Performing Arts in College

A Word to the Wise  . . . About Studying Performing Arts in College
by Parents, Fall of 2007

This Summary addresses the following issues:

  1. Reference information
    What resource information should you have?
  2. Choices in degree sought
    What choices does my student have in degree options in the performing arts?
  3. Whether to study at a conservatory
    What does it mean to study the performing arts at a conservatory?
  4. Choosing where to apply
    What factors should be considered for performing arts applicants?
  5. Audition process
    What are at least some of the basic ground rules for performing arts auditions?


What information resources should every family refer to if your student is interested in studying the performing arts in college?

Princeton Review

  • The Princeton Review is published every year and evaluates the “best†colleges and universities in the country (most recently the Review has information on 361 colleges).
  • Except at a conservatory, your student must be admitted to both the university or college awarding the degree and the school of music within that university or college. Understanding the basic snapshot of academic standards and the admission process at the larger university is thus not only relevant but important.
  • For example, a student admitted to the Eastman School of Music will receive his/her Bachelor’s from the University of Rochester and thus also must be admitted to the University of Rochester, and same for the Peabody Institute, whose degrees are issued by Johns Hopkins University.
  • Some schools have different academic standards for music students in that there are minimum GPA and SAT expectations that don’€™t necessarily require matching the middle 50% of the incoming freshman class as a whole. This information is not in the Princeton Review but sometimes is noted on a school€’s website. Example: the University of Michigan makes it clear that students admitted to the school of music theatre and dance are permitted to meet lower GPA and SAT standards than freshman admitted to the school of literature science and the arts: Academic Preparation for Undergraduate Programs
  • Princeton Review has information about the SATs and grade point averages of incoming freshmen for each of the universities reviewed (GPA information is not listed in Fiske’€™s).

For vocal or instrumental performance – List of schools accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM)

  1.  NASM is the credentialing body for accredited college degree programs in music.
  2. One relevant measure of whether you might want your student to consider a particular university is whether its music program is accredited. If there is a “Department of Music†but not a “School of Music†the school might not be offering the highest level (accredited) of music training.
  3. On the other hand, a school not accredited by NASM might have a great, or up and coming. Department of Music and offer sufficient, or even significant, double major opportunities (ie, study another field and combine it with a double major in music or a minor).

Attend a Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) Fair held by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC)

    1. Hundreds of colleges send representatives to these fairs. Go with your student, or send your student on his/her own with a friend. One PVA fair is usually held every year at the Kennedy Center in the fall.



What does it mean to study the performing arts in college? What choices does my student have?


  1. A performing arts degree is a specialized, professional diploma where about 67% of the curriculum entails coursework in the major, with electives encompassing the remaining 33% of the curriculum. The performing arts major in a professional program is not earning a Bachelor of Arts in Music or Theatre. Instead the student is earning a Bachelor of Music or a Bachelor of Fine Arts; this is a different degree with different degree requirements than a Bachelor of Arts (or Science).
  2. In comparison, a Bachelor of Arts (or Science) degree typically entails about 33% of course work of classes in a major, with electives encompassing the remaining 67% of the curriculum. (This is why often it is fairly straightforward to obtain a double major in a Bachelor of Arts program, especially in two related fields – such as Latin American Studies and Spanish, for example). Many colleges have distribution requirements for how the “electives†can be selected in a Bachelor of Arts (or Science) degree program (example, Michigan) while some have no distribution requirements (example, Brown). Many majors for a Bachelor of Arts (or Science) degree also have expected or required elective distribution in the “other” 67% of classes (for example a Physics major might be required to take some electives in quantitative analysis fields whether it is through math courses or other hard science classes).
  3. Undergraduate degrees in the performing arts are actually very much liberal-artsy. A vocal performance major, for example, must take courses in literature, writing and two foreign languages (this is required, part of the 67% of required courses in the major). Likewise, a musical theatre major must take courses in music history, theatre history, and dramatic writing (Shakespeare), in addition to studying dancing, acting and singing. For a musician or actor, almost all of the coursework for the degree (at least two-thirds) has already been scripted.
  4. At some institutions, even the 33% of curriculum that is electives has distribution requirements for performing arts majors seeking a Bachelor of Music or Bachelor of Fine Arts. It might be that students have one elective per semester but that many of these electives are part of distributed requirements.
  5. Music major with expanded liberal arts component. A few schools specifically offer a performance degree in voice or instrumental with a larger liberal arts component, allowing a student to get a Bachelor’s degree with a major in “Musical Arts” (different schools call it different things). The degree is in one performance area (Voice, for example) and one academic area (Psychology or Spanish, for example). Sometimes there are restrictions on which academic fields can be pursued due to hours requirements of the liberal arts department or the fact that certain departments are part of “limited enrollment programs (if the university has a leading or just popular program that is already oversubscribed, for example, a music major may not be able to accrue the required prerequisites to be admitted to the program as his/her liberal arts focus). This is not the same as pursuing a double degree, but might be considered “double degree lite.” This degree can be completed in four years.


