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Profile: Givens ’89 Wins Grammy for Choral Performance

Melissa Givens '89When she was a rising senior in high school Melissa Givens '89 pulled out her atlas and placed the needle of her compass on her home city of Buffalo, N.Y. She then drew a circle encompassing all cities within a 600-mile radius from that point. Her mother had told her she could look at any college within 600 miles of home.

She found Davidson somewhat by accident that summer, independent of the map, she said, and fell in love with the place. And, it just so happened that "Davidson was right on the very edge of the original circle," she remembers.

Now a Grammy-award winning soprano and adjunct voice professor at Sam Houston State University and Texas Southern University, Givens' high school self was actually looking for a college with a strong pre-med program, like Davidson. She attended a magnet high school and focused on chemistry, and though she had studied music extensively, she never thought she'd pursue it in college or as a career.

But at Davidson, and much to her surprise, everything changed.

A Shift in Focus

"After being ‘discovered' in the freshman talent show I joined the choir and started voice lessons, and the more time I spent in the music department, the more it felt like home," she said. "We were all on a first-name basis with our professors, and they became treasured mentors."

And as a member of the choir, Givens got to travel around the country on numerous spring break tours, which she found exciting.

During her senior year, Givens sang for the chair of the voice department at Rice University and was offered a fellowship on the spot, which she politely turned down. Even though she loved her music studies and was confident in her decision to switch to a music major, she still was not convinced that music was the right career option.

Carving a path

Instead, she accepted an internship as the president's assistant at Davidson and worked for a year at her alma mater.

"I learned so many life skills, skills I still use today," she said. She also continued to sing part-time that year, continued to love it, and began to think seriously about the fellowship opportunity. The chair's offer was good for a year, and in the eleventh hour Givens decided to take it. She moved from Davidson to Houston and began to seriously pursue a career in music as she earned her master's degree.

"I thought professional opportunities in music would just sort of happen for me immediately, serendipitously," Givens said. But they didn't-it took time, and a lot of work.

During her master's program she traveled annually to New York City to audition for opera company apprenticeship programs but did not receive any offers. Then, after graduation, she began to sing professionally in Houston and started to make a name for herself.

Award-Winning Success

In 2002 Craig Johnson, the artistic director and conductor of Conspirare, a professional choral group in Austin, Texas, asked Givens to join the group, which has been nominated six times for Grammy awards in various categories, and won the 2015 Grammy for Best Choral Performance.

In addition to her work with Conspirare, Givens remains in demand for concert series' throughout the United States and internationally, including recent recitals in Georgia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and back home in Houston. She also performs with the Grammy-nominated group Ars Lyrica Houston.

Most recently she appeared as the Soprano II soloist in Bach's B Minor Mass with the Boulder Bach Festival. Other recent performances include Mendelssohn's rarely heard solo cantata Infelice with Symphony North, the title role in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Camerata Ventapane and the Baroque Music Festival of San Miguel de Allende, and Handel's Israel in Egypt with the Houston Symphony. Givens also toured Europe and Africa in Pitié!, an adaptation of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, with the Belgian dance collective Les Ballets C de la B. She can be heard on the soundtrack recording on Cypres Records and is featured in a documentary film about the tour by ZDF/Arté.

Though she loves performing all musical genres, if pressed, the vocally versatile Givens will admit her favorite two genres to perform are the Baroque oratorio and German lieder, or "art song," which she aims to re-popularize as concert repertoire, she said. Art song combines music and literature, bringing together the four elements of poet, composer, singer and accompanist in a way that tells powerful stories.

More Than a Pretty Voice

That focus on synthesizing elements to deliver a top-quality performance is something Givens employs in her own work, and also emphasizes with her students in the classroom.

She initially began teaching voice in the early part of her career as a way to make extra money, but quickly found a calling she didn't expect.

"As the daughter of a teacher I actually had great reluctance to teach, but I've since fallen in love with it," Givens said. She decided to pursue a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Houston's Moores School of Music, and continues to teach, all the while working as a professional, award-winning soprano.

"In teaching, you not only build skills in your students, but you sharpen your own skills," she said. "You're always finding new ways to explain the technical and anatomical aspects of what you're doing."

Additionally, music requires students to study history, context, text and language, and to synthesize them with each other and with those technical aspects of performance, Givens said. "There's way more to singing than standing up and sounding pretty," she said.

"One of the best ways to teach students how to analyze and synthesize information-to teach them how to think-is through the study of music," Givens said. "Even if a student doesn't pursue music as a career, they're going to be a good problem-solver, good coworker-these are the things people are demanding in the workplace."

Givens' hybrid teaching/performing career was unexpected, but she is enjoying it and plans to continue her work both in the classroom and on the stage.

"Eventually I came to have just the career I wanted, even though I didn't realize it," she said.