• A master class with Lawrence Brownlee

    Special article: Master class pearls and good advice about singing from Lawrence Brownlee – exclusive Opera Lively coverage

    Our former interviewee, gifted lyric tenor Lawrence Brownlee, gave a lecture and a master class to voice students at our partners Asheville Lyric Opera, hosted by the YMI Cultural Center in Asheville, North Carolina, on March 2, 2013. An envoy from Opera Lively (Luiz Gazzola) recorded the event. Given that these interactions with the outstanding singer went on for three hours, it would be too lengthy to reproduce it all. Therefore what we’ll do with this material is that we’ll publish a series of maxims and pearls issued by the artist, who had dozens of interesting pieces of advice to give to the young students, and will summarize the parts that were spoken in between these statements.

    If you’ve always been curious about how a master class goes on and you have never had an opportunity to attended one, this is your chance to get acquainted with the process. The main lesson from it is the realization of how difficult the profession of opera singer is – they work over and over on a couple of phrases or even on a single word!

    We can’t render here the full impact of these lessons given that we are not listening to the voices of the singers and to the vocal demonstrations Mr. Brownlee does, but the readers will nevertheless be able to have an idea of this fascinating process of a master class. You may want to read Mr. Larry Brownlee’s in-person interview with Opera Lively as well, by clicking [here]. A brief Q&A when Mr. Brownlee answered to questions from middle and high school students who were in the audience follows the master class report.

    All photo credits belong to Opera Lively - Luiz Gazzola.

    This exclusive coverage is copyrighted to Opera Lively. Excerpts can be posted elsewhere without authorization as long as a link to the full article on Opera Lively is published, with due credit. The full article can not be reproduced elsewhere without express authorization - use the Contact Us form.


    Photo credit Luiz Gazzola - From left to right, Mr. David Craig Starkey, Mr. Darian Alexander Jackson, Ms. Caitlin Sands, Mr. Lawrence Brownlee, Mr. Brett Pardue, and Ms. Verntasia Finley

    “You assume that someone is a master, I’m not. I’m still a student of singing, myself. Master classes are always for me an opportunity to grow and learn from each other.”

    “In a master class you can’t change the world, but maybe there are some ideas that we can share.”

    [A student from Brevard College, Verntasia Finley, mezzo, originally from Los Angeles, sings a Barber piece from Vanessa, Must the Winter Come so Soon?]

    “We can’t ever be in auto-pilot; we need to always be in the moment, because the truth about singing in a live performance is that we don’t get a second chance. Sometimes we are affected by a number of things – fatigue, allergies, or your vocal mechanism is just not working one day. So what do you do? I always think that a singer has to be really in control and know what they are doing so they can make some audibles and do something that they haven’t done in their practice or lessons. You may have phlegm or acid reflux – some days your voice just doesn’t work. Sometimes your voice and your technique match up – some other times you have to lean on your voice, or lean on your technique. That perfect marriage when they meet up and do everything you want them to do doesn’t always happen.”

    “Luciano Pavarotti said he had two perfect singing days in his life, and neither of those days were days when he had shows.” [generalized laughs]

    “I don’t think we have to have some sort of abandonment and start throwing the technique out the window. We need to be in control of the situation. There are unpredictable factors in a live performance, such as, an instrumentalist plays the wrong note – you have to adapt.”

    “When you sing you need to want to say something. You have a big responsibility: you have to express something to the listener. In a piece that has the repetition of some lines, you generally need to give to each occasion a different color. There needs to be a voyage, an arc that happens from the beginning to the end.”

    “Breathing is free. Sometimes you have to take the time to breathe, to set yourself up. In some moments you have to steal a breath or do a catch-up breath, but if you are really in control of what you are doing you usually can avoid these by setting yourself up and take your breath in points where you won’t need to steal another one, later on. “

    [To the singer] “The way your face is behaving, it seems like you are eating anchovies or something. When you rehearse you need to look at yourself on the mirror because you are giving not only something to the listener, but also to the viewer. I need to see in your facial expression that even in the interlude you are engaged. “

    “For anyone, high notes are important – mezzos, tenors, basses, it doesn’t matter. You have to make sure that you prepare for a high note before you breathe. The listener shouldn’t feel that you are having difficulty reaching that note. If the note before it has less bloom or specialness or spin, it detracts from that high note. “

