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Emily Dou­glass per­forms with the Jackson Sym­phony Orchestra. Courtesy | Stay Gold Photography

The year was 2003.

A woman stood in the middle of the stage, shim­mering in a floor-length black gown lined with strips of sparking silver. The flute cadenza of the piece faded, the full orchestra slowly crept in, building in speed and sound. Less than 30 seconds of the 17-minute piece remained. Her voice danced with the orchestra, scaling to the top notes of the scale.

The vocalist finally reached her des­ti­nation. E flat pierced through the colossal gold-painted hall. 

“Before I could con­tinue, the audience erupted with applause,” Emily Dou­glass said.  “I remember watching this gen­tleman, he was sitting in the audience and he just sort of fell out of his seat, while the audience was screaming with excitement. I went on and sang more and they were even more excited. It was magic.”

That moment in Graz, Austria, is one Dou­glass often remembers. It’s a memory that ingrained a passion for music in her soul and has helped carry her through a 27-year career.

Now an artist/teacher of music-voice for the college and the new vocal area head, Dou­glass follows former vocal area head, Melissa Osmond, who led the vocal department for nearly 35 years and retired in May 2020. 

The appli­cation com­mittee inter­viewed more than 40 can­di­dates for the position from across the world, said James Holleman, chairman of the music department. Dou­glass was the fron­trunner on every list. 

“I’m thrilled,” Holleman said. “Emily really fol­lowed a legend and that’s hard to do. She did a beau­tiful job. The tran­sition was seamless, the stu­dents were really happy. She’s an amazing person; she’s an amazing human being. She’s built her rep­u­tation nationally and inter­na­tionally, and to have all of this expe­rience to share is really amazing.”

Dou­glass started at Hillsdale as a part-time adjunct vocal pro­fessor in 2017, after Osmond heard her audition to sing with the Jackson Sym­phony Orchestra as a soloist. Osmond’s  husband was the director. The first time she heard Dou­glass sing, Osmond said she flew out of her seat and screamed. That was the moment she knew Dou­glass needed to teach at Hillsdale, she said. 

“It was just beau­tiful,” Osmond said. “It was just a glo­rious, full-throated sound that had such color and a sparkle to it. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh. This girl can sing.’” 

‘Department head’ is only one of the newest addi­tions to Dou­glass’ list of accom­plish­ments. She’s a world-class per­former, a vocal instructor, a wife, a mom to two sons, in addition to a recre­ational writer, painter, horse rider, and runner.

 “She is hugely tal­ented, greatly joyful, and totally unselfish. She’s sung on stages. She’s become a mom, she’s become an artist, and she’s become a really excellent teacher, and I would say that’s a lot of major goals to accom­plish for one person,” said David Jones, Dou­glass’ longtime vocal instructor and a pro­fes­sional vocalist in New York City. 

He calls her the total package. There was no “fatal flaw” with Dou­glass, Jones said, and that suc­cessful opera singers demand a mul­titude of qual­ities. Dou­glass lacked nothing. The two studied together for nearly four years in New York City. Today, they meet on Zoom for lessons. 

“When I first met her, I saw someone with real career potential,” Jones said. “She’s beau­tiful, she’s per­sonable. She has a huge talent. She looks good on stage, and she’s a great musician.  Now, she’s as high of a level of any of the MET singers that I’ve worked with. A world class voice.” 

It was a voice that had its begin­nings in the church, where Dou­glass’ mom was choral director. She was the perfect girl in the little white dress. She begged for all the solos, and she rode horses, too. Riding lessons taught her resilience, how to overcome fears. These would prepare her for the future career that demanded many, many auditions. 

 “One day, I told my mom, ‘I’m worried about showing because my horse was not coop­er­ating. Can I just skip the class today?’ She replied, ‘No, you need to do this, and I already paid for the class so you’re going in.’  I went in. I came out suc­cessful, and I did it. And I learned to not bend to fear, but to be strong and push myself past where I think I can.” 

