Despite a small fire at the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts Monday morning, renowned opera singer Julia Bullock held a master class and performed for students. The soprano has become well-known for her activism, but her commitment to work with younger musicians may have been the highlight of her recent time spent in Buffalo.
Julia Bullock is this season’s artist-in residence for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Live Arts series. She’s performed on some of the biggest stages in the world, but right now she’s standing outside in the rain with a cold, waiting to see if she will be able to perform for students at Buffalo Arts Academy.
“We walked into the auditorium and there was smoke that was filling the space and I said, ‘Gosh it’s really smoky in here. Is it safe to be here?’ And we were sitting down for about two minutes and then all of these waves of smoke came pummeling out from behind the currents,” Bullock laughed, “and they were like, ‘Everyone needs to leave immediately. We are evacuating.’”
Bullock was brought to the area via the Buffalo Chamber Music Society. Their "Gift to the Community Concert" took place this past Sunday.
A half-hour later, students were escorted inside and into the cafeteria while firefighters took care of the smoke in the auditorium.
"Can you still perform?" a few teachers asked Bullock.
Time is of the essence. Bullock’s flight out of Buffalo is in just a few hours.
"Yes. We can go right to the airport from here," Bullock says.
Arts Academy Principal Jody Covington addressed the school, letting everyone know what happened.
“The chief captain of the fire department allowed us into these areas because they’re trying to clear the smoke from our main stage. We had a fire on our mainstage. Our curtains are gone,” Covington said as students let out a collective aww.
This doesn’t faze Bullock. She asks to wheel a piano into the cafeteria, who clarifies it wouldn't be her first time performing in a cafeteria.
“There’s no special place that music needs to take place. It doesn’t just have to be in a concert hall. It can be in any part of your day and enjoyed at any time,” Bullocks says.
Eventually the decision is made to move into a black-box theater space.
Bullock warms up quickly as chairs are being set up.
Arts Academy Vocal Music Teacher Karen Saxon directs students into their seats as fast (and as orderly) as a high school teacher could be asked to do given the circumstances.
“Alright. Ladies and gentleman. The wonderful person I told you about, who we just had the privilege of meeting this morning. She is an outstanding vocalist, and her name is Miss Julia Bullock,” Saxon says to roaring applause.
Before the fire started, Saxon talked about the importance of bringing professional musicians in to the school.
“To have that kind of excellence in the faces of kids, it helps our work because now we’re not just saying practice we’re saying look what you can be. Look where you can go, look what you can do,” said Saxon.
In a crowded, smaller performance space, Bullock starts by working one on one with a 15-year-old female singer.
Struck by nerves after singing a solo piece in front of the entire Arts Academy music department, Bullock gets her to loosen up by doing jumping jacks.
In just a short time, an entire room of high-school students are laughing and engaged in what has become a collegiate level lesson in vocal pedagogy.
Opera singers are known for their ability to fill a room with sound. It is easy for younger vocalists to develop bad habits when asked to project.
“I’m not asking you to push your voice,” says Bullock. “I’m asking you to use all of your instrument. So let’s say you had somebody in the back of the room you were trying to catch.”
Bullock looks to the back of the room and says, “Hey… hey.”
“HEY,” the student lets out.
“Yes!” Bullock exclaimed. She immediately follows this with more call and response.
“La, la, la, la, la, la, la,” says Bullock.
The student replies, “La, la, la, la, la.”
“Looo, lo, lo, lo, lo, lo, lo,” responds Bullock.
“Lo, lo, lo, lo, lo, lo, lo,” laughs the student.
This exercise continues until the playful tone results in the entire room bursting into laughter.
“The hardest thing is singing in front of your peers,” says Bullock.
Right after telling her this, Bullock asks, “Can I try something extreme with you?”
“Sure,” the student eagerly replies.
Bullock asks the student to get down on the floor on all fours then turns to the audience and asks, “Do you guys do yoga at all?”
“One thing that, is probably the most important thing in singing, is hooking up with your breath. Right? The breath needs to be guiding the entire experience for you. The beautiful thing with yoga, because it’s all about breathing and then in certain positions in yoga, it encourages the most natural breathing,” Bullock explains.
After positioning the student, they begin to work on her sound. It takes some time, but eventually she fills the entire room with her voice (on all fours).
“YES,” the student shouts. The audience breaks out in applause. “I feel like I can sing opera now!”
One music teacher in the back throws his hands up in the air. This student just had a breakthrough moment. There isn’t a teacher in the room who isn’t smiling ear to ear.
Bullock has spent close to a half-hour at this point with the young vocalist. She’s told she’s running out of time.
She continues to teach.
“Every single part of this sound, not just the vowels… don’t think about singing. Singing actually, it needs to be like speaking on pitch. It’s no different,” Bullock says.
Again, Bullock is reminded she’s running out of time.
She ends her lesson with the student, discussing the progress she’s made in this short time.
Even on limited time, she manages to sing a handful of wide-ranging songs before students are dismissed.
One performance that stuck with the room was an acapella arrangement of Nina Simone’s “Revolution”.
Senior Brinaye Salaam watched on with her arm in a sling, calling it a life-changing experience.
“I kind of got chills down my back. I almost dislocated my other shoulder. It was nice. I never heard anybody sing like that before,” said Salaam.
There are not many performers as talented as Bullock you will see perform through sickness for a group of students on a Monday morning, let alone after having to wait out a fire. But watching her hold a master class, it’s clear how much she values these interactions.
“This is the most valuable time I would say that I have as a musician,” she said. “Just to be a part of this journey with them because also I’m learning a lot about myself during this time. In some ways I feel more comfortable as a teacher as I do even as a performer. I just like being a part of that process. I like being a part of their process.”
Come rain or shine, even fire and smoke, flights be damned, Julia Bullock won’t be stopped when it comes to sharing her voice.