In October of 2020, the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) announced and began its inaugural season of the NATS Mentoring Program for Composers.
The new program was designed to encourage the creation and performance of new works by pairing a celebrated art song composer with an emerging and early career art song composer. For this first year, NATS reserved the program for composers from underrepresented groups, with a special emphasis on Black composers. Together, composers Tom Cipullo and Lori Laitman are overseeing the program, and NATS is happy to provide an update and share how the program is progressing so far.
“NATS wanted to help increase the representation and the voices of diverse populations within the art song community,” says Allen Henderson, executive director of NATS. “We are delighted that Tom and Lori have recruited wonderfully talented and noted mentors to take part in this project. We are receiving great feedback and look forward to future years of the program.”
The inaugural class of mentee and mentor pairs include:
with Tom Cipullo
Baton Rouge, LA
with Andrea Clearfield
with Anthony Davis
with Jake Heggie
with Roy Jennings
with Tom Cipullo
with Michael Ching
with Juliana Hall
Maria Thompson Corley
with Evan Mack
with Lori Laitman
The pairs have been working together virtually one-on-one since October 2020 and will continue through June of this year.
“It has been an absolute pleasure working with Maria,” says composer mentor Evan Mack who is paired with Maria Thompson Corley. “I’m amazed by her output and compositional voice. My suggestions are usually on pacing or notational suggestions to help performers execute her beautiful music! I’m always impressed by each new draft and each new piece. I hope to continue as long as we can!”
Thompson Corley responded with equal enthusiasm toward her new mentor.
“I’m beyond grateful for Evan’s guidance!” she says. “His suggestions are always helpful, and while I may choose not to implement all of them, he never fails to make me clarify my intentions in my own mind. I couldn’t ask for an easier person to work with, and I really appreciate his encouragement. As for keeping this going, I’m down if you are, Evan!
Depending on the schedule of the mentors, the needs of the mentees, and their interests, the mentors may review short works and give general counsel about writing for voice.
Composer Jake Heggie finds it rewarding to share his many years of vocal writing knowledge.
“It's been a great joy and pleasure to get to know Quinn Mason over the past few months,” Heggie says. “He is a deeply gifted composer with great insight and passion; as well as a super nice guy. We’ve been able to share quite a few ideas and perspectives about vocal writing, singers and text setting — and it's been most gratifying to offer him some of my 40+ years of experience as a songwriter as he starts to compose more and more for the voice. I look forward to continuing the journey with him.”
Mentors also offer advice about resources, point the mentees toward appropriate performers and presenters, give information about recording and publishing opportunities, and just generally be a sounding board for any questions the mentees might have. Additionally, all mentees have access to a shared, general mentor — H. Leslie Adams. There was no cost for this program to the mentees, and there were no age or stylistic limitations during the application process.
Not only has mentor composer Juliana Hall been able to share her tips of the trade with mentee Del’Shawn Taylor, but they’ve also had a few laughs along the way.
“It has been such a pleasure to work with Del’Shawn, a composer with excellent instincts, a beautiful sense of lyricism, and a natural understanding of how to write effectively for the voice,” Hall says. “In addition to working through his music, which communicates with clarity and great emotional power, we’ve discussed relevant topics like choice of words and copyright considerations, text setting, song structure, voice-piano interaction, color in harmonic language, and developing one's own voice ... and we’ve had no shortage of laughter along the way, too! I'm grateful to NATS, and to Tom Cipullo and Lori Laitman, for asking me to participate in this wonderful program, and I’m grateful to Del for his friendship.”
Co-program supervisors and composers Lori Laitman and Tom Cipullo agree this first class clearly demonstrates that the future of art song composition is very promising.
“It’s been my great pleasure to mentor Khyle Wooten,” Laitman says. “He is just at the beginning of his compositional journey, but I predict a bright future, due to his innate understanding of the voice and creativity in inventing music to best portray the text. In addition to being a delightful person, Khyle is hard working and intellectually curious. I look forward to watching him grow and hope that we will remain life-long friends.”
Cipullo adds that these rising star composers all have a wide range of unique styles, aesthetics, interests and experience.
“Working with Mr. Cipullo has been a true delight!” says mentee James Morris. “[He is] constantly opening doors and opportunities for me to keep putting my music out into the world. On top of that, he’s always open to what I’ve written, but at the same time encourages/suggest me to expand or try something new that also fits the mold.”
Mentee composer Dave Ragland also says he has “greatly enjoyed” taking part in the program.
“My mentor [Michael Ching] has been an immense help and sage guide,” Ragland says. “I’m honored to be ingrained in a class of such ambitious, supportive, and talented cohorts.”
As a special feature of the program this year, the Cincinnati Song Initiative is commissioning a song from each of the composer mentees in the inaugural year. These songs will be produced in a video recording and premiered as CSI’s season finale concert titled “Let it Be New” on May 16.
“Now, more than ever, we must amplify diverse voices that have always been among us but stifled by deeply rooted systems and biases,” says Samuel Martin of Cincinnati Song Initiative. “CSI is honored to provide this group of commissions, creating tangible opportunities that will contribute to a growing body of American song repertoire reflective of this country’s true strength — its diversity.”
NATS has plans to continue this program in the coming years. More information on this year’s program is available here. The application for the 2021-22 Mentoring Program will be forthcoming.
The 2020-2021 mentees (in alpha order)
Mason Bynes, Boston, MA
Jerrell Gray, Baton Rouge, LA
Jens Ibsen, Pacifica, CA
Quinn Mason, Dallas, TX
Lauren McCall, Lawrenceville, GA
James Morris, Westminster, CO
Dave Ragland, Nashville, TN
Del’Shawn Taylor, South Bend, IN
Maria Thompson Corley, Lancaster, PA
Khyle Wooten, Tallahassee, FL