Calculus For Singers

Actually, it’s probably more like actuarial science but never mind. Kim Witman from Wolf Trap Opera is doing guest posts around the intertubes as part of the 2010 season launch announcement.

Miss Mussel has been mulling for some time about what exactly it is that makes some musicians successful over others. While the extremes of the scale (talent & hype) are often credited/blamed as the situation requires, the truth is much more complicated. Miss Mussel thought that someone who is in close proximity to emerging artists for long stretches might have an opinion on what the magic formula is. We didn’t quite get down to graphing it, but thanks to Kim’s response, we’ve moved a step or two closer.


In your experience where on the talent/hard work spectrum do most successful singers lie? It seems to me that once you get to Triple A, everyone is fairly evenly talented.

The singers who make it are the ones that can hang on the longest through the poverty, bad gigs and relationship strain. Am I on to something or is this an oversimplification?

Well, you are indeed on to something, and the simplification isn’t all that egregious.

Any industry has its pyramid. At every new level, people fall off and turn to other careers and pursuits. At the early/bottom levels of the pyramid, this usually happens because of basic talent and skills. Sometimes it’s because the natural tools aren’t there, and sometimes it’s because the drive and elbow grease needed to refine them aren’t abundant enough.

But you’re right – by the time we get close to the top, the level of “talent” is pretty uniformly high. That doesn’t mean that everyone is the same, for the proportion of the different components of the “talent” – vocal prowess, artistic sensibility, charisma, intellectual curiosity – differs from singer to singer. Yet if there were some sort of crazy artistic quadratic equation that would allow us to combine and weigh all of those things proportionately, everyone at the top of the pyramid would score insanely high.

So… the poverty, bad gigs, and relationship strain. Ouch. These liabilities all exist, it’s tough to prevail over them and retain your enthusiasm. But the singers who do achieve this seem to be those who are both resilient and grounded.

Resilient, for as in any business, there are tough times. And sometimes there’s no way to make lemonade out of those lemons; you just have to be patient until it passes. One good thing about the transiency of the performing arts is that a toxic colleague or boss situation doesn’t stick around forever. You don’t have to figure out how to survive working with someone until one of you quits or is fired or retires, just until the rehearsals and performances are over in a few weeks, and you get to start all over in a new place with new people!

Grounded, because the successful artist understands very early on why he is in this business. It can’t be just because he likes the applause or because she needs to indulge her inner creative spirit. The successful artist is clear-eyed about the assets and liabilities of this lifestyle and this line of work, and she deliberately chooses it because the former outweigh the latter.

Wolf Trap young artists are at a critical juncture in their developing careers, and not just onstage. They sit at the place where the realities of the artistic nomadic life are becoming unavoidable. The decisions they make about how they approach their careers and their personal lives are highly individual, but during our summers with them, we do our best to provide information, occasional advice, and opportunities to network with colleagues who can point them in the right direction.

Check out the rest of the posts here or head straight to Why Life At Wolf Trap is like Whack-A-Mole.

Also, if you have any thoughts as to what factors contribute to success, let’s hear them in the comments!

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