Faith leads vocalist through studies of her craft

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 21, 2016

By Morgan Mizell

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — The feeling of peace and her ability to be of service through her craft is what keeps 25 year old Ann Gabrielle Richardson going as she enters her second year of doctoral studies in vocal performance and pedagogy at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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A native of Rodney, Richardson considered many careers before setting her sights on the path of vocal performance.

“Growing up, I briefly entertained thoughts becoming a dentist, veterinarian, concert pianist and soldier,” Richardson said. “My key dream was that of becoming an Olympic-level equestrian. You never know, maybe I’ll find a way to integrate opera and rodeo.”

Richardson said she looks at vocal performance as less of a career and more of an inner vocation and way of life. It is one she said would not be possible for her to have continued if she had not developed a closer relationship with Christ.

At 3 years old, Richardson began studying the piano. She began private voice lessons at 15 and continued until she graduated home school. Her bachelor’s degree was obtained at Millsaps College in Jackson and her master’s and eventual doctoral degrees at USM.

“Music has always been an integral and natural part of the holistic me as laughter, speech and breathing,” Richardson said. “I have never once considered living my life without a deep attachment to music, any more than I could imagine living without an attachment to horses, or to love, or to family or to Christ.”

Numerous highlights may come from a life focused on vocal performance, but Richardson said there are several factors which usually deter people from pursuing the craft as a career.

“Unless you teach, there is no retirement, and unless you join a union, there are no benefits,” Richardson said. “You will spend hours on the road and in airports, and most of the year you will work 14-hour days, six days a week.”

Many people will face psychological dilemmas as they question their abilities and their talent, Richardson said.

“It is mentally and physically a truly difficult career,” she said. “Many nights I have gotten home after a trying day and asked aloud, through tears, ‘God, is this right?’”

While she still has second thoughts, Richardson says her ability to keep going comes from the unquestionable, unshakeable and unarguable peace singing brings to her heart.

“I was born with a very particular charge from the Holy Spirit, and with that charge comes incredible responsibility,” Richardson said. “Through this craft, I can heal, help, love, provide beauty, lift spirits, bring peace, be a messenger, be a healthy role model, ease sorrow, comfort, inspire, exemplify grace and kindness, commentate and participate in social dialogue.”

To measure success, Richardson said she feels it is important for each person to decide that individually. For Richardson, her focus is not on materialism, but on how she can serve others with her craft. This thought brings her peace and for her, no doubt can stand up to that reward.

“My goal at the end of the day is to be a good person, first, and a good singer, second,” Richardson said. “Success for me as a singer is built entirely on personal integrity and vocal honesty. Sure, I want nice things and to travel, but if I can stay true to myself, do the best I can with what I can, when I can, and manage to help others along the way, then that is enough for me.”

Richardson has performed in several productions in the course of her studies. She has also shown her talent locally on stage with the Natchez Festival of Music and Natchez Little Theatre. She is participating in both, “Show Boat” tonight and “Carmen,” next weekend Both events will be at the Natchez Performing Arts Center on Homochitto Street.

Currently, Richardson has a daily routine of vocal training, breathing focus and she also adds physical conditioning to the list.

Richardson said the intense course work each student undertakes and the hours dedicated to learning and understanding the music, theory and language as well as the anatomy and physiology of their instrument — the human body.

“It takes time to build up the instrument in order to create the necessary conditions to produce an optimal, healthy sound, “ Richardson said. “Our bodies are our instruments and the first step in this career is taking care of our bodies.”

Richardson credits her achievements in her vocal career to her deep relationship with Christ.

“I was in a vocal slump for about three years where no matter how much I practiced, I found no joy and made very little headway in my vocal progress. I was in a dark place,” she said. “ I dedicated one year entirely to getting to know God personally through scripture, prayer and experiencing Him. Once I began working on my relationship with Him, the joy came back and I reprioritized my goals as a singer and began to have breakthrough after breakthrough.”

Richardson said her faith has only helped her in her journey.

“This field is diverse, and it is filled with diverse perspectives,” she said. “I encounter resistance to faith all the time in the forms of opinions, snap judgments and derogatory attitudes because I openly live my faith; however, I also encounter points of light from people who do not share my faith, but appreciate the source of beauty I have found. I also encounter those who experience similarly profound faiths. If I am judged for ‘being the light,’ I offer grace and kindness to the source through my craft. It is called being a Christian.”

Richardson said any young person considering following a path to vocal performance should familiarize themselves with the harsh side of the craft.

“Know that it is going to get ugly,” Richardson said. “If you have that conversation with yourself, and you find you still have the smile of daring on your face, go for it and don’t look back.”

Richardson’s auditions have allowed her to work with several operas, most recently Mississippi Opera. She has had the opportunity to personally coach with Thomas Hampson, Kirstin Chavez, Richard Troxell, Susanna Phillips and Eleen Rissenger of Opera Dresden.

Great opportunities come at a price, though.

“The biggest obstacle we face as young semi-professional, is the lack of time to create additional income,” Richardson said. “The patronage system is alive and well in music for a reason. The biggest financial help anyone could possibly offer to a young singer is an official patronage or a sponsorship.”

Ultimately, Richardson says she wants to perform.

“Ideally, I want to shape a tri-fold career of performance, professional coaching and a collegiate studio,” Richardson said. “I have learned not to hang my hat on one coat rack because God has way of leading you in curvy, thorny paths you never considered, but the destination is always a hundred-fold better than what you imagined.”