JOHNNY H. BUTLER III, Baritone
By Dawn! E. Robinson
JOHNNY BUTLER III is a classically-trained baritone, currently part of the voice faculty at the University of the District of Columbia. At the time of this interview, he was preparing to go to Italy to participate in the Amalfi Coast Music Festival and Institute, a vocal program in opera. We talked about his musical journey to this point and how singing has helped him during the challenges of the last few years, being the only child of ailing parents.
DR: Where were you born?
JB3: At the Columbia Hospital for Women in Washington, DC.
DR: First off, are you classified as a baritone or a bass-baritone?
JB3: Since 2006, I’ve been classified as baritone. I wasn’t fully developed in undergrad, so my teacher classified me as bass-baritone. I had one teacher who wanted to classify me as a bass.
DR: I know that timbre of the voice plays a prominent role in classification, but what do you see as the differences between bass-baritone and bass?
JB3: Yes, the tonal quality is different between a bass and a baritone; also between a baritone and a bass-baritone. The breaks in the voice are different for a baritone than for a bass; about a difference of a half step. So, I think it’s the tonal quality first, then the breaks, then the range, that make the difference. But, as one of my teachers said, “…Just know that there are different types of baritones.” In other words, know what kind of repertoire you can take on - No bari-tenor stuff, or dramatic, heavy, Wagnerian-type stuff. True basses are rare and so are bass-baritones. Baritone is the average male voice type.
DR: Right, that’s because baritone is on the average male speech level. I think real baritones and basses are awesome. A couple Christmases ago, I found out that the bass singer who was the original voice of “Tony, the Tiger” [Thurl Ravenscroft 1914-2005] also sang the “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” theme in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
JB3: Oh, far out!!!
DR: Yep. Okay so, talk about the Amalfi Coast program you’re about to go to.
JB3: It’s a vocal program – the whole month of July, they do vocal, instrumental & chamber music. These 2 weeks are geared toward opera - We’ll be doing Puccini’s Gianni Schicci, Suor Angelica and opera scenes, vocal concerts, aria concerts and art song concerts.
DR: Was there a preliminary adjudication or competition involved?
JB3: The adjudication was done based on audition materials we sent in. They chose from singers around the world, who sent in audition materials. I had to send in a resume, video or audio recording, head shot, experience, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. The last time I went was in ‘07. If this year is anything like that, as soon as you hit the ground, they have an orientation and they give you a calendar – rehearsals, lessons, coaching sessions and performances. So, it’s a very intense 2 weeks. You’re supposed to know your stuff by the time you get there.
DR: So, you already know what pieces you’re doing?
JB3: Yes, two months out.
DR: Have you been working on the material on your own or with a teacher/coach?
JB3: Mostly on my own, but I have lessons with my teacher, Nelda Ormond, especially because of the recitatives in Mozart. I’m doing the duet between the Don in Don Giovanni – between Don Giovinni and Zerlina – “La ci darem la mano.” I already knew that, so that was just a manner of polishing it up. But the recitative I didn’t know. And I’m doing the trio in Così Fan Tutte with Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Don Alfonso, “Soave Sia il Vento,” and I knew that already, but I didn’t know the recitative before. So, they pick from my repertoire, things that you could do and things that they want to hear from you depending on who’s singing with you. I’m doing two opera scenes. I’m doing them twice for the concert. I’m doing the aria concert where I’m doing a Händel aria, “Sì tra I ceppi.” I’m doing an art song concert, what they call “New Festival Voices” and I’m doing two art songs by African-American composers, which I insisted on doing: “Death of an Old Seaman” by Cecil Cohen and “Song to the Dark Virgin” by Florence Price. So, that’s gonna be my rep while I’m there. Oh, and a very small role in Gianni Schicchi.
DR: And are the concerts open to the local public or will it be mostly students and faculty?
JB3: Yes, the students and faculty of the festival, but also the open to the public in the city of Maiori.
