Music Theatre Degree Programs : BM vs BFA

Music Theatre Degree Programs : BM vs BFA

Years ago, students who were interested in pursuing careers in musical theatre had to make a choice. Except for a handful of programs that offered degrees in musical theatre, most students would have to choose either a bachelor of music in voice or a bachelor of fine arts in theater. In recent years, however, more and more colleges and universities have begun offering degrees in musical theatre to better serve the specific needs necessary for success in that field. But the question remains: Is this degree best classified as a BM or a BFA?

The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) lays claim to the oldest musical theatre program in the country. As such, it served as a model for the National Association of Schools of Theatre in determining the accreditation criteria for similar programs at other universities.

Aubrey Berg, the Patricia A. Corbett Distinguished Chair of Musical Theatre at CCM, calls the program unique, comprehensive, and rigorous. “We are now a true ‘triple threat’ program,” he says, “with equal parts of the degree given over to voice, acting, and dance.”

Offered as a bachelor of fine arts, the program has evolved from its earliest incarnation. “When the degree was established in 1969,” Berg says, “it was the brainchild of a voice teacher and the emphasis was largely musical.” Since then, CCM has adjusted the curriculum to target the aspects deemed most necessary to begin a career.

Vocal lessons emphasize classical technique and repertoire, though students also receive vocal coaching to help them incorporate acting skills into their musical theatre repertoire. Acting courses include studies in Chekhov, Meisner, and Suzuki training, among others, as well as audition skills; the dance training ranges from ballet and jazz to tap and modern styles. CCM considers this threefold focus essential, as articulated by Berg in the program description found on the school’s website: “Today, a young performer wishing to pursue a career in musical theatre should be able to sing and dance and act with technical mastery and craft. And that is the minimum requirement.”

Berg acknowledges the challenging nature of the program, which leaves students little free time. However, the curriculum is carefully planned in order to provide the education needed to survive in what he refers to as a “highly competitive field.” As affirmation of their ability to compete, CCM graduates have an impressive track record of working in the business. “Evidently we are doing something right,” Berg notes. “Our graduates tend to be signed to agencies quickly and find work on Broadway, off Broadway, and in national tours both here and abroad.”

The program emphasizes a greater, overarching philosophy in addition to simply helping students secure roles. “At CCM, training in musical theatre is not about being famous or becoming a star,” Berg writes. “It is about learning to work in ways that contribute positively to the art of musical theatre, about the unique interaction among the many and varied aspects that make up the musical stage. It is about freeing our own creativity and building a love of and a lasting appreciation for the performing arts.”

Oklahoma City University (OCU) follows a similar threefold approach in their music theatre degree. “We talk about ‘triple threat,’” says David Herendeen, director of Oklahoma Opera and Music Theater Company, “though I think there are many more threats than just three. The idea is that it is more focused on preparing the students for that specific industry, which requires an identifiable skill set.”

While also serving as interim director of the School of Theater, Herendeen has overseen the progression of the music theatre degree. Having evolved from an opera program, it is still offered as a bachelor of music.

Accredited through the National Association of Schools of Music, OCU boasts an academic priority in analysis, ear training, and other aspects of music theory that is difficult to find in other music theatre programs. “Those sort of nuts-and-bolts fundamentals perhaps are stronger because of the bachelor music housing,” Herendeen says. “I do think we attend to certain core music things probably more intensely than a typical BFA program.”

Vocally, music theatre students at OCU study classical techniques in the Italianate tradition and are required to present a formal Junior Recital of art song—no musical theatre pieces allowed. They then use this technical foundation to enter into the other styles needed for musical theatre performance. “I think that they’re well-grounded in technique,” Herendeen states. “I think Schubert and Schumann will teach things to our musical theatre majors that Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Sondheim cannot.”

However, as he is quick to point out, this emphasis in music does not imply that students are shortchanged in other aspects of their training. Music theatre majors at OCU are required to take the same acting and dance courses as students who are majors in those respective fields. “We don’t segregate them,” he says. “We don’t have ‘Dance for Music Theatre Majors.’”

But he also acknowledges that a BM does not necessarily give students an advantage when seeking work in the field. “By no means do I think that a BM in music theatre is better than a BFA in music theatre,” he says. “I think curricularly, topic-wise, we touch on identically the same things that everybody does in terms of acting methodology, in terms of dancing styles, music styles.” He even highlights other universities like Michigan, Cincinnati, Carnegie Mellon, and Elon for the thoroughness of those programs and for graduating “musically articulate” artists.

He does, however, express some concern regarding the recent explosion in the number of music theatre programs in recent years. “Music theatre programs are popping up like puppy mills,” he says. “They slap a voice lesson, maybe a little fundamental theory course, to a BFA and say, ‘Look, we have a music theatre program!’” He worries that, in order to bolster numbers, some programs have created a shallow musical theatre education that will not fully prepare students.

Like the program at CCM, Herendeen believes a well-structured degree is no easy task. “I think music theatre degrees are very hard. And it’s an expensive degree,” he admits. “If we do our job right, we make people feel the energy and it looks easy [onstage]. But it is a really hard degree.”

Even so, he can see the greater context that makes such a harrowing program worthwhile. “I love this stuff. I love theater. I think it’s an important aspect of our society that is being diminished; I’m so scared that it’s being diminished budget-wise throughout the world, throughout high schools. I think we’re all joined in this concern no matter where we teach, what we do,” he says.

Students at the Boston Conservatory experience a similarly demanding schedule. Neil Donohoe, director of the Theater Division, describes both the bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees in musical theatre as “extraordinarily rigorous.” “It’s supposed to be a tough program,” he says, “so that they build a tenacity so when they enter the chaotic world of the professional theater, they don’t get intimidated and fold and run away frightened from the expectation that the field will have for them.”

Admitting that a bachelor of music program may focus more on music training, he considers the BFA in musical theatre at the Boston Conservatory to be a “quadruple threat program.” “We really spend 25 percent of our time on theater academics and cultural and social liberal arts so that they have a real sense of context of where theater fits in the world—where it did in the past, where it does presently, and how it can help shape the future.”

Similar to CCM and OCU, the curriculum in Boston includes intensive study in acting, dance, and voice and speech, in addition to voice lessons and music theory. The music theory, however, does not follow the same track as students earning bachelor of music degrees. Rather, it is tailored to the specific needs of music theatre students. “We’ve found that applying music theory to the literature that they’re going to be singing is much more compelling for them,” Donohoe explains. “They’re not doing classical work, they’re not doing motets, they’re not doing 18th or 19th century counterpoint, they’re not doing things that classical singers really need to know. But they’re really learning the keyboard, they’re learning how to sight sing, they’re learning intervals, they’re learning rhythmic complexities in music so that they’re able to handle everything from easier music to very complex crossover music like Sondheim.”

Voice lessons, on the other hand, are offered by the same faculty members who teach vocal performance majors. Though most come from a classical background, Donohoe describes the faculty’s “great proclivity and love of the musical theatre repertoire” and lauds the ease in which they move between both worlds.

In their vocal studies, the primary focus remains building a solid technique that can be applied to a variety of musical styles. Patty Thom, chair of Voice and Opera, explains: “They are asked to sing such a wide range of repertoire in such a wide range of styles nowadays . . . . We work with [students] to develop a full and healthy range, with ease and balance throughout registers, so that students can learn to rebalance as needed without undue muscular tension. I think that the majority of kids who graduate from the BFA and the MFA leave with a pretty solid pedagogical understanding of how the voice works.”

In order to better prepare students, Donohoe is continually re-examining the curriculum to identify areas of improvement or aspects of training that are underserved. This process recently led to the revamping of the master of music degree in musical theatre, only to resurface as a master of fine arts instead. “We’d been running the master of music program in musical theatre for 20 years,” says Donohoe. “As the years went on, we realized they were getting more music and musical theatre but they weren’t getting enough acting, voice and speech, theater movement, and theater academics. We felt that we had to broaden the base of that so that they were more well rounded.” He describes the new program as “honed down,” allowing for more intensified subject matter.

Donohoe is not bothered by the new plethora of music theatre programs that has emerged, believing there is a right school for every student. “We’re not right for every student, and some of our principal competitors aren’t right for every student,” he concedes. “Some of the new programs that are cropping up might be just the ticket for them. I think it’s fine that we have a growing competitive base out there; it’s only going to make everybody better.”

Whether classified as a BM or BFA, the focus of a musical theatre degree clearly must be driven by the skills necessary to launch and sustain a career in the field. CCM, OCU, and the Boston Conservatory undergo frequent revision to curricula based on the demand they are seeing from those working professionally on Broadway and beyond. While the proliferation of programs across the country has created competition for the best students, Herendeen remains untroubled. “There’s enough talent for all the world,” he says, “and I want everybody to be a musician. Personally, I think the world would be better.”

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /