Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Musical Family, Ensemble and Solo

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As wildfires in our county (in Oregon, so many places) threatened our safety, I got emails from two cousins I hadn’t heard from in years. They were checking in on me with concern and care from their homes in New Mexico. Shortly after came a package from one of my cousins. She’d found CDs from the 1950s and early 1960s of my hometown high school orchestra, which my father taught and conducted. I am not on the recordings; this was before I was an adolescent. But a couple of my older sisters’ cello and bassoon solos are noted. There is Gershwin, Dvorak, Bach, Mozart; pieces from Bizet, Handel, Tchaikovsky and more on the playlists. I haven’t listened yet, just gazed at them. I know the orchestra will sound very good–it won a fine reputation all over Michigan from the fifties on. I played my cello in Midland High School orchestra in the mid-to-late sixties. First seat, then second, then…well, I stopped rigorously practicing and competing with others by my senior year. And I was singing more and more.

What the CDs did, nonetheless, was reawaken memories of my family’s commitment to and love of music, the ways it shaped us. Though I don’t know Randie or Sally well now, I once did know them better–to love them was to love the music in their lives, too. My extended family enjoyed many reunions in Missouri where our fathers were raised as I grew up. Inevitably there were swapped music stories, and soon people played–just as we did in our homes if in different states from very early ages.

Randie has been a professional violinist and teacher all her adult life. Her sister, Sally, has made a career as a professional cellist. Their father, my Uncle Ralph, was a flutist and a composer with many published works, and a university professor. There are other musicians in the family–an opera singer and professional choir members, many instrumentalists who have played professionally. Nieces, nephews and on and on–we all played or sang, even without monetary reward. It hardly seemed we could shift the central focus from music. Not that folks wanted to, anyway; it was a major fixture of life.

So I am glad to hear from my Uncle Ralph’s daughters once more. Sally played cello in Bergen, Norway’s symphony for many years, then she played in New York, LA and who knows where else. Randie lived in Seattle, (where my cellist sister lived til the last two years of her life, so they were in touch often). These cousins seemed bigger than life when I was young–and, in fact, are six feet tall as were or are my uncles, father and brothers. (I am 5 ft. 2.5; perhaps I was 5 ft. 4, once…) But they were lovely and smart, as well as very talented.

We, as happens as kids grow up and move, lost touch. A childhood memory I have is of convening in my Grandfather and Grandmother Guenther’s white house with its back garden and front porch. We shared blankets on the living room floor at night, giggling and talking quietly, ran about and played games for a couple of days, music a bit less compelling under age 10. Our fathers made music; Grandfather shared thoughts and books(and sometimes his writings with me, an honor) and our grandmother cooked huge meals that we ate around a crowded dining room table. The last adult memory of my cousins and I together was for my Uncle Ralph birthday in Seattle. It was his 90th birthday, and Sally and Randie played a fine duet for the celebration. Elegant and aged Uncle Ralph sat quietly listening in a wheelchair, and he was so pleased we all came that could. (My Aunt LaVonne, his wife, was an excellent pianist.)

Musicians, then–even in my home town where most of my friends played instruments or sang–informed much of my life. Performing issues or goals, discussions of music-related topics, time filled with this passion and the increasing accomplishments. All four of my siblings played one or two instruments and later made money at it. Dad was a violinist and violist, an arranger of music, a conductor and teacher, piano tuner, instrument repairer and appraiser, and more. He was a man who was intimidating even as I found him mysterious at times and charming. I watched him often, head bent over a book or a musical score he studied for an upcoming performance. It was clear he had much on his mind, more to accomplish every day. He was certain about what mattered to him: music, providing for his family and God being highest on the list. In fact, that may have been the list despite having diverse interests.

One of Dad’s “side jobs” was repairing musical instruments, a fun thing for me if work for him, though he seemed more relaxed doing it. He specialized in violins, violas, cellos and basses, but it was not an unfamiliar sight to see woodwinds propped up–or, as the others, lying rather lifeless on a long table in various states of repair. Occasionally, a brass instrument showed up; his expertise reflected instruments he knew how to play, which were various. Dad counted string instruments his favorites, as far as I knew. But he also played trombone and saxophone in dance bands long before I came into his life–a revelation in my early teens. He even played them once in awhile for certain entertaining performances he participated in, like the City Band he conducted or a high school show which allowed teachers to also perform, called “Rhapsody Rendezvous.

