Whilst comparing our mutual love for crispy fried onions and enjoying a darn fine breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien, soprano/administrative assistant/Fresh Squeezed Opera Board Member, Jane Hoffman and I had a great, and rather honest talk about resumes, contemporary vocal music and the realities of being a singer in New York City…
I think there are so many aspects of it that we don’t want to discuss. What we think of as being successful, may not be success for everybody.
I met Jane two years ago when we were double cast as Baby Doe—a role that we agreed was an ultimately satisfying challenge. “Baby Doe was one of those things where I just wanted to sing the part and I was like, ‘I don’t care if I’m singing this next to two pigeons next to a garbage can in Central Park. I’m gonna do it. There’s such a wealth of great music there and she was such an interesting person… Number one it was a bucket list role for me and two, it was that kind of thing where you have to push yourself, like, can I do this? I can. And it’s satisfying to look back and be like, ‘yeah, I did that. I can do something like that again.’” As a person who understands first hand the difficulties of the role, I can say she did it phenomenally well.
In my conversation with Jane, I loved learning how open she is to a variety of challenges. One of my favorite questions to ask in these interviews is, what is something you find helpful that is not singing related? To be honest, the answer I expect is something like Yoga or The Artist’s Way. Jane’s answer: “ANYTHING! Having anything where you’re like, ‘I’m good at something that has nothing to do with being a singer is really freeing… I bake and cook a lot and I love trying a new recipe with success or limited success…It’s nice because you can have successes and failures, but the stakes are really low…It’s nice to have people in your life who are not singers, who you don’t talk shop with, who have outside interests. I have a couple of friends who also bake a lot so we have an annual “Pie Giving” where we have a meal entirely composed of pie.” (I’m wondering if this is open to outsiders who are less skilled bakers.) “I think those things always inform what you do as a singer. I find doing things you’re really bad at is great confidence building for singing because it does kind of remind you we’re not brain surgeons. When you mess up at singing no one’s life is at risk. It’s just your personal pride, and it gives you more connections with the outside world and a sense of perspective.”
Another challenge that Jane has taken on is as an advisory board member for the 5-year-old company Fresh Squeezed Opera. “It’s been a real eye opener…and massive credit to our director Jillian who does such an amazing job and has helped grow the company so much in 5 years. I’m so excited…because those are the performances that I want to go and see. So, I’m just ensuring that I still have things that I want to buy tickets to.” As a board member Jane has the great pleasure of listening to application submissions, reviewing score submissions, operating the company’s Twitter account and coordinating a new program for singers and composers. “Our goal was to find both a composer who would benefit from working with a singer, who wanted to explore more about writing for the voice, and a singer who would benefit from working with a composer and learning about the process of composition and what goes into it from their end. We only have one pair this year and we’re hoping to expand it to more people next year. That [song cycle] is going to be premiered at our New Works Showcase in November, which I’m really excited about because I’ve heard from multiple composers…that part of the problem with writing for the voice is that you don’t get a lot of guidance when you’re studying… A lot of composers I’ve met have said that when they’ve written works for the voice they get done, the thing premiers and then the first thing they think is, ‘wow, I would do a lot of this differently.’…Composers don’t have that opportunity to, ironically, do it the old fashioned way where if you were Bach or you were Handel, or you were Mozart, you knew who you were writing for, and you knew them really well… If it worked for them, I think it would work for the rest of us too, but there’s just not as much contact.” The current pair of musicians includes composer Spencer Snyder whose opera Scopes about the Scopes Monkey Trial was premiered two seasons ago by Fresh Squeezed and soprano Devony Smith who sang in the company’s production of Here Be Sirens by Kate Soper.
Working as an advisory board member has also opened her eyes to the difficulties of financing an opera company. “It does give you a window onto the flip side of things… It’s very easy to say you should never require a fee for a submission to a competition, but the problem is, you know, who’s listening to those submissions? Me and my fellow board members for free in our extra time. We don’t want to charge you, but we’re also not being compensated to review submissions and it is a pretty hefty task… And there is a question of how do you balance those two needs where you want to get as much of a diverse pool of submissions as possible, but it’s also like, ‘how are we gonna finance this, and how are we going to ensure that people aren’t submitting stuff that’s inappropriate.’…It’s tough. I don’t think there’s an easy answer. For our chamber opera submissions in lieu of an audition fee we do a suggested donation to the company, and when we review them we don’t see who donated and who didn’t. I will say that a fair number of people do donate, and that’s greatly appreciated because it goes towards the time and effort that we spend reviewing submissions and it goes to other basic costs of running a company like paying for venues, paying for artists, doing promotional work, etc. I feel like it’s a nice way of being like, ‘if you can, please do’ and it’s $10 which is like two coffees in New York so don’t go to Starbucks twice, it’s reasonable.”
