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Writer: By Eric Marchese

From a musical family, Sara McFerrin becomes a great soloist, passionate voice teacher, and more

It could easily be said that Sara McFerrin was almost destined to make a career that revolved around music, the one area where so many generations of her family, both preceding and following her, had – and have – always shown interest, skill and talent.

It’s also almost uncanny that Sara McFerrin wound up becoming a singer, teacher and part of the medical profession – uncanny in that as a child, she had dreamed of careers in three areas: teaching, performing, and nursing. Her fame and accomplishments as a lyric soprano of opera and oratorio launched a 20-year career as a teacher when Fullerton College hired her in the early 1970s.

‘A household filled with music’

Sara was born Sara Copper in Washington, DC, on September 10, 1924, an only child who grew up in “a household filled with music.” Her mother and grandmother played piano, and her mother was an alto and her father a bass in their church choirs. Sara recalls that every Sunday, after attending church services, the family would have an early dinner, then gather around grandmother’s piano to sing.

Sara began studying piano at age seven, attending school in the D.C. area, including Dunbar High School and Howard University, where she selected piano as her major and voice as her minor. The only hitch, she said, was that she was “not very good playing Bach Inventions,” so when the music department dean suggested she switch her major to voice and her minor to piano, she readily did so.

Voice, however, was no more “easy” than piano: “What I didn’t realize,” Sara notes, “was that (in voice studies) you have to learn how to breathe, and you have to learn foreign language diction and correct English diction. So it was not as easy as I thought, but it was fun, and it was a challenge.”

Years later, in 1959, a friend at Wittenberg University offered to sell Sara his vintage 1901 Steinway grand piano for $1,000. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse, even though she didn’t have enough to make the purchase – so she sold her own piano for $600 and came up with enough to complete the transaction. She had the piano for some 50 years. She eventually parted with it – reluctantly so – when she downsized from her home to a one-bedroom apartment with less room for her belongings.

While still an undergrad at Howard, Sara met Helen Thigpen, a New York City-based opera singer. After hearing Sara sing, Thigpen invited her to come to New York to study with her teacher, Winifred Steed Watson. So the 19-year-old left home and college for the big city, where she began voice studies with Watson.

While studying both voice and piano, Sara also worked as a soloist at St. Marks Methodist Church and, on her own, taught piano. Of note was her work in several performances of a Carnegie Hall production of “La Traviata.”

Despite often steady work singing, Sara found she wasn’t able to support herself on her voice alone. Her first major job was in New York City in the advertising department of IBM, where she worked as secretary to three lady copywriters and also gave demonstrations of any new IBM typewriter at conferences and meetings.

Enter Robert McFerrin

One night, Sara attended a party where she met Robert McFerrin, a singer who had also come to New York seeking a musical career. Sara says that “right then,” she fell in love with the handsome baritone who was 3½ years her senior. The couple’s friendship soon turned to dating, then romance and marriage.

On March 26, 1949, Sara became Mrs. Robert McFerrin. A year later, son Robert McFerrin, Jr., was born, and after another 17 months – in August of 1951 – the McFerrin family welcomed daughter Brenda. Both children followed their parents into musical careers: Robert, Jr., better known as Bobby McFerrin, established himself as a recording artist, composer and conductor with hit songs like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Brenda was a top studio recording artist during the 1980s.

When first married, the young couple lived in an apartment in Manhattan – “and it was a one-bedroom, just as I’m living in now,” Sara says with a chuckle. With the arrival of their first child, son Bobby, the McFerrins moved to a larger apartment over a street-level restaurant on E. Seventh Street. Daughter Brenda’s arrival heralded another move, this time to Riverside Drive, where the McFerrins were neighbors to Marian Anderson, the legendary African American contralto. Sara became acquainted with Anderson, whom, she noted, “was always very proper and always very pleasant.”

Once married, Sara left her job at IBM to work transcribing interviews for the New York State commission on discrimination in housing. Robert McFerrin has always credited Sara with not only having supported the family as he was launching his singing career, but also having been his accompanist and rehearsal pianist, helping him learn new pieces for each new singing job. Just the same, Sara didn’t ignore her own singing career. While at IBM, she was cast in various Broadway musicals. More informally, she and Robert were soloists in the choir at St. Marks.

