KEARNEY – Many people have told Dawn Mollenkopf she has a beautiful singing voice.
She’ll have to take their word for it.
“I don’t know why people like my voice,” Mollenkopf said. “That’s not something I can hear.”
The University of Nebraska at Kearney associate professor of teacher education was born with branchio-oto-renal syndrome, a genetic disorder that impacts the development of the neck, ears and kidneys. Her mother and twin sister were also born with the condition.
For Mollenkopf, it causes hearing, swallowing and balance issues she’s dealt with her entire life.
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“I will continue to lose my hearing,” she said. “It’s a matter of when I become deaf, not if.”
But that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her passion for music.
Mollenkopf will perform her first full voice recital 3 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 3) in UNK’s Fine Arts Recital Hall. The performance, which is free and open to the public, features songs in four languages – English, Latin, French and German – from composers Henry Purcell, Georges Bizet, Johannes Brahms and Cole Porter. It will be livestreamed on UNK’s YouTube channel, youtube.com/UNKearney.
The event is a remarkable milestone for Mollenkopf, who has severe-to-profound hearing loss that became progressive in her early 30s. She’s nearly deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other.
“I can’t actually hear everything I sing,” said Mollenkopf, who uses hearing aids in both ears.
She has the same problem with a piano accompaniment.
“I really don’t hear anything below middle C,” she said. “I hear volume, but I don’t hear the melody. It could be a cereal box you’re banging on for all I know.”
As soon as she starts singing, most of the piano is lost.
Uncertain whether she could continue singing, Mollenkopf turned to UNK’s Department of Music for help. Vocal music professor Andrew White offered to serve as her instructor and they began working together in 2012.
“She’s come amazingly far,” White said. “When she first came to me, she wasn’t able to sing with accompaniment. Since then, there’s been a great improvement in tone quality, as well as range and her ability to express.”
Mollenkopf’s background in linguistics and understanding of the International Phonetic Alphabet made it easier to introduce the foreign language pieces audience members will hear Sunday.
“In some ways, her hearing disadvantage has been advantageous because she’s been educated to address it,” said White, who called Mollenkopf a “very intelligent” singer with a “lovely” voice. “I was able to choose more sophisticated pieces that I would never give an undergraduate student.”
A mezzo-soprano with a background in piano and violin, Mollenkopf also joined the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss (AAMHL) and she’s a member of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). She’s performed three times with AAMHL, and she sang the national anthem during the HLAA annual convention last summer.
A lay leader for the Central Nebraska Jewish Community, Mollenkopf continues to serve as a vocalist for religious events in Kearney and Lincoln, where she’s a member of the South Street Temple.
Pianist Kim Rehtus, an office associate in UNK’s Department of Teacher Education, began working with Mollenkopf about four years ago and will be the accompanist for Sunday’s recital. She called the partnership an “enriching experience.”
“Music can be part of our lives, even if it’s not what we do 9 to 5 every day,” Rehtus said. “It’s been really enjoyable for us, and hopefully it will be enjoyable for the audience, as well.”
Mollenkopf may face challenges as a vocalist, White said, but she’s shown an incredible drive to overcome them.
“I think that’s the most extraordinary thing about this recital,” he said.
Mollenkopf, who serves as UNK Faculty Senate president and director of the early childhood inclusive program, hopes her performance provides inspiration for other people with hearing loss.
“It’s important to push your limits, to keep trying new things and to follow your heart,” she said. “If it’s something you want to do, if you have a passion, then you need to go do it.”