On Rejection

So you didn’t get that gig you really wanted. You worked really hard to prepare and now there won’t be another chance to sing for them again until next year and AARGH. There are limited opportunities, there are so many gatekeepers, it’s practically impossible to get the experience you need, and the constant rejections are sooo demoralizing. I know. I’m really sorry.

Rejection is the worst part of what we do, and no matter how much we experience it, it never loses the ability to knock the wind out of our sails. But over the years I’ve learned some really interesting things about rejection, and I’d like to share them here in the hope that they’ll help you, too.

ABOUT REJECTION

The first thing I’ve learned is that rejection is the work. It’s simply part of the process, like collaborating with pianists or pronouncing Italian vowels. You have to develop skills to manage it, and as with anything we do, the better your skills are, the better you will handle that part of the business. Seriously, conservatories should have Rejection 101 as a degree requirement. And moreover, there’s no level of success you can achieve that will allow you to leave this part of the process behind. Even if you reach the stage where you’re not auditioning anymore, you’ll still be turned down for things or get panned in reviews or lose the Grammy or whatever. You might find yourself clutching your Best Musical Performance Oscar in one hand and a highball in the other while weeping “why didn’t Scorsese hire me for the sequel?!?” Rejection is the work.

The second thing I’ve learned is that companies don’t want to reject you. Ever. One music director I know (and seriously, she is awesome and kind and terrific to work with) told me that the hardest, worst thing she ever had to do was let people know after auditions that they weren’t cast. She said it was so hard on her friendships. I thought, wow, that’s the perspective from the other side of the table: companies don’t want to reject you any more than you want them to reject you. They hate doing it. I mean, of course there are some jerks out there who relish your pain and lerrrvvee telling you how awwwful you are in detail, but aren’t those usually the people you wouldn’t want to work with anyway? And when you look at it from that perspective, it suddenly becomes clear that a rejection letter from a company is simply a courtesy notification that you’re free to pursue other commitments during the time period you might have been holding for them. Not getting that notification can create ugly scheduling conflicts- I mean, who hasn’t delayed accepting an offer from Company B while waiting to hear from Company A? Or suddenly gotten a call out of the blue from Company A with that offer you really, really, really wanted to get two months ago before you assumed silence = “no” and filled up your calendar with Company B? But even though they’re helpful for scheduling, singers (of course) hate getting those letters and because of that companies hate sending them. Disappointing fellow artists is awful. So calling those letters “PFOs” transforms a courtesy notification into a nasty little dig at yourself that you don’t deserve, and I recommend cutting that the heck out. But I digress. Companies don’t want to reject you. 

The third thing I want to share about rejection is that when you get turned down for a gig and you don’t understand why (“but I was PERFECT for that”) then there’s a piece of information you don’t have yet. Maybe you are indeed the perfect Violetta, but the Alfredo they could hire is half your height and they had to go with their second choice girl. Maybe your vocal quality is too unique to blend with the rest of their chorus, but you couldn’t possibly know that unless you were hearing you and everyone else audition. So don’t make up the reason. “They didn’t hire me because I’m too [fill in the blank here]!” Not constructive. Another side of this is that maybe there’s something about this opportunity that would have been a really, really bad fit, and ultimately you’ll find yourself saying, “wow, I’m SO glad I didn’t get that gig.” Keep the phrase “rejection is God’s protection” in mind, and wait for the situation to become clear.

HOW TO HANDLE REJECTION

So what do you do when you get the letter, call, email, or, worst of all, dreaded ringing silence? The most important thing is to make sure you’re hearing the right message and being constructive about it. When a company says no, it’s saying one of these two things:

A. Not right for us ever.

B. Not right for us today.

It’s up to you as the singer to be attuned to which of these messages is contained in a rejection, and I’m here to tell you that it’s almost always B. I mean, it really is. Even if the reason you didn’t get a gig is because of some truly hideous thing you did during your 5 minutes on the floor, then that rejection still means “not today, based on today.” If you think of it like that, doesn’t that always give you the option to – at some point – turn that “no” into a “yes”?

