Back in April 2014, I posted the following essay on my music blog, Dungeon of the Past. I don’t post on that blog very often anymore. It’s mainly a place where I write about obscure songs from the 70s and 80s, as well as some musical book and album reviews. I love music, but I don’t really enjoy writing music reviews, so there aren’t too many there. Anyway, since we are all on house arrest, lately I’ve been doing a bunch of new recordings. I was reminded of how my very first voice teacher, an adjunct professor at Longwood College (now Longwood University) changed my life. I’m going to repost that essay, along with some updated thoughts.
I have a few friends who are college professors. One of my teaching friends is a woman I met while we were both working as waitresses. She later earned higher degrees in English literature and now teaches at a small college in Virginia. Yesterday, she shared an article from The Atlantic about how some adjunct professors at colleges are living at poverty level. While the article itself was shocking reading– it’s hard to imagine a college teacher being forced to sleep in their car— it also made me realize that an adjunct professor changed my life in a profound way.
In the fall of 1990, I was a brand new college student. I had signed up for the usual general education classes… math, English, history, music appreciation, etc. One course I had signed up for that was kind of a surprise was voice class. I chose it because I needed an arts class for my general education requirements. Of the four disciplines offered– theatre, art, music, or dance– music was the art that spoke most directly to me. I had never sung before, except in the car when I was alone. I knew I had a pretty decent singing voice, though. My parents were musicians as are a number of my extended relatives. I have a cousin who is a professional musician in Nashville. My mom played organ professionally for over 50 years. My dad was a much celebrated singer in many local ensembles.
So I signed up for voice class, which was a one credit course that met once a week and was taught by an adjunct professor named Ann Brown. My father happened to know Ms. Brown’s mother, who is a concert level pianist and was the accompanist for one of the many singing groups of which he was a member. He was excited when I told him Ms. Brown would be my teacher. He knew she was very qualified because he’d met her through her mother. Ms. Brown had attended Westminster Choir College near Princeton, New Jersey and, like me, had perfect pitch (I found out about mine during a brief period during my childhood when I studied piano). Besides teaching at college, Ms. Brown was also a professional singer.
On the first day of voice class, about five students met in the choir rehearsal room at my college. Ms. Brown was there, looking like she’d jumped off the pages of a Spiegel catalog. She wore colorful, stylish clothes and had long, curly hair. She was very tall and seemed serene as she sat behind the grand piano in the rehearsal room. She immediately put me at ease.
The five of us each had a copy of the required textbook for the class, Basics of Singing. It was basically a songbook that had a nice selection of songs for beginning voice students. I actually wish I still had that book. I see it’s listed on Amazon and very expensive… it also gets low ratings. Well hell, I liked it at the time. I sold it back to the bookstore, no doubt because I needed beer money.
Ms. Brown asked us each to choose a song. We would be learning three each that semester and performing it in her class. Basics of Singing had a number of familiar songs in it, which was a good thing, since I never did learn how to play piano and was too poor to buy the optional accompanist tapes. The first song I chose was “Summertime”, from Porgy & Bess. I sang it with relative ease and Ms. Brown was apparently impressed. She took me under her wing.
Sometime near the end of the course, Ms. Brown took me aside and told me she thought I was very talented. She said I should study voice privately and encouraged me to audition for Camerata Singers, which was our college’s “better” choir. I had never sung in a choir before. My dad’s obsessive devotion to his choirs had turned me off of them. Besides, my mom was an organist, which meant she was always at choir practice, too. I grew to enjoy the couple of hours with the house to myself.
Studying voice would entail an extra expense. I would have to hire an accompanist and pay an extra lab fee. However, given my parents’ devotion to music, I knew they would agree. They did… especially after they heard me sing for the first time during a beer enhanced Thanksgiving celebration (but that’s another post).
The audition for Cameratas didn’t go quite as well because I was nervous and, at that time, wasn’t such a good sight reader. Dr. Trott, the director of the choirs, asked me to join the non-audition group, Concert Choir, instead, which I did.
The following semester, I took private voice lessons from Ms. Brown. Her class quickly became my favorite, even though I was an English major. I found studying voice challenging, yet relaxing. I enjoyed exploring this part of me that I had just discovered. I felt like I’d found a new super power, because seriously, before I took voice class, I almost NEVER sang in front of other people, not even in church. My parents had no idea I could sing.
