Essay #7: Mistress Moon and the Cluttered Room

moon-in-the-clouds

I’m having a hell of a day. I got into a car accident on the way to a coaching in Dorchester. I’m fine, but the car is less fine. I was having trouble seeing beyond a giant snowbank coming out of a gas station and my car clipped the back bumper of another car. His car was scratched. My car lost a plastic insert for flood lights and the bumper is busted. I’ve spent the afternoon talking with insurance adjusters and making an appointment with an appraiser instead of singing with my coach and voice teacher. I’m annoyed, I’m disappointed in myself, and I’m rattled.

Fortunately, the guy who was driving the other car was a total sweetheart. The car was a rental car, so he had no great attachment to it. We exchanged insurance information easily using our cellphone cameras. I was so flustered by what happened that I accidentally left my driver’s license with him. He drove back to the corner where the accident happened and handed it off. The whole experience could have been a lot worse.

Tonight, I will be singing as a section leader (aka a “ringer”) with the community choir in town. They’re singing the Brahms Requiem, one of my favorite pieces of all time, but I’m not feeling it. I’m sure I’ll feel better about it when I get there, but right now I’m feeling like an angry weasel in a corner, licking its wounds. No driving. No singing. No being out in the world. Bah.

When I feel down, I try to think of things that make me happy. It’s a tough thing to do for me sometimes. So much of what I liked growing up was dictated by my environment. There were up to 8 people living in our house at one time (my parents, my 4 siblings and me, and my grandmother), so there wasn’t a lot of space for individuals. I would spend lots of time playing in the bathroom with the door closed (much to the annoyance of my teenage siblings, I’m sure), because it was the only space where I could truly be alone. I imagined living alone in an imaginary house the size of my bathroom. I figured I’d have everything that I’d need – a sink for washing hands and dishes, a bathtub for bathing and sleeping, a toilet that could convert into a chair… Imagine my surprise when the Tiny House trend became a thing.

In theory, I loved a having a clean bedroom. However, I learned if I didn’t clean my room, then people wouldn’t come into the space when I wasn’t there. Folks liked to hang out in the rooms in the house that were recently tidied. I’d find my brother’s orange peels under my bed or my mother’s ashtray on my bedside table. Nature abhors a vacuum. So did my parents’ house, apparently. There were papers, binders, and books on the dining room table. There was laundry on the chairs. Things got cleaned up, but things got their cleanest when we knew people were coming over for a visit.

I wore hand-me-downs. My fashion sense was dictated by the clothing that I received from my older sisters when they grew out of them. I knew what colors I liked, but I knew that I couldn’t necessarily wear all of them (electric yellow didn’t always play well with my coloring, for instance!). My fashion sense didn’t really go beyond that. Cut? Style? Length? Shrug. I loved sharing a room with my sisters. I have a much closer relationship with them now because we shared a room together growing up. That said, there was little sense of boundaries. I certainly had no sense of them when I was little, and I didn’t understand that borrowing without permission was stealing.

Now that I have my own house, I’m trying to figure out who I am outside of the context of my crowded-but-loving family. What do I like?

  • The color turquoise
  • Dark denim jeans with elegant shoes
  • Composers: Mahler, Brahms, Debussy, Bartok, Ravel, Poulenc
  • Silver filigree, Celtic circle designs
  • Spare branches with spring leaves
  • Crimson silk shantung
  • Hayao Miyazaki movies, anime in general
  • Round music – Baroque and Romantic
  • Mezzo-sopranos and baritones
  • Burnished gold, crystal chandeliers, Tiffany glass windows
  • John Singer Sargent, the way he paints velvet and flesh
  • Full skirts and plunging necklines
  • Imperial topaz rings and pendants
  • Chrysanthemums and other autumnal flowers
  • Dark chocolate and jasmine tea
  • Cellos, violas, and French horns
  • Salvador Dali and his marvelous melting clocks
  • Jean-Pierre Jeunet films – “Amelie”, “The City of Lost Children”
  • Guillermo del Toro films – “Pan’s Labyrinth” especially
  • Tori Amos, Regina Spektor, Vienna Teng – fierce women with pianos
  • Palomino horses, long-haired cats
  • Wrap dresses and shirts
  • Long hair, curls and waves
  • Irises, roses, calla lilies, hyacinths
  • Waterford crystal, Lenox china, fussy looking silver cutlery
  • Old Hollywood glamour, red lipstick, soft waves, elbow length gloves with cocktail rings
  • Ireland… don’t get me started on Ireland…
  • Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, St. Stephen’s Green
  • Prehistoric Newgrange in County Meath
  • Our Lady of Knock’s shrine in County Mayo, where my father’s family is from
  • A car with heated seats
  • Warm food with rich sauces, soup, hot coffee (manna of the gods), runny fried eggs
  • Fresh bread, succulent green vegetables, berries
  • Visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and then lounging in Japanese community soaking tubs at the Inman Oasis in the wintertime
  • Strength training, Hatha yoga, and Vinayoga – lifting heavy things
  • Bel canto singers like Marilyn Horne Lieder interpreters like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hitchcock and Atom Egoyan films, dark and sad narratives
  • Shakespeare and sonnets in Iambic pentameter
  • Partnered social dance, like swing dancing and English country line dancing
  • 1980s geek culture: Tabletop games, Dungeons and Dragons, Freaks and Geeks, Stranger Things
  • Children’s books that were really written for adults: Madeleine L’Engle, C. S. Lewis, Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series
  • Hymns from the British Isles: Slane, St. Columba, Thaxted, and Hryfrydol
  • Ancient cathedrals and catacombs, tombs, mausoleums, pyramids, gravestones – the monuments to immortality and familial identity
  • The luminous moon and her satellite stars (I always felt the universe worked the opposite way – the sun was lonely among the clouds, and the moon had millions of tiny, twinkling friends)

