So you’ve asked to hear about my Vocal Voyage – how to begin? In a perfect world i’d be able to open with something along the lines of: “The smell of freshly brewed coffee pervades the Shoreditch air as the charming waiter – a striking resemblance to Colin Firth circa BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice – sidles between the mis-matched tables and chairs in a bustling cafe to place a piping hot latte on the table next to my laptop and hand-crafted leather satchel. The mug features a bold Moroccan inspired print and the allure of wafting caffeine coaxes me back from a pleasant daydream, Callas and the Orchestra del Teatro all Scala pumped through earphones providing the soundtrack to my mid-afternoon revere.”
The reality, however, looks less like the ridiculously hipster opening shot of everything Zooey Deschanel has ever been in, and more like the B-reel footage from an episode of ‘Masterchef Kids’ as my housemate Fred – stylishly, if unintentionally, adorned in cake batter – surveys the flour coated wasteland that was until very recently, our kitchen. Rather less glamorous, I hear you say? Perhaps you are correct, but I promise you, London certainly doesn’t need an Instagram filter to be on of the most exciting and beautiful cities out there!
I moved to London in August 2015 after four years at WAAPA, and am currently studying my Master of Arts degree under Sarah Walker at the Royal Academy of Music. 8 months of excitement, exhaustion, elation, deflation, resuscitation and recapitulations and every minute offering the chance to absorb something new.
I don’t think I need to outline the allure of London for the young singer. The tuition available is many-varied and of the highest standard. You know when you walk past Simon Keenlyside in your university canteen, just before your lieder coaching with Richard Stokes, that you’re in good company. Performance opportunities abound – fully staged operas, opera scenes and concert performances – and the work you do at the Academy also opens doors to external opportunities. The city itself is a menagerie of culture just waiting to be explored, and if London isn’t quite enough to fill your appetite, the rest of Europe is just one discount Ryanair flight away! This city never ceases to surprise and entice you.
At the ripe old age of 22 I am cautious about doling out advice to those of you deciding to make the move. All I have to say has come from my personal experiences, and all I have to offer are tips that I’ve picked up along the way. Do with them what you will, young squires…
I live in a house in North London with three other 22 year olds studying medicine at University College London, and as fate would have it, we get along like a house on fire (N.B we are yet to compare our kinship to the house actually being on fire, despite the odd scare when we accidentally leave the oven on.) Aside from the mild PTSD induced by ruthless piss-taking I cannot believe how lucky I’ve been to find three such fun and like-minded people. I know not everyone will strike it as lucky as I have in terms of who you live with. I have certainly heard more than a few horror stories of dodgy flats and housemates with more personalities than ecosystems sprouting from the old potato in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.
Which brings me to London Life Tip #1. Put yourself in the best position possible to make the transition easy. Before you move your life to the other side of the world, do your research! Sign up to email alerts from housing websites like spareroom.com and rightmove.com that will alert you to the most recent properties available. You don’t need to be locked in before you arrive, but you do need to know what you’re looking for. Pick a few areas that you’re interested in and focus on them to avoid being overwhelmed. It seems common sense but try to get to know your potential housemates before you commit to living with them, and if you find it’s not working, change. Coming from a place like Perth where you can walk down the street and bump into two or three acquaintances, the sheer volume of strangers and pace of London life can be very overwhelming and at times very lonely. Moving away from home is a big enough deal in its own right, the last thing you need is the added stress of not feeling comfortable in your own home.
London Life Tip #2. Surround yourself with people who are different than you, funnier than you and smarter than you in every way. I suppose this is more of a “general life tip,” but moving to the other side of the world certainly gives you a good shot at making it a reality. While of course your focus will be your development as a musician, I’ve found it incredibly important to find people whose interests differ from my own. As they say, “it’s a small world after all,” and in the life of an opera singer, it feels even smaller! It’s so easy to get consumed entirely by the world of classical music that a little injection of something different can be so refreshing. London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t make the effort to get out and meet other young people who can offer you something outside your own expertise. My mantra: wherever you can, learn from the people around you and in turn share your own interests.
As most students at the Post-graduate level of study will tell you, selecting the right teacher is the most influential aspect of choosing your place of study. But what do we really mean? How do we know who the “right” teacher is? What makes one teacher more “right” than another? When you’re dealing with conservatories of the highest calibre, it’s highly likely that there will be more than one teacher with whom you would work well. We all know singing can be a tough, emotional and stressful learning experience. The truth – or at least as I have come to understand it – boils down to this: the right teacher must be someone you respect enough to allow them to tear you apart, and trust enough to be able to put you back together, better than before.
