Becoming a College Voice Major: The ABCs and DO-RE-MIs

Becoming a college voice major is an important first step whether you want to be featured on an opera stage, sing in a professional chorus or belt out a ballad in a Broadway musical. What is the curriculum and experience of a typical voice major? And what’s the best way to prepare for this adventure?

By Marcus E. Turner

Let’s start at the very beginning…

1. Join choirs
Many students begin their vocal journeys singing in school choirs or extracurricular choruses. These performance opportunities are a wonderful starting point for discovering a healthy method of vocalizing and can lead to further intensive study.

2. Get a private voice teacher
Skills gained in an ensemble can be extremely valuable for study as a college voice major. However, many students also elect to take private voice lessons as well.

The human voice continues to change throughout the late teens and early twenties and a private voice teacher can be a valuable guide to students throughout this vocal development. San Francisco Conservatory of Music graduate student Alexandra Gilliam says, “I would recommend looking for teachers who are affiliated with NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) – they are often classical vocalists or pedagogues themselves and can offer their students a wealth of experiential knowledge.”

A very good place to start…

1. Get out there and start singing solo
While singing in a chorus is a fulfilling musical experience, many vocalists will also want to explore the vast world of solo repertoire. From musical theatre to art songs to opera arias, a college voice major has a wide selection of pieces to absorb. One of the best ways to begin discovering your solo voice is to participate in school or extracurricular musical theatre productions, according to University of Michigan opera director, Robert Swedberg.

For more experience, training, and support consider signing up for summer voice programs designed for high school students.

2. Do your research
As your love of singing grows and you decide that you would like to sing in college, now is the time to do your research. Start with school websites. Once your decisions have been narrowed down, visiting schools that will allow you to learn about classes, professors, campus culture and much more (see “10 Considerations for Visiting Music Schools”).

3. Pre-screens
Some colleges require a recorded pre-screen before you are invited to campus for an in-person audition. Read requirements carefully and give yourself plenty of time to make a quality recording.

“In my case, I got ill the week before the (pre-screen) due date,” says Jack Canfield, a 2015 voice graduate from Lawrence University Conservatory of Music. “I am especially glad that I recorded early – I think if you plan to do your final recording at least a couple of weeks in advance, it gives you some time to tinker if it didn’t turn out exactly how you would like.”

4. Audition preparation
• Auditions vary incredibly from school to school. Everything from the number of songs you are required to prepare to acceptable genres will be completely different depending on where you choose to audition.

• A private voice teacher or chorus director is a great resource for helping you choose pieces that will present you in your best light. Audition requirements may include pieces in Italian, German, French and/or English. Check pronunciation and diction with your private teacher during lessons.

“It is common for a college voice major to have had at least some contact with classical vocal training,” says Alexandra Gilliam. “Though it is not expected for them to have complete mastery of their instrument quite yet. After all, that’s the whole point of getting a degree!”

• Professor Swedberg from the University of Michigan adds that audition selections should be “representative pieces that are good for your current level of development.” Like other voice professors who sit on audition committees, he says, “Simpler is better in my opinion.”

College Voice Major

When you sing you begin with…

1. Your body
Performing music, especially singing, is a very physical act. Many muscle groups are active while you sing. It is important to take good care of your body – it is your instrument!

Before your audition, make sure you are well-hydrated and have become accustomed to the new environment. For example, if you are auditioning at a school 6,000 feet above sea level, it will feel very different than singing at a school right on the coast.

2. Take a deep breath
The best thing to remember at your audition is that the audition judges are on your side. “They want those who are auditioning to do well,” says Eastman School of Music voice major Daniela Camilleri. “They are hopeful and curious about what a singer has to offer the moment they enter the room.”

The level of technical preparation you bring to the audition is only one layer as well, Camilleri adds. “In addition to preparing vocally with a trusted voice teacher or coach, it is essential that the auditionee prepares well the language and diction of their pieces.” This, she says, will help you internalize the feeling of the character, bringing deeper meaning to your audition.

What happens next?

1. Your classes
Your curriculum as a voice major depends on a number of factors, including the degree you choose to get and the type of school you choose.

All music majors typically take classes in music theory, sight-singing/aural skills and music history. According to Rachel Copeland, professor of voice and diction and director for Graduate Studies at East Carolina University, “In addition to the ‘core’ courses for all music majors, voice students also study vocal pedagogy, languages and diction (French, German, Italian), song literature and opera history.” These academic classes are an essential part of the experience for a voice major.

The relationship with your private teacher is also exceptionally important. “Make sure you find a teacher who is as invested in YOU as you are,” adds Copeland. “Your teacher will be your primary source of growth for the first 4 years of your career – it has to be a relationship that is beneficial for you!”

Performance opportunities are also an important consideration for any voice student. Usually, voice students will be required to participate in a college chorus. Rehearsals are generally viewed as sacred and will be counted in your curricular load for the term.

Other performance opportunities for a college voice major include musical theatre productions, operas and Baroque choruses. For example, vocal studies majors at East Carolina University can choose from three distinct choruses as well as an undergraduate Opera Theatre Ensemble.

2. Career preparation
Whether you attend a conservatory, university or liberal arts college, your training as a voice major can prepare you for a variety of career options. “[While] a high rate of graduate level students from University of Michigan do have careers in opera,” says Robert Swedberg, “some also go into teaching, professional chorister work, arts administration, or music industry.”

For assistance in finding the right career fit, take advantage of the opportunities offered at college career centers.

3. Operatic aspirations
If your dream is to appear on a major opera stage, there are no shortcuts, says Professor Swedberg. Undergraduate studies are often the first step. Intensive summer programs provide an accelerated pace of learning and amplify everything learned at college.

It is important to do your research before committing to a costly summer experience, points out Alex Gilliam. “Odds are your private voice teacher will likely know someone who is involved with the program and may be able to give you the inside scoop about the possible things to be gained from each individual program or festival [you’re considering].”

Final thoughts

As your interest in singing develops, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Opportunities to perform as a singer can arise in a number of interesting places. Whether on stage at your school, place of worship or any number of other traditional or unconventional venues, you can find many ways to stretch your singing muscles.

There is no surefire course to becoming the next Renee Fleming or Plácido Domingo. But the passion you bring to your performance is one of the keys to success. The technical training you receive will help to illuminate the performances that you give but in the end, “you get what you put in,” says Daniela Camilleri. All singers will surely echo this sentiment.


Musician and administrator Marcus Turner has worked with the Denver Young Artists Orchestra, Northwestern University, University of Denver and University of Colorado Boulder College of Music. He holds degrees in Music Education and Musicology from VanderCook College of Music and the University of Colorado Boulder College of Music.

Photo Credits
Top photo: Margot Schulman, for University of Michigan
Text photo: Peter Smith, for University of Michigan

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