Don't Take It Personally! Part One: Rejection Letters
It's hard to be a working singer. Really, really hard. We have crazy schedules, we run on empty a lot because the business breaks us financially and emotionally, and we need *NEED* positive feedback regularly so we know we're doing well. But we have to jump through hoops to get the work that gives us that feedback, and when the only feedback we get is rejection - a denial of the opportunity to do the work at all - it can be everything from annoying to devastating. I see this devastation on social media all the time: people angry at being rejected, people angry at how they were rejected, people demanding better treatment from companies after the huge physical and emotional expense incurred from the application process...I mean, we *need* a return on our investment. If we don't get the work itself, then we need something from the audition process that tells us our efforts were appreciated.
So let's talk about PFOs, guys. I've said here before that I really hate the term PFO, because it changes a courtesy notification from a company to a working professional into a nasty, personal dig, when in fact what it's really about is releasing that working professional from any calendar holds. And calling them all "PFO" colors the letters that try to be kind, like "we had hundreds of people apply for 3 spots" or "aaargh we loved you but we just can't this time please come back next year!" So rejection sucks, but somehow we've managed to make that sucky thing even worse by calling it something that makes it personal. So why do we do that? Well, because the process makes us feel bad. Really, really bad. And we take it personally when something makes us feel bad.
But being on the production side of the table has taught me that one very important thing we need to do as singers in the very complicated music business is to remember this: Don't Take It Personally.
Look, sometimes the performance companies that disappoint you are institutions, full of bureaucracy and infrastructure, and sometimes they're just a couple of people in a living room at 3 a.m. making music happen in between a day job or two and cleaning up after a toddler. But either way, those companies are staffed by ordinary human beings who, like anyone else, are mostly good and thoughtful but have occasional bad moods and bad days that blow their good intentions out the window. So expecting one of these ordinary flawed humans to handle you, job applicant, in a way that protects your feelings and experience as a working artist is not a bad goal - hey! that would be great! - but it is unrealistic. And one unrealistic expectation is always expecting a timely, kind rejection letter. I often hear this being described as an issue of professional courtesy, but I don't know about that, you guys. The applicant position isn't a good one to make demands from. Well, you can try, but: unrealistic. Better to file away any disappointing interaction with a company as information to weigh when deciding whether to sing for them again in the future, and dial down your expectations about what they owe you at this stage of the game. Here are the times when a company genuinely owes you some kind of communication:
- If they said they would contact all singers by a certain date.
- If they made you a soft offer or asked you to hold dates.
- If it's a pay-to-sing (in which case, you're the consumer).
- If you're at the Young Artist stage doing multiple auditions for exactly the same commitment period and late offers can turn the process into an unholy mess. But let me place a caveat on this one: consider that they know this. If you're hot stuff and exactly what they're looking for, then they'll rush to lock you down so no one else gets you. If they're not rushing, then that means they're ambivalent, which means you should still be auditioning because your schedule is open. And some of these companies explicitly say DO NOT CONTACT US EVER EVER EVER, so if they say that, take them off this list.
So when should you contact a company who genuinely owes you something? Whenever you need to (politely). If they don't owe you something, then assume silence is the answer. Let's compare this to dating: whenever advice columnists get the question "he hasn't called- do you think he still likes me??" their heads clunk against the closest wall. Would it ever work to call someone you went out with once and say "Hey, I'm still interested in you, but I want to know if I can date other people, since you haven't contacted me recently?" I mean, think about it. Of course you can date other people. Silence is the answer.
So why would a company go silent rather than directly letting you know you weren't being hired? Here are some reasons:
- Limited Time, Resources, and Manpower. 100s of applicants/auditions + limited hands on deck = triage. So companies (by necessity) choose to focus on the singers they want to hire: tracking them down, making offers, negotiating salaries, creating contracts, etc. etc. The people they don't want to hire are not the contact priority. (And consider that this is why they often request "no contact" from singers: can you even imagine how much time it would take to field hundreds of emails from hopeful/disappointed singers?) I've heard mail merge mentioned as a totally obvs/easy way to send out nos, but wait- a mail merge is dependent on accurate data entry to assemble the mailing list in the first place and then getting clear information from the actual panel so you can create the data buckets. Some companies are good at this whole process and some aren't. But remember how many musicians run companies and how few of them have true administrative or business training? I know several who don't even have smartphones and are not entirely clear on how to turn on a computer. And this is 2016.