The picture is coming into focus, little by little. I don’t always choose what I like best, but at least I know what some of these things are, what differentiates me from my family and the world around me. It’s taken me years to figure some of this out, and I’m sure it will take me many more years to drill down to the essential themes. At this point, I know that I’m a Romantic with a capital R, I’m embracing my roots as an Irish-American girl, I like to be warm inside and out, I like darker colors and voices, but I also love things that glow, sparkle, and glitter. I read. I listen. I consume. I admire.

(Thanks for indulging me, if you’ve read this far. I’m feeling better already.)

Essay #6: The Music of the Hospital

hospital-monitor

NERISSA

When the moon shone, we did not see the candle.

PORTIA

So doth the greater glory dim the less:
A substitute shines brightly as a king
Unto the king be by, and then his state
Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
Into the main of waters. Music! hark!

NERISSA

It is your music, madam, of the house.

William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”, Act 5, Scene 1

*****

My brother in law hates the sound of beeping machines in hospitals.

He and my sister were visiting my mom after her knee surgery last week and he kept on going on and on about the repetitive beeping sounds. Incessant, endless beeping.

In my mind, those beeps are the heartbeat of the building.

Hospitals have so much music in them. The clattering sound of the dinner tray cart rolling by. The rhythmic honk of a telemetry monitor. The shuffle of a nurse walking by in floral Dansko clogs. The laughter of the PCAs as they make their way to and from patients’ rooms. The cry of that guy Frank down the hall. The guy who couldn’t stop shouting. The guy who made one of my mom’s nurses sigh, “Do you have what you need for now?” Rolling her eyes toward Frank’s room: “…because it’s going to be a while before I can get back to you.”

My mother was a nursing instructor for more than 30 years at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, a college town on the edge of Boston. Her nursing program trained nurses through a combination of classroom and clinical work. She spent three days a week teaching her students on the floor, so that her students had practical experience to back up the theoretical concepts they explored in class. She guided her students through the ICU, the ER, obstetrics, cardiac wards…

My mother loves hospitals. She loves being a patient.

After years of taking care of our family of seven and thousands of patients at St. E’s, I don’t blame her one bit for wanting to lie back and let someone else drive. She adores the rolling tables with their tidy instruments and shiny tools lined up just so. She likes neatly made beds. She cherishes the nurses who follow best practices, making great decisions while being clever conversationalists and thoughtful caretakers. She revels in being able to order food from a menu, from the butter with her toast, to a turkey sandwich with cranberry relish, to lemon cake, to the coffee with 1% milk. She loves being cared for by nurses from her generation, because they know how to do things the proper way. Hospital corners. Foot boards for the bed. Never letting a call signal go for more than a few minutes.

Heaven help the nurses who don’t do things just right in my mother’s presence!

My mother usually begins her hospital stays saying to us, “I’m not going to tell them that I’m a nurse. I don’t want the young nurses to get nervous around me.” Then, almost within the same breath, my mother proceeds to ask the staff to find any of her students who work on the floor so that she can say hi. She drops medical terminology left and right so that the nurses ask, “Are you a nurse…?” My mother chirps, “I was a nursing instructor at St. Elizabeth’s in Brighton. But now I’m retired, thank you very much.” She takes great pride, both in her profession and in her ability to drop it nonchalantly like a handkerchief in her decadent retirement. My mother likes to throw out her own thoughts on her symptoms, to second guess the doctors and nurses who don’t meet her standards, and to question the way things are written on the intake forms. My mother knows. This is not her first rodeo.

The toughest thing for my mother is losing control. She’s used to being the authority. She’s used to being in charge. It’s frustrating for her to have to rely on others to get simple things done, like moving toward the bathroom, taking a bath, finding the call switch, and getting scooched up to the right spot in the adjustable bed. I think that’s why she nitpicks us while we’re there. “I put my pants on hangers in the closet. Don’t put them in the drawers!” “You can’t roll the blanket that way! The seam will hit my feet!” “Push the handle down on the bag before you move it!” “Cut the flowers before you put them in the water!” I’m 41 years old. I’m a very competent 41-year-old woman. My mother will never see me as older than a teenager in the script that plays out in her head.

My mother laments, “But how can I be stuck in this hospital bed when I’m only 42 in my mind?”

I hate to break it to you, Mom, but I’m going to be 42 this year, and I’m your fourth kid. Welcome to 77. You wear it well, even though your body is trying to tell you otherwise.

I’m hoping that my mother will be able to let go of some her frustration so that she can fall into the rhythm of the hospital, a place that is the heart of her profession and the root of her career. It is a secular church filled with healers and problem solvers. I hope that the beeps and the rumble of gurney wheels can transport her to a place of peace and trust. As with the clicking of a metronome at the piano or the sureness of a cello bass line in my world, the chirps, whirs and clicks we hear in the background are the music of her world. Hours can melt like wax candles in the hospital, but in that music, she knows she is home.

