Missing the Grade : The Truly Important Things to Learn as an Undergraduate

High unemployment rates, opera companies folding, rising costs of education—these are the problems facing singers of all levels in the United States. It’s particularly dismal for students navigating college auditions and choosing a voice program. Music schools feel obligated to admit as many students as possible to keep programs full and, to administrations, viable. Students may or may not know what a career entails and they often do not learn until after they’ve completed a degree program.

“Keep in mind that a bachelor’s is just the beginning and never fully enough—too many singers come out of school not really learning to appreciate and understand music and are merely prepared to sing songs and arias,” notes Jennifer Kosharsky, whose credits include Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra and St. Petersburg (Fla.) Opera.

What might be more disturbing than students coming out of undergraduate and even graduate programs ill prepared for their profession is that they leave school thousands (sometimes, hundreds of thousands) of dollars in debt. “Students should be livid!” says Tyson Deaton, a coach and conductor with Fort Worth Opera, who recently made his Kennedy Center debut. One of his coaching students has, since completing graduate school, attended a major Young Artist Program, completed a fest contract abroad, and won major competitions. Despite this success, this student will still be paying his massive student loans for another five years, says Deaton.

What does this mean for those preparing to enter college or who are in the midst of their studies? “People just starting out don’t understand all the types of options for a career,” says Deaton. “Even ‘successful’ people don’t know where they fit.” For students, this means they must be responsible for getting the most out of their education.

Patrick Hansen has worked in the opera business as a rehearsal pianist, coach, conductor, and stage director. He also has 14 years of teaching experience at Ithaca College and now at McGill University. He believes there are huge benefits to a liberal arts education.

“In order to be a creator, one has to constantly tap into a vast ocean of history, literature, art, artisanal craft, and western culture,” Hansen says. “A singer needs to have a basic knowledge of Western civilization (history, literature, poetry, architectural, and art history—the list is long!). It’s quite difficult to get these classes in a conservatory type of school where the emphasis is on music: practicing and performing. I think it is much more important for a young singer to have had a broader, literally more liberal, education than for them to be able to solfège Berg.”

Singer and actress Lauren Worsham—who has performed with New York City Lyric Opera, in musical theatre, and even in a rock band and as a voiceover artist—studied Spanish Literature as an undergraduate. “I focused my undergraduate education on the usual liberal arts fare: listening to lectures; reading overwhelming amounts of assigned novels, essays, and manifestos; and learning to parse my thoughts into text,” Worsham says. “I spent my free time rehearsing and performing in student-run plays, musicals, operas, and recitals. In that way, music and performance for me were always a personal, extracurricular activity and never something I had been instructed to do. I had to make up a lot of my training on the job through trial and error.

“I will say that this sort of schedule prepared me for the ‘real world’ of a struggling performer,” she continues. “Unless you are extraordinarily lucky, you have to find the time to do what you love while also working to pay the bills before you are able to subsist on performance work alone.”

Deaton is also a fan of the liberal arts education. It “prepares students for advanced professions, which is very useful for life and career beyond,” he says. It also prepares them for the more intense study in a master’s program. Deaton believes that getting only an undergraduate degree is a mistake. “Even younger students need a sense of what the next level is. Technique takes three to five years to learn, but a lifetime to perfect.”

Kosharsky, on the other hand, chose to study in Italy rather than pursue a master’s degree. “Immersing myself in the Italian culture and speaking Italian every day, mixed with private lessons and performances, made Italy my classroom,” she says. “The rich imagery, not to mention the inspiration and passion of being there, I draw from constantly when I perform.” Even though she didn’t pursue a master’s degree, she completed the same level of in-depth study.

Intense language study also helped Worsham develop as a singer. “On the one hand, learning to think, read, speak, and write in a foreign language has been incredibly helpful in my opera career when singing or speaking text in any Romance language as the structures are quite similar,” he says. “On the other hand, as with all literature, learning to read a story and find multiple layers to a narrative can guide you in the initial readings of a script or libretto. That ability has helped me glean important details from the text that help me form my character.” 

Fitting into a particular educational mold is a problem for many singers—taking charge of one’s education is difficult, especially for the young and inexperienced. As one young singer found out, transferring made all the difference in his career. Michael Hewitt, who has performed with Seagle Music Colony, Barrington Stage Company and, most recently, as a Studio Artist with Chautauqua Opera, transferred as an undergraduate “because there was a complete lack of opportunity . . . my voice was wrong for every show they picked.” After transferring, he found a teacher that helped him develop more vocally, had many levels of theory and piano so that he could proceed at a pace he could handle, and was able to participate in masterclasses with professionals.

