Thoughts on Gradudate Schools

As classical singers, we hear voices every day, giving us directions and telling us what we should do. We are constantly hearing opinions that we hope will lead us to our imagined perfection—to Leontyne Price’s high C or Luciano Pavarotti’s seamless legato lines. We are told from the very beginning of our training that if we listen, follow directions, and do everything that we are told, we will be rewarded. We will reach our goals. This all results in a constant searching for the right teacher, the right coach, the right contact to tell us what we need, always giving us instructions to follow. We are the master followers, hoping every step of the way that the path we are walking will lead us to our perfect career.

I have discovered—possibly in the most difficult of ways—that if you imagine the graduate school application process with black and white certitudes, you are mistaken. The magical formula (get an undergraduate degree at a good conservatory, a graduate degree at an even more prestigious institution, attend a Young Artist program with an “A company”) no longer seems to fit for the majority of singers. I set down that path a year ago, assuming that it would be easy to navigate. After all, I had followed the rubric up to that point—what would possibly be different? So, I applied to nine schools, auditioned at six of them, and waited anxiously—only to receive rejections from each and every institution.

I have been fortunate enough in the intervening time to sit down with three university professors and one Young Artist Program director to discuss my plight. These professionals have helped me realize a few of the traps I should have foreseen when deciding which graduate programs to consider.

First and foremost, you need to ask yourself why you want to pursue higher education. “Why do I want to get my master’s degree? To promote my career? To become better at what I do?” This is what Joan Patenaude-Yarnell, a lyric coloratura soprano who has sung leading roles throughout North America and a longtime faculty member at both the Curtis Institute of Music and Manhattan School of Music, says to ask yourself. “A student should go to school with a hunger—an ache—to learn more and more, not only to start building a career. It is about education and growth.”

Once you have answered these questions, decide what type of school and program you are looking for. There are such a wide variety of programs that offer master’s degrees, it is important to look at all the factors. For example, is it better to apply to a large program in a big city or would it be better and more cost effective to pursue a degree in a university setting away from the bright lights?

“I think it depends on the student,” suggests Patricia Misslin, who teaches voice at the New England Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, and Bard College. “There are some students that are only going to thrive as the big fish in a small pond, and there are others who are going to thrive as a small fish in a big pond. It depends on the student’s ability to deal with competition. Some thrive on it, some are daunted by it. That’s not to say that one’s better to have than the other. It’s just that you are who you are.”

Patenaude-Yarnell offers another perspective. “Be a little fish for a while. I think the art of competitiveness that one develops in a major institution gives one a chance to reach higher. It may feel good to be ‘the star’ at a school, but learning to raise the bar for yourself is far more important.”

“I think it’s important to have a variety of types schools that you are considering, especially from a financial point,” says Mary Elizabeth Poore, who is on faculty at the Music Conservatory of Westchester and the Bel Canto Institute. “You definitely get a different experience on a university campus. You also are exposed to a lot of different people, not just people who are in the music conservatory—and that’s something to factor into your overall decision.”

“If you’re not certain, for instance, about what you want to do in the future, then possibly consider a university setting,” advises Misslin. “If you’re not tied down to one thing, then don’t tie yourself down.”

If you’re very open, it might even be an interesting idea to consider an international program. “I don’t think it’s for everyone, but for some it’s a route,” says Poore. “You have to be enterprising. You need to have a certain amount of confidence and organization and chutzpa to be able to walk into a foreign country in a training atmosphere. But I think for some people, it should be in their bag of options.”

Even more important than the type of school you attend is finding the right teacher. “I think it’s crucial to take a sample lesson with a teacher,” says Poore. “It’s a lot about personal connection—what is the chemistry?”

A consultation lesson is a good way to see how the relationship between student and teacher will function. “You really want to feel comfortable with someone and feel like that if you are talking about a topic, you’re both talking about the same thing,” says Misslin.

Scheduling consultation lessons can be daunting, and for singers feeling hesitant, Patenaude-Yarnell offers this advice. “Never use the word ‘trial lesson,’” she says. “You need to ask the teacher to hear you and to give his or her frank opinion. But no one is on trial, neither the teacher nor the student. Many young singers feel it may not be appropriate to also ask the teacher questions. In my opinion, each singer should already have a list of appropriate questions at the ready. That meeting must be an honest one—both for the teacher and singer.”

Poore advises singers not to get too caught up in a teacher’s name or supposed connections or influence. “Choosing a teacher because of political advancement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” advises Poore. “It’s the product [or] what you offer in the end that is most important. Political advancement will only get you so far.”

It can also be very difficult knowing how to decide which teacher is a good fit. “It takes time, and sometimes a second consultation with a teacher is appropriate,” says Patenaude-Yarnell, “but that becomes an expensive undertaking.”

And sometimes the decision doesn’t rest solely with the student. “A teacher often feels that they can’t work with somebody, and it has nothing to do with talent,” says Misslin. “It sometimes has to do with the teacher sensing inflexibility or that there’s some kind of loyalty that the student is never going to give up, and maybe it’s better not to try [to force that].”

In the end, when deciding which teachers to consider, the student should ask himself what is most important to him, knowing that there is not a single, correct path. “There is no one perfect teacher on the face of this Earth,” says Patenaude-Yarnell, decidedly. “So many elements go into the mix.”

Should choosing a program that is less competitive for the sake of increased performance experience be a factor? “Performing experience is certainly not the only reason to attend a graduate program,” Poore says, “but I think it should be a consideration. You’ve put in your study time, you’ve worked on your languages, you’ve done all of the repertoire classes, and now you want to put it all together and put it on a stage and do some performing.”

How much stage time a student will get at a school is important, but not the end all and be all. “Although it is of great importance, performing experience is only one of the aspects in choosing a program,” Patenaude-Yarnell says. “A school is not an agency; it’s a school. The more a young singer develops as a good singer and artist, the better the chances he or she will have being considered for main stage performances.”

“I think the reason to go to school is to learn,” Misslin offers. “Some people learn a lot when somebody becomes interested in them and they get all those special experiences because somebody has decided that they’re worth this. Now, whether or not that person is right, who knows? But the school should be trying harder to provide [performance] experiences. I don’t think that having people perform in their theory classes in lieu of real performing experience is valid.”

Nicholas Fox, chorus master and assistant conductor at Portland Opera, reminds singers to keep things in perspective. “The point of school is to get better. I don’t care if you didn’t get in the show. It’s completely unimportant. Your ‘celebrity status’ at the school you go to—it’s unimportant. Nobody cares once you get out in the real world. Were you the star at your school? Nobody cares. It’s like how many diplomas do you have? Nobody cares. The anguish that people go through because they weren’t in the production—that’s not why you’re in school. To get better at your craft, that is why you go to school.”

“With so many of today’s singers, I worry about what I call the ‘American Idol Syndrome,’” Patenaude-Yarnell says. “They want it all, they want it fast, and they want it now. And, unhappily, it doesn’t work that way. Over the years of teaching at two major conservatories, I have learned that a singer may be the ‘star’ at school but not do very well in the profession, and vice versa. Patience and perseverance on the singer’s part are so important in their road to developing their craft and their art.”

While a good teacher is very important, Poore cautions singers not to overly rely on the teacher or the institution to make a career for them. “It’s a two-way street,” she says. “You have to do some research on your own and find out some possibilities, rather than coming in to your teacher and asking, ‘What do I do now?’ You have to have some ideas, and the teacher will have some ideas and, in many cases, a name or two—but your teacher is not your agent.”

That idea of personal responsibility is very important in making decisions in the application process, because it implies that you are able to listen to your own voice and know yourself. It is so easy to be swept away in the tidal wave of information that you receive—but when you are alone, at the end of the day, you only have yourself to answer to.

“I’m going to steal something from Jimmy Levine, who talks about his candle,” Misslin says. “He opens himself and lets his candle, which is his creativity and everything, emerge. But, he had to learn how to close it off, too. You just, literally, have to learn how to protect yourself. Because all the praise on Earth doesn’t compensate for that one negative thing that was said to you—that’s the only one you remember! So you have to find some way to protect yourself.”

When I finally managed to look at my own situation, I could see that I had made the gravest mistake of all: I had covered over myself in a process where I should have done everything to reveal myself—my own, unique voice. I was so busy listening to my parents, friends, favorite singers—all the voices that I could find—that I lost the most crucial part of myself: my instinct.

I will apply again, and this time I will do everything I can to block out the rest of the world and listen to myself. Because, in the end, I believe what the poet William Blake proclaims, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.”

Zachary Peterson-Bernhard

Tenor Zachary Peterson-Bernhard is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he received his bachelor of music in voice performance. Since then, he has been studying and living in New York City. He hopes to reapply to graduate school next year.