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Female DJ using mixer during live DJ set


Asian female singer in studio with mic


Young female Pianist at piano


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Audio Engineer

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Music Producer

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Record Producer

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Opera Singer

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Personal Manager

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Music Teacher

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Director of A&R

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Sound Technician

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Radio DJ

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When the vast majority of people go to see a concert, a play, or a musical, they focus solely on whoever they came to see.

This person, whether they’re an Actor or a Singer, is surely giving them a great show and they are the reason there’s a spotlight in the first place. But there are dozens, perhaps even hundreds of people, who work behind the scenes to put on what the thousands in attendance end up seeing.

A big player who often gets overlooked is the Lighting Designer — it’s a little-understood but incredibly important role that can be one of the most exciting for those who love making wonderful performances even better.

Stage lighting design is a specific, difficult, and technical (but fantastic) job, and it’s one that, like everything else, requires years of study. It’s easy to figure out what to study for acting or singing careers but where does one go to learn about how to live behind the curtain and ensure everything happening on stage is the best it can be?

The best stage lighting design schools are:

  • New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts
  • Boston University
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • University of California, Irvine, Claire Trevor School of the Arts
  • Rutgers’ Mason School of the Arts
  • CalArts’ School of Theater
  • Shenandoah University
  • University of Connecticut’s School of Fine Arts

New York University, Tisch School of the Arts

Location: New York City, NY

Before even diving into the actual courses connected to this degree, this option belongs at the top of the list for a number of obvious reasons. New York University is one of the best schools in the country, and people come from all around the world to study there.

The same can easily be said for Tisch, the art school within NYU, which has a name almost as synonymous with greatness (if not more so) than the larger institution it is a part of.

When you’re studying something related to entertainment, if you can end up at a school in one of the major hubs in the country, such as New York City or Los Angeles, you will have a better shot at scoring internships, jobs, and finding other programs where you can study. Networking will be much, much easier.

It’s not necessarily a must, but where else will stage lighting design be more important than just down the road from Broadway and some of the nation’s most prestigious concert venues?

The lighting design option fits under the Department of Design for Stage and Film at the legendary school, and it is one of several options for those who are looking to work behind the scenes in a more technical manner.

Not all of the four options (Set Design, Costume Design, Lighting Design and Production Design) are used in equal measure when it comes to the music world, though some of the biggest names in the business will require all of them, so there may be opportunities!

New York University’s Lighting Design program may be one of the most comprehensive out there, and in order to secure a degree in this specific field, there are over 20 courses having to do with lighting that must be completed.

This may sound intimidating, but when you’re done with everything and you have your degree in hand, you’ll surely be glad you took the extra time to do well in classes like Computer Assisted Design, Composers, Choreographers, and Designers, and even Playreading.

Boston University

Location: Boston, MA

Among the many, many, many colleges in Boston, its namesake university still stands out as an excellent educational institution, and while many might not think of it first for the arts, it has many top-notch programs of study, including the stage lighting design field.

Unlike at New York University, Boston University’s lighting design major falls under the Theatre Department, so it’s more focused on helping students work behind the scenes on plays and musicals, as opposed to concerts…though this doesn’t mean a degree from this school will limit you to Broadway and the like.

The skills you can learn at BU will be applicable to many scenarios, and it is through networking, internships, and future jobs you can take your career in the direction you want.

If the idea of getting a degree with the word “theatre” on it (yes, spelled with an -re, not an -er) scares you, take comfort in knowing that within this diploma, students must choose a number of electives, and there are more music-focused options than any other.

While they won’t make up the majority of your courses, those participating in this program can opt to choose their extra classes from four groups: Architecture, Directing, Drama Literature, or Music Appreciation, and looking to this last item on the list can help when you begin looking for jobs in the music world.

Depending on your plans and what you end up working out with your advisor, you may be able to secure a minor in music, and if not, you can still select as many music-oriented classes as possible, talking them up later in cover letters and so on.

Filling elective spots with courses like Music and Culture, Popular Music & Culture, Interdisciplinary Topics in Music History, and even the more general Music & Society could all be helpful later.

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Carnegie Mellon University

Location: Pittsburgh, PA

While Pittsburgh might not be where you imagined your musical career would begin, it’s worth the move to put a name like Carnegie Mellon on your resume. The school is internationally renowned in pretty much everything at this point, including its lighting design program.

While other schools may focus their attention on getting their students real-world experience (such as New York University, where concert venues and Broadway are only a few minutes away), Carnegie Mellon’s attention is on the latest technology, which seems to help it stand out in the crowded field.

Stage lighting design is a healthy mix of instinct, old-school know-how and experience, and, now, more than ever, technology.

Those working behind the lights on theater shows and concerts can do more with computers than ever before when it comes to creating an unforgettable experience for the audience, and it’s important young people just getting into the field these days not only understand how important the role tech will play in their future employment will be, but also how to actually use the latest programs.

Often, many courses of study give students a fantastic look at history and teach them how to think conceptually, but it is only in real-world applications that people thrive and find incredible jobs. Carnegie Mellon makes it a point to highlight their big focus on the latest tech, which will absolutely be useful when going out into the world and working.

University of California, Irvine, Claire Trevor School of the Arts

Location: Irvine, CA

Since a college located in New York City, the center of the theater world, was highlighted above, it’s only fair that a university near Los Angeles, where most film and TV is created, should also end up on this list. Both cities are great for music as well, so earning a degree in lighting design and living in either of these places is a pretty good idea when it comes to your future career.

UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of Arts offers a Masters in Fine Arts in Design, and students have a number of options when it comes to where they’d like to hone their studies. They can go for Scene Design, Costume Design, Sound Design, or Lighting, which is obviously our focus.

While a three-year master’s program may sound intimidating (and justly so), a degree of this caliber can do amazing things for anyone, though you need to be sure it’s what you want to stick with before you jump into a commitment like this.

If you’re looking at undergraduate degrees for the first time, the idea of going to UC Irvine to secure this master’s can stay in the back of your mind but don’t worry about it just yet. If, however, you already have a related degree, or if you’ve been working behind the lights in theater, film, TV, or music, this could be just what you’re looking for.

A description of the UCI program states it focuses on the “creative, practical, theoretical, digital, scientific, philosophical, and psychological aspects of the nature of light.” That’s exactly what you want: a degree showing you ever side of your industry, and which lets you come away with a better understanding of every facet of the business.

Other Schools

While I may have only highlighted four schools above, I feel they all have something truly special to offer for those looking to make a living from stage lighting design.

Whether it’s location or name or even the curriculum (which should be the most important thing when it comes to a school), those options I shared above should be at the top of your list when you begin the search for where you’ll study and earn your stage lighting design degree, though they are by no means the only places from which you’d be lucky to earn a degree.

If those four schools don’t impress you, or if you’re simply looking for more, you should also check out stage lighting design programs at Rutgers’ Mason School of the Arts, CalArts’ School of Theater, Shenandoah University, and the University of Connecticut’s School of Fine Arts, all of which are definitely worthy of looking at.

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