The image of Atlas holding up the Earth is a good analogy to describe the feelings associated with selecting a college major—the weight of the world upon your shoulders. Your choice will put you on a path to your future career. Or will it? Is the selection of a college major a life-altering decision?
Yes . . . and no. True, your major will dictate the musical skills and other subjects you will learn, as well as how and with whom you spend most of your time. But there are many majors and career choices, you can change majors if your first selection proves to be not to your liking, and a lot can happen in life after you graduate from college (voices change, industries change, career paths change). So a major can be considered more of a stepping stone.
Guidelines for Choosing a Major
Passion and fascination are excellent strategies for steering you in the right direction when it comes to choosing a major, especially if you are not sure about a career—normal for rising college freshmen. “If there’s a talent that deserves to be cultivated, spend time doing that,” says Katherine Drago, assistant dean of admission and student services at the Longy School of Music of Bard College.
“A lot of people focus on the outcomes [of a major], but keep in mind that music majors study a variety of subjects within the liberal arts, learn time management and, perhaps most importantly, [develop] the skills to communicate effectively. It’s like an inherent double major; so musicians are equipped for a number of career paths. We need music majors’ perspectives and passion throughout the arts—not just on the stage.”
As director of admissions at the Hartt School—which offers Vocal Studies, Academic and Contemporary Studies, Music Education, Theatre, and Dance—Megan Abernathy is well aware that students with multiple interests can have a difficult time pinpointing their passion. “If they are torn between a couple of different subject areas, think about ways to combine them,” she says. “Sometimes this is easy, like music education, but sometimes the areas don’t overlap.” In that case, you could major in one area and minor in another, or pursue a double major.
Identifying Your Strengths and Preferences
There are two important methods available for finding what you are good at and what interests you. First, consult your mentors (such as the director of your high school choir or musical) about their perceptions of your skills and ask these teachers about their experiences with the majors they chose. Second, consider past successes and the reasons for those successes.
“Students should reflect about their high school coursework—not only what they did well in, but also courses in which they were excited to learn and inspired to work hard and, perhaps, went above and beyond to search for more information,” Abernathy says. “If a student enjoys singing in the choir but also enjoyed fundraising for a choir trip or helping to advertise the choir performances, they might thrive in a music management program.”
Singers Who Also Play an Instrument
Should a singer who also plays an instrument choose one over the other or continue with both? The short answer is to prioritize—at least for the purpose of college applications, which consider one’s voice an “instrument.” “I ask students to name their primary instrument or what they practice first,” Drago says. “You will have to prepare for audition requirements. If 90 percent of your admission decision is based on your audition and you’re deciding to audition on two instruments, you’re diluting your practice time in preparing those requirements.”
Aside from the audition, feel free to pursue both. For music therapy, singers are encouraged to continue with both because of the many applications for instruments in therapeutic settings.
Advantages and Disadvantages of a Double Music Major
If a double major is offered by a college or university (ask the music department), if you are allowed to audition for both and if you have the self-discipline and time management skills for a longer program, the obvious advantage of a double major is that you obtain degrees in two areas. “The biggest advantage applies primarily to music education majors, as they will be much more marketable to school districts whose funding makes it difficult to afford the two positions of both a band director and a choir and/or general music instructor,” says Bradley Robinson, vocal area head and associate professor of voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Mississippi. “The district gets two for the price of one, and the teacher gets a busy schedule.”
However, double music majors are time intensive (probably five or more years to complete), can be stressful and, by dividing one’s attention, can lead to mediocre results. “Students should think about their goals and decide if one of the two majors should wait for a graduate degree. That might be a more comfortable pace and lead to two degrees in almost the same time frame,” Abernathy says.
Let’s look at details for four of the undergraduate music majors that apply to singers.
A vocal performance degree will help you build a toolkit for becoming a singer in “classical” genres such as opera, oratorio, chorus, art song, and Lieder. This major includes training in vocal technique, music theory, repertoire, diction, languages, and performance skills; understanding of the historical and social contexts of music; and access to acting and movement training. During the college search, examine the audition requirements so that you can start to select and prepare your music.
Since there is overlap between vocal performance and musical theatre—opportunities for singers to audition for roles in both disciplines in college, faculty members who teach both (depending on the college or university), college courses common to both, summer programs that include both, and crossover in the professional world—it can be challenging for high school singers, particularly those who have participated in choirs and musicals, to choose between these two majors.
