It was a night dedicated to the appreciation of musical expression, precision in its performance and the constant journey to self-improvement — the perfect tribute to a man who instilled these values into so many of his students.
When Sylvia McNair, a two-time Grammy Award-winning vocalist, heard of the death of her mentor and former violin instructor, Howard Louis Beebe, she wanted to do something in his honor. Beebe, Ohio University professor emeritus of music, died in late December after a long battle with cancer.
McNair, who is also a voice instructor at Indiana University, decided the best thing to do would be to teach a special one-day class at the OU School of Music. It was her way of expressing gratitude to a person with whom she shared so much — not just music.
Seven graduate and undergraduate students, selected by the voice department’s faculty, performed for McNair Friday night in the Recital Hall of Glidden Hall. After each performance, McNair offered praise and critiques.
Katie McGonagle, the first to take the stage, performed a baroque-style opera piece call “Quel guardo sdegnosetto” by Claudio Monteverdi.
“Wow, you’re setting the bar high,” McNair said, after McGonagle’s performance. “One of the things I harp my students about when I teach is intonation, intonation, intonation. I learned that from a great violin teacher,” she said, with a playful smirk and glance to the crowd. “But I have to say your intonation is really, really good.”
After having McGonagle give the audience a word-by-word translation of the song, McNair spoke about the importance for all singers to know their works as a monologue first, then as a piece of music.
“As a singer, you have to be an actor with almost every piece,” McNair said. “That’s what texts give us permission to do. … Don’t think about singing. Think about speaking on pitch.”
The piece McGonagle selected is one of several she’s working on for her graduate school auditions, but she noted the tips she heard can easily be applied to any song she performs.
“I thought she had a lot of valuable insights,” said McGonagle, a senior music education major. “She was so open and seemed very caring and willing to share. It was really kind of her to do this, especially with how busy she is.”
Beebe’s daughter, Sharon Frame, said McNair’s appearance was a wonderful gift for her family, for the school and for her father.
“I know my dad would have been so proud,” she said.
Nancy Beebe, formerly his wife of 30 years, was also very grateful. And as a retired vocal professor, she understands first-hand how much the students appreciated McNair’s words of wisdom.
“I think she’s absolutely wonderful,” Beebe said. “She really knows how to reach students. She nails their problems, but she does it in such a kind and respectful way. Sometimes when you feel intimidated, you freeze up, and you don’t sing well. She got them to relax. Her humor put them at ease.”
While Howard Beebe was an instructor at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, he also taught many younger students. McNair, a native of Mansfield, studied the violin with him in the 1970s during her middle and high school years — a time she recalls fondly.
“Those were the five finest years of my musical experience,” McNair said. “Howard Beebe was an angel from the musical gods. He taught me as much about making music — not just playing the violin, but making music — as any other one person I’ve ever worked with.”
McNair later changed her focus from the violin to vocals and has lead a successful 25-year career in musical genres such as opera, oratorio, cabaret and musical theater. But she says her violin instruction with Beebe has been a cornerstone of her success.
Even as recently as 14 months ago, McNair called on Howard Beebe for guidance. In a performance with the Atlanta Symphony New Year’s Eve Gala, McNair was to sing and play her violin. She called Beebe from her living room, and he gave her a violin lesson over the phone.
“I think the piece went much better on the concert because I had my great, great, great instructor and mentor helping me,” she said.
Their connection went beyond just music; McNair is a breast cancer survivor. The two shared their struggles frequently over the phone, about the fight of getting through. They also shared a common notion, that cancer can be one of the best gifts one can receive, she said.
“It redefines how you live,” she said. “It makes you live every day from a space of gratitude, appreciation for so many people, and so many things in your life. Howard and I shared that bond.”
Beebe’s colleagues and former students will perform a memorial concert on May 7 at The Ridges. The event will also feature some of his paintings and poetry, other forms of expression from this all-around artist.