116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Before beginning a vocal lesson with students at Washington High School, visiting teacher and professional opera singer Dorian McCall has them start with abdominal exercises.
Lenora Cromwell, 16, a sophomore at Washington High, said working with the opera singer was “intimidating at first” and “challenging at times.” But with McCall’s help, Cromwell is learning how to better control her voice by improving her posture and strengthening her abdominal muscles.
“I’m working to reach those high notes,” Cromwell said.
McCall, a baritone singer based in Chicago, provided two weeks of one-on-one instruction in April — free of charge — to 18 students at Washington High School, some of whom experience barriers to access for private singing education.
McCall’s visit is the first-ever artist in residence program — called Lift Every Voice — by the Cedar Rapids Opera in partnership with the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
Each voice is an instrument and “its own language,” McCall said. His goal is to raise students’ “body awareness” and use of muscles and breath to fuel the voice, he said.
In lessons, McCall asks students: “What was your body telling you about your pitch?”
“Any of these students seeking to be serious — whether it be serious amateurs or serious musicians, whether they’re seeking to study in college or be serious at the karaoke bar — should learn how their body is going to best serve their instrument,” McCall said.
Ashley Shields, spokeswoman for the Cedar Rapids Opera, said the program is a part of the organization’s promise to become more equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible and is committed to anti-racism.
Private lessons are expensive, Shields said. Between lessons, sheet music, transportation and the need for some students to also balance a job outside of school, many students who show great musical potential never fully develop their talents, she said.
“Studies show that these roadblocks disproportionately affect students of color,” Shields said. “We are committed to correcting this inequity and hope this is just the beginning.”
“It seems Cedar Rapids is really wanting to make good on a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and have the representation of a Black person or person of color as a classical musician. We have them, they do exist on national stages. I would like that number to be larger,” McCall said.
Isak West, 17, a junior at Washington High, is working with McCall on audition material for Iowa high school musical theater awards, including the Triple Threat Award Program in May in Des Moines. Two students will be selected to represent Iowa at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as the Jimmy Awards.
Working with McCall is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” West said. He’s learning how to place his body when he sings, aligning his spine and making space for his diaphragm, he said.
“I crack, I fumble, and he finds ways to encourage me,” West said.
Eloise Prince, 15, a freshman at Washington High, said McCall is a “new set of ears” to help her grow into her voice.
“He’s taught me so much in just two lessons,” she said, learning how her body is an important tool to support her voice. Working with a professionally trained opera singer is a “rare opportunity.”
She has grown up around music and plans for it to be a part of her future — whether as a hobby or a career. “It’s one of the ways that helps me express myself and is an outlet for creativity,” she said. “Singing is always something that’s with me.”
Amy Farley, director of choral music at Washington High, said McCall is a “very creative” teacher.
Peter Westphalen, also director of choral music at Washington High, said McCall’s “passion for music” is quickly passed along to students. The private lessons are “energized and happy,” he said.
McCall’s upcoming shows include a world premier as Leonidas in a filmed production of the opera “Lysistrata” by American composer Mark Adamo, and a return to the Teatro Nuovo opera company as Conte Rodolfo in Vincenzo Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”
Cedar Rapids Opera plans to provide the Lift Every Voice program again next year to even more students, Shields said.
The program was made possible by donations from the Carleen and Eugene Grandon Charitable Foundation and Cedar Rapids Opera’s corporate sponsor, Hills Bank.
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