Several weeks ago I met with our Vocal Program Director Virginia Herrera and one of her students, Dominique Williams for an interview. Virginia and Dominique recently performed together at a teacher-student concert presented at the Harbor. I asked them about this and more in an enlightening interview covering the student/teacher relationship.
(M: Daniel, V: Virigina, D: Dominique)
M: My first question is for Virginia. Tell me a little bit about your background and your vision for the vocal program.
V: I am from Mexico, and for as long as I can remember I have been studying music. My parents were very supportive since they saw that as a child I was gifted. They always encouraged me to go to conservatories and stuff like that. I basically studied privately, with vocal instruction as a constant, along with a little bit of piano. When I was sixteen we moved to another area of Mexico, and I studied at a conservatory. One of the most important things that happened to me was one time when I entered a school I heard a sound; a tenor was singing. So I followed the voice, and to my surprise this guy didn’t have a microphone! So I thought “how can I hear him all the way at the entrance of the school?” And then I went to the directors office to audition and sing. After I sang, the director told me if I wanted to go “pop” I was ready and could go. Then he said “But you have the classical gift. You can become something, do you know what opera is?” And I said “No, but I would like to learn how to sing without a microphone.” And he told me that’s what opera is. So I studied there for three years and then my parents helped me go to Italy. I studied opera in Rome for three years and then I came to the United States. Now I have been here for 23 years, always singing as a soloist in churches, concerts, operas, Spanish styles, etc. Then I started teaching by chance; my idea was never to be a teacher. I was substituting for one of the teachers here, and after my first two lessons, they hired me as a part of the faculty. Then 3 years ago, I became the head of the vocal department, I guess because of my ideas. I am not afraid to do things and to be creative, and expose people to new ideas.
M: So do you think you brought any new ideas here that weren’t in place when you came?
V: I think so. I think more than anything we have an idea… This is a great school I think. It’s based, from what I’ve seen, in the roots of Latin American music. But like anything, you have to go to the basics, and from there one can develop any style. With the voice, if you are tight in your throat, you cannot create a good sound. It’s the same as if you are a pianist and your hand is tight; you can never play any songs because you cannot move right? So you have to be relaxed. The tight hand is like the vocal chords trying to be forced. So one of the things that I try to tell everybody is you don’t need to scream. You can sing, let the air go by and anything will happen. It’s like speaking. Because speaking, producing a sound, is just breath passing through the vocal chords and making a sound. Whether you sing or speak, that’s your choice. And then on the styles, a lot of people are kind of intimidated because all of the singing teachers here are trained classically. They think that we’re gonna be teaching them opera… no! I’m gonna teach you how to understand your instrument, and then from there, you can do whatever you want. I mean we have rappers, we have rock and roll guys, we have tex mex, like Pistolera performing all over the world, people who want to be in American Idol, people who are singing already in bars or karaoke, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you understand that it is in a healthier way that we’re teaching them. But of course my idea, my vision is to teach you to sing your style, lets say salsa, but then in the wedding of your niece, or the birthday of your grandmother, she will ask you to sing Ave Maria, and you’re able to do it in the right way. That’s what we’re teaching here. Another thing is the concerts, the exposure of the students. Now we have several performances during the year, as opposed to when I came here it was one annual concert with all the musicians together. Now we categorize more and we have specific vocal concerts. Then we show them and expose them. And I think they love it. They are scared, but they love it! Ultimately, we are performers, we want to be performing. And we want to be exposed to people, to be liked. And to be in front of people, you have to have a certain ego that goes there. And I don’t care how old you are, you know?
M: Absolutely. So Dominique, how did you get involved singing here?
D: It happened maybe a year and a half or two ago. The program downstairs, Genesis, they asked me to sing at a Kwanzaa program for the senior ed kids and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it but I decided I would. So I sang Alicia Keye’s “A Woman’s Worth” there and I gotta say I was a little nervous. Mr. Rodriguez saw some potential in me so he talked to my father and recommended I sign up for lessons here. Then my dad and I came and met Virginia. She asked who I was, what kind of music I liked and so on, so from then on I’ve been taking lessons here and it’s been going pretty well.
M: Great. So have you performed anywhere?
D: Actually, over the summer my dad signed me up for a talent show where one of the former members of New Edition, was trying to find someone from 13-18 years old to give a record deal to. I was a little nervous. The song that I picked was a Corrine Bailey Rae song “Like a Star”. He said it wasn’t me that didn’t get through the competition, it was the song. But regardless, it was a good experience.
M: So do you have a specific style that you’re focusing on?
D: Mostly I like a lot of R&B, but I do listen to my fare share of pop music, some rock music.
M: That’s what you like to perform?
D: Yeah, my favorite is Christina Aguilera. I really like her because she can control her voice so well, and it’s so powerful! It’s just out there. Usually when I go home I play a song by her or one of my other favorite artists and just sing it. There was one song that she sang called Soar, and there was a note that she sang that was really high and I wanted to see if I could do it. And then I did and I was like “Wow”! And I didn’t think I could hit that note before I started lessons.
M: Virginia, this question is for you. Two weeks ago you held a student-teacher performance where the students actually performed with their teachers. Tell us about this, where you came up with the idea, how you chose the students to perform, etc?
