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A "Real" Degree

Updated: May 15, 2023

So often, parents approach me fearful about “allowing” their student to pursue a degree in the performing arts. A student recently shared, “My parents want me to get a degree in something that makes money”. I look back and am grateful that my parents allowed this first-generation college student to pursue a degree in a field that brought me joy. I was adamant if I was going to continue on to college after 13 years of schooling, it better be to study something I loved.

This topic is often brought back to the forefront. People, in general, refer to certain degrees or majors as valued or "real" and others as not. Unfortunately, performing arts degrees are often wrongly classified as lacking value. I firmly disagree.

Not only are these beliefs dated, they reveal a misunderstanding about the value of the performing arts, ignorance about the components of a degree program and lack of information regarding skills learned through study within these fields.

Musical theatre majors, especially in liberal arts colleges, require the same general education courses as any other degree. It’s further along when the student dives into the specific content area that the courses become more specialized and students begin to work within their passions. This is the case with pretty much any major. But, just because a student chooses “Pre-law”, “International Business” or “Microbiology” as their area of passion just makes their passion and degree program different, not wrong, and definitely not foolish or illegitimate.

As I get older, I’m reminded more and more of the things I learned from the Bachelor of Music in Musical Theatre degree program I experienced at Stetson University beyond developing as a strong singer, actor, performer, director, voice teacher, and acting coach. The “other” things I learned that apply outside of the performing arts field have been equally valuable.

Most non-performance majors might, if they’re lucky, take a single public speaking course during their college tenure. Contrast that with hours upon hours of courses in performance and “presenting for an audience” that comprise most performing arts degrees.

Typical undergraduate degree seekers participate in occasional collaborative projects. Performance majors spend many hours a semester in courses that value and celebrate collaboration. Whether it’s in a music ensemble, scene study course, performance group, or dance ensemble, collaboration is central to success within these art forms. It’s also a special type of collaboration. Unlike the group project where everyone is assigned a task and some people in the group just coast, the performing arts has the ability to create amazing individual motivation that not only encourages individual achievement but equally prioritizes group excellence.

Performance-based assessment is considered one of the most valid, authentic and complex types of assessment an instructor can use to assess student understanding. In a typical course, most non-performance majors might have a single evaluation based on authentic representation of mastery of concepts, whereas performance majors are evaluated using this model throughout their course of study.

Business professionals spend money and time in remedial improvisational theatre training or "preparing for the interview" workshops to gain the skills they simply didn’t develop through a typical business degree program. Theatre and musical theatre majors use improvisational games almost daily through warm-ups and rehearsal, engraining a high level of comfort thinking on their feet, honing listening skills and developing relationally. In addition, "making a first impression" is something performers practice in every audition or dance call.

What’s even more impressive is that these experiences translate into real-world, marketable, skills. Performance majors are often the most engaging public speakers—an ability that is an asset in numerous career fields. Experience working in a team setting to accomplish goals collaboratively is a requirement for a multitude of jobs. “Performance Reviews”, strike fear into the hearts of many, but they are nothing new to the performer. “Yes, and” is an adage actors know well, and with it comes the understanding that listening, reacting and relating come with the territory in any job setting. All these things, plus the added bonus of skills that help them land the job on the front end because they interview strongly.

To top it all off, performing arts majors accomplish their main objective: becoming better performers within the fields of dance, theatre, music, musical theatre or other performance art. Honing skills in memorization, pedagogical understanding, music, empathy, exploration of human emotion at levels most others dare not explore and more. Acquired under the umbrella of a creative career, where problem-solving, innovation and critical thinking are expected and celebrated and resulting in an undergraduate degree. You know, the same type of 4-year degree that no one is embarrassed to proclaim their student is pursuing? Like Engineering, Business or Pre-med?

From personal experience, when I wasn’t able to find gigs as an actor, I was able to do so as a singer, and vice-versa. Similarly, when I began exploring the world of education, the ability to do more than one thing made me marketable and provided opportunities to teach theatre, music, or both. Creatively finding work, making my own work, leveraging the latest technology to devise new work--these skills continue to benefit me today as I've used what I learned through my Musical Theatre degree in every job since college, whether as professional performer, retail associate, Disney cast member, arts educator, mom, theatrical director, small business owner, or executive.

Maybe they’re right. Degrees in the performing arts AREN’T real degrees.

They’re pretty unreal.

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