Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Preparing to Major in…the Performing Arts

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.” – Rumi.

broadwayYour son or daughter is not just  a “triple threat,”  a performer who excels in acting, singing and dancing. He or she is an academic superstar as well. How can you help your teenager prepare for college study of the performing arts and determine whether to pursue the arts as a profession or an avocation? In this post, I suggest an approach for clarifying your student’s interest and where it may be leading; how to further explore it; and find a college, career, or avocation in which it can be nurtured, expressed, and grown so as to bring personal satisfaction and uniquely contribute to the world.

hairykid1. Clarify the interest. We tend to view multi-talented individuals with awe, pondering how blessed they must feel to have been given so many gifts. However, many a prodigy feels confused and overwhelmed by l’embarras des richesses, unable to decide which talent to ultimately prioritize and pursue. How can a multi-talented young person discern the singular, clarion call of vocation, above the clamor of a dilettante’s diverse entertainments and emotional outlets?

Consider Leonardo da Vinci, 15th C. Italian polymath and archetypal Renaissance Man. If he had pursued only one of his gifts, he would have made a significant contribution to human society. Instead, Da Vinci became a superlative  painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. His legacy ranges from Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile to an airplane design centuries before the Wright Brothers. Leonardo was one of those amazing human beings who did not have to choose; he simply did it all.

Albert EinsteinMost people, even extraordinary ones, need to choose where to focus their efforts. Albert Einstein performed poorly in school as a child, but he developed his mind through the violin. What if he had decided to become a composer or virtuoso in a symphony? He would have been successful, no doubt; but the world would be without his revolutionary ideas in physics that have changed our paradigms of reality forever. The Nobel-prize winning genius chose a focus where he could have his greatest signature impact. However, music continued to play a profound role in developing his creativity and working out right-brain problems.

jeffersonThomas Jefferson took up his violin when suffering from “writer’s block” while crafting the Declaration of Independence. Visiting Monticello years ago, I read on Jefferson’s tombstone his own view of his contributions. He had neglected to mention third President of the United States, never referencing his musical talents, inventions, or negotiation of the greatest real estate deal in history, the Louisiana Purchase. His three priorities: Author of the Declaration of American Independence, Author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia. Now that’s clarity of purpose! Yet humbly unnoticed, music helped facilitate his creation of our nation’s most beloved, immortal document.

26614209_sWe admire Mozart’s stubborn insistence on composition rather than teaching to pay the bills. However, Wolfgang’s father Leopold, the ultimate helicopter parent, worried about his son’s financial survival. He was severely critical of the young man who was so busy writing a lowbrow vaudeville opera called The Magic Flute, that he neglected lucrative opportunities to teach music to the spoiled, tone-deaf children of the Viennese court. Destiny is so clear centuries later through the expert storytelling of the film Amadeus. But in our own lives and our children’s, destiny is never quite so clear.

momlistensBy Socratic questioning, parents can help adolescents identify which leaning has a deeper purpose than the others. Every human being must ultimately identify which of his or her interests exercises the strongest pull; parents can hold an insightful mirror. The pull must be strong indeed, since your child will no doubt make many career sacrifices, particularly if he or she chooses a life in the arts. There is no one-size-fits-all way to decide. Even when a young person chooses to back burner one passion to concentrate on a slightly stronger one, it is not necessarily abandoned. “Meta-skills” one learns from the background interest may fuel professional success (i.e., an actor who uses persuasiveness in politics); be revisited later in life; or be cherished as a rejuvenating hobby.

balletslipersFor example, actress, director, producer and writer Natalie Portman “had it all” but faced tough choices as a young person. The Israeli-American prodigy, fluent in four languages, had always valued education. Ms. Portman risked losing momentum in her acting career by earning her psychology BA at Harvard while filming Star Wars. “I don’t care if [college] ruins my career,” she told the New York Post. “I’d rather be smart than a movie star.” Studying ballet since age four, Ms. Portman traded off dance for acting, only to be reunited with her childhood talent for Black Swan. Suddenly she was again engaged in intense ballet training to prepare for her Best Actress role. Throughout life, you never know when your muse will pay you a return visit.

childmime2. Evaluate the skill set. In fields where supply vastly outweighs demand, it is essential to be a talented freak of nature, with a sprinkling of luck and fortuitous connections. It is difficult for high schoolers and their parents to evaluate their performing arts skills accurately. A teen is frequently a big fish in a small pool, and objective vision can be so blurred by ego and wishful thinking. Parents can help by encouraging teens to test their arts chops in venues that offer objective feedback, and not projecting one’s own vanity onto one’s child. If you receive disappointing feedback, help your son or daughter digest it and consider a Plan B to prevent years of failure and heartbreak.

