Two Millsaps College voice majors are a step closer to achieving their dreams of careers in professional opera.
Tiffany Townsend and Jordan Hammons, both seniors, spent three weeks in Italy this summer studying at the Florence Voice Seminar, a continuing education program of the Westminster College of the Arts at Rider University in New Jersey. Internationally recognized opera singers and coaches serve as faculty, focusing on vocal and dramatic coaching. About 30 advanced students and young professional singers are accepted for enrollment each summer.
Tiffany Townsend and Jordan Hammons in Florence, Italy
Townsend and Hammons performed for one of the seminar instructors, Benita Valente, who was a visiting artist at Millsaps in January 2011. An internationally known American soprano, Valente has experienced a long career on the operatic stage.
"While entry is generally based on auditions, Tiffany and Jordan were invited through recommendations to attend the seminar," said Dr. Cheryl Coker, chair of the Millsaps Music Department. "We don't usually have music students travel as far as Italy for their summer study. This was a huge experience and boost for them and an honor for our department and for Millsaps."
In Italy, both Townsend and Hammons participated in daily private lessons with assigned faculty members as well as master classes provided by other faculty members. The master classes afforded them the opportunity to perform in groups of four to six singers before everyone.
"The daily coaching and voice lessons were phenomenal," Hammons said. "The faculty members were top-notch. They had won major competitions and performed at major opera houses throughout the world. Some were opera singers turned directors. It was a great feeling to be in that kind of setting. I felt vocally prepared and left feeling confident that my vocal instruction at Millsaps is of the same caliber as vocal instruction at most music conservatories "
A big honor for the Millsaps music majors came near the end of the seminar when they were among five students selected to participate in a master class taught by James Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles Opera. They also performed with all seminar participants in two concerts at St. James Episcopal Church in Florence.
"Tiffany and I both had a similar experience in our one-on-one coachings," Hammons said. "Faculty members were surprised and complimentary of our knowledge of musical history and theory and our grasp of the full scope of the operatic musical form. They were delighted to find our understanding was much deeper than the notes on the page."
"The Millsaps music program is tight-knit, close and supportive," Townsend said. "The Florence program gave me the opportunity to be with students from different colleges and universities and get that same feeling and support." She also said the seminar helped her to identify areas where she needs to focus during her senior year.
Townsend began her formal music instruction with private lessons as an elementary student, and then in the fourth grade enrolled in the Jackson public schools' Academic and Performing Arts Complex (APAC). Continuing her music studies at APAC, she attended Peeples Middle School and graduated from Murrah High in 2009. Surprisingly, her focus in the early private lessons and at APAC was piano. Her voice training and experience came through the Mississippi Girls' Choir and the Murrah Madrigals.
James Martin, teaching artist in residence at Millsaps, overheard Townsend singing gospel tunes in a piano practice room during her freshman year while she was taking a break. Impressed by what he heard, he asked her to sing for him in his studio. "I suggested that she begin voice lessons at Millsaps," Martin said.
Townsend followed his advice and soon expanded her concentration as a music major to include voice as well as piano - with impressive results. In 2011, she placed second in two categories (classical voice and musical theatre) at the southeast regional competition of the National Association of Teachers of Singing.
Hammons' musical talents surfaced early in the Alabama Boys' Choir followed by choir experiences in high school at Decatur, Miss. However, he initially was a pre-med major at Millsaps.
"Jordan began studying voice at Millsaps and quickly discovered that not only did he enjoy developing his musical gift, but that it was appreciated by others," Coker said. Hammons soon switched his major to music, realizing that "music and singing are a part of who I am. Music is really my first love."
Hammons is a first-place winner at the National Association of Teachers of Singing regional competition.
Both students are members of the Millsaps Singers and the Millsaps Chamber Singers.
Townsend took advantage of several of the travel opportunities to other parts of Italy, but said she preferred exploring Florence because of its reputation for being one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
"Because of my interdisciplinary studies classes taken as a freshman and sophomore, I had been introduced to the historical significance of Florence. My studies at Millsaps really prepared me to make most of this opportunity and to personally experience the great history of the city."
Although Hammons made a side-trip to the fishing villages of the Italian Riviera, he, too, concentrated on seeing Florence. "It is a vibrant city full of culture, history, and life. If I had a chance to return, I would do it in a heartbeat."
Both students are now focusing on their senior years and the next step toward their career goals - graduate school.
"Although Tiffany has studied voice only a short time, she has made a significant impression on many people. She has proven herself to be a talent to watch," Martin said. "A major focus of our work together this year will be finding the right graduate program for her, and then the sky is the limit."
Coker describes Hammons as "thoughtful, caring, and disciplined in his approach to all that he does and a joy to teach ... attributes that will serve him well as he continues to pursue his passion for singing."