 

 

Essay #5: Until the Fat Lady Sings

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I was having a bad day. I was having a bad day and I wanted salmon. I wanted baked salmon, crisp on the outside and pink and soft on the inside. I wanted vegetables or starch with that salmon. It didn’t matter what else I paired with it. As soon as I could, I made my way to Turner’s Seafood and Grill, the popular seafood restaurant in the center of town. The restaurant was a family owned business, and it had a raw bar, a fish monger’s case with fresh fish, and a full sit-down restaurant.

The hostess looked at me expectantly.

“One for lunch,” I said, eager to see what they had on the menu.

Once she got me seated, I began to sift through the menu to construct my meal. It was cold out, so I immediately thought of soup. Chowder. No – lobster bisque. I love the lobster bisque here. A cup, not a bowl. The bowls are too big. There were a few salmon dishes on the menu.

“Hi, my name is Amanda, and I’ll be your server today. Can I start you off with something to drink?”

It was five o’clock somewhere in the world. It was about 12:50 pm here. “I’d love a glass of water… and a glass of sangria!” I gave her a conspiratorial smile. She blinked, wrote down the order and sauntered off to the bar. No judgment on her part. 100% judgment on mine. I was going to have the sangria anyway. Why not? It was a Wednesday. Wednesdays deserve sangria.

I flipped back to the menu. Maple salmon with mashed potatoes with a touch of mustard. Vegetable of the day. The specials sounded good, but I was here for salmon. I knew it. My stomach knew it. It was time.

When the meal and the sangria reached the table, I was elated. The sangria was delicious, the meal was comforting, and the soft lighting of the restaurant made me so happy. Nothing beats that feeling. I put my phone away. I looked out the window at the red brick wall from the store next door. I was sated. I was me, all at once. The salmon wasn’t exactly what I was imagining, but it was good. It was salmon. Requirement met.

*****

There’s that old line about opera: “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”

There is some truth to that in the historical opera performances. Back then, opera singers were only hired for the beauty of their sound. Looks didn’t matter if the singers could execute the intensely athletic singing well. You had large dramatic sopranos that could be dressed in a breastplate with a shield, a horned Viking hat, and a spear (Cue the Elmer Fudd from “What’s Opera, Doc?”: “O Bwunhiwdaaaah! How I wove you!) or in a coquettish Alpine shepherdess’ outfit. For the operas that required huge singing, these women and men would “park and bark”. Everything was about the sound. Everything was about the resonance. Audiences lived for it.

Young people with half-baked voices couldn’t sing Wagner or Verdi. Opera singers came into their prime in the thirties and forties. It didn’t matter if the character was 16. You needed singers that could be heard over giant and lush orchestras. A massive King Henry VIII-sized Pavarotti would be hired over his peers, because of the glory of his trademark sound. You can’t fake that sort of voice. It poured out of Pavarotti like liquid gold. Heroic. Tender. Deft. All the emotion was baked into the sound.

Nowadays, the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts their operas in HD movie theaters around the country. It was a savvy move on their part, making the art form feel accessible and (hopefully) less elitist. As a result, the visual look of the shows and the actors needed a more of a glamorous Hollywood feel. Audiences didn’t necessarily want to see a lumbering Brunhilda in HD. Singers had to read well on camera, and decent acting chops became as important as the singing. Modern operas were movies as much as they were musical experiences.

Svelte, buxom sopranos like Anna Netrebko have become the norm. There are so many singers vying for so few roles that opera houses can afford to be choosy about the look of the singer. Voice, body, and energy became the performance metrics for a hire. Unless the singer in question had a particularly superb sound, they were going to choose the woman who looked as well as sounded the part. Weightism has been a hot topic in the opera community, as that Hollywood mentality was starting to creep into our “sound first, everything else second” world. Opera had always been about gender bending and hiring the best singer for the job – more progressive than a lot of the performing arts in its casting – so it’s been a shock to the system.

Health and fitness are important for singers, as their body is their instrument. Without strength and endurance training – especially in the core muscles – a singer couldn’t do multiple hour operas without exhausting themselves. Conditioning is as important as recovery time, and you can’t do your job if your voice is sick or compromised. Fitness plays into that.

However, it’s frustrating for those of us who have put the work in on our technique and voices to be passed over for the more conventionally beautiful singers. We get it, but we don’t have to like it.

*****

When I first started singing seriously, I was at least 100 pounds lighter than I am now. It’s been a tough 8 years or so, and I developed habits that weren’t serving my body in any way. My husband and I were having trouble trying to conceive a child. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and put on medication. My father passed away from complications with heart disease in 2013. We chose not to have children. My confidence was waning. Food became the anesthetic. Food became the safety net. Food became the defense against everything that was going wrong. Food fed on the excuses and the stresses.

Food became my enemy.

Over the past few years, I’ve been getting to know a friend who runs marathons regularly and who eats a limited palette of food based on her allergies and preferences. Eating meat isn’t her bag. She has to go to the emergency room if she eats any gluten. Dairy doesn’t agree with her either. She opts for whole foods, not processed foods and sugar. Her body is a temple, and she consumes food and commits to physical exercise in a disciplined and almost worshipful way.

