Rachel Waiters' vocal homecoming

Singer to perform at East Palo Alto church

Like a scene in a celebrity biopic, the fateful triumvirate of a classical recording, a piece of sheet music and a very special teacher forever altered the life of Rachel Waiters.

The vocalist, who will perform in concert Saturday, June 4, at Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in East Palo Alto, was attending Carlmont High School at the time. An alumna of the Ravenswood School District, Waiters grew up in East Palo Alto, singing in the choir at Mt. Olive, where her father, John W. Waiters, Sr., has been Reverend for 38 years.

"I would sing a little at school, too," Waiters said, by phone from her home in Valley Springs, California. "I had a really nice principal, and he asked me from time to time to sing at assemblies.

"One day, one of my teachers pulled me aside and said, 'Rachel I like what you sing. But you should be singing this.'"

The teacher, a Miss Yates, went to her desk and pulled out the music for, and a Luciano Pavarotti recording of, "Caro Mio Ben," by the 18th-century Italian composer Giuseppe Giordani.

"I never had private voice lessons or formal voice training," Waiters recalled. "I took it home, listened to it and fell in love the moment I heard it."

Though Waiters says she had heard classical music before, up to that point she had never delved into it.

"There was just something about that moment," she recalled, with a sparkle in her voice. "I never sat down and really listened to it in that way."

One of her classmates played piano, and the two would practice "Caro Mio Ben" together. Later, the pair collaborated on it in competition at an arts festival.

"I didn't win that day," she noted, with a chuckle. "But that was one of the songs that I performed with him."

That piece would prove to be pivotal in the next phase of her fledgling singing career. After graduating from Carlmont, she attended Fisk University in Nashville as a music and business double major.

Waiters had to audition for the former and chose to perform the gospel standard "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."

"At the end of the song, the voice faculty looked at each other," she recounted. "And they said, 'Is there something else that you sing, Rachel? Is there anything else that you could sing?'"

Initially, she could only think of the other songs she had sung all her life in church. Then she realized she had "Caro Mio Ben" in her repertoire. One of the educators "jumped out" of his adjudicator's chair, sat down at the piano that was in the room and began to play it from memory.

"Then I sang it, and they said, 'Oh, thank you!' So I wasn't so prepared for the audition," she reflected. "But I guess I was prepared for it and just didn't know it at the time!"

When asked whether the faculty could have theoretically been able to judge her potential based on "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" alone, she replied: "Looking back on it, I understand why they asked for the second piece. 'Precious Lord' only showed a portion of my voice -- that lower part. So they really didn't get a full sense of my vocal range and placement."

While at Fisk, Waiters joined its Jubilee Singers. Founded in 1871, the school's famed a cappella group was her introduction to the Negro spirituals that will comprise the first half of her program on Saturday (pianist Veronika Agranov-Dafoe will accompany her). The second half is a selection of gospel songs, and Waiters revealed that this is the first time she'll be singing both genres on the same program.

The Jubilee Singers would tour during spring break, which allowed her to travel to the southern region of the U.S. as well as on the East Coast and even in Italy. Those trips gave her an invaluable introduction to a musician's frequently physically demanding lifestyle.

After graduating from Fisk with a bachelor's degree in music, she went on to earn her master's in vocal performance at Southern Methodist University (SMU). While her time at Fisk was invaluable, she said that there was much more for her to learn.

Fisk didn't have a student orchestra, and her department didn't do any productions only scene studies. At SMU, she participated in operas and also had access to the nearby world-class Dallas Opera company.

An artist residency at Opera Memphis followed, giving her the opportunity to understudy roles in more ongoing productions. To date, she's performed as a bevy of characters including Angelina in Rossini's "La Cenerentola;" Serena in "Porgy & Bess;" Maddalena in Verdi's "Rigoletto;" Cherubino in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro;" and Mercedes in Bizet's "Carmen."

In addition to performing, Waiters has added an educational component to her career. Initially inspired by the work she did with the choir at West Memphis High School while an artist-in-residence at Opera Memphis, she now teaches at a pair of charter schools in Stockton.

"Having the opportunity to work with the students and to see them grow in our time together I realized, 'Wow, I can be more than just a performer,'" she said.

"I am doing what I'm doing today because of great teachers like Miss Yates and others after her. So why not me?"

What: Rachel Waiters gospel music concert

When: Saturday, June 4, at 6 p.m.

Where: Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, 1981 Pulgas Ave., East Palo Alto.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to Rachel Waiters.

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