MATTHEW KNICKMAN, baritone, is proud to be member of the GRAMMY® award-winning ensemble, Chanticleer. He has performed over 1,000 concerts; appears on 10 recordings, including Warner Records label and "A Prairie Home Companion"; and tours extensively throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe. Chanticleer has brought him to the concert stages of the Wiener Musikverein, Royal Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), State Opera of Prague, Rudolfinum (Prague), Grand Hall of the Liszt Academy of Music (Budapest), Wieliczka Salt Mine (Cracow), Mariinsky Theater (St. Petersburg), Moscow International House of Music, Konzerthaus Berlin, National Concert Hall (Dublin), Edinburgh International Festival, Elbphilharmonie (Hamburg), National Concert Hall of Taipei, Shanghai Concert Hall, Esplanade (Singapore), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Green Music Center, Jordan Hall, Spivey Hall, Ravinia Festival, and Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood.
Born in Korea, Matthew started singing as a boy soprano at St. Stephen’s Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He holds degrees in vocal performance and pedagogy from Westminster Choir College. As a member of the critically acclaimed Westminster Choir and Westminster Kantorei, he performed with the New York Philharmonic, Dresden Philharmonic, and New Jersey Symphony, and was led by celebrated conductors, including Alan Gilbert, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, Harry Bicket, Charles Dutoit, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Richard Hickox, Neeme Järvi, Bernard Labadie, Nicholas McGegan, Julius Rudel, Bruno Weil, Stefan Parkman, Joseph Flummerfelt, and Andrew Megill. He has also performed with Les Violons du Roy et La Chapelle de Québec, Early Music New York, Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Clarion Choir, Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Opera Theatre of Weston, and Spoleto Festival U.S.A. He has been a soloist in numerous oratorios and Bach cantatas, including the St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion with early music organizations such as Fuma Sacra, Philadelphia Bach Festival, and Carmel Bach Festival. He has also been a Finalist in the Sixth Biennial Bach Vocal Competition for American Singers.
Recently, he has performed as a soloist with Santa Clara Chorale, San Jose Chamber Orchestra, and Symphony Silicon Valley. When not singing, Matthew enjoys strawberry ice cream, eating comfort foods around the world, and is an exercise and nutritional science enthusiast.
Where are you from?
I'm originally from New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, but I was born in South Korea.
How did you get into music?
I went to a parochial school from preschool through second grade through my church, St. Stephen's Episcopal Cathedral. In third grade, my mother shifted me to the public school system. During that time, she had asked the principal how I could still stay involved with the church. The principal suggested I join the church choir, which was a men and boys choir in the English, Anglican tradition. Then she said to me, “Well, let's join the Men and Boys Choir.” I don't remember why I joined, but I did. So I think that's probably where I was first exposed to music in a profound way; it was probably, even now, the most formative years of my musical training. Early on, I just made these really great connections with the other boys and men. We would have four-hour rehearsals on Friday, so you can imagine a third or fourth grader sitting there for four hours on a Friday night. We were just rehearsing anthems and hymns in the English choral tradition, but I loved it. That was the beginning of everything.
Where did you attend your undergraduate studies?
I attended Westminster Choir College of Rider University for my undergraduate program.
Did you do any young artists programs during undergraduate studies?
The first program I participated in was through my voice teacher, Laura Brooks Rice, at Westminster Choir College. She and some other faculty members from other universities had a program called the Florence Voice Seminar. It’s about a two-week-long program in Florence, Italy. It was structured with daily voice lessons, coachings, language classes, and cultural experiences. I really enjoyed that — just good training. She eventually left that program and, along with one of her colleagues at Westminster, Dr. Christopher Arneson, they created a new program called CoOperative. At CoOperative, singers would get daily voice lessons and daily coachings with different luminaries from the opera world. In addition to the vocal and dramatic training, the program also focused on the business of being a solo artist in opera e.g managing taxes, how to market yourself, young artist programs. I gleaned a lot of business acumen, as well as formal vocal training, from that program.
I am extremely grateful for my training in opera. Among many things, I learned artistry and truly how to sing. I love opera dearly, but once I had experience with it at the collegiate level, at summer festivals, and roles at smaller houses, I just found it really wasn't in the cards for me vocally. I'm constantly inspired by the music and by the pantheon of legends who've sung it. But I just knew my voice wasn’t suited for it. By that statement I mean, I don't fulfill some of the requisite demands to be an opera singer. I liken my voice to a Honda Civic. It’s nothing fancy. It's not going to win a lot of prestigious awards or garner acclaim to the levels of Bugatti, Lamborghini, or Porsche. But, you know, most people like a Honda Civic; they acknowledge it’s an all-around good car. It's reliable, affordable, and gets the job done. That’s probably an apt comparison to my voice. Unfortunately, I don't think I was suited for opera. Although, I love being a singing actor, and I love being on stage.
Did you do any Professional Choral Institutes (or similar programs for choral studies) during undergraduate studies?
I did not do anything choral related during my undergrad. What I did attend was a two-week long choir camp through my church's Men and Boys choir for 10 years. Each summer, all the boys would travel to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania at Wilson College. It was a very intense two weeks, especially for young boys. Every day, we took music theory, history, and appreciation classes. We'd also rehearse 3-4 times a day for several hours. That's where I learned most of my musicianship early on. However, once I got to undergrad, I did not do any professional choral institutes. I think that was because my day-to-day life at Westminster was its own professional choral institute. So I didn't necessarily feel the need to seek out summer programs in that field. I reserved that time for summer opera programs.
What are some things (besides YAP/PCI) that you did to build your resume as an undergraduate student?
As an undergrad, I was extremely fortunate to have help in building a choral resume because of where I went to school. At Westminster Choir College, every single undergrad has the opportunity to work with professional-level orchestras and conductors. So, while matriculated, I had the opportunity to work with orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and Dresden Philharmonic, as well as with conductors like Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, Alan Gilbert, etc.
Having that experience, opportunity, and exposure to those artists beginning at 18-years-old was seminal to my education. Furthermore, you experience all these great moments of wisdom and rehearsal intricacies. You also see the little quirks people have, and you see behind the scenes of what life is like for professional musicians. One awakening aspect was seeing the mundane. I would see instrumentalists read their magazine or play Sudoku whenever they weren't playing. They would be listening, play their few notes when it was their turn, and then back to Sudoku. Westminster has a very high standard and you are taught to be very disciplined. So I thought that's how the whole professional world operated. It was interesting to see those in the upper echelons of music be a bit more relaxed and at ease about their jobs.
I was also fortunate that one of my professors, Dr. Andrew Megill, maintained some professional choirs and other professional positions outside of the college. I was extremely fortunate that he invited me to sing with some of those organizations. I had these professional experiences just as a result of where I went. I was kind of lucky in that way.
What are some of the most useful ways for undergraduate students to spend their time to prepare themselves for the “next step” (not necessarily to build their resume)?
Contextually, I would frame this answer as a choral/ensemble singer. As a singer who has loved ensemble singing, I would say to diversify your interests and experiences as much as possible. Sing in as many different genres that interest you. It's ok to be a "specialist" but take a look outside of your niche. I think you'd be pleasantly surprised at how different styles can inform each other, and how many more vocal colors will be at your disposal as a result. If you have spare time and if you are a “go-getter,” fill it with learning.
Oh, and stay curious. Always stay curious and ask questions. That quality can be a compass during your entire musical life.
How important is GPA in undergraduate studies?
Ultimately, if you're just going to be a performance major, GPA doesn't matter. You still need to learn your craft so don't neglect your responsibilities. You also obviously need to have a GPA that will keep you in school. However, it's your voice that has the most significance, not your GPA. We've had people in Chanticleer who have never finished their degrees, so obviously it's possible to achieve success without a high GPA or a diploma. Academia is only one avenue to pursue your career. That being said, if you're going to continue throughout academia, then I think, yes. If you have too low of a GPA, you can't really get accepted to the next college/university to pursue a graduate or doctoral degree. So I think it's a yes and no — it depends on what your track will be.
APPLYING TO GRADUATE SCHOOL
Does attending a more acclaimed yet competitive school provide more opportunities in the long run as opposed to a smaller school with more individual opportunities?
No, not necessarily. School name recognition and acclaim can provide opportunities but you still need to work at being recognized at those schools in order to receive those opportunities. You may, instead, want to attend a smaller college because it has a particular voice teacher there. You might pick a college based on its proximity to a big city because of its particular offerings. In Chanticleer, for example, not everyone has graduated from a big-name school. We have people from small towns and small colleges. Also, in the opera world, you'll see not everyone on stage is from Juilliard or Curtis. You’ll see people from small universities just as much. So I would say that it doesn't really matter. It's about your individual talent and where you feel it will best be guided and nurtured. It's a huge responsibility to create opportunity, but it is YOUR responsibility. It's not up to the school, just because it's acclaimed, to create it for you.
How do you find a voice teacher that you would like to study with?
When I joined Westminster, I didn't have any connections at that point. First, get recommendations from your high school voice teacher or other teacher you have a relationship with. If you're lucky enough, and if you're close enough, you can go and take sample lessons with the teachers. That's probably what I would recommend if you have the funds and the time to do so. Otherwise, you're just going to have to ask for recommendations from other voice teachers about who to go to. But refer to people who know your voice somewhat intimately. Those people can source their connections to see who could be a good fit for you. At some colleges, if you find the voice teacher is not a good fit, you have the option of moving studios to another voice teacher.
Can you guarantee that same teacher if you're accepted into the graduate program?
There's no guarantee. But definitely have a frank conversation with that teacher. It's probably in that conversation where you'll have a better chance of securing the teacher you want.
Is it more beneficial to attend graduate school or gain experience right out of undergraduate studies?
I liked going to graduate school, personally. I know some of my past/current colleagues didn't want that, and [we] have found ourselves in the same spot. So, he didn't do it — here he is. I did it — here I am. I did it because I needed the training academia could offer. All these brilliant minds of my professors were there, so I felt compelled to keep learning from these specific people. Again, I'm all about learning, so I wanted to learn more. I knew if I didn’t go to graduate school in an environment where there's so much to learn from, I'd have to source that myself, and I didn't feel like I had the tools to do that. I needed more training for my voice, too. Ultimately, I wouldn't go to grad school for the degree — I'd go to grad school for the education. So if you can get the education elsewhere, do it. But I thought it was a good place for me.
