The arts landscape is ever-changing, now more than ever in this mid-pandemic reality. The adaptable singer can enjoy a rewarding career when they are willing to change and grow along with it. Through collaboration, engagement and thoughtful planning, the pursuit of one’s own opportunities can and should become an integral part of a thriving career in singing.
As a voice teacher and career coach, I find that students and clients often think “creating your own opportunities” means giving a recital in a church basement. And hey, listen, I’m all for a charming church basement recital now and then. However, this misconception prevents folks from exploring the rich and varied possibilities out there.
It is well-known at this point, especially after a global pandemic, that the “YAP path” or “Pipeline” is not for everyone. In fact, this commonly prescribed path to “success” taught to would-be professional singers isn’t realistic for most people. The vast majority of professional classical singers in the USA in the twenty-first century will not make a living just from singing. This means that they will need some sort of correlating career, whether it be in music or in another field. This is especially true for women in the field. It also means that the need for basic financial savvy, entrepreneurship skills and the ability to create one’s own opportunities are all more important than ever before.
So how exactly does one create their own singing opportunities? Let’s talk about ways to not only get yourself up on stage, but also get paid to do it. First, let’s explore specific areas to ruminate on before deciding what will work best for you.
Your Big “Why”
Anything you create will be more meaningful and successful if it is something you are deeply passionate about. This could be a specific composer, poet, era of music, type of art song, or other music-related passion. It could also be a cause or belief you hold that you feel strongly about, which can be tied to music. For example, social justice, climate change, animal cruelty, homelessness, domestic abuse, mindfulness, community outreach – the possibilities are endless!
Collaboration is absolutely crucial to creating opportunities that will lead to more future work. Inviting other singers, instrumentalists and collaborative pianists into your sphere to take part in what you have created means that you will likely be invited into theirs. By creating a performance opportunity for someone else, you will be moved to the head of the list when they are asked for recommendations or are seeking singers for their own projects and gigs. This is one of the ways in which the ever-important web of connections and referrals is crafted.
Another important aspect of collaboration is showing up. If you want to be part of the scene, then you must support the work of others and attend the performances of your colleagues. Not only will this encourage others to show up for you, but you will improve your networking skills and learn more about the talents of other musicians in your area.
Money, Location and Time Considerations
First, keep in mind both the time and the money you would spend pursuing the “traditional” path, or the “Pipeline”. Application fees, recording fees, accompanist fees, lessons, various types of coachings, audition attire, travel…the demands on your time and wallet are seemingly endless. Now, imagine how you could reallocate some of that time and money to the pursuit of your own opportunities. Set aside a specific fund from your budget for your own projects. This is so important, because without this step you will not have the necessary seed money to get your project(s) off the ground.
Second, your location will play a big part in what is possible as far as independent projects. There are pros and cons to all types of locations. While metropolitan areas likely have a vibrant arts scene, they also probably have many artists vying for attention and audiences. You will have to get creative to ensure you stand out in your endeavors. Those in more remote areas may have less competition, but there may also be fewer venues, fewer potential audience members, and fewer qualified musicians with whom to collaborate. It is important to recognize the pros and cons of where you are and strategize accordingly.
Take the time to think carefully through your strengths, interests and passions and how they might translate into meaningful and lucrative opportunities. Below are some examples of types of opportunities created; all inspired by real-life examples from colleagues, students and clients as well as taken from my own career journey.
Recital and/or concert “modules” that can be pitched and toured
When considering a recital or concert, think about possible themes or through-lines that make it interesting, attractive and accessible to a wide variety of humans. There is no rule that says a recital has to be all art song, or that a concert has to be tied together by similar styles of music. You can feel free to mix art song, opera, oratorio, musical theatre, new music, chamber music, choral music and more. When possible, try to incorporate BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and female composers, librettists and poets. If you have more than one idea, create several programs that can be at the ready for programming. Each one of these is a “module” that you are prepared to perform whenever hired for that particular program.
Here are some additional considerations that can make your module(s) more “pitchable”:
- Create cross-genre and/or multimedia performances that appeal to a larger audience (inviting dancers or speakers to participate, integrating visual art, using projections, etc.)
