Meet Keanon Kyles of Voice with Keanon
Like a lot of singers I first started singing in church but I feel I really got immersed in a plethora of music at the early age of 8 when my mother enrolled me in the Chicago Children’s Choir. Here is where I developed a strong interest for the classical and opera genre. While in the Chicago Children’s Choir, my parents also enrolled me in an apprenticeship program with the City of Chicago called Gallery 37. This program gave youth of Chicago an opportunity to study an art form and get paid while doing it. Of course, I decided to partake in the Operatics Ensemble, which is where I met my vocal coach, mentor and who I call today, my musical father; Andrew Schultze. Once it was time for me to graduate from high school and pick a college, Columbia College Chicago really stood out to me, so I applied and got accepted. Now it was time for me to become a professional at an art form I’d loved since the age of 8. Most students at Columbia were musical theater or jazz majors so I did feel a wee odd during my time there as my focus was Opera. Fortunately, the teachers respected, appreciated and nurtured my talent and made me feel supported in my decision to focus on Opera.
When I did my Senior Recital and looked out into a packed audience, it was in that moment that I said,” You know what, Keanon this is for you and where you need to be–you can really have a career as an opera singer”. Though that was a very powerful and positive thought leaving out of Columbia; reality set in. What reality you may ask, well, the one a lot of college students feel as they walk across that stage and get their degree but don’t have a job lined up after graduation. In the time span of a walk across stage, I went from a high to a low because I realized I have this paper that proves I’m worthy but no job. So, out of all things, believe it or not, I got a job as janitor for ABC 7 Eyewitness News.
Don’t wipe your eyes, you definitely read it correctly, from music school graduate to janitor. Confused I was but determined that this will only be a year, you know, just until I get on my feet. Well, a year turned into nearly 10 years of working as a janitor at the new station. The first 2 years I was in a real funk and just confused about life and my choice to study music. However, I had a stern talk with my mentor and he motivated me to keep striving for what I want, so I decided to seek Young Artist Programs. I got accepted into a few but they were very expensive so the determined person in me took on 2 part-time jobs on top of my full-time nightside janitor position in order make enough money to cover my living expenses and pay for these programs. After calculating- I realized for 4 years straight I worked 80 to 90 hours a week between all 3 jobs. #teamnosleep
One day while vacuuming at the station the 10 p.m. news producer at the time, Lisa McGonigle stopped and asked if I had any weekend plans and I told her I was doing a small recital and she’s more than welcome to come if she’d like. To my surprise she did and from that moment my life and career changed for ever. She got Frank Mathie (former ABC 7 feature reporter) to do a story on me and once it aired, people from all over the world were inviting me to sing for them. From Europe to South America I have been performing in famous Operas by composers like Puccini, Britten and Verdi, singing primary and lead roles. However, even though I had quit both part-time gigs by then, I was still working full-time at the news station in between performance. That is until, Chicago Opera Theater offered me a contract and I decided to take the leap of faith. I officially quit my full-time job and decided to go after my passion and dreams. Since then so many doors have opened for me, I’ve sung with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, made my South America debut as Noye in Noye’s Fludde and made my Carnegie Hall solo debut and the doors continue opening. My goodness, a journey it has been for sure and if I can say anything, I’d say, the road will be bumpy, journey will be long but never lose, faith, hope and love, with love being the greatest of them all.
You know, if given the choice for a smooth road or one with some bumps in it, I’d definitely take the bumpy one. Bumpy roads build character and stamina that a smooth one just can’t offer. Now, I say that but I wasn’t really given a choice (hahaha) the universe kind of just threw me down a bumpy road. Art is personal, art is expensive, art takes times and that is what made the road a bit unstable. Art is personal: you practice, you invest your heart into your craft only to display it at auditions and be given the infamous, “Thanks for coming!”. Like what do you mean thanks for coming? I have just sung my heart out in front of you and all I can get in return is a thanks for coming? This can be really frustrating when you are searching for someone to open the door for you. During these times I felt little, sad and unmotivated to keep going. However, after a while, rejection built stamina for me and learned to form a healthy relationship with it. I started going into audition not taking anything personal but for just what it was, a moment for me to shine. This approach allowed me to still love myself and appreciate what I did even if the judges didn’t.
Art is expensive, let me tell you, THOUSANDS of dollars spent on education, supplies, voice lessons, auditions, flights, hotels, audition suits and shoes, you name it, the stuff is crazy expensive. I was struggling to keep up with the financial demands of an aspiring opera singer and that why I was working 3 jobs to just stay afloat. You know a typical experience for a singer will be, apply for a program, audition for the program (most of the time you have to travel to that city) and that’s that–it sounds simple right? Well, i’ll break it down for you very easily, let’s say from Chicago to New York: application fee anywhere from $40-$75, plane ticket $150-$300 roundtrip, hotel stay overnight $100-$200, food and transportation, let’s just say 100 bucks. So for one audition alone you’ve spent anywhere between $400-$700 and the kicker is, there is no guarantee anything will ever come from that ONE audition. An Opera career is expensive and sometimes can feel like the ones who succeed are only the ones backed with money to support all the expenses. I’m proud to have been able to break that narrative and hustle my way through.
