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So You Want to Be An Opera Singer?

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Not long ago, I wrote a piece about how college ranking systems aren't useful for students looking to go into music programs. Many people thought I was spot on; a few had criticism. Let me be clear -- many of the programs in the USA Today top 10 list are great universities, and perhaps have solid music programs. However, it is dismaying when it listed Boston College on a top 10 music school list. I lived and worked as a musician in Boston for two years. I don't ever remember anyone talking about the BC music program. That's not to criticize the school, but when there are three large music programs, one of them the historic New England Conservatory, in Boston, BC gets overshadowed. Furthermore, that list wasn't written as one of generally strong music programs, my impression was it discounted the fact that most students at the top music schools are performers and instead approached it with a generic college ranking method. It wasn't written specifically for performers, neither was it written for academics. It was a bad list. Any list of the top 10 music schools in the US that doesn't include the University of Indiana, University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, University of Michigan, The Curtis Institute, or Julliard is not a list worth reading. Those are among the strongest music performance and academic programs in the country.

I also received an email from a mother of a college senior majoring in vocal performance who was looking at graduate schools. She was very complimentary of the piece and welcomed any further advice. As I thought about it, I figured I could write another blog post on the topic, one focused specifically on singing and students in their undergrad thinking of going to graduate school for vocal performance. Here's what I said:

Here's probably the best advice I can give: Take a year or two off before going into graduate school. All my friends who took time between undergrad and grad school were very happy they did. For one, burnout at the end of four years of college can be pretty intense. Trying to then go into a grad program, which often put a lot of pressure on students, is very difficult. Also, there are very important advantages of graduate school. This is especially true those that have a coaching staff and performance opportunities that you can take for credit. In the real world you have to pay out of pocket for many of these things and scramble to establish yourself in a music scene to get paid gigs. In addition, many of my friends didn't make a lot of technical progress in graduate school because good schools generally keep students too busy to really process the information they get from their teachers. They spend much of their time learning repertoire for weekly performance workshops and repertoire classes.

This is why I suggest you take a year or two off. Find a great teacher to work with on a weekly basis. Get a vocal coach that can help polish your repertoire. That might mean moving to a city away from home. When I did it, I moved out to Boston where my aunt and her family lived. I staid with her for a few weeks before getting an apartment with another friend from college. I worked, got experience in an office, learned life skills, made friends in and out of music, and learned some of the entrepreneurial skills necessary for the career.

Second piece of advice is that you need to do summer programs. They can be expensive, however it's a disaster to only focus on the big ones that don't require tuition. You'll need to do a few pay-to-sings or you will probably be dead in the water. There are some good ones out there that are big and small. There are also some that are basically scams, but it doesn't take long on the web to figure out which ones those are. Good programs teach a variety of skills through lessons, coachings, performances, and language classes. A lot of good teachers teach at these programs, as do good vocal coaches. It is a vital part of networking and laying the early groundwork for later success. That's on top of gaining valuable stage experience and honing the craft.

Third piece of advice, and this has to do with the first thing I recommended -- don't think that those students in your class going off to grad school right away are on their way to big careers or somehow have an advantage over you if you don't get in anywhere. I got wait listed at NEC (New England Conservatory) my first round of grad school auditions and that was it. Meanwhile, I had friends who went off to prestigious music programs. Only one of those is still singing professionally. Singer culture can often be a game of cattiness and egos. Everyone is insecure and it's very hard to cling to some sense of accomplishment and self-worth. It can also lend itself to over inflated egos, as is the case when singers who are the stars of their departments either don't get into grad school, or arrive and find themselves nowhere near the top of the heap.

Depending on whether you want to sing classical music or music theater, there are various other bits and pieces of advice. For sure, either fields require acting skills and so it would be good for you to maybe enroll in an acting class or take some basic acting training. You should listen to as many singers as possible -- especially the great singers from the early- and mid-20th century -- and familiarize yourself with as much of the repertoire as you can. You should also try to familiarize yourself with what the business of singing. I would recommend reading the book Beyond Talent by Angela Myles Beeching and the OperaNow! podcast hosted Michael Rice and Oliver Camacho.

Last, and maybe even most important, you must have something outside of music that you can enjoy and do in your downtime. Most people do, but if you don't, you needs to find a hobby that takes your mind off the insanity that singing and the classical music career can foster.

There's plenty of other advice to be had. Each singer has to find their own way and put together their own career. The opera profession is not what it used to be. Young artist programs seem to have become an endless pool of cheap choristers and comprimario singers. I've seen many young artists never break out of that circuit. I've also noticed how few young artists from major programs manage to have big careers. Often, the prestigious house where they did the residency don't hire them back. Graduate school has become a perfunctory step in the career and often nowhere near as formative as it once was. Yet there are opportunities to be had at good schools, and young singers need to be tenacious in making the most out of their experiences.