Melissa Collom earned a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University in Vocal Performance; she currently balances work in the non-profit and political arenas with an active performing schedule. Here’s her story.
How did you get started?
Like many American kids, I grew up with musical theater and imagined that as the goal. During high school my voice teacher, Sara Callanan, encouraged me to try to some classical music and arias. So, motivated by positive feedback and encouragement, I gradually spent more and more time doing classical music. In high school and college I had some great moments on stage when I felt like I could hold the attention of everyone in the room, sometimes even make them laugh or cry. It was an extremely powerful and addictive feeling!
So, why the change?
I had been doing “day jobs” between singing gigs for many years, but this was one of the first that was really meaningful and rewarding to me. Suddenly I felt like I was contributing to a cause that was (much) larger than my own vanity, which is what trying to be a singer can sometimes feel like. Then, in 2008, I had a major (non-singing) health issue. Since then I have needed the stability of a job that provides good health insurance and steady income.
I currently manage the college intern program at the national headquarters of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, though I have had a number of different jobs with the organization over the last few years. Since my focus is on students and young people just beginning their careers, my experiences as an opera apprentice definitely inform what I do. Also, working in politics and political communication can be so much like show business that it is truly disturbing! I love the feeling that I am contributing in a substantial and meaningful way to some of the major political and cultural battles of our time. And I know that my background in performance contributes to the work I do every day.
Letting go of the “opera singer” label was not particularly difficult for me since I never really felt like I fit the opera singer mold. My transition from performing to non-profit management has also been so gradual that I often feel like I’m still working out the balance between these aspects of my life. I feel great about the work I’m doing, but it has been very important to me to seek out creative projects and opportunities to flex my singer muscles from time to time. I can’t believe how much I miss singing if I am not working on some kind of musical project.
Perseverance has to be its own reward if you want to continue pursuing a performance career. Other careers have a lot of other rewards. If you see opportunity for yourself in another field and enjoy the work, don’t feel guilty about following where those successes may lead you.
Both in music school and on the “young artist” circuit, I found the dialogue around performers making career changes to be very negative: we often hear about “failed” careers when people have transitioned into other kinds of work – even if it’s great non-performance work in the same field. I wish we were more supportive of each other and better about measuring the success of a good education by how people employ their knowledge, regardless of where they apply it.
Put on your HR cap: why should a hiring manager consider employing a performer?
Here’s what I would say are some of the main strengths a performer brings to the non-performing world:
First and foremost: Speaking in front of a group. My colleagues constantly compliment me on speaking and presentation skills. Holding the attention of a group of people is a key thing you learn as a performer and singers obviously have great voice projection. I also feel like my time on stage has made me responsive to the timing and flow of holding a group’s attention. These are huge advantages in the workplace where many people truly don’t know how to speak up. I don’t even have to think about it!
Second: Taking direction. We work with a lot of (sometimes crazy) people in the music world. We get input from many sources and learn how to prioritize that information and incorporate it quickly.
Third: Event planning is really stage management. If you’ve worked on any backstage aspects of a performance, you can apply those skills to conferences, events, rallies, etc. because you know how think through who needs to be where and what they need to have with them at any moment in the process.
Finally: Juggling multiple tasks and dealing with competing priorities. If you’ve been a freelancer even for a brief period, you’ve been the CEO, CFO, Marketing Director and everything else for your own company. If you can keep track of all of the different elements of a performance career, it’s likely that you can sort out a project to determine what needs to be done, when things need to happen, and make sure that nothing slips through the cracks.
At my organization we happen to have a temp agency contact who is a former opera singer herself and frequently staffs us with opera singers at various stages of their careers. (She got me my first assignment here four years ago.) When the need arises, I always call her first because the singers she sends us are well-educated, highly motivated to perform well, and able to adapt quickly to a fast moving work environment.
It can be a tough sell to get employers to a see a music degree as a plus on a resume, largely because most members of the general public have no idea what being an opera singer really means. Once the performer is on the job though, they usually hold on to them as long as they can!