    “In my practice I always try to look at the music as a road map of what I am going to do before I get there, because knowing where you are going is part of the battle. You can’t say “oh my God, here comes that high note!” What you need to say is “I know that in this measure I am prepared because the phrase goes to the high note.” If I’m descending in the scale in the previous phrase, I have to make sure I have enough support to rise again. So it never happens in the moment: it happens because you make it happen. You need to make a choice, make a decision, and do something with the phrase. This is your job; this is your place to say something different. “

    “If twenty other people come and sing “Must the Winter Come so Soon?” – what will you do to make yourself different and stand up? Everybody can sing the notes. Samuel Barber wrote them, and if you have basic theory you can sing them as written and even do the dynamics – but it will be cookie cut unless you make something special. “

    “I can see that you are doing a crescendo and trying to do something special, but can you sing more piano?” [Mr. Brownlee asked several times the students to sing piano, making repeatedly the point that these days singers sing too loudly and it is less artistic and beautiful]. If you sing piano you can go the extra mile and make more of it. If you start piano before the crescendo you don’t need to do the latter right away, you can stretch and make the transition more gradual. Take the time. The pianist will follow you. Well, they should, right? [laughs] They are paid enough money, yes? [laughs].”

    “Sound prints are what gets remembered. I remember Marilyn Horne doing The Italian Girl in Algiers, it’s a great recording but I remember one thing that she did, a little moment, a little nugget, something special. So when you sing this piece from Barber, this is your opportunity to make more of it. Go to the limit!”

    [The singer follows Mr. Brownlee’s advice; starts the crescendo pianissimo, stretches it, and the result is indeed much better! It is impressive to see how Mr. Brownlee makes the master class effective in clearly shaping up and changing the young singer’s delivery]

    [Next he works on eliminating her catch-up breath right before the crescendo] “You can do it without a breath if you put all your stock into the preparation. You don’t need to do this [sings like she’s been doing it, with a deep breath in the middle – then sings it in one continuous line]. You have two and a half bars before this crescendo, when nothing happens – OK, hook up the air pump! You are not spending air before, because you are singing piano. [She does it, and it is so much more beautiful!] See, you can do it! [the public breaks in applause].

    [It is interesting to notice that thus far, Mr. Brownlee has only allowed the student singer to sing the first two phrases of the aria, always interrupting her to shape it all up. It gives the public an understanding of how hard it is to sing opera – one needs a lot of work just to get two phrases right!]

    “These changes you can do to the musical line – such as singing these two lines without a catch-up breath – these are the small little nuggets of expressivity or colors or dynamic changes that you can add in any song. No song has to be boring! It won’t be, if you take a chance and do something special. That was very good – and just two phrases!” [Wild applause, and he dismisses the first student singer and invites the second one to the stage.]

    [A student from UNC Asheville, Caitlin Sands, soprano, born in Cary, NC, sings Batti, batti o bel Masetto from Don Giovanni – in a rather uneven and shaky way with too much staccato – Mr. Brownlee picks up on it right away]

    “Mozart keeps you honest. You can’t play around. It’s transparent; it’s something where you can’t hide the notes. There are few things that can give you more problems if you are not clear when you sing Mozart. You can’t fudge or smear it over. Start again and try to do more legato. Even if you need to peel them back at some other point, think of these phrases as long legato phrases, as opposed to staccato. Think of your breath and the way you support it – you need to sustain something here from beginning to end rather that this ta-ta-ta, but rather, like this [he sings the passage smoothly].

    [The singer points out to the fact that it is hard to make it continuous like Mr. Brownlee can, because of the breathing].

    “Yes, when I breathe I try to be like a balloon, stocking up the air, and using all nooks and cranes that I have. I don’t hold my breath; I rather try to support myself into it. I’m engaged in pushing the air down if you will. It is hard to talk technique in a master class because people are different, even physically – some like to carry their frame like this [sticks his chest out], others don’t. There are different schools of singing. But if your technique is solid, you can feel your voice as a mechanism that always works; you can count on it. It’s not ‘today I breathe this way, tomorrow I breath this other way, the next day I breathe this different way.” No, you need to find something that works for you and you solidify that technique, and start using it consistently. You need to breathe every time the same way in your mechanism, once you get to a technique that is solid and works for you.”

    [Nnext, he works on her body posture:] “Your arms need to be more composed. Think of it as if you had jeans and you stuck your thumbs in the pockets of your jeans. Your body needs to be engaged rather than your hands, OK?”

    [She sings the first phrase – much better than the first time, but starts very abruptly. He interrupts again:] “I’d like you to start a bit less decisively, engaging into it rather than tripping into it.”

    [She tries again, he stops her in the first word] “No, you’re not doing it yet. You need to signal to the pianist that you are starting, with a little waive of your hand, and get into it naturally. Give the pianist the idea that you are ready to go – but not until you *are* ready to go!

    [She does it, and the transformation, just like with the first singer, is amazing. He lets her go for three phrases, stops her again:] “You cannot drop the support in the middle of the phrase, since it’s such a long phrase with these melismas. You need as you go down, to engage more and more your technique, otherwise the phrase ends prematurely.”

    “That’s my opinion: any high note that you *think* you can’t do, actually you *can* improve on it.”

    [Mr. Brownlee brings the singer back to the first word – Batti – and demonstrates a way to sing it dryly and abruptly – which is what she is doing – and another way to sing it as if begging, with committed emotion, lengthening the emission of the “a” vowel].

    Mr. Brownlee is a very attentive listener!

    [He lets her go for a while again, but notices that she is running out of air, and encourages her to take a very, very good breath before she starts. Then he notices that her tempo is a bit slow which is lengthening the phrase and diminishing her air capital, and encourages her and the pianist to accelerate a tiny bit – a very good insight]. “You need to keep in mind where the finishing line of these phrases is, and make sure you have something left to get to it. So for this, you may have to do the intermediate steps a bit faster. You may assume that the faster tempo is not comfortable for you, when in fact it facilitates the breathing. I mark my sheet music to delineate the stretches I need to go through before I need to breathe. Let’s try again!”

    “Every space that you have for breathing, you need to, but then every time you breathe, don’t apologize for it. Just breathe! [She restarts, and he reminds her with shouts of “breathe!” at certain points – again, the improvement is notable!]

    “This part of the phrase is the most important [sings it] so you can’t put too much emphasis on these preceding parts [sings them] or else you won’t get to the most important part in good shape. You need to lean a bit on this more important part, with more support, and slow down a little when you get to it so that it gets underlined.”

    [She sings again – he suddenly stops her] “I thought you were a bit tight there.” [“I forgot to breathe”, she confesses. Mr. Brownlee picks up immediately anything that is not right – it’s quite remarkable the way he does it, and how gifted he in his teaching. He gets down to each note that she needs to sustain, stretch, and prevent from letting it drop, as opposed to the auxiliary notes that she can issue faster and then move on.]

    “These notes are fast. Therefore you need to breathe fast, which is different. You need to think: ‘when I breathe fast, how do I breathe? Because if you breathe fast you don’t have the time to really inhale, so you need to know your own body and find a way to make enough air go in even when you breathe fast. You know the feeling when you take a long breath, how full you feel. You need to practice how to get to that even when it’s fast. [He demonstrates to her some breathing techniques that he uses].

    “Sometimes I’m walking down the street and I think of a phrase, and say to myself ‘OK, that’s the phrase I’m working on,’ and I dissect it, to find the breathing points and to plan for the special things I want to do with the phrase.”

    “Put not stress, but emphasis, on the higher notes.”

    [She sings a wrong note, he immediately stops her] “This was supposed to be an F. You have that F, you can do it, so you need to know in your technique how you produce that F, in order to be prepared for it. You have to be able to call for it in that place. You have to lean on the notes before it, don’t throw them away; lean on them, leading to the F. Your support starts not at the F, but at the C before it.”

    [A faculty member from the audience interrupts, and tells the singer: “You watch how Larry works that space, he makes it tall.” Lawrence Brownlee, who is a very short man, immediately follows it up by retorting “There is nothing tall about me!” – the audience breaks into hysterical laughing].

    [Time to end the lesson for this singer approaches, and Mr. Brownlee says] “We’ve been working again on just two phrases, and sometimes it takes one hour to work on one phrase, but it is worth it, because if you start the aria with a couple of well done phrases, then you continue the same way and the entire aria is successful.” [He sings for her the two phrases, over-emphasizing where he breathes, and says, “ready? Let’s go!” ]

    [The singer then repeats the piece, and when we compare what she had done half an hour earlier with what she does now, it is going from water to wine! What an effective master class! – but he is not satisfied yet.]

    “I feel you are not giving yourself the best opportunity to succeed. You are sitting down on notes. You conclude them too much and make they sound heavy and they end a phrase without engaging with the next one in a flow. Lighter, lighter, lighter! You need to sing every note of the phrase but if you think too much about each one, it will sound like you are walking through mud. The idea is to keep an arc moving without getting bogged down in what you are doing. You can’t sit down on your voice. [He sings and demonstrates notes in the end of a phrase being heavily concluded, and then demonstrates how they can be sung in a much lighter way that links them to the next phrase.]

    “Anytime that a high voice sits and becomes heavy when it goes lower, it creates problems, because then you won’t be up to the high notes that follow. Sopranos get paid for their high notes. Mezzos get paid for their high notes. I feel that none of those notes should be suffering. The tempo is now a bit too fast for you. You have to find the tempo that is right for you. Many of these composers have composed music for people whom they knew personally, and they adapted the tempi to those singers – but you are a different singer, and it doesn’t quite fit for you. It may be too short or too long or too tight; then you have the license to make of it, your own.”

    “Any conductor or piano accompanist needs to work with the singer to allow the singer to make something special. Just remember: never be too heavy. Lightness is always more beautiful than heaviness in this role that is that of a coquette, so heaviness doesn’t work. Don’t think about this aria, “I’ll just sing it.” You need to do a whole lot of work before you even get on the stage, and perform it, because you want to go from singing it, to performing it. [applauses]

    [Next, Darian Alexander Jackson, baritone from Elon, NC who is a junior vocal major at Western Carolina University – I didn’t catch the name of his piece – a German Lieder piece by Richard Strauss – he sang it very well!]

    [As he did with other singers, Mr. Brownlee started by asking the singer how he thought he did and what he feels was special about it, and if there was anything he felt he could improve on – the singer quoted phrasing, trying to make each line sound different].

    “Yes, that’s a challenge. This piece is strophy, and making it interesting can be tricky. But it was very good, very well performed. It’s a tremendous opportunity to take people in a voyage. A German piece sung by an American-born singer to an American audience, we have to make sure the audience is interested in what you are doing even if they don’t necessarily understand the words. We can dive into it to find those moments where you can take even more time to make each line different, since one of the lines repeats three times. Start again. [The singer does]. OK, you got to the first phrase. Where is the special moment? [The singer says, “I guess in the high notes.”] Flaunt it! Take the liberty to do more! You are performing it well but you can go a step further [demonstrates it]. Bring up the words! Any challenge is an opportunity to unlock untapped potential. Reach for something inside you, because even if you think ‘I’m doing well, I know this piece’ there is always something to be done. You have to think, “how can I, an American-born singer, sing this as if I were a German-born singer?” We can’t ever sing it like a native speaker but we can inch closer. The way I sit on the word and take it out of the phrase can say something. I don’t like to ask people “tell me what it means” because it puts them on the spot, but I assume that you know what the words mean; you need to know, to interpret them. Give in to the words.

    [The singer does it again; Mr. Brownlee stops him to encourage him to not move his hands or his body, just to give a try to acting with his voice, not his hands or body, to work on his vocal eloquence, with his hands actually tucked into his pockets]. “I want your body as quiet as possible, but say something with the voice.“ [The singer’s voice does become more expressive, immediately]. “Now, for the second phrase, start piano, because our job is to draw the listener in. Dynamically there was not a lot of difference in the way you sang the second verse as compared to the first verse; it was fairly the same, but you can do better. “

    “I had a chance to sing just this week with Cecilia Bartoli. She’s been doing this for 25-30 years. I saw her in rehearsal working like crazy. I thought, “You are Cecilia Bartoli, you barely need this.” But she is great because of the work she does every day. She doesn’t go there and rest on the laurels of what she’s done over all those years. She is constantly working on it. I saw that, and went to my practice room thinking “I need to continue to work on my part because seeing her, I know that there is always something else that one can do.” I talked to a singer that has been singing a role for thirty years, but he said “If my role is today the same as it was thirty years ago, I’m not doing my job – every time I step on the stage, it’s an opportunity to do something different.” If you perform a role in a run of six shows, or you do a recital five times with the same songs, I believe that nobody seeing two of the performances should be able to say “he did it exactly like the last time.” The only way you can make it different is when you know your piece so well that you know what you can change. “

    “If you sing piano, people will adjust to you, they will lean on it and you’ll pull them in. When you sing piano in the lower register, your voice can’t disappear; it still needs to have your full support – it’s only the dynamic level that changes. We all need to learn to do this. [demonstrates, beautifully; when Mr. Brownlee does it, it sounds magical, hypnotic].”

