Most professional singers have some sort of correlating career. Secondary income sources are almost always necessary due to high costs of living, student loan debt and the competitive state of the classical singing world. Even a singer who works fairly regularly will typically still need to supplement their singing income. A singer may also be an executive assistant, arts administrator, teacher, nanny or work in food service. They may build websites, sell houses, be a personal trainer or plan weddings. Whether or not a correlating career is a true passion or “just a job”, one thing is certain: it is time-consuming.
If you are determined to maintain your singing career and help it to flourish, time management is absolutely key. If you do not make singing a priority, then you will wake up one day and realize that your correlating career is now, well, simply your career. Or perhaps worse, you will find that you are not maintaining your best vocal technique and are arriving to gigs both vocally and musically unprepared. But you need to sleep, and eat, and exercise and have some sort of social life too, right? Outlined below are some very effective ways that one can balance singing with a correlating career without burning out.
#1 Schedule practice time and stick to a routine
Practice time should be scheduled just like any other important appointment. Whether you use a paper planner, google calendar or the calendar on your smartphone, make sure that you put in your specific blocks of practice time. If you are using an electronic calendar, set it to alert you thirty minutes before the session is set to begin. If you say to yourself “I’ll get to it”, but don’t actually schedule the time in, chances are you will not actually do it. If you are unable to “attend” your practice session for some reason, then be sure to reschedule it immediately just like you would with another type of appointment.
For those with a full time job (30+ hours per week), you will have to think carefully about when you are likely to actually practice. If you are a night owl, you might plan to get home around 6pm then begin a practice session at 7:30 or 8pm after dinner. If you prefer not to sing after eating, have a snack after work, then practice immediately (at 6pm or so) before dinner. For some it might be feasible to practice on your lunch hour (but if you do this, be sure you are still able to eat lunch somehow, somewhere). It can be very fulfilling to interrupt a grueling workday with a joyful practice session! The major benefit of the lunch hour practice session is that after work your schedule is free. Those with non-traditional work hours need to sit down and think carefully through what days and times are most realistic for practice.
#2 Have a plan and practice smart
Weekday practice sessions will probably be on the shorter side, so you’ll want to know exactly what technique exercises and repertoire you want to work on, and what your goals are. I recommend keeping a practice journal to log what you practiced and for how long. More importantly, a practice journal helps you keep track of what you are working on technically; record specific exercises, notes and ideas from lessons and coachings and reference them in your practice session. You can create your own practice journal by simply buying a nice notebook or recording this information electronically (using your notes app, for example). There are also several affordable journals available for purchase (both in print and electronically), which have a more specific structure.
Here are a few to check out:
*Singer’s Practice Plan, Log and Journal: A planner for singing students” by Nancy Bos (www.singersplanner.com)
*Singing Practice Log & Progress Journal: Available at The NerdySongbird Etsy shop
*Smartphone App: Modacity Pro Music Practice
*Smartphone App: Music Practice Assistant
#3 Set realistic expectations for weekday practice length and frequency
Those with a full time job will not realistically have a lot of headspace or physical energy for practice during the week. You should NOT pressure yourself to practice every single day, especially if your job requires a lot of vocal use. An alternating schedule of Mon-Weds-Fri one week and Tues-Thurs the following week is one example of a good plan. Two weekdays only per week could work for you if you commit to either practicing both Saturday and Sunday, or doing two long sessions on one weekend day.
I discovered about ten years ago that attempting to work, exercise and practice on the same weekday was disastrous for my mental health and sense of wellbeing. Doing all three daily and expecting to also have a life was simply unrealistic. I then implemented an alternating schedule over seven days; practice one day, exercise the next. Unless I have a major performance coming up, I typically choose one day per week to do neither; that is my free day! I recommend this approach for many singers and have found the results to be most positive.
