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  • Writer's pictureKatherine Sadler

Missed Opportunity? Vocal Arts and Music Entrepreneurship Education

By Katherine M. Sadler


Musicians face an uncertain economic future laid bare by but not rooted in the pandemic. In a tacit acknowledgment that the training models for performance careers may be insufficient or impractical for most, music schools have developed curricula to provide musicians with tangible career skills and habits of mind to build sustainable careers. Entrepreneurship and career development courses aim to assess how musicians in the field succeed and translate those experiences into practical learning. Some schools even offer full certificate or dual degree programs in this new field of study.

The arts entrepreneurship model has its flaws and critics. Some feel the "institutionalized push" for arts entrepreneurship and its "radical self-sufficiency" and "innovation" is a cover to undermine workers' rights and "normalize the radical growth of unstable labor conditions." Other research on Middleclass Artist specific to opera confirms through lived experience and statistical analysis (here, here, and here, for example) that systemic racism in classical music prevents Black musicians from reaching their full potential at the conservatory and beyond. Looking backward for models of success only reinforces institutional bias and systemic racist and exclusionary practices.

Despite its flaws, arts entrepreneurship training provides a critical toolkit to cope with the financial and mental challenges of a freelance performance career. For instance, for students of opera who face hefty audition fees, travel, and monthly training costs paid out-of-pocket, all to compete for a handful of elite jobs, arts entrepreneurship can help build:

1) Emotional resilience in the face of a challenging audition season;

2) Perceived self-efficacy, or the student's belief in themselves that they are good enough to walk in and ace 'Caro Nome' every time;

3) Persistence in career development activities like applying for the next competition after a painful rejection letter.

4) Community connection with peers to provide both emotional support and post-graduate collaboration at regional gigs.

5) A portfolio career frame for all work, treating service and retail jobs that pay for auditions as a critical part of building a singing career.

6) Tangible organizational and financial skills – to enable singers to track business expenses or develop effective digital marketing campaigns.

But are schools reaching ALL music students equally and enabling them to access the benefits of entrepreneurship education?


During my dissertation research of top entrepreneurship programs at schools of music and conservatories in the United States, I interviewed nine students, alumni, and administrators in the classical vocal field. Their responses highlighted the degree to which opera and vocal arts departments have yet to embrace this new education.

Classical Vocalist Case Study on Arts Entrepreneurship

A critical tenet of entrepreneurship education is that musicians need time and resources to create their own student performance opportunities. Students are in a prime environment to make valuable connections with other musicians who may provide employment opportunities as their own careers progress. Yet eight out of the nine participants expressed concern that the rigors of vocal arts programs isolated students from participation in broader skills-based training programs and crucial networking and collaboration opportunities with other musicians.

Focus or Isolation?

Since vocalists are often tracked in separate theory and musical content courses, entrepreneurship education courses provide a unique opportunity for singers, instrumentalists, conductors, and composers to learn from one another and collaborate. Vocal arts departments may offer opera-career specific programming such as master classes or audition coaching. However, keeping this kind of education purely in-house misses the opportunity to develop rich collaboration across disciplines. These activities also tend to track toward a limited set of traditional career paths. One entrepreneurship department administrator commented of the vocal arts department at his institution, "I still think that we are 80% of the time embedded in a set of relationships and practices that reinforce the past."

Entrepreneurship education is more often than not an elective for students, and those students will be more likely to seek it out if they see it as a valuable addition to their toolkit. If departments or individual teachers, through the program's structure or personal mentorship, send signals that entrepreneurship is not a required skill, students may have difficulty perceiving the value.

One vocal arts graduate major said she hadn't received any formal training within her department because training focused so heavily on developing vocal technique: "any networking advice is just stuff that I randomly picked up." She also lamented the challenges of financing necessary career expenses such as audition fees and travel without a clear sense of how to juggle everything expected of her. She hadn't felt encouraged to access her school's entrepreneurship and career development office because, she thought, it wasn't relevant to her as a singer.

Are Our Voice Teachers Enough?

There is little evidence to suggest that one-on-one voice teachers are "prioritizing the development of planning and reflective strategies for career development," nor should they be expected to do so.

One entrepreneurship program administrator at a top-level school of music reflected that "Their teacher is the most influential person in their life, in the [Vocal Arts department]. Students [develop a] certain view of the world artistically, culturally and strategically in terms of their career and their professional development from one individual whose perception of the world based on a career that spans 30, 40 years in the past."

Another singer shared, "I wish [teachers] had given me more information because I do not have the kind of familial financial support to be able to do a lot of the same things my peers have. I've done barely any auditions in the last few years merely because my capital has to go towards other personal expenses before I can actually spend anything on an audition." She suggested that her teacher didn't provide enough honest information about the standard opera career track's financial challenges.

A Star Maker Model, But Who is Left Out?