The McFerrins’ first major job was in the 1950 touring cast of the Broadway show “Lost in the Stars,” a 1949 musical based on Alan Paton’s 1948 novel “Cry, the Beloved Country.” Knowing they’d be on the road for most of the year, the young couple sent son Bobby to live with his grandparents.

In 1953, Robert became the first African-American to win the Metropolitan Opera’s “Auditions of the Air.” The typical winner received six months of training plus a contract to sing at the Met. No black had ever received a Met solo contract, so in lieu of a contract, Robert was given 13 months of training. Met leader Sir Rudolf Bing invited Robert (along with Marian Anderson) to sing on the Met stage in January of 1955. He later made his Met debut in the role of Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia, in Verdi’s “Aida.” Robert thus became the first African-American to sing a title role at the Met and to sing with both the Met and the New York City Opera. He later sang several performances in the title role of “Rigoletto,” and in 1956, he became the first black Rigoletto at the San Carlo Opera in Naples.

Hollywood beckons the McFerrins

In 1958, Samuel Goldwyn began production on a new film version of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” Sara says that many New York managers sent tapes of their baritones to the studio in hopes of landing them jobs on the film. Hired to dub all of Sidney Poitier’s singing in the role of Porgy, Robert went ahead to Southern California first, reporting back to Sara such surprises as the fact that Los Angeles traffic would stop for pedestrians, unheard of in New York City, telling her “you need to come out and see this!” Soon afterwards, Sara and the children left New York by car. Sara left Robert, Jr., and Brenda in St. Louis with her husband’s sister, then continued on to the West Coast. She reached Los Angeles in March of 1958, the couple moved to Laurel Canyon, and Sara landed work alongside her husband, as a soprano in “Porgy and Bess.”

Still in New York, Sara transferred her young children to a Lutheran school in St. Louis, drove them to St. Louis to be with Robert, Sr.’s, family, then continued on to California, sharing the cross-country drive with a friend. She arrived during a rainstorm. When the skies cleared the next day, Sara said she knew she liked California. As icing on the cake of her feeling comfortable in her new home state, Sara landed a job in the chorus of the “Porgy and Bess” film. The young McFerrin family, reunited when kids Bobby and Brenda joined their parents in Southern California, moved to Laurel Canyon, just two miles from the studio where Sara was shooting the film. When studio filming wrapped, Sara and other cast members traveled to Northern California for location shooting for “Porgy and Bess” – but Robert was off on a concert tour in South America.

On the movie set every day, Sara had plenty of opportunities to observe the film’s stars. She notes that Poitier’s singing was “certainly okay, but almost a monotone.” Cast in the role of Sportin’ Life was Sammy Davis, Jr.. Sara said the now-legendary entertainer “kidded around a lot” but also performed a 90-minute solo show at a nightclub in Hollywood especially for the cast of “Porgy and Bess.” And although the McFerrins and the film’s other vocalists finished their work that summer, fire destroyed the film’s sets, preventing its completion until nearly the end of 1958.

A New York Times review of the film praised Robert McFerrin’s “sensitive and strong” singing. Meantime, Sara and Robert set up a vocal studio in Los Angeles, where they began teaching.

Sara’s first singing job in Southern California was with Dr. James H. Vail at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, which later became the co-cathedral of the church’s Los Angeles diocese. Sara says that Dr. Vail, who was head of the Church and Choral Music Department at USC, was “so important in my life. We did at least three major concerts a year of all of the major choral works – the Verdi Requiem, Mozart and more.” Sara later began singing at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Westwood after Dr. Vail’s move there in the late ’60s. Even once she had come to Fullerton College, she would drive to Los Angeles after teaching all day in Fullerton.

Sara’s next major film job was as a church choir singer in the 1960 Hollywood film “Elmer Gantry.” But her primary income, which supported the entire family, came not from the entertainment industry, but from the medical profession: In 1960, Sara landed a job as an administrative secretary to the head of the Neurology Department at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital.

At the same time, Sara also began to lend her expertise in voice as an adjudicator to a wide variety of local and national vocal competitions for the Metropolitan Opera, National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) artist auditions, the San Francisco Opera, the Southern California Opera Guild and the Viktor Fuchs Scholarship Award Auditions.

