SMC's own Renaissance Man
Professor Dennis Parnell is a busy man. Yet he still manages to exemplify flawless punctuality in his daily life, walking into his appointment with a Corsair reporter directly at the time planned, with his glorious, white beard impeccably sculpted, his studious, tortoise-colored glasses, his shiny bald head and his suit and tie combo which communicates the essence of professionalism upon first impression.
Though his remarks about his abundant experience with music and teaching all bear humility's signature, he nevertheless remains honest about his intentions, his line of work and his life, as he bluntly names the scarcely-mentioned truth that every musician knows: that music, like all other art, is a "cry of an individual to be recognized."
Parnell, who has been a professor at Santa Monica College for over 15 years, is currently the senior voice teacher on staff, and has taught many well-known singers such as Chikezie Ndubuisi Eze of "American Idol." He usually teaches Beginning and Intermediate Voice (Music 50A and 50B), Fundamentals of Music (M1), and a variety of other Music Appreciation and Music History courses.
He describes himself as a "pretty honest" critic when teaching, and explains that he emphasizes "appropriate" presentability for all of his students, which includes dress and even a healthy diet. Indeed, his own pristine suit is a witness to the importance he places on decent and proper appearance. "If [students] are inappropriately dressed and it's distracting from what they're doing, then I will critique that," he said.
But in the realm of teaching real vocal technique, Parnell lays down some "bottom lines": pitch and tone. He says that a major reoccurring issue with many vocal students is that "either the instrument is out of tune with the voice, or the note itself is out of tune," suggesting that one of the main points of teaching voice revolves around training a student to be more sensitive to adjustments in pitch. He mentions another important technique which can be very "frustrating" for most students to learn: developing a strong vibrato, which is a rapid, pulsating effect produced in singing by the rapid reiteration of emphasis on a tone.
When discussing bad habits that many students may develop as a result of previous teachers, Parnell says that "there are a lot of good voice teachers who don't know anything about the voice. They have really good ears, and they can make corrections using their ears, but they pass on so much wrong information that it becomes very difficult to be a teacher who's looking for some kind of factual information to pass on."
This is but an occasional obstacle as Parnell trains his students in the art of "controlled yelling," or "Olympic singing," being able to sing with and still be heard above an orchestra, without harming the voice, and therefore possessing a strong "tone" characteristic of opera singers, even when switching into other genres of music.
And SMC, according to Parnell, is the right place for students to come to learn this. "The standards [of the music program] are kept very high, the students have to maintain a good academic status, take theory courses, and apply themselves. For students who are serious about what they're doing it's a really good program." And he adds that it should be no less than incredibly helpful to any aspiring musician: "I'm all for making the school look good as long as the students benefit."
Indeed, he certainly does make the SMC music program "look good." After a full, freshman-year scholarship to the universally-envied Mannes College of Music in New York, Parnell earned both his B.F.A. and his M.F.A. in vocal performance at the California Institute of the Arts, with a minor in composition and conducting. Besides being a published poet and both a tenor and counter-tenor operatic vocalist, Parnell also teaches numerous other vocal techniques, such as R&B and Jazz, two genres for which he composes. His personal vocal experience includes singing lead vocals for Du-Wop groups "The Explorers" and "The Charts," leading the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue as cantor for seven years, and even occupying the position of cantor and soloist during a performance for Pope John Paul II's visit to Los Angeles in 1987.
It's no surprise that this lengthy and impressive experience in the professional world of music serves as a solid base of musical wisdom for many of his students.
One of these lucky few, Eze, a finalist in the recent season of "American Idol" and previous student at SMC, describes his background with Parnell as drastically vital to his musical success. "Being at SMC and taking a class with Dennis Parnell made me the singer that I am," said the young R&B singer, as quoted on Parnell's website. "Honestly, I learned more there then I could have ever learned on my own or anywhere else. I would not be on 'Idol' if it was not for that class, point blank."
Parnell, in turn, describes Eze as one of his more successful students, and applauds "American Idol" for its efficaciousness as a "forum" for aspiring singers, even though it tends to "stick artists into a category," just as it did to Eze when they gave him a list of "15 Beatles songs to choose from" for a television performance. It's a shame that this finalist couldn't sing his favorite R&B ballad by Parnell-- a beautiful, surging lament called "I Should Have Known" -- for the cameras.
In fact, Parnell says that, within the next year, he hopes to collaborate with Eze, a couple of other former students, and the world-renowned soprano Angela Maria Blasi to put on a recital in the new SMC auditorium; a performance that will not only be a sentimental reunion and a mind-blowing performance but will also show off SMC's music department for incoming students and donors.
And with Parnell's upcoming book, "TELOS: The Elementary Laws of Singing," countless students aside from just the SMC students will be able to learn from Parnell's expertise. But for now, he gives this piece of wisdom to all aspiring musicians: "De gustibus non est disputandum: In taste, there's no dispute." To Parnell, this means that, generally speaking, "when something is really done well, almost everybody recognizes that it's really good, no matter where they come from or who they are. It has to do with being a member of the human race, there's something intrinsically recognizable [in that]."