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Monday, April 30, 2012 - John-Paul and Phyllis White: A Shared Life in Music
by Gillian Ellis

“We speak the same language, but different dialects,” says one half of OU’s most enduring music couple. Phyllis has just completed her Ph.D. in Music Education, making her the first person to receive three music degrees from OU. A recipient of OU’s Teaching Excellence Award, she specializes in music courses for non-majors. Phyllis is also a highly successful composer of educational and sacred choral music for children, with more than a hundred titles in print and 1 million copies sold worldwide.

Her husband, the man with whom she communicates so easily, is John-Paul White, professor of music, coordinator of the voice program, and the senior faculty member in Music, Theatre and Dance. He has been teaching in the department since 1984 when he arrived back in the country fresh from a successful performing career in the opera houses of Europe, mostly in Germany and Switzerland. “It was a nice ride,” says John-Paul, who says he loved living in Europe, but always knew it was “part of the journey” but not where he wanted to spend the rest of his life. He was by then in his mid-thirties and he understood that in order to put down roots he would have to find a teaching job. He explains that anyone planning to make a living from singing in the U.S. has to expect to live out of a suitcase.

He had three offers from academic institutions and chose OU because then chair of the department David Daniels told him, “I guarantee you will get to sing a lot.” That clinched the deal for John-Paul, who throughout the years has continued to perform. Indeed, he made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2001, as the bass soloist in the Mozart Requiem and in Beethoven's Mass in C. For more detailed information about John-Paul’s performing career and to hear some of his recordings, read his page at Ovation Management here.

When Professor White arrived at OU there were perhaps 30 voice majors and now there are more than 100, a development for which he must be given a great deal of the credit. And those students have, says his wife, “Grown in both scope and quality.”

Although Phyllis did sing and was very active with the Meadow Brook Estate Show Choir during her undergraduate years, she was never John-Paul’s student. In fact, she had finished her bachelor’s degree before he joined the faculty. She had graduated with a degree in Music Theory, although her true love was always composition. She began to write songs at age 12 and had a catalogue of around 200 by the time she entered college, but she says she was, “fairly shy about it.” Phyllis’s talents as a composer were made known as an undergraduate when she began writing and arranging for Meadow Brook Estate, resulting in her first published piece, “From Bethlehem,” which was the beginning of a career-long relationship with the Lorenz Corporation. Find a listing of some of Phyllis’s choral sheet music visit here. To see and hear one of Phyllis’s songs in performance click here.

The couple we know as Professor and Doctor White met in 1987, when Phyllis returned to OU to pursue a master’s degree in music education. Gesturing towards his wife, John-Paul says he saw, “A unique light in the [music] secretary’s office and it was all this blond hair.”

Phyllis says it really was love at first sight. She recalls that, “When John-Paul came into the office everyone else just melted away.” Two years later they were married and now she says, “Here we still are, twenty-three years later.”

Their home, says John-Paul, is “stereophonic cacophony.” He plays and practices at a Steinway upright in the family room where he also displays his collection of historic swords. Phyllis composes on a grand piano in the living room. Meanwhile, their 20-year old son plays guitar, drums and sings with an alternative rock band that rehearses in their basement. It is an ongoing family music festival.

Phyllis says, “We’ve had a lovely life at Oakland,” and speaking on the university’s behalf we have to say it has been lovely to have them here. They are true OU supporters, often seen at more than music events. More importantly, John-Paul’s skillful teaching and his stature and reputation within the classical voice community have been enormously influential in building the music program. And Phyllis’s popular online classes have helped spread the influence of the program throughout the wider campus community.

Long may this unique and lovely relationship flourish for us all.

Photo: Phyllis and John-Paul White in costume for a production of The Boyfriend.
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