- Involve area cultural, international and language-focused organizations in language-specific performances that appeal to people who speak or are learning that language
- Create family-friendly offerings that specifically cater to children
Additional things to keep in mind:
- Ensure your program is not too long. In general, I advise people to stay under the 90 minute mark including “shuffle time”.
- To improve engagement, consider inviting the audience to participate in some way during the program.
The work you do on these programs may well lead you to create a regularly appearing recital/concert/chamber music series. This can happen regionally or be more widely toured!
Start an opera company, summer festival, choral ensemble, art song society or other arts organization
The idea of starting your own anything can be incredibly daunting. Keep in mind that Rome was not built in a day, and that you can start (very) small.
My own opera company, now called MassOpera (based in Boston), started as a small project with friends. Disenchanted with the lack of operatic performance opportunities in the city, I put on a tiny production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with friends. I double cast the opera to ensure as many humans would get performance experience as possible. I found a stage director and conductor and hired a small chamber orchestra. I sang Dido.
It was a hit! The local audiences craved more. Little by little, year by year, the opera company grew. We went from being fiscally sponsored (through Fractured Atlas), to becoming an official 501c3 non-profit organization. The mission solidified, which opened us up to more and more funding. We got creative during the height of the pandemic, starting a series of “social distanSINGs” for which singers toured dozens of area neighborhoods performing from a pickup truck. We are now approaching our fifteenth season and are a reputable part of Boston’s vibrant arts scene.
The point is, you start with an idea or a dream. Some colleagues. A space. And you have a purpose, a vision. Then you put one foot in front of the other. Don’t expect to make a lot of money in the first few years; that’s not going to happen. But you will absolutely be paid in other ways. In my case, creating opportunities for others helped me get my foot in the door with all sorts of people and organizations. The opera company has helped me become the busy singer, voice teacher and career coach I am today.
The Issue of the “Vanity Organization”:
Many people worry that if they feature themselves, they are being too “vain” or making it all about them. Depending on the type of opportunity you are creating, putting yourself front and center makes sense, but moderation is key. While you can definitely feature yourself, be sure to involve others and choose specific shows or events when you are simply producing and not performing. Striking a balance between producer/impresario and performer ensures that your endeavor is not viewed as purely self-serving. Be very careful to give yourself music/roles to perform that show your best self and are not wild “reaches” beyond your realistic capabilities. Recognize that the time may come when you need to bow out. I rarely perform with my own company these days, unless it is an opportunity uniquely suited to my strengths.
Create a cabaret or one-person show
Here is the real-life story of brilliant cabaret artist Christina Pecce:
“Upon graduating with my Master’s in Opera and getting my feet wet in the Young Artist and professional world I felt like a huge part of me was missing. I’ve always been a cross-over artist, and felt like I had to make a choice. In an enlightening conversation with a mentor, I was asked “Why choose? Why not use your versatility to your advantage?” I put myself back into the musical theater rounds. The next couple of years were filled with both opera and theater contracts, and I was happier and more fulfilled as an artist. Still I wondered: How could I show the prism of my artistry in the same moment instead of flip-flopping? Could I do it all in one evening? I recalled a great MT coaching where I was told “witches, bitches, and divas… those are the roles you should be going for.” And boom, there it was. The seed of an idea.
Upon moving to Chicago, new to the scene, I was faced with a rejection that hit me pretty hard. Then I thought, why not create my own opportunity instead of waiting for permission to perform? I tightened up my set list and gave my program a beginning, middle, and an end. The first iteration of “Witches, Bitches, and Divas!” was written. I booked a venue, a date, and hired a videographer. And it sold out.
I had thought this would be a one-time thing, but the crowd’s response was overwhelming. And holy moly, the doors that opened from there! I became the artist I had always wanted to be and who I knew was inside. I now perform my cabaret all over the country. My path is different, and I embrace that. I’ve learned how to be a producer, a writer and an agent. I can market myself, negotiate contracts, decipher rental agreements, write set lists and stage plots and sizzle reels and promo materials… the list goes on.
Give yourself permission to perform by creating your own opportunities. That is always the moral of this story and I sing it from the mountaintops. That realization has changed my life and the trajectory of my career. I am always hoping that it inspires someone else to do the same.”
