Thursday, July 31, 2014

Passion and Classical Music


You may have heard me say this before, but I grew up … many decades ago … in a home where classical music was often heard. My parents had a large collection of recordings which continued to grow. It began with orchestral music, primarily, and eventually included music from ballets (much by Tchaikovsky), piano music … both solo and with orchestra, and my contribution was the opera that I discovered by hearing a Met Opera broadcast when I was thirteen. My dad played trumpet, and he played everything from jazz to big band to marches to classical.

During the “golden age of films” … I guess prior to television becoming so much part of our culture … there were a number of films made about the lives of classical musicians, primarily composers. I recall a film about Rimsky-Korsakov, and one about Robert and Clara Schumann. I recall a film about a woman who has to choose between her love for a classical pianist and a classical violinist (Rhapsody, starring the stunningly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor).

The most recent film about a composer was the very excellent Immortal Beloved, in which Gary Oldman gave to my mind a stunning performance as the fascinating composer. He had quite a life. That was twenty years ago. Through that film, people heard the performances of a great classical pianist, Murray Perahia.

They heard works of the composer who, my late husband liked to say, “left the classical era in a cloud of dust.” Beethoven’s work was epic, and he opened many doors for generations of composers to come.

I wish there were some way to introduce the beauty of classical music to more people. I try to do that in my novel Eli’s Heart, by describing the music that is so meaningful to my two young people who love each other so much, Eli and Krissy. In the book, Eli has an opportunity to provide music for a film sound track. It was great fun to write that part of the story. 

Eli and Krissy are denizens of the last century, though, and realistically I wonder if and when another such film will make it to the movie theaters. It’s very sad. Most people have no inkling how much passion there is in classical music. Henri Duparc wrote some of the most suggestively sensual songs imaginable, not through the lyrics, but through the incredibly gorgeous music. Krissy comments on one of those songs the morning after her wedding night. She and Eli are very passionate. Duparc’s song “Extase” unabashedly describes the wonderful act of lovemaking which Krissy has just experienced for the first time.

Yes, this is a shameful self-promotion for Eli’s Heart, because I love the book and people who read it tell me they do as well. Right now … I mean right now, as in today, July 31, 2014 only … the Kindle version of the book is on sale for $.99. You read that correctly. Tomorrow, August 1, it will be on sale for $1.99, and the following day for $2.99.  

Listen to some classical music, folks. You might be very surprised by how it moves you. It can be thrilling, passionate, soothing, ethereal, and altogether wonderful.

Friday, July 25, 2014



Being a self-published author is an adventure. Publishing Eli's Heart through CreateSpace was a good experience; having some skills on the computer definitely was a plus in doing my own formatting. The folks I spoke with on the phone were without exception pleasant, helpful, and never made me feel rushed. No wonder so many people publish on CreateSpace, especially if they can do what I did: handle everything but the actual production of the book. I was lucky enough to have two very talented young men and an accommodating pianist friend to provide the cover I wanted. Marketing is another matter entirely, but we won’t go there today.

There’s some angst with proofreading the book, and I requested two printed proofs before I released Eli's Heart. I am very happy with the finished product. Some people have read it; some people are currently reading it, and some people tell me they’ll probably read it at some point in the future. I’ve had some nice feedback. My official readers had been encouraging, but it was definitely nice to hear from someone who hadn’t made the journey with me and loved the book. Maybe I really can do this.

After the book was released and I saw it actually listed on the Amazon site, and added to my author page (a free service Amazon provides, and a very helpful one), I spent a few days taking a deep breath and noticing that the world is still actually orbiting around the sun. I don’t know about other writers, but I get so engrossed … well, maybe obsessed … when I am writing, I really don’t like to do anything else. For some reason, to this point I really have not experienced “writer’s block.” If anything, I write too much. I write words and words that never get into a book. I heard at a writer’s conference that sometimes we write something we need to write, but the reader doesn’t need to see because it doesn’t really move the story forward. I do that extremely well, overwriting (if there is such a term).

All this is preamble to share with you that after that brief break, I had another story idea. So for the past several weeks I have been working on what I refer to as UNTITLED BOOK THREE. (I feel compelled to always write that in all caps, for some reason.) With both my previous books, the title didn’t come to me until I was well into the book. So they had temporary titles (I think they are called “working titles”). The working title of this book is simply “Jamie’s Story.” If you read How I Grew Up you may recognize the name, and yes, indeed, I’ve decided Jamie can’t let that beautiful voice languish. Or maybe Jamie told me he needed to sing.

The work I’ve done so far on this book (somehow, calling it “work” doesn’t seem right … it’s such a source of joy for me) has taken me into the world of classical music again, this time the world of opera, a place I love to visit. Jamie is a tenor, and the music a tenor needs to study and master is very familiar to me. I spent many years with a very fine tenor, my late husband Sam Jordan, and shared in his journey as he pursued a career as an opera singer, oratorio singer, and recitalist. He opted to not pursue that career after a few years. It’s a very difficult life, and I respected his choice. I sang very little opera in college, but my husband and I gave a joint recital about twenty-five years ago, I believe. It was a thrill for me to sing with him.

