“If you can see yourself doing anything else, do that.”
Sound familiar? All musicians have heard these words, and many have stopped pursuing a music career because of them. I would like to invite you to consider an amendment to this old chestnut: “If you can see yourself doing anything else, do that too.”
A correlating career is a career that runs alongside your singing career, which is ideally both lucrative and personally fulfilling.
A correlating career is NOT:
- A Plan B.
- A Fallback.
- A Side Hustle.
- A Day Job.
- A Muggle Job.
A correlating career can be in music…or not! Working in a different field does not make you less of a musician. In many cases, a non-musical correlating career means valuing the musical side of your life more, experiencing less burnout and keeping the passion alive. Perhaps most importantly, a correlating career is something to be proud of, something to be embraced, not a source of shame or feelings of inadequacy or failure. Having viable skills outside of performance provides financial security, peace of mind, and increased career fulfillment.
The professional singing world is more saturated and competitive than ever before. So listen up because this is really important: just about every professional singer has to have additional income streams for all or part of their career. This is the unfortunate reality in America in the 21st century. The systemic issues that got us here (and the massive changes needed to get us out of here) are a conversation for another day.
“The 1%” are elite opera singers at the highest level who make a very comfortable living singing full-time and may never need a correlating career. There are plenty of others, let’s call them “The 5%,” who sing in A and B houses, and make a full-time living through singing. Many of these folks experience long dry spells without gigs, their life circumstances change, or they become burnt out from the demanding lifestyle. I’ve got colleagues who sing at the Met and have one, two or even three additional income streams including teaching, interior design, real estate and coding.
The prescribed path to “success” for classical singers is what I call The Pipeline. The Pipeline is still widely touted by institutions and organizations around the country. We are told that in order to become a full-time professional singer, we must:
- Obtain both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance, ideally from a top program;
- Begin auditioning for Young Artist Programs (YAPs) as early as junior year in undergraduate school, and certainly by the middle of graduate school;
- Enter vocal competitions as young as age 21;
- Get several prominent YAPs and competitions on the resume as early in the “emerging career” as possible—it is at these programs and competitions where managers will hear you and want to sign you, and/or you’ll have enough experience and pedigree to be heard privately by prominent managers;
- Once signed, your manager will ensure you are hired consistently and you will have a wildly successful full-time opera career!
I would so love to get into why this is not effective for the vast, vast majority of singers, and empower you with knowledge about the many different and wonderful paths to a career in classical singing that are available to you. And talk about how even singers who shoot straight through the Pipeline often still end up struggling to make ends meet. But this is beyond the scope of this piece, so you’ll just have to check out some of my earlier work, or come coach with me!
So what happens to the other 94% of singers? Unfortunately, a large percentage of them quit singing altogether. Often this is due to having too much debt from music school to continue pursuing a career in singing (ironic, right? Yet another conversation for another day). Additionally, there is a crazy amount of frustration, anger, shame and doubt that result from not being a Pipeliner. In other cases, the singer simply realizes that the lifestyle is not for them (because let’s face it, it is wickedly stressful and complicated).
As for everyone else? They are figuring it out in their own way. They are either independently wealthy, have a partner or family supporting them financially, or—you guessed it—they have correlating careers. And for the most part, they are ashamed of that fact. My job is to make that stop.
This is where I point out that being a singer is really, really, really, really expensive. I highly recommend reading my colleague Zach Finkelstein’s article called “Million Dollar Voice” for all kinds of fun facts, figures and data. Please trust us on this: A correlating career will actually increase your chances of staying in the singing game. You’ll have the money to travel to auditions, pay for application fees (don’t even get me started), have regular lessons and coachings, maintain a website, and purchase audition and performance clothing. You’ll be able to be choosier about which gigs you actually want to do. And you’ll have added fulfilment from your secondary skill, and so your vocal triumphs and failures will not define you (and failures are an inevitable part of the job).
Plan ahead and educate them young
In 2020, singers truly MUST make a correlating career part of their career path mapping from the start, instead of scrambling later on. Parents of teenaged singers interested in a singing career especially need to be educated about the realities of the field to help their kids navigate smart career planning. I believe that voice teachers also have a responsibility to communicate these realities to their young students (or send them to someone who can, if they do not feel equipped to do so). It can be very challenging to impress the importance of “boring,” pragmatic career planning upon young people with talent and stars in their eyes. But it has to be done. The younger the singer is when they learn the cold, hard truth, the more likely they are to have a fulfilling life in singing and correlating career(s).
To quote Sondheim, “Careful the things you say, children will listen.” It is a great disservice to provide young people with outdated, largely irrelevant career information, and/or information strongly biased or influenced by a 1%-er’s experience.
