First published in Classical Singer.
I’m a grad student with heavy student loans. Let’s say I must choose between making my school loan payment this month or buying a lesson with an important coach who might be able to further my career. Would it be foolish to choose the coaching? Would it be foolish NOT to choose the coaching? Where does a singer draw the line on what she should be willing to accrue debt for? How do you determine the artistically and financially healthy way to distribute your resources when there’s clearly not enough to go around?
Dingdingding! You’ve asked the million dollar question (as in, if I had a million dollars, I wouldn’t need to think about this question). As you might imagine, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
Professional singing is an expensive career, and most people who enter into it never make a really spectacular living off. It's not impossible; and you can in fact survive; but most people don't succeed in living strictly on a performance income.
Where do you draw the line? Well, it depends your own priorities and needs, and how you want to live your life after grad school. Personally, I think the key is to minimize the debt you accrue and plan ahead. That includes looking at the cost of your education right now and the debt load you're accumulating.
Most students in the “civilian” professions can expect to make incomes upon graduating that will allow them to pay off their debt in reasonable increments in a reasonable amount of time. Not so singers --- as a fresh-out-of-grad-school singer entering the highly competitive market, you are going to need a LOT of money just to get you to the point where you're hireable at entry level. Very few singers come out of grad school with the polish to hit the professional stage. The depressing truth is that a lot of them emerge without being able to sing well enough to be hired. Up ‘til now, it's all been the basics --- now you are going to start learning how to be a singer, as opposed to just learning how to sing. Young Artists Programs and entry-level singing jobs don’t pay much, and you might even lose money while you’re on the road.
So while you’re acquiring that coveted glossy sheen of experience (it’s sweat; don’t tell) how do you plan and prioritize? Well, first of all, you have to know how much you have coming in every month. This is not always easy for singers, whose incomes tend to fluctuate wildly, but you must have some idea of what to expect, or at least a minimum goal. Right off the top, you must take care of the basics. Everything but rent, bills, food, transportation, and health insurance is a luxury.
Next decide what, if any, disposable income you have at your command. Once you know what you’ve got, you can formulate a business plan. This is an important (and often overlooked) tool that will really help you establish goals and prioritize. (See the XXX issue of Classical Singer for an article addressing this topic).
One thing you need to know is how you're going to support yourself once you graduate, while you are trying to get a career going. You may or may not get into a Young Artists’ Program right away. If you do, you can defer your student loans. You may or may not be able to actually survive and break even on your YAP income; it depends on the program and whether they provide housing; and it rarely is possible to hold an outside job when you’re in a YAP.
If you’re not in a YAP, you obviously have to either get a job and make money, or find funding. Unless your parents or trust fund or sugar daddy are footing your bills, you're probably going to need a day job. I strongly, strongly urge you to develop some sort of skills that will allow you to make reasonable money (so you won't have to struggle to survive or pay off your loans) while you are getting your career off the ground. Some people temp, which provides the flexibility to take off for auditions, but temping doesn’t pay well, often is not very satisfying work, and the market isn’t good right now. Better is to find a better-paying, permanent job with some flexibility.
Now, having a day job and still having time and energy to take voice lessons and coachings and to audition is not at all easy. You can expect to be exhausted and frustrated most of the time. And you will probably find yourself making compromises. For instance, you might be able to live with your parents to save on rent, and use your day job money towards paying down your student loans and financing your voice lessons and audition trips. I did this for a while. You might find it necessary, as one of my roommates did, to have a voice lesson or coaching every other week instead of each week. You might have to plan audition trips very carefully, perhaps saving up to spend 2-3 weeks in New York every fall or winter to catch the majority of the YAP auditions, subletting or sleeping on a friend’s couch. I’m working with a young colleague right now who lives at home with his parents and works for them. He would much rather have an apartment and a job outside the family business, but this affords him the flexibility and financing to travel when he needs to for gigs and auditions. Another colleague has a part-time day job with a law firm, teaches one day a week at a university, and maintains a private voice studio as well. She uses her vacation and sick days to take off for performances and simply reschedules her students. Yet another friend was a long-term temp for first the phone company and then a large law firm in New York City. She was able to get enough time off to go to auditions and in-town rehearsals, and sang in the City Opera Chorus at the same time she was working for the law firm. Still another friend sings in both the City Opera and Met choruses part time, temps part time, and leaves town when she needs to for gigs. Many of my colleagues are on faculty at universities or community music schools. You have to be creative and figure out what works for you.
In short, you do the best you can until you can get your career to the point where maybe you don’t have to have a day job to support yourself. You will definitely have to sacrifice, sometimes quite a lot.
BTW, once you leave grad school, one would hope that your training-related expenses would be limited to voice lessons, coachings, accompanist and audition fees or possibly the occasional dramatic coaching; hopefully ear training, piano lessons, language lessons, and acting classes have been covered in all that debt you’re repaying. And if you don't have any credit card debt, do your best to keep it that way, at least until your student loans are paid off.
I personally was very lucky to have no student debts, due to generous parents who planned ahead and also to scholarships. I also managed to stay out of credit card debt until I’d lived in New York for a couple of years; even then, I was able to keep it fairly manageable. I had a cheap apartment, a roommate, and temp jobs when I wasn’t working singing. I also did not move to New York until after I had established my career to some degree, and signed with management. I would not say that I ever had much in the way of savings, however; but being debt-free when I started was a great advantage.
I was also extremely fortunate to have a generous, kind teacher who mostly comped my lessons or charged me much less than her usual fee, and I frequently worked with coaches who were willing to do the same. Such people are out there; I was very, very lucky that they believed in my talent and were willing to nurture it without asking anything in return. They offered, by the way; I never asked and never would.
Nowadays, I try not to accrue debt for anything but important auditions. I do not live in NYC and so must make a commitment to travel there several times a year. I save up for these trips and I try to maximize them by doing the bulk of my coaching when I’m there, and also tacking on as many auditions as I can. I sometimes barter for voice lessons.
As for your question about whether to pay off your student loan or pay for a coaching with a connected person, I would pay the student loan and save elsewhere so you can have the coaching next month. Coachings are going to be there down the line, but if you default on your loans, you’re going to have a hell of a time buying a house or a car later on.
The guidelines are what you can stand, basically. I think it would be foolish to throw caution to the wind and indulge yourself in all the lessons and audition trips you wanted; much better to plan carefully and weigh each opportunity as it comes in. Also, you have to be creative about how you get what you need artistically. For instance, this summer I taught my business workshop as part of a pay-to-sing program, and in return got to take Feldenkreis classes and have several lessons with my voice teacher. I didn’t make any money but I didn’t lose any, either! I have bartered with teachers before and I allow my own students to do the same. I never take a vacation that doesn’t involve an audition or two or an actual singing gig.
I hope all of this has been somewhat helpful. If I think of anything else, I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, I would like to use your questions for my Ask Erda column in Classical Singer. I can use your name or you can be anonymous. What do you think?