Monday, October 7, 2013

Asking The Right Questions

Asking The Right Questions

This week's faculty blog post comes from Assistant Professor of Music, Mr. Matthew Lau

In place of a one-size-fits-all platitude, it is my belief that the best advice is given from personal experience.  This blog post will offer a brief tale of how I learned to modify the questions I was asking to obtain better advice.

I moved to New York City fresh out of graduate school to start my career as an opera singer.  Though I quickly met many aspiring and working singers, I was annoyed that no one could tell me what the necessary steps were to begin my operatic career.
I approached every singer I met with a list of questions:

            1) How do I get a manager?
            2) How do I support myself until my music career takes off?
            3) What voice type do you think I am?
            4) Is life as a vocalist more rewarding than life as an instrumentalist?
            5) Am I good enough to make it?

Sadly, the more I asked, the more confused I became.

Despite the dearth of helpful advice I was able to support myself as a singer.  Yet these questions still plagued me until a chance encounter with Marilyn Horne.  Though likely paraphrased after all these years, I remember Ms. Horne to say, “My advice about advice?  Stop asking other people what you should do. Make your own mistakes.  Now, if you want to ask me about my own choices and how they affected my life, THAT I can answer.  If it rings true for you, use it.  If not, disregard it entirely.”

In the years that followed I asked for advice in a completely different way paying particular attention to tales of what each might do differently given another chance to do it all over again.  Instead of “Do I have to live in New York City?”   I asked, “How old were you when you moved to New York and was the transition an easy one?”   Instead of “Can I have a love life and a career in music?” I asked “How did you manage your love life with your career?” Instead of "With whom should I study?" or "Who is the best manager in town?"  I asked, "Who is your teacher and who is your manager and are you satisfied?"

The resulting stories helped give me the advice I sought and helped me feel less alone during the first years of my career.  One caveat, however: the new, more detailed responses were more helpful, but they were often contradictory.  In order to lend perspective, I found it paramount to keep in mind that each of us is shaped by his current life events.  If a singer responded to my relationship question with an angry or jaded viewpoint often there was a recent divorce framing his or her response. If my interviewing questions resulted in career war stories usually the interviewee was going through a rough time professionally.

Now that I have spoken about how I changed my questions, I would like to list some words of advice which greatly influenced my life.

Marilyn Horne, Mezzo-Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
My advice to you is to stop asking for advice and make your own mistakes.

Mistrust any advice from someone who tells you what you should be singing after just one hearing.

Frederica Von Stade, Mezzo-Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
Guilt.  The business and study of singing has more guilt attached to it than any other.  Like a game of hot potato each teacher and singer hands off his guilt to the next.  In order to be a successful singer you must learn how not to be crippled by this guilt.

Richard Leech, Tenor: Metropolitan Opera
The key to a successful career is effective pharmaceutical management.  Most singers at some point struggle with allergies or illness and a good doctor on speed dial is invaluable.

Ellen Shade, Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
Learn to talk about something OTHER than music.  When a group of singers get together inevitably the conversation turns to vocal technique, competitions, agents, or the music business.  If you're not careful you will expend all your energy in these conversations having nothing left for the real work that needs to be done.  Instead, seek out a good teacher, a good coach and a good manager. Trust their ears and their advice alone.  With everyone else, CHANGE THE SUBJECT!

Margaret Harshaw, Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
Music is the only lover that will never leave you.

Georges Janzer, Violist: Végh Quartet
When choosing between different career paths pay attention to how you spend your day.  If you look carefully you will notice a pattern which reflects your sincere interest.  Follow that as your guide regardless of family pressure or preconceived ideas and you will lead a happy life.

Gerry Bolfrass, Artist's Agent and Manager, New York City
You are ready for operatic management when you can articulate exactly which roles you are prepared to sing and where you feel you could be singing them right now.

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