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 Opera Memphis singer Shannon Lowe Redburn! Shannon works with choir students at Hickory Ridge Middle School and Soulsville. In addition to working with MMI youth, Shannon teaches voice lessons, works with the children’s choir at Germantown Presbyterian Church, and teaches music appreciation at the University of Memphis. She recently chatted with MMI about why Memphis is a city like no other, and how her students are continuing to inspire her in quarantine.
I was in choir and involved in music in my early years and in high school. One day, I decided I was going to be a doctor. I went to Texas Christian University and was pre-med. I took biology and chemistry—all that stuff. I did so badly! I was like, “You know what? Perhaps being a doctor is not for me.”
At the time, my boyfriend—who is now my husband—was majoring in music at a university in Illinois. I would get so jealous every time he told me about all the stuff he was doing. And I realized that my life didn’t really feel like my life, as cliché as it sounds. It didn’t feel very complete without music in it, in one way or another. So, I transferred and I started getting a music degree and I’ve never looked back.
My choir students are much more confident than I was when I was in high school, and I really envy that.
I have a student this year who just puts it all out there whenever she sings. She made the decision that she wants to be a singer and she just rolled with it. She worked really hard, applied to a million different schools, and won several scholarships.
I definitely think there are certain students who view music as a hobby. And music is a hobby, especially if you’re not willing to put in all of the effort to be a professional musician. When you pursue music as a career, sometimes you’re really poor and it’s hard. So, I understand students feeling that way. But I always try and tell them my story and talk to them about what it is that’s keeping them from it.
I think that, if you’re willing to do it and you’re willing to put it all out there, like my student that got all those scholarships, you’ll make it.
On Why Memphis is a Music City Like No Other
I’m actually not from Memphis. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and I moved to Memphis in 2017 to start my master’s degree at UMM.
As you pursue a career in music, it often ends up being about the people that you’ve made connections with. And I think that Memphis is a really wonderful place to make musical connections. And so, my first piece of advice to my students is to always to get involved in organizations like MMI, where they can meet people who have amazing connections in recording and producing fields.
I think that’s one of the things that really drew me to this company. Everybody has such varying skills that are all super valuable when it comes to the work that we’re doing. I’ll always point them in the direction of this or that organization, so they can make those connections. To do a summer internship and try and make as many connections as you can within the community, because if it’s something that you really want to pursue, those connections are going to really help bolster you when it comes to finding a job and finding solid income.
Kansas City is always touted also as a really big hub for jazz and for a lot of music. Then I moved to Memphis. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s just a vibrant scene and it’s something I haven’t experienced previously.
On Adjusting to Life under Lockdown
[The pandemic] has been difficult. At the beginning, my students and I started doing some Skype sessions, and they really turned into long talks.
And honestly, it’s really been beneficial for my relationships with the students. I generally feel like I know my them really well, especially after a couple of years working with them. But having the time to talk to them about what’s going on in the world and hear their perspective about a lot of things has been has been very therapeutic for me and, I hope, for them.
When we first went into quarantine, the students were all super happy to not be in school, especially because we sort of started this whole thing on spring break. I think this is kind of how it was for everyone, it was a big anomaly at the beginning. We were like, “Oh, we’ve never done this before.”
And then as it went on, people got increasingly nervous. Lately, the thing I’m hearing most from my students is that a lot of them realize how much that routine meant to them. The routine of being in school and seeing their friends. They miss seeing their friends, being there, doing the activities that they like to do. Also, a lot of my students are trying to help out at home as much as they can—sometimes by working a job.
I think, especially at this point, that all of the students that I’ve talked to are really hoping that the fall will be an in-person situation. I am too. I miss seeing them.
On Where We Go from Here
I think sometimes you need to just take a step back and talk to each other and listen and make connections. That’s sort of what I’ve been doing [during the pandemic]. I’ve lost a decent amount of work this summer, when it comes to performing. I was supposed to be in Bulgaria for all of June, doing an opera.
And with all the travel restrictions and stuff, it’s just been hard. One production got canceled and then another production I was supposed to be in, in Texas, got canceled. So I’m just kind of playing it by ear.
It’s also a little nerve-wracking to figure out what this school year is going to look like when it comes to teaching. A lot of schools are cutting art and music and PE for next year. That’s really scary to me because I know when I was a student, the things I came to school for were art and music. There were days I wanted to stay home sick, then I was like, “Oh no, I have to go because I have a rehearsal for the musical.”
I know a lot of kids that are like that. But regardless of what ends up happening, we move forward.