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Do you need to go to one of the big-name schools to be successful?

erica87erica87 Registered User Posts: 4 New Member
edited October 2010 in Music Major
Hi. I am currently an undergraduate student who is considering pursuing a Bachelors of Music in Vocal Performance. I have been studying classical voice for the past year and am looking at my different options as far as schools go. My main question is: Do you need to go to one of the big-name universities or conservatories in order to have a successful career in opera? I am talking about the top schools like Eastman, MSM, Rice, NEC, Michigan, Curtis, ect. who are well-known for their Music programs. Would a graduate from a lesser-known university not stand a chance against someone who attended one of the 'better' schools/conservatories? The main reason I am asking this is because of the money issue... the public or local schools would cost alot less, I would receive alot more financial aid/grants, while also giving me a good, solid musical education and perhaps more individualized attention and more performance opportunities.

So, what are your opinions? Have you ever heard of successful singers who have come from lesser-known schools? Is your success determined by where you studied, or more by natural talent and determination? I was recently looking over the list of Met National Council winners from previous years and saw that a few of them graduated from smaller universities... like southeastern louisiana u, ohio, morehouse, arizona state, ect. So maybe there is hope afterall? I would greatly appreciate your opinions. :)
Post edited by erica87 on

Replies to: Do you need to go to one of the big-name schools to be successful?

  • srwsrw Registered User Posts: 1,480 Senior Member
    erica, I think you have answered your own question above. The teacher matters far more than the school. As a matter of fact you could go to one of the big name school and end up with a teacher you don't jibe with and still come out of college not being able to sing competitively. As a working singer where you went to school matters not at all. All that matters is can you deliver the goods. Summer programs, competitions and YAPS are very key to getting your career started, from making the connections to getting your name out there and for the experience.
  • violindadviolindad Registered User Posts: 933 Member
    For singers the big-name school is much less a benefit than for instrumentalists. I know that there are previous posts in at least a couple of threads about this exact issue and they mention the large number of opera stars that did not go to well-known schools. The voice develops later than an instrumentalist's chops do, so your undergrad school is not nearly as big a deal as is having a good teacher.

    Top instrumentalists also come from a great variety of schools, but there is a higher percentage of top instrumentalists that come from certain schools. As a singer, being amongst the best is not as important as it is for an instrumentalist. Choral singing is of smaller value to the singer than orchestra and chamber music are for an instrumentalist (and, in fact, the choral singing can be almost detrimental if the director insists on a totally different sound from what one's private teacher wants--choral directors usually want much less vibrato or none at all and depending on how bright or dark a sound they want, you may find yourself having to change your placement considerably). Instrumentalists really can't hone their chamber music skills to a high degree with players at a much lower level than themselves. Instrumentalists tend to spend a lot more time in ensemble (compulsory orchestra for 6 to 10 hours per week for 8 semesters and compulsory chamber music for 3 to 12 hours a week for 8 semesters at many schools), than do singers (more typically 3 to 5 hours per week in chorus/choir).

    Bottom line: as an undergrad singer, if you have an excellent teacher, a move to an exclusive school is not crucial. Yes, there are benefits from being amongst a talented peer group, but you can spend your summers amongst good peers.
  • tuba269tuba269 Registered User Posts: 145 Junior Member
    I think violindad is right on. A couple more thoughts:

    1. In my experience, the advantage of more "personalized attention" that you get at a smaller school seems to be an apparent benefit more than a real one. In most schools, unless the size of the individual studio is extremely large, it seems that people get the attention that they need. While a singer or instrumentalist may find that they stand out more, the performance opportunities that they'd receive at the small school (perhaps more chances for solo performance, particularly with ensembles) aren't terribly more than top programs, which tend to build these experiences into performance curricula. A possible exception for this is opera, but while schools with no chance for undergraduates in roles could be a problem, I've heard operatic directors complain about undergraduate performances where there isn't really a deep enough pool of different voices to draw from, and thus singers are stuck in roles not well-suited to their voices, and stretch them needlessly and ineffectively. Another situation I've seen in small schools (in my case with instrumentalists, but it seems it would be as much or more of a problem with singers) is that particularly talented individuals are called upon to be a member of too many ensembles (to try to stack each with as much ability as possible) and find themselves without time or energy to put the time in to better their own skills outside of ensembles.

    The other side to that coin, I hear, are extremely large schools (UNT and Indiana are the ones that come to mind) that just have so many students that if one fails to perform, they might fall right through the cracks. I think this happens to students that might thrive if pushed by a small school, but, again, if the performer needs that much outside motivation, they might have been destined to become one of the many students at lesser-known schools who shine in the small pond but find themselves totally lost in a performing environment that doesn't care that they won the concerto competition at East Left-Armpit State.

