Being a chorister is a viable and great option if you love to sing but don’t necessarily want all the rest of the crap that comes with being a soloist! Read below from my friend Martin Poock. Don’t discount other options for a vocal career!!
Being a Professional Chorister
By Martin L. Poock, Bass
No one ever really noted that this could be a legitimate career (and I think my undergrad teacher is still a little peeved I haven’t tried onward for more solo success) but I just really like the fact that I can stay in one place in MY apartment, with MY cats and go out with MY friends whenever I want. And if I get tired of an opera?? – – I may not do it again for a long, long time! I love that – especially since I admit I have a short attention span…
I do love being a chorister (and I still do smaller solo stuff here and there, but only locally.) I am presently in the chorus at Chicago Lyric Opera, but spent four years in the chorus at Houston Grand Opera. I remember when I did a show and the tenor was I guy a knew from a summer program in high school. We hadn’t seen each other in years – it was fun to catch up after all his success. But quite honestly, the things he was experiencing in NO way made me jealous! I mean, it’s really exciting that he’s going all over the world and singing so well etc. etc. etc. But while there, he was away from his new wife for something like 8 weeks, relatively poor yet (his young artist program didn’t pay much in the beginning, I guess), had NO cover and felt he was getting ill, and was stressed about just about everything. I did NOT envy that! As you know, there is a lot to sacrifice – but also a lot to gain. Some day, he’s going to be able to do just about anything he wants – but that day is not today, and I guess I’m not terribly thrilled to give up what I’m enjoying so much right now!
But initially, I didn’t really want to admit it to myself that I was liking the chorus. I started at Houston Grand Opera chorus right after I finished my Master’s. I was super young (just 24) and was interested in programs. But no one would touch me! I would get auditions, but got comments that amounted to, « That’s really cute, but let’s hear you in 10 years or something. » Nobody seems to like baby basses. Anyway, HGO was just going to be a place where I could spend some time and at least make some money until the next better thing came along.
But about midway through my second year at HGO, it hit me – I LIKE this! And that started the whole « but I’m not supposed to like this » struggle, which finally lost out to « but I’m happy doing what I’m doing » realization and voilá- here I am…
Little could I have known I would learn so much in my four seasons at HGO and get into something that I really wanted to continue at an even higher level. Hence the move to Chicago. HGO really helped me in my career; I owe A LOT to Richard Bado and all the staff at HGO. My audition and work here in Chicago never would have been taken seriously if it weren’t for the opportunities I had in Houston. But I reached the limit of things I could do at HGO. I was cast in each chorus, did some small parts and solos – but that is all I could do there, as they just don’t have the length of season to hire full time choristers. Chicago does, and while I’m not in the full time group, at least I can audition to try and move a bit further up the ladder, plus enjoy all the other paid opportunities that exist here in the Chicago area.
1) I get to live in one place, sleep in a familiar bed, hang out with my regular friends and family (and girlfriend – haven’t got one yet, but gee whiz, living in one place has to make THAT easier too), do more things on a whim, and of course spend time with my cats.
2) I get to sing EVERYTHING – often all at the same time. Only in opera chorus can you sing Handel one night and Tannhauser the other. If I were to do a solo career, I’ve figured out I’d do a lot of the same repertoire. Sure – perhaps I’d make a lot of money too, but with my short attention span, I’m enjoying the fact I can dabble in everything.
4) The Union. I’m not a big fan of this sort of thing, but in this case, it’s very very useful. Hello?! Great pay, carefully monitored hours? Benefits? They’re all there – and I know I wouldn’t find that in many other places.
5) The team aspect. This is something I only figured out recently. Even in college, I didn’t realize that I approached our solo operas as a team. I’d get really upset if someone else didn’t learn his role on time!!! As if it even made any difference to MY performance! I have a hard time separating myself from this – so being in an ensemble is perfect for me.
6) I don’t crave the spotlight. I used to – or at least, I thought I had to. Singing is the only thing I do half way decently, so it was my calling card growing up. In high school etc. – I just had to have every solo, every opportunity to shine etc. and was really embarrassed when things didn’t go my way. But I realize I just like to have fun with a bunch of like-minded people; so again, being in a group is just the right fit.
7) Even if you just want to ‘travel through’ the chorus to other things, where else are you going to learn great diction, language skills, musicality, work alongside talented international directors, conductors, singers, dancers, divas and psycho Hungarians who could chew up the scenery and spit it back out at you magnum force – AND get PAID for it?
8) I’m not a teacher – I feel like I could judge and critique for days, but to go into a classroom or studio and do the daily grind? No way, not for me. I have NO idea of how they do it. There are too many miserable teachers out there only in it to make money; I don’t want to be another one. …Make that, I will NEVER be another one – – I’ll sweep floors first!
I really would appreciate it if you could spread the word. My second voice teacher sort of mentioned the choice to be a chorister to me, but he seemed to approach it much more in that ‘failed soloist’ sort of way, which is so wrong!!! How I wish he could have identified some of the things about my personality and matched them up to the life of a chorister! I wouldn’t have even bothered with auditions etc.
If anyone wants to talk to me personally about being a professional chorister, I’d be glad to tell you what I know. I have nothing to hide and am also willing to share. No secrets here! Unless they’re a bass of course, and interested in the same work here I am (just kidding!!!) My email is: mpoock at juno.com
Life is short… Opera is long…
To know more, check out the Oscar-winning 1991 documentary movie « In the Shadow of the Stars » about the excellent San Francisco Opera Chorus!