Dr. Lori Hicks sees herself in the budding musicians she teaches at Claflin University. Just a few moments in a vocal lesson class and you can feel the connection. Her drive is their drive. Her expertise is influencing the way they learn to become singers. Her experience as a professional opera singer is providing them with proof that success in the field is possible.
When she came to Claflin, Hicks brought with her a passion for teaching and exposing music students to opera and students have responded with great enthusiasm by participating in productions on campus and by introducing the community to the genre as well. A member of the National Association of Teachers of Singers (NATS), Hicks has taken students to compete in a competition sponsored by the organization for the past four years. Students compete against the top vocal programs in the state and region. Each year Claflin, the only HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities) competing at the event, has been among the best. This year, eight students placed at the state level and advanced to the regional competition and three students placed in the top three in their categories.
“This competition prepares them for future auditions, graduate school auditions, vocal school auditions, job auditions,” Hicks said. “It is also great for recruiting for our music program. Our students get the opportunity to meet other singers and build a presence in the singing community. They get to hear recitals, new music and are exposed to a different repertoire.”
With scores of 25 or better out of 30 points, Pamela Nions, Rod Hines, Corinthia Sims, Dorian Dillard, LaQuentin Jenkins, Lia Holman, Desmond Williams and Antonio Riley advanced to the regional competition. Claflin sophomores Nions and Sims went on to place first and third in the sophomore women’s group, respectively, and Hines placed second among junior men out of more than 300 competitors.
“I believe it is an important part of a music student’s education to experience friendly competition among fellow students from other institutions,” said Department of Music Chair Dr. Isaiah McGee. “It is not about winning or losing, but a way for students to assess where they are in their development based on the expertise of those who are in the profession.”
The success Claflin students have made is confirmation that legitimate opera singers are being trained here to successfully compete with the best in the field. Opera has taken root at Claflin, led by students who have found an indelible passion for it.
Nions’ face literally lights up when she talks about singing. It’s a path she secretly longed for, but never truly envisioned for herself. “I was a kitchen singer,” she quipped, explaining that she was an instrumentalist and didn’t really start singing until she came to Claflin.
“I never performed in public,” she said. “I was Aunt Em in The Wiz in high school. I play clarinet, saxophone, French horn and trumpet…I loved band. It taught me discipline and how to learn music, but I wasn’t happy. I wanted to sing”
Nions had full scholarships to several universities as an instrumentalist. She only came to Claflin to support a friend at her audition. On the spot, Claflin offered her the opportunity to do the one thing she really wanted to do – sing.
“I came to South Carolina to go to Benedict,” the Inkster, Mich. native said. “I was just at Claflin to support a friend. I was sitting outside and decided to come in. They asked me if I sing and offered me a scholarship.”
NATS has a chapter in every state and each year voice teachers come together to have competitions for students. Each teacher is allowed to bring 10 students. Claflin entered 18 students under Hicks and Dr. Taylor Johnson. Schools competing on the state level included the University of South Carolina, Converse College, Bob Jones University and Charleston Southern University. Regional competitors included schools from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina. Students were required to sing both arias and art songs in at least two languages other than English.
Nions competed in the NATS competition last year and her scores were one point shy of qualifying. This year, she said the experience of winning was validating for her and confirmed that she is on the right path.
“I went freshman year and didn’t place; this year winning is a good feeling,” she said. “It’s unexpected. I’m very surprised. After singing two judges approached me. One of them said I’m a very charming person and I have the look to be a performer. She said my future is very bright. The other said there were good singers competing and I should celebrate. He said ‘start preparing for the Met (Metropolitan Opera House.)’”
Nions’ exposure to competitions like NATS and operatic performers has motivated her to be serious in her pursuit of a career as an opera singer. The one-time instrumentalist who quietly aspired to be a neo soul artist is now completely immersed in opera and at home on stage.
