The Art of the Decline

Singers can't take every opportunity that comes along. Well, we can certainly try- but we shouldn't, because sanity. And of course we can't take offers for multiple gigs on the same day or pro bono opportunities we can't afford or roles that aren't interesting, and if we have an in-demand voice (HELLO, TENORS), our phones will literally not stop ringing with way more invitations than we can possibly accept.

Declining is therefore a necessary evil and, if you're like me, you were taught pretty early that the most important thing you can do for your career is learn to say "no". But if your experience is anything like mine, you may have noticed that after making this profound statement, no one ever quite got around to discussing exactly how to do it. And I've found that in the business, this is another vital survival skill that (mysteriously) no one talks about everrrr. It must come from some sort of herd-thinning mentality, kind of like the theory behind the lack of street signs in Massachusetts: if you don't know where you are, you shouldn't be there. But I'm a firm believer in what makes one of us stronger makes all of us stronger. So in the interests of breaking this cycle of mystery by sharing the things I wish I'd known at the get-go, let's dive into this particularly murky and treacherous pool of how-to.

The Essential Art of the Graceful "No"

It's important to understand that there's an art to declining. It's not a simple matter of dashing off a "can't, sorry" or hiding in the closet until the people asking go away. If you decline badly, then you may inadvertently be removing yourself from someone's list for perpetuity. Let me put it this way: a poorly handled decline may include not only this current gig you don't want to do but also every future gig that may be connected to the people in charge of this current gig. See my previous post "On Cancelling":  any whiff of blowing them off can get you struck off lists, because unless they know you super-well, every single interaction with you is giving them information about what you're like to work with. Declining badly, therefore, can cause a whole lot of damage to your reputation. So let's get to it.

How to Decline

The cardinal rule for any negative interaction - one where you gotta say "no" - is BE GRACIOUS.

If you follow that rule, you'll be fine. And here's how to be gracious, in five easy steps:

  1. Prompt replies. I can't stress this enough: don't make anyone hunt you down. When an offer comes in, RESPOND. If you need more time to look at the music/check your schedule/calculate your star chart/break a few vases, then just write back with "may I have a (fill in some period of time here) to consider?" Then get back to them when the allotment is up. On top of this, don't confuse their courtesy with you having power like a Hollywood "It" Girl. By this I mean that just because someone is chasing you down with several emails, it doesn't necessarily mean they need you desperately. In fact, they might not really need you at all but are just - as a courtesy before forwarding their offer to someone else - giving the benefit of the doubt that you may possibly be trapped underneath something heavy. And even if they do desperately need you this one time, they may be hitting send on that 30th "where are you" email while internally pledging to find someone else nay ANYONE ELSE in the future. Playing hard to get in the singing business is a losing game, my friends.
  2. Say "thank you". We always say this in response to an offer we're happy about (usually with five exclamation points, amirite) but be careful to say it when you're disappointed, too. Even if you're royally ticked that the offer you just received is beneath you and how dare they or what have you, it's still an offer. You're allowed to say no (of course you are!) but consider being mindful that it was sent with good intentions. Say thank you to them for thinking of you. Then punch a pillow in private.
  3. Be transparent. If it's a company you want to work with again, make sure they have a general idea of why you can't take their offer. I mean, you don't have to go into personal details or anything, but "I can't afford to do pro bono work" or "I'm already committed for those dates" or "that's a great role, but not the one I was hoping for" will pretty much cover it. If you're gracious doing this, the people who made the offer will take it under advisement. They might offer you something better. They might try to work around your concerns. But most of all, you'll have given them no reason to hesitate in approaching you again as appropriate or recommending you to someone else who does fit your criteria.
  4. Be respectful. Again, this is never an issue when we're thrilled. But if an offer has hurt or disappointed you in some way - like if you're insulted to the core by the offer of chorus when you should be a lead, or if someone tries to book you for an unpaid performance when you clearly never work for free - be mindful of avoiding any critical or condescending tone in your response. Implying (or outright suggesting) that the organizers are idiots is (obviously) kind of a no-no. Keep in mind that the people making the offer are experts on their particular company, their available casts, and their audience. If they offer you something that they think is right for you and you disagree, that's fine, but respect their expertise. And pay attention, because embedded in that offer might be some helpful information about how other people see you. See my previous post "On Rejection".
  5. Wish them well. "Have a great show!" Why is this important? It's kind! And don't you want them to thrive and offer you something even better in the future?

These steps obviously largely apply to organizers with whom you don't have an established track record. I mean, if your business bestie texts you a gig offer, OF COURSE you don't have to write back anything more than "damnation not free that nite, but thx!" But notice that even the text to the bestie covers most of these basic points, so they're a good star to steer by in any interaction. And consider paying particular attention to them when you're responding to someone you haven't worked with much, when you're declining an offer you're upset about (it will help you watch your tone), and when you're in demand. And that matters because:

The Impermanence of Being In Demand

Something to keep in mind is that we all go through periods of in-demandness when we can get away with being difficult to contact or skipping the niceties of saying thank you, etc., without seeing an immediate effect on the number of offers received. The in-demand voice types (HELLO, TENORS) can have particularly long stretches of this. But after watching this business for a long time, I've learned that people are coming up behind us and beside us all the time. Even if you're a total rock star, there are more rock stars emerging from conservatory or late-bloomer rock stars stepping forward from the chorus. So the difficult rock star may get away with it for a while, but as soon as people have other options, they will take them. There may come a point when the phone will stop ringing. HOWEVER, if you've been a total delight to deal with and people like you, your gig well will never run dry, because people pretty universally want to keep working with people they like. So while you're at the height of your in-demand period, consider being gracious no matter what: be prompt, be thankful, be transparent, be respectful, and wish them well. It may cost you a little extra time in the short run, but in the long run you may be doing your future self a huge favor.


Image removed.

Angela Jajko, mezzo-soprano, is the Editor of the BSR Blog. She has been praised in such publications as the Boston Globe and the Herald for her “peaches and cream” voice and dramatic delivery. Recent performances have included Miss Hannigan in Annie with Crescendo Theatre Company, The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, selections from Carmen in The Greater Worcester Opera Gala in Mechanics Hall, Tessa in The Gondoliers with The Sudbury Savoyards, Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus with New England Light Opera, Carmen with Greater Worcester Opera, Offenbach’s Island of Tulipatan with New England Light Opera, the roles of Buttercup, Phoebe, Katisha, and The Fairy Queen in concert with the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and as a featured soloist in concerts with Opera on Tap, Masstheatrica, FIRSTMusic, Ocean Park Festival Chorus, Parish Center for the Arts and New Hampshire Opera Theatre. Her performances have included the roles of Carmen, Theodorine, Augusta, Marcellina, Hermia, Savitri, Pirate Jenny, and La Zia Principessa. She has also performed with PORTopera, Granite State Opera, Longwood Opera, BASOTI, Harvard University, and the International Lyric Academy in Viterbo, Italy.  She holds degrees in Vocal Performance from The New England Conservatory of Music and the University of California at Los Angeles and is currently the Associate Executive Director of NELO, an artist coordinator for Opera on Tap Boston, a Board Member of the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society and a Board Member of L’Académie, a critically acclaimed orchestra specializing in performances of French Baroque music in health institutions. She has served as Costumer for a number of productions with companies including Guerilla Opera, Company One, NELO, BASOTI and Longwood Opera. She has also served as a Director for NELO’s Rising Stars program and in other productions as Assistant Director, Stage Manager, and Props Master. She has extensive experience in administration, office management, and event management in a variety of industries. Visit her at