The Singer at Virginia Tech

Imagine that just as you were leaving high school, there was an educational experience awaiting you that would meet all of your criteria as an aspiring singer:
•You would major in vocal performance and have all the private voice lessons, language study, and performance emphasis that implies.
•You would be in an exclusively undergrad program, with no pesky graduate students around to steal all the good roles.
•You would be at an academic institution of unquestionable credibility —one that would make your parents or anybody else looking over your “artsy” shoulder feel confident that you were getting a degree from a “real” school.
•And, perhaps most importantly of all, you would enter into a true undergraduate experience: four years of a rigorous, broad-based curriculum that would nurture the intelligence that will be an essential component of your life as an artist and your life in general.

Virginia Tech’s voice program for undergraduates is striving to be just such a place.

The day-to-day for a voice major does not look dissimilar from a conservatory undergraduate, including weekly voice lessons, a diction course, music theory and history, piano, sight-singing, and choir. A voice major is also required to take two semesters of languages but also must fulfill other requirements typical of any undergrad. Virginia Tech voice faculty members soprano Ariana Wyatt and tenor Brian Thorsett offer a weekly studio class and, Wyatt says, they have also begun offering a joint class for the entire voice department every three weeks, which she says builds camaraderie.

That may be particularly important, given that Virginia Tech is a big school. With its main campus located in Blacksburg, Virginia, the school has more than 30,000 students and offers 65 bachelor’s degrees and 160 master’s and doctoral degrees. It is consistently well ranked among universities—and among public universities in particular.

As a technical university, one might question the compatibility of an emphasis on hard sciences with performing arts—but part of the university’s stated mission, “transforming knowledge to practice,” would seem to describe the goal of the singer quite well. And some singers believe that a college education, versus that of conservatory, may better serve the singer in the long run.

“We service double majors well, which is something we think is important in our society, in our culture, and our place in the university,” says Wyatt. “We think, ‘if we have a double major, that’s great,’ and we can be flexible in the way they go about getting their music requirements met, because it’s difficult to get a double major, especially when one of those majors is engineering—which happens often at Virginia Tech, because we’re known for engineering and for hard science. But those students do very well.

“One of my students who is at NEC at the moment,” she continues, “was a double major in chemistry and vocal performance and she did well in both. It’s something we can encourage and foster and something that our president and provost want to encourage, this idea of a well-rounded graduate. I had one [student] who did music technology and vocal performance and now she’s doing acoustical engineering at Peabody, so she’s combined those two degrees in a very interesting way. That’s something I think we do very well.”

Class of ’92 graduate, bass Branch Fields, has made a name singing with New York City Opera and has also starred in musical theatre, including a stint as understudy of Emile De Becque in Broadway’s latest revival of South Pacific. This season, he will be performing with Anchorage, Utah, and Virginia Operas, continuing his success with regional companies while straddling opera and musical theatre. Branch is a good example of a singer who went to Virginia Tech to study hard science and ended up on the road to a career as an opera singer.

“I was in my fifth year, 15 credits from finishing a business-marketing degree, when my voice teacher, Craig Fields (no relation), sat me down and tried to convince me to be an opera singer. I sang for another voice teacher back home, Genevieve McGiffert, who agreed with Mr. Fields. I dropped all my marketing classes mid-semester, signed up for enough music classes to get a minor, and graduated with a liberal arts and science degree of three minors: chemistry, business-marketing, and music! I’m a very marketable opera singer who can cook with a Bunsen burner.”

Since Branch’s tenure, the program has grown and seems to be growing still. When Wyatt joined the faculty in 2010, there were 20 voice majors. Today there are 32.

Wyatt points out that Virginia Tech’s students seem to do well when they move on to graduate school for performance, but that music education majors are by no means second-class citizens in the department. “We have a lot of music ed majors who I think we’re preparing well to go out and be primary and secondary school music educators, choral directors, and band directors. We offer a strong performance component for those students, whereas some programs are more only oriented toward the Music Ed part and they don’t get four years of private voice lessons. They do at Virginia Tech. Those people get just the same opportunities as performance majors. They’re just as able to be in any of the performances we have.”

