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Dear Young Students In The State Of Iowa, With An Emphasis On Students Of Color

As a part of the series "Iowa Week 2020: Listening to Black Voices" on IPR's radio show and podcast "Talk of Iowa," IPR Classical's Jacqueline Halbloom sat down to talk with world-renowned opera star Simon Estes about his career and experiences with racism. He wrote this letter to young Iowans.

"Dear Young Students in the State of Iowa, with an emphasis on students of color,

My name is Simon Estes, and I was born in Centerville, Iowa.

I grew up in a family that was financially poor but rich in love and faith. We lived in a small house and didn’t have indoor water, electricity or toilet facilities. We did have an old upright piano, and we would stand around the piano while my mother, who was self-taught, played. And we would all sing along.

When I was in elementary school, I was first recognized as a good singer by my music teacher. In junior high I was asked to sing in the high school choir, but before that could happen, the teacher had to get permission from the principle of the junior high school.

Donald Stampfli
AP Photo
U.S. soprano and actress Julia Migenes is seen as leading star in the role of Salome and Simon Estes as Jochanaan, in the opera Salome by Richard Strauss during a performance in the Grand Theater in Geneva, Switzerland, Saturday January 24, 1983.

I asked the high school choir director if he thought I could make a living by singing, and his reply was yes. Since then, I have sung 102 opera roles, at 84 different opera houses, with 115 orchestras and 90 of the world’s greatest conductors, all around the world. I have sung and have recorded in German, Italian, French, Russian, Spanish and English. I have had the pleasure and honor to sing for six presidents of the United States, kings and queens, spiritual leaders such as Billy Graham, Archbishop DesMond Tutu, two different popes and the Nobel Prize Committee.

All of these wonderful experiences happened ALL because of music and using the God given talent of voice. I would like to further encourage you young people to get involved with classical music, and perhaps YOUR lives will be transformed.

All students have a better chance with academic success when involved with music, and studies have proven this to be so. In these studies, the type of music that has inspired and improved academic grades is classical music.

I am encouraging all students to go to orchestra concerts or find an instrument of your choice and learn to play. Listen to classical music and become inspired, which in turn will round out your academic learning. Historically, students of color have not had the same opportunity to be involved. I strongly encourage you to talk with your choir or band/orchestra director if you are in high school to discuss possibilities for choices of instruments or music selections.

Watch Iowa Public Broadcasting, or listen to IPR Classical, Sirius XM radio, Pandora, ITunes or other venues online to hear symphonic works.

I would like you students to know that I didn’t know anything about classical music until I went to the University of Iowa. However, I did have three older sisters, with one sister playing classical music on our piano. I encourage you to listen to classical music, even in elementary school.

Charlie Neibergall
Simon Estes sings "America the Beautiful" during inauguration ceremonies for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Composers are talented people who have been given a gift to write music. Take some time and listen to Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Handel and Haydn. These composers wrote for orchestra and opera, and some started writing when they were five to seven years of age. Most classical music was composed by people from foreign countries such as; Germany, Austria, France, Russia, Italy and others. There are American composers such as: Copland, Rogers and Hammerstein, Gershwin and Burleigh.

I could write a whole book about classical music and the reasons why I feel it’s so important. I just want to encourage you to get involved in classical music. Share your desire for classical music, and ask your parents or teachers how to start to get involved.

I have emphasized classical music, but there are other forms of music that are also healthy to listen to, such as: Broadway Melodies, Jazz, Negro spirituals, Gospels, and Hymns. They will inspire you. They do that for me."

May God bless you,
Simon Estes

Simon Estes is an internationally known operatic bass-baritone who has honorary doctorate degrees from Iowa State University, Drake University, The University of Northern Iowa and other institutions across the world.
Jacqueline Halbloom is a Sr. Music Producer and Classical Music Host