She is a running coach and I am a voice teacher. We offered to exchange lessons so that we could see how the other lived. I met her at the track and we started to go for a jog. It quickly became clear that her running gait was going to be a lot faster than my jog. She walked alongside me as I puffed along. We shared our health stories. She is a recovering anorexic, who learned to feed her body in a loving way so that she could run. I am a compulsive eater. I was years away from regular exercise.

She made the observation: “You and I are a lot alike. We don’t listen well to our bodies.”

At first, I couldn’t imagine the similarities between us. Then I realized that we were flip sides of the same coin. One of us ignored signals of hunger, the other ignored signals of satiety.

I have a tough time leaving an empty plate. That’s a leftover kneejerk reaction from my childhood. “There are starving children in <insert country here>, and you won’t finish your peas?” “I hate canned peas.” “Eat your peas.” Preferences didn’t matter in a family of 7. You ate what was put in front of you or you didn’t eat. You grabbed the treats that came into the house as quickly as you could. Otherwise, your siblings ate them out from under you. An empty plate was a badge of honor.

My marathon running friend practices intuitive eating. It was through this method that she could identify what she truly wanted and how much her body needed to feel full. It’s a novel idea to me, taking the time to listen so that you understand what hungry and what full feels like. Also, it’s tough to trust that the body would find the right foods for itself. It’s funny to distrust a system that’s been regulating itself beautifully for thousands upon thousands of years. However, the addictive qualities of processed/fast foods and intense sweets make me question what I consume sometimes.

*****

I look at that plate of salmon and I see the thing I want, the protein and healthy fats that my body needs. I didn’t need the sangria. I didn’t need the bisque. I didn’t need to eat the bread with the warm butter. But my body knew it needed the salmon.

With all the food that I eat above and beyond what my body needs, I’m not the size that I used to be. I have a tough time accepting that. I’ve lost my confidence for auditions. My voice sounds better than it ever has before, and yet I feel the worst about myself. It’s discouraging. The silver lining is that a lot of the roles that suit my voice type accommodate women of all sizes – mothers, grandmothers, sidekicks, witches, nuns, etc. Mezzos have a longer career track than most voice types.

I wish for once I could be a glamorous Anna Netrebko or a Renee Fleming. I know that beating myself up for having the wrong body type or size is unfair, but I’d love to be able to shop in normal size clothing stores. I’d love to be able to try an evening gown, the business suit of the classical performer, on in a department store and to be confident that it would fit. Self-love is crucial to performance, and I’m disappointed with myself for not practicing that with my interior voice. I give myself such a hard time.

Would I talk down to a friend like that? Would I give them a hard time if their jeans didn’t fit? No. Never. Now, why would I talk to myself that way? There’s no room for that on the stage.

Part of the problem is that I’ve internalized some of the voices from the other women in our family. Agonizing over weight issues has become a competitive sport for us, and the way that we talk about ourselves is downright shameful. Sure, there’s an unwritten social contract that says this is the way women bond, but I find it unacceptable. I have resolved never to talk about body issues or to insult myself in front of family members again. I’m not going to play the game anymore. Talk about healthy activities and choices? Sure. Beat myself up because it’s a family ritual? No.

For now, I’m going to have to be the big girl in the breastplate singing out the glorious high notes. I’m going to finish out the show. My hope, though, is that I’ll be able to find my way back to a place of health – not a body size – by eating intuitively and practicing self-care. Food is not the enemy. A more healthy relationship with it will ultimately save me and make me well again.

Essay #4: The March of the Subglottic Sandwiches My Father Used to Make Me

black-labrador

Yeah, so that title up there perfectly describes my head space right now. There are a bunch of words. All of them are specific and interesting on their own; none of them make sense when they’re put together. I’m in the middle of writing three essays for #52essays2017 and they could not be more different from one another. I want to buckle down and focus on one of them, but my brain wants to go in at least three different directions.

I’m dog sitting for my sister on the South Shore right now. She and her husband have a black lab who is less than 2 years old. This means that the Puppy Brain Fairy hasn’t made its deposit yet, and she’s all over the place. You take her for a walk, and you realize very quickly that she’s actually taking you for a drag. The dog is a good 50+ pounds and she’s really strong. This means if there’s a dog or a neighbor across the street, you have to hang on for dear life to get her to stop. If she’s used to going in one direction, it takes all your physical energy to get her to break the habit.

That’s my brain. I wonder if the Puppy Brain Fairy is ever going to make a deposit.

I’m imagining a TV commercial for a Puppy Brain Fairy ™, patent pending. “Ask for it by name!” “Arf!”

Let’s take a look at these three essays. One of them is more relevant to current events than the others. It’s about the Women’s March and privilege and feeling a weird mix of shame and sadness over the nice (read: scare quotes around “nice”) town I grew up in. It’s a stupid essay. The right path for me is to own who I am and to listen. Really listen. To listen in a way that isn’t all about constructing a response, a defense, or a rebuttal. If I’m whinging and hand wringing about my own inadequacies as a human being, I’m not listening. I joined the #52essays2017 because I wanted to hear voices that were dramatically different than my own. I want to read their stories carefully and with an open heart. If the price of admission were to write 52 essays of my own in exchange, it was totally worth it.

Now, I’m not discounting my own voice and point of view, but it’s not the important thing in this exercise. If I’m going to be fed, I’m not coming to the dinner table empty-handed.

