All, I’m so pleased to present this guest post by the amazing Dana Lynne Varga (whom you might know as Dana Schnitzer, but she recently got married and now has a sexy new last name, so congrats to the Vargas!). Dana, who has a jaw-dropping professional bio that includes everything from singing all over to teaching to founding her own opera company, has a subsequently unique and valuable perspective on our business, and she collaborated with me to put together this very insightful guide on adapting to the current economic environment in our field. This important topic comes up a lot on the BSR Blog, because I believe it’s time to change how we think about what it means to be a professional singer. I’ve suggested often in my work as a singer, writer and audition coach that we replace the term “day job” with “supporting job” to reflect how fundamentally necessary such work is, but Dana takes this to another level by advocating that singers embrace a dual path from the beginning with what she calls a “Correlating Career”, and I think that is seriously a million times better. Dana’s ideas here are spot-on, and I’m excited to share them with you. Thank you, Dana, and Happy Reading!
Getting Real: The Correlating Career
Why creating your own path as a singer should include a dual career
The landscape of the classical vocal field has changed drastically over the last several decades. Gone are the days when opera was a cultural staple, when singers could expect daily voice lessons, private patrons and sold out opera houses. Don’t get me wrong: classical music is alive and well, even in America. But the market is so severely oversaturated with artists, in large part due to the massive number of performance majors graduating from college each year, that our audiences can’t keep up with us. There are times when there are more people on stage than in the house. So singers need to adjust their plans to reflect these changes in our field, and I believe one of the best ways to do this is by planning on a Correlating Career. Singers should make a second professional focus part of their career path mapping from the start instead of scrambling for a “back-up plan” later when the economic realities hit home. Having viable skills outside of performance provides security, peace of mind, and increased career fulfillment!
Why Do I Need a Correlating Career?
Before we talk about Correlating Careers in detail, let’s first take a look at the necessary “formula” that singers are taught to follow in order to have the perfect career trajectory:
- Obtain a Bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance, followed immediately (or soon after) by a Master’s degree.
- Start auditioning for Young Artist Programs as early as junior year in undergraduate school (if vocally ready).
- Start competing in major competitions as young as age 21.
- Continue auditioning for and performing with Young Artist Programs (both summer-only and year long programs) until you have enough mainstage experience and competition wins to be heard by agents, or until an agent picks you up at one of the aforementioned programs or competitions.
- Rely on your agent to secure your mainstage auditions, get hired consistently, and have wildly successful career.
Of course, there are rare cases in which this formula works perfectly. A singer fits well into the mold established by the schools, the Young Artist Programs, and the agents, and for those singers, the formula is convenient, efficient and successful. I’m sure we can all agree, though, that it doesn’t work for most singers. One has to be heard by the right person at the right time, and even then, a voice type might not be marketable. A lyric coloratura is more hirable than a soubrette, for example, because she can sing lyric, soubrette, lyric coloratura AND coloratura roles for an opera company. Almost any aspect of a singer’s look, age, personality, musicality, fach, technique, intonation, or diction can knock them out of the mold. But even for the few “perfect mold” singers, this career trajectory formula doesn’t always work in real life. Successful singers who perform with high level Young Artist programs and have agents often have to endure long dry spells between gigs without income.
Another reality to consider is the fact that more than half of all voice majors quit singing within ten years of graduating. Much of the time it’s because of a combination of discouragement and poor financial sustainability, since even a singer who gigs regularly may come out only slightly ahead at the end of the fiscal year once they’ve factored in lessons, coachings, website maintenance, audition clothing, transportation/gas and application fees. Other times it may be because it’s not feasible to maintain a professional singing career while raising a family, and perhaps sometimes a working singer simply realizes that life on the road isn’t glamorous and can get pretty lonely. So the “singing-only” career formula is rarely successful. How many singers do you know that only sing? I know a few, but most of my other colleagues, friends and acquaintances have a second or third (or fourth!) source of income. Also, keep in mind that those who only sing tend to be male and/or have a spouse or family member helping to support them financially. So it’s time for the rest of us to start incorporating secondary income sources into our plan for the future from the get-go. 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. And note that this is totally different from a “Plan B”, which implies giving up, and does anything sound worse than that? A Correlating Career is a line of work that you’re passionate about and find fulfilling, that provides you with financial security, and that’s done alongside your work as a professional singer.
