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The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singerby Renee Fleming
I am no stranger to having my luggage searched. Like any other international traveler, I have spent a good portion of my life waiting in customs lines while people I did not know rifled through my musical scores and peered inside my shoes. But the dogs were something new. I wasn’t in the airport, after all, but in my dressing room, waiting to rehearse Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg, and the bomb-sniffing dogs had come in to make sure that I wasn’t a terrorist disguised as an opera singer. German shepherds shoved their muzzles into my purse and nosed between the gowns hanging in the closet. They sniffed at the makeup, the wigs, and the piano and then looked back at me with heavy skepticism, making me feel vaguely guilty.
I had come to St. Petersburg to take part in a gala performance, a beautiful evening filled with music and dance. I was the only non-Russian who would perform for fifty heads of state for the three-hundredth anniversary celebration of the city, and I was to sing Tatyana’s letter scene from Eugene Onegin on the stage of the historic Maryinsky Theatre. During the nineteenth century, this elegant theater had been home to the Russian Imperial Opera, founded by Catherine the Great in 1783. It had seen the world premieres of such landmark Russian operas as Boris Godunov, Prince Igor, and The Queen of Spades, and Verdi’s La Forza del Destino had been written for the house. The world- renowned ballet of the Maryinsky Theatre had premiered Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and La Bayadère all on this stage, and in the orchestra pit had stood Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, and, most important of all to me today, Tchaikovsky, conducting their masterpieces. I took a deep breath. This wasn’t the first time history had weighed heavily on my shoulders.
I had never been to St. Petersburg before, and many people had warned me about the dangers there. I was told to watch out for the mafia, potential kidnappings, hotel robberies, and at the very least a mugging, but my information was clearly outdated. Everyone was helpful, and the whole place wore an air of elegance. I found the city beautiful, with its splendid baroque palaces and neoclassical facades set out like a series of pastel cakes along the wide boulevards. The cathedrals, the canals, every street and sidewalk were groomed for the anniversary. The sea itself seemed to have a polished glow, and the government had even sprayed the clouds to keep it from raining during the visit of President George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, Junichiro Koizumi, and other world leaders. It was the city’s finest hour, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t mine: my translator and guide was a fourteen-year-old girl who lived only for AC/DC, Alice Cooper, and basketball, and my hotel room had no window. When I say “no window,” I don’t mean that I had a bad view—I mean that I had, quite literally, no window. When I was told that there were no other rooms available, I pulled out my Valery Gergiev trump card and said I would have to call him about getting another hotel. There are many ways in which a soprano relies upon the guidance of a conductor, and not all of them are confined to the stage. As a result of dropping the most powerful name in Russian music today, I got a window and a view.
Some aspects of the performance turned out unimaginably well: I was given a beautiful nightgown and robe from a production of La Traviata to wear, and they fit me perfectly. Other things didn’t go quite so smoothly. There were no plans to block the performance, and I was simply instructed, “Do it the way you did it last time.” But I hadn’t sung the role for years and couldn’t remember where I had been standing on some other stage with a different set. The famous Maryinsky Theatre was an impossible maze of back passageways that all seemed to lead nowhere. I could have used the assistance of one of those bomb-sniffing dogs to find my way from my dressing room to the stage—a feeling that perfectly mirrored the hopelessness I felt inside the Russian language.
Though my German and French are fluent, and my Italian, taxi-, restaurant-, and opera- interview-proficient, my Russian beyond nyet and da is nil. I had learned the role of Tatyana by rote years earlier when I first sang it in Dallas, and of all the heroines I’ve sung, she is the one I feel most closely aligned to: “Let me perish, but first let me summon, in dazzling hope, a bliss as yet unknown.” Even if I didn’t speak the language, it was still my responsibility to find a way to sound as authentic as a national, especially since I was singing the most beloved soprano aria in the Russian repertoire to a house full of Russians. This requires, first, not only memorizing the words, but taking apart every sentence in order to understand how each word is translated. It also involves a painstaking study of their exact pronunciation and inflection. I pay close attention to how words end, whether the vowels are open or closed, which consonants are doubled. Many of the most challenging sounds for a singer are in the Russian language, and it takes a great deal of time and patience to learn how to make them seem authentic.
