Sing for Free—A How-to Guide for Creating a Singing Donation Budget

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In 5 Tips for Taking a Gig (or Not!) I brought up this rule of thumb (from Ratgeber Freie) on taking or turning down a gig:

Does it make me happy? Does it make me rich? Or does it make me proud?

There are gigs that definitely won’t make you rich AND they are incredibly valuable. Because it’s inevitable that people will call you up during the year and say, “We don’t have a lot of money, but…” or even “We don’t have any money, would you sing this as a favor?” Sing for free? I think not!


But hold on for a sec.


There are a couple of situations in which it is appropriate to sing for very little money or even, yes, for free. And there is a limit, which I will get to.

  1. The Goose Bumps. A gig pays next-to-nothing, but you get goose bumps and the “oh-my-goodness” chills when you read the text and play through the score. This is NOT the “oh, wow, that’d be so cool…” reaction. This is the “Stop the train, where did THIS come from?!” reaction. This kind of situation happens maybe once a year…if even that often! So d o it. Do the work. Sing it. Pour your heart out. You won’t regret it.

2. Favors. You already know when it’s time to “sing a favor.” Your best friend’s wedding. Your Great-Uncle’s funeral. A short project for a musician friend. Know when it’s time to ask for a favor, and know when it’s time to return one. And know when it’s time to pay into the favor bank because you might need one in the future.



TIP: Keep the reigns tight on favors. And don’t ‘spread the word’ about them, either. Your reputation as a professional, paid performer depends on it. Maintaining a professional reputation is key to your success; once people know that you are a paid professional, they tend not to call you for freebies and cheapies. However, word does get around if you sing for cheap or for free; this devalues your work, our industry, and eventually, people don't think of you as a professional, but an amateur.

3. Donations. And here’s what I mean by donation:  A) you sing once a year at your church, for free, and are doing special programming; it’s one rehearsal and the church services. Or B) A non-profit organization asks you to sing a program at their event and you forego an honorarium (or donate it directly back to the non-profit). You need to clearly communicate that these are clearly donations and not favors.

To put it in monetary terms, think of a budget worksheet. In every budget worksheet you’ll see the section “Donations,” a percentage of your yearly income. If your yearly percentage works out to be $200 and you made two, $100 donations in March, you’re done for the year. That means, come Christmas, when everybody and their brother starts calling for a donation, and your budget hasn’t changed, you need to say no. One appropriate response is “I’ve already made my donations for the year.” This is the same and wholly appropriate for making Singing Donations. If you haven’t yet, it’s time to create a Singing Donation Budget.


Creating your Singing Donation Budget


Look at previous years’ schedules:

  1. How much singing did you do and how much did you get paid for it? Calculate what your average hourly pay was. (And since we singers operate as independent contractors, remember that this is *gross* income.)
  2. How many Singing Donations did you make?

Calculate roughly how much time previous years’ Singing Donations took. How much time did you need to schedule rehearsals? Mail music to the accompanist? Did you have to special order music ahead of time from a publisher far away? How many rehearsals were there? How many hours of rehearsals did you have?


Calculate how much you donated by taking the hours you spent on Singing Donations and multiply it by your average hourly pay (#1). That’s how much money you donated by way of Singing Donations last year. Now, is how many Singing Donations you made (#2) proportional to the total amount of gigs you had?


Take some time and let this sink in. Make a truthful decision about how many Singing Donations you will make in the next year that’s aligned with your yearly budget, your other financial (cash) donations, and your time budget. (I’ll talk time budget in another Open Intervals post.)


Here are two Singing Donation Budget examples:

  1. Singer Susan determines that she won’t sing any big projects for little money this year, but she will do a church service for free at her own church. And she’s going to call up a music director friend who needs a favor returned and sing a short recital at that church for free. Singer Susan’s yearly Singing Donation Budget is full.
  2. Singer Sally received a HUGE favor from true friend Composer Caroline when Caroline recommended Sally for a gig; the gig came through to the tune of Holy-Huge-Honorarium. Sally knows Caroline needs a singer for a demo recording and offers her services in return. In addition to the Special Music Sally will sing at her church for 3 Christmas Eve services, she’s filled her Singing Donation Budget for the year.

We are professional singers, we have studied long and hard to be able to do what we do, and we deserve to be paid for it. We also deserve the opportunity to give to our communities, the people who support what we do, and we deserve the right to put appropriate boundaries around it, as with any healthy budget. It’s the path of giving and receiving; selling a service (our singing) and giving donations (as cash or as singing), just as any other business would do.


How Much Do Singers Need to Practice?

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How much a singer needs to practice truly depends on the person, the project, and the purpose.


