By Hope Baptiste
Q: When is it not hard to get your child to practice the piano?
A: When they don’t have to.
Such was the case for Louise Toppin ’83, Kappa Kappa Gamma Distinguished Professor and chair of UNC’s Department of Music, when she was a little girl and her dad “caught” her playing the piano at home when her older sister was supposed to be the one practicing.
“I was a precocious child,” Toppin said. “Music came naturally to me—I could hear it, feel it, express it, and recreate it on the piano. It was a gift.”
Though she’s been making music ever since, that wasn’t her original plan. “I originally wanted to go to medical school, and since my sister, brother and I grew up in Virginia with academicians for parents and we lived across the street from the university (Virginia State University), I was able to begin college at 16 and take some of the courses I knew I would need after going to high school all day,” she said.
But that something was still there. Her parents knew it, and she may have even known it, but was uncertain about pursuing it at the time. “It was the age-old question: ‘What can you do with a music degree and how will you make a living?’” she said. “It was my father who actually encouraged me to seriously explore music as a profession, as well as a passion.”
So Toppin came to Carolina with the intent to study medicine as she explored courses in music. Upon the advice of her father, she declared a music major leading to a degree in music (piano) in 1983. She earned two master’s degrees in music one in piano and a second one in voice from Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. (She started a voice degree after the head of the voice program at Peabody heard her sing and encouraged her to audition). She then taught music and math for three years before heading to the University of Michigan to earn her Doctorate of Musical Arts.
She taught at Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green State University before landing at East Carolina University, where she spent 20 years building a stellar graduate music program and her vocal performance career as well. She also focused on diversity in music and performance, specializing in African-American concert music. Today, she is the foremost authority on this genre.
As a performer, she has been a finalist in the Munich International Competition and winner of the Metropolitan Opera regional auditions. She has received critical acclaim for her operatic, orchestral and oratorio performances nationally and internationally. She is a highly sought-after presenter and guest artist for masterclasses, and has seventeen internationally distributed commercial recordings and performances to her credit.
She said her move to Chapel Hill came at just the right time, when she had built her career and her specialty and was ready to help her beloved alma mater take the next steps in the music program. Toppin arrived at UNC in 2010 as the area head of voice, then moved to associate chair for performance, composition and music education. She became department chair in 2014. She has led the implementation of a new curriculum, hired new faculty and staff, begun new funding and programmatic initiatives, and overseen the 15 million dollar renovation of Hill Hall.
“Our department needed and deserved a significant new investment, and it has been an incredible experience to help take us through such transformative growth and renovation,” she said. “We have an incredible teaching and learning facility in the Kenan Music Building, we have extraordinarily talented students in our Kenan Music Scholars, and just this year we have seen the incredible transformation of Hill Hall. The performing arts are thriving here, and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this evolution. There’s still more to do, but I’m ecstatic at how far we’ve come.”
Now, Toppin is looking ahead once again. At the conclusion of this academic year, she will join the faculty at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance where she spent her did her doctoral work. “I’ve been so blessed to serve the department that nurtured me, and cultivated the foundation that has allowed me to have a fulfilling career as a singer, teacher and administrator,” she said. “It’s been my honor and privilege to serve my department in return. I will always be a Tar Heel.”