When your student is a big fish in a small pond

My daughter (H.S. soph.) has her sights set on Tisch/New School, for all of the reasons you usually hear people state - urban campus, diversity, access to top-tier talent, proximity to Broadway and everything connected to it.

She attends our state’s one-and-only performing arts conservatory/high school, so she is getting many hours of voice, dance and acting training every day. She is a hard worker and gets great grades, and she never grumbles about her 12-hour school days. And yes, of course I think she is extremely talented.

That said, my wife and I have already had the talk with her that, even with those cards stacked in her favor, NSB is still highly competitive to get into, and her conservatory training alone might not be enough to see her through.

Basically, we suggested that she should be availing herself of every opportunity for additional training (e.g., workshops, private lessons) - to build her resume, and (more importantly) develop her actual skills to put her in the best position possible when it’s time to actually apply and audition.

Not sure she’s taking us seriously, or at the very least, not appreciating how many very talented kids are vying for those NSB slots each year. She’s very charming and very pretty, and again, very talented. While she gets a lot of attention and flattery for her stage performances, we live in a small suburb of a smallish “big” city. We’re not sure she gets the concept of being a “big fish in a small pond” or how that idiom will completely reverse itself when she applies to places like Tisch.

Anyhooo, for those parents who’ve been similarly situated, how did you (if you did at all) get your kid to appreciate the competitiveness of getting into a top-tier MT program?

We don’t ever want to overstress her or give her the impression that we don’t have faith and confidence in her. We just want to make sure she grasps the challenge she is undertaking, and prepares as much as she (not us) thinks is necessary to succeed.

Please and thank you!

Presumably, the end goal isn’t simply being admitted to Tisch but getting the roles she wants as a professional.

I have a handful of friends who have made their living this way (B’way, gigs at regional theater, off Broadway, traveling casts, the random role in a film or series) and I would say that in addition to talent, work ethic, and a bit of luck in getting cast each time , what they all have is resilience, drive, and an ability to take care of themselves (not get burned out.).

A couple of ideas for your D could include auditioning for and attending a selective summer program or master classes (not familiar enough with this world to know what that is) where she could see others with similar talent, perhaps auditioning for a role in a professional performance nearby (as there are often folks who are pros from outside the area who could provide some mentoring), etc. Building the resume, getting experience, and networking are ALL important.

It will serve her well to be open to, and get, additional training whenever she can. It’s an industry where you always have to be not only your best, but the best. And at the same time, she’s young – don’t let her burn out or get too intimidated before she develops the grit and skills to stage a comeback.

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@gardenstategal makes great points. Unlike many other fields and paths, there is no straight line for performers. The amount of talent out there is staggering and the competition fierce. Getting accepted into a fine BFA program isn’t the end, but rather the beginning (and not even necessary for the uber talented that just make it on their own).

I say this to caution your D about having her mind / heart set on any particular program. Tisch in particular is tricky as they do admission based on “all studios” vs The New School. Those that select The New School audition will only be considered for The New School. Whereas the other cohort gets placed in the various acting studios (and have an opportunity to move around after two yrs).

There are plenty of really good programs out there. The important thing is your D gets quality training and grows as a performer. The resilience comment above is spot on. Once these talented kids find their program, they join a different level of talent. Much like athletics where it’s a whole new ballgame at each advanced level. The funnel thins and the resilient (with a lot of talent) move on. Where this differs (by quite a lot actually) from sports is the path. Although most college athletes don’t move on to pro ranks, their path is quite different. At the D1 level, they get recruited, many get scholarships, and at the top programs many do move on to pro levels in their sport (many of those flame out too but they get a start). In “D1” theater, you have to audition and compete with hundreds ( if not thousands) of candidates for a few spots, very few scholarships, and upon graduation, you’re likely unemployed and starting all over again with open call auditions where you’re competing with hundreds of people for a spot. And when that show is over, you’re unemployed again, rinse and repeat.

I say all this not to deter anyone from taking this path. Quite the contrary. But it is about resilience. When D auditioned at Syracuse, the program director made some great comments in his presentation prior to auditions. He asked the cohort “Who thinks theater is fun?” Of course many raised their hands. He explained this isn’t high school plays and being told how good you are. It’s about “the work”. He said you won’t make it if you don’t truly love the work. Love rehearsing, improving, sweating, failing / falling, perfecting your craft knowing the work is never done. If you love all of that, you have a chance. If not, the few moments of adulation won’t be enough to keep you going. Again, resilience.

Best of luck to your daughter. Cast a wide net. Break legs and all that good stuff. Most importantly, love the art / work even when no one is watching.

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Thanks to you both for the thoughtful replies.

Yes, you are quite right. Tisch is the means to the end, not the end itself.

