Communication: The Key to Getting Ahead in the Vocal Music World
by Elena Greco
Typical reading time: 11 minutes
March 22, 2016
Vocal technique, performance skills, summer programs, young artist programs, networking—all are important in furthering a vocal career. But there is another important piece that is too often neglected—one that can make or break a career—and that is communication.
Communication is the currency with which we navigate interpersonal exchanges. It is the basis for virtually every transaction in life. What we say and what we do is who we are in the world. Most people pay a lot of attention to what they do, but not as much to what they say. In the vocal musical world, what you say means a lot, and how you say it is crucial. How you communicate changes how you feel about yourself, as well as how the other person perceives you. How and what you communicate determine what happens in the present and in your future. And learning healthy communication skills will go far in furthering your vocal career.
Let’s start off with a few tips for ensuring healthy and effective communication:
(1) When communicating about an interpersonal problem, always focus on your personal experience of the problem rather than blaming or criticizing the other person. Describe how the problem affects you and how it makes you feel; do not point out the other person’s flaws or mistakes. Denigrating the other person is a violation of their boundaries, and will shut down communication so that nothing will be accomplished.
(2) Do your best to find or suggest a possible solution to a problem you present, rather than simply complaining or pointing out the problem.
(3) Make certain you listen to the other person carefully while they are speaking, attempting to understand their position, even if you disagree with it—or maybe especially if you disagree with it—rather than using the time when they are speaking to formulate your answer.
(4) Answer all communication promptly, preferably in the form the sender uses. If someone sends you a communication (i.e., email, voicemail, text), respond to it within 24 hours; if you don’t, you’re being rude, and it will reflect on you. And if the sender is waiting to hear from you before they can proceed with a related action, you’re costing them time and possibly money. This is particularly true in the music or theater worlds. If you really cannot reply within 24 hours, the time frame that is considered within the bounds of good manners in business, send a reply that indicates that you have received the email and let them know when you will reply. Answer all questions posed in the email; if you don’t, you’re wasting the sender’s time, requiring them to write another email to request answers to the questions you did not answer.
In order to get the perspective of someone who hires and works with many singers, I asked Christopher Fecteau, Artistic Director of dell’Arte Opera Ensemble (www.dellarteopera.org), a New York company committed to artistic development through role study and performance opportunities, for his tips on communicating in the vocal world. His valuable advice is sprinkled throughout this article.
It seems obvious that how well you sing and perform matters in getting hired, but in the early stages of a career, the one thing you can do to make certain that you’re well thought of by producers, directors and administrators is to communicate well. An elegant, thoughtful communicator will stand out in the minds of directors and administrators, the people who decide whether you get an audition and whether you get a job. The way you communicate will remain in their minds after you do a job for them, and it will influence whether you are re-hired by that company. There are several reasons that this is so.
It is not unusual for directors and administrators to be overloaded, tired and stressed. They are responsible for handling a lot of moving parts in creating a production, not the least of which is keeping you informed of what is expected of you and ensuring that you do it. Producing a concert or opera is a big, taxing, stressful job. It is also expensive. Every minute that the director or administrator takes to communicate with you is, quite literally, costing the production money. If you cost these people time or stress in getting their job done, they will not want to work with you again, no matter how talented you are. Conversely, if your communication comes across as respectful, sincere, professional and thoughtful, they might well be inclined to hire you over someone who is your equal in talent, but who communicates less effectively or considerately. As any producer or director will tell you, this does happen.
The Gatekeeper. The person who decides whether you are given an audition and/or who schedules that audition with you is not just an administrative person. In a small company, that person might well be the producer or director herself, the person who is responsible for hiring you as well as setting up your audition and perhaps being on the audition panel. And even when there are administrative gatekeepers, in all but the largest companies those people are in direct communication with the directors. If you are rude or difficult, word will get back to the directors. And they know that how you communicate with the administrator is likely to be the way you communicate with others, so they will be wary of you. No one wants to hire someone who might be problematic because that wastes their time and money, both of which are in short supply.
In my decades in the music business, one thing I have come to realize is that it is a very small world, and that other people’s experiences and impressions of a given musician will inevitably be shared with others in the business, including those who do the hiring. Getting hired and working regularly in the business depends much more on what people think of you than it does on how talented you are. When someone is directing or casting a show, the last thing they want is someone who is unreliable or who will cause problems, because (a) their time is stretched to the max, (b) they do not want added stress placed on them in a job that is by nature stressful, and (c) often large sums of money, in addition to their own reputation and subsequent career prospects, depend on the success of the show they are producing. Many times a performer is hired because they have worked previously with the director or with someone the director knows and have proven to be considerate, reliable and professional, even if another artist is perhaps preferable in some way but is an unknown entity to the director or producer. I wonder how many artists are aware of how large a part their communication plays.
