Here’s exactly what I did to start a half million dollar for-profit choir business without giving up my full-time teaching job.
“Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.”
The purpose of this episode is to encourage you to stop waiting for the right opportunity and take action to start a for-profit choir, like I did, to gain artistic fulfillment on your own terms and earn a little (or a lot of) cash ON THE SIDE.
CONGRATULATIONS ON FOLLOWING YOUR DREAMS!
Make your passion your profession; that’s the dream. You live it every day when you step up to your podium.
If you’re a choral director, you’re are amongst a group of the most passionate people I know, who are doing EXACTLY what they should be doing with their lives: affecting people, making the world better one rehearsal at a time.
Most people have no idea what they should be doing with their lives, often choosing to play it safe, choosing a career that pays well over actually following their dreams. As a choral director, I’m sure you have at one time or another, stared down your fears, your families, and your personal finances and said “This is what I love to do, so I’m going to do it regardless of what anyone thinks is responsible. It’s my life.” I’m sure anyone with parents can relate!
JOBS IN CHORAL MUSIC EDUCATION COME WITH MONEY ISSUES
You’ve made the choice to be a choral director nonetheless and are likely very happy with that choice, but you still have a whole list of financial woes that come along with the choice to follow your dreams. It’s a trade-off, right?
- Your income is capped.
- No matter how hard you work, how good your choir sings, or choristers make it to all-state or not, you’ll still get paid the same crappy salary for the rest of your career. Merit pay? fuggedaboudit.
- If you want to pay off your mortgage, send the kids to tae kwon do, take a vacation, or simply put some money into savings, you’re gonna have to marry rich, get another job bartending or driving for Uber (work you’re not nearly as passionate about), taking time away from your family, and negating the benefits of having that awesome teacher schedule your friends can’t seem to stop talking about.
- Do you get paid over the summer? I never did. How about that vacation? I’m not sure about yours, but my bills didn’t stop in July and August!
- Did I mention union dues? I was paying over $1700/year in dues for my last year of teaching! That was 3% of my salary, and equivalent to one property tax payment.
- Have you ever had to get your car serviced so you can get to work, but the service cost your entire bi-weekly paycheck? I guess I’ll be having Hamburger Helper this month.
- Church choir jobs come with high levels of stress, so let’s not go there. I would know. Jesus fired me three times.
- Non-profit choirs pay, on average, under $10,000/year for a tremendous amount of work, board meetings, limited flexibility, and ugly political situations, so that’s not even an option as far as I’m concerned.
MANY OF YOU ALREADY TEACH PRIVATELY
The money issues outlined earlier are ones that choral directors face every day. So in order to overcome these issues, you decide to set up shop to teach privately. After all, it’s the quickest way to make money without having to pick up shifts at Starbucks.
Now you have a whole list of new problems!
- Where do I get students?
- Parents don’t pay on time.
- What is marketing?
- I think I’ll make a website. Oh wait, I’m not a web designer.
- Do I need a logo? I think I need a logo.
- I have a logo. Maybe I’ll buy stickers!
- I’m official if I have business cards, right?
- Oh yes. I’ll make a Facebook page so people can like it and never buy anything from me.
- Johnny does’t practice.
- Johnny wipes snot on my piano, but at least his parents pay me on time.
- I hope Johnny quits so I don’t have to have an uncomfortable conversation with Johnny’s mom about proper hygiene and work ethic.
- The list goes on…
There is nothing like starting a group to bring in a little extra cash in a short period of time, AND you’re already a choral director.
For-profit choirs are not a “time for dollars” endeavor like private teaching or getting a job as the director of a local community choir. Let’s say you have fixed costs to run your choir at $1000/mo (we’ll get into those details soon), and you have 10 choristers paying $100 per month. Now you’re breaking even.
Anything above $1000/mo is pure PROFIT. There is a direct correlation between the work and effort you put into creating a quality product, recruiting new members, the kinds of gigs you take on (paying/non-paying), and so forth.
