Ph.D. student Joshua Hillmann has been singing longer than he has been playing the piano, an edge his professor at ASU said would set him apart in the future.
“The voice, that is the first instrument there is and is the most important for a musician,” said Baruch Meir, Hillmann’s studio professor for the past six years.
This edge placed Hillmann at the Grammy’s twice for recordings under the direction of Charles Bruffy, whose work with the Kansas City Chorale and the Phoenix Chorale earned a Grammy in 2007 for “Passion Week” and two nominations this year for “Life and Breath.”
Hillmann was in children’s choirs before starting to teach himself piano when he was 11 years old. His parents started him with lessons at 12, and a year later, he won his first piano competition.
“So that was kind of super charging my enthusiasm for continuing,” he said.
He would go on to travel and record with an a cappella group in high school and would accompany choirs while pursuing his undergraduate degree under scholarship at the University of Kansas.
“The director of choral activities said, ‘I’ve heard you sing, I want you to come sing for me, too,’” Hillmann said. “And so I got more involved with the choral side of things.”
A fellow choir member connected Hillmann to the Kansas City Chorale. He would be one of the added low basses in its collaboration with the Phoenix Chorale to produce an album of Russian composer Alexander Grechaninov’s music.
“We had two professional chorales merge as one and we were able to create an almost symphonic wash of sound,” Hillmann said.
“Passion Week” would win the Grammy Award for Best Engineered Classical Album in 2007. “Life and Breath” has been nominated in that same category this year, as well as for Best Choral Performance.
Bruffy himself has been nominated for a Grammy award 11 times.
“In the Russian repertoire, it’s not Russian if you don’t have low bass,” Bruffy said. “So the whole section and (Hillmann) in particular were very pivotal in the Russian recording.”
Hillmann joined the Kansas City Chorale for the 2004 season and is in his eighth season with the Phoenix Chorale. He said one of the best parts about being in the Phoenix Chorale, which is largely made up of ASU music program graduates, is the level of musical ability among the musicians.
“It’s amazing when you can step into an organization, and even when you’re sight-reading music for the very first time, the way that the group communicates automatically sounds better than 90 percent of the recordings out there,” Hillmann said. “If all you’re working on is notes and rhythm and melodies, then you’re never going to get past that 90 percent point.”
Bruffy has been conducting the Kansas City Chorale since 1988 and the Phoenix Chorale since 1999. He said the success behind both Grammy-winning groups is largely tied to the musicians trained at the nearby universities.
“It’s a very important contribution that colleges make to their students in preparing them for professional work,” he said.
“Our agenda in preparing for a performance of any kind is to seek out the core of a piece of music and then investigate as many details and possibilities and angles and shapes we can, until we find what we think is the most illuminating interpretation of the score,” Bruffy said.
Because the voice does not involve a physical act, like the pushing of a button to produce a note, singers may not experience the physical muscle activity in executing a certain pitch.
Along with being reliable, Hillmann has this advantage.
“That interaction of having sound in his fibers, that has really helped him,” Bruffy said. “And it also doesn’t hurt that Josh has perfect pitch.”
Hillmann’s playing has evolved technically since earning his master’s at ASU and entering his doctoral program, Meir said, and being able to sing at the piano makes him a dynamic pianist.
“A lot of pianists tend to be very one-dimensional,” Meir said. “They don’t see beyond just playing or teaching the instrument. (Hillmann) likes to play pieces nobody’s played, explore composers people don’t know; he’s very much an innovator.”
Hillmann will be among more than 20 musicians brought to the Grammy’s by “Life and Breath,” the first album solely dedicated to music by Rene Clausen.
For Bruffy’s first Grammy win, all the singers who were able to attend went on stage to accept the award, and he said a win this year would be the same.
“For me, winning the Grammy is not because I conducted them,” he said. “It’s because we created this together.”
Hillmann said he hopes his Ph.D. from ASU will prepare him to teach.
“I would really love to be able to teach other people at the university level just what it is to be a musician, what to do to get to a level where you’re communicating with the audience and you’re not letting your body get into the way of the music,” he said. “With my DMA, I really hope to get into a position at a university where I can pass on this kind of knowledge and this kind of experience.”
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