College Connection: Repertoire Streams, Practice, and Planning

College Connection: Repertoire Streams, Practice, and Planning


Evaluating and reevaluating your educational plans, practice, and career goals is an important tool to learn for singers planning to major in music.

 

For the better part of a decade, I’ve worked with high school juniors and seniors and their families as they’ve navigated the college application and audition process. From prescreens to admission and financial offers, to gap year ponderings and rejection letters, I’ve been asked most everything. I also teach college voice students and singers after they’ve graduated. In short, I experience the college process before, during, and after. And while each singer’s journey is as different as the singer is, questions of practice and planning are a regular reprise.

I made my college decision in the spring of 1999. There were no smartphones, and my family shared an AOL account. There was no YouTube and there were certainly no Instagram polls and reels with instant access Q&As. Many of my questions felt like mysteries whose answers wouldn’t be revealed until I got to campus that August. In hindsight, this probably kept my jitters at bay. Not being inundated with everyone else’s experiences helped keep me from playing the compare-and-despair game before even setting foot on campus. 

Once I did set foot on campus that August, one of those mysterious questions was answered: Where would I do my singing? During our extended first-year orientation, I’d made friends with a trumpeter from my dorm floor who said he was going to practice before dinner. I followed his lead—and him—and went to the practice rooms in the basement of the School of Music at Illinois Wesleyan University. Four hallways of practice rooms split off from a gathering and gabbing area called “The Pit.” I went down one and snagged the room next to his to practice room before dinner. I was really pleased to have gotten what I thought was a jump on my college practicing. I felt ahead of the game—for a moment. Pretty quickly, however, I realized that I wasn’t sure what or how exactly to practice. 

Of course, my voice teacher would ultimately help me with this once the semester officially began—but at that moment I was really at a loss. I had my book, which included my college audition songs, along with some other pieces I’d browsed through with my high school voice teacher, but I really didn’t have a clear sense of strategy. And that was OK. I was 18 years old, embarking on training and a career that would become more understandable to me with the passage of time—and by listening to my teachers and learning from the advice I followed and the suggestions I wish I’d followed a littler sooner. 

For those of you readying yourself for the first semester of college, here is some advice on jumpstarting or empowering your planning. For those of you going back to school and beginning a master’s, doctoral, or other related degree, take a moment to reflect on what’s changed or become easier. What’s become clearer on your path since starting school?

Most undergraduate vocal performance majors are started off with repertoire assignments including art song, some oratorio, and age/Fach-appropriate operatic literature. Depending on the program or teacher, a healthy dose of Great American Songbook and musical theater literature may be included. Frequently these students can feel as though they’re being kept from the meatier operatic literature. I remember occasionally hearing singer friends say things like, “My teacher won’t let me sing an aria until next year” or “I’m only being given art songs.” I felt this way too, occasionally. 

Of course, there’s pedagogical and systematic reasoning behind this. I recognized that back then and trusted my teacher. But what I didn’t realize was that it would have been really empowering to think of this diversity of repertoire from a business perspective. It would be some years before I heard the term and became familiar with the concept of revenue streams, but I think that this is a college connection that can and should be conceptualized going into that first semester.

Had I had a better idea of what a recitalist, a Strauss-Mozart singer, or new music specialist was, I would have had a clearer answer for relatives who would inevitably ask at holidays, “What are you going to do with a vocal performance degree?” followed up usually by “And what’s your backup plan?” Using today’s streaming technology to show videos of career singers who inspired me would have been really useful in helping my family understand where I was directing my passion—to show them how others were making a living. And it certainly would have been helpful to me in seeing/hearing the diversity of repertoire, venues, and activities of a working singer. 

While this concept of categorizing vocal literature alongside the topic of career path isn’t new, actively pairing it with the words “revenue stream” (or repertoire stream) very early in a singer’s training is wildly advantageous. It can empower them to explore repertoire earlier, keeping them from outsizing one part of the literature over another. This way, a collegiate singer can be better inspired to take ownership over multiple repertoire streams and benefit from planting these early seeds of how to make opportunities, rather than simply trying to “find something else to do” because an audition for the spring opera didn’t pan out as hoped for. 

For collegiate singers feeling daunted by repertoire/revenue streams, or who may be a little confused by any of this, take a breath and know that you have time. You have time and people to help you process your planning. A first-year college student will always feel different on the first day of their second semester versus their first. For one thing, they know where everything is. From classrooms to laundry rooms, we soon find our way and can get places more efficiently with some time and experience. 

While it’s wonderful to dream big—and I encourage you to do so—be wary of the other side of that—a.k.a. living in the ruins of the future (spoiler alert: those ruins don’t exist—they’re F.E.A.R., False Evidence Appearing Real). If you find your repertoire and career planning is causing you more anxiety than inspiration (and this can also be caused by the questions of a well meaning loved one), use this tool to get back to the present moment. Remind yourself of the day and time. Identify the fear, and then talk yourself back into the present moment with these questions. It looks something like this:

 

Anxious student singer:

“I am afraid I won’t be cast in the fall opera, and then no one will know I’m talented, and then I won’t have a credit for my resume, and then I won’t get into a summer program, and then I won’t be cast in the outside world, and then I won’t make any money, and then I’ll be forced to live in a shoe.” Yikes—that happened fast!

 

Now BREATHE in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, and then ask and answer:

  • What degree am I working on?
  • Which year am I? 
  • Which semester? 
  • Which week? 
  • Which day? 
  • Where are my feet? 

There’s a long way from lunch before theory to juries and to jobs. It’s how we talk to ourselves and those we trust—like our voice teachers and others with a major commitment to and investment in our growth—that helps us to identify and take actionable steps toward making our big dreams into big realities. Keep connected and keep connecting. Classical Singer offers great ways to do both. When you read an article, you’re engaging with another singer—a teacher, a working singer, a person whose experience you can trust. You’re on your way. Keep up the great work!

Peter Thoresen

Dr. Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct voice faculty member at Pace University and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City; he also serves as music director with Broadway Star Project. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and Broadway Kids Auditions (BKA) and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com, @peter.thoresen (Insta).