This question came up at a recent masterclass in MD. The answer is: It depends on the person. Both degrees are highly specialized and unfortunately there aren’t many options for singers to study performance outside of those specialties. Before you choose, you need to really understand what you are getting into or you could easily end up very unhappy and changing majors after a few semesters. No one wants that. Its bad for you and its bad for the school. Answer the following question first: What is your passion?
Vocal Performance – Classical Voice/Opera
If your passion is classical music and opera, then a degree in vocal performance is perfect for you. In a vocal performance degree you will learn how to analyze compositions by Bach, Mozart, and other classical composers. You will learn to sing in French, Italian, and German. You will learn about music history, how to conduct, and how to play piano. If that doesn’t sound interesting to you, then vocal performance is could be the wrong choice. Vocal performance degrees can also open up other career pathways after graduation including: Arts Management, Speech Language Pathology (master degree required), Music Education (master degree required), Conducting, Masters and Doctorate of Vocal Performance (to teach at a university or through owning your own business), Classical Music Artist Management, non-profit management, as well as numerous fields outside of music. Just be aware that most vocal performance programs will not allow you to sing music other than classical during your lessons. There is an organization (NASM) that controls what types of classes music schools offer their students, and as of this posting, voice lessons in a vocal performance degrees are required to focus on classical music. If you are interested in musical theater but can’t get into a program, or can’t dance, this may be an option for you to still pursue musical theatre, but its not like it was 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon were looking for strong, classically trained voices and the acting style was less realistic and somewhat along the lines of “stand and sing”. Since these elements are part of many classical training programs, it was often a good fit for non-dancers. However, current musical theatre trends have created an environment where everyone needs some level of dance ability and acting chops at the same level of theatre majors. Most vocal performance programs will not be able to offer you that kind of training. They are out there though. In fact, I was able to find a vocal performance program with incredible acting training that surpassed the training some of my musical theatre friends received during their degree. However, that program no longer exists in the same way as it did when I was in school and the schools that currently have that level of training are some of the hardest to get into. However, they still don’t offer dance at the level you will need in the current MT market.
If showtunes, Glee, and Andrew Lloyd Webber are your passion, then Musical Theatre may be perfect for you. In a musical theatre degree you will almost always start the day off with a dance class (ballet, jazz, or tap). You will then have acting classes where you will learn plays and musical scenes. You will have private voice lessons, audition classes, and classes on the business of theatre. You will study theatre history, technical theatre, and perform in numerous productions throughout the year. You will rarely spend much time in choir, learn to conduct, learn to sing in a foreign language, or learn to analyze a symphonic piece from a music theory point of view. If that disappoints you or the combination of acting, dance, and singing doesn’t appeal to you, then a musical theatre degree probably isn’t a good option for you. In musical theatre, there is no masters or doctorate degree, so the bachelor is your only option for formal study. There are numerous post bachelor careers outside of theatre that you could pursue including: Speech Language Pathology, teaching privately in a community (dance, acting, voice), Entertainment Business, Entertainment Law, Producing, Directing, personal training, public speaker training, marketing, public relations, TV/Film production, arts management, agent, casting director, or you could earn an MFA (masters degree) in Acting, Directing, or Voice and Speech and seek out a job at the collegiate level.
So what are your other options? There are many degrees that can keep you singing: Music Education, Conducting, Music Therapy, Bachelor of Arts, Acting, Music Industry, Music Business, and Music Technology are all possibilities. You could also major in Business or Marketing and form a band with other students on campus and run your group as a business. If the more you think about this you realize that a serious career may not be for you – That’s OK! There are plenty of people who love to sing for fun and do community musicals, sing in community chorus, play in local bands, and rock out at karaoke nights after work. There is nothing that says you have to quit singing if you don’t go to college for it.
Keep an eye out for future posts on these possibilities and others. Just remember, you need to choose what’s best for YOU at the end of the day.