The Music Major Minute: : Correlating Careers that Will Help Pay the Bills

One of the most common questions family members ask their music major is “How are you going to make a living?” The bold young singer may simply look their grandfather in the eye and reply, “I am going to be a famous opera singer. Also, may I have $20?” A host of young students are thinking, “I’ve got four years to figure that out.” This column will address the need to prepare for a correlating career that makes financial sense for a singer on the go.

Creating an operatic career requires phenomenal talent, endless hard work, and a great deal of luck. Many singers will find success in time and some will change careers because of the difficulties of competition, loneliness on the road, or the desire to be with family. Let the record show that I am not beginning this column by saying you won’t make it big. I believe in the power of a good audition and I am rooting for you!

Correlating careers in music are important for most singing artists to fund themselves as they establish success and figure out what kind of life they want to build. The earlier you investigate options and training, the more opportunities you will find to support your operatic journey.

Q: What is a correlating career in music?
A: A career that will pay you for your musical expertise.

Classical singers don’t major in music because they think it will be lucrative. Rather, most musicians agree there is nothing else they can imagine doing for the rest of their lives. If there is something else you find compelling, consider taking a few classes and at least give it a try. But if you know that music is the only career for you, then money might not seem to matter as much as your artistic passion.

The modern-day starving artist scene doesn’t look exactly like the setting of La bohème, but it often includes eating ramen noodles and living with six roommates. If your idea of “happily ever after” includes a bit of personal space and some fresh produce, then a correlating career in music, aka your plan B, is important to consider early in your training. Nobody wants to imagine failing or giving up singing because they simply do not make enough money to pay their bills.

Dana Lynne Varga wrote in the September issue of this magazine, “Surprisingly, a correlating career will actually increase your chances of being a successful singer. You’ll have the money to travel to auditions, pay for application fees, have regular lessons and coachings, maintain a website, and purchase audition and performance clothing. You’ll have added fulfillment from your secondary skill, so your vocal triumphs and failures will not define you” (“Getting Real: The Correlating Career”).

So, let’s get down to business and look at music in our day-to-day lives and find ways to pay the bills when you aren’t onstage.

Ten Correlating Careers in Music

1. Teaching
Whether you build a private studio teaching voice lessons, teach classroom music in a private school, lead early childhood music classes, or work in other educational outlets beyond public schools, teacher certification is not required but can be helpful. Conversely, for traditional K-12 classroom and choral music, teachers must earn certification in addition to the music degree.

Teaching private lessons is a skill in high demand. Many parents want their children to take private music lessons, and every teenager that has seen Glee will choose voice over most instruments. There are sources full of great information on setting up a successful studio, but the most important resource is you. Learning to teach singing takes time and skill.

Your university vocal pedagogy course is your first actual qualification besides knowing how to sing well yourself. In NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) there are university student chapters to help you develop your teaching abilities. Piano chops are especially important for teaching younger students. If you are a voice major interested in teaching private lessons, I would encourage you to first take pedagogy and pass your piano proficiency.

2. Arts Administration
There are stable careers to be found in management positions for opera companies, choral organizations, professional symphonies, regional theaters, and more. The top jobs in this field may require a graduate degree in arts administration and a zeal for fundraising. Every university music program and professional arts organization needs administrative assistants to organize the seasonal goings-on. Graphic design skills are essential for all arts organizations—this can be a full-time job for bigger companies or a solid gold asset for a small company where one assistant does a bit of everything.

Assistant/secretarial work will not pay much, but it can give you experience if you are looking toward a management position. Temp jobs in urban areas can pay high hourly rates for those with exceptional computer skills, so for office work for your own career and at an actual office, it is advisable to take advanced tech courses that count toward your undergraduate degree. Administrative work for an artistic boss will likely be more flexible if you need time off for an audition or a gig. When interviewing for any office work that wants regular 9-to-5 hours, be forthcoming about your goals so you enter the workplace knowing whether or not you can expect any support for your after hours job as a singer.

3. Artist Managers
Working singers need agents and/or managers that have excellent communication skills, diplomatic demeanors, negotiation skills, and a mind for business. The best agents know “everyone,” so just remember that the golden rule you learned in Sunday school can get you hired or fired—i.e., be nice. Shake hands everywhere you go and remember names. Many agents offer paid internships, but this field is extremely competitive and commission based—so if representation is your dream, push up your sleeves and get ready to work, network, and work some more.

4. Church Musicians
Many music majors and emerging artists will have a part-time church job singing in a choir for a nice chunk of change. Most of this work is for Sunday services, but paid choristers are often hired for funerals, weddings, and holiday services. If you enjoy this work, there are large churches that employ full-time music directors, choral directors, music ministers, youth music leaders, cantors, and more.

You can find sacred music jobs that are more traditional or more contemporary depending on where you live and if you have a denomination preference. Securing these jobs usually includes a sight-singing audition, so remember that aural skills is not just another class to check off your list—it is designed to solidify your abilities and confidence in sight-reading music. Develop this skill early and you will be a more hirable musician.

5. Choral Musicians
Singing in professional choirs can be part-time work, but if you hone your sight-reading skills and choral technique, it is possible to make bank by singing with several union pay-scale choirs throughout the season. There are wonderful ensembles that record and tour programs of early music with period instruments. If you have a passion for plainchant, neumes, and other troubadour-type tunes, check out graduate programs offering specialized studies in early music.

6. Opera Choristers
The larger the opera house, the more money you can make singing in the chorus. This is union work and a crazy fun way to learn the repertoire, meet stage directors and conductors, and watch superstars onstage in the spotlight.

7. Musicology/Ethnomusicology
Research will never go out of style. If music history, world cultures, and ancient discoveries get you going, then take a musicology course and join a Celtic, Chinese, or other non-Western music ensemble. There might be a place for your research in the next edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Musicologists can be writers, teachers, museum curators, directors for arts councils, and more. If Anthony Bourdain is looking for a music guru for his television show, an ethnomusicologist will be the prime candidate.

8. Music Therapy/Speech Therapy
Music and speech therapy are graduate fields of study requiring an undergraduate degree in music and scientific proficiency. Singers interested in vocal anatomy and vocal wellness might find speech therapy an exciting career path. If you are a compassionate, problem-solving type, music therapy is a specialty career that can help many people from young children with behavioral disorders to the elderly and disabled. Music and speech therapy are growing fields in medicine offering excellent incomes.

9. Music Industry
Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) is a degree program in many universities offering music and business courses in what is essentially a double major. This music industry degree provides an introduction to broad areas of industry including music law, studio recording, production, event management, tech positions for theaters, and music publishing/marketing.

Of course, there are many more areas of work in popular music and with computer-generated music including virtual orchestrations. I am seeing new fields of study emerge constantly. There are technical positions in the classical arts as well—think Met HD broadcasts, New York Philharmonic live streams, etc., that all require full-time video/editing/production crews. If you are camera, video, recording, and computer savvy, the opportunities to work in new music areas are growing by the day.

10. Other Correlating Careers for Exceptional Talents
-Stage Directing
-Alexander Technique
-Costume Design
-Makeup/Wig Design
-Photographers for Headshots
-Videographers for Live Performances
-Coach for Languages/Acting/Auditioning
-Piano Tuning
-Children’s Chorus
-Children’s Theatre
-Finale/Sibelius Transcription for Publication
-Music Arranging/Editing for Publication

You’ve Got a Friend in Me
I have friends that work in all of these fields all over the world, not to mention one soprano in particular that is the editor of my favorite read: Classical Singer magazine. Some of these careers are full time, and many of these areas lend themselves well to the aspiring singer that needs part-time work. If you love singing, be creative, be proactive, and explore options that matter to you. With persistence, you can work to find a musical way to pay your rent and your voice teacher as you follow the Opera Brick Road.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” For further consideration, do not throw diva tantrums when you do not get a solo, do not badmouth the soprano that irritates you, and always thank your pianist. From freshman year to your retirement gala at the Met, you will work with people that might help you in your career, so pay it forward now and hope for a paycheck later.

Christi Amonson

Soprano Christi Amonson’s recent concert engagements include touring China as a soloist with Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, “Easy to Love” pops concert with the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra. Opera News described her sound as “liquid silver” after singing Nannetta with Chautauqua Opera. Amonson earned her DMA in voice and theatre under the tutelage of Grayson Hirst at the University of Arizona, where she has been an instructor. She earned her MM in Voice at the Manhattan School of Music and her BM in Music Education at the University of Idaho. In New York City, she sang with several opera companies and directed choirs for the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s Urban Voices Program. She is currently assistant professor of voice at Troy University.