Eight Questions with New Music Faculty Member Virginia Kelsey
Virginia Kelsey is a mezzo-soprano trained in the Western classical tradition and an original member of the Grammy© Award-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, an alternative-classical vocal band.
As she begins as a new faculty member in the fall of 2023, she is most interested in using Bennington’s unique educational model to explore yet unknown reaches of the human voice.
So you’ve been teaching on the West Coast. Did a desire to return to the east factor into your decision to come to Bennington?
Virginia: Absolutely. Before the pandemic, I traveled full time, so I was actually always on the road touring and rarely home. My permanent home is in Connecticut, and my husband and my family are all there. So, since I took this job out in California, I've been doing the bicoastal thing, which was favorable to touring full time but still kept me away from home for most of the year. My position at University of the Pacific was a really wonderful first appointment, and it helped me gain more experience teaching so that I could get a job closer to home at a place like Bennington. Now, after more than a decade of spending the majority of my time away from home, I finally get to ground myself and actually live in my house with my husband!
How did you learn about the position at Bennington, and what were your first impressions?
Virginia: I found the posting for this position on higheredjobs.com. I got really excited because I'm very familiar with Southern Vermont and Northwestern Massachusetts. I do a residency at Mass MoCA every summer and have for 15 years. I've done a lot of guest teaching at Williams College over the years, and I know several Bennington alumni and people who have worked at Bennington. So I know Bennington is this place where ‘weird’ is really embraced and where all of the arts are held in really high esteem. It's a liberal arts school, but to have the visual and performing arts be viewed as equal to the rest of the liberal arts… It's a really, really special thing. I knew it as this absolutely beautiful, special place where all the weird people go and teach, and I was very, very excited to be a part of that. And then, when I showed up on campus, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh… I’ve found my people.’ I felt very, very at home and instantly felt connected to the culture of the college. I'm very happy that Bennington chose me.
You have an office in Jennings. That building always provokes a lot of excitement. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Virginia: Well, I am so excited for the view. I went and visited my office a couple of weeks ago. I came to campus just to reorient myself and look at it with fresh eyes as a new employee. I am just blown away by that view. I call myself a wannabe naturalist, and my biggest passion outside of music is nature. And so being able to spend time on that campus with those surroundings—the mountains and the beautiful woods and the wildflowers—I'm really excited about that. And that building is so beautiful. It's those beautiful bay windows in the back of the building. I mean, it's like a dream to be working there.
How is Bennington different from the other places that you've taught so far?
Virginia: I've been teaching at a music conservatory that's part of a university. So music is the focus, mostly Western classical music. As a voice teacher, I mostly taught traditional Western classical musical philosophies. But my whole career extends beyond that. I'm really into global vocal music and non-traditional ways of using the voice and viewing all styles of singing as being of equal artistic and cultural value, which is not something you find in a lot of very traditional music programs.
And I think what Bennington was looking for and how I was looking to take the next step of my teaching career met in a similar space. I have a classical background. I went to a music conservatory for my undergraduate studies. I went to Yale School of Music for my master's, which is basically a conservatory environment. At Bennington, I'm excited to get to teach the way I wish I was taught.
The expressive potential of the human voice is limitless, and we're capable of making so many sounds that are beautiful and expressive and moving and therapeutic. There’s no one right way to sing. And I think that a liberal arts environment is a really wonderful way to explore that, because you're not dealing with the same kinds of end goals as you would be in a “Music Conservatory,” where it's hyper focused on one thing. Most of the students that I've been working with here are like, ‘I'm going to be an opera singer. That is my one track.’ And then there's a lot of voice teachers out there that say there's one one healthy way to sing. That’s not my philosophy. If you've heard Roomful of Teeth, we sing a thousand ways. I think a liberal arts environment is a really wonderful place to be able to explore that.
You know that Bennington is known for its faculty practitioners. How do you expect to marry your practice with the teaching?
