This post is based on a #MusiciansAtWork conversation in March 2017 with Boston-based freelance singers Lindsay Conrad (NEC MM ’11), Seth Grondin, and Bethany Worrell (NEC MM ’11).
I’m so appreciative to Lindsay, Seth, and Bethany for being both candid and generous. Following is a summary of what I found most salient and important to share to benefit other singers. My three featured guests tended to be in general agreement with each other’s statements, and I am therefore intentionally presenting their ideas without specific attribution.
The challenges of becoming established
Generally speaking, personal connections are hugely important in the freelancing community for opening up opportunities for further work. This includes making connections with conductors. Why? “Anyone conducting a community chorus is surely conducting other groups.”
Word of mouth is powerful. It is advantageous to think of other singers as your friends, not your enemies. “If your friends are successful, then you are on a good plane” by association, and they become resources and referral sources for other professional opportunities.
“You don’t know who is watching, so you always do your best work” independent of the pay level. It could be a colleague, chorus manager, or even an audience member that becomes an important connection to your next job. You will “see people who will get away with mediocrity” but “at a certain point, everyone is good. It comes down to how prepared you are, how good a colleague you are.”
One other note on the importance of connections and community: it’s wise to assemble a personal advisory group/support team of colleagues and friends who will have your back when the going gets tough, and it will inevitably get tough. “Who are your people?”
It is “important to keep a structure for yourself like you had in school.” The challenge is that now you have to schedule all of your own performance preparation (e.g. rehearsals, coachings, and memorization). There’s also the challenge of learning to say "no" to some opportunities in order to avoid high stress or burnout (e.g. having a performance project to learn and rehearse every three weeks is preferable to one every two weeks).
There have been significant changes in the opera industry over the past decade: no longer is there a single path to success through Young Artist Programs. This is due to the decline in professional opportunities as some of the large and mid-sized opera companies have closed down. Meanwhile, at least locally, there has been a noticeable increase in small companies’ activity, but there is definitely an upper limit for opera-related employment if you choose to focus on a regional career without including regular domestic (and even international) travel for additional professional opportunities.
Keep in mind that everyone is juggling gigs, teaching, and other work to pay their bills. It’s about managing the ratio of employment opportunities increasingly towards more soul-nourishing performing experiences and fewer survival jobs. This most likely includes balancing paid gigs with personally satisfying artistic projects, such as recitals, that often don’t pay well, or don’t pay at all. Such is the life of a professional freelance singer in 2017.
Things you should know about working in Boston
There are some definite perks for Boston-based freelance singers:
Your professional network starts with your community created during your time at NEC, and then all it takes is “one or two degrees of separation” in order to open some doors. Meanwhile, BostonSingersResource.org is worth the cost of a year’s subscription.
Boston is one of the best places to find choral work, and Sunday mornings can be very lucrative because of all of the church services.
There are a significant number of smaller opera companies flourishing in and around Boston.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is the best volunteer gig around because you get to work with, observe, and learn from BSO members, conductors, guest artists.
An important niche opportunity for singers in Boston: oratorio and concert roles with the many local orchestras. The benefits include few rehearsals, better pay, solo experience, and no audition needed (these opportunities definitely come from connections and word of mouth).
Meanwhile, it is worth keeping in mind that, probably due to the connections and word of mouth hiring practices discussed, anecdotal experience suggests that some singers find that they need to leave Boston and then return in order to get hired for some of the higher-level gigs.
“No shame in survival jobs.” These are the non-music, usually purely administrative jobs that you do because you have to pay your rent each month. They are necessary, especially at the beginning of your professional career, and you must simply persevere long enough for some significant singing opportunities to arise—probably through your connections. Survival jobs work best when you are upfront with a prospective employer about your career aspirations as a singer, and the employer agrees to provide flexibility for when you have opportunities to perform. You need to take three consecutive days off next month? “Cool. Go sing.”
Temping is an extremely common way for freelancers to start out making money to support their singing habit. Temp agencies will help you get your foot in the door to build up some basic administrative skills and enhance your resume for future jobs. It’s important to note that singers fit the profile for successful administrative assistant or receptionist positions. This is because singers are skilled performers who are accustomed to thinking about presentation, tend to be highly educated, and know how to be personable (even if they are acting). These are desirable qualities. A helpful mindset to adopt when working in admin roles is “everyone I meet could be future employer," including as a performer.
In Boston, Mary Manning, Monument Staffing, and Atrium Staffing have each placed many singers in temporary assignments. You won’t know it from reading their website bios, but many established freelance singers started off with temp work. In fact, a NEC faculty member shared with us that, as a young freelancer, she remembers purchasing a typewriter at a New York City pawnshop and teaching herself to type in order to get secretarial work at a Rockefeller Center office.
To recap, there is “no shame in survival jobs.” This is the reality for freelance singers in Boston in 2017.
Sharing project documentation and examples of student thinking, and my own.