I have just returned home after completing my first of two years of the Master of Arts in Performance at the Royal Academy of Music, London, and while I do not feel any older or wiser since my days putting on shows in the lounge room as a kid, deciding I wanted to be a classical singer at age 10 when I’d just begun lessons, being an excited school leaver on my first day at WAAPA, and since graduating with a Bachelor’s degree and Graduate Diploma from WAAPA at the end of 2014, I’ve gathered a few thoughts along the way. Something in me has made me stay on the path and I’m now learning to navigate it for myself.

When I finished at WAAPA, I had only just turned 21, and was not ready to stop being a uni student. I began research and planning into applications for Masters’ degrees in the UK and USA, which sounded like the places to go, judging by the number of other WAAPA graduates and other Australian singers looking that way. It is so easy to get caught in the whirlwind and follow along: I certainly did (I don’t know that I would have thought or dared to do it otherwise), but that was a really good thing. I am learning so much about singing and music, repertoire, people, and different cultures; about myself and what is most important to me.

The Road to RAM

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I chose England because of the quality of the music teaching and performing; the familiarity of the culture (nice for my first move out of my family home); the fact that I have a British passport which makes working simpler and means I can stay and come and go as I want; and also the predominance of song, oratorio, Baroque/Classical and church music as well as other opera.

I applied for Masters at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), Royal College of Music (RCM), and Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD) in London, and Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester, and was fully prepared to be knocked back. To my absolute shock and delight, I was offered places at three out of four, and did not have to think too hard to take up a partial scholarship position at RAM, which was the one I’d had the best feeling about all along.

I would really recommend doing at least that many applications – while I have ended up at what I thought was my preferred conservatory, I’ve seen friends go to places they never expected, and love it, and I’ve also seen that there can be a bit of variation between what each panel is looking for, so it’s best to maximize your chances and be really sure about the place you choose. The application fees seem expensive, but it’s worth it, and negligible compared to the expenses you face if you end up getting in. I came from a class of WAAPA singers who are now spread across these four conservatories and all enjoying ourselves, so there is no one ‘best’ option.

Photo: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Dukes’ Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London.

Studying at RAM is wonderful. It’s a bit like WAAPA really, but it was founded in 1822 (I know this because I also have a part-time job as a Gallery Assistant in the RAM Museum next door to the main building – a handy and pleasant way of earning a little bit of money in breaks between lessons!), there are only classical, jazz and musical theatre students, and it’s in this lovely old but refurbished building on Marylebone Road, by Regents’ Park.

Photo: Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Road, London.

Each week we have German, English, and French song classes on semester-long rotation, Italian recitative, Acting, Movement, and Italian language. Then on a one-on-one basis I have two 45-minute singing lessons with the amazing Lillian Watson, a renowned coloratura soprano who can hear EVERYTHING in a voice; and a half-hour coaching with Joseph Middleton, a pianist at the top of the London recital music scene, who knows without fail when I’m faking it with my vocal or facial expression. We also have an opera coaching each week, which gives us the chance to work with lots of different coaches, and can sign up for extra one-on-one time with language coaches and lieder sessions with poetry expert Richard Stokes. With some kind of lesson every day, I’m really pushed to be organised and prepared and to keep learning new repertoire. The teachers are all really amazing and after a while you get used to the fact that your class is taught by someone you have recordings of at home.

Performance-wise, we all are in two sets of Opera scenes a year, occasionally the chorus of a fully-staged opera in which the principles are mainly Opera School (post-Masters) students, and there are a few other opportunities we can audition for like song concerts, Bach cantatas, and early music class performances. I’ve loved working on scenes, singing in Bach cantatas, and singing Belinda in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – particularly in one memorable performance in a 16th-century Stately Home in Norfolk that predates Purcell… There are also internal competitions that provide good experience in a safer environment than external ones, though again the standard of the competition takes some getting used to.

Photo: after performing Dido and Aeneas in Raynham Hall, Norfolk.

There is no limit to the performing you can do though, and we are encouraged to put on concerts of our own, in various degrees of formality, and there are so many willing accompanists and other musicians around that this is really possible. I did an informal recital of Schumann lieder at RAM one evening, and then a full recital of spring-themed songs I put together at Goodenough College, with a lovely piano masters student. I have other concerts in the pipeline for next year that I’m looking forward to. The chance to be coached in chamber music is really valuable and it’s easy enough to do if you get organised early and don’t hesitate if you have an idea. A word of advice though: latch onto a good pianist early in the year and start learning repertoire together. They are in high demand!

Photo: Spring Night recital at Goodenough College, with pianist Roberta Terchi Nocentini.

Another really fun thing I did this year outside the Academy was British Youth Opera workshops in the Easter holidays. There are many short courses like this in England, as well as small opera companies and choruses in summer operas, and I’d really recommend taking full advantage of all the opportunities you can. I also get regular work on Sunday mornings as a singer in a few different churches around London (usually SATB quartet), which is a great job to get into if you can sight-read fast. These are all nice opportunities to meet singers from outside your own conservatory. London has so many performing opportunities and you just never know what you’ll find yourself doing – just recently I and some other girls from the Academy appeared as bridesmaids in Der Freischütz with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with Sir Mark Elder, at Royal Festival Hall.

