Two singers search for meaning
WHY DO WE SING?
This is the question we ask everyone we work with. It is the question that serves as a guiding light when the path to success and fulfillment becomes obscured. It is what drives us to constantly grow and seek greater truth and depth in what we do. It is this question that led us to develop a holistic, integrative approach to singing called the Transformative Singing Process.
But we didn’t always have a great answer to this fundamental question. Nor did we have an understanding of the holistic and integrative approach to singing that we now espouse. Like most classical musicians in America, we began our pre-professional musical training the traditional way: college music degrees. These degrees gave us some of the building blocks to craft a professional music career: some music theory, some music history, some performing experience, some general education, and some mechanical vocal technique. Essentially, everything we learned was helping us to figure out HOW to be good singers. There was very little emphasis put on WHY our craft was important to the world and WHY we should strive to be the best that we could, not to mention how we should translate good singing into a successful career as a self-marketed musician.
“As a senior in high school staring down the barrel of the next four (…or six…) years of my life, I was pondering what to do – what to be. For years, my dream had been to become a famous rock star, but the university I attended didn’t offer a rock star degree program. When my parents asked me why I wanted to be a professional musician, I realized I didn’t have an answer. I just knew I felt a strong connection to music and needed it to be a major part of my life. After two indecisive years trying NOT to be a music major, I kept finding myself enrolling in music classes and ensembles. I finally decided to follow my heart and pursue Music Education. My initial excitement and enthusiasm eventually gave way to the endless onslaught of mechanical technique and information, all of which lacked context for its purpose and application in the real world.
Then, one night at a departmental performance of Puccini’s Suor Angelica, I was reduced to an inconsolable puddle by the soprano who would later become my partner in all things and the absolute love of my life. I had never considered opera as a possible outlet for my own talents, but little did I know that the emotional transformation I experienced that evening would change the course of my life forever!”
“My path as a singer also began in tears, but at the much younger age of 7. I was a member of the prestigious Colorado Children’s Chorale and was engaged in a performance of Carl Orff’s masterwork Carmina Burana. While watching the soprano soloist, I was brought to tears by the exquisite brilliance and warmth of the woman’s voice. I knew in that moment that I had to dedicate my life to providing that same transformative experience for others.
I set my sights on a career as a professional singer, and my dreams never faltered. As a shy, reserved, extremely self-conscious child, singing was my portal to freedom and self-expression. College music departments frequently become home for such students, and I was no exception. As I studied my voice, I found my very essence. My voice was my liberation from all the internal shackles that had bound me throughout my life. The more I sang, the more confidence, self-understanding, and human connection I found. But it wasn’t until a 2005 performance of Puccini’s Suor Angelica that my journey truly began to take shape. After the performance, a handsome bass-baritone tearfully congratulated me on my performance, and the future unfolded before our eyes.”
Thus began our dual journey. In 2008, we sang in the same performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in Rome. After getting married in 2009, we moved to Florida to begin master’s degrees in Vocal Performance. In 2011, as graduation approached after two more years of non-contextualized “HOW,” we realized tour dreams of international operatic performing careers were still out of reach. Having come up short in audition after audition, we started to worry that we might never achieve those dreams. What was missing? Why hadn’t our technique improved enough to get hired? How many more years of voice lessons were needed before we were ready?
At the proverbial eleventh hour, we both were offered graduate assistantships to get DMAs in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy at the University of Southern Mississippi, under the tutelage of one of the country’s great pedagogues, Dr. Maryann Kyle. Over the next few years, we sang together in Germany, had tour first child, and began tour teaching careers together at a small private university in Mobile, Alabama. It was during this time that the first hints of “WHY” began to come into focus.
“In 2015, I was conducting a small chamber choir and decided to take them on a tour of Romania. This was no ordinary choir tour to concert halls and traditional performance venues. We sang to the under-privileged populations of a country whose economy was still reeling from the iron-fisted dictatorial regime of Ceausescu 25 years prior. Our audiences included school children, church congregations, impoverished Roma children, children with severe disabilities who had been abandoned to a state-run nursing facility, orphans, and prison inmates. It was a life-altering experience for everyone involved, and for me, it brought a great deal of clarity and focus to my sense of meaning as a musician. I witnessed the incredible power of music to connect disparate groups of people across perceived barriers of faith, language, social status, education level, lifestyle, age, gender, and so many other divisions that had once seemed so real and important. Each of these perceived divisions crumbled into nothingness once the music started. I saw that creating connections and dissolving divisions through music was my greatest gift to offer the world.”