Competition for school-sponsored performances often results in a disparity of opportunity. The students I interviewed strongly felt that other students had received more scholarship money or better roles. These reflections demonstrate the emotional impact of feeling less valued at one's school. As one student commented, "It feels like the first one to the [prestigious opera company] wins, and otherwise no one cares about you." The reality of this competitiveness compounds the career preparation gap and, in some cases, results in paying more for less. The opportunity gap is a stark reality faced by women, in particular, beginning in school and continuing throughout their careers.

For vocal arts students, initiating innovative, creative student-run projects cannot fully close the opportunity gap. To receive college credit, those students must vet projects through their primary teachers or departments. Projects outside the mainstream focus of classical voice are frequently discouraged as though we can't afford to divert our attention from the one correct career path, or we'll never make it.

One administrator agreed that his school reserved specific opportunities for select students, many of whom were already establishing traditional career tracks. He also confirmed that other vocal arts students were not accessing the entrepreneurship offerings to develop alternatives. Instead, singers were typically encouraged to work harder on the traditional tracks.

The star-focused model described above is a part of a system that does help some students develop the expert skills required to sing opera full-time. Language acquisition, stagecraft, musicianship, and vocal technique are critical and need focus and dedication.

But the hard truth is that at least some of their students won't be suitable for an operatic career, at least not immediately. Some of us have voices better suited for early music and intimate venues. Some prefer ensemble singing to solo work. Some want to be teachers foremost and choose the performance major to learn how to educate other performers. And some may wish to translate vocal technique to training CEOs as public speakers or presenting classical industry research in the boardroom. By embracing the diversity of career opportunities for singers, by helping them develop relationships with people outside the full-time opera track, we can show them the full scope of our industry and help them unlock their true potential.

Collaboration Not Competition

One key benefit of entrepreneurship education is that it gives us a chance to reflect positively on our work accomplishments and set our own goals. Students and alumni often express negative self-perceptions when they haven't achieved external measures of performance success through auditions or financial awards. Encouraging vocal artists to see all their career activities as entrepreneurial and relevant may provide an essential emotional benefit in a challenging, expensive, and highly competitive field, especially one in which it just takes years to develop vocal and artistic maturity.

Participation in entrepreneurship programs outside of Vocal Arts departments may help normalize personal career projects like developing a teaching studio, self-produced performance opportunities, and even a dual career in another field. When viewed from the arc of an entrepreneurial career, these supportive efforts become valuable endeavors indicative of holistic career success.

Persistence is often the key to enabling talented people to realize their talent over time. One mature singer described “as a musician you need to just constantly stay growing. My voice is different than it was ten years ago, two years ago. It now does what I want it to do.” It's hard to measure the true artistic loss that results from the attrition rates of indebted music graduates unable to support themselves financially through performance alone. Research shows that entrepreneurial activity increases the likelihood of staying in the arts by 141%. This number does not reflect the steadiness of artistic economic activity. It does, however, lend significant credibility to the idea that music entrepreneurship education benefits participants by providing a framework in which to continue artistic careers without leaving the field entirely.

Singers Wanted

The scope and range of entrepreneurship education have increased dramatically over the last decade. Alumni associations now partner with music entrepreneurship departments to provide additional resources to graduates, and in turn, those graduates provide critical input into the curriculum for current students.

Vocal artists must be a part of this ongoing development to enrich their careers as performers, creators, writers, and educators and provide a helping hand, a viable alternative to the opera pipeline for the next generation of performers who face the starkest conditions in our lifetime.

Entrepreneurship education can provide a safe, creative space for artists to experiment in designing their careers. It is a roadmap towards longevity in a precarious profession and a way through, not a reinforcement of the systemic roadblocks of inequity in opera.


Katherine M. Sadler is a business owner and doctoral candidate at Teachers College Columbia University in Music Higher Education. Katherine developed her research focus on music entrepreneurship education when she served as the Assistant Director of the Alan D. Marks Center for Career Services and Entrepreneurship at the Juilliard School, a post she left to complete her doctorate. Katherine now heads a landscape design firm with offices in New York and Texas and routinely practices elements of entrepreneurship and education in the artistic world of design. Katherine graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with a Master of Music in Vocal Performance, and she most recently performed with the Houston Symphony Chorus.

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Thank you for this article bringing to light these issues in the academic system. For all departments, fostering greater entrepreneurial growth during one's studies would allow graduates to have a more innovative and self-empowered career regardless of the actual job market.

This quote maybe sums up the biggest problem for too many: "Their teacher is the most influential person in their life." Part of the problem is there are a lot of toxic teachers and other figures in academia and industry who are overly controlling or unsupportive of non-traditional work. Arguably an even larger problem, particularly for voice teachers, is that they simply don't have the time and tools to be the kind of full-time wholistic business and life coach…

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