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 (and failures are an inevitable part of the job). But 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? All good questions.The key is in choosing a correlating career that’s flexible and right for your needs.
Choosing Your Correlating Career
First, decide if your correlating career will be in the same general field (music/voice/arts), or in a completely different field. There are plenty of options both inside and outside of the field of music/voice that can act as a wonderful complement to a performance career. For me this was an easy choice. I’m extremely passionate about teaching voice, so my correlating career was obvious. I began a private voice studio when I was a graduate student, and now I’m able to tailor the lesson schedule to suit my needs. Some singers are interested in vocal anatomy and science, so a career in vocal therapy and/or speech therapy would make an excellent match. A singer who struggles with reflux or vocal fatigue and prefers not to speak too much during the day may find that massage therapy or data entry is the right fit. Yoga and other fitness instruction can be a fantastic option, especially for those who struggle with body tension or weight. Real estate often provides great scheduling flexibility. Some singers strike a great balance by working in a 9-5 administration job, using nights and weekends for auditions, rehearsals and performances. Arts administration jobs are often more flexible with their artist employees and non-arts administration jobs are usually less flexible, so where possible, singers should be up-front in their interviews about the possibility of travel and necessary leave time. Another thing to keep in mind is that while some people have “throats of steel”, it’s generally advisable that singers avoid work that’s hard on the voice, such as answering phones all day, waiting tables in a loud restaurant, bartending, or coaching sports.
Second, get training. Choosing your Correlating Career early is best, because you can get a second degree or develop an additional skill set while in college. If you’re interested in teaching voice, be sure to take all available vocal pedagogy courses in undergraduate school, and consider a double major in pedagogy/performance for graduate school (if offered). Double majoring is always an important option to consider, because even if school takes an extra year, it’s certainly worth it to come out with a solid secondary skill. Another option is to major in voice and minor in a Correlating Career field, or choose a primary degree that focuses on the Correlating Career while studying voice and performance as an elective. For instance, a degree in business or arts administration makes it possible to get a lucrative, stable job with a performance organization (like Head of Marketing for XYZ Orchestra). 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. If you see yourself teaching in academia, you’ll likely need a terminal degree, so be aware of meeting those degree program requirements along the way. If you’re coming to a Correlating Career after completing school, then many fields simply require a certification process (i.e., yoga instructor, massage therapist, real estate agent, beautician) which can be completed at any time. It’s never too late to start.
Some Final Thoughts on the Correlating Career
A final important benefit of developing a Correlating Career is that singers often find themselves choosing to make it the primary career, whether because of the career trajectory issues discussed above or any other of the myriad number of reasons why someone would choose to stop performing. Moreover, the smart singer should always take into account the realities of the business and their place in it. Asking for honest feedback from trusted professionals at every step of your vocal journey and paying attention to whether you’re being cast, placing in competitions, and generating decent income from performing is important. You might find that after many years of hard work and spent money, it’s actually your Correlating Career that has given you more success and satisfaction.
Certainly not every singer will need to use his or her secondary skill for life, but it’s imperative that anyone heading into a career in vocal music be realistic about living on the income from that line of work alone, and I believe it’s a Correlating Career that often makes a professional singing career possible. Many modern singers who use this model find it not only successful but also extremely fulfilling. It engages their entrepreneurial spirit, multiple interests and passions, and provides financial security while enabling them to pursue their singing dreams. So I encourage every singer to embrace what makes you unique, and create your own path!
