For Dominique Santiago ’20, music has always been a source of comfort. She has faced several personal tragedies as a student at SUNY Potsdam, but through it all, she has persevered and found solace from both faculty and by making her own music.
Santiago’s trip to Germany with the Crane Chorus is a prime example. Dr. Jeffrey Francom, an associate professor at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, recently took 12 students to Germany for a two-and-a-half-week bike trip from Hamburg to Dresden along the Elbe River—performing along the way, and attending concerts and operas during the 400-mile journey. The trip was very physically demanding, much like the trek Francom led last summer with the Crane Concert Choir as they hiked the Camino De Santiago in Spain. Santiago joined that journey, as well.
“Crane has such a huge variety of opportunities. I love traveling and I think I learn the best when I’m interacting with different people from all over the world. There are a lot of opportunities here.”
As they made their way south, Santiago and the other vocalists in her group had an opportunity to sing in historic German churches along their route—the most moving part of the trip. When they reached their final destination, they visited Dresden Cathedral, a Baroque structure founded in 1739. Santiago and her Crane classmates joined together to sing “Shenandoah.”
“I’ve never sung in such a large space before, and I got to hear the feedback of the resonance, and it was the most incredible experience. I just immediately got emotional and cried. And I was like, ‘Wow who gets to do this? We’re so lucky that we get to go and sing in these cathedrals,’” Santiago said.
The woman who gave them permission to perform in the church was also moved by their music and she invited the Crane students down into the crypt. “She brought us down these stairs to a crypt, where she showed us the tombs of all these different kings and queens. She explained to us, ‘This is very special, no one gets to see this. We just loved your music,’” Santiago recalled.
As Santiago biked with her classmates through the German countryside and cities leading to Dresden, she was reflecting on a personal tragedy in her life. Her brother had died from a drug overdose the same day that she left for Germany. After struggling with drug abuse in the past, her brother’s life was starting to get on track and he was planning on moving back to his parents’ house to raise his daughter, until he had a relapse and the fatal overdose. Santiago’s classmates didn’t know what she was going through, but Francom knew and he was completely empathetic during the trip—as he has proven to be for Santiago throughout her entire time at SUNY Potsdam.
“Dr. Francom has been so supportive. He’s seen me go through a lot of really terrible things in my college years, and he’s always been there for me, no matter what. If I ever needed anything, any of the professors would be willing to help me,” she said.
She said Francom has fostered many children in his home over the years and that he’s a very generous person. “On these trips (Germany and Spain last year), I got to really get to know him and find out how kind and supportive that he is as a person. He didn’t have drug abuse in his family, but he’s seen so many kids who go through this with their parents. He kind of swooped me up, and talked to me about how it doesn’t have to be that way, how my life can be better,” she said.
In addition to her brother, Santiago lost her father last November to a drug overdose. She had grown up watching her father use heroin and saw drug paraphernalia around his room as a child. “When I was really little, I just kind of ignored it, until later in life when they teach you what these things are, and I realized, my household is really not that normal compared to my friends. There’s something going on that I don’t really understand,” she recalled.
From an early age, she turned to music for comfort amid all the problems at home. “When I was a kid, that was my coping method, that was my way to get away from all the abuse going on. I think the first time that I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I love music,’ was probably when I was listening to the radio, blasting Britney Spears or something. One thing led to another, and I got into classical music. My entire life, being in school and also being in the music program at school, has been what saved me, I think. That’s why I want to be a teacher, because I want to give that to another student,” she said.
Santiago is the only person in her family to ever attend college, and with turmoil at home, as well as having to take time off her freshman year for some health issues, it hasn’t always been easy. It’s been challenging to balance her academic life at Crane with her life back home in Saranac Lake, but with the support of faculty like Francom and her studio professor, Margaret Chalker, a visiting assistant professor of voice, she has received the guidance that she needed. “It’s difficult being in the college world versus being home. I think that Francom has shown me that it’s ok to be proud of myself and not be sad all the time,” she said.
Since music has always been a source of inspiration for Santiago, and since she’s always wanted to be a teacher, her choice to attend Crane was the perfect decision. Last semester, she had the opportunity to shadow an elementary school music teacher and really see what it’s like to work with children. “Even at such a young age, these children are going through so much, and they understand so much more than we think they do. They come to music class to have fun, to distract themselves or to cope with what’s going on at home,” Santiago said.
In addition to music education, she’s also really passionate about her own vocal performance. This fall, she will be auditioning to add a double major in music performance or a performance certificate to her undergraduate courseload in music education. She will also be singing in the world premiere of “Mayo,” a major opera production that will be presented by the Crane Opera Ensemble this fall on campus. Santiago will be playing the role of Mayo’s mother, and singing alongside opera legend Lisa Vroman ’79, who will be back on campus to perform in the world premiere with Crane students.
After graduating next year, Santiago is thinking about pursuing a master’s degree in music performance, possibly right here at Crane. “I love this school so much. I love my teachers so much. There’s just so much that this school has to offer,” Santiago said.
Article by Jason Hunter