The Art of Selecting a Summer Program

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There’s a lot that goes in to selecting a Young Artist Program (YAP) or summer program. The process involved is a year-round endeavor once research, résumé building, and networking are factored in. With the new year upon us and the bulk of YAP auditions behind us, this article will focus on the process of making your program selection. If you auditioned for programs and a YAP isn’t in the cards for you this year, please keep reading! The advice from experts below includes key elements of goal setting and empowering your training that find easy transferability to other areas of your artistic and professional life. 

Whether you’ve opted to participate in a pay-to-sing program or have passed the final rounds of a professional opera company’s YAP audition process, there are many common elements in the decision-making process. Chief among them is the idea of goal setting. Whether you have the good fortune of having been invited to multiple programs or you’re attending the only program that said yes to you this season, it would be beneficial to set some goals—professional and artistic on a timeline—pre-program, during the program, and post-program. 

Pre-program goal setting and preparation is wide ranging and can include lining up a place to stay, preparing your assigned roles and repertoire, and making advance contact with program faculty and staff you may wish to work with. I reached out to leaders in the field for their counsel on the topics of getting ready for—and getting the most out of—summer programs. 

I first asked Angela Myles Beeching, music career guru and author of the newly published third edition of Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, for her thoughts on getting into a productive frame of mind before and during a program. Her advice has ready application for singers contemplating the academic benefits of a YAP. “As much as possible,” Beeching says, “I think that people need to set their egos aside and just be there to learn. They’ll have a much better time if they do that.”  

Beeching’s advice focuses on mindfulness and on re-entry into life post-YAP, allowing a greater yield of artistic and academic benefits for singers heading back to school after a program. “A summer program is a little bit like an oasis from your regular life—it’s a chance for you to practice being the version of yourself that you most want to be,” she says. “So that would be generous, and self-accepting, and open to comments. And if you hit your stride with that, when you [get] back into the year with your regular schedule, you can bring that version of yourself forward.” 

Viewing a program in the context of an oasis of best practices leads more easily to the concept of showing up fully for your colleagues, teachers, coaches, and conductors. An oasis is a fertile spot in a desert where water is found. And while it’s safe to assume that most singers aren’t deliriously staggering toward a summer program from a place that’s artistically arid, many, if not most singers, are metaphorically thirsty—thirsty for knowledge, experience, and connection. A summer program offers a fresh, new location—an oasis—to identify and accept resources, advice, and opportunities to stretch yourself artistically in a new role or repertoire that you might consider to be on the fringes. 

In addition to researching a program’s conductors and stage directors, it is critical to learn about the respective specialties of a program’s coaching staff. As you research and ultimately select programs, keep a researcher’s eye on the programs’ staff members and which repertoire is included in the programs. The benefits of knowing who is teaching/coaching and where are numerous. Outside of the obvious résumé building and networking perks is a resulting ability to tell your story. For starters, being able to clearly articulate that you devoted a summer to delving into Lieder and German poetry can help to shape a bio and enhance an application for a grant or scholarship funds. 

To elaborate a bit more on taking advantage of resources at summer programs, I reached out to conductor Robert Tweten, current head of music staff for the Santa Fe Opera and music director of opera studies at New England Conservatory. 

“There are so many benefits to being in a Young Artist Program besides the obvious ones of employment and valuable experience,” Tweten shares. “There is much to be gained from both one’s young artist and professional colleagues, whether it be talking about technical or interpretive things, how to deal with aspects of performance in specific roles, or thoughts on the many unique realities of a singing career. Most programs have wonderful coaches and teachers from many diverse companies who may have a different way of articulating something than your regular teachers and coaches but may click with you in a different and helpful way. Sometimes a small piece of information translates into something huge if the timing is right, so try to get as many opinions as you can handle.” 

Maestro Tweten’s advice on getting as many opinions as you can handle is a self-preserving strategy in a discipline where it’s frequently hard to say no—no to opportunities, to roles that won’t be good for us, and to technical advice that we may find counterintuitive to our technique or not in service to our personal training. 

Carol Vaness, star soprano and professor of voice at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, plays an ongoing and major role in the lives of countless singers at the collegiate and post-collegiate levels. She is quick to address the topic of technique—protecting and maintaining it. 

“In many ways it is difficult for singers to say no,” Vaness says. “Singers need to be prepared to take care of themselves technically during a YAP. It is harder than it seems because we singers are all people pleasers. We want to do all the work given to us by each and every coach, voice teacher, and director. 

“But let’s face it, we got into the program because of how we sang. The solution is clear. Be prepared for any roles, be prepared to act and move, be prepared to take care of yourself when you are out in the YAP world.” 

Another critical aspect of committing to a summer program centers on a singer’s finances. Summer programs and YAPs range from pay-to-sing opportunities to stipend-based professional contracts with a wide array of financial options and challenges. Regardless of where you are on this spectrum, or whether you’re in school or not, it is critical to candidly consider your finances and the logistics of your life, especially your anticipated financial situation immediately after the program. 

Important questions to ask yourself include: Can I afford this? Do I need to go into credit card debt to do this program? Can I ask the opera company for more financial assistance? Do I feel that I need to do a summer program because all of my colleagues are? Will my day job be waiting for me afterward? 

While these questions reveal some of the hard truths of this part of our training, we need to ask them in order to avoid a financial panic or disaster that can set us back and keep us from fully practicing and pursuing our art after the program. You’re not alone—go over these questions with a parent, partner, teacher and, ideally, a singer or two who’s just finished the program you’re interested in. 

Once you’ve considered these aspects of artistic and academic benefits, reviewed your available resources, and done due diligence on the nuts and bolts of being away for the summer, it becomes easier to take Tweten’s advice: “Enjoy the daily challenges and, most importantly, enjoy the gift of making music with a community of like-minded people.” 

Peter Thoresen

Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. He is internationally in demand as a vocal/choral educator and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway, off Broadway, in national tours, and on TV/film and they record regularly for the Columbia and Broadway Record labels. Thoresen is a voice professor at Pace University and also serves on the faculties of Musical Theater College Auditions, Broadway Kids Auditions in NYC, and the YES Academy ASEAN in various southeast Asian countries. Thoresen maintains a thriving private voice studio in Manhattan. He previously served as business manager to legendary operatic baritone Thomas Hampson and was a visiting member of the faculty at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Read more at www.peterthoresen.com.