'From opera to sales: How I used my experience as a singer to change careers'

Search for the parallels between what it takes to do your current job well and what it will take for you to produce great results in the new field you’re pursuing.
Image: Job interview
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "on paper and in person, you should be able to translate how your skills and experience match the position you’re applying for.”Peopleimages / Getty Images
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By Chad Dyar

I’m a classically trained opera singer. I studied vocal performance at Northwestern and started professional life performing with opera companies around the country, singing everything from "Turandot" to "The Magic Flute" to "La Bohème". Then I turned to musical theater, joining productions of "West Side Story", "Grease", "Rent" and a dozen more.

All of this prepared me for a career as a sales director in tech.

When I tell people this, they’re often surprised. They can’t imagine how years as a lyric tenor could translate into this whole new career.

Chad Dyar says a career in opera and musical theater prepared him well for a role in sales.Courtesy of Chad Dyar

These days, more and more people are looking to switch jobs and “change it up” by pursuing a different field altogether. But for many, the idea is daunting, even frightening. I’ve found that that’s often because they don’t see how their experiences relate to the career they want.

I was fortunate to have a great template for this, in my mom. She spent 15 years as a dental assistant. Then, just like many other people mid-career, she decided to do something different. She went into sales, and was recently named top vendor representative of the year at her electronics company.

Focus on skills

A big part of the reason my mom succeeded was that she stopped thinking about job titles, and instead focused on the skills she had learned over the years — such as communication, empathy, and the ability to make people feel comfortable. These translated beautifully into sales.

I took a look at what skills I had developed as a singer, and quickly saw how they could help propel me into a sales career.

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For example, since I’d spent years studying the complexities of operatic and orchestral music, math and analytics came naturally to me. As the American Mathematical Society explains, “Counting, rhythm, scales, intervals, patterns, symbols, harmonies, time signatures, overtones, tone, pitch. The notations of composers and sounds made by musicians are connected to mathematics.”

I had also developed unique communication skills. As a singer, I had to think through every word to figure out the broader message I was trying to get across. I had to be a storyteller, taking listeners on an emotional journey. To “sell” that story, I had to buy into and believe every note.

I also learned discipline, commitment, and how to work closely — harmoniously — with different groups of people so that we could execute our mission together. This meant building relationships, understanding people, and negotiating. I had to adjust my presentation, even down to small nuances, in order to work best with each team.

As I isolated all these skills and more, I discovered that I was far more prepared for this new career than I had assumed. In networking opportunities and job interviews, I discussed all this. Contacts and hiring managers found me different and memorable.

So instead of running away from my experience, I embraced it. Some people in my position would have been tempted to say, “Well yes, I spent years in another career, but I’ve taken a sales training course and am ready to get my feet wet.” I focused instead on showing people how all the steps I had taken in professional life prepared me to take this next one.

Willingness to learn

Another big key to switching careers is the humility to accept what you don’t know, You have to demonstrate a willingness to learn. I knew that I had a steep hill to climb. So I focused on explaining how hard I work to pick up new skills and achieve excellence.

I explained that my career showed a deep commitment to stakeholders — the organizations that paid me and the people who bought tickets. I felt a responsibility to pull through for them. And I explained that I felt similarly about the stakeholders salespeople must pull through for, including buyers, managers and other parts of the operation in order to achieve customer success (revenue operations, data analytics, marketing and more).

In this new career, I’ve worked my way up the ranks in part by showing stakeholders that I genuinely want to know what their needs are and how I can best serve them.

In the end, the goal of professional opera singing and sales is the same one: to get more people buying, liking what you offer, and providing good reviews.

Translate your experience

No matter what you’ve done so far in your career, you can follow this same process. Search for the parallels between what it takes to do your current job well and what it will take for you to produce great results in the new field you’re pursuing.

In resumes and cover letters experts recommend that you “focus on skills you have that are directly relevant to the job tasks... not the fact that you’re transitioning” to a new career, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “On paper and in person, you should be able to translate how your skills and experience match the position you’re applying for.”

Sure, the transition can be bumpy. But no matter how far along you are in your career, you can make a jump like I did, and succeed.

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