About a month ago, we got a very special present in the mail—a copy of Susan Mohini Kane’s brand-new book, The 21st Century Singer. Not only is it a fantastic, indispensable resource for singers, this book holds a special place in our hearts.
That’s because we first worked with Susan several years ago when she was just starting work on the book! Witnessing the development of this project from concept to the physical copy sitting our desk has been awe inspiring.
There’s nothing more amazing than seeing the transformation of an idea into a tangible concept that will impact people and the world in a meaningful way.
On the heels of a successful launch, we wanted to ask Susan a few questions about her book and her creative process in writing it.
We hope you feel as inspired by her work as we are. And we encourage you to tackle your own big projects and bring your dreams to life.
Interview with Susan Kane
iCadenza: Did you ever reach a point where you felt you lacked opportunities in your musical career? If so, how did you handle that?
Susan: Of course, I’m a soprano! There were so many of us at all my auditions that we could have populated a small village.
My first try at making more opportunities for myself was to start my own opera company. I started Carnegie Opera Theater just outside of Cincinnati where I went to grad school. I got people to invest in it and then put on operas that were only the length and price of a movie—and all in English.
I cast my friends and myself and paid everyone. My big thing was to pay the singers on the same scale I paid the orchestra, so great singers auditioned from all over the country.
All the while, I kept auditioning and performing with local opera companies and orchestras and also had regular church jobs and freelance gigs. It was a busy and fun life! That work lasted for five years until I decided I needed health insurance, which is when I took my first teaching job. Even while teaching I have always auditioned, gigged, and created opportunities for myself and still do today.
iCadenza: Why was this book necessary for you to write? Why is it important that this book exists?
Susan: This book came out of summer workshops I was giving for my master’s students who were graduating. They wanted more voice lessons and guidance about what to do next, so they asked me for the workshops.
During those summers I developed exercises to help the students find their own answers for their unique and specific lives. I was blown away by the answers they found for themselves and what they did with those answers to find meaningful and lucrative places for themselves as singers in the world.
We know that there are about 35,000 singers out there at any given moment looking for singing jobs and only about 1,800 will get those jobs. This book is necessary for the other 33,200 singers who have something unique, beautiful, and musical to offer to the world but cannot seem to find their place.
Studies show that most of those 33,200 will actually QUIT singing five years after graduation. What a tragedy! I want those talented singers to be singing everyday out in the world using all their talents to help people live better lives. This book helps singers find their own unique niches and audiences to craft a beautiful and lucrative life in singing.
iCadenza: Did you meet any resistance (internal or external) when you wrote this book?
Susan: Both! My own colleagues, famous voice teachers, told me that I was crazy and that singers who aren’t working aren’t worth the trouble. I, myself, felt like: who am I to challenge the status quo? Maybe I should just keep my ideas and opinions to myself and be a good girl. Am I just crazy?
Our field is pretty entrenched in its own story. Here’s the story: Yes, it’s hard to get a job in singing but if you don’t get one then you shouldn’t be in singing anyway because either you aren’t good enough or you don’t want it badly enough. That’s the story—and voice teachers, opera producers, music directors, and singers are sticking to it.
I’m here to tell you that it’s a lie. It may have been true in 1850 when there were fewer singers in the field and there were many more jobs for those singers (so that a good 50% of singers were employed).
In the 21st century, however, when only 6% are working, it only makes sense that there are some truly talented, excellent singers who aren’t working—not because they aren’t good enough but because they haven’t gotten enough opportunities or haven’t found their niche. I’d like to keep the top 30% singing, wouldn’t that be a good start?
iCadenza: You did so much research for this book. What facts or statistics surprised you the most?
Susan: Well, the 6% I mentioned above was shocking. Because of the internet, the few big opera stars that exist can be seen all over the place: the world series, the super bowl, commercials, movies, and sitcoms.
Those stars have inspired huge numbers of singers to get performance degrees from universities. Also because of the internet, audiences prefer to watch their opera “on demand” which has meant the closing of many live opera venues. Those two trends collided in a bad way, in that agents and managers can only find work for about 6% of the vast number of good singers. As a field we are looking at a 94% failure rate! That was truly shocking.
I also didn’t realize that less than 15% of all people have college degrees. That means anyone with a degree in anything, including music, is a leader in this country, or could be with the proper inspiration.
And finally I was truly blown away by the “bright spots,” the huge number of creative excellent singers who have found meaningful and lucrative destinations for their singing despite the odds! I don’t have a statistic for these great people because more are emerging every day in every field.
iCadenza: Describe your creative process when writing this book. What techniques worked best for you?
Susan: James Taylor! I always listened to James Taylor while I was writing. This book has those songs vibrating in between the lines on every page. For some reason James Taylor calmed me enough to keep writing when I was scared or tired or doubting myself. First of all, he overcame such huge obstacles to keep singing—and he’s still singing at age 67. Plus his songs always made me want to accept myself as I am.