It is not the end of the world to realize that your child may not be the next Broadway star or Best Actor nominee. A person can relish the arts as a college and community player, an educator, an entertainment “suit,” or an enthusiastic audience member. Appreciating the arts is one of the unique joys of being human; one does not need to bring home a gold statue for the mantel to be forever changed by a play, a film, or a song. It goes with the privilege of being alive.

violinteacherEncourage your teen to consider a career in an area that not just evokes passion and purpose, but in a field where your student has a sufficient level of talent to succeed.  This is critical in the performing arts. For example, if your son or daughter is a technically exceptional cello virtuoso who is not particularly adept at communicating musical knowledge, he or she might belong in a symphony. But if your student is a solid cellist with a gift for teaching, he or she could be an inspiring music educator, influencing generations to come. Pedagogy is an art too, perhaps the greatest gift of all. Think Mr. Holland’s Opus. It is wise to follow the strongest passion and skill combination. However, every decision is so complex, individual and serenpiditous, I hesitate to make simplistic pronouncements. Life is filled with surprises.

3. Create opportunities to explore and gain expertise. Participation in high school ensembles and productions goes without saying. If your student can participate in distinguished activities beyond school, such as your state’s All-State music festival, while maintaining good grades, by all means encourage it. Such activities offer objective feedback, as well as raising your teen’s skills to a higher level.

ballerinaFor a serious performer, summer is a time for residential intensives offering quantum leap growth and fellowship with kindred spirits. The best programs include: NYU (Steinhardt or Tisch); Boston U  (Theater or Music); Emerson College; Summer at Eastman; Berklee College of Music; Syracuse Acting & Musical Theater; Crane SUNY Potsdam; Ithaca Summer Music Academy; NYSSA Summer Choral Studies SUNY Fredonia; Phila U of Arts; UNC School of the Arts; Northwestern HS Institute Theater Arts; U Michigan MPulse; U Cincinnati’s CCM Preparatory; Boston Ballet; Boston Conservatory Intensives; US Performing Arts Camps; USC Summer Theater Conservatory; American Music Abroad; Interlochen; and Idyllwilde. 

guywithmike4. Research colleges, universities and conservatories offering arts programs. The set of programs will be vary depending on which discipline your teen chooses, and at what level of concentration. Degrees for performance include: Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Acting, Dance, Musical Theater, Technical Theater, Cinema, or Bachelor of Music (BM) in Performance. If applying to performance programs, your student will need to build auditions into the already complicated college process. Degrees with a liberal arts orientation include Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Theater Arts or Film Studies. Degrees for arts education include Bachelor of Music Education (BME). A superlative resource for identifying schools with strong reputations in performing arts majors is Steven Antonoff’s The College Finder and its Web site,

Female Friends Having Lunch Together At The Mall5. Network with families who have “been there. The performing arts path is complicated and confusing. There is no need to re-invent the wheel by discovering all the alternatives, and experiencing all the possible pitfalls, firsthand. Your son or daughter is not the first, and will not be the last, to pursue Fame. Families whose performer is a few years ahead of yours are great resources for summer programs, audition coaches, schools, and agents. Many are willing to offer advice, so don’t be shy about asking!

Related reading: Creative Colleges: A Guide for Student Actors, Artists, Dancers, Musicians, and Writers by Elaina Loveland;  A Guide to College Choices for the Performing and Visual Arts by Ed Schoenberg; Career Opportunities in Theater and the Performing Arts by Shelly Field; and I Got In! The Ultimate Audition Guide for Acting and Musical Theater by Mary Anna Dennard.