Faculty Profile: Donna McElroy

By 
Mary Hurley

In a fall 2012 concert, Berklee Professor of Voice Donna McElroy delivered an electrifying rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Her performance brought a capacity audience at the Berklee Performance Center to its feet. The show featured performers inspired by the music of Ray Charles, so it was fitting that the stage belonged to McElroy. Her version of the patriotic anthem has been compared favorably to the one by the great Ray Charles himself.

“My two favorites are Ray—and Donna McElroy,” says Berklee Vice President for Special Programs Rob Rose of the song’s interpreters. “Both are different. McElroy is one of the best singers I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Faculty member Livingston Taylor goes one better. “The greatest thing since sliced bread,” he attests. “Donna is a great song interpreter, an intelligent observer of life, and arguably the best performer I’ve ever seen.”

McElroy is acclaimed for her artistry as a singer and her commanding stage presence. She formerly worked in Nashville as a vocal arranger and background vocalist for recording artists such as Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, BeBe and CeCe Winans, and Amy Grant. She’s appeared on the Tonight Show and the Grammy Awards broadcast. Around the Berklee campus, she is considered one of the premier interpreters of the Great American Songbook and is a perennial showstopper when she sings the songs of Ellington, Gershwin, and Porter in concert.

But, at the college, McElroy considers herself a teacher, first and foremost. She uses her musical talents as well as her personality traits—she’s funny, engaging, demanding, even bombastic (her word)—in her mission to prepare the next generation of musicians. She wants students to learn from her experiences as a touring backup singer.

“I feel like God has called me to do this,” she says of her teaching. “My job is to teach, not to be an artist or performer—two different gigs,” she stresses. “I want to help [my students] figure out what they want to do.”

Emily Elbert ’11, a rising singer/songwriter from Texas, recalls walking down Newbury Street shortly after she performed at a Berklee Michael Jackson tribute show for which McElroy was the vocal coach. McElroy spotted Elbert from her car, honked the horn, rolled down the window, and shouted, “Stop by my office.”

“She wanted to help me get better,” Elbert says. “She was always insistent that I follow my heart, find my own voice, and not let anything get in the way.” Elbert asked McElroy for voice lessons. “She told me, ‘No, you can figure that out. Let’s talk.’”

 

No Scales

“You won’t find me at the piano teaching scales,” McElroy says.” “That’s not what I do.” What she tells her students is to prepare, and then prepare some more. Not only for the performance but for the career and the wider world ahead of them. “It’s not enough to be talented; you need a direction for your talent,” she says. McElroy advises students to make a five- to 10-year plan. “It doesn’t matter if it works. What matters is that you are thinking about it.”

McElroy also worries about students while they are at Berklee and sees herself as a counselor and listener. She maintains that today’s students are often overwhelmed. She tells them not to take on too much. “Learning how to say no is the biggest lesson you can learn,” she insists.

A typical McElroy greeting, Elbert recalls, is an embrace: and a “Hey, baby. How are you doin’?” As Elbert says, “There’s no one else like Donna; she’s one in a million. She’s such a positive force—full of life and music. She has a real gift for opening people up, helping them to grow, and bringing out the best in their ambition and talent.”

In addition to her work as a professor, McElroy is a member of the Yo Team, a group of faculty members who produce Berklee’s major student concerts such as the aforementioned Michael Jackson tribute as well as annual events such as the Singers’ Showcase and the commencement concert. McElroy became the team’s vocal coordinator shortly after she arrived at Berklee in 1993.

According to Berklee’s Rose, who has worked alongside McElroy on the Yo Team for nearly two decades, she always pushes performers to do better. “She has such a range of experience,” Rose says. “She has amazing musical ears and can hear things that nobody else can hear. After every show, the two of us are on the phone talking about what we liked and didn’t like. I never see it as negative. It’s always, ‘How can we improve this? How do we make things better?’”

McElroy’s straightforward approach is a trademark. “I’m very demanding and opinionated,” she says. “[Students] are scared of me—I have had people say that to me.” Her teasing and chastisement is not to be taken seriously. “I tell them, ‘If I didn’t like your voice, you wouldn’t be in here now rehearsing.’”

“Donna tells it like it is,” Rose says. On stage, too, according to Elbert, she not only tells her story through song, but your story as well. She’s the type of performer that owns her audience.

McElroy admits that in addition to her teaching, it is important for her to get to sing. “But when, where, and what I want to,” she says. Fortunately, her work at Berklee affords many opportunities for that to happen. “I have a gifted life.”