I also set an alarm so I could manage the time I was spending at the computer. That helped me know that I couldn’t stop until the alarm went off. I also made myself stop when the alarm went off. When the alarm goes off, I take a break no matter what.
I can always go back to another timed session after the break. (I also use that discipline to practice.) Somehow, knowing that I only have a limited amount of time helps me focus on the task at hand. Of course I don’t allow myself to check email or answer the phone during those timed sessions.
iCadenza: You’ve obviously learned a lot from your singing career. How did your musical background help inform how you approached this book?
Susan: I felt that it was important for me to be in today’s performing world myself while I was writing about helping other singers go into that world. Though I remember how I felt auditioning and performing in my 20s, the world has truly changed since the turn of the century.
The 21st century reality for singers is almost completely different than it was from 1980-2000, the years most teachers and directors started out. So I continued to perform at least once a month and attempted to market myself, both as a freelance singer and as part of my duo: Kristof & Kane, from 2008 until the present day. I did that all the way through the writing of this book and continue to do it so that I can truly understand the obstacles singers face today.
When I am marketing myself online, I have questions:
Is my website the way to go or should I do an email list? Should I pay for ads? How do I find my audience? Will it work to do shows online? If so, should I do a YouTube channel or do something like www.concertwindow.com?
When I am choosing repertoire, how can I choose the best repertoire for me and for my target audience? Since I won’t get paid until after the gig, how do I make ends meet until then? And how can I ensure that I’m going to make money at this gig? What works and what doesn’t work?
How can I make a meaningful difference as a singer in the world? Who needs my singing?
The process of grappling with those questions and more has given me some of the insights I can share in the book.
Continuing my performing career and discovering the 21st century landscape also helps me to communicate with voice teachers who stopped performing when the landscape was totally different.
We didn’t have the internet when I started singing. All my success in my 20s and 30s happened through the people I knew in person. Today we “know” people online and have the ability to keep in touch with many more people, which leaves us with the questions: Who can we ask for what kind of support? Will you be an audience member, donor, loud-mouth advertiser…?
In my early years, I could only hear about auditions through snail mail newsletters. By the time I got the newsletter I might not have time to send in my materials through snail mail to get that audition. Snail mail limited the places we could audition, so we auditioned for everything we could. Now, we get audition information immediately with plenty of time to get our materials in. The new challenge is trying to take only the auditions that will yield a good result. The decision process is totally different.
Also, years ago there was only one field in which singers could make money: music. Now, singers are hired at hospitals, government agencies, corporations, etc. We couldn’t get that information before the internet. Now we have to seek out partners in the community and pitch our value for their organization. This didn’t exist when I started out.
iCadenza: What have you learned about self-promotion in terms of marketing your book? What’s working? What’s not?
Susan: The book just came out in January so I’m fairly new at marketing it. My publisher is very large and has many books to promote so I am working with them to make my book a priority. I have found they will do a lot for the book if I propose and manage it, but very little if I don’t. So I am developing a good working relationship with my marketing editor and starting to see what they can do in combination with my physical presence at an event.
I now know that they will make posters, send books, work with vendors, publish my blog posts on their blog, provide advertisements online and in print, etc.—that’s a lot! So every conference where I might be presenting or anywhere I’m performing or teaching, I can call on them to provide support. That works.
I have yet to do all the required self-promotion but the following things are in the works:
+ I’m creating an email list of singers, voice teachers, and training programs (both university and young artist) who might be interested in a workbook that helps singers find meaningful singing destinations after their programs (that’s my book).
+ I have a website and am working to promote other resources for singers and teachers that might lead to people buying the book.
+ I’m applying to lots of conferences as a presenter to get the word out that there is HOPE for singers today if we change the way we think of worthy, meaningful, and lucrative destinations for our singing.
+ I’m doing workshops at universities with singers. So far that has not led to big book sales but it has lead singers to start to think differently and that is my true goal!
I hope that works! I’m learning as I go.
iCadenza: What’s the one takeaway you want people to have from reading this book?
Susan: You can make a difference and make money with your singing in the world if you’re dedicated, excellent, and have a mission.
iCadenza: What’s your number-one tip for an artist who’s just starting out? What’s the first thing they should do after they order your book?
Susan: The number one tip for an artist starting out: Put your DREAMS into ACTION. Follow your heart, yes, but put your time, talent, and money where your dreams are by taking action steps outside your comfort zone every day—even if it seems audacious or crazy.
The first thing to do after they order my book is to set aside 30 minutes or more per day to work on it before or after practicing. This book is like The Artist’s Way for singers so you’ll need daily time for at least a month to get through it. It’s worth the time because at the end you’ll find YOUR OWN PATH.
iCadenza: What’s the biggest mistake you see students making as they approach life as a singer today?
Susan: The biggest mistake is to blindly follow or blindly believe others, (because they are famous or rich or authorities) even when your own heart is telling you differently. A singer must know, believe in, and act on the intelligence of his or her own heart.
Susan’s perspective is so refreshing. We hope you collected lots of great inspiration from her words. What resonated with you the most? Share your comments below. You can also order her book through Amazon.