Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Music to a Writer's Ears

On Saturday I had the joy of attending my son's junior recital at Westminster Choir College. Hearing him sing is to witness a marvel of genetics: where did that glorious baritone come from? His father could not sing "Happy Birthday" in any recognizable fashion and at this point in my life my warble is as thin as a reed. That voice of his is both a gift and a calling and my son seems to be making the most of it. Good for him.

Watching the whole of his body and the entirety of his being work to produce those sounds, I was reminded once again of how much we as writers have to learn from other art forms. The following may have been advice from Jackson's vocal coaches through his high school years, but to me, they are thinly veiled writing tips.

"Singing is powered by the breath, but don't give it all away. Take a deep breath and try to hold it in as long as possible while still using it to power the voice. Singing is a little bit 'yes,' a little bit 'no.'"
Sounds like a plot primer: did Dan Brown study at Westminster?

"You are trying too hard on the high notes. Maybe that's because you haven't found your true voice yet. You have a voice that's all your own—when you get to the high notes, trust that it will be there."
Where was this teacher during my first three attempts to draft the climax of my novel?

"Arching the soft palate is a technique that keeps the air from escaping through the nose while singing. But you don't want to arch it so high that you paralyze the tongue, as when yawning."
The genesis of stilted prose—and its soporific effect—revealed.

Despite the fact that he was recovering from walking pneumonia, Jackson's recital went very well, and his teacher, Zehava Gal, was full of praise for him. That's quite an accomplishment...let's just say she's not known as a pussycat. The critique she wrote, which my son forwarded to me, was very specific to Saturday's performance yet also spoke of the basics of sound artistic practice in any medium.

"There was not a wasted moment on crap such as 'listen to my big voice' or 'how do I look/how do I sound.' You showed style, class, elegance, beautiful voice, total engagement and conviction. You were in the now.... When you do that we (the audience) are totally engaged, we are moved to tears, we are totally into the performance with you."

"You were sick—but you handled it... There are times that the technique, which I punch into your system, is the ONLY thing to rely and count on. It worked, it always worked—everything is technique!"

"Clean delivery is always very strong. We did not hear an EGO singing—we heard the creative child within you. Keep working on self discovery. It's in the text and the music, all there."

"What's good about you is that you are listening and open to receiving knowledge. You want more. You do not waste time on frustration. You just work."

"You are the proof that hard work, intelligence, knowing what you want and working towards it, is the ONLY way!"

Each of these sayings is loaded with artistic wisdom, and for that reason I am so glad that Zehava is Jackson's voice teacher. But my favorite little gem consisted of the four little words tacked onto another thought about two-thirds of the way through this mountain of praise:

"Your diction was very good, we heard every word. You can do more."

Beyond Technique
Zehava's words are an effective cross-genre reminder that good technique and humility and hard work are the key to success, but she didn't stop there, for she knows that the mark of a true artist is a willingness to give of himself. In her words:

"Everything had a creative idea behind it—that is exactly what makes you unique. It's yours! Always think of the whole picture and its inner relations. I immediately understood that certain words had a personal meaning to you. That is the key for success."

A snippet of "personal meaning" from his recital can be found in the opening of Jackson's final song, Leonard Bernstein's "There's a Law About Men," from the opera Trouble in Tahiti: "There's a law about men; there are men who can make it and men who cannot."

Hearing this, of course I thought of Jackson's father's suicide. Ron was one of the men who could not make it. The most traumatic ordeal of my life, I have devoted countless hours over the past eleven years to examining it from all sides: in therapy, in conversation, in writing a novel about transcending the urge to self-destruct, in writing a memoir about moving past it, and I blog here about my ongoing healing process. But never for a minute do I believe that it happened to me alone, or that I was the only one to suffer. A desktop publishing client I had at the time had nightmares for weeks after reading about the standoff in the newspaper. My sons had front row seats as the drama unfolded. Jackson may have been only ten at the time, but he got it: there are men who can make it and men who cannot.

Yet I am heartened by his song choice. As an artist he did not back away from sharing a piece of his difficult past through his choice of lyric, nor did he shy away from the message of hope at song's end. In discussing the types of men in his song Bernstein noted the attributes of the kind of man who becomes a winner, and in choosing to close his recital with these words about such a man Jackson revealed his own resiliency:

"You can throw all your weight against them,
All your fire, snow, and hail and darkest disaster against them,
They'll respond with a grin and they will always win."

Responding to suicide with a grin sounds crass, admittedly. But viewed through the lens of time, it was the courage to allow the return of our smiles and hope and faith that allowed us to heal. With these words, Jackson's recital ended on a note of triumph: technique and voice and style and a point of view born of experience had converged to create a powerful message. And when that happens—for writer or vocalist—it feels like a win.

1 comment:

Lisa:GainFaith,LoseWeight said...

Goosebump-reading. The lyrics harmonize with your family's history and survival; what a testament to the power of hope. Thank you for this reminder!