The Person: Some singers want and need to practice every day, as it's such a strong part of their daily routine, their day would be incomplete without it. There are plenty of musicians who even take their instruments on vacation with them, as they want to keep their muscles in excellent shape. Other singers practice several times a week, and yet other singers practice only when they have a project or an upcoming audition, meaning they take days or weeks off without practicing. A singer's practice routine is very individual and unique. It takes creativity, time, and experimentation to develop a quality routine.

The Project: A project that's in a foreign language that's unfamiliar to the singer, say an English- and French-speaking singer learning a Russian opera or song, will take significantly longer to practice. Not only does a singer need to practice the melody and incorporate all the technical aspects of the piece, all while researching and learning about the history of it, but she needs to practice the Russian--first speaking, then speaking in rhythm, and then singing slowly and then up to tempo. Add memorization to the mix and you've got a lot of practicing!


The Purpose: The purpose of the practice session is also dependent on the singer and the project. If she's practicing for her own enjoyment, then anything goes! If she's practicing for a specific project, say the Russian opera mentioned above, then she will most likely be more concentrated, more focused, and more goal-oriented than when she's 'maintaining' her audition repertoire. When the purpose of practicing is maintaining audition repertoire, say 5 opera arias, then she will be experimenting more with keeping the pieces active and creative--remembering her memorization markers and feeling the text come alive again as she sings through the melody. We call this "re-creating" a piece and re-creation is in itself a main skill of performing.


In minutes, a practice session usually begins with a 5-15 minute warm-up, a chunk of practice time, and a cool-down of 2-3 minutes. Many singers practice for a total of 30-45 minutes at a time, and some singers can practice for even longer without tiring--their voices or their bodies. Many voice teachers advise practicing three times a day in 30-minute chunks. Personally, I'm a fan of a 45-55 minute practice session with a break in the middle.


And done right, a singer is going to be a bit tired after practicing (just as after a lesson or coaching)!

How Long Does it Take to Prepare for a Gig or a Concert?

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It truly depends on the piece and/or the program. A piece like Mahler's 2nd Symphony is larger and takes more time to 'sink in,' so even though that concert is in May, I've already begun working on it. When learning a new piece of music, whether it's as long as a symphony or as short as Barber's "Sure on this Shining Night," there are several, over-arching steps to piece preparation:

  1. Wood-Shedding. This is the initial get-to-know-you stage, where you play & sing through a piece, look up and write in translations, listen to a recording or two to get an idea of what the piece sounds like with a full orchestra, and research the text, composer, and history of the piece.
  2. In the Thick of It. In this stage, a soloist works with a coach/accompanist and/or voice teacher to really work the piece into her voice. This is often where the emotional development of a piece takes place, although hopefully there was an immediate emotional connection in the woodshedding process. This stage could be just an hour, or it could be months depending on the piece. (Sometimes getting a piece "into your voice" takes years!) Remember that we're developing muscle memory, which is vital for the actual memorization of a piece.
  3. Polish, Please! Here a soloist runs the piece from beginning to end OR starts at the end and works backward, e.g. in a 10-page piece, she sings the final 3 pages, then the last 6 pages, then the last 9 pages, then finally all 10 pages. Here the goal is to create a cohesive, over-arching feeling of the flow of the piece and to make some final technical and dramatic choices.

All of this work must be done for thorough and complete preparation, however when done well, it is not 'work,' but PLAY. Music is temporal--it takes place over time--music doesn't simply exist on its own. It can't be placed on your desk or hung on your wall, those are different art forms. Therefore, music must be created and re-created every time it is performed and to achieve this, you create it whenever you  play with a piece of music.

There are times when a concert or a program is requested, or you fill in for someone else who is ill or had to cancel at the last minute. Sometimes, you may have just a week or two to get a new concert piece into your voice. It’s a great challenge! Songs of Praise & Thanksgiving, for example, was created, learned, practiced, and performed in under 8 weeks--and it's 65 minutes' worth of music. That is a short amount of time to learn a complete song program and when such situations come about, you must rely on your sight-singing skills, your collaborative skills, and practicing becomes more intense and it must also, ironically, become more playful.

So you may have months to prepare for a program, you may have just a few days, and it comes down to being up to the challenge to truly play. No matter how much time you have, enjoy the ride!

Are You a Guest Musician, Section Leader, or Ringer? And What is ‘Ringing,’ Anyway?

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Let’s work backwards. Ringing is the term we use when a professional singer joins a choir, say a church choir, for a kind of limited engagement. It’s usually one week here, maybe another week down the line, and the main job of the singer is to ‘fill out’ the section. Sometimes solo work is included, but frequently not. A ‘ringer’ (the person who ‘rings’) is really hired to be a strong voice leading a section of the ensemble.


