Ariadne Greif epitomizes the concept of how to find your niche. She’s an amazingly talented singer we work with through her involvement in SHUFFLE Concert, a group represented by Cadenza Artists.
Ariadne is absolutely an original. She has a trademark, yet versatile, sound and is involved in some of the most fascinating projects we’ve come across, driven by her unique passions. As such, we thought she would be the perfect person to explore how to find your niche, both its challenges and opportunities. Fun fact: we went to highschool with her (and back then, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she was going places)!
“Find Your Niche!” — A Misleading Concept?
If you google “find your niche,” most results include blow-by-blow instructions by business people: Narrow the branding of your product! Choose a very specific goal audience! Get famous for a Very Specific Thing! Be a big fish in your minuscule market! Make millions!
Finding your niche isn’t something you do in ten easy steps over the course of twenty minutes, no matter your profession.
Moreover, for musicians, “niche” as it relates to a whole career can mean something quite different than it ever does for business people.
We can discuss it in a way that is additive and positive instead of seeking limitations and monopolies. After decades of training in a specific instrument or discipline, we are already highly specialized people; I think our passions and interests are the most fascinating to an audience.
What About Multiple Niches?
A singular niche is getting harder to sustain in classical music from a practical standpoint, and it seems to be less appealing lately. Most performers and composers have become interested and interesting in a variety of different activities — and many might have trouble supporting themselves if they only did one of their “things.”
In macrocosm, there are more people like Barbara Hannigan and Caroline Shaw, who literally wear multiple career titles (A-list soprano and conductor, violinist and singer and youngest composer to win a Pulitzer).
Most composers and many performers also run an ensemble and/or have a position at a university.
In a more subtle confirmation of this concept, we are at a point where any conservatory would take the party line that baroque, classical, romantic, 20th century, and contemporary music are now basic territory covered in the most generic of generic singing careers.
I propose that the universal goal of finding your niche in classical music should be to pursue your current passions with great panache, and to be appreciated for those passions. The goal should be to have enough work — and to believe that there is enough room in your world for everyone else to get work, too.
It is important to find your niche and communicate it in a clear way, but that can be challenging! Here’s another way to look at it: It’s likely that your niche is really multiple niches. And maybe those niches are actually “passions” — usually it’s much easier to communicate your passions. So instead of worrying about communicating your niche, try to communicate what you’re passionate about.
How I Found My Niche(s)
I think that “niche nirvana” comes slowly, and that it is both an organic and deliberate process. It is a product of chance recognition and appreciation for the eager and deliberate pursuit of your passions. This, plus the easy vibrancy of relationships that come naturally when you are working on something you love.
It also comes from the refinement and expertise that you acquire when you work on something that is “scratching an itch” for you.
I don’t have an elevator pitch, and if you asked me to describe my niche we might need a half an hour and some snacks to tide us through, but I am certain I have one–or many!
According to my taxes, I sang something like 45 performances in 2015, which certainly suggests I have found a place to exist in.
I’m a twenty-something who is usually entrusted with projects that are extraordinary, virtuosic, expressive, and often extravagantly original. The most unarguable observation might be that all of my activities, although they seem disparate, unmistakably represent my shifting passions and my personality.
Pursue What You Love
I have an idiosyncratic personality, and I think my voice is recognizably my voice. But much more than that, I have been obsessive about certain eras in music history, certain concepts, and certain repertoire.
I have followed these passions with a degree of enthusiasm that is almost unprofessionally enthusiastic, and this has left me with an indelible imbalance that may sharpen “my brand” and secure “my niches” without a lot of strategic self-grooming on my part (which, despite the fact that it is an important activity, has a bit of a personal ick factor for me).
Choose Projects That Match Your Passion
I could divide all my current projects into categories that correspond to various cross-pollinating interests, and trace them directly back to opportunities I was handed several years ago.
Here is an example:
One of the first CDs I obsessed over as a teen was Dawn Upshaw’s Forgotten Songs album, which included Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées.
Because of that album, I sang Chevaux de Bois at my conservatory auditions — an interesting choice for a sixteen-year-old kid.
In conservatory, I took an absolutely thrilling course in French song from Cristina Stanescu, which in turn lead me to a massive nerd-out about French language, French poetry, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Debussy, Messiaen, and Poulenc.
Because I was so clearly obsessed with French repertoire, a wonderful older colleague recommended me to the Opera Français de New York.
At my audition for the Opera Français de New York I sang an enthusiastic and eccentric rendition of the aria from Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, which, until that day, had seemed to be a rather exotic aria for an undergraduate.
They took a gamble on me and cast me as the only female role in what I believe was at least the American stage premiere of the completest version of Debussy’s incomplete opera La Chûte de la Maison Usher.
I sang that Poulenc aria at my audition for (no joke!) Dawn Upshaw’s program at Bard Conservatory.
A few years later, at another audition, I was singing the same aria, and the auditioner commented that French repertoire must really be my repertoire!
With a kind recommendation from my childhood idol-turned-teacher, Dawn Upshaw, I actually got that role in that very Poulenc opera that had dominated my interest for so long!
Even better, a few years later, a creditably French performance of French music provided a suitable conversation starter for a wonderful francophone whom I now date (amen!).
I hope this chain eventually leads to an opportunity to sing Pelléas et Mélisande, which is my favorite opera in the world!
Genuine interest in specific things you actually do is the key—your shining eyes and chattering mouth and natural dedication to self improvement when it comes to something that really delights you will endear you to your colleagues, and your joyful spirit will be obvious to the audience as well.
