So you want to major in musical theatre. Congratulations! You are embarking on one of the most competitive college audition experiences there is. Going into the arts is not for the faint of heart, but you already know that from your experiences in the rehearsal hall and on stage. But fear not! Despite the idea of the “starving artist,” you’re going to be ok, and you will not end up living in a box under a bridge. You will find your way.
Everyone enjoys and consumes some form of art on a daily basis. Music, literature, media, tv, the big screen—hell, even the news. The world needs artists. I’m not saying that it won’t be hard and, at times, frustrating to be an artist after graduation, but I am saying that it’s hard and frustrating at times no matter what profession you choose. The world will always need artists to make day-to-day life a little less crappy and a lot more beautiful. So tell your Grandpa that it’s going to be ok and that there are worthwhile professions outside of law or medicine. Then remind him that those actors he loves to watch on Matlock probably have degrees in fine arts as well. 😉
A few times a year I am honored to be asked to remove my private voice teacher hat and don the hat of a musical director for local community theatre and high school musicals. One of the questions I get asked frequently by my theatre students is “what should I be looking for in a private teacher if I want to pursue musical theatre?” I usually provide them with a short list of names of very accomplished voice teachers of musical theatre repertoire in their area as well as an often lengthy answer to their question. While I am familiar with a handful of amazing local teachers, I know there are other great teachers out there that may be more centrally located to where a student lives. After all, here in Houston it can take more than 90 minutes to drive from one side of the city to the other.
One of the most critical things to know—especially for parents of kids gearing up for college auditions—is that anyone can teach voice privately. Just because someone sings well does not necessarily mean they’ll teach well. Anyone can decide to teach voice with or without pedagogical training, with or without the ability to sing in the styles that they are teaching, with or without knowledge of what the college audition process entails for various degree programs and genres of music, and with or without reading music, playing the piano, or having a basic understanding of how the voice even works.
This can be a little scary since we want to make sure that the person we are paying to help us is the best person for the job. Hopefully, your new teacher can direct you to his/her website, social media page, etc., so you can read about his or her background before feeling like you need to ask a million questions that might make you feel like you’re being crazy. But remember, these next few years are crucial to your growth towards reaching your goals, so a bit of intense scrutiny up front might be a good thing! To this end, I have assembled a few questions to ask future teachers to help you along your way:
1) What styles of musical theatre do you sing and teach in?
There are many styles of musical theatre, from the classical/legit musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein to the contemporary/rock styles in musicals like Next to Normal or jukebox musicals like American Idiot. Musical theatre is trending more and more towards rock styles these days, and the truth is, you should be learning ALL of those styles from legit to rock, and your teacher should be able to sing and demonstrate healthy sounds in each of those styles as well.
2) What’s your past experience with musical theatre?
It may seem like the answer to this question would be obvious, but you might be surprised by how many voice teachers are really choreographers or pianists looking to earn additional income by adding voice lessons to their list of offerings. Furthermore, just because a teacher has a background in singing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have ever been in a musical. Conversely, a teacher can also be fantastic and knowledgeable without ever having had any professional or regional stage credits especially if they have invested time in continuing to study vocal pedagogy.
3) What are your thoughts on belting vs. “legit” singing?
There’s an ongoing debate in the singing community that stems from the “folklore” of classical styles that has been passed down through generations: “belt is bad.” The truth is that, in order to be competitive while auditioning for musical theatre, your chances of getting into a great program increase when you’re able sing in BOTH styles.
Science and experience dictate the “belt is bad” myth simply is not true. The body is designed to do it all and to do it healthily. If your teacher is going to be helping you audition for college musical theatre programs, she needs to understand that fact and be willing to help you, not just allow you to belt songs outside of lessons. There is too much that can go wrong without proper functional training, and that goes for classical singing as well as contemporary belting. Bad technique is bad technique. You need to be working on chest voice AND head voice for all styles of singing.
We spend the bulk of our performance time in some kind of mix (chest-heavy contemporary mix or head-heavy classical mix and everything in between), so you need both even if you don’t think you do. Look to the research of Dr. Scott McCoy, Robert Edwin, and Jeanie LoVetri if you are interested in learning the proven science behind this.
4) What schools/degree programs have your former students gotten into, and do any past students perform now for a living?
The answer to this question may vary greatly, but it’s still valid. For instance, a young teacher with great performance experience might not yet have any students on Broadway but could still be a good teacher who can assist students in getting into great programs. If a teacher has been teaching for 30+ years, she will probably be able to easily answer this question with some great BFA and BA programs that her students have gotten into, and she’s sure to have some former students who are successful. If she doesn’t, she might not be who you are looking for.
5) Do you have any outside certifications or have you attended any workshops after you graduated college?
Again, answering “no” to this question doesn’t mean they are a bad teacher. There are many styles and methods represented on Broadway today, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to singing. But knowing a teacher has attended an outside workshop might mean they are interested in pursuing and updating their techniques for the betterment of their students. Some popular methods are: Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method, CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais MethodⓇ, Bel Canto Can Belto, Estill Voice Training™, and the list can go on.
6) Should I use an audition coach?
Yes! There are a number of reputable companies that offer fantastic coaching sessions with theatre and acting teachers nationwide. Do your research, and make sure you’re investing in a company that has knowledgeable, experienced staff and isn’t just trying to turn a profit. Companies here in Texas like College Audition Coach (who run the “Moonified” college auditions) can help you pick repertoire if your teacher is not yet well-versed in musical theatre. They’ll help you polish the performance side of your audition music by working in Skype sessions online, sometimes with the staff of the actual college programs you may be applying to. It’s always a good idea to have an extra set of eyes and ears to help you be the best that you can be before you set off into the scary, crowded world of college auditions.
7) Lastly, ask other successful musical theatre singers around you who they study with and check these questions with them.
In the end, reputation is everything. Your teacher doesn’t have to have the entire cast of Dear Evan Hansen on her list of former students to be helpful to you, but they should be well-versed in functional vocal training and be someone that you know you can trust with the growth and health of your instrument—someone that you know cares about what happens to you, emotionally and vocally, both in lessons and during the audition process.
A good, knowledgeable, and loving teacher can take you a long way. Finding a good teacher to help you improve and get you college-ready can be a lot like dating, so don’t be afraid to try out different teachers if you’re finding that you aren’t growing vocally. Just be sure you are kind and honest as you go about the switch to a new studio.
And, above all, don’t forget why you fell in love with this crazy theatre thing. Have fun, work hard, connect with people, and make a difference.