Updated: May 18, 2020
So, your 2020 summer plans didn’t include a global pandemic, halted economy, or a steady stream of canceled gigs? Yeah, neither did mine. Yet, here we are.
Whether it’s the current COVID-canceled situation, that odd gap year between your undergraduate and master’s degree, or the inevitable dry spell that will eventually surface, we all face periods in our careers where the gigs just aren’t lining up, and our practice schedules are eerily free of repertoire. Having a list of repertoire goals in place before entering your personal period of gig scarcity can be reassuring. Knowing you have some career goals in place and some practicing waiting for you will be sure to boost your spirits when the blow of losing work hits.
Maybe you already have a personal list of repertoire you feel you need to have prepared as a classical singer. Or maybe you’re a legendary practice guru genius and have already conquered every piece for your voice type. (If so, please share your secrets with me.) But chances are, your wheelhouse is missing a few standards. If so, feel free to check out my list of repertoire every singer should have prepared for when the gigs start rolling in again. Maybe it will help you fill in any gaps in your own preparation or be just the inspiration you need to awaken from your Netflix-induced stupor and hit the practice room again!
First up, everybody’s favorite Christmas classic: Handel’s Messiah. I know, I know, you’ve basically memorized every single bass and tenor aria (even though you’re a soprano) after hearing them a billion times every December. I too fancy myself a tenor as I spend most December days trying out those beautiful melismatic passages from “Every Valley.” However, as we all know, there’s a big difference between familiarity and concert readiness. Gig-free seasons are the perfect opportunity to prepare for work that will inevitably come your way someday as a professional singer. I haven’t had the chance to make my Messiah soloist debut yet, but when the conductor calls, darned if I won’t be ready! (OK, I still need to do some work on “But Who May Abide.” Please just let the bass sing it.)
Next, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 solo excerpts. Here’s a piece of concert work that actually seems to frequently surface as an audition opportunity for emerging artists. Breaking into that far-off, dreamy world of high-paying, low commitment concert work can seem almost impossible when you’re an up-and-coming singer. However, Beethoven 9 seems to be somewhat of a gateway. Having the solo sections for this industry standard prepared and coached before an audition or opportunity surfaces could be just the upper hand you need.
Following the concert work thread, consider preparing the solo excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem as well. This piece is so frequently performed, it’s almost guaranteed you will someday be hired as a soloist for it. When my first Requiem came along, I had about a week and a half to prepare it. My life could have been much less stressful and chaotic if those solo passages had already been in my repertoire.
This next suggestion may seem a bit obvious, but if you haven’t already, compile a list of the most commonly performed concert work songs and arias for your voice type and get to work on them. For me, these would include pieces like the alto solos in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Elgar’s Sea Pictures, etc. Every voice type should spend some time looking at their respective Bach arias, focusing on the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, Christmas Oratorio, Magnificat, and B Minor Mass. More than likely, you’ll someday be called on to perform solos in at least one of these works, and you’ll want to be ready when the opportunity presents itself. Bach arias don’t come quickly, after all!
Perhaps most importantly, every singer should also have a good collection of pieces appropriate for more “everyday-ish” kinds of gigs that make up the bulk of professional singing work. When your church job requests you step in last minute with a solo for Sunday morning, you’ll want to have a variety of appropriate options prepared. Knowing you could perform a full set of jazz and pop standards at a special event will allow you to say “Yes!” when the opportunity comes along. Research the most popular wedding songs and add them to your practice binder. Find some tasteful arrangements of Christmas songs so you’re ready when an unexpected December gig pops up. (After all, what singer is blessed with extra time for learning last-minute music during the busiest month of the singing year?)
My final suggestion definitely isn’t glamorous, but it could be very helpful for your career. Most of us professional singers currently, or will eventually, teach a studio of voice students, many of whom will come to us with little previous singing experience. Having an intimate and far-reaching knowledge of beginning vocal repertoire will help you be the best voice instructor you can. Dust off your well-worn copy of the 24 Italian Songs and Arias. Are there any pieces in it you’re unfamiliar with? Consider using some of your down time to learn any you don’t know. You may just discover a hidden gem! Also, taking a break from more challenging repertoire and allowing your voice to rediscover the basics can be incredibly restorative for the seasoned singer.
There you have it! I hope this list of repertoire ideas to focus on during a career dry spell provides you with some inspiration and a positive outlook for your future. There’s always work we can be doing as singers to better prepare for the success that’s headed our way.