High School Arts Training at Orange County School of the Arts

For training as a singer in high school, Orange County School of the Arts offers great choices. Read on to learn about their robust arts curriculum.

 

For a young student who is enthusiastic about singing, or wants to pursue singing in college, or might already be an aspiring opera singer, it can be challenging to find a middle or high school that focuses on the arts. But they are out there, and one of them is Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA), a public charter school for Grades 7–12 in Santa Ana, CA, about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Originally founded in 1987 as an after-school arts program, what is now OCSA eventually outgrew the space, reflecting the number of arts-minded students who wanted to spend time with other arts-minded students. In 2000, it became its own school with about 800 students—now, it has about 2,300 students benefiting from the daily schedule that begins with about five hours of academics, continues with about three hours of preprofessional arts preparation, and concludes with rehearsals and performances. 

Indeed, rising junior Viveka Saravanan highlights the value of the “stellar academic curriculum and guidance” and says that OCSA is a “safe space where everyone is free to be themselves—or to discover who they are and their true passions. Many students come into OCSA without a goal or a clear path in mind, and that it is completely okay.”

Grace Osier performs in the Musical Theatre Conservatory’s fall musical

This background highlights one of the reasons for OCSA’s success: thousands of students have decided that they could thrive in an arts school when they might not otherwise have enjoyed the same success, training, and camaraderie in a more traditional high school. Other reasons: the faculty and the arts curriculum itself. 

About 250 of OCSA’s teachers are working professionals and not full-time faculty members. “That’s one of the ‘secret sauces’ of OCSA—your voice teacher isn’t just a voice teacher all day long. Your voice teacher might also be a singer in the Los Angeles Master Chorale,” says President and CEO Teren Shaffer, explaining that these teachers incorporate real-world expertise and experience into students’ education.

One might wonder how OCSA views itself as being different from other middle and high schools that have arts programs. “Most traditional schools don’t offer a robust arts curriculum,” Shaffer says. “At OCSA, students are getting a conservatory-modeled education. As an example, in [the School of Music], they’re not just doing ensembles. They have chamber music, music theory, music history, pedagogy, masterclasses . . . the difference is in the depth of the program, the types of course offerings, the types of experiences and performance opportunities.” OCSA has multiple conservatories within its five schools, and while most students spend time in one conservatory, the Integrated Arts Conservatory offers the chance to explore multiple arts programs, from vocal to digital photography to creative writing.

Musical Theatre students perform “Honey, Honey” from the hit musical Mamma Mia!

One conservatory is Classical Voice, under the leadership of Dr. Ryan Reithmeier, who offers this case study: Michael Repper (OCSA ’08, conductor New York Youth Symphony) told Dr. Reithmeier that he did not think he would have been able to develop his conducting skills at a “typical” high school. “There was no class for conducting at OCSA then, but our teachers helped create an ensemble in which he could practice rehearsing and conduct some of our performances,” Dr. Reithmeier says. “And that says a lot about the community here.”

In the Classical Voice Conservatory, encompassing performance and academics, students learn fundamentals of music, including theory, musicianship, history, and diction—and they focus on solo and ensemble singing, such as art songs, opera, and chorus. Applicants to Grade 9 are assessed against OCSA’s current freshmen. “They must prepare a piece of music that can be sung with piano accompaniment because that’s what the experience is built on. At the 7th grade level, the conservatory assumes no prior training in terms of musicianship. We’re prepared to start at ground level,” Dr. Reithmeier says. 

OCSA Classical Voice singers perform at the year-end Season Finale

Rising sophomore Estella Keyoung, who was attracted to OCSA’s structure of academics and arts, originally applied to the Integrated Arts Conservatory for middle school. In 7th grade, she began lessons in classical voice, “where I realized that it was my passion.” This past school year, she transferred to the Classical Voice Conservatory and loves it. “The level of depth and intelligence my conservatory teachers have, combined with the academic rigor, encouraged me to stay at OCSA, and it has been everything I have wanted in my educational experience. Every day, after academic classes, I go to conservatory, where I learn about things from diction and art song literature to music theory and composition in a college-level setting.” She acknowledges the challenges of managing arts and academics, but “it is all worth it.”

Brooklyn Vizcarra performs in the fall musical, Gypsy

“Rigorous” is a word also used by rising junior Jeffrey Yang as he describes “being challenged in your art form.” Interestingly, he never thought of himself as “artistic” in elementary school until he joined his school’s choir and found that singing excited him. “I hadn’t had much experience, but still decided to apply to OCSA because I’d heard a lot of stories about the fully immersive experience in the arts at OCSA, and that intrigued me . . . in some ways, it can be a bit intimidating, but after a while, you realize that everyone is trying to hone their craft and better their artistic skills rather than create an unnecessarily competitive environment.”

From L to R: Sebastian Nunez, Viveka Sarabanan, Estella Sky Keyoung, and Jeffrey Yang. OCSA students attending the CS Music Convention in Chicago, 2022.

For students who might have their sights set on Broadway, OCSA’s School of Theatre includes the Musical Theatre Conservatory, led by Lauren Jackson, who also learned discipline and time management while studying in the Commercial Dance Conservatory at OCSA, and whose career has included dance, musical theatre, film, and television. Notably, this conservatory includes preparation for film and television, not just the stage, because “musical theatre can be on stage and screen, since the industry has grown to include voiceovers, recorded musicals, and film adaptations,” Jackson says.

Students delve into acting, vocal techniques, audition techniques, musical theatre history, keyboard, music theory, musicianship, stage movement and combat, and stage makeup. In this conservatory, students can develop a “pop sound” and learn to use their chest and head voices while studying composers known for their work in musical theatre. They also train with several types of microphones.

And what about dance, which is integral to so many musical theatre productions? OCSA does not require Musical Theatre students to take a dance class, but it does expect them to use an elective to take a dance class during the academic part of the day, taught by a teacher in the School of Dance (whose conservatories include Ballet and Contemporary, Ballet Folklórico, Ballroom, and Commercial). 

OCSA Classical Voice students perform “Funiculi, Funicula”

“It is important for a musical theatre student to have stronger dance skills because singers who can dance very well tend to work sooner and more often,” Jackson says. In fact, during her time as the conservatory’s director, she has added two dance classes to her conservatory’s offerings (this expansion is possible because many OCSA instructors work in more than one conservatory).

Jackson can make this declaration about dance skills because of her professional experience. “A strong dance background was a big reason I worked so much on Broadway. Musical theatre students need more dance training because there are other paths to the Broadway stage other than the leading role. You can have a very fulfilling and consistent career as a chorus singer and dancer. Training versatility is the key.”

Regardless of which course of study a singer chooses at OCSA, “We teach music and the joy of making music with other people,” Dr. Reithmeier says, “which is a lifelong gift at any level of achievement and across disciplines.”

 

For information about Orange County School of the Arts, visit www.ocsarts.net.

Greg Waxberg

Greg Waxberg, a writer and magazine editor for The Pingry School, is also an award-winning freelance writer. His website is gregwaxbergfreelance.com.