Alumni Spotlight: Debi Wong

September 3, 2013

In Their Own Words

Debi Wong (M.M. ’10)

Debi characterizes her experience at the Yale ISM as one of “the most intensive things I’ve ever done,” yet in the same breath she expresses gratitude for her two years spent studying early sacred music in the ISM’s vocal program. Debi, a mezzo-soprano, described the ISM was “a place with extraordinary talent and creativity,” and that as such, it forced her to “do better and better every single minute–as a musician, an academic and as a whole person.” Within the ISM, Debi met a range of different people from all walks of life, and discussed how much she treasured the opportunity to converse, sing, and study with a group of students with which she ordinarily wouldn’t have crossed paths. Most notably, she mentioned the ISM’s weekly Colloquium as a unique part of her graduate experience: “…it sounded like a ‘have to’ at first, but then you ‘get to’ come together and see people each week, and encounter ideas that you never would have thought of before…” This time to connect weekly with students and discuss ideas relating to the intersection of music, theology and the arts culminated for Debi in her own Colloquium presentation, in collaboration with a fellow student, on Tan Dun’s Water Passion.

Debi’s academic and musical journeys have unfolded in closely related, parallel ways. Originally interested in pursuing musicology, she applied for the vocal program at the ISM only upon the encouragement of some friends. When she was accepted, she thought, “Well, I have to go now!” but still held reservations about “performance anxiety, technique issues, and how they would affect my ability to sing well.” She described her first year as a difficult adjustment to the rigors and pressures of the program.

“When I arrived at the ISM, I felt like the worst performer in the world. But my teachers and friends gave me good advice, saying ‘Don’t go to the place where you’ll automatically be the best—go where you will be challenged, because that’s where you’ll learn the most.’ I think their advice was right on!” Debi also thanked Voxtet director James Taylor, who not only provided support on the musical side, but acts as a mentor to his students. Debi spoke of Simon Carrington’s direction of the Yale Schola Cantorum as playing a key role in helping her develop her sight reading skills: “…working with Simon really whipped me into shape!” As a musician, Wong said that singing with and for such world-class musicians, singers, and conductors allowed her to gain the necessary experience and confidence to consider a career in performance: “At the ISM, I really built up the skills to be a performer.”

Yet Debi’s academic pursuits were not sidelined during her time at the ISM; she took advantage of the ISM’s interdisciplinary curriculum, studying the theology, culture, and history that underpin the sacred music she was performing. She is currently pursuing her doctor of music degree at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland, which involves a combination of academic research and writing with musical performance—in Debi’s opinion, the best of both worlds! She admits that such pursuits would not have been possible without her training at the Yale ISM.

In addition to her Ph.D. work, Debi also started an early music ensemble with Norwegian lutenist Solmund Nystabakk, entitled White Sparrow. The duo has appeared on many concert series in Helsinki and in 2012 was awarded first place in the NORDEM EAR-ly Competition for young early music ensembles in the Nordic countries.

Of future aspirations, Debi says, “Eventually, I would love to start a performing arts program that teaches them in a different way… in a more interdisciplinary way that engages the arts with questions of society, culture, and personal formation.”