On top of all this, if you choose to start ANOTHER choir, you have the ability to negotiate smaller fees for the facilities you use, and it’s likely you already own the equipment you need, like a digital piano you keep in your trunk, software to bill your students, and web hosting for your site. These costs don’t rise as your business grows. Your profit margins actually increase.
YOU’RE ALREADY AN ENTREPRENEUR!
I was having a conversation with a friend recently, and we were discussing the fact that entrepreneurship and being the director of a great choral program are strongly correlated.
No administration hires you and says “You got the job! Please maintain status quo. Better yet, who don’t you just tank our program!” You are encouraged to make the program better, both because it’s how you make your school happy, AND because it’s important to you, as your reputation is directly tied to your product. Who doesn’t want to say they have a HUGE program with a million kids placing in all-state every year, with the highest scores at contest/competition? This sense of achievement feels great, so it drives directors to become entrepreneurial.
Many of the tasks you do each year are entrepreneurial and you just don’t realize it. Here’s a list of what you already do, and the entrepreneurial skills with which they align:
- Recruitment = Sales
- Concert Posters = Marketing
- Concert Programs = Graphic Design
- Press releases = PR
- Concerts = Event planning
- Working one-on-one with a student who’s more invested than the others = Coaching
- Talking to parents = Counseling/Negotiation
- Sending detailed emails so your students do what you need them to do = Copywriting
- Making resources for students like practice tracks = content marketing
- Updating your “teacher page” = web design
- Creating and upholding the rules in your choir handbook = Contracts
- Making an itinerary for your choir’s trip to Disney World = Travel planning
- Budgeting = Budgeting
…to name a few
Well, aren’t you awesome!
There are some fantastic benefits to coming into entrepreneurship with these skills under your belt. All you have to do is adapt what you already do an apply it to your new endeavor.
THINGS ARE LOOKING UP FOR YOU
My job is to let you know that it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too! You can have a thriving choral music education career, pursue what you love, AND make enough money on the side so that your parents can sleep at night knowing you’re safe, happy, and comfortable. You can finally tell them you made the right choice.
TAKE THE ENTREPRENEURIAL LEAP
Being an entrepreneur has SO many benefits. The most amazing things have happened to me since I gave in and relied on myself, instead of allowing others to control my happiness, even if it’s just a side-business (which I prefer).
I have learned:
- Web development
- Motivating yourself
- Interpersonal skills
- Event planning
- Goal setting
- Human Resources
All of these skills I use daily (not just in my business). They’ve helped me get an apartment in one of the most awesome buildings in Manhattan, make friends, go on dates, travel, speak at conferences, start an iTunes “New and Noteworthy” podcast, gain massive influence in my niche, and a lot more.
This can happen for you too!
WHAT IF YOU LOVE YOUR JOB? DO YOU HAVE TO QUIT?
No! This is a side-hustle! I’m glad you love your job! Keep it. My for-profit choral business did over $500,000 in tuition while I was teaching full-time in a public school.
I was in a toxic administrative situation in my position as a middle school choir director, but in spite, I loved my job. The kids and the class time I spent with them were amazing, but I knew if I had a side income the pressure from my administration wouldn’t be so taxing on me. Haha! Taxing. See what I did there?
About a year ago, after reading a book called The Success Principles by Jack Canfield, I learned about what it really means to complain. You see, people only complain about things they have the power to change. No one complains about gravity – a force that sends tens of thousands plummeting to their death each year. Did you ever flip on the eleven o’clock news and see a story about the dangers of gravity and why we should stop it? Of course not. That’s because you can’t do anything about it, so it’s not worth complaining about.
About three years into my career, I found myself complaining a lot, as most teachers do.
I saw two choices:
- I could continue complaining about people bossing me around in a job that didn’t tie my effort to my bottom line.
- Shut up and start my own thing.
I chose #2.
I started my own for-profit choir business, and it was soon making well over six figures.
