Students studying voice at the University of Richmond have a unique opportunity this spring to work one-on-one with a visiting artist from the Juilliard School.

Kenneth Merrill, who also teaches at the Manhattan School of Music, specializes in coaching, chamber music, and vocal arts. He will visit UR four times throughout the spring semester for three-day increments to work with students on performances in the genre of the art song. Art song is usually written for one voice with piano accompaniment and requires melding text and music.

Merrill, who plays both piano and harpsichord, is helping about 20 students prepare a Schubertiade, a performance devoted to the world of song.

“Those were indeed Franz Schubert’s own [songs] originally,” Merrill says. “Those musical gatherings were wonderfully convivial events that included food, drink, readings, conversation — even dancing following the performances.”

Students will not only sing repertoire by Schubert, but the program will also contain music from many periods and cultures, focusing on the student’s interests and performance level.

“It is the potential to work toward a wonderful unity of ensemble, a true marriage between voice and piano in performance, that interests me most with this repertoire,” Merrill says. “To experience that in music is truly incredible.”

Having an artist like Merrill in residence for an extended period of time is more typically seen at larger universities and conservatories.

“While we are fortunate to have a number of guest artists who work with our students, these residencies are usually for one or two days,” says Jennifer Cable, a music professor and coordinator of vocal studies. “Here we have the opportunity for an outstanding guest artist to interact with our vocal students, in coachings and in classes, for an extended period of time. The artistic development for each of our singers is intensified as a result.”

But it’s not just vocal majors who will benefit — the program is open to non-majors as well.

“Our main goal is to enrich the learning experiences of every student studying voice,” Cable says. “Nowhere that I know of are all singers encouraged to participate, as most schools only offer such opportunities to their voice majors and minors.”

Merrill agrees that all students have something to learn. “This kind of experience helps vocal students of all levels and interests to understand so many things about music, performance, ensemble, expression, and more. All these are fantastic things which certainly have the potential to be life-informing, perhaps even life-changing.” 

Adam Uslan, ’16, is majoring in religious studies with a minor in chemistry. He aspires to go to medical school, but Uslan says singing is his favorite hobby.

“Many other schools I looked at with music programs did not allow non-majors or minors to have access to voice lessons and other helpful resources,” Uslan says. “Having experience with professionals like Ken has been eye-opening and beyond the scope of what I thought could be offered at UR.”

Erin Vidlak, ’17, a double major in music and business administration, was also grateful for the experience to take regular master classes with Merrill.

“I feel as if it gives me a connection to the professional music world, showing me what sort of standards I would need to live up to if I were to choose freelancing as my vocation,” she says. “I absolutely feel like this program will help me in the future by improving not only my musical technique, but also the ways that I look at music.”