We would certainly like her to remain open-minded about other programs because a.) she may not get into Tisch; and b.) she may discover that Tisch isn’t the best fit for her after all.

That said, we definitely don’t want to discourage her from shooting for moon - we just want her to properly equip herself for the challenge.

She and I are going to Moonifieds Jr. in November, and as you both suggested, I am hoping that the workshop will open her eyes to the level of competition she will be facing - again, not to scare or discourage her. Just to make sure she recognizes the path ahead, and takes nothing for granted.

Exactly this. Not that she doesn’t work hard, but she needs to know that if she wants to attend a MT program and pursue MT as a career, her ego isn’t going to get stroked like it has been to date. As you also said, she has to love the work for the sake of the work itself, because the plaudits and the fawning are likely going to be the exception and not the norm that she has become accustomed to.

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Something else that I am sure that you already know is that all of the programs not only look at talent but “type.” Depending on your D’s look and voice the school may already have “enough” kids and even if she is the most talented to audition that year she may not get accepted so she needs to cast a wide net and not be set on one program. My S was rejected from low tier programs and accepted by high level ones, so this is a crazy process. The best advice we got was not to visit anywhere and not to be set on any program until the acceptances came (the one great thing about applying during COVID was you couldn’t visit!)

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For what it’s worth, Tisch is great. It was always my daughters “dream”. Along the way, she learned of other great programs, and although was accepted into Tisch (we’ll never know what studio), she decided on another program in NYC. Having choices is great. I hope your daughter has choices and she finds a great program fit for her.

Good luck at Moonifieds. Wish we were able to take advantage of that format. Your D will get a great experience, perhaps with some offers, early in the process. Takes so much pressure off. Another thing is even if it doesn’t yield an offer, she’ll get good feedback as to what to improve for other auditions. Anecdotally, D has a friend who didn’t do so well at Moonifieds but made good connections and talked her/himself into another audition shot at Unifieds and killed it.

All the best to you and your D. Good luck!

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@rickle1 - Thanks. Yeah, I thought Moonifieds Jr. would be a nice “low-stakes” introduction to the audition process since she wouldn’t actually be auditioning. As you said, the familiarity will (hopefully) reduce the anxiety when she actually does audition.

@helpingthekid73 - as for “type,” that’s a really good point that we’ve discussed with her. We’ve made sure she’s aware of that issue, and agreed on two things:

1.) She will apply early decision, so if her type is common among applicants that year, she will get her name in the hat (and hopefully accepted) before they decide they are “full-up” on that particular type; and

2.) since we have no idea what types will be in high supply or high demand in two years, and she certainly can’t change her type at the last minute, we are not going to stress about it.

Good luck! Hope that it works out for her!

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I have a relative who is a Julliard graduate, and another relative who is a professor of music. One of them introduced us to a different professor who had been a singer and dancer on Broadway for a while (before taking a small change of direction and getting a PhD and becoming a professor). Based on what all three of them have said, and seeing the jobs that one of them gets: If it is at all possible then do not take on any debt at all for a child who is pursuing a career related to either music, dance, or musical theater. This is true even if you can get into the top school and excel there.

And yes the competition at the top is very high. There are many, many students graduating high school who are exceptional.

I work in high tech and have multiple colleagues who are very good at music. Sometimes people are very good at multiple different potential careers. Somewhat fewer high tech people would be any good at dance.

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Thanks. Yes, that is what I’m trying to get across to her. She may be exceptional here in our little clutch of suburbs, but she probably needs to up her game in order to compete for admission to a place like Tisch.

And no debt. Having our kids graduate from college with no debt on their back has always been part of our plan. She’d be paying back those loans literally for the rest of her life.

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From reading the musical theatre section of this board, this discipline takes crazy admissions process to a whole new level, and my son is a music major which also has an intense admissions process. It seems common for students to apply to a dozen (or two or three dozen) schools and seems downright dangerous to get one’s heart set on just one. Not that a great school is out of reach, just that it is likely to be a different one than she thinks she wants now.

Another discussion to have with your daughter is how she will feel about being the small fish in a big pond at a school like NYU Tisch. My son went from the big fish small pond to the small fish big pond, and even though we had discussed it early in the application process and through the decision process ( he had smaller ponds to choose from) it was still a shock to find himself among so many talented musicians as a freshman in a school that also had talented grad students with many years experience above him. Not like high school at all. It’s taken him to junior year to sort of regain the confidence he had in his school and sophomore year especially was just tough (and not because he wasn’t quite good enough—just the level and quantity of competition. Have that discussion with your daughter so she can think about what she wants and needs in this regard.

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Yes, the flip from big fish to small fish was the whole point of my post - asking how other parents got their kids to recognize and appreciate that paradigm shift. Because you’re right - even if she got in, she’d still not be getting all the attention and praise that she’s used to.

