Last summer, Laura and I had a booth for ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com at the NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) Conference in Chicago. We were having a lovely conversation with some voice teachers about finding good repertoire for college auditions. The teachers talked about how challenging it was to help students pick repertoire they liked and met the many criteria of the various audition requirements. We also talked about how hard the auditions are in and of themselves and how it can be difficult for a teacher to know how to support the student through them.
Then, Laura had a great idea: “We should write a book about auditioning for college musical theatre programs.” We began researching and realized there wasn’t a comprehensive resource available to students auditioning for college. Using our collective backgrounds as educators and coaches, we set out to write that book. A year later, we’re proud to share it with you! You can purchase it by clicking here.
In 10 chapters, the book outlines the major questions students need to ask themselves in preparing for auditions: Do I really want to major in musical theatre?; When should I start preparing for auditions?; How do I cut my material?; etc… We then break each chapter down into information for the student, teacher, and parent. Everyone needs to know how to work together for the student’s benefit and our book is the first to outline how that can be done.
We also have several appendices, which include what (not) to perform at the audition, sample audition cuts, how to properly learn your material, and a score card to keep track of your experience at each school.
We’re grateful to our blog audience, and are happy to share with you the first chapter of the book for free. We hope you enjoy it!
CHAPTER 1: DO I REALLY WANT TO MAJOR IN MUSICAL THEATRE?
This is the single most important question you can ask yourself. There are so many things you need to become aware of when pursuing a degree in musical theatre. College auditions are a very expensive proposition. It takes a lot of time and hard work just to get into a college musical theatre program. Once you’re in, the training is incredibly intense. Then there’s the question of if, how, where, and when you will work in the industry once you’ve graduated.
We realize this isn’t the most upbeat way to start a book. We’re not two jaded New Yorkers trying to squash your dreams by telling you, “This is hard, kid!” If you’re reading this, you clearly have a passion for musical theatre, and that’s awesome. We do, however, want to help open your eyes to the full picture of what it takes to be a musical theatre performer in this ever-changing industry.
We’re going to break down each of the challenges for you so you understand the full weight of this decision.
Being a musical theatre artist is a costly venture at any stage of your development. You need voice lessons, acting classes, dance classes, and sometimes an audition coach. There are other expenses, such as headshots, purchasing music, plays, and proper dance attire (good tap shoes are expensive!). And what if you want to attend a summer program to better prepare yourself for the realities of a career as a performer (and you should)? They cost thousands of dollars! And many high school students do more than one intensive prior to auditioning for college.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Then there’s the expense of applying to and auditioning at each college. When you apply, you will have to pay an application fee. These range from $30 – $75. Many students apply to upwards of 20 schools because musical theatre degree programs are so competitive. That’s literally hundreds of dollars spent before you even sing a note!
What about travel, hotels, and meals? Ideally, you’ll go to the school for your audition (or travel to a regional audition or unified). And you may want to visit the college before you decide to apply to get a better sense of whether or not it’s right for you. That’s more money.
While you’re in school, you’ll continue to spend extra money on voice lessons, dance classes (many programs have additional fees built in for this training), sheet music, audition outfits, and much more. Sometimes your financial aid will cover these expenses. Sometimes you’ll have to foot the bill.
And we’re sorry to tell you the expenses don’t end when you graduate from college. You’ll constantly be investing in new classes, lessons, coachings, updated headshots, music, plays…. It’s literally endless.
Are you collectively ready for these expenses? This is an unfortunate reality of a life in the arts and everyone has to be on board if you are to be successful.
Being a musical theater performer takes unwavering commitment over countless hours. Many start training before they’re in middle school. Beyond the sheer amount of hours it takes to attend classes in the three disciplines that make up the art form of musical theatre (voice, acting, dance), there needs to be an almost equal number of hours set aside for research and practice.
And what is practice? It’s not just running through your song, monologue, or reviewing the steps to a dance. It is the systematic taking apart of the material so you can fully incorporate it into your body. And when you practice, you’re not just working on the material. You’re also focusing on the fundamental techniques that allow you to bring life to a piece: breath, diction, movement, etc… Many people can perform, but not everyone can perform well. What separates the two is practice, which is often tedious.
