Friday, March 18, 2016

On Not Paying Attention

Well, we’ve descended to a new low, since a woman I like and respect has just sent me a critical email. Although perhaps not, since I didn’t open it but deleted it immediately. And that was her point: “Marc,” she titled it, “You have not been paying attention.”

In fact I haven’t, PelosiForCongress. So what have I done with my morning? Well, the question is better: which one? The one that started some minutes before 2 AM, when the residual of pain from a broken back woke me up just enough to try to fight back to sleep? Then it was time to make a decision—take Benadryl and hope for an additional four hours, or slug it out until the café opened at 10AM? I decided to do it, even knowing that the Benadryl, for reasons not even a Nobel physiologist could explain, wouldn’t work until after the morning soundscape had played out.

It’s a weird world, the land of the sick. Time loses meaning, space shifts, and the sounds you thought you knew are augmented by others. In my case, it is first the sound of the bags of bottles from the nearby bars being thrown into the garbage truck. The hydraulic whine of the scraper follows, and then the second crash as the bags land inside the garbage truck’s main compartment. Silence. Then church bells, from Iglesia San Francisco, which is the church everyone in Old San Juan goes to, and not the Cathedral. So I get done with those, and then the pigeons start cooing. At this point, the sun is rising, which in the paradoxical world of sickness means that my night is done, and I can go to sleep.

The time between taking the Benadryl at 2 AM and falling into chemical sleep at 7 AM has to be filled, and have I read—as I resolved—Ann Karenina, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov? Of course not, but I did start in on Renée Fleming’s book, The Inner Voice.

“I’m getting a little tired of Renée Fleming,” said my adopted older brother and opera aficionado Pablo, “she’s perfect but bland….”

I agreed at the time, but then got to wondering—wasn’t that an easy, almost cheap, criticism? Because to be perfect is no mean feat: nobody opens their mouth and belts out four hours of Puccini without a hell of a lot of work. So I began to be interested in Fleming, and began to wonder: what would it be like to be, as she certainly is, one of the leading sopranos of her day (if not the leading one)?

She is, for all her perfection, a surprising human person. She was always goody-goody, always the teacher’s pet, and it was a relief to her when she was chosen to play the part of Mother Abbess in “Sound of Music,”—then her nickname could change to “Mother Abscess.” Surprising, she got to be prom queen, and then started a long, arduous process of training her voice.

She talks about the importance of finding the right teacher, and her luck in finding two unknown but very good ones. And then, on a Fulbright Scholarship in Germany, she met the great Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.

How much of a Nazi was Schwarzkopf? We’ll never know, but if you’ve ever seen one of her master classes, you’ll pretty much know. She is the Butcheress of Buchenwald at one moment, and indulgent grandmother the next. Oh, and she changes her victims daily, so that everybody got the sting of the whip, but nobody knew on whose back Madame might chose to unleash it.

Well, Fleming had a week of it, and she later stated it took her two years to get over it. Schwarzkopf insisted that she learn the art of “covering,” which is a technical term for—if I understand it correctly—singing in a different way, with less volume and with a different physical placement of the voice. It’s done in those two places where the voice changes…

OK—I bought the book to learn more about Fleming’s development as a singer, but also to see if, at long last, I could understand the mysterious world of vocal technique. Because for anyone not a singer, it is unbelievable the things that singers believe their bodies can do. The tiniest adjustment of the lips, the tongue, the soft palette, and even the cuticle of their right big toe (OK—making that up, but try it on a singer, and they’ll believe it)…anything and everything makes a huge difference. Think I’m exaggerating? Fleming actually cites someone who believed that focusing the sound through the two tiny indentations where the nose meets the body will produce a glittering, shimmering pianissimo high C.

All right—find me one anatomist who believes that possible, and I’ll send you a school bus of biologists who believe in “creation science.” But if it worked for Montserrat Caballe—who did it better than anyone else—well, why not try it? And in fact, singers believe wildly impossible things, and it works….

…at least some of the time.

Well, Fleming came back from a week of Schwarzkopf, and met with a universal question, “what in hell happened to your voice?” And her voice teacher in New York was—seeming—adamant against covering. So now, did she have to undo a year of work?

It’s a garden that never, never stops needing a good weeding, since by the time you have mastered one level of vocal art and progressed to the next, you have also incorporated a new set of bad habits, which will have to be corrected for you to progress to the next level. That, of course, will be in addition to the work necessary to get to that level, so you are seeding, planting and watering—as well as pruning—at the same time as you are weeding and tossing on the compost heap.

In the meantime, after telling you to lift your clavicle without increasing pressure on your intercostal muscles and not tensing your shoulders while still keeping your chin ever so slightly raised while making sure that your soft palette is elevated while the tongue remains forward, so as not to compress or put any tension of the glottis, which should always…wait!


The wonder of it is that any of us survive it—this musical training that somehow spills into the rest of our lives. Because do you leave it all behind, tucked up in a neat neurotic package on top of the piano, ready for the next day? No, of course not, it follows you right out the door, where it gives you a steady stream of criticism about how to arrange the pillows on the sofa, as well as a report on what absolutely every one of your friends would think—but never say—if they saw dirty dishes in your kitchen sink.

“You have not been paying attention,” said Nancy Pelosi to me. “You have not been paying attention,” says every music teacher to every student, and so we do. We pay attention to all of the flaws, and the commentary is endless. For many of us, we always wondered what happened to us, when the piece of music that we played so easily, so freely, the first week we practiced it became wooden, dead, filled with mistakes the next? We had practiced and practiced, and it just kept getting worse! Was the solution to performance to look at a piece once, and then go on stage and perform it? Seemingly, since it was all downhill from there.

It was and it wasn’t. There had been no expectations, the first time we played the piece. By the second week, all the problems had been identified, and the criticism started on awakening, intensified during breakfast, developed a strong convection current over the well-formed eye on the way to the musical school, and burst into a category four hurricane on seeing all your cohorts in the hall of the classroom. And what were they doing?


Oh, and commenting, among themselves:

‘does she really think she can play the Dvorak cello concerto?’

‘just wait till she gets to the bariolage section in the second theme…’

‘her thumb position was always shaky….’

“DARLING! The Dvorak you were playing sound MARVELOUS!”

So it was almost a relief, when whatever Schwarzkopf you were fated to meet blew up into your day. And at last, most of us collapsed under the weight of it all. In fact, the best of us may have collapsed: every major singer has a friend who was more talented, more driven, and more technically proficient than they. And they’re teaching public school choir, while their lesser cohorts are dazzling La Scala.

In my case, I left the cello behind, but still couldn’t shake the critic. Sleep in, as I did today, until 11 in the morning? It took a broken back to let me do that. Eat a pound of shrimp in the middle of the night? Thanks to two burst fractures of the lumbar spine, I can do it in a flash.

And I can tell you, Nancy, that you’re right. I had not been paying attention. Because something in me knew—I wasn’t crazy. They were trying to help, all of those people who told me that my shoulders were too high, and my vibrato too tight, and all the rest. They were trying to help, and in fact, they did help. Though I haven’t touched the cello since before my fall, I know that in a week I’ll be back in form, and can come into the café, play through three Bach suites, and then pack up, shop for dinner, and carry it home. By contrast, when I was studying with a teacher, I could not play through a single movement: the critic wouldn’t allow it.

The paradox is that it was critical to pay attention to the critic. It was also critical not to. Or perhaps it there finally came the time when the critic had done his job, and I ushered him out the door, thanked him, asked him to come back when needed—namely when I was practicing, no playing—and sent him off.

And so, Nancy, you’re right!

I have not been paying attention!

Or have I?