|Rocco Dal Vera|
Since 1998, he has taught CCM drama and musical theater students how to effectively shape the sounds of their voices to convey stories onstage. Dal Vera’s curriculum spans all four years of an undergraduate’s education and involves working with students to craft specialized dialects, as well as teaching them how to use their voices healthfully in order to endure marathon rehearsal and performance schedules.
Moving from classroom to rehearsal room, Dal Vera’s hours extend well beyond the standard. In addition to his teaching load, he also serves as the resident vocal coach on all ten major productions produced by CCM’s drama and musical theater departments each year. For every Shakespearean drama or musical based in the American Deep South, Dal Vera can be found behind the scenes, training students to make sure they are using their voices in such ways as to authentically communicate the stories they are trying to tell.
Toss in any number of engagements outside of CCM, and Rocco Dal Vera can safely be considered one of the busiest professionals in his industry. In the last year alone, Dal Vera published his latest textbook (Acting in Musical Theatre: a comprehensive course, co-authored with Joe Deer; Routledge), lectured on vocal coaching and vocal health at national conferences, and served as vocal coach for upwards of 35 professional theater productions (including Cincinnati’s Tony Award-winning Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Dayton’s Human Race Theatre, and more).
"My failing is that I have this tendency to say ‘yes,’" Dal Vera laughs. "If somebody asks me for something, I open my calendar, and if there’s a physical way I can do it, I say yes. If I’m busy when they need me to be there, we try to work it out."
This spirit of generosity includes an open-door policy for his students, resulting in countless hours spent with them off the books. Dal Vera is frequently working independently with students to help solve persistent vocal problems, to support special projects such as the creation of voice-over demo tapes, or simply to lend an ear or advice. Even in the short turnover between classes, Dal Vera is almost always engaged in conversation with an eager student. "They write me, they phone me, they stop by my office and they chase me down," he says.
For anyone else, the demands could prove overwhelming. But for Dal Vera, the opportunity to work with students is an invigorating force. Says nominating colleague and drama department chair Richard Hess, "Professor Dal Vera creates deep connections with each student, placing them at the center of his universe."
This devotion to students has earned Dal Vera a fervent following that extends well beyond a student’s years at CCM. He is frequently fielding calls from alumni asking for advice to apply to their professional careers, seeking solutions for problems that are at times straightforward and, at others, hilariously unusual.
He cites a recent conversation with a graduate who was struggling with the loss of her voice during her musical cabaret act. The cause? One of her vocal selections required her to "bawk" like a chicken. Dal Vera recalls the memorable conversation that ensued.
"I phoned her back and she was walking down the street on her cell phone, and we’re bawking like chickens," he laughs. "Me in my office, she in New York, trying to figure out what she’s doing that’s hurting her voice and trying to find a solution."
According to alumna Havila Brewster (2005 Drama), this is emblematic of Dal Vera’s character. "Without hesitation, Rocco is always one hundred percent ready and willing to steer me in the right direction," she says. "Most times he gives me far more help than I would ever have asked."
According to Dal Vera, strong bonds between teacher and student are a natural outgrowth of the dramatic art form.
"To say that it’s student centered—there’s no other way to do it in my field," he says. "Just the nature of what acting is—it’s all about the person. They can only act out of their own spirit and psyche. They have to bring themselves to the party. There’s no other way."
For a student, the flipside of offering so much of oneself is a level of vulnerability that can prove daunting. It’s important, Dal Vera says, to create a safety net that allows them to take the emotional leaps that the art form asks of them.
"The main thing is recognizing that, at all times, we’re always dealing with the most personal level of an individual in these classes," he says. "Since their raw material is themselves, everything we do is all about them at the most fragile level, the most personal level. I think it’s about being respectful of the risk that they’re taking so they can take it."
Alumna Gabrielle Stravelli (2001 Musical Theater) benefited directly from Dal Vera’s approach. "He had exuberance for the subject matter that made us as students eager to learn, and I remember always feeling like I was treated as an equal when I was in his class," she says. "He treated his students as adults whose thoughts and opinions mattered as much as his."
Dal Vera is quick to credit CCM students for the unique energy they bring to the table, relishing in their enthusiasm.
"Their commitment is awesome," he says. "The students we get here are unbelievable. Not just as talented people, but as people. There’s this ensemble feeling so that they really support each other, and they come with such a high level of desire and commitment that you give them a little push and they just go. That’s very inspiring."