In my final installment of spotlighting musical theater training at the college level, I spoke with Kevin Covert, the new director of musical theater at the Shenandoah Conservatory. Kevin is implementing some exciting changes to the training at Shenandoah that will set his program apart from other standard musical theater college curriculum. His background as a professional performer (Broadway’s “Memphis,” “Spamalot,” and more) make him keenly aware of the need to develop contemporary pop-rock singing styles in order for graduates to be relevant in today’s market.
When and why did there become a demand for a musical theater degree?
The MT degree at Shenandoah began over 45 years ago. We are a conservatory housed inside of a university and are also the host to a professional summer stock company, Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre. I believe that our mission statement beautifully identifies the reason that a degree in MT is vital: “As a community uniquely committed to rigor, nurture and innovation, Shenandoah Conservatory inspires artistic and scholarly excellence, preparing talented students for successful careers in the arts.” The popularity of musical theater in the United States is growing every year, and to train young artists to be well rounded and well prepared for the business is what we aim for at Shenandoah.
What is the SU philosophy about how to best educate young MT artists?
Our philosophy is to make sure that every student is trained diligently in all areas of the art form: acting, singing, and dancing. We recently restructured our curriculum to make sure that all three disciplines are included each and every semester over the course of the degree. Additionally, we want to make certain that the students are healthy, both physically and mentally. We have a pretty wonderful open door policy at Shenandoah where we encourage our students to come and talk to us about their growth, needs, and concerns as college students. One of my favorite aspects of SU is that we celebrate the individual in the arts. We want every student to grow and succeed at their own pace and on their own path. It is so important to have a healthy mental outlook to the business of musical theater. We try to train not only well-rounded performers but well-balanced citizens of the theater community.
How do you stay current in your training?
It is our duty as educators in the field of musical theater to know what is current in this ever-changing art form. We are fortunate enough to have several Broadway veterans on our faculty. Members of our faculty have been “in the trenches” and know first hand what is required to succeed in this business.We constantly are researching and watching for the latest trends in the world of musical theater. In addition to educating the students, we are still active actors, directors, and choreographers working across the country to ensure that we are keeping up with the professional side of the business. Every year we bring in top casting directors, agents, and directors who are working in the Broadway and TV/film industry to share their knowledge with our students. We really monitor the trends in musical theater and adjust our teaching philosophies to encompass what is current in the world of musical theater.
What sets SU apart from other MT training programs?
I think that by stressing the importance of all three areas of musical theater and providing the necessary training to make each student grow as artists in each individual discipline is a great advantage that we have at Shenandoah University. We have an incredible faculty that is dedicated to student growth and are also wonderful mentors to our students. Shenandoah Conservatory’s BFA in musical theater is the only program in the country dedicated to Broadway’s most popular and fastest growing genre, the pop/rock musical. There is a huge influx of new work in the industry that is being written by rock stars.
We not only train the student in the Golden Age and Contemporary style of the genre, we are lucky to have Matt Edwards on our faculty. Matt wrote “So You Want to Sing Rock and Roll,” and is the leading authority on training students to maintain vocal health while singing this very demanding style of musical theater. Additionally, we dedicate part of our curriculum to the “business of the business.” We aim to educate our students to have not only the necessary skills to audition and work professionally but also to understand exactly how the business side of the industry works.
What are the key components that your graduates value most?
I believe that our graduates leave Shenandoah with the knowledge that they are well prepared for the industry, but that they also have a home to come back to whenever they need it. Though I am only entering my second year as the director of Musical Theatre at Shenandoah, I love that I can share my knowledge and connections with the students that just graduated. The fact that they feel welcome to continue to ask questions from me and the other incredible faculty at SU only strengthens our mission and goals as a top training ground for MT. Our graduates know that even after they have left the halls of SU, they still have a foundation on which to rely no matter what they pursue in their lives and careers.
What do industry professionals expect when they meet a Shenandoah graduate?
Industry professionals can expect a well-trained and well-prepared artist who above all else is a kind and caring individual. They can expect to meet a professional with the highest integrity who is also a beautiful person. We create an environment at SU that is welcoming and supportive.
Any specific training techniques you can share?
In addition to our pop/rock vocal training, our students are immersed in a uniquely comprehensive two-year Meisner acting technique sequence of courses led by such faculty as Master Meisner teacher and professor of acting, Larry Silverberg. The addition of three Broadway veterans to our faculty has helped to strengthen our outreach to the musical theater industry. With a reputation for excellence in pre-professional training and a constant eye on the ever-evolving industry, the musical theater program at Shenandoah Conservatory has become broadly recognized for extraordinary artistry and innovation.
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