World-renowned voice instructor Mary Saunders reflects on her time at Penn State

Mary Saunders
You joined the Musical Theatre faculty just a few years after the creation of the program. How did that opportunity come about and what led you to make that decision?

It more or less came out of the blue. I was living with my husband and two sons just north of New York City, commuting daily to my Manhattan studio, when I got a call from Bev Patton at Penn State asking if “I or anyone I knew” might be interested in applying for a job teaching singing for their newly formed musical theatre program. Bob and I sat down and made up a list of pros and cons such a life change would present. The pros won, I applied for the job, and we traveled to State College for an interview in February of 1999 with our youngest son Eddie in tow. In a blizzard, of course. It so happened my eldest son Jonathan was a high school senior and had been accepted as a theatre major by an upstate New York university. When Penn State offered me the position we told him, "The good news is you're going to Penn State. The bad news is we’re coming along!"


What has it been like to watch the program grow and create a lasting presence in the industry?

The growth of Penn State’s Musical Theatre program has been a source of great personal and professional satisfaction to me. I had the immense good fortune to collaborate with a group of superb colleagues in building the program. We had strong visionary leadership in Cary Libkin and enthusiastic unwavering support from Graham Spanier.  

We were all in the trenches digging away together. When we did look up and actually see how the students were flourishing, we realized we were making something special happen.


What is the most challenging/rewarding thing about teaching your vocal technique?

The challenge is staying current with the demands of the industry.  Any young performer dreaming of a musical theatre career today needs to be a kind of vocal chameleon capable of reproducing the sounds of contemporary culture authentically and sustainably without injury. During the 35 years I have been teaching, musical theatre has continued to re-invent and renew itself by absorbing contemporary styles of singing to tell its stories. Rock, pop, hip-hop, country, operetta, golden age, and classical styles are all fair game for musical theatre composers today. This is a tall order!

The most rewarding thing is seeing these students arrive as enthusiastic children and leave as confident, superbly trained artists.


You are, without question, one of the most respected voice teachers in the world. Do you feel you were in some way destined for this life? (Looking back, what were the twists, turns, and stepping stones that led you here)?

I do feel I have been “destined” for this work but that destiny certainly took its sweet time to manifest. I always sang and always loved singing, but my college education through graduate school was French language and French literature. I studied at the Sorbonne in Paris during graduate school and, on a whim, auditioned to study singing with the famous baritone and teacher Pierre Bernac. To my amazement, he took me on and introduced me to the wonders of French art song. For the next year, I was the very fortunate recipient of his careful, always loving attention. To this day, every time I assign a French art song to one of my students, I cherish the memory of that time. Looking back, I sense that I was inspired as much by his personal grace, kindness, and empathy as a teacher as I was by his great musical artistry.

Returning to the United States, my first job teaching French was at a professional children’s school for actors and dancers on the Upper West Side next to Lincoln Center. I remember looking at those bored American Ballet Theatre students in the first row with their long legs stretched out in front of them and their eyes rolling heavenward, envisioning other scenarios for myself. Maybe there’s a performing virus and I caught it there! I discovered I was certainly not destined to teach French. Within two short years, I had registered at the Herbert Berghof Studios on Bank Street in the West Village, taking courses in musical theatre and Shakespeare. Soon after that, I began to study acting at the Michael Howard Studio. In those days in New York City, training for musical theatre was strictly an a la carte affair. I began auditioning for musicals and the first thing I knew I was Guenevere in Camelot, then Eliza in My Fair Lady opposite the man who would become my husband. I began teaching voice almost accidentally by helping friends prepare for their auditions. Word got around that I had a gift for solving vocal problems. Money started to exchange hands and I was off.

Any national or international standing I have achieved as a teacher I owe to Penn State and the connections I have made during my time here. 


What makes you most proud of your graduates?

To know that every good thing that happens to them they will pay forward.


What advice would you share with any young performing artist who wants to create a meaningful life of singing?

You are your instrument. You would treat a Stradivarius with care and respect. There is no Stradivarius as precious as you are. Train carefully, seek out trusted professionals to help and guide you, and, of course, “do it for love.”


With so many new emerging musical theatre training programs, what do you believe will continue to set Penn State apart?

Penn State has certain permanent advantages: it is within driving distance of Broadway. It doesn’t rely on adjunct teachers as many programs do, because enrollment is limited. The student-teacher ratio is very high. The musical theatre faculty is in constant communication and committed to an integrated approach to training—acting, singing, dancing. In the time I have been here, graduate programs have been added that greatly enhance the experience of our musical theatre undergraduates. Since Cary Libkin started an M.F.A. in directing for musical theatre (now headed by Susan Schulman), we have added an M.F.A. in musical direction headed by Dan Riddle and an M.F.A. in musical theatre voice pedagogy, which I initiated with the help of Norman Spivey. This “musical theatre training center” creates a unique synergy unlike any other programs I know of.  With our new director John Simpkins at the helm, and young faculty coming on board, there is unlimited potential for the program to grow in exciting directions. With our new director John Simpkins at the helm, the knowledge and experience of our senior faculty members, and young faculty coming on board, there is unlimited potential for the program to grow in exciting directions.


If you had to distill your philosophy about vocal training in one (or two) sentence(s), what would it be?

We are training actors to sing. Dramatic context is the reference point. The singing voice needs to “speak” from the lowest to the highest note in a finely tuned balance between treble and bass qualities. This gives performers the ability to choose the voice for any story they are telling.


Right now, what excites you? What are you drawn to learn more about?

I just became a grandmother and a great aunt. I am excited by and drawn to August Delano Barton and Madaket Jane Tyler.  I want to learn from them more about the meaning and beauty of life.


What is your wish for the future of Penn State Musical Theatre?

To continue to deliver confident, capable, and kind performing artists from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds to Broadway, regional, national, and international musical theatre stages.

I’d like to see a musical on Broadway that originated at Penn State and was designed, directed, and performed by Penn Staters. We Are!

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