After every audition, look to yourself and say, how am I doing? Am I doing well? Do I like my work? Do other people like my work? Am I seeing any consistent feedback, like I never get asked for a second piece? When I get cast, do I get cast in the kinds of roles I audition for-  meaning, is the type I think I am the same as the type others think I am? Do they talk to me at auditions? Do they actively read my resume while I’m singing or do they start checking their phones? Do I get invited to audition again? Is this the right repertoire, venue, level, and/or character for my look, my voice, and/or my technical abilities? Be as objective as possible. If you see room for improvement, then go work on your rep or your presentation or your technique. Focus on seeing Not Today as an opportunity to become a better singer.

If you suspect that the reason for a rejection is Not Ever, then it’s down to one of these two things:

1. You as a person. Are you a poor colleague or have you damaged your relationship with that company? If the answers are yes and/or yes, respectively, then stop pursuing that particular company, work on yourself, find a therapist, find other people to work with you by volunteering or creating opportunities for other singers, concentrate on kindness, and rebuild in a better image. It’s fixable.

2. Your fundamental product. Are you a Wagnerian singer auditioning for a light opera company? Are you 50 and trying to break into the young artist category? These things will earn you a “not right for us ever” response, and the solution is to let it go and be more strategic in the future. It can be hard to see ourselves objectively, so consider asking someone in the business to give you honest feedback. If no one will give it to you, see #1.

So, even as final as it sounds, do you see that “not right for us ever” still just means “not right for this company at this time and in the context of how we know you”? Instead of getting depressed or destructive, you can choose to be constructive and strategic in siphoning out any information that could help you improve. Rejection is an opportunity to learn something about yourself and fine-tune. 

AND FINALLY….

One last thing I’ve learned about rejection, after looking back and seeing it having happened over and over again in the most miraculous way, is that when you get rejected, it releases you to be available for something else. Maybe that something else will be an even better opportunity, maybe it’ll be the freedom to train so you can get where you’re meant to be, or maybe it will be a development in another part of your life. Stay open to the process and see what comes.

Being rejected is hard, but it’s a necessary skill to accept it and even embrace it. Remember to just think “Not Today!”, and keep on swimming!

Angela Jajko (1)  Angela Jajko, mezzo-soprano, is the Editor of the BSR Blog. She has been praised in such publications as the Boston Globe and the Herald for her “peaches and cream” voice and dramatic delivery. Recent performances have included The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, selections from Carmen in The Greater Worcester Opera Gala in Mechanics Hall, Tessa in The Gondoliers with The Sudbury Savoyards, Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus with New England Light Opera, Carmen with Greater Worcester Opera, Offenbach’s Island of Tulipatan with New England Light Opera, the roles of Buttercup, Phoebe, Katisha, and The Fairy Queen in concert with the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and as a featured soloist in concerts with Opera on Tap, Masstheatrica, FIRSTMusic, Ocean Park Festival Chorus, Parish Center for the Arts and New Hampshire Opera Theatre. Her performances have included the roles of Carmen, Theodorine, Augusta, Marcellina, Hermia, Savitri, Pirate Jenny, and La Zia Principessa. She has also performed with PORTopera, Granite State Opera, Longwood Opera, BASOTI, Harvard University, and the International Lyric Academy in Viterbo, Italy.  She holds degrees in Vocal Performance from The New England Conservatory of Music and the University of California at Los Angeles and is currently the Associate Executive Director of NELO, an artist coordinator for Opera on Tap Boston, a Board Member of the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society and a Board Member of L’Académie, a critically acclaimed orchestra specializing in performances of French Baroque music in health institutions. She has served as Costumer for a number of productions with companies including Guerilla Opera, Company One, NELO, BASOTI and Longwood Opera. She has also served as a Director for NELO’s Rising Stars program and in other productions as Assistant Director, Stage Manager, and Props Master. She has extensive experience in administration, office management, and event management in a variety of industries. Visit her at http://angelajajko.com/.

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4 thoughts on “On Rejection

  1. Thank you so much, Angela, for your insightful blog post on the absolutely most unpleasant part of this entire business! As one that plays both sides of this game, there is a huge advantage to being able to sit on the other side of the table for an audition, and I would love the opportunity to give advice from what I have learned after just one year of auditions of Opera Brittenica. I would imagine that many of the companies that your readers are auditioning for are ones that have been in the Boston area for many years, and have perfected their audition technique (yes, there is such a thing for auditionERS as well as auditionEES), but to hear about the development of those skills, as Dave and I did might be as eye-opening for them as it was for us.

