From Student To Teacher : Marilyn Horne

Marilyn Horne, one of the best known singers in the world and whose singing career spanned five decades, continues to dominate the field of vocal music as a sought-after teacher. Celebrating her 80th birthday this month, Horne has achieved the kind of career longevity that singers dream of accomplishing. Opera News proclaimed that she “may be the most influential singer in American history.” With a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from Gramophone magazine, and a National Medal of Arts (1992)—along with being a Kennedy Center Honoree (1995), a National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors recipient (2009), and inductee into the American Classical Music and Hollywood Bowl Halls of Fame—it is clear that she is a great force in the music world. She is the recipient of three Grammy Awards, has made over 100 recordings, and has performed in over 1,300 recitals, along with performances at the greatest opera houses in the world.

Despite all of these accolades, she is a humble and gracious person with a lively personality and sense of humor. Her unfailing energy keeps her moving through a booked schedule that includes masterclasses, private lessons, and giving an insider’s take on opera in the new radio show, Operavore, on WQXR in New York City (also available streaming online). In addition, she has served as the voice program director for Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., since 1997.

The Music Academy of the West (MAW) is a pillar among music education programs and education for singers entering the professional world. With more than 200 performances over the summer, singers have ample opportunity for stage time—but they also have the opportunity to study with excellent faculty, especially Marilyn Horne.

An interesting coincidence about Horne taking on the role of director is that she attended the Music Academy of the West in 1953. “The Music Academy was wonderful when I went there,” Horne says, and then adds with a laugh, “I was not one of their best students as far as being there all the time . . . . I had lots of gigs in the L.A. area. I was doing a lot of singing. I really basically went up on the weekends.”

It’s no surprise that MAW has changed a bit since Horne was a student there. “It’s so different now,” she says. “In many ways, I would say it’s richer because of the physical aspects of the school. We have such wonderful buildings now. We have a great new recital hall that we inaugurated five or six years ago now: Hahn Hall. We have a paved road. It was a dirt road when I was there.”

But Horne is quick to clarify what in her mind truly “makes” MAW—and any school, for that matter. “I firmly believe no school is rich at all unless it has good teachers.”

Her own transition from performing to teaching was unexpected. “I never dreamed how much I would love teaching,” she says. “I was so busy with my career that I never really even contemplated teaching. I sort of fell into it. My great friend and accompanist Martin Katz forced me into doing my first masterclass—which was at the Music Academy, strangely enough. And I said, ‘That wasn’t so bad. I kind of liked that!’

“A lot of my friends have said to me, ‘Jackie [Horne’s nickname], you’ve been teaching your whole life.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I’ve seen you go up to someone in rehearsal and say, “Why are you singing that like that?” or “What are you doing here? You need to get over to Germany now. You shouldn’t be at the Met yet; you need to go to Germany and get some experience.”’ So in a way I guess that was teaching.”

Horne firmly believes that self-belief is one of the most important attributes a singer needs for success. “Throughout my career I had a great sense of self-belief. I’m not sure where it came from. Certainly wonderful moral support from home, if not financial. . . . That made it possible for me to have so much great experience along the way. And then, of course, I took the ball myself and ran with it.”

In addition to believing in oneself, Horne is quick to emphasize the importance of the basic skills like musicality and technique. “The musicality is something you are born with. You are obviously born with your voice, too, to certain degrees. Some people are born with such natural talent, they just get up and sing and everything falls into place. . . . I was one of those people. But I had to learn what it was all about.

“That’s the big thing—really knowing what it’s all about. You have to get the technical stuff first. You cannot get the cart before the horse. And I’m always saying if you get your technique down, you really will go so much faster.”

Horne also stresses the importance of learning languages. “Learn a language immediately! Not tomorrow, yesterday! That gives you such subtlety in your expression and how you use the words. I’m all in favor of any singers who will go to a language school or go to a local restaurant that speaks German, Italian, or French. Go in there and make a fool of yourself and start speaking.”

That emphasis on technical preparation is a particular emphasis at the Music Academy of the West. MAW President Scott Reed believes that it is the quality of the faculty members, starting with Horne, that distinguishes their program from other institutions. “Each of our 23 singers has the opportunity to work and interact with Ms. Horne on a daily basis during the summer program,” Reed says. “She attends every performance and oversees the entire curriculum. Ms. Horne is involved in the selection of each singer who is accepted into the Academy, so her commitment to them is personal and lasts far beyond our eight-week program. Additionally, the team she assembled in close collaboration with the similarly remarkable Warren Jones is unparalleled. The commitment to teaching from these professionals, which is exemplified so passionately by Ms. Horne, is truly unique.”

Indeed, Horne’s passion is evident to all who meet her. It is also her easy-going personality, welcoming nature, and genuine interest in the singers she meets and works with that make her the kind of teacher who changes the life of a singer. That passion, that fire, is one of the things that made her great, and something that audiences recognized in her from the start.

