The Freebie: Investing in your network with song

Singing for free is controversial, and some singers just won’t do it, no matter what birdie=freedom proverb you throw at them. This is a personal choice, and every performer has to make their own decision on this issue.  But for those trying to become better known in a new area, or even in the city where you already live, sitting in on local church services when you have nothing else on the calendar can be a very good investment in your future. It’s just one more option in an arsenal of networking and career-building tools.

Think about it:  if your calendar isn’t as full as you’d like it to be, then you need to be known, respected and trusted by more people. No matter how talented you are, work will not come to you if people don’t know who you are.  Show up, and they’ll have a chance to get to know you.  The name will become real, and you may have a chance to sing with them, too.  You never know what can happen, and here are a few simple steps toward your own personal branching-out project:

Get organized

This is the kind of thing that can be done in spurts, or just once in awhile.  But if you do your research and set up your notes so you’re ready to go when a hole in your calendar surfaces, you’ll be more effective and will have a better chance at making truly valuable connections.

As you go through the steps below, keep notes.  Put them all in one place, whether it’s a single notebook, a folder in Evernote, a Word document or spreadsheet, or a series of index cards. Pick your favorite method and stick with it — write down your impressions, contact information, stylistic and operational things you learn about each organization or person, a list of who else works there, notes on your communications with them, etc.  Once you’ve built a solid relationship with them, you may not need the notes anymore. But while that relationship is budding, keeping names, roles, facts and figures straight will help a great deal.

Identify great targets

Targeting is absolutely essential!
Targeting is absolutely essential!

Figure out the key ingredients for your next great job.


  1. Where you want to work,
  2. Who you want to work for,
  3. What you bring to the table, and
  4. What you want to get out of the experience.

If church work isn’t your ultimate goal, for instance, what can you learn from them?  Who can you connect with?  How can you use your current skills to help the people for who have chosen that work as a career goal? Look for active choirs that sing the kind of music you want to learn more about, a place where you can really beef up your sightreading skills, or where you can connect with the people you most want to work with.  Make sure you’re enough at their level so you can contribute to their existing program.  The most important thing is to find something that’s mutually beneficial:  if at all possible, no one should walk away from your “visit” feeling used.

Get hyperlocal

  • Look in your local area for churches and temples for strong music programs, music series, and/or music directors who have positions with other active performing organizations.
  • Go techie with a Google Maps search (e.g. churches within five miles of your zip code), or go low-tech with a paper map and pins on a bulletin board. Do whatever works for you.
  • As you learn more about each group, make sure these connections are a good fit for you, and vice versa. Learn as much as you can about the music they favor, and whether or not they’re currently hiring professionals on a regular basis.  For example:
    • A small congregation might be grateful for your help, but will be less likely to offer the connections that are part of the usual hoped-for result.
    • If you have a big operatic voice and their program is austere and rooted in early music, you’d be more useful elsewhere.
  • As versatile as you believe yourself to be, do try to avoid situations that would waste everyone’s time:  it’s better to be remembered for your strengths than for what might seem like bad judgment.

The approach

Keep it casual.  If you don’t already know someone at the place where you’d like to sing, check the website to see who’s in charge of the music program.  With most music-focused churches, it will likely be the Director of Music or Music Minister, but titles and roles vary.  If in doubt, call the office and ask. Send an email or leave a short voicemail message asking if you can sit in on a service or two.  Offer to send your resume, but don’t send it until requested.  It needs to be clear that you don’t expect a red carpet.  Your real goal is to make contact at this point, and see what kind of involvement would be appropriate for their circumstances.

In a few situations, showing up to attend the service as a member of the congregation can also be very informative, but without contacting someone first, it can be difficult to know whether or not you’ve chosen either a “typical” date or whether or not you might be in the way.  You don’t want to be a distraction or disruption in any way, and on some service days, the music director may simply have no time to speak with you afterwards.  Setting up an informal visit and giving advance notice is much better, particularly if you come from a different faith or background than the congregation or group in question.

Following up — yes or no?

In most professional circumstances some sort of polite follow-up is welcome. But a bit of heightened awareness is good here, as what you’re doing is essentially a cold call, and that comes with a different, usually unspoken etiquette book. Remember that you’re coming into their space out of the blue, so don’t expect anything.  If you don’t get a response, or don’t get the one you want, chances are it’s not the right fit, or just not the right time.  Don’t let it bother you. Just thank them for their time, make your notes, think positive and move on to the next one.

But if you do get a positive response, whether it’s an invitation to visit or a “no thanks” of some sort, follow up immediately.  Send resume if asked, book an appointment as soon as possible, and cooperate with any reasonable requests.  You’re building a new relationship here, so keeping things friendly and flexible is extremely important. If it turns out it’s not a good fit for you, politely back out and tell them the truth:  that you had misunderstood the situation, or that you’re not available on the day they request, or whatever the issue is.  Their interest is not an opportunity for negotiation.  It’s more like a first date, and it either works or it doesn’t.

The ultimate goal

Keep the overall aim in mind:  you’re building relationships and making new connections.  This means making friends with choir members and instrumentalists as well as the vocal pros.  Be friendly with the congregation, as appropriate. Keep eyes and ears open, and make it clear that you’re available for subbing and pick-up if the need arises.  The point is to reach out in many directions, meet a lot more people, learn from each experience, and build your skills and your network in your spare time.  Over months or years, even the occasional foray into the land of the freebie will pay off in one way or another.  And finally, have fun!


Featured images from
Cardinal photo by Maria Corcacas
arget by Candice Courtney

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