And we certainly didn’t encourage her to set her sights squarely on one super-competitive school. She did that all on her own.

As I mentioned earlier, we applaud her ambition, but have also counseled her to be realistic and pragmatic. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, in other words.

But she’s fifteen, so it might take her a while to realize we might have a good idea or two in our heads.

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I have been off for the day (work, sigh) and I forgot to mention this to you earlier so I am glad someone else kind of did. NYU is very very stingy with aid in any form. If you run the Net price estimator on their website it may be shocking to see. They offer almost no merit aid and do not guarantee to meet need. There are many other exceptionable schools in NYC that have outstanding records with placing people on Broadway that are much more generous (Manhattan Marymount and Pace are the two most popular and just as competitive for admissions as NYU).

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Thx. Yes, we found out early on about the paltry aid that NYU gives. We are prepared to suck it up if need be.

But if she really wants to be in or near NYC, we expect she will also apply to Pace, Molloy/CAP21, Montclair, Manhattan, etc., and if accepted, as you said, get better merit aid packages.

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I only skimmed the responses but my daughter went here to give you an idea for Musical Theater but ended up in Theater design then switched majors.

These kids pretty much get into some of the best MT programs in the country.

Many were in regional and actually touring companies prior to High school.

I would highly recommend this summer program. Musical Theatre | Emerson College

Emerson is one of the cream of the crop MT programs out there. She will be with some of the best talent out there from across the United States. My daughter did their design program in the summer and was accepted but her number 2 program gave her a lot more merit.

Something your daughter’s needs to know is being pretty and talented is not enough. There are just so many types out there. If she’s 5,5,blond, blue eye, the school will only need so many of those. They do look for “types” when building their classes.

It is very tough to “make it”. I know many extremely talented kids from Northwestern, Michigan, DePaul, etc looking for work. Especially since the pandemic.

Many kids hire managers/agencies to get work.

I really suggest a back up plan also.

Good Luck

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Your school is doing her no favors. I am sorry to be pestimistic. At my daughter’s school they had connections from New York fly in and help and critique the kids. This was a pre professional school and they treated the kids appropriately but there was competition and the professionals were pretty honest. We also had instructors from Northwestern(theater and musical theater) on campus.

So, if she’s getting all praises and she might be great, they are not setting her up with what she will face in auditions. She will just be another talented kid. Now, maybe she has the “it” factor or she is truly unique…

The kids in high school I am talking about were off book and marked in 2 weeks. They had to take dance classes and hold their own with kids that got into Juilliard and some went right to Joffires company,etc… Daily voice lessons but some had outside professional voice coaches.

Some went to the colleges your looking at. When in New York we talked with kids from those schools and they told us our high school kids were some of the most prepared for auditions. Not bragging but letting you know what she’s up against. This is just one school.

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How about a summer camp in a different area of the country? Competing against a new group of 16 year olds for the lead (with a music/drama teacher she doesn’t know), seeing how a different group of students work together (or don’t) to put on a production or work in workshops.

Coastal Carolina isn’t a bad place to spend a few weeks in the summer. My daughter’s favorite theater prof taught a summer program in Montana (also nice in the summer). They exist all over the country.

And she might prove us all wrong and she shines in the summer too, and she really is the next Bette Midler and in full command of the stage. Hope that’s the case.

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Having a dream school as a Sophomore seems so reasonable. You might find, though, as she researches more schools and maybe attends some summer sessions that she finds other schools that she really likes as well. I know that my daughter’s “dream school” as a sophomore was still a program she was really interested in by the time she applied but it was no longer at the top of her list.

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@twoinanddone - Thanks. Yes, she has her eye on a one-week workshop with NYFA, and she can apply for other programs at Moonifieds Jr. this November.

If she really wants to go to Tisch so badly, they have a 4-week intensive summer program, but she seems reluctant to be away from home for that long. Still, having that 4-week workshop on her resume when applying to Tisch sure couldn’t hurt her chances.

@aspiringMT - my daughter really wants to be in NYC for school, and I have concerns that she is placing the location of the school over whether or not it’s a good fit.

Not that Tisch doesn’t have a great reputation, and let’s face it, the proximity to Broadway has its benefits. But she claims she is not interested in even looking at Mich., CCM or Carnegie because she has no interest in attending college in Ann Arbor, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, regardless of the quality of the MT program.

As you said, I hope her perspective matures over the next two years, and she lines up multiple “Plan B” schools that are a good fit vs. just pursuing Tisch, Pace, Molloy/CAP21, Montclair because she wants to go to school in or near NYC.

My next door neighbor was a MT major, was accepted to Pace and NYU, no brainer, she went to Pace. She’s been in some touring shows, covid didn’t help, I did get some calls early on from childcare centers asking for a reference (she babysat for me). She’s incredibly bright and talented.