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Her voice is now silent, but the warmth and dedication of Rebecca Sarkisian lives on through music. An online Fresno City College concert helps mark the memory.

Rebecca Sarkisian, a beloved voice instructor at Fresno City College and Good Company Players veteran, died on the last day of finals in May 2019. It was also opening night for “New Wrinkles,” the longtime senior musical revue based at the college, for which she served as vocal director.

Pictured above: ‘Inspirations,’ a virtual concert from the FCC Singers, includes a tribute to voice teacher Rebecca Sarkisian.

At the opening night reception of “Wrinkles,” students, friends and colleagues wrote remembrances of Sarkisian on index cards. Those were hung in the trees outside the college theater. Afterward, fellow music faculty member Mike Dana got hold of the cards.

“As I read through them, a narrative started to form in my mind about this wonderful person and how I might be able to compose a piece of music for her,” he says. “Now I knew what the text was going to be based on.”

The result is “My Voice.” The song is part of a season-ending virtual concert titled “Inspirations” that also includes “In Meeting We Are Blessed,’ with original orchestration by Nicolas Vargas. Julie Dana (Mike’s wife) conducts. (See embedded video below.)

Though she’d prefer a live concert, this way she was able to include Sarkisian’s students from outside the area, including Oregon, Kansas City and San Diego.

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I caught up with Julie via email to ask about “My Voice.”

Q: For those who aren’t familiar with Rebecca Sarkisian and her story, can you give us a brief rundown on her connection to Fresno City College and the music community?​

A: Becky was a member of the music faculty for years! I arrived in 1999; she was already here teaching. At one point she expressed an interest in working with our more advanced voice class students, which I was teaching. I knew her level of expertise would be a great opportunity for our students, so she took it and that began a long line of fine vocalists transferring from FCC, singing in local theater, etc. She also was the vocal director for “New Wrinkles” for a number of years. We brought the FCC choirs and “Wrinkles” chorus together several times for concert performances during the holidays.


VIDEO: FRESNO CITY COLLEGE PRESENTS ‘INSPIRATIONS’


Q: Do you know how many of the students in your choir had Mrs. Sarkisian as a teacher? If they didn’t have the chance to know her, how did you “share” her with them?​

There are a few students still here who worked with Becky, a few worked with her, but many remember her and the influence she had on their friends who studied with her. Many are continuing their studies elsewhere, several at Fresno State. Since the fall, I have watched one junior recital and four senior recitals of her/our former singers who are now graduating with their bachelor’s. I share these with my current students, because what better way to show them how their hard work can pay off? I’ve shared the story of the day she passed, our time together under the trees, crying, laughing and sharing. It is difficult for them to understand the magnitude of that loss that day — but the City Singers had an opportunity to sing it together in the Old Administration Building recently. Anyone in the room “felt” her beauty when we finished … Mrs. Dana crying …

Q: The soloist at the beginning of the piece is powerful. What can you tell us about her?

A: ​Samantha Arrellano is an alumni of Fresno High and missed the opportunity to study with Mrs. Sarkisian. She is my student assistant when we are actually “in” school and is a wonderful leader for the choral program and City SIngers. She has really found her voice this year, studying with Hanna York, who stepped into Becky’s very large shoes that last semester.

Q: I notice Elisha Wells playing the French horn. Did other Fresno City College instructors also perform?


Related story: CELEBRATING REBECCA SARKISIAN’S LIFE OF LOVE, MUSIC, FAMILY AND SONG (2019)

A: Yes, isn’t the horn part amazing? When Mike first told me about the piece, he mentioned that it was to represent David, Becky’s husband … so touching. Of course, our FCC collaborative pianist Aarne Kela, who worked closely with Becky in the voice studio,played the piano.

Q: Why do you think Mrs. Sarkisian was such a great voice teacher? Can you teach someone to have the kind of bond she had with students and audiences, or do you think it is an innate ability?

​A: What a great question. Becky saw the potential in every one of her students. I think that bond is cultivated over time, as she saw each student for who they were and where they were coming from. She helped them sing repertoire that they were interested in, but she challenged them to achieve skills I don’t believe they even imagined. As students do, they challenged her back, they cried, they argued, but she firmly moved them forward. It is always amazing to me to see the growth in these singers…she was a masterful voice technician. And a wonderful singer too of course! 🙂

Q: What do you miss most about her?

A: Gaaa. Hardest question. Our hallway chats about the kids, lessons, new things going on at school were always fun, but I loved just sitting down and hanging with her to be honest. We would share some yummy chocolate and a glass of wine and laugh (she had the best laugh) and talk about the potential of our kids. We’d make changes to the curriculum together, we’d plan concerts, we’d talk about our families … it didn’t matter the frequency, because we were both so busy all the time. We could just make time because it was important.

Photo courtesy Julie Dana

Rebecca Sarkisian, left, and Julie Dana at a Fresno City College commencement ceremony.

Q: Looking ahead, what are your thoughts about choral music in the fall semester and beyond? What have you learned from your crash courses in remote performances and video editing?

A: Holy guacamole … .I am tired! Our “Covid Choirs” did a great job — but it isn’t really a choir now, is it? A bunch of individuals sing into their phone or recording device and send it in and I put it together and make harmony. But we have something to show from this strange year. I told the young ones to keep a journal, because one of their grandkids is going to come home with an assignment from school asking them about how they survived the 2020 pandemic. Won’t they have some stories to tell?

Choral music is going to come back like a tidal wave — so many singers were deprived of what they love to do most. I think the fact that we kept going, that we just didn’t stop singing, but instead tried to make music, as unsatisfying as it was, and give it to the world. That says something about us. We are closing tonight’s concert with “How Can I Keep from Singing” because, well, right — we can’t!

My eight most glorious days of this year were when I met my students, safely following the protocols necessary for singers, at FCC. We sang warm-ups — “do re mi” — you would have thought I was hearing the Hallelujah Chorus harmony in the same space. Wow. I realized just how devastating it has been to be without that, without them. I miss their energy and expectant faces walking into my room. I loved just listening to them visit and laugh and talk between our live in-person singing (in masks of course). All the things that I fell in love with when I started teaching many years ago — I long for that again. We will sing together again next academic year, but I do appreciate the caution that the college took this year to keep us safe. And am grateful that they allowed me to show them that we can do this. We will do this. We are going to have the comeback of the year next year! Once we can be together again — oh, the joy.


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I have learned so much about audio and video editing (more than I really wanted to, if I’m being honest). But it was important to me for the students to see that I was trying to learn during this time, too. Can you imagine taking 4-5 classes from that many different professors, most of whom have never taught online!? I think I played the role of prof and cheerleader equally. These kids who are still standing right now, they are going places, and I am grateful that I had an opportunity to travel with them! These new skills are going to make them great educators someday if they choose that path and I will use them when we return (please, oh please, in the fall). We were visited by composers and conductors, musicians from all over the world, from Jordan, Thailand and around the U.S. Talk about a wonderful learning experience. I hope we can keep that door open, because we all loved learning from them and their inspiration.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: ​I am grateful. Grateful for colleagues like Becky Sarkisian. They inspire not only their students, but me, too. I’m grateful for my students, grateful to have a thriving music department to be associated with right now, grateful for people that go online and listen to our work and recognize it for what it is: Music in the time of Covid. It is really important for us to know that someone out there hears us and appreciates the struggles these singers went through to continue their song. Grateful for a husband that “gets” me and understands when I am unavailable for days on end while I holler at a computer trying to create digital music. And grateful for you — for asking the question. I am so very proud of my FCC Singers. They are truly some of Fresno’s Finest without a doubt.

My first year of teaching, my high school choir gave me a music box. I still have it. It plays “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” I think the world is going to sing …. loud and strong.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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