How to Get to Carnegie Hall

gatekeepers practice Jun 17, 2022
piano on stage with empty audience seats

Last week I had a conversation with a friend about my singing career.

He compared me to some soloists that he has heard around town with big organizations like The Philadelphia Orchestra, and said that my singing was easily on par with them. Why didn't I do gigs like this? he asked. I agreed that I was just as good, and pointed out that those people had agents, which is how they got the gigs. If you don't have representation, there's no way to even get a foot in the door with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Most big companies have policies like this.

I don’t have an agent - never have - and for most of my life, I've held onto a belief that agents can be more of a hindrance to one's career growth than a help.

I am aware that this belief could also be a defense mechanism. To be honest, I've never had an agent because nobody has ever approached me for representation, and I never spent any time or effort reaching out to agents. I was always busy finding jobs for myself.

Plus, I am acutely aware that my voice, shape, and now my age are not easy to sell.

Just seeing that last sentence in black and white makes me cringe. If a client said that to me, I'd ask, "Is that true?" And then I'd spend the rest of the session exploring how they can best look for validation within themselves instead of from outside sources.

I am very good at coaching people on self-validation because I've done that work myself in a major way. I didn't know it before, but now I do: I'm a damn good singer, and my art is valuable.

AND ALSO…I know that the classical music industry is full of gatekeepers who have a specific idea of what a good performance should look and sound like, and I definitely don't fit that mold. (That's not negative self-talk, by the way. That's the paradigm in which we currently live - a paradigm that I am committed to changing.)

Talking to my friend, it was clear to me that he loved my voice and wanted to see me sing in those big halls. He wanted the best for me and thought this would make me happy…after all, doesn't everyone want to be famous? Isn't that what all performers ultimately strive for?

Thinking about the possibility of making my solo Carnegie Hall debut or even having an opportunity to sing a major solo with The Philadelphia Orchestra suddenly made me very sad. Because a very loud voice piped up in my head, saying, "That will never happen, and you know it."

(That is negative self-talk. See the difference?)

Then I got angry at my friend because I had long ago made peace with the idea that I wouldn't sing at that level, and here he goes, telling me that I'm actually that good, and making me think that maybe I've just taken all the wrong turns in my life and I should have been pursuing agents instead of pursuing gigs on my own. I was happy with my life, dammit!

I already have plans for myself over the next few years. I'm building my coaching practice. I am a regular member of The Crossing and absolutely love the fact that we are doing more and more performances, tours, and recordings. And now, because my dear friend believes in my frickin' potential, I should add "get to Carnegie Hall" to my long to-do list? A dismal future of making demos, cold-calling agents, and constantly comparing myself to younger singers loomed large before me, and it made me sick to my stomach.

Here's the thing: I would love to have a solo debut at Carnegie Hall…or any of the well-known halls in the world, for that matter. But not if it means I have to hustle to do it.

Earlier this year, I premiered a 45-minute work for mezzo-soprano and sinfonietta that was fun, difficult, and a huge challenge for me to learn. It took me six solid months of preparation for me to get it performance-worthy, and those practice sessions were the best I've felt about my singing, ever.

That entire experience, from the day I received the music to the day of the concert, was the highlight of this year, perhaps the last five years. We performed it in a fairly small recital hall at Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, to an audience of maybe 100 or so people…but I put as much time, effort, and love into that performance as I would have if we had been in Verizon Hall in Philly.

In the personal development world, the phrase "act as if" gets bandied around a lot. You want to be a CEO? Act as if you are one now, even if you're in the mail room. You want to be the concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmoniker? Practice every day as if you were playing there now. Acting "as if" allows you to try on your new self-concept before you get to your goal, giving you space to make mistakes and learn along the way.

Having this world premiere experience let me try on the prima donna self-concept and gave me a taste of what kind of solo work I want to do. There are thousands of mezzos who want to sing the solo in Mahler 2 with the NY Phil…let them have that job! I realized would rather be the first person in the world to sing a masterwork by a talented living composer.

So how do I get around the gatekeeper problem? How do I achieve this without an agent?

Whenever I think of gatekeepers, I picture the Bridgekeeper in Monty Python's Holy Grail, who won't let the Grail Seekers across the bridge without answering three questions. After several of the party are tossed into the Gorge of Eternal Peril for wrong answers, King Arthur stymies the Bridgekeeper by asking a clarifying question ("an African or European swallow?"), which sends the Bridgekeeper flying off the bridge to his own demise.

Maybe by viewing gatekeepers as silly I have prevented myself from playing the game, and as a result my foot has stayed out of the doors of these big halls.

Or…maybe my circuitous and atypical career path which has so far given me a crazy amount of wisdom and experience (and several books' worth of stories) will someday give me an opportunity to stymie the gatekeepers with my own questions, and I'll end up as a soloist on one of these stages on my terms.

My career plan? Show up and practice with intention. Pour my heart and soul into the music I am singing, no matter what the piece is. Prioritize the journey, not just the destination. This way, no matter what happens, I can rest peacefully knowing that each time I perform I'm giving just as much of myself as I would if I was at Carnegie Hall.


P.S. - I actually have sung at Carnegie Hall a whole bunch of times, just never as a soloist. In fact, one time Paul McCartney kissed me on the cheek backstage at Carnegie! I've sung solos at Avery Fisher Hall/David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center (though they were pretty small), and I've also had a solo (but not featured) at Walt Disney Hall in LA. See how I'm qualifying all this stuff? That's gatekeeper bullshit, but it's really difficult to escape. I'm still working on it.

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