We’ll talk about how to prepare audition material later in the book, but you should expect it to take about a month to properly learn and embody one song or monologue. That means 4 weeks of 1 hour practice sessions at least 5 times a week – about 20 hours of private work in addition to lessons or class. And you’ll need to learn a lot of material to meet the different audition requirements of the institutions where you’re applying.
If you don’t have the constitution or time management skills to pursue this course of study, this is not the major for you. It only gets harder from here on out.
One of our biggest challenges is explaining to high school students the difference between the joy of working on the school musical versus the demanding training that comes with being a singing actor. We all have wonderful memories of the shows we’ve worked on: the inside jokes, the applause… it’s great. But when going to college for musical theatre performance, you will receive intensive training in voice, drama, and dance. It’s less romantic a process. In fact, it’s an incredibly challenging major that will use every part of your body and brain. It’s very much like training for the Olympics: the schedule is exhausting; you’ll be pushed to (and often beyond) your limits; the competition is fierce; and constructive feedback can at times be blunt and feel very personal.
This training will not only push you physically, it will force you to confront mental and emotional walls most people try to avoid. These walls must be torn down if people are going to believe you as a character in a musical. There’s no hiding when it comes to emotional honesty, which can only come from exploring the thorny underbelly of your own personal desires and fears.
Are you willing to be involved in a training program that demands these things of you?
Working in the Industry
As our colleague Jason Forbach (who recently played Enjolras in the Broadway production of Les Misérables) told us in an interview, “There’s a difference between wanting to be the star and being a working actor.”
For many actors, Broadway is a dream, not a reality. Instead, they cobble together a career working off-Broadway, regionally, on film, television, and voiceovers. The goal of any training program should be to make you a versatile, working actor. If you get to Broadway, consider yourself lucky. But that shouldn’t be your goal. Your goal should simply be to make a living doing what you love. And that’s no easy task.
Do you know how many actors are out of work at this very moment? According to Actors’ Equity Association (the actors’ union), only 42% of their membership worked in the 2015-2016 season (that’s 17,834 members out of about 51,000). Of that percentage, 15% of those were not actors, but stage managers. So, that means only 27% of union actors worked that season, and they only worked an average of 17 out of 52 weeks. How’s that for sobering?
No one is safe from this reality. Several years ago, Broadway veteran Chuck Cooper (Caroline, or Change, The Life) did a Q&A with Syracuse University theatre students. When asked the biggest fallacy about being an actor, he said, “That winning a Tony means anything.” By this he meant that even a Tony Award (which he received for his performance in The Life) isn’t enough to create job security for an actor. They must always be hustling for the next job, regardless of where they are in their career. If Meryl Streep is worried about her next job, you can bet you will be too.
And even it you’re consistently working, that doesn’t mean you’re living on easy street. Your entire body is your instrument, and it will need constant tune-ups. We’ve been interviewing Broadway actors about vocal health issues for the last couple years. In an anonymous survey, 85% of those who participated said it was common for them to feel vocally tired after a week of shows. And almost a quarter of those actors said they had suffered temporary or permanent vocal damage due to a Broadway production. Scary right? This is why training is an ongoing reality for any smart performing artist.
Now that we’ve put all these thoughts in your head, how do you know if this is really what you want to do?
You may not know the answer to this question yet, and that’s OK. Sometimes the only way to know for certain is to begin training with professionals who are working in the industry. And training isn’t just performing in shows, though that can be part of it. Training should include private lessons and classes.
One of the best ways to find out if this is for you is to attend a summer musical theatre intensive. There are several around the country that will keep you busy from sunrise to sunset with all things musical theatre, including: dance, voice, acting, improv, scene study, and rehearsals for a showcase. This most closely mirrors the intensity of an undergraduate performance program. If you get through two or more weeks of this level of intense training and still think it’s what you’d like to do, it may be a positive sign this path is right for you. We’ll talk more about summer programs in Chapter 3.
Yes, musical theatre is a very exciting and rewarding career. Yes, you can make a living being a working actor if you get good training and utilize all your skills sets. And yes, this career is as challenging as it seems. If this is what you really want, we want to help you succeed.
How do you know if you have what it takes to be a successful musical theatre performer? In a lot of cases, you won’t know because there are so many variables, many of which are out of your control (you won’t have a say in getting cast, right?).
