Music: A Soul Experience

This piece is featured in this month’s issue of The BeZine.  To go to the interactive table of contents, click HERE.

Addressing this topic is a tricky proposition for me. How do I write about “Music” after a lifetime of being in its company, serious collegiate study, professional and semi-professional music-making and now coming to an ever-changing place of informal interaction with it? It is as daunting as writing about “Being Female”.

My partner Steve, who has a more organic relationship to music than I, often asks me, “What is music? Is this Music?” My definitions are vague. John Cage hears music in the sound of traffic. Why not? Steve stands by a babbling brook or a wide lake shore, closes his eyes and begins to wave and conduct the irregular but compelling rhythms. Music is an experience. It is felt and lived, by humans, most certainly, and perhaps by oceans, birds and the cosmic spheres. We can pick it apart, measure it scientifically, codify and teach it and all but kill it while still trying to communicate something beyond all those characteristics. I taught Voice lessons for a few years, giving rudimentary information on practical aspects of sound production and score-reading, but when it came time for a student to prepare for performance, I said something like, “Feel your confidence; trust your instrument; let go and SING!”

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The music of the soul, singing, is not without dukkha, the intrinsic suffering of human life. Aside from Art or Artifice, singing is a conduit for emotion as vulnerable and raw as any primal utterance. Those who have guessed this often try to manipulate it or manufacture it for their own uses. Or they try to lose their egos and get as close to being on the edge as they can. Who are the great “emotive” singers you can name? Judy Garland is our favorite. Her story and her relationship with her music is a painful one, but we love to hear her inimitable voice and styling. I used to play my Wizard of Oz record over and over again and try to sound just like her…before I was 10. Before I knew much about suffering at all. She was all of 16 on the recording. She kept singing that song throughout her career. She knew exactly how to wring all the pathos of her life from that melody by the time she died. She did it repeatedly, convincingly each time.

Just two days ago, I read a passage about Singing that struck me with an entirely new impact. It is from Frederick Douglass’ own autobiography about his life as an African-American slave. It will haunt me now whenever I hear Spirituals or make up my own bluesy tunes in passing. This is written in Chapter II, a memory from before he was 10 years old:

“The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. …The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. … To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery… If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,—and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because “there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.” I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.”

Song pouring forth like tears for the relief of an aching heart. Music is a channel for all the emotion that lives within us, be it deep sorrow, longing, suffering, yearning, passion, joy or triumph. Have you never brought an embryonic ache to maturity by playing the right music? Have you not fed a wild impulse by stomping out an insistent rhythm and letting your voice, your body move along with it? Music is my companion, my teacher, my soul mate. It accompanies me as I discover myself, like my breath, my heartbeat. It is biological and intellectual, a genius of Life like an inalienable right. I could not endure existence without it; I can not imagine Freedom without it.

Jim at Carnegie Hall

My late husband was a singer, a gifted tenor. When he died, 300 people came to his memorial service to sing their good-byes – solos, congregational hymns and choir pieces. They sang as the living and imagined that there must be Music after death. They could not bear it to be otherwise. Though Death is entirely unknown and a very different (and luckier, as Walt Whitman would say) experience, I would not be surprised if there was music in it. Perhaps it is the very essence of all experience, conscious or not.

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

80 Years in Eight Days — Day Number Three: Ten Musical Memories

Today is Day 3 of my mother’s Birthday Project.  (Happy St. Stephen’s Day as well.  “Come on over; we’ll celebrate getting stoned”…one of my mother’s quips.)  On the docket are 10 musical memories.  My mother began her formal music training at the age of 5 when she started piano lessons.  To this day, she plays and sings for the residents of her senior community quite regularly.  Mom at POP 001

Her musicianship far exceeds mine, even though I have a B.A. in Music/Voice Performance.  She has an M.A. in Church Music.  She can improvise at the piano in various keys as well as play the organ: pedal keyboard and two manuals at once.  I am “keyboard proficient” and can play the pump organ at the museum…meaning, essentially, I can read piano music and ride a bicycle at the same time.  NOT the same skill set.  My favorite arrangement is her at the piano bench and me singing alongside. 

photo credit DKK

photo credit DKK

So here are 10 more musical snapshots of my mother:

1) She is a young girl, her mother calls out proudly, “Anne Louise, play Clair de lune.”  She rolls her eyes.  Not again!  Consequently, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her play it. 

