Rear-View Mirror, Part 2

When it comes to establishing the steps a singer must take to launch a successful career, one thing is certain: there are many paths to choose from.

Whether it’s embarking on a four-year undergraduate program at a liberal arts university, choosing an intimate college or conservatory for graduate or doctoral studies, or plotting a course less traveled through studies abroad or emphases outside of music, no two journeys are exactly alike.

We spoke to singers immersed in professional careers about what they’ve learned in hindsight about the educational choices they made that helped them get where they are today.

A Broad Experience

At 17, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala already was planning for a life in music. Naturally, that meant pursuing her studies accordingly.

“I was looking for an atmosphere of excellence and high expectations, of talented and diverse peers who would inspire my creativity and progress and an outstanding faculty,” Zabala says.

Though she initially sought a conservatory setting, Zabala decided upon a broader liberal arts education at Louisiana State University. There, she was able to explore opportunities and repertoire outside of opera, as well as select from courses that helped her develop as an artist.

Though, she did embark upon graduate studies at a conservatory by way of the University of Cincinnati (she also was a Fulbright Scholar, studying Lieder at the Mozarteum in Salzburg), Zabala’s experience at a large state school not only influenced what has evolved into an active career in opera, recital, and concert but also a calling to educate in a similar setting. Today, Zabala is an associate professor and chair of the voice division at the University of Minnesota.

What appealed to you about the path you ultimately chose when it came to your studies?

I cannot be more pleased that I pursued a broader liberal arts experience at a large state school where I could make so much out of the endless opportunities such a school offers. It was also a way to go through that first big step without incurring absurd debt.

My argument for serious students is to get that first degree incurring as little debt as possible. Then, when you’re more serious about specializing and really pursuing music, look at competitive programs where the top singers are and invest in that two-year experience where institutional prestige might play a more important role professionally. Heading to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music after my Fulbright year was exactly the right step.

How did this education help shape your career and put you on the path that you’re on today?

My biggest lessons were in realizing how much I didn’t know and how many amazing, hard-working, aspiring singers there were. The effect was that I became an autodidact at trying to figure things out, not only trying to stay on top of logistics but developing awareness and strategies of how to distinguish myself in my work and approach.

Was there anything you believe these schools weren’t able to provide you in order to prepare you for your career?

Anyone of my generation realizes we were in an unusual moment vis-à-vis the now universal idea of self-marketing. Our institutions had little to say about the professional path, other than the traditional one: be outstanding, win competitions, do prestigious programs, get a manager in New York City, and sing professionally. Now, there are innumerable paths.

What would you recommend to students?

You have to want to do this very badly. Have encouragement from sources who understand well what pursuing a career in professional music entails. Talk to students who are attending or who have attended programs you are looking at. Find a teacher who you “get” and who “gets” you. Don’t only shoot for the top. Competition is too fierce, and you want choices. Dig deep to discover what your values are and begin to understand the courage it may take to live them. If living your values requires you to become as accomplished a musical artist as possible, then go for it. Everything is up to you.

From Musical Theatre to Opera

Mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain also found what she was looking for in a larger school. She embarked upon her undergraduate studies at Northwestern University, where she found a top-notch musical theatre program as well as the skills she needed to prepare her for an eventual shift to classical music.

“I was looking for a school where I could major in music but also get a stellar academic education and that real college experience,” Mushegain says.

Though she couldn’t read music, Mushegain worked to become proficient in skills like music theory, sight-reading, and piano and went on to successfully complete studies in musical theatre.

She landed an agent and moved to New York City. Ten days later, 9/11 occurred.

“I am Armenian, and after 9/11, the companies didn’t want to hire anyone that looked Middle Eastern,” Mushegain says. “After two years, I returned home to Los Angeles and started my master’s in music at UCLA.”

Amid her first year furthering her classical studies, Mushegain was accepted into Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program and has been working professionally ever since.

What appealed to you about the path you ultimately chose when it came to your studies?

