Every spring, thousands of young singers travel to colleges, conservatories, and schools of music throughout the world. Their goal is to demonstrate they have the potential to major in vocal music and hopefully win a scholarship that will pay for a good portion of their education. Stepping into the lobby of a music building filled with other very talented, very well-dressed prospects can be a daunting affair. The effect is not lessened as the singers walk into a quiet room with the eyes of the vocal faculty trained upon them, knowing that the next four years depend upon one single performance.
The anxiety of such an experience can be diminished, however, if auditioning students know exactly what to expect. With just a little preparation and knowledge, the path to acceptance and admission at a preferred school becomes much smoother.
Deciding to major in voice is truly just the beginning of many difficult decisions that you should make before the audition. As with any college major, it is vital to find the program that helps you reach your goals and where your level of skills will allow admittance. Just as a student with a 3.0 GPA probably wouldn’t qualify for Harvard Law School, not every singer is ready for the rigors and expectation of the top voice programs in the nation.
Choosing the right school as a singer, however, involves so many more factors than choosing a law school. Applying at the top-ranked schools may not land you in the best place to help you grow toward a singing career, just as simply attending the closest school may not provide the needed training. Would you do best at a larger or smaller school? How do you know which teacher will work best with you? Will your chosen program really prepare you to achieve your goals as a singer?
Hopefully, what I have to share after five years as a university professor will help you feel more comfortable as you embark on the first big step toward a musical career.
Big vs. Small
Not all music programs are created equal. This may seem obvious, but it is important to recognize which school will best cater to what you need in your undergraduate career. Every school, no matter its size, will have positives and negatives for which you should be prepared. In the end, as you move from undergraduate to graduate degrees or professional gigs, not many will care about the name on your degree so long as you have a degree and you sing beautifully.
One of the first important tasks is to find out the specialties favored by each school. Most vocal music programs feature classical singing most prominently, but some perform more musicals than operas. Ask about the kinds of productions presented by the school, how often they perform, and who gets the roles. Often, schools will perform larger operas to sell tickets but will use all graduate students or fill the larger roles with faculty members. There are many programs where the choral area is more prominent and training of music educators and conductors is put first. Of course, if education and conducting are your goals, these are the schools to seek out.
Know thyself. As you consider the size and type of program, consider where you will thrive as a person. The largest schools afford the opportunity to see and attend many different concerts by very talented musicians, especially if the school is in a larger city. Here you typically have more performance opportunities—and increased competition as well. If you thrive in this type of atmosphere, a larger school may be for you. One of the drawbacks of a large school is that because of the numbers of vocal majors compared to faculty, undergraduate students often have their voice lessons with a graduate student during the first year or two. Most of the roles in productions will also go to graduate students, with only the most exceptional undergrads being given roles for which they may be ready. Some schools have begun to give a separate undergraduate performance to allay this difficulty.
Small schools usually perform fewer shows, often giving one full production a year and sometimes an opera or musical scenes program in addition. Though there may be fewer performances, in smaller programs undergraduate students often leave school with many leading performance credits on their résumé. Small schools also often offer a spirit of fellowship that is not possible with the numbers present at a larger school. A smaller school allows more personal contact and time with a voice teacher and an atmosphere where you are well known by all of the faculty and students. For those who will benefit from one-on-one attention and the opportunity to really focus on building their voice and performing skills, a small school may be best.
If your goal is the performing stage, no one person is more important during your undergraduate years than your voice teacher. You will spend at least one hour a week with your teacher for four years, learning about your voice and yourself and becoming an expressive performer. None of what the teacher says will matter, of course, if you don’t invest the needed practice time, but it is essential to find someone with whom you can best learn.
Choosing a voice teacher from an online roster can be a risky affair. The most impressive performing credits on a résumé do not always translate to great teaching. Sometimes the renowned names are amazing teachers. Just because someone sang at major opera houses, however, does not mean they can always effectively communicate the basic, necessary singing skills.
