PLU student sings his way to full scholarship at Yale

Brendan Fitzgerald didn’t think he needed a music degree to sing at the level he wanted.

So no one was more surprised than he was when he was accepted to the Yale Institute of Sacred Music – with a full-ride scholarship.

“The whole opportunity just basically fell in my lap,” said 23-year-old Fitzgerald, a Pacific Lutheran University senior set to graduate May 24. “I was really, really fortunate.”

Fitzgerald learned about the Yale program in March from James Brown, the chairman of vocal studies at PLU and Fitzgerald’s high school voice teacher.

Brown has long been a fan of Fitzgerald’s rich, baritone singing voice.

“He’s always had that – even as a high school student, he had this wonderfully resonant voice,” Brown said.

When his teacher encouraged him to apply to Yale, Fitzgerald thought Brown was joking. But two weeks later, he’d completed the application and two weeks after that he flew to Connecticut to audition.

“A week later they called me – I’m going for free to an Ivy League grad school,” said Fitzgerald, who will start classes at Yale in the fall.

Fitzgerald’s formal music education began with piano lessons in first grade. He joined the Tacoma Youth Chorus at 7 and sang with the group for 10 years.

“I sang everything from alto, as a boy, and then bass, starting in the seventh grade,” he said.

Fitzgerald was active with Tacoma Opera chorus during the 2009-12 seasons, performing in shows such as Counod’s “Faust,” Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Puccini’s “La Boheme.”

“(Music) became ingrained into who I was,” Fitzgerald said.

Over the years he developed a passion for sacred music, particularly that of the Baroque period.

“It’s really what I feed off of,” he said. “I tell people all the time that if I could sing just Bach for the rest of my life, I’d be the happiest guy ever.”

Fitzgerald began studying at PLU in 2009 and pursued an undergraduate degree in music. He has sung with the elite ensemble Choir of the West for three years and played major roles in operas such “The Magic Flute,” “Gianni Schicci,” “Semele” and “Albert Herring” while at PLU.

But after three years of music courses Fitzgerald decided to change his course of study. The level of singing he liked didn’t require a music degree and he feared burning out.

“Music has just been always a part of what I’ve done, and I didn’t want to make myself hate it,” he said.

So he changed majors from music to sociology, which meant an extra year at PLU. During that fifth year, Brown told Fitzgerald about the Institute of Sacred Music.

“I thought of Brendan because I was aware of his passion for choral music,” Brown said. “A big element of the Institute for Sacred Music, in addition to the solo singing, is the ensemble singing. For those reasons, I thought he’d be a great candidate.”

Brown described the institute as “an incredibly specialized program focusing on niche repertoire.”

“There are programs out there doing what the Yale Institute of Sacred Music is doing, but really not at the level they’re doing it,” he said.

The institute is unique, Brown said, in the caliber of performers it produces combined with its academic resources, such as a library of original manuscripts where students can read Bach’s own handwriting on the scores.

“I knew he was exactly the kind of person they were looking for,” Brown said of Fitzgerald. “He’s a really great, good-natured person, and has a maturity that I think is beyond his years in many ways.”

Still, the thought of tackling Yale is daunting, Fitzgerald said.

“I just think forward to what my life is going to be like for the next two years and how intense it’s going be,” he said. “It’s really intimidating to look at it as an Ivy League school, so I just look at it as another chance for me to go out and sing some Bach.”

After he completes his graduate degree, Fitzgerald hopes to sing professionally in London, a city he fell in love with while studying abroad in summer 2011. He’s also traveled to Scotland, Wales, German, France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland.

“Music has taken me so many different places. I don’t ever want that to stop,” he said. “I want to see everything, and if I could travel for the rest of my life, I totally would.”