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Lydia Bangura is an operatic soprano, music theorist, and podcaster. She’s currently in the third year of a music theory PhD program at the University of Michigan, with the aim of centering a dissertation “around Black American folks/narratives specifically in the classical music space.” Lydia's podcast, Her Music Academia, is one of the most fascinating around.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I'm primarily an operatic soprano, a music theorist, and a podcaster. From my early childhood, I knew I wanted to have a career in music; I began playing the viola at age nine after watching a beautiful performance by the Denver Symphony Orchestra. I played viola for about ten years, which gave me a real appreciation for classical music, self-discipline, healthy competition, and collaboration.
By high school, my plan was to be a high school orchestra teacher. But things changed once I got to college. One of the most formative experiences of my life was seeing the opera Cruzar La Cara de La Luna by José Martínez and Leonard Foglia at the Arizona Opera. The live performance, set design, and contemporary orchestration (featuring a Mariachi band) moved me to tears and inspired me to try voice lessons. From there, I became consumed with opera performance. I graduated with a bachelor's in vocal performance from Northern Arizona University in 2019 and went on to pursue a master's in vocal performance at Roosevelt University.
By this point, I was convinced of my hypothetical future stardom as America's next Black operatic soprano. While at Roosevelt, I found that I was also extremely interested in the academic side of music: music theory, music history, notation, and pedagogy. My professors noticed my particular knack for music theory and offered me a teaching assistant position for an undergraduate music theory class. Due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn't have access to live performance or voice lessons; therefore, I dove first into studying music theory to fill the gap in my creative output.
During this time I decided to start my music research podcast, Her Music Academia, with an accompanying blog. My professors then encouraged me to pursue a PhD in music theory while I was twiddling my thumbs waiting for live performances to start back up. I ended up getting into a music theory PhD program at the University of Michigan, where I currently am in my third year (out of hopefully five). I am still performing in operas, musicals, and recitals when I can, while also releasing regular episodes of the podcast and attending my grad classes. My forming dissertation will be centered around Black American folks/narratives specifically in the classical music space.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
My high school orchestra teacher, Mr. Boyd, saw that I was interested in conducting and let me conduct one piece at a concert once; he gave me my first taste of teaching, which I absolutely love to do now. My voice teacher at Northern Arizona, Christine Graham, continues to be a source of inspiration for me. She taught me to work hard despite rejection. My musicology professor at Roosevelt, Dr. David Kjar, introduced me to pieces of scholarship that have forever sparked my analytical curiosity about music. He taught me that I can be more than one thing, more than "just" a singer or "just" a music theorist or "just" a teacher. He taught me that my own artistic and intellectual contributions to the world are made unique by the combination of those identities.
My current voice teacher, Caitlin Lynch, prompts me to ask for help and check in with myself often, an invaluable practice that she herself demonstrates. My current music theory advisor, Dr. Marc Hannaford, continues to teach me to value mistakes, failure, and imperfection as a part of the process and an opportunity to grow.
Finally, Dr. Lydia Kelow-Bennett, Dr. Kyra Gaunt, Dr. Teresa Reed, Dr. Ava Purkiss, and Dr. Louise Toppin, who are all Black women that I deeply admire, continue to teach me that I can do anything, inside or outside of music, as a Black woman.
For those who aren't familiar, please describe the podcast and talk a little bit about why you decided to start it.
On Her Music Academia, I discuss my own experiences in music performance as an opera singer; I’m also using this show to document my progress in my music theory PhD program. I explore my research interests such as music theory pedagogy, Black classical music, and the intersection of performance and analysis. Often, I host musical guests on the show to talk about what they do in music: everyone from performers to music researchers, educators, conductors, composers, producers, you name it! With an emphasis on presenting marginalized perspectives in music, the podcast features not only my perspective as a Black woman, but a wide array of topics and guests.
From popular music to classical music, the podcast showcases valuable research currently happening in the field. I started it when I discovered that there are almost no Black folks in the academic study of music theory. About 1% of the entire field of music theory is Black, with only one third of that (one third of one percent!!) being Black women. So I felt some pressure, responsibility, and excitement around creating my own space to talk about the music of Black women and Black classical music, as I anticipate it being much more difficult for me to get my work published than my white/male counterparts.
Walk me through a typical day-to-day for you right now.
Every week is split into mostly two modes, class mode and writing/podcast mode. Tuesdays–Thursdays are my busiest days, where I go to my grad seminars and teach my sophomore level music theory classes. Mondays and Fridays are for writing my papers and recording/working on the podcast. I also have my voice lesson every Monday and a performance class on Wednesdays. (This is the normal schedule for when I am not actively involved in the production of an opera or musical; those periods have to become quite flexible in order to accommodate the rehearsal and performance schedule.)
What would you like to see more of in music podcasts right now?
I would love to see more overlap between genres. Shows like Classically Black or Switched on Pop are really enjoyable, but they mostly stay in their pre-prescribed lanes. I would love for different styles and genres of music to be more regularly in conversation.
What would you like to see less of in music podcasts right now?
Less men talking about The Beatles. Ugh, what a manly space. This is my official coming out as a HUGE Beatles fan, and I want to listen to women talk about The Beatles!! More women talking about rock in general.
What's one tip that you'd give a music podcaster starting out right now?
Talk about what you love! Your audience will be drawn to your enthusiasm. And collaborate with others when you can. Include others on the show, whether they are musicians that are experts in your area, or fellow opinionated enthusiasts.
What's one thing you'd like folks to understand about the podcast that you do?
I want people to know that they can talk back. The podcast email, firstname.lastname@example.org, is always open for comments, critiques, and suggestions for what to talk about next.
What artist or trend are you most interested in right now?
If I had to pick an all-time favorite popular music artist, it would be Jamila Woods. I am deeply entrenched in her new album Water Made Us, which I adore wholeheartedly. I listen to it almost daily.
What was the best track / video or film / book / podcast you've consumed in the past 12 months?
My favorite book series that I've read in the past year is the Regency Vows series by Martha Waters. It scratches my Jane Austen itch in the best way. My favorite podcast has been Normal Gossip, because I like low-stakes mess, especially the mess of people that I don't know. My favorite YouTube video that I've seen in the past year is this one by Philosophy Tube about trans healthcare in the UK and Sara Ahmed's book Complaint!
If you had to point folks to one podcast episode of yours, what would it be and why?
Listen to the Renaissance episode (part two), with my sister TikToker ismatu.gwendolyn. It additionally features four of my friends (all Black women) discussing Beyoncé's cultural impact on Black womanhood. They are the best.
Anything you want to plug?
Show the blog posts some love! Send me your thoughts on my writing at email@example.com.
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