One advantage I have in the opera world is my extensive acting and dance training. At Northwestern, we also had classes that specialized in directing, choreography, using a mic, and being the person in a scene who listened and reacted. My training at UCLA helped me refine the skills I needed to become a successful opera singer.

How did this education help shape your career and put you on the path that you’re on today?

I have been told multiple times by companies that the reason they did hire me was because my performance really stood out in an audition situation—that I emoted and told the story and didn’t just stand and sing.

Was there anything you believe these schools weren’t able to provide you in order to prepare you for your career?

I wish someone had taught me that I am essentially my own walking business. It’s hard to get any business off the ground, especially when you are not only the business but the whole company.

What are some things you would recommend to students?

Find a support system. Be prepared to make sacrifices but never unless there is something to eventually gain from it. Trust your instincts before anyone else’s opinions.

Intimate Settings

Though larger universities can offer a great deal, smaller schools shouldn’t go unnoticed—even if they happen to be in your own backyard, says baritone Andrew Lovato. He attended Lawrence University for his undergraduate studies and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music for his graduate studies.

“I wanted to go to a school with a well-respected music program and study with a great voice teacher,” Lovato says. “Staying close to home wasn’t really a thought in my mind, but it just worked out that there was a fantastic conservatory about two hours from where I grew up in Wisconsin.”

But, Lovato says, a small school didn’t necessarily make him top dog.

“When I got to my undergrad, I wasn’t close to being the best singer there—not even in my class,” he says. “I had to figure things out, work to overcome weaknesses, and just get better to stay afloat. The same thing was true at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Attending an institution filled with talented students is critical to get better and to really find yourself as an artist and professional.”

That realization was a blessing for Lovato, who has enjoyed a professional career as a result.

What appealed to you about the path you ultimately chose when it came to your studies?

The level of competition. I knew I was going to be singing with some of the best young singers in the country. You just sink or swim, and that mentality is critical once you break into the professional ranks.

How did this education help shape your career and put you on the path that you’re on today?

Both institutions helped give me a foundation of knowledge which I could take into my professional auditions. They gave me the tools to improve and the inspiration to do so.

Was there anything you believe these schools weren’t able to provide you in order to prepare you for your career?

There are always more things to learn and more avenues to go down to improve one’s self and skill set. The rest really has to do with love. With that love, the performer can fill in their gaps of education.

What would you recommend to students?

Look at your strengths and weaknesses and find a school that complements them. It’s your soul as a musician you are developing. It’s not about doing it right. It’s about developing your instinct.

Finding Support

Like Lovato, soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine found opportunity embarking on an education within a strong program at a university with an intimate setting, yet brimming with possibilities both on campus and within the community. It also provided her with both the emotional and financial support she needed to make her career aspirations a reality.

“I sang five leading roles with orchestra during my time at the University of Wisconsin–Madison,” Guarrine says. “I had a great support system with my teacher, opera coach, and opera director advising me on my path toward Young Artist Programs and pursuing a singing career. Also, right up the street was Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera. Going to school in a city where there is a symphony and an opera company presented me with great professional opportunities as I began auditioning.”

Today, Guarrine has come full circle. Pursuing studies in music education before switching to vocal performance, Guarrine performs professionally and is a voice teacher at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.

What appealed to you about the path you ultimately chose when it came to your studies?

My music education degree helped me obtain the voice area teaching assistantship, which funded the second year of my master’s degree. And the program was intimate enough that there were plenty of opportunities to gain experience on stage and build résumés.

How did this education help shape your career and put you on the path that you’re on today?

I was funded four out of five years of grad school. UW-Madison has a grad school scholarship called the Paul Collins Distinguished Wisconsin Fellowship. It provided a generous stipend, free tuition, and free health insurance. I was able to continue studies and focus on auditioning without juggling work and school.

Was there anything you believe these schools weren’t able to provide you in order to prepare you for your career?

I was not able to take acting or movement classes through the theater school during my graduate studies.

What would you recommend to students?

