Balancing a love for the arts with pursuing a career in health care is possible at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and recent graduate Laura Melton knows that firsthand.
Melton, 22, graduated with a degree from the UAB School of Nursing in spring 2022 and works for UAB Medicine as a nurse in the neurosciences intensive care unit. She had always enjoyed singing and taught herself to play guitar, but she knew nursing was her career path. What was still undiscovered was her talent for singing opera and the joy it would bring her.
The mentorship she received through the UAB College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Music faculty led her to embrace that passion, as well as connecting her to music jobs in the city and even a trip to Italy she thought was lost during the pandemic. Her music education while earning her undergraduate degree was purely recreational, she says, but ended up being a beloved hobby and important outlet for her mental health.
“I became interested in the music program because I’ve always liked singing, and I thought joining UAB’s Concert Choir would be a good way to meet people,” Melton said. “I had my audition with Dr. Brian Kittredge, the choir director, and Dr. Won Cho, my teacher, had an opening in the studio and asked if I would want to do some lessons, just for fun.”
When she came to his voice studio, her work ethic, keen ear for music, love for singing, maturity beyond her years and voice were so apparent that Cho engaged his contacts to recommend her for local professional choirs. He usually does not recommend freshmen for such responsibility, but this young lady “was an exception,” he said.
Melton, of Helena, Alabama, had never sung opera or other classical vocal music, and learned she had a natural knack for it.
“I think he heard something in my voice, and he thought that style would suit me,” she said. She “begrudgingly” learned the pieces he recommended and, to her surprise, liked it. “It is such a large noise, and I just love it. It’s my favorite style of singing, and I don’t really like doing anything else anymore.”
As part of her musical training, Melton was supposed to go to Italy as a sophomore in 2020. She had her auditions completed and her music ready, then COVID hit — and hit Italy hardest. “It was so disappointing,” Melton said. “I felt so discouraged, because the next year I would start nursing school, and I felt like that was my last opportunity. Dr. Cho tried to stay encouraging, saying ‘maybe another time we can do it.’”
Melton, who was in the UAB Honors College’s Personalized Path, earned her nursing undergraduate degree on a presidential scholarship and sang the national anthem and UAB alma mater at spring commencement in late April 2022. She was studying for the NCLEX, an exam to be licensed as a registered nurse, and preparing to start her nursing job in June when she received a message. Cho was going to Italy, where he would join other students and teachers of singing as an artist-faculty member for a month of intensive master classes. Was she still interested?
Melton had her nursing job planned out but knew, once she started working, that opportunity would not come again.
“It’s so hard to get that time, and I was like, ‘I just have to do it, I just have to,’” she said. “I spoke to my recruiter, and they were really accommodating, so I went into action mode. I had a month to raise all my money, learn all my music. I was able to do it. And it was amazing.”
She participated in the Assisi Performing Arts Music Festival 2022 on a full scholarship and was in Italy for a month with 21 other singers. The students performed in master classes that were like public voice lessons, where they sang, and an expert offered them constructive suggestions and ideas to improve their performance skills, live in front of an audience. Hearing the feedback from the master teacher was helpful for her in learning and mastering her own voice.
“It was intense. I have never had such rigorous music education,” Melton said. “It was like rehearsals all day, very fast-paced, and the people you’re with are all so good. It’s very intimidating, and you are trying to keep up. By the end of the day, it was tiring; but it was so worth it.”
In addition to receiving voice lessons and singing in the master classes for four voice teachers from Italy, Korea and the United States, Melton performed solos in six concerts and sang at masses, including at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Melton has “an especially beautiful and strong mezzo-soprano voice,” said Gregory Scime, the festival’s artistic director and adjunct professor of piano at Seton Hall University.
“The festival requires singers to learn and perform a great deal of music in a short period of time,” Scime said. “Laura had a serious approach to learning the music and exhibited great confidence in performance. I am quite familiar with the difficult courses required of the nursing students — organic chemistry, anatomy and physics to mention a few. So, it is quite remarkable that Laura has excelled in her musical studies, which also involve difficult courses.”
Italy was wonderful, and when she came back, she felt “so rejuvenated, because I had just spent five semesters in nursing school studying hard, and I felt refreshed and ready to come back,” she said.
“I think having that break helped me come back better than I would have if I had gone straight into it, almost,” she said. “I was stressed about taking that time off initially; but honestly, I think it was for the best. I am so glad I did it even though it was scary.”
Melton is taking a year off before starting graduate school to work in the neuro intensive care unit and hopes to get a better idea about what nursing path she would like to take. As she is an employee, after six months, UAB Medicine will pay for her graduate school tuition upfront.
So many of the people she graduated with at UAB chose to stay and work at UAB, she says: “They know they like the school; they know that, in terms of staying local, this is the best hospital around. You are going to have the most resources and the best learning experiences.” UAB Medicine also provides specialized support for new nursing graduates, such as the Nurse Residency Program that eases the transition to practice, and continues to support nurses with additional programs beyond the 100 percent tuition assistance educational benefit. Learn more if you are interested in a nursing position at UAB Medicine.
Melton has been a member of the Sanctuary Choir at Mountain Brook Baptist Church for the last five years and will join the Opera Birmingham Chorus next season. She also is an invited singer in the High Holy Days Choir at Temple Emanu-el, along with the best professional singers in the area.
Her advice, if she had to do it all again, would be to keep doing what you love. She was able to take voice lessons because her teacher worked with her schedule. But she quit choir when she started nursing school, because she assumed she would not be able to make it work.
“In hindsight, I wish I had asked for help to manage my schedule, because looking back now I realize your teachers and deans want you to be able to do what you want to do,” she said. “Don’t assume that it won’t work — always ask.”
Source: UAB News