Singing as Your Day Job

Tenor Michael Lichtenauer describes his unlikely journey from a desk job in Kansas to a career as a professional singer with Chanticleer and then the Los Angeles Master Chorale—and the lessons he learned along the way.

Sitting at his desk at Sprint headquarters in Kansas City back in 1996, Michael Lichtenauer had no idea his life was about to change. He just knew that if he didn't pursue his musical dreams, his soul would shrivel up.

So he got a coworker to go out to the parking lot and take a picture of him next to a tree. He rushed to the one-hour photo place and then to Kinko's to copy his music resume. He plugged a bunch of quarters into a vending machine to get an envelope big enough to hold his resume, audition tape, and photo.

Then he dropped it in the mailbox and went back to work.

A few days later, a call came from the West Coast. "We have one opening and we'd like you to come out and audition for it." Lichtenauer flew to San Francisco for the audition and on the drive back to his hotel heard these words: "We'd like you to join Chanticleer."

"It was the first time in my life that I was speechless," Lichtenauer says.

Turning Point or Detour?

There are turning points, moments in life that steer you one direction or the other. The invitation to join the celebrated men's a cappella group Chanticleer came at juncture in Lichtenauer's life that looked for all the world like a detour.

At an assembly at his Shawnee Mission, Kansas grade school, six-year-old Michael heard a choir for the first time. "My first conscious thought was, I can't wait till I can do that."

Lichtenauer's early music story is the kind that many singers tell, of love at first sight (or first sound). At an assembly at his Shawnee Mission, Kansas grade school, six-year-old Michael heard a choir for the first time. "My first conscious thought was, "I can't wait till I can do that,'" Lichtenauer recalls.

At the first opportunity, fifth grade, Michael joined the choir and at 11 he persuaded his parents to drive him downtown to an audition for the children's chorus of the Kansas City Philharmonic (now the KC Symphony). "Nobody in my family sings," says Lichtenauer. "They just looked at me like, 'What do we do with this?'" He got in—his first paying gig—and soon after joined the boy's choir of the Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral under the direction of the man who would become his music mentor, John Schaeffer.

In junior high and high school, music was his life. From choirs to barbershop quartets to musicals, he auditioned and got into practically everything. In 10th grade he began private voice study with his high school music director, Jack Ballard, and then, according to plan, got a music scholarship to the University of Kansas.

Then the wheels start to come off and the story takes a sharp swerve.

Nobody Knows You But You

By his second year, Lichtenauer was showing signs of burnout. "I had already had all this training," he recalls. "The music I was handed in private lessons seemed a little hokey. Singing in big choruses became a little bit of a bore."

The real action seemed to be in the vocal jazz department, so he auditioned and got in. His jazz ensemble toured Europe and made an album. Only one problem: Performing at the Montreaux Jazz Festival would not satisfy the requirements for his music scholarship.

So he dropped out of the music program. He got a job at a drop-off dry cleaners and decided to major in journalism, while still doing vocal jazz study.

Ironically, without the vocal scholarship, Lichtenauer suddenly had access to many of the vocal teachers he couldn't work with before. Without knowing it, he was getting just the right combination of experience that Chanticleer would be looking for.

"It gave me two ears," Lichtenauer says of his mixed music education. "One with all the legit music background and one with all the jazz background. I had never been a hard-core classical kind of guy. I liked the crazy, poppy, whacky stuff."

When the call from Chanticleer came, Lichtenauer had just reentered the music scene after a self-imposed "rest." He had joined the Kansas City Chorale under Charles Bruffy, just in time to be on the group's first four CDs. And he was once again singing with his mentor John Schaeffer in the magical cathedral space he had sung in as a child.

"The Chanticleer thing, John just wouldn't let it go," Lichtenauer recalls.

Toto, We're Not in Kansas Anymore

Lichtenauer spent seven "wonderful" years with Chanticleer, traveling the world, singing wild new commissions, working with living composers, and doing recordings (two of which won Grammies). The experience left an indelible mark—not just the knowledge that singing had to be his life's work, but the discipline it took to get there.

"In Chanticleer, you learn endurance and resilience, how to sing through sickness," Lichtenauer says. "We call it the Chanticleer boot camp. You do 100 concerts a year all over the world and nobody cares that you just got off the plane and have the flu."

As fulfilling as the Chanticleer experience was, there came a point where Lichtenauer knew it was time to move on. He had heard that money could be made doing studio work (sound tracks for movies, television shows and commercials), so Lichtenauer packed up a U-Haul truck and moved to Los Angeles.

