Showing posts with label university. Show all posts
Showing posts with label university. Show all posts

Friday, November 5, 2010

Shirley Verrett 1931-2010: My college voice professor

Shirley Verrett was my voice teacher at the University of Michigan from 1999 to 2001. Even though I don't think she quite understood why I didn't want to be a professional opera singer, she kept me in her studio anyway. I realized early on that if she didn't think I was worth her time, I wouldn't have been there. I was honored to learn from her.

Verrett was a black woman in the world of opera when there were few. She was a black woman in the era of civil rights. She was a woman in an industry that didn't (and still doesn't?) really believe that a woman could have a successful personal and professional life.

Professor Verrett's office was covered in photographs reaching as far back into the 1950s showing herself onstage and posing with presidents, other famous opera singers and celebrities. She was fearless. And I learned as much from her vocally as I did from her about life.

She taught me that you can be as successful in your personal life as you can be in your career. You CAN BE a famous opera singer and be a wife and a mother at the same time. And if others tell you differently, it doesn't matter.

She also taught me that you should not allow yourself to be pegged in a corner if you do not want to be. Being labeled as a mezzo-soprano, a dramatic soprano and more, Verrett kept critics on their toes by tackling operatic roles that were unexpected for her vocal type. She appeared in music theater productions (she was in a production of Carousel with Taye Diggs and seemed more excited about that than anything else she ever did!) and encouraged her students to sing music theater.

Professor Verrett also valued beautiful and natural things. Her vocal technique was based on supporting the natural positions of the body. I know this is pretty common, but at the time I had been learning from a voice teacher in high school who got me to make funny faces when I sang. It's been an uphill battle to unlearn those habits ever since.

Verrett also loved clothes. She LOVED clothes. Her father was in the fashion industry and she had the opportunity to travel all over the world. So she managed to pick up some interesting garments along the way. It was fun to see what she wore to campus each week.

Shirley Verrett died yesterday November 4th in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She will be missed.

Here she sings Tosca at the Met in 1978 with Pavarotti and MacNeil.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

An interview with clarinetist SSgt. Harry Ong of "The President's Own" United States Marine Band

Let me introduce my good friend, Staff Sergeant Harry Ong, a clarinetist in the President's Own United States Marine Band. We went to the University of Michigan School of Music together and spent a good deal of time hanging out in Washington D.C. when I lived there in 2003-2004. He still lives in the Nation's Capital and is in his sixth year playing with the Marine Band.

If you’ve been following my blog for a few months, you know that I like to keep up with what my friends and former classmates are up to musically. It’s been interesting for me personally to watch Harry experience this unique job that is more than a “regular” symphony or band gig (my hat goes off to all them as well). Most of his six years with the Marine Band were spent under the Bush Administration and I think for any Democrat or liberal this mere fact would induce an internal struggle (it certainly would for me). I asked Harry about this many times, and he was always very realistic about his role in the Marine Band and the joy that having such a special patriotic job as a professional musician brings him. I wanted to share his experience with you.

Established by and Act of Congress in 1798, the Marine Band is America’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization. Its primary mission is unique – to provide music for the President of the United States. Harry plays at funerals in Arlington cemetery, marches almost every summer night for the tourists, for VIP’s and dignitaries at the White House and inauguration.

Every fall the Band tours a different part of the lower 48 states and this year they passed through the Bay Area. I did a quick interview with him over drinks after a show at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. These are some of the intelligent (and not so intelligent) questions I had for him.

Jamie: Does Obama have you working more than Bush? (Clinton loved the Marine Band and used them all the time, Bush not so much)

Harry: Well it’s hard to tell because it still early on. It takes about a year for a new administration to find out what they musically want from the Band. I’ve played for events that Obama was at.

J: You played at Inauguration, right?

H: When you saw musicians under the ledge where Obama was standing, that was us. We’ve been very close to him. I looked up and it was present Obama. I looked up, and he was right there with Aretha Franklin with the hat! It was great. I played at the Press Correspondent dinner too. We played before the dinner. We do a patriotic opener, a bunch of marches, we help out with the colors ceremony and then we play the Armed Forces Medley that you heard tonight.

J: That was really moving.

H: Yeah. It’s really great to see all these veterans with their families standing up. We had a concert in central Oregon where we had about ten World War II veterans: a couple of which were at Iwo Jima. It’s really cool to have a role where we get to represent the Marine Corps, America and great Americans like them. You sometimes forget when you watch the news that members of our Armed Forces are people too with families. It’s really interesting to get that perspective.

The Marine Band is the longest continually active musical organization in the country. We’ve always been part of the Marine Corps. All the musicians you saw tonight with the exception of the director are all in the marines. We have a non-combatant role; our mission is to provide music for the President and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. It’s a very different experience than Fleet Marine Bands. We all represent the Marine Corps and our country in the best way that we can and we’re all the best at what we do. I competed against fifty other musicians to get one spot. Some other musicians have 100 plus people to compete for one spot. We have a group of fleet marines who graduated in the top five percent of their infantry class and are assigned to our Band to help us out. They are excellent at what they do and we really appreciate them. Each [component of the U.S. military: Army, Navy, Marines] has a premiere band and we are very fortunate have our own stage crew. In some of other bands, the musicians have to be their own stage crew.


J: How did the Band get the name “The President’s Own”?

H: Thomas Jefferson coined the term “The President’s Own.” And that’s stuck ever since. We first performed at the White House in 1801 and then we played at every inauguration since Thomas Jefferson.

J: I notice that there were very few women in the concert tonight. The harpists are usually women and they weren’t playing tonight.


