Sunday, November 25, 2012

Shannon Langman, Mezzo-Soprano and Photographer

Mezzo-soprano Shannon Langman teaches and performs frequently in Houston, where she resides with her husband, tenor Gregory Smith. Shannon was a Young Artist with Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, New York and spent two seasons with The Ohio Light Opera. She has sung solo parts with The Houston Symphony and the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Mexico.

Shannon received her Master of Music Degree in Opera Performance at The Moores School of Music at the University of Houston where she was the recipient of the prestigious Cynthia Woods Mitchell Scholarship. She is also the owner of Shannon Langman Photography, specializing in musician headshots.

(More videos on Shannon's YouTube Channel)

What is your typical schedule?

I pretty much do something different every day. A typical photography day would be: Make the appointment with the client, usually over Facebook or email. I get all of my gear together in the morning of a photo shoot that I have scheduled. 

My photo studio is a loft at the Old Rice Hotel and Crystal Ballroom, a swanky sort of Mad Men-style apartment building. Then I have the photo shoot for a couple of hours, come home and work on the images on my laptop, and make an online gallery for the client.

Then maybe I teach a couple of voice lessons later that evening in my home studio. My husband and I both teach voice lessons, so we made a studio at our home right outside of downtown Houston.

I have a weekly church gig, so that’s my regular singing. And then I have small performance gigs. I do a lot of oratorio singing and masterworks concerts.

I love the flexibility with my schedule. One thing isn’t necessarily more important than another. If I need to, I can move a photo shoot to a different time of day or another day. Usually clients are OK with that. 

Sometimes, especially with opera headshot shoots, I coordinate with one of my favorite makeup artists. So if a conflict happens, I’m coordinating with more than one person. I sort of feel like I’m a producer in that way, and I wouldn’t back out of that. It takes a long time to reschedule more than one person.

Tell us about your photography training.

I’ve been a photographer for about four years now. I am a self-taught photographer, in that I do not have a degree in photography; however, I learn from every photo experience and I have apprenticed with some inspirational photographers that have been willing to share their processes. I take every opportunity to learn more and to hone my craft.

There are seminars that you can pay to attend, but I joined a lot of free online photography programs and clubs and did a lot of webinars to learn specific camera techniques toward my own style and gear. It does take a lot of effort to learn it on your own, but there is so much information out there at your fingertips if you are interested and hungry enough.

I did take a lot of time and effort in honing my own style and it was very frustrating for a couple of years to get things the way I envisioned in my head. But it’s a different art form in that way—the learning process, that is. After I learned as much as I possibly could about my gear, I found my own vision of what I wanted to do through that.

What I found most intriguing about photography is that you never know everything about it. Sort of like being a musician; I’m constantly learning about my own instrument as I grow up and mature into it. Photography is exactly the same way. Once you have more life experience and you’re more open to different aspects or different types of photography, you just learn more about it and get better at it that way.

What made you want to go into photography in addition to your singing career?

Honestly, I got to the point in my singing career where I said, “This is taking over my life. I need a hobby.” As an artist, I needed something else. It actually relieved the pressure from my performing artistry. When you put all of your finances and life stability and everything on a career that’s so not stable, it begins to affect your creativity in a stifling way. 

Photography’s not a stable lifestyle, either. However, for me, it has actually been more stable than my singing career was. I just kind of fell into it in a way that was second nature, and having them both professionally seems to relieve the pressure and enhance my creativity and artistry through both platforms.

At any point, do you or did you want your career to be entirely based on performing?

When I started my education, that’s what I thought I wanted. But it’s hard to envision what your life will be like in music because everyone’s career is different. So it was hard to imagine my daily life as an opera singer at such a young age and I didn’t really have a lot of role models.

But I remember thinking—even back then, when I chose to be a performance major—that I wanted to do something a little different every day. I thought my academic choice would allow me to do that. Now looking back, I think that yes, I did want to just to perform. However, I didn’t realize what that meant on the day-to-day lifestyle.

But I honestly don’t know that my career ever strayed from focusing entirely on music. Most of the photo shoots I do are opera headshots and concept classical promotion shoots. A lot of the photography I’ve been doing lately is classical musicians—online presence shoots for promotional purposes. Most musicians have a “home base” online and need an online persona whether they have a manager or not.

Social media sites and platforms are great marketing tools that artists can use themselves. And I kind of like to do that within my photo shoot—help spread the awareness and empower artists to market themselves and use the images in that way.

I’m constantly looking for a platform to say what I have to say, and it usually has something to do with music. I started singing because I wanted to communicate and relate to people. In my photography, I try to evoke something from the people I shoot that they may not be able to do on their own, and in the teaching studio I find I do all the above and hopefully inspire confidence through training. 

I feel like in all three aspects of my arts entrepreneurship, I’m doing the same thing, just in different forms.

Are you still taking auditions?

Not so much taking auditions; however, I do take gigs, which mostly come up in or around the Houston area in the past couple of years. Most notably, solos with the Houston Symphony, among other fantastic opportunities with thriving smaller opera companies and Master Works Concert Series. Sometimes things will come up at the last minute or I am asked to do smaller solos for works that don’t require a lot of preparation and that don’t require an audition.

I’m not actively seeking or pursuing an operatic career at this point; however, I’m still a working singer. I forever will be an opera singer; I am at a level where it’s not something I will give away for free, and I do hold a high standard for myself. I understand how much work and compromise goes along with such a demanding career pursuit, and have immense respect for and am so lucky to be able to work with such high-caliber artists in my photography studio.

When you do have a job coming up, how do you fit in the preparation?

