Updated: Apr 5, 2019
By Matt Larson
Everyone needs support to follow their dreams, and few understand that more than James Toland. He’s been a private voice teacher here in the Bay Area for more than 30 years, and has served as a master teacher, clinician, and vocal coach for a wide variety of choruses in the greater Bay Area.
Knowing firsthand what it takes to make it as a singer, in 2010 he decided to create James Toland Vocal Arts, Inc., or JTVA, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to supporting singers who are working to achieve professional success. “My mission for JTVA is to celebrate singing, and singers,” Toland said. “I want them to be encouraged to sing, and to study singing, and to keep at it.”
We spoke with Dorian Chong, a JTVA board member and mother of an aspiring singer who trained with Toland for years. “I have a daughter who pursued a career in opera, so I know how difficult it can be,” she said. “It’s a hard lifestyle; so it just feels good to me, and to the people in this organization, that we can do something positive to encourage and assist these brave individuals who are launching themselves into a career in opera.”
Based in Oakland, JTVA functions as a yearly competition open to singers from all around the world. Each year 14 finalists are selected to compete in two separate tiers: Tier I is for 7 established singers at the beginning of their careers with a grand prize of $20,000, Tier II is for 7 up-and-coming singers, who are still studying their craft, with a grand prize of $8,000. But JTVA didn’t start with prizes like this, and they’ve only held 5 annual competitions to date.
“The first year we were just happy to be able to cover their expenses and give them a really good learning experience,” Chong said. “In 5 years we’ve really accomplished a lot in terms of raising the award money. This year we’ve raised a larger sum of money than we ever have before, and so our prize money has jumped.” So the aforementioned prizes that’ll be awarded in 2019 have just about quadrupled from the 2018 competition.
JTVA holds their competition every June, and throughout the year they stay pretty quiet outside of a few fundraising events. The next chance to support them will be at 4pm on October 14 of this year for their fifth annual Wine & Chocolate Musicale: an afternoon of music, wine and chocolate held at several locations from 3350-3354 on Grand Avenue in Oakland. “It’s lovely to hear beautiful music in an intimate setting,” Chong said. “The merchants have really great products, and you’re hanging out with people who love music!”
Perhaps the best way you could support JTVA, outside of sending them donations, is by attending their events. They have a strong volunteer base, and anyone encouraged to help them is invited. “We’re very grassroots,” Chong said. “We have a small budget, we don’t have paid staff, we’re run by volunteers, and we’re growing every year.”
As they continue to grow, the volunteers of JTVA look forward to offering even more resources to their contestants. “We want to build up our financial strength so we can explore ways to broaden the scope of what we can offer our singers in terms of educational opportunities,” Chong explained. Already, contestants get to take a master class, a one-on-one coaching session with a professional instructor in front of a live audience, and they’ll also all get detailed feedback from the judges after the winners have been announced—which is typically very unusual for singing competitions—but JTVA wants to do all they can to help their singers succeed.
Don’t forget to attend their Musicale event on October 14th. For more information please visit their website at jamestolandvocalarts.org. Scroll down their homepage to find a video when JTVA staged a 50-singer flash mob at the Oakland City Center earlier this year—a passion project that was directly funded by one enthusiastic donor. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow them @jamestolandvocalarts, and “sing” their praises to the greater East Bay community!