Imagine Barry Bonds, Casey Blake or Michael Young, arguably three of the MLB’s greatest hitters, coming to Cal Poly to teach the baseball team how to hit. Imagine Thom Mayne — the well known Los Angeles-based architect — coming to teach Cal Poly’s architecture students about designing buildings.
This is an analogy that music department chair Thomas Davies used to describe the importance of the music department’s upcoming visitor, because that’s what it will be like for Cal Poly music students to be in the presence of professional musician Paul Harris, who is coming to campus to teach them how to perform.
The Cal Poly Music Department will host Harris, a professional opera singer, today to teach and critique some of Cal Poly’s music majors with emphases in voice.
The class — known as a vocal master class — will be open to anyone who wants to observe some of Cal Poly’s music students perform and perfect their craft, said department chair Thomas Davies.
“Any person can come and hear a professional who has sung with major names in the United States and Europe,” Davies said. “He’ll show people how to sing these pieces in a different way. He’s doing it from a real sense of experience. He knows the music more intimately than many people.”
Harris has been working as a coach for the San Francisco Opera and just finished working on “Cyrano De Bergerac,” the French-sung opera about a poet-swordsman.
As a coach, Harris has several responsibilities with little time to fulfill them.
“We have three or four weeks of rehearsal, we play piano for the stage rehearsals, we advise on balance and many other issues that come up,” Harris said.
Harris will work with Cal Poly’s music students on many of the same things he coaches professional opera singers about, and he hopes his comments will be helpful, he said.
“They will sing an aria or song and I will tell them what I think,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and have accompanied many rehearsals. I would like the students to know what they’re singing about. I’ll focus on language, phrasing, vocal line and their interpretation on the whole so that it sounds beautiful.”
There are many key elements to performing a piece and it will be good to have the knowledge and advice of a professional who understands what a good performance entails, Davies said.
“Music is kind of a building block thing,” he said. “We build at different points in our lives. What it is to create a piece and perform a piece of music. It’s the same with every major on campus. This is a foundation. The more you learn, the more the building goes up. Here we’re talking about music. It’s the same as architecture or crops science.”
And this is something that music students want other people at Cal Poly to know about their major. Music senior Morgan Hurd said the stereotype of a major in music as fun and easygoing is hardly true.
“People think that music is an easy major,” Hurd said. “It’s not.”
Every quarter, music students are required to be in at least one vocal or instrumental ensemble, as well as take private lessons to rehearse solo pieces performed at the end of each quarter, Hurd said. This is all in addition to their regular course load.
Several students have prepared pieces to share with Harris throughout the quarter. Music senior Natalie de Bruijn, among other students, will sing in a performance for the operatic today.
“This is really important for us,” she said. “He’s worked with professionals all over the world. I hope he’s not too harsh.”
De Bruijn has worked on her piece all quarter. She sees her vocal teacher Jacalyn Kreitzer every week and spends hours trying to perfect every element of the song, de Bruijn said.
“She has been working on creating beautiful vocal technique for three years, and then, in order to sing in a prepared manner for a professional coach, she had to make certain she knew the translation word for word, do research on the opera source, acting, character, diction, stage deportment and subtext,” Kreitzer said. “Only then is she ready to sing, and she is.”
It’s different than simply singing through a song, de Bruijn said.
De Bruijn won’t be alone on Tuesday. Music senior Katie Dugan will also perform for Harris and said it’s important for people to realize how important an art-form opera is.
In addition to the musical element, operas tell stories as well as contain some of the world’s best stage decor, Dugan said.
“Back when operas first started being performed that was how people were entertained,” Dugan said. “Composers and performers of operas were the celebrities of the day.”
Although Hurd won’t perform alongside Dugan and de Bruijn, he shares the same sentiments about opera.
“It’s less a question of is opera relevant and more a question of is opera important,” he said. “It is because it’s a part of our history. It’s an art form and a major part of our history — it would be a shame if it was lost.”
Whether or not Cal Poly’s music students will go on to be the next Luciano Pavarotti, the Barry Bonds of the operatic stage, they won’t leave Cal Poly without experience performing it.
“This is what Cal Poly is about,” Hurd said. “Learn by doing.”
Harris will be in room 218 of the Davidson Music Center at 5 p.m.