Music Should Mean Something : Advice from George Shirley

Music Should Mean Something : Advice from George Shirley

Music should mean something. Sound should mean something. Know what and why you are singing and your sound will come from somewhere amazing.

George Shirley’s masterclass “Sing the Words” is on Friday, May 24 at the CS Music Convention.

Venerated tenor and voice teacher George Shirley has had an amazing life and distinguished career. He not only overcame social injustices, he thrived in the face of adversity. Back in 2017 I had the good fortune of spending a few minutes with him in an empty cafeteria at the refurbished Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden. Mr. Shirley had just presented a keynote masterclass at the International Congress of Voice Teacher’s conference.

He presented his class with care and concern for each singer. He taught with a nurturing and encouraging style that made the singer feel empowered to perform without any inhibitions.

The highlight of the class for me was his insights on the meaning of the music we sing:

Music should mean something. Sound should mean something. Know what and why you are singing and your sound will come from somewhere amazing.

After lunch later that day I saw Mr. Shirley in the empty cafeteria and decide to impose a little. I sat with him and asked a few questions.

What a story he has to share!

I won’t try to tell his entire story in a simple post; only the cliff-notes 🙂  Suffice it to say, Mr. Shirley’s drive and perseverance is remarkable as he was the first African-American to break through into the U.S. Army Chorus and later just the second African-American male to sing at the Met. Breaking any color barriers, however, seemed like an afterthought to him as he recounted his story. He somewhat serendipitously found his way to the opera-scene after beginning his career path in 1955 as a teacher but doing a one-off performance in “Oedipus Rex”. He thought that was it for him in the opera world until, after becoming a stand out singer in the chorus, he was asked to study under Themy Georgi for a year. Mr. Georgi guaranteed Shirley that if he studied with him for a year, Shirley would have career in opera. For the first time in his life Mr. Shirley seriously considered a life and a career in opera.

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After three years in the Army Chorus and a year with Mr. Georgi, Shirley landed his first contract, a summer with Turnau Opera in Woodstock, New York that included five operas that he had to learn from scratch. In 1959 he had a failed attempt at the Met Auditions. But he received positive feedback and encouragement from one of the jurors who encouraged Shirley to keep on the road he was going.

So he did. And in 1960 Shirley sang in and won the American Opera Auditions in 1960. That led to a summer in Italy with more invaluable performance experience. Later, in 1961, Shirley again tried his hand at the Met Auditions. This time, while performing Nessun dorma, Shirley won the Met Auditions and launched his incredibly successful career which included 11 seasons at the Met.

His smooth storytelling captured my attention and I could have sat and listened to him for hours. It wasn’t the details of his story that were fascinating, but rather his calm but incredibly confident and smoothing words of wisdom.

His advice to singers was simple: DO THE WORK

“You don’t know what’s going to happen to you. You have dreams, you have aspirations, but you don’t know what’s going to happen and you can’t control it. But while you’re involved in the process, DO THE WORK. We don’t know where it’s going to lead but you can know with surety that you haven’t wasted your time. You’ve learned lessons that will help you in life no matter what road you end up on. Regardless of the outcomes, DO THE WORK.”

We talked for a while longer—and I’ll share more of his thoughts in later blog posts—but his admonition to DO THE WORK stuck with me. Whether we’re a singer looking for a breakthrough, a teacher trying connect and inspire a struggling student, or a businessman trying to carve a niche in a small and competitive industry, we all face similar challenges. All we can do is do the work. That might not lead to the outcomes we expect or plan for, but as Mr. Shirley assured me, things will work out for the best if we DO THE WORK.

Good words to live by. Thanks Mr. Shirley! We look forward to seeing you in Chicago at the CS Music Convention!

Alex Stoddard

Alex Stoddard is the President and CEO of CS Music and Classical Singer magazine. Since 2003 Alex has been involved heavily with CS in advertising sales, the CS Vocal Competition, the CS Convention, and the development of the website Alex graduated with a B.A. from Brigham Young University and a M.S. from Utah State University. He currently lives in Lehi, UT with his wife Becky and their 6 children and is a high school basketball coach on the side.