This is a full interview I did for the newspaper on campus at my alma mater Southern Methodist University — I thought some of my answers my prove interesting to undergrad students… Parts were excerpted from this interview in a feature article on Beth Clayton and me in the Daily Campus in 2002.
What were your operatic performances at SMU? Any particular experiences or stories that leap to mind?
I jumped in and learned Grilletta in Haydn’s Der Apoteker on short notice, so that was actually quite a precursor to what I’ve done all throughout my career – jumping in on short notice. I had a walk-on in The Gondoliers, which kind of steamed me at the time. But other people (!) needed an opportunity to sing, as well, and friends of mine were the leads, so I couldn’t much complain!! I did Antonia in Tales of Hoffman in a scenes program, as well. What I think I enjoyed the most was a one-act opera that we did my last year (I think!) of Pasatieri’s “La Divina” – about an aging soprano who’s going to quit the stage. It was all basically revolving around me, with a great aria at the end. I loved it! I got to be a DIVA! It suited my abilities and strengths vocally and dramatically at the time to a T. So actually, my operas at SMU have mirrored what I’ve done in my career: learning roles quickly, earlier and modern music, and some Italian bel canto and French thrown in, as well.
Were you prepared for the “real world” when you left SMU? Why or why not?
I was ready for the Young Artist Program in San Francisco – an Adler Fellowship, but not ready for a career. Even though I’d taken some type of acting course every year at SMU, I still didn’t feel at ease acting. I needed the experience that a young artist program can give. Plus, since SMU is a Music School and not a Conservatory, I think it lacked a bit of the competitive spirit of some of the “big schools” like Indiana, Cincinatti or Juilliard, where young singers suffer burn-out in their undergrad years. Despite or because of this, I think students at SMU are more well-rounded as human beings, and don’t just live, breathe and eat their instrument like Conservatory kids seem to do.
This cuts both ways: –I was TOTALLY naïve going into Merola and the Adler Fellowship, but I lacked that grabby cut-throat edge of many Conservatory-trained students. Many pushed their voices and their careers too quickly, and they suffered in the long run – both vocally and in their personal relationships. I have found that so much of making a career lies in the fact that people want to work with you more than once!! All of the people from my Merola years who are still having careers are easy-going, good people. The Divas and Divos of this world are short-lived and always have to keep climbing in order to stay on top, because everyone wants to see them fall.
The negative side of not being a Conservatory is that we weren’t extremely well-informed or “in the loop” of what was up with young artist programs, opera companies, singers, etc… since we weren’t total music geeks (OK, I’ll speak for myself, but MOST of us weren’t total music geeks – hee hee!!) For example, I had no idea that the Merola Program was such a big deal when I auditioned. I went to New York to audition for it, not knowing that this was the most difficult place to audition for Merola, on top of it being THE summer program to do. And I went in with some inappropriate repertoire – which none of us had any idea about, since we’re not in the middle of OPERA CENTRAL here in Dallas. You learn about appropriate repertoire by listening to lots and lots of live opera or being surrounded by people who are working in the field.
Conservatories use a lot of teachers that are still having major opera careers. I know the toll this exacts on their students since they are never there, so I must say I don’t agree that it’s the best idea. Luckily, SMU has full-time TEACHERS who also perform, not the other way around. But I do think this means we have to somehow compensate for not “being out there,” by finding out about voices, listening to recordings, and GOING TO THE OPERA.
Voice majors that think they’re going to sing opera as their careers HAVE to go to see EVERY production that Dallas Opera does. (Insert your own local Opera Company here, if you’re not in Dallas.) Dallas Opera doesn’t even have that long or big a season, so students need to grab what they can. That will be the main way they can find out about sizes and timbres of voices that sing different repertoire.
Just because you CAN sing something doesn’t mean that opera companies these days are casting that role with your type of voice. Why waste time on things you won’t get hired to do? We didn’t go to the opera enough in school, even though we got cheap tickets. But anyhow, I find that SMU students (myself included) weren’t necessarily as savvy as their conservatory counterparts – but I found this to be a plus more than a minus. You can learn all that B.S. later — — college is the time to get to know yourself, your body, and your vocal technique. I think lots of Conservatory students got ahead of themselves, and reached above their level all the time because they were TOO savvy. You have kids “preparing their careers” – mapping out their biographies, getting their pictures taken with all the “right” people and not knowing how to sing yet!
What do you wish someone had told you when you were a student that you want to tell students now?