“I had a funny incident happen to me when I made my La Scala debut,” she relates. “It was wonderful and exciting, and everyone was cheering and the fans started to follow me down the street. I was going into a restaurant to have dinner with my friends. And somebody would come up to me and they would say, ‘Are you Italian at all?’ And I would say, ‘No, sorry.’ And then somebody else would go, ‘Are you French?’ And I would say, ‘Look, I’m just a plain ol’ American.’ Finally one came up to me and said, ‘Are you ebrea? (Are you Jewish?)’ Because they couldn’t believe that a plain ol’ American could have any fire. They didn’t believe that an American could have any fuoco on the stage.”

Horne, now called the “Star-Spangled Singer,” certainly showed that Americans do indeed have that fuoco.

Singers who audition for the Music Academy of the West also have that fire burning for a singing career. “Maybe there are varying degrees, but almost everybody is there because they want to do it,” Horne says. “They are serious and they work hard. There is no fooling around. Our student body is [on] full scholarship. Nobody gets in [because they are] able to pay. You get in on your merits.”

Determination is also key when it comes to a singing career. “You go beyond ‘I want it. I want to have it’ to ‘I’m going to have it. Nothing is going to stop me.’ If you don’t feel that way, it’s too hard.”

This attitude combined with that huge amount of self-belief is what helps singers get through the tough times. “You have to be able to roll with the punches,” Horne says. “You have to let the disappointments run off your back. Maybe be disappointed for a day. But then you have to put it behind you. That’s a tricky thing, too, because maybe you’re just not somebody’s taste when you’re having an audition or when you’re in a competition. You must have a huge amount of self-belief. You’ve got to say to yourself, ‘OK. They haven’t gotten my message yet.’”

Horne certainly helps to build that confidence in her students at the Music Academy of the West. Faculty and students build rapport that lasts beyond the time of the program, and the teachers often serve as mentors to their students well past the eight weeks of study. “Voice Program alumni will often contact Ms. Horne years after attending the Music Academy to receive career guidance, knowing that Ms. Horne and our faculty genuinely care about each singer with whom we have the opportunity to work,” says Tiffany DeVries, the dean of students at MAW.

That dedication to students is reflected in the glowing comments of alumni of the Music Academy when they speak of their experiences—both personal and professional—at MAW.

“Ms. Horne’s influence in preparation for the competition largely centered on communication and musicality—how to clearly, genuinely communicate with an audience,” says Tracy Cox, winner of the 2012 Marilyn Horne Song Competition. “That work with Ms. Horne and Warren Jones was, in and of itself, such a gift. I think both the competition and the program are unique in that they encourage and reward singers who actively explore the artist they would like to be. I loved the competition and the following recitals, as they allowed me to showcase both the singer I am, and the artist I think is possible.”

John Brancy, winner of the 2013 Marilyn Horne Song Competition, had a similar experience. For him, the rewarding aspects of the program included the group of people that became “such a family, a strong unit of people,” and the fact that the program provided a supportive and noncompetitive environment that had minimal ego issues. The support of people like Horne and Jones and the encouragement they continue to give Brancy is “real and substantial.”

“Eight weeks at the Music Academy can and does make a life-long impact on singers,” DeVries notes. “Under the leadership of Marilyn Horne, our voice program offers the highest caliber training experience within a performance-based education model. Our singers are on stage as often as possible and yet also receive private lessons, workshops, and coaching several times per week. This intensive advanced training guided by iconic faculty who are committed to the well-being and success of each singer has defined the nature of our program as one in which singers truly thrive.”

MAW faculty work to cultivate both personal and professional success in their students. “[They focus] not only on excellence in performance, but excellence in all aspects of being a musical citizen,” says DeVries.

Part of this is interaction with audience. “Our patrons are the most enthusiastic supporters you will find among any festival audience,” DeVries says, “and, as a result, our Fellows feel overwhelmingly supported both on and off stage. Patrons intentionally connect with our musicians outside of performances, creating an intimate community dynamic. At the Academy, the audience becomes friends versus a sea of faces, making performances much more meaningful for everyone.”

“I know so many people who live in Santa Barbara, and truly their whole cultural life comes alive in the summer,” says Horne. “There are over 200 performances in the summer. . . . It’s amazing how good those students are. I sit at those concerts and think, ‘If the rest of America could see these young musicians up there working together, knowing they’ve had to work so damn hard to get there.’”

Reed also references the remarkable audience, who attend not just the performances but also the masterclasses. “Our audience is sophisticated,” he says. “They have been learning with our Fellows for the past 66 years. Our audience base is loyal and engaged—they are invested in each singer’s experience. Each time our singers walk on stage for a masterclass, they can be assured a full, interested, and energetic audience ready to receive the best performance they have in them.”

Masterclasses are an important part of the summer, but private voice lessons are still the core, thanks to Horne’s emphasis on developing strong technique. She believes that private lessons are the most advantageous element of study to the singer. In addition to these important studies, students have many opportunities to perform. “We put on very good opera performances,” Horne says. “They are as good as any small opera company.” This year, the Academy will present Carmen in honor of Horne’s 80th birthday.

