Tag Archives: singing

The DNA Of Place


You can take the girl out of the music building, but…

Recently I was back on the campus of Carson-Newman University for the senior piano recital of one of my Delta Omicron students.  As the Alpha Gamma Chapter Mother, I do my best to attend these students’ recitals and share a quick moment backstage beforehand for a picture and a prayer.  I remember my own recitals and all the preparation that went into them, and how grateful I was to have support from friends and family in the audience.

This particular evening I seemed especially nostalgic, remembering the hours I spent in the music building (often referred to in my circle simply as “The Building”), its classrooms, the recital hall, my voice teacher’s studio and especially my practice room.




I describe it as “my” practice room, although other students practiced in there, of course.  I adopted it as my favorite because an older student, Anita,  whom I viewed as a mentor, used it more than any other room, and I hoped that by practicing in there, some of her good mojo would rub off on me!  I’m not sure that happened; however, I did a lot of good work in that tiny space during my student years.


My practice room was located next door to Dr. Paul Ridgway’s piano studio.  The rooms, while decently insulated, were not soundproof.  I often felt sorry for him and his students as I caterwauled my way through various vocal exercises before the real work of “practice” could begin.  Sometimes the actual practice sounded like caterwauling, too!

Although my major was vocal performance, I was required to pass a basic piano proficiency in order to obtain my degree.  I had taken no piano lessons prior to college, and beginning class piano taught me in short order that I have no talent for the instrument.  My talent for colorful language as I struggled to learn the rudiments of piano, however, grew exponentially!  But I did love the bright sound of the piano in my practice room, even though my mistakes often made it seem to groan under my fingers.



That same piano is still in my old practice room.  And it still has the bright sound that I loved so much.  That piano helped me find my pitches as I practiced my repertoire, from Schubert lieder to Italian art songs to the lush French jewels by Duparc that I loved so much.  Not to mention the operatic arias!  My accompanists and I worked through the musical periods, spanning centuries and continents from inside my practice room.

I joke that I kicked the walls out of frustration so many times that my footprints are in the drywall, and that I swore and sweated so much as I worked in there that my DNA is still embedded in its walls, never to be removed!  In truth, though, I did leave a great deal of myself inside those walls.  I sang, laughed, cried, stomped, cursed and made a lot of noise in that little room.

And, every once in a while, I made music.

I also prayed, gave and received encouragement, hugged friends and shared secrets in there.  Some of the most beautiful notes I ever sang happened in there, with no one but God to hear them.  I carry that little room inside me like my own DNA, part of the intricate web of elements and experiences that make me the woman I am becoming.


The Mystic Chords Of Memory


Music, moments and bringing Mama along…

I have just returned from what can only be described as the adventure of a lifetime.  Knoxville Choral Society took a group of singers to New York City to premiere local composer John Purifoy’s “Chronicles of Blue and Gray” at Carnegie Hall!  We met up with several other choruses from around the United States to rehearse for a couple of days and gel ourselves into a unified chorus to perform this masterpiece, the first major work of its kind in choral literature in that it commemorates the Civil War period of American history.  Knoxville Choral Society commissioned this work in honor of our esteemed conductor and artistic director, Dr. Eric “Doc” Thorson.  Without him, and the desire of so many people to honor him, this work would not exist and our Carnegie Hall pilgrimage to premiere it for the New York audience likely would never have happened.  John Purifoy’s labor of love in crafting this poignant and moving work has touched many people and I pray that it will touch many more for generations to come.  It deserves to be heard my as many people, in as many places, as possible.

There are so many moments from the trip that I will always remember, the first being a “wow” moment in my ongoing weight loss journey.  For the first time ever, I flew in planes where the seat belts not only fit around me but had room to spare.  As large as I was, for as long as I was, this was a huge relief.


I made the acquaintance of a number of our singers I did not know before (and who are now Facebook friends as well, so we can continue getting to know one another better).  I am short, so I generally sit down front and don’t see a lot of the people behind me. That will change when we start back for the fall.  I will venture out of my section more and try to be more social.  And several people I knew casually became wonderful friends on this trip.  My friends Jenny and Jere graciously welcomed me on their pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, my one for-sure bucket list item. As we walked around that magnificent place, I was astonished at the beauty even amid all the scaffolding there right now for renovation.  And my friends stood by as I lit a candle and offered a prayer in that sacred space.  We stayed for mass as well, my first Roman Catholic mass ever.  And at St. Patrick’s to boot!  Even a sarcastic varmint like me can find holiness in a place like that, and since it was our first night there, it helped to set the tone for the rest of the trip for me.


I serve as Chapter Mother for Alpha Gamma Chapter of Delta Omicron International Music Fraternity at  Carson-Newman University, my alma mater and the chapter I was initiated into as a college student.  Two of my Delta Omicron students made the trip with us. Katie Brown and her mother came and sang, and it did my heart good to see a mother and daughter joining together for this experience, even as I missed my own precious Mama.  Katie Jo O’Neal came as well and I had the pleasure of sharing a hotel room with her.  She and I really had the chance to get to know each other, for which I will forever be grateful.  We are goofball kindred spirits, bonded together by music, faith and humor.  Seeing young musicians grow and stretch makes my heart swell with pride.