Art takes time, I’d be a millionaire if I got a dollar for every person that ask me, what are you working now? what’s next? why aren’t you doing this or that? OMG! the pressure, the pressure, to always be doing something is surreal. It takes time to make, build and sustain connections so that you are working constantly and since it was so expensive to do Young Artist Programs and go to these auditions, I needed multiple incomes and that took a lot of my time away. So I literally would study my music, send/reply to e-mails on my lunch/dinner break at 9 p.m. everyday. Time was a luxury for me and if I had it, it was very little. So ultimately I always felt behind or like I had to play catch up because my days were full of work, work, work. I can’t tell you how many nights I would be rehearsing and studying music until 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning just to wake up at 7 a.m. to be at work by 8:30 a.m.and work the full day. I felt like a robot on repeat, it was a struggle to stay motivated because I was tired but luckily I didn’t let fatigue cloud my vision.
I’m an International Opera Singer! Yes!!! I can FINALLY say that! I travel across the globe singing opera for a living. You may asked, what is an Opera singer? Well, we are trained professionals that are required to bring characters to life and tell stories through singing and acting and even some dancing but what makes us ultra special is we’ve trained and developed our voices to be able to sing and be heard in the biggest theaters WITHOUT any use of microphones. Singing Opera truly is a unique and fun skill; it really forces me to tap into my creative space and emotions. Outside of stage I’m naturally a calm person but when I am onstage there is a side of me that comes out, like a kid at a candy store- full of emotion and character and so excited to let it all out.
However, when I am not performing on stage and I’m back at home; I’m a music instructor. I work privately out of my studio (Voice with Keanon) in the Fine Arts Building in the Chicago Loop area. I also teach private voice lessons at Lyriq Music School on the Northside. I can’t explain what a joy it is to help others reach their goals as a vocalist; I teach all styles of music to all ages! Of course, my specialty is Opera/Classical music but I learned early on that the more you can do the more you can work so I learned how to do it all. I feel what stands out most to my students about me is how resourceful I am. In most cases I’m coming from stage to class, so I’m giving you real life experience and guidance in real time. I’m able to share stories, techniques and exercises that I’ve learned and acquired over my time as a performer and I feel my students really appreciate having that in an instructor.
When asked what am I most proud of as a company, I chuckle a bit because I really am two separate businesses in one. On one side I am a professional opera singer and I’m most proud that I can stand on stage as an Opera singer in rare form, African American male with dreadlocks and still be able to connect and entertain masses. I’m able to dive deep in character and take my audience on journey through song. Then on the other hand, me as an instructor, nothing makes me more proud than to see the twinkle in the eye of a student that has achieved a goal of theirs. I get so excited when something finally clicks with a student; it’s like a hurdle that we got over together and I’m ready to celebrate you at the finish line. I’m so proud to represent for African Americans in Opera and to represent for janitors and other unsung heroes with big dream who each day meet people who make them feel small but don’t let that stop them from dreaming.
To me success is when you go in with a plan and come out feeling broadened, challenged and stronger. Sometimes plans don’t go as you want but even in the mix there is a lesson to be learned and a challenge to overcome. I don’t define success by money, clothes, cars, homes and all that–nor did I choose a career in music to supply me these things. In all honesty, I was getting paid very well as a janitor and could buy pretty much anything I wanted, so my intent to pursue music was/is far deeper than materialistic things. As I think deeper about success and what it is to me, I feel I’m successful when my happiness carries from an experience I want to do my best in. If I can walk into it happy and walk way from it elated then to me that was a successful experience.
Now I’ll be honest, not all experiences that align with success are positive. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions in order to make an overall successful experience. That could be letting go of dead weight, firing an employee, deleting people out of your life that don’t bring you peace. All of these scenarios may seem negative but they are steps one has to make sometimes in order to position themselves for a successful future. When I think back at my most successful moments over the last 10 years; I went into them with a very small support circle surrounding me.
Ultimately, I think success is defined by how others feel after experiencing my creativity. If an audience members comes up to me with tears in their eyes, so moved, then I’ve succeeded at touching a heart. If the maestro comes up to me after the performance and compliments something special I did, then I’ve succeeded at presenting fine music and dramatization. If a child, come ups to me after a performance and says they really enjoyed my show, then I’ve succeeded at inspiring the hearts of the next generation.