Many hundreds of new voice students will soon arrive at music schools across the U.S., enthusiastic to begin their degree programs. These fresh-faced and talented singers arrive with all of their potential, dreams, and anxieties—along with expectations of what their programs will offer them.
I’ve met with hundreds of voice students and alumni over the years at Manhattan School of Music, Indiana University, and New England Conservatory, and I’ve watched the transformations that students undergo in programs. Some students flourish while others struggle. What are the students who succeed in degree programs doing differently from others?
Success as a student does not necessarily mean being cast in the school’s productions or in making the Dean’s List. While those can be gratifying, student success can have a longer and deeper impact and directly help with the transition to the professional world after graduation. The term I’m using to describe students who succeed this way is “entrepreneurial learners.”
Students who flourish in degree programs tend to have a certain mindset in common: they take charge of their learning, tailoring their educational experience to their own needs and interests.
This means going beyond taking the required classes, practicing efficiently, and auditioning. These students pursue projects that allow them to gain leadership skills, confidence, and valuable professional contacts and experience.
That’s why I call such self-starting students entrepreneurial learners.
As for what student success looks like, following are six composite profiles based on actual students I’ve worked with either through my private career-coaching practice or in my recent work at Manhattan School of Music. Note that names have been changed to protect privacy.
Profiles of Student Success
An accomplished graduate student tenor, Alex loves traditional repertoire but is also interested in arranging and composition. So he partnered with a composer friend and together they wrote, performed in, and directed a mini video opera.
Their project gained a lot of online attention, and now Alex and his partner in crime have a following of potential funders and collaborators for possible future videos as well as live performance projects.
Disappointed about not getting as much stage performance as she wanted in her master’s program, mezzo-soprano Ji-Yoo sought advice from her school’s outreach and entrepreneurship offices and created her own chamber opera outreach production of L’enfant et les sortilèges.
Ji-Yoo found she loved the creative challenge of directing and performing in her own projects and presented the program at a local elementary school. She is using edited video clips of that performance, along with testimonials from teachers and students, to help with booking and promoting her next performances.
John is a graduate student baritone with an interest in early music. He signed up for a Baroque music history class and asked the music historian/harpsichordist faculty member for mentoring and advice on how to gain more experience. He also met with the school’s choral program director.
John got over his shyness about networking and followed up with every contact he’d received. Through referrals, he eventually landed a weekly church gig singing early music repertoire. On the job, John was not only paid well but his sight-reading and ensemble skills improved dramatically. John is building his reputation, contacts, and opportunities well before graduating.
Jessica, a soprano, needed a day job and was looking for something that would help her career and fit with her graduate student schedule. Through networking and using the school’s career office, she found a personal assistant job, handling the social media and website of a veteran Met singer.
Through her day job work, Jessica expanded her skills in using social media and Web presence. She applied what she learned to benefit her own freelance work and after graduation she created a side business helping other musicians and arts organizations with social media—all while further developing her performance career.
Xia, a mezzo-soprano with a love of teaching, planned to start her own voice studio and community music school after graduation when she returned to her homeland, China. To get relevant experience, she applied for an internship at a local community music school. Xia learned about scheduling, contracts, customer service, and managing parental expectations, all helpful for eventually running her own studio and school. And she also had the opportunity to substitute teach for a few faculty members who ended up mentoring her. As a result of the internship experience, Xia was much more confident and prepared to start her own program.
Maria, an alto with a strong interest in new music, loved collaborating with a particular group of instrumentalist friends. They knew they needed to commission composers to write for their odd combination of instruments and voice and also needed to learn about fundraising, booking concerts, and how to brand and promote the group.
Maria connected with the school’s entrepreneurship center and received advice on applying for fiscal sponsorship, crowdfunding, website design, and contacting venues. The group successfully produced their debut concert and went on to win several grants for more commissions.
Beware: Scarcity Mindset Ahead
What learning approach is common to these voice students?
Each singer actively sought out opportunities beyond their prescribed degree program in order to pursue specific creative interests. They investigated opportunities and asked for advice from faculty and staff in multiple departments to initiate their own projects.
These singers didn’t view their degree program as limited because they initiated their own extracurricular learning and work opportunities. And in so doing, they took responsibility for and ownership of their education.
Contrast this with the more typical student singers’ behavior: focusing on doing what’s required and taking auditions. That’s doing what’s expected.
Unfortunately, doing what’s expected often leads to an ingrained “scarcity mindset,” seeing one’s only path to success as a series of auditions, competing with colleagues for a limited number of opportunities. This all-too-common mindset focuses on winning and losing as determined by someone else.
But entrepreneurial learners don’t operate from a scarcity mindset. They see abundant opportunities for success beyond the required curricula and beyond simply auditioning for roles.
Six Learning Essentials to Maximize Your Education
To help you adopt some of the entrepreneurial learner’s mindset of abundance, both for those in school and for all the rest of us “lifelong learners,” here are six recommendations for maximizing your education.
1. Be a Pro.
Your peers, along with the faculty and staff, all get to know you by your actions, and that is what they use when considering singers to either recommend, refer, hire, collaborate with, or avoid. Take this mini-quiz to assess your in-school professionalism:
Are You a Pro? Test Your In-School Professionalism
I . . .
-Always show up on time Yes/No
-Come to classes and rehearsals prepared Yes/No
-Respond to e-mails and phone calls
promptly with appropriate language Yes/No
-Refrain from texting and stay off social
media in rehearsals, classes, meetings Yes/No
-Manage my emotions appropriately
in classes, in rehearsals, in public Yes/No
-Avoid gossiping or trash talking others Yes/No
-Am easy to work with Yes/No
For more quizzes on music careers, visit
The music industry is a very small world and is relationship driven, so how you treat other people matters and is always noticed. The old sayings apply: what goes around comes around . . . and you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
2. Learn How to Hustle. It’s how we get things done.
This is the “entrepreneurial” part of the learning—it’s thinking beyond getting a role (where someone else selects you, or not, and you have no say in the matter). What additional performance experience and skill building can you instigate? What project would you like to take on? Hustling is doing what’s needed to get things done—it’s all about taking action, initiative, and responsibility.
Think about who could give you advice on how to pursue your project idea. In order to hustle, you need to reach out and connect with people, make new contacts, and have real conversations in person and on the phone.
Networking is a high-contact sport and demands we get out of our comfort zone. Keep in mind that outside our comfort zone is where every ambitious goal and worthwhile accomplishment is found, so we need to be willing to venture into that territory.
3. Tackle Skill Deficits
Many talented singers enter degree programs needing remedial work in one or more of these areas: music theory, keyboard skills, sight-reading, languages, and diction.
It’s easy to imagine you have plenty of time to take care of these. The reality is that time in any degree program goes by quickly. And many music students fail to appreciate how important these skills in fact are, because they haven’t yet been in professional “crunch” situations needing to learn new repertoire in a few days or even hours for an important performance. It’s exactly at these times that the music theory, sight-reading, keyboard, and language skills are essential.
The singers who ultimately succeed in their careers are those who don’t procrastinate doing the heavy lifting needed to correct skill deficits. You might schedule dedicated time in your weekly calendar for particular skill building, perhaps hire or barter for a private tutor, or set up a regular study group with colleagues, a teaching assistant, and others who can hold you accountable and champion your progress.
4. Diversify Your Skills and Repertoire
It’s easy to fantasize that while in school you’ll be working on the most famous roles and repertoire that caused you to fall in love with the art form in the first place. But entrepreneurial learners think beyond the standards.
And the truth is that you’ll be far more marketable for freelance opportunities if you diversify your repertoire by learning oratorio, musical theatre, new music, and/or early music repertoire as well.
5. Focus on What Matters
Successful entrepreneurial learners aren’t distracted by who gets the lead in the department’s production or by who seems to be a studio teacher’s favorite or even by their own social life. They don’t waste much energy or time obsessing over these because they are mainly focused on their own learning path and what they want to create for themselves. Keep your eye on the right prize; the rest is noise.
6. Understand the Education Proposition
We live in a consumer culture, so it’s easy to be confused about what an education is and is not. It’s easy to think that what you pay tuition for is to get an education, as though you’re purchasing the degree and the learning is something you’re given.
You pay tuition for the opportunity to get an education. You—or your parents—pay for access to learning situations: rehearsals, lessons, and classrooms. And the education that you get is determined by your actions: it’s what you do with the opportunity. The education is the net effect of the reading, listening, reflecting, and engaging with ideas that change you as a person and as an artist. So the value of your degree program lies in what you make of it.
This approach, unfortunately, flies in the face of most young singers’ experience. In grade school and beyond we become accustomed to doing as we’re told: what and how to study, practice, and perform. Under the careful supervision of well-intentioned teachers, we learn how to follow rules and be “good students.”
Of course, in any discipline’s degree program, you’ll be busy with the required curriculum and going on auditions. Becoming an artist and a professional requires more.
Answering the Call
Being an entrepreneurial learner is more like “painting outside the lines.” This involves thinking for yourself and seeking out additional opportunities to supplement your learning and expand your artistry.
To summarize, the entrepreneurial learner mindset is about using your degree program as a platform for building your own experiences off campus so that when you graduate, you have an easier transition into the profession.
Even the very best conservatory and university music programs cannot create custom programs for each student—but the good news is that you can do this for yourself, by becoming an entrepreneurial learner. Take the initiative to seek out extracurricular performance, learning, and/or teaching opportunities. Get to know and use your school’s community education and outreach performance program, career center, entrepreneurship department, or gig service and see what you can create for yourself. This is the habit you want to build for lifelong learning and opportunity development. The time to start shaping your future is now.
Student Success Tips for Creating More Opportunities
-Attend new music performances—on campus and elsewhere—and get to know the composers and new music performers
-Offer to premiere new works (terrific to have pieces written for you!)
-Get a church job (earn a weekly income while improving your sight-reading and ensemble skills)
-Gig by registering for your school’s gig service (you might be paid to sing outreach, fundraising galas, national anthems, corporate events, or VIP dinner parties)
-Gain teaching experience (you might start with observing lessons in your school’s prep program or assisting with coaching a children’s choir)
-Hone a skill outside of music (good to have an extra-musical skill to help you pay rent while getting established as a freelancer after graduation)
-Intern at an organization to expand your skills and contacts and build your résumé