Preparing Singers for College Auditions: Musical Theater and Vocal Performance

By Edwards, Matthew; Flom, Jonathan | American Music Teacher, August-September 2013 | Go to article overview

Preparing Singers for College Auditions: Musical Theater and Vocal Performance


Edwards, Matthew, Flom, Jonathan, American Music Teacher


The beginning of the school year is a great time to prepare senior students for the upcoming college application and audition season. Many juniors are proactive and, from observing their senior friends, begin to realize they need to begin their own research. Often for those interested in singing, this means they will turn to their private instructor or, in many cases, their choral director for advice. For many teachers, who did not major in performance themselves, these are uncharted waters and the process for helping those students is often unclear. Because of the ever-changing entertainment industry, it is difficult for most teachers to stay in touch with what is expected for auditioning seniors. On the faculty side of the table, we often see the fruits of that uncertainty when otherwise talented students audition for programs they are not ready for, degrees that do not align with their career interests and with repertoire that is often inappropriate. To help teachers understand the differences, we will highlight two of the main university degree options for vocalists: musical theater and vocal performance, and offer a few audition tips to improve students' chances.

Understanding The Market

The arts have been drastically affected by the economic hardships of the last 10 years. While some may argue a student's pursuits in arts education should be targeted at artistic development rather than career preparation, for students who must pay their own way via student loans, job security is a real concern and should be discussed before amassing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.

In 2008, the National Endowment for the Arts released its most recent survey on arts attendance. According to the NEA, 4.7 million adults attended an opera in the United States during the time recorded.' For musical theater, the number came in at 47.6 million (2) (Figure 1). Box office sales reports show $305 million in sales for opera in the United States and Canada (3) and $1.8 billion for the 40 theaters that compose Broadway (4) and the approximately 18 Equity touring shows (5) (Figure 2). These numbers give us a glimpse into the strength of musical theater and the very unfortunate struggles of opera, which can be important factors when considering employment opportunities.

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Training Opportunities

Training opportunities for classical voice and musical theater are varied. According to the Higher Education Arts Data Services (HEADS) Project, there are 383 schools offering a degree in vocal performance with 7,078 students enrolled. For musical theater training, there are approximately 61 schools currently offering BA and BFA degrees with 2,302 students enrolled (Figures 3 and 4). (6)

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Because musical theater currently offers stronger employment potential and college programs are limited, admission has recently become extremely competitive for musical theater in comparison with vocal performance. While this has lead some teachers to consider musical theater a more competitive field than vocal performance, this may not be completely accurate outside the college audition process when considering that Broadway alone outsells all of opera in the United States by 300 percent yet, when you add in the 2,015 graduate students in vocal performance, (7) there are almost four times the number of students studying classically compared to those in musical theater programs.

Career Aspirations

If a student is absolutely certain he wants to pursue opera or musical theater, the choice is fairly easy. However, it's the students who are unsure, who end up confused and often end up auditioning poorly. Therefore, it is important to discuss with them career paths and post-graduate work in each field. In musical theater, the BFA is the terminal degree. With a BFA degree, the students could go on to pursue an MFA degree in acting, directing, or voice and speech, which would then qualify them to join a university faculty. …

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