Once that’s in place, the subsequent task of learning the role comes along much more quickly. When performing an opera, I have to memorize not only my own text, but the text of everyone around me onstage, so that I’m ultimately involved in a dialogue, as opposed to simply staring blankly at my colleagues while they make unintelligible sounds. I’ve devised many tricks over the years to help with memorization, and although it seems obvious, the most important one is learning to connect the words with their meanings. Ten minutes of concentrated memorization with a full understanding of what I’m saying is worth hours of mindless repetition. Using alphabetization, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and rhyming, especially in languages like Russian and Czech, and having a visual memory of the music on the page are also essential. I do anything I can come up with to grind the text into the gray matter between my ears. Interestingly enough, the more difficult the etching, the longer it lasts. Six years after learning a role as complex as Tatyana may find me mumbling the confrontation scene with Onegin while waiting in line at the post office, despite the sideways glances of other customers.
Of course, I was hardly the first American soprano to find herself in this position. Our national tradition of pressing ahead and assuming everything will work out in the end dates all the way back to Lillian Nordica, formerly Lillian Norton of Farmington, Maine. She must have been the first true American superstar on the international scene. When she came to the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg in 1880, she was twenty-two years old and had virtually no career behind her, but the Maryinsky engaged her to sing a dozen leading roles in the 1880–1881 season alone. A dozen roles at twenty-two. Comparatively speaking, I had nothing to worry about.
For this performance, I was coached in Russian by Irina, a smartly dressed and professional musical presence in the theater. Valery Gergiev has single-handedly built up the reputation of the Kirov Opera until it has achieved a towering international position, often keeping his artists employed through more lucrative Western tours. Russia is a society that recognizes artistic potential in children from a very early age, and it has consequently produced not only talented performers but a people with a deep and intelligent appreciation for the arts.
Which only made me all the more nervous about Tatyana. Her letter scene is fourteen minutes long and extremely wordy, and I suddenly wished I could trade my program with the Maryinsky’s leading soprano, who was to perform Glinka’s Vocalise instead. Singing “Ah,” after all, is foolproof! I decided the only way to get through this was to steel my mind and not allow doubts to flood in. Of course, this was nothing compared with the first time I sang the role in 1992 when my daughter, Amelia, was two months old, and uninterrupted sleep was a distant dream. Memorizing between her birth and the premiere had been agonizing, and I felt vindicated when I read years later that pregnancy and a sound memory are mutually exclusive. Now I willed myself to think only of Tatyana and her letter, to forget that this event would be televised around the world and that Vladimir Putin himself would be seated directly in front of me, judging my pronunciation. All I had to do was put on my nightgown and robe, step out onto a stage without any blocking, and begin to sing in a language I didn’t understand.
It’s impossible, at moments like these, not to stop and wonder how I got there. How does a girl from Churchville, New York, come to be asked to represent her country at a major international musical event, standing on the stage of a theater filled with dignitaries? The answer is unnervingly simple: it all comes down to two little pieces of cartilage in my throat. Those vocal cords—delicate, mysterious, slightly unpredictable—have taken me to unimaginable places. I have slept at the White House after staying up until two in the morning talking music with the Clintons and the Blairs. I have sung for Václav Havel at the end of his presidency and sat beside him at dinner for four hours afterward while he spoke of his life.
Apart from the moments of celebration and commemoration, I have performed at more solemn occasions. I have sung “Amazing Grace” at a ceremony at Ground Zero, only a few months after the attacks of September 11, with nine thousand people crushed into a space that was impossibly small for them, filling up the streets, pressing against one another shoulder-to-shoulder in every direction until they became one single life of sorrow. In the week leading up to that event, I had sung that song again and again, trying to imprint it into the muscle memory of my throat so that when the time came to perform it, I would be able to get through to the end without crying. I remember a young girl who was sitting at the front of the crowd with her family on the day of the ceremony. She was about sixteen years old, and I had no idea whom she had lost, but among the obviously grief-stricken people who carried photographs and signs and wept, her expression seemed utterly empty. Her eyes were dry. It was as if she had lost her own soul when those buildings went down, and when I started to sing I had to look at the sky or I knew I’d never be able to maintain my composure.
Given the fact that most classical musicians are not household names or faces recognizable from television, it’s interesting to speculate about why people so often turn to a classically trained musician, and most often a singer, in times of national conflict or grief. Why choose a soprano to represent our collective emotional experience, rather than a familiar singer from the world of popular music who has sold millions of records? Why turn to a far lesser-known voice whose music is appreciated by a smaller audience? I think the answer lies in two places. First, the tradition of music grounds us and connects us to one another through a sort of universal appreciation that transcends taste, particularly in such songs as “Amazing Grace” and “God Bless America.” Second, a trained voice has a kind of innate authority that transmits a sense of strength. We can be heard without a microphone. We sing with the entire body. The sounds that we make emanate not just from the head, but from the whole heart and soul and, most important, the gut. The word “classic” has come to be applied to so many things in our culture— cars, rock music, a particular episode of a television show—when in its truest sense it carries the weight of something that has been distilled over time and represents the highest quality in a given field. The music we sing has been loved in many past generations and will continue to flourish and find life and love in the future.
