Don't Take It Personally! Part Two: Why You Got Rejected
In Part One of Don't Take It Personally!, I talked about rejection letters and some of the reasons why you didn't get one (read it here). Of course, no one *wants* to get one of those, but sometimes we take it the wrong way when all we get is silence instead. But this time, let's talk about why you got the letter or the dreaded ringing silence. (Hint: it's not personal). So read on, MacDuff, for Part Two.
If you spend any time on social media in the music business, then you can’t help but read post after post by singers processing the pain of rejections during audition season. I get the pain, I really do. Being a performer requires a constant investment of emotional energy, and sometimes the business can turn that investment into a debilitating drain when our efforts don’t produce a return. But it's hard to watch people take it soooo personally, every rejection considered a deliberate, pointed attack on their voice, beauty, value, and contribution to the art. I get this too, because I've totally been there, but being on the production side of the table has taught me that the reasons people don't get hired are usually pretty simple. Audition panels aren't stocked with crazy bastards who wouldn't know a good voice if it bit them on the ass. Quite the opposite, actually, so if you get rejected, don't waste your precious emotional energy by making things up or tapping into your own personal bêtes noire. I wrote before about how to handle rejection (read On Rejection here), but this time let me expand on the reasons why you got rejected. They're usually pretty straightforward, and I can divide them neatly into two categories: REASONS WITHIN YOUR CONTROL and REASONS OUT OF YOUR CONTROL.
REASONS WITHIN YOUR CONTROL are things that you can change.
- Technique. Something in the vocal production is off, and it's showing up in imperfect pitch, tone, or flexibility. They can tell you'll have trouble blending well with other singers (your pitch or inflexibility will distort the sound of any ensembles) and/or you won't be able to sing reliably for a whole performance much less an entire rehearsal period and performance run. How do you know if this is you? Record yourself. The fix for this issue is to keep training and focus on developing always better, always more reliable vocal technique (hey, Pablo Casals was still practicing 3 hours a day at 93), and, before auditions, be really, really, REALLY objective about your technical prowess. Make sure you're only auditioning with pieces that you can completely nail on your worst day. You don't have to have a perfect instrument to work - I mean, everyone struggles with some technical issue and our imperfections make us beautiful - but in auditions, display what you can do right now, and don't display what you can't do yet.
- They're unconvinced about your preparedness. They're concerned your experience level is going to affect your ability to work at the level they want. This is literally about your resume. How do you know if this is you? Generally you'll see some interest in the audition- a second piece? a conversation? - but then you don't get the gig. So take a look at your resume: does it list work that establishes clear skills and experience at the level or in the genre you want to be hired at? If not, there are ways to build up a body of work that will convince companies to hire you. It can be personally expensive, but it's completely controllable by the singer: target community theatre, pay-to-sings, pro-bono gigs, etc., and bring it like a g-d Netrebko for all of them. You'll build up experience, maybe get some reviews and promo shots for your website, and create relationships that can bring you over into the serious paying work.
- Your reputation preceded or followed you. They know someone you've worked with, and that person did not sing your praises. Sometimes this is a one-off thing, because hey, not everything we do goes super well and sometimes particular combinations of people produce explosive results like that volcano experiment in junior high school. But this is something to consider if you have a history of dead ends: you continually don't get asked to work with people again, or you continually make it to the callback stage but suddenly have trouble getting hired, or you're continually not being granted auditions in the first place. And yeah, maybe this reason is one you can sort of take personally, but consider that it isn’t an assessment of your worth as a person but rather an assessment of your choices, and choices can be consciously changed. How do you know if this is you? Ask yourself (or trusted colleagues or mentors) some soul-searching questions: do you cancel a lot? Have you ever created problems for the organizers, like not reporting all your conflicts prior to casting? Do you have any angry or unkind emails to companies or colleagues in your Sent folder (even if you feel that your anger or unkindness was justified- and in fact especially if you feel your anger or unkindness was justified)? Are you careful with your social media presence? Do you lose your cool in tough situations? Do you get into arguments with people or create drama in any way? Instead of respecting professional boundaries and focusing only on your own work, do you tell other people how to do their jobs? We like to think that our personal foibles will be at best unnoticed or at worst forgiven, but these days you have to have the voice of Pavarotti to get away with being difficult or creating drama in the struggling music business. Now, we all have bad days and triggers, but a pattern of being difficult can start to edge you out of getting hired. if you suspect that this is you, then the fix is to start acting like Mother Theresa in every gig from now on: be prepared, be on time, and be a considerate colleague to everyone at every stage. Reputations are completely repairable.
