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Should Anyone Pursue a Degree in Music Theater?

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

A fellow voice teacher and I were talking about a quandary that all teachers of the arts face: whether or not to encourage students to pursue their art.

It’s a tough one.

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, an effect whereby we are very confident that we’re very good at things we know little about. The arts depend on the Dunning-Kruger Effect. If newbie artists really knew:

  1. how really hard it is to be successful in the arts

  2. how little they really know

  3. how much better they need to get to compete professionally

they would never even begin to walk the path that could take them to excellence. They would be defeated at the outset.

Voice teachers (and I count myself among these) are often people who became good enough musicians to realize that they were either unable or unwilling to commit to living exclusively as performing artists. They are also, usually, really nice people who love teaching and find genuine fulfillment in helping others find their artistic voice. And there’s the rub.

What do you do when your student asks you whether she’s “good enough to make it?” Or when your less-than-stellar teenage student announces that he’s going to go for a music-theater degree in college?


...most of us are very ambivalent. Is it really our place to decide what this person’s potential is, or their future could hold?


Many voice teachers will “level with” their students, but most of us are very ambivalent. Is it really our place to decide what this person’s potential is, or their future could hold? What should you say to these people?

I’m going to tell you a true story that you can feel free to steal, embellish, and share as though it is your own.

A friend of mine Invited me to a once-in-a-lifetime event. My friend is a former corporate executive who is now very busy as both a voice coach and event planner. The event was a 400th birthday party for William Shakespeare thrown by the 30-year-old Chicago Shakespeare Theater in their beautiful building on Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago.

It was a swanky fundraiser. My generous friend had been invited by her sister, who works for Goldman-Sachs, and who had purchased a table. The after-dinner program included a speech from Barbara Gaines, the founder and executive director of Chicago Shakespeare, a speech from Anne R. Pramaggiore, the CEO of CommEd, an energy delivery company with 4 million customers, and delightful entertainment from Tony-and-Olivier-award-winning actor Alan Cumming.

It was a posh and exciting event that raised over 1.4 million dollars. But that’s not the punch line.

The punch line is that the Goldman-Sachs executive, the voice coach + event planner, the award-winning artistic director, the big kahoona corporate executive, and the award-winning actor all had something in common: an undergraduate degree in theater.

That story, by the way, is what I now tell my students who are either contemplating acquiring, or lamenting the acquisition of, a music or theater degree. Your undergraduate degree is neither a vocational certificate, nor does it define you.

Be open to your truth, to possibilities, and to change. Be willing to work for what you want. It’s all good.


(A #musictheaterdegree is valuable. #Pursuing-art is a #worthwhile-goal. #Whattosay to your child who wants a #theaterdegree, or a #musictheaterdegree.)


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