In the case of a church choir, a ringer is asked to attend one rehearsal, usually a Wednesday night, and then a short rehearsal just prior to the Sunday service(s). (This is usually paid as two events, the rehearsal being one event and the church service(s) being one entire event, e.g. $50 per event x 2 events = $100.) Since this process is short, you can well imagine that a ringer needs to sight-read and be willing to jump in and really go for it. That’s part of what makes ringing so much fun and it’s always a treat to meet a new choir and also for them to meet you.


While you as a professional singer work in a different part of the singing profession, we’re all really a part of the same, huge, musical family. It’s sometimes like meeting distant cousins you didn’t know you had--and had so much in common with!


While ringing is paid, it’s not the same as a paid, section-leader position in a choir. A section leader has a contract for the season (roughly September through May), a schedule to adhere to, and certain tasks to perform during the year. Tasks may include cataloging and organizing music or even performing a certain number of solos. Section leaders may hold sectionals, short rehearsals for just one voice in the choir, like the Alto Section Leader rehearsing with only altos. Section leaders frequently work in their positions for years, building up a repertoire of ensemble music, a long-lasting relationship with the director/conductor, and a rapport with their section members. Community choirs and church choirs are such fantastic communities; they can really grow into families!


Guest musicians are hired-in musicians, be they singers or instrumentalists, who perform special music for a church service or concert. A guest musician would attend a choir rehearsal if they are performing with the choir, but they are typically independent in their functioning. The church may request a certain program, and frequently they simply ask the guest musician to bring in music that fits the theme of the day or the sermon topic. Frequently guest musicians rehearse or do a sound check on Sunday morning and perform one or two services before departing. That's it!


This is actually how I got to perform four songs from Spring Reverberations; when a church hired me as a guest musician, the minister requested music to fit the theme “Resisting Reasonable Atrocities.” Poetry written by a prisoner of war certainly fits that theme, and it was a great way to bring beautiful Vietnamese music to a new audience. And this one event has led to at least 3 other performances of Spring Reverberations, one of them being the first performance of the song cycle in its entirety! It’s great fun to see where one event might lead!


Ringing, section leading, and working as a guest musician are wonderful and different ways of bringing your solo and ensemble skills to new communities, whether they be in churches or in community choirs. It’s a solid way to keep up your sight-singing skills and to build relationships in our huge, musical community. And it’s true that you never know where it might lead!

"Do You Get Nervous?" Stagefright and Performance Anxiety

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Yesterday, 3 times in 24 hours came the question "Do you get nervous?"

Stagefright, a/k/a performance anxiety is very real for many musicians and can be debilitating. Rumors circulate about singers' superstitions before shows, some singers get snippy, others get quiet. Everybody has a different reaction before a show, whether it's business-as-usual or prayer & meditation and every singer's pre-show process must be respected.

There have been 3 stages to this in my life.

First was "Excited Nervousness." In school, in community theater, in college it was always excited nervousness--I was pumped to do the show or sing the concert and I was a little bit nervous. I always knew it was going to be OK and I always knew if I messed up, it was only that one time and later I would do better.

Second was "Can't Stop Shaking & Feel Really Sick" until my first aria or first entrance was done. I mean really shaky. It was not fun. And what I've come to realize was that a lot of it was due to the "marriage" I was in--because if I did anything my ex-"husband" deemed odd, or he was unfamiliar with as a non-musician, not only did I need to deal with processing the concert itself, but then I had to deal with him. This was all extremely unpleasant and was accompanied by his increased nervousness at every one of my performances while we were "married." In his eyes, I was supposed to take care of him before I went onstage...when I was supposed to be focusing on my singing, my collaborative pianist, and our work together. This doesn't just happen with abusive husbands, though, it happens with partners, siblings, parents. We could also call this stage mom syndrome. It can be debilitating. And it can last for years.

I venture to say the good majority of the stagefright and performance anxiety that people experience is other people's projections that we have taken on as our own. (This was very true in my case and the further away I am from that "marriage," the less stagefright I have.) If you think "I have to be nervous for this," then you most likely will be. However, if you think "I need to be the essence of calm and collected for this," then you will be.

Here's the key to counter stagefright:  the vast majority of audience members, conductors, auditioners and other performers actually want you to be successful! Think of the auditioner sitting in a theatre, no windows, for hours on end listening to auditionees who are trained in singing...only no one is really selling it. And suddenly a singer walks in, confident, smartly dressed, with a confident introduction, singing really well. THAT is the woman that the auditioner will hire!

So forget this "I'm nervous" spiel--you're there to be wildly successful and while it is about you, it's not about you--it's about what you can do. So go do it already!

OK, the third phase is this:  Get movin', I am at home on the stage and can we get this show on the road?!

