angeles Times recently ran an article on musicians who have double careers. Rather than focusing on struggling day-jobbers, the article features musicians who are equally successful in two areas.
The author, Blair Tindall, knows her subject well. She’s a former professional oboist turned reporter and author of the book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music.
A Mind Racing with Ideas
[M]usicians … often excel equally in two discrete worlds, their pursuits complementing each other. For example, mathematics and proportion learned through musical form may plug directly into another field, such as architecture or computing. Other musicians find more abstract uses for their musical training, citing the competitive nature of performing, the discipline of practicing and flexibility learned from irregular scheduling as among their professional assets.
I can definitely identify with one of the musicians she quotes, violinist/photographer Barbra Porter, who states:
I think many musicians have multiple talents. A musician’s mind is often racing with ideas, yet you’re expected to just sit there without wiggling during a performance.
As a full-time public relations professional and part-time voice student, I often find myself thinking about singing while at the office. (As my coworkers can attest, I often hum quietly to myself while I work.) I am often distracted by daydreams of projects - like this blog - that combine my musical training and PR experience.
Taking the Pressure Off
For many musicians, having two careers allows them to earn a stable living while pursuing musical gigs they really want. TheLA Times article is full of stories about people who chose to pursue new career opportunities, while continuing to perform as full- or part-time musicians. Their reasons - lifestyle, injury, financial instability in the music industry, etc. - are as varied as their career paths, which include:
- Cellist/computer engineer
- Cellist/non-profit executive
- Cellist/real estate agent
- Hornist/web designer
- Violinist/celebrity photographer
- Violinist/marriage and family therapist
Adria FirestoneI think a lot about how to structure a career in and outside of the arts as I consider my own choices. For me, PR is much more than a way to pay for voice lessons. It does pay the bills nicely, but it also fulfills my love for communication in its many forms, especially writing, photography, design, and presentation. Besides, I know I could never handle a full-time career as a performer. My interests are too varied, and I simply lack the physical and emotional stamina the lifestyle requires.
These thoughts have continued since I picked up the latest issue of Classical Singer. The magazine has recently published a series of articles by Adria Firestone, a retired opera singer who now works as a life coach. She writes vividly of the burnout and disappointment she experienced before leaving opera. Reading Adria’s story and the article in the LA Times makes me wonder how many others, like me, would be better served by balancing music-making with other work.
In music and in the movies, we’re often more aware of the glamorous lives of the biggest stars than of the hard work it took them to get there. And we may know next to nothing about the career of the musician who plays in a small town symphony or the actor who performs at a local dinner theater.
For anyone who wants to know more about the many variations of musical careers, I highly recommend Angela Myles Beeching’s book Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music.
I have never encountered a more thorough or realistic book on creating a musical career. Ms. Beeching covers everything, from how to get an agent to how to create your own performing opportunities to what to wear for an audition. Her advice includes tips on marketing, finances, fundraising, and time management.
My favorite aspect of the book, however, is its emphasis on a varied, even shifting, idea of success. Many of us establish career dreams early on, like playing in a major orchestra, singing at the Met, or making a professional recording; but everyone encounters rejection at some point.
Ms. Beeching cautions wisely that each musician must define - and constantly refine - his or her own vision of success.