The progression of my lovely voice teacher's dementia is closing around her. No birthday party this year: two weeks ago, she took a tumble and this caused our Sunday morning musicale to be cancelled. I have not heard back since then. It probably means that the family is gradually pulling the circle tighter.
My voice teacher was a piano prodigy; she began copying her big sister until it was clear that she was the more talented of the two. At five, she was invited to take lessons at a fancy rich person's house where the piano was better; everything was paid for & they ferried her back & forth in a big car. She told me that it spoiled Victorian houses for her—she developed a hatred of their cold, dark, high ceilinged aspect. But the lessons went well.
I know why I didn't get a chance to take piano lessons when I was a kid: we didn't have a piano. (My best friend Colleen did. In fact one time we dawdled walking home from school & she missed her lesson. Man, her mom was mad! I didn't stick around to watch the carnage.) Of course when it came to classroom stuff, I was wild about singing. Mrs. Faye would have us get out our music books & we learned all kinds of things: 'Oh, I Am Doctor Ironbeard (twilli-willi-witt-boom-boom!)' & 'Waltzing Matilda'. Colleen & I, being devout Mouseketeers, learned everything there was to learn on the show: 'M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E! forever let us hold our banner high!' ( My mother did not approve of the reverential tone), 'E-N-C-Y-C-L-O! pee-ee-dee-eye-A'. And of course, when 'Tammy and the Bachelor' came along, Colleen had to sing 'Tammy's in Love'. Personally, I fell for 'Zorro!!the FOX! so Cunning & free-hee-hee!'.And 'Davee! Davy Crockett! The king of the pi-o-neers!'
The little phenomenon played on the radio KPOO in San Francisco, amongst other young neighborhood prodigies, including Isaac Stern, and when they were released, they all ran about doing exactly the things they were forbidden to do lest they injure their precious hands. At some point when she was a teenager, she began having recurring nightmares that the piano was trying to pull her in, trying to eat her & she told her mother, 'No more!' This was a catastrophe. In the end she simply refused to play while anyone else was around. Her mother never heard her play again.
When I was a teen, my dad got it into his head that we should have a piano, so he rented one. It sat there for a couple of months. No one had the nerve to touch it. All we could play was chopsticks & that got old real fast. One day I got home & it was gone. I asked my mom about it the other day & asked why we didn't have lessons or something & she responded: 'You didn't ask for them!' Sigh. She said the same thing about my wanting to wear jeans (which she thought were vulgar). 'Well, you should have insisted.'
When the prodigy grew into a lovely young woman, she found that she could sing & sing quite well. In fact, it came naturally to her, in a strangely kinetic sort of way: she did nothing but hear it in her head, and then out it came. Many obstacles seemed to stand in the way of her making this her life's work—the World War during which she played Rosie the Riveter driving a bulldozer, a stint in Italy where she discovered that her voice was excellent, but that she was surrounded by voices that were celestial. This rude awakening, as it were, however, turned out to be a testament to the power of her spirit; not only did she not give up, she discovered that since she was so myopic and couldn't see the conductor, her body learned to intuit what was going on in the pit. She literally didn't need to see. Her instincts were so powerful that she could absorb the whole score to the opera she was performing and simply insert herself into it as needed. The best fun she ever had, apparently—doing a different show each night, depending on the mood of the other singers, whom she said had no idea of registers, they just sang whatever part they were assigned, or blocking, just made it up on the fly. There was no director. Of course, she had to be prepared to step aside graciously if the conductor's girlfriend decided it was her night to sing. 'Never argue', she told me. 'Just smile, nod & then do your own thing.'
'But make sure you're right.'