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  • Writer's pictureThera Barclay

Four Things I Wish I Knew Before Getting A Degree In Music


As we rapidly wave goodbye to August, it's that time of year where the back-to-school hullabaloo is in full force. Even though I completed my last post-secondary stint two years ago, I admit I feel a little bit of FOMO ("fear of missing out" for the uninitiated): the mad dash for course registration, preparing new repertoire for auditions for the school productions, and getting excited to meet back up with old friends, and the hope of making new ones as well. I still feel the jitters even though I'm busy hustling on the freelance scene while working a non-music 9-5.


I loved school. Sure, there were parts that absolutely sucked, but on the whole, I loved being in class, meeting new people, and having the opportunity for intense, focused study. I definitely miss it. In fact, I've been having this weird recurring dream where I show up to class in a professional yet ✨ wickedly stylish ✨outfit and stun into silence all the popular girls who were catty to me in middle school, but that's neither here nor there. Just a window into my latest latent neurosis, I guess.


However, if there's anything that I've learned from getting a degree in music (or two, or three), it's that it's an investment and a specialization in higher learning like no other. The structure of the degree, the expectations of the students, and the type and degree of relationships and connections formed are really distinct, and the lines between personal and professional are often blurred. I thought I'd write up a post for anyone who's thinking about or just beginning a degree in music, whether it be a Bachelor's, a Master's, a Diploma, or anything under the sun. Hopefully some of these tips will be useful, eye-opening, or at least a little bit entertaining.

 

1. Find 👏🏼 A 👏🏼 Voice 👏🏼 Teacher 👏🏼 That 👏🏼 Works 👏🏼 For 👏🏼 You!!!

Look, I have no doubt that you find the emojis annoying and/or tacky, but they're there for emphasis, because this is probably the most important piece of advice I can offer.


It doesn't matter what step of the journey you're on - whether you're just starting an undergrad degree, or heading into grad school, your relationship with your voice teacher is one of the most important and foundational connections you will have. This is someone you're going to spend an hour a week with, one-on-one, not to mention extra masterclass/studio class time if your curriculum allows it. They're there to help lay the brickwork of your technique and (hopefully) instil efficient vocal practices and vocal hygiene into your routine as a singer, as well as offer interpretive suggestions, and help to cultivate your inner artistry so the best version of you can really shine on stage. It's a HUGE responsibility, and I have the utmost respect for the pedagogues out there who put their passion, knowledge, and hard work into becoming the best teachers they can be.


However, not every teacher is the right fit. I've worked with some people who I'm pretty sure are literal angels on earth; they were super supportive but still knew when to (lovingly) kick my ass, AND they knew everything inside out and backwards about vocal technique and how to help polish my instrument. I've also worked with some people who were...well, less impressive. I'll leave it at that.


All this to say is that your voice teacher is going to have a HUGE impact on your time in school, and you're going to want to start off on the right foot. My resounding advice is to always go to the school with the best teacher for you, not the school with the best name. Some suggestions on finding that perfect fit:


  • Trial lessons: Something I didn't even know was a thing before my undergrad, yet is arguably the most important and effective way to find a great voice teacher for you. I would recommend doing a trial lesson before/at your audition, so you have a good idea of who you'd like to study with before you even pick a school. My choice in grad school was based on who I wanted to study with most, and while I didn't particularly enjoy the program itself, my voice teacher alone made it 200% worth it (shoutout to Marisa!). Just send them an email, say you're a prospective student, and that you were hoping to grab a lesson. Most voice teachers would be happy to hear you, and it can also up your chances of being accepted to the school, if the teacher takes a liking to you.


  • Ask around: Do you know someone who attended/is attending the school you're eyeing? Ask them about the teachers there. Yes, everyone will have their own somewhat biased opinion, but even a small idea about how someone teaches can be enough insight to pique your interest (and hopefully lead you into scheduling a trial lesson).


  • Do some research: The Internet is horrible sometimes, but also amazing sometimes, too, because it's so easy to find information nowadays. Do some snooping - especially in the faculty bios. What kind of pedagogical education do they have? What kind of repertoire do they specialize in? Did they always have a very natural instrument, then spent 20 years having a career in Europe, and then just decided to teach because they figured it was easy enough? I'm being slightly facetious about the last point, but only slightly. All of these questions can help to inform your opinion on whether you'll both have the same goals for your artistry and will be speaking the same language on the road to getting there.


