Music grad found voice at Western

Contact: Erin Flynn
A group photo of a graduating student and his family.

Marcell Pierre Whitfield celebrates with family after commencement on Saturday, June 24.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—For as long as he remembers, Marcell Pierre Whitfield has been enthralled with music.

"My mother and my grandmother would tell everyone about me sitting in the back seat in the car seat singing Lauryn Hill's 'Doo Wop (That Thing),' and from that moment, I wouldn't be quiet," he laughs. "Singing is my stress reliever. I put a lot of my emotion into the words that I write. And then I take that emotion, channel it through my singing and everything comes to life."

Now, as he prepares to graduate from Western Michigan University on Saturday, June 24, with a bachelor's degree in vocal music performance, he sees the stars beginning to align.

Marcell Pierre Whitfield stands on a stage in front of a piano.

Whitfield performs in his senior recital.

"My dream job would be to go on tour singing my original music and also incorporating classical music to bring to a new generation," says Whitfield, who will begin that journey in his hometown of Detroit as director of music for a talent agency.

While he grew up singing and performing with youth theater and in his high school orchestra, Whitfield says Western's vocal performance program helped make him a more complete music professional.

"I learned about music theory. I learned about aural skills. I learned about conducting. I learned about tech," Whitfield says. "Yes, I could have … found a private teacher and just built myself vocally, but without the rest of that education aspect (that Western offers), there's nowhere I can go."

Whitfield says he was empowered to succeed at Western due in large part to Dr. Rhea Olivaccé, assistant professor of voice.

"Without her, I probably wouldn't be sitting right here," he says, remembering a time he wasn't sure he would continue in the Irving S. Gilmore School of Music. "Dr. Olivaccé stood by my side throughout the whole process and really kept me mentally tuned."

It was also Dr. Olivaccé who helped Whitfield embrace his identity as a Black male vocalist and discover his ability to sing as an operatic countertenor, the highest male vocal range.

"She quickly took me under her wing and showed me what my voice can do," he says. "She took a whole semester to really dissect my voice, and even before I was even in her studio, she would listen and she was observing."

That personal care is something Whitfield experienced with many professors in the Gilmore School of Music—something he believes sets the program apart from others across the country.

"Through leadership through the (professors), I've learned to really self-reflect; I've learned to prioritize my practicing; I've learned that I need to really organize myself," says Whitfield. "Dr. Olivaccé, Dr. (Carl) Ratner, Dr. (Kenneth) Prewitt—all three of them really took the time to sit with me and say, 'This is how we're going to do this. Let's see if this works for you.' They took the time to really work with me, and I am very appreciative of that."

A group photo of students.

Whitfield found belonging in Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia fraternity.

Whitfield found support and belonging outside the classroom in his fraternity, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia. He knew he wanted to be involved on campus early on in his Western career, but he wasn't sure how. Then one day he remembers walking down the Gilmore School of Music hallway and a group of students calling out to him through an open office door.

"They invited me in and said, 'Come sit with us,' and we talked for almost an hour about random stuff. And I realized, I think I found a group of people I really fit in with. And in that moment, they handed me an application and said, 'Come to some of our events; we'd love to see you out.' I went to a few events and we really bonded, and it was just written right there."

An active member, Whitfield became a leader in Western's chapter of the fraternity, serving on the executive board and attending the organization's national convention as a delegate.

"It's phenomenal for networking," he says, acknowledging the brothers he's connected with in different professions across the country, gleaning advice and establishing relationships that could pay off in the future professionally. "Sinfonia doesn't stay in your collegiate years. You continue throughout your life empowering and promoting music throughout America and promoting the power of music. And that is something I live for."

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