This is one of the reasons I started the young artist corner on my website. http://www.LauraClaycomb.com/yac/ . I found that there were SO many things I wish people had talked about when I was studying. I started to make a little list of things to talk about at the beginning of my first Master Class at SMU, and the list kept billowing into greater proportions.
The main point would be to TRULY STUDY the things you’re learning, so you don’t kick yourself later when you marginally remember that at one point you knew about a subject, but you can’t remember what… which I do all the time now. The only thing worse than not knowing something is remembering that you once knew it cold. Don’t cram for tests: learn things slowly and diligently, with a night’s sleep in between study periods, and always review your notes or an outline once you’ve done the test after a week, then again after two weeks, and then after a month. Then that information will be stored in your brain for the rest of your life! I swear it works. There are so many things, especially in Music History, that I wish I had straight in my brain. I’ve had to relearn them over the years – not because my training at SMU wasn’t great, but because I crammed for tests. It would be so great to just have that information at my fingertips to take out when I’m studying some music instead of running to my reference books. The more you know, the more you can attach new information to old information in your brain.
I’d recommend reading “Use Your Perfect Memory” by Tony Buzan. One of the other things I wish I had done was KEEP some of my study books from classes that I enjoyed or ones that I think I might want to use as reference later. I almost always traded in my books for the next semester, and I regret it very much now for some courses. Especially Core and Capstone. I don’t even know if they do those any more, but those were my favorite classes, since they combined everything — — it was so much easier to put things in perspective for once. The main point would be to take an initiative with your studies and inform yourself!! It’s YOUR education, so study things that interest you. It’s probably your only chance to go to college, so grab it by the reins and GALLOP!
Is there anything from classes or lessons that, at the time, you thought “Why are they teaching me this?” that you grew to appreciate later?
Piano. I thought it was so annoying, since I had taken for years when I was little. But I didn’t read chords quickly, and couldn’t sight-read things well that involved more than three notes being played at a time. I WISH I COULD PLAY PIANO DECENTLY NOW!! I would recommend that everyone diligently studies the piano, and keeps it up, as it will save you a ton of money in the long run on coachings if you can play things through for yourself. I play well enough to bang out notes, but putting it together vertically is not my thing. I wish it were. I actually wish I remembered a bit more about voice leading, etc… so I wouldn’t have had to relearn lots of it for Baroque ornamentation. I actually enjoyed most of my classes at SMU – Buddhism, Core, Psychology, in addition to Music courses. I just took too many hours per semester to truly dig into what I was studying. I was trying to graduate on time with two majors (Foreign Languages and Music) and took anywhere from 19-21 hours a semester. Along with Opera, which ate up a lot more time than it counted for, it was really too much. Luckily I had a very understanding Sorority (Alpha Delta Pi, no longer on campus) and they let me miss chapter EVERY Monday, and ditch out on many things I should’ve been doing with them. I had great teachers. I didn’t ever like medieval music, though, I must say, but I knew why we had to study it. But at 8AM MWF with a man whose voice sounded like Grampa telling your bedtime stories?? WHY??? I still can’t hear the term sacbut without thinking of him. (is that how you spell that?)
And Music Theory — voice leading in particular. I am still annoyed to this day that I don’t just look at a piece of music and say «oh, that’s a B minor seven chord, leading to the A major chord…» It REALLY makes a difference in how you look at music to be able to pick things apart and know the mechanics of how the music is made. It takes me a while to figure it all out — still. If you can master this in your theory classes, it helps you understand things, it helps you memorize things, it helps you ORNAMENT things; it really makes all the difference in the world to have the facility to identify the chords in the music. I feel a little handicapped that I don’t just have that at my fingertips.
Any particular memories of Barbara Moore that you remember as being particularly important in your growth as a singer?
It’s so hard to find just ONE! She always suggested things and let me digest them in my own time. Remember, I started with her thinking I was going to be the world’s greatest CONTRALTO, and she only told me after a few years of study in high school that actually I was a soprano! However, we had been “trying out” (I thought) — — but actually doing — — things in the high keys and soprano repertoire for a while before she told me. She knew right away even at 15 that I wasn’t even a mezzo, but she was a savvy teacher to know that I needed to be comfortable enough in my new role before I even knew I was even doing something different! We worked on comportment, presentation, and so much more in addition to technique. Everyone has always said I’m such a “package” as a singer, and I know I owe most of this to her.
Do you enjoy doing masterclasses? Why or why not?
I enjoy doing master classes when I feel like I have something to say. When a student gets up and sings me something in which I have absolutely no expertise, I find it hard to act like the big grand artist and say something meaningful about it. I don’t have to have sung the role — otherwise I couldn’t coach anything but sopranos — but knowing the composer or the style or at least the language is a must for me. I should tell students not to bring me anything in German (I don’t speak it well) unless it’s something I absolutely know, nor to bring certain pieces in modern repertoire that I hate. I can’t do them justice. I’d rather give the students my expertise in Baroque music, or Italian music in general, French music in general , Mozart, bel canto, etc…. I have not been teaching the past 10 years (except one private student I have in Belgium), so my experience out of my own voice type is only with pieces I have done. Either I needed to have learned or to have heard it along the way, or I don’t know it. So, besides basic musicality and technical matters, language is actually the pillar of what I have to say to students in master classes. My experience in French and Italian means that I understand nuance and inflection so well, and I can help not only with the diction, but with the intention. I hate spending 30 minutes just giving general notes on something because I have no expertise in some area, so I think I need to be more specific about what I want to work on in the future. I love doing masterclasses because I have had so many great coaches who have given me so much great advice and “tricks of the trade,” and I think there’s so much to pass on from them. I’m just the conduit.
What seems to be a common theme that you end up working with students on in masterclasses?
Two things. First, Breath and working it into the music. I still don’t feel like most students understand their own breathing mechanism, nor do they really engage their breathing in their repertoire. I know their teachers are talking to them all the time about breath, but most students take a big breath and then do nothing with it Either they’re doing too much and tightening their ribcages while they sing, or they’re creating tension, or they’re doing nothing! I even thought I knew what I was doing in college, but it’s actually only recently that I feel like I’ve started singing on my breath with the right compression. I haven’t been told anything differently than what Barbara Moore had been telling me every week since I was 15 – I was finally able to feel it in my body, and it all clicked probably because I was finally ready to hear it. Teaching involves so many layers — — so if I can say the EXACT SAME THING that a student’s teacher has been saying for three and a half years, maybe it will click with that student! I could hope! Sometimes we have to be ready to accept something, which means we aren’t perfect. Maybe hearing it in many different guises is the trick. So master classes can be a great tool for teachers, to finally get it through to their students that they are not the only one harping on this same problem. It’s also difficult sometimes to accept that things are not going to work perfectly the first time, so we have to get past that and just keep trying. I like to throw a lot of ideas at students and have them decide which pieces to catch and keep. That is the true intelligence of a singer – to know innately what advice to keep and what to throw away.
The second common theme in my work is the intensity of the musical decisions one makes in pieces. Things need to be so exaggerated in the beginning, I think – most students don’t go far enough in their musical gestures (as in their physical gestures on stage!) So most of the time their gestures are somewhat half-assed. I guess you can’t print that, huh? Think up a nicer word, then… Students need to have enough information at their fingertips so they can grab things out of their “bag of tricks.” I hope to fill that bag some in a master class. I like to give them ideas or exercises to think about or do later. I do wish the students would take notes in master classes instead of treating it half as entertainment. Anyhow, most singers, especially young singers, don’t have enough dynamic – in every sense of the word: both soft, loud, every shade in between and colors in their palette. A lot of that comes with technical prowess, but lots of dynamism can be created even with a compromised instrument. My favorite thing to tell students to do in a master class is to go to the limit of what they feel comfortable in what they are trying to accomplish in a musical gesture, and from there go EVEN ONE MORE STEP further, and then MAYBE it will be strong enough! Most singers I hear sound like they are trying to make “nice noises” instead of communicate, so I try to get them to intensify their own decisions, or give them some options to choose from (for now) so they can do SOMETHING.
Any particular memories of the masterclasses that you just did at Meadows? Is a masterclass at your alma mater different than one you do somewhere else?
A Master Class is always different at SMU because there are people I love there. My favorite memory is of my second master class, when a girl who had come in the master class before and sang Mozart for me. She had sung (rather badly) Juliet’s Waltz the time before. She had taken a year off, and then gone back to work on her voice with a new teacher. The difference was astounding. I thought I would have barely anything to say, it was so beautiful. Instead, it was such a rush to work with her, because everything I said just CLICKED, and she had the suppleness of technique to do anything I asked. It was wonderful.
Have you participated (as a singer) in a masterclass that was particularly memorable or helpful to you?
I remember doing one master class with Hans Hotter in San Francisco – I was singing Ach, ich fühl’s and he kept making me do the soft high stuff over and over because he’d say “it’s another voice,” which of course was exactly what I was trying to accomplish with the piano. So I was extremely frustrated and thought he was a huge a**hole for wanting me to scream the high note or beef it up. But years down the road, I understood that what he was trying to get me to do was to retain the core of the base resonance of my sound in that piano, so it didn’t just become an empty trick that I did because I couldn’t sing it any other way. He was right in the end. I just wasn’t technically ready for what he had wanted me to do until years later, when my voice had matured and settled into my breath. I think my body just needed to mature before I could’ve sung how he wanted me to do.
I worked intensely with Regine Crespin in San Francisco as well, and remember how her touching you would just all of a sudden open up your breathing and everything just rushed out in this fabulous sound. “Breave, dahling,” she would say! Everything was about the breath. I’ll never forget a friend of mine who was singing a song by Poulenc, who mispronounced the name when announcing it, and she corrected him. He said, “But it’s spelled this way, how do you know it’s pronounced like that?” She said, in that almost baritonal voice of hers, “Because Francis was a good friend of mine.”
How did Meadows prepare you for what you’re doing now? Anything you would change about your experience here if you could?
I felt like I could do anything at SMU – that I was queen of the world when I was at Meadows. The lack of this negative jockeying for precedence you get in other conservatories gave me the space to try my wings and to have such a confidence in myself that I was willing to risk things at SMU, musically, dramatically, — — you name it. I was a big fish in a medium-sized pond , and it allowed me to grow by leaps and bounds. I was ready for the next step when it came. My experience at SMU gave me a rock-solid background so that everything I did after that was with the inner assurance that I knew who I was and what was special about me. I studied a lot after SMU, too, even though I didn’t do graduate school. The technique I learned with Barbara kept my voice healthy and sound for the growth that came in my twenties, and the work I had to put it through in an Adler Fellowship in San Francisco.
I must admit that I worked some with Tommy Hayward in my last year, as well, with Mrs. Moore’s blessing. He knew my repertoire because he had sung it, and opened up some new ways of looking at the same technical challenges I was facing with Mrs. Moore. I think the more input you get, the better. You’re going to have to decipher what’s best for you in the long run, as well. I figured I might as well learn as much as I could from as many people as I could, and learn what advice to take and what to throw out.
Mrs. Moore also set up high goals for me — — I always had extra projects at SMU that weren’t required, but she expected of me. I did a recital every year, not just my last two years. I never questioned the extra projects, and never even thought about it. Now I realize that she set up a pattern for me: setting up a self-driven project to achieve my goal, and always doing more than is required. This has been one thing that stuck with me through the years and has affected the way I work in so many ways. I never would have thought to ask more of the program in San Francisco if this hadn’t been ingrained in me. Since I was used to setting up projects, I created many while I did my fellowship. I learned the entire role of Zerbinetta although it wasn’t a part of my roles as an Adler, studied acting technique privately with two different teachers (I can faint better than any of you!) because I knew I lacked confidence onstage, studied Baroque style/ornamentation with Nick McGegan, etc, etc… Ultimately, I took control of what I wanted to learn, and it made such a huge difference in my commitment to the projects and the amount I absorbed.
If I could’ve changed some things, they’d mostly be me, not the program at SMU. I’d study harder and I’d have quit drinking sooner.
One thing I’d change about the program would be the amount of acting hours required – I think it needs to be much higher. I think it’s a shame that you have such a renowned drama school right there if you don’t take advantage of studying with its great teachers. In my mind, voice students HAVE to study more than just one year of a language, as well. Pick one and stick with it. If I got TWO degrees in 4 years (plus one May-term), then someone with just one Vocal Performance major can do a heck of a lot more than just the minimum requirements for his/her degree.
I would also lower the amount of time you have to spend in choir. If someone is a vocal performance major, usually he/she wants to be a soloist. Choir does many things, but helping develop your solo voice is not one of them. I found it ate up too much time towards the end of my degree, and kept me from spending time on some things which were much more pertinent to me. No matter how much I LOVED Dr. Pfautsch!! Luckily, I was exempt from choir tour my senior year.
That is one more great thing about SMU — — it’s so personal, they looked at the problem and did what was best for me. Both the faculty of the foreign language department and the music department let me off for a month and half the fall semester of my senior year so I could go to Shreveport Louisiana and make my professional debut. How many other schools would allow that?
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