After that trip, we ended up moving back to Colorado. We had both been offered part-time teaching positions at Colorado Mesa University and were excited to return to our home state after six years in the Deep South. This move began a whole new chapter of self-discovery for the both of us. Our careers as performers and teachers were finally beginning to take off. We were asked to give vocal pedagogy presentations at at school districts and music conferences state-wide, we presented a TEDx talk on building connections through music, and were invited to make our debuts together as featured soloists at Carnegie Hall, all while maintaining busy and fulfilling performance schedules, teaching bountiful studios (both at the university and privately), serving as guest faculty and guest presenters at prestigious university music programs around the country, and raising two young boys. In order to live up to our own standards of excellence and our insatiable desire to understand the human voice more deeply, we realized we had more work to do. To be able to articulate HOW to sing and teach at a high level, we needed to be able to articulate WHY the various elements of vocal technique existed and WHY it was important for singers to perform to the best of their abilities.
One day, we were confronted by a student’s parents who didn’t believe that tax dollars should fund arts education. Why, they wondered, should they be responsible for paying for a field that was not economically self-sustaining? When engineers earn their degrees, they are well-equipped to create infrastructure that improves commerce for their communities. When doctors complete their medical degrees, they are able to make a living by curing patients who are then better able to contribute to the economy. Musicians just make pretty sound. Their work is dispensable and unnecessary – even detrimental – to a thriving economy. Music doesn’t financially contribute to society in a tangible way, they asserted, so it shouldn’t be funded by collective tax dollars.
This conversation was troubling for many reasons. First of all, these parents had a son who was pursuing music education as his career, and it was obvious that he would lack their support in this endeavor. Secondly, it introduced us to a disconcerting perspective to which we had never been exposed. Though we knew that funding to arts education had been eviscerated in recent decades, we had never had an open conversation with someone who held such a view in support of those budget cuts. But perhaps the most troubling of all was our realization that we didn’t feel equipped to respond. We had spent our lives experiencing the importance of music, but never needing to examine or articulate why music mattered. And we were handing down the same limited understanding to our students. We began to ask ourselves that crucial question: why do you sing? Then, we began asking our students, colleagues, and mentors. And not a single one of them could clearly and effectively pinpoint why music should matter. So, we began to search for answers. What we found astounded and inspired us, and as we passed this new understanding down to our students, we saw new passion and excitement infused into their music-making.
In essence, the more we learned about HOW to accomplish our goals (as singers, as teachers, as spouses, as parents…), the more we realized we needed to have a deeper understanding of WHY those goals were important. We also began to discover that the process of learning to sing was really a process of learning how to live a more self-aware, self-actualized life. The innumerable life lessons disguised as voice lessons that we have uncovered over the years have now become core elements of the Transformative Singing Process. The never-ending search for “WHY?” has led us to research an increasingly diverse assortment of scientific fields, from vocology, neurology, and physiology to bio-energetics, psychology, cymatics, psycho-acoustics, and quantum physics. The study of the transformative power of singing has proven to be an infinite wellspring of discovery; one that we endeavor to share with the world so that everyone can claim the immense benefits of this fundamental human activity that is the birthright of every person on the planet.
After years of soul-searching, self-doubt, renewed hope, defeat, and success, we have found our reason for doing what we do. With a combined 50 years of performing that includes more than 75 roles in opera, oratorio, and music theatre, as well as thousands of recitals, concerts, and choral performances – after seeing our students succeed at to top-tier graduate schools, young artist programs, international vocal competitions, and professional careers – we know our “WHY.” We sing to connect. We teach to inspire. We aim to transform the world around us into a place full of empathy, kindness, compassion, and understanding. Now we pose the question to you:
WHY DO YOU SING?
Stefanie is passionate about bringing lesser-known vocal works to light, with a special fondness for music written during and about the Holocaust. She is a pedagogically acute and highly intuitive teacher who infuses deep contextual meaning into her voice lessons, academic classes, and vocal workshops.
Graham enjoys exploring the impact of music through a wide lens. With over 50 roles in opera, musical theatre, and oratorio productions, Graham is primarily a performer of classical styles, but he also dabbles in musical theatre, jazz, and rock. Naturally an educator, he also finds great fulfillment as a choral conductor and opera director.