Wednesday, May 27, 2015


My current writing project is a non-fiction book, working title Director’s Notes, since I begin each chapter with the notes which were included in the printed program for the show. In the book I revisit some of the shows I directed over a period of thirty-plus years beginning in 1984. Here’s an excerpt.
The Fantasticks
 The Fantasticks is considered a classic in American musical theater, and with good reason. It is refreshing, imaginative, and has a first-rate musical score, which serves to help develop the characters and move the story forward. It asks the audience to use its imagination and to become involved in ways most shows do not. It’s a unique experience, and I only wish every person in this audience had the privilege I’ve had of spending time with the remarkable people involved in this production.
In preparing The Fantasticks, I have worked with an absolutely incredible cast and directing staff, and this has been a memorable experience. Kelly Foley is one of the most creative and imaginative people I’ve ever known. With The Fantasticks, she has been able to let her imagination soar and the results are, well, fantastic. Scott Besser is a remarkable musician and very gifted pianist and this score has offered him the kind of challenge he enjoys. His artistry enhances every moment of music in the show.
The cast has been delightful to work with and each person has developed a character that is truly unforgettable. I would like to thank each of them for making every rehearsal a special time I looked forward to. I believe we have all had a great time learning this lovely show.
For those of you who recall life before TV, you will remember (as I do) radio shows that let your imagination take you to wonderful places. The Fantasticks does that – but it also makes you think about a lot of important life lessons. It’s easy to see why this show has run for 42 years off-Broadway, and why it will be performed for decades to come. Like Shakespeare, it is timeless and absorbing. It is a show that resonates.
 Susan Jordan
Pocono Lively Arts (Best Western Pocono Inn)
July, 2003

Beginning in the summer of 1999, it became difficult for Pocono Lively Arts to continue our summer stage productions at Stroudsburg High School. Newspaper articles from June of that year, including an editorial in the Pocono Record on June 2, 1999, explained the problems that had arisen between the group and the Stroudsburg Area School District. (NOTE: the group had been presenting a holiday show every November or December since 1979, and these were ongoing. The problems were only with using the venue in the summer, which we had been doing since 1989.)
The summer of 1999 we performed A Grand Night for Singing, a delightful scripted revue of the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and in 2000 we presented a semi-staged concert version of Guys and Dolls. These were performed primarily with piano, and though our casts were of necessity much smaller (we were performing in the Inn’s Ballroom), we enjoyed the intimacy and the new challenge of theater-in-the-round and the dinner theater performances were quite well attended. In 2001 we did another dinner theater production revue, Blame It on the Movies.
We found a way to do a fully staged show at Stroudsburg High School in the summer of 2002, The Secret Garden. We had to rehearse off site until tech week, and the set was also built off site and disassembled, moved to the school piecemeal and reassembled at the same time we were rehearsing. These difficulties, and the increased fees we were charged by the school district for our week of rehearsal and performance weekend, meant a return to dinner theater in 2003.
Learning The Fantasticks was an absolute joy for me. I’d heard of it, and I knew a few of the songs: “Try to Remember,” “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” and “Much More” were all songs I was familiar with and had taught to some of my private voice students. I had an idea of what the show was about, but hadn’t been aware of its thought-provoking, absorbing, meaningful and complex story. The Fantasticks can be defined in many ways, and I think it means something a little different to all of us. We can see ourselves in more than one character in this deceptively simple fable. The story line seems direct; the characters are what create the complexity.
It’s no wonder the show continued its run beyond the year 2003 and only, finally, closed in March of 2015. More and more people have come to see it and be enchanted, and more beyond that have returned, possibly many times, to find something new in the show each time.
Since we could not rehearse in a busy downtown hotel’s ballroom except on a very limited basis, we found other venues for rehearsal. With small casts this proved to be a relatively easy matter, and the Inn management generously gave us as much rehearsal time in the ballroom itself as they possibly could.
We rehearsed The Fantasticks for the most part in a large room which was in a strip mall behind the Paynter Music building. The school had converted it to a studio which was often used for ensemble rehearsals. It was about the same size as the dance floor in the hotel ballroom, which meant whatever we worked out in that space transferred fairly easily to our actual performance space.
It was an unusually rainy summer and we frequently had thunderstorms in the evenings. The parking lot near our rehearsal space had very poor drainage, and it wasn’t unusual for all of us to arrive with our feet soaked from walking the short distance from our cars to the venue. The rain continued into tech week and performance weekend, and the Best Western, a fairly old building, had a leaky roof right over one corner of the ballroom. We had to mop up the dance floor in that area before most rehearsals and performances and repeat the process during intermission. “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” for sure!
Our instrumentation for the show consisted of piano, keyboard, percussion and acoustic bass. Scott Besser is one of the most talented musicians I have ever been privileged to know, and is a near-genius pianist who tossed off the sometimes difficult score with great relish. The music, as the plot, seems deceptively simple, yet it has some complex and difficult sections, echoing the characters.
Scott hesitated about taking on the show at first; he wasn’t familiar with the music and wasn’t sure about the idiom. “Some of the pieces offered substantial challenges, technically and rhythmically,” he recalls. “‘This Plum Is Too Ripe’ was the song that convinced me to play the show. I gave it a chance and of course it grew on me.”
 The Fantasticks works best in an intimate setting, and it was perfect for the Best Western Ballroom where our audience was on three sides of the dance floor, which was our stage. Working in the venue had its challenges but I felt overall we handled the production well. I think the more intimate setting worked better for this show than the eight-hundred-seat Stroudsburg High School auditorium would have.
Anyone who is familiar with the piano score for this show knows it has some virtuosic moments. It requires a pianist who also understands the subtleties of accompanying singers. There is music through much of the show: set musical pieces, incidental music, scene change music. I volunteered to turn pages for Scott. He was probably sorry he accepted the offer, because I was an abysmal page turner for the show.
I went to a music school and turned pages for pianists fairly often. I know what the assignment is: you follow the printed music closely as the pianist plays, anticipating when the page should be turned, making sure to turn at exactly the right time. You cannot be distracted because that leads to an early page turn or a late one, and I’m not sure which is worse. Scott was generous to his very distracted page turner who had to apologize after every show for getting drawn into the performance. It’s hard to be the director who is admiring her cast’s performance and also be a good page turner. He said it was okay, but it wasn’t. Scott is a kind person. We’re still friends.
Every person who was part of this production was deeply committed to it, and was very much affected by it. Rehearsals were absorbing and sometimes exhausting, but more often, exhilarating. The Fantasticks draws you in as few shows do, and we were all sorry to see the run come to an end.
We could have gone on performing that show for a very long time. It’s definitely a theater piece that the actors live. It’s impossible to be a part of it without feeling you’ve been changed. You know yourself better; you look at the world a little differently. You see other people with more compassion. You resolve to be kinder and more understanding.
Maybe that’s why the pianist put up with this not-so-great page turner.

