Report by Lindy Tennent-Brown, 8 June 2015

Wide-ranging discussion around the topic of how conservatoires train singers in preparation for their entry to the music industry, with some emphasis on working within contemporary opera following graduation. There was a general consensus amongst participants that conservatoire vocal studies/opera departments

(a) tend to be staffed by singing teachers who may have an outdated or unrealistic view of the industry their students will enter upon graduation;

(b) devote vast resources to promoting the “brand” of their institution through high-profile, public events (termly opera productions, recitals regularly being streamed live online, for example) at the expense of a tailored, carefully-planned course of study suited to the talents and needs of each individual student, whereby students become pawns in the agenda of the institution to raise their profile or prove their reputation, especially in regard to attracting international students; 

© recruit students according to their casting needs; 

(d) recruit students according to their ability to pay grossly inflated international fees (the RCM is currently charging £20,000 per year for postgraduate vocal studies students);

(e) perpetuate a myth that contemporary opera is a second-rate, minority sport to be avoided at all costs because of the damage it invariably does to a singer's voice. There are clearly exceptions to these statements - Trinity Laban, for example, requires singing students to present contemporary music as part of regular assessments - but the obvious differences in conservatoire training between singers (cosseted, protected, spoon-fed, infantilised) and instrumentalists (robust, exposure to widely mixed repertoire, with the expectations of self-direction, preparation, and discipline) are plain to observe.

There was discussion about a singer's voice being built of the things it sings, including the idea that if contemporary or non-classical music and their associated vocal techniques are introduced early in a singer's development (alongside the idea that traditional classical singing technique shares some fundamental principles with non-classical techniques - proper breath support, formation of vowels, for example), the voice will grow in flexibility and its ability to adapt and incorporate these techniques. If contemporary music is always seen as “other” or “difficult” or “extreme” then the techniques required to sing it successfully are never approached, let alone mastered. Conservatoires seem to foster fear of the unknown (a.k.a. modern) amongst students, rather than empowering them to explore, experiment and enjoy unexpected collaborations or discoveries.

We posed the question: how do we show institutions that it is in their interests to empower students? If a student has paid £20,000 to enter a course of study at an institution that trades, in part, on its reputation, that student is invested in a way that prevents them questioning the wisdom or value or relevance of any advice they receive during that course. Does the eye-watering cost of a postgraduate singing course in itself disempower the student to ask questions about the reality of their situation? What would it be like if, at the initial point of entry to the course singing students could discuss with their professors their expectations and ambitions, their strengths and weaknesses, and their ideas about the kind of industry they hope to work in, then work with the institution to design a bespoke programme that is tailored to their specific needs as a singer and performer? How can an institution justify charging such exorbitant fees to an increasing number of students who have no realistic prospect of forging careers as singers? How can a singer hope to pay off the enormous debts incurred during training on the meagre wages of a new graduate, freelance singer? Does the institution profiteer from the fact that international students are legally obliged to be enrolled in a recognised course of study in order to secure a student visa to study here? We agreed that £20,000 per year would buy a huge number of private singing lessons, coachings, acting and dance classes and business advice sessions whilst probably leaving some loose change for rent, food, and a bus pass. This being the case, what proportion of the fee charged by an institution is paying for the prestige of being able to name that institution on one's CV?

There is a vast chasm between the skills a singing student thinks s/he needs to work in the opera industry (we asked questions about where students get these ideas from - who is feeding those ideas and perpetuating the myths that simply don't equate with the reality of working in the industry), and the skills a professional singer actually uses on a daily basis to work in the industry.

There was general consensus that conservatoires focus an inordinate amount of a vocal student's time on the development of the voice itself, at the (very great) expense of the many other skills a singer will need if they are to have a chance of building a career in the industry. We felt strongly that every singer should leave college with AT LEAST these skills:

- sound vocal technique to cover a wide range of repertoire

- highly developed skills in acting and stagecraft

- ability to understand and use text as communication (both singing and non-singing)

- understanding of non-classical vocal techniques and how to use them safely

- competence at languages (Italian, French, German)

- music theory knowledge

- sight-reading competence

- vocal improvisation skills

- dance training, especially baroque dance, jazz/modern/tap, general movement-as-expression training

- workshop facilitation/animateur training

- piano skills sufficient to learn new repertoire alone

- presentation skills (how to dress for auditions, or for your first week of rehearsal, how to write a CV, how to manage auditions)

- business skills including UK and international accountancy for self-employment, networking skills, social media use

- understanding of how an opera production is built from the bottom up, especially “non-creative” roles within a production: what is the role of stage management? technical crew? lighting? production manager? company manager?

- a second, complementary skill (not singing) to use as a method of generating income between singing contracts

On this basis, it was agreed that conservatoires are not good at recognising the evolving nature of the opera industry (the growth of contemporary opera as an employer of new graduates, for example) and adapting their courses to reflect those changes. Overall, we felt that conservatoires are not preparing singers well for the music/opera industry as it currently exists, and that wide-reaching changes are needed in the approach conservatoires take to training singers if they are to justify their relevance as stepping stones on the path towards building a career as a singer.


skills, singers, contemporary opera, conservatoire training, opera industry