An Impossible Choice: Music Majors, COVID-19, and an Uncertain Future
Updated: Aug 18, 2020
By Zach Finkelstein and Dana Lynne Varga
This Fall, music performance majors enrolled in or considering U.S. colleges face an impossible choice. First, they need to determine if remote learning is effective for them. Then, they must weigh whether the in-person components of their education are safe enough and if they are comfortable with the risk. Next, they have to decide if the loss of in-person performance opportunities warrants withdrawal or deferral from their degree program. Finally, and perhaps worst of all, they must consider whether or not this is a sustainable career path in America in 2020.
With fewer or no opportunities to perform live at school, can music degrees live up to their mandate to prepare students for a career? In other words, what is the value of a socially distanced degree in music performance? And if the value is significantly reduced, and given the extraordinary financial stress on young music students and their families, what is the best course of action?
There are no definitive one-size-fits-all answers. (See: impossible.) This article provides students with the latest data on music schools, testimonials from students on their decision-making process, and a credible online alternative, to help them make the most important, and the most expensive decision of their young lives.
The View from 10,000 Feet
Confidence in higher education, even before COVID, has dropped considerably among Americans, who question the value of their college experience. A recent Gallup poll showed only half (51%) of Americans felt a college degree was “very important,” down nearly 20 points in less than a decade. The difference is more striking among young Americans, with a 33-point drop among those aged 18-29.
Now in 2020, students face a radically transformed landscape. During the U.S. pandemic, two-thirds of graduate and professional students experienced significant financial hardships leading into the Fall semester, from unexpected increases in living expenses to additional technology costs or loss of an internship or personal or household income. For example, a musician hired to perform online for a few hundred dollars this summer might have paid five times that in business expenses to set-up their audio/visual home studio. Still, despite increased financial hardship among students, colleges have mostly held the line on tuition. Some are charging students for services they won’t receive, “including face-to-face interaction with professors, access to campus facilities, and hands-on learning.”
Most performance majors will be educated remotely, with performance opportunities severely reduced. If music academia mirrors the cascade of US houses and symphonies season cancellations, performance majors should prepare for at least a year of online or hybrid learning. For students in fields that require large in-person groups such as choral conducting, orchestra, and opera performance, an online or socially distanced in-person education means a sharp reduction in opportunities for live performances with an audience.
Before COVID, job opportunities for music graduates were scarce, with a focus on local and regional opportunities. Among singers, the lucky, talented, and privileged landed performance-based apprenticeships with opera companies and summer festivals, which paid, on average about $12 an hour. One elite program, Opera Saratoga, for example, received over 1,000 applicants in 2018 for 32 spots, a more stringent acceptance rate than Harvard undergrad, and offered their singers a fee of only $125 a week.
Over decades, with the privilege of working for no or low-income as opera apprentices in their 20s, singers build careers through local and regional companies, supplementing their income with day jobs in retail and the service industry, through church choir income and chorus work.
While we can’t predict what the post-COVID U.S. job landscape will look like, we know that based on the Great Recession, donorship will likely drop significantly and take years to recover and that critical grant-giving institutions like state governments face an estimated $555 billion budget gap due to COVID-19. We also know based on social distancing requirements and season cancellations, opera budgets, and local opportunities for musicians will shrink. We are in uncharted waters- it is unclear whether a local arts economy can support even a handful of classical performers at this point, let alone the tens of thousands graduating every year.
Deep Dive on Value
Where does that leave incoming and prospective music performance students? What is a year at college going to look like in 2020, and what will it cost them?
To answer, we can first examine the tuition and fee data for U.S. music programs, including conservatories, private, and public institutions. The data shown below is from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), narrowed from a list of thousands to 47 US institutions in the NCES database also found on Musical America’s 2019-2020 list of top music schools in the US:
A music degree in the U.S., including tuition and fees as well as ancillary costs and factoring in typical institution aid, will cost, on average, about $34,000 a year, with a 4-year Bachelor of Music degree averaging about $137,500.
Financial costs and opportunities vary widely student-to-student. A bass-baritone on scholarship at Curtis would pay only about $80k in total for their 4-year degree, including fees, room and board, supplies, and other expenses. A violinist at the University of Michigan with an average level of grant aid would pay, on net, about $100k for their degree. A soprano at the Manhattan School of Music without scholarship though, in a high-cost-of-living city like New York, will end up paying about $283,000 for an undergraduate degree in music. And in that degree, the soprano, due to their more common voice part, will be lucky to perform a lead role at all.
