Sunday, October 28, 2012

The River and the Requiem

Many people might say they are "shy." But it can mean so many things, it may not be something we actually understand in one another, or even in ourselves.

My environment in childhood made me a fearful kid, around people. But alone, with trees, birds, rivers, stones, animals, my imagination - then I had fewer fears; my defiant survivor nature could blossom in that solitude. That's why, although I need my visits to New York City - (and when I'm there I feel my feet falling where my parents and grandparents left their shadows) - I also need to wake and fall asleep in a place with trees and rivers, and the sounds of birds and bugs.

When I moved from a deep forest in the Ozarks to San Francisco, I developed the habit of visiting the beach at least once every week. The beach is a harsh place there; it was a good place to be alone, wrapped in a coat and scarf, armored in fog, with wind buffeting my ears and the surf falling in rhythms.

It was in San Francisco that I began to get more serious about singing. I felt the drive stirring while I was in art school; then when I finished, I had my studio to sing alone in, as loud as I wanted. My neighbor suggested I look for a chorus. I had classical music training in piano, and still played sometimes; I had sung in a chorus in college and afterwards, briefly, but had always been shy about singing around other people. I liked whistling though; sometimes people who whistle very well are closet singers!

I found a chorus through another friend who was singing. On the day of my audition, I drove from my painting studio in Hunters Point to the rehearsal hall. On the way, a gang of small boys who'd taken to throwing stones at passing cars were at the roadside; a fist-sized stone crashed through the passenger side window and landed in the space between the seats. The car was full of glass pebbles, and my adrenaline rushed, but I didn't stop. I auditioned in the aftermath of panic, which seemed to help a little, and I was accepted. Although I felt shy, the chorus was large and I felt somewhat sheltered in its sound, as when I walked on the windy beach. Concerts and years passed, along with milestones in my life, deaths in my family, steps along the way in my work, interruptions for illness; all of these threaded by weekly rehearsals and music that hovered in my head. Even when nothing else was possible, it was almost always possible to sing.

I was in San Francisco 18 years, and a member of the San Francisco Choral Society for 12 years. When my husband and I started to contemplate moving back east, I knew that I had to keep this as a constant in my life, and would only consider a move to a place with proximity to a good community chorus. Ultimately we settled near Princeton, New Jersey, on an old farm near Lambertville and the beautiful Delaware River. I auditioned for Princeton Pro Musica three days after arriving on the east coast and immediately began rehearsals for a program that included Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which seemed a perfect aural match for the autumn landscape that rolled by on my half-hour drive, via backroads, to weekly rehearsals. I missed my friends in San Francisco badly, but I still had this weekly communion, with nature and music and other voices, reinterpreting the art of a great mind.

The Delaware River, looking northwest from Lambertville, New Jersey, October 2012

Membership in Princeton Pro Musica had become so crucial to my existence that the requirement to re-audition every year, with a prepared song, drove me into private voice lessons, something I'd wanted but had been denied at the age of 13. It took me a long time to conquer the fear of hearing myself make those sounds, alone in the studio with my teacher at the piano. But I am a person with a love of craft and study, and the lessons gave more and more back to me, the more I gave to them.

Princeton Pro Musica is a chorus whose members have a high level of skill and commitment, and through my participation and my private lessons over the last 9 years, I have grown so much, through music - but I would still call myself shy. I've had a few opportunities to perform solo with piano, in studio recitals, and each time I get more ill with the anxiety, it seems. However, I like to imagine that, by attempting to grow into this gift, I might someday re-route those mental pathways which made fear, in my youth, more familiar than accomplishment.

Today we will perform with our new director, Ryan James Brandau, for the first time since retirement of our founding director, Frances Fowler Slade. I feel privileged to merit a place in this chorus, and music has become a closer second to my commitment to painting  - though still a second, and I grow sad when my life's balance is thrown off and I am not in the studio as much as I wish - ironically, this consistently occurs in performance week.

I have a custom of choosing a focal point for my emotional investment in performance, and since we so often perform large Requiems with orchestra, it is often a loss that I commemorate. Today I will have in mind loss that is regrettable: a recent death; but I want to choose a place in the program to sing for a loss I still look forward to: the loss of all fear.


  1. Thank you, Ravenna, for this beautiful post, a description of a journey to the haven of community song. As always, thanks for your thoughtfulness.

    1. thank you, Altoon, with affection and friendship.

  2. Thank you for sharing this moving (in multiple ways) experience.

  3. I'm admiring your courage and clarity. It's so wonderful you've found your voice in singing- and in writing, too - not to mention painting! I can hear you and one day I will 'in person.' Thank you for your thoughts about shyness.

    1. Jeanne, thank you very much -- I also look forward to our eventual meeting! best, Ravenna


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