Choral Gigging

When you go to the opera or an oratorio work, there are usually a few soloists and lots of choristers. Sometimes they’re volunteer, but frequently, such as at the Met, New York City Opera, or Carnegie Hall, they are all paid. Look at all those paid singing jobs behind the soloists! Many of us consider ourselves strictly soloists-in-waiting, but while we’re waiting, we might as well be singing. I talked to a few singers who have plied their trade as concert and chorus singers in between solo gigs. Here’s what I found out.

The best way to get in on the concert singing circuit or get a chorus job is first get a church job that does concerts. That way you get experience, a chance at solo work and you can build up your rep of both solo and choral works. You also get a chance to work on your sight-reading. Then network like crazy. Somebody usually knows somebody else. The next step is to get the number of a choral contractors and audition for them. For a church job, start by calling the Episcopalian churches in your area. Music is a major part of the church service and they frequently hire section leaders.

In NYC, contractors hire for choral organizations and churches throughout the cities. The best way to get in touch with one of these contractors is again, through networking. Ask around and see who has sung for one of these people, or their assistants. Trade the number you want for one you have. Remember, if someone gives you a phone number, you may be taking their job away from them if you get hired instead of them, so trade them some valuable info as well.

The main choral contractors in NYC are Jaquie Pierce, Nancy Wertsch, Cindy Richards Wallace and Martin Doner. Jaquie contracts for most or all of the Philharmonic chorus gigs. Nancy Wertsch contracts most of the Carnegie Hall gigs. Cindy hires for Musica Sacra and a few other organizations. Martin Doner contracts many of the church, temple and sub jobs, but you can also call many of the big churches directly for an audition. Martin Josman of National Chorale does all his own contracting. He’s in the book. He also hires his soloists from auditions. The Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera hold their own annual auditions for choristers. Those are the jewels of the crown. More on thom later.

Next, make a phone call. Be extremely nice and ask if you can audition next time their hearing. These people are besieged with singers and usually hear, if ever, only once a year. Nancy hears once a year and Cindy doesn’t even do that. Many of these jobs are found by that old method; word of mouth. If you can’t sight-read very well, save yourself the embarrassment because they will not hire you and they will NEVER hear you again and you are wasting everybody’s time. The contractors in NYC have enough sopranos for forever, but men will almost always get work. If they can sightread that is.

And now we come to the main pre-requisite for getting hired for chorus work. Sightreading, sightreading, sightreading. Oh, and did I mention, sightreading. Perfect pitch is not high on the list. If the work is being done at Baroque pitch instead of 440 or if they need to transpose it, or if it’s going out of tune, it’s harder for the singer, not easier. My sources tell me that you need to be quick about picking things up and learning fast as there’s usually little rehearsal time. Contractors, whose needs are varied, don’t generally care much how you sound, unless you’re a Wagnerian soprano and they only cast early music, or if you sing out of tune. If they are ‘casting’ a twentieth century atonal work, they will most likely call their perfect-pitch singers. If they’re hiring for high holy days, it will help if the singer reads or knows some Hebrew pronunciation. You need to be an ensemble singer and learn to (here’s that anti-soloist word) blend. Choral conductors want a clean clear sound and sometimes a straight tone, so you need to be flexible enough to go from pop to early music to opera choruses and oratorio.

You need to be a good enough musician so that you don’t need to spend extra time on the piece outside of rehearsal time. One singer told me she only works on something on her own if it’s Russian or if it’s an extremely difficult work she hasn’t done before. You need to be the judge of how much extra time, if any, you need to be prepared. After all, you want to get hired again.

In NYC there is a core of about 60 singers that sing the major concert gigs and about 200 that work all the time, aside from the MET or NYCO, not counting the paid church positions. Concert or Choral singers frequently sing in more than one group. Same singers, just different orchestra, venue and conductor. One concert singer said she got her start concert singing in NYC by auditioning for the Gregg Smith Singers and from there networked her way into the circuit. She currently sings about 30-40 gigs a year under the batons of different conductors for different organizations. However, it actually took three to five years to get to this point. She sings in the Met extra chorus, church, temple and choral gigs. A baritone I spoke with, including his opera chorus job, is singing in around 100 choral performances a year.

Another big tip from one of my sources is, if and when you get offered a job, don’t turn a job down, even if you have a conflict. Try to work out the scheduling conflict and frequently, you can still do the job. If you turn down a gig the first time you get called, the contractor won’t call you again because there’s fifty more where you came from. In NYC, don’t sing for both Nancy and Jaquie, or if you do, keep it under your hat. They are competitors and neither will hire you if they know you are on both of their call lists.

How much you make can be variable. One good thing is, you don’t have to negotiate the fees. Those are determined by the contractor or if the job is AGMA, by the union. Some chorus work, such as the Met extra chorus pays $55/hr., twice AGMA scale. Currently AGMA scale runs between $18-23/hr. for rehearsal and $118-131 for performance. Generally, you do not pay a fee to the contractor as the hiring organization pays the contractor’s fee. However, one of the above mentioned contractors is famous for sending bills for $5.00!

This was printed in Classical Singer Magazine