Monday, 17 February 2014

Singing Competitions

This article first appeared in

It's shop window season: the BAFTAs last week; the Oscars soon. Closer to home, The Opera Awards have just been announced. Competition is the complicated fact of the singing business, as in all mainstream arts industries. Auditions are comparable in their scrutiny but remain very low-key, indirect competition-a-likes with your peers. Like many, we've been watching the Winter Olympics recently, in which so much competition is decided not simply by the fastest, the furthest or the first. No, many of these important competitions are decided by adjudication, by panel marking. And just as in singing, whether its the right choice or the scandalous wrong 'un, all the competitors smile through the results as the simple act of participation can be its own reward.

We've not only been thinking about the Winter Olympics but also about a video we've recently seen in which the fine - and young - American soprano Angela Meade talks about the 55 competitions that she has won in her career. Quite apart from the boost in profile and consequent opportunities such success brings, there is also the not insignificant issue of prize money.

However, for all that the rewards can be sizeable for a concentrated period, it's not really a choice for making a living. Preparations for such competitions can cost in themselves, with extra singing lessons, accompanist and coaching fees, hiring rehearsal space - and turning down paid work in the run-up to competitions in order to preserve the voice and maintain form.

There are also age restriction issues on many competitions, designed not only to level the 'playing field' but also to restrict the competitors to those needing slingshot the start of their career with rather than established professionals looking for a pay windfall.

What's interesting is that for all that competitions are almost identical to auditions they differ in two respects.

Firstly, the reward of a competition win is instant. An audition 'win' leads to a contract which may be anything from a couple of days to a few months in duration. There is still plenty of work left to do.

Secondly, a competition usually has an audience. Not just a panel listening but also a proper audience, interested in hearing a new voice or the music in the programme. This is considerably more straightforward to singing to a small group automatically disposed to forensic examination of your abilities.

If you are accepted to compete in a singing competition, you have the opportunity to give a recital, can legitimately claim to have taken part and, this kudos aside, may even win one or more of a number of prizes. The occasion is usually rather festive. Natural nerves aside, it's fun.

An audition is functional, anonymous and has no reward other than the possibility of a contract, during which you will be required to continue to achieve the promise you have shown.

Or rather, that's one view. That fact is that the audition is the one place where what you do as a vocal practitioner and as a performer is given proper scrutiny. There's no 'audience vote'. The panel want to see if you can fulfill their requirements, free from extraneous pressures. As long as you look presentable and professional you are not required to splash out on a new suit or at Droopy & Browns. The work that you are doing in an audition is pressured because your work depends on it but there will be further opportunities, even with the same company. Perhaps the panel see that you aren't what they need for this contract but will earmark you for another. Good panelists appear at a number of auditions and often crop up at performances too.

Auditioning is an ongoing, organic process and rewards the dedicated singer. Competitions aren't really easy, despite how one might argue it - but they're the office party in a business that, day-to-day, values the dependable at least as highly.

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