The tenor voice is in my opinion the most exciting if it is a naturally beautiful voice and used correctly, with no straining or forcing. I’m including a YouTube video of one of my favorite tenors, Giuseppe di Stefano, performing the tenor aria from Gounod’s opera Faust. He does something with the high note in this aria that seems impossible to me, but it demonstrates perfectly why hearing a tenor who can sing this wonderfully reinforces my feeling about how powerful music is.

Just hearing this is a thrill. How wonderful to be able to produce such a sound. How rewarding to be part of the experience, whether as artist or audience. Bravo, Giuseppe!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"How's the house?" and "How is your book selling?"

The Wonderful World of Writing … from the Director’s Point of View

Directing a musical theater production has its constraints. There’s a definite time frame, and you have only so many weeks to select the show, cast the show, rehearse the show and then give it to the cast to perform for a limited time. For high school and community productions, generally that is one weekend, and over those two or three performances the audience sees the results of all your hard work. My sense is if I have done my job, nobody really cares who directed the show; they see words and music come to life on the stage through the actors and musicians who live a story and share it with everyone in the theater.

Of course, we hope there is an audience. The bigger the better! Actors love what they do, but they also love to hear the laughter, applause, and yes, the intense moments of silence when the audience is moved. So one question we all ask the box office personnel: “How’s the house?” Meaning are there going to be people in the seats to enjoy and appreciate this production? Of course, there have been expenses connected with putting this show up, and good houses also mean we can continue this venture and begin work on another show.

One of the first things I do as director is prepare a rehearsal schedule and attempt to make sure there is ample time provided within that schedule for adequate rehearsal of each and every scene, each and every musical number. Not just to learn them, but to polish them. To make what the audience sees looks fresh and new because the cast knows what they are doing so well the people watching aren't aware of miscues. We all know it won’t be perfect (I had a friend quote a mentor who told her “perfection is for the gods”), but we try to make it as nearly perfect as we can. Once the weekend is over, what are left are wonderful memories. We may direct or act in this show again in the future, but it will never be the same, because the people who are part of it are different.

When I wrote my first novel, How I Grew Up, my good friend Eric Mark who read and copy edited it kept reminding me “there is no opening night.” As a director I was accustomed to the time constraints of the rehearsal period. I have had to learn those time constraints do not exist for a writer. Eric is right; there is no opening night. The book is finished when it is complete.

I loved the 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy about Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison), in an increasing state of high dudgeon, kept asking Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) “When will you make an end?!” to which the artist calmly but firmly replied, “When I am finished.” I’ve learned it’s sometimes difficult to tell when that is, but at some point, the writer believes the story has been told as well as it can be told. For How I Grew Up, that happened after some four months.

I have written a second novel, Eli’s Heart, which was released recently. It took me considerably longer to write this book. It covered a longer period of time. It required more research. I did a good deal of rewriting. I wrote four different endings. This book took over nine months. I wanted to finish it. I wanted to get it “out there.” Eric wisely cautioned me again not to be too hasty. He was right, the extra six weeks or so I spent on the book undoubtedly improved it.

My theater friends know I have just released Eli’s Heart, and some of them say to me, “How's your book selling?” My response is “there’ve been some purchases.” There’s no opening night. There’s also no closing night; Eli’s Heart as well as How I Grew Up will be available for a long time for my audience – my readers – to decide to look at my work. And they don’t have to read it in two or three hours, the length of time the audience spends watching a show. My readers can spend weeks, even months, reading one of my books.

It is a thrill when I hear from a friend or acquaintance that they have read and enjoyed my work. I think these stories are good stories, and I tried to tell them as best I possibly could. I’ve had some modest success with How I Grew Up, and hope more people will buy it and read it. There have been some purchases of Eli’s Heart as well. As an independent, self-published author, I have to market my books. I have no publicist, nor do I have the money to do this aggressively. Word of mouth, social media, book signings are my primary means of getting the word out.

But at my stage of “advanced youth” I have no illusions about becoming a best-selling author. I started writing because I had a story I wanted to tell. I continue to write because more stories have come into my mind. I write because I find it immensely satisfying. I self-publish because it is a thrill to hold the book I have written in my hand. It’s my work, it’s the creative part of me finding an outlet after a lifetime of re-creating music and musical theater. Music is my passion, so I write about music and how strongly it can influence people’s lives. "Writing is its own reward" is a profound truth.

So to the question “how's your book selling?” the answer is: people are finding their way to my books. I hope more people find their way to my books; I believe they are worth reading. And there’s no closing night.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Inspiration for ELI'S HEART


Eli’s Heart was inspired by a friendship I had decades ago with a brilliant teenage pianist born with a defective heart. Samuel Sanders was fifteen when I first met him and heard him play. He was visiting a sister who lived in my hometown and he came to my house several times, and we listened to recordings of orchestral music, played piano duets (which was definitely daunting for me!), talked about books and baseball. His activities were restricted because of his congenital heart defect.

