By Beth Browne
From the age of three, Maria Clark dreamed of playing the piano. Her parents, following the advice of well-meaning friends and family, told her she would have to wait until she was older. When she was nine, Maria was at the mall with her mother and aunt and they happened to pass a piano store. Maria dragged her mother and aunt into the store and begged her mother to buy her a piano, and eventually, with the support of her aunt, they took home a Baldwin piano.
At school, Maria had a choral teacher named Mrs. Bennekin who played the piano beautifully. Maria watched her play and wondered, “How could she get that sound from those keys?” Mrs. Bennekin was African-American and Maria looked up to her and was inspired to learn to play the piano. After they finally got her a piano, Maria’s parents asked Mrs. Bennekin about teaching her piano lessons, but she was too busy and declined.
In the small rural town of Eatonton, GA, known for its dairy cows, where Maria grew up, there was little in the way of fine arts exposure. Her father was a mechanic at Georgia Pacific, her mother was an LPN and money was tight. No one else in the family was musically inclined, but Maria’s parents recognized the desire to learn in their daughter and became committed to giving Maria a chance.
After a long search, Maria’s parents finally found her a teacher, an elderly Scottish man in his eighties named James Gilchrest. Right away he said to her, “Look here, little girl, if you’re not going to practice, don’t waste my time because I don’t have a lot of time left. If you’ll practice, I’ll teach you for free.” He introduced her to the Hanon virtuoso piano exercises and Maria surprised him by mastering them in one month with perfect technique. Impressed by her skill and dedication, he became her champion as well as a dear friend, buying her music books and introducing her to all kinds of classical music, including opera. He considered her a prodigy, but she says, “I just had a natural knack and understanding for it.” But mainly she just loved the music.
In high school, her band and chorus teacher, Bill Hunter, recognized her vocal skill and encouraged her in singing. He started entering her in vocal competitions and she did so well it became apparent she had a gift not only for piano, but also for singing. Maria says the other kids would tease her about the vibrato that naturally came into her voice. She laughs about it now, saying, “I would rather have done Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston, but that’s not the voice I got.”
As her study progressed, Maria’s parents had to drive her long distances for lessons but they never complained or made excuses, they were always very proud and supportive. On Saturdays, Maria’s dad would drive an hour and a half each way to take her to lessons in Macon and Atlanta. Maria took voice lessons with Laura English-Robinson who was the head of the voice department at Spelman College in Atlanta. Ms. English-Robinson recognized Maria’s talent and worked to prepare her for college, including helping with scholarship applications.
Maria also received financial assistance from The Color Purple Foundation, founded by Alice Walker’s sister. The famous writer had grown up in Maria’s hometown of Eatonton and the foundation offered assistance to local youth. With
their assistance, Maria traveled to Michigan to the Interlochen Center for the Arts, to attend summer music camp. Maria says it was a wonderful experience, but she hated the rough living conditions and cold weather.
“They would wake us up with this horn every morning and we’d have to get up and stand outside, freezing our tails off.” She says it was worth the discomforts because it was first class music education and she loved the exposure to music. “It was a wonderful, enlightening experience,” she says. She also went to choral music camp at UGA.
After high school, Maria went to Florida State University on a full scholarship, going on to earn a B.M. in Vocal Performance from the Manhattan School of Music and a Masters of Music in Vocal Performance from Georgia State University. She’s won numerous awards, including winning the Barry Alexander International Vocal Competition of 2008
and getting to debut at Carnegie Hall/Weill Recital Hall in New York City.
In 2009, Maria went on tour in Europe with the Atlanta Opera’s Porgy and Bess, which she says was “tons of fun.” In France, she noted that, “They have such a respect for preservation of the arts. They loved the show and we felt appreciated.”
After France, they went to Granada, Spain. Maria particularly enjoyed Spain because she says they were “finally getting some food that had seasoning on it.” She also liked the three-hour siestas in Spain and the spicy sangria.
This past summer, Maria performed on a tour in Asheville with local musician Daniel Weiser of Amici Music (profiled in our Y Chromosome issue). Afterwards, she went to Knoxville and auditioned for the Knoxville Opera Company. During the summer, she also succeeded in getting a manager and is now represented by James Harwood Management Inc. in New York.
Maria’s dream for the future is to play the Ethiopian princess in Aida. She loves the music of Verdi and Puccini
in part because they incorporate the culture and music of traditions different from their own. Maria is full of admiration for the iconic Leontyne Price, who performed Aida with the Metropolitan Opera.
She says many African-American performers shy away from playing Aida or Porgy and Bess for fear of being typecast, but Maria isn’t worried about it because she believes that “there’s much more to me than that.” Some singers also refuse to do African-American Spirituals, but Maria says, “I love my heritage, I’ll never forget it and I love singing to God, because He gave me this gift.”
Currently, Maria is working on her first CD, which she hopes will be out in the spring. It is a collection of sacred
music devoted to the love of God. Maria says, “I love to sing opera, but nothing is more fulfilling to me than singing for God. What greater love is there than for the one who created all of us and created everything we
Visit Maria and listen to samples of her music on the web at: www.mariaclarksings.com
Like Maria on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/MariaClarkSings
Beth Browne writes because she just can’t stop herself. Her two kids love her, but they wish she liked cooking as much as writing. In spite of the fact that she cannot grow even one single tomato, Browne manages a large diversified farm that has been in her family for over a hundred years. At every opportunity, she sails the Pamlico with her salty mate, Eric. Read all about it on her website.