Recently it seems there are all kinds of performing arts schools popping up, and the sheer variety can be baffling! This is especially true for parents with budding thespians, musicians and dancers who have never experienced the performing arts world themselves.
So how do you know which school is right for your child?
I have been asked this question many times both by students looking to join a school and by those who are already enrolled in performing arts classes but don't know whether it's worth the time or money they're investing. In response, I ask them the following six key questions, talking through the beginning decision making stages of choosing a school-type, discussing finance and time commitments, all the way through to what actually goes on in class and whether it's worth their money. Applying these to your own search may help create a clearer image of what your child wants and needs and, hopefully, find a school that suits just right!
The points made below offer advice based on personal experience and opinion, and are intended not as gospel but as a guide that students have found helpful in assessing potential schools in the past! As with everything, your own experience and opinion may vary.
1. WHAT DOES YOUR CHILD WANT TO LEARN AND DO?
The variety of performing arts school is an ever-growing entity! There are Theatre schools, Musical Theatre schools, Drama schools, Film & Television schools, Music schools, Contemporary Music schools, Rock schools, Songwriting schools, Voice Academies, Dance Schools, even Circus schools... The classes they offer individually can result in an even larger conundrum of choice!
So, how do you choose? Where, oh where do you begin?
Simply asking your child what exactly it is that they enjoy and want to be doing is the best way to start your search, and will help cut down the mind-boggling list of possibilities straight away! Be as specific as possible. Do they want to be performing on stage or in front of a camera? Do they want to be performing musicals or just acting? Do they want to learn songs or write songs? What genre or style of dance/music/drama are they interested in? With your answers in hand, you can target a specific niche in the vast spectrum of PA schools. Get hold of timetables and class content, and enquire to find out whether they cater to your child's specific interests.
2. IS THIS FOR THE FUTURE OR JUST FOR FUN?
It's also important to consider whether this is an after school, part-time, or full-time pursuit. Simply put, right at this moment, does this seem to be a life-long ambition for your child? Or is it more of a hobby they will enjoy in their spare time? This answer will affect the type of school you approach.
Alongside their varying interests, performing arts schools also cater to differing levels of student commitment - from the after school club, to the part-time/Saturday school, to the full-time enrolment in performing arts education. Learning the differences can help make sure that not only the category of performing arts but the type of school you are choosing matches the ambitions and enjoyment of your child.
Of course, with younger children it's harder to answer questions about the future, and the majority of schools are aware of this. Some classes may start teaching from four years old, others from six years, others from eight. The professional full-time school will usually not accept students below the ages of eleven or even fourteen, in the hopes that those children that attend are more aware of their future ambitions and ready to commit. If your child is too young to answer the above question, then ask yourself what talents they show and how you would like to help nurture these talents; perhaps you are wanting something such as part-time school with in-house agency to give them a chance to explore a potential, professional future, or maybe a simple introduction to the arts to learn new skills and develop their confidence is more suitable (e.g. an after school club).
For children old enough to know their future ambitions, a more in-depth decision can be made! Are they wanting to commit fully to a performing arts education? If so, are they ready to do so? Or do they wish to continue in normal education whilst pursuing their interest in the performing arts on the side? Perhaps they'd rather pursue performing arts at a later stage, be it a specialist college when they are sixteen or a performing arts degree when they turn eighteen. If they do decide and finances allow for them to enter into a performing arts school full time, the tricky question of whether their talent matches their ambition comes into play. Auditions are a requirement for many performing arts schools, and not only for the full-time kind but also part-time and Saturday schools. Renowned full-time schools, such as Italia Conti and Sylvia Young's, regularly offer full and half scholarships for those whose talents and commitment are proven. If your child is slightly older (in their teens) and is whole-heartedly committed to a career in music with the talent to match, you may want to consider institutions such as the Brit School.
In terms of part-time, a more professional working performing arts school will ask for a higher level of commitment from yourself and your child, both in terms of time and effort. In general, they also ask for more money - a reflection on the standard of teaching and their view at creating professionals of the future.