    [The singer tries, still too loudly – Mr. Brownlee then says “I’ll conduct you” and proceeds to slow down the lines in certain parts and to hush the singer a bit to lower the dynamics – now the performance improves significantly!] “You need to put colors in your singing. The best singers don’t just sing; they make music.”

    A very funny exchange follows – Mr. Brownlee asks for the student’s age, he is 20. He says “I’m 40, double your age, I still need to get used to that. Hm… you could be my son! Oh wait, I’m sure you are not!” [wild laughs from everybody].

    “You have to show your strengths, not your weaknesses. If you know a part of your voice is weak for a specific song, it doesn’t mean you can’t sing it, but you need to make that weaker part work for you. When you have these low parts for which your voice hasn’t quite developed into them yet, if you try to sing them forte when you don’t have the forte, it doesn’t work. But if you can say ‘I’m going to take this phrase and make it work for me, in my voice,” you can still be audible, you can still sing the note, you can still support it, and no one will know that it might be forte instead, because you didn’t perform it that way. That’s your artistic license; you can do what you want to. I mean, you are not re-composing the Strauss notes but you make this piece work for you. It’s having your own voice. I love to teach young singers, and they often ask me to teach them how to sing like such and such, and I always say, the goal is not to teach you how to sing like somebody else, but rather to be a better you. The gift that you have needs to be made special enough to set you apart from everybody else. When I go on stage, people can say that my voice is similar to some other voice, but they need to say, ‘that’s him, because he is doing something with his instrument that is unique to what he can do.’ Hopefully we will find some new soldiers coming up, because live theater, live art, is something that hopefully is not done. When I become a voice teacher one day – something I’ll love to do – I want to get ten singers to sing the same song, and none of them will sing it exactly alike. And it is possible. There have been a thousand singers over the times and they all did something differently, and you should be one of them.”

    “OK, I’m usually the toughest with the last person [laughs].“ [The last singer comes up, Brett Pardue, baritone born in Elkin, NC, in his junior year at Mars Hill College as a Vocal Performance major and Piano minor. He sings a French chanson by Fauré – does it extremely well].

    “I thought you did a good job. “ [When asked about what he could improve on, the singer says he feels he should move more, to express emotion]. “I don’t like it when people move a lot to distract listeners from what they are singing. Feel free to move, though. But vocally, what you did was wonderful. There was a lot of variation in color; there were some real ideas there, and you took it apart; one can tell you’ve worked a lot on the piece. Your French sounds great. I applaud you; you’re very, very strong. One feels you are confident because you did good work; you’ve prepared, you’ve studied. You had a whole bunch of things in your arsenal. I tell people to do what you apparently did – take a piece of music, understand it, and write down every single piece of emotion that is possible in that piece. It may be twenty things. It could be bitterness. It could be fatigue. It could be boredom – all in the same piece. Then, find your way to musically, artistically, express that. “

    “The way you approached a couple of the high notes could have been better. Do it again. But you can move; feel free to move. Does anybody here know the name Measha Brueggergosman? She is a Canadian soprano. She comes to the stage barefoot. She is expressive with her body, but she has done so much work with the expressivity of her sound, that you are not distracted by her body. Basically what I’m saying is that she has earned the right to move because she also says something with her voice.”

    [With this more accomplished singer, Mr. Brownlee then proceeds to working on some punctual notes – allows him to sing through several phrases but stops him about specific notes that he wants a bit quieter or a bit lighter when the note sticks out as not as beautiful as other notes the singer is delivering – for example, by saying “Right before this high note you have to give it a little less before, so that you have the spin for the high note.” “Here you need a better E natural.” He adds:] “This is a strong performance so I’m struggling to find little things where it can be improved upon. There is not a lot to say.” [They work on finding different colors and on accelerating or slowing down some parts of the musical lines – the end result does sound more polished].

    “I’m fascinated by eloquent singers. I love eloquent singers! You can sing Wagner, you can sing Mozart, you can sing anything in an eloquent way. It’s possible. French chansons are the perfect scenario for singing, they are elegant. Always try to be elegant in your singing! It doesn’t mean we can always do it, but the goal is to be as elegant as possible. It’s like a peacock – you are stretching out and showing your beauty. It comes from knowing that you’ve done your work and you know the little points and the phrases and the breathing.”