2. Don't Be Afraid To Ask For Help


I'm fairly neurotypical, so the academic side of my degree was usually not too much of a struggle for me. Though honestly, I think the semi-traumatizing combination of feeling excited at learning new things and being terrified of failing my classes was what got me through with good marks and with most of my soul intact.


However, even the most typical of your neurotypicals will be the first to acknowledge that the structure and demands of a post-secondary music program are unlike those of any other degree. Not only are you expected to spend hours at a time in the practice rooms learning new pieces and working on your technique, you're also expected to stay on top of your academics, which involve aural skills, music theory, essay writing for a variety of music history classes, and more. It's an extremely rigorous schedule, and it's common to end up confused, dazed, and feeling overwhelmed.


That's where the logistically simple yet emotionally difficult act of asking for help comes in. Many (if not most) professors have office hours where you can drop in and chat with them one-on-one to discuss your questions, concerns, or just chat casually with them about the material covered in class. One of my biggest recommendations is to utilize these office hours and ask for help when needed. Even if you were academically gifted in high school, the structure and the expectations of grading can drastically change at a post-secondary level, and you can very easily find yourself struggling with lower grades and/or just simply feeling overwhelmed at the change in schedules, materials covered, and pacing of the classes. Your professors genuinely want to help you and see you succeed, and office hours are the perfect setting in which to clarify any information that's unclear, voice your concerns, or just get to know your profs better.


Need further help with your accommodations? If you find yourself struggling with your academics in a way that goes beyond clarification during office hours, it's likely that your place of study has an accessibility services centre and/or writing services centre. If you have a diagnosed condition, then you can consult with them and ask about accommodations for your classes, or if you suspect that you might be struggling from something undiagnosed, you can also check in with them. No institution is perfect, and while I've heard stories of struggle from my neurodivergent peers, I've also heard stories of empowerment where they were able to get an official diagnosis and finally access accommodations that helped them excel in an academic setting.


I know it might seem scary and/or embarrassing to ask for one-on-one help, but rest assured that in a post-secondary setting it's completely normal to ask for individualized help. After all, it's your tuition money, your education, and your success that's being prioritized here. So, don't be afraid to ask for help! 3. The Realities of the Business


This one's a doozy because, honestly, it's kind of a downer. But it's absolutely worth talking about before you consider spending thousands of dollars on a post-secondary degree, specifically a performance degree.


As a freelance soprano who's currently hustling her ass off by working a non-music 9-5 Monday to Friday while also balancing professional opera contracts, concerts, and auditions as an emerging artist, the professional singer "dream" that so many post-secondary institutions very vaguely hint at just isn't an accurate depiction of what the career really looks like.


The reality of the situation is that 99.9% of professional opera singers have some sort of side hustle. Even the singers that sound super freaking amazing.


The sad part is, it's not even a question of talent. It's the good old supply and demand conundrum: the industry itself only has so many professional opportunities, and the supply of really great singers hugely outnumbers the positions available.


Academic institutions simply don't prioritize making that realization clear to their students. And while there is absolutely an emphasis on preparing you as a professional singer by introducing you to different repertoire and roles, focusing on technique and stagecraft, improving your musicianship, and teaching you the historical context of the art form, chances are, you are not going to graduate with a fully-fledged professional singing career at your disposal. There's also not usually a ton of emphasis on the other VERY important skills you'll need in order to adequately prepare and market yourself in a very competitive world (e.g. managing social media, negotiating contracts, auditioning for agents, creating a website and social media presence, grant writing, etc.).


Plus, it's not like other post-secondary degrees where there are often internships or co-op placements that can lead to permanent employment, or at the very least a sense that you'll be able to find lucrative employment upon graduation. That can be a very scary and nebulous prospect, and you'll really want to examine feelings around potential job insecurity before committing to a performance degree.


But enough with the bad news - the good (even great) news is that there are plenty of jobs available in the arts, and many of those jobs can work concurrently with a performing career. I know a TON of people who teach and absolutely adore their work, because it's flexible and fulfilling. Stage managers (especially ones who can read music) are also highly in-demand. Other singers do consulting work, arts administration, social media and marketing for arts organizations, piano tuning, choir directing...the list goes on. So, what I CAN confidently say is a huge pro about getting a music degree is that the jobs available post-graduation are multifaceted, enjoyable, and often pay well enough to support a concurrent performing career. In fact, I believe we call these multi-skilled folks portfolio artists, which is an exciting new development in how we think of a performance career in opera in the modern day.