Please be aware that each and every person you work with or for in the music business knows many other people in the music business. That includes people you might not think matter to your career, including administrative assistants, assistant directors, singers, instrumentalists, technical assistants and many others. And every piece of correspondence you write, every interpersonal interaction you have, every action you take in your career represents to others what kind of person you are and what you might be like to work with. Never forget that.
For example, some of the correspondence I receive from potential singers when I am hiring for a show contains misspelled words, a disrespectful or too casual manner, or a lack of understanding of what they are even applying for, indicating that they have not taken the time to look at the job description or at the company’s web page. I do not offer them an audition. People have come to my auditions without knowing what they were auditioning for, although I took the time to send them detailed information and a web page about the show and the company. Why would I hire them when they haven’t taken five minutes to learn what the company is about, what the show is about, and what I am looking for from them? When I am hiring for my small company, who you are and whether you are courteous and considerate to others is just as important to me as how talented you are. That is particularly true in small companies, which are proliferating now in the absence of funding for large productions. Talent abounds in New York; integrity and good manners do not, and they are highly valued in this business.
Directors talk to each other. If I am considering hiring or even offering an audition to a singer with whom I am unacquainted, I look for familiar names on their resume. If they’ve worked with a director or singer I know, I contact that person to see if the singer was dependable and professional or had any issues. Never assume that it’s all right to be rude or disrespectful to a director or administrator, because word will get out to other people in the industry eventually, and you will lose auditions and jobs because of it. Chris Fecteau adds, “Every job you do is a chance to burnish or ruin your reputation. You may list references, but we’re going to talk to the people we know, not necessarily the people you want us to contact.”
Pre-Audition. Obtaining an audition slot and auditioning are no different from applying for a job in any profession. You want to represent yourself at your best. You want to show the screener, administrator or director that you are an excellent candidate for the particular job they are offering and that you are a pleasure to work with. If you keep in mind that you are asking for an interview (audition) for a job like any other, such as an office job, you will not go wrong.
Almost all communication prior to audition is done using email. Communicating through email does not mean that the etiquette expected in professional communication should be relaxed; it does mean that you should take every communication as an opportunity to show yourself at your best. Do you want the director or administrator to see you as someone who has good manners, someone who is intelligent, respectful, considerate and dependable? Demonstrate that through your writing.
When applying for an audition, consider, if you were looking for someone to fill the position you are applying for, what you would need in order to decide whether to grant that person an audition. Send that. Do NOT send an email saying, “I’d be perfect for the job! Do you want me to send you my materials?” Most screeners will cut you from the audition immediately if you respond in this way. Most important at this stage is to give them exactly what they need, based on their request or posting, and on what you discover in your research.
Always research the role or part you are auditioning for, look at the company’s website to learn what sort of company it is and what its focus and brand are about, look for any information about how they are presenting the show, and read carefully what the director is asking that applicants present for the audition. Always do this before responding to any job or audition posting. Based on your research, gauge which headshot and which resume or bio to send. If you send a picture which represents your serious or dramatic side, and the job is for a comedy or a soubrette role, the screener will put your audition request in the “no” pile.
When you send the materials, treat the email as a business communication. Always include 1) a salutation, 2) a body which includes a sentence that says how much you would appreciate being considered for an audition, 3) a sentence that lets them know that you know what sort of company it is and what the show is about, 4) a sentence that tells them how you could contribute to, or how you fit with, their show, 5) a closing and 6) appropriate attachments, such as a resume, bio, headshot, website link, YouTube link or mp3. Think of what you would need if you were in their place. Your goal is for them not to need to ask you for anything further in order to make their decision whether to grant you an audition, and to see you as a polite professional. Use good grammar and spelling, and address them professionally.
Incidentally, it is fine to make your own opportunities and make the first move, as long as you communicate respectfully. If you would like to audition for a company, but they have no auditions posted, Chris Fecteau, Artistic Director of dell’Arte Opera Ensemble, suggests, “If your career level warrants and you have advance travel plans putting you in the vicinity of a company in which you’re interested, you may wish to make contact with their Artistic Administrator to see if they are offering local auditions or if you might be heard while you are in the area.”