Throughout her many years working at the hospital, Sara continued her career as a singer in numerous and diverse capacities. Her schedule included working as a solo recitalist on both coasts and a soloist in major oratorio and cantata performances with symphony orchestras and in television specials. In the mid-1960s, she auditioned for a role in the cast of the Greek Theatre’s production of “Tosca.” Unbeknownst to Sara, famed soprano Dorothy Kirsten, the show’s star, was present at Sara’s audition. After Sara was hired for the show, she and Kirsten became friends.

All along, both of Sara’s children took music lessons. Bobby, who had already started piano in New York at age five and whose musical talents were budding, continued his piano while also studying cello, flute and clarinet. Brenda took piano and violin as well as ballet lessons and later toured Europe with cabaret-style shows and became a successful big band singer.

From Sara’s grandmother through Bobby’s daughter, who now studies at the acclaimed Berklee College of Music in Boston, Sara McFerrin and her family comprise five generations whose lives have been touched by music – and who, in turn, have given back to the world through their musical talents.

In the late 1960s, Sara’s marriage to Robert McFerrin ended, amicably, in a divorce in the early 1970s. After their split, Robert, Sr., returned to his native St. Louis. While still working at Children’s Hospital, Sara arrived home one evening in 1973 to find that son Bobby had taken an important message from Gwendolyn Wyatt.

Door to Fullerton College swings open

Wyatt, a friend of Sara’s who taught at Beverly Hills High School, had been offered the position in the Music Department at Fullerton College. Not wanting to lose tenure at her current job, she recommended Sara for the opening.

The next day, Sara called Ken Helvey, F.C.’s Dean of Fine Arts, and made an appointment to meet with him. During her first interview, she met Helvey and fellow Music Department Chairman Nelson Bonar. For her second visit to the college, Sara completed an application, continued the interview, and sang an aria.

After being offered the job, which combined teaching voice and other subjects, Sara was asked by Dr. Phil Borst, President of Fullerton College, how she would do moving from the worlds of entertainment and medicine to that of academia. Her answer typifies her precision: “It’s going to take some discipline,” she said, “and it’s going to be interesting, different, and a real challenge – but I can do it.” She later said “I knew that I really had to do a good job, and I really didn’t know how I was going to do that. It was a different kind of discipline. I knew I could, but it just took some time to think it through.”

Coming to Fullerton College wouldn’t be Sara’s first experience stepping into the world of academia. Throughout the 1960s and into the early ’70s, while still working at Children’s Hospital, she had taught voice as a part-time adjunct professor at California State University, Long Beach. She also taught a course at Pasadena City College on the history of black music. But the opening at F.C. was a full-time position.

Sara started out with Fullerton College as a part-time faculty member in 1973, moving into a full-time role the following year. She was the only full-time faculty member who was also an active professional vocalist, and during her 20 years there – 17 years as Voice Department Chair, then three more as Music Department Chair – she was something of a celebrity on campus.

For her curriculum, Sara stuck to the classical repertory “plus some American art songs and folk songs.” One thing she told all voice students was that “If you learn the correct technique, you can sing anything, because singing correctly saves the voice. No matter what you might venture off into, you will know how to use the voice correctly; you will know things that you need to do to make a different kind of sound – and that is the reason you study voice, because you need to learn how the body works.”

While at F.C., Sara was one of only two full-time faculty members teaching voice (the other being the Choral Department Chair) and was coordinator of the Vocal Studies program, teaching such courses as Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced Voice, Beginning Piano and Music Appreciation. She says the intermediate and advanced voice courses emphasized correct articulation in such languages as Italian, German and French while also helping singers develop the correct technique. “You have to look the part,” Sara says, noting that she taught such elements as posture, correct breathing, presentation and stage presence.

Sara found the faculty members at F.C. “delightful,” “very friendly,” and “so super that I know they were really helping students advance.” Over the course of her time at F.C., she noticed distinct changes in the music department. When she first arrived, the department was “like a big musical family,” holding occasional informal Friday afternoon parties.

Sara notes that Fullerton College “really keeps up with the necessities of working with students and helping them develop to be the best that they can possibly be, and to excel in whatever their field might be,” a sense she said was confirmed by her contact “with teachers in other departments.”