  1. Most universities that offer a music major toward a Bachelor of Music diploma also offer a music minor for an individual getting a Bachelor of Arts (or Science) in a liberal arts field. Students minoring in music do not have to successfully pass an audition.
  2. Most universities that offer a major in theatre, music education, or music theatre do not allow or offer minors in those fields. That doesn’t mean that a course or two here or there cannot be taken but usually an official minor is not offered in these performing arts.
  3. Students can audition for musical or theatrical ensembles at almost all institutions regardless of major and thus participate in music groups or theatre performances, if they are offered at your school, even if you are not a major or minor in the field.
  4. A lot of universities that have a School of Music have musical groups for those majoring in music, which operate at a more sophisticated level, as well as (in addition to) university-wide ensembles for all students. Some colleges have just one program of choral, instrumental, or drama groups and performances, open to all students.
  5. Some universities that offer a Bachelor of Music and/or Bachelor of Fine Arts permit or allow a minor in a non-performing art field but others do not, often depending on what your performing arts major is. A “minor” is an official designation on your transcript and diploma that you have completed a recognized course of study at the degree-granting institution.
  6. Most universities that offer a Bachelor of Music and/or Bachelor of Fine Arts permit liberal arts electives in clusters of three or six classes over the four year course of the degree, although it may be difficult to complete a progression of six electives in a non-performance field without taking summer school. Completion of such a cluster of classes in an area of the student’s interest might be very important to your student, in qualifying him/her for internships or summer jobs or just allowing him/her to pursue an interest, even if the student cannot complete a formal “minorâ” in a liberal arts field.
  7. Conservatories do not offer minors or clusters or any other specialization in a liberal arts field, although they do offer liberal arts courses as part of their curriculum.

Double Degree

  1. A double degree is where an individual earns a Bachelor of Music or Bachelor of Fine Arts and also earns a Bachelor of Arts (or Science). Two separate types of degrees.
  2. A double degree takes (at least) five years (10 semesters) to complete.
  3. Most of these double degree programs are extremely difficult in part because performing arts studies require completion of numerous small (1-2 credit) classes each term and because of scheduling difficulties between the music and liberal arts courses at the university. In addition, where the two degrees entail a Bachelor of Music at one institution and a Bachelor of Arts (or Science) at a different, nearby, institution, there are usually additional difficulties in coordinating transportation and dealing with two different sets of advisors and academic policies.   It is nevertheless possible, if the student is sufficiently motivated, to pursue a double degree from a top performing arts program in conjunction with a top academic program.
  4. Examples of how double degree programs work within the same institution. Not every university with a school of music allows or offers a double degree for its students completing a professional degree in a performing art, but many do. Temple and Maryland do not (but Maryland does offer a “Musical Arts” Bachelor’s degree allowing significant coursework in music as well as a liberal arts field). Northwestern, Hopkins, and University of Rochester do. Northwestern University offers a very select double degree program for its music and journalism students, as a limited enrollment program, as well as some other double degree programs. Eastman, part of the University of Rochester, seems to encourage double degree studies, claiming that about 10% of its incoming freshmen enroll as double degree students with about 5% completing a double degree at Eastman and the University of Rochester. Peabody, part of Johns Hopkins, says it only enrolls about 5 students in each incoming class in the double degree program with Hopkins. Peabody reports that about 80 students each year apply to both the Homewood (Hopkins) and Peabody campuses for double degrees, about 20 are deemed qualified for both degrees, about 10 are accepted for double degree enrollment, and about 5 choose to enroll as double degree students.
  5. Some double degree programs are offered at neighboring but unrelated institutions. If two unrelated institutions have joined together to offer a formal program where one can study a performing art at one institution and a liberal art at the second institution, it’s because the first institution has a curriculum focused on just the professional performing arts training (a conservatory!).

