Can I make a living leading community choirs?

In my line of work, I spend a fair bit of time chatting to conductors, choir leaders and singers, both on and offline. One of the things I’m most often asked is how I managed to get myself in a position where I could ditch my “day job” as a lawyer and spend my time doing what I love: conducting and leading singers. So I thought I’d tell you the story of how I made the transition from respectable legal professional to full-time choir leader!

Part of what’s led me to where I am now has been sheer luck, part has been the result of planning and tenacity. If you’re on (or considering) a similar journey, I hope my experience gives you some ideas.

Chapter 1 – in which I decide something has to change

I had been working in the legal profession in England for about twelve years when I started to think that I might need to make a change. At first, it was really scary to even entertain the possibility of a career switch; I had spent over a decade progressing in a particular niche. I was well known in my field and good at my job, which paid well. Not only that, but I realise with hindsight that I really defined myself by my job. I couldn’t imagine being asked ‘what do you do’ and not replying ‘I’m a lawyer’.

Why on earth would I think about jacking all that in and starting something that risked failing before it even got off the ground? Well, for one thing, I had never loved my job. I was good at it and it was an intellectual challenge, but I wasn’t passionate about it. Call it a mid-life crisis if you like, but I started to get a nagging feeling that if I carried on along the same path, I was going to get to retirement one day, look back and think “wow, I really wasted my time”.

Chapter 2 – in which I hatch a plan and find the right business partner

Having steady work as a lawyer gave me the luxury to take my time and really think about what I wanted to do. I went through various ideas: moving sideways into legal training and/or lecturing (not a huge leap as I was already experienced in that area), going back to university, starting any number of product or service-based businesses that caught my attention.

In the end, my choice to build a business around choirs and singing was one of those serendipitous situations that come along every now and then. I had been singing all my life and had been part of numerous choirs and ensembles over the years. It was what I did for fun. I had never seriously considered a career as a solo singer because, even if talent and opportunity allowed, I knew I would hate the lifestyle. I had done a bit of conducting, but hadn’t taken it any further or sought formal training. Musically, I was a keen, competent amateur, nothing more.

My busy working schedule had forced me to give up singing in the nearby Bournemouth Symphony Chorus a couple of years earlier and I was really missing making music with a group. When a new choir, Total Voice, started up in my village, I joined immediately. The leader, Christine Mulgrew, wanted to form a choir that would be open to all and would focus on singing a fantastic, upbeat, feel-good repertoire. It was great to make new friends in the village and wonderful to be singing again. Christine and I became friends and when she announced that she was pregnant, we discussed my stepping in to cover rehearsals while she took much-needed maternity leave.

This phase was a revelation to me. I’d totally forgotten how much I loved conducting. In the months I led Total Voice, I rediscovered a musical vocabulary and a way of encouraging and developing the choir that I hadn’t tapped into in a long time. I was also reminded very starkly of just how jaded I had become in my career; nothing I was doing during the day inspired me remotely as much as leading the choir.

When Christine returned to the choir, we began to discuss how we could develop Total Voice into a business we could run together.

Chapter 3 – in which I try to play to my strengths

Had I not been in the fortunate position of being able to rely on someone else for financial support for a while, I would have had to juggle old and new careers for a while before finally making the big leap. Thanks to my lovely husband, however, I was able to wind down my legal practice sufficiently to give me plenty of time to develop Total Voice.

The first thing we did was start a second choir, the Total Voice Chamber Choir. This was aimed at local singers who wanted a little more of a musical challenge and a broader repertoire. With the contemporary choir now fifty to sixty strong, a smaller choir also gave us the scope to perform at venues and events that couldn’t accommodate us before.

It was clear that there was an appetite among our singers to develop their skills, so we planned various workshops focusing on confidence, performance skills, microphone technique etc. We also held choral workshops covering different singing styles, either led by us or by guest conductors and singers. We learned a huge amount about these kinds of events in our first two years. Most importantly, we learned to ask our customers what they want to do!

Chapter 4 – in which I look to the past, and the future

Looking back over the last few years, I can’t imagine why it took me so long to find my new career, and why I was so nervous about ditching the old one. Of course, it’s been unbelievably hard work, but I can honestly say that the change has not only improved my working life immeasurably, but has fundamentally altered how I see myself.

And, of course, the choir business is what led Christine and I to set up Total Choir Resources, which has become a successful business in its own right. We realised that we were exceptionally lucky to have each other to bounce ideas off and get support from when things were challenging or tough. Most choir leaders don’t have that. We created Total Choir Resources to give support and advice to choir leaders and to help them get as much out of their role as we get out of ours.

