Finding Your Voice at Bard College Conservatory

Those who attended the 2010 Classical Singer Convention knew to expect the high level of excellence that has been associated with the headliner and namesake of the “Dawn Upshaw & Friends” concert. But what they may not have predicted was the impression made by the “Friends”—the students from the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at the Bard College Conservatory of Music in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. In addition to the fine singing, audiences commented on the singers’ “beautiful artistry” and their “obvious commitment to text and expression.” In its fifth year of instruction, this unique master’s degree program is following its own model as it prepares singers for a future in the vocal arts.

“It’s just really nice to get that feedback,” said Upshaw of the response to the Classical Singer Convention performance. “They had originally asked me to come and do a recital and I thought ‘I could do that,’ but it might be more interesting for that particular convention to kind of demonstrate what we’re up to [at Bard] and what we’re about. So I was really happy that they were open to that idea.”

As the artistic director of the GVA program and the Charles Franklin Kellogg and Grace E. Ramsey Kellogg Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Bard College, Upshaw acknowledges, “We’re in our infancy here, having done this for only four years, but my goal is to create a place and an experience for singers at the graduate level to really be able to concentrate on who they are as singing artists and what they are doing and what they have to say.”

Kayo Iwama, pianist and head of the program, shares that vision. “Dawn started thinking extensively about what she wanted to impart to the next generation of singers—and specifically addressing some of the things that she herself felt that she missed in her own education.” To that end, Iwama identifies three points of focus in the GVA program at Bard: “The communication of the text; the healthy use of the body and just body awareness, which is so important in career longevity; and, thirdly, finding a way to develop their own unique careers.”

Upshaw finds her contributions mostly lie in the first category. “What I can offer them is what I’ve learned from my own experience and what I’ve learned about the process of expressing text through song,” she says. “So I talk about process a lot. A lot of times I say, ‘What is it that you’re trying to say here?’ And then we get to talking about the tools we all have to use to say what we want to say—those tools being such things like our perspective on a text, vibrato, pitch, articulation, phrasing, dynamics—the list is very long.”

To help achieve the second focus, of instilling body awareness and efficiency in its students, Bard employs two instructors in movement and Alexander Technique. Iwama emphasizes the need to use the body “in a very natural way. . . . That’s why we have an extensive Alexander program,” she explains. “In fact, the Alexander teachers will even go to the voice teacher’s lessons twice a semester so that they can help the student incorporate all the things along with the voice teacher.”

Thirdly, students are also guided and encouraged to find their own unique place in the musical world. “[Dawn] and I are probably less interested in a narrow career . . . a career that is only going one way,” Iwama says. “But we want to nurture the whole artist and help them develop ways to create opportunities for themselves, not just in opera but also in chamber music and art song—and also to find ways so that they know how to develop relationships with each other, their colleagues, as well as the press.”

This aim is met in part by Carol Yaple, a faculty member in Arts and Career Management. Her career workshop class meets once a week to address different aspects of developing the professional lives of the students. Through her own instruction as well as a series of guest lectures, Yaple’s course addresses wide-ranging topics including yoga, nutritional health, audition feedback, the inner workings of an opera house, preparation of a role, program notes, and press kits.

“Carol also participates in one of our core seminars in which the students work together to develop a recital program,” Iwama adds. “They have to go out and market it, they have to find a venue, they have to work with the presenter, they have to find a local paper or radio station in order to publicize their concert, and [they have to] develop a kind of a theme and rehearse and work on their music and, finally, present the concert. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s also been very rewarding and very successful.”

Of course, the faculty of the two-year master of music program in vocal performance also includes the requisite voice teachers, diction specialists, and vocal coaches. But Iwama is quick to point out that the faculty “share these values that Dawn and I have tried to instill. They’re really open to not just one color of singing or one style of singing . . . they are all such wonderful musicians, not just voice teachers manufacturing a particular sound out of the students. They participate fully and are engaged with the students and working with them on their repertoire. We feel very fortunate and we’ve worked hard to identify those teachers who have these values and these skills. It’s not easy to find!”

These shared values allow the teachers to contribute to each student’s education in individualized ways. “I don’t think of myself as a voice teacher,” Upshaw says. “[The students] have their own voice teachers. They have a technical teacher or lessons with somebody where technique is included. Once I get to know somebody especially well, I will talk probably about some technical aspects if I feel I can do that without getting in the way of their relationship with their voice teacher. Sometimes in a masterclass situation, if I feel like I could be helpful with a technical comment, I almost always preface it with ‘I, of course, don’t know where you’ve come from and where you’re trying to go technically and what struggles you’ve had and what you’ve just overcome, but this is what I hear.’”