Below is a typical schedule of a four-year degree in vocal arts. It is a mix of general education courses, standardized music courses like keyboard, aural skills, and theory, diction and language, ensembles like chorus and opera, and final recitals with piano.
The tuition and fees only, not including the additional cost of living or materials, for a year at this school are around USD $58,000 a year or about $1,750 a credit. The critical class to a singer’s development, the 28 50-minute one-on-one music lessons a year, costs the student, by credit, about $7,000 a year or $300 an hour. A student with a generous 50% tuition scholarship would pay about $150 a lesson.
In the post-COVID world, large choral ensembles are, at best, a challenge to meet in person for the next year and potentially for years to come. (Editor’s note: as a pro-choral singer in groups like Conspirare, this breaks my heart -ZF.) There is a strong possibility that the student in this performance degree, whose first two years of performance opportunities are in a large choral ensemble, does not perform live in front of an audience at all in their first or even second year of their education. There is at least some chance that they would not perform live in front of an audience until their first recital with pianist, junior year. By then, a singer without scholarship would pay about $174,000 in tuition and fees for a degree in vocal performance.
Attend, Defer, or Something Else?
Every school is handling Covid-19 differently, some better than others.
The Yale University School of Music, for example, has harnessed its considerable endowment to encourage students to return to the classroom. Initial reports back in March from Middleclass Artist showed a massive stimulus package sent to students to help them through the summer: "a one-time stipend of $500" to all students to assist with travel and expenses; full pay, despite social distancing, for all student employees through May 1st, 2020; and relocation of all international students who could not return home to University housing.” According to an August 10th update, the School of Music is navigating a hybrid model, starting the semester “online until October 13th with in-person performance courses taught October 14th to November 25th. All students arrive on campus on September 30th and are required to undergo a strict 14-day quarantine.”
In terms of health and safety, as well as value for money, Yale is about the best case scenario a graduate student in music performance could hope for in the Fall. They have clearly spent an immense amount of time and effort ensuring students’ return to campus as safe as possible. Still, the opportunities in the Fall have little in common with what we understand a “normal” music performance study to be: they are not hosting any student activities on campus in person, no visitors are allowed, and most importantly, they are “not presenting any public performances during the fall semester.”
As for deferrals, some colleges have provided a smooth transition for prospective students to wait a year.
For example, classical singer Francesca Lionetta writes, of Bard College-Conservatory:
“I accepted an offer in their Graduate Vocal Arts Program in April 2020. When I asked about the deferment process, the Conservatory's Director of Admissions, Katie Rossiter, was extremely sympathetic in her response. I was told that I could defer my enrollment without needing to reaudition and that my financial aid/ scholarship package would remain the same as long as my financial situation did not change too drastically. I was also told that I could defer up to one week before the start of classes, which alleviated some of my anxiety about the timeline that surrounded this already difficult decision. I ultimately decided to defer.
The faculty and my voice teacher were incredibly understanding and kind in their responses. Though I am sure they will have a wonderful year, there is too much uncertainty surrounding this academic year for me to justify the costs of rent and loans. I chose Bard because of the faculty and for the unique and plentiful performance opportunities. Though they have plans for good online programming, they do not seem right for me at this time. I am taking this as a great opportunity to pay off some (or all) of my undergraduate loans by working full-time and taking lessons and coaching independently of academic institutions. Though I never would have considered deferring, I am really glad that COVID-19 has forced me to take this pause and re-evaluate my path and career goals; I am confident that this time will help better prepare me in my next steps.”
Distancing policies and procedures have come a long way in a short time. Some institutions have found lower-risk ways to hold rehearsals or performances, either outdoors or with additional cleaning and ventilation inside. In a pandemic, however, there is no such thing as no-risk. Every student and teacher needs to make up their own mind about their risk tolerance, and that needs to be their choice.
There are serious ethical issues at hand when an institution essentially forces a student to return, denies, or limits a deferral, placing the institution’s solvency ahead of student concerns.
Due to health reasons, dramatic soprano Sarah Ryman is considered high-risk if she contracts Covid-19. She was supposed to start her DMA at the University of North Texas this fall and was required to reside there in order to keep her teaching fellowship (which is crucial to the affordability of the degree). Deferment was always on the table but would have meant losing the fellowship and having to reapply for it again next fall. She writes:
“I contested the residency requirement for several reasons:
a) I would be moving halfway across the country to teach remotely and isolate alone, instead of staying with my partner who is unable to move with me.
b) I would be moving from a low-risk area to a red-zone/high-risk area.
c) I am high risk already for health reasons, so I would have to rent an apartment without roommates which would cost significantly more than I was planning to spend."