- You did something specific at the audition that turned them off. Were you inadvertently rude to anyone, like maybe snippy with the door monitor or snappy at the pianist? Were you somehow unprepared or unprofessional in behavior, look, or attitude? Usually this is either down to familiarity with standard industry audition etiquette or to awareness of your own physical reactions to audition stress and nerves, and it's pretty easy to identify and fix: go to an audition workshop, read audition advice, and look for your own personal "aha...oops" moment.
- Something is off in your strategy or presentation. You're singing repertoire that's too big or too mature or for a different voice or or for a different "type" of singer, and it creates a disconnect, so they don't know what to do with you. Again, easy fix: audition workshop/advice/look for the aha.
And now it gets a little murkier. REASONS OUT OF YOUR CONTROL are things you can't change.
- Fit. This is probably the most common, most likely reason for prepared, professional singers to get passed over. It just wasn't a good fit for this particular production, cast, season, whatever. They had 400 sopranos audition, and someone else fit the bill better than you. You might be totally fine, but someone else's package was finer. In fact, if you've eliminated all the reasons on the first list (my technique is good, I'm a great colleague, my resume is spot-on for the level I'm targeting, my audition skills are honed) then just memorize this phrase: "Looks like it wasn't a good fit this time. Ok, next!" Stay positive and keep trying. In fact, all of the following REASONS OUT OF YOUR CONTROL are more specific iterations of Fit.
- You don't look the way the audition panel thinks a particular character looks. This is subjective, and it usually hits people where it hurts, because it can jab at sensitive issues like weight, height, and age. Sometimes companies handle this issue badly, sometimes singers handle this issue badly, sometimes we get into HUGE INTERNET ARGUMENTS about whether this issue is important, but as long as you're being the best version of you that you can possibly be, it's a waste of your emotional energy to take other people's opinions and preferences as a personal attack: these opinions and preferences are about the character, not you. This of course doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't challenge those opinions and preferences in an attempt to change their minds. Please do. But the only thing you can control is your own presentation: show yourself in your best possible light in the audition, in your marketing materials, and in your performances - seriously, create a body of evidence that could change their minds about how that damn character could look, because people's minds can be and have been changed by singers who have done just that - and keep searching for opportunities where people get you.
- Someone else was prioritized over you. There was another singer they know better or to whom they owed a role or to whom they wanted to give a chance. Don't knock this reason, because there definitely have been and will be situations when the person who benefits from this line-cutting is you. So this particular time was someone else's shot, and just keep showing up and paying your dues to earn yours.
- You don't fit in with the rest of the cast. You're twenty years older or younger than their cast and it will read that way on stage, or your voice is too big or too unique in timbre to blend with the other singers, or you're a foot taller than the other two ladies and the Queen and Sarastro and the director imagines that the audience will be hearing "one of these things is not like the other" in their heads for the entire show while staring at you standing in the back there like Chewbacca. Are you a singer on the narrower points of the bell curve? Then do a lot of auditions to up your odds of landing a match, and keep in mind that when there is any kind of ensemble element involved in casting, the singers at the widest point of the bell curve have the best chance. If you're more unique, this makes things trickier for casting, but it also means yay! you're unique! and you'll stand out when it counts. Some of the widest-point-bell-curve singers would kill for that quality.
- You're just not their cup of tea. Everyone has opinions and preferences for things they like and don't like, and the gatekeepers in this business have their Os and Ps like anyone else. Renee Fleming is arguably the most famous and beloved soprano of our time (and on top of that she is lovely and beautiful and kind and OMG that time I met her in the grocery store! HEART EYES) but this wildly successful opera goddess can't open her mouth without a million Facebook chains devolving into disdainful dissections of her vowels and whether or not she should be singing *that* repertoire. EVEN RENEE GETS REJECTED, YOU GUYS. We can't fit everyone's mold, so the trick is to be strategic about what companies you target. Do they hire people who look and sound like you? It's a good bet then. Do they hire people who *don't* look and sound like you? Then it's a long shot. Go for it, but don't be surprised or beat yourself up if it doesn't pan out.
If you look over all of these reasons, you'll see that the ones in the first group are pretty easy to fix. Well, technique can be tricky because the voice is a very complicated instrument, but overall, there's nothing mysterious in that group. You can improve your skills, improve your resume, and improve your choices as a colleague. In the second group, the reasons are mostly variations on Fit, and you just have to hit that with quantity and strategy. Keep auditioning until you find your audience.
Another thing to notice about all of those reasons is that (surprise!) they're not personal. They're all based on your image as a singer and whether that image fits the current needs of the company. And your image is just a reflection of you: your audition, your marketing, your relationships with colleagues, etc. is your footprint, and not the actual you, the beautiful person. So Don't Take It Personally!
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/.