Professional singers perform opera, gospel, blues, rock, jazz, folk, classical, country, and other musical genres before an audience or in recordings. Singers are musicians who use their voices as their instruments. They may perform as part of a band, choir, or other musical ensembles, or solo, whether with or without musical accompaniment. Singers, musicians, and related workers hold approximately 249,000 jobs in the United States.
Singer Career History
“Song is man’s sweetest joy,” said the Greek poet Museaeus in the eighth century b.c. Singers use their voices as instruments of sound and are capable of relating music that touches the soul. The verb to sing is related to the Greek term omphe, which means voice. In general, singing is related to music and thus to the Muses, the goddesses in Greek mythology who are said to watch over the arts and are sources of inspiration.
Singing, or vocal performance, is considered the mother of all music, and is thought of as an international language. Before musical instruments were created there existed the voice, which has had the longest and most significant influence on the development of all musical forms and materials that have followed.
A precise, formal history of the singing profession is not feasible in an article of this length, for singing evolved in different parts of the world and in diverse ways at various times. A 40,000-year-old cave painting in France suggests the earliest evidence of music; the painting shows a man playing a musical bow and dancing behind several reindeer. Most civilizations have had legends suggesting that gods created song, and many myths suggest that nymphs have passed the art of singing to us. The Chinese philosopher Confucius considered music, with its ability to portray emotions as diverse as joy and sorrow, anger and love, to be a significant aspect of a moral society.
There are certain differences between Eastern and Western music. In general, music of Middle Eastern civilizations has tended to be more complex in its melodies (although music from the Far East is often relatively simple). Western music has been greatly influenced by the organized systems of musical scales of ancient Greece and has evolved through various eras, which were rich and enduring but can be defined in general terms. The first Western musical era is considered to have been the medieval period (c. 850–1450), when the earliest surviving songs were written by 12th century French troubadours and German minnesingers; these poet-musicians sang of love, nature, and religion. The next periods include the Renaissance (c. 1450–1600), during which the musical attitude was one of calm and self-restraint; the Baroque (c. 1600–1750), a time of extravagance, excitement, and splendor; the Classical (c. 1750– 1820), a return to simplicity; and the Romantic (c. 1820–1900), which was a time of strong emotional expression and fascination with nature.
In primitive societies of the past and present, music has played more of a ritualistic, sacred role. In any case, singing has been considered an art form for thousands of years, powerfully influencing the evolution of societies. It is a large part of our leisure environment, our ceremonies, and our religions; the power of song has even been said to heal illness and sorrow. In antiquity, musicians tended to have more than one role, serving as composer, singer, and instrumentalist at the same time. They also tended to be found in the highest levels of society and to take part in events such as royal ceremonies, funerals, and processions.
The function of singing as entertainment was established relatively recently. Opera had its beginnings in the late 16th century in Italy and matured during the following centuries in other European countries. The rise of the professional singer (also referred to as the vocal virtuoso because of the expert talent involved) occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries. At this time, musical composers began to sing to wider audiences, who called for further expression and passion in singing.
Throughout the periods of Western music, the various aspects of song have changed along with general musical developments. Such aspects include melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, texture, and other characteristics. The structures of song are seemingly unlimited and have evolved from plainsong and madrigal, chanson and chorale, opera and cantata, folk and motet, anthem and drama, to today’s expanse of pop, rock, country, rap, and so on. The development of radio, television, motion pictures, and various types of recordings (LP records, cassettes, compact discs, and digital audio) has had a great effect on the singing profession, creating smaller audiences for live performances yet larger and larger audiences for recorded music.
The Job of Singers
Essentially, singers are employed to perform music with their voices by using their knowledge of vocal sound and delivery, harmony, melody, and rhythm. They put their individual vocal styles into the songs they sing, and they interpret music accordingly. The inherent sounds of the voices in a performance play a significant part in how a song will affect an audience; this essential aspect of a singer’s voice is known as its tone.
Classical singers are usually categorized according to the range and quality of their voices, beginning with the highest singing voice, the soprano, and ending with the lowest, the bass; voices in between include mezzo soprano, contralto, tenor, and baritone. Singers perform either alone (in which case they are referred to as soloists) or as members of an ensemble, or group. They sing by either following a score, which is the printed musical text, or by memorizing the material. Also, they may sing either with or without instrumental accompaniment; singing without accompaniment is called a cappella. In opera—which are plays set to music—singers perform the various roles, much as actors do, interpreting the drama with their voices to the accompaniment of a symphony orchestra.
Classical singers may perform a variety of musical styles, or specialize in a specific period; they may give recitals, or perform as members of an ensemble. Classical singers generally undergo years of voice training and instruction in musical theory. They develop their vocal technique and learn how to project without harming their voices. Classical singers rarely use a microphone when they sing; nonetheless, their voices must be heard above the orchestra. Because classical singers often perform music from many different languages, they learn how to pronounce these languages, and often how to speak them as well. Those who are involved in opera work for opera companies in major cities throughout the country and often travel extensively. Some classical singers also perform in other musical areas.
Professional singers tend to perform in a chosen style of music, such as jazz, rock, or blues, among many others. Many singers pursue careers that will lead them to perform for coveted recording contracts, on concert tours, and for television and motion pictures. Others perform in rock, pop, country, gospel, or folk groups, singing in concert halls, nightclubs, and churches and at social gatherings and for small studio recordings. Whereas virtuosos, classical artists who are expertly skilled in their singing style, tend to perform traditional pieces that have been handed down through hundreds of years, singers in other areas often perform popular, current pieces, and often songs that they themselves have composed.
Another style of music in which formal training is often helpful is jazz. Jazz singers learn phrasing, breathing, and vocal techniques; often, the goal of a jazz singer is to become as much a part of the instrumentation as the piano, saxophone, trumpet, or trombone. Many jazz singers perform scat singing, in which the voice is used in an improvisational way much like any other instrument.
Folk singers perform songs that may be many years old, or they may write their own songs. Folk singers generally perform songs that express a certain cultural tradition; while some folk singers specialize in their own or another culture, others may sing songs from a great variety of cultural and musical traditions. In the United States, folk singing is particularly linked to the acoustic guitar, and many singers accompany themselves while singing.
A cappella singing, which is singing without musical accompaniment, takes many forms. A cappella music may be a part of classical music; it may also be a part of folk music, as in the singing of barbershop quartets. Another form, called doo-wop, is closely linked to rock and rhythm and blues music.
Gospel music, which evolved in the United States, is a form of sacred music; gospel singers generally sing as part of a choir, accompanied by an organ, or other musical instruments, but may also perform a cappella. Many popular singers began their careers as singers in church and gospel choirs before entering jazz, pop, blues, or rock.
Pop/rock singers generally require no formal training whatsoever. Rock music is a very broad term encompassing many different styles of music, such as heavy metal, punk, rap, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, techno, and many others. Many popular rock singers cannot even sing. But rock singers learn to express themselves and their music, developing their own phrasing and vocal techniques. Rock singers usually sing as part of a band, or with a backing band to accompany them. Rock singers usually sing with microphones so that they can be heard above the amplified instruments around them.
All singers practice and rehearse their songs and music. Some singers read from music scores while performing; others perform from memory. Yet all must gain an intimate knowledge of their music, so that they can best convey its meanings and feelings to their audience. Singers must also exercise their voices even when not performing. Some singers perform as featured soloists and artists. Others perform as part of a choir, or as backup singers adding harmony to the lead singer’s voice.
Singer Career Requirements
Many singers require no formal training in order to sing. However, those interested in becoming classical or jazz singers should begin learning and honing their talent when they are quite young. Vocal talent can be recognized in grade school students and even in younger children. In general, however, these early years are a time of vast development and growth in singing ability. Evident changes occur in boys’ and girls’ voices when they are around 12 to 14 years old, during which time their vocal cords go through a process of lengthening and thickening. Boys’ voices tend to change much more so than girls’ voices, although both genders should be provided with challenges that will help them achieve their talent goals. Young students should learn about breath control and why it is necessary; they should learn to follow a conductor, including the relationship between hand or baton motions and the dynamics of the music; and they should learn about musical concepts such as tone, melody, harmony, and rhythm.
During the last two years of high school, aspiring singers should have a good idea of what classification they are in, according to the range and quality of their voices: soprano, alto, contralto, tenor, baritone, or bass. These categories indicate the resonance of the voice; soprano being the highest and lightest, bass being the lowest and heaviest. Students should take part in voice classes, choirs, and ensembles. In addition, students should continue their studies in English, writing, social studies, foreign language, and other electives in music, theory, and performance.
There tend to be no formal educational requirements for those who wish to be singers. However, formal education is valuable, especially in younger years. Some students know early in their lives that they want to be singers and are ambitious enough to continue to practice and learn. These students are often advised to attend high schools that are specifically geared toward combined academic and intensive arts education in music, dance, and theater. Such schools can provide valuable preparation and guidance for those who plan to pursue professional careers in the arts. Admission is usually based on results from students’ auditions as well as academic testing.
Many find it worthwhile and fascinating to continue their study of music and voice in a liberal arts program at a college or university. Similarly, others attend schools of higher education that are focused specifically on music, such as the Juilliard School in New York. Such an intense program would include a multidisciplinary curriculum of composition and performance, as well as study and appreciation of the history, development, variety, and potential advances of music. In this type of program, a student would earn a bachelor’s degree. To earn a bachelor’s degree in music, one would study musicology, which concerns the history, literature, and cultural background of music; the music industry, which will prepare one for not only singing but also marketing music and other business aspects; and professional performance. Specific music classes in a typical four-year liberal arts program would include such courses as introduction to music, music styles and structures, harmony, theory of music, elementary and advanced auditory training, music history, and individual instruction.
In addition to learning at schools, many singers are taught by private singing teachers and voice coaches, who help to develop and refine students’ voices. Many aspiring singers take courses at continuing adult education centers, where they can take advantage of courses in beginning and advanced singing, basic vocal techniques, voice coaching, and vocal performance workshops. When one is involved in voice training, he or she must learn about good articulation and breath control, which are very important qualities for all singers. Performers must take care of their voices and keep their lungs in good condition. Voice training, whether as part of a college curriculum or in private study, is useful to many singers, not only for classical and opera singers, but also for jazz singers and for those interested in careers in musical theater. Many highly successful professional singers continue to take voice lessons throughout their careers.
In other areas of music, learning to sing and becoming a singer is often a matter of desire, practice, and having an inborn love and talent for singing. Learning to play a musical instrument is often extremely helpful in learning to sing and to read and write music. Sometimes it is not even necessary to have a “good” singing voice. Many singers in rock and rap music have less-than-perfect voices. But these singers learn to use their voices in ways that nonetheless provide good expression to their songs, music, and ideas.
Exploring Singer Career
Anyone who is interested in pursuing a career as a singer should obviously have a love for music. Listen to recordings and live performances as often as possible, and develop an understanding of the types of music that you enjoy. Singing, alone or with family and friends, is one of the most natural ways to explore music and develop a sense of your own vocal style. Join music clubs at school, as well as the school band if it does vocal performances. In addition, take part in school drama productions that involve musical numbers.
Older students interested in classical music careers could contact trade associations such as the American Guild of Musical Artists, as well as read trade journals such as Hot Line News (published by Musicians National Hot Line Association), which covers news about singers and other types of musicians and their employment needs and opportunities. For information and news about popular singers, read Billboard magazine, which can be purchased at many local bookshops and newsstands. Those who already know what type of music they wish to sing should audition for roles in community musical productions or contact trade groups that offer competitions. For example, Opera America can provide information on competitions, apprentice programs, and performances for young singers interested in opera.
There are many summer programs offered throughout the United States for high school students interested in singing and other performing arts. For example, Stanford University offers its Stanford Jazz Workshop each summer for students who are at least 12 years old. It offers activities in instrumental and vocal music, as well as recreational swimming, tennis, and volleyball. For college students who are 18 years and older, the jazz workshop has a number of positions available.
Another educational institute that presents a summer program is Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute, which is geared especially toward very talented and ambitious students between the ages of 15 and 18. It offers sessions in chorus, musical productions, chamber music, classical music, ensemble, instrumental, and vocal practice. Arts and culture field trips are also planned. College students who are at least 20 years old can apply for available jobs at the summer Tanglewood programs.
Students interested in other areas of singing can begin while still in high school, or even sooner. Many gospel singers, for example, start singing with their local church group at an early age. Many high school students form their own bands, playing rock, country, or jazz, and can gain experience performing before an audience; some of these young musicians even get paid to perform at school parties and other social functions.
There are many different environments in which singers can be employed, including local lounges, bars, cafes, radio and television, theater productions, cruise ships, resorts, hotels, casinos, large concert tours, and opera companies.
Many singers hire agents, who usually receive a percentage of the singer’s earnings for finding them appropriate performance contracts. Others are employed primarily as studio singers, which means that they do not perform for live audiences but rather record their singing in studios for albums, radio, television, and motion pictures.
An important tactic for finding employment as a singer is to invest in a professional-quality recording of your singing that you can send to prospective employers.
There is no single correct way of entering the singing profession. It is recommended that aspiring singers explore the avenues that interest them, continuing to apply and audition for whatever medium or venue suits them. Singing is an extremely creative profession, and singers must learn to be creative and resourceful in the business skills involved in finding opportunities to perform.
