*UPDATE*The following is an update from the original article posted this morning. I have not changed a single word from the original article, but instead I have decided to write additionally to give this post more context. Regardless if I want to take any of it back, what has been said has been said and the response has been immense.
I am immensely humbled by the reaction I have received about this blog post. It's staggering to see the numbers alone.
The most hysterical thing to me is the fact that my workout post has been boosted to a couple of hundred views because of the splash over affect. And thus, lots of people have now seen me working out and without a shirt on. Luckily I'm fairly pleased with where I am in my physical development, something I've been working hard on, and I'm glad I didn't have way less flattering pictures readily available.
Firstly...I apologize for the inflammatory title that probably brought you to this blog post. I assure you that I don't believe that classical music is dead or dying, nor do I think all classical musicians are poor wretched souls that are constantly begging for pennies. If classical music was truly dead, I would not be able to see Aaron Copland's The Tenderland, Brahm's Ein Duetches Requiem, an original theatrical composition entitled Pageantry, A symphony concert featuring Pines of Rome by Respighi, and a complete performance of Schumann's Die schöne Müllerin all in the course of a week...In Oklahoma. (That's right, we got more than just Cowboys and Indians in this part of the country, we cultured too.) How many performances of Disco works do you see during the month? Case Closed. (I miss disco...)
Secondly...Many of you who have clicked on this link have no clue who I am or anything about me or my personality, so you have been left to the task of assuming my tone and my reasons for writing. My bad. Allow me to Remedy that. My name is Kasey Yeargain, I'm 6'4" and I weighed in at 204lbs this morning. I am a young baritone (26) and I'm at the most basic beginning stages of developing a potential career as an opera singer. I am not an expert in singing, opera history, or just opera in general. I barely hold a bachelors degree in vocal performance (Long story.) I'm exactly as I call myself in the title of this blog. I'm an opera bro. I love opera, I'm trying to make a career in it and I have a love of weight lifting. This past year I transformed my physical being from one of a very overweight guy, to a fitness enthusiast. Barihunks even did a feature on me! Fitness and writing have become two passions of mine in the past few months, and it's something that I'm doing more frequently in order to become more proficient. This blog is a collection of thoughts, life updates, and my progression in my lifts (workouts! grrr!). All I'm saying is that I pray to the dear lord above no one tries to quote me in their papers at school. Although I try to keep the things on this blog factually sound, this a sounding board for entertainment at best, not authority.
"Why do you act like an authority?"
I've never really thought of myself (and still don't) as a mentor to anyone, although during the past few months, because of my epic weight-loss journey (I lost between 80-100lbs), I have had hundreds, HUNDREDS of messages on Facebook, or in person about how to get in better shape, how to do it as an opera singer or a performer, what foods to eat, etc. I've also had people ask me how I've had my VERY minor success with singing. That's mostly the reason I started this blog. I was receiving so many of the same questions, I felt it was easier just to write it down and have something for people to reference. It's proven to be an effective tool. Now, people who are more established than me aren't asking me about potential career advice, but neither are bros that are 6% body fat and benching 315 for reps asking me how to improve their physique. This blog is not for them.
I dedicate a great deal of my time seeking answers about how to achieve my next steps in my career and my physical training from individuals that I respect, that have been there before, and that are doing things I can only dream of. I take what I learn from others and I share. I don't earn money from this blog so I have nothing to gain from sharing other than the experience of documenting my journey.
I believe people portray the roles they are assigned in life by other people. People come to me for advice, and I give it to them because I like helping people. I do the same thing nearly everyday at the YMCA. I help senior citizens find ways to maintain their strength so they can have better quality of life for a longer amount of time. It's something that is in my families blood. We have 4 cats in our house, all strays picked out of the street. My grandmother is constantly putting herself in harms way to help out anyone that asks for it. I've been raised to give back, to take what I've learned and share. So, share I do.
I don't really consider myself to be arrogant, although I know that my typing manner may depict as such. I'm actually a fairly shy and self-conscious person. Most of the behaviors I exhibit off of here are conscious efforts to become a more open, methodical, confident person.
I should not have spoken so assumingly about my Hero, Sherrill Milnes.
Honestly, I would have been able to make my point without bringing up Milnes, and I could have easily used made up examples or even sports injuries as comparison. Instead of half depicting the details of his vocal injury, I should have quoted his own book where he himself talks about this struggle in his life and how he overcame it. He wrote beautifully and openly about something that is the biggest fear of all opera singers, and something the majority don't talk about when and if it occurs to them. I have the most respect for Mr. Milnes not only as a performer and teacher, but also as a human being. His bravery showed forth in more than just his singing, which was always free of cowardice, he lived with it on his chest. The S stands for Sherrill.
I really considered just deleting this blog post due to it's massive response, some of which was negative. However, I realized that I was doing this out of fear, because I was worried someone may not like me, or feel that I was a bad person or misunderstand me. I spent the better part of my life being self conscious about a lot of things, and I had not really felt that way again for some time until this morning when I learned of how much this post had taken off.
Then I looked at all the positive responses. I actually got "thank yous" from people. A friend of mine who just recently left the business said it made her cry and made her feel confident about her decision. I didn't write that part of the post with her in mind, but how can I deny that my words were able to go past the page and my limited view.
The following blog post is not expert advice that is meant to be passed through the ages, but it is something that I wish I had read earlier on in my training. Not because it would have caused me to quit, and I don't even know if it would have caused me to change anything, but it would have made me think secondly about some stupid financial decisions, or maybe caused me to be more expedient with my work. Think of this as advice that Ol' Yeargain is giving to young Yeargain. If it bears resemblance to your life or that of your friends, by all means take away from it what you will.
The following examples are not hyperbole, they are literally things that have either happened to me or my friends. Only the names and places have been changed.
Here is the Original Post:
The numbers are against you, so much so that you will probably not succeed. Think of all the negative things about your performing, your auditioning, your mental stability, and think of everyone else who has it easier, who is more talented and more connected, and suddenly it will hit you like a speeding truck: You probably won't succeed.
The average American opera singer enters college for a bachelors degree in Vocal Performance. Depending on the university or conservatory and the amount of scholarship they might receive (which is considerably less now than it was a few years ago) a student may pay or take out in loans the sum of 5,000 to 50,000 a semester. The majority of opera singers go to graduate school where they will more than likely receive more scholarship, but also have to pay more for classes. A few singers will go on to get a doctorate and study further. After school they will then be put into the market. Their opportunities come in the form of young artist programs, small roles in some opera companies, and concert gigs. However, in order to qualify for living wages, a singer has to take his licks, go through the motions, climb up the ranks, etc. A lot of singers (including myself) will do what our business calls "Pay to Sings." They are intensive summer programs where you receive training, sing scenes, roles and perform in masterclasses. You will pay for these programs but, like school, it is an investment towards your product. After you've done a few of those you are now more than likely eligible for the paid young artist programs. However, the majority of these programs will pay you below a living wage. It will be just enough to put food in your mouth and send some cash home for your rent. After you've done all of the young artist programs or out grown them, you are now a freelance artist. You must now audition everywhere you possibly can and build up clout in the opera industry. Hopefully you can find management and an agent along the way to make getting auditions easier and help book the occasional oratorio/concert gig. You must also do all of this while the market and the need for opera singers is shrinking and the pool to choose from is growing.
Most singers don't hit the point of starting to have some success professionally until they are in their late 20's/early 30's. That means you are juggling with come and go jobs (waiter, retail, baby sitting, etc) whilst saving up money for application fees, auditions, plane tickets, new headshots (everybody always needs new headshots) better audition attire, coachings, voice lessons, ALL THE WHILE you are watching your friends get married, buy cars, buy houses, have pets, have children, grounding their lives to the earth!