But how do you know if the teaching matches the price tag?
3. WHAT IS THE QUALITY OF TEACHING?
One of the first enquiries to make is who will actually be helping sculpt your child's talent. What professional background do they have? How long have they been teaching? How long have they been in the industry? Is there proof they successfully work with children? Are you able to sit in on a class and see firsthand how they teach?
Having experienced a variety of performing arts teachers from various backgrounds and levels of professionalism myself (alongside being a teacher!), I believe a good quality teacher is one who has a mix of qualifications and experience in the discipline they teach. Their own experience in studying the art-form allows them an insight into how to teach it well (and perhaps how not to teach it). Professional experience can offer a better understanding of how lessons should transpose into the working world of performing arts; the more professional school, the more experienced you can expect the teachers to be. Less-professional schools may have qualified teachers but they may not have the same professional experience. This is by no means to say they are lesser teachers (they may, in fact, be better), but only that they may lack the industry insight that you're seeking if a prospective future career in performing arts is the route your child is working towards. It's also vital to remember that a wonderful, experienced performer may not be a wonderful, effective teacher. Teaching in itself is a craft and one that some master a lot easier than others. It's also a venture that many performers find themselves in at one time or another; some are passionate about the teaching, others are passionate about the money. So seek out reviews on teachers - if you can, enquire with other parents!
Judging whether a performing arts teacher is qualified may seem tricky. Begin by looking for a blend of qualifications and experience. Perhaps consider what the teachers themselves specialise in; does it match your child's interests?
4. WHAT DO THEY TEACH? HOW DO THEY TEACH?
Your child has made a decision. You know exactly what they wish to learn, you've settled on the right type of school to suit them, and you're happy that the teachers are qualified and work well with children. It's now time to consider how the lesson time is used.
If you are researching a multidisciplinary school – such as a Saturday Theatre school teaching Drama, Dance, and Singing – how long do they spend on each discipline? A regular Saturday school will usually provide 45 minutes to an hour in each class.
Do they begin each class with warm-ups? Is there any introduction to good technique? I have always believed a good sign of a good teacher is whether they instill good habits. Looking after the voice and the body comes into play no matter the performing arts discipline, and I really believe teachers should be engaging children is some kind of warm-up to prepare them both physically and mentally for the class. With dance, warming up and technique work is an obvious occurrence - it should be the same for other disciplines! Singing should begin with a warm-up and introduce children to the idea of technique through relaxed breathing, allowing them to notice when they are straining or pushing. Drama should begin by engaging in body and vocal warm-ups to prepare for the lesson ahead. Of course, technique work and warming up will not be as directed or as in-depth as in a private lesson, but it should be present to some extent!
It's also important to note the class content and how many students are regularly in each class. Is there an opportunity for one to one direction or feedback? The number of pupils affects the class content and, in turn, your child's development. If Drama, do they learn about different skills and techniques such as working with scripts, improvisation, monologues? Do they work on scenes in groups to get used to acting with others? Is the class more games than it is scene work? If Singing, do they simply learn the lyrics to songs in groups or are they taught how to sing and perform it well? Are they given the opportunity to sing solo and receive feedback? Of course, for a musical theatre school, one would expect the majority of songs learned to be from musicals but, if the school isn't specialist in terms of genre, is there a good range of music being learnt?
For any discipline, it's crucial to recognise how long is being spent learning and working on the same material - nobody wants to be running the same scene/dance/song for an entire term! But some classes/teachers do. I believe children should be introduced to different techniques and materials on a regular occasion, not only to keep their interest but to develop their skillset!
5. DO THEY OFFER PERFORMANCE OPPORTUNITIES?
If your child is wanting to join a performing arts school then it seems rather obvious to assume they want to be performing. If being on stage is a big factor for your child, it's therefore vital you know what performance opportunities are on offer!
In researching, ask: does the school put on regular shows? If so, what kind of shows? If it is a musical theatre school there may be variety shows, but optimally there should be an opportunity for children to experience musical theatre in its full! This kind of production will also introduce and offer the experience of auditioning, working with scripts, and working as a team in a cast of performers.