Singers who major in musical theatre spend most of their time on the “triple threat” of singing, acting, and dancing (tap, ballet, jazz) as they pursue performance opportunities in operetta, light opera, off-Broadway, Broadway, and national tours. Classes include music theory, scene study, stage movement, stage combat, theater history, and physical conditioning. Students are also members of crews (including sets, props, and costumes). For purposes of planning, heed this guidance from Nadine Gomes, a lecturer in voice for the Theatre Conservatory in the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University: “Most musical theatre majors will not go on to earn a master’s degree in performance because they are immediately employable. Youth is a selling point, and musical theatre casts are age appropriate. Because musical theatre is physically demanding, there’s also an eventual expiration rate for the dancers, so these shows are looking for new, young artists.”
To try to simplify the decision-making process for singers unsure about vocal performance or musical theatre, Gomes advises, “Figure out what you really enjoy singing and listening to because you will spend a lot of time listening to and studying the music. Sometimes, people can be good at a certain style, but it’s not what speaks to them—it’s a difficult, but important, question to ask yourself.”
Within musical theatre, there are three main degrees. “Bachelor of fine arts is the most intensive training, but probably the least flexible because those singers want to be performers, so 80 to 90 percent of the courses are theater related,” Gomes explains. “Bachelor of arts is much broader, maybe 30 percent theater related. It’s a good choice for academically oriented students, with a variety of liberal arts in addition to theater classes, more extracurricular activities, and more interaction with students from other majors. Bachelor of music is good for students who want crossover among opera, operetta, and musical theatre, with some of the same classes taken by vocal performance majors.”
Do you enjoy working with children and want to inspire the next generation? If you have visions of teaching, perhaps as a choir director and if you have a background in piano (to play in the classroom and to accompany choirs), majoring in music education might be the best choice. It should not be a “fallback” option for aspiring performers. “Students tend to know if they have an inclination to teach if they are always the ones volunteering to help others or, when they were young, they played ‘school,’” says Debbie Rohwer, chair of the division of music education at the University of North Texas. “Having a service-related job, such as helping teach Sunday school or helping at the elementary school, is a wonderful way to know if you have an aptitude for teaching.”
Experience working with children is a huge part of music education. “They have to have worked with children—babysitting, at camps, at daycare, [or in other settings],” says Michael P. Schaff, chair of the music education department at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music. “Learning music takes patience. The better the musician and the more patience one has, the better the teacher one will be.”
A degree in music education (which might take longer than four years, depending on the timing of the “student teaching” portion of the requirement) certifies students to be teachers in pre-K through grade 12. Collegiate teaching usually requires a master’s degree or doctorate; according to Dr. Schaff, prerequisites for these advanced degrees almost always include at least five years of public school teaching.
In the growing, research-oriented field of music therapy, music is used to help people of all ages who are facing physical, emotional, and mental challenges in a variety of settings, such as hospice, hospitals, and assisted living facilities. Music therapy is a good choice for voice majors who are interested in science and medicine. “It takes someone who is physically and emotionally sound and is more interested in serving others in a therapeutic way than in performing or working in schools,” says Roberta S. Kagin, founder and director of the music therapy major at Augsburg College. “We work from ‘the womb to the tomb’—from individuals in labor and delivery to those in final stages of life.”
Music therapy also requires musicianship to easily cross performance styles. “We know from research that the clients’ preferred music is most effective, so students need to be willing [to learn and perform] a variety of songs, even from genres and artists that they themselves may not prefer,” says Ellary Draper, assistant professor of music therapy at the University of Alabama. “In a lot of cases, the vocal line helps clients/patients connect to the song—for instance, a song they remember their parents or grandparents singing to them as a child. Sometimes, the vocal line carries information, such as when working with children on academic skills. Or you might work with a patient who has had a stroke or traumatic brain injury to use singing for them to relearn how to speak.” As with music education, you must be licensed, and the degree usually takes more than four years.
The most helpful advice for choosing a major is to focus on your interests and goals, visit different types of institutions (colleges, universities, conservatories) that cater to those interests, and ask lots of questions.
The author thanks the administrators, admissions directors, and professors who took the time to submit information for this article.