Music in the Mountains scholarship winner sings for the holidays | TheUnion.com

Music in the Mountains scholarship winner sings for the holidays

As a kid in high school, Justin Ramm-Damron had fun performing in a small rock band at Cal Expo during the state fair—singing Johnny Cash songs while playing bass guitar.

Easy to imagine his deep voice churning out renditions of "I Walk the Line" or "Ring of Fire," but nowadays, that same voice is wrapped up in opera rather than country or rock.

Justin is currently a senior majoring in vocal performance at UC Sacramento — a perfect place for him to ply his talents. As a result, he's earned key roles in several of Sac State's Opera Theatre productions, including a pestered old doctor in Donizetti's comic opera Il Campanello (The Night Bell) back in May, and most recently, this past Sunday, Dec. 2, performing scenes from another Donizetti opera, Don Pasquale, as well as Mozart's opera Cosi fan tutte.

Ever since he entered Sac State in 2015, Justin has studied privately with voice professor Robin Fisher, who has lauded him with praise, writing in a reference letter, "Justin is one of the most impressive young vocal talents that I have encountered in my 24 years of university teaching," and going on to say, "I am struck by the sheer beauty of Justin's sizeable voice."

Sharing Dr. Fisher's enthusiasm, Music in the Mountains selected Justin as the winner of the 2018 Lucy Becker Memorial Scholarship — a $1,500 talent-based award given annually to an aspiring young singer. The judges at his audition in April recognized him for his rich bass voice, his ability to sing contrasting classical pieces, and his clear sense of direction regarding his musical studies.

While Justin's mom gave him a tiny toy wooden guitar when he was three, he waited till he was 9 to jump into lessons. He began playing brass instruments in middle school, starting with trombone in fourth grade and later adding tuba and euphonium. At Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, his main musical focus was the Jazz Band, although he also played in the Marching Band and a wind ensemble, and sang in a couple of choirs — chamber and a cappella.

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Throughout most of high school, brass took center stage — until senior year when voice took over. More and more, he loved to sing, and he developed a strong interest in opera, especially Italian opera with moving melodies by Puccini, Verdi and Bellini. Sheepishly, he admits in his earlier years, when he thought of opera, he pictured Viking helmets. Typical parodies of people shrieking on stage and wearing ridiculous outfits.

So far in his career, Justin has avoided wearing a helmet — winged, horned or otherwise, but he's already donned an assortment of wigs with good reason. In Italian and French operas, tenors traditionally sing the young, romantic roles, while basses are more likely to play lecherous old men or elderly father figures — disguises often calling for long gray hair and possibly bushy eyebrows. Justin at 21 jokingly accepts his fate, even if he has to play someone three or four times his age. Or even if he has to play a mean guy or a villain.

Over the last couple of years Justin has feasted on opera, dreaming up ways to see as many productions as possible. When he and his good friend Walter Aldrich, the 2014 winner of Lucy's scholarship, were in New York City earlier this year, they went to four different operas at the Met in the span of three days. Add to that feat, the Lyric Opera in Chicago, Opera San Jose back in California, and of course the San Francisco Opera, reached by leaping into a car after classes along with other Sac State vocal students and heading to an evening performance.

Beyond all these productions, Justin attended a prestigious summer institute at Northwestern University last June, joining a program known as The Naked Voice, which accepted only 10 students nationwide. There, singers attended private lessons, master classes and acting classes, with the goal of stripping away unconscious bad habits, hopefully improving their vocal techniques before the habits became too deeply ingrained.

Justin is the eighth recipient of the scholarship that honors the memory of lyric soprano Lucy Becker, who was a featured soloist with Music in the Mountains for many years. In the past, scholarship winners have performed during one of MIM's popular SummerFest programs, but since Justin was at Northwestern during the run of the festival, he instead will perform and be officially recognized at MIM's Happy Holidays concert this Saturday, Dec. 8, in the Amaral Center at the Fairgrounds in Grass Valley.

To highlight his versatility, he will sing two contrasting pieces—an aria from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, and a humorous pop number from a Dr. Seuss movie: You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch. No helmet, no wig. Just himself singing in concert. A time to showcase his talent amidst a full program of holiday music featuring the MIM Chorus and Holiday Orchestra.

Julie Becker is the sister of Lucy Becker and helps to oversee the annual scholarship.

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