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Tuesday, January 31, 2012 - Billy and Amy Petty: A Shared Life in Music

by Gillian Ellis

OU grads Billy and Amy (Smith) Petty share a life as husband and wife, as musicians, and they share their faith. Both graduated from OU with a BMus in 2000, with Amy setting off to study at the highly prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia for four years of intensive opera training. Amy is still the only OU graduate to be accepted into the program there. Her voice teacher, Jan Albright, says, “If someone asked me to look back on my 35 years of teaching at Oakland and choose which student had the best voice, it would be Amy. The quality and texture of her voice were stunningly beautiful. The range was huge - glorious, effortless high notes and beautiful rich low tones. Her ability to interpret the text and bring it to life was awesome. Dramatic, tragic, humorous - she could do it all!”

But despite her many gifts, Amy left her grad program. When asked why, Amy says she felt trapped and unfulfilled “focusing solely on opera . . . I wanted to explore what I could do as a writer and a composer as well as a singer and interpreter of other people's songs.” Opera was just too narrow a road for her. “I’ve always known that I was going to be a singer. I loved complex harmonies and rich vocal lines and I was fascinated that a song could make you happy or sad or both. I wanted to soar like Whitney Houston, rock like Joan Jett and have hair like Cyndi Lauper. I loved Annie and Les Miserables and I knew every word. I would spend hours . . . trying to figure out how to play subdivisions on my keyboard. I wrote out the brass parts for Magical Mystery Tour one day after school because I was bored. I have always been a singer but being a musician is the thing that I cherish most.

“Today, I get to do all of that. As a singer/songwriter, I write songs and sing them all over the country. I am an arranger, a recording artist and a guitar player. As a classical performer, I sing everywhere from small house concerts to Carnegie Hall. I sing any style of music I want, from musical theatre and arias to pop, rock, Celtic and folk. I write band charts and string arrangements for local churches. I’m a studio musician and engineer. I’m known for my diversity, I’m always working, and I never, ever get bored!

“I was known as a singer while I was at OU, but I think my greatest accomplishment while I was there was winning the Distinguished Musicianship Award in 1998. It was such an honor to be recognized as more than just a performer by people that I respected so much. That was a turning point in my life.”

At OU, Billy Petty studied voice with Edie Diggory who recalls that he had a “terrific voice” and the potential for a professional career, but Billy says, “At 15 years old, I knew that I would be leading music and worship in churches for the rest of my life, either as a volunteer or as a full-time job. I considered . . . performance . . . I also considered music education. But in the end, I knew that being a church music director allowed me to use all of my gifts.”

Today Billy is the Arts Director at Bethany Church in Greenland, New Hampshire and he finds himself musically “pretty satisfied. I'm involved in a job where I have a lot of freedom to create multiple music experiences and that's very fulfilling in that I not only sing classically, I sing and play more current musical styles, as well. I'm blessed to have been involved in a professional choir called the New Hampshire Master Chorale with Dan Perkins in Plymouth, NH. Living in New Hampshire, Amy and I both have had the chance to perform all over New England.”

As a summary of the current state of her career, Amy offers the following: “I’m signed to Red Pill Entertainment, a record label based in St. Louis, MO. I released my first album in 2008 and my second in 2010 and in November, I released a Christmas album. My songs have appeared on television, in films and in ad campaigns around the world. I’m currently writing my next full length album. In April and May, I’ll be embarking on a two week tour from Boston to Denver. I also work with Tim Janis, a classical composer based in Maine. He and I work closely together . . . and I tour regularly with the Tim Janis Ensemble.”

For both Amy and Billy a career highlight came in December 2010 when they made their Carnegie Hall debut singing a duet. “It was an incredible and unbelievable experience!” says Amy. “We sang on the stage again in 2011 and have been invited back for 2012.” These appearances were made with Tim Janis: The American Christmas Carol concert.

By any standards, that’s an amazingly successful career, even if it isn’t the career that Amy’s OU teachers originally envisioned for her. Amy herself has no regrets. “I'm so glad I took a chance and gave it a shot!” Amy and Billy acknowledge that their time at OU prepared them well for their musical lives. Amy says, “I really believe that I was meant to study at OU. I received so much attention and guidance and I had so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. I loved all of my professors, every class and every production I was involved in. And I met some of my best friends in the world during my time at OU, including my husband.”

And Billy adds, “ I loved my time [at OU]. I learned so much about myself as a person and as an artist. I had great examples of musical and professional leadership in my professors and I use what I learned from them in my job today. I grew and was mentored as a young leader and musician.

“[Associate Professor] Mike Mitchell was a real mentor . . . to me. He blessed me with the opportunity to be the Assistant Director of the OU Chorale and taught me so much by his passion, his dedication, his amazing musicianship and ear, his relentless pursuit of excellence in great music, and his pure love for great and moving moments in art.”

Amy is especially grateful to Jan Albright. “I spent six years studying under Jan. She taught me so much more than just how to sing. She taught me how to love a piece of music and how to become a part of it. Listening to her sing in my lesson was the highlight of my week! And she really knew me, my life and voice and musicianship. We certainly focused on classical repertoire but she nurtured me as a complete musician. I am the musician I am today because of her.”

Students often remember teachers who have influenced them, but it is a remarkable testament to the quality of Amy’s voice to have Professor John-Paul White remember her with these words: “Amy is one of the finest voices I have heard in my 27 years at OU. I can still remember the goose bumps I had when she sang Pace, Pace Mio Dio with the Pontiac Oakland Symphony. I remember wondering if the audience really knew how good she was...that they would soon have to be paying lots of money to hear this."

So if you get a chance to attend one of Amy’s concerts you should definitely do it. If that’s not possible, you can hear her sing at the following links: "July" at the Sheldon in St Louis, MO "Get Over It" at Studio 99, Nashua NH"Broken Record" at the Sheldon, St. Louis MO.

For dates and times of Amy's upcoming concerts and more information about her work visit her website here.

Photos: Top: Billy and Amy backstage at Carnegie Hall; below: As old friends will remember them, in costume for Cosi fan tutte in Varner Recital Hall, 1998.