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  • Writer's pictureZach Finkelstein

Up in the Air: A full-time classical singer opened his books. Here’s what you can expect from a life

The question ‘how much does a full-time classical singer make per year?’ is a thorny one. There are singers that perform as their only job; there are opera singers, concert singers, new music singers, and ensemble singers; there are singers that also teach; there are singers that have another job and perform only occasionally; and there are some singers who lose money every year, on net, but still call it a job.

I’m counting all those people as professional classical singers; in other words, if you’re classically trained trying to earn money in music, and you are performing in some capacity to a public audience at least once a year, you are a classical singer.

What types of performance income can you expect as a classical singer?

We’ll cover non-performance income in future articles; for now, we can define at least four streams of performance income for a classical singer:

1. Touring Solo, Concert and Chamber Ensemble: a gig with instrumentalists, one where you are hired to sing a solo outside your hometown. It could be new music, classical, or baroque; it could be with small chamber ensemble or duo (recital) or it could be with full orchestra; it could be a period ensemble or at 440; it could be a presenting organization, a choir, or an orchestra. Examples include Beethoven 9th Symphony, Haydn ‘Creation’, Handel ‘Messiah’, and Mozart ‘Requiem’ solos.

2. Touring Ensemble: an elite group of singers that brings in soloists and choristers across the nation to perform a contemporary classical, classical, baroque, or renaissance work. Examples of a touring ensemble are Chanticleer, Lorelei Ensemble, Conspirare, Santa Fe Desert Chorale, and Seraphic Fire.

3. Local Solo: mainstage performances with major symphonies and opera companies, down to smaller bootstrap companies and community choirs and orchestra, as well as large churches that contract out soloists and orchestras for major choral works. This also includes presenting organizations with a special focus- for example, in Seattle the vital Music of Remembrance concerts that fund and present new operas focused on Jewish history. Another is the NYC-based Brooklyn Art Song Society, a group that hires local, young singers and pianists to explore the art song repertoire in historically important venues.

4. Local Ensemble: otherwise known as Churchy McChurches-alot. If you’re lucky, a touring ensemble or elite level chorus is based in your city, as well as an opera chorus and a symphony chorus.

Finding your Dial Number: What does a “full-time” performance career look like? What’s in your mental comfort zone?

In my previous posts, I’ve tried to suggest a dual path for singers: to build skillsets outside of music and leverage those earnings into your business expenses. I’ve tried to show performance as less of an either-or, a binary ‘professional’ vs. ‘failure to launch’, and more of a dial, ranging from zero to 10 with zero as full-on Muggle music appreciator and 10 as George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’, living out of a suitcase. And I’ve also tried to show that a singer with the performing dial up about half-way who spends the rest of their time on other pursuits is often the happiest, fulfilled, and most financially stable.

For most pros, if we hustle, nail it every time, and get lucky, we can aim to hit halfway up the dial: performing or rehearsing half the year, most of it travel, and spending the rest of the year preparing through coachings, lessons, and practice, as well as other types of contract work.

We don’t know our dial number max until we are fortunate enough to hit it. Personally, I thrive on routine -my favorite local coffee spot Hotwire, long walks in in the afternoon listening to podcasts, cooking sous vide salmon for my wife, double dates with friends- and need time at home to recharge and rejoin humanity. After about 100 days a year on the road, especially if the work is back-to-back, I start to mentally lose my equilibrium. The routines I set in place to shield myself from depression, loneliness, and anxiety break down. In November 2017, I sang Messiahs from November 29th to December 25th with four days off, ping-ponging 10,000 miles from Seattle to Northern Canada to the Southeastern tip of the US. It was exhilarating (#blessed), but by then I needed a long recovery.

Based on my own mental health and fulfillment, I know that shorter gigs (concert work, not opera) where I have time to recharge once or twice a month, and performing with people who I know, love , and trust, and making sure at least some of those gigs are in my hometown, is my comfort zone. I’m at my happiest when I’m about a 4 out of 10 on the full-time performance dial, if those opportunities are at a professional level. (No note plunking in rehearsals, please.)

We’ve established in earlier articles that making a comfortable living, after fees and expenses, from performing income alone is almost impossible. Almost. However, there are some singers that can pull it off, and it’s not just the A-level stars you might expect. I talked to one such unicorn, we’ll call Jamie, a top-tier concert tenor from Philly.

Up in the Air: Jamie the Tenor

Jamie is a fiercely intelligent tenor in his late 30s. He’s not famous and you haven’t seen him at the Met; in fact, he doesn’t sing opera at all. But over the last decade, he’s quietly built a book of business as a traveling concert soloist with a national network of music directors and artistic administrators that love his collegiality, his dedication, and, his gorgeous tenor solo sound.

At the same time, he has developed a first-class reputation among half a dozen high-level touring ensemble groups, who love his positive attitude, his musicianship on challenging new music pieces, and his flexibility to produce both a soloist and ensemble sound, often in the same concert.

