Experiencing College to the Fullest: : Helpful Hindsight from the Cast of ‘The Fairy Queen’

In life, it’s wise to look back, assess, and learn. And while it’s important to live a life in which we minimize the risk of regret, it’s impossible to make it through life—or college, for that matter—without wishing we’d made an alternate choice here and there and taken advantage of an opportunity or resource. Happily, it’s also nearly impossible to look back on college life without a sense of nostalgia and gratitude.

This was certainly the case for each of the singers I had the pleasure of singing with in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, presented by dell’Arte Opera Ensemble. In July, I spoke with this cast of 11 singers, ranging in age from 23 to 35, between rehearsals at New York’s City Center and Alvin Ailey rehearsal studios. I asked these singers to weigh in on the college experiences they found most meaningful, helpful and, in some cases, surprising. Even from those most recently out of college, an air of nostalgia was unmistakable, yet responses continually returned to the “woulda-coulda-shoulda” topics of resources, relationships, and preparation.

For both younger singers just beginning college and those already in the thick of it, the recollections of these singers will inspire you to take full advantage of the college experience—living in the moment while keeping a prudent and strategic eye on the years that follow immediately after.

Resources
Regardless of the size of the program, most collegiate music programs offer a wealth of resources, many of which are frequently included in the cost of tuition. These resources range from practicing experts in the field (performance, theory, musicology, dance . . . you name it) to vast print and digital archives spanning repertoire and literature from the Baroque to present day. And yet, the sense of newness and tremendous period of transition that accompany our early college years can inadvertently prevent us from realizing or inquiring about the multitude of free and discounted resources available to us. In short, many singers graduate college having left musical money on the table.

“Take the resources that are available to you seriously,” tenor Nathan Létourneau advises. “Do diligent work, because you are working with some of the best people in the business and you have their attention. Every art song class, every opera studies class (and, yes, the ones at 9 a.m.) is an opportunity that is often difficult, for time and financial reasons, to regularly create outside of college. The more work you put in, the more you will develop.”

Similarly, soprano Tamra Paselk says that, if given the opportunity, she would “tell my younger, college-self that, in real life, practice rooms are not free, coachings are not free, the gym is not free, performances are not free, teachers are not free. When you get out, you will have to pay out of pocket for all of that. I would tell her to take electives or to audit classes for free. Knowledge is a gift. I would tell her to experience the world outside of her studies. Her brilliance as an artist will grow out of all the relationships and experiences she inhabits outside of the practice room.”

And life outside of the practice room does exist. When asked what some of the most memorable, nonmusical activities these singers enjoyed during college were, many were quick to mention sports or other athletic activities. This came as no surprise, since The Fairy Queen’s director/choreographer Christopher Caines and music director Jeff Grossman assembled a very fit and athletic cast for Caines’ Baroque dance-centered production.

Létourneau enthusiastically remembers nonmusical college time spent running and playing ultimate Frisbee and soccer. “We spend so much time inside a practice room,” he says, “so it is nice to see the sun, rain, or snow once in a while.” Baritone Julian Whitley concurs, recalling that intramural sports were “a great way to get away from the conservatory for a little while.”

Outside of athletics, Whitley advises that pursuing straight acting was time well spent. Other singers fondly recalled taking advantage of offerings centered on community building. For countertenor Brennan Hall, it was Campus Spirit Week, and baritone John Callison enjoyed being a part of Greek life. “I was part of a fraternity,” Callison says, “and I loved going to the South Carolina football games with my fraternity friends. What great times those were!”

Bass Andy Berry, whose undergraduate degree was a bachelor of science for neuroscience, found that coursework outside of the walls of the music school has quick and ready application to the life of a singing artist. “I feel like I’ve gained a lot of experience and perspective to draw from that inform all aspects of what I do as a singer, from acting to critically analyzing texts to just feeling confident about putting my ideas out there,” says Berry.