 Scott Besser
photo by Tristan Flanagan

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Words, Words, Words

Here's a Word: Typing 

Back in the middle of the twentieth century when I was a senior in high school, I took typing as an elective since I had an open period and I wasn’t a fan of study halls. It was undoubtedly one of the best decisions I made at the age of sixteen (when decision-making can be daunting). “Typing” isn’t something anybody under thirty, or maybe even under forty, seems to understand these days. It’s the same thing as keyboarding, children, only we didn’t have a monitor to look at, we had to roll a piece of paper onto a thing called a “platen” and the keys on the typewriter actually struck the paper through an inked ribbon and left the imprint of each letter. Sometimes we’d type too fast and more than one key would arrive at the paper at the same time, so we’d have to stop and untangle them. That was for manual typewriters. We were lucky enough to have electric typewriters in my typing class and the clashing keys were eliminated.

We also didn’t have the wonderful ability to backspace and correct as we do on the computer with mistakes magically disappearing ... if we made a mistake we had to erase, backspace, and retype the letter or word. Or we could use something called “white-out” to cover the mistake, and if you used white-out you generally blew on it until it dried and then backspaced and corrected your mistake. Whether you erased or used white-out, it was always obvious that a mistake had been made. So we tried hard to type as accurately as possible. Tests in a typing class consisted of speed and accuracy. I could type ninety words a minute with two mistakes. That was GOOD. No, that was REALLY GOOD.

The ‘Qwerty” keyboard (look at the left hand side of your keyboard immediately under the numbers and that’s what is spelled out) is partial to lefties, of which I am one, so I became a very proficient typist during my senior year in high school. It paid off, because I had an important skill needed for entry level office work. I worked part time in my college office, mostly during registration, and eventually was a secretary for The Edgecliff Academy of Fine Arts in Cincinnati after I’d completed the equivalent of an associate degree at the College-Conservatory of Music in that city. I never took shorthand, but I learned something called “speedwriting” which was helpful to a degree; but because I could type fast and accurately, I was secretary to men (back in those days, women were secretaries, men were bosses) who liked to dictate to me as I sat at the typewriter. It saved a step; I didn’t have to transcribe from their dictation. Instant communication, sort of, but we still had to put a stamp on the letters and send them via the USPS.