Should you pay for graduate school or should they pay you?
It'd be great if they paid you just because, especially in the arts, to go another $50,000 or $60,000 into debt is... that’s tough. So, it's really nice if they would pay you. My graduate school did not pay me, but I was a [residential life] director, so I received payment that way. But if I didn't do that, I would have had to pay. Going back, I still would have paid because I knew I wanted that education. Everyone has their own financial situation. You'll need to weigh the risk/reward benefit individually.
How important is it to have a master's degree?
It's not that important. Again, it's just about the education. If I received the education, dropped out, and didn't get the actual diploma, I would have been fine. I would have still felt happy because I would have learned what I needed to learn.
Pursue your masters if you and your voice teacher feel you still need more vocal training, dramatic coaching, and education. However, if you both determine you are ready to jump into competitions and Young Artists Programs, then take that next step. It can also depend on your fach. Generally, a soprano peaks before a bass. If your voice just needs a bit more time to mature, graduate school can be a safe place to continue nourishing it. Conversely, you can also nourish it without going to graduate school with a DIY approach, but that does require a lot of discipline and fortitude.
Where did you attend your graduate studies?
I went to graduate school at Westminster Choir College of Rider University.
What graduate degrees do you hold?
I hold a master’s degree in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy.
What are some things (besides YAP/PCI) that you did to build your resume as a graduate student?
Since I stayed at [the same place as] my undergrad, I tried to create a different experience at the behest of my voice teacher. She said, “If you're going to stay here, it has to be a different experience than your undergrad. Do not just do the same things you did the past four years.” So, I dropped out of some of the choirs and just took up other things that would interest me to cultivate enough difference.
What are some of the most useful ways for graduate students to spend their time to prepare themselves for the “next step” (not necessarily to build their resume)?
At that point, you need to start understanding the steps that will start getting you work. After your first year, or near the end of your first year, you need to start looking at what programs you think you'd be suited for, what competitions interest you, and what jobs you want to audition for. I know, for example, at the end of my second year I said, “Okay, I'm going to audition for Chanticleer.” I didn't do it while I was an undergrad or first-year grad student because I thought I needed to learn more. Looking back, I might have been TOO hung up on learning; I never thought I was ready. But one of my professors, Dr. Sun Min Lee (who was so generously helping me with my sight reading through private sessions) said to me, "You’ll always be learning. You'll always think there is more to know. But you must not let that act as an excuse preventing you from pursuing your goals. Now is the time for action."
You need to start networking and applying for young artists programs. Dr. Christopher Arneson gave me some really good advice; it's pretty candid and direct advice. He said, “If you find yourself in your mid to late 30s, and you have not won a competition, or been invited back to any young artist programs, or are not having some sort of momentum with your career, you need to reevaluate and consider other options besides solely singing.” That's a tough thing to consider, but can be the truth which we need to hear. Now, there are exceptions, like Joyce DiDonato as an example. She was doing a lot of work and her career took off when she was a little bit older, as opposed to someone like Nadine Sierra, who blew up when she was in her 20s.
How important is GPA in graduate studies?
It’s only important if you're going to doctoral school. But if your are expecting to have a career singing after you graduate, no director (choral or opera) is concerned about what your GPA was.
How do you get auditions?
YAP Tracker is one way. Talking with your colleagues and friends is another way. We're all a community, so definitely use the experience of those around you. I went to a conservatory, so I was surrounded by other singers and we just chatted with each other. Also, through the young artist programs that I did [like CoOperative] they shared all the other programs that are suitable for you. Your coach will say “I think you should do this program. You should talk to this person. I'll put you in touch with this person.” So, that was mainly how I did it in terms of opera. In the choral world, you have to generally be in the area where there are enough choirs or ensembles to support your lifestyle. So you need to be in the Midwest, like the Minnesota and Michigan area; the South has a strong network in Texas; the East Coast has New York, Boston, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and that extends to the DC area; the West Coast and Pacific Northwest like LA, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. Those are the big, hot scenes of choral music where there is enough work for you. Outside of Chanticleer or Cantus, to be a professional choral musician you have to have multiple positions in different ensembles to make it work; only Cantus and Chanticleer provide full-time jobs. It definitely helps to have a core job at a place like St. Thomas or Trinity Wall Street in New York or Emmanuel Church in Boston. And then from there, you fly around the country to sing with other professional groups like Seraphic Fire, Conspirare, The Crossing, Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Rose Ensemble, etc. As a choral musician, you're not really auditioning like you would in opera. You'll do a few traditional auditions to get into specific places like Trinity or St. Thomas; Trinity and St. Thomas definitely audition singers, but after that it's so much about networking. You start off in one position and then impress your directors and fellow singers around you. Once you prove to have a talent, great sight reading skills/musicianship, a voice they like, and are reliable (this quality cannot be overlooked), they will then recommend you for a position in the other ensembles they sing in or direct. A recommendation from a respected colleague goes a long way in getting work; sometimes more so than an audition. The "audition" is essentially that first new gig gained from the recommendation. If you prove yourself there, then you'll have a better chance of being invited back and getting more work.
Do you need an agent?