High school students should seek out any opportunities to perform, including choirs, school musical productions, and church and other religious functions. Singing teachers can arrange recitals and introduce students to their network of musician contacts.
In the singing profession and the music industry in general, the nature of the business is such that singers can consider themselves to have “made it” when they get steady, fulltime work. A measure of advancement is how well known and respected singers become in their field, which in turn influences their earnings. In most areas, particularly classical music, only the most talented and persistent singers make it to the top of their profession. In other areas, success may be largely a matter of luck and perseverance. A singer on Broadway, for example, may begin as a member of the chorus and eventually become a featured singer. Other singers tend to enjoy working in local performance centers, nightclubs, and other musical environments.
Also, many experienced singers who have had formal training will become voice teachers. Reputable schools such as Juilliard consider it a plus when a student can say that he or she has studied with a master.
As with many occupations in the performing arts, earnings for singers are highly dependent on one’s professional reputation and thus have a wide range. To some degree, pay is also related to educational background (as it relates to how well one has been trained) and geographic location of performances. In certain situations, such as singing for audio recordings, pay is dependent on the number of minutes of finished music (for instance, an hour’s pay will be given for each three and a half minutes of recorded song).
Singing is often considered a glamorous occupation. However, because it attracts so many professionals, competition for positions is very high. Only a small proportion of those who aspire to be singers achieve glamorous jobs and extremely lucrative contracts. Famous opera singers, for example earn $8,000 and more for each performance. Singers in an opera chorus earn between $600 and $800 per week. Classical soloists can receive between $2,000 and $3,000 per performance, while choristers may receive around $70 per performance. For rock singers, earnings can be far higher. Within the overall group of professional singers, studio and opera singers tend to earn salaries that are well respected in the industry; their opportunities for steady, long-term contracts tend to be better than for singers in other areas.
The average hourly wage for musicians, singers, and related workers were $17.85 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This wage would amount to $37,128 for a full-time job for a year; however there is a wide variation in the number of hours worked per year by most singers and musicians, and the U.S. Department of Labor reports that it is rare to have a job that exceeds 3 to 6 months. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $6.47 an hour, while the highest paid 10 percent earned more than $53.59 an hour.
Top studio and opera singers earn an average of $70,000 per year, though some earn much more. Rock singers may begin by playing for drinks and meals only; if successful, they may earn tens of thousands of dollars for a single performance. Singers on cruise ships generally earn between $750 and $2,000 per week, although these figures can vary considerably. Also, many singers supplement their performance earnings by working at other positions, such as teaching at schools or giving private lessons or even working at jobs unrelated to singing. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that median salaries in 2004 for full-time teachers ranged from $41,400 to $45,920. Full-time college professors earned an average of $68,505 in 2004–05, according to the American Association of University Professors.
Because singers rarely work for a single employer, they generally receive no fringe benefits, and must provide their own health insurance and retirement planning.
The environments in which singers work tend to vary greatly, depending on such factors as type of music involved and location of performance area. Professional singers often work in the evenings and during weekends, and many are frequently required to travel. Many singers who are involved in popular productions such as in opera, rock, and country music work in large cities such as New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Nashville. Stamina and endurance are needed to keep up with the hours of rehearsals and performances, which can be long; work schedules are very often erratic, varying from job to job.
Many singers are members of trade unions, which represent them in matters such as wage scales and fair working conditions. Vocal performers who sing for studio recordings are represented by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; solo opera singers, solo concert singers, and choral singers are members of the American Guild of Musical Artists.
Singer Career Outlook
Any employment forecast for singers will most probably emphasize one factor that plays an important role in the availability of jobs: competition. Because so many people pursue musical careers and because there tend to be no formal requirements for employment in this industry (the main qualification is talent), competition is most often very strong.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for singers, as for musicians in general, is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all other occupations through 2014. The entertainment industry is expected to grow during the next decade, which will create jobs for singers and other performers. Because of the nature of this work, positions tend to be temporary and part time; in fact, of all members of the American Federation of Musicians, fewer than 2 percent work full time in their singing careers. Thus, it is often advised that those who are intent on pursuing a singing career keep in mind the varied fields other than performance in which their interest in music can be beneficial, such as composition, education, broadcasting, therapy, and community arts management.
Those intent on pursuing singing careers in rock, jazz, and other popular forms should understand the keen competition they will face. There are thousands of singers all hoping to make it; only a very few actually succeed. However, there are many opportunities to perform in local cities and communities, and those with a genuine love of singing and performing should also possess a strong sense of commitment and dedication to their art.