Yesterday I spoke at The Singing Entrepreneur, a forum for singers looking for guidance in the business of being a singer. So, guess what? After six weeks of no blogging, I’m posting what I said. Here it is in all its unadulterated glory.YOU CAN’T WIN

When I was asked to do this, I had an idea of what I’d like to talk to you about and came up with a catchy title, little thinking how stupid it would sound in the midst of Olympic fever when most of us are thinking about nothing but winning. But bear with me. This isn’t an exercise in cynicism. Some time in the future, if it hasn’t happened already, you will find yourself alone in a distant hotel room, in a pre-performance purgatory, asking yourself this question: “what’s it all about?” I hope then you’ll remember some of what I’ve said today.
There’s probably a good reason why you’re here today for this seminar. You want to find out some secrets to success. You feel that, a lot of the time, you can’t get a break. You’re banging your head against a brick wall. You go for auditions but most of them aren’t productive. Other singers in your generation are getting on but you feel you just can’t win.
You may be entering lots of competitions at the moment, and while you may do pretty well, you’re finding it hard to take home the prizes. You may even have friends who are cleaning up and while you’re pleased for them, there’s also a bit of you that is thinking “it’s just not fair!”
Now, I’m not here to tell you whether the music business is fair or not. I can reassure you that there is a vast number of working singers who have never, ever won a prize. And every singer I know will tell you horror stories about disastrous auditions and embarrassing performances. The main reason I’m here and why I’ve chosen this apparently cynical title – You Can’t Win – is because I firmly believe that the sooner a singer understands that you really can’t win, the better and happier singer he or she will be.
This is something I’ve wrestled with all my singing life. I don’t know how many of you have read my book “Who’s My Bottom?”. Lots I hope, and for those of you who haven’t, I happen to have a few copies with me. Five quid well spent (well, from my point of view). I’m really not doing a sales pitch, but in the book I describe my own struggle (and it’s one which I think is recognisable to any professional singer) with understanding what success means as a singer, and the vast chasm that exists between the perception of what a singing career is like and the often brutal reality.
In the book I quote a story about my old singing teacher and friend Bob Tear. A very famous bass said to him; “You know, Bob, my ambition is to be the best bass in the world.” To which Bob replied; “That’s lovely dear. But how will you know?”
Only recently I visited the website of a young tenor whom I’d seen in a show in Paris. The website declared him to be “the most successful tenor of his generation”. Ironically, I can’t remember his name, but as Bob would have said: how could he possibly know?
Now, I understand how hype works but what disturbs me about both these singers is that they clearly regard being a singer as one eternal competition that one day they can win. Yes, it’s competitive, but when I say You Can’t Win, I want to tell you that being singer is not a race. There is no finishing line. You really can’t win because being a singer isn’t about winning. And if the only reason you want to be a singer is to beat everyone else and prove something, then somewhere down the line I think you will become horribly unstuck.
I was thinking of a way to illustrate this and the best I can come up with is a greyhound race. I don’t know if any of you has ever been to a greyhound race; I haven’t but I’m sure we all know how they work. A mechanical hare whizzes past the starting cages, the hounds are released and they basically chase the hare around the track in a race that lasts barely a minute. From the punter’s point of view, yes, there is a winner – the first past the finishing post – and the lucky punter counts his winnings. But let’s just look at this from the greyhound’s point of view. The greyhound’s goal was to catch the elusive hare, but in this it always fails, as the furry machine zips away into the distance. The dog has no concept of a finishing line. It means nothing to the dog, only to the punter. All the dog walks away with for its efforts is an extra meaty-flavoured treat.
Generally I’d say that in our business, it’s what this seminar has called “gatekeepers” who approach our business from the point of view of the punters. They want winners. They take a gamble. That’s how they see the employment of us. Meanwhile, we singers and performers are the greyhounds. We may be declared the winners or a safe bet by the punters (for as long as we can actually win races) but if we are not careful we will end up eternally chasing something that is forever elusive, and all just for a few meaty-tasting morsels. From a greyhound’s point of view, you can’t win.
Far from being depressed by this, I find the realisation that you can’t win to be very releasing. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not dissuading you from being the best singer you can be, I’m just warning you that if your only aim in life is to beat your colleagues, you’ll never achieve your goal. Far better, I’d say, and continuing the sporting theme, to spend your career looking forward and enjoying the physical thrill of running than be constantly looking over your shoulder to see how the competition is doing.
I also think the You Can’t Win philosophy works in performance. We’ve all been in shows where so-and-so, perhaps it was even you, “stole the show” – emerged as the clear winner, if you like. Quite apart from the fact that this is often as much to do with the role as the performer (let’s face it – how many times does Tamino win the affections of an audience over Papageno?) – as often as not, you will find yourselves singing roles where you simply cannot “win”. This is where I would urge you to recognise that our job is not to suck up to the audience and try to win their affections. Our job is to be as honest and truthful to our role as we possibly can. It isn’t to seek the love of the punters. A punter’s love is fickle, as easily lost as won. Never, ever confuse having a successful career, full of plaudits from the public and critics, with having a private life or anything approaching a proper relationship.
Personally I’ve often found it much more enjoyable to play anti-heroes, losers, difficult and weird individuals, as opposed to “winners” – good guys – simply because I’m not burdened with any worry about being appealing. I can simply get on with my job, sing and play a character. I know I can’t “win”, so I’m going to enjoy myself in the pure pleasure of performing.
The other problem with an attitude of having to win a performance is that it again implies that for you to win, your colleagues must lose. And at what cost? I remember a famous tenor describing to me how he had decided that a young soprano he was working with was doing far too good a job for his liking – in rehearsal she was showing him up – so he had gone on stage with the intention of “blowing her out of the water” and delighted in telling me that this is what he had subsequently done. He told me this story as if I should admire his panache, but I found it rather sad. To me he sounded like someone who had forgotten why he had become a singer in the first place. And as successful as he was, he always struck me as a troubled and dissatisfied man who never felt he got his just desserts.
Apart from all those bloody competitions that singers have to do these days, what else drives the misguided urge to win? When I was your age I remember all too well that I felt an enormous need to prove my success to my parents and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. In fact that need only dissipated once my parents had died.
“How’s it going?” they would ask. And I would feel this overwhelming burden not to disappoint them. It was a huge thing. If I didn’t have news of good offers and stuff I could brag about I was sure I could hear them thinking “Oh dear, perhaps this singing lark wasn’t such a good idea after all.” If you don’t suffer from this sort of pressure then good for you, but if you do, the best cure is to take them out to dinner and pick up the bill. That shuts them up.
So, learn that, for all the competing you are having to do now, there is no real finishing line, no winning post. That way lies nothing but the prospect of Pedigree Chum treats to keep you happy. Enjoy your music making for what it is now, at the very moment you make it, not for where it puts you in “the rankings” or for how it will advance your career. Success in our business is measured ultimately by your ability to pay your bills. There really is no greater or more significant achievement than that.

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