Chorally, you are your agent. Agents help you find work and are responsible for your fees et al. As a gigging choral musician, you don't really need one. In New York, there are contractors who can help you find work in the choral scene. So they can be a good resource, especially to those who don't have any connections starting out. I will put a disclaimer on this: I've been out of that field since 2011, so it could have changed a bit. But I still have friends in that field that are able to relay their experiences to me.
But you do need one when you start making that shift into solo singing. So, if you start becoming a billed soloist in the choral gigs more and more, it's good to get an agent to help find you more work as a soloist.
It’s usually the bigger orchestras that will go to the agents and say “We need a soloist. Who on your roster can we have?” That's one way how you get that job. But you can also just do it all your own. I have one friend, a bass-baritone, who is doing it all himself. So, that's possible, and you save more money. I think you can definitely consider an agent when you realize that there is momentum for you.
When you're getting a lot of work consistently you might also need a manager to help organize your schedule. That way you can be focused more on your music rather than keeping track of correspondence, dates, fees, contracts, etc.
How many pieces do you present?
When I was doing choral auditions, I just sang one or two pieces, but they were both classical. Most of the time I included a Bach aria. You'll probably be doing a lot of Early Music in the choral world, so you should have a Bach aria that you sing well. Handel too if you prefer. There's so much Bach performed, so showing you understand the style and can also step out to sing a solo has great advantages.
For opera, it’s the five arias of contrasting quality that have different languages. So, for me, it was Mozart, Strauss, Handel, and Gounod. Sadly, no Verdi or Donizetti [le sigh].
What materials do you bring with you into the room (paperwork, resume, binder of music, etc.)?
Chorally, a resume is always good to have no matter what; bring it even if they don't ask for it. I think if you're “cold calling” a contractor in New York, you should send your CV and your resume in advance so that they aren’t offended. I would definitely say [have] sheet music for a classical aria, oratorio, and an art song. Also, bring something non-classical, just in case. I've done some opera chorus auditions and I brought a headshot, resume, and my five aria packet. In either case (choral or opera), you bring your binder with your music in it — never in those clear plastic paper holders because accompanists hate that. It needs to be easily turnable with dividers and labels clearly marking each separate piece so the accompanist can quickly turn to a specific song. Always make it as comprehensible and easy for the accompanist as possible. They are amazing artists and shouldn't be subjected to unorganised binders. They play for so many singers during an audition, so be respectful of their time and craft. It's helpful if you have a tempo marking on there as well for them. If it's not a long aria, I would print all of the pages single-sided and tape them all face out so the accompanist can just pull it open and avoid page turns.
What is the first thing you do when you walk into the room?
In an opera audition, first, I take a breath to prepare myself. I walk in and I smile genuinely. I acknowledge the accompanist because that's very important and polite. I acknowledge the panel because that’s obviously who you are singing for. They may already have somebody collecting and calling names. If they do, then you obviously don't need to introduce yourself. If no one has introduced you, you say, “Hello, my name is Matthew Knickman. I'll be performing Papageno’s Suicide Aria.” You don’t have to say “from The Magic Flute” — they know where it's from. Don’t say “by Mozart,” because they know that too. They have a list of what you're bringing, so all of that information is already in front of them. Furthermore, you're probably singing something they all know from memory anyway. Then you go and you're off to the races. In a choral audition, you’re usually just singing for the director, who is probably also accompanying you; there really isn’t a panel like there is in opera. My choral auditions were formal but more relaxed than an opera audition (although I was still so very nervous). There’s usually a small conversation that takes places as well before/after. When you first walk into the room, say hello, smile, and shake their hand. The director then will usually guide you to the next step (generally just go right into singing).
How do you keep positive after failures in auditions?
I keep positive by knowing that I did my best and that it was an experience. I had a lot of “no”s that I thought were going to be “yes”s. I was even almost guaranteed some “yes”s and then I didn't get it. It's part of life — disappointment is a part of life and it is not a comment on who you are. It can be if you are lazy and you didn't prepare; that disappointment was well-earned. But if you feel like you did the best you possibly could, but it just didn't work out, that's okay. Continue to master your art despite the previous result. Disappointment is inevitable and natural; you just need to move on to the next opportunity. That actually is an important distinction - the next opportunity. Stay tenacious and continue seeking out more opportunities after a “failed audition”.
WORK OUTSIDE THE MUSIC FIELD
Have you ever had to work a part-time or full-time job that does not involve music while on the track to becoming a professional musician (not including work done while in school)?
Yeah, almost everybody does.
It was various things. For the first two months after graduate school, I had no job or place to live. I went home to Pennsylvania. I kept the church job where I drove two hours each way just to sing a one-hour mass. I knew I’d be going back to New Jersey, at some point, to live, so I didn't want to lose that job. I was also a voice teacher for a very short while.
I [started] working at Banana Republic in the stock room. That job ended up being a good amount of fun because I liked the people I worked with; we would pretty much just joke around as we unboxed clothes. Then, I moved to a gym where I signed people up for gym memberships and I learned about the shadiness of gyms. By the way, never pay full price. Then, I became a personal trainer at the gym and I learned about the shadiness of personal trainers. For the record, I was never any of those shady people.