The second essay is the weird one, but there’s great sentimentality attached to it. The piece is about all the sandwiches that my father used to make me when I was growing up. My father passed away from heart disease complications in 2013, and my mind is still sorting out all these random memories from my childhood. He was a loving and charming man – a massive Irish American New Yorker with twinkling blue eyes – but cooking was not his strong suit. His sandwiches, ranging from split hot dogs with baked beans to liverwurst with mayo and mustard on mangled Wonder Bread, were impossible to trade at the lunchroom tables in my elementary school. Knowing what I know now about fathers and their often tense relationships with their daughters, I wouldn’t trade those sandwiches for the world. Each of those misshapen food sculptures was an act of love.

The third essay hit me this morning. It’s an essay about professional curiosity. My colleagues have been sending around a blog post on vocal pedagogy and raving about its ideas. My eyebrow shot up when I looked at some of the author’s suggested teaching exercises for creating a cleaner seal between the vocal folds in singing. I have great instincts when it comes to diagnosing and working through issues in my studio. However, there’s so much that I have to recall in terms of anatomy and physiology to link my good instincts back to science. The article was mostly right on a conceptual level, but the applied exercises it was recommending have some risks attached to them.

Then my mind formed an analogy: Voice teachers are software developers in a hardware engineering world. The art of teaching focuses on training the brain – the operating system – and lining up the system in order to sing in the most efficient and healthy way. The science of teaching focuses on the hardware. The larynx. The cricothyroid. The stylopharyngeus muscle. Subglottic pressure. My teacher is a vocal therapist and her shared expertise has allowed me to maintain healthy technique while moving through studio practice and performances. She’s given me great guidance on pedagogical and scientific concepts as they relate to the voice. I could know more. I should know more. I’ll be hitting the books when I get back home.

So my brain is serving me a mashup, a triple helix of thought streams that I will tease apart over time. Rather than get stuck between the three (a frequent flyer problem for me), I’m pulling myself up into the stratosphere so that I can look at the process and all the moving parts. Eventually, the individual essays will make their way out onto the page in a more fully formed way, but for now, I’m going to let them percolate.

 

Essay #3: The Anatomy of a Funeral

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I was facing a line of teenage boys.

All of them were in dark suits, their hair combed neatly for the occasion. Three or four of them were crying. Eyes puffy and red. Moist tears were running down their cheeks. They were seated right in front of my lectern. They were the pall bearers for the casket. I’m not used to seeing teenage boys cry like that. They were tall and strong with beautiful faces, the flowers of an Irish American family.

Several them were altar servers at the Cathedral. They were the sons of the lector who served frequently with me at the 7 pm Mass on Sundays. I had seen them check the candles for oil in the sacristy before lighting them, and I saw them don cassocks and surplices before Mass. It was a piece of cognitive dissonance to see them in their suits. No longer altar boys. Proto-adults. No more goofing off in front of the rack of albs and robes. Deadly serious.

Their dad, the lector, has a gorgeous Irish accent, and he lilted his way through the eulogy with a silver tongue. His speech was funny, tender, and a fantastic representation of the man he was eulogizing. He only lost it once when he saw one of his daughters sobbing out of the corner of his eye. I can see why the family chose him to sum up the life of his wife’s father, the patriarch in their family. His sense of humor was comforting and lightened their hearts.

My favorite story from the eulogy was about their grandfather’s name. Bob insisted on being called Bob by all the grandkids. Grandpa? Nope. Pop pop? No way. Grandad? Guess again. Granda? Not even close. Just Bob. Bob used to whisper his name into the ears of his grandkids when they were babies in the hopes that his name would be their first word. Their parents hoped for “Mama” or “Dada”, but do you know how much easier it is for babies to say “Bob”?

Everyone was laughing at that line. They needed a laugh.

During the Offertory, I climbed up into the choir loft to sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. The song gets done so frequently at Catholic funerals and weddings that many singers end up phoning it in when they sing it. I try to sing the piece like it’s the first time it’s ever been sung. The piece should sound emotional and immediate. I’ve sung the song so many times that I can trust my breath and my technique to carry the lines. This familiarity allows me to focus on the song’s intention.

When I finished the second verse of the piece, my music director spun around on the organ bench and whispered, “That was *lovely*. Just *lovely*.” Praise like that is rare from a seasoned organist who has heard the piece more times than they can count. I knew in that moment that I had served my purpose in the ritual. A well sung “Ave Maria” is spiritual food for a faith-filled family like this one.

When I got back downstairs from the choir loft, I decided to direct the acclamations and chanted prayers to the family directly. “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world… Grant us peace.” That “Grant us peace.” line was my final benediction to the grieving family before we all start into the Song of Farewell. I sang it to a wall of sobbing teenage boys.

The next night, I performed as a cantor at the 7 pm Sunday Mass at the Cathedral. The regular crew was there. The eulogist from the funeral was one of the lectors and his sons were in the group of altar servers. One of the boys recognized me from the day before and his eyes widened a bit. It looked like he wanted to say something to me, but neither of us knew what to say. I gave a silent, sympathetic smile to him, but the words hadn’t found their way out yet.

The Mass that night was celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, a feast commemorating the visit of the three wise men to the Christ child. We Three Kings. The Gifts of the Magi. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold for the Christ’s kingship, frankincense for Christ’s role as priest, and myrrh as a foreshadowing of Christ’s death and embalming. All those Christmas carols and stories came to life in the scripture readings.