- Singers Hate Getting Them So Companies Hate Sending Them. We all tend to avoid activities we just don't like doing. See above re Ordinary Flawed Humans. I mean, I've heard complaints that a rejection letter arrived too soon ("it only took them two days to decide I was too awful for them!") So there's just no good way to do it, and sometimes people opt out of no-win situations.
- They Don't Really Achieve Anything Other Than Underlining What Was Clear in The Silence. Silence is the answer. That's your PFO (man, I really hate that term). Keep auditioning and keep your options open until you get a firm YES and assume anything else - anything else! - is a NO. For singers who already do this, then a rejection letter becomes even more painful, because it's like YES I KNOW STOP POKING ME WITH YOUR HATE. (See? No-win situation.)
- Companies That Have Both a Professional and Young Artist Focus Sometimes Treat Both Categories the Same Way. Yes, one type of audition is sort of open-ended and the other is for a set time commitment, but this line can blur. You may have been rejected for the set time commitment, but they're keeping you in mind for future projects.
- You Ended Up in A Gray Area. They're keeping you in a back-up position. They don't want to officially release you until their first choice (or second, or third) works out. They can't really send you a message detailing this, because it doesn't go over well. Let's flip back to dating: you go out with someone, it's a success, and you're excited! But then you get this message, "Hey! I really liked you, but I like someone else more because they seem like a better fit. Can I keep you in a back-up position in case it doesn't work with my Choice A? Would you mind waiting around for a bit?" Um, no. They can't really communicate this to you, so they just go quiet. Hence the situation where your friends all got a letter but you didn't.
I could probably go on and on, and companies could write to me offering additional reasons they don't send formal rejection letters (please do, actually!), but notice that none of those reasons is "they like to blow people off" or "they don't respect fellow professionals" or "singers suck, we hate them." They're all pretty much down to manpower, priorities, and stuff going on behind the scenes at a company that you can't control (and that sometimes doesn't have anything to do with you at all). So interpreting any interaction with a company that disappointed your expectations as a personal attack or slight does nothing but exhaust precious emotional resources that are needed elsewhere. Seriously, the energy to keep motivating ourselves has to come from within, so don't throw it away on stuff like this. I mean, sure, by all means, be disappointed or angry or anything you need to be, and judge the hell out of any interaction that doesn't get you where you need to be as an artist. But don't turn it around on yourself and make it about your worth or value in the business. Don't Take It Personally.
Next week I'll discuss the second part of Don't Take It Personally: Why You Got Rejected
Angela Jajko, mezzo-soprano, is the Editor of the BSR Blog. A popular performer of opera, operetta, musical theatre, and oratorio, she has been praised in such publications as the Boston Globe and the Herald for her “peaches and cream” voice and dramatic delivery. Her recent performances have included acclaimed appearances with Opera New Hampshire, as a featured soloist on the National Public Radio program "Says You!", with Opera Providence in The Romany Maid, as a featured soloist with Cape Symphony in “Passport to England” in the Barnstable Performing Arts Center, as Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore with Longwood Opera and The New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society, as the alto soloist in Handel’s Messiah with Maplewind Arts, as the alto soloist in Mozart’s Requiem with Boston Cecilia at All Saints Brookline, and in the role of Prinz Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus with the North End Music and Performing Arts Center Opera Project in Faneuil Hall. Angela is the Alto Soloist at All Saints Brookline, and has also appeared as Miss Hannigan in Annie with Crescendo Theatre Company, The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot at Theatre at the Mount, 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 Ruth, 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 also included the roles of Carmen, Theodorine, Augusta, Marcellina, Hermia, Savitri, Pirate Jenny, and La Zia Principessa. She has also performed with Odyssey Opera, PORTopera, Granite State Opera, Longwood Opera, BASOTI, Harvard University, and the International Lyric Academy in Viterbo, Italy. She has been honored by the American Prize competition and holds degrees in Vocal Performance from The New England Conservatory of Music and the University of California at Los Angeles. She is currently the Associate Executive Director of NELO, an artist coordinator for Opera on Tap Boston, President of the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society, a Board Member of Boston Singers' Resource, and was recently 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/.