Ollie Watts Davis

Professor of Voice

B.S., West Virginia Institute of Technology (magna cum laude); M.A., West Virginia University; M.M. and D.M.A., University of Illinois

Described as “…a bubbling stream of a voice, remarkably smooth down into a resonant, rich low register” (San Francisco Chronicle); “a lovely, warm, admirably focused tone” (New York Times); and “…poignant and lovely (Chicago Tribune), Ollie Watts Davis earns superlatives wherever she sings. Since her New York debut at Carnegie Hall in 1990, Ms. Davis has appeared in many of the nation’s great concert halls with leading orchestras, including the San Francisco, Minnesota, Houston, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Dallas Symphony orchestras. Internationally, she has appeared with orchestras and for master classes in Venezuela, Mexico, Spain, China and Taiwan.

A warm and endearing actress, Ms. Davis has performed with the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival; the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis; Des Moines Metro Opera; Opera Theatre of Springfield; and Illinois Opera Theatre. She has been heard on National Public Radio, and has released three CD recordings: one, as a solo artist in a recording of Negro Spirituals; one recording as conductor of the University of Illinois Black Chorus, and the new release ‘Vocal Grace,’ as soloist and conductor with the University of Illinois Black Chorus.

As a recitalist, Ms. Davis has appeared at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (California); The Frick Art Museum (Pennsylvania); the Pakistan American Cultural Center (Karachi); the American Church (France); the Clay Center for the Performing Arts and Sciences (West Virginia); the Krannert Art Museum (Illinois); the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (Illinois); the West Virginia Governor’s Mansion; and the Eugene O’Neill Theater (Costa Rica), where she “held her packed, musically sophisticated audience enthralled.” (N. Rosenfeld, Embassy San Jose). Dr. Davis returned to Costa Rica in January 2013 for performances honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in August to lead the Black Chorus is a cross-cultural performance and study tour as Promising Artists of the 21st Century.

Davis recently presented The Concert that Shook the Establishment, a re-creation of Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter morning concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield (IL). Other notable performances include the premiere of Spirituals arranged by Stephen Andrew Taylor with the Jupiter String Quartet, an appearance at the DuSable Museum for the March on Washington: The Remix and premieres of three of her choral commissions. She also recently completed a residency at the University of Arkansas where she presented a recital, master class, and participated in a documentary on the life and music of Florence Price. She also appeared at the 2015 CBDNA Conference in Nashville (TN) as a soloist with the Illinois Wind Symphony.

Also a distinguished scholar, Dr. Davis has written two books for mentoring young girls as part of the TALKS Mentoring Leadership curriculum. In 2006 she inaugurated StudiO: the Ollie Watts Davis Institute for Vocal Arts at the Allerton Conference Center in Monticello (IL) and directed the Institute in Urbana in 2012. Dr. Davis completed a Visiting Scholar Residency in Taiwan at the National Sun-yet Sen University in Kaohsiung; the National Taipei Normal University; and the National Taipei University for the Arts in 2006. She was also a member of the artist faculty for the 2008 opera seminar at the Zhou Xiao Yan Opera Center of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in China. In 2011, she completed a Visiting Artist residency at the University of South Carolina (Columbia) and in 2012 at Colorado Mesa University. In 2013 Dr. Davis  led the University of Illinois Black Chorus in a cross-cultural performance and study tour to Costa Rica as Promising Artists of the 21st Century, and in 2014 she gave a plenary address and conducted the Black Chorus at the Shaped by Beauty Conference at Heythrop College in London (England). Additionally, Dr. Davis has served on the artist faculty for SongFest at Pepperdine University (California); and has conducted workshops with the Chicago Children’s Choir.

In 2008, Ollie Watts Davis was named a University Scholar, one of the highest recognitions bestowed upon a member of the faculty at the University of Illinois, and in 2014 she received her second Illinois Campus Award for Excellence in Teaching. Dr. Davis received the 2015 “Key to the City” from Mayor Don Gerard for her musical contributions to the cultural life of Champaign, Illinois. In 2013, she received the NASPAAM National Award; and in 2012, she received the Illinois Student Senate Teaching Excellence Award, and the 40 North 2012 Lifetime ACE Award, which honors her accumulated successes for continued, outstanding support of the arts in the Champaign-Urbana community. Other awards include the UI College of Fine and Applied Arts Outstanding Faculty Award, and a Recognition Award from the UI Alumni Association, She was named the Alumna of the Year by the College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia Institute of Technology, and was awarded the Bronze Medallion of Honor by the UI Women’s Association, where she was recognized as a woman whothrough example and service has used her talents to enrich the lives of others. Additional honors include national honorary membership in Sigma Alpha Iota, honorary membership in the National Arts and Letters Society, and membership in the Phi Kappa Phi Honorary Society.

A native of West Virginia, Ollie Watts Davis received the Bachelor of Science degree in Music Education from West Virginia Institute of Technology (magna cum laude); the Master of Arts degree in Secondary Education from West Virginia University; and the Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Dr. Davis is currently a Professor of Music on the Voice faculty, where she served as Chair of the Voice Division from 2006-2009, Conductor of the award-winning Black Chorus, and Director of the biennial Black Sacred Music Symposium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Teaching Philosophy

My personal journey to professional artistry has informed my teaching philosophy. As a professor, I seek to be a fair advocate and provide counsel for talented students, whether the student seeks financial aid opportunities, extra one-on-one mentoring, a guided research experience, language training, study abroad, or a summer program, in order to meet their future goals. In addition to teaching the skills necessary to be a complete musician, I transfer the knowledge needed to advance professionally as a musician. I encourage the personal demeanor necessary to be a healthy and supportive colleague in performance and academic contexts, enlivening the attitude that the progress of the group toward their common goals is paramount to personal accolades and achievement. I embody the lifestyle necessary to be a complete musician staying physically healthy, setting priorities, preparing well, and practicing effectively. I emphasize an attitude of enjoying and learning from the process of making music. I believe that the joy of the process will strengthen and motivate the student to continue with the discipline, persistence, and passion necessary to sustain a career in music. This has certainly been true in my case. 

We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder (from Vocal Grace)