When the Mass was done, I came down to the front of the church and saw the lector talking with another congregant. His teenage boys, the altar servers, waiting for him on the steps leading up to the altar and the chancel. That same son gave me another awkward stare. He wanted to say something. I didn’t know what to say. I brushed past him to express my condolences to his father, who always knew what to say. His father explained that Bob was his wife’s father and that he was able to get most of the way through the eulogy until he saw his daughter crying in front of him. He saw her weeping and he lost it.

“Imagine seeing your sons cry. Imagine singing to your crying sons,” I thought.

As we were walking out to our cars, his son said to me over my shoulder, “I loved your solo.”

I marveled at this. This was a teenage boy. A teenage boy was telling me, the pudgy former inhabitant of a white alb, that he loved my “Ave Maria”. It takes a lot for a boy of this age to do that. They shield themselves with a cool nonchalance and the guise of apathy. This kid let down his barriers and I finally knew what to say.

“I was so glad that I was able to give that gift to you all. Thank you so much.”

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

You could see the relief cross his face as he made his way to his family’s minivan. He said what he needed to say, and his sentiments were greeted with warmth and love. I thought about the tears that had been pouring down his face yesterday morning and I knew that my voice had carried him to an emotional space that he couldn’t reach on his own.

It’s the closest I’ll ever get to giving him a hug. My singing voice was able to say what my arms couldn’t, and I was so grateful for my gift in that moment.

Essay #2: Anything Worth Doing.

kindertotenlieder

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

It was a curious thing for the keynote speaker to say at a Classical Singer convention. He made this declaration to a sea of identically dressed singers, poised young women in solid colored wrap dresses, stockings, and heels and confident young men in dark suits. These were the uniforms of the opera audition. We were all professionals, dedicated to refinement and pursuing perfection, and this stage director was asking us to perform our art badly. He had our full attention.

He went on to explain that if you were going to do something well, you must do it badly the first time. You can’t be perfect in the first iteration. He recognized that this is tough to do for classical singers to do, because perfection is not only expected but demanded by the public and the critics. Opera singers must take risks, though, if they are going to reach their full potential as artists. You need to play new roles if you’re going to grow. So many of us are afraid to mess up, because we’re worried about losing our reputations as performers.

I took this stage director’s message to heart, and it’s become my mantra in my voice studio with students:

  • Auditioning is a skill. You can’t learn to do it in the studio. You must do it in public in situations that aren’t completely under your control. You can’t learn how to do it well until you stumble the first few times.
  • Singing as a soloist is a skill. You’ve been singing as a chorister up until now, which is a completely different experience – much less exposed. You must take the risk of doing it badly so that you can learn how to do it better the next time.
  • Singing a role in an opera is a skill. The roles grow as you play them multiple times. There won’t be multiple times without a first time.

I’m a big believer in having my students see me in my element, doing work as a professional singer. It’s important to model different ways of having a career once school is done, like an artistic serving suggestion on a TV dinner box. (Although, I’d like to imagine that my singing is more lovely than Salisbury steak with peas. Okay, this is a terrible analogy.)

When I sang Mozart’s Requiem and Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” with a local choral society, I wanted as many of my students in that audience as possible. I hope that in seeing me sing that they could imagine themselves following their own path in classical music. My performances aren’t perfect, but that’s not the point. The point is that they can see it can be done.

In the spirit of “anything worth doing is worth doing badly”, I decided to sing a recital in 2015.

Recitals are the toughest type of performance that a classical singer can take on. Each individual song is its own little world with its own narrator, and the performances are incredibly naked. It’s just you and a pianist up there. There’s no place to hide, and you alone have the responsibility of making the text and the character come to life.

The focal piece on my full recital program was Mahler’s song cycle, Kindertotenlieder. The title translates to “Songs of the Death of Children”. As you might imagine, it’s not a cheerful piece of music. However, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of German Romantic literature ever written. The piece follows a father through the stages of grief after his children had passed away from a serious illness. It explores darkness, light, denial, anger, desperation, faith, and hope. As painful as it is to hear and to sing, I feel it’s so important that this piece’s truth be performed and experienced.

I programmed the Kindertotenlieder with lighter fare, some cute British folk songs and another Romantic song cycle, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Four Last Songs”. Vaughan Williams had set some of his wife Ursula’s poetry to music, and the songs are mysterious, emotional, and intimate. I felt that pairing a parent’s feelings of anguish with songs of mature intimacy would balance the program out. Both song cycles are sung by characters who have lived in the world and have a deeper understanding of human experience as a result. A 16-year-old would never sing these pieces.

The Kindertotenlieder scared the living shit out of me.

Their difficulty of the subject matter wasn’t the only challenge I was taking on. I was also taking on my fear of failure and my feelings of technical inadequacy. All my classical singing heroes had performed this piece. Dame Janet Baker. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Marilyn Horne. Each of these great singers put their mark on the piece. Baker sang it with heartbreaking subtlety and restraint. Horne sang the piece with beautiful lines and a flawless delivery of the composer’s wishes in the score. Fischer-Dieskau’s performance of the piece was always my favorite, because he really embodies the character when he’s singing it. If you see video recordings of him performing the piece, his face looks dark-eyed and hollow, like some part of his soul has gone black and necrotic.

What sort of mark was I going to put on it? How could I have the audacity to sing this piece?