Jane has also formed a new ensemble called “Reed and Word” with friend and oboist, Greg Weissman. “Our hope is to play a variety of chamber music. I feel like a lot of chamber groups tend to be pretty specialized; they only play music from a particular era or a narrower focus stylistically, and also to make the presentation more casual and personable. I love going to recitals where the singer tells you why they picked these pieces, what does it mean to them. I’m hoping we’ll bring that same kind of approach to our programming.” The team is planning recitals and programming a wide range of music from baroque to contemporary. “[Voice and oboe are] one of those combinations of instruments that have gone in and out of vogue. There’s a large amount of Baroque repertoire and then there’s some classical stuff, but there’s also some contemporary stuff. I feel like for contemporary music recently reed instruments have kind of gone out of fashion, and I’m kind of hoping that they’re coming back because I think they’re a little neglected. We’d also like, in the future, to be able to commission stuff and work collaboratively with a composer. We’re also open to arranging things. I figure no one ever died from playing a piece that was arranged for a different set of instruments. Sometimes I think in classical music we get a little obsessed with the purity standard of like, ‘well this was originally intended for this one special kind of flute.’ It’s gonna be fine.” The duo is in the process of programming recitals and developing performance opportunities, but in the meantime if you’re hankering for some beautifully performed vocal/oboe music, check out their website: https://www.reedandword.com/
When Jane isn’t taking on demanding operatic roles, performing with Reed and Word, promoting Fresh Squeezed Opera and helping to improve the experience of writing/singing contemporary vocal music, or singing as a section leader at her church choir, she’s working as an administrative assistant at a small legal recruiting firm, acting as an “agent for lawyers” as she calls it—a job that, oddly enough, has taught her a lot about the business of singing. “You start to get a different view of what it is you’re doing when you create your resume, or you write a cold email or you communicate with a company professionally…when you’re the person screening all those resumes or receiving those inquiries. I started thinking of this when I update my resume: whatever is the most relevant PUT IT AT THE TOP, however you can. You might not think about that when you’re just sending your resume in response to an audition, but business is business, there’re just some good common sense resume things. You have to think to yourself, ‘if I was hiring someone to sing Musetta, what do I really want to see?’ Maybe if I covered that role, I should put that as near the top as possible even if I have to remove other stuff that’s less relevant.” Things Jane considers when customizing her resume include chorus credits depending on the company she performed with and roles that were not perhaps as relevant for her fach. Another adjustment she often has to make is explaining roles in less familiar contemporary pieces. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m role something or other in a random opera you’ve never heard of, you have no clue if that’s a leading role, or if I was the 3rd tree from the left. So then, can I put something in my bio? What can I do to craft that story?’…I feel like sometimes in creative fields we want to think we’re too special: WE’RE NOT! Everyone’s still here just trying to work. And in many ways I think that enables a lot of bad behavior; the idea that like, ‘oh, this is some special field, the rules do not apply.’…Some things are the same with a corporate job, if someone is being weird and squirrelly about what they’re paying: red flag…and the music world is not an exception to that.”
You need to be compensated in some form: either in money, career advancement, or personal enjoyment and ideally you have to have two of the three or a lot of one.
In addition to casting perspective on the world of singing, Jane’s 9-5 also allows her the flexibility to pursue music. “I’m fortunate because of the kind of business I work in, which is pretty small, and also because the field that we’re in has changed a lot in the past 10 or so years. Now it’s become much more focused on Internet, email, and digital communication…if I want to leave town for a few days to take an audition, or if I have to leave at 2pm on one day to sing a gig or an audition, I can do that. I’ll have more work the next day, but it’s not impossible, which is really fortunate. I’m also really lucky that my workplace and my boss allows me to do that, and I’ve worked there long enough that like she trusts me to do that.”
I know, for myself, I’ve often tried to hide my day job away as though it’s not part of my life because it’s not my chosen line of work, but I loved hearing Jane’s perspective on the matter, “Would I like to be a full-time singer? Absolutely. But the reality is, when I didn’t have a day job, or when I had less alternate employment, it was hard. You always feel like you’re kind of desperate. And I found that, personally, I did not make great decisions for myself as a singer or as a human being from that place. In my experience it led to…doing stuff that in retrospect was just such a waste of time. It would have been better to make no money and just stayed at home and practiced for an hour, or invested in the time to learn a role, or relax, or get more sleep, or eat better. I think that level of pressure has some really hard effects on your life and health. Especially in a city that’s as expensive to live in as this one is. It’s nice to be able to pay the bills.”
Having a day job also allows her to take the gigs she wants for the right reasons. “I don’t know who said this, but I read this somewhere…that you need to be compensated in some form: either in money, career advancement, or personal enjoyment and ideally you have to have two of the three or a lot of one. I think sometimes we get a little too accepting of the idea that ‘nothing’ is acceptable. And it’s difficult because I think it leads to a lot of singers undervaluing the skills that they have and that’s a tough habit to break. You get involved in what my friend, Meghan Ihnen, calls the ‘scarcity mindset’ where you’re like, ‘no one’s ever going to hire me again,’ well, whoa, take a step back. No one has hired you for next month, chill, that’s just next month. That’s not forever. So if I have nothing, I have to take the first thing that comes along. No you don’t.”
