To Do-ing Well in your Singing Career

By  | March 1, 2011 | 8 Comments | Filed under: Features

Yeah... This will work...

The life of a freelancer, and a freelance singer especially, is hard to explain to someone with a regular job. You are all at once a product, a business manager, a negotiator, a public relations firm, a steering committee, a fundraiser, an accountant, a marketing director, a webmaster, an audio and video editor… the list goes on. The characteristics of a great performing artist, however – a tendency towards abstract and nonlinear thought, the ability to live in the present moment to the exclusion of future concerns, the desire to find connections between disparate ideas, and a recognition that an unaccountable passage of time must take place for your best work to emerge – tend to run counter to what you would want in an organized, reductionist-minded business manager. But, there you are, expected to direct your career regardless of your qualification to do so, ultimately accountable to no one but yourself.

You certainly have help along the way from teachers, conductors, mentors, and managers. A very few among us experience such success that the greatest challenge lies in picking which engagements to turn down. The average professional singer, however, will be significantly affected by their own ability to set goals, research opportunities, and follow projects through to completion.

So, how can artistically minded people get their sh*t together and work out the business of their art in a manageable, sustainable, and (gasp!) fulfilling way?

The Challenge of Career-Oriented vs Project/Process-Oriented Thinking

Part of the problem is that Have a Career is not something you can do. When your career is actually humming along, it does not appear so from the inside. There is always the stress of the music you do not yet know and the date in the future after which you have no work booked. You take for granted what you have and focus your attention on making it even better. Your career, therefor, exists almost exclusively in the minds of others. If you do not yet have work, or if it has dried up, Have a Career is far too amorphous and depressingly huge a task to accomplish. In other words, there is no such thing as a career that you will ever really see, and thinking of it as an action to do is unproductive. You can only ever work towards the next performance, the one after that, and the one after that. When I was a young countertenor (all of twenty, I think?), Michael Chance sagely passed along that the secret to having a great career is to do the best possible job every time you sing. Period. I would add to that by way of contralto Lili Chookasian: Be nice to everyone on every gig all the time; you never know where your next recommendation will come from.

So how can singers structure their time so that they are prepared for the present and planning for the future? Can one somehow sustainably corral daily activities so that the long-term result is a successful career? There are many productivity books that are useful reads for freelancers. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey (of Franklin/Covey fame) and Getting Things Done by David Allen are perhaps the most famous in the genre. (If you want to get really old school, pick up a copy of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography… that man got a lot done.) Both Covey and Allen offer much more thorough systems than most freelancers need; their books are geared towards the corporate world. But, applying their basic principles can streamline and clarify your work, and slowly move you from where you are to where you want to be.

My take away from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: View everything you do as either important or unimportant, and urgent or not urgent.  If you are constantly behind, chances are that all of your tasks are important and urgent. If you have a stupid job that is diverting energy away from your singing, chances are that that those tasks are unimportant and urgent. The goal of any productivity system then, is to make sure that all of your tasks are eventually both important and not urgent. That way, while you work towards something fulfilling, you are able to take the time to do it well.

Getting Things Done

There is a staggering amount of stuff that has to get done every day to sustain (let alone advance) a singing career: Keeping up with correspondence and your own continuing education, staying abreast of industry trends, and nurturing important connections – keeping on top of these things can make you appear professionally dependable. Getting Things Done (GTD for short) is a very practical system that can help you stay on top of all these moving parts. The basic concept: Put everything you have to do into a trusted system and identify the Next Action required for every project. That way you can focus your energy on concrete, actionable tasks when you sit down to work. You adopt a work-flow: Collect, Process, Organize, Review, Do. This work-flow structures your projects, brings the relevant tasks to the fore, and de-emphasizes the rest.

Collecting and Processing your Inbox

The first step of the GTD system is to throw everything you need to do, and every thought that you have, into an Inbox. You then spend a short amount of time processing the Inbox (you may have multiple inboxes – paper, on your computer, your email…) without actually working on most of the items. With every item in your Inbox – be it a piece of paper to file, an idea for a project, a receipt to track, a bill that you need to pay, or an email that you need to respond to, you ask the following four questions: Can I do this now in less than two minutes? Delegate it to someone else? Defer it (because I either have to wait for something else to happen first, assign it to a project, or make a reminder note in my calendar)? Or discard it? Because you brain-dump everything into the Inbox and file it into a system that brings it to your attention later, when you actually sit down to work, you do not have to worry that you are forgetting something. That way your full attention can be devoted to the task before you.

Let’s take a quick look at how you might apply this process to managing your email. You could set up the following folders in you email account: Inbox, 1Important, 2Later, 3Archive, Trash. Add the numbers so that they appear in that order. Every day (or a few times a day) process the emails in your Inbox until the Inbox is empty. If you can respond right away (in less than two minutes), do it and either archive or delete the email. If you need to delegate it, forward the email to the relevant person asking for the information you need. If it is either too complicated to respond to in less than two minutes, or something that could really wait until later, file it in either 1Important or 2Later. If you can delete it right away, do it! Once your Inbox is empty, open your 1Important folder and start to work. This way, you are not distracted by the clutter of those unimportant emails as you try to drill down and take care of what really requires your thought. Every few days you can open the 2Later folder and respond at your leisure. A quick tip: If your email Inbox is tragically full, this might take a bit. Push through! In this case, it is often best to organize the emails by sender, as you tend to do the same thing with emails from the same person. I.e., emails from your manager will almost always go into the 1Important folder. Emails from will likely always be deleted. You can quickly cut through vast swaths of your Inbox with this approach.

Organizing your Tasks

The most basic description of the GTD task organization system is:

  • Your life is filled with multiple Projects.
  • Each project should help you to accomplish one of several Goals. (A goal may have many projects associated with it.)
  • Each project is composed of individual Tasks – a concrete thing that you can actually do.
  • The task that must be completed first to move a project forward is called the Next Action.
  • Each task also has a Context – that is, a location that the task will take place. The standard GTD lingo for a context is @example – literally (at) (the place you do that task). Some common contexts are @home, @work, @computer, @phone, @email, @shopping, etc…

A sample Goal: Increase my active repertory.

A sample Project to fulfill that Goal: The Role of Tolomeo is learned.

Sample Tasks within that Project:

  • Buy Tolomeo Score
  • Buy two black binders
  • Photocopy Tolomeo Arias (2 copies) and organize two folders (one for my coach)
  • Read libretto
  • Translate the Italian
  • Write in English translation

Then, add a context to each task:

  • Buy Tolomeo Score @shopping
  • Buy two black binders @shopping
  • Photocopy Tolomeo Arias (2 copies) and organize two folders (one for my coach) @kinko’s
  • Read libretto @home
  • Translate the Italian @computer
  • Write in English translation @home

You can see that some tasks are parallel and some are sequential: It doesn’t matter which you buy first, the score or the folders, however, you must buy the score before you go to Kinko’s to photo copy it. In this case, buying the score and the binders are both Next Actions.

Let’s say that you have another hypothetical project, Marks on wall are touched up, which is attached to the goal, My house is beautiful and a pleasure to live in.

The sequential tasks might include:

  • Go to paint store and buy paint @shopping (the Next Action)
  • Touch up the marks on the wall @home

When you combine all of your tasks and reorganize them by context, you will notice that you should buy the score, the binders, and the paint all on the same trip. That way you move several projects forward simultaneously in the least amount of time. Just so, if you were @home and sick of writing in translations, you would notice that your painting project is also something that needs to be done. If you had another project that included photo copying a presentation for a class, that would appear next to your other errands @kinko’s.


GTD encourages a regular review of all of your Goals, Projects, Tasks, and Next Actions. Restate your goals every week – I want to learn three new roles this year, I want to sing in Carnegie Hall, I want to have a meaningful romantic relationship, I want to get more work with Opera companies, I want to sign with a manager – for example. Simply stating your goals automatically organizes the way that you prioritize and execute the more minute details. I have my current goals written in a floating sticky note on my computer’s desktop. I see them every few minutes as I work. Remember, you want to be working on only important, yet non-urgent projects. During this review you look at the big list of every project you have in process. Are you actually spending time working towards your goals? Are you able to match each project to a specific goal, or does most of your work accomplish someone else’s goal? This sort of review can take just a few minutes, but it really clarifies why you are doing the work that you have committed to.

The GTD system scales up to be as complicated as you need it to be; I have left out quite a bit. The most complex execution of GTD involves a forty-three folder ‘tickler’ file system (a folder for every day of the month nested within a folder for each month), plus additional folders for ‘someday projects’ and other lists. This allows you to place a paper item in the folder of the day on which it will become relevant. I, however, use only three paper folders – Inbox, Important, and Waiting – plus a standard file cabinet archive system. The simpler your system, the more likely you are to stick with it (and GTD is famous for falling apart when you avoid the review step). There are a number of computer programs based on GTD; some offer serious productivity tools, such as the ability to hide all tasks except for your next actions. Many of them are web based, and most offer some sort of mobile device integration. I have the kind of mind that takes a distracting amount of pleasure in organizing systems, and I can easily stop doing the actual work in favor of building ever more complicated hierarchies (and don’t get me started on picking fonts…) So, learn what works for you. I use the tasks feature on google calendar, and it syncs seamlessly with my Android phone through a program called gTasks. If I wanted to, I could use GQueues – oh how funny… GQ, like the magazine… I just got that), to add contexts and share tasks among colleagues. But, I do fine with a hierarchical list of tasks and projects in a few contextually based lists (Grocery Store, Errands, Daily Tasks). Most of what I have to do either happens at my computer or my piano (both in the same room), or when I leave the house to run errands. If you have multiple work-spaces, or could benefit from the use of contexts, give them a try. The Cadillac of programs is something called OmniFocus (available for Macs, iPhones, and iPads). Other web based options include Todoist, GTDAgenda, and Remember The Milk. Most of these programs are either free or offer a semi-neutered free version. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of David Allen’s original book. It is in paperback and will help you get the most out of this system. Websites like and all offer endless thoughts on the implementation of GTD.

