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Students, Faculty + Alumni

Generation YSM: Meet soprano Deborah Stephens '22MM


Meet soprano Deborah Stephens, who's studying in the early music program at the School of Music and the Institute of Sacred Music. We spoke with Deborah about her musical background and interests, what drew her to Yale, and more. 

Q: You’re fluent in the Yoruban language. To what extent have you explored West African musical traditions, and to what extent have those traditions informed your approach to music-making? 

A: While I can't speak for all of West African musical traditions, I grew up listening to and performing Nigerian and Ghanian music. I have composed vocal music in the Yoruba language and currently collaborate with several Nigerian artists. The biggest influence on my approach to music-making from these traditions is the acceptance of women's entire range. It is not taboo or surprising for a woman to be able to sing well below an A3 in West African music like it is in the American/European tradition. Although I train classically as a soprano, I can sing comfortably down to an F2, so I often sing repertoire that encompasses more of my low range and I commission solo music for women that includes a much wider tessitura. In my own choir (the Veritas Vocal Ensemble), I am happy to position women as tenors or even baritones if they are able to sing comfortably and accurately in that range.

Q: What drew you to the YSM/ISM program? 

A: The opportunity for interdisciplinary study is what drew me to the program, because my love of music is strongly connected with my passion for religion. Through researching the program and conversations with alumni, I have seen that this is the perfect program to pursue both to the extent that I personally would like. 

Q: In what ways do you plan to further your interest in choral singing while at Yale? 

A: I look forward to singing with the Schola Cantorum to the extent that that is possible during the pandemic, and I am considering re-establishing the Veritas Vocal Ensemble here on campus since it is currently on indefinite hiatus due to the pandemic. While at Yale, I also plan to explore choral-music composition inspired by Gregorian chant. 

Q: What do you envision your post-Yale career looking (and sounding) like, and how do you hope the YSM/ISM program will help facilitate that?

A: I imagine my post Yale career will involve professional choral singing, sacred solo performances, and eventually conducting Veritas as a professional ensemble rather than a strictly collegiate group. I also may explore an idea I have for a different type of ensemble. The YSM/ISM will facilitate that because I am learning from some of the best faculty in the country! I expect to have experiences and make connections with more professional musicians who will open the door for the collaboration and status necessary to achieve my goals. While the details are a bit muddy because of the pandemic, my hopes are still high. 

Q: How did you exercise your creativity this summer? 

A: This summer I was blessed with the opportunity to record service solos for churches in Georgia, so I was able to get creative with the processes of recording and producing. I have been creating multi-track style choral music covers for years, but this summer I decided to take it to the next level and explore a variety of genres, difficulties, and ways that I could make choral music more accessible to those who weren't already fans of it. I also worked in the Publix Deli during the summer which was a creative choice for me since nearly all of my employment up to that point had been musical. 

Q: What have you been reading, listening to, and watching lately?

A: I have been reading the Bible, my largest source of grounding and peace throughout the uncertainties and depressing news of the pandemic. I also get daily news information from a source called Need2Know. I listen to mainly sacred choral music and medieval/Renaissance-era vocal music, but I also love the works of John Adams and Steve Reich. I'm not a big TV person, but I do watch the livestream performances of my peers and colleagues!

This is the first installment in a series called Generation YSM: Fall 2020.