Despite her music involvement — from playing the horn in the high school band to singing in the school musicals — Dou­glass enrolled as an art edu­cation major at the Uni­versity of Michigan. 

Things changed the day she went to reg­ister for classes with now husband, Mark Dou­glass, who was set to major in music. The art advisor didn’t show up that day, but the music major advisor did.

We drove two hours to attend reg­is­tration day,” Mark Dou­glass said. “Her advisor didn’t show up, but my advisor, knowing we had driven so far, sug­gested, ‘Emily, we’ll get you in the system. You’re going to be a music major today, that way you can come back when classes start and readjust your schedule.’” 

The schedule was never read­justed. Soon after starting music classes, she decided they wouldn’t stop. She audi­tioned as a horn and voice double major weeks later. She’s earned her master’s in music from the Uni­versity of Ten­nessee since then — and become a world-renowned artist. The Meis­tersinger Inter­na­tional Vocal Com­pe­tition and the Birm­ingham Opera Com­pe­tition are among several com­pe­ti­tions she’s won. 

“At an audition, one of the pro­fessors exclaimed, ‘Wow, your voice is a world class instrument! Do you know that?’ I replied, ‘well, not until right now.’ That was the first step in declaring to myself, ‘wow I could make a career out of this and I would really love it.’” 

Years later, Dou­glass is this kind of pro­fessor to her stu­dents — the kind that pushes them to believe in them­selves, said one student, sophomore Brianna Lam­brecht. She trans­ferred from Spring Arbor Uni­versity the same year Dou­glass assumed her role as head of the vocal area at Hillsdale.

 “She’s the reason that I’m majoring in music again,” Lam­brecht said. “She instilled a con­fi­dence in my voice that I wasn’t able to find right away, and was one of the first people who said, ‘you can do this pro­fes­sionally, this is what you’re meant to do.’  She’s inspired me to teach, because she gave me a sort of con­fi­dence, and I want to do that exact same thing for other stu­dents someday.” 

Dou­glass and her husband met in ele­mentary school at church. Whether he was jealous of her for getting all the solos for the church pro­grams or was sitting behind her in high school band, he would always pick on her. He still does.

 “We would pray before per­for­mances and I would make sure I was right next to her so I could hold her hand,” he said, smiling.

College was the start to their shared musical journey.  With their music under­graduate degrees in hand, the two moved to Knoxville, Ten­nessee, to earn their master’s degrees in music per­for­mance. The next stop was Texas, where Mark Dou­glass would earn his doc­torate degree from one of the best graduate schools of music. Fellow jazz stu­dents passed around Norah Jones’ first album in one of his classes. She was a student there, too. 

While her husband studied, Dou­glass traveled. For nearly five years, New York City became her second home. It was the place where she met the best opera directors who taught and recruited musicians. 

Along with New York trips, Dou­glass per­formed across the country — and the world. The Ste­faniensaal Theater in Graz for the American Institute of Musical Studies was one of those places. One per­for­mance there landed her the leading role in “The Daughter of the Reg­iment” at the Lyric Opera in San Diego. American opera singer Beverly Sills was the last person to sing the same role in the house. 

“She had signed her name on the drum and the directors asked me to sign my name under­neath. I said, ‘Are you sure you want me to sign this?’” 

Another summer, she worked with the late Eduardo Mueller, who was the opera director for years at La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy — one of the world’s most famous opera houses. She sang for him in Italian. 

“After I fin­ished, he came over to me and held my hands, with both fists, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘My dear, if you had a per­for­mance tonight, for the role of Lucia, I believe you would be ready to sing at La Scala.’” 

Dou­glass exchanged pur­suing a doc­torate for hun­dreds of hours of audi­tions and per­for­mance expe­ri­ences. And though those years were excellent ones, they came with many sac­ri­fices, too, Mark Dou­glass said. Some­times there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills. 

