Charlie Adams couldn’t get a job to save her life. Over coffee, the 30-year-old choir director and founder of the Urban Choir Project recalled how, soon after she moved to New York from England some five years ago, she sent out hundreds of professional job applications — and got crickets on every single one.
“I was always going to start a choir, I just thought I’d walk into one first,” Adams told Brokelyn. “To date, I’ve never gotten a single job [for any] application that I ever filled out. So I was like, mmkay. I’m gonna have to re-imagine this.”
Now, Charlie Adams is the artistic director of the Urban Choir Project, an umbrella organization that offers both corporate singing workshops for schools and businesses, and drop-in community choirs for various age groups and interests (including BritPop Choir and the first-ever Brooklynite Choir). She directs all of the UCP’s choirs, and she might just be the living proof of the artist’s greatest hope: that all it takes to make dreams come true is a lot of drive, the right attitude about detours, and the courage to blaze a trail where no unpaid intern has gone before. In this latest installment of our original how-to series on cool jobs, Adams tells Brokelyn all about how her startup business got her a-choired.
Besides the whole “couldn’t get a job” thing, why did you start the Urban Choir Project?
New York doesn’t have a lot of community settings to sing non-audition, where it’s about relaxation. I was once in a very upright classical kids’ choir and I hated it, [the director] was an amazing presence but there was a sense of hierarchy. I remember the first time where my choir’s teacher wasn’t at a piano, and just came out to say “you sing this part, you sing this part.” Because of that [experience], from the age of 14 I learned to sing bass to soprano.
What was the hardest part of starting a choir business from scratch? And how did you do it?
Sitting down and trying to be realistic. I took free Business Solutions classes and workshops from the city. I set up a free website through Wix Lounge, where you can also co-work for free. And the public library is a really good resource! I love the library, even just to sit and work. I found out that a lot of the libraries will give you free space, like the Carroll Gardens Library, and they have massive meeting rooms and office rooms.
So anyone can come and sing with the community BritPop and Brooklynite Choirs?
Yes, it’s drop-in choir for anyone that loves to sing. It welcomes professionals and beginners, and it’s just about coming together once a week, having a good time, and connecting with other people through song.
Cool. What’s the turnout like? Who comes out?
BritPop Choir has grown to 50 people. Brooklynite Choir has only been around for six months, and we already have 27 people. We have a couple of professional singers, a couple people that have never sung. Most people sang in high school or college and have moved away from music and are looking to get back into it.
What do you do as the choir director?
I teach the music. I teach everything by ear. My job is to fold people in who have never done it before. I try to do quite positive stuff. I stay away from things that are too difficult.
What makes a good choir leader?
You have to be a good manager. And be really nice to people! And you get big personalities, so helping people navigate and speak to each other nicely. I do all my own arrangements, and I know it quite well, so when I train [choir leaders], that’s something I want. To help people be able to create their own arrangements, their own style.
Tell all the potential choristers reading this: what’s the best part about choir?
Singing is so good for you. In England, places are doing singing instead of yoga. It’s a great social network, It’s a great way to meet new people and cute little bonds form. And laughing is really important. And the afterglow. It changes session by session, but there is an energy. When you have lots of people singing together in harmony, you can feel the vibration. I buzz afterwards!
Here comes the obligatory “Why Brooklyn?” question.
Brooklyn is the coolest place in the world, and if you’re in music, the image that’s projected is that Brooklyn is the place to be. I’ve been based in South Slope for two years now, and doing choir stuff here just isn’t as manic as it is in the city. It’s low-key, relaxed. There’s a real mixture of parents and kids. And people are looking for stuff [like this] in Brooklyn.
I actually was! Okay, but seriously, how did you make any money to sustain yourself?
When I moved here, bartending wasn’t the plan, but I did it, and it was literally the best thing that I could have ever done. The bar scene and the arts are such an interconnected scene. And I realize that I needed the money to be happy. It took three years before I was able to start cut back on bartending shifts, but the service industry here gives you the flexibility to do that.
But bartending isn’t the ideal side job, right?
Every person is different. I’m now a teaching artist, which is great. A lot of companies want teaching artists. And then you get to be in classrooms and community settings, supporting your art within your field while keeping your instrument finely tuned. If you get a good company, they pay really well. The starving artist thing when you’re 21 is cool, but when you’re 30 it’s just stressful. Whatever you do, as long as you keep space to do your art, and if you just want to be a performing artist, it happens.
Do you still have time to “do your art” these days?
I’m not pursuing a career as a recording artist right now, but I want to sing every day. And running choir and music workshops is a way I can financially support myself while doing that. Performing and music is something that is there forever.
What’s your message to all the other artists out their with a lot of talent but no interviews?
Be patient, and persistent. Particularly in New York, it takes a long time to get things moving. But you plant those little things, and you book space, and you say “I’ll give you a free spot in my class if you can bring two friends,” and suddenly, there’s momentum.
The Brooklynite Choir meets Thursday nights 7-:30-9pm at Court Tree Collective (371 Court St., second floor) in Carroll Gardens. $10/session with 10-week commitment, $14 drop-in.