I have a practice routine that I stick to regardless of a gigs coming up, which helps to keep my instrument in shape for performance and new repertoire challenges. The most difficult thing to schedule is rehearsals, mostly because of my teaching schedule as I like to keep that as routine as possible. With my voice studio, if I need to cancel or rearrange a lesson, that’s just what I do. I have managed to take the gigs that are artistically fulfilling, yet not as time consuming as I used to take on in the past.

I have both a coach and a teacher who I go to when I’m preparing something. I’m doing the Verdi Requiem in March and that’s a pretty big sing for me, so I started seeing my teacher more often. In the past, I have gone to my teacher if I noticed something in my voice and wanted to find out what was going on for my own sanity or my own curiosity.

Do you ever take time off from singing, and if you do, how do you get back into shape?

I did take a break from singing for a couple of months a few years back. Getting back into shape is tough but you just need to get back into a routine. Being an opera singer is the equivalent of being an Olympiad. You can’t not train for an extended period of time and then expect to have the stamina to compete and go beyond your own level of expected performance level on stage.

For an opera singer, I would say, it has more to do with muscle memory and strength than anything else. With singing it’s mostly about supporting the sound and you need to build up the muscles for the breath and support. Other than that, it’s making artistic and technical choices and knowing and being aware of your own voice. The biggest problem with taking a break is if something has changed and you’re not aware of it. That being said, it is different for everyone, because each instrument is different.

How do you keep track of your schedule?

Thank God for Google. My husband and I each have a Google calendar and we sync them. I have a teaching calendar, a photography calendar, my personal calendar, and we both have a travel calendar. 

I don’t travel a lot much for singing anymore, but sometimes I travel to shoot weddings. Usually those are booked pretty far in advance, so my husband and I will try to make a vacation out of it. Our Google calendar (pictured below) is like, fourteen different colors; even with that, it gets really confusing.

We also have a dog, and a number of musician friends that have dogs. When they go out of town, they will drop their dog off here. When we travel for something, we drop our dog off there. So we also have a calendar for that. I can’t even imagine what it would be like with kids. There’s just no way.

I would die if I didn’t have my phone with me all the time, especially with scheduling. If I get an email, say, from a student who’s canceled, I don’t like to leave their spot open. I have a waiting list for my studio, so if I don’t fill that spot, that means I lose out on that money and I may lose out on a new student ever getting into my studio. So I’ll see the cancellation email and instantly I email somebody else. 

People communicate using many different methods—text, email, Facebook Chat—so I need a phone that can do all of that. If I didn’t have a smartphone, it would be maybe 24 hours before I could contact somebody. Instant communication back and forth is imperative for what I do.

My husband (pictured with Shannon at left) is a tenor, and he has a number of jobs himself, so he understands what this life is like. He is supportive but it can sometimes be a little frustrating because we’re both doing a number of things and juggling schedules.

Are there elements of your musical training that help you in your photography career, and vice-versa?

Yes, absolutely. Every time I’m in a photo shoot and I’m trying to get something from a singer, instrumentalist, or model, I’m constantly thinking, “This is totally like a voice lesson!” For example, I’ll explain something—some posing stuff—and I’ll say, “This is about perspective. You may feel like this is awkward, but it’s not awkward.” I’ll feel like I’m in my own voice studio, telling my younger students, “It’s all about perspective. You hear it one way, but the audience hears your voice differently, like on an answering machine outgoing message.”

In fact, a lot of times when I’m in a photo shoot, I’ll think back to any number of acting or opera classes where we would do little things to get a real reaction. I will try that in a photo shoot to get their persona to come out, rather than just a pretty picture. Not necessarily that they’re acting, but to get a tangible, iconic image out of them without saying, “Do this. Do that.” So yeah, it’s constantly crossing over.

What advice would you give to young musicians who are considering making a career out of it?

I’m faced with this all the time with my students. I’m of the opinion that everybody has a certain amount of talent, and that it’s not necessarily the talent or how hard you work at getting good at something. 

I think it’s your ability to separate your persona from yourself, and how strong you can be in both of those to be able to be successful in a career like being a musician. Otherwise, I feel that without a solid support system like that, it’s just so hard to make that artistry into a business and a career.

I’m speaking mostly to singers because that’s who I’m confronted with giving advice. Generally, I’m not the person who says, “Oh, you should totally try for this.” I’m mostly the person that says, “No. This should be a hobby and you should try as hard and as skillfully as you possibly can, but try out everything before deciding this is the career for you.” 

And in a lot of cases, I tell them they need to see at least two live performances of what they are saying they want to do before putting all the effort into it. In a nutshell: Find out what the career is, then decide if that is really what you want.

People always struggle with this one—which surprises me—but I’ll try it on you anyway: Who are your role models? Or, one interviewee rephrased it and told me about “who inspires” him.

I love Annie Leibowitz. She’s a famous photographer, who, among many many amazing works, is known for the concept shoots for Rolling Stone covers.

I’m constantly inspired by people who are willing to break the norm. They understand what’s expected of them and they break those rules a little bit or expand those lines.

Designers and fashion people tend to really inspire me. When I’m looking for inspiration for a photo shoot, I’m constantly trawling Pinterest. It’s my favorite thing. Coco Chanel totally is inspiring to me.

Also, Lady Gaga. I know that may sound silly but let me tell you why. Not because of her singing, but because of her voice and the positive way she uses her fame platform. Whenever I see her being interviewed, she’s always talking about how she wants everyone everywhere to just be who they are, and be free to do that. 

Having a positive message and intention in whatever you do is so inspiring to me. Whatever craft, art, work you’re doing—I mean, it doesn’t matter what it is. You could be working at a gas station or as an investment banker, but as long as you have some overall intention for positivity, it reaches humanity on some front; that is inspiring to me.

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