On a recent Sunday after Mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill, a woman visiting from Poland approached choir member Marjorie Bunday with a question. She wanted to know why both bread and wine were served during Communion, and Bunday, who had sung as cantor for the service, must have looked like a good person to ask. Bunday did her best to come up with a good answer but ended up telling the woman that serving both sacraments is “just an American thing.”

What the visitor didn’t know is that Bunday, despite the moving rendition of “He Comes to Us as One Unknown” she delivered earlier in the day, wasn’t a member of St. Peter’s. In fact, Bunday isn’t a member of any church. She just sometimes sings in one.

Most Washington-area churches with a halfway decent music program employ at least some paid professionals as choir singers. Some choirs hire soprano-, alto-, tenor-, and bass-section leaders to give their volunteers a good voice to follow. Others, such as the octet at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish, are composed solely of professionals—which means that instead of playing human pitch pipes, the singers can just let ’er rip.

Either way, the opportunities are abundant. “This is a great town for choral singing,” declares Bunday. But not always a great town for choral singing outside of churches. Most of the big secular choirs don’t have paid positions, and competition is keen in the ones that do.

By necessity, the 39-year-old alto/mezzo-soprano, a baptized Methodist with a talent for Bach and the baroque, has spent a lot of time singing hymn-book numbers in the choirs of various Anglo-Catholic churches around Washington. For years, a typical Sunday would find her taking the bus from her “crappy basement apartment in Mount Pleasant” to St. Paul’s for a 9:30 a.m. rehearsal. By 2 p.m., she’d have performed the service, rehearsed again, taken a lunch break, and returned for Evensong rehearsal.

After that, she’d usually catch another bus to another rehearsal somewhere else in town. Because it wouldn’t do to show up bleary-eyed for a Sunday-morning service, Bunday got used to turning in early on Saturday nights.

The Rockville native was more of a night owl before she accepted a job at the Palisades’ St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church 12 years ago. She got it on a flight back from a tour of Europe with Musikanten, a chamber choir, when another singer, who also happened to be the director of music at St. Patrick’s, turned to her and said, “Marge, you need a church job, and I need an alto.”

“A church job?” she recalls asking. “I’m not setting foot in church. I’ll catch fire as soon as I walk through the door.”

The director waved his hand dismissively. “Oh don’t worry about it,” he assured her. “Don is a Jew, and he’s been singing with us for years.”

Those who work choir jobs often find them through Lisa Koehler, a veteran singer and former paid chorister at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Koehler, who describes herself as a “vocal contractor,” connects singers with choir vacancies and substitute gigs through her Web site, Singer Source. She began the service two years ago, when she noticed how few professional singers knew about the abundance of local church jobs. She started out e-mailing information to about 40 singers; her roster now includes more than 500.

Koehler works with about 100 area churches, which offer probably 400 paid jobs. At any given time, there are about 40 openings, outnumbering tenfold what’s available with choral societies and other secular groups. And with seven area universities offering vocal programs, Washington has no shortage of classically trained vocalists—though few dream of singing professionally in church choirs. They’d rather be making solo recordings for Deutsche Grammophon.

“People always say that there isn’t money for musicians,” says Koehler. “Well, this is money. And if people don’t take these jobs, the jobs will just go away.”

Bass-baritone Frank Albinder was a college professor who won a Grammy with San Francisco’s Chanticleer, one of the few full-time choral groups in the country. Yet he has almost always held a church job. “It’s one of many things you cobble together to make a living as a musician,” he says.

Orchestras are much more commonly unionized than choral groups, so when a church choir decides to do Handel’s Messiah, it will most likely end up hiring a union orchestra—meaning that most of the budget will go toward paying the instrumentalists, not the choir members. In Washington, the only union-run shops for classical-repertoire vocalists are the Washington National Opera and the Washington Concert Opera, which require all of their singers to join the American Guild of Musical Artists.

“They know singers will work for cheap,” says Bunday. “It’s probably too bad we have that reputation.”

Indeed, no one gets rich by singing in religious choirs, even during the boom times of Christmas, Easter, and, for singers who can do temple—Jews and gentiles alike—the Jewish High Holidays. Most houses of worship pay a set rate per call—every time a singer shows up at church for a rehearsal or service. The going rate is about $50 per call, and because Christian churches tend to hold rehearsals and services at the same time, the number of calls a singer can make each week is limited. The vast majority of performers on the circuit average roughly $500 a month in church work.

