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Life & Work with Dr. Erica Simmons

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Erica Simmons.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I am from the South Memphis, TN, the only child of Eric Dwayne Simmons and Shirlaine Denise Merriweather (formerly Simmons). I grew up in the church around music. My entire family on my father’s side sang and both parents played several instruments. My mother was the organist for our church, a position I would later inherit at the age of 12. Both of my parents played saxophone as well as composed their own songs. I wrote my first song at the age of 8, and I always thought I would be a commercial artist. However, I was told that I could not “sing.” That is to say, I could not sing “black music” because my voice was not suited for the demanding belting of the gospel or RnB. Thus, I grew up most of my childhood believing I could not sing.

It was not until I was in middle school that I saw my choir teacher who was a black woman. She had such a beautiful operatic voice and I was mesmerized. I did not know black people could sing opera. I remembered reading about Marian Anderson as a child in my grandmother’s encyclopedia, but to see one in-person was mind-blowing. I never took voice lessons though because my parents couldn’t afford it, nor would they have known to do so. I never properly learned how to read music until college or had anyone nurture that gift. It was by a mere whim that I auditioned at my undergraduate school, Middle Tennessee State University for the voice department. I initially had enrolled in the recording industry degree plan. To my surprise, I was accepted. From there, I began to get roles and travel to summer opera programs in Italy and Austria. It was an uphill fight that I am still climbing, but I am grateful I never gave up. There were innumerable doors slammed in my face to lead me to the open door of making my career, solo debut at the Winspear Opera House in the AT&T Performing Arts Center. I’m so very grateful to Dr. Stephen Morscheck, Dr. Samantha Dapcic, Dr. Bethany Mamola, and Agostina Migoni.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
The road has had potholes, detours, closed roads, and obstacles. When you are black in white spaces, there is no room for error, no room for humanity. When there is such a small selection of black singers that “make it,” you are constantly compared to them as the litmus test for your success. I have been told in auditions by directors who did not know me that I was trying to be too regal like Leontyne Price. One director told me to “be myself” and not to try to “speak so properly.” His implication was clear. “You are code switching, and I want you to talk black.” This same director cast me, a high soprano, in a role for a contralto because he said he could see me being raunchy and using profanity and that he did not buy the innocent and pure act I “portrayed.” Another director did not believe I would be suitable for a particular role because he thought I was too voluptuous to be seen as innocent. Being black in these spaces means contorting yourself to be more palatable for white audiences and directors while simultaneously trying to “be yourself.” It’s exhausting.

Notwithstanding, I have had to overcome crippling imposter syndrome, depression, anxiety. After my bachelor’s degree, I was not accepted into a single school. I had to move back home and work a 9-5 at the IRS. Everyday I spent in my cubicle, I felt farther and farther away from my dreams, but I never stopped dreaming.

As I stated, I did not have the luxury of being formally educated in musical literacy until I got to college. By then, I was already behind my peers. Even now, I struggle with sight-singing on the most elite level. It has only been my tenacity and work ethic that has gotten me this far.

Lastly, I was looked over for major roles at almost every school I attended except MTSU. I never once received a music scholarship or assistantship. Therefore, it is quite ironic to be booked from now until February 2022 with several companies. Never give up.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I’m an adjunct professor of voice at Tarrant County College. I recently graduated from the University of North Texas with a doctorate in Vocal Performance. I am most proud of the self-work I have done. This is a brutal profession. Yes, you must have thick skin, but you must also invest in your mental and physical health. You must learn to redefine what being successful means on your own terms. I am also very proud of completing my obligations as a McNair Scholar. I think I’m known in some spaces for my work ethic and intuitive passion when performing….at least I’d like to think so!

I think what sets me apart from others is my proximity to failure and my empathic nature. It was not so long ago that I remember what rejection and denial felt like. Remembering where I come from, even as far as being told I could not sing, helps me be a better educator, performer, and human being.

Do you any memories from childhood that you can share with us?
My favorite childhood memories are when my cousin used to visit for the summers. We would play Princesses and dress up for our family in old scarves, hats or whatever we could get our hands on. We would “model” our creations in little fashions shows for our family. I loved playing dress up and using my imagination to be someone else. To some degree, that’s pretty much what I do for a living now!

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Image credits: Doug Klembura, Ryan Scott Lathan, Reginald Miller

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