Wednesday, 5 March 2014

On dealing with uncertainty...

Good things come to those who wait.  A nice little saying, and probably true.  But how does one go about waiting in the first place?

As a freelance singer, I do an awful lot of waiting.  Waiting to go onstage, waiting to catch a train, waiting to sing an audition.  But the hardest kind of waiting is the kind that comes after the audition or application submission.  What will the verdict be?  Is it a yes?  Is it a no?  Will I even get a response at all?

We the jury find the defendant to be guilty of good singing.

On shows like American Idol and The Voice, the audience gets to watch a performance and then immediately see the judges’ response.  This is an entertaining way to present auditions to the public.  But it doesn't work that way in the real music industry.  Most auditions don't provide instant feedback.  Usually it's just a “thank you for coming” and a “we'll let you know.”  Audition panels have spent a lot of time practising their niceties and their poker faces.  So you often leave the audition without an inkling of how well you did.  All that's left is to go home and wait.

It's all very anticlimactic.  You dedicate hours upon hours to perfecting your audition repertoire.  You carefully research new opportunities suitable for your level and background.  You invest in making a good-quality recording.  You read and re-read your CV about a thousand times to check for mistakes.  And after all that work, it's over in a matter of minutes.  You click “send”, or you sing a ten-minute audition, and that's it.

Sometimes I sing an audition and then promptly forget about it.  I have so many other things to think about that I don't have time to worry.  I might remember it every once and a while, and say absently, “oh I still haven't heard back from so-and-so.”  But it doesn't take over my life.  It doesn't consume me.

The real danger comes when I hit a dry spell, and I seem to have all the time in the world to fret and deliberate about an impending response.

Wishing, and hoping, and thinking, and praying...

The sight of an empty calendar is terrifying for a freelancer.  Unless you have savings to fall back on, it can spell danger.  It’s hard not to worry about empty weeks or months that lie ahead.  Even when the next few months are full, if you look far enough ahead you might still see that horrible blankness.  And you can't help but wonder, what if it never gets filled up?

And what do you do about those blank spaces?  Do you wait and hope that something comes up?  Do you start looking for a day job to pay the bills?  And what if you get a day job, only to be offered some singing work at the last minute?  What if the day job prevents you from travelling to important auditions, or sucks up all of your precious practising time?  There are so many uncertainties to consider.


Every freelancer deals with these blank spaces in the calendar.  They might feel confident that more work will come.  They might even be accustomed to the normal rhythm of their work cycle: they know when to expect dry spells, and they plan ahead for them.  But even a veteran freelancer can be caught unawares by a dry spell.  Perhaps you know companies who employ you regularly, but that doesn't mean you can count on their loyalty.  Someone new might do a fantastic audition and bump you down to a lower spot on the list.  A new director might decide you're not right for the role after all.  Nothing is certain until a contract has been signed.  Sometimes a company decides they have to trim the fat – and it turns out that the fat includes you.

The only certainty in a freelancer's life is uncertainty.  Our work lies in a precarious place, forever yo-yoing between boom and bust.  Sometimes we're insanely busy, and other times the phone refuses to ring.  You never know when you'll be left at home, twiddling your thumbs and worrying about the future.

And so it’s times like this that I struggle.  My whole occupation, my entire life’s meaning, seems to be based on waiting.  Practising, sending out CVs, and waiting.  I don't feel like a singer at all – I feel like a professional waiter.

No, not that kind.

Most people will give some idea of how long you have to wait.  We'll contact you next week, they'll say.  We'll write to you by Smarch 11th.  

Lousy Smarch weather...

But often these promises mean nothing.  And you'll get a letter several weeks down the line, with an apology and a reference to the “great number of applicants.”

Some people – the very worst if you ask me – don't even respond at all.  Not only are they rejecting you, but they can't even be bothered taking the time to write you a letter to let you know.

All in all, the whole thing leaves you feeling rather powerless.  There are so many factors which are out of your control.  The number of other applicants, and the standard of their singing.  The personal taste of the conductor.  The economics of the business.  The internal politics of the company.  The artistic vision of the director.  It feels like you're a puppet being pulled around, at the mercy of everyone else's whims.

Dance, puppet, dance!

But a lot of these things are also out of the company's control.  They can't control which funders make cuts or bail out completely.  They can't control how competitive the industry has become.  Sure, maybe they haven't had the courtesy to write a rejection letter.  But it's probably because they've been completely overwhelmed with applications, and can barely keep their heads above water.  It’s important to remember that like you, the other side is only human.

So rather than pointing fingers at anyone else, it's important to remember the things which you can control.  You may not be able to control who buys your “product”, but you can work hard to make sure it's a the very best product you can offer.  Invest in good lessons and coachings, and dedicate your time to efficient, focused practice.  Study suitable roles for your voice.  Stay in good physical shape by working out regularly.  Take acting lessons, or dancing lessons.  Attend performances of artists your admire.

And be proactive.  Seek out as many opportunities as possible.  Do your research online and through word of mouth.  Make useful contacts.  Always keep your ear to the ground for upcoming auditions.  Remember, the more seeds you plant, the more likely you are to have a harvest.  So increase your odds and get planting!

You never know which seeds might sprout.

Once that’s all been said and done, it's out of your hands.  You can give the best audition possible and still not get the part.  It could be the panel doesn't like the way you ornament your Handel aria, or they want you to be shorter than the leading tenor.  Or – brace yourself – it could be that they just don’t like you.

Finally, try to embrace the dry spells when they do come.  You can always find a positive way to use this time.  Maybe nobody is offering you work on a silver platter, but that doesn't mean you can't make work for yourself.  Try organising a recital with friends, or even starting a new ensemble.  I've been using my empty time in the last couple of months to take a German course.  Now my German is at a higher level - and I know that will be a huge asset when searching for work.  Dry spells don't have to be so scary.  They can be an exciting challenge, a catalyst for change.  They encourage us to be creative and find new ways to invest in our future.

The fact is that a lot of this business is out of our control.  It's a combination of politics, economics, personal taste and luck.  For our part, the best we can do is to persevere.  Keep working on our craft, and improve our odds by sending out more applications.  And keep the faith, as difficult as that may be.  Because you never know what the universe might have in store for you next.

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