Being at Fullerton College, she said, brought “wonderfully interesting and challenging things” into her life. One semester, she received an invitation to be a Visiting Professor in Voice at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK. When she saw Dr. Borst on campus the next day, she approached him and said she needed to speak with him to get his approval for her to accept the invitation.

She recalls that Borst, who rarely smiled, looked at her with a straight face and said “I don’t think I’m going to approve it.” Sara said she felt only one thing: shock. Since Borst wasn’t smiling, she thought he was dead serious – and dead-set against her going to Oklahoma. Her reaction? “I felt my insides turn to fire.”

After a few seconds, Sara reminded herself that Borst didn’t smile much at anything – and he was playing with her. At the same moment, Borst told Sara “Of course I’ll approve it! It would be wonderful for you to do that, and you’d be representing Fullerton College. By all means, go!”

Go she did, not only taking the visiting professorship but also conducting master classes there. All the while, she racked up a dizzying array of teaching and coaching activity – as an adjunct faculty member at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, conducting master classes at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, San Diego University and many others.

In addition to teaching and coaching, Sara’s performance profile was also kept alive during her time at Fullerton College. During the 1980s, she performed in a total of four concert productions of “Porgy and Bess,” all conducted by son Bobby. In the late 1990s, she again sang under his direction – this time in an east-coast performance of the Fauré Requiem.

A stern but compassionate judge

In fact, Sara says she was frequently “involved with things away from the college.” A key activity was her work adjudicating operatic auditions. Perhaps the most prestigious of which were the western region (California, Arizona, Nevada and Illinois) auditions of the Metropolitan Opera Company’s annual contest, where Sara served as an adjudicator for the district, semi-final and final auditions.

“The voice juries at the end of the semester are when students give their best for the voice faculty. I took juries seriously.” She recalls a specific incident in which it was apparent to her that a young singer wasn’t giving a full 100‰ effort to her performance. She spoke frankly to the student, telling her “This couldn’t possibly be your best – and, so, I can’t say that you would pass.”

Sara has said that her dedication to holding her students to the highest possible standard seemed to accomplish only one thing: “I got the reputation of being mean,” something that made her feel sadness because she only had each student’s best interests at heart. Most of the time, though, her students “straightened up. They began to say, ‘You had better know your music, because Sara McFerrin’s gonna say awful things to you.’ The only ‘awful thing’ I ever said was ‘You’re not prepared for your jury.’”

Sara says she also tried to warn students who were about to transfer to a university from Fullerton College regarding how much more demanding it would be in comparison with a two-year school and that they had better be prepared.

Whether in the classroom, on an adjudicating panel or as a private coach, Sara has always characterized herself as having always been “somewhat impatient” and “demanding” of her students – but “demanding” in a constructive way intended to help students reach their full potential. “Students need to learn to listen to their professors and teachers – to be good listeners, even if they disagree with what the instructor is saying to them. Students need to have respect, and that’s what many of them don’t have, because they probably aren’t taught that in their homes, and I wish they were.”

Retirement and beyond: Busier than ever

When, in 1993, Sara submitted her retirement from Fullerton College, she was asked to stay at least another year. She gave a quick yet candid response: “I’m exhausted.” Upon her retirement, Sara received the Staff of Distinction award from the school and was granted the title of Professor Emerita of music.

But leaving a place that had been such an integral part of her life for 20 years wasn’t easy. “When I first left, I was quite sad,” Sara relates. “The first full year” after she left, she notes that “I didn’t want to drive by there because it made me sad.” Returning to the campus for occasional visits didn’t help. Most of her colleagues had also left, leaving Sara to feel “like I didn’t belong.”

For many years after leaving Fullerton College, Sara led a busy life – and had a very full and varied schedule. She continued to teach music. She was on the boards of numerous arts groups, from the Pacific Chorale and Opera Pacific to Fullerton’s Muckenthaler Cultural Center. She sang occasionally at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Fullerton, often coaching other singers.

Another area that kept Sara busy after having left F.C. was her work as a voice teacher and vocal coach wherein she worked closely with singers “on diction, interpretation, appearance, facial energies, musical phrasing, where to take breaths and, if it’s an operatic role, on their character.”