With any further communication, be concise and speak to the point. Give them the information they request and no more. Answer any questions directly and succinctly. If you have questions, answer their questions first, then pose yours as briefly as possible beneath those answers.
Chris Fecteau also suggests, “There are lots of clues to be read in postings, and the singer should glean all the information and guidance they can. When communicating with a company, the mode of communication should be precisely that requested by the company. If they have an on-line application, don’t send materials via email. If they request “no phone calls,” don’t call. Texting is likely never an appropriate method. Instead of ‘formal or informal’ it’s always appropriate to be businesslike: clear, concise and focused.”
Have immaculate manners. The global current trend is toward informality, but you know what good manners are. Take your cue from the audition posting or from the screener’s style of communication, but always err on the side of formality. Never use texting language in any format! (Someone once responded to an audition posting by emailing me using texting language and abbreviations in the way you might do with a close friend. This will get you put in the “no” pile instantly.) Always use respectful language with the person who is screening and setting up the auditions. Use good grammar and punctuation, and spellcheck and proof every email you send.
At the audition: Once you’ve gotten through the first hurdle and gotten an audition scheduled, don’t let down on your focus on communication. Use proper English and be respectful. Always err on the side of being more formal than might be necessary; you won’t offend by being too formal, but you will offend by being too informal, which will be seen as disrespectful.
Come prepared with exactly what the director requested in the job description or what is appropriate to the show so that s/he can easily gauge if you’re a fit for their production. It’s fine to bring additional music in other styles, but make sure you bring what the director asked for or what the role suggests. For example, if it’s a musical theater show, don’t bring an aria to sing and no musical theater (yes, this happened); bring something appropriate to the show or genre. If it is obvious that you have not researched the company and the director’s slant on the show (whether it was sent to you or not), the director will see that as a lack of interest in their company. It implies that you only care about your own performance and not on the larger picture of the show. Imagine if you were to apply for an office job, and you went to the job interview (the equivalent of an audition) without knowing what the company did or what its focus was. What if it were clear to the interviewer that you did not read the email from them granting you an interview, an email which contained important information about the job itself? This could be a warning to them that you do not read directions. Part of getting a job in the business world is letting the interviewer know that you were conscientious enough to learn about the company before you applied for a job there and that you read their communication and can follow instructions. It is no different in the vocal music world.
Once you’re at the audition, wait for the auditioner(s) to tell you what they want. Don’t start talking before they indicate that they are ready. After that, be yourself—your most professional self. Chris Fecteau suggests that, at the audition, “A certain amount of small talk can give company leadership a sense of your personality, but only if it’s initiated by those behind the table. Take care not to drop names, but conveying a friendly ‘hello’ from a colleague they know and haven’t seen in a while can sometimes be a nice touch after you sing. In all situations, however, remember that time is short, and you have a limited amount of time to make an impression about your work. Politeness does not mean being obsequious. Confidence is not cockiness. Speak to the panel with respect, with an awareness of the time restraints of the situation. Be on point.”
Also, never bring up money prior to or at the audition, and never discuss it in front of others. It is fine to ask if the job is compensated at the time you submit audition materials, but any specifics are dealt with after you have auditioned and the company expresses an interest in hiring you.
Time. Always be considerate of the director’s or administrator’s time. They will love you for it. You should always respond to written communication within one business day; faster will make a better impression and be greatly appreciated. The director is working with a long production list and often cannot move on to the next item until they’ve heard from you, so you might be holding up the entire production when you don’t respond in a timely manner. Always remember, time is money! When you don’t respond, you’re also adding to their stress level, which will not be appreciated. If you delay, especially more than once, you will likely not be hired again.
Check your spam filter. Make sure that your email works! This might seem obvious, but spam filters sometimes collect emails unexpectedly even from those with whom you have had frequent communication. Either check your spam folder daily, or turn off the Junk Mail feature altogether. I once had a situation where a singer repeatedly failed to respond to my cast or personal emails, many of which were urgent or time-sensitive. She then complained haughtily that I hadn’t informed her that I was going to use a certain picture of her in a publicity email—when in fact I had asked for her approval three separate times, wasting several valuable days waiting for a response from her to each email before I gave up and proceeded with publicity. Looking back, I suspect my emails were going into her spam folder.
Be considerate. Being a director or administrator is a hard job. Have you ever had to do a really difficult job, and someone did something nice for you while you were doing it? Remember how that made you feel? And do you remember what it felt like when someone made that really difficult job even harder for you? That is why you should be extra considerate of the director. Anticipate what the director needs from you and offer it. Follow directions. Most of all, don’t make their job more difficult by failing to respond to emails, or by being late or argumentative in rehearsals. Being late is also a communication; it communicates that you are unreliable and inconsiderate.