The voice department and my voice teacher were incredibly helpful and understanding and were absolutely fine with me residing in the northeast for the fall semester. Unfortunately, the Dean of the music school did not approve this. After sending detailed health information and letters from my doctor, an exception was made and I was able to defer for one semester without losing my fellowship. I have no idea yet if I will be comfortable moving there for the spring semester."
If a student is denied a deferral or does not feel safe attending their institution under new extenuating circumstances, they should know now more than ever, there are other options to continue training.
The silver lining of the COVID-19 epidemic is that, over the past few months, incredible opportunities for online teaching and training have opened for young singers that rival that of the top conservatories:
World-class singers unassociated with major institutions like Christine Goerke and Lisette Oropesa have opened up teaching and master class studios on social media platforms like TikTok and innovative apps that match teachers with students like Resonance;
Since March, master teacher/performers like Russell Thomas, snapped up in March by IU, have offered discounted lessons to talented BIPOC singers who can’t afford applications to young artist programs, and don’t have the privilege to spend years of training without income.
Sought-after voice teachers and coaches have made online lessons available to students, both old and new. EM’s Dana Lynne Varga can now see her teacher W. Stephen Smith online instead of flying bi-annually to Evanston, IL for lessons. MCA’s Zach Finkelstein has benefited from three hours of Evangelist coachings from one of the leading coaches at Yale, an opportunity commonly only available to enrolled students. Students in more remote areas where few good teachers reside can now access quality instruction online with almost anyone with no risk to their health and safety.
Alternative diverse curricula have been published online by teachers preparing for a Zoom-only Fall, such as Inclusive Early Music;
Supplemental, low cost apps like Diction Buddy designed by singers help students learn hundreds of art songs and arias in multiple languages;
Flexible online pay-to-sing programs, like Bel Canto Boot Camp, have cut prices to pennies on the dollar of a live training program, or, as in Cindy Sadler’s DIY Summer Workshop, offered pay-what-you-can pricing for struggling students.
Technological innovation has caught up quickly in the pandemic to provide dependable options for long-distance coaching and rehearsals: pioneers like Drs. Ian Howell and David Newman have fine-tuned programs like Soundjack and Jitsi Meet for low-latency peer-to-peer music collaboration between artists hundreds of miles apart.
With options winnowed for real-time collaboration at universities, and the wealth of new online opportunities available to young, enterprising students, a viable alternative to a year in music school has emerged at a fraction of the price. Instead of spending $50,000 on a year of education into an uncertain industry, a young student could spend 20% of their tuition this year exploring a new, collaborative online private/community-based curriculum with underpaid or furloughed private music instructors and local colleagues online, saving themselves a mountain of debt. Underpaid or furloughed contractor teachers at music schools, for instance the entire adjunct early music faculty at UNT, or graduate students in music theory, musicology, composition, or the humanities with reduced income would likely jump at the chance for private or small group tutoring.
For less than $10,000, a student could spend the next year in an immersive musical experience, with a mix of private instruction in languages, diction, lessons, music theory, keyboard skills, and training and performance through a series of online pay-to-sing bootcamps:
Combined with socially distanced performing opportunities in their home city, such as streamed church services and local recitals with colleagues, a DIY option could provide a low-cost value option for underprivileged singers, particularly those in the BIPOC community, that rivals the first-year curriculum at a leading conservatory, as well as a low-risk alternative for students with health risks or disabilities that would be unable to participate in a hybrid model.
For others, such as students at schools with the resources to provide a technologically advanced, safe learning environment, or those on the full scholarship fast-track in a four-year program, or those who thrive on structure and guidance, staying the course in a year or more of distance and hybrid-learning may be the best option.
What Lies Ahead?
Even in boom times, a music career is a risky business, with no guarantee of steady work.
Nobody knows for sure what life as a musician will look like post-COVID. The best-case scenario, that music returns in 2021 and a vaccine becomes widely available, will still result in a scarcity of auditions and jobs for musicians for years to come as organizations that have survived COVID-19 piece themselves back together.
Where does that leave student artists? What other options, besides a mountain of debt from a performance degree, do they have in front of them? Should those enrolled stay or defer? Will their school as they know it, with the program and teacher they chose, still exist? Should they shift focus to a double major and a correlating career? Should they seek out alternative forms of music education outside of academia? Should they switch career plans altogether?
There is no right answer. In the meantime, student artists are left to make sense of these impossible questions, to make the most difficult decisions of their lives with no clear information about a way forward to a career in music. All we can give them is our support and tell them that they are not alone. We are right there with them, facing the unknown, struggling to find a way forward. Perhaps we can find a way forward together.
ZF & DLV