One year ago, soprano Kimberley Bentley began the process of transforming herself from a student to a professional singer. The proposition is formidable under any circumstances, and life in New York City presents special challenges. Photographer Jonathan Ellis documented a week’s worth of frustrations and triumphs. Kimberley discusses them below.
Day Jobs: You have to be able to support yourself before you come here, and you need to have marketable skills to pay your rent. I began building my secretarial skills in college. When I moved to New York, I’d been “temping” in North Carolina, learning software packages as I went. I was surprised to find that this approach wasn’t enough for New York. I contacted a temporary placement agency on Wall Street, but they were looking for a higher skill level. You’ve got to know the current software packages perfectly if you want to work steadily. Last year I graduated from Mannes College of Music, and was working three jobs (as a part-time secretary; teaching at a school in New Jersey; and teaching voice privately), but I found I couldn’t make ends meet once my student loans came due. Recently I got a good long-term temp position at a very reputable company on Wall Street, training in investment banking. I leave the house at 8:15 a.m., and get home around 6:15 p.m. on a good day with no overtime, errands, or lessons.
Health Insurance: I don’t have insurance at the moment, but now that I’m temping, I will be eligible for insurance through the employment agency. [Tiger Employment, 212/412-0600.]
Cost of Living: Being a singer in New York is expensive. I pay $500 a month for my share of an apartment in a not-so-great area of the Upper West Side, which I share with another singer–who is always gone singing! The apartment isn’t close to work or auditions; but we can afford it, and it is a lot bigger than other apartments in NYC. Housing in NYC is atrociously hard to find; we are extremely lucky. Utilities are not included, so that costs extra. I try not to eat out, but when you are alone, it is hard to feel motivated to make dinner just for yourself. It’s easier when my roommate is in town; we make fun creative dinners, with lots of camaraderie.
Subways/Buses: Fares are $1.50 each way. I only use a taxi late at night. Last night, a friend and I went to dinner and then walked around town until 11:45 p.m. I took the bus from 46th street and got home at 1:15 a.m. Why take the bus? It’s only $1.50, and the taxi fare would be $10 plus tip.
Voice Lessons: Top teachers in New York range from $75 to $150 per hour. Coaching here starts around $40 per hour, and goes up to $100 per hour for Met coaches or conductors. I cut costs by taking a voice lesson one week, alternating with a coaching session the next.
Social Life: Most of my social life consists of my roommate, a couple of my very best friends, e-mail, and friends who might come to town. I’m luckier than many singers who come here cold, because I have friends from Mannes. But singer friends here are just as busy and exhausted as I am, so we don’t get together much. It’s hard to find the time or energy to get out and meet people.
Auditions: Auditions are hard to get for singers on my level. Without management, it can be very discouraging because companies often don’t want to hear from you. I went through a real depression for a while, which I’ve found is not uncommon among singers. I’m very lucky, because my roommate is further along the career track and has helped me to learn the ropes. She is very supportive, and gives me ideas and suggestions. There is one main problem with life: fatigue. It is a constant. By the time I get home from work and re-gather my energy to get anything done, it is late and then I’m up until 1:00 a.m. The basic errands of life like groceries, laundry, etc., seem to take so long! So you need unlimited motivation to force yourself to prepare résumé packets and write letters at night, and use your breaks during the day at work to make phone calls and get to the post office. When I do get auditions, I try to combine my breaks and lunch in one lump and run uptown and get back in time. It’s a real trick! A mid-town job would be much easier, but usually not as lucrative
Savings: I had a job last year that paid me as an independent contractor and wasn’t paying my income taxes. The only reason I have savings is because I was frantically trying to save everything I could so I’d be able to meet my taxes. Student loans can kill you. I have singer friends who have $60,000-70,000 in student loans, so I guess I should consider myself lucky since mine are much lower.
The Web: I love e-mail! I stay in touch with friends all over the world, and it keeps my phone bill down! A friend just put up my website for me, at http://members.aol.com/kdbentley/index.html
Safety Net: My parents help me out when there is an emergency. They are my back-up–both emotionally and when I’m desperate, financially. When I got this job on Wall Street, I realized I had no clothes that were appropriate, and no money to purchase them. Mom and Dad came to the rescue, and took me shopping.
Why Put Up with This? On the one side, life in New York can be depressing and frustrating. But frankly, I’m here because I’m a singer, and New York is still where singers need to be. You hear the cliche, “Singing is what I love,” and it is what I love. But the truth for me? Music is the only thing that doesn’t bore me! I tried for three years to be without music in my life, and I lost my sense of who I was. Now I am me again…and I love my life. New York is the best place for a singer. The auditions are here; the teachers, coaches, master classes, managers–this is the center of the world for singers, and sometimes I hate being here…but mostly I love being here.