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Pitch perfect

Ann Harrell, the Mizzou professor behind vocalists Neal E. Boyd and Emily Bennett, earns her students’¬†respect

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  • Story by Jamie Scheppers
  • Photos and audio by Shane Epping
  • Published: Sept. 25, 2008
Ann Harrell

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Ann Harrell, associate professor of voice in the MU School of Music, works with students to hone their singing skills. Read a transcript containing excerpts from one of her lessons with student Trent J. Rash and from an interview with Mizzou Wire. Piano accompaniment by Rachel AuBuchon.

[Update: Since this story was originally published, Neal E. Boyd was announced as the winner of "America's Got Talent." Read about it on Live Wire.]

Lately, Neal E. Boyd (BA ‘01) has been the talk of campus. He’s a finalist on the NBC show “America’s Got Talent.”

While a student at the University of Missouri, the tenor gained acclaim by winning the Music Teachers National Association’s Young Artists Award. MU student Emily Bennett (BM ‘08), won that same competition in spring 2008.

What do Boyd and Bennett have in common? Their voice teacher, Associate Professor of Music Ann Harrell. While no one would dare discount the two singers’ hard work and hours of practice, there’s something to be said for a good teacher.

In her system

For as long as she can remember, Harrell has felt a connection to the music her parents used to play — exclusively classical.

“I actually have to give a lot of credit to my parents,” she says of her deeply entrenched love for all things musical. “Unlike some parents who don’t want their kids to be in music because they’re afraid they can’t earn a living, my parents just thought that’d be the greatest thing in the world. That was their dream, that we would be musicians.”

Sure enough, Harrell earns her living teaching vocal performance at MU. Her brother is a pianist.

Harrell fondly remembers the time she spent in her public school music classes in Abilene, Texas. She can still name each of her teachers and still keeps in touch with Letha McGrew, who was her teacher at Johnston Elementary School.

“Texas is certainly a leader in public-school music education, and I just had great teachers,” Harrell says with a distant sparkle in her eyes as she thinks back to those formative years.

Fortunately, accidents happen

While Harrell always knew that music would be a part of her life, she did not always plan to teach. In fact, she didn’t even apply for the first teaching position she was offered, which was at Hardin-Simmons University, a small liberal-arts college in Abilene, Texas.

“I was down there singing, actually, and a lot of faculty and the dean of the music school happened to hear me and offered me a job. It was quite by accident,” she says. “I had taught when I was in graduate school, so I kind of knew that I had a knack for it but wasn’t sure what it would be like when I was doing it full time.”

Harrell found out she liked it right away and, to her relief, she was instantly good at it. “Being able to perform well does not necessarily mean that you’ll be able to teach well,” she says.

Teaching people, not voices

One long-running joke about voice teachers is that they are half voice teacher and half psychologist or counselor. It might be a joke, but in taking just that approach in her teaching, Harrell has been able to coach freshmen and, after four or five years of hard work, turn them into not only young adults but also young singers ready to take that next leap in their careers.

“Singing is such a personal thing. As a voice teacher, you end up teaching a person. You don’t teach a voice,” she says. “Their thoughts about who they are as a singer — those things are really important to me because it helps me know how to approach them when I’m working with them.”

While taking her students’ personalities and goals into account when teaching, she also shows them the value of old-fashioned hard work.

“I love the day-to-day nitty-gritty hard work, which I think is probably the reason why, when somebody like Emily [Bennett] or Neal [Boyd] has this more public success, that’s even sweeter. It didn’t happen by accident, and that’s a nice payoff.”

Not all of Harrell’s students have the potential to reach the level of fame that Bennett and Boyd have, but that doesn’t mean Harrell treats them any differently.

“I also have some students who are not those extraordinarily gifted students, and I still enjoy working with them because they all get better. Some of them get significantly better and really do very well in their own right. They’re never going to be stars, just good musical citizens of the world,” she says. “Maybe they’re music education majors and they’re going to go out and be great public school music teachers, which we really need because those people are training the music majors and the professional musicians of tomorrow as well as the music supporters of tomorrow. The people who go to concerts, the people who give money.”

Mother Harrell

Harrell teaches her students one on one, which allows her the luxury of developing a personal relationship with each of them over the years. The relationship, which is filled with the same sort of respect and admiration many people reserve for their mothers, is definitely not something her students take for granted.

Bennett says, “I was initially intimidated because Ms. Harrell has an impeccable ear and can easily identify the slightest of vocal problems. In her criticism she is direct and honest, which was sometimes difficult to take. But it was this honesty that let me know that I could always trust her opinion and be proud when she complimented my singing, because she isn’t one to hand out undeserved compliments.”

Jazz Rucker, a junior and current student of Harrell’s says, “She can always tell when I have not done enough work. Instead of giving up on me, she insisted that I work harder. She told me there is no reason why I should accept less than my potential; therefore, she wasn’t either.”

Boyd, who has progressed into the top five of the 2008 season of “America’s Got Talent,” was another student she prodded along on rough days. He has described Harrell as "the next best woman to my mom."

“[Boyd] does have a magnificent natural gift," Harrell says. "That’s something in the highest levels that can’t be taught. If you can find the spark of something, you can nurture that along, but that spark has to be there.”

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012