H: The ratio of men to women is 60/40. We only have one harpist and she just had a baby.

J: What’s up with the skirts? (They are long, dark blue and not too stylish.)

H: Well our uniforms are very traditional uniforms from the 1800s.

J: What it’s like to be the face of the military abroad and within the United States?

H: We had a group of musicians that went to Singapore last year to help the Armed Forces Band celebrate their 50th anniversary. In the summer of 2001 the Band performed for the World’s Symphonic Band Conference, it’s sort of like the world cup for bands. When we went there we had such a reputation. It’s an amazing responsibility and it is such a pleasure. I wasn’t there, I was still in college, but I heard we did four encores and the audience wanted more.

J: How do you deal with the political side of being in the Marine Band?

H: When we’re on the job we have to leave our personal beliefs at the door no matter what. We are here to serve for the President regardless of who it is. Personally I have to separate my own personal feelings and what I have to do as a job. Inauguration was a very special thing for me, but I still had a job to do.

Inauguration 2009

I find Harry's attitude towards his job particularly inspiring as a patriot. It's folks like him that make me, as I get older, more and more proud of being an American. I hope you find his experience inspiring as well.

If you want to read more about Harry and his background (especially interesting is his take on being born in Indonesia and his relationship to the United States military), check out this interview with him in the Seattle Pi.

To learn more about the United States Marine Band

Friday, December 18, 2009

UC Berkeley men's a cappella group Noteworthy goes viral with Lady Gaga's "Poker Face"

Since we're all on this Glee/Lady Gaga/Sing Off kick, Bay Area folks will especially appreciate this video of the UC Berkeley men's a cappella group Noteworthy singing Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" with absolutely fabulous entertaining choreography. As of 11:50 PM on December 17, 2009 the video has received 1,072,697 views.

The song features Brian Wang sashaying and singing lead on the verses and Joey Goodknight singing the crap out of the chorus. The performance is from the 9th Annual West Coast A Cappella Showcase on November 13, 2009.

These men deserve some major kudos for dancing with such gusto and channeling their inner divas! GO FOR IT BOYS!

Read More



Saturday, June 13, 2009

University of Michigan Music School alumni rockin' it in the real world of theater

I always get a wave of pride when I hear of a fellow Michigan Music School alum making music in the big bad world successfully. Being a professional musician is not easy and I know many people, including myself, who have decided that was not the route for them. So those that have taken that route get much respect from me.

My favorite success stories right now are that of Lauren Molina and Leah Dexter. Both of these fine ladies were voice students with me at the University Michigan. Molina started off an opera major and then switched over to musical theater. Between you and me, she could have been an opera singer, she has a gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice. But the girl can sing, dance and act, which makes her a prime music theater suspect. And she's been working it on Broadway.

Right now Molina is in the hit production of Rock of Ages with American Idol alum Constantine Maroulis. I randomly caught this clip of the show on the Today Show the other day. Molina plays the character Regina, you can spot her as the curly blonde with the big glasses and a long green flowy skirt.



She was recently in the Broadway production and the touring production of Sweeney Todd and originated the role of Johanna where she also played the cello. Chances are, if you caught this production while it was in town, she was in it.

Molina is also a singer/songwriter and has a CD album out called Do-Bee-Do. which is full of quirky folk/pop songs like "Marriott on Wheels" and "Rollerskate"

Check out her website, myspace, and CDbaby

Leah Dexter on the other hand has gone the opera route. Also a mezzo-soprano, she was a vocal performance undergraduate and master's student at the U of M and has since performed all over the United States and Europe. Dexter has travelled the country singing recitals of pieces by female African American composer and is currently preparing for her next project and dream role, Carmen.

Currently she is in the San Francisco production of Gershwin's Porgy & Bess. Check out my article about the San Francisco production of Porgy and Bess, Dexter helped me fill in some of the holes.

I know a bunch of other people that are working it out in the real world. This could be a fun column to do every now and then to help support my peeps.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Stanford Celebrates Late-Medieval Composer

detail from Ockheghem facsimile manuscript from around the year 1500

It is rare that one would be able to attend a concert of entirely one composer's work, but tomorrow night at Stanford University, Stanford's own vocal group Cut Circle, will perform a whole program of the most celebrated 15th-century late-medieval composer, Johannes Ockeghem. Read More...

This is Missa cuiusvis toni, a gorgeous composition, comprising of intricately interacting vocal lines that sound smooth to the touch. Take a listen.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Straight No Chaser: A Triumph of College A Cappella


Just in time for the holidays: Indiana University's own male collegiate a cappella group Straight No Chaser has landed a record contract with Atlantic Records based on their performance of "The 12 Days of Christmas," a viral video that spread like wild fire last year.  

What's so great about this is that this video is ten years old and the guys that are touring are the original members.  Read the about story here or watch a video here.   This is the video that Altantic Records CEO/Chairman Craig Kallman and 8 million other youtube viewers saw:



For those of you that don't get the joke (and don't feel bad, we can't all be huge college a cappella dorks), Toto's "Africa" is THE cliche college a cappella tune. Don't know why, it just is.

Straight No Chaser is on tour promoting their newly released Christmas CD "Holiday Spirits" and will be playing the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Monday December 15th. Anyone want to go with me? 

I miss this stuff. College a cappella is great music, and these guys are as good as it gets. I mean, 'N Sync wishes they could pull off a performance as good as these guys.

Check out how effortlessly Straight No Chaser slips from tune to tune and style to style in this version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" including bits of "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Don't Worry be Happy."