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

So I ended up performing the Kindertotenlieder twice in one week. I have no idea how I managed to do this, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I said to myself, “One of these performances will act as my dress rehearsal and the other will be a recorded performance! The piece will grow over the course of a week! It’ll be a great experience!” I was so stupid to have done this. It was physically and emotionally exhausting.

My first performance of the Kindertotenlieder was in a classical music recital series at a local church in my hometown. Without knowing how heavy my piece was, the music society programmed my set after a flute soloist who was playing cheerful songs that mimicked train whistles. Everyone was cheering and gave her a standing ovation at the end of her portion of the concert. I stood up, gave a brief and mentally scattered intro to the Mahler piece, and started in on the Kindertotenlieder. The song cycle was a 30 minute brick to the face. The hall was silent for what felt like an eternity after I finished. The audience applauded, but you could tell that their minds were still stuck in Mahler’s emotional nightmare.

I staggered out of that hall. I had done it, and it wasn’t entirely bad. In fact, I was able to envelope myself in the acoustic of the church and the character in a way that protected me from any scrutiny in the audience. Their judgment melted away in that half hour. The music was the only thing that mattered.

The second time I performed the Kindertotenlieder was as a part of my solo recital. I had rented a community studio space called The Green Room in Somerville. The space had a beautiful, mellow sounding piano, and the walls were exposed brick and sage green. The room had a Tiffany stained glass lamp hanging from the ceiling and the floors were a light wood. The space could only seat about 20, but that’s about as big of an audience as I wanted for this music. This performance was different, because there wasn’t as much space between me and the audience. I had a sound engineer record this performance. It wasn’t as strong as the church performance, but I was proud of myself for making it through.

The surprise hits of the night were the Vaughan Williams pieces. When the Vaughan Williams came up on the program, the Kindertotenlieder was done. I could relax into the lyricism and the lines of the piece. It’s rare that I get the opportunity to sing tender love songs in my work, so I gave these pieces all I had. At least two of my students were in the audience. I was so glad that they could be there with me.

When all was said and done (sung and done?), I had to sit back and say to myself, “Oh my God. You just performed the Kindertotenlieder. You sang one of the most difficult pieces to deliver, and you didn’t break down or lose your shit. You can do this again and it will be better.”

It wasn’t perfect, but anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

***********

Below I’ve included links to recordings of the performances I referred to above. It’s scary to put my own recordings out there in the world, but the story can’t be told properly without the actual sound of my voice.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings part of the first movement of Kindertotenlieder with sad, hollow eyes: https://youtu.be/Be-g3DqZg98

Our heroine sings the first movement of Kindertotenlieder, knowing it’s worth doing badly the first time (and it wasn’t so bad at all!): https://soundcloud.com/user-534836077/mahler-kindertotenlieder-nun-will-die-sonn-so-hell-aufgehn

Our heroine sings “Tired” from Vaughan Williams “Four Last Songs” – shorter, lyrical, and a little easier to digest than the Mahler: https://soundcloud.com/user-534836077/eileen-christiansen-tired-from-four-last-songs-r-vaughan-williams

Essay #1: Up in the Air

airliner landing at dusk, panoramic frame

I was sitting across from my boss in the lobby of a Marriott Hotel. The sun was setting. I thought we were going out for drinks or an early dinner.

He had flown in from our corporate offices in Illinois. It was a scene right out of that George Clooney movie, “Up in the Air”. John had a Kleenex box in one hand and a navy-blue folder in the other. The folder contained COBRA benefits coverage information and contact information for an outplacement agency. We were in a public place. This was a text book choice on his part. I wouldn’t be able to make too much of a scene in a public place.

My job was being terminated.

It was a reduction in force.

It had nothing to do with my performance.

I could see the patterns on the furniture. The floral carpet. The dark wood and brass of the lobby desk.

Everything was appropriate. By the books.

While I was surprised by the timing of the layoff, the business decision made perfect sense. I was a Human Resources professional who was responsible for taking care of three campuses within the corporation that had acquired our little tech start-up, one in Boston, one in Illinois, and one in Utah. They had slashed our travel budget during the recession, so I couldn’t effectively serve my disjointed team. I wondered if I had made some disastrous misstep in my work, but it didn’t matter at that point. I had no job. I was no longer connected to this company.

I worried about the employee files. I worried about whether they were labelled properly. I worried that the HR staff in the corporate offices wouldn’t be able to find what they needed. These were ten years of files. Would they hold up against an audit? Was the employment paperwork in good order?

I remember so clearly thinking this. I didn’t think about me. I didn’t think about the loss of my livelihood. All I could do was fret over those files and the state they were in.

These are the thoughts that run through a person’s head when they’re in shock, when they’re about to engage in the grieving process.

The same thing happens when a person dies. We ask ourselves the strangest questions. Who can we get to cater the reception after the funeral? Are we going to have to roll the luncheon meat ourselves? Can we get someone from the church to set out the cups and the plates? The crying happens later.

My boss’s colleague Joe joined us at the table in the lobby. “Eileen, you don’t have to worry about this anymore. This isn’t your job.” He was incredulous and kept repeating that: this isn’t your job.

They had decided to let me go first, because they wanted my layoff to be a dignified private discussion. They didn’t want me to be let go with the others the following morning. I appreciated the gesture. Would my colleagues have asked me questions, like I was in on it? Would I have been a part of those individual termination discussions in the morning? My bosses were sparing me that pain.

