On Cancelling

Wouldn't it be great if on our first day at conservatory we were handed a how-to guide for singers, something like a Miss Manners etiquette book for the music industry? Yes! That would be amazing! If only that were the case! And yet? It is not. Cue sad trombone. So my job here is to share All The Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Was Starting Out in the Singing Business, and I'm finding one particular issue that comes up over and over again is cancelling. If you've made a professional commitment that you can't (or don't want to) meet, then what do you do? When do you do it? How do you do it?  All good questions, and here's my two cents on the subject:

Don't cancel. UNLESS! you have some truly, seriously unavoidable situation that renders you unable to perform, and in that case, the etiquette is as follows:

  1. Notify people as early as possible so they can make contingency plans, covers can prepare to go on, possible replacements can get familiar with music, and/or alternate programming can be arranged. This is also true if you think you *might* have to cancel. People need to know about a pending situation asap so they can prepare. Being thoughtful about this will be hugely appreciated.
  2. If the show or certain numbers in the show will get cancelled outright because you won't be performing, then it's spectacularly good form either to find or offer to help find a replacement. Being willing to handle the problem you've just created will be hugely appreciated, even if the organizers don't take you up on the offer. Speaking of, as a courtesy, I recommend offering your replacement's name to the organizers before putting them directly in touch, just to avoid any awkwardness if they disagree with your choice.
  3. Always apologize sincerely.  Since the gig was very likely hugely important to the organizers, consider being mindful of this in your communications, because any whiff of "blowing them off" will be remembered. Everyone in this business talks to one another, and the person you cancel on today may one day be the decider or advisor on another gig. Which you won't get. Because why would they trust you again with something that's important to them?

Speaking of trust, here's something to think about: in the top tier of this business, there are people who are paid to run the administrative parts of gigs, agents who serve as the protective buffer between artists and administrators, and machines that swing into gear when a cancellation happens. In the lower tier, however, the people running the company are frequently working two (if not five, hello) jobs, and they have to do like, literally, everything to keep the gigs happening. There's no money to hire much less time to find a last-minute replacement, and cancelling on them is really kind of a disaster. This applies to rehearsals, too, because being a no-show for stagings or runs or dresses can create huge, scary headaches for the organizers (and fellow performers). So here's a handy guideline for when and if to cancel:

Overscheduled! If you accepted too many offers or your calendar got packed or you made a scheduling error, then you have to do your best to work it out, because if you suddenly cancel a commitment for this reason, it will be remembered and filed under Untrustworthy. Definitely follow #s 1, 2, and 3 above to remedy this situation, particularly #2. There is one exception: if you're doing a pro bono gig, and suddenly you get an offer of paying work that you can't (and shouldn't) refuse, then the pro bono gig will very likely understand. But do be gracious and apologize profusely, and definitely consider trying to find them a replacement, because that is a gold star awesome thing to do for your pro bono colleagues.

Transportation Problem!  Unless this is an emergency flat tire on your way to the theater, then you can't cancel here without repercussions either (even if it's just a rehearsal). Get a Zipcar account, pay for a cab, promise a car owner chocolate chip cookies for life and your undying love, but just get there. Your Herculean efforts will be remembered  with gratitude ("and then I lashed myself to the back of a dolphin so I could hold my music above the water until we reached shore!") whereas "my ride fell through, can't get there today, sorry" will be permanently placed in the Untrustworthy file, and, if you are over 16, also in the Really?? file.

Technical Problem! This happens. We're all wonderfully imperfect beings and sometimes you just don't know what you don't know. You commit to a gig and then discover that you can't meet expectations- like you realize the role doesn't sit well in your voice, or there are physical demands you can't meet (you have an injury and there's movement you can't do), or you can't sing as softly or as loudly or as whatever as required. In this case, make your decision about cancelling or withdrawing as soon as possible so people have maximum time to make other arrangements. Find a replacement if you can. If it's a short rehearsal period and/or there is no other arrangement possible - if the show quite literally will not go on without you - have a candid conversation about the issue with the director/conductor/organizer, and then honor your commitment and do the best you can. (Note: directors and conductors, if a singer finds that they can't meet your expectations but there's no time or capacity to make a change, then help them to succeed despite the identified limitation. If you punish rather than reward people for meeting their commitments to the best of their ability, then it trains them to bail on you immediately and potentially permanently as an act of self-preservation. There are Untrustworthy files for directors and conductors, too!)

Really Sick or Personal Emergency! Again, call the director or conductor, alert your cover/colleagues as soon as possible, and make sure people have maximum time to make other arrangements. If there is no other arrangement and/or the show quite literally will not go on without you, then warning everyone and showing up (if it's at all possible) to just do the best job you can will often be appreciated, because audiences will forgive a sick singer when given advance warning, and organizers will often prefer an impaired performance to no performance. But consider being super careful around your colleagues when performing sick: modify any blocking that puts you in physical contact with anyone, wear a mask backstage and in dressing rooms, and keep applying hand sanitizer.

Hate Hate Hating It! If the gig is a bad fit in some way, then get out as gracefully as you can as soon as possible (see Technical Problem! above). I mean, there are so few opportunities for people in this business that if you have one you don't want, then it would be generous to release your spot to a colleague. But if it's too late and you're trapped, consider keeping your discontent to yourself. Colleagues will be ticked to find out you didn't appreciate an opportunity they would have killed for, and the organizers may be offended if they get wind of your feels (see #3 above).

Can't Make the Audition! I've been at a number of auditions lately where the coordinator has told me about people who "just didn't show up" that day. They couldn't believe anyone would ever do this, and frankly neither could I. Auditions take soooo much work to coordinate, and blowing one off is super bad form. It will never be forgotten. Never ever. Putting together a roster of singers is like herding cats and therefore totally exhausting, so treat with respect the time that was invested in scheduling you. If you're sick or unable to sing, send your apologies with that information to the coordinator as soon as possible so they can fill your spot. Make sure you get a confirmation that they got your message, and if you can't reach the coordinator in advance, send word on the day with a friend or by carrier pigeon or something. If you're no longer available for the show or season you were scheduled to audition for, then again, send your apologies as soon as possible and ask if they would still like to hear you for future productions or if they would prefer to release your time to someone else. Consider thinking of an audition as a professional commitment rather than as an appointment you can cancel at will.


Cancellations happen because we're human, and organizers know that sometimes people will run into problems meeting the commitment. What gets filed is the reason why a singer cancelled and how the singer did it, so the most important things you can do when you're in a bind are to be gracious and to minimize problems for your colleagues. Those efforts are never wasted and never forgotten, because it proves a singer is trustworthy, and that's the most important thing in our trust-based business.

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 http://angelajajko.com/.