I grew to really like Ms. Brown as a person, too. She became more than a teacher. She was a friend. While I was her student, I got to go with a bunch of music majors to Richmond, Virginia, to see Cosi Fan Tutte. After the show, we visited Ms. Brown at her home and looked at her college yearbooks. She had attended Westminster Choir College at the same time Dr. Trott had and it was fun to see them when they were college aged. With Ms. Brown’s help, that semester Dr. Trott welcomed me into Cameratas when I demonstrated my uncanny tonal memory, which also makes for a fun party trick.
Besides teaching me the basics of singing and showing me that opera can be beautiful, Ms. Brown introduced me to the wonderful music of Kathleen Battle. She gave me a copy of Battle’s CD, Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart. I became a big fan of Kathleen Battle’s crystalline voice, even though she has a reputation for being a bit of a prima donna. I now own many of her albums, but before I met Ms. Brown, I had never heard of her. Because I listened to Kathleen Battle, I started listening to other singers and developed quite an appreciation for classical music.
My exploration of classical music enhanced my study of literature, which made me a better writer and a more cultured person. I can’t even count the number of poems and literary works I became familiar with because I first encountered them set to music. The very first Robert Burns poem I ever heard was set to a lovely melody in four part harmony. When I went to Scotland years later and enjoyed my first taste of haggis, I appreciated Burns’ gift of language even more than I might have, for I associated him with music. It made his “Address to A Haggis” much easier to swallow.
I took lessons from Ms. Brown for three semesters. Unfortunately, after the third semester, the college decided to lay her off. It turned out another professor, one who was tenured and had been working in the Office of Continuing Education, had decided to come back to the music department. There was no longer room for Ms. Brown and her very special style of instruction. I was very sad when I got the news, especially since I had already signed up for lessons the next semester. The next professor didn’t make as good an impression on me at first, though I eventually grew to like her. But let’s just say, the initial transition was very rough.
A year later, Ms. Brown was asked to come back to my school. Rumor had it she declined, because as an adjunct professor, there was no guarantee that she wouldn’t be laid off again. Another very competent adjunct professor was hired. I wanted to take his class, but by then the tenured professor had claimed me as her student and changed my schedule back to her class. At the time, I lacked the assertiveness to raise hell about that… in the long run, it probably wasn’t a big deal anyway. I eventually grew comfortable with Ms. Brown’s successor and learned from her, too. The last time I saw Ms. Brown, she was on a stage in Richmond, performing the starring role in The Medium. She was outstanding, of course!
Adjunct professors can and do make a huge difference in the lives of their students. I think it’s shameful that so many of them are struggling to survive. If it weren’t for Ms. Brown, I might not be a singer today. I might not be writing about music. I might not be as fierce a competitor as I am on SongPop because I know more about opera and art songs than I might have. She truly did change my life and enhanced my college experience in the most amazing way. If I had never taken her voice class almost 24 years ago (now 30), I couldn’t have made this video.
Ms. Brown was the first of many teachers I’ve had who have helped me develop a part of me that, until I went to college, was completely undiscovered and undeveloped. I may not be a professional singer, but being able to sing has improved my life exponentially. I have an adjunct professor to thank for that. Yes, she really did change my life for the better. I sure hope she’s not sleeping in a car these days.
Now– back to 2020… Thanks to the coronavirus, I’ve been thinking about ordering a guitar and picking up a few chords. I can’t go anywhere, and my piano is in storage in Texas. I can’t play piano particularly well, but I have zero guitar skills. But guitars are more portable than pianos are, and lots of musicians are generously offering video tutorials. And hell, I’ve got nothing else to do. I have always regretted not sticking with music lessons when I was growing up, but horses gave me a lot of joy, even if I wasn’t the most talented. There’s probably a reason things turned out the way they did.
I’m so glad Ms. Brown was there to help me discover a part of myself that went hidden for 18 years. Learning to sing and becoming willing to do it in front of others has changed my life on many levels. It’s a skill I’ve been able to use worldwide and helps me connect to people even when I don’t speak their language. Just last week, the memorial video I made for our dog, Zane, helped me convince locals how much I treasure our canine family members. Yes, the pictures helped, but I think the emotional music was also useful in conveying how I felt about Zane.
As I’ve been making more music lately, I’ve thought about my very first teacher, and how if it weren’t for her, I probably would have just taken that one voice class and left it at that. She truly cared about her students and took an interest in developing their skills. I will always remember her, and feel much gratitude for what she did for me.