I left that job because one of my best friends got me a job at a music publishing company up in North Jersey. That business worked with a lot of top artists as a publisher. It was a great job. I even met my current voice teacher there because he worked as a professional engraver. The owner was also a musician and conductor. He was so supportive because he allowed me to take gigs whenever I wanted. I was just sitting at my computer one day, working away, when I got an email from a contractor in New York saying, “One of our basses got sick. Can you do the Monteverdi Vespers?” I had done it already, which was definitely helpful. The contractor said, “If you can do it, you have to come this afternoon to make the rehearsal.” I looked at the clock and realized, “Oh. I have to leave right now.” So I got out of my chair, went to the office to my boss and said, “Uhmmm, so I just got an email for this gig doing Monteverdi Vespers in NYC, but I have to leave - like right now.” And he says, “Okay, yeah. Go ahead.”
So, as a musician, you need a job that has flexibility. You want to work a job where you can take two weeks or a month off. And then you can come back when that gig is over and still round out the income.
Do you take private voice lessons even as a professional musician?
How do you find a teacher?
You can find teachers from other colleagues. Also, you could still maintain your teacher from undergraduate or graduate school; that's a natural choice. I once met this guy on a gig in Vermont. I loved his voice and I asked him, “Who do you study with?” It was a reputable teacher from Juilliard. So, I got in touch with that teacher. I studied with him for a while, but then he moved away from New York, which then prompted me to get in touch with my current voice teacher. I have maybe two or three [lessons] per year, if that. He's in New Jersey and I'm in California. When I first moved to California, we were doing video lessons once a month, but it got to be a little frustrating for both of us because you can't really do in-depth work. You can’t really hear that well, so I was mostly just doing checkups. So, I would love to see him more often if I could. But right now it is two or three times a year when I'm back in New Jersey.
What’s an average cost for a professional voice teacher?
About $100 to $150 per lesson and that’s if you are in New York. Outside of big cities, you might be paying $60-$100 per lesson.
Do you have to bring your own accompanist?
I think you need to ask the teacher because they are all different. All of my past teachers have had the ability to play, so I've been very lucky with that. One of my teachers out of graduate school had his wife play after 30 minutes and that was part of the fee. I once took a jazz voice lesson and the teacher didn't play the piano, so I had to find an accompanist. It's important you have contacts who are keyboard players in the event you need to bring an accompanist. You will also need to pay their fee in addition to the voice teacher's fee.
Have you been able to transfer between genres easily, such as choral to opera and vice versa?
For me, choral to opera was fine. I would say [opera] to choral music was a bit more difficult. With my mainly classical background, I remember having trouble with pop songs and jazz standards in Chanticleer. There's this one piece we sing a lot called, "My Romance". It has very straightforward jazz harmonies and voice leading. But when I first tried reading it in rehearsal I couldn't hear the harmonies and was a mess. I'm an okay sight-reader, but I was just like, “Uh, oops.” Also, it can be difficult for an opera-trained voice, with no other experience in other genres, to sing with the right timbre, color, or style appropriate to jazz, pop, or other contemporary choral music. Listen to "Great Voices Sing John Denver" to hear what I mean. That being said, it's certainly possible to weave effortlessly between opera and non-classical choral music, but I've observed the challenge both in my own singing as well as in others I've worked with. The solution there is to start singing as much of that music as you can, as well as listening to it. Over time, the transitions will feel more natural.
How important is solo classical training to choral singing? How important is choral training to solo classical singing?
Solo training is crucially important to your choral singing. Period. On the flip side, my voice teacher at Westminster said that ensemble singing is actually really good for opera singers because it trains you to listen more. You can carry that skill into your duets/ensembles and how you interact with the orchestra on stage. I remember when I was at the Florence Voice Seminar I sang a duet from "Cosi fan tutte" with this really excellent tenor. Because of my choral training, when we arrived at these suspensions or appoggiaturas, I knew how to execute them so they really shined. The first time we sang that phrase together, the coach gasped, “Woah. Wow.” I think when you have ensemble training you really know how to sing WITH someone else. However, you absolutely need proper solo classical training.
Is it better to work for a multitude of different choirs or stay based with a full-time choir based out of one location?
It's not really possible to be based in a full-time choir outside of Cantus and Chanticleer. So your only other option is to be employed by multiple choirs if you want to work solely as a professional choral singer. As I mentioned earlier, you certainly can be employed by a core ensemble where you live, such as Trinity, St. Thomas, or Emmanuel. But if you want to make a livable wage, you also have to perform with a multitude of different choirs which are project-based. That means, you're only committed to the short rehearsal period before the concerts and the concert run itself. Then you're either back home or off to the next gig. Thankfully, performances don't overlap all too frequently, so you can move from one choir to the next across the country. There are many, many professional choirs in the country now. So if you are interested in that lifestyle, speak with a colleague in the industry and they can inform you of them all.
How much of an understanding do you need of other languages/how important is it?
I think it is highly important because we need language to sing, and knowing the colors of a language is crucial for expression. For example, you can read a Pablo Neruda sonnet in English, but the colors of the Spanish language are ultimately lost as well as the cultural connotations of some of the words. What’s lost is the actual meanings of those Spanish words which Spanish speaking people know, and the connotation and implications behind them. So, if you don't know those things, you are slightly handicapped in terms of expression and communication. Some people I've worked with don't have any highly focused diction or language training (just general), and it's fine. They kind of get by, but there's that specificity that's lacking. I think deep understanding of languages matters because of the integrity of the music and the text. Otherwise, you're just singing sounds and not communicating. Pragmatically, there is an expectation in the professional world that you know how to sing French, Italian, German, Latin, and English at a highly proficient level. The directors don’t have a desire, nor the time, to teach the singers the language during rehearsals (they will fix specific or occasional language items though). So definitely enroll in as many diction courses as you can in undergrad.
Is it better to stay in the United States or go to Europe to sing/study?
I've never worked or lived independently in Europe so I wouldn't be an authority on this topic. What I can say is: you can make a living here in the United States. There is no certainty but it's possible to make a living as a professional choral singer or as an opera singer in the United States. Europe has possibly more opportunities as a soloist because there are more opera companies, but it also presents its own challenges. You might have no network in Europe. Sometimes you do, but you usually have none. So you're leaving a network of opportunities otherwise available to you in the United States that has compounded since you were in high school.
How do you manage and prevent vocal fatigue while performing demanding amounts of music?
First, your voice training should arm you with a technique that shields you from chronic fatigue. So keep your voice in shape with a good understanding of your instrument and a solid technique. Second, if you're singing a lot of consecutive concerts you need to understand when you need to sort of step back and when you can give it a bit more gas. You rarely will be at 100% for the majority of your shows. So you need to know how to sing properly at 80%, 60%, or even less - and all of those diminishing percentages could happen in a single performance. In Chanticleer, we sing 100-120 concerts every season. Each concert is about 85-105 min of constant singing. Depending on the program, I know how much I can give for each piece, and I find that out during the rehearsal period. If you sing at maximum intensity every piece, every concert, you will quickly burn out. I find the formula during the first few run-throughs. I always work under the assumption that I can fire on all cylinders; like I have nothing to lose. Then, after the concert, I evaluate my voice. “How do I feel?” And then the next day I ask again, “How does my voice feel?” If I don't feel close to 100% the next day, I say, “Okay, where do I need to tweak? Where do I need to make adjustments?" If I'm leaving each concert fatigued, something is wrong. I like feeling as if I could sing another 2 hours if needed.
So that's one way. Always getting enough quality sleep [is another.] I don't always follow that rule, but I should. At least 7 hours, preferably 8 hours. That's backed up by tons of research. Read "Why We Sleep" by Matthew Walker if you're curious. Definitely lots of water. Also, avoiding prolonged periods of speaking.
What are some remedies for curing short term altercations to the voice (sore throat, cold, etc.)?
Vocal rest, sleep, and hydration. Usually, the more 100% of complete vocal rest, the faster you'll recover. That means not mouthing, not whispering, not coughing — just complete silence. Of course, if it's not severe you can speak if absolutely necessary. But the more you're able to be completely silent, the better the results. That's usually for at least 24 hours, sometimes longer, even 48, depending on the severity of what you're trying to recover from. In very, very extreme cases, you might need to go an entire week. Again, sleep, lots of liquids, and avoiding any foods that will cause acid reflux if you are prone to that.
How important is it for a singer to exercise consistently?
Probably not that important. I mean, please be healthy. Consistent exercise is just good for you mentally and physically as a human being. However, the majority of singers don't exercise consistently, and they sound amazing. Their health might not be great, but their singing is superb. So, realistically and from a purely vocal perspective, you're probably fine if you're not exercising. Now from an optics POV, the demands of opera have shifted visually. More emphasis is being placed on the outward appearance of the singer than ever before. The voice obviously needs to be there, and it's still the most important facet of the singer. However, there's no denying physically fit singers can carry an advantage when vying for certain roles. Also, physically fit singers give stage directors more options in the blocking. They might want someone who is capable of performing more complex or physically demanding movements on stage. So, you need to have at least the breath and cardiovascular stamina to do the things asked of you. But only focus on your body composition if that matters to you separate from singing. Don't change your body for the sake of casting. It's more important to be yourself physically, vocally, and mentally. I think it's unhealthy to try to be someone you think others want you to be. Be your authentic self and the roles will come to you.
How important is it for a singer to follow a specific diet and what foods and drinks should be avoided?
Don’t worry about diet industry specifics for your voice. DO worry about your diet for your personal health. But for your voice, just avoid food and drinks that personally affect you i.e. acid reflux, lactose intolerance, etc. We all react differently to diet and nutrition. For example, I know people who can drink a lot of alcohol and their voice is fine. Conversely, I know people who drink minimally or not at all and they’re like, “Oh no! My voice!” Your diet is so specific to you, that it's not realistic to prescribe a diet that works for everyone. Just use common sense. If the food or drink affects you negatively, then avoid it. But don't assume it will be the same for the next person.
How does alcohol affect your singing short and long term?
I don't drink excessively or that often, but I try to avoid drinking anything the day of or night before a concert. Because for me, it affects me negatively. But don't use my experience as a barometer. Other colleagues I know, are able to drink the same day of a concert and they're fine. Your job as a singer is to understand your body. Once you do that, you'll know how to navigate areas like this. Just be responsible.
How much does touring and traveling with high vocal demands affect you?
I love it, so it doesn't affect me negatively in any kind of way. I could do it more, I suppose. I mean Christmas is a good example: We are constantly moving, moving, moving with so many concerts. That can be a little taxing. So, I will dial back the socializing on the road more than I would outside of the Christmas season. Otherwise, I'm going on as many adventures as I can when on tour.
FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS
How has being a professional musician affected your relationships?
I'm kind of an autonomous person which helps things on my side when traveling; however, I think my past partners would probably say I could stay in touch better. For me, that autonomy helps make the time in between seeing my partner go faster. But I recognize it is essential to stay in touch with your partner, pretty much daily, to prevent the distance from negatively impacting the relationship. Even if it's just a short text that day, you need to have some sort of contact, no matter how small.
Is it hard to balance a relationship with a non-musician?
Yes. To make that relationship work, communication is essential. The ones that I have seen work have said that they will cut a [hangout] early and say, “Okay, everybody, goodnight. I gotta go talk to my wife. I gotta talk to my boyfriend. I gotta talk to my girlfriend.” Your partner deserves that time because you're away from them. You're living a really extravagant lifestyle at times, so they deserve to talk to you. Communication is essential. Most of my colleagues speak to their partners every day. But the musician life can be tough on a relationship. I have also seen this lifestyle end relationships.
The key is you need to find somebody who understands your job and that you both set clear expectations when you enter the relationship. It maybe isn't the most romantic conversation, but understanding each others needs fully will help you avoid misunderstandings and arguments in the future. It's a peculiar lifestyle, so it can require peculiar solutions.
Would it be difficult to have a partner and children as a professional musician?
Yeah. Not only for the children and your partner but also for yourself. Because, depending on how much you travel, you miss out on a lot of different things. You’re essentially turning your partner into a single parent while you are away. I think, once children are involved, the need of an end date to touring is ever more glaring. It is very difficult, and I will not tell anyone that it's easy.
What is the best way to market yourself as a musician?
I don't market myself. I've kept pretty private. I don't particularly yearn for or need the spotlight. But if you're going to market yourself, I think a social media presence with engaging, consistent content is important. By consistent I mean posting at least a few times a week. If you're only posting a few times a month, you're not properly engaging your followers. You should have a YouTube; I think you should have a website; I think you should have a Snapchat; and I think you should have an Instagram. I don't know about Twitter. I've never used it or even read it. So it could be good, but I don't know. But those mediums I think are really important.
It's all about content and so I think singers need to think more creatively and align themselves more with pop musicians, or even just social media influencers. There are a lot of categories from which you can choose. You could sell your music, your lifestyle, your food experience and adventures on the road, your fashion, fitness, etc. As long as it ties into the brand you're trying to manage. People will follow you because they want to see what you're doing, or what you're wearing, or what you're saying. And then advertising dollars can follow with that exposure.
The old model of the opera world no longer exists where you have agents and a huge team shepherding your career for you. Nor is there this music studio machine behind you to make you a superstar. You kind of have to do this on your own now. You're responsible for generating that marketing and branding. Social media now serves the purpose that records and radio once served - It exposes you to your potential audience.
How important is it to network?
Extremely important. One, because they get you jobs. And two, the people you are networking with are your fellow singers. It's hard to want to work with someone who's a difficult person. A lot of times networking is not so much about selling yourself professionally; it's just being a good person and being someone people want to be around. You are networking even when you're not thinking you are. Just by being professional, reliable, respectful, and pleasant to be around you are passively networking with your colleagues. You are building a reputation. And a good reputation will make people trust you; they will want to work with you.
One of the great things about being a choral musician is that, a lot of times, you’re just singing with your friends. Anyone who's been in a choir understands that choir is built upon community. And we all have experienced a person (hopefully, we're not one of them) who makes others think, “Oh no, there they are again.” That's never a joy. So, I think that networking is also just being a good and fun person to be around.
Is being a musician financially difficult?
Yes, it's very difficult. You have to understand how to budget because you'll be making different amounts of money each month. For example, December you might make $10k. But in January you might make $2k. And maybe you don't have anything even lined up for February. You need to be responsible with your spending so you don't go out and spend most of your money in December, and then find yourself in a dire place financially in January. Also, you need to keep meticulous records of your receipts and deductions for your taxes. That's a pain, but necessary if want to avoid paying too much money to the government, as well as being prepared in case of an audit. There are the upper echelon of people who make a lot of money; they make millions of dollars. They have a million-dollar apartment in New York City, but they're traveling a lot. Most of us are probably middle-class workers in the music field. But, I believe our field enriches our lives in a profound way. You are surrounding yourself with art, whereas most people get exposed to art when they have the spare time to do it. Here, it's your profession, you are constantly surrounded by it, and are constantly exploring it. You are researching it, creating it, and being interminably curious about it. So, even though you lack in another fifty [thousand dollars,] you're enriching your life so much that, again, to offer another platitude: it's priceless.
How beneficial is it to have an accountant that is adept at working with musicians in terms of taxes?
Pretty beneficial because, if you're a choral musician, you probably have 1099’s from multiple states. If you are pretty adept in accounting, you'll save money if you do it yourself. Your accountant (especially one familiar with singers) is someone who already knows about loopholes and what deductions you can make. The tax code is always changing too. An account should be able to keep track of those changes. So, [it’s nice] to have an accountant who knows singers and says, “Oh, well make sure you deduct that Netflix subscription, or you can deduct that symphony ticket, or that Beyonce CD.”
