My Rehearsal Room: Tabatha McFadyen

My Rehearsal Room: Tabatha McFadyen

On collaborations, marketing and looking after yourself in "Competition Land". 

My Rehearsal Room: Tabatha McFadyen

On collaborations, marketing and looking after yourself in "Competition Land". 

You're about to perform a recital with your long-time collaborator, Alex Raineri, that features some of the big hits of the lieder repertoire. Can you tell us about programming the recital: how you chose the pieces you'll be performing, and a little about the themes of the program? 

The way our programming starts is pretty self-indulgent - we think of pieces we like, and we think about whether there is a way that we could perform them. The Bergs have been on our bucket list for a while, so I’m beside myself that we’re finally making it happen.   

As it were, this time the theme emerged of its own accord. Nearly every one of these songs involves a young character who's completely cracked - a motley crew of obsessives, zealots, and total nutjobs. In one guise or another, they’re all a part of that great youthful tendency to make things that are not actually the be all and end all the zenith or nadir of your life, and in turn, probably make some daft decisions. The music for each of them absolutely commits to that level of intensity - investing a symphony’s worth of genius and emotional content into a two-minute song. Of course, none of this resonates with me at all because I have never made one single bad decision ever.

Producing your own concert takes a lot more than just picking the music though - what has the process of putting together this performance been like, particularly in regards to the logistics of concert preparation? 

Because of geography and time constraints, our rehearsal time is almost comically limited, so we have to make every second of it count. Therefore, before we get together, we get our nerd on. We divide the programme up, and then each of us tries to get to the bottom of our assigned songs - music, words, context etc. We send these across, each mark our scores up accordingly, and then when we get together we build on that. 

The rehearsal process has become more truncated as we’ve gotten older, partly because we know each other well, and partly because we practised and got better individually. 

When you're not singing, you're coordinating the marketing at Auckland Philharmonia, so you know a thing or two about using social media to build an audience. Do you have any suggestions for developing artists who are just starting to use social media to reach out and sell tickets? 

I’ve only been doing this job for about 3/4 of a year now, so I’d hardly call myself an expert, but I’ve learnt an enormous amount. The biggest thing has been that your Audience with a capital A doesn’t actually exist, rather, the collection of people who will be interested in coming to see a gig are made of audiences, and to state the obvious, individuals. So, as far as I've experienced, it's about having the wherewithal to create varied content across a variety of mediums, to reach out and engage with all those different people. Think of different angles, don’t be afraid to be irreverent. The music’s extraordinary, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be reduced to being a whimpering, sycophantic mess when you’re trying to convince people that they might like to listen to it. 

You mention that this performance is being held in the first place you and Alex ever lost a competition. Statistically, it's more likely that we lose comps than win them, but it often feels like a pretty heavy blow particularly when you're starting out. How do you look after yourself through the ups and downs of the classical music world?

I’m still bitter about that. Infuriatingly, the fellow who won was and is a damn fine singer. I hate him.  

Seriously though, I think it’s very VERY important to separate success in obtaining/creating employment vs. success in competitions. If you’re not getting work, scream, cry, be bitter, drink heavily, assess whether it’s all worth it and then if it is,  pull yourself back together and get back on the horse in your own time. That bit’s a slog, but it’s a reasonably straightforward process. 

I personally think that competitions are a horse of a different colour. They’re very imbued in emerging-singer culture as ‘the only way’ to make your career happen, which is a conviction that obviously doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, but it’s pretty hard to shake. It’s no secret amongst some of my colleagues that I have an odd relationship with competitions. I’ve lucked my way into some successes in them and while many provide incredibly supportive environments of which I’m truly grateful for, ultimately competitions have the power to seriously distract you from just getting it together and becoming good at singing. As a singer, you already tend to have a lot of people telling you what they think, and the fact that you’ve ended up being a performer indicates that it’s pretty likely you're a people pleaser, so adding extra people to that cocktail becomes a slippery slope. 

So my advice as far as looking after yourself in Competitionland would be: 

1. View your competitors as colleagues. 

2. Keep the people who are adjudicating you in perspective - no matter what they’ve achieved, they’re just people, and no one person has the authority to speak for an entire industry - and similarly, remember the fact that they are basing this judgement on as little as 5 minutes of singing. 

3. ALWAYS prioritise actual singing work over competitions. Employers don’t give a damn what you’ve won, they care about how you sing. 

4. Probably just don’t do them until you’ve got an ironclad sense of self-esteem. A 1 in 50 chance of winning $25,000 is, in a way, good odds, but be careful what’s being sacrificed in collateral damage to acquire that cash that, as you say, is statistically unlikely to be yours. 

At the end of the day, the only thing that makes this peculiar pursuit worth it is the music, the drama and the sheer joy of the act of singing. If you’re in an environment, and particularly a training environment, where that is in ANY WAY compromised, run away, Simba, and never return. If it’s making you feel worthless and furious what the HELL is the point? You can either give it up, or find a way to distill all that junk and remember why on earth you did it in the first place, and build it back up one five-note scale at a time. 

Finally, it's pretty special that you and Alex have been performing together for so long! Can you tell us about how you met, and what keeps you working together? 

We met when we were toddlers in our first year of university at the Queensland Con. So, to be exact, we were drunk toddlers. Alex was 15 (yes, you read that correctly) and a bit awkward, I was 18 and unbearably obnoxious. We’d seen each other around, and then this competition - The Margaret Nickson Competition for Voice and Piano - came up and, because I was violently competitive and he was the best pianist out, I forced him to perform with me against his will. The rest as they say…

I keep performing with Alex because he’s a genius and because he lives and breathes every moment of a programme with me. We come at all the music we perform with equal passion and commitment, and he convinces me that I’ve got the goods to make a contribution to it. He makes me a better musician, and I never lose sight of the fact that I’m damn lucky to work with him. Heaven alone knows why he keeps performing with me, but if anybody tells him how foolish he is to do it I’ll kill them. 

Tabatha McFadyen and Alex Raineri present Follies of Youth at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music on Wednesday, May 3rd 2017 at 7:30pm. Tickets will be available at the door. Photo by Jai Farrell.