By David Simpson

Cristina Loyola came by her musical talent honestly. Her father was a jazz musician, her mother a singer.

In 2018, that talent led her to Old Dominion University for a midlife bachelor’s degree in music education. And she didn’t stop there. On May 5, she’ll graduate with a master's in the same field.

Loyola’s account of how she shone as a young singer, grew up, left music entirely and then found her way back a decade later at ODU is a story of redemption, resilience and a dream recaptured.

“It's been a journey,” she said.

Loyola’s parents were born in the Philippines. After enlisting in the U.S. military, her father taught music, played woodwinds and conducted for Navy bands. In fact, that is how he first encountered his future wife, Loyola said.

“My dad was playing a gig on Guam, where my mom was raised. And they're like, ‘Hey, we have this local girl who sings – let's bring her in and she can sing with the band.’ And that's how my parents met.”

Born in Seattle, Cristina was quickly surrounded by music of all kinds.  

“My parents saw that I liked it and had a natural aptitude for it, so they started me taking piano lessons when I was a toddler. I think I was literally 2 years old. I had to sit on phone books on the piano bench to be able to reach the keys.”

One night, the Navy band gave her a chance to sing.

"I was 3 or 4, and it started out, I think, as a joke. It was like, 'Look at this adorable little toddler who can match pitch. Let's have her come onstage and sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’’’

“And so I started appearing with the Navy bands when I was really little. But as I got older they were like, ‘Oh well, she can hold her own with the band,’ and I started actually singing with them.”

Between ages 7 and 15, she performed with Navy bands in Naples, Italy; at the Navy Pier in Chicago; and at Walt Disney World, Epcot Center and Universal Studios in Florida. Thousands heard her sing.

When the family was about to leave their home in Florida for a new duty station, the band gave them a farewell concert. Her father conducted, her mother sang a piece and Cristina performed "Part of Your World" from “The Little Mermaid.”

At home, the family played records while they cleaned house: Stevie Wonder. Beatles and Beach Boys. Rachmaninoff and Sousa. But what drew her most were soundtracks of stage musicals.

“I grew up idolizing Lea Salonga. She's a Filipina Broadway star, and that was huge to me because growing up, there were not a lot of Asian women in theater that I knew of."

The family moved to Virginia Beach in 2000, and in her junior year of high school Loyola enrolled in the Governor’s School for the Arts. There, she performed in her first operas, “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Ballad of Baby Doe.”

After that, she studied music at George Mason University, focusing on recital work while performing in clubs on the side. It was a great experience, she said, but it didn’t last.

"I was not ready for college. Not everybody is. I spent a lot of time there just kind of existing and ended up leaving without finishing my bachelor’s degree."

Assuming she would never return to school, she worked for years as a paralegal doing family, criminal, traffic and personal injury law.

“I was ready for that to just be the rest of my life. I was like, it's fine, I'll just do this. It’s OK.”

But as time went by, she missed music more and more. She decided to start singing with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorus. To get her voice back in shape, she took lessons from Brian Nedvin, an associate professor of music at ODU.

“It had been 10 years since I’d sung anything professionally,” Loyola said. “I was like, let's just dust it off a little, see if it's still there. And he said, ‘So you're going to come back and finish your degree, right?’ And I said, ‘I don't know, that seems like a whole thing.’ And he's like, ‘No, no, you will.’

“And he was right.”

In 2018, Loyola enrolled at ODU at age 34. There, Nedvin became her voice teacher. Loyola also benefited from the teaching and encouragement of Professor Nancy Klein, director of the F. Ludwig Diehn School of Music.  

But a problem arose along the way. Loyola had so many undergraduate transfer credits from George Mason, she needed to take more courses to remain a full-time student and keep her scholarships and financial aid. Klein suggested she take classes in the master’s program.

From 2018 to 2020 she completed her bachelor’s degree and finished about half of her master of music education. She became president of the ODU chapter of the National Association for Music Education and won the 2019 ODU Young Artist Competition; the 2020 Virginia National Association of Teachers of Singing Auditions, musical theater category; and the 2020 ODU Outstanding Undergraduate Music Education Student Award. She graduated magna cum laude.

Afterward, Loyola stayed on to finish her graduate degree. At one point she confided in Klein about her secret desire to conduct collegiate ensembles. Was there any way she could do that? Klein replied: “Absolutely.”

“She took me under her wing,” Loyola said, “and made me the choral conductor grad assistant. She made me the assistant conductor for our ODU choirs, which is literally a dream come true.”

This school year, Klein put Loyola in charge of instructing and directing the elite Diehn Chorale.

“All the students in there are scholarship recipients, the cream of the crop,” Loyola said. 

Klein said of her graduate assistant: “She is one of the most talented students I have worked with, in performance, conducting, organization, administration. It has been my great pleasure to see her excel, and I applaud her as my student and as a treasured friend.”

For her part, Loyola said: “I'm very lucky and I'm very privileged and honored to have had the opportunities that I've had. I would say 90% of that is due to Dr. Klein."

As her time at ODU ends, Loyola has begun auditioning for doctoral programs in voice and conducting. Her ultimate goal is to teach collegiate ensembles and do recital work on the side, maybe sing operas or musicals over the summers.

“We’ll see where the chips fall,” she said.

Klein expressed confidence in her student.

“I can see her doing my job someday,” Klein said, “or one like it.”