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Where words fail, music speaks.
—Hans Christian Andersen
I feel like the Department of English at Arizona State University has become my second home. I not only work in the department, but I also completed my bachelor’s in English (literature) here and very recently, my master’s in TESOL. It is plain to see I love all things English. Beyond that though, I have a double life in music.
I have played instruments since I was four years old. Both of my parents are musicians so it made sense, but I just didn’t realize how much it would impact my life! I have grown a lot as a musician over the years, picking up many different instruments along the way, and it is a passion in which I don’t plan to ever stop participating. Not only do I want to use music when teaching English, but I also love performing. I am currently in a swing band called the Maestros of Swing where I play tenor saxophone and clarinet with my mom, brother and a fun group of other jump, jive an’ wailin’ musicians.
I was curious whether there were other people in the department who led musical double lives like me. I was happy to find there are many other music lovers out there! So, who are they? Well, let’s find out more!
“Why music? Because it expresses emotions and connects people in ways that language cannot touch. There is a powerful truth in music that transcends time and space to speak to us,” explained Juliet Wilkins, a fifth year PhD student at ASU focusing on early modern drama who is also a professional opera singer. Although Wilkins does not come from a musical family, she started singing and performing in front of people when she was only six years old. It was her high school choir teacher, GayLin Tutnick, who first told Wilkins that she had the potential to sing opera. A decade later, Wilkins agreed with her.
Wilkins is considered a lyric soprano singer rather than a dramatic soprano. “I’m a Mozart/Puccini soprano, not a Wagner soprano because my voice is lighter. I tend to stay away from most Verdi music, because as everyone knows Verdi is a gateway composer to Wagner and before you know it I’d be going around wearing those hats with the horns on them,” Wilkins laughed. Her dream opera role is Mimi in La bohème. “Puccini’s music will break your heart every single time. The idea of everything being better in the spring is a beautiful expression of hope.” She also plays the flute, which she jokes is the same range as her voice.
Wilkins has performed in many productions. “I typically play the role of the maid rather than the fine lady, which is fun. I’ve worked on roles like Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Baby Doe in The Ballad of Baby Doe.” One of her favorite roles was starring as Cat Girl in Droppin’ Johns, a powerful work by Ilana Lydia, a local playwright. She was able to bring out her inner superhero for the role. Her favorite vocal performance was singing Monica in The Medium. “It was one of those out-of-body experiences where I was finally able to just let go and allow the music to soar and speak for me.”
Wilkins is in various performing groups. “Besides recitals for my voice studio, I keep in practice by taking the "Broadway Solos" class at either Mesa or Chandler Gilbert Community College, so you’ll see me singing at the end of the semester concert during the spring semester.” She also became a part of an acapella group called Basic Pitches. Their performance schedule should be available soon. She participates with the Music Makers group at Mayo Clinic and had a music design for The Graduate at Mesa Encore Theater which opened in January. Wilkins advice for anyone wanting to get involved in singing is to think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. “Allow yourself to be vulnerable and use the music you sing to tell your story… learn to love your voice for what it is rather than for what it isn’t. There’s something beautiful about the music that the human voice can create, and each voice is unique.”
“It has always been in my DNA to be a musician,” stated Richard Hart, an instructor in ASU’s Department of English and professional musician. “Even though there wasn’t a lot of music in my house, there was music in me.” Hart recalled a story about some old wallpaper: “I remember I was looking at it, not the yellow wallpaper,” he chuckled, “but wallpaper and I was making up melodies. My mother gasped and I asked why. She said it was because that wallpaper was in the other house we had lived in when I was an infant. And what I had deemed to be my bed must have been my crib looking at this wallpaper. So, music was always in me.”
Hart has written, produced and performed all of his own songs. They can be heard on his website including some live tracks. “The live tracks on my website were from when I travel to New York and play with the band The Okays. I come out as a guest. Those are my favorite performances.” Hart replied. Although Hart does not currently perform professionally, he still enjoys writing and producing.
The songs on his website have all been produced by Hart. The images and videos that are included with the songs are found by him and pieced together. He invests a great deal of time in finding the right footage for each song. Hart primarily plays the guitar, but also plays the keyboard in his recordings. Other instruments in the songs are recorded separately by friends of Hart. He then mixes and produces them, a passionate part of the process he loves doing.
