Learning from the masters

Opera star Dawn Upshaw
Opera star Dawn Upshaw (far right) shares a laugh with student vocalists during a master class.

Tenor Gavin Mackie ’13 finishes singing “A Simple Song,” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, then turns to a world-renowned soprano to hear her critique.

“Thank you for bringing this song,” says Dawn Upshaw, who is leading a master class for four student vocalists in the Woolley Room. “It was maybe the first song I sang in public, when I was in high school.”

Her personal comment breaks the ice. Then she gets down to business. “This song is full of an overwhelming joy and exuberance,” she says. “I would like to feel more spontaneity in the words. I would like to see you respond to the changes in key, using them as if a light bulb goes on.”

And so begins a 30-minute coaching session in which Upshaw focuses less on technique than on interpretation, expression and “bringing the music alive for the audience,” as Mackie later describes it.

Homecoming workshop with Rockapella
Rockapella conducts a workshop with students in 2010.

“‘A Simple Song’ contains the line ‘Make it up as you go along,’” Mackie says, “and Ms. Upshaw really tried to help me bring out that aspect of it. She encouraged me to connect with the audience throughout the piece, and to make them feel that this was the first time anyone would ever hear this song performed this way.”

On October 24, the night before the class, the celebrated singer of opera and concert repertoire had performed for an enthusiastic audience in Cole Memorial Chapel. Both her concert and the master class were sponsored by the Mary Bloor Loser Musical Series, which since 1987 has brought world-class performers to campus for concerts and teaching.

The opportunities for master classes expanded greatly in 2003, with the launching of the Evelyn Danzig Haas ’39 Visiting Artists Program, which funds visits by a wide range of performers, visual artists, musicians and more. Over the past decade, some 200 artists have visited campus through the Loser and Haas programs.

In addition to performing or lecturing on campus, all the artists work with faculty and students in workshops or master classes. Through these experiences, students get to learn from—and be inspired by—top practicing artists. Being coached in playwriting by a working playwright or watching a master printmaker demonstrate the craft not only raises the bar for students, but also gives them insight into the working life and creative process of these masters.

Katherine DiLeo ’12, a creative writing and literature major, has enjoyed participating in fiction and playwriting master classes. “The arrival of a visiting writer mixes things up a bit,” she notes. “We are introduced to a new technique, a new personality, and a new way of teaching and learning. We can also take career advice from a writer who was once in our position, and we’re reminded that there are successful, working writers out there.”

Last fall, DiLeo and her classmates in English professor Charlotte Meehan’s “Advanced Playwriting” course took part in a workshop presented by playwrights Keli Garrett and Magdalena Gómez. Rather than bringing the visitors into the classroom, Meehan brought her students to the writers, who were staying in the Bauhaus-style Austin House just off campus. In this natural light-filled space, the playwrights led the students through a series of acting and writing exercises that produced laughter and lively discussion.

“My students grew about ten feet in that hour and a half,” says Meehan, herself a playwright. “Bringing in other ways of reaching the creative impulse is tremendously energizing for students.”

Over the years, the Mary Bloor Loser Musical Series performers have included such greats as:

  • Cellist Yo-Yo Ma
  • The Boys Choir of Harlem
  • Classical guitarist Christopher Parkening
  • The King’s Singers
  • Rockapella
  • Bobby McFerrin