Juan Angel Johnston-Chavez Strikes the Right Chord
Singer and educator Juan Angel Johnston Chavez, graduates this spring with degrees in vocal performance and music education. Photo courtesy of Juan Angel Johnston Chavez.
Juan Angel Johnston-Chavez, ’23 Vocal Performance and Music Education, is a member of a truly unique graduating class. A freshman in fall 2019, his first year was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and like millions of others worldwide, he pivoted online. But how does one pivot as a singer and live performer?
As a member of the Choraliers, San José State University’s most advanced chamber ensemble, as well as SJSU Opera Theatre, Johnston-Chavez had to find creative ways to connect with classmates, faculty and the community at large. In spring 2022, he participated in the university’s inaugural Latin American Choral Festival. He graduates this spring as the Choraliers celebrates its 75th anniversary with a special concert and alumni reunion. He fielded questions between rehearsals, performances and finals, offering a snapshot of Spartan life before, during and after the pandemic.
What brought you to SJSU?
Juan Angel Johnston-Chavez (JAJC): I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do coming out of high school, but I knew I wanted to be in the arts in some way. I applied to SJSU as a vocal performance major. I knew for sure that doing opera and performing was something I was very passionate about and wanted to do.
When I auditioned, the voice faculty was so supportive and encouraging. Dr. Jeffrey Benson particularly really made an effort to reach out and connect with me while I was making my decision. I decided on SJSU primarily because the faculty were so nice and encouraging throughout the decision process. I also was aware of the SJSU Choraliers being a great choir, and I wanted to be a part of it.
Just before I came to SJSU, I sang with Dr. Benson at Carnegie Hall in a choir of various high schools and community college students which only enhanced my excitement to work with him. I was also awarded a merit scholarship after my audition.
Were you a freshman in 2019? If so, you are part of a unique cohort whose freshman year was interrupted by the pandemic. How did COVID-19 impact your path to a degree?
JAJC: I was a freshman in 2019 so COVID did impact my time at SJSU. Certainly as a performance major, I was deprived of opportunities to perform and improve my stage skills. It was also quite difficult trying to take voice lessons online as it is hard for a teacher to hear everything going on in a student’s voice through a computer screen. But I was very lucky to have teachers that really listened to what I did so that I would not mess up my voice.
Also, choir was not at all the same as we, of course, could not sing in person as a whole group. However, Choraliers did do rehearsals in the parking garages for those who felt comfortable doing so, which was very nice. Those of us who went in person recorded videos in octets, led by the choral conducting graduate students.
Additionally, for opera over the pandemic, our program combined with the opera program at CSU Stanislaus for virtual master classes in subjects such as make-up, hairstyling, auditioning, writing resumes, making websites, vocal pedagogy and more. We also put together a virtual opera scenes program – “Epic Opera Reels” – where I was able not only play various roles in the scenes, but also was able to create concepts for the videos, direct, film and edit them. I’m so grateful for SJSU’s opera director at the time, Professor Sandra Bengochea, who organized, alongside Dr. Joseph Wiggett at CSU Stanislaus, such a fantastic class even under such difficult circumstances.
Sitting at a computer screen all day did, however, cause me real fatigue, and it was definitely hard to focus sometimes, as it was for many students. But I don’t think it really heavily impacted my degree. I was still, for the most part, able to stay on top of my work and learn most of the material. COVID primarily impacted my ability to collaborate in performance and singing.
Tell us about your experience with the Choraliers.
JAJC: Dr. Benson creates a very supportive environment where we can create music together at the highest level. However, we do work very hard to ensure that our music is in the best shape when time for performance — Choraliers is certainly not an ensemble to mess around in.
Throughout my time in Choraliers, we have gone on two tours across California to various high schools and colleges, been invited to perform at the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) regional conference, and performed in many local concerts throughout the year.
We finished up a wonderful concert where we performed the work of “Considering Matthew Shepard,” about the tragic murder of Matthew Shepard. This was one of the most moving and heartbreaking concerts we have ever put on, for sure, and it is definitely one of the things I am proudest of during my time at SJSU. This June, Choraliers is set to go to Spain and Portugal for a tour as well! I am really looking forward to that.
What does music mean to you?
JAJC: Music is an art form that can express all aspects of humanity while communicating in a language that is universal. Music, in my view, really is a communication tool. My favorite aspect about music is being able to tell stories in what I am singing whether it be through a role I am playing, in a solo recital setting, or in a choir. Being able to reach people’s emotion through a musical performance is truly why I am a singer and musician.
What about SJSU has surprised you?
JAJC: Being able to direct and choreograph for the SJSU Opera Theater. I was very involved in the opera program in my four years, and in my third year, after the year online, I was able to direct and choreograph for various shows in our opera theater program in person. That became something I am now very passionate about and it makes me hope to one day run an opera program of my own.
In general, the SJSU opera program, formerly led by Professor Sandra Bengochea and now led by Dr. Michael Mohammed, was very student-driven and many students were given not only the opportunity to perform, but work behind the scenes.
How do you feel that SJSU has prepared you to take the next steps in your life?
JAJC: SJSU has prepared me in so many ways to be a professional in the music world, both as a performer and educator. In performance, SJSU’s opera theater really gave me a lot of opportunities to perform opera roles in many scenes (Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, La Cenerentola, and more). Additionally, SJSU opera theater gave me the chance to sing my first lead role as The Learned Judge in “Trial by Jury,” and I can confidently say that it was this show that made me realize that I have a real passion for performing and acting.
I am also so thankful to have had such wonderful voice teachers in Professor Philip Skinner and Professor Christopher Bengochea who really made me the singer I am today. I can’t thank them enough for their guidance in helping me develop my voice.
In terms of education, I really think SJSU has one of the best music ed programs. I added my music education major at the end of last spring after taking Dr. Benson’s conducting series. I learned how to conduct a choir and run an effective rehearsal, which in itself is its own art. Dr. Corie Brown’s choral methods class last fall gave me even more practice in rehearsing music with a choir and we even got to work at a few different middle and high school choirs, running real rehearsals on our own. In addition to the choral ed classes (which is my emphasis), we also take instrument fundamentals classes in brass, woodwinds, strings, percussion and guitar.
Going through this program really has prepared me to run an effective class and music program, not only in the musical aspects, but also in the personal aspects (connecting with students, disciplining, keeping students engaged and interested, etc.). I am a lot more confident in my ability to teach private students and groups than I was before entering this program.
What’s next for you?
JAJC: I will be attending Manhattan School of Music for my master’s degree in vocal performance. This summer, after going to Spain with the Choraliers, I will be attending an opera program in Utah where I will be playing Don Alfonso in Mozart’s opera “Cosi fan tutte.”
Truly something I’ll forever treasure are the friendships I made in the SJSU music department. For the most part, we are a family in this department and students support one another. Such an important part of my musical journey and growth has been the support of my music department friends. They have never failed to pick me up when I’m down and I would do the same for them in a heartbeat.