For the October 2016 edition of Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviews Joan (Joanie) Hofmeyr, a second year vocal arts student from South Africa. After years of music training in South Africa, Joanie spent a year of high school as an exchange student at the Episcopal Academy in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Her time in Pennsylvania motivated to continue her musical training in the United States. In her short time at Juilliard, Joanie has been in the chorus for the opera, La Sonnambula, and has participated in Juilliard’s annual Choreo-Comp. However, her interests extend far beyond being a vocalist. She is an avid attendee of Workout with Darryl, holds two work-study jobs during the academic year (usher and mailroom clerk), and has served as a Summer Conference Assistant, Audition Monitor, and Orientation Leader.
Listen to Joanie sing her intrepretation of”Estat ai en greu cossirier” written by the Comptesse de Dia. The recording was used by second year dancer, Moscelyne Parkeharrison, for her solo at the annual Juilliard Dance Workshop Series performance.
When did you begin singing and music training? When did you realize that singing was more than a hobby and something you wanted to pursue professionally?
Music training was like this extension of the Hofmeyr family… it was somehow never a question in my mind. I started taking piano lessons at age 5 I think? (Have very little to show for it on the actual piano now, of course… hopefully that knowledge has been translated theoretically). I also took recorder and violin lessons for a bit – neither of those did it for me.
And neither did piano in the end. The singing lessons happened way later. Thinking about it now, I realize that singing was very much my own thing until I got to the age where people started asking me what I wanted to be. I used to write songs with a little recorder that I’d hum tunes into and a book for lyrics. I remember sitting my dad down around that time in my life wanting to discuss the prospect of being a pop star. For him, there would be no discussion about the pop. He said if I was really considering this whole singing thing then I’d have to be serious and realistic about my options: being a pop star would be impossible for someone in my circumstances, and frankly he didn’t see what set me aside from other aspiring pop stars.
Obviously I had a classical voice and he would 100% support my training for that. I knew so little about this “classical” genre except for the fact that it suited my voice and I thought that, once I studied it and got into it, I’d foster a love for it. And so the “real” vocal training began. At one point in ninth grade I was juggling so much – I also took ballet lessons almost all my life up until that point – and school was really becoming demanding. I wanted to prioritize. School was number one for me. I love learning and studying. So I stopped practicing as much for my piano lessons and in my (what turned out to be) last lesson I admitted to my teacher that I identified as a singer, not a pianist; that I’d choose singing in front of people over playing piano in front of them any day of the week and that there was no point in learning to play these hard pieces if I didn’t feel confident enough to perform them for anyone. Whether positive or negative, I think that was a defining moment for whatever my career turns out to be.
What was your initial reaction to the news that you were accepted to Juilliard?
I thought, “Okay! So now I can die, right?” I wanted it so badly that, honestly, I didn’t think there could be anything more that I wanted to achieve in my life. Ridiculous, right? I mean, of course I had hoped it would happen, but I never allowed myself to
think about or picture my life beyond getting accepted… I think I’ve always thought that thinking I’ve got something before I really have it is bad luck, or that I’m setting myself up for disappointment, so I honestly didn’t want to consider the reality of getting in, in case that would jinx it. So, after the news, I was really surprised to find that life still went on and I was expected to keep living.
After you were admitted to Juilliard, a member of the South African Parliament made a “Motion Without Notice” to congratulate you on your acceptance. Can you tell our readers about that?
*A Motion Without Notice is an opportunity for Members of the South African Parliament to table matters of local or national significance in Parliament. Read an article about the motion here.
I’m sure this won’t be a new story to anyone because I know almost every student in America has to worry about the cost of education, student loans and debt, etc. The thing about a South African wanting to study in the States is that the cost of her education becomes about 6 times what it would’ve been if she studied in South Africa. I kid you not. After being accepted with a partial scholarship my parents laid out a budget for me: they could – with a stretch – only contribute x amount every year, and if I didn’t make up the difference somehow there was absolutely no way I would be able to come to Juilliard. I can’t live with ”What if’s” – not if I can help it. So, of course, I did whatever I could think of to raise money. The first thing I did was to set up a GoGetFunding account, and, honestly, there were and are so many amazing causes that need support, and I knew that funding my Juilliard education probably wouldn’t be any stranger’s first pick. I knew some crazy serendipitous thing would have to happen… it had happened before in my life when, through some kind of alignment of the stars, I received a partial scholarship to attend the high school of my dreams (Roedean School SA). It was through this school’s partnership with the ASSIST program that I did my US exchange, and what, as you mentioned in the introduction, owes in large part to why I am here today. As it turned out, what happened in the case of getting me to Juilliard was directly linked to my connection to my high school. The crazy, serendipitous thing, of course, was not mysterious at all: it was simply a man with a kind, big heart who – for some or other reason – decided that he believed in me. His name is Reverend Dr. Jeremy J. Jacobs (I knew him then as “Father Jeremy”, but he quickly established in our email conversations that ‘Jeremy’ or any kind of variation on ‘J-Dawg’ was to be the only way forward). Every Easter and whenever we had communion in the little chapel at my school Jeremy would conduct these incredibly tasteful, philosophical and (what I considered to be) religiously ambiguous sermons. The only interactions we had before he decided to help fund my journey to Juilliard was when he shook my hand at the end of these chapel services, as he did every student’s hand who stood in line to thank him. There was never any time to chat to him, so I always made sure to try communicate my appreciation for his evocative words with my eyes. I guess he picked up on that, because just in time for the admission decision Jeremy is emailing me, telling me he happened upon my GoGetFunding page asking for my life story, trying his best to collect as much data as would be useful for him to promote the idea of helping me get to Juilliard to his congregation at St. George’s Anglican Church. And man, did he promote. And he didn’t tell me what he was up to (why did he want to know so much about my background, for example?), he would just say “big things are coming, Joanie”. Until, one day, I performed with the St. George’s Choir and did a couple of solo songs for the congregation, after which he handed me a check with the money I still needed. A few days later he texted and said turn on the TV and watch the live meeting in congress. Jeremy had gotten MP Toby Chance in on my promotional “campaign” as well – all without my having knowledge of it! Let me just make sure to mention I have many, many people to thank for getting me here and through my first year at Juilliard – what I’ve mentioned here is the particularly heart warming story attached to the Motion Without Notice.
Do you have a particular role model or hero (professionally or personally)? If yes, who is this person and why?
I consider the people I have conversations with in my head role models, because I obviously believe they have some further insight into things than I do, and these people most regularly include my dad, mom, brother, and sister. But if we’re going to get particular about my role model then I want to talk about my sister. I think we experience things in much the same way; when we talk about how we felt when a particular thing was happening it always amazes us how similar our answers are… we joke about how we’re basically the same person, and, of course, we always acknowledge that “well, duh”, because we grew up together with the same frame of reference. This might sound like I’m saying I am my own role model, which, although I do really listen to my own gut more than anyone else’s advice and prefer doing completely my own thing, is not exactly what I’m saying. The defining factor about my admiration for my sister is her wisdom. Perhaps I believe in her wisdom because she’s 2 and a half years older than I am, or perhaps it’s simply a quality she has – perhaps both. Whatever the case, she will always be an embodiment of what I strive to be, and when I find myself in a place in life where I imagine she’s been I feel a real sense of accomplishment.
What hobbies do you have outside of singing opera?
I enjoy philosophizing with people who care to entertain that. I explore. I exercise. I do yoga. I walk a lot. I listen to music when I walk – mostly indie-folk. I muse. I work through my musings by writing things down. I sometimes take photographs with this great second-hand camera that leaks little light spots. I organize and plan and write to-do lists or suggestions to myself for what I could do. I spend so much time doing this that I really do consider it to be a hobby. I go to coffee shops. I spend a lot of time seeking out comfort and pleasure.
Watch Joanie’s final art project from her senior year of high school.
A silly question for you-if you were an animal, which animal would you be and why?
I’d love to be a bear, I think, because I would love to be able to hibernate. Can you imagine being able to just shut down for a significant amount of time knowing that you’d be able to wake up when the time was right – when you felt you could handle life again?
You are originally from a small town in South Africa and later moved to Johannesburg. Can you tell us a little bit about your hometown and Johannesburg?
I grew up with a dam in front of my house. My brother, sister and I (and whomever of my friends were lucky enough to be over at my house when my brother felt inspired) would make movies; sometimes “Survivor” episodes out by the dam. We had so much space. Some weekends my family and I played soccer in a small open field right down the street from our house, and other times we’d go mountain biking on the paths on this mountain which was barely 10 minutes away from our house. I often rode my bike to my friend’s house or to ballet and tap class. So even though I loved this place, the move to Johannesburg was very welcome in my life, because I used to love change and excitement (now I’m not so sure…). Johannesburg is wonderful. It’s an underrated city and I really think you gotta to live there to fall in love with it – I did. I fell in love with the drives home from school and the Friday night trips to the mall with my family to watch the latest “Cinema nouveau” movies. For the first time since living in the States I’m allowing myself to miss incredible things like that about my life in South Africa. Man o man have I been fortunate.
If a friend was to tell you that he/she was going to South Africa for a trip, what are the top three pieces of advice you would give your friend (i.e. places to go, foods to try, etc.)?