DR: And what is your ultimate goal from participating in the Amalfi Festival?
JB3: Growth and experience via learning and performing.
DR: Great. Now, we’ll back up a bit. Tell me, if you remember, the first time you sang.
JB3: I don’t remember… but I remember the story. I was sitting on my mother’s lap, in a Volkswagon Beetle, I was about a year old. My mother was singing whatever it was on the radio, kinda high – my mother was a second soprano. So, she sang a note and I sang the same note. Then she said, “Hmmm, let me try something.” She sang the next pitch up and I matched it. Then she went up to a high pitch and I screamed that pitch. [Laughs] Clearly, I could match pitches at an early age. She told me I was harmonizing with her at age four, singing “One of These Days,” an old Caravans song, “I’m gonna see that holy city one of these days, Hallelujah.” Those are stories she told me.
DR: Did your mother play piano?
JB3: No, she just sang.
DR: Was there music playing in the house?
JB3: Plenty of records playing in the house; plenty of radio; everything from Gloria Lynne to Billy Joel to Earth Wind & Fire to Marlena Shaw to Natalie Cole to Quincy Jones. According to my father, I would sit at our bar at age four and request that he play Quincy Jones’ “Smack Water Jack.” I remember hearing music all the time.
DR: Who were the first singers that caught your attention and inspired you?
JB3: Probably mom first. She had a beautiful soprano voice. I remember she sang at Allen Chapel with the Allen Echoes. Then, I remember hearing a lady there, named Renee Carter Norwood. At the time she was in the Allen Choraleers – everybody had a ‘choraleers’ back then. And she was singing the lead solo to an old gospel song, “I Made a Vow to the Lord” and back then she had a kind of Aretha Franklin-type of sound before she went to school for voice. Mitzi Jameson(?) sang an Easter song, “I’ll Rise Again”. Those are the two that spoke to me before I knew what voices were. Then, there was Patti LaBelle, courtesy of my aunt.
DR: And was this when Patti was with the Bluebelles or was she with LaBelle at that point?
JB3: I remember seeing the album cover of LaBelle’s Chameleon album on my aunt’s floor. And I remember my aunt taking me to Waxie Maxie to get the album with “I Don’t Go Shopping” on it. It was always the women singers, like Luther Vandross used to say.
DR: It seems like a lot of male singers are first inspired by female singers and vice versa.
JB3: Male voices didn’t speak to me that I really paid attention to.
DR: Does your father sing? He’s really tall. He looks like he would be a bass.
JB3: He is a - [Lowers his voice an octave] He is a bass. [Laughs] He sings, but he wouldn’t tell you that he sings. He doesn’t consider it singing. I remember hearing him in his younger years playing his music, he would sing. He would sing along with Sarah Vaughan. Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman and I would hear his quality. But he wouldn’t say that he sings.
DR: Growing up, did you sing in church and/or school?
JB3: In elementary school, I was in the glee club. I was always singing, loved singing but I never had the focus that I wanted to do something professionally with it. I was taking piano lessons privately. So, the ear was there in terms of scales. I thought I wanted to be a piano major. I didn’t sing in high school. I don’t think Gonzaga at the time had a music program. They do now. I think if I had gone to a high school that did, I would have gone straight into music, but I kind of fell into it.
DR: You should have gone to Ellington. Do you remember the first time you sang in front of people?
JB3: First time I sang in front of people was with the Young People’s Choir at Allen Church. It was probably the late ‘70s and I did the lead on “Jacob’s Ladder.” There was a song I used to sing with the Young Adult Choir, but I can’t remember the title. I was a little more outgoing back then, if you can imagine. I think I have reverted.
DR: And what do you attribute that to?
JB3: Well… I don’t know. Life, maybe. It seems to have happened before I really delved into classical musical. So, it was already there - the diminished social skill quality was already there. To hear my piano teacher tell it, I was a ‘closet vocalist.’ I was a piano major first and then I switched. I was a piano major and voice minor and she said that I was hiding behind the piano. So, I really don’t know what I would attribute it to. I would probably have to seek counseling for that.
DR: And, you know… who has money or time for that? So, when did you decide that you wanted to major in music? You were studying broadcasting right?
JB3: Long story. I went to Howard for broadcast journalism because it was safe. I applied to Howard University and Hampton (I’m dating myself) Institute at the time. I got accepted to both. I chose Howard. I did that for two years, or 60 credits, and I decided to be grown and drop out. I wanted to work. I wanted to have the money to wear the clothes I saw other people wearing. For some reason, I wasn’t being fulfilled. I worked at the post office for a while. When I went back to school, I transferred to University of the District of Columbia [UDC] because I couldn’t afford Howard’s tuition by myself. I took a class called History of Afro-American Music which was taught by the awesome Professor Hildred Roach, pianist extraordinaire. She also wrote the textbook. As soon as I got in there, I was hit over the head with ‘this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ Somewhere or another, I was supposed to be in music. So that’s where it started.
DR: So, did you have opera in mind at that point or you just knew you wanted to sing?
JB3: Opera was the furthest thing from my mind. Unless I had gone to Ellington, I wouldn’t have been exposed to opera. And as an African-American male, that’s not something that we lean toward unless we are exposed to it. I actually wanted to sing background behind Luther [Vandross]. I wanted to learn how the voice works. I wanted to play the piano. I never intended to be a music major, but clearly, GOD knew what He was doing. So, I did two years as a piano major and voice minor. My voice teacher was Nelda Ormond. When I switched, Prof. Roach asked Ms. Ormond, “Is Johnny good for stage?” Not “Can he switch to be a voice major” but “Can Butler be on stage?” and Ms. Ormond said “Yes.” I guess they heard or saw something that I didn’t and that’s how I switched. My piano requirements had been fulfilled, so they just swapped me, but it wasn’t until a semester later, before I could be “classified” a voice major.
DR: So, how soon did classical repertoire come into your orbit?
JB3: Immediately. They started me off with the “24 Italian Songs and Arias.” I think I sang all 24.
DR: Ah! The 24 Italian Hits! Yes, you TOO, can be the opera singer!
JB3: “Per la Gloria”
DR: “Caro Mio Ben”
JB3: “Tu Lo Sai,” “Nel Cor Piu Non Mi Sento” – and I understand now why they insist on that in your Freshman Year, because those things are the basis of good technique. If you can sing those 24 - I mean, people laugh at it – but if you can sing those 24 -
DR: Well, we laugh at it, but those are some serious pieces.
JB3: I know some people now who can’t sing them well. A lot of people want to jump right in with “Nessun Dorma” or “Non Mi Dir.” So, classical music started immediately.
DR: Did you do any vocal competitions at that time? I mean, we all did juries, but did you do anything like NATS [National Association of Teachers of Singing] or anything?
JB3: No, I didn’t because of the time that I took off from school, by the time I went back and finished two years of piano, and began developing the voice, there was a cut-off age to a lot of the competitions. I did some art song competitions. I did do the Paul Robeson Competition and I got as far as the semi-finals. But that was the only one I did before I was too old.
DR: And how dramatic was that experience?
JB3: Because it was my first competition, of course, I was paranoid.
DR: Could you see the adjudicators?
JB3: I could. That year the adjudicators listed on the program were William Ray from Howard, Charlotte Holloman and I can’t think of the third. That particular year, all but one of them got sick that weekend. So, the only one sitting in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church that day was William Ray.
DR: Juries and competitions give new meaning to the term ‘blank stare.’
JB3: Yes, the blankest.
DR: And you can freak out thinking, ‘Oh Lord, what am I doing wrong?’
JB3: They’re not supposed to clap, but nobody tells you that. It’s very humbling… And then you hear somebody say, “Okay, thank you.”
DR: Did you do recitals at UDC?
JB3: Yes, we were required to be on at least one student recital per semester. So, for instance, in the fall semester, the first student recital would be in October, the second would be in December. You had to be on one or the other. Clearly, the latter one was the more populated one because nobody wanted to sing – or thought they were ready to sing – on the first one. For some reason, I was always ready for the first one. Nobody seemed to be performance-ready for the first one. So, you had two opportunities per semester to be on a student recital, in addition to performance opportunities in the choir, master classes, and things like that. So, by the time you did your Senior Recital in four years, you knew what it would be like.
DR: Did you accumulate repertoire each year for the senor recital or were things specifically chosen for it?
JB3: The semester before my senior recital, the repertoire was chosen from things that I had done in my sophomore year in German and things I had done in my junior year in French and then they added some arias and other pieces to learn. It wasn’t like you couldn’t pick things that were already done for a jury. We would pick from that and bring some pieces we had learned since then to polish it up. I remember my senior recital was in November and I started rehearsals with my pianist a month out. So, the music had to be ‘in my body’ before the rehearsals with the pianist. It had to be learned, so we could polish it for a month.
DR: Was your accompanist someone you picked or were they assigned?
JB3: My accompanist throughout my entire matriculation process was Hildred Roach. She played for my very first student recital and we got used to each other. That’s very important. Your accompanist has to not outshine you, but support you; breathe with you; know your personality; know when to push you; know when to lay back. I think it can take more skill to be an accompanist than a concert pianist. Well, not more skill, but it shows a certain humility. Every pianist is not going to support and take the time to create a comfortable environment for the singer.
DR: Did you do any performances other than recitals while at UDC? Any stage shows or operas?
JB3: I didn’t do any opera scenes because I was a Music Education major, instead of Music Performance. Only the music performance majors were required to do opera scenes.
DR: When/how did you make the decision to teach or to change your major from broadcasting to music education? ‘Cause that’s a leap.
JB3: Quite a leap. Luckily, the piano training I’d already taken as a teenager helped me in my audition and placement tests in vocal, piano and theory. I was able to play scales, match pitches and place in the Freshman level.
DR: So, did you make a conscious decision to teach in the event that you didn't make the connection with Luther Vandross?
JB3: Well, there is that. I wanted to sing background for Luther, but I always wanted to know about the voice. My mentor, Dr. James Holiday, who, at the time, was a voice teacher at Howard – I would ask him when certain people would be onstage singing on TV: “What do you mean they’re not singing right? Well, if she’s not singing right, more people need to.” Why did he go to that note instead of this one?” Why does he sound like that” “Why did she crack?”
DR: So you had a curiosity about singing?
JB3: And I thought if I couldn’t sing behind Luther or Whitney [Houston] or whomever, I could open up a school in New York and coach the stars.
DR: Did you have vocal pedagogy classes?
JB3: The performance majors in undergrad took a pedagogy class. Music Ed did not. We got pedagogy through our private teachers instead of taking the class. We had to go to seminars, like “The Psychology of Singing”, “The Physical Aspects of Singing” and take classes such as “The Physics of Music”. One thing I learned was that sound doesn’t go forward. You hear it because you’re in front of the singer. But sound just explodes, especially with the voice, it goes up, over, out and down.
DR: As your training progressed, and you learned more about what the voice does; what is good singing; what is bad singing, did you find yourself listening to your favorite singers differently?
JB3: Interestingly enough, no. The natural talent that screamed at me still screamed at me because I knew they were Pop singers. But the Pop singers who were classically trained, I could pick them out and develop a new appreciation for them, such as Angela Winbush, Melba Moore, Donny Hathaway, Lalah Hathaway, Oleta Adams, Rachelle Ferrell. So that began to scream at me in a different way. Even though I was singing classical in school, I had no intention of singing classical music. I was just kind of forced into it, but I like it now. I don’t like opera –
DR: Why don’t you like opera?
JB3: I like the literature from opera.
DR: What is not to like about opera?
JB3: Being in rehearsals, Monday thru Friday, for 5 & 6 hours, for 4 weeks at a time… I’m not a people person. I get overwhelmed. I’m an only child.
DR: That’s interesting. I know people who have more appreciation for opera than a classical recital or concert where someone basically stands and sings the music.
JB3: I’m exactly the opposite. I like concert work. Give me the music, I’ll be ready at dress rehearsal and do the concert the next day.
DR: In the event that you have people in the audience who are unfamiliar with the entire opera, don’t you find it challenging to do an aria without them knowing who your character is and what the motivation is behind this crazy song you’re singing?
JB3: I went to a senior recital once where the singer did an aria and there was a couch onstage, props and things. [Blank stare] It was a whole scene just for this one song. We had to read this book called The Art of the Song Recital and it’s stated, “Minor props.” Clearly, you have to be in character as soon as you walk out. The audience may not know what it’s about, but they can see you in character as soon as you walk out. You can act it out minimally. Even if they don’t know the language or the plot, they can hear and feel the interpretation of what you’re trying to deliver facially. I was always taught that it’s about the face. There isn’t a lot of physicality to it. It’s all about the face. It’s harder to interpret an aria from an opera in a recital setting. But it makes you pull from your ‘inner extrovert.’ But I think a solo recital is harder because you have to embody so many different characters throughout the concert.
DR: So, do you agree that each song takes on a certain character – even if it’s not related to a show or an opera? I know that you sing other things than opera/classical. Would you agree that, regardless of genre, each song has a certain character and has a certain message?
JB3: Well, it’s all about the words. Each genre has a certain subset. I think it’s the text that has to be brought out and interpreted. If you look at the text away from the music, as poetry, it can be a little deeper, regardless of the genre.
DR: Okay so, you finished at UDC with a Bachelor’s?
JB3: Bachelor’s in Music Education with concentration in voice and then I was tired. I was so done. I didn’t want to teach – at least, not on a K-12 level. In fact, when I finished my student teaching seminars, someone asked what did I learn and I said, “That I don’t want to teach.” I was still going to see Luther [Laughs] and offer my services as a coach or a background singer. I took a year off and then, just for giggles one January, I called Catholic University and Dr. Michael Cordovana answered the phone. I asked about their Master’s program in Voice Pedagogy and he asked me when I could come sing for him. Just like that I had an appointment with him for a couple days later. So, I talked to my mentor and pulled out the German and the Italian and the French and some English art songs. So, I went in and sang the Handel aria that I’m about to do in Amalfi, “Sì tra I ceppi,” from the opera Berenice – which is the Italian version of my mother’s name, Bernice. I didn’t know the accompanist, the awesome Dr. Nicolas Catravas, though, and he flew! He took off playing the accompaniment. I had to slow him down. Dr. Cordovana was sitting to my right, his assistant was to my left typing away. Nobody was looking at me. Dr. Cordovana looked up twice –
DR: With the blank stare.
JB3: With the blank stare. And after I finished singing that’s when this explosion came. He came over and said, “Oh! Young man, sit right here! I want you to apply! I have money for you!” And he grabbed my face and said to his assistant, “This is what a baritone is supposed to look like. Look at this slim body.” He told me, “You are gorgeous! Don’t ever gain weight!” So, I applied and got a scholarship. By the time I got there in August, he had retired. But they still let me in with the scholarship and it was renewed the next year.
DR: And you did an opera at Catholic?
JB3: Four. That was a requirement of the scholarship.
DR: And what were they?
JB3: The year I came in, they were doing an American composer series. My first opera, I had a very small role - one line in Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. That was fall semester. Second semester I had a medium role in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring. Third year – American again – I portrayed “Cal” in Marc Blitzstein’s Regina. By the time they got to an Italian opera, they did [Mozart’s] Così Fan Tutte and I was tired and I told them I would just sing in the chorus.
DR: So, how was learning each piece different?
JB3: The first piece was cool ‘cause I only had the one line and they did it in Ward Recital Hall where the recital stage is very deep, so they made it like a mini-stage.
DR: But knowing that there’s a lot of stuff that goes on before you come on, you have to have a certain energy.
JB3: True, you have to still be in character and you have to know the whole opera. The next one was very interesting because it was my first big part and Benjamin Britten is not an easy composer.
DR: Was there an acting class for singers?
JB3: There was, but I came in as Vocal Pedagogy, again trying to get to New York and teach the stars. I didn’t come in as Performance, so I didn’t do any opera scenes. So, I was kind of thrust into opera in a major way. No acting classes, no opera scenes, no opera workshops did I ever do. It was very intimidating to be around all of these singers that had done opera for a long time. My teacher at the time, Regina McConnell, was the one that pushed me – not pushed me to do the role, but convinced the head of the vocal department that I could do the role. She always said that I was a thespian. She told me that I belonged on stage. She tried to get me to go to the Amalfi Coast Festival the summer after my first year at Catholic and I didn’t want to go to Italy and sing opera. I still wasn’t convinced.
So, that was a big part, the Benjamin Britten – it was very ensemble, even though it was a big role. You had to know everyone else’s part. It was a recitative style. I had a couple of arias and I remember the first couple of rehearsals, I had an anxiety attack, feigned nausea and went home. I was talked about the next day, but I needed that moment. But I did it well and that was the opera that renewed my scholarship for the next year.
The third opera I did was Regina. Again, it was a small role, but I was throughout the whole opera. This was in English. This was in the Hartke Theater with orchestra and I opened up the opera. As soon as the curtain opened, I was right there singing an aria that merges into a duet. That was very intimidating too – my first opera with orchestra.
DR: Which is a whole different energy because you sort of set the tone for the opera.
JB3: I know. I was like “What are ya’ll trying to do to me?”
DR: And the last one you sang in the chorus which was more work. You had to be there more with the chorus. The principals come in when they have to come in, but they get to leave when their part is done. The chorus has to be there the whole time.
JB3: I know and I thought I was getting out of it by doing the chorus. It was the same semester I was doing my Master’s recital and I didn’t think I could handle it, so I opted for the chorus.
DR: So, you finished at Catholic and did your Master’s recital.
JB3: Yep, with the baby crying throughout the whole thing.
DR: Talk about that – how creepy is that? Because now, you’ve got people with cellphones going off, distractions like that.
JB3: It didn’t really bother me because I was focused on doing this 75-minute recital. I didn’t know who said baby was. I didn’t invite said baby.
JB3: So, I just stayed focused. I heard the talking; the little baby banter throughout. At intermission, I heard my mentor, Jimmy, who was also my landlord at the time, explode, “Get that child out of here!” I heard from other musicians in attendance that the baby sounds just grated on them during the entire recital. And I heard that my piano teacher walked down to the lady with the baby and spoke to her.
DR: Who was the kid? ‘Cause they sat right down front, so I think no one said anything because the assumption was that they were family. Like, this must be Johnny’s favorite aunt who brought the little cousin.
JB3: It was the grandchild of one of my mother’s choir members. Johnny didn’t know who it was. I had taken my contacts out, ‘cause I didn’t want to see anybody out there. My bad mind, I would have been thrown. But I do remember during the Wolf song cycle, in between songs I was in a different character and I was supposed to look off. And through my myopic nearsightedness, I saw said baby in the front and thought, oh, that’s who that is. But, of course, I had to snatch it back and keep going.
DR: At one point you considered doing a doctorate program – what happened with that?
JB3: Well, here it is… I went into the Master’s program with the idea that, at that time, the least you needed to teach in college level was a Master’s. I had already gotten it in my spirit that I didn’t want to teach K-12. But as soon as I finished the Master’s, they decided to up the qualifications countrywide to A.B.D. – All But Dissertation. That was the reason why I was going to pursue a doctorate. I still might. The only school that I wanted to go to was Maryland [University]. Here again, because I don’t want to do opera. Maryland has a DMA in Opera, they have a DMA in Vocal Pedagogy and one in Solo Vocal Performance. But they are very competitive. They only let five folk in out of who knows how many and the majority of the people they let in are in the opera program. If they’re paying for the degree, you really have to be “bangin’” to get up in there and apparently I wasn’t “bangin’” enough. So, I didn’t get in.
DR: So, do you still think you might pursue a doctorate?
JB3: We’ll see… I’m finally at a level now that I can listen to myself. So, we’ll see. I can’t listen to my master’s recital. When you grow and you listen to things you did previously, and you kind of cringe. You second-guess everything you did. And then you realize all of the established musicians and perfect-pitched people who were in attendance and you’re listening to something five years later that they attended.
DR: So, would you still be interested in singing backup for artists – I know Luther’s gone - and/or setting up the vocal studio in New York?
JB3: Both of the people I wanted to sing behind are gone.
DR: Who was the other one?
JB3: Whitney [Houston].
DR: Ah, ok.
JB3: I still – with all of this classical training – would love to sing behind James Taylor or Billy Joel or Dave Matthews… I don’t think, at this point, that I’m going to New York. I don’t own my life. Who knows where I’m going? I’m teaching at UDC, but even with all of that, I would still sing backup.
DR: You are teaching now at UDC. You don’t have to name names, but the kind of students that you have now, are they Freshmen?
JB3: Since I’ve been there, I’ve had Freshmen, Sophomores and a few Juniors. None of my students that could have gone on, have stayed for various reasons – financial, or dropped out, that might have been in a family way. I have a few now that I think will go the long haul and finish.
DR: Given that so many schools are not exposing children to music beyond what they hear on the radio, what kind of quality of voice are you hearing? Again, you don’t have to name names, but are the kids coming in ready to sing or are you starting at ground zero?
JB3: Um… There have been a few that have come in at ground zero. Lately, more have come in singing on an upperclassmen level.
DR: Are they coming from musical backgrounds?
JB3: Some come from your alma mater, Duke Ellington [School of the Arts]. Some come from a situation where they’ve been singing all their lives. Interestingly enough, those that don’t want to pursue classical - even though they have to go through the classical training – they prefer to sing gospel, but their voices lean toward classical.
DR: Gospel singing is a whole other thing. Like almost any genre, when it’s sung well, I can dig it. But I don’t really get where most gospel singers are singing from or how they do it.
JB3: Right and still be able to talk afterward. UDC has a gospel major [BM in Gospel Studies (Voice)] that was started and developed by the late Pearl Williams Jones. The first graduate from that program was Kenneth Louis. So, in addition to learning things like Gospel Improv and History of Gospel, they are required for the first two years to learn straight classical training; Italian, German, Spiritual. They’re learning bel canto technique to line the voice up. So, when they break off into gospel in their junior/senior years, they have a classical foundation. Pearl Williams Jones was a gospel historian and was trained classically at Howard. She made sure that when she was developing the program that classical was included, even theory, piano and ear training.
DR: And do you hear these kids singing both well?
JB3: Not at first. Sometimes it takes past senior year to learn. And a lot of them come to sing, not to learn how to sing. But I do see them using the technique. We don’t let them do “hard” gospel. They do hymns, spirituals and inspirational arrangements. I understand that gospel comes with a certain feeling and spirit because of the words, but the spirit still has order.
DR: So, as a vocal instructor, do you think there is hope for good singing?