    Working as a singer with many of the opera companies in Boston, and graduating from one of the major conservatories here, some of the singers that auditioned for Opera Brittenica’s first season were people that I knew either personally (having worked with them), or by reputation. However, with such a rich musical community here, there were many singers that I didn’t know, which created a great melange of artists with voices and acting ability as different as their fingerprints.

    Here are a few things that I learned that are so true, but had never been articulated to me as a singer going into an audition, but became painfully apparent after the first few auditions that I was adjudicating:

    1. First impressions really are incredibly important, but probably happen before you even walk into the audition room.

    Because we have only about 10 minutes to test you on your musicality, vocal range, personality, acting ability, diction, and working relationship with an accompanist, most of the time there is someone in the audition room that is working for us by watching the way you act toward the other singers. Are you being catty? Are you rude to the person helping to run the auditions? Are you talking about your accomplishments in a purely self-centered way? Chances are that the proctor, or maybe one of the “auditionees” is just there to be on the lookout for the “divas.” Basically, the way you act in a pre-audition setting is the way that you probably will act in a rehearsal setting. Consider this the next time you barge into an audition holding room and start critiquing other singers about their aria packet. (yes, this did happen.) We want to be able to handle being in a rehearsal process with you for a pretty substantial amount of time, and the more pleasant you are, the better your odds are.

    2. When you enter the audition room, you have a total of 25-30 seconds to convince us that we need to hire you.

    In having our first auditions, we learned a great deal, but most of the important things that we discovered, happened within the first 10 seconds of singers walking into the audition room, and after 15 seconds of singing. When someone walks in the door to sing for us, we are immediately evaluating how comfortable they seem in the audition. Are they pleasant in greeting? Are they stand-offish? Do they seem like someone that we would be willing to spend 7 hours a day in a rehearsal room with? Also in the first few seconds of singing; Do they seem to know what the piece is about? Are they technically solid enough to handle a whole role? Are they connecting to the piece at a deeper level? The artists that are able to charmingly walk in, emotionally move us by adroitly performing compelling repertoire, and graciously exit are the ones that are always going to be hired. Which leads me to my third point.

    3. We WANT to cast you.

    Desperately. You have no idea how much work it is to hear and evaluate 10 or more hours in 10 minute slots of singers performing AT you. It would be so much easier to have a cast of characters that have to be filled, and have the first person to audition for each role be perfect for the role, and end the audition early. Unfortunately, that is impossible. However, we VERY much want you to be the one. We are cheering for you, and want you to do your absolute best! Of course there are some people that are casting that are so jaded by the entire process that they are looking for the one that doesnt fail, as opposed to seeing the positive in everyone. Fortunately, those are few and far between, and most of us just want you to show us that you are the PERFECT artist for the role; SO JUST RELAX AND DO WHAT YOU HAVE TRAINED TO DO!

    4. We in the 21st century are looking for Artists for our productions not just singers.

    Gone are the days where you could pay a coach to hammer out roles for you and you could spend months and months rehearsing. More often than not, due to financial issues, companies have shorter rehearsal periods, and are casting with less and less prior notice. Musicianship is an absolute must, especially for us. Britten is of course a modern composer, but being in the year 2014 now, there are MANY composers whose tonal language dwarfs that of BB. In order to survive being a Singing actor in today’s climate, you must focus as much time on character development and on musicality as you do on your pearly tones.

    5. A singer that can sing the notes in a well loved aria is a dime a dozen, regardless of voice part. An artist that can make the music leap off the page is something that turns heads and makes you hireable.

    Find something about the way you sing that aria, maybe that well-placed appogiatura, or that cadenza, or maybe it’s the tenderness with which you skillfully float that high Bb at the end of the loving aria, where everyone else just wails because it’s easier. What separates you is what will make us remember you. If you sing Quando M’En Vo, and have just copied everything that you have seen (X famous soprano) do, then you are a mimic, not an artist, and the odds that someone on our audition board has seen that youtube clip are not exactly in your favor. Make it so we question what aria it is that we are hearing, even after hearing it sung 100 times before, by showing us YOUR interpretation of it. This will breathe new life into something that has become trite and worn down, and will also greatly enhance your ability to impress us.

