UC San Diego's Department of Music

March 03, 2008

  GRAD STUDENT PROFILE: Stephanie Aston, vocalist
Second-year DMA candidate, performance (voice)
Age: 26
Hometown: El Paso, Texas

By Ian Power

In a way, everybody is a singer in the same sense that everybody is a doctor. Anyone can hum a tune just like anyone can suggest aspirin for a headache or chicken soup for a cold. And it works; you are a successful "singer," you are a successful "doctor." But true mastery of both medical and vocal "repertoire" requires significant training and practice. Only a few folks have the dedication to master brain surgery or a Schubert composition. That is why we, on earth, have doctors, and also why we, at UCSD, have vocal performance grad students. Like Stephanie Aston, whose studies prepare her for any complicated "cases" that arise.

Aston is one of the most active performers at UCSD. Recent credits include being featured in student composition juries by Clinton McCallum, Daniel Tacke and Trevor Grahl, a collaborative electro-acoustic project by Daniel Shapira and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Pierre Boulez's Le Marteau Sans Maitre, Beat Furrer's Invocation III, and most recently performing as soloist in a performance of Alberto Ginastera's Cantata para America Magica with UCSD's resident percussion ensemble red fish blue fish (Stephanie and the group will reprise this performance on March 25 at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles).

Citing vocalist Jan DeGaetani as an influence and composers George Crumb and Luciano Berio as favorites, Stephanie began singing new music while an undergraduate at the University of North Texas, where her teacher Julie McCoy made finding a niche a priority. "I'm not really an 'opera personality'," explains Aston. "I liked material that was difficult and unique. So I mostly sang Russian compositions, obscure Wagner pieces and new music." Although "dying" to attend the Cincinnati Conservatory for graduate school, a romance led Stephanie to apply to the California Institute of the Arts, one of the premiere contemporary music institutions in the U.S., where she received her best offer. Two years later Aston became another in the long line of musicians that split career time between CalArts and UCSD.

Stephanie's voice classification remains something of a point of contention. "I think of myself as a mezzo-soprano, but it's not that difficult for me to get up to the higher notes," she says. "I have a good amount of color in my voice, which tends to make people think 'mezzo'." Others, she explains, believe that as her voice matures she'll develop into a big dramatic soprano. Carol Plantamura, Aston's teacher at UCSD, is in "the soprano camp," but Stephanie remains resistant. "I have a nice ability to lighten my voice; if it gets too big, what if I can't lighten it any more? I'll be stuck singing material I haven't prepared myself to sing." Aston believes her strengths are coloratura passages, extended runs and unconventional intervallic leaps. "I've been able to float high notes since high school, but sustained, loud passages are not my strongpoint." As an interpreter she takes pride in her approach to text. "I really like evocative text," she says. "I base my approach to the dramatic aspects of singing on the text and how important the text is. I think about how it's set and how much weight it holds with the piece, and try and focus on getting the text across with my voice, rather than using overt gestures at particular moments."

Although Aston prefers living in Los Angeles ("There are so many great 99 cent stores with decent, organic produce") and sees herself settling elsewhere ("I'm looking for more non-academic opportunities than I'm finding here"), San Diego is proving to be a fruitful atmosphere for her. She is engaged to graduate composer Nicholas Deyoe, and is planning a research project on the safety of extended vocal techniques. "I want to perform two recitals, one of more traditional bel canto material and one of all new music that utilizes different extended techniques, and have my throat scoped after both, to see what effect each has. I'd like to take these findings to different institutions around the country to combat misconceptions that new music is dangerous to sing." Aston's other research interests include interpreting unconventionally notated scores for experimental as well as studying the learning process for reliably producing quarter tones when there is no prescribed "fingering". She is enrolled in UCSD professor John Fonville's "Just Intonation" graduate seminar to develop her ability to hear such precise musical nuances.

When asked about the differences between an audience's reaction to vocal music versus instrumental music, she responds, "I think there is a separation, but it's mostly because a lot of instruments provide the musician with an opportunity for disengagement from the audience. As a singer, there is nothing to 'hide behind'; you are expected to make very personal contact with an audience, and give them some kind of expression. People expect you as a vocalist to make a closer connection." Aston obviously doesn't back down from the challenge; red fish blue fish director Steven Schick has called her "fearless" in her pursuit of repertoire, and she has established herself as one of the most sought-after musicians at UCSD.

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