One of my favorite things was to follow him down to the basement. It was like entering a country unto itself, populated by musical devices both beautiful and broken. I would stand at his shoulder. The not unpleasant odor of special glue he dabbed on seams of wooden bodies permeated the cubbyhole he called workshop. The overhead, flex-armed light illuminated a concentrated circle for close work. The room’s corners were swathed in friendly shadows. I sometimes fingered the instruments, admired their shapes and sounds. He got to it but with patience and precision but added very few comments, and mostly to himself. He knew I was there; he asked for pliers, brushes, clamps, just as he asked for tools when he worked on our cars in the driveway. He appreciated both kinds of work and I could be a helper if he needed it. And it was music-related without being music performance.

I loved being with him when he fixed things–it might also be a toaster or a lamp–because he was more accessible, down to earth, then; he could show me interesting problems to be solved and teach me things that weren’t lofty or important in the arts world, but in everyday life. More usually he was a man deep within himself and propelled by clear visions. I used to joke with friends that he seldom knew what I was up to–as long as I practiced my cello (my sister and I both played) and voice lessons, got excellent grades and was respectful, he didn’t notice much unless there was a huge crisis that he could not ignore–Mom took care of those, usually.

It is a gift growing up in a musical family, a joy that in time one realizes is not actually everyone’s experience. And it also could feel like a burden with its mandates to perform and do very well all the time, made more so when Dad intoned and thus imprinted on my brain: “It is a sin to not use a talent.” I doubt he meant to threaten or shame, but to remind me of the blessing of music and other innate abilities. “To whom much is given, much is required,” he might also say in his Bible study voice. But it still landed hard. Otherwise, he was the quintessential gentleman, a dreamy-eyed musician and amateur scholar of history, sciences, classical music and the Bible, a competitive player of many games, and possessed of an inventive bent–but there was no mistaking what he believed and expected. He worked so hard; he expected all of us to do the same, and to excel. To find fulfillment as he sought and often found. To use all the potential we could.

Music was so vital to my life that it truly directed and drove me, enriched and comforted me–and wounded me. I adored the cello my father and I bought together, to my utter surprise, when I was 12. I was moved by its large body pulled close, its resonance and ready responsiveness to placement of fingers and a strong bow across strings with sweeps of channeled emotions. I felt at home with it in my arms and greatly extended by its eloquent speech.

But it was singing that held me captive even more. Opening my mouth and throat and letting sounds smoothly, happily flow. How they could be shaped b y the body and mind to make all the difference in expression. I sang in every theatrical production, choir, and single event that I could. I performed with a trio and a couple of bands. I sang while trying to compose at our baby grand piano– but I dreamed of being a jazz singer, not a classical soloist. Jazz was not much played in our home, and never discussed as an option for us kids to study. Every fiber in my being woke up when I sang; life seemed much better embraced and interpreted. Decoded, even. It was also fun when much of my teen life was not. Human life was somehow magnified, cherished, given infusions of hope and joy with song. Music was, after all and no matter what, the purest form of love. So I believed.

But jazz, folk or pop music certainly was not what Dad planned for his children. He found these largely inferior forms, perhaps even inauthentic musical genres and only now and then did he grudgingly admit that there was other music that could be exceptional. There was one great music and it was classical–despite his playing in dance bands as a college student.

So I was bewildered why he agreed to play piano to accompany me when I sang–or he might even join his voice–old standards. But that was recreational, a relaxing downtime, not something for the finest musicians. It was like we shared a secret admiration of songs like “Stairway to the Stars” and “Embraceable You” and “Spring is here”. He smiled as I sang out, but it was understood that these didn’t quite count in the end, no matter how well I sang. He never deviated from the idea that classical music was meant to enlighten, challenge and enthrall while good popular music was “entertainment”, thus dismissible. I never knew why it had to be that way for him. I kept practicing my art songs, resentfully.

My mother–not a musician but a visual artist/creator/maker– all those years stood at the edges of our intense music making. Yet she watched, listened, intuited much–and gave out quiet praise, applause, was in attendance at all our concerts. She is who made Dad’s career in music reach a higher state. She is who believed in us always when we did not.

One of my bothers did manage to successfully move in another world to play jazz the rest of his life. Gary had a college plan of becoming a psychologist and he was for a few years. But jazz took him with it and that was that. I was thrilled to hear my gifted brother play sax, clarinet, oboe, flute, piccolo with bands in Portland after I moved here, and he sang, as well. He asked me to sing with him a few times–he was convinced I’d do well–but I always declined. By then I was 40, a newly single mother and recently moved to the NW. I hadn’t sung in a very long time. I did not want to disappoint him. Or myself. And, too, I was a little afraid I would fall back in love with singing. I could not afford to trod that route–and he played in bars while I was not about to drink again. I had to get serious about making money to support myself, a daughter and son–to just take care of business.

There had, in fact, been no dreams of being a singer since I was 20– right before my first marriage. I had learned long before how to not tell secrets. Leaning how to not sing was as hard, but just as doable. But to not want to sing? Incredibly hard.

It was a mystery to many who knew me why I left music almost entirely after a childhood and youth of being utterly immersed in it, and also having successes. For awhile I was baffled, but it was easy to blame various circumstances for not supporting easy access to music making. I sang to my babies or when teaching them songs; when alone outdoors; in the shower sometimes like everyone does; and when playing recording artists–comfortable favorites of 1960s, 70s and 80s like Judy Collins, Bonnie Raitt or Joni Mitchell; newer jazz singers such as Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, Diane Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and even–dare I say it–the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, whom I still so revere. I was happy when I sang at home in those days still, but alongside the pleasure was sorrow. It was becoming clear that there would be no good opportunities as I became daily more domesticated, less engaged in the arts as I lived out my twenties. As I struggled with more trials and a hope of some victory over demons of abuse and substance use.

I rarely sang for either of my husbands–the first liked my voice but didn’t encourage me; it felt embarrassing to even spontaneously sing out. He was a sculptor; for some reason he enjoyed my occasional cello playing more. Otherwise he liked quietness, didn’t talk much–so liked that I wrote–some poems were used in multi-media shows we did. The second husband liked to sing and play guitar, but he preferred doing it alone, both at home and in coffee houses back then. He didn’t have a desire to sing with me, and it shocked me that even though we worked on good harmonies when he did agree to let me join in, and when we wrote a song or two together, he still wanted to go solo. It didn’t take long to stop trying since my voice was an intrusion on his musical domain. It was fine that I played my cello, again–that was another thing altogether.

It is possible that people give up what they love because they get worn out by failing to get what they want or need. I can’t blame my spouses, really. But once married, I didn’t often live where musical options or performances were well accessible. And soon there wasn’t time with a growing family and husbands often gone for longer and longer for work. I stopped singing even at home as children kids grew up–they’d sing over me as kids do without thinking anything of it, or cover their ears when wanting to hear something they desire. I put on their music and sang with them then.

But, really, I began to let go of singing by age 20, when it all got difficult. When it hurt more than gave me happiness. It felt foreign but it was how it was. I was gradually losing the joy of my cello, of song.

Traumatic events can cause people to go mute. Cumulative trauma may have caused me to lose the natural capacity to sing–certainly to be pleased and fulfilled by singing, and finally to believe in the transformative, positive powers of music in the way I did as a child, then youth. Violent or disturbing experiences kept happening one after the other. For me it meant that music–the golden power and instinctual ways of it, the inspirational wonder and bold stories it offered–leaked away from deepest self, my very breath, so that soon I no longer wanted to or even could produce music from my lips. A few years later, when I tried, I wept and so gave it up again. Even in church when I sang familiar, pretty hymns. Maybe I recalled my father told me that to not use a talent was a sin; maybe that haunted me.

It was just as likely I no longer felt worthy of singing. I left music as I had known it because it’s immense mystery and passion had seeped away as I battled with life, learned how to be tougher, to survive alone. It felt like gorgeous, lively waters eroding and then abandoning a riverbed, to leave it it empty and useless. It was a hollowing out.

I sang almost nothing (“Happy Birthday” to loved ones, a holiday tune with others) for over a decade, not when alone, not even a little humming along with songs. It was not in me. My family of musicians made their music, and my children made some music and I listened and was glad of it. But I was no longer a part of that major experience, that special tradition. I was adrift like a castaway, and I steered by sheer instincts more than with my heart. And I got to where I needed to go, finally, one step and a day at a time.

Life went on. Then when I reached my mid-forties there came the day when my youngest daughter, who did sing with a lovely soprano, decided she wanted to join a women’s chorus. She asked me if I would, too. Terrified, I finally agreed. I figured I might be able to sing very quietly if there was a large group. So each week I practiced with the group as I attempted to loosen up, to remember the techniques to sing correctly, as well as enjoy the songs as my eyes scanned musical notations I had only half-recognized, anymore. It got a bit easier each time and it pleased us both that Alexandra and I were singing together. But my throat–my whole body– felt constricted, even sore after each rehearsal. I wanted to sing louder and better, but it was hard to stand there and hear the music, to encourage any sound to come out. I thought, well, I am trying.

Alexandra took voice lessons. I wondered if the right vocal teacher could show me how to recover my lost singing voice. If someone could help heal me. But the usual excuse was that there was not enough money for that, other things mattered more. I was writing as I had always been able to write– stories, poems and memoir. And I was publishing here and there, had found good writing groups. Maybe written language was truly enough–I’d loved stories my whole life, perhaps as much as I had loved music. But more like words and I were kindred spirits/ comrades. Music was…different. After so many years of disciplined effort and a deepening devotion, perhaps I could say I loved writing more. Perhaps. Why then reopen the wound of music? I did try to sing alone, now and then.

But when my mother died (Dad had passed years before) whole songs came to me out of the blue even as I grieved a long while. It was distressing and wonderful that I opened my mouth and they were right there, and I found it a liberation. Why? Maybe the wound was turning to scar tissue at last, and so pain was losing out to joy again. Maybe I was letting go of the burdens and opening my hands to more possibility.

I didn’t become a singer, I didn’t join a fine choir. I just sang a little more. There may not be a clear end to this story. I did sing with another community chorus or two; it became more pleasurable each time. But I learned to sing more in church–the times I don’t want to cry during the moving hymns are more frequent. I did not take voice lessons. I have sung a little at home when alone, along with a CD or the radio, but not often, and not loud. I have sung to my grandchildren. I do not sing with my second husband, who is with me and still sings alone. But–progress. Taking more chances helps incrementally, though my voice sounds rusty to me too often, and songs need to be cajoled and teased, enchanted out of me. I often choke on words or certain notes escape me just enough that I have to stop. But I know I might start again, even if it is in my living room or in the woods.

I am remembering more how it was. In my late teens I stopped competing with others and working to be a classical vocalist. Instead, I let my body move to music and my soul tell a story and tunes welled up to take me with them, then out to the listener–it was for awhile that easy to sing and know happiness was mine fully. And the memory is good, even if the talent was forsaken, the passion turned off for later survival. Sometimes it is better to leave what one loves the most than to slowly starve from hunger for it, the terrible relentless longing. It was what had to be done, I know now, to get on with my life at 19– after another rape, a breakdown and addiction, slow recovery, then a marriage. Discovering the miracle of being a mother and the salvation of putting one’s self quite aside for the sake of beloved others. It could be done, living for good moments, for love again. I found new goals, explored other creative impulses and was glad of remaining passions I have been fortunate to enjoy.

At 70, I have made more peace with what was not and with what is. I see the great benefits of forgiveness of self and others, of overcoming hurdles and striving onward. I can see a wound as a particular kind of reckoning with self and the world, and its healing as a process of surprising renewal. The spiritual warrior and seeker in me has better implemented clarity and found more bravery. As with all things that matter, it is a fact that I left music, but that doesn’t mean it ever left me. It waits and lets me find it as I can, to experience it as feels right.

I feel sometimes that I may sing a little more, be more okay with what comes out in spurts and pauses, with breathlessness, even if made slippery with tears. But I am aiming for lighter music, simpler fun tunes, melodies for the grandbabies–and perhaps some small sharing with others if it ever comes up. My three biological children happily make and share music in one way or another, and so do their children. I asked Dad when he lay dying, as I sat with him awhile, if he thought my youngest should keep singing more seriously. I don’t know why I asked; he just knew so much about music, though he hadn’t heard her voice in quite awhile. But he said: “If she sings like you have sung.” It was the first time he’d acknowledged what was left behind, and also told me he always did value my singing, no matter my style. No matter if I loved jazz and pop and world music and blue grass, and all the rest–as well as beloved classical (which still often fills hours of my time).

This is some of what it is like to be born into a musical family, and given a musical inheritance. It is a love story of many sorts, a madness and and a celebration. I cannot be untethered from my DNA, nor divorced from my true loves. I will likely sing whatever songs will have me and I, them. Even if no one is listening.

4 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Musical Family, Ensemble and Solo

  1. Your last sentence, Cynthia, “Even if no one is listening” choked me up. Think of the birds that sing, totally unaware whether they are being heard or not, and yet their beautiful song fills the air, and enriches the earth. Song is needed, such a tribute to life and its being lived. So open your heart and let out those songs dear friend. The earth will be a better place for your gifts flowing forth, even if ‘no one is listening.’. “Make a joyful noise onto the Lord”. Song, I think, IS our very best voice. Blessings!

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