It being one of Horne’s signature roles, she has clear ideas about what makes a great Carmen. “Carmen is more than just the singing,” she says. “You’ve got to be able to sing it, but you have to have a big personality. You’ve got to be able to put your own personal stamp on it. . . . So many people have an idea what Carmen should be, what she should look like, how she should affect them when they are watching or hearing her. So, if you can get into some of your own personal stamp, your own personal feelings about the part. It’s all there in the words, as it is in any other opera. Everything is there in the text. You don’t have to invent anything.”

Carmen will be presented in the newly renovated Granada Theatre, a 1,600-seat performance venue in downtown Santa Barbara. The Music Academy takes great care to provide students with the opportunity to perform in professional settings to “make the transition from artist-in-training to professional artist all the more achievable,” says Reed.

In addition to opera, song literature is an important aspect Horne built into the Academy’s program. “I love that aspect of what a singer can do. No instrument has been written for like a singer—the hundreds of thousands of songs that are out there,” she says, and her face lights up thinking about them all. “That [song literature] was part of my early training. I had a wonderful teacher at USC, Gwendolyn Koldofsky, who was my first teacher of song literature and all the aspects of song singing. And then she became my accompanist for 10 years. Then her star pupil, Martin Katz, became my accompanist for 30 years.

“Then, of course, I went to the Music Academy where the main lady teaching was Lotte Lehmann, and she was considered the greatest recitalist of her time. Actually, the very first masterclass I ever did was with her at USC. I was about 17. I sang ‘Die junge Nonne.’ That was my very first German Lied. I sang it practically my whole career. I kept that in my repertoire; just changed keys along the way!” she adds with a laugh.

It’s that longtime connection with song that drives Horne to continue her emphasis on song as well as opera at the Music Academy through the Marilyn Horne Song Competition. Originally underwritten by the Marilyn Horne Foundation (now dissolved), it is now fully supported by the Music Academy of the West. Part of the award to singers is a financial stipend as well as the opportunity to present three recitals, including one in New York City. Horne would like to expand to even more recitals. “That’s how you really become a great recitalist—repeating it and repeating it and repeating it!” she says. Her love for song literature is also evident in The Song Continues workshop at Carnegie Hall.

Under Horne’s direction, the Music Academy program remains small, with a high ratio of faculty to students, providing lots of individual attention—which Warren Jones, director of vocal piano and interpretation, cites as a great strength of the program. Additionally, the voice faculty is a very closely knit group of people. They share common outlooks and a similar message about how they obtain results. “For young singers and pianists, it’s very important that people are given that kind of common view, not hit by glaring contradictions,” Jones says.

Horne also speaks of the congenial atmosphere at the Music Academy of the West. She describes the faculty as great friends as well as colleagues. This provides an even more important model for the students on how to be a good colleague. In this way, Horne and the other faculty can help to train the singers in more than just technique.

MAW students also receive instruction in the business aspects of a career. Former director of Columbia Artists Vocal division, Matthew Epstein, teaches audition technique and career development. “He lectures on basically the business, the whole aspect of what it means to be an opera singer, and how you get there,” Horne says of Epstein, whom she has known for 48 years. “He comes just in time to hear the opera, which we do next to the last weekend. He hears every singer individually and gives really good advice.”

Training the whole person also means learning to maintain physical and mental health. MAW has a Wellness Program with weekly classes in nutrition, exercise, body dynamics, and leadership and lifestyle courses that cover everything from stage confidence to stress management to balancing a personal and professional life. The program also maintains one day as a vocal rest day each week.

In fact, Horne and other faculty have purposefully built rest and reflection time into the program. Singers need time to themselves to reflect on what they’ve learned and to process it. “Time to oneself by oneself—that is where the results can actually happen,” Jones says. Though they do have a hectic schedule that is very project driven, they intentionally maintain that time to grow and reflect. Because of this, “people come out singing better than they came,” Jones says.

“By the end of the summer, I rarely talk to any of the students (I do an exit interview with every one) that they are not saying, ‘This has been the greatest summer of my life,’” shares Horne. And it’s no wonder, with an instructor like Marilyn Horne guiding the way. To her students, she models technical prowess, fiery expression, a strong work ethic, support of her students’ work, and a lifelong passion for classical music.
She also knows how to maintain a sense of fun. One of her favorite games is to look at the map pages of an in-flight magazine and circle all the cities where she has sung, leaving a map full of circles. “When I finish and I look at it, I say, ‘I can’t believe I’ve sung in all of those places!’”

She feels that same joy for the singers she teaches and mentors. “I think that’s one of the things that’s most enjoyable about teaching—you’re very happy for the ones who . . . have wonderful careers.

“I think having a career in classical music is the greatest thing that could happen to anyone,” she continues. “I’m so lucky to have had such a long life in classical music. I know that’s what has kept me in it—my love of the music.”

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website