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Master's Program in Choral Conducting

Hello All
My name is Keaton Connell and I am currently a junior at a small university in Iowa. I will graduate in May of 2013 with a BA in Music specializing in Choral Conducting. My plan is to go straight into a Master's program then take a couple of years off to gain some professional experience and eventually complete a DMA in choral conducting. As an undergraduate pursuing choral conducting, I am receiving a lot of great conducting experience. By the time I graduate next may I will have had three semesters conducting a piece with the University's top two vocal ensembles which include the University Chorale and the University's Chamber Singers. I have been researching graduate programs rather vigorously this past year, but I would still like to get as much information about as many different programs as possible. So if anyone has any suggestions, information, or personal experiences with a particular conductor or Choral Conducting programs they would like to share I would greatly appreciate it! 
Thank You
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on April 7, 2012 6:30pm
Keaton:  Congratulations on finding an undergrad program that has given you such great experience, and on thinking well ahead about your career preparation.
Just be sure to research the masters programs carefully.  Some of them are very specifically and narrowly aimed at students in music education, or those considering church jobs, and neither sounds like it's your primary interest.  Those schools often save the real nitty-gritty conducting study for their doctoral programs.  That was the case at Indiana when I was there in the '70s, and when my brother-in-law was there in the late '60s.  (I don't know if it's still the same today, though.)  So you might (or might not) get more individual attention at a school that does not offer the doctorate.  I know you'll get good advice about that from people who are currently studying in different programs.
And most schools probably prefer that doctoral students have already spent some time out in the Real World to get some of the rough edges knocked off, as well, so that part of your plan also sounds good.  But of course you have to understand that if you don't have an education degree, the opportunities for professional experience are a bit limited.  But all that means is that you have to search for them--or make up your own!
Best of luck in your search!
on April 8, 2012 9:16am
Mr. Connell, you might want to reconsider the period in which you go out into the real world and cut your conducting teeth.  Any Master's program worth pursuing will have many applicants.  You can be pretty sure that most of those applicants will have experience outside of an academic setting, with audio and video recordings of several live performances to prove that they will be vital within the program.  These will be part of the Master's application and will actually show those who make the decisions of who to accept what you can do.  What matters to them, is not how well you did as an undergrad, but whether you can put your knowledge and skill to work.
Until last May, I been out of college for a quarter century (getting my Bachelor's in June) and had taken no conducting courses, but had watched and asked many questions in all those years of professional singing.  Then, I took over two community-type choirs within six months of each other, and put my skill to the test.  After two seasons, I applied for a Master's program in conducting and sent video of those choirs' performances as part of the application.  The panel was not so interested in me (out of school so long, probably forgot all of my music theory, no conducting credits) until one of them finally viewed my video.  The "before and after" recordings were what got me an actual audition; the panel had seen that what I have is practicable knowledge and the skills to do what a Master's program should teach me to do better. 
This process is kind of like getting a doctorate in conducting; no matter how much you research you have done, papers written, etc., most programs will not award the degree unless the student has shown themself able to put what they have learned to work.  At Yale, for instance, these students have to go out into the world and work, at the same time leading music outside their regular job and proving that they can build a choir from the ground up.  If that requirement is not met, no DMA.  The Master's programs I checked out were like this, but required something like that to get in.  Those programs have the most competition to get in, so the skill level of MM applicants is high, ergo more expected from the students. Also, unless you form your own group at the college/university, you probably won't get much conducting time.  Luckily, I will be going to school forty-five minutes from home, so I don't have to give up my church choir or concert choir, which makes me more attractive to the program, as they know my choirs require four hours of rehearsal each week.  The other conducting students will be lucky to get and hour.
Please understand that mentioning my own situation is to indicate to you the importance of experience in your Master's application.  I would also suggest that you study all sorts of religious music and hustle up a church job wherever you decide to go.  This will give you weekly rehearsals (the hardest part) and performances to lead: practical experience and an outlet in which to apply what you are learning.  Lastly, sing, too- There is no better experience for a conductor than to know, from the other side of the podium, what works and what doesn't, what frustrates the heck out of the singers and what makes them want to follow you.
Wishing you success!
on April 8, 2012 11:44am
Keaton:  I was happy to see Thom's comments and his slightly different advice, most of which I can certainly agree with.  The emphasis will be different at different schools, of course, and you should expect that, but you may certainly ASK whether they favor candidates who have been working in the field for a while.  I've been told that our own School of Business strongly favors MBA candidates who have spent time out in the Real World, because there's a huge gulf between theory and practice, as they know very well.
Yes, they are unlikely to admit Masters candidates who lack the basic musical training needed, including undergraduate conducting experience.  It sounds as if you should be in good shape with that, and you should be collecting OR MAKING audition recordings of your work.  Our own Music Education students (we have no undergraduate specialization in just conducting) have a weekly Lab Ensemble in which they conduct the other students, both instrumental and vocal, and can begin to build a portfolio with the kinds of things that Thom mentions.  One question that will ALWAYS be in evaluators' minds is whether they will be able to take a given candidate and bring him or her, in the time allowed for the degree, to the level of professional competence they feel is needed. 
But there are two sides to that, as there are to most things.  Yes, you have to show that you've learned the basics and are ready to go beyond them.  But they will also be very suspicious of a "know-it-all" candidate who THINKS that he or she has nothing more to learn.  The extra work and extra time required to break down that mindset may very well work AGAINST an otherwise highly qualified candidate.  In other words, attitude counts!  (I have never been one of those who decides who gets accepted, but I've worked closely with those who do, heard lots of comments and not a few discussions, and KNOW that this is part of their thinking.)  Nothing turns a graduate professor on more than a candidate who honestly WANTS to learn and is willing to work to learn.
Thom's suggestion of looking for a church job is excellent, since organization and people skills are at least HALF of a conductor's job in the real world, and usually take up MORE than half the time!  In fact, since you have  a full school year left, you might want to explore looking around for a possibility in your own area, even an unpaid one or an internship.  It does look VERY good on your Curriculum Vitae.
All the best,
on April 8, 2012 9:56am
It's always to one's benefit to have some practical experience teaching before pursuing a graduate program.  Certainly you should do that before pursuing a DMA.   If you really want to go right on to graduate school, there are lots of good programs out there.  University of Iowa is right in your area, and quite strong.  Others to consider would be Michigan State, University of Michigan, and Univ of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.  Moving out of the midwest, consider University of Southern California in Los Angeles.  The program is excellent, the entire dept. is strong,  and the environment is eye-opening!  There are also good choral programs in Florida as well, and also the University of Arizona in Tucson.  Good luck in picking one!  
  Try to find someone who has gone through the program(s) you are looking at.  If you visit the campus, get to grad students currently in the program to see how they like it/are benefitting from it (or aren't). 
on April 8, 2012 10:20am
Hey Keaton, 
Check out my website it should be helpful to you in your seeking of choral conducting masters programs. Also if you have any questions I can answer them with quite an extensive knowledge of programs.
Alan Davis
on May 8, 2012 6:13pm
What is the average wage of someone with a Masters or DMA in choral conducting?
on May 8, 2012 9:28pm
That would depend on whether they are working at a major state or private university-- or bussing tables, striping highways, or some such other rewarding career.
on May 9, 2012 6:37am
What Paul said!  In the college ranks someone with a NEW degree will come in as an Assistant Professor, if the job is tenure track, or an Instructor if it is not.  So the proper question would be the average wage (and benefits) of an Assistant Professor.  In the public schools probably 50% higher.  In private schools or church jobs, probably considerably lower.  And in any case probably 50% lower than a new engineer with only a B.Sc. degree.
All the best,
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