Justice Yates ’23: Singing Sensation Surprise
File this story of achievement under the heading “School of Music: Former Tuba Student Turns Into National Award-Winning Singer.”
That’s exactly what happened to Justice Yates ’23. And more.
With instrument in hand and plans to become a band teacher, he arrived at Stetson from Tavares High School, only about 35 miles from the campus. Yates, however, certainly has journeyed far in only his past two-plus years.
In mid-July, Yates took first prize from the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) in his category — Lower Classical Tenor Baritone Bass Voice.
Yes, he won as a singer. In turn, now a new career beckons.
Founded in 1944, NATS is the largest professional association of teachers of singing worldwide, with more than 7,000 members across the United States, Canada and approximately 35 other countries. Each year, NATS hosts National Student Auditions, a competition and educational experience, where thousands of high school and college students gain instruction and perform through several rounds in multiple categories. This year, in a virtual setting like last year, there were a record-breaking 1,148 applicants throughout the United States and Canada.
And, in the end, Yates was a winner, receiving impressive professional praise along with $1,200 in prize money — even though he still doesn’t quite know what to think of it.
“I’m thinking that maybe some people are going to try to contact me in the future and arrange a couple more interviews, which will be great,” he says. “I’m really flattered. I think that’s amazing that I get to have some exposure.”
At the very least, even his friends and classmates are viewing him a little differently. The word, sort of, is out about him. His words: “I have noticed there’s some kind of shift in competitiveness because I did win a competition; I can’t deny that. … But I’m still leery about competing with other singers here at Stetson. The skill level of many of my colleagues is so high that winning an outside competition isn’t enough to guarantee success in the School of Music’s [upcoming] Giffin and Concerto competitions. I still have lots of work to do.”
Throughout the rounds of competition, the comments from NATS judges were consistently positive, citing his tone, which they described as “centered and direct.”
Still, Yates sounds sheepish about all the attention.
“It’s really hard to get that [tone] sometimes when you are trying to understand the mechanism of the voice. To hear all of them say that, it’s really, really, really nice of them. It lets me know that I’m doing at least one thing right,” he says with a laugh.
Tuba No More
Yates didn’t begin singing until his senior year at Tavares High, when he joined the choir. A longtime member of the school band, he had sung on occasion with the band and was noticed by the choir director. Courteously, the choir director, Chip Batko, reached out to the band director, Cole Bushman, to inquire. By the way, Bushman is a Hatter, Class of 2017. Yates won’t forget their names.
“He [Batko] really needed some guys. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I have nothing else to do my senior year. So, I might as well just join the choir,’” Yates recalls.
It turned out to be his Yates’ aha moment.
“I joined, and he just put me in a chair, gave me some music, and we got going,” Yates continues.
“After I joined, I just realized there’s this whole world of music that I was not even familiar with, that I loved even more than the world of music that I was in before.”
Consequently, as a first-year student at Stetson, Yates made an immediate change that, he notes, wasn’t a difficult decision. He switched majors from instrumental to voice. Up until that time, Yates had planned to teach music. Given his years of involvement with bands, he figured that was the next logical step.
Instead, he followed his heart, realizing “I like singing more than I like playing [the tuba].”
Yet, there had been no formal training. His mother had always loved to sing, and his father played the bass for his church when he was younger. So, there was that bit of background, but not much else.
“Music has been a part of our family for a very long time,” explains Yates, whose middle name is Miguel to add some distinction. “But it was never a serious career option that any of us thought of.”
A Transformation for Justice Yates
Then, gifted with a booming voice, Yates grew as a singer under the tutelage of faculty at the School of Music, particularly his studio instructor, Jane Christeson, MM, professor of music/voice.
Christeson, a former winner of opera competitions and an opera performer across the United States, led a chorus of instructors who worked with Yates. Originally, he had been attracted to Stetson by its small-class environment and the promise of one-on-one instruction. He hasn’t been disappointed.
“Any time that a new student is thinking of coming into Stetson [School of Music], I always, always tell them that is one of the main things I’m excited for, and I’m most pleased with at Stetson, is the amount of support that you get from every single faculty member,” he comments.
“Everyone here is always ready to help you and allow you to succeed at the best of your ability. … Without their help, I wouldn’t be doing any of this.”
Not coincidentally, Yates leaned on the faculty during his preparation for the NATS competition, as well as in the song selection for his winning performance (on YouTube above).
Yates chose a song by an artist he had learned about from Christeson. The song was “For You There is No Song” by Black American composer H. Leslie Adams, known for his moving lyrics and spiritual compositions.
In his performance, Yates, of course, delivered. And fittingly, he learned of his winning news while attending the 2021 Vienna Summer Music Festival in St. Petersburg, Florida, where talented young singers and instrumentalists learn in classes and perform in opera productions. Earlier at the camp, one of the directors had told him that NATS success would “mean something huge for a possible career in singing.”
While such as story isn’t a surprise to new School of Music Dean Washington Garcia, DMA, it is, as the saying goes, music to his ears.
“The level of excellence we have at the school of Music is just huge; it’s a very, very high-level,” Garcia comments. “This is one more opportunity for us to demonstrate, and to share with the world, the quality of training our students are receiving.
“Obviously, this is a huge accomplishment for Justice, for his dedication and for his work, but this award is not just for Justice. It’s an award for our entire voice faculty and School of Music at large, because we’re all part of the same team. … This is a testament of what our faculty bring to the table in the process of identifying, training and following up with students.”
Yates, meanwhile, has new, greater choices in front of him. While graduate school is a definite option, he says, he’s also singing a song of wait and see.
“I’m kind of just going with the flow,” he concludes, “and seeing what other opportunities and doors open for me.”