One thing you should get used to right away: you’re not perfect; but that’s kind of the point. The teachers at RAM all encourage you to work in a way that will best suit you and the trajectory of your development. If we consider Perth a little pond, and you the proverbial big fish, your first day at university will make you feel like a single krill in the ocean. Of course everyone is friendly; they smile, hand you free promotional pens and show you key parts of the university building – namely the bar – but all of this won’t stop that rascally voice in the back of your mind screaming “WHAT ON EARTH MADE YOU THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA??” Rest assured, you will not be the only one with these fears. How do you get rid of them? For me, it was walking into my first lesson, and finding myself so engrossed in working with my teacher that I didn’t have the time or focus to continue obsessing over whether they’d sent me an acceptance letter by accident. That was when I knew I had the right teacher for me.
I’ve been lucky enough to have joined Sarah Walker’s studio and absolutely relish the time I get to spend with her. I will never forget the moment, early in the academic year that I was walking down Marylebone High Street, enjoying a particularly touching rendition of Faure’s Le Secret when, lo and behold, upon checking Spotify I discover it is the very woman who’s lesson I had just left. I was about to write “it’s not every day you get to phone up one of your idols for advice on how to manage a pianissimo on an A-flat” but actually here, it is – and that’s pretty darned cool.
So how does little old Perth stack up against the cultural powerhouse that is London? I suppose one of the most striking differences is simply that over here people know opera exists. Posters line tube stations advertising Opera North’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle; English National Opera’s management crisis – however unfortunate – makes the front page of newspapers; and the Royal Opera House holds pride of place in Convent Garden. Sure, it may not be as hot a topic as how awful the Batman vs. Superman movie was, but there is certainly something comforting about wondering through the city and feeling that opera is present and relevant.
More than this, it is easy to access. Not only can you see a fully staged opera any night of the week, but you have a choice of several! The world’s best singers perform regularly, and new productions are being developed every season. Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing ‘Onegin;’ Diana Damrau singing ‘Lucia;’ Tamara Wilson singing ‘Leonora;’ the list goes on and on, and with student prices from as little as £5, there’s no excuse for missing out. On top of operas at the major houses, there are regular recitals taking place all over town. Only a few weeks ago I saw Renee Fleming at the Barbican centre for a mere £10. And of course, the more you see, the more you find your opinions and tastes being tested. Weird, wacky and wonderful productions of little performed operas are right at your doorstep, just waiting to broaden your mind. Early in March I saw English National Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten” and I’m not going to lie, I was not looking forward to it. Little did I expect that three hours later I would be singing it’s praises to my friends at RAM, begging them to buy their tickets. I have never been so satisfied in having been proved wrong.
But alas; the not so small question of funding these uproarious adventures overseas brings us tumbling back to reality with a bang, clang and the trill of a cash register till. It’s no secret that London is expensive; very expensive. Factor in the international student fees and the challenge seems insurmountable. On more than one occasion have I found myself pondering just how much that pesky, seemingly superfluous second kidney of mine would fetch on the black market. Yet never fear; reason and logic triumph and the simple solution of common sense presents itself in all it’s sensible-shoe wearing glory. Nobody likes talking money, but here are a few thoughts:
The simple fact is, as a full-time student living in London, there will inevitably be things you’ll have to forgo. Like I said, it’s certainly not all lattes and lapdogs. In the 8 months between being accepted into RAM and making the move I worked a full-time job in retail. This allowed me to move to London knowing that I had a relative amount of security while I settled in and got myself set up. And believe me, no matter how much you think you’ve planned, there will always be something you’ve forgotten to account for.
Get your funding applications together early, be thorough, and for the love of all that is sacred USE SPELLCHECK. The very last thing you want to do is miss out on valuable funding opportunities because your application is messy, difficult to read, or simply because you missed the deadline.
Once you arrive budgeting is important – even more important is sticking to it – and as much as it may seem overwhelming, I cannot recommend enough finding yourself a job. Now, listen closely kids, because this is important: do not expect to be well paid. Never pleasant to hear, I know, but I figure it’s better to burst that bubble now, rather than be hit by the unexpected revelation when you get here. Minimum wage in London is rough, about £6.50 an hour, but every little bit helps. Speaking from personal experience, having a job that is separate from uni and home life is a great way to meet new people and has really helped me feel like a real-life, three-dimensional person in a city that can sometimes make you feel supremely anonymous.
It is almost impossible for me to succinctly express my experience of London life. A few thousand typed words hardly seems adequate to summarise what have undoubtedly been the most formative months of my life thus far. What excites me more than anything is knowing that there is so much more to gain from my remaining time. My final advice: Go gangbusters! You’ll never know if you never try it, and what’s worth trying is worth giving your all for.
Thank you so much to The O Word for inviting me to share my experiences. To all those thinking about joining me in the land of tea and crumpets: see you soon!
Written by Madeleine Joyce