Rear-View Mirror: Part I : Prepping for a Career

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. Two of them share their thoughts here, and read the rest in the September issue of CS.

THE WILL TO TEACH

Tenor Tyler Nelson has gone from undergraduate to graduate and doctoral studies, leading to a successful career in opera, concert, and musical theatre and as a member of the group Ultimi. He is also a husband and father of three.
When it came to his education, Nelson had specific ideas about what he sought. But mostly he was looking for a school that was interested in him. And he wanted a setting that would give him the skills to teach as well as perform.

“I wanted to find a good teacher, primarily,” Nelson says. “Then, also find a program that could help me network and gain experience working with individuals who could help me find work both in the short and long term. I also wanted a program that could offer me choices in terms of my degree so that I could choose the best course offerings based on my professional and academic goals and not be forced to stay on a one-size-fits-all vocal degree.”

Nelson began his studies before taking two years off to serve a mission as a representative for his church. Afterward, he completed his undergraduate degree as well as his graduate degree at the University of Utah. Then he went on to his doctoral studies at Florida State University. Today he is a full-time tenure track professor of voice. He will begin work at Vanderbilt University this semester.

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

There was an excellent private teacher option at the places I studied. In addition, I had many opportunities to perform opera roles and to perform as a soloist in concert works. There also were good opportunities very close to the university or only a few hours away to gain experience and to audition for future performing.

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

They offered me scholarship assistance. This allowed me to work fewer hours and focus on practice and study. They provided me with a comprehensive skill set, including knowledge of vocal pedagogy, diction, grammar, song and opera literature, stagecraft, audition etiquette, résumé preparation, research skills, classroom and private studio teaching experience, and management experience. In addition, I was educated as to the various programs, opera companies, and professionals in the business including agents, coaches, artistic directors, and fellow singers that could assist me in my path.

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

There were some language and grammar deficiencies which caused me to have to extend my doctorate work to catch up. Though addressed in private lessons and at various times throughout my degree, there was no formal class about the business of singing. I would have benefitted greatly from a course about finding work, working with agents, generating multiple streams of revenue, and paying taxes as a working musician.

What would you recommend to students?

Don’t pursue a degree in vocal performance unless you really love it. The hours are long, the pay can be nonexistent, and the stress level is high. It doesn’t matter where you go [to school] in the end if you have a teacher that works for you. Look for scholarships. Find the places that are excited about you. If you don’t get good responses, find coaches, teachers, and agents that you trust. Get honest, though sometimes painful, feedback and fill any deficiencies. Though there is a correct and healthy way to sing, there’s no right way to be a singer.

Everyone defines success in different ways. For some, that might mean teaching and singing or all teaching. For others, that might mean an international career, living out of a suitcase, going from gig to gig. Find a team of professionals that can help you get to your version of success. Remember that you are hiring these professionals when you pay your tuition.

Take advantage of any and all opportunities. Fill your summers with programs and festivals—and if you don’t get in to any of the programs you want to, coach roles and other repertoire with professionals. Stay active, and keep your chops up instead of waiting for that big break. Sometimes you have to make your own opportunities.

WHAT IT MIGHT COME DOWN TO: MONEY AND FATE

Tenor Aaron Pegram says that when it came down to choosing the school that would help him hone his craft, it wasn’t just about program selection. It was about money.

“I tested the waters by having some voice lessons with teachers, but I simply went to the school that gave me the most scholarship money,” Pegram says. “I studied music for two years at the University of Tulsa. My major was vocal performance.”

But Pegram’s journey was interrupted by the sudden and unexpected death of his mother.

“My journey as a singer was deeply connected to my relationship with my mother, and after she passed, I had trouble singing,” Pegram says. “I made a switch to theater because acting brought me great joy and I finished my schooling with a bachelor of arts in musical theatre.”

Unlike many singers, Pegram didn’t consider graduate school. Instead, he began working in theater, eventually finding his was back to classical music and opera.

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

Scholarship money, being close to home—and I enjoyed the people I was able to work with.

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

I think the best thing I learned is that talent isn’t enough. I was constantly told how the development of disciplined practice skills was essential to a career in the singing world.

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

Life skills and performance opportunities.

What would you recommend to students?

Find a teacher that you understand. And if you want to perform, find a school that has a strong acting track for singers. Also, if I could go back now, I’d have concentrated on my piano studies. They are so essential to role preparation.

Megan Gloss

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