Thanks to the instrument of my voice, I have been fortunate enough to be invited to step onto the stage at great national and international occasions. I have seen the world from the vantage point of the greatest opera houses and recital halls. I have been incredibly fortunate in my career, and people often remark to me, “What a wonderful gift you have—how glorious it must be to open your mouth and have that voice pour out!” While it’s a fact that a voice begins with natural talent, any talent must be nurtured, cajoled, wrestled with, pampered, challenged, and, at every turn, examined.
As I set about my education as a singer, I devoured the autobiographies of my predecessors, hoping to find the kind of advice that would improve my singing, but mostly what I found were entertaining accounts of celebrated lives. As much as I enjoyed the stories of intrigue at Champagne receptions, what I desperately needed was practical advice: When did these singers learn what they knew, and who taught them? How did they survive their early auditions, stage fright, and rejection? How did they learn all those roles once they finally succeeded? How did they maintain their voices over the course of a demanding career? I searched for such a long time for the book I wanted to read that finally I decided my only recourse was to try to write it myself. What I came up with in the end was not the story of my life, but the autobiography of my voice. My voice, after all, is my calling and my career, just as any performer’s talent—whether singing, acting, or dancing—compels her to find her place on the stage. I hope that The Inner Voice will be a valuable companion to anyone striking out in this daunting but exhilarating profession.
The story of my singing has a plot not unlike those of the horse novels I loved in my youth: A child finds a wild horse whose true potential only she can see. She loves it and cares for it, trains it tirelessly. The girl and the horse have a commitment to each other that no one else can get in the way of. She sticks by the horse through injury and doesn’t believe anyone who says the horse is all washed up. When the horse is thriving, she turns down all offers to sell it off. In the end, the horse proves to be a winner, and in return for her work and devotion, it takes her to victories she had never dreamed possible.
This is the story of how I found my voice, of how I worked to shape it, and of how it, in turn, shaped me.
I have lived a life with a soundtrack. So many of my memories have music attached to them. Sometimes the music is at the center of the story, and other times it’s only an afterthought, a song that one of my daughters half-sings under her breath while we’re walking to the bus stop in the morning. Music can propel the story in a perfectly quiet room when I’m alone and learning a score. It has taken me around the world and brought me home. I can trace back so many of the dearest people in my life, my teachers and colleagues who became my friends, to a certain set of pitches. My memories so often involve someone singing, or me singing, or someone striking the first notes on a piano, that it becomes difficult even to imagine the precise place where those memories began. So while I can’t remember first hearing music, I can at least remember the night when I first fell in love with it.
I was thirteen, and my family was living in a suburb outside of Rochester, New York, in a tract subdivision that had shiny new houses based on one of two models—the ranch and the split-level. It was summer, and the streets stayed light until late. The kids played in their yards, running games of tag through neighbors’ lawns, shouting to one another, until it finally grew dark and their mothers came out onto the front steps and called their names and one by one they went inside. It was warm, and because everyone kept the front door open, we could hear the calls of “Good night” and “See you tomorrow” and the slamming of screens, and then the world quieted down again, the sound of voices giving way to the sound of crickets and the cars driving past. On this particular night, I was in our living room and my parents were singing. They were both music teachers, and all day long they listened to singing—the endless scales, the songs learned and repeated again and again, practiced until every note was perfect. My father, Edwin Fleming, a high-school vocal music teacher, listened to legions of voices every day, while my mother, Patricia, taught at a small private college. They sang and listened to singing until you would have thought that by the end of the day every note would have been squeezed out of them; and still when they came home they would find it in themselves to sing even more, as if the music at their jobs hadn’t tired them out in the least. On this night they were singing for each other and for me and my younger sister, Rachelle, and brother, Ted. My mother played the piano and my father stood beside her, and together they sang Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” The Porgy and Bess duet was one of their greatest hits, a song that was romantic and yearning and completely suited to their voices, his baritone supporting her beautiful soprano. I stretched out on the living-room rug with my dog, Bessie, and felt a kind of perfect contentment.
My father was handsome, with a soft lower lip and shining black hair that fell across his forehead in an Elvis Presley curl. My mother looked like the kind of leading lady Hitchcock always favored, a cross between Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak. They were a glamorous couple, and when they sang together, everything was right in our lives; we were all happy. I always associated the music they made with happiness, because how could the world not be perfectly in balance when such harmony existed in your own living room? I could have lain there forever, listening.
It was something that happened regularly, the two of them singing after dinner, but on this summer evening their voices carried out across the lawns, and the children who had been playing put down their balls to listen, and the mothers who had come out to call them went back inside to get their husbands, and one by one the neighbors made their way to our house. They were moths and my parents were a single, irresistible flame. Some of them stepped inside our screen door, but most stood in our front yard, their faces close to the big picture window. Everyone I had ever seen in our neighborhood was there. It was a street made up of immigrants, mostly Italian families newly arrived in upstate New York. My parents now began to sing to them, popular arias and the first-act duet from La Bohème. My mother was working on her master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music, and she sang the Puccini arias she was rehearsing for her graduate recital, “Mi chiamano Mimì,” “In quelle trine morbide,” and “Vissi d’arte.” After every piece the neighbors applauded wildly, unable to believe their good fortune that such singing existed right there on our little street. The applause kept my parents going, and they performed until it grew late, holding hands, smiling, bowing, making their way through every duet they knew. Finally, it was over, and the thrilled and exhausted neighbors wandered back to their own houses, and my parents sent us to bed. I was Eliza Doolittle, too excited to sleep. I was the luckiest girl in the world to have parents that other people marveled at, to live in the center of such singing.
“But it didn’t happen like that,” my mother said recently when I was recounting this memory.
Of course there were plenty of nights when the two of them sang together, and people would come by; but on the particular night that seemed so unforgettable to me, my father wasn’t even home. My grandmother was visiting from out of town, and my mother was accompanying herself at the piano.
Memory often works that way, splicing together its own greatest hits, so that the perfect night is matched with the perfect song, and the perfect moments of physical beauty and family harmony are set side by side. I would like to say that I completely trust myself to remember the details of my own life; but it was also my mother’s life, my father’s, Ted’s, and Rachelle’s, and each of us would tell a different story. But the most important element would be true for us all: there was always singing. Music was language in our house. It was air. Someone was playing the piano; someone else was setting the needle down on a record so that we could listen to the Schubert and Wolf lieder my father loved. It was practicing, teaching, rehearsing, but it was also spontaneous, unstudied, unconscious, as pervasive as the heat blowing up through the vents on the floor to push back the cold New York winters.
When did my life in music really begin? With my first curtain call at the Metropolitan? My first Elton John record? Or was it my parents’ meeting at Indiana University in Pennsylvania? They once held hands while reading a bulletin board in the school’s hallway and had their hands slapped apart by an elderly professor who was walking by. “Stop that!” she warned them, but they didn’t listen. They married while they were studying to be music teachers, and the three of us graduated from college together, my mother holding me up with her diploma to smile at the camera, the two of them in academic gowns and mortarboards. My mother had meant to be an opera star, or even a movie star—everyone said she was headed in that direction—but the surprise of a baby put an end to that.
I spent my infancy in a playpen beside the piano where my mother gave voice lessons at home while my father went off to teach music at a nearby high school. I remember her students warbling through their lessons. One girl wore a body brace and sang “When Love Is Kind,” committed forever to my memory in the sparrow-light voice of this girl who stood unnaturally erect in front of my mother in the afternoons.
I have to wonder now what aspect of that exposure would be more beneficial to a baby opera singer: the music itself or the constant repetition, the never-ending drill of practice. My life might have turned out entirely differently had I been born the daughter of ticket takers at an opera house and so had grown up seeing opening nights, glamorous, glittery productions of the sort that would fill a child’s head with big ideas. I count myself lucky to have aligned my own beginning with the beginning elements of music: notes, scales, the constant hunt for the right pitch. I feel certain that if I absorbed any lessons at all in the first months and years of my life, they must have been about the work that went into making a beautiful sound.
My mother says I was late to talk and early to sing, that she could call out a string of tones and by the age of one or so I could parrot them back to her, which is pretty good for a baby who didn’t have the skills to ask for apple juice. Before I was three, I was standing on the hump in the backseat of the car (having been born in those pre-carseat dark ages), making myself just tall enough to lean into the front seat between my parents while my father drove. Together we sang three-part rounds of “Frère Jacques” and “White Coral Bells.” Learning my part, I planted myself firmly between two wonderful teachers.
So how is it that I had no idea, even at this early age, that I wanted to be a singer? I should have seen it at the very latest by three, when I gave my first solo performance as Suzy Snowflake. I was practically born into the job, and yet somehow it never occurred to me to take it. What I wanted were buckets of approval and love, and to be good. I was a notorious teacher’s pet, a straight-A student. Pleasing the English teacher meant producing a carefully written paper, just as pleasing the music teacher meant singing well. Seeing as how the music teachers were my parents, I sang and sang.
For a child, the desire to please can push almost every other consideration aside. I was naturally shy—doesn’t every actor, dancer, or musician claim a childhood crippled by shyness?—but if I was told to get onto a stage, then that was where I’d go. If left to my own devices, though, I would always find a book. I could read instead of sleeping, read while I walked, read at the table, read in the car. It drove my father crazy after a while, especially when we took long family vacations, a whole world of scenery shooting past my window while I kept my head in the pages of Black Beauty. “Look up!” he would say, watching me in the rearview mirror as he drove. “Stop reading for five minutes and look at something! I don’t know why you’d want to spend so much time reading novels, anyway. They don’t teach you anything.” He was an avid do-it-yourselfer, instruction book always in hand.
So I did look up, for five minutes, and the world was everything he promised it would be: beautiful, green, mountainous. But the novels were teaching me something else: the world I really wanted to look at was in those pages, and in my head. I could imagine myself on the back of Black Beauty, galloping in the rain through an English countryside. And that, of course, is a critical element in an actor’s craft—the ability to project yourself into another person, in another time, in other circumstances. No one thought that reading was a waste of my time, just that I was veering toward being a singularly unrounded individual.
My stage triumph as Suzy Snowflake stood alone until Rachelle and I came back as a sister act with The Ugly Duckling. In the seventh grade I was cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. It was a bit of a stretch to play an aging nun in seventh grade, especially after I was nicknamed “Mother Abscess,” but I was the only one who could sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
At least that nickname was a change from my usual one in junior high, “Miss Perfect.” I wore a stretchy pink headband, three inches wide, to school every day, and that was about as close as I came to making a fashion statement. I longed to be a renegade, to smoke cigarettes in the bathroom and sneak off from school after lunch, but I never had the courage. Instead I kept up my A’s. I entered a competition to write a new school song and won with the inspiring verses:
Gates Chili Junior High is the greatest of them all
And to her name we all give praise while standing great and tall.
We love thee, alma mater, for showing us the way—
Glory we give to you, we love you more each day.
Perhaps such a wrenchingly earnest child deserves to be taunted and mocked, but I died a little every day when the school bully sang my song over and over again in a high falsetto on the bus going home. I was all orthopedic shoes and slumped posture, secretly wanting to be something very different, something dazzling.
I got my chance in the next school play, a full-scale production of My Fair Lady. At twelve I played Eliza Doolittle and sang every note of the role. Ralph Jurgens, a tall, broad-shouldered man who looked more like a cop than an English teacher, rounded up all the even vaguely musical eighth-graders and gave them British accents to play with. Now for the first time I was really learning a part. Or I thought I was learning one—until my mother came to watch a rehearsal a week before opening night. She waited until it was over and we were safely in the car before she announced that we were going home immediately because there was work to do. A lot of work.
There can be no underestimating my mother’s role as a teacher in my life. It was she who first introduced me to the idea of a total performance, that singing did not mean merely standing stock-still beneath a light, closing your eyes, and opening your mouth. She explained to me that the line “Just you wait, Henry Higgins” could not be delivered as if it were being read from a phone book. She taught me how to move, when to look at the audience and when to look away. She would dance my steps and I would dance along behind her. Good student that I was, I had always learned my lines, but under her guidance I came to understand that memorization was not the same as acting.
“Smile!” she told me. “Try to look like you’re enjoying yourself.”
My mother was an incredibly gifted and disciplined performer. Back then, the Rochester Opera Theater was a thriving operation, based at the Eastman Theatre, a gorgeous old auditorium that seats over three thousand people. I was mesmerized by the giant chandelier that hung over the audience like a bright planet. My father, brother, sister, and I would sit in the front row on the nights my mother sang there, stunned by her voice and her beauty, by how she held the audience so intently. When my mother was a little girl who sang at church functions, her grandfather would sit in the back row and promise her a dollar if he could hear her—a pretty clever way to teach projection. Was this really the woman who made us breakfast? Her stage makeup could be seen from the last rows: a black line under the eye, another over the eye, a streak of white at the outer edges, and a red dot in the corner, her false eyelashes sweeping her cheeks like Fuller brushes. Her costumes followed her across the stage in great, billowing folds. Heavy makeup and velvet gowns on your own mother—what could be more glamorous than that? Rachelle and I had the most exotic collection of dress-up clothes that any two little girls in upstate New York dared dream of.
Mother sang Marcellina in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Fiordiligi in his Così fan tutte. In the title role of Puccini’s Suor Angelica, she was up there onstage in her nun’s habit, crying over her child who had died, and I kept thinking, She’s crying for me! And then I was crying for her. Of course I was mortified by my outburst, for weeping was sure to be met with unrelenting teasing in my family. Still, secretly, I loved surrendering to the pure emotional display, just as I loved having a mother who was a star. I was certain that all the children in the audience were wishing that she was theirs.
But no matter how much I loved seeing my mother perform, I never had any sense of reverence toward her singing. “You were flat in the first part of the third act,” I was telling her by the time I was ten. And while she herself had the tact to take me outside, away from my friends, before critiquing my work, I shared my comments with anyone who happened to be standing around. She was wise enough not to take me too seriously, and even seemed delighted with my precocious musicianship. I know this was the case because of my reaction when my own daughters started critiquing me when they were about eight years old. Even if they were only pointing out that the lipstick I was wearing was not exactly a flattering shade, they made it clear that they were watching me and that they knew a mistake when they saw it or heard it. Like me, they had no intention of letting their mother get away with anything.
It was through my reading that I came to believe that happiness was something that required a horse, and because my mother had also always loved horses, my parents, on their very modest schoolteachers’ salaries, decided that I should have one. Her name was Windy, and she lived in the garage for a couple of weeks, until one day she pushed her way into the kitchen, having apparently decided she deserved a more intimate place in the family circle. Finally, someone from the city council came and explained that neither the kitchen nor the garage nor any other part of our tract housing complex was zoned for horses and that Windy would have to go.
My mother and I also fell in love with a spider monkey named Jethro, who made his home in the pet section of Sibley’s department store, and so, on my twelfth birthday, he came home—fortunately, on a three-day trial basis. We soon realized that he was a bit beyond our suburban capabilities. Even if neither Windy nor Jethro could continue to live with us in our split-level on Valencia Drive, I learned a valuable lesson: There was no dream too large or too exotic to be realized.
If my mother typically offered specific guidance regarding the shape of a note or a turn of the wrist, and set an example with her unflagging energy, ambition, and work ethic, what my father taught me about singing came packaged in larger life lessons, and many of those lessons had to do with horses. We moved to a house in Churchville, New York, in order to have a proper place for animals, and ultimately wound up with three of our own horses, four boarders, and three dogs on our five acres of land. It was exactly what I had dreamed of, but my father made it clear that with dreams come responsibilities. “Horses can’t feed themselves,” he’d tell me, and I would be out in the bitter cold mornings before school, breaking the ice in the ten-gallon water buckets, filling them up in the basement, and lugging them back up the steps to the barn. I regularly dragged hundred- pound sacks of grain from the car to the tack room after mucking the stalls. It was hard, heavy, freezing labor, but it was the price of having horses, and horses were what I wanted. I understood that you have to work for what you want, for what you love. Having observed the girls who sang at the piano for my mother, I knew that beauty could occur naturally, but more than likely it was the result of discipline, and so I curried and brushed and picked out hooves. There was no praise for my efforts; hard work was simply what was expected.
Even when we went camping, my mother, who was given to high heels and stockings, packed a vacuum cleaner and a double mattress in the back of the seventeen-foot motorboat that trailed behind our car. When we set up camp for the night after boating to an island, with all of us holding the mattress on board, my mother would ferret out the camp’s single electrical outlet, plug in her extension cord, and then proceed to vacuum off the ground the tent would sit on. That was pretty much the point at which my father bade farewell to sleeping outdoors.
I remember how my mother would teach all day and then have everyone in her family over for a giant meal. We would bake and stew and chop and sauté for hours, serve and pick up the plates and wash them and put them away, then scrub down every inch of the kitchen, and when I stumbled off to bed half-blind with exhaustion my aunt would shake her head sadly at my mother. “Renée’s a little lazy, isn’t she?” she would say.
The women in my family often misused the word “lazy,” because they simply did not understand the concept. I can trace that attitude back as far as my great-grandmother, who came to America alone from Prague as a teenager to escape the unwanted advances of a German soldier. To be a girl alone in a new country without speaking the language would be a daunting story of courage in most families, but in my own it was just another example of an occasion to roll up your sleeves and do whatever needed to be done. That great-grandmother from Prague produced a daughter with a beautiful voice who played the piano. Her friends called her “the Girl of the Golden West,” after Puccini’s opera. My grandmother had wanted to be a music teacher herself, and so she steered my mother into that profession. My mother, for her part, wanted to be a singer or a movie star. We were all so intertwined that sometimes it was difficult to tell who was living out whose dreams.
If a work ethic and a talent for music are transmitted through the genetic code, then I inherited them from both my parents. My father’s family was the most inexhaustibly capable group of people I have ever encountered. Need a house? We’ll build one! Don’t know a thing about foundations, plumbing, electricity? We’ll figure it out! It seemed that every one of them could rebuild an engine, shingle a roof, fix a refrigerator. My paternal grandfather was a coal miner in the hills of Pennsylvania, and my uncle Lysle spent five years in the service in New Guinea, surviving on the snakes and insects he caught for food. His stories of rescuing nurses from headhunters and keeping his reconnaissance soldiers safe, thanks to the training he had received from my grandfather in the hills of Pennsylvania, fascinated me. But even in this madly industrious group my father stood out. As a boy, he learned to play the trumpet, and it was the trumpet, along with his love of music and diligent practice, that got him to college, the first member of his family to attend. Even on his teacher’s income, he managed to own a small airplane, a Piper Cub, with three other men when I was a little girl, and I thought that taking afternoon flights was what every child did after Sunday lunch.
In the face of so much accomplishment it was hard at times not to feel like a dull penny. I started going to horse shows and competing in barrel races, but like so many other things I longed to do, competition didn’t come naturally. The only person I know how to be competitive with is myself. I can push myself to any limit, but I am worthless when it comes to competing against other people. Those early horse shows nearly broke me. For me, fear manifests itself in a nearly catatonic state. The more panicked I feel, the more my eyes go dead. I become so utterly still that I could put down roots and grow leaves. While most animals experience a sense of fight-or-flight when they perceive danger approaching, I always fell into the “faint” category. As a freshman in high school, I was supposed to compete in the state fair horse show. I’d already ridden in a few 4-H shows by then, but they were much smaller events. I looked around at the crowds, the smiling girls with confident ponytails, and I leaned against the stall, mute and motionless with fear and nausea. My father, who saw me hesitating to get up on my horse, thought I wasn’t paying attention. He mistook my frozen panic for indifference, an unwillingness to make any effort.
“I didn’t spend the whole day and all this money so that you could just stand there,” he said to me sharply. “I want to see you at least try.”
It’s funny to think that my first inklings of stage fright came not on a stage but in a dusty corral, surrounded by horses and people in cowboy boots. But my father was right to lean on me and wisely did not let me give in to my fears. I went behind some bales of hay, threw up from my heavy sense of dread, tucked my shirt neatly into my jeans, and got on my horse and rode. I did my best, which was what my father expected of me, though at that moment my best wasn’t very good. It was that quality in my father, his no-nonsense determination, that instilled in me a drive to overcome my limitations. I was lucky to have someone who didn’t baby my fears, but was always there urging me on.
I wasn’t the only one my father refused to coddle. His church choirs were also held to his exacting standards. He chose music that was very difficult for them, pieces like Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms or Bach’s long, complicated cantata “Christ lag in Todesbanden.” When they complained, he would simply tell them, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to learn it. It’s going to be hard, but you’ll make it.” If they tried to refuse and told him he had to pick a different piece, he responded calmly that if that was the case, they would have to pick another choral director. What he expected of other people was the same thing he expected of himself: to go out there and try. He didn’t look at anyone—not his students, not his children—and think, Well, you’re just not up to this. It was his higher expectations that pulled all of us up.
Regardless of whether performing frightened me or I enjoyed it, or whether I was any good at it, one thing was certain: I kept doing it. In high school I was cast in yet another production of My Fair Lady, this time by the music teacher, Rob Goodling. In retrospect, I have to say it is nothing short of amazing that I had such talented teachers to work with early on, especially since we were not exactly in the heart of a booming metropolis. Rob was a man with big ideas who later toured groups of talented students through Europe. He cannily populated his musicals with handsome basketball players and track stars, which in turn made our after-school rehearsals the place to be. Suddenly, the popular kids were the ones onstage, and having a good voice made me even more popular. (I’m sure I have Rob to thank for later being chosen prom queen.)
I only wish that all children had the luxury of the arts education I enjoyed. In inner-city schools, for example, where financial challenges are serious and relentless, music programs are considerably less widely available. Conversely, in Texas, music education has achieved a high level of importance, comparable to athletics. In New York State, many public schools operate robust music programs, and some assign them a priority that rivals more traditional academic subjects. This lack of uniformity makes it difficult to generalize about the state of music education, though there is clearly a relationship between the availability of financial resources and the existence of school music programs.
When I was growing up, we crowded onto the school bus with our violin cases, flutes, and trombones and practiced “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and Chopin’s nocturnes as studiously as we drilled our multiplication tables and memorized our spelling words. Everyone knew that we weren’t all going to grow up to be musicians, but educators appreciated that the discipline of music, not to mention the joy that understanding it can bring, is both a deepening and a broadening experience in any life. Fostering creativity in children is as important as any other part of the school curriculum because it feeds the soul. A daily dose of creativity helps children imagine a better world and then create it. About that time I was accepted into a special weekly composition program offered to just a handful of students throughout Rochester. I had written songs and poetry since junior high school, and “Stargazer,” the first song I wrote, had become a veritable hit among my friends and family, a favorite at talent shows and holiday functions. I followed with many pieces composed on piano and guitar until my second year in college, when I learned to actually communicate through speech. There’s no doubt that composition provided me with an expressive outlet I genuinely needed to compensate for the shyness that kept me painfully bottled up. It was when I started writing music rather than just performing it that I first began to develop a sense of who I was as a person. Composition wasn’t about pleasing; it was about expressing. Not surprisingly in those days, my hero was Joni Mitchell, and I listened to her soulful lyrics until I nearly wore the grooves off the records. I thought that I had personally discovered The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. Her unique poetic and music voice so perfectly expressed the world I wanted to inhabit.
William Harper, a doctoral candidate at Eastman, taught the composition class and completely opened up my ideas about music. I’ll never forget that first session, when we listened to Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. I couldn’t believe that these ideas existed and I had never known anything about them at all. I sat there, thrilled and silent. I remember everything about that moment: the little classroom where we met, the late-fall light coming in through the windows, William Harper sitting there on his desk listening, his chin down, his eyes closed. Everything in the world froze for a minute, and I felt as if I were hearing music for the first time. All of the interest I’ve had in new music in my life can probably be traced back to that moment, that piece.
The lessons were encouraging, and yet there was still an unspoken understanding at that time that women didn’t grow up to be real composers. The best we could hope for was to someday write songs, not symphonies, and so I continued writing songs. That same year, however, Mr. Harper introduced me to a woman who would have a profound impact on my relationship to music for years to come, the mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani. I was wildly impressed with the number of scores she was working on. These were not the neat folders of music that were in the piano bench at home, but sprawling, misshapen scores of new music covered with penciled notations. It was almost as if you could hear the piece unfolding just by looking at it on the page. There was nothing static about this work; it was completely, actively in progress. When I sang for her, she listened to me with great seriousness. “Don’t train all the naturalness out of your voice,” she told me. The very fact that she took the time to advise me at all made me feel important.
When it came time to go to college, I auditioned for several vocal programs. I was terrible at auditioning in those days, and would walk into the room looking guilty for taking up the time of the people on the judging committee. I was nervous and self- conscious, qualities I should have gotten out of my system while I was singing in school plays. My mother had really hoped I’d get into Oberlin College, and I did, but I didn’t receive enough financial aid to attend. She was so heartbroken for me that she cried all the way back from Ohio in the car. When I was a child, my family had had to struggle. My father hunted deer and fished to supplement the groceries that his annual schoolteacher’s salary allowed. I grew up eating venison, and I thought we were nothing but rich, which was a real testament to my parents’ positive attitude. But by the time I was through with high school, we had become a part of the classic middle-class paradox: we didn’t have enough money to secure a spot for me in a top-flight conservatory, yet we were no longer poor enough to qualify for some much-needed financial aid—which is how I ended up at the Crane School of Music of the State University of New York, Potsdam. That turned out to be the first great break of my career.
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