“I’m not feeling the high note now,” says Karsten George, shaking his head while rehearsing at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall one late-May afternoon.
He’s singing a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and he isn’t quite nailing the top note. His soprano voice is starting to change. He’s 13 and just completed seventh grade at All Saints School in Portland.
“Spin, sing, spin. Take a big rest before the note, then spin, spin, spin,” says Matthew Hayward, Karsten’s voice teacher and co-founder with opera singer Angela Niederloh of Portland’s VOXnorthwest Voice Studio. (Later, Hayward explains through email that “singing is all about the breath and how we use the breath to support the sound. ‘Spin spin spin’ means moving more air at a faster rate through the vocal apparatus, and that helps with freeing the note and letting the body relax.”)
Hayward, a lyric baritone when he’s performing and not teaching, moves away from the piano, sits down with Karsten, and encourages him to relax and reach for notes in Sondheim’s demanding “Not While I’m Around,” which none other than a boy’s pure soprano voice on the verge of maturing can properly render. Karsten loves the song and will perform it at a concert on June 30, the culmination of an intensive classical-music performing camp for kids June 25-30 at PSU. Debuti camp grew out of VOXnorthwest Voice Studio, and several of its students, including Karsten, will participate. For the camp, three theater, dance and music faculty members will teach alongside Hayward and Niederloh.
The hour-long VOXnorthwest concert begins at 7 p.m. Saturday at PSU’s 220-seat Lincoln Hall Recital Hall, where students will present excerpts from Carmen, La Traviata, Sweeney Todd, Magic Flute, West Side Story, The Mikado, among others. There is no charge for tickets.
When Hayward uses phrases like “spin, spin spin,” Karsten understands. He’s been taking weekly lessons for a year from Hayward and likes the way Hayward approaches music. He calls his teacher “serious with the right amount of goofiness. Matt teaches singing techniques through fun exercises and allows me to sing songs from interesting musicals with interesting characters.”
Karsten has performed a number of musical and theatrical roles around Portland. He’s sung in Portland Opera productions and in Pacific Youth Choir and Portland Boychoir. Whether soloing or harmonizing, he wants to become a better all-around singer than he is — and to be able to pour out the classical and classic tunes with ease.
Hayward and Niederloh, who sang Marthe in Portland Opera’s recent Faust and has sung scores of other roles in her 20 years of performing, started VOXnorthwest in 2010. Married to one another as well as to opera, they are all about teaching classical-music singing and performance. Other than private lessons, no other group or organization addresses classical music voice-training in Portland. Sure, there are children’s theaters and children’s choirs and children’s orchestras, but not children’s or youth classical-voice training centers.
Not that VOXnorthwest is only for kids. Both Hayward and Niederloh coach college students and adults, too.
“There’s a real need for it,” says Niederloh, who alternates with Hayward on the piano while working with another student, Lily Mozipo, 17. With training, young people “can enter into the classical realm and have some experience when they go to college. We are providing a kind of recipe. How do you prepare a scene, a solo? How do you learn a language for the opera or other classical music?”
The recipe has worked. Since 2010, about a dozen of VOXnorthwest students have gone on to prestigious schools and programs for further classical training, including Royal Conservatory of Scotland, Vienna Summer Music Festival, Boston Conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory, Eastman School of Music, Indiana University-Jacobs School of Music, and more.
Love, opera style
Hayward and Niederloh met in 2002 at Aspen Music Festival and School’s “opera camp.” He was performing in Street Scene and she in Gloria, A Pig Tale. They didn’t see each other again for eight years until they met up on Facebook. Their longtime mutual crush turned into marriage.
Hayward left the East Coast to join Niederloh in Portland, where she was singing in operas and teaching voice at PSU and at Pacific University in Forest Grove. Trained at New England Conservatory and raised in Seattle, Hayward was happy to return to the Northwest. He was hired for a couple of gigs with the Portland Opera right away, landing baritone roles in a Ravel double-bill and Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei.
As each began performing and teaching more — Hayward teaches at George Fox University in Newberg — they decided to turn their talents to nurturing young singers. VOXnorthwest started several years ago, but has amped up recently with about 30 students. A boost came in 2017 when Hayward and Niederloh were invited to Italy to lead the vocal department for the Summer Music in Tuscany Festival. It was a great success, the kids loved it, and Hayward thought, “Why not do something like that in Portland?”
Hence this first annual VOXnorthwest music camp, which admitted 19 performing- and music-loving kids to practice from 10 a.m to 2 p.m. for a week in late June, culminating in a performance. Cost is $750 for the week. Student Lily Mozipo won the single scholarship offered. If it goes well, there will be more years of camps.
Lily will begin her senior year at Lincoln High School in Portland in the fall and hopes to pursue music in college as part of a double major. During her lesson with Niederloh, whose energy and upbeat coaching she admires, Lily is working on her French for a Carmen solo and Italian for her La Traviata selection. Like Niederloh, who she has studied with since November, she is a mezzo-soprano. She has been singing since sixth grade when she lived in Olympia, Wash., and joined her school choir, then went on to sing in Pacific Youth Choir.
In contrast to choral training, where voices are encouraged to fit together, Niederloh is cultivating Lily’s solo abilities. “Angela has really been helping me by giving me tips on how to make my voice stand out rather than blend in,” Lily says.
For now, the VOXnorthwest teachers and these two students have a musical chemistry and rhythm that will last longer than the upcoming show.
“Kids are like sponges. They’ll try anything. They’ll try a Cockney accent,” Niederloh says, nodding toward Karsten, who tests out this new way of speaking for his upcoming Sweeney Todd role. ”Their energy is infectious.”
VOXnorthwest singers perform at 7 p.m. at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall Recital Hall.