Between 2012 and now, I have given career talks to over six hundred serious high school classical singers. I am in touch with a huge percentage of them, and I can tell you with certainty that the information they were equipped with in high school had a huge impact on their planning. Two of them that I know of are in the 1%. A dozen or two more are enjoying very successful jaunts through The Pipeline. Many have gravitated toward other fields altogether. The majority of them are in the process of cultivating their correlating careers, or living as professional singers with already established parallel career income streams.
How does this even work, Dana?!
Let me address three elephants in the room.
First: This is hard.
I know what you’re thinking. How can I travel for singing when I’m tied down by another job? How can I go to an eight-week Young Artist Program without losing my job? How can I find the time to practice and perfect my craft as a performer when I’m distracted by some other job? How can I focus at work when I am in tech week, rehearsing until midnight? All good questions. The key is choosing a correlating career that’s flexible and right for your needs. Time management, organization, self-care and vocal rest are also crucial to making this work. I am not saying it is always going to be easy. You’d better believe there will be weeks when you think “am I insane? Why am I doing this?” Well, you’re doing it because you love to sing and you NEED to sing. And you also want to eat and pay your rent. And have health insurance. Essentially, YOU are your OWN patron.
Next: It is OK to not LOVE your correlating career.
Sometimes work is just work. Ideally, you derive some fulfilment from it. But listen, different strokes for different folks. For some, being personally invested in both the singing career and the correlating career is too much. They’d rather do work that does NOT require them to be personally invested during the day, and then pour all of their mental, emotional and creative energy into their personal lives and their singing careers. Great! You know you, so you do you. If you know that you NEED your correlating career to be personally fulfilling, you must plan it carefully and ensure that you are adequately qualified to find employment in your desired correlating field.
Last: It is OK to cycle through odd jobs and “side hustles” in your quest to find your ideal correlating career.
There is zero shame in working in retail or food service, customer service, driving for Lyft, delivering groceries, making coffee, providing childcare or anything else in the gig economy. Much of this type of work is essential, and a great contribution to our society! In some cases, folks find that they like the work enough and make enough money for it to be their long-term correlating career. If that is the case, I encourage anyone making minimum wage or thereabouts to work toward the next pay level. This can happen by moving into management positions, always advocating for a raise, or applying for better-paying positions once you have a good amount of experience.
How do I figure out what my correlating career(s) should be?
Let me start by pointing out that private teaching is a go-to correlating career for professional singers, for obvious reasons. For me personally, this was an easy choice early on because I am extremely passionate about vocal pedagogy. I began a private voice studio when I was twenty, and have maintained a full studio for almost twenty years now.
But a word of caution to would-be teachers: teaching is not for everyone. A singer should only teach if they like it, if they’re educated about vocal pedagogy, and if they are confident that they will help, not harm. A singer should not teach just because it is the most common correlating career and everyone else is doing it. Singers must realize that just because they sing well does not mean they are automatically equipped to teach well. Being able to do it is one thing, being able to teach is very much another. I could go on about this for two pages, but I’m going to put a pin in it for now.
You must decide if your correlating career(s) will be in the same general field (music/voice/arts), or in a completely different field. There are plenty of excellent correlating career options both inside and outside of the field of music/voice.
The most important questions to ask when determining your ideal correlating career are:
-What is my skill set? What am I good at? What else do I love to do?
-How many hours a week am I going to have to work in this correlating career?
-Are the hours fixed, or do I make my own schedule?
-Can I do this work remotely, or do I need to be there in person?
-How flexible will this correlating career be when it comes to my own auditions and gigs?
-How taxing will this correlating career be on my voice and body?
-Am I entrepreneurial? Do I want to run my own business?
As with anything, there are clear positives and negatives to any career path. It is up to you to determine whether the pros outweigh the cons for any potential correlating career. Here is a quick and dirty Pros and Cons list from real-life correlating careers I have encountered in my work as career coach and lecturer:
|CAREER||POSSIBLE PROS||POSSIBLE CONS|
|Private Voice Teacher||-Potentially lucrative |
-Make your own schedule
-Work fewer hours
-Use skills you’ve already acquired
-Improve your own technique in the process
-Very flexible for gigs
|-Vocally taxing |
-Requires business sense and organization
-Hard to enforce policies
-Recruitment and retention requires a lot of time and attention
|K-12 Music Educator||-Benefits and stability |
-Consistent, reliable pay
-Use skills you’ve already acquired
-Out by 3 or 4pm
-Positively influence young people
|-Vocally and physically taxing |
-Additional work required at home
-Very limited flexibility for travel and gigs during school year
|Professor in Higher Ed (Voice and/or related subjects)||-Benefits and stability (if full-time; adjunct is variable) |
-Opportunities for research, publishing
|-Lots of prep required for courses |
-Many extra requirements including committees and meetings
-Pay, especially for adjunct professors, often very low.
