Notes from the Women Singers Retreat — July 11, 2012
Earlier this year, Caroline McKenzie, a longtime Lister and friend (and jaw-dropping soprano to boot) got a bee in her bonnet, and hatched an almost magical plan: she would put together a day-long “retreat” for female classical singers who had reached or passed the midpoint of their careers. It would be a day of workshops pertinent to the effects and politics of aging, of planning ahead, and where participants could celebrate the work they’ve done, lay plans for the future, and discuss openly the arc of ever-changing marketability in a seriously saturated market. We discussed this idea over yucca root and moros y cristianos at Versailles‘ garlic-soaked haven of Cuban cuisine a few months ago, and she asked me to start the day off with some observations from my own experience. I looked forward to the retreat with anticipation, and it paid off in spades — in short, the day was thoroughly satisfying, as we talked about everything from finances to voice therapy to health and hormones to the business in general. Jen Mulder led a discussion about singer finances, Monika Bruckner showed us her presentation on homeopathy, and Joanna Cazden talked to us about vocal health and the therapies available. You can read more about the event here. We had a relatively small group — about 14, which was a good size for the first year, and we’re all looking forward to doing it again next year. (Don’t miss it!)
I’ve been asked to share my talk from the retreat, which is a sort of “state of the business”, and a call for proactive flexibility as life changes:
Who am I? My name is Lauri D. Goldenhersh. My business, Lauri’s List, started almost ten years ago, and is, officially, “the premier online community for professional classical singers in Southern California”. We’re basically a hub for local singer activity, and we cover a lot of ground. (I’ve also been a working mezzo, among other things, for the last twenty-five years.)
My job is to keep a close eye on the arts, look for potential openings and trends, and try to connect artists, primarily singers, with all kinds of jobs, training, and networking opportunities. This gives me a peculiar vantage point on the arts, on artists, and on the career trajectories of singers in particular. What I see in all of this is a global economy that is changing ALL expectations of
- what an artist is,
- what they should be doing,
- and how they get paid.
I see technology as an overwhelming force in everyone’s lives, whether they acknowledge it or not.
…a classical music industry designed to use us as long as they require, with no long-term plan or responsibility for our well-being. In short, it’s not their job to make sure we’re OK.
I see fewer traditional jobs, and fewer people in charge of hiring.
I see that men and women do not share the same existence in classical music. Male singers are fewer in number, subject to a different set of standards, and deal with different issues as they age. All of this makes comparisons across genders extremely difficult.
I know, too, that most singers come to the List and services like it because they want jobs: they’re so proud of themselves that they’re “taking action”, but in actuality, they still want someone else to bring the work to them.
But here’s what I also see:
- The ever-increasing availability of technology is a dynamic blessing, an almost magical equalizer, creating a wealth of connection in an increasingly chaotic environment.
- New models of performing and presenting are taking over, as “indie classical” musicians and others are reinventing the field, creating performing opportunities where none existed before, marketing directly to the consumers of their art, crashing through genre boundaries, and sidestepping over-dependence on large organizations for their success.
- But finally, every single day, I see powerhouse women in the arts, with vision, and drive, and intelligence, and talent, ready to build something valuable. They understand that a life in music is a life of service. It’s a life of giving what we have (talent, time, joy) to others
Frustrated singers aren’t asking to be divas forever. What I hear over and over again from all types of singers who have passed the midpoint of their careers is that they just want to keep doing music. That phrasing is particularly resonant, because it’s about DOING. It’s not about sitting back and waiting for the musical opportunities to come to you. I love that Mae West, the woman known for the “peel me a grape, Beulah” character who is all about being served, also possessed one of the smartest business minds in Hollywood in her day. She was never one to sit around and wait for things to happen to her. She made the deals. She made things happen. She reinvented her field, and the role women played in it. (She was probably even fully capable of peeling her own grapes!)
Success isn’t about being discovered. The singers who keep working are the ones who take initiative, and are prepared to repurpose their lives from time to time. It’s about being proactive, getting out there, and creating something that you can believe in.
If any art form is about faith, it’s music, because we can’t see it. The notes on the page aren’t music: music is what we make. We create something intangible that is essential to human life. A response to music is one of the first signs of awareness in an infant, and one of the last things to go in a patient with advanced Alzheimer’s. An evocative melody transcends language, it can trigger or change emotion, and music can change the world.
We have within us the power to reinvent ourselves as needed — whenever. We have the power to create music in any space that will have us, and the ferocity and grace to face whatever comes. For working singers, the game is changing, and we must change with it to find a new niche (and probably more than one).
The blog at LaurisList.com is called “Singerpreneur“, as that is the go-to mindset that builds long-term, if ever-changing, careers. Each of us, as singerpreneurs, must be guided by our own independent spirit, but also support and be borne up by the community we build together as we move through this world.
We can no longer afford to expect a career, regardless of what we’ve done, who we know, or the letters after our names. The great news is that experience still matters. It’s gold. Every experience that you’ve ever had makes you stronger, makes you more resilient, makes you more capable of evolving into the artist that you are destined to become. And because our legacy is as important as the work we do now, we know that mentoring is the real future of classical music, whether we have mentors of our own that we honor and learn from, or we find younger singers and help them navigate a world for which they are woefully unprepared. We must evolve as time, jobs, budgets, and even voices change. We must constantly be ready to move, ready to learn something new. We cannot become complacent in our skills, or dependent on a particular source of income. Or when things change, as they always do, we will be left behind.
But you know this. All of you are already ahead of the game — because you showed up today. The reason I feel so privileged to be part of this event is that Caroline has hit upon something that affects every one of us, but is never discussed: Life goes on, aging happens, difficulties arise, but we don’t talk about it. Singers don’t tend to talk about illness. We don’t talk about aging. We might talk about gravity taking over or whatever diet we’re on. We’ll talk about religion and politics all day long. We’ll even gossip about our colleagues far more than we should. But we certainly don’t talk about failures, mistakes, or heaven forbid, [whisper] ….vocal issues! …because we’re always afraid of the gig we might be left out of, that someone will learn of a weakness and label us “washed up”. Our silence is our most dangerous reality, and this is no way to live. We’re here today not only to support each other and find joy in living the singing life, but because we have a real chance to build a vocabulary for real-life discussion, to start a quiet little movement — an empowering force that changes the way a mature singer’s life is defined, discussed and approached. That change will ONLY happen from the inside out. We have to change the script.
I have something for each of you today, to remind you that maturity is truly glorious. We don’t have as many reminders of this here in California as elsewhere in the world, but I’d like to offer you a little bookmark of autumn leaves, with a reminder from Camus: “Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower.” Each one is unique, just like all of you.