Look no further than Tom Mulder to sing the praises of ArtSmart, a nonprofit begun three years ago in which classical musicians provide free individualized music lessons to high school students in underserved communities.
“There’s a power in that one-on-one relationship between a teacher and a student,” says Mulder, a tenor who currently is performing—in Chinese—a principal role in The Diaries of John Rabe at the Berlin Staatsoper, Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, and Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts, among other venues.
“It’s just like what I had at Vanderbilt with my voice teacher, Jonathan Retzlaff [a lyric baritone and former chair of the voice department at the Blair School of Music, now at Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester]. He taught me a lot about myself.”
As director of operations for ArtSmart, which was co-founded by the noted tenor Michael Fabiano, Mulder helped launch the pilot program at East Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. Mentoring is now offered at 28 schools in that city and in Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco. There are plans to expand to 100 campuses.
Whether his charges ultimately decide to pursue artistic careers is beside the point, Mulder says. The real value is in teaching goal-setting, responsibility and communication through the medium of music.
It was at Vanderbilt that Mulder, at Retzlaff’s urging, took up opera and soloist work. He previously sang in his high school choir and school musicals.
Now on contract with the Met, he sings with the chorus for five productions each year. The diehard Puccini fan also has performed 50 roles as a soloist.
Opera stirs Mulder to his core.
“I love singing with my whole body,” he says. “It reverberates in every bone to sing so loud and to project that way. When you’re doing that with an 80-piece orchestra, the feeling is exhilarating.”
That exhilaration can be useful elsewhere. Music can give teens “the skill to learn what they’re passionate about, and to grow from that,” Mulder says. “That knowledge is something that can be applied whether they want to be a doctor, a lawyer or a city planner.”