American Academy of Teachers of Singing adds ISU vocal professor


Courtesy of Welleschick

One of Simonson’s more memorable venues was the Musikverein, which is located in Austria. Mozart, Beethoven and other great artists had their first performances here.

Mike Burvee

The American Academy of Teachers of Singing is a prestigious group. There are only 28 current members, and one of them is ISU vocal music professor Donald Simonson. Simonson has been at Iowa State for almost 40 years, but his journey did not begin there.

Although both his father and brother were graduates of Iowa State, Simonson decided to be different. His journey started at Drake University, where he got two undergraduate degrees as well as a master’s degree.

His path then led him across Europe, where he sang professionally at some of the more popular venues in the history of music.

“One of the venues I was able to perform at was the Musikverein, which is Austria’s version of Carnegie Hall. This is the place that venerated Mozart, Beethoven, Heiden and all the other great artists.” Simonson said. “I liked performing in the other historic opera houses and theaters throughout Europe.”

When Simonson was back in the states he visited the ISU campus to see some of the faculty who he knew. He was asked to sing solo as a tenor vocalist at an upcoming concert. After the performance, the choral director approached Simonson and essentially offered him a job to be on the ISU choral staff.

In his early years of teaching, Simonson also toured throughout Europe to sing internationally until, after a few years, Iowa State offered him tenure for his current position.

“I started off teaching in a building that would now lie between Beardshear and Pearson Hall. There was a temporary little wooden building there called Building F. That’s where the music library and the piano and voice [staff] all had their offices, before the current Music Hall was finished being built,” Simonson said.

Simonson said if he had not pursued his career in vocal music teaching, he would have tried his hand at physics. After some years at Iowa State, Simonson went to Northwestern to do a dissertation on the acoustics of the singing voice. Through experimentation he learned more about how the voice works and how it can be considered an instrument that needs to be tuned and maintained like any other instrument.

After about 37 years teaching at Iowa State, Simonson is now part of the American Academy of Teachers of Singing. Simonson said he had no idea that he would ever become a member of the prestigious Academy.

“I knew that the Academy existed, but never did I dream that I would be a part of it,” Simonson said. “Someone in the Academy has to nominate you, and after a process of vetting, you must then be chosen by unanimous consent by the current members.”

The Academy meets every other month in New York to discuss issues regarding the music industry, particularly when it comes to teaching. The current topic the Academy is looking into is accessible publications, which deals with copyright infringements as well as transitioning physical music into digital, more accessible versions.

“If you make a photocopy of more than 10 percent of any performable units, such as songs, that’s considered a copyright violation,” Simonson said. “Some publishers nowadays want to be able to have their music in digital form, so they can access it easier. Some publishers are against this and would prefer the traditional physical copies for less chance of piracy.”

Simonson has his own views on music piracy, a large topic in the recent history of music.

“I think that we should follow the law of the land,” Simonson said. “If we don’t then we aren’t valuing the process of the creation of the musical product. The artists aren’t fairly compensated for their work if we violate the law.”

When it comes to vocal music, Simonson said he has one main reason as to why he likes teaching it so much.

“When someone comes in with an idea or a suggestion and makes something incredibly beautiful happen, and you see the look on their face saying, ‘I just created that,'” Simonson said. “Seeing a student have that moment of creation and the inspiration, it provides for what they do next. This individual was just responsible for creating something beautiful that lasts only as long as it’s being made. Overall it’s a thrilling experience.”