A Determined Diva Nobody tells Keyontia Hawkins what to sing. Not even Juilliard

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Keyontia Hawkins, a slender young woman with high, sculpted cheekbones and perfect teeth, is standing in the middle of the room with her eyes closed and her arms over her head.

Ahhh-ahhh-ahhh-ahhh-ahhh! Eeeh-eeeh-eeeh-eeeh-eeeh! The notes come rocketing up out of her throat and ricochet off the walls in the confined space like sonic golf balls.

"Open it up, open it up!" shouts her teacher from the piano as she pounds out the scale in octaves. "Stop trying to make your sound sound, just get your breath under it!"

Keyontia flicks her eyes open just long enough to toss a glance at her teacher, then shuts them and resumes singing up the scale. Ahhh-ahhh-ahhh-ahhh-ahhh! Eeeh-eeeh-eeeh-eeeh-eeeh!

She is standing almost on tiptoe now, trying to hear the resonances of her voice.

"Watch your jaw!" her teacher commands as the scale climbs upward. "Keep the voice high, high! As if you had a marshmallow, a Ping-Pong ball, an egg in your mouth!"

Keyontia, her body bent like a bow, tentatively tries moving her mouth and lips, then suddenly drops her arms and collapses into laughter as the absurdity of the image sinks in.

Her teacher looks over from the piano and frowns, then smiles.

"Let's take a break," she says finally. "But only for a minute. We've got so much to do, so much work! My goodness, how are we going to get it all done in time?"

It is the day before Keyontia is to sing for the voice faculty at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, where she is a student. The event is called a jury, and her performance there will determine her final grade.

So Keyontia has come back to Baltimore, her hometown, for a lesson with Jean Carter, her first voice teacher, at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Mrs. Carter knows Keyontia's voice better than anyone else. If anyone can get Keyontia's voice into shape by tomorrow, it's Mrs. Carter. But the lesson is almost over and Mrs. Carter still feels Keyontia needs more work.

"Let's do some songs," Mrs. Carter says. Keyontia sings "See How They Love Me" by Ned Rorem, and Samuel Barber's "Sure on This Shining Night."

Suddenly the voice is thrilling. She's warmed up now and the sound begins to flow.

After an hour, Mrs. Carter shuts the piano lid and gives Keyontia last-minute instructions. She tells her to take an early train back to New York, go to bed and get up refreshed at 6:30 a.m. Eat a good breakfast, get into a practice room by 9 a.m. and warm up until 1:30. Then dress and be ready to sing at 2 o'clock sharp.

"Do you have any questions?" Mrs. Carter asks as she walks Keyontia to the door.

Keyontia says she understands. She goes home but then decides to take a late bus to New York, arriving after midnight. The next day she feels OK and sings her jury. She thinks they liked her. School ends and she returns to Baltimore.

A few weeks later the school sends her a letter informing her that she has been dismissed.

It is the kind of stunning reversal of fortune that routinely befalls the characters of the world's great operas. But for Keyontia, the letter from Juilliard was all too real.

HEADED FOR STARDOM

This is a story about a local girl who has the talent to succeed, but whose incredible gift came wrapped with obstacles and challenges. It is the story of a brilliant 19-year-old budding diva from East Baltimore who was blessed with the chance to launch a career in the glamorous world of grand opera -- and who seemingly let it slip through her fingers.

Two years ago Keyontia Hawkins (pronounced Key-ON-ta), a 1991 graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, was headed for stardom, winning virtually every prize available to an aspiring young soprano, including the Presidential Scholars Award from the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts, and a full scholarship to the most famous music school in the world.

Today she works as a part-time clerk in a Baltimore hardware store. Her future hangs in the balance and everyone who knows her can only shake their heads and wonder: What happened?

Mrs. Carter, Keyontia's first voice teacher and still her greatest fan, may have come as near as anyone to what happened:

"Some of it is Keyontia's fault, and some of it is Juilliard's," Mrs. Carter says. "Keyontia had never heard Schubert or Puccini before she came to the School for the Arts. But here she was in a situation where everyone was supporting what she was trying to do. There she was on her own."

To understand what happened to Keyontia, you have to understand something about the peculiar condition singers endure as people carrying around priceless, irreplaceable instruments inside all-too-human bodies, and about the clash of cultures that occurs when an elite classical music school confronts a young artist who insists on singing everything from gospel to grand opera.

