Toppin’s true instrument – her voice

Louise Toppin grew up believing she could do anything. And early on, she could.

The UNC music professor remembers that before she was old enough to read, or even spell her name, she sat in front of a piano and began to play. Not just pound the keys to produce noise, but actually play.

Inexplicably, her 4-year-old fingers danced knowingly across the keyboard and washed the room with music.

Her parents, both scholars at Virginia State University, surrounded her with music and other arts.

Her father Edgar Allan Toppin had a passion for reading and learning. A student of John Hope Franklin at Howard University, he became a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

He also loved the Metropolitan Opera, as did Toppin’s mother, Antionette, an English professor.

Through her parents, Toppin met jazz greats Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan. Despite all of the musical exposure, by grade school, another dream had already begun to grip Topping’s imagination.

“I am going to become a surgeon,” she told her parents.

“You can be anything you want to be,” her parents told her.

Carrying her dream to Carolina

She carried that dream to Carolina, where she set her sights on a pre-med major, even as she signed up for as many music classes as she could.

Then, halfway through work toward an undergraduate degree, her father did something he had never tried before: He dissuaded her from her dream.

“You could become a great surgeon, but God has given you something special,” he said. “Music is your gift. Use it.”

Her father’s words, Toppin said, gave her permission to question her plan .so she could follow what had always been her true passion.

She changed her major to music, focusing on piano. After graduating, she enrolled at Peabody Conservatory of Music at John Hopkins University. Weeks before she was set to complete a master’s degree in piano, she faced another life-changing intervention.

This one came from Phyllis Bryn Julson, a conservatory professor who passed by as Toppin sang a solo for the first time while helping coach the prepratory opera.

By fluke or fate, Julson had discovered Toppin’s true instrument: her voice.

Toppin trained with Julson for a year, completing master’s degrees in piano and in voice. Julson also introduced her to George Shirley, a professor at the University of Maryland.

Shirley had been the first African-American tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. He would go on to become Toppin’s mentor. When he was hired by the University of Michigan, Shirley took her with him as his first doctoral student in voice.

Stumbling on a discovery

At Michigan, Toppin stumbled upon a discovery of her own – brilliant African-American composers of classical music that no one had ever heard of.

Not even her music professors at Michigan.

“I was given an opportunity to cultivate my voice with the best teachers,” Toppin said. “Those people believed that I had something to say with my voice. But it was only after I began learning about all these forgotten African-American composers – who had been well known and respected in their own time – that I understood what it was.”

Bringing their music back to life – both in the classroom and in performance halls around the world – infused Toppin with a lifelong purpose that she brought to Carolina in fall 2011 when she returned as a professor of music and head of voice.

Her latest recording, “Heart on the Wall” from Albany Records, contains pieces focused on the issue of slavery. One piece is text from one of her father’s speeches dispelling myths about Africa and life in the United States for slaves.

Toppin said that the CD is dedicated to her father, who tirelessly encouraged her musical pursuits and intellectual curiosity. He died in 2004.

“My dad revealed neglected aspects of American history,” Toppin said, “and I feel in some ways I am following in his footsteps by continuing his journey into the forgotten corners of our country’s history.”

Roll over Beethoven: Read a related story about music department faculty members who who push scholarship and performance beyond traditional bounds.

Published June 4, 2012.