The Voice Teacher

Ah, where to begin? Oliver Söhngen has much to say so he starts strumming a guitar.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Oliver is the founder and director of the Long Island City Academy of Music.

The notes literally help him find his voice: His forte is opera, and before long his robust tenor has joined the strings, filling the small room with an ocean of sound.

Music has always been a part of Oliver’s life. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that music has always been his life.

Oliver, the founder and director of the Long Island City Academy of Music, was born in Siegen, Germany, surrounded by sound.

His grandfather and uncle played the guitar, and although his parents didn’t possess one, he seemed to always be in the presence of a piano.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Oliver is from Germany.

His first instrument – a plastic Hammond organ – filled him with fire and finally, when he was 10, he was allowed to have his own guitar.

“I never took music lessons as a child,” he says, his steely grey eyes sad. “My parents didn’t want me to end up as a musician. I was given some old music books from the 1930s, and I was forced to learn by myself.”

The family moved a lot when Oliver was young and when he was 13, they settled in the university city of Konstanz, Germany, which is on the border with Switzerland.

Despite his lack of musical training, Oliver persisted and by high school, he had earned the nickname The Musician, even though, he confesses, he wasn’t a very good player.

“I’m Roman Catholic, but a friend got me to play in the band at his Lutheran church,” Oliver says. “I also played in other bands.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Beethoven greets students at the academy.

At 16, he was introduced to the music of Cream – he’s a major Jack Bruce fan – and traded in his guitar for an electric bass. Around the same time, he began singing.

At 19, he started playing the string bass and learned to read music.

“When I did my mandatory 15-month service in the army, I took the bass with me,” he says. “I was practicing like crazy. I used to lock myself in a room and practice for hours. I got to be a very good player.”

Oliver’s playing may have been noteworthy, but his musical knowledge was lacking. It wasn’t until he wanted to translate a complicated jazz piece that he became a serious student.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Oliver has two degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

After he left the army, he enrolled in a teacher’s college, where he focused on music, art and German literature.

He planned to teach elementary school students, but in 1990 an exchange program sent him to a different country – the United States – and in a different direction.

“I took everything Cleveland State University offered musically,” he says.

When his year was up, he enrolled in the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied voice and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Nancy A. Ruhling
He started playing the string bass when he was 19.

He thrived in Ohio, teaching in music schools, performing and eventually producing and performing in an award-winning opera.

“I got arrogant,” he says. “I thought I had to go to New York so I could perform in operas.”

In 2000, he rented a car and drove, full voice, toward the Metropolitan Opera.

When he arrived in Manhattan, he slept on the couch of a friend of a friend and for a short time assumed the role of waiter – of tables and of singing parts.

Nancy A. Ruhling
Oliver, an opera singer, teaches voice at the academy.

“I didn’t have any money, so I was teaching voice out of my living room and at schools,” he says. “I also was auditioning, taking voice lessons and designing and building stage sets.”

Oliver, who has performed in prestigious productions in Europe, had no thoughts of starting a school.

“I was living a completely creative life,” he says.

But in 2010, when he dropped his daughter off at the Long Island City Arts Center for a ballet lesson, he saw an empty space.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Busts of classical composers inspire students.

His music school, Long Island City’s first, has two dozen acclaimed teachers and nine music rooms and offers lessons in everything from piano and drums to voice.

“Our instructors are a community of fantastic musicians who have interesting musical careers,” he says. “They also are musical role models.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He will be performing in Sicily in the summer.

Oliver, who also teaches at the school, uses an old Italian technique to draw out the true voice of each student.

“I picked this up about six years ago,” he says. “Now, my voice is amazing, and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It’s a very big, dramatic tenor voice.”

He brings his Instagram account up on his smartphone and starts showing off videos of his pupils.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Oliver has devoted himself to a creative life.

He’s particularly proud of a 7-year-old girl who has a big voice.

And listen to this one: She’s the 16-year-old who will be performing at Sicily’s Mediterranean Opera Studio and Festival this summer.

She will be accompanied by her family and Oliver, who is designing the sets and singing in the production.

“Of course, I love what I do,” he says.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling