Tenor Jason Karn had an opening message for the men’s ensemble at Athens Drive High School as he led the first high school Master Class sponsored by the United Arts Council. He told them, “Art teaches us to look at the world differently and gives us exposure to new ideas.”
His opening remarks were bold—more like the type of message famous speakers will make at a graduation ceremony, rather than a message students might typically receive during the last class of the day on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon in November.
As fourth period began (classes run 88 minutes on a block schedule) at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, music teacher Joy Clayton cheerfully welcomed her 10 men’s ensemble students to the chorus room. She gave them a few minutes to regroup after lunch and then encouraged them to move quickly to their chairs so Karn could begin.
Karn stood on the small stage in the front and briefly overviewed his extensive background and credentials while the students sat in the first two rows of stadium seating in the spacious room, listening quietly. He showed them two thick opera scorebooks as big as phone books—both items the students may not have ever seen, much less used.
Karn set the scene for the opera he would sing first, before he would expect them to trust him as a teacher. He described his character, explaining the way that opera teaches history as well.
And then he sang.
The young men watched and listened attentively.
“Oh yea, yea, that was pretty good,” was their collective response–high praise from the audience.
Karn was leading the first of eight pilot Master Classes at Wake County high schools. In addition to the Men’s Ensemble, Karn led the two other classes earlier in the day at Athens Drive: 26 auditioned singers in first period and the 55 members of the women’s choir. Sanderson, Holly Springs, and Knightdale High Schools will also receive Master Classes in the next few months from a variety of artists.
United Arts has been sponsoring Artists in Schools programs in most of the Wake County elementary and middle schools for more than 30 years. The Master Classes are a way to connect with more high schools and give students an opportunity to receive hands-on instruction from a visiting professional artist.
After Jason sang for the group, he asked, “Any questions?”
Silence. And then, one students asked,
“How do you do that?”
Karn responded, “I was trained to do it.”
He went on to explain opera singing is like any other challenge; it takes considerable time and practice, but it can be done.
Karn encouraged the students to always strive to learn, create, and search for what’s next. To get better. He offered, “know the rules, and then you can break them.”
Then Karn asked the young men to stand so they could get comfortable and begin what they were all there for—to practice singing.
First, they practiced breathing. And then falsetto. Karn described the importance of posture and the relevant anatomy related to opera singing. When a student yawned (happens to the best of us after lunch), he explained that yawning opens up the soft palate.
Anticipating the inevitable, Karn also addressed the physiology of voices cracking; everything Karn did was to make students comfortable so they could learn more.
Karn also told the students about the time he met Plácido Domingo during one of his voice lessons at the Met.
Alternating between success stories and hard work was apparent throughout the class. And, in an important way, the contrast between the two seemingly contradictory aspects of the class mirrored the the message Jason was sending: all the little pieces contribute to a larger goal, and a large goal can inspire the sometimes tedious practice required to attain it.
On a cloudy afternoon in November when graduation and the Met can seem so far away, a professional artist with a bold message can make a student’s dream a little more real—or inspire an entirely new one.
—Karla Heinen, communications coordinator