Tetralogy of Fallot, the heart condition my character Eli Levin lives with, is a complicated and frightening disease which is present at birth. Physicians have been aware of it for centuries. According to Wikipedia, “It was described in 1672 by Niels Stensen, in 1773 by Edward Sandifort, and in 1888 by the French physician √Čtienne-Louis Arthur Fallot, after whom it is named.”

With a lot of help from Dr. Aarti Asnani, a cardiologist with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I finally developed a grasp of the condition. There are four separate defects of the heart: a hole between the lower chambers (ventricles) of the heart, which means unoxygenated blood is mixing with oxygenated blood; a narrowing of the valve between the right ventricle and the lungs, which means not enough blood is getting to the lungs to be replenished with oxygen; a thickening of the wall of the right ventricle; and an aorta which is misplaced and is drawing blood from both ventricles. The result is a considerable reduction in the amount of oxygenated blood distributed to the body. The average person receives between 90 and 95% oxygenated blood. TOF patients receive sometimes less than 50%. Breathing is a struggle. Any physical activity, even walking, becomes difficult and can be life-threatening. Many children died in infancy, or did not survive puberty. Cyanosis (blue coloring of the skin, especially fingers, toes and lips) is a primary symptom.

In 1944, Drs. Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig, with considerable help from Blalock’s assistant Vivien Thomas, developed a procedure to alleviate these children’s suffering. A shunt was created by attaching a branch of the aorta to the pulmonary artery which increased the flow of oxygenated blood. Sometimes this increase was dramatic; sometimes enough to at least ease their symptoms. From my understanding, patients who survived the procedure lived more normal and longer lives. However, the heart was not repaired. The Blalock-Taussig procedure was considered “palliative”—it eased the worst of the symptoms, but all four defects of the heart were still there.

About ten years later an open-heart surgery (called the “total correction” or “total repair”) was performed which patched the hole between the ventricles and widened the opening to the lungs, giving the patients a chance at a better quality – and quantity – of life. Over the past decades, as TOF patients have lived longer (some into their seventies and even eighties) other surgical procedures have been developed and refined, and a range of medications also exists to help treat the condition. It was at first considered a congenital heart defect. It is presently considered a congenital heart disease, a life-long struggle with a heart which can never be made “normal.” From my understanding, there is no one “standard” procedure for these patients. One comment from Dr. Asnani in our extensive correspondence stands out in my mind:

“With regard to treatment options for (adult) TOF patients, it’s definitely not a straightforward decision to pursue surgery, so we will often try to manage with medications for as long as possible.  Newer technologies like cardiac MRI are helping us figure out when the heart dysfunction is progressing to the point where heart surgery is absolutely necessary to prevent a further decline, though we’re still wrestling with defining the exact timeline.”

One of the first things Samuel Sanders told me was that he didn’t expect to live past the age of thirty. Other than that, and telling me about the cyanosis and that he’d had surgery, he didn’t discuss his condition and I didn’t ask questions. We concentrated on enjoying the time we had together.

After hearing him play – brilliantly –  the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto a few months later, I lost touch with him. Some thirty years later I met a young man who was studying accompanying with Sam at Juilliard, so he’d have been in his early forties at that time. His student also told me Sanders had opted to work professionally as an accompanist rather than pursuing a career as a virtuoso pianist. I was very glad to hear he had survived past the age of thirty and was still sharing his extraordinary gift.

I thought of him again when I watched the HBO film “Something the Lord Made” (highly recommended) and wondered how he was. Internet searches revealed that he had died at the age of sixty-two. He’d had the B-T procedure when he was nine and two additional surgeries (the total correction and a heart valve replacement), and eventually not one but two heart transplants. The second one failed, sadly. While not a household name, he had a long and illustrious career as a collaborative pianist and performed with some great musicians who definitely ARE household names. I list a few of his many recordings in the discography at the end of the book.

As a teacher at both Juilliard and Peabody, and playing with many artists, Sanders had a grueling schedule for most of his adult life. I read somewhere that he played as many as 100 concerts a year. My thought is that schedule may have been what kept him going for so long. He refused to give in to his heart condition. His dedication to music made a huge difference in his case. From some of the blogs I’ve read by contemporary adult TOF patients, it seems the determination to live to the fullest despite their condition is what helps them not only survive, but thrive. I’ve also read indications of the difficulties of living with the disease: fear and anger, depression and despair, yet a great feeling of joy with every accomplishment. The human spirit is absolutely amazing. These are courageous people.

My book is fiction, and my character Eli Levin is the product of my imagination. I did not know Sam Sanders beyond that brief friendship when we were both little more than children. However, his passion for music certainly had a lasting impact on me; he was indeed an extraordinarily gifted pianist and musician. We don’t meet many musical prodigies in our lifetime, and if and when we do, we never forget them. The fact that this one also had a damaged heart made him even more unforgettable.

In the Afterword in my book I tell the reader about Sanders, and comment “What would it have been to have these two burdens, a damaged heart and a prodigious musical gift? What would it have been to share that person’s life? Hence: Eli’s Heart.”