|Web Designer for Musicians||-Make your own schedule |
-Help other musicians
-Little to no speaking/vocal energy required
|-Requires business sense, marketing, PR, etc. |
-Unpredictable and inconsistent pay
-Second correlating career likely needed
|Real Estate Agent||-Potentially lucrative |
-Fast-paced, interesting and varied work
-Affordable short-term licensing process (no degree required)
|-Tons of driving around |
-Unpredictable and inconsistent hours
-Sometimes must be available at short notice
|Massage Therapist||-Lucrative |
-Little vocal energy required
-Affordable/short licensing process (no degree required)
|-Many hours on your feet; physically taxing |
-Variable hours and pay
-Little to no vocal energy required
-Can work remotely
-Can get coding certification online
|-Boring and repetitive |
-Lots of time at desk/on computer
-Limited upward mobility without degree in computer science
|Arts Administrator||-Be in the room where it happens! |
-Help work toward positive industry change!
-Utilize skills and knowledge you’ve already acquired
|-Long hours for low pay |
-Demanding and stressful work /many jobs in one
-Often take work home with you
-Often required at events outside of work hours
|Fine Dining||-Lucrative |
-Good social component
-Flexibility for gigs (with advance notice)
-Upward mobility possible
|-Vocally and physically taxing |
-Evening hours likely required; may conflict with rehearsals/gigs
So what do I do about school??
For those who plan ahead from a young age, it may be determined that a second degree/double major is required in order to be qualified for the correlating career. Another option for college students is to major in the correlating career field and minor in music, being sure to stay as involved with the music department as possible. Then pursue plenty of musical opportunities and additional training in the summers and post-graduation. Contrary to popular belief, you do not necessarily have to have a degree in music to become a professional musician. It really depends on how strong your musicianship is, how self-motivated you are and how disciplined you are with practice. There is a LOT you can do on your own if you have a plan and follow through. Singers interested in becoming K-12 music educators may find that a music education major makes more sense than a performance major, because they’ll still enjoy most of the perks of a performance major track but will graduate with an extremely marketable degree.
Allow me to debunk a couple more common myths at this juncture:
First, I assure you, it is absolutely possible to go to graduate school for music after completing an undergraduate degree in a different area of study! Second, graduate school is optional. I promise. Again, this depends on the person and their individual needs but there is no rule requiring a singer to go to grad school for voice in order to become a professional. And in 2020, the price tag of graduate school begs serious consideration before enrolling in a program just because you think you are supposed to.
Second, a double major or non-music degree in undergrad may not be necessary for your potential correlating career(s). Depending on where you go to college (if you go to college), you can do a lot of correlating career prep simply through elective courses. Most importantly, everyone should take at least an intro to business course. I hope the why is obvious if you’ve read this far! If you know that you are entrepreneurial and could see yourself starting a business, be sure to take additional business/marketing and accounting courses during undergrad. Learn how taxes work. Learn about economics. Same deal for arts admin, if that is a path that interests you.
Third, if you are interested in becoming a life coach, load up on psychology and sociology courses. Want to be a voice teacher? Take all possible vocal pedagogy courses (and those psych courses would come in handy too…) Do not assume that you will be able to work in higher ed as a voice teacher—prepare yourself for your future independent private voice studio by, you guessed it, taking business/marketing/accounting courses. Interested in costume design? See if there is a course you can take, or an internship possibility with the costume department or a local theater/opera company.
Finally, hold space for the possibility that the correlating career you thought you wanted doesn’t end up being the right fit. That is ok. The most important thing is that you develop multiple skill sets as well as knowledge about business and finances.
Some final thoughts on Correlating Careers
If you’re coming to a correlating career after college or later in life, great! As I said, many fields simply require a certification process, which can be completed at any time. You can always go back to school if another degree is required. You may find that you are already qualified to get started on your correlating career(s) right now. It’s never too late to start.
Not every singer will need a correlating career for life, but we all must be realistic about the income we can expect from performing. A correlating career may well be what makes a continued singing career possible! Many singers find themselves eventually choosing to make their correlating career their primary career. There are myriad reasons why someone would choose to stop focusing on performing. You may find a decade from now that it’s actually your correlating career that has given you more success, financial freedom and satisfaction—and this is ok.
Be proud of your correlating career. You are a multi-faceted, awesome human. Embrace what makes you unique, and carve out your own path in this crazy industry during this crazy time.
No shame, no shoulds.