Here’s another example.
My mother is a clarinetist with a particular interest in contemporary music, and she was extremely positive any time I sang anything from the 20th century. With this kind of biased approval, how was I to help myself? I was working with student composers already when I was fifteen.
I worked with young composers through my whole undergraduate stint, and I loved it! I made many extremely fruitful and lasting musical friendships, found an extremely broad and loving family in the new music community, got some lucky reviews, and at this point more than fifty pieces have been written for me!
Some of my teachers became colleagues, which led to great chamber music concerts of all kinds of repertoire. Through a winding road and another kind recommendation, this brought me to Yellow Barn for two summers, which spawned some other wonderful chamber music collaborations, including the almost-a-Pierrot-ensemble SHUFFLE Concert, with whom I’ve performed more than 200 times.
Merging with another channel, which was a nerdy interest in Serialism during my music theory curriculum, early praise for my supposed “ear” spurred me to a passionate affair with the Second Viennese School.
I’ve gotten so much use and pleasure out of this repertoire! For the past six years, I have even sung the Lulu aria in almost every audition I took, and it has given me some very special returns. I’m extremely interested in the intersection of old-fashioned singing (portamento, old fashioned rubato) and Berg, who has such a sweet tooth for Romantic gesture and harmony, despite his apparent disciplehood to the emancipator of dissonance.
Although I mentioned auditions at least three times so far, I actually believe that eighty percent of my work comes from a connection with no audition at all.
These days, I find that a lot of people trust that I’ll be able to learn something in a hurry just because they’ve seen me do complicated things with expressivity and warmth before, or because they are sure I must have the skills.
This month I was invited to sing about an hour of fabulous music in Finland with one week’s notice! And it went just fine—it wasn’t a risky mistake!—suggesting that organic, passion-based career niche creation works as successfully as Darwin says it did for his finches.
Don’t Limit Yourself
It seems like the current buzzword for career building is “brand.” Every time I hear it I feel uncomfortable; if it is some accoutrement of ambition that I have to synthesize out of nowhere, I don’t want it!
In a way, though, I think “brand” is a little nicer than “niche,” because it doesn’t have any implications of limitation.
And I think limiting your niche is a mistake. Everyone’s passions are constantly shifting, and that means your niche can change too.
Soloists used to tour with a new program every season. Now most soloists create new passion projects so they can grow in the eyes of their presenters and audiences. I’m sure this model is often a strategic plan drawn up with managers and publicists, but it is a great opportunity for musicians to get excited about something new and have the motivation to do something extraordinary with it.
Sometimes, some breathing room is required — stepping away from something you love can bring a new perspective. Be open to changing direction as your passions naturally change.
Use Your Niche as a Starting Point for New Projects
So, all the previous things I mentioned came to me because someone liked the way I performed something related to their project. But I also enjoy my own projects, as do most people, and that is an amazing way to satisfy your urge for something specific!
One of my serious obsessions since my late teens was baroque music and historical performance practice. I was in the baroque ensemble at my undergrad for all four years, and when I graduated I decided to start my own ensemble! The people I liked to work with most at school were the first people who played in the ensemble, and slowly they started referring their most wonderful friends.
The group was called Uncommon Temperament, and it was dedicated to performing music that, well, appealed to me! I programmed things that were extraordinary or curious—either the music was programmatic, or we could stage it, or it exhibited seemingly anachronistic attributes like polytonality or scordatura or noise. I’m not born for arts administration, but I was so excited about doing programming for this group that it was really successful until the moment when my interest moved on—and then I simply decided to put it in the deep freeze!
Two years ago I was itching to do something theatrical that was my own creation. In the spirit of instigating something creative out of my wonderful relationships with living composers, and banking on whatever notoriety I’ve managed to accumulate as an eccentric character, I created a 16-composer commissioning project that was a theater piece as well—called Dreams & Nightmares. Each composer created a musical dream episode for me from scratch, and staged it. The project has had two workshops so far, and now the filmmaker Caroline Mariko Stucky is making a documentary, Only a Dream, about it.
Ready to Find Your Niche?
Make a list of things you enjoy and do well.
Think about your current passions. What concepts and repertoire really excite you right now? How can you make space for more of that passion in your daily life?
Looking back on what you have done, can you track which opportunities gave birth to other opportunities? Do your projects match your interests? What might they have to do with you?
Leave a comment below.
Ariadne Greif, praised for her “luminous, expressive voice,” “searing top notes…,” and “dusky depths,” (NYTimes), enjoyed a casual child career as a “boy” soprano in the LA area and at the LA Opera, eventually making an adult debut singing Lutoslawski’s Chantefleurs et Chantefables with the American Symphony Orchestra. She starred in operas ranging from Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, to Atthis, by G.F. Haas, which the NY Times called “one of the most searingly painful and revealing operatic performances in recent times.” Greif performs regularly with several ensembles, most of all with SHUFFLE Concert, and has premiered over fifty pieces. Recent projects range from Beethoven Symphony No. 9, Mozart Requiem, and Vespers K.321 to Babbitt’s Solo Requiem at the Juilliard Focus! Festival. Projects this month include a concert with Gabriel Kahane of music by Kahane and David Lang at the Meidän Festival in Helsinki and the role of Papagena in Die Zauberflöte with the Orlando Philharmonic.
To learn more, visit: ariadnegreifsoprano.com
© Ariadne Greif 2016