Three Penn State Altoona students made the trek to Saskatchewan, Canada, over the summer to take part in the esteemed Summer School for the Solo Voice program. It just so happens that Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber, associate professor of music at the college, is from the Province, is best friends with the program’s founder, Lisa Hornung, and has been part of the program’s faculty for the last two years.
It was at her encouragement that Annette Nagle-Nelson, Sheriece Veazey, and Debi Hirschbiel submitted their applications and were accepted into the advanced program. “It was wonderful,” said Cutsforth-Huber. “All three of them were ready for that next step to do a program they could really sink their teeth into, get some really intensive study, and work on their resumes and voices.”
Summer School for the Solo Voice is a non-audition program that accepts applications on a first-come-first-served basis. Up to ten days long, it’s an intensive study and performance opportunity for singers, accompanists, teachers, and choral conductors at all levels. Professionals in the field offer daily classes in all areas of singing, pedagogy, and the business end of singing. Students are able to customize their own program, choosing areas they’ll find most interesting and useful.
Nagle-Nelson, Veazey, and Hirschbiel worked with some of the top professionals in the field during their trip like Laurence Ewashko who was the director of the Vienna Boys Choir for twenty years, now a professor at the University of Ottawa. They also worked with John Reid Coulter, from South Africa, who is the preeminent expert on early operatic performance practice in the world. “It was cool because we worked with so many coaches,” stated Nagle-Nelson. “They were people who have mastered the art and built it for years, have sung and played piano on world-renowned stages. We had opportunities to sing in front of them and they’d tell us, ‘do this to make your performance better or do this,’ and everyone would learn from that.” “To have the opportunity to work with people on that level and to pick their brains for eight days was incredible,” added Cutsforth-Huber.
They were long days for the students with twelve or more hours of classes and rehearsals. There were master classes every day with professional teachers to work on repertoire and vocal technique. Other master classes were offered each day on a variety of topics; everything from vocal technique to the business of music and how to get a singing job, to repertoire, performance practice, theory, and vocal pedagogy. There was also had a choir rehearsal every day. “They were tired, but it was a good tired,” stated Cutsforth-Huber. “Everybody left very inspired and excited and many, many steps ahead of the singers they were when they came. And that’s the goal.”
Nagle-Nelson worked two concurrent programs at Summer School for the Solo Voice: the advanced singer and the advanced accompanist. “I’d have to learn and apply things really fast, like in the collaborative arts class. It was one of those things like – see what you’re made of, see how fast you can do this. I was impressed with myself – how quickly I could apply what they wanted. I learned even more about practicing away from the instrument and practicing away from actually singing. I learned the skill of mental practicing.”
Veazey, a junior studying integrative arts, was amazed at the amount of knowledge she was able to glean from classes and rehearsals. “At the end of each and every day I felt that I had learned an entire month’s worth of things. Some lessons were so influential that I really felt as though it would have taken me a whole year to otherwise learn what I did.”
Cutsforth-Huber watched her students throughout the week, seeing their growth in that short amount of time. She saw glimpses of the artists they are becoming and was continually impressed with not only their ability to jump right in, to absorb and learn new things, but the confidence they were gaining and the quality of what they were producing.
At the end of the program, the students gave a recital in which they performed some of the repertoire they’d been working on during the week including an opera scene concert, staged and in costume, a new experience for all of them. It was a chance to take what they’d spent all week doing and integrate it into a performance, which is an important component of honing their craft. “I’m incredibly proud of them. All three of them did such tremendous work while they were there. The performances they did were some of the best singing I’ve heard out of the three of them ever.”
Nagle-Nelson graduated in May 2015 and has plans to apply to some graduate schools working toward becoming a mezzo soprano and collaborative pianist. Because of her experience at Summer School for the Solo Voice, those plans include applying to schools in Canada “I’m astound by what I’ve been able to achieve because of professors and teachers who push me. So I’m not scared. I’m confident.” Added Veazey, “Summer School for the Solo Voice was one of the best learning environments I will probably ever experience, and I plan on going back again next year."
Cutsforth-Huber is certain programs like Solo Voice are invaluable for Penn State Altoona and its students. The college offers an integrative arts program rather than a straight music program. And while it has grown much over the last several years and students get a lot of personal attention because of its small size, Cutsforth-Huber is always looking for ways to take it further and open up more doors for students. “What other things can I do to give them what they could have if they were a music major somewhere else? We have the students here now who do want to pursue careers in music and music performance. Because of that, they need these opportunities to make them attractive to grad school, to opera companies, to apprentice programs, and things like that. It’s also an inspiration to the other students here to say, ‘Hey, look at them. They’re out doing things – they’ve done the work, they’ve done the training, and now look at what they’re doing.’ And for a small place like Altoona, to give that vision to a young person, is really special. And it’s really important.”