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Professor shares illustrious vocal career

Published: November 1, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.


From performing before entire villages to singing in the intimate, galley kitchens of France, adjunct professor Nancy Armstrong (THA) led an exciting career before joining the Brandeis community in 1996. She shares her singing expertise and enriching experiences by mentoring students aspiring to careers in performance arts.

Unable to trace a singular moment in which she realized singing was her calling, Armstrong explained, “I always sang when I was a little kid riding a bicycle. A piano teacher who lived next door always heard me singing on my bike.” It was only when she was a junior in college, however, that it dawned on her to transition from her piano studies to singing.

Obtaining a bachelor’s of science from the University of Vermont in music education, Armstrong went on to pursue a master’s degree in music from Smith College. Despite her extensive travels, Armstrong confessed she was not always so sure about her future as a singer. “I always thought I would be a music teacher. I wasn’t sure that performing was going to make it,” she said.

Equipped with her master’s degree for practicality, Armstrong went on to lead the romantic life of an artist, performing and travelling across Europe with oratories and symphonies. She recalled her most memorable performances, from singing at Carnegie Hall to venues in Paris, France.

In particular, she described singing “Summertime” in a small kitchen in Southern France for a local chef, drinking champagne and eating for hours. “I’m flirtatious enough and love to sing that it wouldn’t be a big deal for me to walk into a kitchen and sing for the chefs. This happened all the time in little villages in southern France!” she explained. As a soloist, she garnered attention, singing in both English and French.

While travelling through the schools of Normandy, France, she recalled singing with children clustered around her feet in an intimate setting, an experience she described as simply wonderful. Deeply impacted by such experiences, she said, “The joy that music gives, something about singing, the human voice, everyone just loves. Things like that I never forget.”

Glamorous though this may seem, Armstrong revealed the struggles of self-employment and the combination of passion and resilience necessary to thrive in her field. She explained that her position at Brandeis University emerged as her career began changing, as concerts became less frequent while she became increasingly engaged in using her expertise to teach others. In her role as a professor of theater arts, she mentors both undergraduate and graduate students.

Several of Armstrong’s former students have already blazed paths in the performance industry, among them Jeffrey Calloway MFA ’00, who will starred in the role of Delray in the Broadway musical “Memphis.” She stresses the importance of building a classical foundation and mastering the rudiments of singing within the classroom.

Acknowledging the intimidating nature of pursuing a career in the fine arts, Armstrong encourages her students “to be focused and self disciplined, organized, positive because you’re going to be turned down a lot and you’re gonna audition a lot. You want to feel like you have something in your back pocket while you’re following your passion and not to not give up.”

Clearly passionate, Armstrong stated, “I say to my students to make every audition a little performance, make them see your goal because these people don’t know you.”

In regard to the future, Armstrong recently received a five-year reappointment at Brandeis University, where she will continue to serve as a professor of theater arts. She currently dabbles in Russian, as she might perform in an upcoming concert.