    2. One thing that I've seen in the world of brass playing and heard others comment upon, but suspect might be true for other musicians, is that, while a fair number of successful performers do their undergrads at relative unknowns for music, nearly everyone eventually spends at least some time at a more prestigious institution. It's rare to see someone that doesn't follow up a BM from a small school with a master's or certificate from a nationally-known school winning big auditions. It happens, but as violindad mentioned, the ensemble skills need to be there, and while much of the function of an undergraduate institution for an instrumentalist is simply a place to put in the necessary hours of practice, it seems that people need to spend some time performing with other players at their advanced level before they can really get a career going.
  • musicprntmusicprnt Registered User Posts: 6,253 Senior Member
    There is another aspect that in talking to people comes up time and again about the difference of let's say studying with a great teacher at a smaller/less prestigious school, versus the same teacher at a more prestigious program or a teacher of comparable talent. At a more prestigious school, you are generally surrounded by students on average of a very high caliber, whereas with a less pretigious program chances are the average level of achievement may be less, even though there will be talented students in almost any program. As some others have said, this means that when playing in ensembles, or perhaps doing competitions within the school, a student is in the position of keeping up with the joneses so to speak, while at less prestigious program they may be one of the leading edge students. When someone is at the out edge of the bell curve where relatively few are at the same level, there is less external motivation to improve, whereas if the program is such that the middle of the bell curve is way out there, it can help drive students to excel. There are other factors as well, things like potential access to outside performing opportunities or access through networking to other opportunities and such.

    That isn't a guarantee, there are plenty of kids who to go prestigious programs and end up not making it in music, there are kids who go to less prestigious programs and do well (though note, the trend these days with instrumental music is that students more and more are getting master's degrees, and often these are at the top schools, as others have pointed out). From where I stand at the moment, a moving target, going to a 'top' program like Juilliard or Curtis is not a guarantee of success particularly, and going to a 'lesser' program doesn't mean someone is doomed to mediocrity, in the end it all depends on the student and their motivation and willingness to stretch themselves. From everything I have been able to discern, the real success factor is a student grabbing everything they can and going for it with all their heart and ability, and where a top level program has an advantage is that there is a lot more external force to drive a student to excel whereas it is a lot easier at a less prestigious program to kind of coast (if the student's personality allows them to do that). In the end, assuming the student has good teaching that demands they excel, then it really is up to the student IMO.
  • violadadvioladad Registered User Posts: 6,645 Senior Member
    When someone is at the out edge of the bell curve where relatively few are at the same level, there is less external motivation to improve, whereas if the program is such that the middle of the bell curve is way out there, it can help drive students to excel.

    While I don't disagree with the above, the corollary is that a top student at a "lesser" (for want of a better term) program may often have better opportunities and exposure within the program and externally than as a middle of the road undergrad at a school a notch above. I agree that being among better musicians will normally raise the motivation level for most, it does not necessarily follow that being at the top of the heap decreases motivation.

    Just my $.02.
  • musicprntmusicprnt Registered User Posts: 6,253 Senior Member

    I can't disagree with that, all of this is with the caveat "it depends". As you point out, a kid who may be average at a top notch program might not get many opportunities to shine, such as soloing, being concertmaster/principal, etc,because there are so many kids at their level, whereas at a program at a different level, they may get those opportunities because they stand out........which can drive the kid forward, too, plus it also depends on the student, some kids are so internally motivated they would be driven no matter what. The contra side to your example would be if the opportunities the student got, by being the 'big fish in a small pond', didn't do much if the level of the program was such that it really wasn't a great experience. For example, while soloing is often seen as being a big plumb, if the group they are soloing on is pretty rough, it may not be such a great experience, or being the concertmaster of a not particularly good orchestra may not give as much benefit as being a line player in a great one, it all depends.
  • erica87erica87 Registered User Posts: 4 New Member
    thanks everyone for your replies. :) so I guess the overall consensus is that you don't need to go to a big-name school, and that talent, dedication, and the right voice teacher count more than anything? Anyone who was a voice major/knows someone who was a voice major have an opinion on this? Do you know of any successful singers who went to smaller schools?
  • musicprntmusicprnt Registered User Posts: 6,253 Senior Member
    Not that familiar with voice, but I do know one example, Renee Fleming. She couldn't afford to go to Juilliard as an undergrad, and I believe went to one of the SUNY schools...she did go to Juilliard for grad school I believe....I believe Susan Graham as well didn't go to one of the big conservatories.
  • musicamusicamusicamusica Registered User Posts: 6,468 Senior Member
    Erica, my D is currently having a certain amount of success after graduating from a lesser known state school and I sent you a PM (look in the upper left hand corner) with a few recommendations.

    Another great example of a success story --- Joyce Di Donato did her undergrad at Wichita State.
  • erica87erica87 Registered User Posts: 4 New Member
    I think renee fleming actually went to new england conservatory, and susan graham went to manhattan school of music; I remember seeing her on the alumni page.

    got your pm. ok, thanks; Joyce Di Donato, I will look her up. ;)
  • erica87erica87 Registered User Posts: 4 New Member
    edit: oops! your right she 1st went to SUNY, and then got her masters from eastman.
  • sagitersagiter Registered User Posts: 358 Member
    Renee Fleming and Stephanie Blythe both attended the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam as undergrads as did Lisa Vroman and Margaret Lattimore.
  • Singersmom07Singersmom07 Registered User Posts: 3,878 Senior Member
    When DD was was a freshman, a masters student in her studio won the Met competition. Her undergraduate degree was from Webster. It seems that because of the later development of the voice the teacher is more important as an undergrad than the big name schools. Graduate work is a different story.
  • mtpapermtpaper Registered User Posts: 782 Member
    a neighbor recommended this book to us, altho we haven't read it yet:
    The Inner Voice: the Making of a Singer by Renee Fleming

    she said it talks about wanting to go to one school, going to a different school, and how well it worked out for her
This discussion has been closed.