    [Mr. Brownlee goes to the piano himself and engages in more technical teaching:] “You are putting too much weight on this word ‘oublier’ – you need an F scale here, and in the context of this piece you can’t feel like you can’t sing that F sharp that will end the line. It is a place that for you is more difficult, so how do you do it? You have to think of it a couple of steps back, to prepare for it. The F sharp that comes up needs to have the most spin, the most space. You need to breathe before it and reset the vocal mechanism, so that the tension in your body is reset to free up the energy that you will need for the F sharp. You need to take a slightly longer breath here. You can’t put much weight on these notes that come before it. On this word ‘aimons’ you need to sing it lower and with less effort. In rehearsal you need to find the freedom of this note and sing it with all you have, but then you need to scale it back and produce the same note but in a lighter way; that’s the way to do it in order to leave a bit more energy for the F sharp [and so on and so forth – they work on these details and the singer’s delivery which was already impressive, does improve even more.]

    [After the end of the master class Mr. Brownlee approaches Mr. Pardue and they chat for a long time – the veteran singer is obviously very impressed with the young singer – a name to be followed; he should go far once he finishes his education. Here is a little more about the young singer: He was born in Elkin, North Carolina, and has worked with the Asheville Lyric Opera as both a summer artist-in-training and a singer in comprimario roles, and also as a chorus member. He trained at the Bel Canto Institute in Florence, Italy, and was awarded the Institute’s Performance Award in August 2012. As the recipient of this award, he was given the opportunity to perform in several concerts in New York with the Met assistant conductor Jane Klaviter. Do retain this name, readers: Brett Pardue, a young singer who shows promise!]


    Then, there was a Q&A session with Mr. Brownlee, and it complements well our interview with him (which was conducted in person right after this). The audience was made of middle and high school kids. Mr. David Craig Starkey, director of Asheville Lyric Opera, starts by telling the students that even if they do not aspire to be singers, they can learn from Mr. Brownlee, because to succeed in all fields – if they want to be writers, or computer programmers, or anything else – it takes this kind of attention, discipline and commitment to the work, in order to get better. It takes time and effort. Whatever age you are, it never stops. He also underlines that while both him and Mr. Brownlee grew up in the same community of Youngstown, Ohio, a community deprived of many essentials, it didn’t stop them from becoming successful. A young student asks the first question:

    Student – How old where you when you found your voice?

    Lawrence Brownlee – Let me give you a bit of my background. I grew up in a family of six kids. My father was the Church Choir Director. I was surrounded by Gospel. In school I had School Choir. I had a diverse musical background. My voice, I guess I was seventeen or eighteen when it was discovered, when they felt I had something to offer as a classical singer. When I was very small, my mother once woke me up because I was singing in my sleep. I was singing all the time, I was involved in music. I always tell people, in which and every way you can be involved in music, or Community Theater, or chorus in school, do. I know they are taking music out of the schools, which I hate. I participated in all those genres, and it made me more open to music, and ultimately I found my voice. I still go back home and sing some Gospel. I do feel that the gift that I have is in what I’m doing now – classical music. Your voice may be found at five, but you won’t know what you can really do until later. But keep involved in music and try different things. Some people may find their focus early on, but it may change.

    Audience member – When you were seventeen or eighteen, did you have a musical goal, like “I want to be a Gospel singer” or “I want to be an opera singer” or a pop singer?

    LB – I didn’t have any goal, because I didn’t know at that age what the classical music world is. I thought like most people that classical singers had horns in their heads, sang in strange languages, and broke glasses with their voices. Really, to be honest, when I entered a program in my senior high school year, I was just mocking what I thought an opera singer should sound like. Low and behold, they said “you have something.” I didn’t have at that time any idea of what I would become or even what I wanted to do. I actually thought somewhere in the back of my mind that I would be a lawyer. That didn’t happen, obviously. [laughs] I’m glad it didn’t happen, although I have a lot of respect for lawyers. But singing is a gift that I enjoy very much, and I work hard at it.

    Audience member – What kind of music you listened to in your room as a teenager?

    LB – I listened to everything. Even now, if you look at my iPod, I have everything. I could throw names: Steely Dan, Barbra Streisand, Sting, Kim Burrell, The Police, Steve Wonder, Fred Hammond, everything. I never thought I wouldn’t like this or that type of music. I’m not a big fan of Bluegrass, though.

