(Other) Career Options for Choral Directors

By Jaime Babbitt

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If you feel that there’s nothing quite as rewarding as shaping the sounds that humans (of different ages) make while raising their voices in joy, you’re going to make a great choral director. But, can you make a living at it outside of teaching?

Answer: Yes, but like lots of creative careers, you’ll have to work hard. So…where will you work?

Obviously, the education field (you’re already likely doing that if you’re reading this). However, if you’re looking for a job in higher education, you may need higher education, too; many positions in university settings require terminal degrees, i.e., a Ph.D. or DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts…great title, right?) That said, working for a school system is really a wonderful choice for many budding choir directors, because:

Choirs are plentiful the world over and aren’t always done away with when budget cuts strike. So, you’ll have lots of choices as to where you’d like to hang your baton and podium.

You get to help younger humans discover the power of the ir voice and music; you also get to introduce them to some of the greatest creative works of the last thousand years or so. This is no small feat, since most younger humans think Nirvana is for old people (Like us. Which it is). Still, I laugh when I picture entertainers at nursing homes playing “All Apologies” for my contemporaries and I…but I digress.

You’ll have holidays off, as well as summers (but you can choose to work at choral ensemble camps, which are great)

You may be a renegade choral director and find a way to make your school choir a unique experience for both you and your kids. Look up Gregg Breinberg, the director of the P.S. 22 Chorus of Staten Island, New York. They’re an internet sensation and I urge you to go watch their videos.  I guarantee you’ll want to both hug him and be him.

You’ll also challenge yourself as a teacher, finding new ways to hear the same music you’ve known for years, when hearing it through your students’ ears. Here’s a lovely quote from lawyer and Congressman Frank A. Clark: “Every adult needs a child to teach; it’s the way adults learn.”

The cons? You likely know them, as the bureaucracy can be frustrating, the hours can be long (many choral directors put in plenty of overtime with prep, rehearsals, etc.), and the pay can be less than fantastic. But if you relish the rewards and can downplay the downsides, you’ve got some musical career food-for-thought staying put in the K-12 choral world.

If you’re thinking that being an educator is the only choice, think again. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and non-denominational houses of worship offer myriad opportunities. According to a 2012 National Congregations Study, there are approximately 384,000 Christian congregations in the U.S. alone, and this is not counting other types of religious or spiritual homes. Being a choral conductor at a house of worship is going to the source, because choral music’s roots, by definition, are non-secular. With this many congregations, it seems highly likely that you’d be able to find paying work leading a choral group. However, in this area it’s common for newbies to be paid very little, so you may have to keep your day job a while longer. For those who play piano, organ, and lead the choral group, however, salaries can be way higher. Also, while I have no statistics, I’d wager most choral conductors and music directors at religious houses share their belief systems with their choir (and congregation) members. So, for atheists, agnostics and others with varied ways of expressing their spirituality, this may not be the path for you. But I never say never; I’ve sung in plenty of Christian churches, and I’m Jewish.

Remember, there are also many part-time and part-paying choral conducting jobs available in your area at community centers, camps, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes. All can offer opportunities to hone your skill sets. But I wonder if you can think with me outside the box for a bit, too…

What if you’re in the armed forces? Well, the U.S. Army Chorus (www.usarmyband.com) is a distinguished group of soldiers, many of whom hold advanced musical degrees. While you might not jump right into being their director, everyone starts somewhere, right?

Theme parks often offer clinic sessions and hire choral directors to help run the youth programs.

Student travel companies hired choral directors looking to shift out of the daily education grind and help their clients organize trips.

Community choirs in larger cities often hire directors.

Also, have you ever sung Christmas carols? Have you seen those groups all dressed up in period costumes at theme parks, malls, etc.? Who’s directing them? Trust me, the Christmas caroler business is a real thing, and it may be something that could put some lovely treats in your stocking, if you get my meaning.

I know I joke around a lot, but I truly believe that it is possible to compose a musically fulfilling life in many different ways, because I’m doing my best to do it. Singing in studios for the masses, singing live for 10-20,000 people, teaching one person, writing articles that reach many…this is how it goes. And no one thing has more or less importance than another (I’ll take “Ego Challenges” for $400, Alex…).

However, I can attest to this: being able to teach and direct others and pass on what was passed on to you (with your own special sauce added, of course) is most certainly adding to the grand circle of life in a way that feels immeasurable and…priceless. Kudos to you if you feel the same!

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