C’est l’extase.

June 17, 2008

I am always surprised, when I listen to old recordings of myself singing, how much I remember. Oh! That part was so difficult – and I breathe, breathe deep in sympathy with my old self, if somehow I can increase my (her) capacity for support! I remember and, from the future, encourage that junior-year version of Yvanka to take her time here, this needs your concentration… oh, merde, what the fuck was that French! That wasn’t right at all. Also, GlitterPaintPony – I am impressed with us right now – how did we even get through those damned German lieder?

I have two jobs, right now, in addition to school. I’m a fancy secretary, and I’m a church musician. My actual job titles include words like ‘senior’ and ‘director’ but really, those are my jobs – secretary and church musician. As a secretary, I do exactly nothing related to my original bachelor’s degree. As a church musician, I am at least able to partially convince myself and others that I’m using my training.

You see, I’m a singer – or, I was a singer. I was the sort of singer who auditioned for the solos, but rarely saw her name in the program. Instead, my name was usually in the leadership portion – Yvanka Marmalade, Section Leader. Then, later, I was manager, president, that sort of thing. Which was certainly fine, as I thrive on leadership, I like to be in control, and, looking back, I think that I managed an adequate showing at what turned into a batshit crazy situation.

Anyhow, I didn’t get much solo time in that substantial and well-known choral program – and like I said, really, I wasn’t fussed by it. There was a time or two when it would have been nice to have some sort of positive reinforcement from my professor, but she had a misguided notion that to praise my singing in front of my fellow choristers would be interpreted as a show of favoritism, even if she didn’t pick me and praised others equally. I particularly remember an instance where I auditioned, publicly, along with several other sopranos, for the Geoffrey solo in the Britten Rejoice in the Lamb.

The first girl was praised for her control.

The second girl was praised for her musicianship, and the way she articulated beginnings of phrases.

I went third. When I’d finished singing the passage that was to serve as our audition – mind you, this is in front of the entire seventy-voice ensemble – the professor looked up from her score, her face blank. She looked directly at me and said “Next.”

Even now I’m wondering – was I really that terrible? I know I can sing, I wasn’t hideously off pitch or out of rhythm. Perhaps I wasn’t the best choice for that solo – and the girl who was chosen did an excellent job – but my professor’s curt dismissal of my efforts stung, badly. Would it have truly been so egregious to say something, anything? Even a fully noncommittal “nice job” would have eased the snap of the rubber band in my chest. I had to spend the rest of the rehearsal fighting back tears.

But I kept on auditioning for solos, thinking that eventually the professor would have to say something kind about my singing, if only to prevent my classmates from perceiving the sort of reverse favoritism she was throwing out there. And she kept on withholding feedback, any feedback, about my singing.

The voice is a very personal thing. It’s yours, and you can’t change it. You can work hard to improve, to be a better technician and a master of pedagogy – but your voice itself is the foundation on which you build, and it’s a part of you. Criticism of the voice can feel like a personal attack, and the purposeful lack of any sort of positive response on the behalf of my professor felt very much like criticism.

I should come clean here and say that, yes, I was probably one of her favorites, if not her flat-out favorite student. I was a choral leader, I worked as a teacher’s assistant for her woman’s undergraduate courses, she often took me for coffee… I often led rehearsals and class sessions in her absence. We grew close. I listened to her and I cared about her, and I’m fairly certain she cared about me. Her paranoia about the politics of the program with regard to the perception of favoritism? Possibly rooted in truth. She certainly thought it was, anyhow. But her reaction was unnecessarily intense.

During my senior year, this professor started to lose it entirely. She gave in to her paranoias, and began to think that her fellow faculty members were gunning for her – hoping to get her sacked. She began to feel that she was letting down the program and her colleagues, and that she was unable to perform to her own high expectations and the expectations of the choir. She stepped into a whirlpool created of her own fears, and in doing so, lost her shit. In losing her shit, she began to behave in a way which caused her paranoia – originally so farfetched – to become a perception of reality. What I mean by that is this: at first, she just thought she was doing a poor job and disappointing the program. The power of that idea depressed her so much that she began to do a poor job, and when that happened, she really did let down her program, her students, her choir.

And that was when she gave me a solo.

She was barely present at rehearsals or for conducting courses, her husband was taking over by tiny increments, and I was handling all the planning for the choir’s upcoming trip to the regional American Choral Directors Association Conference, where we were to present a featured concert. We were rehearsing a particularly bizarre and intricate piece, with a soprano solo descant that both began and ended the music.

The first time we read the piece, she asked me to sing the solo. Fine, I was game to sightread.

The next time we sang the piece all the way through, we got to the solo without having talked about it at all. Yet, she turned to me, arms raised to cue me in. I was so startled that I missed the first note – but recovered, and sang it out. Afterwards I laughed about it. I didn’t bother to rehearse it, because by this time, I knew the pattern. Plus, I was too busy picking up the slack elsewhere.

And then she kept doing it.

Once, she even held an audition. I didn’t participate. She told me that she’d heard me sing it enough times. And then she gave it to me anyway, with no announcement. The next time we sang that piece, she just – again, with no warning at all – turned to me and cued me in.

I hated that song, and I hated that solo. Not that it was a bad song, but it wasn’t good in my range, and I didn’t earn the honor she bestowed upon me without fanfare. I felt bad, frankly, that I would be singing this solo at the regional convention, when I wasn’t the best choice for it. (By this time, of course, I was feeling like a sub-par vocalist at best, with all the non-feedback auditions I’d done.) To me, it was as if she felt bad for the three previous years of ignoring my auditions, or as if she owed me something for helping inasmuch as I could with her difficulties. It was like she finally had decided, in her compromised mental state, to throw me a bone. It was a bone I’d have preferred to give right back. This was her atonement, and I wasn’t playing along.

Sometimes I think about that professor, and about how sad those final days were. I think about how wonderful the first two years were, under her direction, and about how her influence shaped me as a musician. I hope she’s sought the help she needed to fully recover from her depression.

I wonder if it would’ve helped her if I’d played along.



4 Responses to “C’est l’extase.”

  1. GlitterPaintPony Says:

    We got through them using time honored techniques such as hopes and wishes.

  2. yvanka Says:

    And pixie dust and fairy butts, if I’m recalling the recipe correctly.

  3. GlitterPaintPony Says:

    You are indeed my friend. You are indeed.

  4. […] asked to prove their shit.  I loved it, ’cause the professor who left was the same one who was so stingy with compliments.  I had the chance to prove that I was really quite accomplished at something, […]

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