Bennington Stories: Tom Bogdan
Tom Bogdan is a Music faculty member at Bennington College.
Bennington Stories is a series of first-person messages that share voices from throughout the unique and multifaceted Bennington community.
The Universal Language
My parents were immigrants. Growing up, our neighbors were immigrants, generally of the Italian or Polish variety. My parents’ families hailed from Hungary and Romania, respectively.
I grew up in a first-generation family in Jersey City. At home, the only music we had to listen to was Romani-style Hungarian music on our family record player. I loved this music, even if it reminded me of the ways in which I was not like the other kids at school. I also loved the pop of that era: the doo-wop and radio hits of the 50’s and 60’s.
I’ve always been able to sing. As a young aspiring singer, I experienced a sequence of fortuitous developments that impacted my life in dramatic ways. The first occurred when I was only nine years old, when I learned of a men and boys’ choir in New York City that was just across the river from where our family lived. After auditioning, I began journeying into the city twice a week (both my sisters worked there), by ferry and by train. I sang in a fancy Episcopalian choir. It was a bonafide thrill. Finally, I was good at something.
Jump forward to undergrad, and I’m studying English and Drama. I’m still singing, though my voice had since shifted to a tenor. A friend of mine who later became a prestigious opera star suggested that I audition for the Aspen Music Festival. It was 1969. The Festival was holding auditions for sixteen paid singers. I had no Julliard pedigree, but I knew how to sight-read. Better yet, I was a quick study.
It was at the Aspen Music Festival I forged a connection with Adele Addison, who would go on to become my voice teacher. Around this time, I entered the world of classical singing. I joined the Gregg Smith Singers: a choral group that I toured with for seven years. I recorded as a soloist. At the end of 1978, Adele brought something to my attention that had not yet occurred to me: my devotion to my choral work had rendered me too fatigued to audition for other jobs. She told me to give up choral singing for the time being, and I did. I did this because I trusted that Adele, my teacher, was pointing me in the right direction. She turned out to be correct. There is a lot to be said for allowing yourself to be guided by those who are smarter and more experienced than you.
Post-1986, I started putting on cabaret shows in New York. There was this identity that had been prescribed to me by certain journalistic outlets; the idea was that I was exclusively an artist who performed classical music. The truth is, I love music of all kinds. I recall attending a friend’s cabaret show around then, a few blocks from where I lived in Greenwich Village. That was the seed of my initial inspiration. I wanted to be able to sing anything: doo-wop, contemporary material, Broadway tunes. No one was going to label me or put me in a box. I was free.
Around then, I got a call telling me that I needed to audition for someone named Meredith Monk. I was embarrassed to admit that, at the time, I had no idea who Meredith was. Meredith would go on to become a dear friend and an invaluable mentor: someone who instilled in me genuinely innovative ideas and a love of music that only grew deeper during my time at Bennington.
My Bennington experience has been a wonderful one. In many ways, I love teaching even more than I love performing. For me, Bennington is a place where the teachers and the students enjoy mutual freedom of expression, allowing for a more elevated discourse than what one finds at other universities.
My commitment, ultimately, is to my students, and helping them develop a broader understanding of the language of music. Part of that means not being threatened by new ideas. For me, it’s all about expansion and investigation, not clinging to the old ways out of fear.
I try to remember that I am in service to my students. I never want them to become a mirror of me. Unfashionable as it may seem to some, I truly believe that music is integral in uplifting the human spirit. This is something I’ve learned from teaching across the globe, from Budapest to Kyiv to San Paolo and beyond.
Music transports you. It is a universal language. My only job is to teach others how to speak it.
Bennington Faculty, Intermediate & Advanced Voice
Fulbright Grant Recipient