The takeaway from all this is to be realistic about what a performing career really looks like nowadays. A degree in performance is in all likelihood not going to guarantee a flourishing, full-time, financially lucrative professional career at the highest-tier opera house the minute you graduate. However, if you're willing to risk it for the biscuit and you're realistic about balancing your professional singing opportunities with other employment then absolutely go for it!

4. It's YOUR Degree (And Instrument, Time, Money, and Artistry)!

I technically started university at the tender age of 17 (for like a week, anyway...). It was the first time I'd lived away from home, and the first time I'd experienced true independence living as a young adult. And while that was an amazing feeling in a lot of ways, parts of it felt uncomfortable at best, and predatory at worst.


Don't get me wrong - the majority of people I met during my school years were absolutely delightful. I had a lot of valued mentors, cherished friends, and learned a TON of invaluable information. I adored school and still miss it very much to this day.


However, because you're (likely) a young adult, perhaps out in the world on your own for the very first time, and are putting your artistry into the hands of folks who are *supposed* to guide you, teach you, and nurture you, this new reality unfortunately leaves a lot of room for you to be taken advantage of.


Sometimes this can look like truly lousy classes where the professor 200% doesn't want to be there, is not particularly skilled at teaching, and can be dismissive, rude, and downright micro-aggressive because they REALLY do not want to be in a room full of 18-year-olds. And that sucks.


Sometimes this can look like a person in a position of authority behaving inappropriately towards you, whether it's being emotionally abusive/manipulative, trying to act as "more" than just a teacher (e.g. trying to be your parent, nurse, doctor, therapist, dietician, personal trainer, etc.), adopting the "maestro/maestra" mentality ("If you can't understand my teaching, then you'll never be a good singer"), or, in extreme cases, making sexual comments/advances towards you. And that REALLY sucks.


I'm certainly not saying that all the stuff in the last paragraph is true of every teacher you'll meet. But I feel that, especially in the voice studio (and ESPECIALLY as a young, inexperienced singer), this kind of stuff is more prone to happening. I've witnessed it and experienced it, and it's not fun. It can crush your spirits, make you extremely insecure, and make you feel violated.


However - good news - it's your artistry. Even though I completed my undergrad less than a decade ago, the culture in the voice studio in particular has (I think) definitely evolved since then, for the better. Pedagogues now talk in-depth about the intrinsically harmful dynamics that exist in the student-teacher relationship, and are finding ways to dismantle them and discuss them openly. Most of all, there's been huge recognition that it's the student's voice, time, and financial situation that needs to be respected. I'm not saying to disrespect your voice teachers and walk all over them (don't!!!), but there's definitely more room to discuss your needs, goals, and discomforts than there ever was before.


In fact, a friendly reminder that you can (and should) say the following phrases if you feel your autonomy is not being respected:

  • "I don't think we're on the same page about my voice and my goals as a singer. Could we discuss this in more detail so that we can try and find some common ground?"

  • "I would prefer not to discuss that. It's inappropriate/triggering in the context of this lesson/class/office hour."

  • "I would prefer not to be physically touched in my lessons."

Be safe and be strong, and know that a tiny soprano with big curly hair is rooting for you 💜.


But wait, there's more - and it's good news!


Because it's your artistry that also means that you're more than welcome to expand your knowledge beyond the curriculum. Profs will likely be happy to help point you in the right direction, mentor you for a directed study that interests you, or at the very least have a conversation on how to explore something that might have your interest piqued. Some fun examples:

  • "The lecture today made me want to learn more about [insert topic here]. Do you have any resources you can suggest?"

  • "I would love to create a group/start an ensemble that focuses on [insert topic here]. Is there a way I could go about doing that?"

  • "I know your area of study is [insert topic here], and I was wondering if there's any way we could figure out a potential directed study at some point during my degree?"

  • "There's a piece/song cycle/opera that focuses on this thing that I find really interesting - is there a way to incorporate that into my recital?"

And THAT'S where things get truly exciting - your degree doesn't have to just be checking boxes, taking required courses, handing in papers, and singing juries. Higher education is a place meant for expanding your horizons and cultivating your passion, so if you find something that you're totally captivated by, then don't be afraid to explore!

 

And THAT, folks, is the end of my very long-winded but very heartfelt post on what I wish I'd known before getting a degree (or two, or three) in music. If you're heading back to school this year, wishing you a fruitful, fun, knowledge-filled, AMAZING year with lots of good classes, great friends, and wonderful music 💜.


Oh, and here's a back-to-school Tilly for your troubles:

May your school year be as happy as Tilly on this blanket!

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