The 16-year-old prodigy earns her master’s degree at the Jacobs School of Music

Between her college education, moving across the country, and studying in one of the best music programs in the world, Tiara Abraham simply didn’t have time to reach a typical milestone for her age: get a driver’s license.

The 16-year-old operatic prodigy is now in her first semester of a two-year master’s program at Indiana University. Jacobs School of Musicattending classes with peers over a decade older.

Although Tiara may be younger than her peers, she certainly isn’t lacking in experience. She sang twice at Carnegie Hall when she was 10, and her voice led her to perform at Vienna and one San Francisco Giants game.

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For Tiara, classical music has always seemed to be part of her, something she might have had at birth.

“Even before I was born, my mother always listened to classical music on the radio, so maybe that’s where I was exposed to music,” Tiara joked. “This music has always felt natural to me.”

Bravo to vibrato: how a child prodigy found passion and purpose in opera

For almost as long as she’s been able to speak, Tiara has been singing. Taji Abraham, her mother, described how her then 4-year-old daughter’s rich, crisp voice often filled their home in Sacramento, California. Taji and her husband didn’t give much thought to the constant singing at first. Children go through phases of interest, they thought, and eventually it would run out of steam.

Tiara Abraham, 16, poses in Auer Hall after a studio recital at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

“Then we realized there was something special about it. Pretty much every song she sings, it comes very naturally to her and she doesn’t just have that kind of your right. There’s has a kind of, like a vibrato, for,” recalls Taji.

Vibrato is a musical technique where a person’s voice alternates subtly and quickly between two pitches very close to each other. It is used to add intensity to the voice and bring emotional expression to its performance. It’s quite rare for a young child to sing with a vibrato, so when his parents recognized him, they started looking for a singing teacher.

Finding them proved difficult, Taji noted. Although many parents enroll their young children in music lessons, it is usually to play an instrument.

“For us singers, our whole body is the instrument. It’s not just the vocal cords, we use our diaphragm,” Tiara said. “Everything is involved in producing a beautiful sound.”

Tiara decided to take classical singing lessons, a training approach where the student learns to sing in the style of classical composers. It includes a vast repertoire with styles such as art song and opera.

Many teachers were unwilling to hire a young child, given that people don’t usually start classical voice until they are at least in high school. Eventually, when Tiara was around 7, she was paired with a voice teacher who taught her the basics.

“I had this raw talent, but (she taught me) how to hone that,” Tiara described.

Although Tiara enjoys performing various genres, she found her true passion for opera when she was 9 years old. At the theater in her hometown, she and her mother watched the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Daughter of the Regiment, or the daughter of the regiment. She wasn’t in an opera, but hearing the live boom and bass of the actors’ voices on full screen was enough to trigger something inside her.

“Just to be able to watch this opera, I was really inspired to see the action on stage and the costumes and everything involved on stage,” Tiara said.

As she began to shape a promising classical voice, Tiara also excelled academically. She started attending classes at her local community college when she was 7, with Taji towing it and standing at the back of the class.

“In the first days (of class), (my classmates) thought that my mother was bringing me and that she was the student. But when they saw that I was sitting at the front in the class and taking grades, they realized I was taking the course,” Tiara recalls.

She graduated from high school at age 13 and transferred her college credits to complete her bachelor’s degree at University of California, Davis. There, she received a Regents Fellowship and a University Honors Fellowship, becoming one of the youngest graduate students at UC Davis. She graduated with a music major, focusing on vocal performance.

She had several top universities to choose from to pursue her master’s degree, but Tiara chose Indiana University. For those who know well IU Jacobs School of Musicit shouldn’t be hard to guess why.

“I just wanted to have more performance opportunities and be around other majors and vocal performers,” Tiara said.

“Little Fishes in a Big Pond” at IU Bloomington

Once she decided to go to IU, Tiara and her mother moved to Bloomington. It was a huge change for Tiara, who grew up in California. She misses her original state, but she has also opened herself up to new experiences. She and her mom recently took a day trip to Brown County, where Tiara rode her horse for the first time.

Tiara Abraham is a 16-year-old pursuing a master's degree in a two-year program at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

Tiara spent her first semester studying opera history, attending opera workshops and, of course, auditioning. On the performance side, there was also an adjustment. It grew from a small, tight-knit music department at UC Davis to a large program at Indiana University.

“It’s a huge school, so you can sometimes feel lost, like you’re a little fish in a big pond, sort of. But you just have to find your circle,” Tiara said. “It can be overwhelming at times, especially the first few weeks, but I’m getting used to it and slowly adjusting.”

Now, rather than sitting in the classroom with her, Taji drops Tiara off on campus. Although she looks young enough to be an undergrad, Tiara doesn’t stand out as much as she did when she was 7 years old. She thinks many of her peers and teachers still don’t realize her real age – a potential advantage.

Tiara noted that it can be difficult as a young performer to be taken seriously, especially in opera.

People say, “‘They imitate the sound of opera or vibrato without formal training,'” Tiara said, “while I’ve been training for, I can say, more than half my life. I know how to handle my instrument.”

Although frustrating, Tiara tries to take it as a challenge to overcome rather than an obstacle.

“I think there’s an age-old idea that you can only be an opera singer at a certain age,” Taji said. “I think sometimes when you have a really talented person, you can break the laws.”

Any understatement does not last long.

“Some vocal teachers – not IU but in general – may initially be skeptical when they hear a young classical singer of 14 or 15 years old, but I think once they hear my voice and hear my technique, they understand that I am able to sing with them,” Tiara said.

Tiara hopes her career will take her to the most prolific opera houses, but for now she is focused on developing her skills and experience. And she can’t wait to add IU Bloomington to her ever-growing list of breakthrough performances.

Rachel Smith covers Indiana University and student life for The Herald-Times. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @RachelSmithNews.