The program at Bard also places special emphasis on exploring new music. Through a partnership with the Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall, Bard students are guided through a creative process with handpicked composers to present new works. “And we always have commissions of operas,” Iwama states. “Whenever we do an opera, we usually have two or three one-acts. We do this so that each student has a real role—that it’s not just three people starring and the rest of them are in the chorus or in a comprimario role. . . . It ends up being a wonderful collaboration and a learning process for the singers as well as the composers.”

Performing newly composed works draws again from Upshaw’s singing career of more than 25 years. “Dawn says, ‘You can’t live in a museum, you have to be a participant in the art,’” Iwama relates. “So we’ve always felt . . . being in music is not really about having a career, it’s about expanding the art and being an active creator in art.”

“If you take care of your art,” she elaborates, “your art will take care of you. It may not take you the fastest way or the most direct way or the way that you think you should take. But if you truly believe this and truly nurture your art and do it for the sake of the art, then somehow it seems to work out always that you’ll find a place in the musical world.”

The special nature of the program caters to a small group of students. Bard accepts approximately eight new singers each year into the two-year process. This allows for a significant amount of one-on-one attention, encouraging each student to develop as an individual.

Bard graduate Solange Merdinian agrees. “I believe the program is modeled after Dawn Upshaw’s uniqueness as an artist: importance of words and poetry, honesty, creating in the moment, respecting the composer’s intention, communicating through music, opera and new compositions, art song, and—what makes us unique—our own stamp,” Merdinian says.

Richard Dyer, former head arts critic of the Boston Globe and regular guest lecturer at Bard, also appreciates what the degree offers. “The program Dawn Upshaw and Kayo Iwama are developing at Bard helps equip adventurous young singers for the real world rather than grooming them for a fantasy,” Dyer says. “The students not only develop their vocal and linguistic equipment and hone their performing chops, the way they would in more conventional programs, but they also learn to take charge of their own destiny, acquiring artistic and entrepreneurial skills that will advance their own careers in the constantly evolving ecology of the music business. ‘Careers’ really isn’t the right word—they learn how to build a life in music, the way Dawn and Kayo did.”

“In addition to Dawn and Kayo’s support,” Bard graduate Celine Mogielnicki adds, “I found such warmth and support from all my colleagues. There is absolutely no unhealthy competition—only competition within yourself to improve and grow. It’s a healthy environment that’s truly focused on how we can be better channels of the composer’s wishes—no unnecessary ego, no pretense. Just striving for the highest quality of music making.”

So, can an audition identify singers who are talented, driven, and supportive team players? “I have a theory,” Iwama says, “that somehow that goes hand in hand. If you are really interested in communicating something real, then you yourself are an honest person—that you care about relationships and you care about collaboration. There’s something about singing that just reveals the soul in a way that nothing else does. So if you’re in an audition and you’re really listening for that and if you feel touched by that person, I think that in most cases you’ll be able to have someone who has those qualities. We try to find a core of honesty. And with Dawn, she has this kind of unerring ability to identify that in another singer because she herself is such an honest and direct communicator.”

“I’m fascinated and inspired by the young generation of musicians that are coming out of conservatories or colleges and universities these days,” Upshaw says. “And I’m not just talking singers. They, in my mind, are incredibly versatile. They have an understanding of many more musical styles than I did when I came out of school. I feel like because the world is changing—maybe a greater interest in world music, for instance—we’re all a little broader minded in a very healthy and good way. So I feel that there are some talents and skills that young people coming out of undergrad programs are equipped with that come kind of naturally to them because of the way the world has changed. That means we can respond in a different way in training and in working with them and in supporting them through their graduate years.”

Mogielnicki agrees. “Bard gives you license to really make your own path, your own trajectory. I see myself singing music that is interesting and that fulfills me. That includes opera, concert rep, song recitals—but it also means making my own concerts that highlight social issues that I believe in. Really, I’m leaving Bard with a sense of boundlessness!”

“We realize that our program isn’t for everybody,” Upshaw adds. “You’re drawn to a certain place, you feel ‘at home’ in a certain place and not in another. This is a very, in a certain way, unusual and particular kind of program for a certain unusual and particular kind of musical artist.”

“We truly appreciate [the students] for the individuals that they are,” Iwama says. “My hope is that when they leave they realize that they themselves can go out and create this environment wherever they go—in a school setting or an opera company or whatever collaboration—that they always assume the best in others and themselves, too.”

For more information about the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at the Bard College Conservatory of Music, visit

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /