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Singing Her Praises
Local teacher, author and professional singer gives 110 percent
By Jessica Laskey
The sheer amount of paper spread out before us on the ottoman in the living room of Rona Commins’ Arden-area house is impressive. Brochures and flyers announcing concerts, contests, presentations and foreign excursions are visual reminders of how much work Commins does on a daily basis as a teacher, author and professional singer.
“You make your own work as an artist,” says Commins, who led cultural tours to Florence, Paris, London and Madrid for 24 years through Sacramento State and San Francisco State universities, and recently published a book, “Forever Florence: True Tales of Italian Intrigue,” about her favorite European city. “You put in 110 percent and if you’re lucky, you get back 95.”
Commins has always been driven artistically. She begged for piano lessons as a little girl—she comes from a family of three girls and four boys, in that order—and, during secondary and high school, managed to also tackle the clarinet, violin, alto clarinet, saxophone and organ. When it came time to pick a major in college, she figured why not study the subject she spent the most time doing—music?
She went on to earn her master’s degree in music performance at Sac State, which led to teaching gigs there, at San Francisco State, American River College and Brigham Young University—not to mention the private voice lessons she teaches out of the home her father built.
As a singer, she’s studied and performed all over the world, including at the Villa Schifanoia Graduate School of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy, and the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. She’s also performed locally at the inauguration of the Community Center Theater (singing the role of Violetta) and as a featured soloist with the Sacramento Symphony, Camellia Symphony Orchestra, Sacramento Ballet, Sac State and UC Davis symphonies, and Capitol Chamber Players, a group she helped found in 1987.
And with all of these artistic endeavors, she still found time to write a book.
“When Sac State cancelled its study abroad program in 2011 after I’d spent summer after summer teaching for them in Florence, I thought, ‘What do I do with all this information?’” Commins says.
She’d fallen in love with the city years before during her very first trip to Europe with her husband. The couple took an art tour outside Florence and the singer was struck by the lack of music mentioned as a critical part of Italy’s history, so she sought to set the record straight with the “Art, Music and Culture” tours she created for Sac State.
The summer of 2012 was the first time Commins didn’t return to Florence in nearly two decades, and she went through “serious withdrawals.” So the following year she went back with a photographer friend, Maggie Suckow. As Commins considered the scads of stories about the city and its position as “the cultural cradle of the Renaissance,” a book began to take shape.
Since Commins serves as the president of the Sacramento chapter of the music fraternity Mu Phi Epsilon, she knew that the group’s Mary Cox Award—a grant given to those going through a “mid-life transition” in their career—would help in completing the collection of period accounts and practical visitor information, accompanied by Suckow’s photographs. She won the award in 2014 and “Forever Florence” was published that summer.
Now, Commins travels all over the country giving presentations and lectures with her book in hand to give others a glimpse of the Florence she adores. Which brings us back to the brochures spread out before us.
“This is a poster we made for the book,” she says, lovingly adding it to the stack. “This is the program from the performance I did with Camerata California over Christmas. Here’s a flyer about the winner of this year’s Mu Phi Epsilon scholarship contest—he’s a wonderful clarinetist. This is the schedule for when I play the organ at the Sierra Arden United Church of Christ. And this is the brochure from the Capitol Chamber Players’ finale concert celebrating 30 years.”
All of this is labeled and tucked neatly into a folder, along with “Melodies,” a CD of Commins’ live performances from 1974-2004 and a copy of “Forever Florence.” Commins wants to make sure I have everything I need before I depart, since she’ll be leaving in two days to go to Ireland with her daughter to trace their Irish roots.
Which just goes to show that no matter what she’s doing—singing, teaching, traveling, even being interviewed—Commins always gives 110 percent.
“Forever Florence: True Tales of Italian Intrigue” is available on amazon.com.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.