Vocalist Nia Drummond (left) turned to her longtime friend Michelle Cope for management assistance as her career began to rise. Cope, a Music Industry major, has been watching her friend’s/artist’s back ever since.
Nia Drummond and Michelle Cope lived in the same first-year residence hall and quickly became best friends. However, neither could have guessed that they would become serious business partners and share several amazing experiences, all because of their passion for music.
Brooklyn-born Nia had an amazing voice and exceptionally supportive parents. Andrea and Michael Drummond developed their daughter’s talents, and soon she was singing with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. By age 14, she had sung back-up vocals for such pop icons as Elton John, Billy Joel, John Legend and Alicia Keys.
Nia visited Fredonia during high school through the New York State Summer School for the Arts (NYSSSA) program. While on campus, she worked with Fredonia Voice Professor Shinobu Takagi, whom she had previously met through her high school voice teacher. The experience had a strong impact on Nia, who knew then and there that Fredonia was the college she would choose.
Michelle was raised on the other side of the state, in the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca. While she also loved music, she grew up in a family of medical professionals, including her mother, Kathy Avino — a nurse, single parent, and Michelle’s hero. She also had aunts and uncles who are doctors and technicians — as well as nine cousins at some stage of a medical career path.
“I guess it was just always assumed that I’d carry on the legacy,” Michelle said.
Still, music was a huge part of her life. She started playing piano at age 5. Soon she began singing in church. Next, she got into musicals.
“I did All-State, All-County…all of those things…but it was almost like it was never allowed to be a career for me,” she said.
Like Nia, Michelle’s music talents led her to visit Fredonia while in high school. Coming to Fredonia wasn’t as clear for Michelle as it was for Nia, but in the end, Michelle chose the campus because she knew she wouldn’t be just a number here.
After meeting through a mutual friend in Kasling Hall, the two hit it off immediately, as Michelle had found someone to feed her musical interests.
“I remember we would just sit there and watch, ‘The Wiz,’” Michelle laughed.
Despite this, Michelle remained focused on her Biology major, earning strong grades. Then one night while in the “fruit fly lab” checking an experiment, she recognized how great the acoustics were in the room. She started singing out loud — just as Professor Scott Ferguson walked in.
“He asked me what I was doing,” she laughed, embarrassingly.
But Dr. Ferguson wasn’t taking her to task about singing in the lab; he wanted to know what she was doing with her life. He knew she could go far in medicine — but he could also see it wasn’t her passion. He encouraged her to switch paths and follow her dreams. With Nia’s help, Michelle auditioned for the School of Music and became an Applied Voice major, later adding a Business-Music Industry major.
Nia was shown a similar kindness around the same time that boosted her career tremendously. In early 2013, she was invited to return as an alumna to perform at a gala for the Young People’s Chorus back in New York. The event was hosted by Renée Fleming, widely regarded as the world’s foremost soprano (and incidentally, whose sister, Dr. Rachelle Fleming, ’86, and brother, Geordie Alexander, ’08, are Fredonia alumni).
Ms. Fleming was inspired by Nia and took her under her wing, inviting Nia to be part of a live master class on PBS’ “American Voices,” at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center.*
A year later, Fleming stunned Nia again when she asked her to return to Washington to perform at the Smithsonian Institution during a ceremony celebrating the addition of Fleming’s portrait to the National Portrait Gallery.
Shortly after, Nia realized she might have too much going on. One day, she looked at Michelle and half-jokingly said, “I need a manager.”
“Well…I’m getting a degree in that,” Michelle reminded her. “I could be your manager!”
Today, Michelle runs all of Nia’s social media, including the website she built for her (during lulls of their Hillman Opera rehearsals, they admit). She also organizes all of Nia’s events and handles the many behind-the-scenes details needed to get Nia to her performances. Michelle coordinates flights, creates itineraries, negotiates with lawyers, deals with money, and handles the press and media rights — putting into action everything she has learned from the Music Industry faculty.
Nia and Michelle have received endless support from faculty and staff on campus, as well as their peers. Rockefeller Arts Center Director Jefferson Westwood is one of those supporters. He coordinated a concert series in Cleveland and Fredonia this past September with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, featuring Nia as a soloist. He reported getting goose bumps while listening to Nia perform in rehearsals leading up to those performances.
“The range of her voice, her tone, her control and her interpretive ability are amazing,” he said.
At roughly the same time, Nia was invited to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum’s annual remembrance ceremony at Ground Zero. She would have to be in New York City that morning, and in Cleveland that afternoon to rehearse with the orchestra for their performance the following night.
No worries — Michelle had it covered. She handled all of the logistics and compiled a full itinerary for Nia throughout the three-day whirlwind, so that Nia could stay focused on her performance preparations.
“I even provided her with a picture of the person picking her up at the airport,” she laughed, revealing her care for her artist and friend. But she quickly showed her serious side, emphasizing, “If you miss even the smallest detail, it could all become unhinged.”
Nia’s Sept. 11 performance was stunning, and the campus beamed with pride as she, in her “Fredonia Blue” dress, sang live on CNN and other media.
Mr. Westwood wasn’t at all surprised when he learned that Nia had been invited to sing at the Sept. 11 event.
“She is that kind of talent,” he explained.
Professor Tagaki agreed.
“Nia has grown in so many areas since she stepped on Fredonia’s campus three years ago,” Ms. Takagi said leading up to Nia’s Sept. 11 performance. “When I heard her sing in the Christmas pops concert in her freshman year, I instantly recognized the depth and the caliber of her gift as a jazz musician. I had a sensation that I was listening to a professional jazz vocalist.”
Nia and Michelle closed the semester on high notes too.
In early December, Michelle organized a black-tie benefit, which raised over $3,000 for WhyHunger, a global non-profit working to end world hunger. Nia was the featured performer, along with other students. The event’s auction included such items as signed Renée Fleming and Goo Goo Dolls merchandise, along with donated Salvador Dali artwork. Fredonia alumna Hillary Zuckerberg, ’95, WhyHunger’s director of Artists Against Hunger & Poverty, helped in its success.
Days later, Nia was a featured soloist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra during its three-day Holiday Pops concerts at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo. She received a standing ovation each night.
Drummond sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum’s 2015 remembrance ceremony at Ground Zero in New York City. Photo courtesy of WGRZ-TV, Buffalo.
The duo also plans to produce a music video during the spring term.
Michelle has learned to protect her artist, making sure that they are not taken advantage of, by studying contract law from Music Industry professors Stuart Shapiro and Armand Petri, each of whom have more than three decades of professional experience.
“Michelle is one of the most promising students I’ve ever had,” says Mr. Petri, whose career includes working with such bands as the Goo Goo Dolls, 10,000 Maniacs and Sixpence None the Richer. “She has seized many opportunities available in the Music Industry program and developed the entrepreneurial skills at the core of the program’s curriculum.”
“I’m learning from my mentors,” Michelle emphasized.There are times now when she doesn’t need to run something by them because she’s already learned it. “When that happens, I come in [to class] and just say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s great [beginning our careers] under the security of a university setting. Fredonia is equipping us so well for our futures.”
“We are growing together and learning so much from different corners of the world,” added Nia.
They have both found it helpful and enriching to be going through this together. As they get closer to graduation, they are excited for what is to come in the future, but are confident that they will only gain more experience and that their relationship will grow.
* Aired Jan. 9, 2015; viewable at www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/american-voices-renee-fleming-full-episode/3739/