2) I am a young girl, a wee little kindergartener.  Mom tucks me into the bottom bunk bed at night and sings, “Now the day is over/ night is drawing nigh/ shadows of the evening/ steal across the sky.  Jesus gives the weary/calm and sweet repose/ with his tend’rest blessings/ may thine eyelids close.”  She kisses my forehead.  “Ni’ – night, d’good girl!”  All is well.  I hear her voice complete in my memory.  Every note. 

3) Mom is studying at Concordia Teacher’s College.  She needs to do some organ practice, and I’m not in school.  Perhaps I’m sick?  So she takes me with her.  The organ is enormous.  The room is large and institutional.  I sit beside her and watch.  I am fascinated by the pedal keyboard.  Mom lets me crawl around on it, picking out tunes.  I play “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” on the black keys, like I do on the piano.  It booms out all over the room.  This is great!!

4) I am about seven years old.  I am the youngest member of our church choir which consists of my parents, my 3 older sisters, and a few others.  I sit in the front row of the loft with the sopranos, leaning out to see the candles in the Christmas Eve procession.  I am singing Midnight Mass with the adult choir, and I am going to stay awake through the whole service!  How exciting to be allowed to sing out like an angel from up here instead of being stuck in the basement in the church nursery!  Anthem’s over.  That sure was fun!  There’s a pile of coats in the corner of the pew….my, I’m feeling sleepy.  I’ll just rest a bit before the next hymn…oh! What?  We’re going home now?  Did I miss the recessional?  Drat!

5) I am about eleven years old.  I’ve been taking piano lessons for 3 years.  I practice before school every morning, while Mom washes the breakfast dishes in the kitchen.  I am out in the living room, struggling away with a new piece.  I hear Mom calling out from behind the swinging kitchen door, “It’s F-sharp, Priscilla!  Look at your key signature.”  I look.  She’s right.  How did she know that from the other room?!  I am trying to play a piano reduction of Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli.  I can’t get the stresses right to make the piece dance.  It comes out stiff.  I’m playing what’s written on the page, aren’t I?  Mom comes in, “Think of it this way…try singing in your head… cot-tage cheee-eese, cot-tage cheee-eese…” Suddenly, it clicks!  Oh, this is that piece from Fantasia with the hippos in tutus!!  I’ve got it now!  But cottage cheese?  What made her think of that?!

6) My mother and my piano teacher, Mrs. Lerner from around the corner, are in a community choir called The Village Accents.  They are giving a little concert at the Women’s Club in that Frank Lloyd Wright building in River Forest.  The family must be in attendance.  There they are, this bevvy of ladies in skirts made of green and blue polka dots on white fabric.  Their shirts, and the piano, are chartreuse.  Oh, Lord.  This is embarrassing! (Can you guess I’m in Junior High?  And it’s 1975?)

7) I am in High School.  I am dating a guy whose mother was a concert pianist.  He sings in the community college choir and has a great voice.  My mother highly approves.  She invites him over for dinner.  Afterwards, she sits at the piano and pulls out some sheet music:  Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are”.  I’ve never heard it before, but it’s a great fit – the style, the sentiment, the voice.  I am in romantic heaven.  Months later, he invites me to one of his Jazz Choir concerts.  “I have a surprise for you,” he says and puts a piece of paper in my hands.  On the program, I see he has a solo.  Yes, you can guess the song.  He tells me he’s dedicating it to me.  Yes, that was Jim, my husband for 24 years, until his death. 

8) So I go off to college to study, um, music.  I’m 400 miles away from home.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my mother and Jim have been singing in church together and have formed, along with some other church music colleagues, a group called Renascense (or some archaic spelling pronounced ren-NAY-sense).  I’ve done an entire blog post on this memory in the past, titled “Christmas 1982” and you can read it here.

