It’s not every day that you hear one of the world’s great opera stars sing a few notes up close and personal — like 2 feet away.
I was fortunate to have that experience on a recent morning at the new, $45 million East Studio Building on the Indiana University campus.
Tim Noble and I are sitting at his desk, essentially eyeball to eyeball in his acoustically flawless studio, as he explains the basics of teaching voice, when he illustrates a point by singing a few notes.
Never mind that Noble will be 69 in February, his voice is still rich and full.
“I’m fine vocally,” he says when asked about his pipes. “As good as can be expected. I’m not afraid to perform. I know my limitations.”
Having heard him sing “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” in April at an IU concert of Cole Porter music, I can attest to his voice being as great as expected.
But his main mission in life these days is teaching, and it’s clear after an hour-long conversation that working with students gives him tremendous joy.
He’s now in his 15th year at IU, holding forth as a Distinguished Professor, a title he received at the annual Founders Day ceremony Feb. 26, 2004. The ceremony recognizes faculty members and students for outstanding teaching, research or service to the university.
“When I got it,” he says of the title, “I remember thinking, What I am doing here? There was a biology professor seated on my left side and a medical doctor on my right side.”
He was there — deservedly — because, as Noble says, “… my body of work speaks for itself.” But he doesn’t put a lot of stock in getting the title, he adds.
“It’s a great honor, because the music students sponsored me,” he says. “Normally, the award comes from the administration. I got great faculty support from people like David Baker [the noted jazz performer and educator who’s also a Distinguished Professor].”
Asked what his dad, James Noble, a highly respected band director at Peru High School for 25 years before his death, would say, Tim smiles. “I don’t know. He would probably be incredulous. I think he’d really be proud. I wish he were around.”
His dad died in 1972 at the age of 50 from a heart attack. He was around long enough to see Noble do a Broadway show, but not long enough to see him do opera. In fact, Noble didn’t see his first opera until he was 32, after he arrived at IU to study that form of music.
Until then, Noble had achieved great success performing pop. Among other things, he had been part of the famous Fred Waring choral group, the Pennsylvanians, and toured with the popular Hugo Winterhalter Orchestra.
After his studies at IU, Noble became one of the greatest baritones in the world. He launched an international career of more than 40 years that took him to the most famous opera stages, among them New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam, the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.
He has performed at revered venues, such as the London Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.
In February 2014, he will have been performing for 50 years.
But that “body of work” is behind him now — and when I ask him to compare the joy of teaching vs. the joy of performing, he bubbles forth:
“Teaching is the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life. You can take all of the performances … My dad would be proud to hear that. I learned so much from him.”
There’s a slight pause, then: “The immediacy of singing is wonderful. As I got older, there wasn’t any pay off once the performance was over, except for the money.”
Performing is tough on relationships, he continues. “It’s a life alone on the road. But I have no regrets. I loved the applause and I got paid.”
Teaching, though, has never been about the money, he says.
And it goes without saying that with teaching, there’s sustainability and permanence.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see young people succeed,” Noble says effusively. “I feel so validated as a performer and giving the tools I have.”
Such validation reached an apex last spring when one of his students, Michael Brandenburg, won the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions.
“I agonized as I watched him perform,” Noble recalls. “It was one of the most rewarding things in my life. It outweighs performing.”
Other students have won the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions at the district, regional and semifinal levels, according to an IU website. His students have also garnered honors at the Palm Beach Vocal Competition, Bel Canto Competition, Dallas Opera Competition and Matinee Musicale Competition.
Noble teaches 19 students one-on-one in his studio. He also teaches a master class for no credit on Wednesday nights for 90 minutes. It’s open to all students.
And thanks to technology, he can teach from just about anywhere. His office is equipped with a 60-inch, Sharp surround sound screen hooked up to his computer.
So how do you teach voice?
“The biggest thing is breath control,” Noble says. “It’s lower breath control.”
Noble prefers the Italian method, which he was taught. He’s tried other methods, but he believes the Italian technique creates a better air method.
“You inhale the sound. The name for it is ‘inalare’, which means to inhale the air and sound,” he explains.
That’s when he provided a brief demonstration, which transformed the interview from standard to special.
“The idea is to get the sound to the public,” he says. “Opera doesn’t use microphones. A singer needs to produce sound in an accoustical way and carry the sound.
“As a singer, your instrument is you. How your day has gone matters. And being on the road is tough. So your environment is really important. I have been to places that were toxic.”
But he adds there are places in Europe where a performance can result in a 15- to 20-minute ovation. People will throw flowers onto the stage.
That immediate gratification has been supplanted by the powerful pleasure Noble experiences in teaching. Instruction of the voice is a day-to-day thing, he notes.
“If you can learn three things — relaxation, articulation and breath control — you can sing,” he says. “When the jaw is moving, you can tell the singer is not getting the breath control. This is applicable to all singing.
“Singing is repetitive. It’s muscle memory. You have to learn to trust what you feel, not what you hear. It’s tough to break old habits.”
Noble gives a great deal of credit to his wife of 17 years, Donna, who was a noted teacher and administrator in Peru before retiring 3½ years ago.
“Donna’s been my rock,” Noble says. “She knows about kids and how they learn. Donna taught me that there are different ways to teach. Every student is different. You figure out how a student learns best. Sometimes on some days some things don’t work.”
When he’s not teaching in a formal setting, Noble works with various institutions, such as the Canadian Opera Company, instructing young professionals.
Next summer he’s going to Sulmona, Italy, for three weeks to work with young opera students. Donna will likely go along. “You get one, you get both,” he says with a broad grin.
He’s retired from the opera stage, but he still does benefit appearances, and he sings with his students. Last year he sang with some of them at the Honeywell House in Wabash. Recently he and Michael Brandenburg sang a duet at a small party at IU President Michael McRobbie’s home.
In recent years, he has sung the national anthem at IU basketball games. And when IU’s director of bands reached out to him to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” at football games this season, he agreed.
Noble still pursues his long interest in Indian culture and affairs. He has been named an Honored Miami member for life. “I’m very proud of that,” he says. Not many people get that honor.”
That honor is illustrative of a genuine, down-to-earth man who has never forgotten his roots. A mensch.
As the interview comes to a close, Will Perkins, a tenor who’s in his second year as a doctoral student, enters the studio for his one-on-one.
Perkins, who is from Salt Lake City, got his master’s at IU. He’s been working with Noble for four years.
Noble sits at the piano and plays as he asks Perkins to sing notes. At times, Noble sings the same notes and discusses technique.
I listen for 20 minutes before bidding Noble and Perkins adieu and closing the door.
The hall’s silence engulfs me. But I can still “hear” Noble and Perkins.
Ray Moscowitz of Bloomington is a retired newspaper executive and former publisher of the Peru Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.