J-Term class teaches students audition skills; performances set for Feb. 2-3

J-Term class teaches students audition skills; performances set for Feb. 2-3

Jan. 17, 2017

The Maryville College Division of Fine Arts will present “A Grand Night for Singing” Feb. 2-3.

Both performances, which will begin at 7 p.m. in the Clayton Center for the Arts’ Harold and Jean Lambert Recital Hall, are free and open to the public. Seating is limited, and a printed ticket is required for admission. For tickets, please call the Clayton Center Box Office at 865.981.8590.

The performances are the culmination of a three-week January Term course that focuses on “Music on the American Stage.” As an “audition technique seminar,” the multidisciplinary course develops the technical and artistic performing abilities of each student and prepares each person for real-world expectations in singing on stage.

Similar to the musical and film “A Chorus Line,” the Feb. 2-3 scripted production will give audiences an insider look at what the audition process is like, said course instructors Dr. Christy Lee and Dr. Heather McMahon. The performances will include excerpts from hits of American musical theatre, including West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma! and Cinderella, as well as excerpts from American operas (sung in English), including The Old Maid and the Thief, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Street Scene, Vanessa and The Tender Land.

“The performances will provide a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to be an auditioning performer,” Lee said. “It will be both entertaining and a learning experience for the audience.”

An intensive three weeks

Twenty students with varying experience in music and theatre are enrolled in the course, which is designed to be an intensive workshop that will ultimately give students the skills they need to successfully audition, whether it be for graduate school, professional opera houses or local theatre companies. One student is serving as the stage manager for the class and the performances.

Since Jan. 9, students have been meeting for four hours every afternoon to focus on stage movement, acting and singing – three skills that are vital to a successful audition. Daily seminars cover important topics, including common audition mistakes, how to prepare an audition piece, diction, character development, resumes and business development. In preparation for the Feb. 2-3 performances, students are studying repertoire that comes from the great works of American opera and musical theatre.

Top-notch instruction

Lee, MC lecturer in collaborative piano and conductor of the Maryville College Orchestra, is co-teaching the course with McMahon, MC associate professor of theatre. In addition to learning from the professors’ expertise, students are learning from two guest artists who are bringing their professional experience to the classroom.

Carroll Freeman, an artistic director and stage director, is the Valerie Adams Distinguished Professor in Opera Studies at Georgia State University and an accomplished opera singer who has performed around the world. He is serving as the guest stage director for the course at Maryville College. In the 1980s, he served as an Affiliate Artist at Maryville College. The Affiliate Artists program started in 1966 through an arrangement with Affiliate Artists, Inc., of New York, a project that was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and brought guest artists to college communities around the country. The Alcoa Foundation sponsored the program at MC.

Delores Ziegler ’73, professor of vocal performance at the University of Maryland School of Music, is serving as artist-in-residence. Ziegler, an American mezzo-soprano with a repertoire that extends from bel canto to verismo, has performed in the world’s greatest opera houses, including Vienna’s Staatsoper, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, Paris’ L'Opéra Bastille and Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper. 

The idea for the course originated in May 2012, when Maryville College awarded Ziegler an honorary degree, and she delivered the commencement address, titled “What’s in a Gift?” During that visit to campus, she and MC Director of Choral Activities Stacey Wilner were discussing Ziegler’s experience as a music student at MC. She talked about experiencing “a convergence” of people and opportunities that led her to discover her talent for singing. Those opportunities included working with an Affiliate Artist on campus and participating in a J-Term (then called “Interim”) course that culminated in a trip to New York City to the see Metropolitan Opera.

Ziegler and Wilner developed a J-Term course that would allow current MC students to share some of the experiences that were so valuable to Ziegler’s career.

“When we were talking about what I could give back (to Maryville College), I said I would love to give back the experience of working with an Affiliate Artist,” Ziegler said, adding that Philip Steele served as affiliate artist when she was a student.

In January 2013, the first J-Term “Opera Scenes” course was offered, with Ziegler serving as resident artist. While this year’s course is different from the initial vision of the course, which had less of an emphasis on auditioning, the “affiliate artist” component remains. The course is funded through a generous donation from Charles and Anne Wright, who are close friends of the College and have a passion for the fine arts. Charles Wright also serves as vice chair of the Maryville College Board of Directors.

“These are lucky students,” McMahon said. “I don’t think they realize how lucky they are to have this kind of expertise in one room. On the first day of class, I told them to Google their instructors. They came back the next day, very impressed.

“This class is a big deal,” Freeman added. “This (type of experience) would happen more at the graduate level or post-graduate level.”

Real-world experience

Lee said the course is a great example of the power of the liberal arts, and it also fits within the College’s emphasis on its Maryville College Works program, which integrates career preparation for today’s job market with a time-tested, small-college liberal arts education.

“We are enabling students to transition into the reality of being an auditioning performer, so they can say ‘What can I then do with (these skills) as a singing actor?’” Lee said. “Rarely does the curriculum in undergraduate degrees allow for that.”

For some students, the course might be their first exposure to the topics or skills presented in the class.

“That’s the beauty of the liberal arts,” McMahon said. “Some of these students will become Fine Arts majors. Some have never sung opera before but are getting the opportunity.”

The audition process involves a particular set of skills that are applicable in a number of real-world situations, McMahon said.

“You can be a very talented actor or musician and not know how to play that game,” she said. “There are things you have to know, and a lot of places don’t teach those particular skills. These are marketable, transferable skills – those things have to be part of the package. When you go to audition, you put your best foot forward. That is the same as any job interview!

“When you look at youth, they’re often not ready to audition, but they need to audition for every day of their lives – even walking into the classroom,” Freeman added. “We audition every day in order to be successful.”

By Chloe Kennedy, Assistant Director of Communications


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,146.