Some performing arts schools, such as the more professional part-time theatre school, may be linked to agencies or have their own in-house agency. Such a school offers the opportunity for children to take their experiences one step further, potentially engaging in the 'real world' of performing arts. Even if they don't attain any professional roles or work, being able to take part in auditions gives a flavour of what a future in the industry may be like.
6. IS IT WORTH THE MONEY?
It’s lovely to engage children in the performing arts; it offers them musicality, dramatic ability, friendships, expression, enjoyment and, most importantly, confidence. However, it can be a pricey pursuit! The above questions should allow you to assess whether or not what is on offer matches the asking price. Which leaves me with one final piece of advice...
Beware the performing arts schools that offer little for a large amount. Some schools can burn a very large hole in your pocket and they may do so because of an established name that is attached to them. However, their standards may not live up to their representation.
IF YOU’RE NOT READY TO COMMIT…
At a young age, children can change their interests as quickly as the weather. It's therefore easily understandable why parents feel trepidation in taking the plunge and purchasing a term's worth of lessons! So, if you're not quite ready to commit to your child's newfound interest, here's a few ways for them to tread the water and for you both to see if it's a long-living passion or a hastily forgotten hobby:
SUMMER SCHOOLS are a great way to see whether your child is really invested in making dance/drama/music a commitment. It will not only be a fun activity during the holidays but can introduce your child to how a production is put together and the amount of effort expected and required from them. It can also be a wonderful insight for yourself into your child’s hidden (or not so hidden) talents and into the way particular performing arts schools run!
AFTER SCHOOL CLUBS are just as handy as summer schools when it comes to assessing your child's interest. They also cost a lot less money. Whether it is a school run club or a local group, testing out potential passions here does no harm at a young age and, if they stick to it and show their interest is more than just a fleeting thought, you can take the next step into a more professional part-time/Saturday school.
TASTER SESSIONS may be offered by the schools you're interested in and come in handy when assessing whether the classes and teachers are worth it. They are also a great way to gauge your child's level of interest, whether they come out loving the class and the school, or enjoy the discipline but not the school, or decide that right now performing arts isn't for them.
ATTEND LOCAL PERFORMANCES. If there is a particular school you have in mind, attending their performances and productions before committing to pay for a term will give you an idea of the quality of teaching and the professionalism of the school in general. You will also have an insight into the enjoyment of the children attending.
IF YOUR CHILD IS ALREADY ATTENDING AND YOU’RE NOT QUITE SURE…
So you place your child in a theatre/rock/dance school and they've been attending for a term. They seem happy enough yet something just doesn’t feel right about it. Maybe they say in passing that they're bored, but you were certain that this Saturday school was just right for their interest in musical theatre and it comes with what appears to be an established name. How do you know whether it's the standard of the school or your child's interest that's slipping?
If you’re concerned about whether it is the best fit and your money is going to the right place, firstly ask your child if they are enjoying their time there! Follow that up with regularly enquiring what they have done in lessons; this will allow you to paint a picture of whether the effort to regularly develop new techniques and repertoire is being made or whether the school is churning out the same lesson for an entire term. Comparing experiences with other parents in the waiting room can help you in sussing out what seems to be amiss.
Attending their end of term or end of year performance will clue you in on what they have really been up to in classes. You can also gauge the overall standard of performance and compare how other children have been enjoying it/developing to your own child; it could just be that your child isn't as interested in the performing arts as they thought they were. Schools may also offer the opportunity to sit in on sessions for regular updates on their learning and for you to enjoy the work they have been doing - if they don't, ask if they've thought of offering it!
RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH...
Navigating the many different options of performing arts schools and classes for children can be a bit of a minefield, especially for the parent out of touch with the industry! My hope is the above six questions can help you narrow down the vast spectrum of choices on over today. In answering parents enquiries and in writing this post, I have come to realise there is no simple answer to finding a good performing arts school - it's all retrospective to what suits your child! The question we should be asking is how to find the right performing arts school. And the simple answer to that? Do your research.