A POWERFUL SOUND

"Keyontia is a terrific performer," says David Simon, the principal at Baltimore School for the Arts. "She has a superb talent for reaching out and touching people with her voice, and she loves doing it."

Her effect on fellow students and teachers at the school is one measure of the power of her singing.

In the fall of 1991, when Keyontia was a senior, Eric Greene was a junior voice major at the school and in trouble. His musical studies were going nowhere and he was failing academically. Then he heard Keyontia sing.

"The sincerity of her sound was what inspired me," Eric recalls. "She was doing things with her voice that were amazing."

Eric told Mrs. Carter, who was his teacher also, that he intended to try for Juilliard, where Keyontia had just been accepted. He pulled up his grades, focused on his scales, trills and roulades -- and a year later got in.

"I was flabbergasted," Mrs. Carter recalls. "The boy was practically flunking out. And all of a sudden he wants to go to Juilliard. But still I thought, 'Well, let's see if he's really serious.' And you know what? He did everything he said he would. It was a total transformation."

Eric wasn't the only one of Mrs. Carter's students inspired by Keyontia. La'Shelle Allen, who, like Keyontia, came from a working-class Baltimore family and had never sung classical music before enrolling in the School for the Arts, was so spurred by her classmate's example that she, too, threw herself into work. By the end of the year, she'd won a full scholarship to New York's Mannes School of Music. Since that time, three other students who have studied under Mrs. Carter -- Kishna Davis, Jason Ferrante and Danielle Martin -- have followed the path Keyontia blazed to Juilliard.

After hearing Keyontia perform, Dan Henson, president of the School for the Arts' board of directors, once remarked to a friend, "Better listen up, because the next time you hear that girl sing in person it's going to cost you a lot of money."

In 1991, Keyontia was one of eight students who performed at the school's annual senior honors recital. Keyontia had chosen to sing Gilda's aria "Caro Nome," from Verdi's "Rigoletto," a tuneful coloratura showpiece in which the heroine rapturously celebrates her new love.

She tossed it off with an agility and ease astonishing in so young a singer. Yet it was the emotional force of her performance that captivated her listeners. The voice soared out over the audience in great sheets of sound, full of pathos and drama. The effect was heightened by the fact that the huge sound was emanating from a frail girl with a pronounced overbite and awkward, adolescent limbs that looked so delicate it seemed her whole body might collapse under the weight of that magnificent voice.

Mark Markham, a much-in-demand accompanist and vocal coach at Peabody Conservatory who by chance attended Keyontia's recital that year, was equally impressed. He later described what he heard as "a voice that comes along only once every couple of generations."

AT 6, A SOLOIST

Keyontia Romaine Hawkins was born in Baltimore on Sept. 4, 1973, the second child of John and Virginia Hawkins. For a time the family lived in Prince George's County, where Mr. Hawkins had a job as a construction worker, but by the time Keyontia reached elementary school the family had moved back to East Baltimore, to a rowhouse on Bond Street.

Keyontia revealed her talent early.

"When she was 3, I was playing a record by Natalie Cole," Mr. Hawkins recalled. "All of a sudden Keyontia started singing right along. She was too young to pronounce all words, but she picked up the melody and expression perfectly."

At 6, Keyontia was a soloist in the choir at New Psalmist Baptist Church, where her mother attended services. "She was so little they had to stand her on a stool so people could see her," Mrs. Hawkins recalled.

While still in elementary school, Keyontia saw an episode of the TV series "Fame," about New York City's School for the Performing Arts. "Right then and there she decided that's what she wanted to do," Mr. Hawkins said. "She started pestering us to send her to the School for the Arts [in Baltimore] so she could be a famous singer."

In time, Keyontia was accepted into the School for the Arts and assigned to Jean Carter, who gave her her first formal voice lessons. Mrs. Carter opened up a new world to Keyontia, who had always thought of singing in terms of jazz and gospel. For the first time she began to envision herself as a classical music performer.

"I started getting a lot of solos, and people began noticing me," Keyontia recalls of those days. "It felt good. It felt great!"

It didn't take Mrs. Carter long to realize she had a phenomenal talent on her hands.

"She seemed to absorb instantly everything taught her," Mrs. Carter recalls. Each lesson became a revelation for both teacher and student. Mrs. Carter began to devote more and more time to her new prodigy. The culmination of these efforts came in Keyontia's senior year, when she won every competition she entered and was awarded full scholarships at both Juilliard and the Mannes School of Music in New York.

