The Not So Invisible Double Standard

Classical students at colleges and conservatories are still giving graduate recitals as a pre-requisite to getting their degrees, both as undergrads and graduate students. They still do recitals in traditional forms. Perhaps some of them are allowed to put in a music theater piece or two, most likely in a “legit” or “mixy” vein, but that is certainly not a requirement. In some programs, no music theater is expected and may even be prohibited.

Doctoral students MUST sing classical recitals. There are no doctoral degrees available in any kind of vocal study except classical.

The music theater students, however, are frequently required to sing classical songs as a part of their recitals, regardless of whether or not they will be singing in any classical repertoire after graduation. This is to prove that the students have been “properly trained” and learned to sing classically, because not to have been trained in this manner is to imply that their training would have been insufficient or incorrect.

Raising the question, “why should this assumption be made?” is not a simple thing. It challenges long and deeply held premises and asks that the entire idea of voice training for singers be re-examined.

If all classical students were required to sing in at least one other style in a recital, not with “classical” vocal production, but with something else, then asking the music theater students to sing “classically” would be fair. Since this is not the case, there continues to be a double standard in the schools, which makes the music theater students (and maybe jazz students, too) have to learn two kinds of vocal skills in the same time frame that the classical students have to learn only one.


If someone graduates with a degree in a language, say French, we would expect that the majority of the student’s study would have been in the French language and culture. If, however, you graduate with a degree in any kind of vocal performance, what your emphasis was on is unknown. Some schools rely heavily on acting training, some insist the singers study musicianship skills, others give dance instruction, some require piano studies, some train the speaking voice, and some require various things from this list, but not all of them. Nonetheless, pretty much across the board, the student is going to get a one-hour voice lesson once a week –sometimes less. Yes, there may be other singing going on in classes or choirs, in rehearsals or in performances, but lessons all over the world in schools of all levels are most often given once a week for an hour. That means they get less individual voice training than anything else. Is this reasonable?

Wouldn’t it make sense for the student to get a lesson every day? That way, practice is supervised daily and there is much more chance that the student will progress consistently and safely. (Luciana Pavarotti studied every day with his teacher for seven years before he sang his first performance. I wonder if that’s why he sounded so amazing when he first began his career). Perhaps it would make sense for students to study in class as well….two or three hours in a voice/rep class every day. The acting students at NYU/Tisch spend 8 hours a day three days a week in acting class, so it’s not a crazy to think that the vocalists could get more time than they do.

Why don’t we do that? Why don’t we want to look at a variety of ways that might be better than the one we have universally accepted as being “the standard approach”? I know there are both economic and time constraints that press upon the schools, but nothing HAS to stay the same. It takes agreement on the part of many people for these kinds of standards to remain intact.

I don’t have an answer here, I am just making an observation. I do think, however, that until and unless these issues get discussed at Singing Congresses and meetings, things will plod along as they are. Those who suffer most from our inability to address the inequities of the “system” are the students. Just because it’s what we got when we were studying doesn’t mean it has to go on, and just because the only way to have been trained for the past couple of hundred years was called “classical”, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have recently developed new methods that are appropriate for today’s music that are just as effective but different. We aren’t saying that classical training is bad, or even that it shouldn’t be the basis for vocal study if it is thought of more as functional training rather than training aimed at specific repertoire. We are saying that it’s time for some adjustments in all sorts of places. It’s up to us to be the changers.

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3 thoughts on “The Not So Invisible Double Standard”

  1. Here, here! Well said!

    As part of my DMA research, I am putting together my vision of the perfect CCM program at the collegiate level (it does not involve churning out 4 to six artsongs per semester!). I’d love to get your input!

  2. As a previous Music Theater major at a conservatory, I applaud your comments. I was never allowed to sing musical theater pieces in my lessons and was forced to learn how to create a healthy musical theater sound on my own. Now as a teacher I wish that someone had a graduate level degree in Musical Theater Vocal Pedagogy. Concepts about singing (in the acedemic setting) are changing, but ever so slowly. The few music theater master degrees that are out there are still taught (vocally) by opera singers. How is an opera singer going to give a theater singer guidance if they have no clue how to sing in that style? Most classical singer types are still convinced that “chest voice” is a dirty word. So much needs to change about the way we teach “healthy” singing.

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