When I was in fourth grade, I decided that I was going to be an astronaut. I grabbed every magazine with a jet or a space shuttle on it that I could get my hands on. I didn’t know what the word, “sexy”, meant, but I figured it must have something to do with the SR-71 Blackbird. I learned the requirements, physically and academically. That year, I also got my first pair of glasses. I was crushed. What was I going to do? I had no desire to be a fireman. Would Heather McKeand ever look at me the same? Fortunately, I had friends with bikes and video games, and a fair amount of homework, to get me through the dark years.
A little later, in seventh grade, my dear mother told me I should, and then pleaded with me to take a music class. “David, music will enrich your life in so many ways!” I was already short for my age and had glasses. I didn’t need to also be the boy in choir. In any case, I humored my Mom by signing up for Mixed Chorus as a third choice elective. I hoped that just seeing it on paper would placate her, as she did not seem to register the vagaries of the Jr. High course registration system. It did! I don’t remember what elective I was looking forward to that year. What I do remember was my first semester of Mixed Chorus.
“Life is what happens to you while you are planning something else.” – Dad
As luck would have it, I ended up being rather good at singing in a choir. I even enjoyed it. When we moved across the country in the middle of my seventh grade year, I was offered a choice between Mixed Chorus and Industrial Arts. This time, I jumped at the choice! (I also had no desire to make 12 ashtrays that year.) It is good to experience new things and find out what we like. It is also good to listen to the universe when it is trying to tell you something. Make your plans. Work hard, and roll with the punches.
Later on in High School, after seeing the movie, Amadeus, I fell in love with Mozart’s Requiem and decided to pursue music. (Many years later, in an elevator, on the way to rehearsal, F. Murray Abraham would tell me, “My friend, I’m so sorry.”) I inhaled every exercise that my teacher could throw at me and practiced all the music we had been given, every day. I practiced at varying tempi, until I just couldn’t think of a way to get any better. I was fueled both by my new passion for music and the memory of my freshman year, All-State choir section leader telling me, “If you work hard, maybe you can also be section leader when you are a senior.” I nodded and smiled, instead of saying, “or maybe next year.”
“You are your own best competition. Just be better than you were yesterday.” – Dad
The next year at my audition, the room, full of high school kids from all over town, went silent as I clapped the rhythm portion of my audition. The teacher at the piano did a double take and started watching the page very closely. When I was done, Jeff Pizzo, the coolest kid around, and frequent accompanist for our choir, turned to me and said, “Thanks David.” He was next in line. That year, I made section leader in Sr. Honor Choir and All-State Choir… and the year after that… and the year after that. When you are sitting in a room with 50 people, waiting for your cattle call audition, all that matters is being polite and practicing the next few minutes of your life in your head. Once you walk through that door or stand in front of that teacher, all that matters is being fully present in the moment with your circumstances, what you want from your “other”, and how you are going to get it. Incidentally, there are three people behind a table watching (or a surprised teacher behind a piano). When you get nervous, trust the hours and hours of smart, vocal and dramatic practice that lay behind you.
When I was looking at going to my first summer voice program, an agent in Atlanta recommended that I go to Graz, Austria. I was singing for him in a Dickens Caroling quartet at the Ritz Carlton that holiday season. (Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a really cool person to talk to in an elevator. Val Kilmer is also really cool, unless you misplace his car keys. Seriously, don’t misplace Val Kilmer’s car keys.) Graz was and continues to be a great program. But it costs money, and that is something I did not grow up with. So, I went around to local businesses and churches looking for sponsorship. My Grandma happened to be friends with Truett Cathy and gave me the phone number to his office. (He would put a check for $1000 in her Salvation Army kettle every year at Lenox Mall and threw her a big birthday party at Chick-fil-a after she retired.) His secretary informed me that he would be glad to help and I got a nice check for $500 in the mail the following week. Well, that was all I was able to come up with. As it turned out, that happened to be the exact amount of the Irene Harrower Summer Workshop. I knew this because Irene also happened to be my teacher. I called Mr. Cathy and asked if I could use the money for that program instead. He said it would be just fine.
