Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Music and Words


I absolutely had a great time at my first ever book signing last weekend. Promoting HOW I GREW UP has been a gigantic learning experience. I know I’m repeating myself but people my age are allowed to do that; it’s expected. I wrote the book because I wanted to write a book, and it was a good story. No, it was a great story, actually. I think I did a good job telling it. And since I wrote it, I wanted to see it in print, and then wanted to find ways for more people to know about it and read it.

That plunged me into the wonderful world of book marketing. Yikes. I had no clue about any of this. So every step has been a new one. I did want to have a book signing, and people kept asking me when that was going to happen. I had basically “self-published,” though I did use a Print On Demand company that screens manuscripts. So any marketing I did was left up to me. I’ve since learned that “mid level authors” who sign with a major publishing house virtually have to do the same thing. Big difference, the publisher signs them to a contract, sometimes for a nice amount of money. Another big difference, that publisher owns their book. I definitely like that I own my book, and Virtual Bookworm’s fees were quite reasonable. I’ve made some return for my investment from royalties, and it’s very nice to receive those checks!

Oh, yes, back to the book signing. Since I’ve discovered my “brand” as an author is “the powerful effect of music in people’s lives,” my books have music in them. HOW I GREW UP has music from the musical drama CAROUSEL in it. A local theater, the Pocono Community Theater, was willing to accept books on consignment so people had a place to buy them. One problem with publishing as I did, “brick and mortar” bookstores don’t like to put copies of your book on their shelves because of the return policy of the P.O.D. companies (at least, some of them). In exchange for a donation to the theater if/when books were sold, they also designed and ran an onscreen promotion for the book, and had handouts about HOW I GREW UP in the lobby. It’s a great theater and very supportive of local artists.

Sorry, I keep digressing! The theater agreed to my use of the space for a book signing, and my first thought was to have a showing of the film version of CAROUSEL in conjunction with the signing. The film wasn’t available, and that turned out to be a good thing. Why not live music from the show, along with some brief readings by the author, as a special event? Much better!

So some new friends, performers from Theatrical Gems -- a new local theater group -- were kind enough to sing the songs I wanted to hear (which is some cases meant they learned the songs for me). The great young men and women from East Stroudsburg High School South who didn’t graduate last year were willing to resurrect a couple of the ensemble numbers from the show. A good friend and fine pianist, Todd Deen, was available to play for the evening.

The theater thrilled me no end when they put the name of the book on their marquee two weeks prior to the book signing, and the local newspaper contacted me for an interview. Also very cool.

The audience seemed to enjoy the night as much as I did. Started at seven, over before eight-thirty. It was great fun to sign books for people! It was fun to read some selections from the book to introduce some of the musical numbers. It was most fun for me to hear that wonderful music again, music I had been introduced to over a half-century earlier, and feel I was sharing the music with yet more people. Thanks to one of my sons and his best friend, all my expenses were covered and I was able to make it a “no charge” event.

It was interesting to go back to HOW I GREW UP and select my readings, because my head and heart have been so much in ELI’S HEART for the past eight months that I had not re-read my first book since it was released last October. I liked what I read. I also found mistakes that I had missed, even though I read and re-read that book more times than I can count. I actually spotted one as I was reading on Sunday night, but fortunately, was careful not to broadcast it to the people who were there. Well, I guess in 84,000 words, two or three mistakes isn’t too bad. There may be more I’m not aware of. Good lesson learned, go over ELI’S HEART with even more care before releasing it.

The book signing and “music and words” event was great! I’d like to do it again. I have a friend who is working on a book signing for me for fall. I should have two books by then! If anyone had told me last year on April 30 that I would write two novels in less than a year, I’m sure I would have laughed. Melanie, my heroine in HOW I GREW UP said it best: Life can certainly be strange.

Monday, April 21, 2014


My father was an engineer by education and profession, but when he completed college just before World War II broke out, engineering jobs were scarce. He was also a very fine musician and for several years supported his family with different music-related jobs: teaching, arranging, and performing.

As a consequence, I grew up in a home where music was always present. Dad played trumpet, and while he played jazz and big band, his greatest love was for the classics, so I heard some orchestral pieces from my earliest childhood. I couldn’t tell you when I first heard Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, or Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

Perhaps I inherited my dad’s passion for classical music; perhaps it was simply a part of who I am. My first instrument was a piccolo and he was my teacher. Next was piano from about the age of nine, and in high school I was fortunate enough to have a chance to learn a little about playing harp (our school owned one). I loved ballet and studied from the time I was very young. It was another way to experience music, and to express the music through movement.

Finally, I started singing, and to me that was best of all. I loved to sing. I studied with a lovely lady beginning my junior year in high school and eventually attended the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati as a vocal performance major. Those were some of the best years of my life, even though I quickly understood that my dream of singing opera was exactly that, a dream. As much as I loved to sing, I was not “a singer.” So I married a tenor who was a singer, and who sang professionally for several years before deciding the difficulties of that life were not for him. He continued to sing, sometimes volunteering his talent, occasionally on a professional basis, for the rest of his life.

