A Little Fish in a Big Pond… : Choosing a larger university

There are more people in Sarah Davis’s school than in her entire hometown. Growing up in Sterling, Colorado (population 10,000), she already knew what it was like to be a big fish in a small pond. “My graduating class at Sterling High School had 157 students, and I sang leads in the musicals (Music Man, Mikado, H.M.S. Pinafore) and did straight theater.” She sang often in the community, including solos with the community choir, full-length junior and senior high school recitals, and duets with her voice teacher. “I still sing at church when I go home.”

Davis is beginning her senior year at the University of Colorado at Boulder (enrollment 30,000). She credits her high school choir director, Don Johnson, and voice teachers, the late Ivan Rundle and Charles Johnson, with helping her find the “right” school, the “right” teacher, and the scholarship money to pay for it. “CU was a little intimidating at first. I was concerned…coming from a small town where we were somewhat sheltered. But I really wanted the competition and needed the challenge. I also like the activities and the diversity that Boulder has to offer. There is so much going on all of the time!”

Like Sarah Davis, baritone Paul Marchegiani was attracted to a large university with a top-ranked vocal program. The Los Gatos, California, native is completing his last year of a five-year combined BM/BA program at Northwestern University, with degrees in vocal performance and history. “The fact that NU is close to a major cultural center is very important. The school has close ties with the Chicago classical scene.”

How competitive are the top schools? “Very!” Davis replies quickly, “but you do get to know the other singers, and that helps. At my high school, only a few of us were serious about singing, but here we’re all into music.” Marchegiani agrees that the selection process is very competitive, but “as far as competition goes after admission, I’ve found everyone to be extremely cooperative. We’re all motivated and talented, but we also realize that there is more to the college experience than locking ourselves in a practice room 24-7.”

While graduate students garner most of the principal roles at Boulder, Davis simply accepts that as part of “the experience.” “There are limited opportunities for certain things as an undergrad,” she admits, “but I’ve been able to be in the operas and musicals. I’ve done a lot of chorus, but last spring I got to play Miss Wordsworth in Albert Herring.”

“At Northwestern,” says Marchegiani, “there are more than 100 students in the voice program, and usually only a dozen or so are graduate students. Undergraduates routinely get leads and solos in all of the productions and concerts. There are three major operatic productions on campus each year and probably around 10 musicals.” Marchegiani has sung in numerous choral ensembles and operas on campus, and is making his debut as a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus this season.

In an effort to expose students to the high level and expectations of professional artists, schools like Northwestern, UC-Boulder, Indiana University, and UCLA regularly import famous guest artists and alumni for concerts and master classes. “It’s great!” says Davis. “Last year, Cynthia Lawrence and Mark Caulkins [alumni] came to Boulder. This year it’s Marilyn Horne and Steven Weir.”

Marchegiani believes that another important advantage to attending a large school is the abundance and variety of courses offered. “Not just music courses, but courses in history, science, and philosophy–courses that make us more intelligent and well-rounded people, but also more insightful, sensitive musicians. In general, the more intelligent the artist, the better the art. At a big school, full of smart people, there are endless opportunities to grow as a person.”

Sarah Davis is a senior at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she studies with Robert Harrison. She has sung in master classes with Martin Katz and Martin Isepp, and is a three-time winner of the Anderson Voice Scholarship. She plans to attend graduate school in 2000.

Paul Marchegiani is completing his fifth year of a BM/BA program in vocal performance and history at Northwestern University, where he studies with Richard Alderson. Marchegiani was a contestant in the 1999 College Jeopardy Tournament and will begin law school in 2000.

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.