Sit down with your family and teachers to discuss the following questions. They will be good indicators of whether or not this path is right for you:
- Am I willing to work hard?
- Am I (and my family or support system) willing to invest time and money in my study as an artist, knowing it requires a lifetime of training?
- Do I have a clear picture of the challenges facing musical theatre performers (financially and otherwise) in the industry?
- Is there another course of study I’m equally interested in?
If you have an opportunity, speak to a college musical theatre performer to get a more accurate picture of what a “normal” week looks like for them. Talk to a working musical theatre performer about their career, whether or not they rely on a “survival job,” and what advice they might have for you. The beautiful thing about this industry is that it’s filled with many generous people who are willing to share their thoughts.
If any of this sounds scary and you have other ideas of things you’d like to study, we sincerely suggest you consider pursuing those instead. That doesn’t mean you can’t continue doing theatre in a different capacity. There are plenty of community and professional theaters that engage people who don’t have a BA, BFA, BM, or certificate specializing in musical theatre.
Or maybe you’ll consider another major in the arts: directing, stage management, design, or theatre studies. There are so many wonderful ways to specialize in theatre.
Whatever you decide, be open to change. You’re in one of the most exciting times in your life, and the trajectory of your personal and professional career may dramatically change in the next four years. Neither of us ended up where we thought we would. David was an aspiring opera singer turned aspiring Broadway performer turned teacher/performer/composer and Laura was an actress, then a stage manager, then a director. The truth is: we couldn’t be any happier in our lives. We both have many friends who went to music and theatre school who later became lawyers, doctors, and other non-musical things. All completely happy. Your journey is your journey. Let it help you discover who you are and where you should be. And if that takes you to college for musical theatre, awesome! Read on.
You are often on the front line with the student, answering questions, giving advice, pointing them in a positive direction. Often our students will tell us things we’re sure they don’t share with their parents. We take that as a deep bond of trust and work to be worthy of it every day.
Because you’re an important part of your student’s life, they will probably ask you whether or not they should pursue a career as a musical theatre performer. Or they’ll just flat out tell you they’re going to do it and ask for your help.
There is something very alluring about musical theatre. Broadway shows are mighty sexy. Just the mention of a show like Hamilton might make them gush. But what isn’t seen on stage are the millions of collective (often agonizing) hours each creative and performing artist took to get to that particular moment. Not many people think about that (especially students). They just know they’re attracted to the world of theatre.
The most important question you can help the student answer is “why?” Why do they want to be a musical theatre performer? If the answer is because they “love it” or “want to be a star on Broadway,” it’s a safe bet they don’t have a clear idea of what the career demands. If possible, connect them with a musical theatre professional so they have a more realistic view of what’s required:
- A significant financial investment in lessons, classes, and other resources
- Unwavering commitment to training throughout their academic and professional careers
- The fortitude to deal with fierce competition with little job security
As we mentioned, musical theatre is a painfully demanding and competitive field. Even those with successful careers often dabble in other linear vocations: teaching, hair and makeup design, massage therapy, personal training, and web development, among other professions. It’s important to help the student outline other places they excel and have a passion while considering a career as a musical theatre performer.
As teachers, we know how hard it is to negotiate the line between being supportive and helping a student come to necessary conclusions about their talent. We believe it’s our job as educators to take a student’s gifts and hone them. Sometimes there’s a natural ability, which makes it abundantly clear the student has a calling for a career in the performing arts. Sometimes the student’s love for their craft, however, does not match their talent.
We have to be honest with our students while always letting them know we care.
Sometimes, though, even the best of us don’t have enough perspective when it comes to helping a student decide whether or not they can be a successful musical theatre performer. If you’re not directly involved with professional musical theatre, you might not know where your student should go to college, what they should sing, or how to choose the best audition cut. That’s why we wrote this book. The fact that you’re taking the time to read it sets you apart and will hopefully put you in the best position to help your student.
Perhaps there are other resources at your disposal that can supplement your knowledge. Is there a musical theatre professional with considerable experience in your area? We say “considerable experience” because there are a lot of instructors, perhaps well meaning, who don’t have the depth of knowledge your student deserves and needs to succeed. Believe us: we’ve looked at a lot of voice teacher, acting, and vocal coach websites. Everyone is trying to corner the market, claiming to know just what’s best for the young performer. Sometimes they can be too wrapped up in their own methodology to see what the young artist actually needs.
