What is a degree in Vocal Performance?

There are so many majors out there it can be really hard to figure out what’s best for you.  Many singers are interested in performing and thus are drawn towards the Vocal Performance degree programs.  Here is what you should know and what to expect.

What does vocal performance prepare you for?

The vocal performance degree prepares you for two main career paths: Classical Music Vocal Performance and Professional Voice Teacher.

Classical Music Vocal Performance:  Most singers who major in vocal performance are interested in careers in opera, oratorio, or as a professional recitalist.  Although its not widely known, there are many singers who make all or a portion of their living singing classical music.  There are numerous opera companies throughout the country that produce 2-4 opera per year.  Each of these companies hire singers from around the world to fill the roles in each show.  They usually rehearse for 3-4 weeks before performing and then present 3-4 performances.  In bigger cities the opera companies often present more productions with more performances.  The average singer probably performs in 3-5 opera productions a year with oratorio and recital appearances in between.  Because opera singers perform so sporadically, they are paid very well per performance.  Singer fees usually range from $1000 per night for the small roles to $15,000 per night for the leading roles at the leading houses.  Although the high end of the scale seems very appealing, I would say less than 100 singers a year earn a fee of that size in the United States.  There are no solid statistics of what the average singer makes per year, but from personal experience I can tell you that even singers who perform at the Metropolitan Opera or New York City Opera still have office jobs or teach voice lessons on the side.

Professional Singing Teacher:  The popularity of American Idol, Taylor Swift, High School Musical, iCarly, Hannah Montana, and others have increased the demand for performing arts activities and singing lessons amongst tweens and teens.  Many singers make a decent living teaching voice lessons and classes to these aspiring singers.  Rates for lessons vary across the country from around $30-80 per hours with the best teachers in major cities commanding rates as high as $200 per hour (although most of those teachers have famous students or were famous themselves).  Most teachers teach somewhere between 20 and 30 hours a week and can count on a fairly steady income for 42 weeks a year (summers are slow as are holidays) bringing yearly earnings somewhere between $25,200 and $100,800 per year.  Most start out on the bottom end and work towards the upper end throughout their career.  Teachers can also complete a masters degree in voice and teach adjunct at a university or complete a doctorate degree and teach full time at a university where the starting salaries can range from $29,500 – $52,000 per year.

Graduate School

Graduate School encompasses Masters and Doctorate degrees.  Much like majors such as English and Psychology, a bachelors degree in vocal performance opens up very few career opportunities.  Most students need to pursue a masters and or doctorate whether pursuing work as a performer or teacher.  The good news is that there are often scholarships available for graduate school called assistantships which will often pay the entire amount of tuition AND pay a salary of somewhere between $6000 and 12,000 per year.  In return you will work an office job, teach private lessons, teach group classes, or assist your professors in their work.

Non-Music options beyond undergrad

The good news is regardless of what you get your undergraduate degree in, there are several graduate programs that you can easily pursue in fields other than music.  Business, Law, and Med School are all options for students with ANY undergraduate background.  In fact, music students can hold a slight advantage since admissions counselors often respect the discipline that it takes to be a musician while also appreciating the fact that artistic people tend to think outside the box and can contribute new ideas to discussions and debates in class.  There are also programs available for transitioning into nursing, education, and massage therapy.

Where to start

Start by looking at the top schools in the field: Juilliard, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Indiana University, Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory, and Curtis Institute.  Look at the classes they offer, the performance opportunities for students, and their alumni lists which will give you an idea of how various students’ careers have progressed.  Where you do your undergraduate is not nearly as important as where you do your graduate work.  What is most important is to find a teacher who will help you reach your full vocal potential.  Starting with the top schools may help give you an really clear understanding of what the top, most competitive schools demand, and help you find where you fit in to the overall picture.


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