In the inexplicable turns of fate, I have encountered another musician who worked with my beloved late-great Lillian. We're in the same chorus
& we were chatting about our histories.
I came to find that N not only had heard of Lillian, she pre-dated me. Heck, she almost pre-dates all of us—Susie, Michael, Kirsten,
Veena—who form the core of Bay Area musicians lucky enough to find Lillian. N says that she remembers all sorts of stuff about her years with Lillian: a long ago chapter of
the woman's life when she was actively performing, though it was mostly as an accompanist to her singers, or crafting wedding programs to sing & officiating as well.
That primed my pump; recollections of all those times that I went to my lesson with a recital to plan or part to coach or song cycle to run, &
navigated Lillian's observations about the intrinsic quality in the pieces (or lack thereof). She loved Bernstein, for example & would sometimes spend half my lesson
noodling chord progressions that she admired. I could have been more focused, I suppose, but for my part, after I had warmed up & sung what I came to sing, it was fascinating
to hear her go on.
That's how I found out about her long-time lover, the Italian Count. Lillian had a tradition of going all over the globe doing Master
Classes—London & Paris, Rome & Jerusalem—& of course her accommodations were included, first class all the way. On one of these trips, she met the Count.
Not sure of the year, but N laughed when I mentioned it, so it was pretty early. She was a slim, classy redhead, still had all her own teeth, & he absolutely adored her,
lavished her with clothes & jewelry & more shoes than Imelda, but couldn't leave his wife. When he died, she was uncharacteristically muted for a while. She wore his
loving accoutrements always.
I think the subject must have come up because of the particular shoes Lillian was wearing one day; they were
pretty unique & she was not shy about getting up from the piano to show off a bit. That's another funny thing I recall: like as not, when I rang the bell
& opened the door, she would be with another student, at the piano in the studio/dining room. In that case, I would go & sit
on the couch in the living room & wait, right there in full view. When that student left, Lillian didn't get up; she did the most mellifluous magnificent salutation heLOW, cloe-DEEN! (using an
endearingly fakey French accent especially for me) & I came in & we were off.
She had a tape recorder ready to accept a blank cassette if you brought one & wanted to record your lesson—a thing she
strongly recommended—which I generally hated, but only because of the contrast between our voices on the tape. Back
then before she reached the point that she simply couldn't do it without hurting her voice, she would do a version of you with
the mistakes that your technique produced & a version of her which, of course, blew you out of the water.
It was fucking amazing to hear the difference actually. Her demonstrations often came in the form of interruptions every
other bar of music. As soon as you let down, in fact. The stream of air compromised was the usual culprit. You were in your head. Thinking too much was discouraged. Hell, taking any kind of
conscious breath was fanatically discouraged. You were anticipating that high note & boom! Lillian's voice would admonish you with the familiar mantra: never take a breath
there is no up there is no down I can sing up here [insert stratospheric note] I can sing down here [insert a couple of
octaves lower] and it makes no difference where I am there is no up there is no down.
So, yeah, it was painful to hear yourself sometimes because she made it sound so effortless. She was so ruthless in her lovely
boisterous & sweet way you couldn't be mad; you only went away thinking I can do this; I just gotta try less. I can imitate
her to this day & I do, but I feel like that's cheating of a sort, & she's not around for me to ask hey, Lillian, can I be you? I think
her response would be to laugh & say of course, why not? And make it a habit! Because naturally, all she was talking about
were things that she had found out about her own instrument by a loose method of kinesthetic analysis over the years. It involved
feeling a sort of power—leaving technique behind, tossing it away—sensing the automatic-pilot take over, watching yourself
sing & being completely uninvolved in judging the outcome.
When I went to the annual chorus retreat this last weekend, I was not beset with musical heebee-jeebees as I sometimes have
been. No, it was more anticipation of high-school social ostracism that I wasn't looking forward to. Although I try to be
balanced, there is an exhibitionist side of my character that wants to shape the script, write the lines, form the beats which
means I'm more than happy to take over the talking portion of a conversation, given half the chance. Looking around a room,
making snap decisions about which table to eat at, who would linger & chat.
Or who would look straight through you & not feeling it, get up & go talk to someone she knew in the far corner, as distant as
possible, like a statement of intent. R thinks that's a possible sign of psychological issues & has nothing to do with me & I tend to agree, except I let it bug me. Doesn't matter how many
decades of satisfaction with life in general I have under my belt, it is still about the Great Lady. Something I could do, but which
in my mother's estimation I am too stubborn to implement, that would induce swarms of people to sit at my feet. Or at the very least, crouch on my patio.
Last night after rehearsal with fellow choristers at a local pub, I sat next to M who is the same age as I am; she's ruddy & healthy
looking & went to Italy this past summer with the Tour while I was being my best self hanging out with my guy in his
recuperative phase. M & I talked about the wide open field of retirement interests: I likened as how I felt done with theater
auditions & such, & she replied with a sigh yes, I've done theater, yes I have. I felt a bit of a glow of companionship in the sense of belonging. I am a musichien & carry my instrument with me. I
used to take it over to the house on Oxford in Berkeley every other week or so & feel that same belonging.
Lillian was a great lady, but she would never say she was.
That's the whole point.