HERE’S EXACTLY WHAT I DID
In 2009, I was let go from a choir directing job at a church. I was distraught, and I wondered what I would do. I had just bought a house and needed the money. So instead of jumping into another dead-end church job, I hopped on Legalzoom, filed for an LLC and incorporated a private organization called VoiceWorks. My hope was to provide a place for my graduating middle school students to continue singing and ringing handbells after leaving middle school. I had built a big program, and I knew many students ran the risk of never singing or ringing again if I didn’t do something. You see, the district I was teaching in is K-8 and many of the high school programs in the area left much to be desired. On top of that, the magnet schools that accepted my most gifted students didn’t even have music programs. I was teaching in a highly academic area, and test scores were more important than a well-rounded education.
I had very little money outside of what I had charged on my credit card for the LLC, so I had to get creative. I borrowed some grossly neglected handbells from a local church, borrowed space at another church by suggesting a partnership in which my performing ensembles would do concerts to draw the community to the church campus – which we eventually did! They also said they were happy to help, and wouldn’t charge me rent for the first season.
I purchased a license to “The Studio Director” software to I could register students online, opened a business account, and got set up to accept credit cards through the software. It was August, and I was determined to start in January, after the Christmas holiday. I set the tuition at $79 per month and went to validate and pitch this idea.
From September to December, I called every parent whose child was involved in my bell program at the middle school and asked three things:
- Did your son/daughter enjoy ringing bells when they were in my class?
- Would they enjoy ringing again as high-schoolers? (If the answer was “Yes” I moved to question 3 – If “No”, I wished them well and moved on to the next call)
- Can I add you to this new class I’m teaching? (If “Yes”, I said “Awesome! I’ll send you instructions to register/pay for the first month online!”. I collected an email and sent instructions.)
After about 30-40 phone calls, many rejections, and just enough interest, I had enough students to get rolling. I needed 11 and I got 11. By the grace of God and the pocketbooks of parents eager to see their children continue doing what they love, my first class “Advanced Handbell Education” was born! Terrible name, right?!
Each Thursday I packed my SUV full of bells, pads, and folding tables and went to school. After school I went to Wawa (the best convenience store on the planet) for dinner, then headed to the church for rehearsal.
That June, we gave an ambitiously-horrendous concert that included repertoire that was SO far out of our league skill-wise. Regardless, the kids had a blast, and after that, the money I had stashed away from tuition fees allowed us to purchase a 3-octave demo handbell set that Malmark Bellcraftsmen had available for sale. I took delivery just before summer break.
Impulse Handbell Ensemble – first year
Impulse Handbell Ensemble became the name of the group, the idea was validated, and we were profitable! It only took 9 months, lots of trial and error, and a spectacularly awful concert, but I’d proven that a for-profit bell choir was possible.
Fast forward seven years, and the group is stronger than ever and demands double the original tuition, and earns thousands in performance fees each time they play in public.
THIS SHOULD BE ENCOURAGING
You can do this in your own community!
- It cost me less than $1000 to start
- Class met 1 day/week and needed little planning
- I got to keep my full-time job that I enjoyed
- I validated my idea by simply calling parents and asking them three simple questions that anyone can ask.
- There was cash in the bank by the first class because everyone had paid upon acceptance.
- Free rent for a year!
- I didn’t actually buy equipment until I had one season’s worth of tuition in the bank.
A SIMPLE CHECKLIST TO HELP VALIDATE YOUR IDEA
First, you need the following:
- A skill to share
- People willing to pay you (THE MOST IMPORTANT – THIS IS YOUR NICHE)
There you go! That’s it! If you can check the two boxes above, you win! That’s a valid business.
You will also need these:
- A start date
- A phone to call the people you think are willing to pay you
- A place to teach the people willing to pay you
- A way to collect money
- An account to store money you collect
- Time to read up on the skills you need to succeed as an entrepreneur or time for trial and error
- Optional: Someone who’s been there and done that and a group of people to support you