The Classical Singer and Preparation: Are you doing more than Step Zero?

Back when I started this blog, I mentioned in a post something to which I refer as “Step Zero” – that’s what I call the minimum amount of preparation and skill one should have accomplished in order to be considered for emerging professional work in the field. This does not imply a state of perfection; it only points to factors that one should assume everyone out auditioning has accomplished already, and therefore anything less is not really at a point where this baseline of consideration exists. Here are the things that I consider to be part of Step Zero:

Singing in tune (I’m not speaking of an occasional mishap)
Correct pitches
Correct rhythms
Basic diction
Understanding of the text’s meaning
Secure memorization (if the piece is to be memorized)
An overall consistency to the technique (meaning parts of the voice aren’t missing)

If the above isn’t being achieved, I assure you that consideration cannot even be given at this point. There are just far too many singers who can operate at this level to consider someone who isn’t there yet.

Sadly, however, I have far too often come across a singer who stops preparation for performance at Step Zero. The only continued obsession seems to be about the voice, and anything past this level of preparation when it comes to the music and performance of it isn’t considered as important.

I’ll blame ignorance for some of this. It has been my experience that so many just aren’t taught what to do above and beyond the things listed as part of Step Zero. I’ll blame laziness for some of it as well: some people would like to rely on their talent as what will get them hired. And to those I will say this: in a business where the odds of getting hired are typically less than 5%, can you really afford to think this way? Can you really afford not to invest the time and energy, and yes in some cases money, into being as prepared as you possibly could be?

Here are some things that could be done to get you beyond Step Zero.

+ Understanding of style components based on time period of the piece

+ Thorough research on the background of the composer, librettist, and the piece itself

+ Musical and linguistic coaching

+ Dramatic coaching, including subtext, interpretation of meaning, and emotional context

+ A deep understanding of the connection between the dramatic context and the musical context, including understanding why certain harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements are being used, especially in the accompaniment

+ Listening to multiple recordings to discern tempo choices, style nuance, and performance practice

+ Performing the text as a monologue in the original language and in your native language if the piece isn’t already in a language you speak fluently

+ Information for dramatic interpretation created so vividly that the mind can stay occupied with this

+ A trial run of the repertoire in front of an audience or a camera

+ Depth of memorization to where it is not an issue at all

Now even within these, there are different depths to which they can be accomplished. For example, to research a piece, one could say that step was accomplished by reading a paragraph about the piece the in the Kimball “Song” book. But is that really the limit to the available information? Such a book is intended to give an overview, not as a source to give you in-depth background. Why stop at basic information?

I would assert that the more of these things you have done to a deep level, the more secure and confident you would be in presenting the repertoire, making you that much more attractive as an artist. Be wary of only doing what is required of you; just because your teacher, studio, or program doesn’t ask you to do these things doesn’t mean they don’t need to be done. Give yourself the best chance you can to stand out in a field where there is a constant influx of Step Zero achievers. If you’re already doing all of these things, pat yourself on the back – you’re probably in very small company. And if not, well now you have a list. 🙂


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