Performing Arts in College

Rachel Breitweser ’03

April 28, 2017

Punahou College Counseling and Dance School, Music and Theatre Departments presented an evening devoted to performing arts in college. The forum for Academy students and their parents was centered around applying to college as a performing artist.

With 21st-century employers looking for creativity as a leadership quality, the notion of students who pursue creative tracks in college ending up as “starving artists” is losing ground. In fact, more arts majors do some work in their field than biology majors, as discovered by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP).

Accomplished music composer Dr. Jon Magnussen ’86 set the tone for the evening with a keynote address that described his journey as a performing artist. A graduate from the Juilliard School and assistant professor of music at University of Hawai‘i – West O‘ahu, Magnussen recalled the words of choral director Gary Heidel.

As a student at Punahou, Magnussen asked Heidel if he should pursue a major in music. Heidel’s response was, “Only do it if you can’t not do it,” meaning an overriding passion is crucial for artists. Magnussen also shared how his definition of success has matured as he has and now hinges on how well he can work with others. “If there’s a thread through my work as an artist, it’s collaboration,” he said. When people tell him that his work moved them and was meaningful to them, Magnussen thinks, “All of this journey has been worthwhile.”

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A panel of college admissions representatives from Pacific Lutheran University, DePaul University, University of Oregon and Chapman University answered questions about their schools’ application process and offerings in performing arts. Most require a creative supplement to an application such as a live audition, interview or a portfolio.

The representatives described different avenues students could pursue in performing arts, from a BFA to a B.A. to a minor. “Performing arts programs are demanding and work for students who are strongly passionate in the arts. It’s not for the faint of heart. But if a student goes into a different major, they can still feel like a part of it,” said associate director of admissions Armen Sarkisian from Chapman University.

Christopher Obenchain, associate director of college counseling at Punahou, pointed out to the audience that none of the representatives were from New York. “There’s misconception that you need to go to New York as artists, but the performing arts happens wherever there are people. Your resume is built wherever you live,” he said. However, for the application process, Obenchain reminded parents that live auditions will most likely take place outside Hawai‘i, such as in Los Angeles.

Breakout groups focused separately on dance, music and theater. Panelists included alumni, faculty and college representatives who gave helpful advice and encouragement.

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“Latch onto a good mentor. You can find them everywhere. Find a person who believes in you, who wants to work with you. It makes all the difference in the world,” said Punahou theater director Paul Palmore.

Obenchain, who pursued theater and speech in college, commented, “A BFA is more rigorous and focused. There’s business training and the goal is to get you working. With a B.A. it can be hard to get caught up. For example, it might take 15 years to get to same place. So, sometimes it’s better to decide right now if you want to commit yourself to the BFA.”

“You think something is going to go one way, but it doesn't. I received a piano scholarship in Paris, but had to stop because I was physically unable to continue, but it led me to a career in composition,” Magnussen said.

“Aspiration is a practice. You know you can always be better, and people might be better than you, but it doesn't matter. You are who you are. Through every opportunity, you get to learn who you are and have the opportunity to discover something new. My parents recognized a drive in me. If that's in you, you owe yourself and the world to explore that,” shared Helen Chao-Casano, director of the Music School.

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