9) Finally, I am a junior in college.  I have just been inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa society.  My grandmother purchased the gold PhiBet key as a gift to me, and I went to the awards banquet, alone.  I’m told a bit later that I should come to the annual Senior Awards Ceremony in May, even though I’m not really a senior.  Well, maybe I am.  I have enough credits to be.  I figure it’s related to the Phi Beta Kappa thing and tell my mother about it over the phone.  “Just a bit of news, Mom.  I know you have a 9-year-old at home to take care of, but there’s going to be this other ceremony…”   That sunny morning in Southern California, I am seated in Balch Hall with the choir and all the senior women of Scripps, glowing with promise.  It’s a beautifully festive day.  I scan the crowd…and there’s my mother!  What?!  She came all the way down here for this little ceremony?  The awards are given out.  The next one sounds interesting: The Gladys Pattison Music award, given to “the most deserving student in the field of music for the purpose of enriching her music library”.  Drum roll, please….yes!  It’s me!  I am surprised; I beam.  Afterwards, I find my mother.  She hands me a little gift.  It’s a music box, wrapped in keyboard paper.  I turn the handle and hear the opening notes of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.  Professor Lamkin, the choir master, joins us and suggests that we all go out to lunch…off campus.  What a treat!  I stare in amazement at Mom, who is not the spontaneous type.  “How did you just up and take off to be here?” I ask.  “Oh, honey.  I’ve been planning this for weeks.”  Oh.  Well, that explains it.

10) And in closing, every medley eventually ends up with “My Buddy”.  This is mom’s signature when she’s been at the piano a while.  No matter what key she’s in, no matter where she’s been dabbling, she always figures out how to incorporate this theme.  “Miss your voice, the touch of your hand, just long to know that you understand, my Buddy….my Buddy,  your Buddy misses you.”  I miss you, Mom.  Thanks for all the music!  I look forward to much more in the New Year!

mom and piano


I Love to Sing

As I was washing the dishes in the kitchen sink, a song came back to me from years ago when my children were toddlers. I had just finished giving a voice lesson to a Baptist pastor at his storefront church.  He’s coming along nicely, despite a rather constant battle with sinusitis (with which I sympathize, having finally had surgery for chronic sinusitis about 10 years ago).  He’s got an entire electronic sound system set up in the sanctuary, which is also in the process of being remodeled.  They raised the roof a few feet, improving the acoustics tremendously.  Today, I asked my student to try practicing The National Anthem while using  a microphone.  I want him to really begin to like the sound of his voice.  That will give him more confidence and more motivation to practice and play around with what he’s got in his “bag of tricks”.  I told him that I get a similar opportunity when I’m at the 1839 St. Peter’s church at Old World Wisconsin.  At the end of the day, before I sweep up and close the windows, I allow myself some singing time.  By that hour, visitors are heading to the parking lot and rarely step inside.   I do the figure 8 processional up and down the aisles singing “Jubilate Deo” or “Dona Nobis Pacem” or “Amazing Grace”. 

The acoustics in this Gothic Revival building are fabulous!  I really like the way my voice sounds echoing up in those wide, white spaces.  Yesterday, I stopped in a corner and tried out Schubert’s “Ave Maria”.  I haven’t sung that since I performed it at a wedding four years ago.  It was a paid gig, just four months after Jim’s death, on our Kiss Anniversary.  I was nervous, I was emotional, but I got through it.  Then I cried all the way home in the car from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to Illinois.  It’s a perfect song for St. Peter’s, the first Catholic cathedral in Milwaukee.  It sounds really lovely, but I need to find the music and remember the words! 

I am preparing to give another lesson this evening to my newest student.  She also has an amazing electronic set up…in her basement.  She’s a drummer; her husband plays and teaches guitar and writes songs for his rock ‘n’ roll band.  My student is going to try some Sarah McLachlan tunes.  She’ll do very well with that style.  So, I’m going to do a bit of listening now, but I’ll leave you with the song that started me off.  Enjoy!