Sounding the Depths

Leslie Limon
May 9, 2003
Donna McElroy
McElroy performs at Berklee's Sarah Vaughan Tribute Concert in 2002.
McElroy wants more from a student in a vocal performance lab.
Photo by Farnsworth/Blalock
Photo by Farnsworth/Blalock
Photo by Farnsworth/Blalock

The three students who arrived in Donna McElroy's Advanced Vocal Performance Lab on time-before the door was locked to latecomers-are taking turns at the microphone. One of them now sings what she's always considered vibrato, not realizing that she's really trilling two notes. McElroy asks her not to sing vibrato. The student stops trilling, and that's when her true vibrato starts to emerge.

The next student starts with an apology: her voice is not good today because of a cold. McElroy is all over her. "You don't ever want to apologize. Never confess!" The student launches into the soulful "Open My Heart" by gospel great Yolanda Adams. McElroy responds with hearty applause and honest compliments, then begins her critique. "Make it your own," she urges. "Sing less 'big'-less like Yolanda-and more like you talk. More up front in your mouth." The student tries again, earning praise from her teacher: "Did you hear how you went up into your head voice, kind of yodel-y? That is so appealing. Don't be afraid of it. Capitalize on it."

Music from the Inside Out

These incidents all illustrate McElroy's teaching philosophy. She expects her students to show up every time, and to be on time. By locking out the latecomers she drives home the point that, as she says, "you can't be late for a gig." Her positive yet honest critiques bolster students' self-confidence. And when she encourages students not to sing like the artists whose albums they listen to, she leads them to their own vocal identity. McElroy also works to unearth the emotional reasons behind a student's desire to sing. "If you don't have a good reason why you want to sing," she tells them, "then you'll never be able to pick the song that's best for your voice. Or figure out what you should sound like."

Detrece Lavender '03, whose primary voice teacher at Berklee has been McElroy, bears witness to the success of this approach. "By believing in me, she's helped me believe in myself. She's very constructive. Very positive, as she points out things I need to work on. As a result, I'm way more prepared to meet the world vocally."

Natalie Stovall '03 notes the impact of McElroy's teaching on her. "Donna influences your life the second you meet her. As a voice teacher, she's helped me understand things within myself to help me be a better performer. As a person, she's an inspiration."

McElroy's inside-out method of teaching voice was once described by Christian pop singer Amy Grant this way: "Donna is teaching me what's in my heart to come out my mouth." When McElroy toured as a backup singer with Grant in the early 1980s, she encouraged Grant to find her own voice instead of emulating Carly Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell.

The Perils of a Good Ear

McElroy knows all about vocal mimickry. She grew up listening to and imitating her parents' gospel and jazz favorites. By the age of three she had already developed a good ear. Watching her mother conduct youth choir practice one day, she grew impatient when the choir, after several tries, failed to replicate her mother's example. From the back pew she belted out the hymn as she knew her mother wanted it sung.

When she arrived at Fisk College in Nashville to study classical voice many years later, she had three different operatic sounds: Leontyne Price, Marian Andersen and Maria Callas. Her voice teacher soon realized that McElroy's keen ear was hampering her music skills. "She stopped singing to keep me from imitating her," says McElroy, "then stripped down my voice to the bare nothing and started to rebuild from my natural voice."

By her senior year, she decided she didn't want to sing classical, she wanted a record deal. She stayed in Nashville to sing gospel, then branched out into what she calls the Black testimonial style of country music. Her reputation as a country backup singer led to gigs with artists like Garth Brooks, Kathy Mattea, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.

It was during this period that she toured with Grant. She also got the record deal she wanted, but it did not go well. She acknowledges a mistake common to many artists their first time out: she tried to do too much on the album. As a result, no one at Warner knew how to market her Christian-inspired work, wrongly labeling it "Urban Contemporary Gospel," she says. Then a "life-changing" mission to teach music in Ghana made her reflect on how a record contract could limit her freedom. While she wanted to be able to return to Ghana whenever she wanted, it wouldn't be possible if her schedule was ruled by contractual obligations.

Odyssey to Berklee

McElroy turned down her first invitation to join the Berklee faculty. It was the early 1990s, and she was in the process of getting through a difficult and unhappy period in her life. After she barely survived a serious automobile accident, she found herself at a turning point. "Sick of being the way I was, I got on my knees and asked God to give me direction," she says.

Soon afterwards, Richard Evans, a professor in Berklee's Professional Writing Department, called and tried unsuccessfully to convince her to come. She felt she was neither ready nor good enough. Berklee called her again in the winter of 1995, and this time she decided she had a right to be here after all.

"God had not saved my life to reject this challenge," she says. "I wanted to take all my experiences, ball them up, and throw them at kids so they'd learn from the mistakes I made." In 1996, she came north.

Every semester, about mid-term, she brings to class evidence of her music career to date: her solo album, dozens of other CDs bearing her voice, and printouts from websites listing her albums. Her students browse through the collection, fascinated. That's when she tells them, "With all that, I'm happy being here. Not gigging. Not having an opening act. Not having a record on the charts. I'm fine, and you know why? Because (pointing to her work) this, and this, and this I got into without knowing what they meant. Now here's what I want to tell you about this, and this, and this."

Drawing on her personal experience, McElroy explains to them why they need to learn the music business, not just music. She tells them, "You need to understand copyright, contracts, and what percentage of your money your manager is entitled to. And you need to be realistic about the record industry. Don't sign a record deal with any expectation that you're going to see any dollars for quite a while."

Buckle Up

Every year McElroy sees students arrive with stars in their eyes, having been exposed to mass media's fantasy image of the music industry. Her dose of reality jolts them, but most, like Detrece Lavender, thank her later for her honesty. Advises Lavender, "Buckle up-you're in for a ride. Donna may say things that surprise you, but they're the truth. A lot of what she says you already know, but you need someone to say it."

Natalie Stovall is also grateful for the life lessons she's learned from McElroy's personal experience: "Some of my favorite sessions with Donna are those when I don't even sing. We just talk. I feel I will forever be connected to her."

Donna McElroy's Top Five

  • An airplane touching down on the ground
  • Applause after singing an original song
  • Shoes coming off at the end of the day
  • My mother's answer of "Hello" when I call
  • Finally taking on and accomplishing something God knew all along I was destined to do