(Katie Jo, me and Katie Brown—I’m the filling in the middle of a Katie sandwich and it’s awesome!)

Katie Jo and I shared a room with Rebecca, a lovely woman who was a pleasure to get to know.  She and I shared some wonderful, meaningful talks in the evenings while Katie Jo was still out and about town.  We more “mature” ladies tended to return to the room earlier to settle in for the night!  Also, we need to take “selfie” lessons from Katie Jo, the undisputed master of the art form!


(Selfie fail with Rebecca)


(The Roomies)


Another mother-daughter team made the trip as well, my friend “Queen” Elizabeth Partridge and her sweet Mama, Susan.  Susan did not sing with us but she enjoyed the trip plenty, sightseeing, shopping and graciously sharing a couple of meals and a lovely carriage ride around Central Park.  It was so sweet to see their relationship, and it made me wonder what mine would be like with Mama if she were still here.  I’d like to think we would get along as well as Elizabeth and Susan do.  It was generous of Elizabeth to share her Mama with us.


(Elizabeth, Susan, Katie Jo and me)


(Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mother Susan)

Elizabeth has lost a significant amount of weight in the last year as well, and another bucket list thing I wanted to do was get all dolled up in our Bombshell dresses and have a night out for dessert.  (I know, it’s paradoxical.  Don’t judge me.)  A little treat now and then is not only OK, it’s necessary.  We were completely overdressed, but we went to Junior’s Cheesecakes for dessert and sashayed in like we owned the place.  Dessert was delicious and the company was delightful!  Afterward we walked around, shopping and taking in the sights, sounds and aromas of the Theatre DIstrict and Hell’s Kitchen.  We both enjoyed playing dress-up and, if I do say so myself, we cleaned up pretty well.  And another “wow” moment was that we walked around for about an hour and a half, and I was wearing heels! Before surgery and weight loss, that would have been unthinkable.


I shared a story with John, the composer, when the idea of a trip to Carnegie Hall was just being discussed, over a year ago.  Back when Mama was still with us, Knoxville Choral Society talked about a very slim chance of taking a trip there.  When I mentioned it to Mama, she was over the moon with excitement.  She said, “If you all take a group up there, you HAVE GOT to go!  Daddy and I will help you pay for the trip, whatever needs to happen, if you have a chance to go to Carnegie Hall, you’ve got to do it!”  That trip ended up never happening.  In the ensuing years Mama became ill and died, I let singing go for many years and that dream was all but forgotten.  

Flash forward 20-some years to now, when I finally made it to Carnegie Hall.  I told John and numerous other people I’d be bringing Mama with me the only way I could—her picture in my folder as I sang.  I carried her and others along as well: Sweet Pea and Our Boy Roy, Aunt Ruby, “Doc”, who for several reasons did not make the trip with us, and Dr. Teague, my college voice teacher.  But Mama was the one who held the Carnegie Hall dream in her heart.  We finally made it.  

On concert day, John and I spoke before we entered the hall and he reminded me of my story and asked to see Mama’s picture.  I was humbled that he remembered such a detail on what had to be one of the most monumental days of his life!  And I was proud to show him my folder and all the people I brought along.




Mama was with me.  She is always with me.  We are indeed surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses”, as John and I reminded each other before the concert.  Mothers and daughters, the ones together on Earth and the ones separated briefly between here and Heaven…musicians past, present and future…the bonds of faith…the melody of music and the harmony of humor…the mystic chords of memory.



The Song Of My People


My kind of Southern…

A Facebook quiz recently asked, “How Southern Are You?”, and several friends of mine had taken the quiz and shared their results.  I was curious about the questions and what my percentage might be, so I took the quiz.  I had done 19 of the 36 things listed, giving me a paltry 53% Southern score.  I was disappointed until I realized how limited the quiz was in its scope.

This whole thing started me thinking about what “Southern” really means, realizing that it varies by state, region and individual.  My reflections on Southern-ness are unique to me even though many other people will have shared the same experiences.  So, if I may wax rhapsodic for a few minutes, I would like to share a bit of what being Southern means to me.



The song of my people

is dinner on the grounds and

breakfast for supper


front porch swings and rocking chairs

and the squeak of Granny’s old aluminum


always moving

never going



aprons dusted with biscuit flour and

women like Southern tea

sweet and strong


white-glove gentility and

hard-nosed grit


I can talk about my family

any way I like

but you

you best not


cast iron skillet and mason jar

vessels of promise


fifth Sunday hymn service

and shouts from the Amen corner

the song of my people





Vox Humana


“The human voice is the organ of the soul.”—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Mama always told people that when I was born I came out singing.  I certainly don’t remember it, but I would like to think that my birth cries were at least a little bit musical!  Today’s church services and the choice of operatic soprano Renee’ Fleming to sing the Star Spangled Banner for the 2014 BIG FOOTBALL GAME (which, apparently cannot be called by its more “super” moniker unless one has permission to do so) have gotten me thinking about the human voice, mine and other people’s.