Yet another crucial way in which Sara gave back to the community upon retiring was through her service on various boards, committees and organizations. She is presently a member of the Pacific Chorale’s board of directors and serves on its education committee. She was on the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s board of directors, working with its Community Outreach Educational Committee, and was a member-at-large of the chorale’s Associates. She worked as a consultant for the BEEM Foundation, an organization that contributes to scholarships for young performers. Closer to home, Sara worked as a member of the Crittenton Home Fine Arts Committee and an associate member of the Assistance League of Fullerton. While serving on the board of directors of Opera Pacific in Orange County, she chaired the Community Relations Committee and worked with the Repertory committee.

For her many achievements, Sara is listed in “Who’s Who”: in “The International Who’s Who in Music” and in “The International Who’s Who in Black America.” In a 1999 interview with The Orange County Register, she stated, “I always say you should be learning until you breathe your last breath.”

Sara said that what she has always enjoyed about the process is “finding something positive to say to these singers, or for me to write to them – because it’s very discouraging if a singer gets up and gives the best that he or she can do and for you to say negative things, which some of the judges do. I did have to say some negatives too – for example, something that they needed to work on – but I tried to say what the potential was if they worked hard.”

She advises students about to enter college today to develop the courage of their convictions – “certainly, the courage to defend the things that you think are right, that you believe in. And, it’s okay to disagree with your professors.” Just the same, she urges students to “be open to new ideas” and to “show respect for each other and certainly for all of your teachers – don’t have an ‘attitude’.” Finally, some common-sense advice: “If a class doesn’t work for you, transfer to another.”

Long after leaving Fullerton College, Sara’s love of music and her passion for helping others develop their vocal skills propelled her to work countless hours working with singers and public speakers in her private studio. Many of her former students went on to enjoy notable careers with the Metropolitan Opera Company, the New York City Opera, Opera Pacifica, the San Francisco Opera, Eugene Opera and Utah Opera.

Despite Sara McFerrin’s many accomplishments, she had in past years frequently felt that she hadn’t “done anything special” while at Fullerton College. A therapist set her straight on that: “You didn’t have to do anything special,” he told her. “You were yourself, and that’s what your students saw in you – that genuine quality that you have.”

Her skill, talent and boundless enthusiasm for vocal excellence will always live on through the hundreds (thousands?) of lives she has touched. She fondly relates anecdotes regarding those who passed through the doors of Fullerton College and enrolled in her courses. We can only guess how many of these were aware that they were being guided by an expert in the many areas related to voice – and someone so modest as to shrug off decades of glowing accolades.

A tale of two students

Part of the challenge of running a classroom? “You get such different personalities in these students – they want some hope and they want some direction, and that’s what you have to try (to give).

Each semester, on the second day of class, Sara McFerrin would ask her students to bring in something to sing so she could hear and evaluate their singing voices. “This young lady, an attractive girl, got up and sang very well,” she recalls, “and I was thinking, ‘What a talent. She can really do something with her voice.’”

The next class, Sara told her students, “I’m going to make some comments about what I think about your singing and the kinds of things I think we need to work on to help you improve.” When the same young lady got up to sing, Sara said she “stopped her to try to correct something, and when she stopped her again with yet another comment, the student “frowned, but then she corrected it.”

With the third halt, the student grew huffy, telling Sara “I don’t know why you find so much wrong with my voice. I did all of the singing in high school.” Sara said “Of course you did, because of your beautiful voice – but what you need to do is to learn how to use it correctly so that it will improve. Well, she stepped off of the stage, picked up her things, and left the class – and of course she didn’t come back. I thought ‘What a shame, because she has talent.’”

Another recollection is a night class Sara taught called “Operatic & Oratorio Arias,” a class she said attracted “people who come prepared to sing – and they really did.” One of her students was future Metropolitan Opera soprano Deborah Voigt.

When Sara first heard Voigt sing, she told the young lady, “What a magnificent voice! Why are you taking this class?” Voigt replied that she wanted to sing oratorio and opera – and to take a class from Sara McFerrin. When Sara learned that Voigt was planning to transfer to Cal. State University at Fullerton, she recommended Voigt study with Professor Jane Paul Hummel, a “very knowledgeable” voice teacher. Not long after, in 1985, Voigt became the finalist of the Met National Council Auditions for Young Singers. She made her Carnegie Hall debut three years later and her Metropolitan Opera debut three years after that – and has been a Met star ever since.