OnStage Contributing Columnist
Musical theatre becomes a more popular college major by the day. Well over a hundred colleges across the United States currently offer an undergraduate degree in Musical Theatre, not to mention the countless programs in Theater or Acting alone. The most popular type of Musical Theatre degree by far is the BFA. Many of the most elite musical theatre programs confer their graduates with BFAs, and getting into a BFA program can become a bragging right amongst competitive, theatre-minded high school seniors. However, there is another type of Musical Theatre degree, one that is often overlooked: the Bachelor of Music in Musical Theatre. Compared to the vast number of schools currently offering degrees in musical theatre, only a relative handful have BM Musical Theatre programs.
To the best of my knowledge, those schools are (in no particular order): James Madison University, The Catholic University of America, Belmont University, Missouri Baptist University, University of Southern Maine, University of Miami, NYU Steinhardt, Florida State University, Western Carolina University, Baldwin Wallace University, Arizona State University, Oklahoma City University, University of Colorado at Boulder, Westminster Choir College, and University of Central Oklahoma. Although these programs are few and far between, they are severely underrated and have many merits not found in BFA or BA programs. Here are a few reasons why Bachelor of Music programs deserve a second look.
Intensive Study of Music Theory and Ear Training
I would guess that most, if not all, musical theatre programs require some sort of training in music theory and ear training. BM programs, however, tend to require a much more intensive study of theory than BFAs and BAs. BM Musical Theatre students take the same theory courses as students studying composition, instrumental performance, music history, and all other music concentrations. What this translates to is a very useful set of skills. Understanding the theory behind a song can give insight into a composer’s thoughts about the character, adding depth and richness to an actor’s performance. Ear training and sight-singing abilities help with learning music quickly. Who do you want to cast in a never-before-done show when there are no recordings to listen to? The actor who can sight-sing and read music well.
Connections with Other Musicians
Making connections is part of being in college, regardless of what type of program you are in. Many teams of musical theatre writers from Rodgers and Hart to Pasek and Paul began writing together in college. Being in a BM program surrounded by other music students is conducive to a very specific kind of connection. Many of the other students in a music program will go on to become music directors, accompanists, composers, conductors, and arrangers you will want to work with in the future. College friendships and collaborations may translate to real-world jobs after college.
Well-Rounded Music Education
BM programs often require their students to take courses in music not relating to musical theatre, such as conducting, music history, piano, and music electives. Having a better understanding of music and a wider set of musical skills leads to more self-sufficient singing actors. Knowing how to conduct can help you better work through difficult music (JRB, Sondheim, and Guettel, anyone?). Piano skills allow you to accompany yourself (even if just with chords) and plunk out melodies.
More Skills, More Career Options
Let’s face it. Not everyone who studies musical theatre is going to make 100% or even half of their income from musical theatre alone. All the skills developed over four years in a BM program can lead to more attractive day job options than waiting tables and temping. Many BM programs require their students to perform in an ensemble, such as a choir. With four years of choral experience, singing in a professional choir becomes a viable option. Same goes for church choir gigs and singing for weddings and funerals. Learning basic piano skills opens the door to jobs in education, like directing children’s or school choirs and running musical theatre programs at after-school and summer camps. All those connections made with other music students may lead to unexpected opportunities that are not directly related to musical theatre, but still in the music business.
Although they may not be the most popular musical theatre degree, Bachelor of Music degrees prepare their students for the professional world in ways that BFAs and BAs do not. They are not for everyone, but definitely deserve serious consideration from any high school student planning to pursue musical theatre.
Photo: University of Canterbury