Double Major

  1. For students with a major in a professional degree program in the performing arts, a “double major” is defined as another major within the same degree program. If you are getting a Bachelor of Music, then double major examples are: you major in your instrument (or voice) and music education (a very common double major) or when you double major in your instrument and composition.
  2. For the student seeking a Bachelor of Arts (or Science), a double major could be Bachelor of Arts in Economics (or any science, language, or liberal arts field) and a Bachelor of Arts (not a professional degree) Music or Theatre. Depending on the college, the Music program through the Bachelor of Arts may not have a significant performance training component even available as part of the degree program (although ensemble work would be available) and might be focused more on music history or musicology.
  3. Many individuals seeking a Bachelors degree in Music Education also complete a double major with one field being music education and the second field being the individual’s music performance field (an instrument or voice). Depending on the university, this might be through the university’s School of Education or School of Music.

Summary of degree options

The Dean of Admissions at the Peabody Institute has a wonderful summary of the degree options for studying the performing arts, profiling different types of high school students:

Sample undergraduate curricula for performance majors at leading colleges in the performing arts

  1. Bachelor’€™s in Performance and Liberal Arts (4 year degree, offering both a performance focus and a liberal arts focus €- most performance degrees do not allow a significant liberal arts focus without pursuing a five year double degree – these schools offer an alternative):
  2. Music theatre – Bachelor of Fine Arts
  3. Vocal performance – Bachelor of Music
  4. Instrumental music – Bachelor of Music
  5. Music education – Bachelor of Music Education or Bachelor of Music with major in Music Education
  6. SUNY Purchase College (Westchester Co., NY)


What does it mean to study the performing arts at a conservatory versus a school of music or school of theatre within a college or university, or just at a department of music or theatre within a college or university?


A conservatory is a school offering an intense, professional education in defined performing arts fields. Usually for a conservatory degree at least 90 credits of the 120 typically required for a Bachelor’s are completed solely in the major field and/or are considered part of the major. A “conservatory” is generally a “stand alone” institution, with only performing arts students. Some “conservatory programs”or conservatory style programs are part of larger universities.

Music conservatories with double degrees.

There is a small group of conservatories that operate within a university and offer both conservatory training and a liberal arts degree from the same institution. In these universities the student indicates at the time of application that he/she is requesting admission to both the conservatory and the university’s liberal arts college and in order to pursue a double degree the student must be accepted by both. In order to earn a degree from both the conservatory and in a liberal arts field, five years of study is required, where the student earns both a Bachelor of Music and a Bachelor of Arts (or Science). Some of the conservatories that are part of a liberal arts college include

  1. Oberlin (Oberlin, OH)
  2. Lawrence (Appleton, WI) – Lawrence is one of the schools discussed in the book “Colleges that Change Lives.”
  3. Peabody (Baltimore) – Peabody Institute is part of Johns Hopkins University, /wp-content/uploads/legacy_assets/hbwoodlawn/9599f37571-double_degree_application.pdf

Music conservatories with cross-registration.

There are a lot of conservatories that offer cross-registration at nearby institutions so that conservatory students can take some electives at a liberal arts college. For example, Julliard students can take classes at Columbia, Curtis Institute of Music students can take classes at the University of Pennsylvania, Westminster Choir College students can take classes at Princeton. There is also a consortium of arts schools in Boston that allow students to cross-register at different arts-related institutions (schools offering degrees in the visual arts, communication and theatre, and music, including Berklee, the Boston Conservatory, and Emerson College). For most of these cross-registration opportunities, however, there really only end up being 1 or 2 classes per semester, often only starting in the junior year, and it is not always easy to coordinate transportation between the two, unrelated institutions.

There are some conservatories that offer cross-registration and joint degree programs at nearby institutions so that a conservatory student could earn a double degree from two different institutions. In these double degree programs the student must make application to each institution and be admitted to each. The student would then earn a Bachelor of Music from one institution and a Bachelor of Arts (or Science) from a second institution (two graduations!), after five years of study. These include:

  1. New England Conservatory and Tufts University (Boston)



Here are some important criteria (in no particular order) that parents might want to keep in mind when guiding their performing arts students in choosing at which colleges they should apply.