At home in Philly, he sings regularly with the high-level ensembles and a few times a year as a soloist with local presenters and community orchestras.

This adds up to a Mack Truck of work. He sings all -clap- the -clap- time. By his count, 208 days of rehearsals and performances in 2018, mostly on the road.

And he did it without an agent.

Year One: Jamie the Tenor

How on earth did Jamie get to 200+ days a year of solo and ensemble work? What did his Year One look like?

In 2005, Jamie graduated from University of North Texas as a scholarship singer with the blessing of his musician parents. Jamie wasn’t a performance major, and he didn't have any opera experience. But he had a hot lead: a list of Boston conductors provided by a professor who, in the 80s, had worked the choral scene. Jamie was skeptical about the quality of the leads, but, lucky for him, the major domos in Boston haven’t changed in 25 years.

Jamie's first audition in Boston was for Edith Ho’s “repertoire aggressive” all-pro choir at Church of the Advent, Beacon Hill:

After singing contrasting arias a capella, the sight-reading gods smiled that day, and I managed to sing my way through a 12-tone organ piece pedal line. I cracked wise and asked Edith how often she makes tenors perform organ works during a service, and she replied sternly, "Sight-reading is VERY important!"

Jamie was hired. And Edith’s reputation around town was such that the Church of the Advent opened up a slew of other ensemble work around town, including “Cut Circle, Blue Heron, Boston Baroque, Boston Secession, new release recordings for ECS Publishing, subbing at Emmanuel Music and Trinity Church, Schola Cantorum of Boston, and offers from the Handel and Haydn Society.”

A stone’s throw from major research universities like Harvard and MIT, the Church of the Advent attracted musical academics, and led to Jamie’s first day job at Harvard’s Department of Biochem. (In one of the great “small world” moments of life, he probably bumped into my brother Josh, who was there finishing his Biochem PhD.)

Jamie was living on a tight budget -his 2005 rent and bills combined were just $500- in a Davis Square studio. He could walk to work, enjoyed full benefits, and, as a young singer, was saving “what felt like a ton of money.” He worked at Harvard in grants management for three years, saving up and learning how to spreadsheet. (Is that a verb? It should be.)

After burning out on “Ivy League desk work”, Jamie apprenticed to a pipe organ restoration firm, where he picked up key trade skills: “basic cabinetry, metal, electrical, and leather work.” He packed every evening and weekend with gigs and rehearsals, and, from his client contacts at the restoration company, he even scrounged up a few performances of Messiah.

Mid-Career: Jamie the Tenor

Four years into the Boston scene, established as a solid, local tenor, Jamie decided to go back to school and caught a break:

I'd very much enjoyed working with the Yale Institute of Sacred Music (ISM) vocal program's founder and conductor Simon Carrington a few times in Texas and Boston. Also, in Atlanta, I'd sung Bach St. John Passion arias with a supremely talented baritone who was emerging from Yale's ISM having studied oratorio, art song, and chamber music - basically, everything but opera. This friend's teacher, the ISM vocal program's head, had mentioned he wasn't yet satisfied with 2010’s tenor applicants. My buddy called me up and told me to get ready to audition. With the help of master teacher Nina Hinson, I threw my audition rep together and before I knew it, I was headed to Yale for a tuition-free masters in concert solo performance.

Jamie spent two years at the Yale ISM graduate program, studying with elite teachers and "coaching and performing with a who’s who of internationally renowned conductors”. He hit the ground running after graduation:

I emerged from Yale in 2012 determined to sing full-time. Yale's proximity to New York City was very helpful, as I'd sung a couple save-the-day last minute sub gigs that seemed to put me on the map with esteemed organizations like Voices of Ascension and Trinity Wall Street. Between those breaks, the fact that almost everyone who's gone through Yale's ISM is actively working, and that my best friends from North Texas are incredibly talented and working a ton, the transition to full-time freelance was relatively smooth. Through trial and error, I also started learning how to (and how not to) contact conductors and organizations to drum up work. Then, a relationship took me to Colorado and that opened access to "flyover state" opportunities. I never expected the Cheyenne Symphony to put on a full Messiah!

Seven years after he graduated from North Texas, with a book of steady work and a fistful of contacts from Texas, Boston, Yale, New York, and Denver, Jamie was officially a full-time performer.

Now, fourteen years into a healthy concert career, Jamie spends more than half the year on the road for work. Wanderlust is in his blood and, because of the nature of the concert career, he’s made friends in a dozen cities along the way:

As a boy, I toured with the Texas Boys Choir under Columbia Artists. I absolutely loved traveling then and love it even more today. A beautiful part of the concert/ensemble scene is that every week's a different combination of colleagues, repertoire, and location. After seven years of travel gigs, it's very rare I don't already have a good friend among the other soloists, the conductor, and the orchestra. Thinking about the future, I'd love to continue building on the great relationships I've enjoyed.