As I’ve mentioned, if you’re able to, go live in Johannesburg for at least year. If you’re going to do the touristy thing then I’d say drive along the Garden Route – it’s a coastal route and it is so incredibly beautiful. I’d definitely camp, and hike anywhere in the Drakensburg, and swim in the gorge pools I find there. And definitely drive everywhere. The different landscapes are things to be experienced.
In your experience, what are some common misconceptions that Americans have of South Africa?
Americans, in my experience, have pretty solid conceptions of South Africa. People who have asked me – in earnest – things like why, if I’m from Africa, am I white, were not Americans if I recall. Unless we’re talking about, like, seven-year-old Americans. Like a young girl I know who once said, “South Africa must be so much better than America, because you live with lions and monkeys and zebra.” (Which is, of course, true.)
What were some misconceptions you had about the U.S. before coming to Pennsylvania as a high school exchange student?
Oof. I think I thought – and this disillusionment is still something I’m working through – people here had things more figured out. I think the fact that American commercialism is so real that kids in South Africa are decorating fake conifers for Christmas when it’s 90 degrees outside had something to do with the creation of the misconception. But I will definitely admit that I am mostly to blame for creating the misconception all by myself.
What do you like most about living in NYC? What do you like least?
There are things I think I’ll always like and things I’ll always dislike. But then the rest really depends on the state of mind I’m in from moment to moment. I think I’ll always like how I can “happen upon” things – especially at times when I most need it. I like how I can be on the subway with no expectation of anything out of the ordinary happening, and then I hear a child say something really interesting to his/her dad, and then I smile, and am happy that for a moment my attention is on something other than the ramblings of my thoughts.
But then I can be minding my own business at a coffee shop, doing my theory homework, and a random lady who has clearly made it her goal to completely ruin someone’s day will sit right across from me, notice that I’m doing music theory and say “Music is dead. You’ll never be able to make a living as a musician.” After being polite and listening to her pessimism for way too long I get up to go, planning to have the last say about how I think I’ll be able to figure things out for myself she just keeps going – “There’s nothing to figure out!” she says, and then for a moment I hate everything about New York. Those moments are no fun in the moment. There are also some things that are just always going to annoy me – no matter what state of mind I’m in. Like the unbearably loud fire truck and police car sirens. The intensity of those sirens really are a little ridiculous. I always plug my ears shut when they pass, so when, for example, I’m having a conversation with someone as one passes I always awkwardly have to pause the conversation and look around or make ugly faces to indicate my annoyance. I guess I both love and dislike the fact that in New York where I don’t have car windows to hide behind when I want to get from comfortable and familiar place A to comfortable and familiar place B my experience is vulnerable to being hi-jacked by other people’s experience. This city causes a lot of anxiety, but it is simultaneously (and strangely), to me, its own cure.
You previously told OIA that you have “changed quite significantly since coming here a year ago.” In what ways have you changed?
I am now a lot less sure of everything, really. I’m actually not sure of anything. I’m amazed at how I wanted something so much a year ago that I came all this way to get it. Like, thank god, of course, because without that certainty I had I couldn’t possibly be where I am, going through whatever it is I’m going through right now. And I’m grateful for anything that gets me closer to the truth. A year ago I wanted to be an opera singer, and then I felt very driven towards theater, so I did an acting Summer Intensive at the Atlantic Acting School and that decision was quite a big deal because I wanted that so badly that I chose it above going home, and I haven’t been home for 13 months now.
Then, two weeks ago, I started my second year with a new purpose: I am going to be the next singer who graduates from the Juilliard Vocal Arts program and goes into musical theater on Broadway! Then, for my first English Diction class of the semester I had to choose a song to sing by an American composer and I discovered Copland, Barber, and Kurt Weill, and I gotta tell ya, some of those pieces really get me excited… so who knows? All I (sort of) know right now is that the kind of artist I want to be doesn’t exactly fit into anything I’ve seen so far… a lot of things inspire and excite me, and I’m able to hear, see or feel something and know exactly whether that thing evokes a “yum. Yes.” or a “no thanks” in terms of what I want to pursue artistically. In terms of my place in the world: It seems I’m only just starting feel – let alone understand – what it is to be a human being. So my “place” anywhere is yet to be invented. The good news? I’m an artistic human being, so showing up to invent is my forte.
Watch Joanie sing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from Les Miserables. She made this facebook post at 2AM in response to the news of the death of Alton Sterling.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you?
Yes there is. I might start doing my own personal “day of silence” a few times a month, and I would like the records to show that. I happened upon Ulysses S. Grant’s mausoleum the day after I thought of taking a vow of silence (among other things he established the National Park Service. Whoa right?), and above the entrance the words “Let Us Have Peace” were carved, and I thought “Let us indeed.” So hopefully one day you will see a silent Joanie walking down the hallways, and hopefully that will create peace in our Juilliard microcosm.