Remember that if your student is graduating from H-B Woodlawn he/she has had a wonderful opportunity to participate in theatre and music performance options. Some of the music opportunities presented to students at H-B exceed or equal what is offered at the college level at some comprehensive universities that don’t offer a professional performing arts degree. If your child wants to be challenged as a performing artist in college and keep that as part of his/her education, he/she might want to carefully evaluate the music or theatre department.

Agreeing on some specifications or requirements

  1. Will your student meet the type of people he/she wants and/or have access to the activities (on-campus and off-campus) he/she is looking for? Consider the following to try to determine what environment your student is looking for
  2. Your student will spend four of the most important formative years of his/her life as a young adult at college. It’s not just the academic and/or professional performing arts training that “counts.”
  3. Keep in mind that for every performing arts application your student files he/she will have to file applications to both the school of theatre or music and the university as a whole, and will have to audition (and likely will have to complete a pre-screening process as well) -putting some parameters or specifications on how your student will choose which schools to apply to is perhaps even more important for performing arts majors than others.
  4. Just like other students applying for engineering or liberal arts degrees, it is really smart if you can work with your student to come up with some specific aspects of the school profile.
  5. There are great performing arts programs all over the country (California to Massachusetts, Minnesota to New Orleans, and even Oklahoma City). Do not presume that the best performing arts program for your student is the one at the school you have heard of.
    1. Conservatory or not? Different types of students will be at a conservatory as compared to a comprehensive university.
    2. City or rural? Different types of on-campus and off-campus activities might be available depending on location.
    3. Distance from Arlington? Do you or your student care how far away the student is from home?
    4. Large or small institution?
      1. Some of us think this question can be ignored for performing arts majors because the School of Music or College of the Fine Arts or School of Drama will be a small part of the institution, and the student seeking a professional performing arts degree will, therefore, already spend most of his/her academic life in a smaller environment.
      2. A larger institution might have different housing options and different clubs and activities available to its students, that impact your student’s college experience.
  6. It is difficult, if not impossible, to truly identify “safety” schools for performing arts majors because admission is largely dependent on a discretionary assessment of the student’s audition, but there should be some schools (at least two) on your student’s list where it is clear he/she is at the high end, or exceeds, the average SAT and GPA averages for incoming freshman at the institution (if it is not a conservatory).

Liberal arts

  1. A student should think carefully about seeking admission as a major in a professional performing arts program. The performing arts degree is very intense, covering all aspects of acting or drama, instrumental or vocal music, music education or musical theatre: if your student doesn’t truly enjoy his/her field it will get old fast. Do you think your child’s performing art is the only thing or main thing your student loves and/or is your child extremely committed to the performing art?
  2. Many of us finished liberal arts degrees ourselves and for that reason and because of the general consensus that a liberal arts graduate is a well-educated student, we tend to want to push our children toward a liberal arts institution (and away from a conservatory).
  3. Most accredited schools of music say that a well-trained musician needs to be a well-educated and well rounded musician with a strong background in the liberal arts, and thus there really is an awareness, and dedication, to the need for a robust liberal arts curriculum as part of undergraduate music degrees, whether at conservatories or comprehensive universities.
  4. You might want to see if your student wants to consider good liberal arts schools that also have a solid reputation in the performing arts (even though they do not offer Bachelor of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Music degrees in the performing arts) – such as Sarah Lawrence, Vassar, and Kenyon College. Some of the nation’s best schools also have nice Bachelor of Arts programs in either music or theatre (even though they do not offer Bachelor of Music or Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in the performing arts) – such as Princeton, Amherst, and UVA.


  1. Very few make a living solely as a performing artist.
  2. Your student may want to pursue the performing arts because he/she wants to be one of those few who will be able to support him/herself as a performing artist, or simply because that’s what he/she loves even though he/she doesn’t pretend to have the slightest idea where the performing arts studies will take him/her.
  3. Your student is no worse off in getting a degree in Music or Theatre than a degree in English or History.
  4. For vocal or instrumental musicians: Music education might be a good option if your student has an interest in teaching. A masters in education may be selected later even if education not pursued at the undergraduate level. Conducting might be another option to consider, but this is a graduate program (no conducting diplomas at the undergraduate level, although Oberlin offers a five year combined Bachelors and Masters degree with the Bachelors in Music and Masters in Conducting ). There are degree programs on the recording and production side of the music industry (at Peabody and many other institutions) and degree programs on the business side of the music industry (at NYU and Drexel, among others).