I’ll never forget singing for a wonderful masterclass of a very famous tenor. After the class, we asked him how he learned to sing high notes. He replied that he could just always do it and never had to learn. This does not mean that he wasn’t a good teacher, but sometimes it is difficult to diagnose someone’s vocal struggle and prescribe a remedy if the teacher never had problems in that area that he worked through.
Since you will be investing at least four years of your career into a teacher’s hands, take them for a test drive, if possible, before you even audition. The best way to do this is to personally contact a teacher for a lesson. Offer to pay for the lesson, but let him know you are considering auditioning for his school. Often, the teacher will offer a free lesson so you can try him out. Of course, you will not learn to sing in one lesson, but at least you will learn if you communicate well together and if the teacher offers what you need at that time.
Every teacher has his or her specific strengths. Many voice teachers are great at establishing and correcting technique, whereas others may excel at teaching style and language. You should also consider that this person will be your mentor and reference for the rest of your career.
It is best not to solicit these lessons on the day or weekend of your audition because these are usually very busy times for the teacher. At smaller programs, it is often possible to schedule an audition on a separate day than the advertised audition days. This gives the auditioning singer a more laid-back atmosphere, time for a possible lesson, and an opportunity to experience the university with classes in session. In the case of a test lesson and audition date, it never hurts to ask.
Others have offered the same advice many times in the pages of CS, and it is no less true for the first university audition: sing what you sing best. You must adhere to certain audition guidelines—but aside from those, choose pieces that best showcase your unique skills. Do not sing something you believe the faculty members want to hear or will be impressed by. The vocal faculty is listening for potential and raw skills, and this is the chance to show them who you are.
Dress to impress. Evening gowns and tuxedos are not usually appropriate, but you want to dress in a way that shows you are serious about the audition and your future career. Bring a résumé with performing experience and academic achievement, even if there isn’t much on it yet. And always bring clean and neatly prepared music for the accompanist, who is often part of the faculty who decides on admittance and scholarships.
Besides the audition, the day will also usually include placement tests for theory and aural skills, as well as tours of the music facilities and sometimes of the entire campus. Music school or department websites will usually include a schedule of tours for audition days, but schools may send this information when your audition time is scheduled. If you don’t receive information on tours, contact the admissions office and ask how to schedule a tour for the music school and campus. These tours are often given during the audition days and led by current students at the university.
Audition days are also frequently scheduled on the weekend or day of a featured concert at the school. Be sure to attend these concerts and talk with the performers afterward. This not only lets them know you are truly interested in their school, but it also gives you a sense of what the program and students are really like.
Since the downturn of the economy in 2008, most state school budgets have been cut deeply and private schools have seen a decrease in payments from donors. With university budgets cut by millions of dollars every year despite increasing enrollment, programs that were once thriving and renowned may now be struggling to survive. Vocal departments that once had four full-time voice teachers may now have only two, and they are overloaded to cover all of the lessons and classes that must be taught. In addition, scholarship amounts have decreased or disappeared at some institutions. But other music programs have received unequivocal support from excellent administrators, and those programs are vibrant and healthy. Ask questions, do your homework, and certainly plan a visit so you can experience what your education will be like.
Plan for the Future
Unless money is no concern, be sure the school is affordable. The ideal situation is one in which the tuition is low enough and the scholarship high enough that the cost of education, housing, and books is covered. An undergraduate vocal music degree will take up almost all of the waking hours of the day, between rehearsals, lessons, classes, choir, voice practice, piano practice, and homework for classes. It is difficult to balance work schedules with the extraordinary demands of a major in music—and very unwise to finish an undergrad degree with debt because of the future costs of auditioning and graduate work.
Most importantly, find the school where you fit best and that best addresses your needs as you prepare for the future. Professional opera singers can begin their education at schools either large or small, famous or relatively unknown—but they must have a program that helps students progress in the necessary ways if they are to reach their goal.
All the best of luck as you prepare for this exciting adventure!