Comments on Can I make a living leading community choirs?

  1. Great article. I left my day job as a flight attendant for a big U.S company during my second second pregnancy. I stayed home to look after my children and during this time, my Mum died. I set up a choir in her memory back in 2008. Since then I’ve developed a small business running 3 choirs plus an annual weekend family festival. It works for me and my family and I have all sorts of plans for the future. Wishing you everyone out there all the best for a most rewarding career leading choirs.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Mary,

      Thanks for your message, it’s great to hear your story. Sounds like you have created a a lovely choir business.

  2. Avatar Paul Ellis says:

    Thanks for that article, it is inspirational. The thought of career change crosses my mind from time to time (usually around the time of the latest round of redundancies) but I do wonder how many choirs I’d have to lead to compete with my Senior Software Developer’s salary. I get an honourarium from my choir/organ playing of about £80 a month after tax which doesn’t go that far. Has everyone combined leading choirs with other things (such as the choral/performance skills courses, etc.)

    1. Avatar VictoriaHopkins says:

      Hi Paul. I don’t think anyone ever became a church organist for the money!

      I do know someone who pretty much exclusively leads choirs, but he is based in central London and runs several office choirs among other things. I can’t imagine that model working anywhere outside a big city because there simply wouldn’t be the density of singers available and you’d spend all your time on the road. Maybe that could work for some people, but I know it couldn’t work for Christine and me.

      1. Avatar Paul Ellis says:

        So I guess the answer to the question “Can I make a living leading choirs?” is “No, at least not without taking on something related too”. :-)

        1. Avatar VictoriaHopkins says:

          Or move to a big city.

          Have you thought about workplace choirs? They tend to rehearse at lunchtimes, so you could fit them in, mostly, during the day.

          With a range of choirs, I would imagine that you could create a “portfolio” that would add up to the equivalent of a full time salary, but, personally, it would stress me out beyond belief to have that many fixed appointments in my weekly schedule.

          1. Avatar Paul Ellis says:

            I agree with you about the stress of it. I haven’t got beyond the ‘what if?’ stage really so haven’t considered any particular types of choir. I probably won’t make that change until/unless I’m pushed,

          2. Hi Vicky & Paul,

            Really enjoyed reading the article – I’m going through a similar transition of giving up the day job of the last eight years as a classroom music teacher. I’ve been building up my self employed work (that I love) steadily over the last few years to a point where I can go completely freelance. In six weeks time infact!

            Paul – I have several friends who earn their a living primarily from leading choirs. Myself, I now have two large community choirs (60+ members in both) and an NHS workplace choir, all of whom who pay advance subs at the start of each term. I combine this with other freelance work, such as workshops, performing and residential holidays. And I live in a rural area, community 20 – 30 mins to my different choirs. It works for me and I love it. Get in touch if you’d like to chat more.

            Happy choir leading!

            James

  3. Great story Victoria! Like you, I had a career change (first from computer science to theatre, then from theatre to running choirs), but brought about by illness rather than mid-life crisis.

    When I first started out I joined the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network in order to hang out with like-minded souls. I went to their annual gathering where we compared notes, sang and attended workshops. I left assuming that all the choir leaders who had been there were really lucky to be earning a living from what they loved and determined that I would do the same.

    Long story cut short, that’s precisely what I did and that’s now how I earn my living. Later on I found out that pretty much everybody who had been at that annual gathering also had a day job!!! If I had known at the time, I would never have had the courage to set off on the path I’m now on.

    If you’re interested, you can read my whole story here: Becoming a choir leader — it’s a long story! https://blog.chrisrowbury.com/2010/01/becoming-choir-leader-its-long-story.html

    Chris

  4. What a brilliant story! I’ve shared it on the Vivace Chorus Facebook page, because I think a lot of us feel that music is where our hearts belong, even though we do a completely different “day job”. Well done not just for making the switch, but doing it so successfully!

  5. Avatar Jo Forrest says:

    I was interested to hear about your career switch. I have fallen into the music business through being a choral singer who always spread the word about what I was doing because I loved it so much. Quite by chance, people started to approach me to ask if I could help them promote their work and so I have taught myself to be a music PR, although to be fair, I did have a corporate internal communications background to help.

    Singing in a choir has so many benefits for health and soul as well as the performance and teamwork aspects. I’m sure businesses are really benefiting from your training. I love speaking in public, but I’m not so keen on singing solo!

    Best of luck with Total Voice ;-)

    1. Avatar VictoriaHopkins says:

      And I know plenty of solo singers who are terrified of public speaking. Go figure!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *