The Renaissance Singer : Study at a Liberal Arts School

In addition to vocal technique, singers need to be knowledgeable about languages, music history and theory, drama, business, publicity, and marketing, and a host of other widely varied fields of study. Where can a young singer acquire this bewildering array of tools? A liberal arts college with a good music program offers many of the advantages of a conservatory, while offering a veritable smorgasbord of knowledge to enrich a performer’s soul and skill.

In his 1950 book, On Studying Singing, prominent pedagogue Sergius Kagen wrote, “He (the singer) ought to be a well-read and generally well-informed person…He ought to be well acquainted with other arts and have a general conception of disciplines of knowledge not pertaining to the arts and humanities….Let us, therefore, set no maximum requirements for any branch of study necessary for singing, since every branch of such study is almost limitless.” 1

Becoming a Renaissance Singer

In today’s parlance, a “Renaissance man” (or woman) is one who is “…cultured, knowledgeable, educated, and proficient in a wide range of fields” (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed., 1987).

In the living room of Taliesin West, the winter home of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous architecture school, sits a bust of Wright, carved by an apprentice who had never previously sculpted. The master architect ordered her to make the attempt to enrich her understanding of art and by extension, architecture. Art and music were inseparable from architecture in Wright’s view. Taliesin West boasts a small concert stage and a dinner theater, where the architects are required to assemble in black tie every Friday night for a film or a live performance by entertainers of every genre.

Sergei Diaghilev, the great ballet and opera impresario, insisted that his artists enhance their work through visits to museums and art galleries. Konstantin Stanislavski, the renowned teacher of acting in drama and opera, demanded that students constantly feed themselves with a wide range of experiences. “An actor who observes life from a distance or experiences its joys and sorrows without trying to understand their complex causes simply does not exist so far as true art is concerned,” he wrote. An actor, he insisted, must lead a “full, interesting, beautiful, varied, exciting and exalted life” and possess “an infinitely wide horizon.”

What would they have to say about the educational choices facing today’s singers? The well-rounded education demanded by artists like Frank Lloyd Wright, Diaghilev, and Stanislavski is perhaps the best argument for choosing a liberal arts university education. These universities expose students to a great variety of learning with special emphasis on a particular discipline.

The high pressure and heavy competition that conservatories are famous for are not everyone’s style. While it is true that competition to get into a top conservatory is usually more intense than for a liberal arts university, or a particular studio may not be as competitive as it would be at a conservatory, it does not mean that conservatory students are universally more talented. The golden throats of college are not always the ones who end up with big careers–history is full of so-called “ugly ducklings” who turned into famous and successful swans. Remember Jessye Norman, who was told she didn’t have a chance because she was “fat, black, and had a scar on her face?”

“My undergraduate school was highly rated and quite competitive. Imagine my surprise when I went to a different highly rated grad school and time after time, no one volunteered to sing in opera class,” says one singer. “So I did. Every class. Everyone, including the conductor, was heartily sick of me, but I got more coaching than I’d counted on and was allowed to present a full act of an opera at the year-end scenes program instead of an excerpt. The next semester, I left school because I was accepted into the apprentice program at Lyric Opera Chicago.”

In addition to performance opportunities, liberal arts universities allow a student to pursue multiple courses of study at the same time–courses that may lay the groundwork for better ways to pay the rent while the singing career is getting off the ground. “School in general doesn’t prepare you for a career, whether it’s music or writing or business or anything else,” writes “Contrasoprano,” a singer who responded to a questionnaire on the Classical Singer website. She minored in music and worked in marketing after graduation, studying with a private teacher who did more for her in 14 months than six years of high school and college combined.

“I think a degree or extensive study in something other than music can really help build both personal depth and professional flexibility, while giving you access to take from the music and other departments what will ultimately help you grow as a singer. It gives you a different perspective on your art…Your whole world isn’t at the mercy of what that particular music department or professor approves of. If you have no limits, you defy categorization.”

University students can choose the best of both worlds too, pursuing diverse studies during the winter and enjoying a conservatory-like atmosphere at a summer program or workshop. Singers can zero in on music without the distractions of the regular school year. At the same time they’re working with the greats, honing skills and networking–a capsule version of the advantages of conservatory study.

Crunching the Numbers

One of the most practical reasons to choose a university education is cost. Experts estimate that over the next few years, tuition will increase at a rate of 5 percent yearly for private universities and 6 percent for public. In-state tuitions for public institutions can cost as little as $2,100 per year, depending on the state and the school. According to the College Board, in 1998, a private college tuition, room and board averaged $18,184, while its public counterpart rang up on average at a modest $7,998 for in-state tuition. Out-of-state tuition is considerably more expensive, sometimes doubling in-state, though it can still be cheaper than private schools.

It isn’t uncommon for singers to pay upwards of $20,000 per annum for tuition at a conservatory–about what you’d pay for a private school. And some conservatories, such as the Curtis Institute and the Academy of Vocal Arts, offer full scholarships to every student. Still, if you can’t get into your trust fund until age 35 and you don’t relish the idea of leaving school burdened with a mountain of debt, a university education might be worth a look.

Making the Who’s Who List

How do university music schools measure up, perception-wise?
“It really depends on the individual’s background…most people from Europe don’t even know about the university experience, and I would guess that Americans are split pretty evenly,” says mezzo Susan Graham, an international artist with a Sony Classical recording contract and credits in many major houses and festivals. She did her undergraduate work at Texas Tech University, before earning a master’s degree at Manhattan School of Music. “There are the great music schools like Indiana, Northwestern, USC–and their supporters are devout. And then there’s the Juilliard, MSM, Eastman, NEC route, whose supporters are equally enthusiastic.”

Of the 16 top schools for graduate degrees in voice/opera, rated by U.S. News and World Report, nine are universities. The ratings are based on surveys sent to deans, top administrators, and senior faculty at each school.

Universities boast their share of famous alumni. Well-known singers who opted for liberal arts training include Leontyne Price (Central State University), Samuel Ramey (Wichita State), Simon Estes (University of Iowa), Ruth Ann Swenson (University of Hartford) and Jerry Hadley (Bradley University, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana).

Many universities also have at least one or two star teachers and coaches on board. The University of Texas at Austin has Gilda Cruz-Romo; Michigan claims George Shirley and Shirley Verrett. Mignon Dunn and William Warfield teach at Northwestern. Indiana University’s star-studded roster boasts Virginia Zeani, Martina Arroyo, Giorgio Tozzi, and James King. Celebrity itself does not ensure good teaching, and the lack thereof does not indicate poor quality. Keep in mind though that while star performers certainly have connections, some aren’t as successful in teaching as they are on stage.

It’s Not the School, It’s What You Learn

Of course, for an aspiring performer, technique is the centerpiece of the package, and technique is learned from teachers. Other skills and knowledge can be picked up in any number of places–books, backstage at the local community theater, in language immersion courses.

“I believe that it’s a bit more the teacher than the school itself,” says Darrell Murray, a composer and teacher. “I attended two state universities. I had excellent teachers who taught me how to both play and continue learning on my own.”

“Even so, one would hope that you are going to be a ‘person’ forever, and for that, I fervently believe that you are better suited for life with a well-rounded liberal arts education,” says a Vassar-educated musician with many professional credits. “Most of all, it depends on the person. If s/he is hell-bent on being a famous soloist, then s/he won’t want to be bothered with anything except endless practicing and will be the usual narrow and uninteresting person as a result. My vote goes to the university, preferably with a good music program.”

1 On Studying Singing, p. 23. Sergius Kagen, Dover Publications, NY, 1950.

Linda C. Cotman

Lina C. Cotman was associate editor for Classical Singer magazine from 1998 to 1999.