A career in classical music

 3 April 2012

Classical singer Lizzie Byrne's career has seen her performing with small opera companies and contemporary music groups. She also works on teaching and vocal training.

Elizabeth Byrne is a classical singer and teacher.
Elizabeth Byrne is a classical singer and teacher.

Lizzie also founded Salon Entertainment, which combines lavish period drama with the passion of live opera. 

Working in music education

Lizzie’s educational work is divided between Cambridge and Royal Holloway, where she teaches students on classical music degrees who have chosen to study Performance.

“I love influencing how young singers progress, broadening their knowledge of and interest in the repertoire."

She also undertakes training for singers who work in musical theatre and the West End, a wholly different discipline.

"I like to have that variation and work in the two very divergent styles. It’s one of the few positive aspects of being self-employed: it’s allowed me to do what I like.

"I don’t want to do five days a week in one place, so I do one day here and two days there. I have a studio that I teach privately in one day a week, I also teach at home.

“So there’s a huge element of flexibility in any given week. It means that, if some other project comes up, I can rearrange my teaching around it."

Starting out as a singer

Lizzie studied as an undergraduate on the highly-regarded music course at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. "I knew I wanted to sing, but I didn’t have much idea of what would be available to me at the time.

"Soon after I graduated, I got an opportunity to work with a contemporary group. I also started singing freelance with small chamber choirs, as well as the odd bit here and there of solo work."

It is important to become part of the classical network as a young singer. "If you audition, say, for one of the church choirs in London, you get on to the circuit. There is a central list of names and addresses that choirs will use when they need people.

“From that, you will meet what are known as ‘fixers’, whose job is to fix up, in the sense of constructing, other choirs to fill particular requirements.”

"You must have excellent sight-reading, and a fair knowledge of the repertoire that you’re singing.

“It’s a world in which one needs to be braced for a daunting amount of rejection, which in turn requires correspondingly tireless efforts at self-promotion.

"Possibly the reason I haven’t continued to sing as much as I might have liked is that you’ve got to be constantly on it: phoning agents, phoning casting directors, auditioning, pushing yourself. It’s a hugely competitive business.

"You can go and audition for one role and find there are hundreds of sopranos going after it. A DVD showreel with extracts from your performances, or at least video clips on your website, have turned out to be invaluable advertising tools for today’s aspirants."

Choosing a career in music

Despite the competitiveness of singing, Lizzie feels that standards of musicianship are generally not as high as in her own formative days. She sees a tendency in higher education for a disproportionately greater intake of singers than of instrumentalists.

"You’ve got to be constantly on it: phoning agents, casting directors, auditioning, pushing yourself. It’s a hugely competitive business."

“It’s good that singing is still very popular, but I worry that many students have an unrealistic expectation of what they can achieve with their resources, in terms of the standard you have to achieve and the amount of work you have to do.

“Even then, it isn’t wholly about your innate ability. It’s also about your personality, how much drive and pushiness and confidence you have.”

A singer’s career is greatly helped by being aware of the various communities into which the classical world divides.

"Choral music, early music, contemporary music, opera, session work, extra chorus work – all have their own networks. You have to find a way into knowing what’s going on, if only because auditions are relatively rarely advertised."

Coaching other signers

Teaching was something Byrne began in her late twenties, to fill a sudden gap that arose when she had just finished a major tour.

No particular qualification for one-to-one tuition is mandatory, although having a music degree or diploma (and grades in piano and singing) are indispensable. Taking classwork in education does require a PGCE.

Not many singers like to teach, but Lizzie finds it deeply rewarding. “I love being instrumental in influencing how young singers progress, broadening their knowledge of and interest in the repertoire.

“It’s great to see them wake up to what they can do, dealing with the changes in their voices, developing a particular style, even though not that many will get the chance to go on to be soloists.

"You have to remember that when people turn up for a lesson, they’re naturally quite vulnerable. They’re baring themselves to a stranger, in a way, and so they need to be able to trust you."

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