FMparent caught up with Dr. Melissa Davis, a doctor of musical arts of Jamaican-Canadian Melissa Davis She is the Director and
founder/developer of the current Music Department at Tyndale University. Over the years, she has enjoyed a career as a concert soloist, music
professor, choral conductor, worship leader, vocal instructor and clinician. With teaching, singing, writing articles for various magazines and blogs on
the topic of worship music, life as a musician is a busy one. She receives numerous invitations to give vocal and worship music workshops and
clinics, and to sing as a guest soloist both locally and internationally. Let‘s learn about her journey.
When did you discover your passion for music?
My love for music began with my parents. I have a very early memory around the age of 3 of my mom taking me along with her for car-rides and we would sing songs in the car at the top of our lungs – a memory we share to this day! At home, music was all around! My parents are singers and love music, so it was always playing in our home. From opera to musical theatre, to sacred music, to Jamaican folk music, Motown, and ballads, I grew to love the many styles I heard coming out of our home stereo and I loved expressing myself in song. I recently found a recording of myself around the age of 4, singing and harmonizing with my siblings and my parents. My two sisters and I would practice singing together as a trio with my mom guiding us and teaching us songs in the kitchen while she was cooking. Singing with my sisters gave me confidence to start singing on my own. My parents had a singing engagement one night and they brought me along with them to sing my first solo in public at a church around the age of 7. By the time I was a pre-teen, singing was a huge passion for me. I was singing in my mom’s choir, the Spirit of Joy, and as an occasional soloist for my dad’s choir, Echoes of Praise, singing with my sisters in our trio and as a soloist all over the city for worship services, weddings, banquets, and other special events. Singing became a powerful medium for me to express my joy and feelings about my faith and life and I knew that I wanted music to play a large role in my future.
How did your passion turn into a pursuit through education?
My passion for music led me to become involved with school and church programs – school choirs, solo opportunities, musical productions, and leading music ensembles, worship teams and congregations. It was in these types of experiences that I gained confidence as a music leader and soloist and wanted to know more about this art that I loved so much. When applications for university study came around, it felt only natural that I would pursue studies in music given the large role it played in my life. When I first began to study music at the university level, I didn’t quite know exactly where it would take me, I only wanted to know more about music! I had envisioned a life as a concert soloist, travelling the world and singing in large concert venues and I wanted to have all the necessary skills for that dream to happen. My vision of being a solo performer expanded however, as I advanced in music education and began to explore the many paths available to me. My voice teacher during my undergraduate studies, Catherine Robbin, encouraged me to enrol in local competitions and opportunities abroad that would grow me as a musician. These opportunities opened my eyes to the possibilities of becoming a performer, adjudicator, and vocal clinician. After my undergraduate studies, I taught voice privately, and it was here that my love for teaching began. I soon moved to the US to pursue my master’s and doctorate at the University of Illinois. That opportunity provided me with the needed skills to now teach music at the university level.
“I didn’t quite know exactly where it would take me, I only wanted to know more about music!”
How did music lead to travel to other countries?
My music education both as a child in my home and formally in high school and university opened many doors for me. I have always loved my home – Toronto. Growing up in such a musically diverse environment, I developed an appreciation for the music of many cultures and this exposure prepared me for global opportunities. As a music student at the age of 21, I was accepted into a prestigious intensive vocal training program in Wales. This time in my 20s was a fruitful touring season as I was performing in the Caribbean and was also a member of the Toronto-based professional choir, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, who frequently toured internationally. I had become a travelling musician so when the opportunity came to move to Illinois to pursue my master’s and doctorate, I welcomed it. My time in Illinois as a graduate student opened further opportunities for travel throughout the US.
What genre of music do you gravitate to the most?
I love so many different genres of music! My collection is quite eclectic! While I have trouble choosing one genre of music that I gravitate to the most, perhaps it would suffice to describe the many colours that I love on my musical palette. I love listening to ballads and heartfelt outpourings sung by singers with soaring, beautiful voices accompanied by large orchestras. I love a vibrant beat that makes me want to dance, with a bass line that courses through my body. I love smooth, soulful songs sung by singers in sultry, silky tones embedded in rich harmonies from the piano. I love the beautiful interlocking of parts of a mass choir singing a capella in 4-part harmony. I love the rhythmic vibrancy of folk music that tells the story of the daily life of a people through vocal percussion, indigenous instruments, and passionate singing. I can see beauty in all the styles of music I listen to — they all speak to my soul.
What roles has music lead you to?
My musical journey has led me in so many wonderful directions over the years. I have truly enjoyed life as a gospel soloist, a classically trained concert soloist and opera singer, a music professor, and university department director, a choral conductor, worship leader, vocal instructor, and vocal clinician.
I will never forget the moment I laid eyes on them in the audience along with all of my family, smiling and supporting me as I performed.
What was your most memorable performance?