Though rare, plum gigs do exist. Members of the National Cathedral’s men’s choir earn $100 a call and are guaranteed 187 calls each year. And that’s for only about 10 hours of work each week. Koehler recently advertised a vacancy for a bass-baritone with the U.S. Air Force’s Singing Sergeants. The job’s annual salary started in the mid-$40s and included full military benefits: 30 days of paid vacation along with medical and dental coverage. Of course, if you got it, you had to join the Air Force.

That’s a little more commitment than, say, genuflecting when crossing in front of the altar, which St. Paul’s Parish on K Street NW expects of every choir member, Episcopalian or not. “We’re singing whores,” National Cathedral singer Chris Dudley admits cheerily. “We sing for money. I take Communion and prayer, but I wouldn’t say I’m a complete believer. But who is?”

Dudley is officially a member of the Church of England, but he’s quite happy simply to be a hired hand. “A lot of the time, I don’t listen to the sermon,” he says. “In fact, I don’t think I ever listen. I think about other things I’m doing during the week.”

Every time Bunday sings at a new church, the first thing she tries to learn is not the music but the idiosyncratic choreographies of the service. If she can’t get her footwork sorted out, she fakes her way through by following the choir member in front of her. If she doesn’t know the exact form of a prayer, she just silently moves her lips. “You gotta watch out for things that change for Lent, like no ‘hallelujah’ in certain parts,” she says. “And then the Lord’s Prayer gets cut off in Catholic churches. It’s a good way to tell who’s Episcopalian in a Catholic church.”

Some singers chafe at having to go along with all the smells and bells, or fear being pressured to convert. But a singer’s faith rarely matters to a music director. “Church affiliation doesn’t factor into the audition at all, unless they’d be incredibly uncomfortable singing for a religious service,” says Mark Dwyer, music director at St. Paul’s on K Street. “I look for the voice itself, superior sight-reading ability, and an amicable personality. If they can find a way in which they can participate, then it’ll generally work.”

Only occasionally have congregants asked Bunday about her faith, which she describes as an amalgam of elements from all of the Christian churches she’s visited for work. “We see so much of all the political crap going on in the background, and we’re like, Yeah, right. Holy my ass,” she says. “Really, when you get down to it, it’s all based on the same stuff. I haven’t noticed many differences. It’s all just little technicalities here and there. I’ve spent so much time in the last 12 years learning about what Christ said, and I think it’s all good.”

Bunday recently quit her post with St. Paul’s Rock Creek to focus on her career as a soloist, passing up the steady pay for the freedom of not having to be somewhere every Sunday morning. But the call of the church is hard to ignore. In the past month, she’s substituted at five different churches in addition to singing in the choir at Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s funeral at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, where choir members were told to bring a snack for their four-hour call. One brought an apple, which was confiscated by Secret Service agents who said it could have been used as a projectile weapon against President Bush.

Of course, it’s a big leap from great choral singer to great soloist—especially in chorus-rich Washington. Bunday’s most recent nonchurch job, a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor with the Washington Bach Consort, found her singing her “favorite piece of choral music in the whole universe” from the back of the stage, not the front. In fact, the concert featured only one local soloist among the five who performed. The rest flew in from as far away as Canada and Belgium.

But if Bunday can establish herself as a soloist, relative riches await. Dudley came to Washington from England four years ago and has been able to do quite well for himself in a very short amount of time. “I’m very happy with how far I’ve come,” he says. “In the past, I’ve had to do odd jobs to support myself, but now, with teaching as well as the cathedral and extra gigs in town, Baltimore, and New York, I’m making over $30,000. Each year, my income gets higher and higher.”

Until Bunday achieves her own financial breakthrough, she’ll most likely reach for her dreams with at least one foot still planted in the choir loft. “I’m sort of a late bloomer,” she says. “For many years, I was like, I’m just a choral singer. Now I’m like, I’m a choral singer and a soloist.”

“Church-choir singing is the bread and butter,” says Bunday. “It’s how I’m going to pay my bills for a while, to fill in the cracks. It’s not what I want to be doing forever. I’ve been dreaming of the day where I won’t have a church job anymore, and that day may never come. But if it doesn’t, I’m still absolutely thrilled to be singing for my dinner.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.