The Lifetime Achievement Award: an interview with emeritus Professor Richard Sjoerdsma
Richard Sjoerdsma, professor emeritus of music, was rewarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Association of Teachers of Singing. After being the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Singing, he is stepping aside from this position. Professor Sjoerdsma has been a major part of the Carthage family for more than fifty years and has inspired and helped many fine arts students become the performers and teachers that they are today. I spoke with the emeritus professor of music about his time here at Carthage, his role as the EIC, and his recently earned award.
For forty years, you have taught a variety of musical courses, including studio voice, opera, voice pedagogy, and more! Out of all of these courses, was there a specific class that you enjoyed teaching the most?
Each course had its own unique challenges and rewards that were special to that specific discipline. In my studio voice courses, it gave me great satisfaction to work with each student’s voice or instrument for a period of time and observe their growth in quality and depth of expression. The opera courses were a bit different as they involved on-stage productions, which were truly gratifying. The voice pedagogy course was fun as it was interesting observing students’ surprise as they learned more about the anatomy and physiology of their instruments. Each class was quite different and I can’t say that I prefer one over the other!
What is your most memorable moment at Carthage?
There have been so many moments over the course of my teaching at Carthage that it is hard to choose only a few. It was gratifying to witness a former student appear on stage performing with the Metropolitan Opera. It was a great joy to launch our first full opera production at Carthage, Gianni Schicchi. Another highpoint was my last production on campus, Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, a fine production that was performed over the course of a few days. It was probably one of the more spectacular productions that I directed at Carthage. Another memorable moment was after my retirement when my former office was dedicated to my name.
You have performed in various operas, recitals, oratorios, and concerts both in the U.S. and in Europe. How has your experience with these performances influenced the way you taught at Carthage?
Early in my career, singing teachers weren’t as respected as there was a disparaging adage constantly spoken: “if you can’t sing, you teach”. Since that time, teaching of singing has come such a long way to a fact-based and scientific discipline, and many well-known performers have also been highly respected teachers. From my point of view, it demonstrated that one can be successful in both performing and teaching. My experiences on concert stages here and abroad have given me a certain authenticity in my pedagogy. I could speak more broadly and in depth due to my experiences as a performer and observing as well as living in different cultures. I was able to return to my students with knowledge of German opera and song due to my extended stay.
You have been a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing since 1971 and became the Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Singing in 2001. Could you explain a little more about what your duties were as the EIC and as part of NATS?
When I graduated from college, I taught at a parochial high school in South Dakota and earned my master’s degree there. Despite the University of South Dakota not being known for the musical programs, I had a voice teacher who was truly inspiring and knowledgeable, and I learned everything I could from him. He introduced me to NATS and I became a member soon after. After a few years, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal of Singing that I found one of their writers to be pretentious. I received a response that said, to paraphrase, “put your pen where your mouth is”. The person who managed that column soon retired and I took their place as a writer of the “Bookshelf” column for over twenty-five years. I enjoyed this position very much, composing not merely pithy reviews, but essays with commentary. I was soon chosen to be editor in chief by a board of trustees and was tasked with watching over the entire journal. All material is edited by me, then I have opportunity to proof everything three different times before we send each issue to press. I’ve written an”Editor’s Commentary” column for 120 issues of the Journal of Singing. It is busy yet fulfilling work!
You were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award and were honored at the gala celebration banquet. How were you feeling as you accepted this award?
It was overwhelming as I have never experienced a period of time like that in my life. During the meeting that preceded our conference, I was appointed as the Editor-in-Chief emeritus. This means that, due to also being an emeritus professor of music, I will be an emeritus twice. This is truly unprecedented and an incredibly high honor. The board of trustees has also determined that they will name a board room at our national headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida in my name. I invited my fellow contributors and board members to a luncheon, where they interrupted my agenda by establishing an award in my name that they will present at every national conference grant to the most interesting article published in the Journal of Singing during that period. This surprise along with my receiving of the Lifetime Achievement Award caused the whole event to be an overwhelming yet exciting rush.
Do you have a plan as you begin this next chapter of your life?
I will be continuing to write for the Journal which is something that I would very much like to do. Now that I will not have as many deadlines, I look forward to finding more time to read and travel. I also plan on continuing to conduct my church choir along with leading my bible study class.
Whether it be performing, acting as the EIC, or teaching, what inspires you to move forward?
I remain increasingly convinced that God has a plan and work for me to do. I may not always know the direction, but I feel led that the work I have done and will do is simply things that must be done by me. I am incredibly thankful for Carthage for giving me the encouragement and opportunity to experience and grow both as a person, pedagogue, and professional performer. I arrived on this campus at 27 years old while wet behind my ears and I look back on an environment that gave me the opportunity for every growth and accomplishment that I have been blessed to achieve.
What advice would you give to current and future art students?
I encourage everyone to identify their strengths and gifts so that they may hone them responsibly and with humility. I am firmly committed to the liberal arts ideal, and students should acquire an education as broad as possible as I believe that each of us has a responsibility to be as widely informed, aware, and inquisitive as possible.