#4 Find a reliable practice space
The best-case scenario is that you are able to practice at your home or your workplace either early in the morning, on your lunch break, or after work ends. Those that are lucky enough to have access to practice space at their work should certainly take advantage! Ask if you can reserve a conference room, basement room or empty office for specific times. It is unlikely that you will have a space with a piano, so you can either use a piano app on your smartphone or bring a portable roll-up piano with you. In some cities, especially New York City, you can rent a practice space by the hour. Booking in advance is excellent motivation to ensure that you keep your practice appointment.
While it may seem ridiculous to warm up in your car, it isn’t. Make good use of your commute! There is plenty of technique and memorization work that can happen in the car. Be sure to sit with the best possible posture (I use a lumbar support pillow to help with my seated alignment and comfort), and keep your eyes on the road at all times. Practicing in your parked car at lunch is also an option for those who do not have access to practice space at work. You may get some funny looks from passers-by, but hey, you’re practicing, right?!
#5 Do “Armchair Work” on Commutes and anywhere you can
“Armchair work” on a piece includes researching, translating, writing out the IPA, brainstorming about the character and possible dramatic choices and reciting text out loud (or writing it out) for memorization purposes. There is plenty of other career-forwarding work that you can do when not practicing; updating your website and biography, applications for programs or competitions, networking emails, self-promotion on social media and the like. You may have the type of job that enables you to do these activities while working, which will free up additional evenings and weekend time to practice.
Commutes in a car, train or bus are excellent times to listen to your recorded voice lessons and coachings to let the information sink in. Much of what happens in a voice lesson is repetition, so I like to say that listening carefully to your lesson is like a free lesson. For upcoming performances, notecards are convenient for on-the-go memorizing; write out your text, the IPA and the translation and keep the cards in your pocket to review whenever you have time. These are also useful during staging rehearsals, since you can refer to them quickly without having to carry a large score around the stage.
Singers regularly admit to me how much they rely on recordings to learn their music. While it may seem very convenient to use recordings for this purpose on commutes, work breaks, or while working, proceed with caution. Relying on recordings can cause you to imitate a singer’s vocal habits and musical styling, develop rigid ideas about tempo and rubato, and inhibit your music literacy over time. Do the hard work yourself; play through the piece and learn it completely before going near a recording. If you absolutely must use recordings, do so sparingly and listen to multiple singers performing the same piece.
#6 Use your personal days for auditions, practice and self-care!
According to Project: Time Off (projectimeoff.com), Americans waste over 650 million vacation days per year. Why, oh why?! If you are in the fortunate position to have paid time off (personal days and/or vacation days), please use them all! Singers often use vacation days to travel for shorter gigs. When possible, use your personal and/or sick days for practice and self-care. Taking a personal day to do two concentrated hours of practice (not all at once, please) and an hour or two of “armchair work” will lower your stress level and make you feel empowered and on top of things. While you are at it, sleeping in and/or doing a self-care activity such as a yoga class, massage or meditation session will be incredibly renewing. Even if you do not have paid time off, try to plan and budget for one unpaid day off per month to take care of yourself and your instrument. I promise you will not regret it!
#7 Singers with kids
As I write this article, I can hear my husband heroically wrangling our rambunctious two-year old upstairs as the two-month old baby cries. There is nothing harder than being a singer with a full time correlating career AND children! As difficult as it may be, maintaining a singing career can be done with expert time management. Scheduling focused time weekly to devote to practice is key. Whatever your childcare situation, it is imperative that you have additional care just for singing-related work. Practice for a professional singer IS work! While you may be able to sneak in a practice session during naptime, it isn’t reliable and you might need that time to catch up on other things. If you are unable to afford childcare coverage for practice sessions, ask good friends to hang out with your kids for an hour or two on specific days and times, or “trade” babysitting with other friends with kids.
You can do this!
The key to success is getting organized, staying positive and utilizing the time you do have as well as possible. Some singers find a structured practice routine to be too rigid, and feel trapped or unmotivated by having one. If this describes you, try out many of the above options for practice time/location/structure and then “wing it” week to week. As long as you are committing to a few concentrated sessions per week, it doesn’t really matter how you get it done. Being a singer is hard work, and having a plan will empower you to stick it out.