“We had a dif­ficult time finan­cially,” he said. “For instance, the power on our third-floor apartment in Dallas was dis­con­nected mul­tiple times — in over 100-degree weather.  She still had to get to New York to coach, take lessons, and audition, because if she didn’t keep those con­nec­tions, she would have no chance of getting hired. So how, when we had very little money, did she make all of those trips happen? God made it happen.” 

A retired pilot from church added the couple to his air travel buddy list. Emily could travel with no costs. Another friend offered to sponsor Emily in whichever financial ways she needed.

 “He believed in her,” Mark said, looking at his wife.

Mark and Emily support each other. They always have, Mark Dou­glass said, who is now the Chairman of the Spring Arbor Uni­versity music department. He wouldn’t be the musician he is without his wife’s encour­agement and guidance, he said. 

I’m a better com­poser because of her,” he said. “She sings my music and if I just splash notes on a page, she makes it sound mirac­ulous. She makes it sound spir­itual, she makes it come to life, and I’ve been able to take advantage of that.” 

“In every pro­fes­sional position, I have tried to nego­tiate work for her as well,” he con­tinued. “Within a very short amount of time, her expertise, expe­rience, and grace become apparent. Stu­dents say, ‘She is like a miracle worker with my voice.’ Col­leagues love working with her. In the beginning, I try to get her a job, but in the end, she gives me job security because no one wants to lose her.” 

Now a mom to two sons ages 6 and 11, Emily says she’s learned to juggle the many roles in her life. In addition to teaching stu­dents and spear­heading the vocal department at the college, she home­schools her kids. One of her sons has severe dietary restric­tions, and Dou­glass always goes the extra mile for him. The love she has for her kids is “some­thing special,” Holleman said. 

“For all the home­school groups, she will work in snacks for him that he can eat, where he doesn’t know that he’s doing any­thing dif­ferent from the other kids,” Holleman said. “She takes the time to figure out how to make it work for him without him knowing that something’s dif­ferent. He just feels part of the group.” 

She’s a calm mom, too, Mark Dou­glass said. It’s not an extra­or­dinary sight to come home and see Dou­glass sitting at the piano with a crying son in one arm, another son asking for dinner, and the dog howling in the backyard — all while she’s learning music in German for an upcoming performance. 

Her calmness uplifts her stu­dents, Lam­brecht added. She is con­sistent in char­acter and demeanor but also knows how to adapt to her stu­dents’ dif­ferent skill sets with various tech­niques. Jones, Dou­glass’ teacher, said he saw this quality in her from the beginning. 

No one makes a good teacher if their per­son­ality is rigid, or if there’s only one way to do things,” he said. “Her openness to work with a singer indi­vid­ually and not just use one formula for each person, but to cus­tomize the hour for that per­son’s spe­cific needs — that’s what makes her a great teacher.” 

Dou­glass said she loves the college and believes in the liberal arts. That’s what has kept her here and what moti­vates her to teach her stu­dents, she said. Hillsdale stu­dents study music to the equiv­alent of music majors at other uni­ver­sities, but most stu­dents will become things other than musi­cians — authors, teachers, lawyers, writers. 

“I believe in Hillsdale College because we’re giving stu­dents the oppor­tunity to grow as humans through the expression of art at a very high level,” Dou­glass said. “My hope is that they grow phys­i­cally, but they also grow with tech­nique. And by the time they’re done, this beau­tiful instrument is present, and now they’re ready to leave to go to wherever their path is.” 

For now, Dou­glass’ path is at Hillsdale, and she gives God all the glory. They will con­tinue to tell stories together. 

“My faith is where every­thing comes from for me,” she said. “It’s the reason why I sing, it’s the power behind my singing. It’s the power behind my gift of singing.  I pray before I go on and pray that God takes over. I’ve done the work, I’ve done the practice, and once I’m on stage, He takes over, and I’m just expressing, just telling a story.”