Music affords us such remarkable opportunities to not only test our technical abilities, but to test our limits as individuals. There are those moments when the meek become courageous, the frail become strong, and we move beyond the person we are and become the person we aspire to be.
Every time we step up to perform, we make a thousand little choices. If we’re well prepared, we’ve made most of those choices in advance and have a fairly good idea of where we’re heading. If we start questioning our abilities, as I recently did, then we open up a Pandora’s box of self-doubt, insecurity, and justification.
This is the story of one of those choices and the impossible position I put myself and others in as I tried to figure a way out.
A Musical Family Mourns…
A year ago, I lost the person who has been my lifeline since the day I was born... my mother. One of my mom’s wishes was that there be no funeral service for her. My family respected this, but still felt the strong need to do something in her honor. We explored various options — a contribution to one of her favorite charities, artwork for our community concert hall, a music scholarship in her name — but it soon became evident that the obvious solution was right in front of us. As a musical family, music is what we do. So music would be our tribute.
It is often said that grief takes various shapes and forms. Our grief was expressed through a concert of grand proportions: Anton Bruckner’s Te Deum, with a 55-piece professional orchestra and an 88-voice choir. (I’ll never forget telling a friend about the concert. His incredulous reaction was, "You’re doing Bruckner’s Te Deum for your mom’s memorial?" To which I responded, "Why? What did you do when your mom died?")
The program was filled out with other sacred musical gems, including the aria I would sing from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, titled "O Rest in the Lord." There is a note in the piece that is difficult vocally in that it is approached out of the blue. Most altos fear it. You’ve been singing in the basement of your register the entire aria and this D at the top of the staff suddenly feels like it’s an octave higher than it really is. The note creates the climax of the piece, so it also has that stigma attached. To make matters worse, the phrase in which the note lies repeats twice. In other words, if you crack the first time, but people weren’t quite sure they heard a crack, you can crack again and put their minds at ease.
A "Not-So-High" High Note…
I’ve sung the aria many times and I know from experience that if I make the first D, I almost always make the second. If I crack the first, I always crack the second.
In the first rehearsal, both notes came out well. In the second rehearsal, I cracked the D… twice. Crack. (And, in case you didn’t hear it the first time.) Crack. I panicked! My confidence absolutely eroded. And that set my mind games in motion.
I knew that since this was a memorial and not a standard concert, I could take the liberty of writing the two scary notes down a third. It was my mother’s memorial, after all. I should get a tiny bit of latitude. But the aria is also very familiar and those frightening notes are truly glorious when performed well. Those who know the aria wait for the big moment. I was in a quandary, so I turned to my triangle of conductors.
The Bermuda Triangle…
Depending on how you look at it, I am either blessed or cursed by being related to not one, but three, conductors. Most often, I see this as a blessing. In the case of this concert, I was surrounded by all three and I was seriously outnumbered. My father was conducting, my brother was singing, and my husband was sitting in the audience. I made the mistake of asking all three (separately) whether I should go for the D or write it down.
My brother said to write it down and not worry about it. He felt that since this was already an emotional experience, I shouldn’t burden myself with further worry. (This is the same brother, by the way, who once told me my vibrato was so wide he could throw a cat through it. Could he be trusted? The jury was out.)
My father, who would conduct the piece, said it was ultimately up to me, but he thought I should go for it. "It’s the big musical climax. Everything leads up to that point. But if you crack, you crack. It’s not the end of the world."
My husband, a man who rarely has a musical opinion he doesn’t express, suddenly became Switzerland. "There's no way I’m getting in the middle of this one," he said, while covertly backing out of the room. He encouraged me to do what felt was right and not escalate it to a monumental level "as you are apt to do."
It Ain’t Over Til’…
I took the stage in front of a packed church not having made my choice. When I vocalized earlier in the day, the D was coming out well. But as I sat in front of the audience, my insecurities started getting the better of me.
I weighed the possible outcomes:
It suddenly occurred to me there was a fourth option I had not even considered up until that moment.
As the moment approached, I conjured up a vision of my mother. All those performances she attended. The violin recitals starting at age 7. The piano recitals starting at age 10. My college recitals. My graduate recital. My professional operatic debut. Always, she was there. Never doubting me. Ever a source of strength. So I went for it. And I didn’t crack!
On Feeling Proud…
It would make for a better story if I could say that you can still hear the note reverberating through the sanctuary, rich with overtones and opulence. In truth, it was a note. Nothing sensational. But, nothing horrific. In the end, it was just a note. One I will most likely remember for the remainder of my days. Because to me, it was a note that signified taking a chance. Showing a bit of courage. Leaving it all "on the ice," as my hockey-playing son would say.
And while it was far from the best note I’d ever sung, I didn’t crack. More importantly, I had the experience of truly being part of the music; a mere conduit of the music’s message.
I didn’t have a constant stream of color commentary running through my head while I was performing — critiquing and dissecting every phrase. My memory is of being there, in the moment, giving it my all. Truly honoring my mom. But I can’t recreate the performance. And, for me, that’s good. Because I've always vividly remembered every bad moment on stage. The good ones? They seem to go off into musical ether and leave me feeling connected to the music itself and not to my performance.
Months later I can now admit I'm proud of going for the D. I think not doing so would haunt me still. And while another alto might have easily sung the phrase after rolling out of bed at 7:00 a.m. with a hangover, for me it was difficult. It called upon an inner courage I often find in short supply. I’m giving myself this one moment of pride. One I will certainly counterbalance with the self-criticism I always seem to have waiting in the wings.
In the final analysis, I think my mother would have been proud. She raised me to have courage, including the courage to fail. In the clinch, I hope I didn’t let either of us down.Tweet
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