Telling Stories With Song

Duke music students learn to find their emotion during a recent master class with Louise Toppin

Part of the Music, Dance & Performance Series
Louise Toppin, right, gives some advice to Duke music student Natalie Ritchie.
Louise Toppin, right, gives some advice to Duke music student Natalie Ritchie.

Four Duke music students received some world-class advice this week.

They were critiqued by Louise Toppin, a renowned opera soprano and head of voice for the UNC-Chapel Hill music department. Toppin was at Duke for a Nov. 6 master class, part of her residency with the Duke vocal music program.

Accompanied by pianists and Duke professors David Heid, David Cole and Kathryn Lewis, the four students performed works by African-American composers, Toppin's area of scholarly expertise.

Heid, who helped organize the event, said Toppin was an ideal vocalist and teacher to invite to Duke because she is a "rare triple-threat": singer, teacher and scholar.

"In addition to being a world-class performer, Louise is undoubtedly one of the leading experts in vocal music written by African-American composers," Heid said. "She has been responsible for presenting, publishing, recording and championing these long neglected compositions."

Heid added, "She is dedicated to teaching young singers. Frequently wonderful performers are asked to present master classes and yet have limited real-life experience with student artists."

Toppin's feedback ranged from highly technical aspects of their performances to more general pointers, including body language and facial expression. The four students, Natalie Ritchie, Lauren DeLucia, Joyce Okendo and Ivy Zhou, are all sopranos.

"When I think of a song, I not only look at the text, but I also make a story and a character to go along with it," Toppin told Okendo, a fourth-year student who performed Leslie Adams' "Prayer."

Toppin asked the students about their understanding of the songs' backstories. She said a vocalist's job is to convey the story so the audience can engage with the piece.

"We always think about ourselves when we're singing, but I want you to think about what you want the audience to come away with," Toppin said. "Use your body so you can get emotion and energy from it during your performance."

Okendo said Toppin's suggestions and encouragement will help her set goals for the rest of the semester as she perfects "Prayer" for other performances.

"The class gave me a chance to really focus on this piece," Okendo said. "She helped put the song in perspective by emphasizing its emotion."