What does it take to make a good singer great?
In Tom Singer's case it was the encouraging nudge of an inspiring vocal coach, the late Elizabeth Rowan. So when Singer takes the stage Saturday night as one of 14 featured soloists performing with the Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, this one's for her.
"She was an amazing lady in terms of helping people find their voice. Early on, she asked me what I would like to do with my voice. I told her maybe get some help auditioning for shows at BST so I can get a lead. She said, 'You need to set higher goals. You need to solo with the Billings Symphony.' "
And even though Rowan won't be in the audience Saturday night in person, she will be there in spirit because she trained many of the featured vocalists. Before she died in 2007, Rowan found out that Singer had realized the goal she helped him set by getting a solo in the "Broadway Hits" concert. Singer will perform "Agony" from "Into the Woods" with Gary Treglown.
"Elizabeth sure opened some doors, not just for me, but for a lot of people," Singer said. "This one's for her."
Growing up in Powell, Wyo., in the 1960s the son of a farmer, Singer discovered he had a pleasant voice and enjoyed singing. But opportunities weren't that plentiful so he ended up singing at folk Masses at the Catholic Church. He continued singing in college at Northwest Community College and at Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University Billings) and even sang when he was attending Harvard Law School, where he graduated with honors.
When he moved to Billings, Singer successfully auditioned for a position with the Billings Symphony Chorale, where he has sung bass since the mid-1990s, and worked his way into community theater musicals. One of the most memorable for Singer was his role as Joseph's father in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" performed in 1994 at Billings Studio Theater. The production was directed by Robert Wood, Venture Theatre's new producing artistic director, and featured Steve Zediker in the title role.
That was the role that prompted Singer to take formal voice lessons from Rowan, urged on by his fellow actors who felt he had untapped vocal talent. Surprisingly, studying voice with Rowan also helped his effectiveness in the courtroom.
"She helped me realize that there are skills from my music that I can apply in another environment," Singer said. "The difference is that concerts don't settle on the courthouse steps."
Singer said he thrives on the stress of working on a tough case and preparing for a stage role, noting, "If there is no stress, we are dead."
But his court schedule almost prevented him from rehearsing with the rest of the chorus and the orchestra this week. A high profile civil case out of Great Falls was settled just in time for Singer to scrap his plans to travel to Great Falls and rehearse with his peers Monday and Thursday. In between, he took a day off for some mid-week skiing at Red Lodge, vowing to practice his music on the chairlift when no one was listening.