Most people lean on their family for financial support during these tough times, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have that much wiggle room. You can apply for grants, or try to become one of the handful of people that are incredible at winning competitions, or you can sweat for your money and pray that you can keep it coming in faster than it goes out. Sometimes some singers will even crash their credit to get a good start, picking up a lot of credit card debt to ease the burden, thinking that soon it will come back to them with their gig bounty. Obtaining 12,000.00 in debt isn't horrible for most people, but it is whenever that's how much you made that year with singing.
|Forever dependent..."Ma, where's the meatloaf?!"|
And then there is the rejection. You've poured your heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into this career, this life and it's all you've wanted since you were a kid. You wanted to sing, perform and make people happy and feel moved with your voice. You gave it all you could this past audition season, but at the end of it you received a stack of rejection letters, some better written than others, but all containing the words "No" or "Cannot offer." You're trying to be happy for your friend, Charlie who just booked himself a run of Madame Butterflys in Kiev, but you really wanted that part and you really needed that money. Now you're broke and heart broken, stuck working at the cheesecake factory where you hate it, but you need the tip money. You owe your parents a couple of grand, you owe your old school way more, and you've had this itchy, coughy feeling in the back of your throat ever since you sang through Act 1 of La Boheme last Wednesday...your life is starting to feel like it's falling apart.
Is that going to stop you? God, I hope not. If the facts alone scare you, you should definitely quit. There are lots of jobs out there that will keep you nice, comfortable, and safe for years to come. You can have a family, a social life, stability and belongings that you can hold above your head and show the world as signs of your accomplishments. You know what I can show you? I have a couple of contracts stapled to a wall in my parents house that proves to me that somebody gave me money to sing. That's it. However, I'm damn proud of these two contracts, and I hope I can earn more and put them on my little wall. I love doing what I do.
Why do you do it?
I think the only equivalent to performing and doing it as a career is like joining the military. BUT, not in the way that it's considered noble, pays well, and will set you up with a first class education, medical benefits, and a career path. It's similar in the way that it will allow you to lead an extraordinary life filled with ups and downs, peaks and valleys. You'll get to portray so many characters and sing so much music that will become so important to you. You will meet hundreds of people who will become your friends if you allow them to. There is truly nothing like it.
The gratitude in peoples eyes, hearts and the way they are moved by my voice and my acting. The adrenaline that comes with singing that impossible phrase over the biggest god damn orchestra you've ever seen in your life into what feels like a cave of an auditorium. Whenever you've inhabited your character so intensely that you can literally see the fear and surprise in your colleagues eyes, your actions shooting her into her character as if a defense mechanism. I would trade a million paychecks just for those feelings.
There is Nothing Wrong with Quitting.
I always talk about not giving up, but I hardly ever talk about the power of quitting. It takes a lot to give up on something, especially something you've worked hard at for many years. However, just because you've worked hard at something doesn't mean you were meant to do it. Just because you love something or someone doesn't mean it was meant to be. It just means life is cruel, and sometimes luck and fortune don't line up. It takes just as much courage to quit as it does to stick it out.
You might even have situations where you weren't planning to have a child and you do, or a relative gets sick, or whatever, and people need you. Even if it would kill them to see you give up your dream, and it would make a lot of people upset with you to do so, there are higher duties given to us than the b.s. we assign ourselves to on earth. There is nothing wrong with changing your stars and your path in life, we each have our own journeys.
The Back Up PlanHere is where I spoke out of line. I spoke beyond my experience and referenced stories I've heard about other singer's careers and was preaching a sermon I have yet come to fully understand.
Even if you're confident in your abilities and have people who believe in your talent, maybe even have a group of people that have guaranteed jobs lined up for you for years, you still need to have a back up plan. There is a reason why even international opera singers have university teaching positions.
1.) Health insurance
2.) Career Insurance.