I’ve been singing pretty much all my life, from the time I was a small child.  It was just how I expressed myself and the thing I loved most to do in the world.  Those things are still true.  I took voice lessons beginning in the 8th grade and continued through college, earning a Bachelor of  Music in Applied Voice (it’s called Vocal Performance now).

As a voice student and musician, my fascination with the human voice led me into many other areas of study.  Classically trained singers, for example, need to have at least a shallow working knowledge of several foreign languages.  My first ever voice teacher started me with “the singer’s language”, Italian, a language of pure vowels and the art of bel canto, which means “beautiful singing”.  Singing in a foreign language made me feel very grown-up, but it also gave me a desire to learn how to make my foreign language diction as convincing as possible.  The ultimate goal is for listeners to think whatever language I am singing is my native tongue.

Singers also need to know certain things about how the human body is put together and how it functions, more than the average person generally needs to know.  Our bodies are our instruments and we have to understand how they work.  The voice doesn’t start in the throat.  It starts deep in the abdomen with the diaphragm, a muscle which we spend years strengthening in order to breathe deeply and efficiently, and to control the expulsion of air in long phrases.  We are trained to imagine filling our lungs up from the bottom in order to maximize their capacity.  Once the air is in, it is all about controlling how it comes out, but we have to be able to relax certain muscles even as we exercise this control.  The air passes through the vocal cords, two of the tiniest and strongest muscles in the human body, producing vocalizations of all kinds…singing, speech, laughter.

In college one of the classes I took and enjoyed was Physics of Musical Sound.  It fascinated me when my professor showed us an oscilloscope, an instrument that measures the human voice and other sounds, producing a sort of “sound print” of what it has recorded.  And much like fingerprints, these sound prints are unique.  I remember thinking how much I would love to have a picture of my very own voice print.  Now, with modern technology, one of our computers here at home has an oscilloscope, and I can capture my voice print!


I spent a number of years working in radio, primarily as an on-air announcer and commercial copywriter/producer.  My musical training kept me mindful that I needed to be careful with my voice.  Even though it was not singing, radio work was also a very specialized use of the voice, and I knew both radio people and singers who developed voice trouble due to improper technique and bad habits.  My radio years were a lot of fun, and I think they gave me a different appreciation for the communication that is only possible with the human voice.


I still do a bit of occasional voice-over work for a friend’s radio stations, but my first love will always be to sing.  I let my singing go for a long time, making the excuses we all make about not having enough time or energy to commit to music… something I would not allow to happen if I could have a do-over.  As it is, though, I sing as often as I have the opportunity.  Singing is, for me, a way to express the feelings for which there are no words, a way to thank and praise the God Who spoke the universe into being with His Voice. I will hope to sing for as long as l am able, expressing, thanking and praising with my own vox humana. 


“I will sing unto the LORD, for He hath dealt bountifully with me.”

Psalm 13:6

Old Scores


Musicians’ tools of the trade…

This past weekend was a musical extravaganza for me, very busy and extremely rewarding.  Knoxville Choral Society and Chamber Chorale, accompanied by members of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, performed our annual Fall Concert on Saturday evening at the historic Bijou Theatre downtown, and presented an encore performance Sunday afternoon at the Community Church in Tellico Village.  I was indeed blessed to take part in these concerts and to have been chosen as a soloist.  I no longer take these blessings for granted because I know my days as a soloist are limited. I’m getting older every second, after all, and nothing lasts forever. 




Between those performances I also had the communion solo for two church services.  So it was a very busy weekend, and I will admit that by the time it was all finished, I was pretty worn out.  Still, this kind of activity gives me much more than it takes out of me.

Part of the concert program was the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah”, a familiar and beloved sacred choral and orchestral work, and a demanding one.  My “Messiah” score is the one I have used for every performance I have ever done since college.  It is 31 years old.  I purchased it as a college freshman because my voice teacher wanted me to learn some of the soprano solos in it, and even though we did not perform “Messiah” that year, he knew I’d need the score for the next year (and for the rest of my life!).  So he told me to go ahead and buy it.  It may be the single most-used piece of music I own to this day.

Even when I have sung portions of the work with church choirs that used a different edition, I have always used my own score.  It is old and worn, with some dog-eared page corners and rusty marks from paper clips of years gone by, like little scars on the page.  It contains markings from the conductors I’ve worked with and from the voice teachers who have coached me, as well as my own unique system of symbols and notes to remind myself to watch, to straighten my tone, to shape a phrase or to raise my eyebrows so I don’t go flat.  It’s a sort of shorthand developed over decades.  I have my own language of markings, and every other musician I know has theirs as well.  It’s as unique as a fingerprint, and just as personal.

As I have asserted before, I am a collector, of objects and of memories, and I am sentimental about all of them.  My “Messiah” score is much more to me than a piece of music.  It is Scripture set to music, the story of Jesus in types and shadows, and as substance and promise fulfilled.  It is also a sort of scrapbook, a memory album of the many times I have raised my voice to offer the gift God gave me back to Him, alone as a soloist and with a chorus of other musicians.  So much more than words and notes on paper, my ‘Messiah” score is a trusted friend, filled with my memories of musical offerings past and dreams of the ones yet to come.