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Meet the Uniting Voices Alumni Nominated for Grammys in 2024!

When Grammy nominations were announced last November, we saw two familiar names in the Best Classical Vocal Solo Album category: alumni Karim Sulayman for Broken Branches and Laura Strickling for 40@40.

Since his time in Uniting Voices, Karim Sulayman has become one of the most acclaimed tenors, performing regularly in opera, orchestral concerts, recital and chamber music. He’s appeared on stages around the world and sold out Carnegie Hall. And he has won the Grammy in this category before, for his album Songs of Orpheus.

Laura Strickling is a celebrated soprano known for her work performing and promoting art song. She’s won acclaim from the New York Times and performed on opera stages or as a guest artist at institutions like the Kennedy Center, Washington National Cathedral and the Opera America Center. This is her second consecutive Grammy nomination in this category.

We caught up with both Karim and Laura after the nominations to learn what the recognition meant to them, advice they would give to current singers and how important collaboration is to their work. We’ll be rooting for both of them at the Grammys on February 4!

Uniting Voices: Congratulations on your Grammy nomination! What does this recognition mean to you?

Karim Sulayman: Thank you! This is my second nomination in the same category and I have to say, it’s no less thrilling than the first time. It’s really an honor to be recognized by the Recording Academy in this way, because there are always so many amazing titles that come out every year. So to be included in the final list of five is really wonderful. And while I won the award last time, it really does feel like a win in itself just to be nominated.

Laura Strickling: Thank you! It’s no less thrilling the second time around. It represents validation for the work I’ve been doing with contemporary art song, and means that I’m more likely to be able to keep doing it.

UV: How does it feel to be nominated alongside a fellow alum?

KS: The organization has always been very important to me and I have always credited it as hugely instrumental in my music education and my own personal growth. I stand as a very proud alum. Of course, I think it’s great for the organization when there is this kind of representation, hopefully telegraphing to the greater audience the importance of an experience like growing up in the choir.

LS: I’ve always seen my fellow alums as an extended family. While Karim and I weren’t in the choir at the same time, I feel that connection to him. I’m proud to be sharing this honor with another alum, Christina Ramirez (we were on the 1999 Great Britain tour together!), whose poetry served as text for two of the songs on my album. And yet another alum from my era, Ted Hearne, is writing a song for my next album!

UV: What’s one piece of advice you would give to a singer or alum who wants to pursue a career in classical music?

KS: Never to compare yourself to others—be your own true authentic self always. There’s space in this world for all of us.

And it’s a tough business, so be prepared for a lot of sacrifice and disappointment. That said, always remember the joy in music making and the reasons you want to do it, because the rewards, when they come, outweigh all of the other stuff a million times over.

LS: There are so many important, practical things that are vital to building a career and a life in classical music, but when I realized that there was no point of “arrival” to aim for, it was somehow freeing. One can and should set incremental goals for personal and professional achievement to maintain passion and curiosity for the journey; but, ultimately, staying true to yourself is “success.” Know what art you have been put on the planet to make and pursue it with joyful abandon. A sub-point to this is that you do not have to be a full-time artist to make art that is important or to consider yourself a legitimate artist. It’s nearly impossible to make a living at making art in the United States. Establishing a correlating, life-sustaining career early on will help you stay in the game longer.

UV: How did your experience in Uniting Voices shape the way you see the arts landscape of the country?

KS: I wish for every kid to have an experience like I had growing up in the choir. The practice of making sounds with people in such close proximity, literally living in harmony for even a few hours a week, was one of the most important, life-shaping experiences I ever had.

LS: We are all stronger when we work together as a community. No genre of music is more important than any other. Pursue excellence at what you have chosen to focus on.

UV: When was the moment you knew you wanted to be a musician full-time?

KS: I started playing violin at age three, and I joined [Uniting Voices] when I was seven. Music was always something I loved and did and felt deeply. So I’m not sure there was a moment specifically. I’ve never thought about doing anything else.

LS: There was no “moment” for me. My career in music resulted from a series of choices—some not so obvious. I completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in vocal performance, but then stopped singing altogether for three years, unsure of how to pursue a career in performance. The first two years I worked as the Accreditation Specialist for the National Association of Schools of Music. The third year my husband (fellow ‘99 alum, Taylor Strickling) and I studied at the Arabic Language Institute of Fez in Morocco. Leaving the United States, having experiences that widened my understanding of the world and stretched my perception of my place in the universe, helped me realign my goals and priorities for the future.

When we returned to the U.S. I started taking voice lessons again. I entered and was successful in countless voice competitions, which built my résumé and network. My previous work for NASM developed administrative skills that proved vital then and now. I attended summer young artist programs focusing on vocal chamber music and art song, which further grew my network and repertoire. These experiences—even the non-musical ones—set me down the winding path I’ve flourished on. I’m certain "30-year-old starting over again” me would be astounded that I’m not only still singing, but have received two Grammy nominations. I’m not sure I could have even dreamed big enough to set that goal!

UV: What’s the biggest lesson you learned in Uniting Voices that informs your artistic practice?

KS: I have a very collaborative approach to my music making. And I believe that was firmly fixed into me by my experiences in Uniting Voices. Music goes beyond our egos and us as individuals. It’s a calling. And I think having such an early and consistent practice of listening to others and blending our souls’ sounds together made me a better musician and more empathic artist.

LS: Collaboration as a core value. My art is improved and informed by working closely with other artists. Even when I am on stage alone, I am embodying the result of the information internalized from countless teachers, coaches, conductors, and instrumental and vocal colleagues throughout my life. My two Grammy nominations have been for Best Classical Vocal Solo Album, but there's nothing "solo" about song and it's so important to me to acknowledge that.

UV: Are there any pieces of repertoire from your time in Uniting Voices that you still perform today?

KS: Sadly, no. But I do listen to Britten’s Ceremony of Carols every Christmas and am filled with nostalgia and joy.

LS: It’s so simple, but my husband and I were singing “Jubilate Deo” with our 7 year-old daughter recently as we demonstrated singing in a round. Since we met in the choir, it’s amazing how often we reference songs and experiences from that period of our lives. The majority of my work these days is solo repertoire, but some of the pieces that still have a place in my soul from my time with the choir are “Wanting Memories,” “Shosholoza,” “Sizohamba,” “Las Amarillas” and “The Hour Glass.”