    Audience member – Did you listen to Pavarotti?

    LB – Not until later. When The Three Tenors CD came up, I thought, “Oh my God, I would like to do that, right there!” But I didn’t have exposure to classical music, early on. And that’s no one’s fault, it’s just how my life turned out.

    Audience member – Is classical music more important than other genres? Should an effort be made to make it important to teenagers in America, today?

    LB – I think it is. I’m not saying it’s more important. It’s what I do, obviously. I always try to tell people that classical music is not so far from what you hear on the radio today. Yes, the style of it, the rhythms and all these things are different, but if you listen very closely to some of these rappers and pop singers, they have the motifs of Bach, or Haydn, and they don’t even know it. They don’t know where their music is derived from. They can say, “oh, this is a cool melody” but if someone listens to it and has been surrounded by the classical composers, this person will be able to say “let me take you to this symphony, and this motif that you saw here, was already there. This piece came from this other one.” I think that when people can make this connection and realize that it is not worlds apart, people can be more interested in classical music.

    Audience member – Were the competitions you entered, important for you?

    LB – Yes. I was involved in a competition called NATS, which is held around the country. I went to Ohio University to compete in it, in my freshman year. I was given instruction by Mr. Starkey [the father of the Asheville Lyric Opera director, the senior Mr. Starkey, was the one who discovered Mr. Brownlee and encouraged him to compete]. This was the first time I went in front of someone outside of my close surroundings. I didn’t know these people. I remember singing a piece by Strauss and the response was overwhelming. It was one of the moments when I thought “well, maybe there is something in classical music for me.” It was important for me, to realize that there were so many people working to be singers. You need to learn how to separate yourself. I had worked for a semester with Mr. Starkey to present something, and I didn’t know how ready I was. Obviously it worked, but then I saw the standard, the high level there, and thought “I need to work harder, because now I have to top that.” Our life is to try to do better every time. It was important for me to have that experience, and realize that I couldn’t just coast.

    Mr. David Craig Starkey [the director of the opera, who is also a singer] – I had the same experience in my training; I went to the NATS and won it, but I thought I had screwed up and nobody noticed, and they still gave me the first prize.

    LB – Yes, it’s not about being perfect. Like I said before, you can have a cold or an allergy or even a mind lapse, but it’s about making it special. If you are able to have a moment when you can captivate the listeners, even if you are not perfect, you can prevail, even if you mess up. I’ve messed up many times, we do; we are humans. But if you take the time to do something special, a lot of times you’ll come out OK.

    An audience member asks a question about how to stay focused and deal with all the fame and the travel to different cultures; asks if it can derail someone, as a person.

    LB – You have your foundation, your family… I was fifteen when I had a chance to go to Germany to perform music. It opened my eyes to the fact that there is a lot out here, out of Ohio [laughs]. But I feel that the foundation that I had, the person that my parents raised me to be, was plenty. I feel that I am still that same person from Youngstown, Ohio. Humility is important. That’s what my parents taught me. When I look at all the things I’ve been blessed to have done in my life, I don’t need to say “Oh, I’m great.” My humility is part of me. When I am out in the world, I’m still anchored by my roots, because that’s who I am. The singing is what I do, it’s not who I am. I was just given an opportunity to share my gift with the world. That’s how I think of it.

    Audience member – Why is music important to human nature?

    LB – Music connects to people in a way other things can’t. Music and the words together do accomplish a lot. Think for instance of a lullaby your mother may have sung to you. She may have told you many other wonderful things in life, but often that lullaby is one of the most notable things that stick to your memory – that song with the tensions behind it, with the way you can touch people adding music to words. It touches you in a level that nothing else can. Most people don’t live a life without music. They have a favorite CD, or a favorite singer that puts them in a place that nothing else can. When someone is feeling bad, at times the person will say “you know what? I want to raise my spirit” and it is often done through music. If you think about it, in most ceremonies, in church, in government functions or anything, music is always a part of it, and it should be. I’m a musician so I’m a big fan! [laughs]

    Mr. Starkey – It’s a real addiction, but not one you need to get rid of! [everybody laughs]

    LB – Thank you very much for coming!
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Amfortas's Avatar
      Amfortas -
      Great article! It's fascinating to watch such an accomplished teacher at work!

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