Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Thomas Hampson

Back on June 21, in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post entitled “The Joys of Bassi”, I asserted that, in my experience, baritones, bass-baritones, and bass singers – like the people that play their instrumental equivalents, the string bass and low brass – are the salts of the earth of the vocal world. I observed that, in my experience:

“They show up early and stay late; they help set up chairs before a rehearsal and stack them up afterwards. They don’t cut to the front of the line (remind me to tell you my Thomas Hampson story; what a wonderful guy he is!) or exercise ‘artistic prerogative.’ Their collegiality, sense of humor, and general lack of bad attitude will, as my experience has played out over and over again, keep a rehearsal on an even keel.”

I would observe with some pique that no one took me up on what are actually my Thomas Hampson stories. Well, if you’re not going to ask, I’ll just going to have to tell you.

Thomas Hampson in 2014
Thomas Hampson (born 1955) in 2014

Story one.

Sometime around 1992/1993, Hampson (born 1955) came to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) to do a master class.

Here’s how a musical master class works. A “master” (an outstanding musician and coach/teacher) listens to a succession of specially chosen students perform a work or segment of a work. The master then coaches (not critiques, coaches) the student: performing passages of the piece themselves and discussing issues of interpretation, articulation, tempo, phrasing, etc. with the student. Finally, the student performs the piece again, presumably now altered and improved by the master’s coaching.

Master classes are a highpoint for any music school. They will be held in the school’s concert or recital hall – on stage – in front of what is usually a standing-room audience. It’s always a thrill to have a star (sometimes even a super-star) in the house, and for a student to be selected to be one of the performers in the master class is a major honor.

So, back to Hampson’s appearance at the SFCM. He is a tall man – 6’7” – with a commanding presence. A consummate singer and actor himself, he is every inch a star. But if our (the SFCM community’s) experience that day is representative, he is, as well, every inch a mensch. From maestro Hampson there was zero BS: no affectations, no posturing, and no demands. Rather, he was unfailingly polite and collegial with everyone. In a word, the guy was a pro. With a smile as wide as his birth state of Indiana (though he grew up Spokane, Washington), he immediately put the students on stage with him at ease. Gently, kindly, with self-effacing humor and using his own magnificent voice to demonstrate, he coached those kids brilliantly and got fantastic results.

We had a reception for Hampson afterwards, at which point I was introduced to him, and we had a few minutes to chat. Stars like Hampson are accustomed to being fawned over, which in fact can make them uncomfortable. But among fellow musicians – who want to talk music – many will let down their guard, relax, and be at their best. This was certainly the case with Thomas Hampson. In the end, I was doubly thrilled, not just with Thomas Hampson the person and musician but with the fact that the voice students – some (many?) of whom were already affecting attitudes unbecoming – got to see how a real professional behaves.…

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