Music

Do You Need a Degree to Become a Professional Singer?

Do You Need a Degree to Become a Professional Singer?
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Allie Lembo profile
Allie Lembo March 24, 2019

Here's what you need to know to make it in the ‘biz.

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Sure, anybody can sing. But it takes a special kind of talent to hit a high C in a two-measure vocal run, while dancing, and be heard in the back row of Lincoln Center. Professional singers are the elite of the elite, competing with other spectacular vocalists for a limited number of jobs. Being a professional singer means beating out a cohort of wildly talented peers, and a master’s degree in vocal performance can give the edge you need.

A vocal performance graduate degree is for singers who want to push their craft to the next level—but a graduate degree from the Eastman School of Music at University of Rochester, for example, will run you at least $39,276 per academic year. So do you really need a degree to become a professional singer? Or will a vocal coach (which costs between $50 to $300 per hour) do the trick?

Even if you’re already working as a professional singer, a world-renowned vocal coach and a course on the pronunciation of romance languages may be the key to achieving your dream job. If you want to enjoy a long and successful career as a vocalist, keep reading to learn more about the master’s in vocal performance degree.

Who gets a master’s degree in vocal performance?

Singing will be at the crux of any vocal performance program, with private and group vocal lessons happening on a regular basis. This degree is especially suited to you if you want to improve your craft and increase your opportunities in the world of professional singing. If your dream is to sing at the Sydney Opera House, you will need to train to compete with the vocalists who are already there.

A master’s in vocal performance will put you in contact with top-of-the-line vocal coaches and may offer you real-life experience performing in shows, cabarets, and other events.

Not every singer needs a master’s degree in vocal performance. For example, there are few academic barriers for those who want to build careers as recording artists. If this is your passion, the time spent in graduate school might not provide an ideal return on investment. The same may be true if you’re most interested in working with regional theaters and opera companies. Regional performance venues are still competitive for singers, but not nearly as competitive as those in major cities.

A master’s program will provide much more comprehensive training than you will receive through private lessons, but an alternate option for improving your voice is to pursue weekly vocal coaching sessions.

If money is the only thing standing between you and higher education, you should know that there are esteemed tuition-free programs available for vocal artists. These include the Curtis Institute of Music and the Academy of Vocal Arts.

What are the different types of vocal performance programs?

The most common specializations in graduate-level vocal performance degree programs are contemporary music and opera.

For example, Boston Conservatory at Berklee offers a Master of Music in Voice Performance degree and a Master of Music in Opera Performance degree.

NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions has a Master of Music in Vocal Performance with Concentration in Music Theatre, and a Master of Music in Vocal Performance with Concentration in Classical Voice and Advanced Certificate in Vocal Pedagogy. The former is designed for singers who have Broadway aspirations, while the latter is for those looking to improve their technical skills with teaching as the possible end goal.

In general, a master’s degree of any concentration will offer you a path to go into teaching, particularly at the university level.

Does my master’s in vocal performance need to be from a prestigious program?

It needs to be from a program that serves your needs. Once you’re auditioning, you’ll find that your field is small, and a waiting room might have three Yale grads auditioning for a Yale School of Music alum. Everyone who has a graduate degree in vocal performance is serious about performing.

Any master’s in vocal performance program will give you singing lessons, the opportunity to be tested on your new skills, and a network of professors and colleagues who can vouch for your abilities. A big-name program will grant you name recognition, opportunities to perform on a semi-professional level while in school, and lots of industry connections.

How do I approach my audition?

If you’re applying to a reputable vocal performance program, your application will include an audition element. Your required audition may be in-person, online in real-time, or recorded. No matter the format, preparation is key for this part of the process.

If you’re recording your own audition, hire a trustworthy accompanist and use high-quality recording software. It may be helpful to rent out a room for this purpose. Look to your undergrad or find a local recording studio or conservatory that offers hourly rates on room and piano rentals.

For Julliard’s Master’s in Vocal Arts program, the taped pre-screening requires a total of six songs: an Italian art song or aria from before the 19th century, a song in English, a third song in any language, an opera aria, a German Lied, and a French Melodie. Even if your program is more focused on musical theater, you will need to choose songs from different eras and in different tempos and styles in order to show off your full range.

Practice, practice, practice, arrive early to ease pre-audition jitters and give yourself ample time to warm up. You may be asked to perform only a part of a song, or one song out of the six you have prepared. Plan to have back up songs available, but don’t be alarmed if your auditors never request them.

What else do I need to know to make it in the ‘biz?

If you’re going to be auditioning often, make friends with a piano accompanist. Even if you can’t take that person with you to auditions, they will be an invaluable asset when you rehearse audition pieces. You will also need to take exceptional care of your body since it will be your main instrument. This may mean taking yoga classes, giving up dairy, and taking vitamins to keep your vocal cords in the best possible condition.

Finally, you will need to learn how to deal with rejection. You might lose your dream gig because you’re too tall, too young, or something totally arbitrary and unrelated. Rejection is a part of this business, and failing to book a job says nothing about your vocal ability. If your singing voice is out of this world, and you have trained for years to make it even better, you can rest easy knowing that you are giving it your all.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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