I remember many with fondness but one of my most memorable performances was my Debut Artist performance at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, in Illinois at the completion of my master’s degree. After competing for the Krannert Debut Artist award, I won the competition with the prestigious honour of a large monetary gift to help launch me into my solo career pursuits and an opportunity to give a 2-hour professional solo recital at the esteemed Krannert Center for the Arts. Community members would purchase tickets to come and see my performance and I had about a month to prepare for this large undertaking. I was tasked with singing in multiple languages (German, Italian, French, English, and Spanish), about 25 songs – all memorized! My family let me know that they would all be coming down to Illinois to attend the performance! I was very nervous and excited. Added to all the excitement was a true shock that came while I was on stage performing and looked out to see many of my friends from Toronto in the audience! Imagine my surprise when I found out that they had travelled by car for 14 hours to come and be there for me on this special occasion – all without me knowing! I will never forget the moment I laid eyes on them in the audience along with all of my family, smiling and supporting me as I performed.
What was the most challenging time of your career?
Without a doubt, the most challenging time of my career was when I lost my singing voice from the years 2009-2011. Through a series of stressful life situations, I came from completing my master’s degree in Illinois being named the first-place winner of the Krannert Center Debut Artist award and having my family and friends travel from Toronto to Illinois to attend my live solo recital in the great Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, to months later losing my singing voice almost completely. It was a devastating time as I was beginning my doctoral degree in Vocal Performance in the Fall and had no voice with which to begin my studies. I still chose to pursue my doctoral studies believing it was what I was meant to do. My teachers were patient with me as I could do nothing but pray, reduce stress in my life and wait for God to restore my voice. I spent many days deep breathing, praying, going for walks, do my best with what I had, many hours working through my struggles in music practice rooms and many tears of sadness and frustration. This was a 2- year journey, but through the help, support, and guidance of my trusted vocal professor at the time, Dr. Ollie Watts Davis, my family who was my rock during those years and God’s amazing healing and faithfulness, I regained my singing voice and all of the joy of music-making returned.
How did the relationship with Tyndale begin, and what is your mandate with the program?
My journey to Tyndale is an interesting one! I had just graduated with my doctorate in 2013 and had come back home to Toronto for the summer after having taught for a year at the University of Arkansas while completing the final year of my doctorate in Illinois. Completing your doctorate in one state while working full time as a music professor in another state – I don’t recommend it! It was an incredibly stressful year and at the end of it when I went home for the summer, I became very ill. My body had given up – all that adrenaline from teaching and studying had worn off and my body collapsed. I spent the summer in bed. It was here that I know God wanted me to rest so God could speak to me. I ended up having to resign from my professor job in Arkansas and stayed in Toronto at my parent’s home to rest and recover. During this year at home, I began applying for music professor jobs at the large public universities, but no one was hiring. In the midst of the frustration however, there were constant tugs on my heart from various sources to try applying to Tyndale University College and Seminary (the name of the school at the time). I began to pray about this possibility. I remember going on to Tyndale’s website only to discover that there was no music degree program. There were independent music courses being taught but no degree program available. I remember sitting at my computer with a blank document and filling the screen with a flow of ideas on how to start a music program. This was strange for me as I was a singer and a music prof, not a visionary or Department Head. I soon had a full 4-year plan for a bachelor’s degree in music and went to Tyndale to deliver my proposal to the university President’s office. I had never been to the campus and didn’t know anyone there, but I was determined to share this vision laid on my heart to start a music degree program at Tyndale. Here I am now as the Head of the Tyndale Music Department, and we are now completing our 6th year offering a music and worship arts minor and graduating our first students of the 4-year Bachelor of Arts in Music program! Such an exciting time! Our mandate in the Music Department is to foster an environment where bright musicians are inspired to achieve their fullest potential and to equip our students with the skills necessary to advance professionally in the field of music, becoming successful and purposeful citizens and leaders.
What has been most rewarding in the development of the program?
The most rewarding element of developing a university music program has been the privilege of observing the growth of our students as they have discovered and unveiled their potential as musical artists and leaders. I have seen students enter the program with a sense of their capabilities, and in 4 years have seen them transform in their approach to music, enlightened and awakened by new knowledge and the development of skills they didn’t know they had. Providing an environment where students are set free to awaken and expand their musical gifts for ministry in the Church and for the marketplace has been my incredible joy.
What advice would give to teens deciding on a career path in music?
Aspiring professional musicians, I would advise you to get to know yourself well. Don’t be afraid to spend time alone. Get to know who you are and what your strengths are. Public performance can be very nerve- wracking, and it will require a great deal of confidence and physical stamina.
Develop a relationship with a trusted musical mentor to help guide you in your decision to move forward in music. Know what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do since a life in the arts can take you in many directions. Publicists, promoters, agents, and event planners will present you with opportunities that can sometimes serve their purpose rather than yours, and you can easily get caught up in the glitz and glamour of being an artist and forget what you stand for, robbing you of the full fulfillment of your dreams. A musical career will take courage. Courage to sometimes go the other way when others are enticing you in other directions. Know that there is a unique plan for each of us to fulfill and we are happiest and most satisfied when we know what that plan is, and we follow it with all our heart.