MAKING A LITURGICAL LIVING

First published in Classical Singer.

Dear Erda,

I've recently discovered, to my surprise, that rather than being nothing more than a time-wasting source of income, my church job actually brings me a lot of joy. I love the music, the director is wonderful, and he gives me lots of opportunities to stretch my vocal muscles. Is it possible to make a career out of singing liturgical music? I'm not saying that I'm ready to give up opera completely, but since I found a style of singing that obviously works for me, I'd like to explore it.

- Making a Joyful Noise

 

Dear Joyful,

How wonderful that you've found such fulfillment singing at your church job. Whether or not you could turn it into a career depends on a lot of factors ... like what do you mean by "career"? Do you mean fully supporting yourself? Do you mean having a day job and centering your singing career on being a church musician? Do you only want to sing, or do you have other skills you could bring to a church music staff?

I would be very surprised if there were any sizeable number of American singers making a living singing in church, with no other sources of support. (I’ve heard that it’s possible to be strictly a church singer in Germany, but I have no further information on that topic). However, I do know a number of singers whose primary professional activities center around liturgical music. Here are a few (true) scenarios; see if any of these fit what you are thinking about:

1. Daniel spent a number of years as a house tenor in Germany. He returned home, got a job as music director of a large church, and started (at various times) several major choral organizations. He conducts and continues to sing as a soloist in church, in many church-related concerts, and in various festivals and concert venues around the country. He is starting a concert series which will employ his fellow singers.

2. Stephanie has a day job, but she is a regular soloist at the Catholic cathedral in her town. She is in great demand locally for early music, weddings, funerals, recitals, chamber concerts, and any church-related functions.

3. While pursuing her growing regional-level opera career, Meg supports herself mainly by cantoring at her church and singing all the weddings and funerals.

4. Paula attended Westminster Choir College and has extensive vocal training. She and her assistant, Karen, comprise the music staff for their large Catholic Church. In addition to directing the choirs and small ensembles, they sing all the solos for services, weddings, and funerals. Their repertoire covers a wide range of classical and contemporary popular music.

All the people I’ve mentioned have found niches. It strikes me that what you are looking for is a niche job, and with the right connections and skill set you might very well be able to make it work for you. I suggest starting at the source: speak to your church choir director and tell him what you’ve told me. Ask if there are any positions you could fill on the music staff? Could a position be developed for you? What suggestions does he have for you in pursuit of this niche career?

Also, take a look at the other large churches in your area. See what they have in terms of music staff. Investigate their needs; perhaps you will identify a need and figure out how to fill it in such a way to create your niche!

Finally, don’t forget that a relatively small percentage of singers make their entire living from singing one type of music, whether it be opera or anything else. Perhaps you can make liturgical music the main focus of your singing career, while still pursuing other genres.