Time Goals: How to Structure your Work Day

The day-to-day work of artistic development, of course, has more in common with household chores than it does with neat to-do lists. In a sense, you will never finish your laundry. The day after you die, there will be laundry to do (though you will finally be off the hook!) You will never complete the ‘project’ of laundry, but you can decide how to relate to the responsibility – are you calm and methodical or frustrated and resentful? “I will never work through all my technical issues!” is, actually, completely true; you will die aware of something that you wish were better. What matters is how you act in the present, knowing that it is an unending process. Even the best singers among us are not perfect, they just bring a really strong B-game. I sing in tune all the time would be a ridiculous GTD project that would bring more stress into your life than productivity. However I am improving my intonation is not a bad GTD goal.

We singers are hyper-aware of the progress of our competitor-colleagues (I am coining that term) through online calendars, announcements, and digital media, and it is easy to fall into the mental trap that taking a break means falling behind. If you are only practicing three hours a day, someone else is practicing four hours! Better keep up! Played out to a logical conclusion, we would all be miserable, overworked, exhausted singers incapable of the poise and grace that the public expects. So how do we reconcile this? Instead of pushing yourself relentlessly, go to work everyday at the job of Your Singing Career. Plan out a few hours each morning to process your Inbox (once a week do a 5 minute review first) and then plow through all the next actions for your non-artistic stuff. When the timer goes off two hours later, take a break and then switch to artistic mode and practice for a specific amount of time. You will know exactly what to practice since you listed your upcoming repertory in the collect/process/organize steps. I suggest that working singers make these time goals rather than project goals. Since there will always be another project to do, work in a manner that encourages a calm, mindful, and focused approach to what is in front of you. You will be surprised at how much more productive you are in a shorter amount of time. And, since you are taking a broad view of your life goals (including the often ignored personal life goals), you will be able to devote time and energy towards improving all aspects of your life. Everyday you will make progress on multiple projects, each project working towards fulfilling a clearly articulated goal.

Play the Long Game

So take an hour of protected time and start this process by collecting and processing everything you can think of.  After seeing what you have to do, write down some goals. Make them lofty, why not? Your first list of projects will emerge as a result of these two activities, as will the accompanying tasks and Next Actions. Continually renew this process, and you cannot help but have a career.

Good Luck!

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Ian Howell is a countertenor based in Boston, Massachusetts. He regularly performs as a concert and operatic soloist all across North America and writes from time to time. He was educated at Yale and Capital Universities, sang with Chanticleer from 2000-04, and is currently a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the New England Conservatory of Music. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Sevak Kirakosyan

    In one month I will start working part-time in my daily work, and in like three months I will be working in an office no more. Getting ready to become a freelancer, to dedicate myself more to singing, music and art. I take these articles as life lessons and thank the author very much! Let’s see how it goes and what happens next! <3 (Y)

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  • Lisa Rich

    Wow, Ian! Great article! Wish I had read about this method when I was a stay-at-home Mom. I have a secret closed-closet love of organizing myself. I just need uninterrupted time to make it happen. I have heard of the important/urgent technique & taught it to my husband recently. I highly recommend the book, “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman for your personal goal of loving your wife. :) Happy Categorizing!

  • http://underconstruction Elizabeth Lewis

    Brilliant article -Ian. Very timely for me. Trying to balance my workaday job situation, medical stuff and of course the voice. Just started with a rep opera company that will give me the chance to do main roles. Trying to balance the roles they want me in vs what I’ve been told in the past plus my own personal vocal goals is tough. Tougher yet, as I had a small stroke a few years ago due in part to diabetes and never thought I’d be doing this stuff again – so I have effectively fallen behind. The last opera I did on this side of the pond was Magic Flute – and it’s both great and a little hard to see old colleagues at Met or my old McGill friends getting their first Juno and Grammy nominations. Yet here I am finally getting to do a Traviata that I must learn, but the important thing is to enjoy it. lol

    • Ian Howell

      @Elizabeth Exactly! I think that it is easy to be depressed when colleagues succeed beyond you, but only when you forget that their success was the result of a process that they stuck to. We’re all exactly where we are and can improve directly related to how intently and intelligently we can stay on task :-) (Sounds like new age crap, but it is so true.) You are right on track!

      Congrats on your Traviata! I look forward to hearing of your success :-)


      • Barb Balaguer

        Thank you for the article Ian. I have printed it out and I plan on showing it to my daughter who will be starting college in the fall for voice performance. I have kept her organized all through high school so college might be a challenge. hopefully your article will give her some ideas of how to keep her college life as a performer on track. guess we’ll see.

        • Ian Howell

          Dear Barb,
          How wonderful! Please keep us posted :-) .