Photo: Taking a bow at Royal Festival Hall after Der Freischütz

Finding a home away from home

Living in London is truly an eye-opening experience. There is so much to love and learn from – amazing teachers and peers; so many concert and opera venues; museums and galleries galore; a beautiful country and the rest of Europe to explore; and a really international, cosmopolitan culture. But moving there straight out of home at a young age has come with the challenges of homesickness (especially during the cold, dark winter), the need to develop self-confidence as a singer and a person (worse, an ADULT). Being happy makes me sing so much better, so I have learnt to cultivate everything that makes me happy and feel ‘at home’:

  • While I miss my family and closest friends in Perth all the time, the new people I meet from all around the world through music, at the Academy, and at my wonderful student accommodation, Goodenough College (not attached to any university), give me joy and inspire me to sing.
  • Music that I choose for myself. Programming recitals is one of my favourite hobbies and sources of procrastination, and I’ve realized how much better I sing when I sing what I love rather than what I ‘should’ want/to be able to do, and in particular I’ve developed a love for art song, Bach and Mozart.
  • I’ve loved seeing bits of English and Irish countryside and next year want to cross the pond to continental Europe more.
  • Art, crafts, and photography. Sorry for all the instagram posts.
  • There is so much of it in London!
  • If you come to London, make sure you get yourself a Waitrose card so you can get a free coffee or tea every day. London is expensive, and freebies are your friend. (There are also actually some good coffees around too though, for when you’re missing your Perth local.)

Photo: some of the RAM family after a Christmas Bach cantata concert.

Even though I’m constantly surrounded by people, living in London in a single student room has also forced me to become more independent and make my own decisions, and I’m learning from that. For example, I’m learning to be on time (well, that’s a work in progress), and not to change into an audition dress until you get to the venue, even if the weather report looks okay, because you could end up frantically drying your dress and hair under the hair dryer in the bathroom instead of warming up – or so I’ve heard…

It’s also great to live with a whole mixture of students of different postgraduate topics and universities and nationalities as I do at Goodenough College, because it really makes you see your field from an objective perspective. It’s nice to remember that we are really just learning to sing, which shouldn’t really be as high-pressure as some of my friends’ PhD’s trying to solve malnutrition or global conflict or cure diseases. At the same time, these people love to hear about the music world and come to my concerts, and that reminds me how important it is that we do this, and how much joy it can bring even to people who don’t necessarily know whether you nailed that section in your passaggio or supported that coloratura properly. So while it’s an intense career, I try to catch myself whenever I’ve temporarily forgotten the fun of it.

Photo: The gardens and my building at Goodenough College, London.

It’s amazing how much the singing journey is one of self-development. It sounds obvious, because we are our instrument, but it becomes more clear when you make this move and face new challenges and expectations at a top international level. Our strengths and weaknesses speak volumes of us as people (hard to face on a bad day, but wonderful to think how much we can potentially give). I think this is why singing and studying singing is so beneficial for anyone, whether you decide to continue it professionally or not.

When will I be ‘ready’?

For the first term, I felt completely out of my depth. No matter how much you prepare yourself, the high standard and expectations of everyone will still probably be a shock. For this reason, people will say “don’t go until you’re ready”, but I now believe that to be “ready” is not really the most important thing. I hope not, anyway, because in many ways I wasn’t ready to make the move as soon as I did after WAAPA, technically, dramatically, artistically, or personally. But these are all the things I am learning in London and while I can’t say for sure, I somehow doubt that anything I could have done while waiting for a couple of years would have brought me any closer to “readiness”.

What next?

I will be graduating in July 2017 with my Masters. I will only be 23 and have a lot of training ahead of me, and I feel ready to travel, make some decisions and do some intensive and specific self-devised study. The loose plan is to be back and forth between Australia and Europe for a few years to do this. First on my list are Germany and Austria: I love and want to improve my German, and the music from this region is my favourite to sing. I’d love to do a summer school there mid-year next year, and spend some time living, working, studying privately, seeing concerts, and absorbing the musical scene there. I’d then like to spend time in France bringing my school French up to fluency and studying French mélodies (I’m only now starting to click with how stylistically unique these are and how much I love that too). I definitely want to return to the UK as much as I can here: I’ve established invaluable connections and have incredible teachers here, and at some point I could apply for a post-Masters Opera course at a conservatory like RAM, which are highly competitive and regarded. I could even apply for this as early as this December for next September, but it all just depends on my progress in the next few months and beyond.

Being away from home also has made me appreciate Australia so much more. London is such an exciting place to live for a couple of years, particularly as a young arts student wanting to learn more about my craft and other cultures and artistic influences, but Perth is such a great place to live and I’ve come to realize that it will always be home for me – or perhaps one of several homes… While I’ll need to travel a lot to take advantage of the many more opportunities and larger audience in Europe and America if I want to perform as my main job (which I do), I disagree with those who say there is ‘nothing’ here in Australia for musicians: I think there is some very high calibre performing and teaching going on even though it’s a comparatively small scene, and I definitely want to still be a part of and support that. 

In a nutshell:

Don’t underestimate Australia. Do travel and consider studying somewhere like London if you want to learn a whole lot as a singer and a person. Do what feels right but don’t stress too much about being “ready”: it won’t be a wasted experience, no matter what. It is worth the expense, if you can manage it. Keep an open mind with applications, as long as you can focus in on the ones that are really important and feel right to you. While it’s good to stretch personal boundaries, it’s even more important to do what makes you happy, because that will put you at your best (it may or may not be your ‘easy’ option). Arm yourself for this tough career with all the people and things you love. See as many performances and exhibitions as you can while you have the chance. Seriously consider student accommodation – it is an amazing, fun, and eye-opening life experience in itself. Come and join our gradual taking over of the UK! And bring a really good umbrella.

Written by Bonnie de la Hunty

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