Opera professor offers more than just voice lessons

(Source: Evelyn Harris)
Harris has been teaching at WSU for over 50 years and has influenced many students through music. (Source: Evelyn Harris)

Many people think staying at the same job for more than about five years is unusual. However, faculty Emeritus Professor Evelyn Harris has spent over 50 years teaching music at WSU. While at WSU, Harris has helped develop several vocal music majors. Harris has also continued to teach at WSU despite many health challenges.

Beginning in 1964, Harris said she was recruited to teach voice for then Weber State College after the music director for the school heard her sing at a church fundraiser. Since then, Harris has been heavily involved with WSU students’ musical education.

“I tried retiring in 2000,” said Harris. “But I’ve kept teaching as an adjunct professor in voice.”

Along with Dr. Yu-Jane Yang, Harris created the vocal performance and vocal pedagogy majors at WSU. Harris said she created these programs in hopes of giving students who love music a way they can earn a degree and help support their families.

“Thinking of the culture of this area, I wanted to give young women something that they could be trained in and do out of their homes,” Harris said.

Through the years, Harris has continued teaching through two pregnancies, as well as several health problems including breast and colon cancer and several major surgeries. Even in her poorest health when she had over a foot of her colon, gallbladder and a benign fatty tumor removed, Harris continued teaching, hardly taking any time off to recuperate.

“Of course I took some time off,” Harris said. “But only a week or two. I needed to help students prepare for their recitals. They had their accompanists so I’d sit on the couch and teach from there.”

Cheryl Fowlers, a senior pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in music, was one of these students. At the time of Harris’s surgeries, she was preparing for a halfhour long recital and her role as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote.”

“I was always impressed that she still kept going,” Fowlers said. “It hardly seemed to affect her teaching at all. It didn’t slow her down.”

Fowlers said she gets so much more from Harris than just a voice lesson, that she often left feeling emotionally and spiritually rejuvenated from spending time together.

“It’s almost like a therapy session along with a voice lesson,” Fowlers said. “She always really builds your confidence. She’s gotten me through some tough times along with teaching me how to sing.”

Nylene Douglas, accompanist for the WSU opera program, said she accompanied for one of Harris’s students while she was sick and was impressed with Harris’s resilience.

“I had the impression that she was a very strong lady,” Douglas said. “Just the fact that she keeps coming back, that she doesn’t let these things keep her from teaching, you know she’s a very passionate teacher.”

Jessica Erickson, a sophomore in vocal performance, said she’s known Harris for many years as a family friend. Erickson’s mother took voice lessons from Harris when she attended WSU and now Erickson does too.

“There are no hardcore expectations. She expects you to do well and to give your best but she doesn’t set limits. She teaches you to love to sing by loving you into the music,” Erickson said.

Many students may question or downplay how fantastic the professors are at WSU, however, it’s hard to make an argument when faced with professors like Harris.