I am 22 and live in Rochester, New York. Until recently, I lived my entire life in Georgia, secure and surrounded by loving family and friends, and was attending a small university minutes from home. Now all of that has changed. I was able to make this drastic move to New York because of what I recognized in the life of an incredible role model, George Shirley. George Shirley consistently worked to achieve that which continues to inspire lives today. I am where I am because of him: a vocal performance major at the world-renowned Eastman School of Music.
At a young age, George Shirley performed in a musical trio with his parents in the Indianapolis community and continued to build his musical talents until, in 1955, he graduated from college with his B.S. in Music Education.
George Shirley then began to change the face of America by his contributions. He became the FIRST African American to teach music in high school in Detroit, Michigan. Later that year, he was drafted into the army where he became the FIRST African American member of the US Army chorus. Encouraged by choir members, Shirley decided to pursue a career in opera. In 1961, George became the FIRST African American tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera! His ability to break racial barriers for African Americans expressed how all people deserve equal opportunities. In 2015, Shirley received the National Medal of Arts, and, in 2016, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Opera Association.
Dr. Shirley continues to inspire. Someone of George Shirley’s stature could approach his later years by pursuing leisure activities, but instead, at 87, Mr. Shirley continues to change lives by serving as a distinguished University Professor of Music at the University of Michigan.
I, like George Shirley, began college with the intention of becoming a music teacher. I too was encouraged by those around me to consider a career in opera. I struggled for a long time wondering if I could achieve this dream. It was during this uncertain time that I competed in a vocal competition named in George Shirley’s honor. At this competition, I had the honor of listening to Mr. Shirley teach a master class and then meeting this American icon. To my great surprise, it only took a few moments before I felt a kinship with this opera star, and I shared with him my concerns regarding my professional future. I will never forget his words as he encouraged me to reach for and work towards the goal of an opera career even if it seemed unattainable. His words changed the direction of my life. The very next week, I changed my major from music education to vocal performance. I am working hard to achieve my dreams because George Shirley’s life and drive inspired me to do so. I would be extremely grateful to receive this scholarship, so I can continue to follow in the footsteps of my inspiration…George Shirley.