School of Music, Theatre and Dance

A Life in Music: John-Paul White

OU professor helps students discover their passion for vocal performance

icon of a calendarMay 15, 2019

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A Life in Music: John-Paul White
John-Paul White
John-Paul White was appointed to the rank of Distinguished Professor of Music by the Oakland University Board of Trustees in February.

For 35 years, John-Paul White — who was recently appointed to the rank of Distinguished Professor of Music by the Oakland University Board of Trustees — has been helping students find their voices and discover their passion for vocal performance.

“I think the first thing a voice teacher has to do is make a student feel safe, because the act of singing can make you feel very vulnerable,” White said. “It’s a very personal thing. To be able to open up and be vulnerable with your voice in front of another person, which is what we do every week during voice lessons, a singer has to feel safe with their teacher. It’s always been my goal to make a student feel like they can explore their voice safely and without fear of criticism, while balancing that with that fact that they’re here to get better.”

John-Paul White
White as The King of Egypt in "Aida" with
the Cleveland Opera

White’s own passion for vocal performance began at a young age. His mother was a grade school music teacher and accompanist, and his uncle was a voice professor and professional singer.

“I remember when I was 13 years old and my voice was changing, I went to a summer camp where he was teaching and it was the day everybody was singing for the first time,” White said. “When it was my turn, even though I was just visiting, my uncle said ‘you’re a singer, sing something for us.’

“I have no idea what I sang or what I sounded like, but what I do remember is my uncle and everybody in the class making me feel good about my singing,” he added.

Fifty years later, White’s uncle would be in the audience when he made his debut at Carnegie Hall in 2001 as the bass soloist in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Mass in C major.

“It was a month before he died, but he got to hear me sing,” White said. “It’s a great memory.”

In addition to Carnegie Hall, White has performed on stages across Europe and the United States, including the Frankfurt Alte Oper, the Kassel Staatstheater, the San Francisco Opera, the Michigan Opera Theatre, the Santa Fe Opera, and the New Orleans Opera, where he performed in Carmen with world famous tenor Placido Domingo singing in the title role.

John-Paul White
White as Osmin in "The Abduction" from
the Seraglio at Indiana University

“I love performing, so it’s a great experience for me, no matter where it is,” White said. “But when you get to perform at some of these historic theaters where you know you’re standing in the shadow of these great performers, it’s incredible.

“I remember walking around backstage (at Carnegie Hall) and seeing posters of people that had performed there, and it’s everybody you’ve ever heard of as a famous performer,” he added. “I felt like I was in the shadow of giants. It was a great experience.”

Since joining the OU faculty in 1984, White has performed operatic roles in 49 performances, as a bass soloist in 124 concerts, and as a soloist in more than 50 OU performances. Since his promotion to full professor in 1997, he has performed on stage in 70 performances, including appearances with major regional opera companies and symphony orchestras, many of those as a result of being selected from highly competitive auditions.

“In a lot of ways I just came in through the backdoor in music — I wasn’t seeking these things but I was in the right time at the right place and they happened to me,” he said. “A lot of my career was a matter of luck, although I like to say I’ve been blessed. I certainly feel very blessed.”

In April, White attended Verdi’s Requiem at Orchestra Hall during a concert that featured all OU alumni as the soloists for the first time.

“That’s the first time we’ve been able to do that, especially with a work as big as Verdi’s Requiem, where our alumni would be good enough and have enough professional experience,” he said. “It was such a joy for me. The only thing better than being the soloist in Verdi’s Requiem is watching your ‘children’ be the soloists, and that’s how I viewed them.”

John-Paul White
White as Figaro in "The Marriage of
Figaro" at Indiana University

Along with teaching and performing, White is an expert in vocal health and rehabilitation. Over the years, he has worked with laryngologists and speech pathologists to help people dealing with voice-related problems.

“I love the voice and I love singing, so for me, the next natural step was that if I can get better at it maybe I can teach others to do the same,” he said. “It was a natural extension of my own singing.”

In addition to being active with the Voice Foundation, a multidisciplinary symposium that brings together singers, voice teachers, speech pathologists and physicians, White also helped develop the Arts at Noon program, which gives students additional chances to perform for an audience while providing OU faculty, staff and students an opportunity to enjoy the many talented artists studying at Oakland University.

John-Paul White
White as Crespel from "The Tales of
Hoffmann" at the Staatstheater Kassel
in Germany

In recognition of his contributions to vocal scholarship, teaching and service, White was appointed to the rank of Distinguished Professor of Music by the Oakland University Board of Trustees in February.

“I’ve been at OU for 35 years,” White said. “With this Distinguished Professor award I’ve received, the best part of it is being able to see the letters of support that people wrote about the way I impacted their lives. It was just incredibly humbling. I can’t imagine feeling more appreciated than I did when reading those letters from former students.”

White said he will continue to encourage his students, past and present, to pursue their own passions.

“You don’t really know what you’re capable of until you try,” White said. “If you feel passionate about something, then you need to do it. If you love singing, then you need to sing. Whether you end up being able to do it professionally or not, you need to do it. You just need to find your voice and sing.”

In support of his appointment to the rank of Distinguished Professor of Music, several former students of John-Paul White wrote letters about the way he impacted on their lives:

"His office was a sanctum — a safe haven — where I knew I could be myself and not be judged. This was a place where I knew I would be lifted up and comforted. He was my desperately needed, godsent guardian angel."Amanda (Tong) Downey

"As a student, seeing the ability of my teacher to captivate an audience using the vocal and theatrical techniques he had taught me was of immense value. His students get to see what he teaches in action every time he is on the stage, from his warm vocal timbre to the ease of his dramatic interpretation."Michaela (Judkins) Franzen

"I hope all of his students know what a gift they have in him. He is one of a kind."Sarah Hilarides

"In addition to being a fantastic teacher, John-Paul has enjoyed a rich career of singing. As a booming and in-demand low Bass, he has performed all over the United States and Germany on the same stages as some of the operatic greats."Constantine Novotny

"When I walked into his studio for my weekly lesson, I would always know that the bar would be set high, but that it would be achievable through his mentoring, guidance and teaching. As a singer and performer in New York City, I constantly think back and refer to audio recordings of my lessons with John-Paul. He has laid an incredible corner-stone of vocal technique for me."William Raveau

"There is not one teacher that I have ever studied under that I can place on the same level of respect that I place John-Paul. He has made an incredible impact on my life, one that I will never forget."Robert Smedman

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