Telling It Like It Is: A Conversation with Cindy Sadler


I’ve been a long-time fan of Cindy Sadler – if you’ve been a part of the classical singer community for any amount of time, you’ve heard her name: she’s been the advice columnist known as “Erda” for Classical Singer since 2002, and she’s one of the front runners of the New Forum for Classical Singers group on Facebook. She also runs a great blog and a business consultancy – and she’s a highly successful singer: basically, Cindy is my idea of the ideal working performer. I had a virtual powwow with the Advice Diva herself about her own path into performing, her thoughts on career diversity, and the advice she wishes she had gotten when it all began.

KD: Many singers are familiar with the idea of a ‘traditional’ path, which supposedly includes majoring in music, followed by a master’s degree in music, getting into a Young Artist Program or two and then having a career. I know that’s what I was told it looked like… What did your singing career progression look like?

CS: Music has always been a part of my life, but I didn’t start out to be a music major and certainly not an opera singer. I played piano, guitar, and oboe as a child and never had any singing training. Writing was my main career focus; music and theatre were indispensable hobbies. But they kept calling to me. I couldn’t not act, I couldn’t not make music.

At the University of Texas, I studied pretty much whatever took my fancy (if I told you how cheap in-state tuition was at that time you would cry, and then you would ask me if dinosaurs were a real problem on campus) and eventually that included voice lessons. That was when I discovered I “had a voice” and was encouraged to study singing. I took some lessons and realized that I loved singing more than I loved anything else, changed majors a bit late in the game, and got my Bachelor of Music degree. Then, completely ignorant of what came next, I auditioned for and was invited to join what is now called the Ryan Center.

(That’s Lyric Opera of Chicago, y’all…)

CS: So I kind of did things backwards. After my apprenticeship in Chicago, I did Central City, and shortly after that auditioned for and was asked to join the cast of Phantom of the Opera in LA. I did that for about a year, and towards the end of that gig was cast in the Arizona Ring Cycle which in turn led to bigger and better things. My career just advanced, step by step, from there.

I don’t think there ever actually WAS a “traditional career path.” It’s a myth that people are often TOLD, often by well-meaning teachers who either never had significant careers themselves or haven’t been working and keeping up with our constantly changing business. Things are SO different now from when I started, and even from a few years ago. Here’s what I know: skill, individuality, chutzpah, hard work and perseverance win out every time. And the path has many branches. Some of them may lead you to the place you really wanted to go all along.

(Preach it, Cindy! I have been appalled at some of the advice given to young singers that is outdated by 20 years. Make sure your advice is coming from sources who are keeping up with what is current, kids.)

KD: You have been giving advice to singers for many years, including serving as a singing business consultant and as the famous Erda of “Ask Erda” in Classical Singer magazine. Why did you start giving advice to others?

CS: Well, it seems I’m that friend that everybody tells their troubles to, because I will listen; I’m reasonably smart and reasonably nice; and even if I don’t know the answers I will find them out or make something up that at best works and at worst makes you feel better. Seriously, though, I think I’m pretty good at listening between the lines and getting to the heart of what people both want and need, figuring out what’s standing in their way, and coming up with solutions that are practical and actionable for them. I’m good at connecting people, and good at generating ideas.

I started my consultancy, The Business of Singing, because over and over I saw colleagues spinning their wheels, getting frustrated, wasting time and money, and not getting where they wanted to go. They were asking the same questions over and over again, and I thought, “There’s got to be some way to create a clearinghouse of answers.” So, I started the Singer’s Resources site, and somehow that made me the person to ask. Nobody else was advising and instructing singers about the business side of things in an organized and comprehensive manner. Few people who were actually out there working as singers were willing to speak frankly about what goes on in our business. So, I decided to organize the information I had, seek the information I didn’t, and help people out. Many more experienced singers had helped me along the way and I felt it was very important to draw on that advice and that tradition to fill a pretty big need in our community.

“Ask Erda” really came out of The Business of Singing! I was really busy as a singer and didn’t have the time to take writing assignments, so I decided to solicit singers’ questions directly. And now they can ask via Twitter (@Ask_Erda), as well as through a form at www.TheBusinessOfSinging.com!

I also started my blog, www.MezzoWithCharacter.com, to have a place to discuss broader topics about life as a performer, personal observations drawn from my career, a platform for issues outside of performing that are important to me; and things I love like cooking, gardening, and general silliness. It’s similar to what I write for Classical Singer and my TBOS newsletter, but more casual and personal. Sometimes I say naughty words.

KD: The singing side of your career is going really well – why do this other work as well?
CS: Artistic success and what the world considers financial success don’t necessarily go hand in hand; you can make a comfortable living in the present as an artist but there is no retirement plan, no pension to speak of. We have zero job security — even those of us who are seen as “successful.”

The smart artist enters into this business with an exit plan, and they prepare for that plan far in advance of needing it. I’ve always put my singing career first, but I’ve also always had other interests that I was able to develop into income streams that still gave me the flexibility to perform; and I believe this is what emerging artists today should be training to do. It’s no longer a taboo to admit that you have a day job. The reality is that the vast majority of artists in any discipline do. I’ve just been fortunate — though I’ve done so deliberately — to arrange my life so that my various income streams all center around the arts.

(IS EVERYBODY READING THIS?? Plan NOW. NOW. When I was going in to college, this was shamefully referred to as ‘having something to fall back on.’ I wish I hadn’t been so full of pride as to think that this was some form of admittance of not being good enough to be a performer. It has NOTHING to do with that – this is smart business/life sense, and it’s more important now than ever. Take Cindy’s advice, and mine as well – diversify. Have a plan that accompanies your performance plans. The worst thing that could happen is that you never use it. Far better than the alternative, which is not having an alternative should the need arise, or God forbid you change your mind!)

KD: In all of your experience, what do you know now that you most wish you had known early on?

CS: I wish I’d understood the importance of balancing the information I was being given with agency in my own individuality as an artist.

(YASSSSS. You have a voice, and you know more than nothing. It is important to be able to take in the advice of others and then go away and decide if that advice is what is best for you. No person will give you 100% useful advice. You should be able to take what is useful for you and let the rest go. Self trust is important, too!)

KD: What is your advice for singers who did not have a traditional path toward a singing career, or who did but are not having particular success with the YAP track?

CS: Don’t fret over the advantages you’ve lost — it’s not productive. Instead, focus on honing your skills and delivering them to the right audience. If you create a product that is marketable and you get it to the right market, eventually someone is going to buy.

And there you have it. It was a pleasure to get to know Cindy a little better – she’s as personable and as down to earth as her writing and musings would suggest, and if you get a chance to see her perform, go. You won’t be disappointed.

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