Who Inspires You? by Dr. Michelle Latour
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
What made YOU decide to pursue singing? Many singers are inspired by someone they admire or who encourages them: a choir director, a voice teacher, or a parent. Others are moved and forever transformed after watching a particular performance or singer.
I was inspired by many wonderful teachers and mentors along the way–Jody Topping, Joy MacIntyre, Margaret Schaper, Mary MacKenzie, and Ann Baltz–but three stood out as being instrumental in helping forge my path.
My initial, and perhaps most influential, inspiration was my high school choir director, Steve Kikigawa. I knew by the time I was 15 that I would pursue classical voice—and, in fact, I even knew that I would one day earn a DMA degree. My parents thought I was crazy, but I stubbornly held my ground. Choir was one of the only parts of my day when I could be myself and immerse myself in music. I wanted to follow that passion and share it with others.
Mr. Kikigawa was an old-school educator (it was the ’80s, after all). The music program at my high school was large, thriving, and highly competitive. Both the bands and choirs competed at numerous festivals. Members of the music program took their commitment fairly seriously, and so did Mr. Kikigawa. If we sang out of tune or were not paying attention, he would throw a fit, yell loudly, and maybe even throw a chair or two across the room. That behavior certainly did not inspire me, but I did take my participation in choir as significant. Mr. Kikigawa inspired us, not because he threw chairs, but because he believed in us and pushed us to do our best. He set an incredibly high standard of excellence that we gladly strove to meet. I started taking voice lessons, practiced my choir music outside of school, and eagerly auditioned for every solo.
In college I gained a completely different kind of inspiration from my voice teacher, California State University–Fresno Professor Emeriti Helene Joseph-Weil. She was very passionate about and committed to music, and it is from her that I learned to be an advocate for my students. My friends and I were in awe of the level of her commitment. She was from San José, and when she accepted her teaching position at Fresno State, her husband was a clarinetist for the San José Symphony. She lived a dual life, as many musicians do, residing in Fresno Monday through Thursday, and then commuting the two and a half hours home to San José on the weekends to be with her family.
She continued to do this for several decades. I was inspired by the level of sacrifice she was willing to make for her career and family. I also gained an appreciation of all kinds of repertoire, from standard to obscure. She gave us ownership of our music. If someone was singing “O mio babbino caro,” for instance, then that aria was off limits to the rest of us until that student graduated. I appreciated that Professor Weil took much time and care in assigning us repertoire that truly suited our individual voices. It is a standard I have tried to maintain with my students.
My next source of inspiration came from another voice teacher, Peggy Sears. Like many young singers, after completing my master’s of music degree, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I was burnt out after completing two degrees in six years while also holding down numerous jobs. I was still very young at 23, and my voice was not ready for professional-level singing. I moved back home, with my tail between my legs, and lived with my parents. I had no interest in music or singing until I met Peggy. She was teaching at a local community college because her husband, Ron Kean, had recently accepted a full-time position as the choir director at the same college.
My parents had met Peggy prior to my move home, and several months after moping around the house, my mom suggested I contact her. I resisted for several more months as I ruminated over my life, my future, and my options. Eventually I decided to give singing a try again, as I was more miserable without music in my life, and I contacted Peggy. She was the perfect teacher for me at the right time in my life. She motivated me beyond belief, and my voice finally opened up. Lessons were never the same again.
Peggy had a very creative and open-minded approach to building technique, and we explored the best fit for my voice. For the first time in my life, I was highly motivated to practice all the time. I was back on track again and was more focused than ever about my musical path. It is due to Peggy that I went back to school to pursue my DMA degree at the University of Southern California.
Now I am inspired and motivated by my students. I learn something from them every day that I teach. Teaching is a combination of my collective experiences—performing, academic coursework, summer programs, and voice lessons. I still use information gathered from my primary teachers, and I always inwardly smile when I hear myself saying, “How you breathe is how you sing,” a staple of Professor Weil’s teaching. It is a constant honor and inspiration to carry on this time-honored tradition.