Should I major in Vocal Performance?

success-perception-vs-realityThe short answer is, probably not. But there are several ways to look at it.

First, please understand that there is a 99+% chance that you will not be able to support yourself with singing right out of college, and probably something like a 98% chance that that will never happen. So, the way I see it, there are four basic approaches to going to college if you are a musician of some kind who wants a degree:

1. Major in something that will help you support yourself, and do performance as a double major, a minor, or on the side. Majoring in something nonmusical which doesn’t require too much physical labor or hours of talking every day, can complement a singing career quite well. It can pay for your coaching, auditions, and other expenses with some left over for sustaining life. Being able to afford life as soon after college as possible will be much more pleasant than the alternative.

2. Major in music education leading to a certificate. Keep in mind that teaching music in the public schools requires much time, energy, and vocal effort, and doesn’t pay as well as most other jobs. Although there is much overlap between a choral music certificate program and a voice degree, it requires a lot of hours in education courses and student teaching, and is challenging to complete within four years. If you want to double major in performance and education, you will likely need more than four years to finish. Please, only go into teaching if you like to teach. The first few years are exhausting and you will not make it if you do not like it. Try to get some field experience by your second year of school so that you can see what the environment is like.

3. Major in something non-musical, and participate in a musical ensemble for fun. Pursue music seriously after graduation if you still feel the need.

4. Major in vocal performance (or musical theatre, or whatever art), and concentrate on that to the best of your ability. This might be the only four-year stretch in your life when you can focus 100% on developing your musical skills. Once again, if you are a classical singer, take as much foreign language as possible. Study well, practice well, absorb everything you can about the art and the industry. After graduation, you will either be that fraction of 1% that gets a gig, or the vast majority that ask “now what?” and must consider a way to make a living. If you can make peace with that reality, then go ahead and major in performance.

Majoring in performance is not a “bad” choice. It might be a very good choice. It may be a very rich artistic time in your life and set the stage for wonderful things to come. As technology and the pace of change in general keeps speeding up, even a computer science degree can be largely obsolete by the time you graduate. The exact major is not as important to some employers as whether you have a degree in SOMETHING.

A career in music is extraordinarily difficult even if you make it. Life on the road, low pay, auditioning occasionally for the rest of your career, and getting new material in your brain on a steady basis, are very taxing. And that’s if you’re “lucky”.

If you are like the 99% that do not get a full-time performing job, what are you going to do? How will you pay rent, buy food and clothing, and live a life, financially speaking? The world asks us to be flexible. Most people will have several careers during their working years, sometimes multiple ones simultaneously. This is reality.

In order to become a performer, your major and school are not important compared to how well you actually sing, and whether you have learned things you needed and wanted to learn. Whether you major in music or in engineering, it’s not so black and white as major in X, get a job in X. Life is a lot more twisting and turning than that.

Talk it over with lots of people, and realize that a degree program in performance is no guarantee of anything.


8 Replies to “Should I major in Vocal Performance?”

  1. Beautifully written, great advice. I just have one question. What’s the point of getting a degree in any of the arts if a carreer in them can be acheived without it? What’s the point in offering classes in the arts if the people who make a carreer out of it are more often than not good enough to teach themselves? I guess I just want to know what the point of all of this is. Why work your whole life at being a vocalist when a person of any other background or major can do the exact same things that you can do, sometimes even better than you can?

    1. Hi Riley,

      Thanks for your message. The way I see it, a college degree can have two main purposes: 1) preparation for a career of some kind and 2) stimulation of the mind and soul, an opportunity for extensive learning about something that interests one. There are multiple ways to a career in the arts. Some kind of intense study is important, but the stiff structure of a college degree isn’t going to fit everyone, especially advanced artists. But the college courses are good for many who do go into the arts, and let’s not forget that many, many of the people taking courses in the arts are not intending to be “career artists” at all. The choirs, bands, and music appreciation courses are full of people who have no intention or desire to be pro musicians, but want the enrichment that experiencing the arts can bring to life.

  2. This is an extremely disheartening and negative article. I detect some bitterness in your writing….perhaps your own music career failed? You can deliver a “slice of reality” about performing careers while still maintaining a positive and upbeat attitude. Many people can and do make it work, on a daily basis. It may not be for everyone, but there is simply no reason to be so discouraging.
    This is coming from someone who is beyond tired of hearing this comment (from well-meaning relatives and friends): “Performance? In this economy? Why on Earth would you major in THAT?”
    Because it’s what I’m passionate about. Because I love music. Because singing on stage makes my soul happy, and I’ve experienced a fair amount of success in my 18 years. Because it’s my life and my choice to make.
    So please: mix the good with the bad. Present the reality of the career choice, but encourage students also. People doubt themselves often enough, without needing others to doubt them.

    1. Jenna,

      I am having a music career, thank you very much. Did you miss “Majoring in performance is not a “bad” choice. It might be a very good choice. It may be a very rich artistic time in your life and set the stage for wonderful things to come. “? There is PLENTY of “good” with the “bad” in this article.

      I am presenting possible ways to look at having music in your life when it comes time to decide on a post-secondary course of study, and giving realistic ideas on the music business.

      I chose to go on for a master’s degree for the love of the art, and I have no regrets. Tell your well-meaning relatives and friends that there is NEVER a better time to major in performance. You do it because you decide that you must.

      Ask my students if I encourage them. Ask the 6 I sent to performing arts programs last year at Indiana, Michigan, and Boston Conservatory.


    2. I agree sweetie. My daughter decided that music was going to be her life’s work and income and she is doing quite well having just finished her first record and she commands good money at her gigs. She went to Atlanta Institute of music and is also a guitarist and songwriter. Whenever any “well meaning” (I don’t believe in that term, i think people who have settled feel uneasy around someone who won’t) people would say, “what is her back up plan”, I would just say there wasn’t one. It’s her only choice in life because a job just wouldn’t work for her. I know plenty of musicians who make decent money and own homes and they aren’t “stars”. They just love it and work hard at it.She works when she wants, with whom she wants and surrounds herself with creative people who are in the business. She joins industry events and goes to see her heroes play to stay inspired. I admire that you are going after your dream. Look up the greats that you want to emulate and just keep going for it.

      1. Thanks, Teresa. If a person is serious about wanting to pursue music, they can always get a “backup plan” later, closer to the time it’s actually needed. Holding a “backup plan” in your head for years while you’re trying to give your all to your art is just messy. Congratulations to your daughter.

  3. There are some other options for people who want to still study music. You can look up degree programs that are music business degrees where a person can still study voice as their primary instruments, there is music therapy which can lead to working with healthcare, persons with special needs, and other environments, and music technology and recording. While these degrees are going to focus less on performance, there is still higher training in voice while preparing a person for a profession that is music related.
    Music Business is especially flexible as a degree because it does not prepare you for one specific occupation but you still study business coursework as well.

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