As for getting an agent, he skipped that step and seems ambivalent about it now:

I've talked to agents and thought about pursuing one in earnest, but I'm a tougher sell than most classical singers. For a two-month period, I imagine an agent might negotiate an opera singer's $10,000 contract. In that same period, I might have 6 different concert gigs totaling $10K, but, obviously, that's 6x more work for an agent setting the fees, housing, transportation, and everything else.

Income and Expenses: Jamie the Tenor

Jamie is obsessed with budgets and spreadsheets; he tracks it all by year and has even calculated his daily rates by each of our four key categories.

Here’s what Jamie made in 2018 broken down by location (home vs. Travel), type (solo vs. Ensemble) and Daily rate (how much he made after expenses per day):

  • Jamie makes nearly 60% of his singing income from travelling ensembles, and nearly a third of his income from travelling solo. He only makes about 5% of his income at home.

  • His highest daily rate is travel solo at over $500 a day. His lowest fee is local church work ($79/day).

  • He makes about $1400 USD a week after expenses travelling with ensembles. Comparing daily rates, that’s on par with his home solo work.

  • Jamie travels 191 days a year, or about half of the calendar year, for ensemble and solo work.

Jamie’s stretch goal for next season is to double his travel solo days; in his words, “if I did 125 ensemble and 66 days of solo travel, based on my daily rates I would make about $67,000 USD a year for the same amount of travel”.

The tenor keeps his major expenses tight. He splits a one-bedroom with his girlfriend, paying only $500 a month, and doesn’t own a car. Because he travels so much, his food and entertainment budget is close to zero. (And, with the amount he travels, he can fly anywhere he wants to visit friends and family from his endless bank of frequent flyer miles.)

Here’s a detailed breakdown of his expenses:

Overall, he spends about:

  • $17,000 USD a year on basic household expenses like rent, internet, gym, and health insurance;

  • About $10,000 USD a year on business expenses, which include all his travel, food and entertainment;

  • Around $12,000 USD on federal and self-employment taxes (22% of his gross income. Note: he’s still working on his 2018 taxes, and this number may need to be updated.)

  • Jamie can save about $17,000 USD a year which he uses to pay down a recent personal debt and fund his emergency savings and retirement accounts.

What can we learn from Jamie?

Over the past fourteen years, Jamie built a steady career as a full-time performing artist. How did he do it?

Jamie took calculated risks by leveraging his network and put himself in a position to get lucky.

In Jamie’s story, he took two major risks that paid off tenfold: a move to Boston after undergrad and a mid-career turn back to school. On the surface, these look like major leaps of faith where he just got lucky. There just happened to be someone at UNT who knew someone who could help him, and there just happened to be someone in his choir who got him a job, and that job happened to get him something else. But they didn’t just happen. He put himself in a position to get lucky, again and again, and eventually it paid off over the course of nearly a decade.

Jamie decided that Boston was the best place for an early music voice of his caliber, and Jamie was the one who reached out to a professor and asked that professor to vouch for him, and Jamie was the one to reach out to Edith Ho in Boston, and Jamie was the one who nailed the audition, and Jamie was the one who struck up a conversation and built a major opportunity out of his weekly gig.

Similarly, it looks like he lucked into a tuition-free ride at the best early music school in the country. But looking closer, we see a pattern: he first proved himself with the conductor at the school through his work ethic and performance, and again for a highly-connected baritone, and Jamie leveraged these opportunities and his growing reputation among multiple gatekeepers into something even bigger.

In Jamie’s own words, recommendations and leveraging your network are everything:

It's funny; since I don't have representation, every symphony gig has a different backstory. Yet, it's *always* recommendations that lead to my symphony gigs. I've been extremely fortunate to work with conductors who lead multiple ensembles and guest conduct around the country. Become a conductor's go to concert tenor while they guest conduct Messiahs and Mozart Requiems here and there, and those orchestra appearances will accumulate.

Jamie also built another set of skills in a different career that helped him survive and thrive in Year One.

At his first job in Boston, Jamie learned some critical skills in the Harvard grants department. He learned the language of corporate and non-profit America: Powerpoint Charts and Excel Spreadsheets. He learned how to sling Pivot Tables, how to assess expenses and calculate a budget, how to write a professional email, and how to interact in a professional setting. These skills all helped him in the concert world: he learned to track his expenses and keep his head above water, how to work a room after a concert, and how to be a good professional colleague in a Boston early music scene no bigger than his office break room.

Jamie knew his dial setting. He thrived on travel and his goals were set towards as much of it as possible.

Jamie knew his travel threshold from the very beginning.

Unlike me- I wilt after about 100 days on the road and want to go home to my wife and read a book on the couch- he’s George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’. Jamie would do this every day if he could (and he’s nearly there.) That’s why his entire career has been focused on performance, not teaching or another local hustle; he knows his limit and he hasn’t hit it yet. I, on the other hand, know mine, and in order to keep professional singing a huge, but not dominating part of my life, I build a financial firewall around it with a second income in data analytics. Jamie’s dial is 10, mine’s a 4. We’re both happy and make a comfortable living as middle class artists.

What’s your dial number?


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