As some of you know, in addition to my operatic performance career, I have spent the last five years establishing (by invitation) a small but growing vocal institute in Montgomery, Alabama; a city with which I have had a decades-long association. As the Artistic Director of the Vann Vocal Institute (named after deceased philanthropist and classical voice enthusiast Roy D. Vann of Montgomery, AL), it is my mission to bring some of the finest coaches, singers, directors, conductors, artist managers, and artistic administrators to the fine Capital City of Alabama. The Institute caters to students from the State of Alabama, and takes place on the beautiful campus of Huntingdon College. The upcoming weekend of March 1-4 (with the bulk of the hands-on work being done on March 2/3) is certain to be intense, with coaching talent from the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and artists with an international-experience platform at the forefront. ‘Yours truly’ (as I regularly refer to myself) will also play a large part in the festivities by providing a continuous main-stage masterclass over the course of our weekend.
Students pay only a modest application fee, but receive first class instruction and lectures from our Artistic Staff and Advisory Board (most of whom are active educators and performers themselves). Due to popular demand we have had to add additional coaches and lecturers to accommodate the over 50 students that are accepted via submitted audition CD’s. The weekend culminates in an on-the-spot “Emerging Artists” public recital program; the participants of which are chosen via consensus by myself and the rest of the Artistic Staff. This year we are pleased to announce that substantial cash prizes will be awarded at the finale of our Emerging Artists recital. Long before the students arrive, however, is the planning process–which is nothing short of daunting! Without the dedicated assistance of the Administrative and support staff of the Montgomery Symphony, the VVI Advisory Board, and the cooperation of Huntingdon College, this event would never take place.
Audition CD’s must be screened, participants chosen and contacted, additional accompanists contracted, schedule matrices developed, programming determined, housing and meals arranged, social events planned, novelties ordered, photographers organized, ground transportation sorted; etc, etc, etc. All of this, and more, must be accomplished on a tick-tight budget that allows for very little error. We have been fortunate that another local enthusiast of our program will dispatch his very first-class, (right out of the movies) private jet to NYC and Chicago in order to fly our staff and ‘yours truly’ down to Montgomery yet again!!! This same donor (name purposely withheld) has also arranged for housing at the local Country Club for our coaches and visiting dignitaries, while still others open their homes for dinners and parties in this oh-so hospitable southern town. These high end donations are true cost-savers and have enabled us to meet our budget for the past few fiscal years. I am also proud to have brought aboard another major foundation donor which, along with grant dollars from the State (determined annually, but getting difficult to secure), will allow us to operate uninterrupted for several “out years”. (More on this major donor at a later date, but suffice it to say that it’s Executive Administrator will be joining us for this year’s installment.)
The core of our instruction is in the classical art of singing (opera and song), with occasional Broadway included, as we have students who range from the mid/late teens through to University-level age groups. Students travel many miles to access this program, while some come from the local area; with students from Alabama State and Huntingdon College itself also represented. If the past is any harbinger of the future, then this year will surely be something to look forward to. In all, these students arrive extremely well prepared, respectfully dressed and behaved, and ready to learn. They hang on every word, take notes, ask great questions, and have obviously learned well from their local area instructors. This program is popular because most of these well deserving students rarely come into contact with the type of first-rate, international level instruction locally that we provide. In short, we bring the program to them, instead of them having to get to a program (ie. Tanglewood, Interlochen, Aspen, etc.).
To be clear, I am not in any way trying to compare the Vann Vocal Institute with the above mentioned music programs/festivals overall. But I am absolutely confident that if we were not able to provide what we do for these truly excellent students, then many of them would never get the accelerated stewardship that they will receive in Montgomery, Alabama this year!
So thank you Charlie, Helen, Tom, Michael, Gene, Pamela, Mary, President West, and of course, Miss Bettie!! And so many others that I have not mentioned; or, for contractual reasons, cannot mention at this time….
As a matter of good order, I insist that all students send the music they will present to me onstage in the master-class portion of the weekend. It is unfortunate that my “Chief of Staff” (Helen) must often light fires underneath some students to get their music submitted to us on time; while others are professionally prompt. The reason I ask for these materials is because I have such little time with each student (30 minutes), I often pre-mark the music for what I believe are matters that I will potentially have to address. But additionally, I sit at my piano for one solid week ahead of time and sing through each and every piece that will be presented to me…(singing some better than others, to be sure!!). It is important, I believe, to know what each student is going through, especially in repertoire that might not be my specialty. So make no mistake…it is work, work, work, leading up to, and right through the entire weekend!!!
My musical staff and I are Montgomery bound, and simply cannot wait to once again spend some time in what I have dubbed the “friendliest city on earth”!