Before I begin this next session, let me once again start by saying Sherrill Milnes is my hero. I've never respected another baritone more in my life more than Milnes himself. I used to listen to hours of his recordings and I've devoted days to watching footage of his performing. There is barely a piece of music that Milnes has recorded that I haven't found and listened to. His two recital albums were so important to me that they literally stayed in my car CD player for over a year. I would listen to them back to back.
One of my heroes and champions of the Verdi Baritone literature, Sherrill Milnes had an international career. He was singing Rigolettos and MacBeths in every house he desired, he had a packed schedule filled with diverse repertoire on all parts of the planet. However, it only took one day where he wasn't feeling well and an extensive performing schedule for him to sustain a career jeopardizing injury. If he had been in our time, he may have been diagnosed and treated quickly enough where he would be out for a few months at most. However, due to the limitations of the technology of the time, he was plagued with many uneven performances for months, and finally a performance altering surgery.
The following was written by Mr. Milnes in his book American Aria in the 13th chapter.
"In the spring of 1981, I was performing the title role in a Carnegie Hall performance of Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet. It's a very long, intense part, and i was singing it in French for the first time...As with most concert performances, the dress rehearsal, which was more than three hours long, took place the same day as the performance...I ended up doing what I call "slugging," or laying on the voice, too much for my own good, giving too much emphasis on the beats, to help the orchestra and the conductor fee and set tempos.
At some point in the last twenty minutes of the performance...I felt something strange; my sound was getting breathy.
That following morning I woke up and couldn't talk. It was a very bad case of laryngitis, and I couldn't make a sound.
In those days I was fearless when it came to my throat, and I'd book things back to back without giving the matter a second thought...Little did I know that this was the beginning of a very frightening ten years for me."
Let's get this straight. Sherrill Milnes had exquisite technique. His control, artistic and dynamic capabilities set him apart from many artists. He didn't sustain his injury because of stupidity, in fact, his technique was the only thing sustaining his career through his injury. (Passionate Ranting: I'll slap anybody who says otherwise.)
Sherrill Milnes didn't have a back up plan. He didn't think he needed one. It took him many years to create a different professional persona in the realms of teaching and conducting. Luckily he had developed enough clout with his educated singing and performing that he was already highly regarded as a person of intellectual note.
Milnes was the best. Yet something happened that nearly sent him into the poor house. Having a back up plan isn't just smart, it's necessary.
Side Note: Milnes really is incredibly intellectual about all of his performing choices. I sang in a masterclass for him and his knowledge of the score, the style, as well as the variations of performance history even in the context of orchestra baffled me. I did not realize one could know so much about the piece they were performing! And even now when he's retired and doesn't perform any more, when he vocalizes it's one of the most powerful, resonant enchanting sounds I've ever heard. He's a living example of one of the golden eras of opera, and any chance you have to sing for him or just listen to him speak, jump at the chance. He is a wealth of knowledge and one of the greatest American resources that's available, and he is way more accessible to people in the Midwest and south.
There is a reason that all of these opera artists book themselves solid, literally until they can't physically fit in another gig. Money and planning for the future. They understand that they won't be singing forever, and whenever their voice, body or mental capacity gives out, they want to be prepared to ease into a relativley comfortable life. They want to continue providing for their families, and for their loved ones long after they close that opera score.
Just a suggestion...For those looking for one.
Become great at something that isn't music or singing related. Develop a second skill. Why? Because it's smart to diversify your bonds and having a connection with the working class community is good for you and your characters. Not every person you portray will be a queen.
Also, having something else that you feel like you're great at will give you something to lean on when the disappointments of your performing career try to rise and take you down. Having the confidence that you could pursue another dream if you needed to will make you more relaxed, it will make you more balanced, and thus you will do better in both. It's one of the main reasons I've become so addicted to fitness and the developing of the Opera Bro name and brand. It gives me something to do other than worry about whether my passaggio is feeling like it's working efficiently, and in reverse, singing makes me forget that I have to get all of my carbs and proteins for today and to make sure I get home and do some cardio. Balance.
Be happy in what you're doing, people. Life is too short to be unhappy.