Education comes in all forms. Fortunately, I was lucky to earn high marks throughout my academic career, but since grad school I’ve realized that the school of hard knocks often teaches the most valuable lessons. Several of the world’s richest and most successful individuals (including Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) actually never finished school. Am I telling students everywhere to quit? Not at all!
College is essential for a well-rounded education, but some of the most practical skills for succeeding can’t be learned in a classroom. We all have artistic ideals that we aspire to, and yet we all still have bills to pay before we’re rich superstars. A few of my classes offered me tools that I still use to make a living, and a few of those skills might surprise you. If I could go back in time and speak with my 18-year-old self, this is the advice I would give to help him make music and still balance his checkbook.
I can hear the groans now. Learning to sing tricky music at first sight is not fun, but trust me when I say that this skill has paid my rent for years in NYC. So many professional choral groups (not just churches) are hiring singers for gigs constantly, and they pay anywhere from $30 to $75 per hour. Many of these are AGMA jobs, and the artistic quality they represent is excellent.
Ensembles like Musica Sacra and New York Choral Artists have given me the chance to make music with conductors like Alan Gilbert and Michael Tilson Thomas in venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. One of these groups even hired me to sing on a major movie soundtrack, and I’m still receiving royalty checks for it. What did all of these jobs value over anything else? The ability to look at the score once and accurately sing my part.
If you’re searching for paid choral opportunities, check out postings on ACDA and on church gig Facebook groups. Create a separate résumé listing your choir and concert experience.
Coursework for vocal performance majors often includes coachings and rehearsals with pianists. In the real world, I have to schedule each of those sessions and pay for them out of my own pocket. Learning a role by imitating a CD is unreliable since many of those recordings are riddled with errors and questionable artist choices.
A typical coaching in New York City costs me anywhere between $75 to $150, so each hour I can spend playing through the score on my own and teaching myself the music saves me significant funds.
Again, paying a coach is not cheap. If I had to be spoon fed the translation and pronunciation for each role I sang in Italian, French, German, etc., I would be absolutely broke. My skills in this area were woefully inadequate in school, but since then I’ve worked hard to increase my understanding and facility with various languages in which I sing. Once I’ve translated and drilled the language on my own, I’ll pay for an excellent coach to help me polish the finer diction points and find the nuanced phrasing that is idiomatic for that language.
Download the Memrise app or Duolingo on your phone. Practice your weakest language for 10 minutes each day. Try watching your favorite Netflix show with German subtitles to drill correct sentence structure.
Some people are naturally savvy with computers and fancy electronic gizmos. That was never my inclination, but by necessity I taught myself how to perform a few essential functions.
• Sound Editing: I used to fork over hundreds of dollars for someone to record me, mix the sound, and edit together my best takes of any given song or aria. With the miracle of GarageBand and Audacity software, I can simply take a sound file from a rehearsal I recorded on my iPhone and turn it into a usable demo.
• Website Design: A couple of years ago I met with a consultant to discuss her rates for overhauling my site. When she said that I would have to pay her $10,000, I spat up my coffee and decided I’d be better off doing it myself.
It’s now easier than ever to put together your own website through services like Wix, Squarespace, WordPress, and many others. And if you find that you have a knack for it, you may also find yourself making extra cash by building websites for your colleagues.
• Video Editing: An MP3 is no longer enough for opera companies, directors, and conductors who are researching singers for casting. The rise of HD broadcasts has elevated the visual aspect of each performance. People want to see and hear the full package.
Thankfully, after hours of trial and error, I finally figured out how to use iMovie on my MacBook to combine my best MP3 tracks with slide shows of my headshots and performance pictures. This has saved me thousands of dollars, and those videos have earned me more performance opportunities.
• Branding/Social Media: Headliners at the Metropolitan Opera pay thousands of dollars each month for a PR team to handle press releases, bios, tweets, and Facebook and Instagram posts. Of course most of us can’t afford those fees, so it’s up to us to figure out our own brand and spread the word about our projects.
Initially I resisted a Twitter account and a professional Facebook page because it felt too self-indulgent. But after prodding from my friend and colleague Sidney Outlaw, I finally took the plunge. I created a unique approach to online content, and it eventually opened the door for me to open my own consulting firm (Blalock Branding) for companies and individuals who need help formulating their digital strategy.
Artistic achievement and financial success sadly don’t always go hand in hand. Few classical singers become wealthy, but hopefully we all gravitated toward classical singing for artistic fulfillment, not financial gain. The good news is that by honing these practical skills, we can save significant funds and find a greater degree of fiscal freedom.
Instead of picking up a double shift at your restaurant job to pay for another coaching or video editing session, you can use that time to sing a few scales and practice your next role. But time is money, so let’s all get back to work now!