From singing with the Dodecaphonics to producing a mini-opera in Italian for her major thesis, Sarah Nelson Craft ’01 surrounded herself with music during her time at the College, though she did not decide to go into music professionally until midway through. Since then, Craft has sung in Paris and China and has been on “This American Life.” In March, Craft will perform a solo at Lincoln Center.
What was your time at the College like?
SC: Academically, I did a modified major — Italian modified with music. It was perfect for me. I was able to combine the two of them for my senior project. I produced a mini-opera that was about an hour long. It only had two singing parts. A really good friend was the other lead and there was one non-speaking part, which a professor of mine played. I translated it for the Italian section. I had to raise money for it and hire musicians for it. I also had to write a big long paper in Italian as well for the other part of my major.
When did you decide to go into music professionally?
SC: I don’t think there was an exact moment. Music was pretty much the main thing to me, even though it was mostly extracurricular. I did take several music classes for my major. I spent most of my time singing. Evenings would be two hours of chamber singers and two hours of Dodecs three times a week. I think for a long time I just thought it was an unrealistic thing to want to be, when I was younger. It still is — that hasn’t changed. It still is unrealistic. It still is kind of crazy. It’s still challenging, but at some point I figured that I just loved it too much to not pursue it.
How did you start your music career?
SC: I took a little bit of an unconventional path. After college, I took a couple of years off. I did a summer program at Oberlin [College], where I met a conductor who conducted a well regarded a cappella group in New York, and he asked if I wanted to come and sing for him. For two years after college, I sang with this group, which was not at all full time. I was in several concerts a year. On the side, I was taking lessons and getting better and auditioning. And then, after two years off, I went back to get my masters.
The typical path is to do a young artists program with opera companies and, from there, eventually send a manager and get sent to auditions. That’s easier said than done. I didn’t get into a lot of programs at first. I’m still trying to make it work. Just through contacts in the concert world, people who liked my singing, people I auditioned for, I put together enough of a regular schedule to say that I have a singing career, but it’s tricky. It’s hard to distill it into a complete thing. It’s very nebulous, this whole singing career thing. I do have a manager now. Some is through him, but most of it I’ve gotten on my own through people I know or who recommend me or contacts I’ve made.
It sounds like you sing in a lot of different styles. What has that been like?
SC: I’ve stubbornly stuck to trying to keep it varied because I just love too many styles of things to choose. A lot of times, it’s a bit divided, like you are an opera person or a choral singer. I’m determined not to choose just one of those things.
As my technique improves, I can sing all the styles, while I could not say that a few years ago. It sort of depends what gigs I get, which styles I am singing any given month. I might have a choral performance and then a few weeks later an opera and then a gig where I’m singing solo with an orchestra. I like doing it all, and I like to juggle it all.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
SC: I have two children, so the biggest challenge is balancing the career and my non-singing life. That can be really hard because you need such focus. Having a singing career and making it is so difficult. So many people are trying to do it. To improve, you always have to be bettering yourself, bettering your singing. It can be hard to take that focus away, which I have to do a lot because I have kids. It’s difficult to go between mom mode and singing mode, for sure.
What advice would you give students who want to go into singing professionally?
SC: It’s tricky. I’m almost inclined to tell people to steer clear because it’s such a challenge. There are so many more people trying to do it than can. At the same time, I can’t tell people not to because if you have music in you, nothing is going to stop you. You’re always going to be working hard. It’s as much about the drive and dedication to always getting better and being the best you can as it is about raw talent. The people who make it really work really hard. You’ve got to be nice to people. The people who make it are also a pleasure to work with.
A side note, I will tell anybody to keep other options in their back pocket. [For] the majority of people going into music careers, it doesn’t feel the way you think it will. A lot of people I know are performing part of the time and teaching part of the time. When you’re a student, it sounds like that’s not what I wanted to do, but then reality picks up and you end up finding you love using music in another way. That’s not a failure at all. It’s not a failure for your career not to turn out as you imagined when younger because it rarely does.
This interview has been edited and condensed.