Financial Aid

  1. Some schools offer no merit financial aid, it’s true! Find out before your student bothers to apply and audition what financial aid, merit-based or need-based, is available. For example, Tufts University, which offers a double degree program with the New England Conservatory, offers no merit-based financial aid.
  2. Financial aid for the performing arts programs is no more or less available than other programs. Often the scholarship/loan/grant amounts a school may offer are negotiable and offered in order to keep up with other schools your student might be considering. Some schools allow any student upon request (check a box at the time of application) to be considered for merit-based aid (Eastman, for example) but other schools make both merit-based and need-based aid assessments only after the student files the FAFSA form.


Each school is a bit different in how it runs the audition process and, in addition, each performance major has a different basic set-up for its audition rubric.


  1. Agree with your student how many auditions he/she feels comfortable with.  Most of the auditions are held in January and February of the year your student is graduating, so this means that your student will have difficulty applying to more than eight schools since there are about eight weeks in January and February, unless they are going to travel to more than one school in some weeks. Some schools do offer earlier auditions (in November or December – fall senior year) for early applicants and a few schools also hold auditions in the beginning of March (usually March auditions do not allow a student to be considered for either merit or financial need scholarship/loan/grant money).
  2. Make hotel reservations early. Even before the school confirms your student has been selected for an audition it’s a good idea to consider making hotel reservations for the audition dates your student is requesting (which can always be cancelled). Sometimes there are few hotels most convenient (walking distance or short drive) to the audition site, or special demands for hotels (Michigan early auditions were held in 2007 the weekend of the Ohio State football game).
  3. Realize that very few schools offer early action or early decision in the performing arts with a decision issued in December (fall) of senior year (although B.U. and Westminster Choir College do offer it, for example), so even if your student is able to finish the application process “early” he/she most likely is still going to audition in January or February and hear a decision March or April.
  4. Most performing arts programs have a standard application due date of December 1st (earlier if school offers early action or early decision), with decision as to whether to select applicant for audition announced by the end of December and auditions scheduled in January and February.
  5. Most schools have pre-announced audition dates (posted on web sites by September 1 of senior year) with certain dates for certain majors and an opportunity for each applicant to select a first and second choice of date.
  6. When deciding how many schools to apply to and the location of schools, remember the audition. No school granting a Bachelor of Music in vocal performance admits students without an audition. Some schools do offer regional auditions for vocal performance, but also make clear in their materials that an in-person audition is preferred. There is no “unified” audition location(s) for vocal performance programs.
  7. Assist your student in deciding what to wear to the audition, and be sure he/she asks the private teacher/tutor as well as HB performing arts teacher(s) for advice.

 How important is the audition?

  1.  The audition will count about 80% of the decision for admission to most college performing arts programs. In these programs, 20% of the decision is references, essays, grades, rigor of classes and SATs.
  2. Only at a conservatory are your SATs irrelevant and GPA a minor factor.
  3. For most universities that have a College of Fine Arts or School of Music/Theatre, the student must be admitted to both the university as a whole as well as the CFA or School of Music/Theatre, although some times there are different university admission standards (“lower” or at least more flexible) for CFA or School of Music/Theatre applicants. Except at a conservatory, the application process will include an assessment of SATs and GPA.
  4. If you want a double degree you usually must apply separately and/or in a different way than a student seeking only a BFA or B.Mus.

What this Summary is:

A starting point for members of the HB community seeking information on the subject of studying vocal performance, instrumental performance, music theatre, music education and/or theatre in college, with lots of web links to get you started on finding additional information.

What this Summary is not:

Do not substitute the information expressed in this Summary for your own opinions or information, or what you hear or learn directly from college administrators. This is information assembled by some opinionated HB moms trying to share what we have learned because we knew nothing about this subject before our students started the process of applying to college to study the performing arts. Pay attention to your own situation and your own instincts and your student’s interests and what you know or think you know about your student’s goals are as he/she sets off to college. This information reflects no insights or data from independent experts; no objective research was done to prepare this summary; we are just trying to share our experiences with the HB community.