Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series featuring our amazing teaching artists. Not only do MMI Fellows lend their talents to supporting and engaging Memphis youth all over the city, but they also help build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects. 

Today, meet singer Marcus King! Marcus has performed in gospel groups, operas, and more around the world. He sings baritone for Opera Memphis. Currently, Marcus works with MMI youth at Southwind High School, Cordova High School, and Ridgeway High School, in addition to serving as an adjunct voice instructor at Rhodes College. Marcus recently chatted with MMI about how he encourages students to find their voices, how he’s coping with quarantine, and why access to the arts is so important. 

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I’m from Memphis, Tennessee. I am a classically trained opera singer, a baritone.

Music has been in my life all of my life because of church. Before I knew anything, I was in church singing or sitting behind my dad while he played the organ.

But I didn’t get really serious about singing until high school.

I was in the band in middle school and I enjoyed that. I played the trumpet. But when I got to high school, I left the band. At the time it was just too expensive—too much is too much of a commitment for my folks. But I liked to sing, too, so I joined choir.

I didn’t know I would like being in choir that much, but once I got in, I really enjoyed it.

Around that same time, I started singing in my youth group, a worship team at church. I felt a strong urge—it was a spiritual thing—to share my gift of singing at church. And that just translated to school as well.

 

On realizing the possibilities

I didn’t decide to pursue singing professionally until my junior year of college.

In fact, I went to college to major in music education, because I wanted to be a choir teacher. I took voice to fulfill my requirements. Now, during high school, I was just in the choir. I wasn’t a star in high school by any stretch of the imagination. I just enjoyed singing in the choir somewhere in the background.

It wasn’t until college that I started to sing by myself a lot, taking private lessons and having to get up in front of people on a regular basis. So junior year, my voice teacher pushed me to do the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. They came to Memphis for the district level auditions. My teacher had suggested that I try out, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. The morning of the audition, I got a call from her telling me to get my butt to the school—as in, you’re on in about an hour and a half. So, I quickly got my songs together but didn’t think anything of it. I just assumed everybody else was 10 times better than me. And lo and behold, I won the encouragement award that year.

That was the moment I knew that people other than my teachers thought I had something of value.

 

On helping students discover their voice

As a teacher now myself, I like to push my students to do things that they’ve probably never done before.

If I see something in them that I know that they would excel at, even if they’re a bit nervous about it, I encourage them to pursue it anyway. I let them know that they are very much capable of doing it.

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is getting to know the students. I like knowing that they’re getting that one-on-one time. That’s what’s missing in public school because schools are so big and there are so many students. The one-on-one time is so important for students to feel like they can express themselves in the way they want to express themselves. So, even if they love choir class with me, they have the opportunity to dig a little deeper—into art history, for instance. I enjoy watching them going through that process. And I see their confidence level increase. That’s a great feeling.

There was one student from Cordova where I teach who had a great talent. But he had some physical limitations because of an accident he had had. It was preventing him from projecting and using his body freely while he sang. We really worked on that. Eventually, he started singing freely and singing high notes all the time. And I could tell that that really helped him immensely with his confidence. It helped him get out of his head. I believe he has a full ride somewhere for college now, for music.

 

On adapting and accepting

[For singers in quarantine] it’s rough out here. Usually, I sing a lot with opera around town, at church events, or in concerts that come up during the summertime. I try to venture out and do a resident program somewhere. I’ve been in Utah, New York, and overseas in England, Austria, Japan, and Italy.

I was supposed to make my Carnegie hall debut this month, which was cancelled. It was very frustrating, but I’ve gotten used to it by now.

Through my job at Rhodes, I’ve got about 10 students. I’m able to work from home with them. It’s not the perfect scenario, but I’m able to do it.

Opera Memphis has also been hosting events online. We did an event last week on Facebook in celebration of William Shakespeare’s birthday. Some people did Kiss Me, Kate, West Side Story, and other art that has been inspired by William Shakespeare.

 

On equitable access to the arts

There are 13, 15 theater companies here in town. So, there are opportunities to get on the stage and get that experience under your belt. Unfortunately, there are fewer opportunities to get paid well, which is the frustrating part.

The kids I serve, in black and brown communities, don’t always know about when an audition at Theatre Memphis is, or when an audition at the Playhouse is coming up. The big theaters really need to start having healthier relationships with these communities. Having relationships with kids who don’t look like their board members.

We need to get these communities involved.

What I see, being in the performing arts community here, is that I can be in a room, in a sea full of people, and I’m the only one who looks like me. In a place like Memphis.

To young people, I say go for it. It is not going to be easy getting there, and you have to be determined. But go for it anyway.