Careers in music: classical singer

Classical singers at a concert
David de Winter is a singer, specialising in classical music. He explains what his job involves, how he got into it and the skills he needs.

TARGETcareers asked professional classical singer David de Winter about his career in music. David has a job as a singer at Westminster Cathedral and is also self-employed, taking on a wide range of singing work as well as teaching singing.

What does your career as a singer involve?

I specialise in singing classical music. I sing a wide variety of music, from Gregorian plainchant to contemporary music. My job can involve anything from singing in choirs for church services, to large-scale concerts, operas, chamber concerts, solo concerts, recitals, recordings, filming, promotional events and also recording soundtracks for cinema.

I have a salaried position as a lay clerk (singer) in Westminster Cathedral Choir, but I also have a busy and varied freelance singing career. Additionally I have some private singing pupils and I teach singing one day per week at a West London school.

How did you get into a career in music?

My parents tell me that as soon as I could talk, I was singing. When I was seven years old I became a chorister in Westminster Cathedral Choir for five years and after that I went to school in Guildford where I was involved in all aspects of music, from orchestra to choir to jazz band. At Durham University I studied music and was also a choral scholar at Durham Cathedral. After university I was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where I studied for an MA in vocal studies for two years.

Is this a typical way to become a singer?

Not necessarily. It’s not uncommon for professional singers to have been choristers in their youth, but equally, other people come to singing in their teenage years, or even later. If you want to specialise in opera and solo singing, it’s advisable to study at a conservatoire (for example the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Royal Northern College of Music, or Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). If you want to sing in choirs then it’s probably still a good idea have had some intense, specialist training, but it’s not necessary to have attended music college.

What are the best and worst things about a career as a singer?

The best thing about being a singer is performing live. The thrill of singing some of the greatest music of the last millennium on stage in front of an audience is an unparalleled experience. Personally, I prefer performing small-scale or chamber music because it’s more intimate and, as a performer, you feel as if you have more of a creative input.

I wouldn’t say there are many downsides to being a singer but there are plenty of things you need to be aware of.

  • Singing is ultimately an entertainment business so be prepared for very unsociable hours.
  • It’s likely that there will be plenty of travel.
  • Health is also important – as a singer you need to understand your body and, most importantly, your voice and how to look after it. Like an athlete who is injured, singers can’t work when they’re ill.
  • As a freelancer it’s important to know how to manage one’s finances.

What skills or qualities do you need to be a classical singer?

First and foremost, to be a singer you need to have a product that people want to listen to – a good, well trained voice. On top of that, language skills are important – classical singers need to be proficient in (ideally) English, Latin, German, French and Italian. Russian, Czech and Church Slavonic are optional extras.

You need to have a resilient character. Singing is a very competitive environment and it’s very unlikely that you’ll succeed in every audition that you do. Having the right mindset to get over the little knocks is key. Apart from that, turning up to rehearsals and performances prepared is important and, if you don't have an agent to do it for you, organising your diary is also wise.

What are your top tips for a career in music?

Do as much music as you possibly can. Any performance experience is good experience and the more you can do at a young age, the more comfortable you'll be as you get older. Also, the more people that hear/see you performing the better as it's important to have contacts in the music business. Practice is obviously essential.

There are lots of people who want to be singers, so what can you do that's going to make you stand out? I would advise learning and polishing three or four contrasting songs which show off your best facets – ¬these should be your audition pieces. A word of warning – don’t sing music that’s out of your range or comfort zone. It could potentially be to the detriment of your long-term vocal health.

Punctuality is imperative, as well as being a good colleague. If you rub people up the wrong way it’s unlikely that they’ll want you to perform with them in the future.

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