The Julliard School Photo, by Don Ramey Logan under cc by 4.0
A couple years ago, one of my most impressive musical theatre students attended a NATS musical theatre audition. A little background on her: When she started with me, she was most comfortable with a healthy musical theatre belt, but by time she did her audition she also had a glistening head voice and could pull off legit like a pro. Their advice at NATS (after hearing her on a Jason Robert Brown song from The Last Five Years of all things)? That she sounded good but should go pursue a second degree in a classical vocal program.
That advice was completely baffling to me. So instead of continuing to perfect her musical theatre craft and building up her résumé by doing some shows, she should spend the rest of her 20’s rapidly going into debt while getting another degree in a genre of music she wasn’t interested in? Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of crossovers between musical theatre singing and classical. Classical singing would continue to help her develop her breath control, lift her soft palate, strengthen her head voice, and a number of other wonderful things that can easily be applied to musical theatre. It’s just not the right move for someone who’s already a trained singer, who’s getting better at musical theatre singing every week, and who’s in a perfect age range to be on the audition circuit.
So When Should You Go into a Classical Vocal Program?
There are lots of great reasons to pursue a degree like this, but you should go for the right reasons. Here are some excellent reasons to consider it.
1. You Love Classical Singing
This goes without saying, but if classical voice is truly what you want to do–because it’s what you love singing, because you’re interested in an opera career, because you hope to one day teach classical voice at a conservatory, or just because it brings you joy, then by all means, do it!
2. You Really Want to Sing (Pretty Much Anything) in College, and This is Your Only Option
Okay, so this might not be quite as solid a reason as #1, but it’s not a bad one. If you just love singing and don’t care what you sing, you’ll still probably have a great experience. Just make sure you’ve tried out some classical music before making any decisions.
3. You Love Learning New Genres
Maybe you don’t know a ton about classical singing, but if you love learning new genres, new aspects of music history, or just new things in general, it’s pretty likely you’re going to enjoy this!
Who Shouldn’t Go into a Classical Voice Program?
For all the wonderful reasons to go into this, there are plenty of reasons not to as well!
1. You Want to be a Pop Singer (or Any Other Type of Non-Classical Singer) But Want to Learn Good Technique First
No! If you want to learn healthy pop vocal technique, go into a program (or simply to a singing teacher) who specializes in healthy pop vocal technique. There are plenty of wonderful crossovers among the genres, like pitch, support, and breath control, but there are just as many aspects of classical singing you’re going to need to undo once you go back into pop singing.
2. You Want to Sing and Think This is the Best Shot at Getting Paid For It
No, sorry. As tough as it can be “making it” in music, making it in classical singing is one of the tougher vocal fields. The Met pays a full-time living, but the vast majority of opera houses out there don’t. Even if you want to teach singing one day and hope to start your own business doing it, you’ll get more work if you’re great at teaching commercial genres.
3. You’ve Heard that if You Sing Classical You Can Sing Anything
Again, no. Sure, you might be able to hit all the notes in other genres, but the way to get good at a genre is to practice that genre. The way to get good at a few genres is to practice those few genres. There’s no one genre you can sing that’ll make you good at all genres (and to be honest, musical theatre would get you closer to that goal than classical, since it spans more styles and vocal qualities).
To be clear, I’m not at all down on getting a classical vocal degree. I think it’s wonderful for many people. Just go into it because you enjoy the pursuit of it and not because you think it’s what you should be doing. If you love classical singing or want to explore new genres and expand your technique to new areas, then by all means, go for it, but don’t do it because you think it’s what you need to do before singing the type of music you like. It’s a disservice to classical music, which is so much more than a means to an end, and a disservice to pop music, which has its own set of great techniques.