Sometimes just showing a little compassion for the director can go a long way. I had to postpone a show once after I sustained a herniated lumbar disc. In response to an email I sent to the cast about the delay, offering a possible month for the rescheduling, one person, who had been polite in their correspondence up to that point, responded in a rather rough manner. Because of this email, I chose to work instead with someone who had attended the same audition rather than with him, because I saw that he would be unpleasant when problems arose (and problems always arise in a production!). This is an example of losing a job due to rude communication.
Doing the job. Once you’re hired, how you communicate affects whether you get re-hired by that company or that director. As Chris Fecteau says, “Everyone in the company can be an advocate for your rehiring or a detractor, from the General Director down to the assistant dresser or the person pushing a broom. Treat everyone with respect and friendliness; be prompt when asked for information or materials; and be patient but persistent if you sense a problem in how things are working. Remember that you’re one of dozens of people involved in each of multiple productions in a season. Be the ‘easy,’ ‘friendly,’ ‘pro-active’ person in the cast.” Also, I recommend that you take any advice or suggestions given to you by anyone in the production, particularly the director, as what they likely are: a desire to help you be a better performer. People who have either a big ego or low self-esteem tend to see such suggestions as negative criticisms instead of helpful advice. That is a shame, because accepting such advice with thanks makes you seem a bigger person, and often the advice really could help you.
Problems. Do your best not to trouble the director or administrator with personal problems. But if something is affecting your ability to do your job for them, let them know privately, in writing if possible, and not during a rehearsal, since their rehearsal time is carefully structured and timed. If the communication is about another person, make certain that you do not say anything about that person. Rather, focus on what action of theirs caused you a problem and how it affected you. For example, rather than saying, “The baritone is being inconsiderate and difficult!”, construct one sentence, two at most, saying exactly what the baritone did or does that causes you a problem in doing your job, and how it affects you. Or if there is a problem with the staging, explain what it is and how it affects you clearly and concisely. Do not lay blame or whine or demand. Just state the facts in an adult and unemotional manner. Be succinct; if you take too much of the director’s time, that will leave a negative impression.
Chris Fecteau offers this advice: “If you’re experiencing problems with the director, reach out directly, but not during rehearsal. In modern opera production, time is more and more precious, and no director can afford to get stuck on an individual’s problems. Do your best not only to do what the director asks, but also to sense what their “long game” is. Sometimes a simple staging pattern is set up to evoke a particular dramatic response, or to invite the singer to ‘fill in’ with their sense of character and action. Get to know the director’s style by watching them with the other singers in the cast. Pay attention ALL the time and figure out what works best. Learn the director’s language.”
Be generous and supportive to other performers. Don’t hog time with the coach or accompanist to other singers’ detriment. Follow director’s requests; never ignore them. Don’t second guess the director or go over their head. Don’t act arrogant or as if you know better than they do. Let them know through your communication and your behavior that you are ready and willing to let them direct you, that you are at their service.
After the show. You might not realize it, but post-performance communication can make a difference in whether you get hired again in the future. When you leave a positive impression, you make a positive preliminary step in getting re-hired. Mr. Fecteau says, “Thank your home-stay hosts (if any).” (I would add that a hard-copy “thank you” note, rather than an email, makes a wonderful impression.) Mr. Fecteau continues, “If you’ve had contact with someone in leadership who seems honest, direct and supportive, it may be wise to ask for a quick ‘post-mortem’ conversation. If you have the chance to do this, listen openly and realize that even if something went wrong, you can still make a positive impression by listening to frank feedback. And personal thank-you notes handed out the evening of a show are lovely, but I personally appreciate it when I receive a note in the mail a few days after closing. It just seems less ‘pro forma’ and more sincere.”
I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to me to receive a “thank you” note or email from a performer the day after a show. It makes me think they enjoyed working on the project with me, and that makes me feel good. It also gives me a positive impression of the performer, shows that they have good manners and are considerate, and it makes me want to hire them again.
Using healthy communication means not violating others’ boundaries—physically, emotionally or psychologically. It means being respectful of the other person and their time. It requires using good etiquette and your most professional demeanor. Using effective communication means speaking in ways that leave both parties feeling good, and which further the action and do not delay progress. If you try these communication tips, people will notice you, and your career just might soar!
See Elena’s bios for more information about the author.