February 28, 2016

Catholic University musicians gain wisdom from world‐renowned artists

Standing before a full house in Caldwell Auditorium, senior musical theatre major Julie Britt received a once‐in‐a‐lifetime vocal lesson earlier this spring. Her instructor? None other than the world‐renowned soprano Renée Fleming, who was on campus for one afternoon only to give a master class to students of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music.

World-renowned soprano Renée Fleming and Julie Britt, Master Class student
World-renowned soprano Renée Fleming and Julie Britt, Master Class student

One of four students chosen to receive individual attention from Fleming, Britt performed the gentle ballad, “If I Loved You” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. After a few moments of applause from the audience, Fleming offered suggestions on how Britt could add more emotion and characterization to the song.

“Sing in the mirror and really think about ‘What would I do if I was in a movie,’” suggested Fleming, a National Medal of Arts recipient and four‐time Grammy Award winner. “Really invest yourself in imagining how the scene could look so if you are singing it in an audition setting, that’s all there.”

Fleming also worked with Britt on her breathing, instructing her to relax her voice by singing in various positions: in a plank position while leaning against a wall, with her tongue sticking out, and while leaning forward on a piano.

“Good, good, good!” Fleming said after Britt finished a verse with a richer vibrato. “It’s loosening up, you’re letting go of a little bit of the breath!”

For Britt, the chance to receive one‐on‐one coaching from one of the most talented performers in the world was a rare one. But for the music school, master classes are not uncommon. The school has hosted such classes since the 1970s. World‐renowned cellist Lynn Harrell gave a class only two weeks earlier than Fleming. Other artists who have taught master classes include vocal coach Laurent Philippe, Broadway composer Scott Alan, and American pianist Lori Simms.

To prepare for the class with Fleming, Britt said she practiced her piece every day for the preceding two months. She said she was most impressed by how down‐to‐earth Fleming was throughout the class. “It’s great to see someone who’s so successful and talented with such a long broad career come and give back what they’ve received,” Britt said. “To see her generosity and humility is really important. It gives us an example of who we want to be and who we can be.”

Catholic University’s extensive programs in the performing arts reflect its belief that appreciating and creating beauty is an essential part of cultivating a Catholic Mind.

World-renowned cellist Lynn Harrell with students
World-renowned cellist Lynn Harrell with students

Senior Catherine Purcell, a musical theatre major, also participated in Fleming’s class, by performing “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeney Todd. For Purcell, the class was just one of many opportunities afforded to her during her time at Catholic University. Because of the University’s location in Washington, D.C., she has also been able to perform at the nearby John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as part of a documentary for the Smithsonian Channel, and at several embassies.

“Washington, D.C. serves as a second classroom for the students here,” she said. “[The music school] tries to expose us to as many opportunities and performers as possible.” Purcell said she believes master classes are a particularly important way to pass the tradition of singing and music down from generation to generation.

“Being able to share the gift of music is invaluable and something that has lasted for so long,” she said. “It may be simple to say, but it gives people hope and it inspires people. That’s something we always need.”