Guide to International Summer Programs

Dollars and Sense? – An Insider Guide to International Summer Programs

By: Caitlin Vincent

The international summer program has become an almost mandatory rite of passage for the young opera singer. Promising the opportunity to perform in Europe, solidify language skills, and expand musical horizons, the ISP is an essential stepping stone on the path to operatic success…or so we’re told.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that young vocalists flock to New York City during audition season to compete for the chance to make their European debut the following summer. Acceptances to programs like AIMS, Opera Festival di Roma and The Bel Canto Institute are proudly mentioned in Facebook statuses. Arias are memorized (Mozart for Austria, bel canto for Italy), and bags are packed (and repacked) with the perfect summer wardrobe for a six-week “grand tour.”

As a soprano, I’m no exception to the rule, having recently participated in a six-week summer program in Austria. Like all of the other singers in the program, I reveled in the culture shock of my new surroundings, practiced networking skills in bad German (“Entschuldigung, ich bin soprano sehr gut”), and happily tackled the massive “arias-that-I-should-learn” list that I had written on the plane.

After the program ended, I returned home with an antique beer stein, thirty-nine new Facebook friends, a slightly-improved German accent, and a reasserted enthusiasm for my craft as a singer. I had sung in masterclasses, taken lessons with different voice teachers, performed in a public concert, and received some valuable technical advice.

Yet, after the thrill of my European adventure started to fade into memory, I came face-to-face with the one thing that people always fail to mention when promoting international summer programs: the price.

Most ISPs cost anywhere between $2,000 and $6,000, depending on the length of the program and the renown of the faculty involved. Of course, the heftier price tags somehow always seem to correspond to the programs that look the best on your resume. Once you add in transportation costs, tickets to see “Don Giovanni,” and that expensive (but authentic) antique beer stein, it’s easy to wonder if those six weeks were really worth the money.

In order to pay for my ISP in Austria, I had to borrow $4,000 from my parents. It took two years of working three jobs in the middle of graduate school before I finally finished paying them back. And, not surprisingly, after mailing that final check, I was no longer convinced that it had indeed been “worth it.”

So, before you get swept up in a vision of yourself lounging in a gondola and sending a blank check to the ISP of your choice, consider the following questions:

1. Why are you going?

If your answer has anything to do with getting away from your parents, avoiding your summer job as a lifeguard, or succumbing to peer pressure, you might want to rethink your plans. These few months are a chance to truly focus on your music: no work, no school, no cell phone, and no distractions. Unless you’re prepared to get into an intensely musical state of mind, it won’t be worth it: you might as well cut out the music program completely and spend six weeks touring the continent.

2. How are you going to pay for it?

Unless you are independently wealthy, you should consider carefully before spending thousands of dollars on an ISP. Think of it as an investment: unless you are certain to double your money or at least break even in terms of musical progress, Goldman Sachs probably wouldn’t approve. And don’t forget to consider other uses for that tidy sum of money: my $4000 “investment” could have paid for 50 private voice lessons back in the good ole USA.

3. What do you expect to get out of it?

Before going to any summer program, you should establish a goal for yourself, a way for you to gauge whether or not the program was actually “worth it.” For example, set a goal to learn and perform a complete German song cycle. If you enter a program with a vague expectation of being recruited by a German opera house, you probably won’t be satisfied at the end of the summer.

4. Who are you going to study with?

Many singers make the mistake of studying with a big name teacher just for the sake of building their resume. Six weeks isn’t much, but it’s still plenty of time to foul up your technique and even damage your voice. Spend some time researching the available teachers and select the one who seems like the best technical fit. In the end, as long as you work with someone who helps you with your singing, your resume can wait.

For those of you who have already sent in a $6,000 deposit for eight weeks in Florence, don’t despair. ISPs are still a great way to explore new cultures, network with other performers, and focus on the craft of singing. I put emphasis on each of the three verbs in the previous sentence; and so should you. Then again, don’t be too hard on yourself if you didn’t make it past the first round of ISP auditions and have a summer of camp counseling to look forward to. You have the opportunity to make money, study a lot of music and find any hidden gems of teachers that don’t participate in summer programs.

In the end, it’s not about the location, the language, or even the chance to make a European debut: it’s about the ISP state of mind. If you can recreate that mentality on your own, it doesn’t matter if you’re practicing in view of the Wiener Staatsoper or vocalizing between lifeguarding shifts at the pool.

And if you still need an antique beer stein to commemorate your summer? Try Ebay.

More articles by Caitlin:

The “Rules” of Singing »

Some like it Fach »

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