Virginia: I maintain an active performing life, working around teaching as best as I'm able. I sing with Roomful of Teeth. Brad Wells, our founder, who is now newly retired from Williams, asked me back in the fall of 2019 to start thinking up an educational program for a Roomful of Teeth and to build the educational element of what we do. But we all know what happened in early 2020. Now, being at Bennington, it just seems like the perfect fit. I really want to turn Bennington into Roomful of Teeth's academic home and have a regular series where we bring in members of our team to come and work with some of our students. Kerry Ryer-Parke, the other voice faculty member, and I are really excited to build it out together.
It seems like you expect to enjoy your co-faculty members.
Virginia: Yes. Voice faculties in music schools are often siloed. They each have their own studios with their studio culture, and voice teachers can be very territorial and competitive. (Thankfully, that has not been the case where I've been teaching. At the University of the Pacific, the voice faculty works really well together.) That being said, I love the setup of the voice curriculum at Bennington. I love how students are encouraged to study with different teachers over the course of their time, how there are group voice classes, and how they encourage anybody who wants to take voice. They've really tried to make it accessible to everybody. So I think the faculty is just indicative of this, this warm, open, welcoming culture surrounding the voice at Bennington. That really is rare.
How do you expect your classes will overlap with other areas of study?
Virginia: The singing voice is a microcosm of the liberal arts, because we’re not simply studying music and technique. We’re dealing with history and culture, language and linguistics, psychology and physiology, theater and the study of the self. I’m very interested in finding innovative ways to create direct connections between the study of singing and other disciplines.
There's this narrative at most music programs where Western classical music is the ‘meat and potatoes’ of what you study, but in reality it's actually a very small part in the greater context of music of the world. If you look up “Classical Music” on google or wikipedia, it only brings up Western classical music, which paints just too small a picture of what classical music is. Korea has a beautiful classical vocal music tradition called P’ansori. India has beautiful Hindustani classical music. In Iran, they have Persian classical music. And this doesn’t even begin to cover all of the rich folk music traditions spanning the globe!
Meanwhile, Western classical music really only spans the last 1,000 years, but people have been making music for hundreds of thousands of years. So I prefer to look at Western classical music as just part of a much greater whole.
Tell us about the classes you will be teaching this fall.
Virginia: Yes. I will be teaching a voice intensive, which is an advanced course. It prioritizes students who have voice as part of their plan. Students who are enrolled receive an hour of individual voice lessons per week. There's also a class element, where Kerry’s individual students and my individual students all get together for a couple of hours a week.
I am also teaching intermediate voice. Rather than getting an hour of individual lesson time a week, we'll work on the fundamentals of healthy singing and work on repertoire in a group environment. Students can see each other work. They can learn how to open their ears to techniques that maybe I wouldn't be working with them on specifically.
Each singer is unique. Teaching voice is actually quite diagnostic in nature, because everyone has very different physiology. The human voice is as divergent as our appearance, and because of this, no voice works quite the same way. So it's interesting for students to be able to see the teacher work with other students. It helps them to tune their ears and physically and artistically sympathize with other humans who are endeavoring to make art in tandem with them.
In a conservatory setting, I would be expected to teach lyric diction, where we learn how to pronounce the most common sung languages—Italian, German, and French—as it pertains to legato singing, or opera history, or vocal literature classes. It's all very prescribed. But at Bennington, I can teach whatever I want, and that is both exciting and challenging.
Kelsey is an original member of the critically acclaimed Grammy© Award-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. She has served as a soloist with several groups, including the Boston Early Music Festival Opera, San Francisco Symphony, and San Francisco Opera among several others and has taught at more than seventy institutions of higher learning, including Princeton University, Yale University, and Williams College. Kelsey received her Bachelor of Music in Opera Performance from Manhattan School of Music and a Master’s Degree with Honors in Early Music, Oratorio, and Chamber Music from the Yale School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University.