Hitting the high notes

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Donald Simonson adds his name to the prestigious American Academy of Teachers of Singing member registry.

When Donald Simonson, Morrill professor of music, was initiated into the American Academy of Teachers of Singing last year, he was asked to sign the organization’s “big book,” an illuminated wood cover book signed by every member of the Academy since its founding in 1922.

He was shocked when he opened it.

“I saw the great names of my profession in the last hundred years,” he said. “I was beside myself. Because these are my heroes. Half the books in my personal library here and at home were written by members of the American Academy of Teachers of Singing.”

Membership in the Academy is for life and is limited to 40 people at one time. At present there are 28 members, Simonson said, and nominations must be affirmed by unanimous vote.

“I feel so incredibly humbled,” he said.

Simonson currently chairs the voice division in Iowa State University’s Department of Music and Theatre, where he has taught for 38 years. As a tenor, he has performed with opera companies, symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles around the world. Many of his former students now do the same.

Iowa State was special to Simonson long before it ever became his musical home. His father was a student at Iowa State before World War II and returned after the war to earn a master’s degree. Every Tuesday night when his dad had class, Simonson would tag along.

“It was a different time, but he let me roam the campus when I was 13,” Simonson said. “It was a magical place. Every night when WOI television would sign off, they signed off with an Iowa State Singers recording of the Bells of Iowa State. And so I knew the Bells of Iowa State probably before I knew the national anthem.”

Decades later, Iowa State is still a magical place for him.

“I’ve loved every minute of it because I have incredible students who are thirsty for what I have and aren’t put off when I say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s find out,’” he said. “I have incredible colleagues who are at the top of their game as teachers, scholars and performers. I’m humbled being in the midst of these people. I love having people who are intelligent, scholarly and creative around me. It inspires me, and hopefully some of it rubs off on me.”

“If I were in a profession that made millions of dollars, this is where it would all go back to,” he added.

Instead, Simonson gives back to his profession, something he has done throughout his career, including serving as President of the National Association of Teachers of Singing.

“My former teacher Berton Coffin once sat me down and told me, ‘Make sure that you invest yourself into your associations and into your department. Don’t just be a taker. Be a giver,’” Simonson said. “That resonated quite strongly with me, and I’ve tried to do that. I’ve tried to always be willing to serve my colleagues and associations and students as best I can.”

Since his initiation, Simonson has traveled regularly to New York City where the Academy meets monthly to discuss topics relevant to the profession. They are currently finishing a position paper on digital access to music literature.

“You may see lots of people with folders full of photocopies with every song under the sun, and every page is a $10,000 violation of copyright law,” Simonson said. “You are allowed to copy ten percent of a performable unit, so if you have a song by Schubert and it’s 40 measures long, you can copy four measures. It’s a forgotten fact.”

Many students and accompanists would love to be able to perform from digital music and maintain copyright, rather than bring multiple music books to competitions, Simonson said. The Academy hopes to start a national conversation about how to improve digital access to music literature without harming revenues that allow publishers to continue purchasing and publishing new music.

Digital access is a challenge the Academy’s founders may not have imagined back in 1922—but it is the type of professional and ethical issue the organization was created to address.

“I think I’m member 313 in 94 years,” Simonson said. “I only hope I can live up to the standard.”

If he represents the Academy half as well as he represents Iowa State, it’s certain he will deliver a noteworthy performance.

“As a singer, my job is to tell stories, and if you hear a good story, it’s easy to tell,” he said. “Iowa State is a really good story.”