Praised by Broadway World as a “compelling actor” with a “rich and powerful bass voice,” James Harrington returned to the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice program ... more
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August Mail Bag

Each month, our editor answers reader questions pertaining to careers in opera. Last month, the questions focused on some of the more personal aspects of having a career as a singer. This month, our readers’ questions had a decidedly educational flavor – must be the season!

Welcome back to the OA Mail Bag! This month, we’re turning our focus to higher education, and particularly graduate school. You had a whole lot of questions surrounding this topic, so I’ll try to get to all of them that I can:

I'm the best singer at my high school, should I major in voice performance?

Here’s what I can tell you: voice performance is a very intense major – essentially training you for a specific trade in a way that very few undergraduate majors do. If you feel strongly that a career as a singer is what you want, then the tools that an undergraduate voice performance major will give you are well worth the work you will put in. Be aware that a Bachelor’s degree in performance is going to include requirements for at least one year of a foreign language (and up to 3 years in up to 3 languages), plus corresponding diction training; ensembles as much as every semester; voice lessons every semester; a junior (usually shared) and senior recital; music history; music theory; song literature in at least one, and as many as four languages – and all of this before you take your General Education credit hours. My point: you’re going to need to love it, in order to grind through all of that coursework!

If, however, you are uncertain that you want to pursue that rather specific sliver of the universe, there is no harm in majoring in something else and continuing to train your voice through your undergraduate career. I have met successful singers at all levels who have majored in all manner of things (neuroscience, criminal justice, English, business) and come to the serious study of singing a little later in the process, and haven’t been hurt by it. I am personally very skeptical of the philosophy that demands that 18 year olds choose a life path before they’ve left their parents’ homes, and I think that we all would probably benefit from some time to reflect on our priorities before committing to a serious course of study. Consider whether you might find a gap year (a year off between high school and college) or an “exploratory” year (a year as a student with an undeclared major) beneficial to your search for clarity.

Teacher? Vocal coach? Conductor? What do all of these words mean?

This is definitely worth covering in a column focused on education, and it’s important to say that these have different meanings in the opera world than they do in the CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music) world, so I’ll break that down for you here.

Teacher: This is the person who helps guide you in your technical vocal development, and to a certain extent, your stylistic development. This person, regardless of the musical idiom you fall under, is also likely your closest and most important career mentor, particularly early in your development.

Coach: In the opera world, this is a pianist or director who helps you polish your performance, helps you with language/diction and dramatic intention. They are not a technical guide, but a stylistic one. In the CCM world, “coach” and “teacher” are pretty much synonymous, and in truth, the majority of teachers in this realm are about 80% coach and 20% teacher in the traditional sense.

Conductor: I’m not sure what you mean. What’s a conductor?

Kidding. In CCM, this person doesn’t exist, except at Pops offerings from symphony orchestras. They are, of course, responsible for the musical unity of a performance, coaxing (gently or otherwise) singers and the orchestra into a synchronous performance.

How do you decide whether to go to grad school for voice?

I think people’s reasons differ, and yours may be different than mine. Here are a few common possibilities that are generally considered good reasons:

  1. You’re an undergraduate whose voice shows unusual promise in a fach that usually develops earlier in life.

  2. You feel strongly that you want to teach rather than pursue a singing career, so the sooner you can get a MM and DMA, the better.

  3. You’ve been out of undergrad for a few years, have gained some experience (or not), and want the opportunity to work on technique and get some larger roles on your résumé before applying to YAPs.

  4. You’re changing careers, and need technical work, stage experience, and possibly the connections that a good grad program can afford you. (This was more or less my reason.)

Probably the only answer that I think is obviously a poor one, is that you haven’t got a plan for after undergrad, and grad school sounds like a good next step. Grad school is a huge commitment, and if you do it before you’re physically, intellectually, or otherwise ready, it may be a waste of time and money (which you’ll have to double down the line to get a PD/AD to get you back in shape when your voice matures).

How do you pick a grad school?

Truly, my advice here is the same as most: Choose your grad school based on the teacher, first and foremost. Some will tell you to go to the best school you can reasonably afford, but this advice works a lot better for undergraduate programs in other disciplines than it does for singing.

My hierarchy for choosing a school (as an aspiring professional singer) goes like this:

  1. Teacher

  2. Main stage opportunities

  3. Financial package

  4. School name/reputation

  5. Everything else

I’ll give you the why and wherefore in a whole column on this topic next month, but that is the outline.

Thanks for reading the Higher Education edition of the OA Mail Bag! I hope I provided some useful answers to your questions, and whet your appetite for next month’s Grad School focus. As always, please send your questions – on any topic – to me via email, and I’ll do my best to answer your question in an upcoming mail bag! And if I don’t feel I’m qualified to answer your question, I’ll find someone who can.

Praised by Broadway World as a “compelling actor” with a “rich and powerful bass voice,” James Harrington returned to the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice program ... more