Sometimes, we have to be selfless enough to say, “This is out of my area of expertise. I can help in some ways, but you need to see someone else who specializes in this.” For example, David has a basic understanding of the different style markers of the various pop/rock genres, but gladly sends his clients to Sheri Sanders, who wrote Rock the Audition. She’s a phenomenal resource (and can be found at rock-the-audition.com).
Students respect teachers who are honest about their boundaries. We don’t have to be an expert on everything – we simply have to build our network and know where to send students for the information they need to succeed.
In short, share your knowledge, connect them to other resources, and read on. We have lots of great information for you!
You have a budding musical theatre performer in your home? Congratulations! They’ve told you by now they want to go to college for musical theatre. If you’re reading this book, chances are you’re supportive of their dream, or are at least willing to hear them out. That’s a great start. Your child is one of the lucky ones. But how do you know if pursuing a college degree in musical theatre is the right path for your child?
Many parents worry about their children going into any arts profession for fear they won’t be able to support themselves. It’s a valid fear. A large part of being a performing artist is figuring out how to actually make a living. Many performers have “survival jobs” so they can audition and study until they get hired (and many times even after that). Auditioning is a grueling process laced with rejection. It takes thick skin and a lot of grit to be patient and keep showing up. Most theatre jobs are, by nature, short term, meaning actors are constantly job hunting and identifying creative ways to supplement their income. An actor needs to be a great performer, skilled networker, entrepreneur, and a marketing guru.
The reality TV show phenomenon has created a culture of people who believe they can become a star in a day. The actual reality is that it takes years of study to be prepared when an opportunity appears. If success is being in the right place at the right time, it’s the performer’s job to be ready.
The best thing you can do to determine if your child is serious about being a professional performer is get them proper training before they go to college. This will both prepare them for college auditions and give them a better perspective of all that’s involved in being a successful performing artist.
A good college musical theatre training program will ensure your child has the necessary skills to tackle the challenges they will face as a budding performing artist. They will take classes in voice, scene study, dance, speech/diction, theatre history, auditioning, sight singing, stage combat, theatre craft, and more. It’s a rigorous schedule, so it’s important you let your child know college musical theatre programs are much more than “putting on shows.” The workload for a musical theatre performer is just as challenging – if not more than – other bachelors programs. Many programs don’t allow Freshmen to perform because they’re busy doing important foundational training.
Your child’s decision to pursue musical theatre will cost you a lot of money, but more than that, it will consume a large chunk of your time. You will need to help them find good teachers to prepare for auditions; take them to/from their lessons, classes, summer intensives, and campus visits; help research the best colleges, universities, or conservatories for them; and keep them organized, balancing all the paperwork, requirements, and deadlines that come their way.
There will be many spinning plates, especially when college audition season begins (as early as November). You will most likely need to take time off work to travel with your child to prospective schools or regional audition sites. You might be on the road almost every weekend for up to 8 weeks at the height of audition season. Once your child is accepted and makes a decision on where to attend, you’ll want to help them look for scholarships and other financial aid support. All this in addition to your current hectic life.
The decision to go to college is a big investment for any family, but especially for that of the musical theatre student. Your complete involvement is mandatory for them to be successful. Investing in your child this way will not only be a clear sign how much you love and support them, it will give you a full sense of how to navigate the challenges that will arise along the way.
Sit down with your child and have a talk about these realities. Ask them why they want to study musical theatre. Ask them what they think it will be like. Ask if there’s anything else they can see themselves doing. Ask if they’re willing to work at something else while pursuing their dream of being a working performer.
Here are some qualities your child must have to be successful in college and the musical theatre industry:
- Strong organizational and time management skills
- An ability to receive criticism and not take it personally
- Works well under pressure
- An ability to multi-task or toggle back and forth between tasks
If you think your child is serious enough and has the tenacity to be a successful musical theatre performer, by all means support them. There are many ways to make a successful career as a performer and most of them aren’t on Broadway. With the skills they’ll learn, they will be more than ready to adapt and achieve in their academic and professional careers.
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