The rest of the conversation was a blur. I asked them if I could spend some time in my office, putting the files in boxes, labeling them. I wanted to take my things. My photographs. My business cards. I wanted to do this when my colleagues couldn’t see me. John and Joe gave me permission. They weren’t going to shut off my access to the company email and HRIS systems until the next morning.

I saw one of my co-workers leave when I got back to the office. We waved at each other with a smile through the window. He had no idea what was going to happen the next morning.

We would never see each other again.

This was the start of my career as a musician.

*****

Weeks later, the whole conversation with John came rushing back into my head. I remembered saying as he handed me the folder, “Thank you for making me a mezzo-soprano. Thank you.”

John was relieved. He said, “I hoped you’d see it that way.”

Outside of my full-time job, I had been working part-time as a classical singer. I performed for a little bit of money at a few churches and I was a member of two local choirs. I sang solos. I took voice lessons. I didn’t think beyond that. Only special people got to be professional musicians. I wasn’t special. I was a workhorse.

John had heard recordings of me singing Vivaldi and Handel arias. John felt that singing was my differentiating talent. Lots of people could be strategic business partners in a Human Resources department. Fewer still could be organizational design and development consultants. However, only the tiniest fraction of the world’s population could sing like me. John knew that then. I know that now.

After a day or two in drawstring pants, watching mindless TV and eating Haagen Dasz ice cream, I decided to drop the pity party and to start thinking about next steps. I set up my unemployment assistance through the state right away, and I started to look at potential consulting gigs. The former president of my tech start-up offered me an admin job. He thought it was insulting that I was terminated like that in the first wave of layoffs. A part-time HR job was opening at a tech firm in Cambridge. I could keep some money coming in while I was figuring things out.

My husband asked, “Why don’t you sing? You should sing.”

The thought of it was terrifying. I knew I was good, but I had no way to know how good I was. What right had I to sing? Only special people – blessed people – sing. I was not blessed. I was a workhorse.

My heart shook my mind. Wake up. Wake up.

“I should sing.”

*****

Singing is a strange profession. To teach voice, at least at the college level, you needed to have a DMA or a PhD. To perform you need to sing well. That’s it. School connections, flashy resumes, and glossy head shots might get you in the door, but that 10 minute audition was the key to securing a place in a production or in a company.

The world of the performing arts is cruel. Singers were coming out of conservatory master’s programs with their piece of paper expecting a job. The fancy degree and the years of hard work were no guarantee. A soprano with an incredible instrument could roll in from a school in the rural Midwest, sing the most amazing coloratura runs, and they would get the job.

Plus, in an economy like this one, singers need to be more creative in building a career. Very few singers could follow the traditional path: undergraduate program, master’s program, and then on to a doctorate degree or a young artist’s program with an opera company. There was a prescribed way to build a career in opera, but there are too many singers auditioning for the same roles.

The rest of us had to cobble together a portfolio of work. Most singers have admin jobs or teach during the day. We have a mix of church work, choral gigs, and concert work on the evenings and on the weekends. We take on opera roles whenever we get the chance. It’s feast or famine. While the cubicle dwellers are working, we rest. While corporate America is enjoying its weekend, we are cramming in as much paying work as we could get.

Holidays were a thing of the past. Christmas. Easter. Those are the most lucrative times of year for a singer. I had to let go of all those things if I was going to make it.

My voice echoed inside my head: Thank you for making me a mezzo-soprano.

*****

I remember at a barbecue that summer, my dear friend, a choral conductor and tenor, was chatting with my husband about the music business. It felt like an out of body experience. We were all sipping beers in the sunshine as burgers and hot dogs sizzled in the background.

Murray explained to Chuck, “I know Eileen is figuring things out right now, but she’s going to be okay. She’s going to make it work. She’ll have a career. One way or another, she’ll have a career.”

Chuck nodded. He had no doubt.

Was I even there? They were talking about me like I wasn’t there.

I thought to myself, “How does he know? Well, I guess he’s the professional. Murray would know best.”

That was the feather in Dumbo’s cap. In that moment, I knew I was going to fly.

*****

It turned out that Murray knew about as much as I did about my chances for success. He had no idea whether a career was waiting for me on the horizon. He told me as much years later. John had no idea either. They weren’t making me a mezzo. Their predictions were only acting as permission slips. It was my hard work and my talent that were going to get me there. My differentiating talent. John was right about that.

I was going to sing, because singers aren’t special. Singers sing and they sing well.

What are the singer’s metrics for success?

Get hired and then be rehired.

Leverage yourself up to the next level. Be rehired.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Someone once said that the best thing about my voice was the sound of my voice. I’m no master technician, and you’re never going to hear me execute pyrotechnic coloratura runs in the stratosphere. Instead, music and tone pour out of me. My voice is unstoppable. My robust sound has pathos and warmth. Its color is burnished, like swirled chocolate and honey. I have the voice of a mother, of a comforting angel, and of a heroic warrior. I was going to be hired because my voice was different. No one else sounded like me, and no other voice communicated emotion in the same way mine did.

In the end, that’s what made me a mezzo-soprano: my voice.

I had to find the repertoire that it sang best, and I needed to follow it where it needed to go.

There would be no more file folders. No labels. No performance reviews. No outplacement firms. No men in business casual attire telling me when it was time to say goodbye.

There was only my voice, and it was the only pair of wings I ever needed.