How to Survive a Performing Arts Degree

March 7, 2017

 

 

Anyone who has ever studied a performing arts degree will undoubtedly have gotten this response from at least one person “You study arts? Wow that’s so cool, is it just like being on Glee?” I studied Contemporary Music at a university for performing arts, with my instrument being vocals. Whenever I told anyone this, their response was usually along the lines of this. Which is understandable when all you’ve seen of performing arts education is what they show on TV or in movies, but it couldn’t be more different from reality. To be fair, there are a few similarities. People do sing in the hallways, there are constantly dancers contorting themselves into impossible stretches around every corner, actors deliver grand monologues on their way to class and walking past the practice rooms is like turning a radio dial through all the different music stations. However, the similarities end there. Performing arts is competitive, it is exhausting and you have to be switched on and ready to perform all the time. I’m not saying it’s all bad – in fact my years at university were some of the best of my life so far, but there were many challenges and obstacles along the way. Today I thought I’d share a few things I learned throughout my time at university, so whether you’re just starting out your degree or whether you’re nearly finished, hopefully these tips and tricks will be useful for you.

 

1. Take it one day at a time

 

When studying performing arts, there are a lot of different elements at play. For example, you not only have the written/analytical aspect of your degree (which is largely what regular degrees revolve around) but you also have the performance aspect. As a result of this, you are going to be busy. You’ll have essays to write, history to learn, theory to understand as well as performance technique and pieces to learn, group work to participate in and many, many other things. You literally will not have the brain space to be stressing about the next week or the next month of your degree, so for the sake of your poor brain, take it one day at a time. Focus on what you can do right now, rather than what is coming up next.

 

2.  Remember that art is subjective

 

What I mean by this is that people like different things and art is interpreted differently from one person to the next – what I like is not necessarily what you like. Unfortunately, your lecturers are not immune to subjectivity of art, and they are trying their best to grade you according to the curriculum they’ve been supplied with. So no matter how hard they try to be objective, there will undoubtedly always be an element of individual preference in their grading. Which is understandable when you look at it from at outsider’s perspective, but when you are in the situation it can feel pretty awful. So take what you can from their grading, learn as much as possible but don’t take it personally. Remember that at the end of the day, they are not the only audience that matters. If they don’t love your art, that’s okay! Not everyone is going to, but there’ll be plenty of people who do – your artistic value is not determined by one person’s opinion.

 

3. Technique is not art

 

As you go through your degree, you will realise more and more that technique and creativity are entirely different things. Technique is absolutely something that can be learned and expanded upon to reach certain goals and milestones in your craft, but technique is not creative. Technique is a means by which you express your creativity, and creativity cannot be taught in a classroom. So remember that wherever you’re at with your technique, it does not decrease the value of your art and your creative vision.

 

4. DO NOT COMPARE YOURSELF  

 

Please, please, please for the love of your sanity, do not compare yourself to your peers. Comparison from one artist to another is like trying to compare a bike and an apple. They are entirely different and serve entirely different purposes, so comparing them seems like a ludicrous idea. The same goes for comparing yourself with another artist. You have different visions, different strengths and different artistic preferences, so why on earth would you compare them? Instead, compare yourself to you. How much have you learned and improved since you started your degree? How much have you improved this week? I promise you, this is a much healthier way to go about it. Celebrate your wins, rather than wishing you had someone else’s.

 

5. Caffeinate

 

Chances are, when doing an art degree, you’re going to have to develop a fairly serious caffeine addiction. Not to look cool or edgy or anything, just to be able to get your ass out of bed in the morning. Art degrees require long hours, both at university for your classes, as well as your own practice and study time, and if you do any kind of music degree, you will likely be required to go to extra rehearsals and performances outside of your required class time. Then factor in work, social time and things like sleeping and eating, and you can see that you’re going to be very busy. This means a lot of late nights and early mornings, so however you choose to do it, you need to find a way to stay awake in those 8.30 am classes.

 

6. Take time out

 

Looking back on my degree, I have no idea how I managed. I was studying full time plus going to extra performance commitments, working three casual jobs, volunteering at my church, studying and practicing for uni and somehow fitting in a fairly decent social life. I was basically firing on all cylinders all the time and getting an average of 6 hours of sleep a night. And while the adrenaline kept me going for a while, it all resulted in the most stressful, anxious and difficult time of my life. My last semester at uni was a crazy time for me, full of ups and downs and a heck of a lot of late nights. So the best advice I can give to anyone studying in the arts field is to take some time out every now and again. For the sake of your mental health, slow down and unwind at least once a week. Put aside your work and your practice for a little while and CHILL OUT. However you best relax, make time for it. Whether that’s hanging out with friends, having dinner with your family, watching a movie or reading a book – whatever it is, prioritise it or you may go insane.

 

7. Remember why you love your art

 

In a performance based course you are taught to critically analyse and pick apart every performance you do and see in order to learn and grow from them. Which can be a very good thing – looking back and critiquing my own performances was a great way for me to hear and see what could be improved for myself, rather than just hearing other people’s critiques. However, too much of this critiquing and you can forget the reason you started your craft in the first place. It can become so much about being the best, about improving your technique that you forget what made you love it. So when you begin feeling like you hate what you’re doing or that you want to give up, remind yourself why you started. Remember what it was about your craft that drew you in, and don’t let the critical thinking get in the way of that.

 

8. Do it for yourself

 

Lastly, make sure you’re doing this degree for yourself, because you want to improve your craft, because you want to take your art to the next level. Getting into a performing arts degree to please someone else, or even just because you feel like it’s what you should be doing is not the best idea, because when things get tough (and unfortunately, they will get tough) your only motivation to keep going will be to please other people. And from experience, I know that’s not enough to keep you going. You have to do it for you, and no one else. Not to please your parents or your lecturers or society, but for the sole purpose of pleasing yourself and pursuing your dreams and goals.

 

I really hope this has been helpful to you and I wish you all the luck in the world as you continue your studies. Remember that your worth is not based on other people’s opinions of you, and that your art is yours and yours alone – no one else can create quite like you. Happy creating!! 

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