The Job and What's Involved

Professional singers perform in front of an audience or make recordings for broadcast, CD or download. They might also do session work for backing tracks, adverts and films.

They may sing alone as a soloist, work with a group of musicians, or sing with others in a choir. Different musical styles include:

Classical - including opera, light opera, oratorio and choral. Classical singers are either soloists or members of a professional or semi-professional choir or opera company chorus.

Musical shows - ranging from classical to pop music. They usually require singers to have acting ability too.

Ballads - middle-of-the-road music, jazz, folk music or country and western, generally in cabaret-style performances. This can involve singing a solo part in a group or as a soloist.

Pop - singers may be solo artists, lead vocalists, backing vocalists or session singers.

A solo artist may work with an orchestra, an accompanist or their own equipment, such as backing tracks, amplification equipment or a musical instrument. Pop singers may pay session musicians or an accompanist to play the music, or perform at venues that have a house band or session musicians.

Pop singers usually need to work with sound engineers, roadies or operators, or be able to set up the equipment themselves.

Singers work long and irregular hours, practising, rehearsing and performing. Evening and weekend work is normal, and life as a singer of any kind can involve considerable travel.

They may work in a variety of environments, from indoor concert halls, night clubs, pubs, theatres and recording studios, to outdoor venues such as parks, pop festivals or the gardens of stately homes.

Some performance venues, such as pubs and clubs, can be hot, while rehearsals may be based in venues that are cold and draughty. Outdoor evening performances may take place in cool weather.

The dress code is relaxed for rehearsals and pop performances, but is usually very formal for performances of classical music.

Singers rarely receive a fixed salary and are usually paid on a concert or gig basis. Payment depends on the venue and experience of the singer.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Singing is a highly competitive area of work, and very few people work as full-time singers.

It is important for aspiring singers to build up confidence by singing at every opportunity. This could include joining the school choir, singing in a church choir or entering talent contests.

Opportunities for full-time classical singers are quite limited. Most opportunities are within opera, or with one of the small number of professional choruses or chamber choirs.

Classical singers can gain experience by entering festival competitions, and many successful careers have started in this way. Singers of ballads and pop music may get advice from a talent agency or agent. They may have to be prepared to work for little pay (or perhaps for free) to gain experience. Performers of all kinds should take voice lessons at an early stage.

Although many singers develop and work in the counties, major success eventually depends on working in London at least for some of the time.

Networking sites (especially set up through MySpace) have become important for singers wanting to get themselves known. Record companies may look through these sites to find new artists.

Education and Training

There is no standard training programme and no fixed career path for singers. They may have to gain qualifications to demonstrate the necessary expertise, but these will not automatically bring work.

Many courses and qualifications are available can be a starting point for aspiring singers, although experience of singing in choirs or amateur groups is very important:

GCSE's/S grades and A levels/H grades in music.

BTEC qualifications in music, music technology, music performance, performing arts (music) and music practice. Entry to a BTEC national diploma is with four GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or the equivalent.

Scottish National Certificates in Music Performance and Higher National Certificates in Music, which cover most aspects of popular music. Entry requirements can vary from no formal academic qualifications to three S grades (1-3).

A degree in popular music - the minimum entry requirements are usually five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) and two A levels/three H grades, or the equivalent.

HNC/HND courses or Foundation degrees in a wide range of relevant subjects. Entry requirements usually start with one A level/two H grades, or the equivalent.

Entry to many of these courses includes an audition.

Classical singers need to go through extensive formal musical education and training, often to postgraduate level. Most have learnt to play an instrument, usually the piano, to a reasonable level, although this is not a requirement. They usually take a series of graded examinations, often including the theory of music.

Classical singing is generally taught as a specialist subject at institutions such as universities, music conservatoires and colleges of further education, supplemented by summer schools, music competitions and festivals. Singers can take postgraduate courses in either opera or oratorio, depending on their repertoire. The training for this can be lengthy, as a classical voice technique takes a long time to mature. Theatre singing is usually taught at a drama college.

There are many other full-time and part-time courses. These include:

  • Private music courses in specialist fee-paying performing arts schools and academies.
  • Popular music courses offered by adult education institutes and local community organisations.
  • A whole series of professional practice diplomas offered by the examination board Trinity Guildhall. These are primarily aimed at musicians aspiring to, or actually working in, the popular sector of the music business.

There are two main types of higher education courses:

  • Specialist vocational degree courses in a music college (a conservatoire).
  • Music degree courses in a university or higher education institution, including music in the community subjects.

The minimum academic entry requirements are usually two A levels/H grades, or the equivalent, including music. Entrants often need to have grade eight in their first instrument, and sometimes grade six in their second. Auditions and interviews form part of the selection process.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

As well as gaining formal qualifications, classical singers need to make a name for themselves by entering competitions, applying for bursaries and awards, attending numerous auditions, participating in special schemes for young artists, joining amateur groups and giving free concerts. This may take many years and, even after establishing a reputation, it can be difficult to maintain a successful career.

Most singers continue to develop their voices and their repertoires with practice, voice training, workshops or lessons.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A singer needs:

  • Outstanding musical talent.
  • Self-discipline and determination.
  • To be able to work with musicians, conductors or other singers.
  • Self-confidence.
  • To be prepared to work long hours.
  • To be totally dedicated to what is a very demanding profession.

Your Long Term Prospects

A career as a singer is challenging and requires a combination of resilience, training and talent.

Some singers may perform in the theatre, on cruise ships, or as support acts for other musicians. They may also move into different areas of the industry, for example, teaching, writing songs for other artists, or producing their own music.

Get Further Information

Arts Council England,
14 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 3NQ
Tel: 0845 300 6200

Arts Council of Northern Ireland,
77 Malone Road, Belfast BT9 6AQ
Tel: 028 9038 5200

The BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology,
60 The Crescent, Croydon CR0 2HN
Tel: 020 8665 5242

Conservatoires UK Admissions Service (CUKAS)
Tel: 0870 112 2208

Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM),
10 Stratford Place, London W1C 1AA
Tel: 0207 629 4413

Musicians Union,
60/62 Clapham Road, London SW9 0JJ
Tel: 020 7582 5566

Scottish Arts Council,
12 Manor Place, Edinburgh EH3 7DD
Tel: 0131 226 6051

Trinity Guildhall,
89 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TP
Tel: 020 7820 6100

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