Hart’s favorite musician is Bruce Hornsby. “There was a time when I became a nerd to music. I felt like I had heard it all before, and then I rediscovered Bruce. The music is so eclectic. It is not genre specific —that’s what I don’t like about music—as every genre of music would be played out even in one song.” Hart’s advice to aspiring musicians is to watch YouTube videos, much like John Mayer did, to help one learn. “Today it is much better than it was for me. When I wasn’t old enough to get into the clubs, I couldn’t watch the players until I was older.” Hart continued by arguing for people to also learn to read music, “I don’t read music… I was always sort of a rebel at heart and didn’t understand that was something not to rebel against.”
"I started playing guitar when I was thirteen because I wanted to learn songs by the Stones, the Beatles, and Cream, and to play like Richards, Harrison, and Clapton," stated Taylor Corse, an associate professor in the English department and an avid guitar player. Corse performs all sorts of music, particularly that of classical, jazz, rock and improvisation. He also plays the piano and the ukulele, and would really like to learn the cello.
Corse’s favorite performance was doing a two-hour gig for a neighborhood fund-raising event in Tempe. “It was fun playing outside on a pleasant fall evening,” he commented. Corse usually plays duets with two different partners at local venues, especially at community events, neighborhood associations, and the Episcopal Church in Mesa.
“One of my favorite artists is Sergio Assad, a brilliant Brazilian composer and performer,” Corse said. He particularly loves the guitar duets of Sergio and Odair Assad and their arrangements of Astor Piazzola. “A few years ago, I heard them perform with Yo-Yo Ma at the Mesa Arts Center.”
Corse continued, “Playing guitar is a good way to connect with other people because there are so many fine guitarists out there.” His advice to aspiring musicians is to find a good local instructor. Speaking from personal experience, I agree with him. I know private music lessons are truly a musician’s best friend. Especially when you are just starting out.
“My mom says I’ve been singing before I could talk! I knew all the words to the Little Mermaid’s ‘Part of Your World’ before I could even string together a sentence,” said Aimee Little, an instructor in ASU’s Department of English and professional singer. “She put me into singing, dancing, and acting classes right away and I’ve been performing ever since.” Now Little with her husband David can be heard singing and dancing at venues around the valley. They usually have a yearly recital in May at the First United Methodist Church on Tempe campus and Little also performs with Enchanted Entertainment as a singing, dancing, and face-painting princess.
One of Little’s favorite performances was singing for the Legacy Retirement Residence in Mesa. Not only do they carefully select the set lists from classic 40s and 50s songs, but when singing for the dementia ward one day, they saw something extraordinary. “We noticed that the residents were singing along with us—they could remember every word! We were touched by how powerful and healing music is.”
In the video, the duo is singing a classical opera piece by Rossini titled “Duetto Buffo Di Due Gatti,” which translates to “Funny Cats' Duet” in English. “David and I like to find songs that are really unusual. So when we found this song we knew it was perfect! David especially appreciated that the only Italian he had to learn was miau.”
Little hopes to one day perform in the Orpheum as she enjoys performing in historic theaters. Her advice to those who are interested in learning how to sing is to, “Just do it! Make music wherever you can—in your home, your church, your community. If you really want to learn proper technique, seek out a teacher in your area…AND PRACTICE!” Little and her husband have two dogs, Bella and Captain Janeway, and are expecting a baby boy in March 2018.
The talent in this department is extraordinary! I think it is safe to say we could have a really rockin' jam session with all the fantastic musicians. I’m happy to know that I am not the only music-loving, English-enthused person here, and chances are there are many more.
Image 1: Photo of Kira Assad with her clarinet and saxophone by Jessica Houlihan.
Image 2: Soprano Juliet Wilkins sings an aria. Courtesy photo.
Image 3: Richard Hart's first love was music. Courtesy photo.
Image 4: Taylor Corse plays classical guitar for the Department of English's art gallery reception in 2013. Photo by Bruce Matsunaga.
Video: Taylor Corse plays a composition titled "Simply Samba." Courtesy video.
Image 5: Aimee Little performs with husband David. Courtesy photo.
Image 6: The Maestros of Swing perform a December concert. Assad is at the far left of the semi-circle. Photo courtesy Kira Assad.