"Chanticleer was like being in this wonderful bubble," Lichtenauer says. "L.A. was another story. People said to me, 'Oh, it's really just a small group of people that do all the [studio] work. It's impossible to get into.' Having Chanticleer on his resume got him some auditions, he says, but it didn't help him to know which jobs were the right ones for him. But I thought, 'You know, I had a desk job in Kansas and there was one opening in Chanticleer and I got that.' I couldn't come up with reasons not to try."

Getting a Toehold

Lichtenauer's education in how to build a music career began in earnest in Los Angeles. To get some cash coming in, he did what many singers do, he got a church job as paid soloist.

Having Chanticleer on his resume got him some auditions, he says, but it didn't help him to know which jobs were the right ones for him.

"It was a new city," he says, "and I was very conscious of who do I want to be? What do I want my name on? Is this something I jump at or is this a group that if I put my name on it, it will take me twice as long to get other jobs?"

The process taught him another important lesson. "You ask a lot of questions, you listen, you ask more questions...and in the end you have to go on instinct."

In that regard, auditioning for the Los Angeles Master Chorale turned out to be an easy call. Music director Grant Gershon had recently taken the helm and was full of energy and new ideas. And after his stint with Chanticleer, Lichtenauer was looking forward to singing with women again.

Even so, when he got in, there was a little trepidation. "I was hesitant about being in that big of a group," he recalls. "It was a wild experience to go from 12 men to up to 115 men and women."

Now with three seasons with the Master Chorale under his belt, Lichtenauer is amazed at the variety of repertoire he's been able to perform—from small ensemble pieces to the choral classics that he had skipped in his peculiar path through music school. "It's been interesting to back up and do my first Bach B Minor Mass," he says.

The Chorale has been a networking paradise, as well. "There are professors in the group, music directors for churches, voice teachers," he says. "People will say, 'do you want to audition for this?'"

Secrets to Success

Twelve years after that fateful day in Kansas City when he knew he had to go for it, Lichtenauer is now a bonafide full-time working musician. You can hear his lovely light tenor not only on Chanticleer and Los Angeles Master Chorale recordings but on the soundtracks of movies such as Speed Racer and Horton Hears a Who and the television show, Medium.

People naturally want to know how he made it in the music business. "Students will come up to me and say, 'Where did you go to school, who did you study with, what do you recommend?'" he says. "I have a weird background. I usually usher them over to the ones who went to the whoop-di-doo schools."

Lichtenauer's secrets for success are much more practical in nature:

Michael's Rules for the Road

  • Know your voice...and your limitations
  • Be on time...or better yet early
  • Give it your best, every time
  • Be reachable
  • Save up for the lean times
  • Know what you want
  • Go for it!

Know your voice...and your limitations

"I have turned down opportunities I know I am not right for. I have no desire to get up and do a poor job or make an ass out of myself. I am really clear about what I can and can't do. It's hard to say no, when you really need that gig or that paycheck. If I try to do a piece where I scream my head off, I know that is not how my voice is put together. I will be trashed."

Be on time...or better yet early

"People say, 'You have done pretty well in L.A. How did you do it?' It starts with the simplest work ethic. Be early. Don't run in late. You're not in high school. Don't talk during rehearsals and blather on and screw around. Shut up, focus, and be ready."

Give it your best, every time

"You never know who's who. You can be standing in a recording session, singing away, and the person next to you, who you don' t know from Adam, will turn to you and, say 'Oh, I'm also a contractor for some people who hire for studio stuff. You sound great. Give me your contact information.'"

Be reachable

"In a place like L.A., things move quickly. Someone drops out of a role and you need to be available at the last minute. How quickly you respond to a call or email makes a big difference. Be very professional in how you reply."

Save up for the lean times

"I saved up money to do this. It doesn't happen overnight. Summers are a challenge because the workload is light. I have had odd jobs. I worked part-time at the church I sing with. It's only in the last year or two that I have been just singing."

Know what you want

"A career in performance can be very unstructured and very unpredictable. You have to be clear on what you want and what your goals are. It's a constant work in process, but I have not gone backwards. I have maintained or grown my career."

Go for it!

"If you have this inside you, it is undeniable. This is what I am supposed to do. This is the most effective human being I can be while I am here, offering joy, or comfort, or a new feeling, or taking you to a new place with music. It is what I am supposed to do."