July 31, 2013
“When you hear him sing you can only say, "My God is that coming from him?"
– Dr. Leroy Roberson
Bishop State Community College student James Austin was only six years old when he sang his first solo with his church choir at St. John’s Deliverance Temple in Mobile. “I was so afraid,” the now 31-year-old Mobile resident recalled. This fall he will be attending the University of Arizona on a full scholarship.
To Austin, everyone in his family was musically inclined, except him. Even members of his church saw the talent within him and constantly praised him for his singing. But Austin wasn’t interested in singing. “I just wanted to go to school and get good grades,” he recalled.
But church members and Austin’s mother wouldn’t give up on encouraging him to sing. He recalled a moment when his mother, who was a singer herself, discovered just how talented her son was. “My mom overheard me singing to gospel music in the car and she realized I had a talent,” he recalled. Still, he didn’t see a future in music.
Austin recalled a day when he was home sick from school; while his mother was cleaning house, he was determined to see if he really could sing. So as the vacuum cleaner hummed in the house, he played and sang to the music of his favorite singers – Faith Evans, Toni Braxton and the late jazz singer Phyllis Hyman. “I tried to mimic and feel the way they did when they sang,” he remembered.
Though he started singing more in church, Austin was still determined that he didn’t want to pursue a singing career. By the time he entered the seventh grade, his desire was to become a history or English teacher.
Still, he continued to perform solos at church in Mobile as a young boy. “Everybody was saying, ‘You are great,” recalled Austin. Still, he didn’t have the confidence in his talent.
While singing a solo in church in Los Angeles one Sunday, two women visiting the church were there scouting Austin as a possible student at the school where they taught. The women, who were with the prestigious Music Academy in Los Angeles, were impressed with Austin’s talent. He later attended the Music Academy in Los Angeles where he earned “A’s” on his performances. He eventually got the chance to sing with the Academy’s concert choir. It was a turning point as a musician for Austin. “I had so much fun,” said Austin, acknowledging that singing spiritual songs in his church “started me on the road.”
Watching opera singers Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle perform on PBS led Austin to consider singing opera. One of his fondest memories was landing his first solo at the Music Academy. He completed his studies at the school in 1999.
By 2011, his mother became sick so he decided to put things on the back burner and stay home to take care of her. She died that same year. As the oldest of four children, Austin became the head of the house. The family lived on welfare and Austin earned extra money cleaning yards and houses and doing janitorial work at his church.
There was a 12-year gap between the time he moved to Mobile until he decided to enroll in college. He earned a full music scholarship to Bishop State. The music teachers at Bishop State began to take notice of Austin’s talent.
Michael Poellnitz, who is a music instructor and the band director at Bishop State, discovered Austin in his Music Appreciation Class and introduced him to Beverly Little, the choral director at Bishop State.
Little said she was impressed after Austin’s audition. So much so, she recommended that he receive a two-year scholarship with the school’s Choral Department. “I worked with James, developing and moving him from baritone range to tenor,” recalled Little.
When Austin returned to Bishop State in the fall of 2012, Little introduced the young man to solo classical music. Prior to that time he was singing only R&B and gospel music. Little said she challenged Austin to sing tenor recitative and aria from “Handel’s Messiah.” “He did extremely well,” said the choral director.
Little wanted to move him into vocal music and have him work with Dr. Leroy Roberson, a local voice instructor, who could coach Austin in different languages, including Italian and German. Roberson was initially reluctant because he had been retired for five years. “When I did hear him, I knew there was something there to work with,” recalled Roberson, who came out of retirement to help Austin. “He had a tremendous potential. He was a quick learner,” said Roberson. “When you hear him sing you can only say, “My God is that coming from him?”
“I thought he was very eager to find out many things he did not know musically and that thirst to want to grasp everything he could because he wanted to be an opera singer,” said Roberson, who was so impressed with Austin’s talent he got him an audition at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “I had to plead with her to take him,” he recalled of one of the music instructors at the university. With the financial help of faculty and staff at Bishop State, Austin finally got the chance to go Arizona for two days and performed a German piece for the music teachers. The audition led to a full scholarship.
Auditioning at the school in Arizona has helped his chances of one day performing with the Metropolitan Opera, Roberson said. “Music teachers at Arizona prepare their students for the Metropolitan Opera every year. If James listens to the instructions, he will go far,” said Roberson.
Little said Austin is “learning techniques quickly.” And one of the important things she has noticed is that he is “gaining his confidence.”
“He has a bright future ahead,” said Little.
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