If you can find a school with a great teacher and that will offer funding as well as performance opportunities, those are golden opportunities.

Studies Abroad

Soprano Ariana Strahl studied at Illinois Wesleyan University, where she also would take advantage of an opportunity to study abroad in Vienna, Austria. Upon graduating, instead of embarking on a master’s degree, she moved back to Vienna.

“I worked privately with my teacher there for several years and focused on technique, as well as singing a few summer shows,” Strahl says.

At the end of her time there, Strahl moved back to the U.S., where she is now based.

What appealed to you about the path you ultimately chose when it came to your studies?

When it came time to start looking at schools, my high school teacher and I discussed what different types of schools would look and feel like in terms of structure, location, and how many shows the opera program did each year, as well as the difference between conservatory and liberal arts. I applied to a variety of schools but was particularly in search of a small program where I could sing several roles and find a teacher. For me, this meant an undergraduate-only institution.

How did this education help shape your career and put you on the path that you’re on today?

I received a well-rounded education, but I was also able to delve very deeply into opera. I was drawn to the small and community-oriented music department, the voice faculty was varied and balanced, and the school had an extremely strong study abroad contingent. In Vienna, it was incredible to be in a place where opera is so integral to the culture, and the time I spent in standing room at the Staatsoper was as vital as any other part of my education.

Was there anything you believe these schools weren’t able to provide you in order to prepare you for your career?

It’s impossible to get all the things you need from one place, and it’s impossible to fully prepare someone for an entire career during a degree program. For me, the emphasis has always been on finding the right teacher for whatever is most needed at any given phase in my career.

What would you recommend to students?

Find a teacher who you trust. Figure out how to get onstage as much as possible. See as much opera, with as many incredible artists, as possible.

Music as a Second Calling

Soprano Amanda Pabyan didn’t always have her sights set on singing. She began with an interest in history before pursuing law school.

“I spent freshman year at Cornell University,” Pabyan says. “I realized about halfway through that year that my heart was really in music. Cornell was expensive, and its music department was really for musicologists and theorists.”

And so she looked for a school that had a good music education department. With plans to become a choral conductor, she transferred to Rutgers University to complete her undergraduate studies. But, ultimately, she ended up pursuing performance, landing a job in Germany, and deferring her graduate school acceptance to Boston University for a year.

“Boston University was completely different than Rutgers in that it was more performance and opera focused,” Pabyan says. “However, I was definitely in a better place for languages and research than some of my colleagues because of the liberal arts education I had as an undergrad.”

When she graduated from Boston University, she went into a Young Artist Program and eventually completed her doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati, enabling her to teach at the college level.

What appealed to you about the path you ultimately chose when it came to your studies?

I chose Rutgers for my undergraduate degree because it was a state school with a good music education department. I knew all my liberal arts credits would transfer and I’d be ahead. Also, I didn’t have to go into debt. I chose Boston University for my master’s degree because of a specific teacher. Also, the vocal performance department was wonderful but not too large while still being in a major city. I ended up at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music for my DMA because they are one of the few schools that encourages their students to be working professionals.

How did this education help shape your career and put you on the path that you’re on today?

At Rutgers I learned languages, how to learn a score, how to learn recitative, how to ornament and write cadenzas, how to analyze both textually and musically, and how to perform in different situations. At Boston University I learned how to never take “no” for an answer.

Was there anything you believe these schools weren’t able to provide you in order to prepare you for your career?

Because I went to several very different schools, I got a fantastic education because each was focused on something different. The one thing school cannot prepare you for is the nature of traveling for the business. Nobody can fully understand what it means to live out of a suitcase for months at a time until they experience it.

What would you recommend to students?

Do not go into debt, especially for an undergraduate degree. Find a good school that will give you the basics. For your graduate degree, find a teacher and go from there. Then look at the performance opportunities. Lots of people have good voices, but very few will make a living singing professionally and many more haven’t thought through what this job can mean for your lifestyle.

Megan Gloss

Megan Gloss is a classical singer and journalist based in the Midwest.