"She was pure gold that year," Mrs. Carter recalled. "Everything she touched just seemed to come up roses."

CULTURE SHOCK

The Juilliard School is housed in an imposing modern edifice directly opposite Lincoln Center in midtown Manhattan, a five-minute walk from Carnegie Hall and the heart of New York's classical music world. It is the elite of music schools, a place where great talents are nurtured.

The school enrolls 900 undergraduate and graduate students, about half of whom are foreign-born. But unlike many other top music schools, Juilliard is self-consciously and unapologetically dedicated to turning out superstars. Among vocalists, the most famous Juilliard graduate is probably Leontyne Price. Other famous singers associated with the school are Shirley Verrett, Simon Estes, Barbara Hendricks and the late Tatiana Troyanos.

When Keyontia arrived in New York in the fall of 1991, she suddenly was thrust into a social and cultural environment vastly more sophisticated than the one she had grown up in. By all accounts, she faced challenges almost from the moment she arrived. Some say she simply couldn't handle the pressure. Others, including Keyontia herself, contend that Juilliard just wasn't ready for her.

After learning of her dismissal, she spoke of some of the disappointment and frustration she'd felt about the training that had seemed, at first, the chance of a lifetime.

"I was pretty unhappy there," she said. "It wasn't at all what I'd imagined. First, they didn't give us enough opportunities to perform. I mean, that's why I wanted to go there, to perform. But the only time we got to sing was in juries and opera workshop. No recitals. It just wasn't enough.

"Also, the classes were geared mainly for instrumentalists. We did practically no vocal music. I took German and French diction classes but couldn't take language classes with them because the schedules conflicted. So we had no idea of what the words we were singing meant.

"Looking back on it, I just felt I wasn't getting what I needed and should have been getting."

Keyontia was also troubled by Juilliard's overwhelming pressures to conform to the classical music ideal and its undisguised hostility toward anything that smacked of pop music or jazz -- an attitude that at times seemed deliberately aimed at stifling her creativity.

DELIBERATELY DISCOURAGED

There are, in fact, good reasons apart from cultural snobbery for the attitude of disdain many classical voice teachers harbor toward pop music. The most important is that the two genres make very different, often conflicting, demands on the human voice.

The singing voice is produced by air passing from the lungs and diaphragm across the vocal cords -- two thin, extremely sensitive membranes in the throat that set up vibrations that pass out through the mouth.

Yet the vocal cords themselves are far too delicate to produce the enormous volume a singer needs to fill a 2,000-seat hall. Pop singers get around this by amplifying their voices electronically. Classical singers, however, must rely on various techniques that involve "placing" the voice in the cavities of the head and chest in such a way that the body itself functions as a natural resonance chamber, much like the soundbox of a guitar.

Thus classical vocal technique -- sometimes called bel canto, from the Italian phrase meaning beautiful singing -- is designed to put most of the work of amplifying the voice on the sturdier parts of the body -- the chest, shoulders, head and face -- and as little as possible on the fragile vocal cords.

Classical singers also learn to produce a perfectly even tone from the lowest to the highest vocal register, with no noticeable "breaks" or changes in coloration. Pop singers, by contrast, perform mostly in the middle register and so can use all sorts of tricks to give their sound added variety and expression.

Almost anyone with a good voice and a decent ear can sing pop, but it takes years of training to master the bel canto style, whose technical demands are such that the singer is virtually precluded from performing in any other genre.

That limitation became increasingly galling to Keyontia at Juilliard, where young singers are deliberately discouraged from doing anything that might strain their still-undeveloped voices.

Most Juilliard voice students simply learn to live with the inevitable frustrations. Unlike violinists or pianists, who can master their instruments while still in their teens, classical singers generally don't reach their full capacity until their late 20s or early 30s. In the meantime, they must conserve their voices and develop musicianship, delaying the rewards of frequent opportunities to perform.

Eric and Kishna, for example, both have worked out highly disciplined regimes for practice and study: no pop music, no late nights and careful selection of repertoire. Kishna guards her voice so zealously that she no longer even sings hymns in her father's church choir. But all these restrictions on the life of "TC classical voice student came as something of a shock to Keyontia.

