A big Fish in a Little Pond : Choosing a Smaller University

My undergraduate music school was soooooooo small…” begins Ellen Moeller. I wait for the punch line, but she isn’t joking. “My school was so small that I was the only freshman voice major that year. Really!” By comparison, the 20 voice majors enrolled last year at Saint Xavier University in Chicago must seem like a bumper crop.

For mezzo soprano Moeller, the decision to accept a full scholarship to study voice at Saint Xavier was easy. “My high school voice and piano teacher, Pat Bickel, taught there. I visited the campus often and went to the operas and recitals. I was always being called to be a guinea pig for the voice and piano pedagogy classes, so I knew the staff and students. I was comfortable there.”

Comfort was also a consideration for Christine Thomas, who attended a women’s college only five miles from her home in Milwaukee. “Alverno College was a good place for the person I was then,” says Thomas. “I was a very timid person at that time–easily intimidated and very self-conscious.”

Thomas found the community of faculty and female students to be very supportive. “On the one hand, Alverno continued to shelter me, as small as it was. On the other hand, because there were no men in the classes, I learned to speak out freely without the fear of saying something stupid in front of a guy.” She adds (without a trace of shyness), “That may be something to consider when you’re 18!”

Knowing they would have plenty of opportunities to perform played a big part in both of their choices of college. Mezzo soprano Thomas was a frequent soloist, and sang regularly in student and community programs. As a freshman, Moeller was in a select vocal ensemble, and later sang leads in virtually every opera and musical theater production, along with “tons of choral solos” and outreach programs at local high schools. She tells of a good friend, who is now a successful regional opera singer, who spent four undergraduate years at Indiana University–passing out programs. “It was so competitive that she never got onstage–not even in the chorus!” Moeller says, incredulously. “How will I learn to be an opera singer if I never get to sing a role?” she asks. “How do I know I even want to be an opera singer?

“Sure, a small college meant less competition,” continues Moeller. “But there were still challenges. There was often someone who got the role or solo I wanted. There was always someone better, which is healthy, but there weren’t 20 others who were better, which was a relief!”

Were there disadvantages? “Since Alverno is a women’s college, the choral literature we were exposed to was limited,” admits Thomas, a soloist with Bel Canto Chorus of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Choral Artists, and a supplemental chorister with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Opera has its limitations, as well, at a smaller college. “With a small student body,” Thomas continued, “we were relegated to smaller works, such as opera scenes and Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief. We could never stage a full Mozart opera.”

“There is also the lack of reality in a smaller school that makes a singer think they’re better than they truly are,” cautions Moeller. “It’s really important to get away and to be aware of the level of singing outside the school.” Thomas recalls traveling to Northwestern University to attend a master class by Owen Brown. Moeller and other Saint Xavier singers frequently attended operas and recitals in Chicago, and competed in NATS and regional competitions such as The Park Forest Competition. “You have to know what’s out there.”

Both singers credit the close-knit learning environment of small undergraduate colleges with providing critical skills, experience, and self-confidence to help them in their professional careers and graduate study. “I learned to believe in myself,” says Moeller, “and to know that I was a good singer.”

Christine Thomas is an active performer in the Milwaukee-Chicago area. Recent performances include Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte with Plymouth Opera. She created the role of The Woman in Red with Washington Opera in the world premiere of The Dream of Valentino.

Ellen Kessie Moeller has performed roles such as Cherubino in Le Nozze de Figaro and Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus. She has a master’s degree from DePaul University in Chicago and is currently earning a D.M.A. at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.