—by Dana Lynne Varga, with collaboration from Angela Jajko
Dana Lynne Varga (née Schnitzer) is an active professional soprano, voice teacher, career coach and impresario. In addition to maintaining a private studio of over 20 students in Boston, she is on the voice faculty at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute and interim voice faculty at The University of Massachusetts Amherst, and is the Founder/Artistic Director of MetroWest Opera. Dana Varga holds the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Boston University and the Master of Music degree from the New England Conservatory. Praised for her “stunning voice”, soprano Dana Lynne Varga continues to amass accolades for her numerous operatic roles that include Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte, Anna Maurrant in Street Scene, Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus, Alcina in Alcina, Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow, First Lady in The Magic Flute and Giannetta (/Adina cover) in L’elisir d’amore, the latter performed at the prestigious Caramoor Festival in New York. Ms. Varga has sung with Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Boston, Connecticut Lyric Opera, PORTOpera, Boston Opera Collaborative, Commonwealth Opera and Boston Baroque, amongst others. Active on the concert stage, highlights of Ms. Varga’s concert and oratorio performances include the Beethoven Mass in C in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, the Dvořák Te Deum in NEC’s Jordan Hall, Handel’s Messiah with the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, the Brahms Requiem and Bach B Minor Mass with the Metropolitan Chorale, the Beethoven Mass in C with the Newton Choral Society, the Bach Magnificat, Mozart Requiem and Mendelssohn St. Paul with the Choral Art Society, the Mahler Rückertlieder with the Philharmonic Society of Arlington, and both Handel’s Messiah and the Fauré Requiem with Masterworks Chorale. Ms. Varga was awarded the 2012 St. Botolph Emerging Artist Grant for excellence in music. She was a finalist in the lieder division of the 2009 Liederkranz Competition and winner of the Arlington Philharmonic Competition, and was among the winners in the Boston Regional Auditions of the Metropolitan National Council Auditions. She won first place in the National Association of Teachers of Singing Competition, Boston, in both 2004 and 2005. Ms. Varga has attended several young artist programs including the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists Program, PORTopera Emerging Artists Program, the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, and the Brevard Music Center/Janiec Opera Company. Upcoming engagements for the 2014-2015 season include the soprano solos in Vivaldi’s Gloria with the New England Classical Singers, Dubois’ Seven Last Words with Coro Allegro, Bach’s B Minor Mass with the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra, the professional ensemble of Boston Lyric Opera’s 2015 production of Don Giovanni and the role of Liu in Puccini’s Turandot with PANopera. For more information, please visit www.danavarga.com.
Angela Jajko, mezzo-soprano, is the Editor of the BSR Blog. A popular performer of opera, operetta, musical theatre, and oratorio, she has been praised in such publications as The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald for her “peaches and cream” voice and dramatic delivery, and her recent performances have included acclaimed appearances as a featured soloist with Cape Symphony in “Passport to England” in the Barnstable Performing Arts Center, as a featured soloist in Longwood Opera’s New Year’s Eve concert, as the alto soloist in Handel’s Messiah with Maplewind Arts, as the alto soloist in Mozart’s Requiem with Boston Cecilia at All Saints Brookline, and in the role of Prinz Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus with the North End Music and Performing Arts Center Opera Project in Faneuil Hall. Angela has also appeared as Miss Hannigan in Annie with Crescendo Theatre Company, The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot at Theatre at the Mount, selections from Carmen in The Greater Worcester Opera Gala in Mechanics Hall, Tessa in The Gondoliers with The Sudbury Savoyards, Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus with New England Light Opera, Carmen with Greater Worcester Opera, Offenbach’s Island of Tulipatan with New England Light Opera, and the roles of Ruth, Buttercup, Phoebe, Katisha, and The Fairy Queen in concert with the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Her appearances have included as a featured soloist in concerts with Masstheatrica, FIRSTMusic, Ocean Park Festival Chorus, Parish Center for the Arts and New Hampshire Opera Theatre. Angela’s performances have included the roles of Carmen, Theodorine, Augusta, Marcellina, Hermia, Savitri, Pirate Jenny, and La Zia Principessa. She has also performed with Odyssey Opera, PORTopera, Granite State Opera, Longwood Opera, BASOTI, Harvard University, and the International Lyric Academy in Viterbo, Italy. Angela been honored by the American Prize competition and holds degrees in Vocal Performance from The New England Conservatory of Music and the University of California at Los Angeles. She is currently the Associate Executive Director of NELO, an artist coordinator for Opera on Tap Boston, a Board Member of the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society and a Board Member of L’Académie, a critically acclaimed orchestra specializing in performances of French Baroque music in health institutions. She has served as Costumer for a number of productions with companies including Guerilla Opera, Company One, NELO, BASOTI and Longwood Opera. She has also served as a Director for NELO’s Rising Stars program and in other productions as Assistant Director, Stage Manager, and Props Master. She has extensive experience in administration, office management, and event management in a variety of industries. Upcoming performances include engagements with Greater Worcester Opera, Boston Singers’ Resource Concert Series, and All Saints Parish, and she appears regularly with Opera on Tap Boston in shows all over the Greater Boston area. Please visit her at www.angelajajko.com.