The Graduate Interviews: Laura Suzanne Hunt
Now if you're anything like me you've decided that this year is going to be all about tweaking the habits or routine that you weren't too keen about last year! You're actually turning up to that new yoga class in an attempt to keep your back and shoulders from feeling like you're constantly at a right angle and you're actually going to try to eat healthily, go to bed early and stop scrolling social media endlessly not actually reading what's going on... you hope...
But one thing that I would really encourage us all to embrace this year, is that everyone is different. No two people can possibly have the same path that leads them to an end goal. So stop comparing yourself to everyone you see on social media doing amazing things, and just enjoy your own journey and your own successes, of which I know you'll all have more than you realise!
The Graduate Interviews is really designed to showcase how all of my guests have managed to have the career they want, by doing things their own way and this month’s guest is no exception. She's one incredibly talented entrepreneur and someone who has really inspired me during my time in Hong Kong to not restrict yourself to the traditional timeline and focus on what really excites and drives you! This month's guest is Laura Suzanne Hunt. Company Director and Head of Voice for Neon Lights Ltd and graduate of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
You had a break between finishing your undergrad and starting your postgraduate at the Royal Central School for Speech and Drama. Can you tell us more about what you were able to learn from this break and whether you would recommend it?
Yes, I had three years between finishing my BA (Theatre and Performance Studies, University of Warwick) and starting my MFA in Voice Studies at Central. Although at the time those years were a daunting ‘what am I doing with my life?!’ whirlwind of confusion, with hindsight they were actually very productive and useful. Quite by accident, they were almost a period of trying out different possibilities for future career development, and ultimately crossing those ideas off my list, until eventually narrowing down my options and deciding on a career in Voice. I finished university not knowing what I wanted to do, other than that I enjoyed teaching and the performing arts. Therefore, I tried working in different areas where those disciplines crossed over, to see if they were for me: teaching assistant in both primary and secondary schools; private tutor for maths and English; choir director; front of house in a theatre; a few private singing lessons; voluntary voice coach for a theatre show; volunteer for music therapy charities; volunteer in a theatre group for those suffering from homelessness; volunteer for an autism spectrum disorder charity; along with regular sales jobs to pay the rent! All of these experiences have been valuable in some way – I learnt teaching skills, developed my craft, and most importantly for me: I found out what I didn’t want to do. All of this narrowing down led me to the Master’s in Voice Studies at Central; something I hadn’t thought of as an option initially. Now, in my voice and singing teaching practice, I lean more towards teaching private one-on-one lessons because I prefer not to teach groups full time. I also use my experience as a teaching assistant and volunteer to inform my teaching of individuals with special educational needs (SEN), and I run a SEN choir, which is the joy of my week.
In 2016 you moved out to Hong Kong. Can you tell us a bit more about the move and how you found the adjustment?
I decided to move to Hong Kong after completing my Master’s and working for a year in London. I was at a point in life where I had nothing tying me down to the UK, and although I knew I would miss my family and friends, I decided to write to performing arts companies in Hong Kong and Singapore, to see if there were any job openings. My main motivation was to travel more and to experience a different way of life, for at least a couple of years. Three years on, Hong Kong has become my home for the foreseeable future. Adjusting to life here has been a challenge at times! I’ve tried not to fall into the trap of becoming an expat who only interacts with other expats, and although my Cantonese is woeful, I have a number of great local friends. Joining groups such as the Hong Kong Singers, going to an international church, and meeting other performers out here has helped me to feel more like a resident than a visitor, and has built up my friendship circle. Friends have been the reason I’ve stayed, when times have been hard!
How have you found starting up your own voice and singing practice?
I’m delighted to say that setting up my own practice has been refreshingly easy. After a bumpy first year in Hong Kong, working as a drama and singing teacher for another company, I was encouraged by friends in the industry to set up as a sole proprietor, under the working holiday visa. During this transitional period, I also took on work as a performer, party entertainer for children’s parties, and drama teacher. My private singing and spoken voice lessons started to pick up quite quickly, due to word of mouth, and after around 6 months, I rarely needed to take extra supplementary work.
Now alongside your own singing practice you are co-founder of Neon Lights. Can you tell us more about the company and the inspiration behind it?
My business partner, Nicholas Beckwith, and I set up Neon Lights, a limited company, in April 2018. We are a performing arts teaching and talent agency, providing training across varied performance disciplines, and finding work for other performers / teachers in Hong Kong. The name was Nicholas’s idea – inspired by the famous neon lights on Hong Kong streets, and the link with the bright lights of the performance industry. Nicholas is a performer and drama teacher; he and I had worked together and subsequently become good friends. My initial success as a sole proprietor is largely thanks to his contacts in Hong Kong, and his encouragement. I now sponsor my working visa through Neon Lights, which I never dreamed I would end up doing when I moved here!
What does a typical day for you consist of?
My days are quite varied, and although I have many regular weekly students, flexibility is important. A couple of days a week, I go into schools as a peripatetic singing teacher (one-on-one lessons throughout the school day). On the other three days, I have my private lessons, which I teach from a music studio which I rent by the hour, usually in the ‘after school’ slot (around 3.30-8pm), although I also teach some adult performers, who come to me during the day time. During my non-teaching hours, I do my admin (keeping rudimentary accounts, lesson prep etc) from a co-working space, along with other necessary tasks such as trips to the bank and my own practice of course! Nicholas and I lead workshops and masterclasses throughout the year, usually once or twice per month, so these often take place at weekends. When I get the chance to perform in shows, my schedule often needs to change somewhat, and days can be very long indeed. It’s a good job I like what I do!
Although at the time those years were a daunting ‘what am I doing with my life?!’ whirlwind of confusion, with hindsight they were actually very productive and useful.
What would you say was the biggest challenge you’ve had to face since graduating and how did you manage to overcome it?
My biggest challenge was definitely my first year as a Speech and Voice teacher at Arts Educational Schools London on their BA Musical Theatre course. As I was on the MFA programme at Central (Master of Fine Arts) rather than the MA, this meant that it was a two-year course, so after the year of full-time study, my dissertation research and writing took place throughout my following first year of teaching. I have never been a shining example of good time management, so with this plus the challenge of teaching at such a high standard at a renowned institution, there was a lot of pressure! With hindsight, this was too big a challenge at the time, and I would have been wise to have gained more experience before taking on such a role. Having said that, my students all did well in their exams, and I learnt a great deal over the year.
What is your top tip for the first year out of education?
The most useful advice I was given, and therefore my top tip for this industry, is to be generous. This applies especially to the first year out of education, but also for all of the years thereafter. As a freelancer, and generally as a performer and teacher, there will be times when you are offered an opportunity which you are either too busy to take on, or under-qualified for. Instead of taking on these jobs and under performing in them, offer them to peers who have more time / have that specialism. For example, I teach accents and dialects sometimes, but I have colleagues who are far superior to me in this regard, and who have made this their area of expertise. So, if I am approached by a client to teach an accent or dialect which is outside of my comfort zone, I consider – do I have time to research this to a good enough standard in order to teach it well? Is the time spent on that endeavour worthwhile to my personal development as a voice coach? If the answers are no, then I reach out to trusted colleagues and pass the work on to them. This is a much better solution than simply turning down the job; it helps my peers and it also shows the client that I have spent time and energy on finding another solution for them. I have found that this generous attitude is beneficial twofold: my peers pay me the same courtesy if the roles are reversed; and potential clients respect my honesty and either recommend me to other clients, or come back to me with future requests