The Gift of Music
As the rest of us are preparing for the holiday season, opera baritone Todd Thomas is at this moment in Winnipeg, Manitoba, preparing for the title role in Verdi’s Falstaff. 2016 has been a busy and far-flung year for the Elmira-born singer, and it’s not over yet. Antibes, France, is up next on his schedule this month. But, after Christmas with his wife and kids in Philadelphia, his musical year will end closer to home and to heart on Thursday, December 29, at 7:00 p.m. at Elmira’s Park Church, with his fourth annual “Home for the Holidays” concert. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to the Todd Thomas Music Scholarship; the twenty-dollar seats are available at the door or in advance by calling the church at (607) 733-9104.
Todd speaks with unchecked affection about the Elmira area. “The reason I do this scholarship is that I think they have the best music teachers of anywhere in the country,” says Todd. “This area is really blessed.”
His vocal education started in elementary school music class, taught by Marjorie MacPherson. “She was very inspiring. She did two- and three-part solfège singing that has now gone by the wayside. You learn better when you learn music in that way,” says Todd of education in general. “You comprehend and reason. So much of the process of learning is enhanced by music education.”
His junior high school teacher, Jacqueline Coon, taught him as his voice was changing. And it was in junior high that he did his first solo performance: two verses of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” in the Christmas concert. Encouraged to enter the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA) competition, Jackie Coon suggested he take voice lessons, and so he did. “My first voice teacher was Helen Pletsch, who now lives in Victoria, British Columbia,” says Todd. He visits her whenever his performance travel lands him in her neighborhood.
As he got more deeply into music, he started thinking, “I kinda want to do this.” But “this” was teach music, since every musical performer he knew was a music teacher by day. It wasn’t until he got to high school at Elmira Free Academy, taught by music teacher Larry Aderfer and influenced by band teacher Lou Coccognia, that, “I realized you could major in voice.”
He has not forgotten one of his instructors. “It’s important to tell teachers from forty years ago that they made an impact on you,” he says with the voice of someone who knows. “Bob Gazzara was very inspiring. He was conductor of the Elmira Symphony Choral Society (now part of the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes). Kimber Billow was a teacher at Southside High School. All of these people have stayed in touch with me. It has been very endearing and important to me.”
But he gives the most credit to his parents, Zelda Thomas Gabel, who now lives in Addison, New York, and his father Donald, who passed away in 1981. “I would not have had any career in music without them,” he says. “In 1969 it was difficult for my family to see a way financially for me to take piano lessons, which I wanted so badly. Mary Mattoon agreed to teach me for half her fee, if I was serious and would practice. For more than six years my mom paid $2.50 for a half hour piano lesson, which often lasted closer to an hour.”
This is why Todd Thomas wants to give away scholarships.
And this is why you will get the opportunity to hear his rich Verdi baritone in his hometown during Christmas week. “What’s important about this is that this is about payback for me. It wasn’t just the music teachers, but the whole non-academic musical society. The whole county made a big influence on my education. So I mentioned this idea to Mary Jane [Eckel, president of the board of directors of the Corning Civic Music Association] five years ago. I was tired of waiting for Elmira to invite me back to sing,” he adds with a chuckle.
Music has expanded into his own family. Wife Lisa Helmel Thomas, a singer by training now studying at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, will be appearing with Todd in Elmira (His Philadelphia accompanist Jeff Uhlig, from the Settlement Music School, will also be in attendance.) Sons Samuel, seventeen, and Noah, nine, are both members of the Keystone State Boy’s Choir in Philadelphia, and will accompany mom and dad to New York for the week. Besides his mom in Addison, Todd’s sister lives in Horseheads, and Lisa is from Pittsford, so the scholarship concert has become a happy sidelight for the peripatetic singer. “By putting this date on my calendar, it gives me a chance to get home every year.” (Whether or not oldest daughter Lydia, a Temple University graduate who works in production for the QVC Home Shopping Network, or Gabriella, a member of Temple’s crew team, will make the trip is still up in the air, given their own holiday commitments.)
All graduating seniors who live in Chemung County and are pursuing music in college are eligible to apply for the $1,000 scholarship (and a performance opportunity with Todd) with a YouTube video audition. Todd and a panel of impartial judges make the selection. Ironically, a voice performer has not yet won the competition; so far, a saxophonist, a percussionist, and a flute player have all been awarded the prize. Encouragement awards of $500 have also been awarded as the fund has grown with some generous donations, says Todd, especially “if there is someone really deserving and someone we think would benefit.” For more information about the scholarship fund or the concert visit www.ToddThomasBaritone.com.
And of course most of the musical community that created Todd Thomas the musician will be in the audience. “It’s a big emotional thrill for me,” says Todd quietly, “with all these dear people.”