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Music professor instructs two generations from one family

         

           CLARKSVILLE - Briana Larsen and her mother, Valerie Oyen-Larsen, look remarkably similar. They have different hairstyles – Briana’s is cropped short, while Valerie’s is down to her shoulders – but the faces framed by that blonde hair contain the same blue eyes, the same high cheeks and the same curve along the jaw line.

         

           CLARKSVILLE - Briana Larsen and her mother, Valerie Oyen-Larsen, look remarkably similar. They have different hairstyles – Briana’s is cropped short, while Valerie’s is down to her shoulders – but the faces framed by that blonde hair contain the same blue eyes, the same high cheeks and the same curve along the jaw line.

            Their voices, however, are what really link the two women together. At first, you don’t notice it. Briana speaks with a youthful, enthusiastic tone while Valerie’s voice is a little more serious, a little more reserved. But when the two women sing, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.

            “The thing that struck me so much was that Briana’s voice sounds so much like her mother’s,” Dr. Sharon Mabry, Austin Peay State University professor of music, said. “You can close your eyes and sometimes not know who is singing. They have similar vocal ranges; the quality of the voice is similar. The way they phrase things is very similar.”

            Mabry sat in her office on the third floor of the APSU Music/Mass Communication Building, smiling as she thought about the two Larsen women. The window behind her offered a view of a cold gray January morning, but the room’s bright lights, gleaming off the piano, gave the space a certain warmth - the type of warmth that seems to invite nostalgia.

            “You don’t know how much is heredity and how much is Briana growing up hearing her mother sing,” she said. “You won’t likely meet two more talented people.”

          Mabry, maybe more than anyone, would know about the quality of their voices and their talent. That’s because she instructed both of women – Valerie in the early 1980s and Briana just last year. In her 40 years as a music professor at APSU, the Larsens marked the first time Mabry has ever taught two generations from the same family.

            “It kind of makes me feel old,” she joked.

            The First Generation

            Mabry first arrived at APSU in 1970 and quickly gained a reputation as a gifted recitalist and soloist. Symphony orchestras and universities from around the country sought her out to perform or serve as a guest master teacher of vocal techniques. In 1980, she received national recognition when she was a featured recitalist in the National Public Radio Art of Song series.

            A few years after the NPR series, Valerie Oyen-Larsen’s husband, a soldier, was transferred to Fort Campbell. The couple originally hailed from North Dakota, where they’d met in band class in high school. Valerie was interested in continuing her music education, having earned a B.A. in music from the University of North Dakota, and Mabry’s name kept coming up.

            “After I got here I met people through music and theater in the area, and they suggested I consider studying with Sharon,” Valerie said.

            She applied to APSU and was awarded a graduate assistantship. She then began studying with Mabry in order to earn her M.A. in vocal performance.

           “It was good because at the time Sharon was very active in performing and was a real leader in performing contemporary classical music,” Valerie said. “She worked with living composers and did a lot of performing in that genre nationally. I had some excellent training through her in doing recent works. That is something that has stuck with me. I really enjoy doing pieces that are challenging and current and looking for things to sing that are maybe not well known.”

         Toward the end of Valerie’s college career, Mabry suggested she audition for the prestigious Franz-Schubert-Institut in Austria. Valerie decided to give it a try.

         “She was a wonderful student, and she’s a fine singer,” Mabry said. “She applied for the institute. It’s very competitive. I had been a scholarship student at the Institut in 1979, and the year I was there, only 17 students were selected. It was extremely hard work, but I enjoyed the experience and learned a lot.”

        Valerie’s audition impressed the judges that year, and she received a full tuition scholarship to the institute. But she was a little nervous that summer as she packed her suitcase for her trip to Europe. She needed to be careful with everything she did because she’d recently learned that she was going to have a baby.

       “I was pregnant with Briana when I went to Europe to study,” she said. “She got all those music vibes one way or another.”

The Second Generation

            The Larsen family, because of the military, ended up moving away from Clarksville. They spent several years in North Carolina before returning to middle Tennessee. Valerie became an adjunct professor in the music department at APSU, and founded and conducted the Clarksville Community Chorus. In the years since she’d earned her master’s degree, she’d built quite a resume. She had performed across the globe, from South Korea to Austria, and she served as a featured soloist with numerous orchestras, including the Nashville Symphony. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Briana, who was 10 when the family returned to Clarksville, grew up in home infused with music.

            “Very much so,” Briana said. “I’ve been singing in (my mom’s) children’s choirs and church choirs since forever. My dad is also from a musical family. His father and his two brothers are band directors.”

            “She’s had a lot of exposure to various kinds of music, including jazz and church music and classical,” Valerie added.

            This environment helped Briana grow into a gifted musician. When it was time for her to start thinking about colleges, several schools expressed an interest in this talented young woman. But Briana had a connection to APSU, and one day her mother decided to give her former professor a call.

            “Valerie called me and said my daughter is going to be a freshman next year, will you take her as a voice student,” Mabry said. “It was hard to believe she was old enough to be a freshman. Of course I took her, and she was an incredible student. She’s incredibly talented. They’re alike in many ways. They’re both extremely smart, very well organized in what they do.”

            Briana began studying under Mabry while a senior in high school, and the experience persuaded her to attend APSU the next year.

            “She was 90 percent of the reason I decided to come to Austin Peay,” Briana said. “People come from all over the country to study with her, and she’s absolutely fabulous. And fun. We spend a lot of our lessons giggling.”

            The Senior Recital

            Valerie has been through her share of senior recitals. She did it at APSU as a graduate student in the 1980s. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, she instructed students as an adjunct professor at APSU for that important performance. And today, in addition to her job as music director of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Green Hills, she continues to teach young musicians as an adjunct professor at Belmont University and Trevecca Nazarene University. But last December, as her daughter took the stage, the feeling in her stomach was a little different.

            “I think I could relate to all the excitement and sometimes nerves and adrenaline rush,” she said. “But it was reassuring. It was nice to know that she was in good hands (with Mabry).”

            The senior recital is the culmination of years of hard work by a music student. After taking an hour of private voice lessons a week for three or four years, students are required to give a concert performance showcasing their talents. But this is no simple feat of singing a few songs. The program must include works in Italian, French and German, in addition to complex pieces in English. It is a rigorous final examination of their work and abilities to ensure the student is worthy of earning their degree.

            “Briana did wonderfully,” Mabry said of her performance. “She’s a fantastic singer. She has a beautiful voice and a lot of charisma. You really want to watch her perform. People love to watch her.”

            In the excitement following the concert, Mabry had a realization. She went up to her student who looks remarkably similar to her mother Valerie.

            “I didn’t realize until my senior recital last fall that Dr. Mabry taught my mother,” Briana said. “I just thought that she knew her by being a colleague. She came after my recital and said, ‘I just realized this is my first second-generation senior recital.’”

            She laughed and then added, “It was kind of weird.”

            On a much warmer, though equally gray afternoon in February, Briana and her mother reunited with Mabry briefly in her third floor office. The three women smiled and could hardly help themselves from complementing each other. They remarked on how much they enjoyed the connection of all having worked together. Briana mentioned that after graduating this spring, she hopes to earn a master’s degree in music therapy.

          “I want to focus on socialization, working with juvenile delinquents and children with autism,” she said.

        Eventually, all three women had to leave for different appointments. But on their way out of the office, they laughed as they commented on how Mabry probably wouldn’t be teaching a third generation from the Larsen family any time soon.

- Charles Booth