Why You Should Study Vocal Performance In College, and Why You’ll Love It

By Steve Lipman, former Director of Admissions at Berklee College of Music & Founder of Inside Music Schools

Singing is one of our most amazing abilities. The human voice is as much an instrument as any flute, trumpet, or bassoon, and it can lead us to tears of immense sadness or ecstatic joy.

And there’s nothing quite like your own singing voice. In fact, there’s no other human in the world that sounds exactly quite like you. No matter how hard you try, you’ll always have your own individual voice.

So, if you decide to study vocal performance in college, never forget that the point is not to sound like someone else: it’s about pushing the boundaries of your own personal talents to their highest potential. And of course having a lot of fun, too.

Before you go on, it’s important to make this point clear. Music is an expression of passion before anything else. When you meet your peers at whatever school you end up in, you’ll realize there’s a lot of people who love music enough to live and breathe the stuff. That is what it’s like studying vocal performance.

Consistent effort only goes so far as how much you enjoy practicing, creating, and performing. You, too, will need to live and breathe music.

And since you’ve read this far, let’s move on.

What is Your Style?

When you study vocal performance in music school, you embark on a journey to, quite literally, find your voice.

The path you take to find that voice typically will lead you into one or more distinct styles and genres. For some students, gravitating toward a preferred style starts from the beginning, while perhaps an equal number discover their sound later on. No matter what, there’s no one right way to discover your voice.

Typically, students can choose a small number of overarching genres to study. Those genres include:

  • jazz
  • pop
  • folk and traditional
  • opera and classical
  • rock
  • R&B/blues

You’ll explore the diversity of each genre and the stylistic traditions that make each one distinct from all the others. Alternately, you’ll learn that all music is born from another genre (or a combination of two or more, in some cases), and it should be assumed you’ll also be listening to a heck of a lot of music in that genre, as well.

But Steve, Why Choose a Style? I Like Everything!

A great question, and one that does not have a clear-cut answer.

In order for the investment of time in music school to be worth your while, there has to be specialization. Your instructors will have in some cases dedicated their lives to their genre of choice, and you learn best from people who can challenge you. And, you benefit greatly from their experience in the industry, and in their craft.

Vocal performance concentrations are not limiting in the least, though. In almost all cases vocal students have the flexibility to take courses within other concentrations, perhaps with the hope that you’ll bring something from your own genre into another.

Regardless, a concentration is a good thing. It helps you focus, and allows you to more efficiently become an authority in your genre. This ultimately makes you more marketable when you’re ready to start your music career, and gives you some direction.

Now the real question is this – what’s it like studying vocal performance in each of these genres? I happen to know a thing or two about this.

With over 40 years in the music school admissions business, I’ve seen many vocal majors find the right vocal performance school and excel beyond their wildest dreams. Others simply discovered a passion for singing and studied vocal performance for personal satisfaction and development.

Once you meet your potential faculty and talk about what you’ll be studying, you’ll have a better idea about what it means to study each of these genres at specific schools. These overviews are brief and by no means complete, but they offer a general idea of what it’s like to study these genres in a vocal performance program.

Included in these overviews are playlists which represent a small sliver of what a student of each genre should be aware of. These are not by any stretch of the imagination exhaustive or complete lists. Instead, refer to the playlists as inspiration for your audition repertoire, or simply as a fun listen!

Studying Jazz Vocal Performance

While studying in a jazz vocal performance program, you will learn to use the voice as both an improvisational instrument and poetic delivery.

Many auditions for jazz vocal majors include a capella and accompanied performances of standards and iconic pieces. And, many potential jazz students will need to know how to scat, a vocal technique of fusing melody and syllables to sound more instrument-like. You’ll also take classes in improvisation, and be exposed to both classic and modern jazz repertoires.

Some of the top audition pieces include songs in this playlist.

IMS Jazz Vocalist Playlist

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Studying Pop Vocal Performance

Pop vocal performance is an interesting field. This is because pop simply means “popular”, and most genres have compositions that shaped the tastes and attitudes of our culture.

So, you’ll most likely be practicing and studying music within rock, jazz, country, and even rap and hip hop. You’ll develop your vocal dexterity, and dive into the workings of what makes a great pop song.

For auditions, some schools allow you to write your own compositions, but it’s always good to have a strong repertoire of well-known songs to demonstrate your skills.

Here’s a playlist of several great pop songs a student studying pop vocal performance might use in their audition.

IMS Pop Vocalist Playlist

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Studying Folk, World, and Traditional Vocal Performance

World music is an incredible opportunity to dive into a culture through its singers. Once you choose which style of music you want to pursue, you will be able to find out which schools offer the appropriate program.

To learn more about which schools may offer a program for you, contact me today. Until then, here are some ideas for an audition repertoire.

IMS Traditional/Folk/World Playlist

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Studying Opera and Classical Vocal Performance

Opera performance majors have their work cut out for them. Some students believe the exercises involved in perfecting operatic and classical voices to be among the most taxing.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be rewarding. If you have a passion for singing opera or classical styles, there are incredible programs available for you.

Here are some influential arias and classical vocal pieces anybody considering this path should listen to.

IMS Classical/Opera Playlist

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Studying Rock Vocal Performance

You guessed it. These are people who cannot live without the energy of rock music. Students studying rock vocal performance will know all the classic rock gods like Robert Plant and Janis Joplin, but will also explore the roots of rock music, and dive into how it’s transformed into the giant category of music it is today.

It’s difficult to choose which songs a rock music vocal performance major should be exposed to. I’ve put together a list of some of the most popular tunes – many of which might be included in an audition tape.

IMS Rock Vocalist Playlist

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Studying R&B and Blues Vocal Performance

There are some schools out there where you can study R&B and blues vocal performance. You’ll dive into Motown from the 50’s to the 70’s, and learn how Black Americans transformed popular music forever.

For anyone considering studying R&B and blues vocal performance, here’s some iconic compositions that just might come up in your classes.

IMS R&B/Blues/Soul Playlist

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Studying Musical Theater Vocal Performance

Theater vocal majors are those that love the energy of the theater. You will most likely study acting, and you may even study dance, dramatic movement, and speech so you can fulfill all the needs of the performance while singing along the whole time.

Along with all the standard vocal exercises, training, and individual lessons, you will absolutely be consistently performing in musicals and other types of theater performances. The practice can be rigorous, but you’re the type of student that loves the particular challenges and rewards of the theater.

Here are some popular tracks that any theater vocal performance major should be familiar with.

IMS Musical Theater Playlist

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In the end, the best school for you is one that fulfills your interests.

And when it comes to vocal performance programs, your chosen style will influence where you can study. But, even more important is that it is the right learning environment, with the right amount of challenge, and the right atmosphere and student experience.

This is because, as creative people, we can be very sensitive to our environments, and that’s where I can help.

At Inside Music Schools, I bring my over 40 years of experience in music school admissions to every single student I advise. From audition preparation and coaching to identifying the appropriate schools to maximize your enjoyment and passion for music, I offer a wide suite of services that will place you in not the just best school, but the right school for you.

Contact me today so I can get working for you.

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Head of admissions and faculty member at Berklee College of Music for 40 years, Steve Lipman and our team at Inside Music Schools speak music as their primary language. We approach each client contact with open eyes, ears, and minds. As the country’s premiere music school consultant, he advised students from the United States, Canada, China, Australia, Turkey, U.K., Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Israel, and Italy.