SOMETHING OF A REBEL

She couldn't help being aware that many of her peers, as well as her teachers, disapproved of her activities -- jazz and pop singing dates outside of school. She had a few close friends at Juilliard, mostly students she had known in Baltimore. They provided support and a sympathetic ear whenever she felt particularly low.

La'Shelle, Keyontia's former classmate at the School for the Arts in Baltimore, said her friend "stuck out" at Juilliard.

"People were very attracted by her energy," La'Shelle said. "There were times we couldn't go from point A to point B without people talking to her. And everywhere we went she was singing. Still, I could see in their faces that some people didn't approve. Keyontia didn't care, though. She wasn't going to spend her life wondering about what the next person is thinking."

Keyontia says she knows she was perceived as something of a rebel by some of her teachers and peers. "I know I stuck out there," she says. "One teacher complained about the gown I wore to a jury. It was the same gown I wore when I sang at the Kennedy Center after winning the Presidential Scholars Award. But she said it was too flamboyant, showy, flashy. She couldn't understand that wearing it made me feel good about myself when I performed."

Eric was stunned by the change he saw in Keyontia when he got to New York in the fall of 1992.

"Her voice had gone away to nothing," he recalled. "She was involved in so many other things besides opera, besides Juilliard. She was doing little gigs, pop music-type things. I worried about it, because Keyontia should have been one of the leading sopranos at that school. Yet it seemed like she had lost herself."

Some friends speculate Keyontia's problems at Juilliard may have been complicated by troubles at home. Her parents had separated around the time she left for Juilliard, and her mother, with whom Keyontia stayed when she came home, recently moved away from the city. Keyontia says she rarely sees her father, who still lives in East Baltimore. Her brother, who is two years older than she, is serving a prison sentence for attempted murder.

"When Keyontia was at the School for the Arts there was calm in her life," Eric says. "But she's lost the focus of that calm now. She's out of the eye of the hurricane and into the storm."

FAITH UNSHAKEN

The dean's office at Juilliard declined to return repeated calls inquiring about Keyontia's dismissal. However, a source with connections to the school who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the voice department there was concerned Keyontia was "not cooperating with her teachers," and that some members of her jury feared the way she was singing would "ruin her voice."

The source also noted that Keyontia had flunked a humanities course the previous semester -- not normally grounds for dismissal -- and that she had accepted "outside engagements," meaning non-school-approved pop or jazz performances.

"What you have to understand is that even though you and I may feel that Keyontia is a great talent, the people in the voice department at Juilliard thought what she was doing with her vocal cords was not good," this source said. "And that's really what the problem was."

Mrs. Carter, whose faith in her young prodigy remains unshaken, was crushed when told Keyontia would not be returning to Juilliard.

"I've spent many moments alone wondering how in the world could this have happened," Mrs. Carter said recently, her voice trembling with emotion. "I know Keyontia is not perfect, but I also know the talent."

MOVING ON

What really happened to Keyontia at Juilliard?

Perhaps neither Keyontia nor Juilliard really gave the other a chance.

Keyontia clearly had difficulty adjusting to the place, which was compounded by her frustration at not being allowed to perform and perhaps also by her inability to form a bond of trust with any faculty member in the voice department. There, she found no one who could guide her development as Mrs. Carter had at the School for the Arts.

On the other hand, it appears Juilliard knew it had a major talent in Keyontia yet apparently was unable to help her when it became clear she needed help. Her friends say she was allowed to drift from teacher to teacher without the school's ever working to find out what the problem was.

Keyontia is determined not to let her unhappy experience at Juilliard get her down. She has resumed her voice studies with Mrs. Carter, who resigned from the School of the Arts in August to teach privately, and plans to enter several competitions for young singers next year.

Meanwhile, opportunities continue to come her way. During the summer, for example, she wrote lyrics for and recorded one of the songs for the soundtrack of a movie scheduled to be released next year. It's a gig that paid only a few hundred dollars, but she could earn royalties if the tune becomes a hit.

Keyontia can perhaps take heart from the fact that some of the biggest names in the music world stumbled at classical conservatories, yet went on to brilliant careers: Jazz singer Nina Simone's application was rejected at Juilliard and trumpet great Miles Davis dropped out after only a year. Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory once turned down an application from an aspiring young soprano named Jessye Norman, who went on to become one of the greatest opera singers and recitalists of the age.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm going to miss Juilliard and all my friends there," Keyontia says. "But I feel there is more out there for me."

GLENN MCNATT is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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