“If you can’t go in style, go in less than style. But, go.” – Uncle Bill (Mom’s brother)
To this day, I still teach principles that I learned from Irene at that summer workshop, mainly about focusing on one aspect of singing at a time while practicing, instead of trying to get it all correct at the same time. It’s good advice. (Trying to get it all correct at once is a great way to fund your voice teacher, into retirement.) It was also my first really intense exposure to great breath support. I was amazed to learn that your lower back can expand when you inhale, if you stay relaxed down low and keep good alignment. You can even sing a better sounding phrase for a lot longer!
There are two compliments that tie in my memory as the all-time best. The first happened at the end of a tour of Bloch’s Sacred Service, in Haifa, Israel. I was one of the professional tenors in the then Collegiate Chorale, from New York. We had been invited that year after impressing Zubin Mehta at the Verbier Festival the previous summer. There was this one entrance, during a fast tempo, that was quite tricky for us tenors, amateur and professional alike. I worked on it every night before bed during our brief rehearsal period. During the first performance, Maestro Mehta looked up to the tenor section to give the cue for that entrance. For a split second, he looked irritated, but then frantic, as he looked for eyes to connect with and bring in. Our eyes locked and I came in, really only confident in his cue, but loud and proud on the correct note. A split second later, the rest of the section came in. At every concert thereafter, he would look directly at me for that cue, and I would always be waiting. It became an unspoken game between us. “Yeah, I’m here. Let’s do this.” from me and a pleasant smirk from him as he turned away for the next entrance. The tenors finally did start looking at him for the last concert or two, but it was too late. He was all mine! After the last concert, I happened to run into him briefly in the hallway. He stopped, looked down at me, and said with earnest eye contact…
“Thank you for watching, David.” – Zubin Mehta
Always, always, always watch your conductor, even if it is only in your peripheral vision. Watch your conductor. They will remember it, appreciate you, and maybe even recommend you to other conductors. Seriously though, watch your conductor.
The other “best” compliment of all time came at the end of the Opera Memphis production of The Marriage of Figaro. I was playing Basilio for the first time professionally and was very nervous. Not only did I have to know my recitatives word for word while running around on stage. I had to do it with a Susanna who had done it for years at the Met and with a Baron who had just won the Met auditions. I am not usually intimidated, but this was intimidating! I had what the Irish call, The Fear. Fortunately, my diction coach was amazing. I worked with those diction recordings day after day on our elliptical, to get used to doing it while pushing myself physically. I would practice it while running the dog. I would practice it while jumping a log – anything to try and throw myself off! I let our Susanna know that I was a bit nervous. But once I felt somewhat close to ready, I asked her to start trying to throw me off in rehearsals. Even with all that preparation, when I stood in costume, about to walk out as the center stage doors opened, I still had that feeling of, “Oh my God! What am I supposed to say when I walk out there? This is happening in three, two, one…” Well, everything went fine and we all had a great time out there. It sounded like the audience had a good time, too. After the show, Susanna came up to me and said…
“David, you’re Basilio was as good as any character tenor I have sung with at the Met.” – Monica Yunus
While I have had personal triumphs (and failures) since then, I have never worked so hard on a role and felt so vindicated as an artist. We all have impostor syndrome from time to time. Have faith in yourself and your team. Respect yourself and your team. Work really, really, hard, by yourself, and with your team. Then, wake up, and do it again.
I listen to my students. I try to find out who they are and what they want out of themselves and their singing. I encourage them to learn as much as they can about music along the way, but we always focus on their goals and learning from their performance outcomes. When they give me the time, I try to get them to focus on who they are singing to and why, and what they want from that person, and what they are trying to do to convince them. I try to convince them that this is one of the things that will make their singing very interesting to the people they want to impress. I share with them the secret that their fondest fantasy is actually true. Performing as their true self is vastly more interesting to an audience than their imitation of somebody else. I try to get them to watch themselves in the mirror while they sing, so that they know what they are doing to make that sound, be it good or bad. I try very hard to get them to listen and practice to recordings from their lessons, instead of self-evaluating a real-time sound in their head that the audience will never hear. I encourage them. I help them get up when they fall flat on their faces and celebrate with them when they work hard and do better than they ever thought they had any right to. I let them know that all I want from them is their best effort. We will figure out the rest together, one step at a time. I try to teach them how to deal with the bumps in the road, because they will come. I let them know that they do not have to go on singing for my sake or anyone else’s. Their life is their own. I just want them to be the best singer, or astronaut, or home-maker, or pageant coach that they can be. Whatever it ends up being, music will enrich their lives in so many ways!