Some additional opportunities to consider:
- Record an album! One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that many folks learned a good deal about recording in an affordable way.
- Pair up with a specific composer to establish a relationship, premiere and record their works regularly (if this is cost prohibitive, band together with other musicians to pay for a first commission to premiere).
- Focus on a niche area of your expertise and advertise yourself specifically within that. For example, create a website and brand exclusively meant for engaged couples to book you for weddings, or for corporations to hire you for events.
- Pitch yourself as an opening act for more established artists (not necessarily classical)
- Create a Youtube video series (this can be as a performer, educator, or both!)
- Create a TikTok series
- Start a band
- [insert your own brilliant ideas here!]
Organize and Take Action
Where do I start?!
Once you have fleshed out your idea, it is time to get to work. Here are some tips for organizing your potential project.
- Schedule “admin hours” into your weekly calendar specifically meant for planning, strategizing, and reaching out. Set a reminder and keep that appointment just like you would any important appointment.
- Make a master to-do list for the tasks you need to complete.
- Create a basic budget for your project, listing realistic ballpark expenses and any potential income or donations. Always overestimate your expenses.
- Ensure your project has an internet presence, somewhere to direct people to. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a website at first, it could be a Facebook page and a YouTube channel or it could simply be an extra tab on your personal performer website.
- Get your “cold call / cold email” spreadsheets in order. Create a set of spreadsheets outlining institutions, organizations and individuals that you want to reach out to, along with pertinent information and contact information. These can be divided into tabs by type.
- Follow your to-do list carefully and methodically to accomplish tasks such as calling potential venues, talking with potential collaborators, finding a recording engineer and the like. Do not attempt to do too many tasks at once or you will become overwhelmed quickly. Baby steps!
- ASK FOR HELP!!! You cannot do this alone. You will absolutely have to utilize the knowledge and expertise of your mentors, friends and colleagues.
The Art of the Reach-Out
Put simply: if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
- When pitching your project(s), use your spreadsheets and your scheduled “admin hours” to make contact systematically and professionally.
- Emails should be short, clear and to the point. As succinctly as possible, state who you are, what you are trying to do, and why they might be interested. If a phone call makes more sense, follow these same general guidelines.
- Keep track of when you made contact and what the response was. This way, you’ll know if and when it is appropriate to reach out again at a future time.
Funding and Marketing
I won’t be diving deeply into funding and marketing, as each project has a unique set of needs, but I will hit on a few important points.
- Depending on what you’re doing, you may need to focus on securing donations. Fiscal sponsorship, while not mandatory, will enable you to make donations tax-deductible for the donor.
- Don’t give your art away for free. Charge an appropriate amount for tickets, or set a suggested donation amount (which sometimes actually results in more income than ticket sales).
- Grants, while hugely important to growing organizations, can be very difficult to secure before your project has a demonstrated track record of success. Start small and be realistic.
- Crowdfunding campaigns can be quite effective if you run them as a project takes shape. Those you are asking for contributions from can see the whole process unfold, instead of just consuming the end product. This results in more engagement with your project over a longer arc of time, and may also improve the size of the actual audience at the event(s).
- Engage with others online via social media to help hype up your project and get the word out. Create a social media calendar to help keep you on track. It is a good idea to invite feedback, start discussions, and listen to others in your posts and their threads; others feel like part of the process and you might learn something important!
- Have a memorable hook of some kind. For example, have a trio performance on 3/3 at 3pm and the first 3 people who buy tickets get 3 more (free) tickets.
- Consider offering a livestream (at the same price or suggested donation) for those not comfortable with in-person or who would like to view the event(s) from afar. This can increase visibility, followers and income!
- ASK FOR HELP!!! You may need to work with a career/business coach, bring a social media/marketing specialist onboard or work with a grant writer. Do not attempt to do everything yourself, especially as your project grows over time.
Empowered Musicians Empower Musicians
Your self-created opportunities will hit a wall if you make them all about your own success. Involve others, respect others, help others and always lift up your fellow musicians. Collaboration and showing up are at the root of all good creative endeavors. With the help of those around you, you will be poised to forge, not follow. Go forth and create!