“Since coming to Claflin I saw Denise Graves in concert and I saw myself doing that. Now I want to be a classical performer. I want to go to the Met,” she said. “I wasn’t going to come here…It has to be a calling. I love being on stage. I had stage fright. Now I’ve become the person I want to be off stage. I hold my head up, will look you in your eyes and tell you what I’m feeling. I practice all the time. I am serious about this. If it’s in God’s will for me to do it, I am going to do it.”
There is a seriousness about Rod Hines that is well beyond his years. A conscientious person, Hines not only works tirelessly to perfect his craft, but also understands the challenging road he will travel. An aspiring journalist in high school, Hines joined the choir in the tenth grade. It was then that he came across some opera recordings and was hooked. The opportunity to attend Claflin came out of nowhere, he said, and at the last minute.
“The concert choir came to perform at my school,” the Detroit, Mich. native said. “I met Dr. Hicks who was an alumna of my high school and felt like it was the right thing to do. I am happy I made that decision.”
This was Hines’ third year competing in the NATS competition. This year was different, he said, and he had to work hard to stand out even more.
“We were the only black school there so I felt I had to represent super hard for my university,” he said. “At regionals it was interesting to see how people viewed us. Then to have three of us place was a surprise -- not a surprise to me but to the other competitors. It made me feel proud to compete with the majority and come out on top. I deserved to be there.”
Hines said he has a strong drive to strive for perfection to realize his dream of becoming an opera singer. That means average is not an option, he said. He has to be better than the best and able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the top performers in the industry.
“At regionals, to be able to sing among students my age I knew I was going to be competitive,” he said. “I am happy to know I’m at a high level. Being a minority gives me a strong drive to work harder and to dig deeper. When I came to Claflin, I knew Dr. Hicks would whip me into shape. I knew she would be extremely helpful in my growth and foster my full potential. It’s tough to be black and young in this business, but you have to go beyond and raise your own bars. You have to do what is asked of you and more.”
Hines is also a peer tutor and a student conductor for the Claflin University Concert Choir. Singing gives him joy, he said, and he plans to make it more than a career.
“I’m at home on stage and I love to sing and share my world,” he said. “I love concert performing and singing opera. It gives you that connection and the joy, which is what it’s all about for me.”
“I have been singing since I was two years old,” Corinthia Sims said matter-of-factly. “My mom, dad and siblings are all singers. By the time I was in the 11th grade, I was singing arias I shouldn’t have been able to sing.”
Sims has long been competing against top performers at the national level and she has come away with first place wins on many occasions. She won the George Shirley Aria and Black Art Song Competition for high school students and the NAACP’s Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) competition. However, for Sims, competing at NATS and finishing third was a different kind of learning experience.
“I learned that everybody is not going to love your voice,” she said. “You never know what they are looking for. My voice is a very big instrument for someone my age and classification. It is intimidating.”
Another Michigan student, Sims was lured to Claflin by Dr. Hicks who saw her at the George Shirley competition. Her singing roots are in gospel and she, too, played instruments and thought that would be her path. She joined her high school concert choir and became interested in classical music. Sims wants to be an opera singer on the level of her role model Leontyne Price, she said. However, she didn’t realize how hard the academic training would be.
“I didn’t know I had this in me,” she said. “I think I could inspire someone else to love what I do. It’s a beautiful thing, a unique talent. And it’s hard work. I never knew I had to take all of these classes. I know if I want to pursue this dream, I have to do this. I have been told I am going to be a renowned opera singer. I push myself because this is what I really love.”
Even with her enormous talent, experience with winning and being among the best, Sims understands that there is still much to learn. While she embraces her confidence, she humbly describes her talent as a gift from God and knows it will lead her to the fulfillment of her dream.
“I hope to be an opera singer,” she said. “I don’t know what God is going to do in my life. I transferred from gospel to classical, am learning new techniques – it’s all so exciting. It will be a challenge but I thank God. I believe this is going to be me.”