Metropolitan Opera soprano Danielle Talamantes, double major in vocal performance and vocal pedagogy class of ’98, describes her performance opportunities as high points of her time at the school. “I had some of my very first experiences performing as a soloist with an orchestra both on the campus as well as in an outreach program,” Talamantes says. “This was invaluable at such an early point in my career. Singing the national anthem for various sporting events was also quite a thrill. I’ve since returned for performances with the Blacksburg Master Chorale and Chamber Singers and always make time to pop in to see old professors and even guest lecture in classes.”

Talamantes, like Branch, entered the school with one idea for her future and left with her foot set on the path of an operatic career. “I felt like the program was tailor made for me. I had a small, clear, pretty but rather unexciting voice growing up. I was unsure if I wanted to study music or archaeology, but found myself drawn to the music department of whatever college I was visiting. I was accepted into a couple of conservatories and smaller colleges for undergrad music, but ultimately felt I wanted a more well-rounded education as well as the college experience—i.e., a big campus, football games, lots of social opportunities, etc. Virginia Tech’s music department is relatively small but packed with fantastic faculty and a well-structured curriculum. I found it to be the best of both worlds to experience life on such a large university campus while being nurtured and encouraged within the family-like music department.”

It was early in her second semester that Talamantes “was encouraged to add a music education degree to my docket.” She continues, “While I found the classroom environment to be more challenging than I anticipated, I nevertheless benefited greatly from the education provided in that program.” Talamantes went on to pursue a double master’s in performance and pedagogy at Westminster Choir College.

Nicole Schmitt, who is now a middle and high school choir director in Virginia, participated in a five-year master’s degree in music education at VT that comprised four years of undergraduate and one year of graduate study. “In terms of a highlight of my experience in the music program,” Schmitt says, “I would have to say that was my secondary-level student teaching experience. As music education students, we got so much hands-on experience in the field, which was so helpful and prepared me well.”

Both Branch and Talamantes speak of continued benefits and enjoyment of connections made at Virginia Tech, and Schmitt concurs. “In my professional life I am very grateful for the relationships I continue to have with the professors at Virginia Tech. My students have met and worked with the choral director there multiple times. The a cappella groups have come to perform at our school. We have attended choir concerts on campus. And we have even performed concerts with the choirs at Virginia Tech. It is a continuous relationship that benefits all parties and I am so grateful for that.”

The many choral societies on campus are a boon for singers. Other performance opportunities include an annual scenes program and interdepartmental collaborations such as a language cabaret and newly commissioned works for voice and instrumental ensembles, as well as the customary junior and senior recital for voice majors and a junior recital for music ed majors. Recently, the department began a partnership with Opera Roanoke, offering a full production of the world premiere of Lori Laitman’s The Three Feathers, which made use of the newly built Moss Arts Center, a state-of-the-art facility with a 1,260-seat performance hall and other studios and galleries as well. Virginia Tech’s dedication to the arts is evident in the creation for the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech, which is housed at the 150,000 square-foot facility.

This commitment from the school is something that Wyatt says is part of the reason she feels so excited about the future of the voice department. “We have a ton of support, from the top down,” Wyatt says. “We have a brand new president as of June, and she came to see Three Feathers. Our provost comes to a lot of our productions. We are in a great collaborative relationship with the Center for the Arts, which paid for most of Three Feathers. They produced it financially. We are poised to grow in a really beautiful way.”

A big school always has many subcultures within it, and one such subculture at Virginia Tech is the Honors Program, which offers special courses and opportunities for study. The honors college, as some call it, also offers special residence halls for its members. Wyatt says that the voice department has several students in that program, something she encourages because of the commensurate opportunities for additional scholarships and study abroad.

As a public university, Virginia Tech is much less expensive for in-state applicants, who pay around $20,000 per year including room and board, compared with out-of-state applicants, who pay around $36,000. For students wishing to offset the costs, there are merit scholarships available for entering freshmen “that can be renewed each year, provided they maintain a high enough GPA,” Wyatt says, adding, “We also have an arts scholarship available to any School of Performing Arts sophomore.”

Just what you get for your money from any educational experience can be difficult to predict. “I went there with completely different objectives,” Branch says, “but found what I needed there to pursue my real passion and calling.”

It would seem Branch was successful in achieving Virginia Tech’s stated mission, although any singer might amend the statement to read:

“Transforming knowledge to practice. And practice and practice and . . . .”

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.