V: Yeah, well the idea came because basically the parents of the students don’t really know who the teachers are. You know, the students come on a one to one basis for 45 minutes and then they go and we don’t see them until next week. Of course the relationship between the student and the teacher is very close because you are analyzing them and going through there emotional state every time they come into the classroom, so you have to kind of manage the student’s psyche. So for me it was very important to let the students feel the support of the teacher, how much we believe in them, and encourage them to perform at a higher level. And the other thing is for the parents, for the families, for the friends, to understand that even if the students don’t want to become opera singers, they will come out as well trained singers. So the idea came up because I wanted to encourage them to realize they have the ability to be as good as their teachers, who they seem to and we hope they admire. What happened was amazing. The choosing of the students who were singing was basically the better prepared and more consistent students. It was a challenge. The pieces that we chose, even though they were kind of simple for some, for others were a challenge. I will never put my student in a position to perform something I know she can not. But I know my students. So Dominique and I have been working on Pie Jesu, a duet from Requieum by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which basically was a real duet because we were doing harmonies. And she showed how much she has learned through the process. I think everybody loved it because it was unexpected, and a beautiful piece. The challenge here was Dominique was holding the melody, and it was very high. I was doing harmonies the whole time, so for her there was nothing that she could support herself or base her sound off of. It was a big challenge because she was totally exposed. She did a wonderful job, showed how much she has learned and how secure she has become. And that again comes because of the numerous concerts and performances we expose the students to. And another thing is, the bar was raised. The students see the teachers with admiration (we hope), and it’s not the same when you’re just telling the student what to do as when you’re really performing together. And I think she felt challenged, which is great. I think it was a great, great idea, and we will repeat that in April.
M: That’s awesome! Dominique, how did you feel about that piece?
D: It felt great! I told her I wanted to show what I had been learning, and the way the student teacher concert was described was to show what we had been learning with our teachers. Virginia said “yes, we’re going to do well with the song”, and we did even better than I thought and it’s just like “Wow”.
V: The beautiful thing is also seeing the reaction of others. First of all, I know what she can do. You see a student, you see the potential they have. She’s my student, and with her I was doing the duet. But basically the whole concert, all the other students that were challenged with their teachers did a wonderful job. So we have seen the students grow, and it was a great thing for all of us. Also for them to say “Ok if I am able to do this with a real performer, then what else can I do?” And it was for everybody in the audience; very surprising, very enlightening, it was like “Woah, we didn’t know this” and for me I felt so proud of Dominique. I haven’t met her mother before and despite the fact she has performed several concerts for us, I only know her father. This was the first time I saw her mother and you should have seen the face on that woman. She said “I didn’t know that my child could sing like that!” Sometimes it is very difficult because the parents have an idea of who their children are and the students also have an idea of themselves that basically the only time you can really really know what you are capable of is by performing. Because I have an idea of you sitting here and chatting in jeans, but that is very different than being in concert form. And Dominique looked lovely. And that’s another thing I have been encouraging everybody here to understand that the way we dress, the image we give to others for concerts is very important. After the concert, wear jeans it doesn’t matter! But not for the performance. We want to hear you, we want to see that you’re appearance matches your voice, we want to focus. She was dressed beautifully, it matched her beauty outside with the beauty that was coming from her singing. It was a very nice day, I think the parents really liked it.
M: Sounds like it went great. So you said there will be another one in April, correct?
V: Oh absolutely, now that I’ve done it and it went so well, we will definitely have this twice a year.
M: So Dominique, it sounds like you really enjoy the program here. If you were to describe the program to a friend who might want to study here, would you encourage them to join, and what would you tell them?
D: I would encourage them to come. I would tell them it’s a very good experience, you learn to improve your voice, and gain exposure through all the performances we do here. So if you wanted to go to American Idol, or Broadway or Carnegie Hall you’ll be ready for that exposure except the crowd will be larger. But you’ll know what to expect so you won’t feel that nervous feeling as you go on stage. It’s a really good experience and it’s really good training for your voice.
M: Great. Virginia, any last words you want to impart on the readers of this interview?
V: First of all, I’m very honored to be interviewed and thank you for the distinction. As I said, I never thought I would be teaching, my life was going to be that of a singer. But I have learned if you think a teacher is good, it’s not because of him or her. It’s because of the student. The student is the one who makes you shine. I’m very strict and disciplined and I challenge them with that. I want everybody to understand that if you’re able to speak, which is producing a sound, then you’re able to sing. The difference is that you hold the air for a longer time, and that’s it. Of course I want everybody to come study at the Harbor, to do it for the period of time they need to be. Students come and go, we have kids that are going to high school, Dominique will be leaving us soon! And that’s what we want, we don’t want you to come, and feel trapped in these four walls. That’s not the kind of teaching we do here. I am giving you the tools, now go on. Go on and make yourself proud, don’t make me proud. I am proud already. Make yourself grow and be useful and encourage others to do the same. Of course I want everybody to come to the Harbor, I think it’s a great program they have here for all the instruments. This place is a great start to fulfill any purpose you like in music. I want people to understand that music is not only salsa, only opera, only that style. No, no no no. In vocal instruction, we’re giving you the tools to do anything you want. As long as you know how to breathe correctly, know the positions and the postures, then you can do ANYTHING you want! Opening the mind of people that think you can only learn one thing, no no no! Life is a rainbow of choices, with a good tool you can do anything you want.
Virginia Herrera’s Website: http://www.classicalsinger.net/virginiaherrera