In our conversation we also addressed the stigma that the only way to “make it” as a singer is to live the typical singer life. “Dare I say it’s almost like a weird Trumpian thing where there are winners and there are losers, and that’s a very toxic way to organize your worldview…We do have an idea of what ‘making it’ is and one of the things I started to realize as I was older is there are parts of that that I would not enjoy. I wouldn’t like living for a month out of a hotel room in a foreign country. I love to travel, but after about two weeks I’m like, ‘oh, it’s time to go home, I miss my own bed, I miss my cat.’ And that’s the thing, you know. Knowing people that have that kind of career, it’s a real weight on them, and it’s not for everyone because it’s hard. I think there are so many aspects of it that we don’t want to discuss, that what we think of as being successful, may not be success for everybody. It’s a ridiculous set of assumptions that, ‘this is the only way’ and if you don’t want to do that for some reason, it’s because you’re terrible… and you personally lack the grit.”
Maybe that’s one of the reasons we don’t talk about it. “It’s that syndrome that you see on Instagram with everyone’s highlight reel. That’s what we’re doing that with every aspect of our working lives. It’s insane. It’s a sensitive point for people. People are afraid to admit that either things aren’t turning out the way they planned, or they’re not feeling fulfilled like they thought they’d be, or that they’re doing something different than they expected, and to be fair there doesn’t seem to be a lot of support for that…I’m gaining clarity on why am I doing the things that I’m doing…I feel like a lot of singers feel like there’s one path and you just have to kind of do the stuff because someone told you that’s how we do the singer thing, and that’s a weird idea…It’s ok if you say it’s not for everybody. There are alternate possibilities.”
I loved sitting with Jane and having a real talk about life as a singer, an admin assistant, a board member, and baker. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that one day she’ll invite me to one of her “Pie Givings” but until then, I’ll leave you with some of her favorite things:
People/Programs who/that have helped/inspired you:
Voice Teacher, David Jones: “When I met him I was at a point vocally where I really had a lot of questions and was feeling very lost and I wanted some answers, and I think he combines an amazing amount of technical knowledge with also being a lovely warm person. He’s such a positive force and he’s the reason I want to get back into teaching because it’s so refreshing to see a teacher who wants to nurture and mentor singers in that way.”
Acting Coach, Dewey Moss: “Dewey’s a person who I have worked with, we did a production together because he’s also a singer and he’s so multi-talented and has such a great combination of really strong technical knowledge from an acting standpoint…It’s the combination of being straightforward and challenging people while in an environment that’s nurturing and positive.”
Fresh Squeezed Opera: “We were really proud to say, as a board, that this year we have the budget to pay every single person who’s involved in our productions, which was a hard road to hoe for a small company that started 5 years ago, but that’s important to us and as a singer I can testify to that. Productions are organized, you’re not going to waste your time; they’re not going to treat you unprofessionally.”
Favorite Singing Resources:
The Sybaritic Singer by Megan Ihnen: “I love her blog because she does this thing every year in February, ‘29 Days to Diva’ where it’s a daily series of posts about taking a holistic revamp of your singing business…She’ll talk about like, ‘let’s look at your finances, let’s talk about your marketing materials, let’s talk about do you have a website, or what’s on there, is it current?’ She comes from a really practical standpoint, which is refreshing, and it’s practical in a positive way and in a way that makes it fun.”
Favorite Non-Singer Resources:
Ask a Manager by Alison Greene: “It’s an advice blog for workplace advice and a lot of the stuff she writes is still really helpful for music things. She has great advice about how to write a cover letter, about dealing with the anxiety of applying to jobs, and dealing with awkward workplace stuff.”
Favorite Contemporary Composers who write well for the voice:
“If you’re into new music, Twitter is a great place to be, to my total and utter surprise.”
Ross Crean, singer and composer
Griffin Candey, singer and composer
Tom Cipullo: “I think he writes for soprano voice unbelievably and he’s such a good example of how to push the boundaries without making it impossible to sing”
Melissa Dunphy: “She wrote a fantastic song cycle on poems of Nikita Gill. It’s gorgeous, and painfully relevant, and I am dying to program it and sing it somewhere.”
Ingrid Stölzel: “I sang a cycle of hers on a Fresh Squeezed Opera showcase, and it made me a fan forever. She writes beautifully for the voice.”
Ideal daily routine:
“My ideal would be get up in the morning, maybe don’t hit the snooze button 20 times. (We’ll see how successful that is.) I’ll have my day at work…It would be nice to leave maybe and hour or so sooner so I can have a good hour to practice, make dinner, go for a run, spend some time with my boyfriend watching TV or maybe we could go out.
Many thanks to Jane for her open, honest and delightfully witty conversation. I enjoyed it more than I enjoy crispy onions…please invite me to “Pie Giving.”