The more you perform, whether it's concentratedly performing at home in your living room when you're prepping for an audition, in an audition, or whatever your creative musical outlet is, the easier it gets. You grow in experience every time you sing and over time you accumulate the emotional knowledge you need to just do what you need to do.

Do Soloists Have to Wear Black? A Gown Buying Guide for Gals

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The answer is no, soloists do not have to wear black! Here we’re talking about professional soloists who are hired-in from other locations and come in for a special program or a concert on a series. (See my previous blog post “Why Do Musicians Always Wear Black” for ensemble wardrobe topics.)


Soloists determine their own wardrobe. For men, the hiring organization chooses tux or tails, cummerbund or not, maybe a vest, and no matter what they are dressed and ready to go in short order. ‘nuff said about the men. For women there are a few more choices.


As I wrote yesterday, black is black is black is black and it’s instantly dressier than a lot of other options. A black dress is an easy and elegant choice. But it’s not the only choice (see #3 below).


Here are a few rules of thumb to follow when choosing a dress or gown:


1. Choose a dress that suits your body type.

Nothing looks more professional and elegant than a fancy piece of clothing that suits you to a T! Plus, you may wear this gown dozens of times. Buy a gown you will want to wear concert after concert after concert.Blue_gown

2. Choose a color that flatters your skin, hair, and eyes.

You’re standing up front and all eyes are on you, so choose colors you know compliment you well. If you’re unsure, ask a professional in a reputable dress shop for a color recommendation. A professional will be able to give you great advice!


TIP:  Take a fashionista friend with you. It’s more fun and you can spend some quality time together.

And yes, I frequently choose blue. Not only is it a great color for me, it brings out the blue in my eyes and represents my branding.

3. If you are singing for a more solemn occasion, it is not absolutely necessary to wear black.

Black is an excellent choice, and may be requested by the concert presenter, however dark gray, wine red, dark green, chocolate brown, and dark blue are all appropriate choices and look stunning on stage.

The rule of thumb I learned for solemn occasions is “black is perfectly suitable, and other than that, all other dark colors are also appropriate.” Since the orchestra behind you will most likely be in black, you’ll stand out where you’re supposed to…up front!


4.Make it interesting.

Get creative—people remember your (appropriate) creative choices.

5. Only ever purchase a second-hand dress if it is truly like new.

I have seen such dresses on fellow soloists and they look smashing! HOWEVER, don’t waste your money on a dress that looks, well, pretty good…but has a snag here or there…or has a small tear and you know you won’t take the time to go to a tailor. People notice and it doesn’t leave a good impression. A sub-par dress is the mark of a singer who is less-than-invested in her own career.

6. Have fun with it because let’s face it—it’s fun!

The days of Jane Lunchbox dressing up for dancing at galas or getting into the latest dress fashion for a Friday night dance are out. When else do we get to be glammed up and have hundreds if not thousands of people watching us shine?

The technical aspects of gowns are JUST AS IMPORTANT as the gown itself:

Kirsten_in_black_combo7. Find a tailor who does quality work.

And go to that tailor for every dress you possibly can. This relationship can make or break a dress. (Trust me, I know, and I know it from bad experience. I have one gown that was literally destroyed by a tailor.)

TIP:  Ask your friends and colleagues for a tailor. Customers of quality tailors are typically long-term, extremely loyal customers.

Soprano Kirsten Watson, to the left, needed a jacket for this (fantastic) dress. She found material that matched the accent fabric and her tailor turned it into a fantastic jacket. This is gown shopping at its best!

8. Buy appropriate undergarments.

Check for panty lines. Have a bra sewn into the dress. Buy a full-body slip and/or lined bra if you even think you might-possibly-maybe-someday need it for that dress.

Ladies, I have seen a light-colored dress on a woman with inappropriate undergarments. So did all 80 people in the audience. Unfortunately no one remembers what she sang.

9. Cover up the girls. Seriously.

There’s nothing worse than a woman with a heaving bosom singing a pious, reverent aria in the middle of an oratorio. It’s unprofessional and inappropriate. Buy a minimizer bra, a camisole, or have some extra material sewn in to the neckline. Find a complimentary scarf and pin it into your dress if you have no other option.

10. Have the dress shop steam your new gown before you take it home.

They should do this anyway if the dress is wrinkled, but if not, ask them. In my opinion, there should be no charge for this simple service.

11. Always use a reputable dry cleaners with staff who are experienced in cleaning quality gowns.

Yes, I know this through experience as well and my dress is in great shape!


12. Use your dry cleaner well!

When purchasing a like-new, used gown, have it cleaned as soon as you purchase it and it will be ready to go when you need it.

13. Two last words:  dress bag.

Spend the extra couple of bucks to get a large, cloth dress bag. Dry cleaner bags tear easily anyway, and this way you can store multiple gowns at home worry- and dust-free.