I also think you'll be well-served to familiarize yourself with a bit of the tax code. So visit the IRS website if you have the time. It's your business, so have a little knowledge going in. Hopefully, colleges and universities will consider making a course about these topics.
What is a normal day like for a member of Chanticleer?
In [San Francisco], I wake up at 5:30 or 6:00 AM (that's probably not normal for the other guys [haha]); make my bed; read the news, tech, and travel blogs; watch YouTube content about something random, like cheese-making, or just something to get my day going. Then, I go to the gym and workout for one to two hours. After that, I come home, review my music for an hour or so, then off to rehearsal for five hours. Then [I] go home after that, or I go out with the guys or other friends and socialize at a restaurant over good food and conversation. On tour, it's like: Get up, go to the gym, get in the car, get on the plane, travel to the next city, land, get to the hotel, maybe get dinner, sleep. Next day, go explore somewhere in the city. If I'm in Austin [or Portland,] I go to the food trucks. If I'm Sedona, Arizona, I’ll go hiking or something. Then, I get back around the afternoon to warm up and shower, go to the venue, and sing the concert. Some of us will then go out to a restaurant, get a drink or eat; we'll get some food and have a good time. Then go back to sleep. Rinse and repeat.
What’s it like being in Chanticleer for 8 seasons?
It's my dream, man. I discovered this group when I was 17-years-old thanks to my high-school music director, Tom Gallup. He gave me their "Wondrous Love" CD to listen to as a research exercise (definitely in my top 5 Chanticleer albums). Chanticleer is like an extension of my childhood musical experience. There, I sang in an all-male choir where we had high sopranos that were boys and men who sang alto, tenor, and bass. And in Chanticleer, it's men who sing high and men who sing low. It's just like the professional job version of what I was doing as a kid, and I couldn't be happier. I fell in love with Chanticleer immediately. After I discovered them I said, “That's what I want to do with my life. And I hope I am lucky enough to do it.” Flash forward years later, and I finally have an opportunity to audition for them. When I received the call asking me to join, I was so thankful because I had essentially been working for 10 years to be a part of this ensemble. All of my voice training, researching, sight reading, and education was to prepare me for this opportunity. I know there are so many better singers than me, so I just feel incredibly lucky to be here. When I received the call, I remember thinking, “Yes! I got it. Thank you, thank you, choral gods.” And every day, I wake up and think, “I do what I love for a living; I wake up and sing.” And that's basically just playing every day — it doesn't feel like work at all. I also just need to say how much fun it is to be in awe of whom I sing/have sung with. At the risk of sounding effusive, there are/have been voices in Chanticleer that just make you gasp and want to throw a shoe — legends, man. I still listen to Chanticleer albums regularly, so being able to fangirl over my friends is a nice treat for me personally. I'm indebted to so many people who helped me achieve this dream. Over time, each of them hollowed out a chamber in my life and then replenished that space with something immense, beautiful, and profound; I know specifically how each one contributed to my life. I'll truly remember and be grateful to them forever.
Where do you see yourself after Chanticleer?
Now, that's a good question. I don't know yet. Because the conversation doesn’t usually go like this:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Oh, my dream job would be an astronaut, a firefighter, a teacher, or to be in the army, or the President of the United States."
“Okay. That’s great. Then what after that?”
So, I don't know yet, but I think it has to be something that is helping people, or affecting change, or having an impact in some sort of way. Hopefully in the arts. But for now, I’m just happy to be where I belong.
How has your ethnic background influenced your path in life?
I'm Korean born, but I'm adopted. So, I grew up in Pennsylvania and most of my family is Caucasian. I have one sister who is also adopted from Korea, but we are not biologically related. Growing up in a Caucasian household and in a Caucasian neighborhood where I was one of three Asian people in my school might make someone think acceptance would be difficult. However, I never felt racially profiled, and never felt like anyone ever treated me differently.
Professionally, I haven't felt like anyone has thought, “He's Asian. What could that mean for this job or for this role?” Now what if I actually went and pursued opera? I don't know. They'd probably care more that I'm short [haha].
What are some things you wish you knew while you were going through the process of becoming a professional musician?
I wish I knew to diversify more. If I went back in time, I would have sung more Gospel and Spiritual music. Also Jazz. I just needed to sing other styles outside of classical music.
I also wish I would have invested money sooner, especially in the big tech companies. I didn't have a lot of money in college, but that was around when Amazon and Netflix went public. I definitely have FOMO about that. As a freelance singer, there's no 401k. There's no retirement for you outside of what you set aside. So, I wish back when I had even just $1,000 I had understood finance more. I’ll reiterate that I think there should be courses in college teaching musicians how to invest and plan for retirement. Those need to be required courses because we frequently have to be our own accountant, especially early in our career.
Musicians need to be thinking about their income while in college. You need to be thinking about investing and about your Roth IRA. If you can open one up as soon as possible, do it. I say Roth specifically, because in a Traditional IRA you typically aren't making enough money yet to really get a benefit from the tax deduction at the end of the year. You'll probably/hopefully be making more money down the road. So start a Roth at 18. Don’t start a Traditional. Seriously, if you are in college and are reading this, go research and open a Roth or SEP IRA now. Your 65-year-old self will thank you. Heck, your 35-year-old self will thank you.