Relationships
Like so many in the industry, the singers interviewed here returned time and again to the topic of relationships and their importance in college and beyond. While reflecting on which college experiences best prepared him for life outside of the university, tenor Leslie Tay recalls the critical importance of learning to be a good colleague and working well with people.

Paselk shares a similar perspective, while noting some additional players. “I was delighted by the beautiful, supportive friendships I built with colleagues and competitors,” she says. “I love being surrounded by people in a learning environment—the feeling of being in something with so many others . . . I do need a team, but it is my voice, my career. I must take responsibility for my own choices in it.”

Preparation
Preparation and practice are two of the “P words” most frequently used and advised by professors and mentors as young singers progress through their undergraduate degrees. Along those lines, Paselk would offer this advice to her younger self: “Practice and practice and practice,” she says, “and take a little break and then practice more.”

Callison’s reflections on preparation further confirm the truth of the adage that hindsight is 20/20. Yet, in spite of his earnest wish to “have tried to prepare [himself] better for the life of a musician,” there are some things that you simply can’t anticipate or realistically plan for. To that end, I asked each singer to give young singers who plan to move to New York City after completing their college degrees a realistic sneak peek at what to expect.

“It has been hard to transition from student to worker,” Callison advises. “I’ve had a lot of part-time singing gigs in the city in the one year-plus that I have been here, and they have all kind of mish-mashed into my way of living. It’s a hard life, though.” Hall also remarks on some of the more difficult realities of living in New York City, listing the usual suspects, including the high cost of living and the difficulties many singers encounter when looking for a good, rewarding day job.

Responses also included many positive observations of life in the city. “I love the creative energy and the amazing variety of personalities one encounters in this city,” says Tay, expressing what so many musicians in New York City experience time and again. And in a city in which many become discouraged after rejections from programs or companies, Létourneau adds that, in his experience, “It is possible to audition continuously during the entire year in this city as a classical musician.”

“The lifestyle has been easier than I expected,” Paselk says. “Everything is one block away! I love the convenience of public transportation—except when it’s not running,” she concludes with a wink.

Concluding Advice
To offer advice to their younger colleagues in or about to enter undergraduate music programs (as well as those teaching and mentoring them), cast members of The Fairy Queen considered how they would have approached their collegiate experiences differently, if given the opportunity.

“Better organization,” says Létourneau. “In music, as in life, being organized takes a little time, but allows for time savings in the long run. This means more time for the stuff that really matters—and less time spent in a frantic search for a sock.”

Paselk addresses the ever-present, elephant-sized topic of finance and debt, inescapable for nearly all young singers hoping to train for and pursue a career in music. “Knowing what I know now about life, I might have spent time saving so that I wouldn’t have had to work so many jobs to get myself through school,” she says. “I was unable to fully receive the benefits of the very expensive education I am now and forever paying on. I survived my way through school—I loved it. I learned things. But I do not feel it was worth what I now owe. I might have reconsidered grad school and jumped straight into the audition race. No regrets—emotionally, at the time, I needed the structure of school, but hindsight is, indeed, 20/20.”

Wouldas, couldas, and shouldas aside, the The Fairy Queen cast is a positive, thoughtful, and savvy bunch, taking advantage of the training they received and actively participating in the musical offerings of the city they’ve chosen to call home base. “There’s a myriad of opportunities to sing in NYC—sometimes for free, sometimes not—but you can always find ways to grow as an artist in this town,” says Whitley, artfully summing up what so many singers who’ve gone to college for music and then taken the leap to pursue their art in a large city have found.

To those singers preparing to enter the world of classical singing outside of the walls of the university, college, or conservatory, be sure to consider the words of the dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s cast of The Fairy Queen. Their reflections, tips, and advice can help you to take advantage of resources you may not have considered exploring, cultivate key relationships in college and beyond, and make strategic preparations for the life that continues to beckon you back to the practice room, opera workshop, and voice studio.

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), and @DrPetesTweets (Twitter).