Much to my surprise, he suggested I open a private voice studio. I had maintained some piano skills and I had continued to sing, mainly in church choirs. So I quickly stepped through the door he had opened for me and discovered what I do best. Since my voice had been small and it required considerable understanding of vocal technique for me to use it well, I had a wealth of tools with which to assist my students to unlock their voices. And it became quickly apparent that the more I taught, the more I learned. Each voice is unique, each requires special attention. And the voice is connected closely to the psyche, to the emotions of the singer. My gift is to connect with my students in such a way that they trust me to lead them on a path that guides them to the place where they can begin to make music.

Another opportunity presented itself soon after I opened my studio in 1979. A few years later I began directing musical theater productions for a local community theater, and eventually for two different high schools. These two activities, teaching and directing, were exciting and fulfilling, and after all these years I continue to teach and direct.

Last year, at a surprising time in my life, I began to write. I write about what I know and love best: music. First a book about a musical theater production that helps heal a young girl, How I Grew Up. And now I have nearly completed a longer, more complex book, about a young couple whose life is music, but is shadowed by the serious heart defect the young man has suffered since birth. Along with the challenge of finally understanding and explaining the particular heart defect, it was important to include music that was meaningful to my characters Eli and Krissy. And how and why it was meaningful. I have included descriptions of this music, hoping to inspire the reader to perhaps listen to at least some of it.

Since I am not by any stretch of the imagination a pianist (I can still struggle through song accompaniments … some song accompaniments), it was immensely helpful to discuss several passages in the book with my good friend and musical near-genius pianist (who also has an unparalleled zest for life), Scott Besser. Scott made in particular one observation that saved me for omitting a vital part of Eli’s character … what he felt when he played. I know why I sing, and I knew why Eli played, but I had nowhere specifically included his emotional, his visceral reaction to playing. Scott read several sections of the book, made suggestions and gave me some important thoughts and allowed me to use some of these. I appreciate his contribution to this book more than I can say.

And since Eli’s choice is a career as an assisting artist, he collaborates in particular with a violinist. Now, violin is a huge mystery to me, though I love to listen to string music. So another near-genius musician friend, violinist and sometimes world traveler Chris Souza, led me to a piece of music I had never heard but which has become a favorite, the Franck Sonata in A Major for violin and piano. I had asked for a piece that features both instruments on an equal basis, and this piece certainly does. Chris suggested why this is true, and was kind enough to allow me to include one of his comments in my description. I have this piece in my head a lot these days! Major earworm.

Eli’s Heart is not a musical treatise, it is a love story, but music is at the heart of that love. Why that is true is an important part of this story. Scott and Chris are among the many musicians I’ve been privileged to call friends. Music is meant to be heard, to be shared, to be a gift to the listener and the performer alike. The best musicians are generous with the love, the passion, we share for the art.

In a conversation with his best friend, Eli says: “I don’t do what I do for the applause, Jackie. I do it for the music.” -- Eli's Heart

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Word for the Day: Choices


It’s been my good fortune to have spent much of my adult life working as a teacher, stage director, and sometimes mentor to young adults. I prefer that term to “teenager,” because yes, they are in their teen years, but they are working hard to become adults. And it’s a difficult job, as I well remember.

Looking back over a long life, I recall how I struggled with growing up. I really would have preferred to stay a little girl, safe and secure in a very stable family, but that was not a choice I could make. Life doesn’t work that way. Many of my young adult friends are at a time in their lives when they are making decisions about college … whether to attend, what college to attend, what field of study to choose. I know I had a difficult time with that. Music had always been part of my life and it seemed logical I would continue with it in college. I also had a great love of history, and still do, and that field appealed to me as well.

I sometimes tell my voice students that “you don’t choose music; music chooses you,” and that may very well be true. It seems to be a passion we are born with, and it won’t be denied. In the end, that was my “choice” and music has been my life ever since. I feel very fortunate this is true, because I see music as the most powerful force in the universe. Attending the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati was a choice I made. I had visited other schools, but this one appealed to me as no other had.

All of us are constantly faced with choices. I’m sure all of us look back and think given the opportunity, we might choose differently than we did at the time. All of us have made good choices and bad choices. We wouldn’t be human if we hadn’t. I recall reading not too long ago something to the effect: “the moment of absolute certainty seldom comes. Make the choice and move forward.” No doubt, good advice; but some bad choices are difficult to live with.

Whatever choice you made, it was your choice. Chances are you weren’t forced to choose one way or the other. More important is to accept that you made the choice, and it’s your responsibility to make the best of it. Sadly, some people today don’t want to do that … “it wasn’t my fault.” Are you sure about that? If you choose to blame someone for a bad choice you made, does that mean you will give credit to another person for a good choice you made? We are responsible for ourselves in this life.

Sometimes circumstances are thrust upon us that we have no control over: someone we love dies; we are in a terrible accident and lose a limb. Or our vision. Or our hearing. No one would choose for these things to happen. The choice in these instances is how we deal with these tragedies. From time to time I see a quote that I like very much: When something bad happens, you can choose to do one of three things … let it define you, let it destroy you, or let it strengthen you.

It’s easy to look back and say, “If I had known then what I know now, I would have handled that differently. I would have made a different choice.” Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way, either. Those are lessons learned: sometimes very difficult lessons. But I choose to believe that is why we are here – to learn.  

Back to my young adult friends who are faced with an important choice during their senior year in high school. This is the first of many life choices they will have facing them. Make the choice, and then choose to try and make it work. Try your hardest. Never stop trying, and never stop learning.