Really successful students are the ones who do their research by finding out everything about the school before going—and especially before signing a master promissory note for loans that will be difficult to pay back. It is important to note who the teachers are and what their style of teaching is. This can be accomplished by a visit to the school and observing lessons that teacher gives, preferably to multiple students.

“You must look for a teacher whose students are strong, emotionally and technically,” Deaton says. “A good teacher is someone who is exacting, knowledgeable about repertoire (their own and others), a good singer themselves, and have a way to impart discipline onto their students—a good ear, the ability to fix problems.”

Hansen agrees that a seasoned voice teacher is very important. “Learning to teach voice well takes years of experience with hundreds of students. It’s a combination of a strong, active program mixed with strong, experienced teaching faculty.” He is an advocate of small schools. “Small schools can be much more attentive. You have to balance the performance opportunities, though. If a school is too small, then you can wind up not doing anything.”

Hewitt also comments that the “big name” schools are not as important. “Focus on what would make you happy for four to five years and seek that out. Look at the school as a whole, not just the music or theatre program. Is the campus filled with people you’d like to spend time with? Are the school ideals in line with your own? Are there extracurricular activities you think are fun?”

For many students entering a performance degree, it can seem that getting to participate in music is enough—in high school, music is an extracurricular activity to core classes. In college, and as a professional musician, it is important to develop and maintain other interests outside of music to be a well-rounded performer and to live a balanced life. “A fully lived life off the stage is the most important thing an interpreter can bring to the stage, so they can give voice to their character,” Hewitt says.

“I strongly believe that all of life is a classroom,” Worsham agrees. “As performers, every minute experience we have can later help us unlock a different aspect of a person that we are portraying on stage. On the micro-level, I think two of the most important things one should learn at the undergraduate level are how to think for oneself and how to work with others. These are two invaluable aspects to not only having a successful career but also a fulfilling one.”

Performance opportunities are another thing to carefully research. “Do not go to a school that prevents undergrads from performing opera,” Hansen says. “I’d recommend undergrad singers stay away from the big cities and big state schools.” He also advocates attending a school that has opera productions and/or scenes and choral activity. Many students feel their time stretched too thin with ensemble requirements. These are essential, however, to developing musicianship. “Without choral study, it’s impossible to sing the finale from Figaro,” Deaton points out. “Learning where you are important in the texture is important!”

Also consider other elements. Is practice time built into the curriculum? Time management is one of the most important skills for a singing artist, and school is the place to learn it. “Schools contribute to the problem that students have no time to think, let alone do anything else,” Deaton notes. “Instead they are busied with concerts for which they are barely prepared with little time to develop artistry within it. Cramming is part of college life, but singing is not a cram profession—there’s a reason you train for a marathon as long as you do, and singing, like a marathon, is intensely physical.” One more important thing to check is whether students who complete their undergraduate degree at a particular school go on to receive scholarships or assistantships for graduate study.

If you’re already in school and transferring is not an option, what can you do? Take your education into your own hands: observe the lessons of other students, both with your teacher and other teachers. You will see that other students have entirely different sets of problems. Take classes outside what you would normally. Study art: visit museums—even small colleges in small towns have them! Intensely study one of the singing languages. Read the novels that the great operas are based on. Go to live performances, and not just classical ones—find the many kinds of music made in your community and embrace it.

Take business classes. Kosharsky felt that “the business of the business” was lacking in her undergraduate studies. “I never knew how much top singers made and, more importantly, I didn’t know how much mid-level singers made or singers who were trying to get their careers on track.” In other degree programs, salary expectations are part of recruitment for the degree.

As musicians, we aren’t guaranteed a career, and it’s important to have perspective and a realistic idea of what will happen after school. Too many singers leave school hopeful for a career, and within a few years of their student loan payments coming due, they leave the profession altogether. By studying business and marketing, or even just accounting, you can guarantee that you will at least know the basics of doing your own taxes or making sure that your talents are presented in a marketable package.

College is not the place where careers are made. In the music world, they don’t care where you went to school. It may help to have a big name conservatory on your résumé to get your foot in the door and get an audition—but excellence at your craft, reliability, a good work ethic, and a likeable personality not only get you hired, but get you rehired as a performer. These skills are among the most important to learn at the undergraduate level.

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is the Associate Editor for CS Music. She is also a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joanie@csmusic.net. Visit her on Instagram and TikTok at @joaniebrittingham.