TWYLA ROBINSON: Teaching Professionals at Fall Island

TWYLA ROBINSON: Teaching Professionals at Fall Island

I had seen posts about the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar on Facebook, since I follow as many art song pages as I can find, and I remember thinking, “What a cool thing for emerging professionals, to get to work with Stephanie Blythe and Alan Louis Smith on American Art Song!”

It seems to be a natural part of the progression to focus only on operatic work at that point in a young singer’s life, since auditions consume such a large part of their time. It’s easy to ignore other genres like song and chamber music, and to become uncomfortable with them due to the sheer lack of regular exposure. The intimacy of it. The bareness. The searching poetry, with no costume or character to hide behind as we grapple with musical iterations of large and pointed ideas. For all these reasons, I thought it was something I should investigate for my students. So, I clicked.

I did not expect to find a place for myself. I didn’t know I would find a page called “Repertoire Development for Teaching Professionals.” Hm. I clicked again.

The website states:

Participants will have the opportunity to perform music of living American composers in a masterclass with Stephanie Blythe and Alan Smith and participate in a special Q&A session with them. The program also involves observing Fellowship Artist Masterclasses led by Stephanie Blythe and Alan Smith, performing in a public Lecture Recital led by Dr. Gary Busch, and participating in other group activities.

Ok. I know a lot of living American composers. I have a nice collection of things that are unpublished. Perhaps I can bring that. A masterclass? Good gravy, I haven’t sung on a masterclass in what feels like a million years, what would it be like to be on the other side of the table again? I’m in my first year at a new school, it’s only January and I’m already tired: the first year after a job change is always hard. Do I really need to add another thing to my plate? Thus, the internal argument started:

“It’s Stephanie Blythe. You love her.”

“But it’s in May. Who knows what shape you’re going to be in by the time this semester is over?”

“Upstate New York is lovely that time of year.”

“But you’re going to be standing up in a masterclass across from someone your exact same age. How weird would that be?”

“You may find new repertoire both for you and your students.”

“But everyone there is going to be younger than me, and I won’t really fit.”

“When was the last time you did something big, beyond a museum trip or attending a performance, simply for the good of your artistic soul? Not for a gig, not for a performance, not for your stupid CV?”


That’s where the answers stopped. I couldn’t remember.

“Twyla, your bucket of inspiration is empty.”

Click. Fill out the app. Get accepted. Write the check. Here we go.

May came, and yes, I was tired. I had a good song to present, I hoped they’d like it, and in the meantime, I’d found out the lecture recital by Dr. Gary Busch was on American popular song from 1890-1940ish. I’d been concertizing that rep for years. What a joy to find other people who love this repertoire, and what an honor to sing it on a concert with someone so knowledgeable about it!

Tired, excited, and a little nervous, I constantly reminded myself that this is not an audition, it’s not a young artist program, I have nothing to prove, and that I’m going to do this because my soul needs it. My flight was delayed getting there of course, so I arrived with minutes to spare before our first activity.

Poetry reading. We had been asked to bring a poem to share in spoken word. The other “RepDevs” were there (a hashtag bestowed on the Teaching Professionals by the Fellows), and there were four of us, three singers and a pianist. Stephanie Blythe was there. I met Alan Louis Smith for the first time. Then there are the Fellows.

What a group of people, these Fellows. All emerging artists who were well-rounded enough to be intensely dedicated to song, and not just the next big role. The energy in that room was incredible. We all shared poems. The evening was an intense and incredible kickoff to the next few days.

I had expected to participate in this program to watch other teachers. I had expected to share repertoire ideas with the other RepDevs for our students. I had expected us to have the time to dive deep into texts, and truly find a way to represent that text musically, and to watch Stephanie and Alan gently guide these hungry young artists through that.

What I didn’t expect was to have my heart broken by a poem and then mended again and again, simply because Stephanie and Alan helped the Fellows reveal its different facets. I didn’t expect to ache in my bones over some incredible color a young pianist could achieve through Alan’s guidance. I didn’t expect for that process to be so deeply rejuvenating. To watch compassion in action as the Fellows carved, sometimes painfully, deeper and deeper into their art was a humbling thing. To witness that process for days and then submit myself to it was exhilarating and terrifying.

As I stood up in masterclass, I looked out at the young faces I’d been watching through the week. I felt the pressure of needing to somehow stand up to the title of TEACHER. As I looked across the table at my beloved colleague Stephanie and new friend Alan, I said, “This is weird.” Stephanie said, “yes, it is.”

And then we got to work. All remaining doubt faded away.

I will never forget this experience for as long as I live. Thank you to Stephanie, Alan, and the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar, for everything.


-Twyla Robinson is the new Coordinator for the Repertoire Development course for Teaching Artists at the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar. Registration opens Feb. 1st and continues until March 1st. More information and the application can be found HERE.