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Thursday, May 31, 2012 - Educating the Dramatic Voice

by Chynna Roose

The summer after my first year of college, the faculty of the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, who are some of the top performers and instructors in their fields, told me to pack my bags and go to Oakland University. I had traveled from Boston to San Francisco to San Diego in search of the perfect voice teacher, and now, ironically, they were sending me back to Edie Diggory, the teacher I had studied with before any of these adventures. I looked to each of my parents, who appeared to be engulfed by the same fog of confusion I was experiencing. We were so stunned we left the hotel suite without my brother, who was watching TV in the next room.

Looking back, I realize just how young I was when Dr. Diggory first took me into her studio and how much faith a teacher of Edie’s prestige must have had in me in order to accept into her studio a gawky 12-year-old with a loud and unruly voice. Even back then, I had a “big” voice. But in those early stages that simply meant loud and out of tune, not exactly ideal qualities in a young singer. But Edie, through her patience and wisdom gave me the best start I could ask for. She encouraged me to pursue my lofty ambitions. At the same time, she gave me the tools I needed to reach more realistic goals. After a few summers at Interlochen, a summer arts camp near Traverse City, Michigan, the idea of spending my school year with people who loved classical music like I did was tempting.

When I received my acceptance letter to Interlochen’s year-round boarding school, I was thrilled. I arrived at the campus full of excitement and anxious to begin the school year. It was bustling with band nerds, theory geeks, orchestra buffs and my favorite people, opera lovers. Before Interlochen, I hadn’t met anyone else my age who had ever seen an opera before, let alone sung in one. But I soon realized why people called it the “snow globe” and the “Interlochen bubble.” A constant blanket of snow covered the school grounds from October until May. Meanwhile, bustling nearby Traverse City shut down during the winter months. Cabin fever spread like a plague among the students. Being the geek that I was, I dealt with the long winter months by letting my work consume me, practicing, and hiding away in my dorm room for hours on end, working away. I felt myself becoming drained and began to search for other options.

That’s when I found Walnut Hill School for the Arts. The voice studio was much smaller and the school is only a short train ride from Boston. Further, they had a summer opera program that went to Italy. I was delighted to receive my acceptance letter to both programs, and yet again, took my voice on the road. The campus is beautiful, and to top it off, it only snowed a humane amount of the time. But the most important factor for me was the connection to the New England Conservatory and to Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. Mr. Zander held a master class for all of the music students once a week and our tuition included Saturday trips to the New England Conservatory to study choral music, as well as tickets to all of the Boston Philharmonic’s performances.

The primary focus of that year was, of course, getting into college, and not any college, but the “perfect” college. I sent out applications to nine schools from New York City to San Francisco, and of course, to Oakland University. However, after traveling half way across the country for high school, I wasn’t quite ready to come back to Michigan for college. At that time, I didn’t realize how valuable this school was or understand the importance of a voice teacher like Edie Diggory to a singer’s development. About a month after my auditions, I chose San Francisco Conservatory of Music to begin my college career. Little did I know, Oakland was by far the best place for me; it would take another year of traveling to figure that out.

Before school started, I was accepted into mezzo soprano Dolora Zajick’s summer program, the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, which specializes in large and unusual voices. I had been told several times that I have a big voice, but I didn’t really know what that meant, other than that I was loud, that choir directors found me tiresome and that directors had difficulty casting me in spite of their constant encouragement for me to be patient and let my voice develop. At the Institute, I found that for the first time, I wasn’t the only one with a big voice. The Institute accepted large voices at all levels. Suddenly I felt at home amongst these other big-voiced singers, who had the same problems I did, such as intonation, tongue tension, and stiff jaws.

That summer, I learned more in four weeks than I had since I had studied with Edie. I learned how to protect my voice and how important the voice teacher is for big voices. I learned the differences between the development of Verdi and Wagnerian voices, versus the development of smaller Mozart voices, and that bigger voices take longer to develop but last longer. Like a long distance runner and a sprinter, the basics are the same, but it’s the difference in the technique that makes them good at what they do. Big voices need to focus on building a rock solid foundation that will last as their voices change and develop. They also need to focus on longevity and protection of the vocal folds, so that when the time comes, at around age 30, their voices are ready to take on a four-hour long Wagner opera. After my summer at the Institute, I realized that I would need to make sure that my voice teacher at the conservatory was right for me and my needs.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music was perfect in every way. It was a beautiful school in the middle of the city. A five minute trolley ride could take you anywhere from one of the top opera houses in the country to the beach. The classes were phenomenal. I fell in love with the city, the people and the school. But there was one problem. As the semester progressed, I began to realize that, while the school and the city met all of my needs, my voice teacher was not a good fit. I watched other students with lighter voices improve, but I was in a slump. It was as if the teacher and I spoke different languages. I also began to realize that I was losing some of the progress I had made over the summer. I e-mailed Ms. Zajick and explained my situation. She advised that I transfer at the end of the fall semester to a college in San Diego in order to study with Sarah Agler, a private voice teacher with whom I had worked very well at the Institute. This would give me time to reassess for the following fall.

I packed my bags and took a road trip with my dad down the California coast to San Diego. I began taking several private lessons a week from Mrs. Agler. Meanwhile, I took general education credits at Point Loma Nazarene University and lived on the campus, which is breathtakingly beautiful. My dorm sat on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, and the beach lay directly below my window. Mrs. Agler was beyond kind and adopted me into her family during my stay. I worked hard and began to regain my vocal confidence.

San Diego was a good solution, but a temporary one. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when the instructors at the Institute sat me down to discuss options for the rest of my college career. However, their decision to have me study with Edie Diggory threw me off guard. Today, I am beyond thankful for their advice. I have studied at Oakland for two years now, and couldn’t be happier. Edie is an extraordinary teacher. Her attention to detail and to the learning process is remarkable. She carefully plans each baby step for each student, moving at each individual’s pace down his or her unique learning path. Before long, her students are further along in their development than they ever imagined. At least, that is how it has been for me and other students I have talked to. Not only is she an excellent voice teacher, but she is a mentor and an important part of my support system.

While being able to stand out and sing above an orchestra is ideal for opera, it is not ideal in a choir. I am very thankful for the support of OU’s choir conductor, Dr. Mitchell, who has been willing to help me work through issues of blending with the rest of the chorale. Further, I was overwhelmed with the quality of academic music instructors at OU. Professors such as Mrs. Shively, Ms. Soroka, and Dr. Kidger have gone above and beyond what is required of them to reach out to their students, including myself. Office hours are not only for homework questions, but for chats about life and emotional support. These three professors have made a profound impact on my life, not only academically but on a personal level as well. I can never thank them enough for their support.

Becoming an opera singer takes years of training, especially for singers with big, dramatic Wagnerian voices, like me. My voice will not be ready to sing the big Wagnerian roles I am made for until I am in my late twenties or even thirty. However, the wait is worth it. Until then I spend my time working on vocal technique and learning the German pronunciations and rhythms for the roles that I will be singing in the future. After seven years of vocal instruction, I was finally assigned my first Wagner aria, “Einsam in trüben Tagen” from Lohengrin this summer. I sang it for Dr. Diggory, and she smiled and said, “Ever since you were 13 you have worked to be able to do this and here you are doing it, not on the Met stage yet, but I think it is only a matter of time.” The piece fit me like a glove and was so gratifying to sing. I can’t wait to continue working on it this summer at the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices. I have a long journey ahead of me, but I am thankful that I get to spend some of that time with Edie Diggory at Oakland University’s music program.
Find more information at the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices website

Photo: Chynna Roose outside the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, photo by Jake Skipworth
Newsletter photo by Joe Cilluffo