JB3: There’s hope. But one thing I’ve found out, it’s not just about classical people, jazz people or gospel people, you have to be mentally and psychologically open to instruction. If you’re teachable, then somebody can teach you. But a lot of our people fight against what they call classical training – or rather they fight against being taught how to sing correctly. There’s a lot of resistance in being taught how to breathe; how to open the throat, drop the jaw…
DR: And where does that resistance come from, do you think?
JB3: Well, I have my theories. I think the phrase ‘classical training’ puts people off.
DR: Okay, but they’re there, they’re already there, they’re already in the room, they already have the teacher…
JB3: They’ve paid the tuition [Laughs]
DR: Right, they’ve paid the tuition!
JB3: Exactly. I’ve run into a resistance coming from the naturally-gifted singer or the person who plays by ear all their life. They have made this divide between what they consider their specialty and what they consider a trained singer. There’s a wall. Then there’s the classical instruction that they think is very “Euro” and they want to remain rooted in what they already know. But there’s nothing wrong with either. I mean, you and I both know musicians who are naturally gifted, but also classically trained who will tell you how it helped them be better. So, you have to be teachable. And I find that some aren’t teachable because they come with a certain ego. And the older you get the less teachable you become. But there is hope.
DR: That’s good to know. So… you’ve had a rough couple of years.
JB3: Yes, ma’am.
DR: How do you keep singing?
JB3: If I didn’t, I’d be dead.
JB3: If I didn’t sing in some form or hear it in some quality, I’d be pushing a shopping cart down the street singing The Isley Brothers’, “Fight the Power”.
DR: I hear ya. So, singing is not just something you do, it’s what keeps you grounded and sane and –
JB3: It’s therapy, it’s a calling, it’s healing, it’s cathartic, it’s a ministry. I can be down in the dumps and somebody can sing something really well and I’m in the aisle. It helps me get through without “opening up a vein”, like you say. But it has been rough and I thank GOD for music.
DR: So, you were saying earlier that your life is not your own. There are decisions that you probably – paths you probably won’t take until some things are resolved.
JB3: I haven’t done much performing since 2007 because of that. When I went to Europe the last time, as soon as I landed and got back home, that’s when my mother started going down. And, being the only child, it all falls on me. So, mind you, I kept studying voice and singing in church, took a gig here and there. But I was not going back out of the country. I was honoring my mother and father. I’m doing Amalfi this year because of mom. I sent them the video that was turned down by Maryland. Three days before my mother died, she asked me when I was going back to Europe. I told her I didn’t think I could leave the continent right now and she said, “Well, Dad and I will be fine.” That’s what made me send the video to Amalfi in March and is pushing me out of here in three weeks. She was visionary enough – even though dementia was setting in – she was visionary enough to know that everything would be fine. She was hearing the angels at that point; hearing the voice of GOD; she had a certain vision that mortal flesh couldn’t see.
DR: So, how’s your dad feel about you going to Amalfi this year?
JB3: I can tell that he’s concerned because he’ll be without me for a couple weeks. But he said he wouldn’t stand in my way. He even wrote the balance for the tuition.
DR: Well, it’s good to have your folks in your corner. So, now you can go and just focus on the music and not guilt trip yourself in the process and enjoy being there.
JB3: I’m looking forward to it.
DR: We endured a pretty brutal winter season this year and now we’re dealing with allergens in the air, etc. What kinds of things do you do to stay vocally healthy? What things do you try to avoid?
JB3: I use a neti pot for post nasal drip and gargle with warm salt water for phlegm. I hydrate days before a performance and vocalize every day the week before. Little talking on the day before. Keeping toxic people away also helps [laughs]. I also avoid drinking alcohol a few days before a performance.
DR: Okay, so random question: What is your favorite four-letter word?
JB3: HA! Well, let's see... Love.
DR: And what is your least favorite four-letter word?
JB3: Wow, um... that’s a good question. ‘Bill’ is the first one that comes to mind – not the kind you carry in your wallet, but the ones they send you in the mail.
*Come back for Part 2 after Johnny returns from Amalfi.