I am excited to post this article by Dr. Scott LaGraff and Dr. Tod Fish from Stephen F. Austin University in Texas for all the future music educators out there. Dr. LaGraff and I attended graduate school together at Louisiana State University. He is an outstanding performer and a wonderful person and I think that his and Dr. Fish’s advice is spot on. ~Matt
Questions Future Choir Directors Should Ask
BEFORE Choosing a College
Choosing the right university is an important decision, but it can be difficult to find information on Music Education programs; much of the attention seems to be focused on schools that specialize in performance. Just as in athletics, the schools that attract stars destined for big professional careers grab the headlines, but what about programs that teach the stars’ teachers? These get much less consideration, so it is up to students who want to study Music Education to find answers for themselves. To do that, it is critical to ask the right questions before selecting a program.
Based on our combined experience as teachers of teachers (one in Music Education, the other in Applied Voice), we have created a list of questions future choir directors should be asking themselves and the programs to which they apply, along with some reasons why we think these questions are important.
Questions to ask yourself
Q: How important is a school’s name and size?
The name and size of a school is not nearly as important as the faculty members with whom you’ll be studying. As these professors will be providing the skills and experiences you will use throughout your career, it is imperative that you find mentors who are strong teachers and, just as important, with whom you are comfortable. Larger, big-name schools will often focus on performance and graduate studies (more on that later). While these programs are impressive and worthy of respect, they may not be the best choice for students wanting to study Music Education.
A better question is, “What is the school’s placement rate for choir directors?” (see the last question in the article for some thoughts on this).
Q: Should I attend the school that offers me the most money?
In this era of financial uncertainty, it is understandable that students (and parents!) would want to get the most bang for their education buck, and scholarships are an important part of this. But scholarship offers can be deceiving; it’s more important to look at the bottom line and ask yourself which school offers the best value.
Let’s assume that School X and School Y have equally strong Music Education programs. School X costs $30,000/year and offers you a $15,000/year scholarship. School Y, on the other hand, only offers you $2,000/year, but their annual cost is $10,000. On the surface, it may look like School X is making the better offer, but you’re still on the hook for $15,000/year! School Y’s more modest offer will leave you having to pay only $8,000/year, making it a far better value. No doubt, it is flattering to receive a large scholarship offer, but failing to look deeper can leave you in greater debt. No one enters the music field expecting to get rich, so if you can get an equivalent education from School Y for less money that you’d spend at School X, you would be wise to do so.
Questions to ask colleges
Q: Will I study voice with a member of the voice faculty?
This is an important question for you to ask the faculty when applying to a university. Many schools, especially those with a large graduate program, will have Music Education majors study with graduate students. This is a great opportunity – for the graduate student! It is important to remember that most graduate students will have had far less teaching experience than full-time faculty members. Also, most graduate programs are 2-3 years long, while most undergraduate programs take 4-5 years to complete. You could potentially begin your studies with one graduate student, get a new grad student voice teacher for the next two years, and then switch into a faculty studio for your senior year, just as you’re preparing your senior recital. That’s three different teachers in four years! It is very difficult to develop any continuity under those circumstances. Furthermore, you could be studying voice with someone only a couple of years older than you. We have seen 19-year-old Music Education majors studying with 22-year-old graduate students. Remember, you are studying to be a voice professional. Your applied voice teacher will be a major contributor to your musical life; it is in your best interest to find an experienced one.
Q: What kind of performing opportunities will I have?
Many future choir directors also enjoy performing as soloists and onstage. If this is important to you, it would be a good idea to ask about the opportunities that will be available to you at a prospective school. In most large programs, solos and roles in the opera or musical will be given to graduate students and performance majors, leaving few solo opportunities for Music Education majors. While you may not desire a career as an opera singer or on Broadway, what you learn while performing one of these roles can be invaluable to your personal growth and confidence, as well as giving you added insight and necessary experience if your future job includes putting on musicals. There are also many wonderful solos in choral music, of course. Wouldn’t you rather have the experience of singing them, rather than watching graduate students do it?
One more thought: some schools do not require Music Education students to do a senior recital, which seems to suggest that they think of MusEd majors as second-class performers. Just because you are passionate about directing a choir doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be as good a performer as you can. There is much to be learned from preparing a senior recital, in addition to bringing joy to you and your audience! Besides, while earning your degree in Music Education, you may decide you want to pursue a Master’s in performance; we know many students for whom this has been the case. Without the opportunity to perform, you wouldn’t be able to make that discovery.
Q: Who will teach me how to conduct?
You may assume that your university choir director will be your primary conducting teacher, but that may not be the case. At some schools, all Music Education students are lumped together in a single conducting class, despite the fact that there are differences between instrumental and choral conducting techniques. In other situations, students may be taught conducting by a graduate student. While this provides invaluable experience for the graduate student, it is less than optimal for aspiring conductors. You plan to spend your career conducting; you owe it to yourself to study with the best teacher you can find. If you ask up front, you won’t be surprised after you arrive.
Q: Will I study diction?
Your knowledge of the rules and especially the execution of lyric diction will help with the overall quality of your ensemble, as you will be equipped to teach proper pronunciation, but also to address ensemble issues that may be directly related to the language. In addition, the better your knowledge of diction, the more confident you will feel tackling a wider variety of repertoire. Furthermore, it will help in the Solo and Ensemble process because students who don’t have voice teachers will come to you for assistance. If you’ve studied diction, you’ll be prepared, but diction can’t be learned overnight. The more you can get during your undergraduate studies, the better off you’ll be, as it takes time to master the skills of transcription and pronunciation. I recently spoke with the director of a very large high school choral program who told me how much he regretted that he did not have to study diction at the college he attended. He had a lot of catching up to do. Make sure this doesn’t happen to you!
Q: Will I study vocal pedagogy?
It is important to remember that there is a lot more to directing a choir than knowing how to conduct. You will have to fix vocal problems – both in the ensemble setting and working with soloists – in addition to needing to teach your choirs about important concepts like support and resonance. So, yes, the more you learn about how the voice works, the better prepared you will be for your career. Find out which schools will make that part of your course of study.
Q: What is the school’s placement rate for its Music Education graduates?
This indicates how desirable a program’s graduates are, which is a result of the training they receive. Obviously, if a program has a high placement rate (some schools will be very close to 100%), it must be doing something right. The music world is a small one; if a program puts out a bad product (i.e. its graduates), word will get around. Conversely, if a school is known for training successful directors, those directors will be more likely to be hired, which is the goal, right? There is nothing wrong with asking a college to discuss with you how successful its graduates are at finding jobs as choir directors/music teachers.
Dr. Tod Fish is the interim Associate Director of Choral Activities at Stephen F. Austin State University. A sought-after clinician, he spent 13 years directing award-winning high school and middle school choirs in Texas before joining the faculty at SFA.
Dr. Scott LaGraff is an Associate Professor of Voice at Stephen F. Austin State University, where he teaches applied voice, lyric diction, and opera workshop. His students are regular finalists at the Texoma Regional NATS competitions, and have gone on to sing with major graduate programs, summer programs, and professional opera apprentice programs.