How to become an unstoppable job candidate (so you can build the career you really want)


Dear Ellen, 

I am a baritone in Chicago studying vocal performance.  I recently came across your blog about working in arts administration while still aspiring towards a performing career. This is something that resonates with me - for I would love to have a part time job with steady pay that is related to the arts, yet doesn't inhibit thing such things as rehearsals or auditions. However, in undergrad, these types of concepts are never taught. Because of such,  I have very limited resources related to arts administration. Would you have any suggestions of where to start as a performer who is looking find a position in this field?

Thank you for your time.


Businesslike Baritone

Dear Businesslike Baritone (B.B. for short),

When I first read your letter, I felt totally frustrated on your behalf. It’s such a shame that many music schools aren’t talking to their undergrads about very real and pressing concerns. The most important of which is: Um, how the hell am I going to pay my rent after I get out of here??

Then I started thinking about what advice to give you, and I immediately froze up. If I give B.B. advice about a day job, does that sound like I’m giving up on him?! I wondered. I don’t WANT B.B. to sit at a desk! I want him to keep SINGING!

This is how I feel, and I don’t even know you. So imagine how all your professors feel! Suddenly, I understand why our musical mentors stick their fingers in their ears and go “LA LA LA YOU’LL NEVER NEED A DAY JOB LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU. Students loans, what student loans? Now let’s sing some Wolff lieder.”

It doesn’t excuse it, but it’s true. They love you so much, they don’t want you to have to struggle or compromise. They don’t really want to imagine how tough it’s going to be out there.

Anyway, B.B., here are a few ideas. I hope these will make you a stronger candidate when you set out to land an awesome, part-time day job that supports your artistic career. Here’s what I’m going to advise you to think about:


First, take a hard look at what relevant experience you already have. You may think you don’t have any, but look closer. Have you ever worked a service job of any kind? Ever earned work-study money on a stage crew or behind a reception desk? Did you do a community service project required for a class? Brainstorm on this with trusted teachers, friends, even your parents. Write everything down. This is the raw material that your career center or job placement office can help you shape into a resume. Also, while you’re at it, jot down which work experiences you enjoyed the most. This will be important information when you decide what skill-building opportunities to pursue. (More on that later.)

If you’ve really never worked a day in your life, you’re going to need to start. Before you do that, though ...


Assess your natural strengths. You know yourself and what you’re naturally good at. Are you super detail oriented, always responding to emails quickly and keeping track of logistics? Are you a great writer who loves to tell stories in words? Are you a natural “people person,” persuasive and charming? Ask a few trusted friends and mentors for an honest assessment of your natural strengths. There’s also a great little book called StrengthsFinder 2.0 which might help. I borrowed my copy from the Chicago Public Library -- one of the most amazing free career resources in the world. Your university library probably has it, too.

Employers want to know about your skills and strengths, but you need a clear idea about them, too. It will help you choose what jobs, internships, and skill-building opportunities you should go for, so that you can build more experience in the areas where you’re already naturally strong.


Next, hone in on the jobs) you’re interested in. Now that you’ve looked closely at your past work experience, assessed what you enjoyed, and spent time thinking about your natural strengths, you’re probably getting some ideas about the areas of work you want to focus on. Just to brainstorm a few possibilities, maybe you’re interested in:

  • development: fundraising, grant-writing, donor relations, asking people for money

  • marketing: building sales, audience, and reputation through print, web, social media, etc.

  • operations: getting the rehearsal space, chairs, stands, instruments, and humans organized so that rehearsals and concerts run smoothly

  • audio and video documentation: using sound and video equipment, taking photographs, editing audio

  • library work: preparing sheet music for conductors and performers

  • reception work: greeting people, answering phones, record-keeping, assisting your colleagues, helping an office or school run smoothly


Once you've chosen a job or two, check out the relevant job listings on Chicago Artists Resource.

What skills and experience are the employers looking for?

Which of those skills do you already have? (Celebrate!)

Which ones don’t you have?

How can you get them?

This last one is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you start taking action! You’ve got to think hard about the opportunities you have, right now, to start building knowledge and skill in the areas where you are weak.


Here are some knowledge-building and skill-building steps you could take:

  • Identify 5 people who know more than you about the field you’re trying to work in. Take them out for coffee, and ask them for a little help. You’ve got a friend who’s a PhotoShop whiz? See if he would tutor you for cheap. Your friend works in the Admissions office? Ask for an introduction to her boss.

  • Identify 3 skills you need to be competitive on the job market. Find out how you can build those skills. Is there an affordable class you can take on Coursera, Udemy, or even at your very own school? Is there an online YouTube tutorial to help you get started?


At last, you’re ready to make your skill-building mission statement!


1. When I graduate, I’d love to get a part time job in ______________ field, or maybe _____________ field, to support my singing career.

2. In order to be a good candidate, I need more experience with ______________ and I need to learn how to ______________ and _______________.

3. I’m going to talk to the following 5 people about next steps: _________________, _________________, __________________, ___________________, and ____________________.

4. I’m going to build skills on my own by pursuing the following 3 avenues already available to me:





Good luck, B.B. You're the greatest. And keep me posted on how it’s going!



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Got a question for Ellen McSweeney, the founder of Artist's Huddle? Send your question to ellen.mcsweeney [at]