The pursuit of higher education as a vocalist is an involved personal and financial investment: What you get out of music school, along with the experience you have with it, largely depends on the effort you put in. Dr. Tucker Biddlecombe, Director of Choral Activities at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music and the Nashville Symphony Chorus, weighs in on what you should expect out of a vocal performance degree.
So You Want to Go to Music School? Tell me more…
A few years ago I was tabling at the 54th annual National Association of Teachers of Singing convention in Chicago. While representing the Blair School of Music for Vanderbilt University, I was approached by a variety of young students who were looking to apply to college for voice. Throughout the day, there was one young girl who stood out to me, in particular. It was not her questions that made her memorable, rather, it was the response she gave when asked why she wanted to go to school for music. Without hesitation, she answered to the tune of, “That’s what everyone does these days. It’s the next step after high school.”
I think that, in a way, I had these same thoughts and I didn’t realize the bigger considerations at play when I was applying.
Welcome to the career fair
While a bachelor’s degree in music theory or performance is generally required to work as a classical musician or singer, there are no postsecondary education requirements for singers interested in performing popular music. So let’s see what you’re buying into.
If you’re interested in intensive programs that prepare you to be a professional musician, you should look into a Bachelor of Music (BM) or a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree. Music classes will take up two-thirds to three-quarters of your classes depending on the school. If your music school is part of a university you will be required to take liberal arts courses (non-music classes) that push to maintain your reading, writing, and math skills in an effort to leave with a well-rounded education. Look forward to performing a recital in your junior and/or senior year as a BM or BFA candidate.
Bachelor of music education (BME) degrees prepare you for a career in teaching K-12 vocal and instrumental music, along with steps one needs in order to become a licensed professional. Courses in music education, music history, aural skills, and music theory combined with instrument study, and practicum (observation experience) will be the majority a BME’s curriculum. Liberal arts and music technology courses will round out the required courses for a BME student.
If you are on the fence between music and another field, consider a Bachelor of Arts in music (BA). Around one-fourth to one-third of your credits will be in music with your interests filling in the rest of your curriculum (i.e. general education, elective coursework.) If you are interested in a studying abroad during college, the flexibility of the BA can give you room to spread your wings while still graduating in four years.
Some schools will offer a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree where the emphasis is more business oriented. Music business, sound recording, and music industry interests usually fall into this category.
Universities that house their own music school or conservatory will offer a double or dual degree program where students can gain a degree in music in addition to a degree in a separate field. Questions you should ask yourself is whether there are additional fees for students getting double degrees, will these two degrees affect any scholarships you have or when you will graduate, are there students in double degree programs I can talk to? 
A day in the life
I had a chance to sit down with Tucker Biddlecombe, Associate Professor and Director of Choral Activities at both Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music and the Nashville Symphony Chorus. As a product of higher education and (now) an integral part of the system itself, he looks through a unique lens when it comes to pursuing a degree in voice.
Before becoming a conductor, Dr. Biddlecombe applied to the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam as a voice major and, as he recalls, when choosing undergraduate programs, he didn’t give thought to career or academic aspirations. He just gave thought to the only thing he was good at—Music.
For his master’s degree, Dr. Biddlecombe’s motivation for study was focused on working with, and following, a specific teacher. Something he stresses, however, is that, while every field is different, the value of going directly from bachelor’s to master’s is almost nothing. In the voice field for example, Dr. Biddlecombe says, “a 21-year-old Soprano [or other voice types of the same age] can’t compete with a 24-year-old Soprano. Those three years of development, research, and knowledge… you can’t make up for it.”
In other words, precocious singers are few and far between in the voice field. Dr. Biddlecombe took time in between his degrees to work, to find a job, to fail, not doing particularly well. He learned and experienced outside of a safe environment. Those were the experiences that have grown to become the most useful for his work and teaching today.
The economic response of a music institution
When a university is creating this picture of what you can become, as a student, it’s partially because they believe it and partially because they need to consider self-preservation.
Dr. Biddlecombe commented that in Classical music especially, as crowds are dwindling, and hair is greying (at least in this country), traditional music institutions are preserving their way of life as long as they can by diversifying their business models, evolving their performance venues, and offering attractive scholarship packages.
In contrast to classical music programs, I offer this story: Dr. Biddlecombe did a really well-attended run of the Verdi Requiem at the end of this past spring. The Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville has 1,844 seats and they filled it every night. Eric Owens was the Bass for the series and it was truly an inspiring concert.
Last Saturday night, Taylor Swift sold out Nissan Stadium. 69,143 seats.
Now I bet you’re thinking, “why isn’t everyone a commercial music major?” Dr. Biddlecombe weighs in and states that it often comes down to economic trends. It is a rarity for a commercial voice student to have a scholarship. If they are coming for commercial music, they are most likely paying because the demand for popular music education is so high. Why would you throw a ton of money at somebody to come and get a degree that they are going to pay for anyway?
Now when you’re trying to find double bass players or classical voice majors with great potential for a small collegiate program, sometimes you have to offer attractive financial packages because their specializations make them more competitive applicants.
So you want to go to music school?
You have one job in your first year: don’t quit. Dr. Biddlecombe says that in his experience, there are overwhelming numbers of students that never come back after freshman year of college because the psychological barrier has been built. They feel like they’ve chosen the wrong field when it simply might’ve been the wrong teacher or the wrong school.
You have one job in your second year: learn from your failures, learn how you practice effectively, and get to year three when the habits become natural.
Year four begins a search for your next career steps (which we will talk about in subsequent episodes).
Dr. Biddlecombe mentioned, “I always council undergraduate students to look at programs that don’t have graduate institutions. When I was at Florida State University for my master’s and Doctorate I never saw an undergraduate student get up in front of a choir or sing a lead role in an opera. Those experiences are so critical for artistic development.”
While the point of this episode is to stress the importance of an informed pursuit of higher education, don’t overthink things and don’t decide alone. One of the reasons why younger students—or the students that Biddlecombe teaches now—break down over their development (or lack thereof) is because of over planning. They work so hard preparing for a certain experience and its anticipated feelings and results, and when these inevitably defy expectation, young students are left rattled.
Find a school that encourages collaboration over competition. Stay longer for audition weekends, talk to current students, call alumni, and email questions to students AND faculty.
Have a clear goal of what you wish to accomplish and then allow the wind to take you from there.
Austin Vitaliano, The Holistic Voice: Navigating Your Life as a Vocalist
 National Association of Teachers of Singing, https://www.nats.org/cgi/page.cgi/_evtcal.html?evt=136.
 “How to Become a Musician or Singer.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13 Apr. 2018, www.bls.gov/ooh/entertainment-and-sports/musicians-and-singers.htm#tab-4, 1.
 “Music Degrees – Reviewing the Options.” Majoring in Music.com, majoringinmusic.com/music-degrees/, 4.
 “Music Degrees – Reviewing the Options.” Majoring in Music.com, majoringinmusic.com/music-degrees, 8.
 Ibid, 10.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 12.
 This is not an exhaustive list. Check online resources and your school’s catalogues and curriculum handbooks for more information.
 Payne, Nicholas. "The Business of Opera." CCOS Chapter2. Accessed November 28, 2015.https://blackboard.vanderbilt.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-826682-dt-content-rid-2100007_1/courses/2015.08.FALL.BLA.MUSL.3890.01/PayneChapter2.pdf.
 “Brooklyn Bar Serves Opera on Tap.” In All Things Considered. RobertSmith. April 15, 2007.