    6. Art is not always how loud you can sing.

    So many singers come in (usually younger singers that have been told by their teachers, or mentioned in passing that they might be a Heldentenor or Dramatic Soprano, but are too physically immature to make the sounds that they WANT to make healthily and beautifully), and think that if they can propel the paper on our auditioning table to the back of the wall with their bull-sized voices, we will offer them a role on the spot. Birgit Nilsson said in order to make sure that her voice was in line she would sing through Mozart and the 24 Italian art songs. If it’s good enough for her…

    Yes, of course I agree with you, Loud is impressive, and when there is a Tutta Forza in the orchestra, loud is a requirement, but when there is just the color of loud all the time, loud is bland and boring. The dynamic range that you have access to, and facility to maneuver through an aria with that sensitivity is what is impressive, and also something that will set you apart.

    7. “Burning a bridge” does not just end with the relationship with one company.

    “It’s a small world” is a phrase that is not even come close to articulating just how small this community is. Each of the directors of companies talk to other ones about cast, about stage directors, orchestras, prop masters, costumers, every role required in an operatic production. If, hypothetically, you are cast in one production, but are an absolute tyrant – or dont learn your music – or other such offenses – chances are, that word will travel VERY quickly and will greatly inhibit your likelihood of being cast again in other companies. There are too many people that want the roles that you want for you to be a bad colleague, or god forbid, disrespect the conductor or stage director. The amount that we all discuss productions post mortem will astound you. The production’s dirty laundry is aired, and the ones that are labeled as dependable and good to work with are the ones that get hired back. The ones that caused trouble, or extra work for the director/conductor/stage manager/costumer/production assistants are not spoken of with such nice words.

    8. Rejection.

    You make a wonderful point, Angela, about the “Not Now/Not Ever” distinction. As was the case with our first production of The Rape of Lucretia. There are very specific voice types that are needed for that production. Not just any lyric soprano will do for Female Chorus, nor will just any coloratura work for Lucia. We heard some of the best singers in Boston, and unfortunately were unable to cast them in these roles. However, after one singer exited the audition, we knew that we couldn’t use them in Lucretia, but we absolutely loved her voice and artistry and would cast her in a heartbeat in Albert Herring (which was a contender for Fall 2014). While we said no to her request to sing in Lucretia, we were/ARE definitely planning to cast her in the future, and she has absolutely no idea.

    It is possible that you just aren’t right for the director’s vision of the show, or the vocal color for the role – both of which are completely beyond your control- but there is always something, and if I have learned anything about this business from the administrator side is that by the time you are auditioning for something, you are already in the beginning stages of preparation for the next show. Keep every audition email, and from time to time, send updates (ie. if you get new headshots/recordings) as we’d love to hear from you, and also we might be looking for someone JUST like you, but your name may have gotten lost in the piles of headshots. Always strive to be at the top of our email pile, (without being pushy ;))

    [Also, there is NEVER (unless you do something to cause it) a time when one rejection from an audition means you will never be cast. As a singer not privy to all the information concerning casting, you do not know what other people we are hearing, or what shows we are considering for the future. Even though “X” show might not be just right for you, the next one just might be your “Albert Herring.” Have faith that we are doing what is best for the show, and if you aren’t part of it this time, then certainly you will be in the future. Just keep practicing and becoming more and more skilled at this craft, and eventually we won’t be able to NOT cast you!]

    In all, for me, what all of these issues boil down to is this: If you have put in the time and the work, the voice will be there. Now you have to focus on being yourself, and bringing the special and unique gifts that YOU have to the table without expectation. You have to show us the warm, friendly, lovable, charismatic, quirky, goofy, dramatic, talented artist that you are without the pressure of the audition!!

    If you are having fun singing, making friends with scene partners, interpreting great masterpieces of western music, and just truthfully enjoying the work, it will shine through in even the worst audition, and trust me; that is infectious at the audition table, and exactly what will get you, or has gotten you, hired.

    -JC

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