When I wrote my first novel, How I Grew Up, a couple of years ago, I don’t know how many words I actually put into my computer. I did considerable rewriting, and re-rewriting, and re-re-rewriting. Just ask my kind and patient readers! The completed book is over 84,000 words. I kept files of everything I didn’t use in a “drafts” folder, and I would guess there are another 30,000 or so words on those files.

I don’t know how authors from the century before the invention of the typewriter did it. I find the idea of handwriting 84,000 words totally mind-boggling. I think there are authors even today who prefer to scribe everything. I doubt How I Grew Up, Eli's Heart and You Are My Song would exist today if I hadn’t had a computer as a tool. I love my computer. I love the Internet; it takes me all over the world, and back in time. Sometimes the “back in time” part doesn’t work as well as the “all over the world” part, but if I dig hard enough I can usually find what I need.

II'm now at work on Book Number Four, non-fiction this time and not as lengthy as my novels. Since I haven't yet finished the first draft, I still have a lot of work to do ... that re-writing and making changes thing that happens, whether fiction or non-fiction. But being able to move my hands quickly over the keys on my computer keyboard is something I enjoy doing. And from time to time I thank my typing teacher at Oak Ridge High School for inspiring me to learn to type fast and accurately. It’s a skill that’s lasted a very long time and opened a huge new door for me.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Music: All Is Not Well in Opera World

What’s Happening to Opera?

     Something happened to the world of opera while I wasn’t paying close attention during those thirty years I was directing musical theater. The art form about which I am most passionate has been undergoing something of a “sea change,” and I – along with many others – find it disturbing.
     During the fifteen years I lived in Cincinnati – first as a student at the College-Conservatory of Music, later as a wife and mother – I spent many memorable hours at the Cincinnati Summer Opera. In those days the opera was performed in a pavilion in the Zoological Gardens, and it was a wonderful and unique experience.
     I heard some incredible singers. Some world famous, very great singers – some whose careers were winding down, but who still packed a punch: Risë Stevens, Charles Kullman, Jan Peerce, Licia Albanese, Italo Tajo. As time passed, I heard some young up-and-coming singers who had a future … chief among them, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes.  I heard and saw Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle in their prime. I don’t really know how many operas I saw, but it was a bunch.
     Some of the performances I saw in the mid-nineteen fifties were probably a little shabby, with set pieces that could have used some paint and costumes that were one step away from the trash bin, but they worked. They showcased the music and the amazing singers. The orchestra was excellent, the chorus quite good. The costumes, sets, and staging changed over time. Eventually, I saw a few more contemporary operas. I saw the handiwork of the great director Tito Capobianco, who was definitely a forward-thinker, but whose passion and reverence for opera was always apparent.
     Passion and reverence for opera. Opera is a magnificent art form and deserving of that. Some of the world’s greatest composers provided us, the audience, with works of musical theater – for that is essentially what opera is – which fill our ears and eyes, our minds, our hearts, our souls. Through these stories that unfolded on the stage, we looked into the past in a way that is seldom possible. And we loved what we heard and saw.
    Opera is undoubtedly the most expensive of all art forms to produce. Consequently, there must be an audience. In Europe, it seems the audience is there: opera is a part of the European culture and tradition as it is not in this country, and that is our loss. Without question, there needs to be a way to make opera more appealing to more people.
     Please notice I said appealing. Generally the word more often used is accessible. There has appeared over the past three decades in the world of opera, beginning in Europe and spreading across the pond to our shores, a new thought about how opera should achieve this. The argument is that operas should be re-imagined, that directors can take a creative work and in order to make it more interesting, layer it with their own “creative” thoughts, thus sometimes making it all but unrecognizable.
     Tradition: when I speak of tradition, I certainly don’t mean to suggest opera should be produced as it was in the nineteenth century with painted flats and none of the great staging that can be achieved in today’s theaters. I am very much in favor of any theater using the best and most up-to-date technology available and affordable. Tradition is a great thing, as are respect and passion. Keeping this in mind, it’s possible to successfully stage a much-loved opera in a new way. Taking a beautiful, treasured painting and lighting it differently, giving it a new setting and background, perhaps a new frame, enhances the painting – without altering it.
     There seem to be some directors working today who believe their responsibility is to point out the underlying meaning in the opera, to find in the work that which makes it meaningful in today’s world, to search for “symbolism.” But these works were written in another age, and the composer had no clue what the world would be like in the twenty-first century. This symbolism, it would seem, exists solely in the mind of the director – and in that case, the director is ignoring one great rule of theater.
     As a director, we serve the play. Or the opera, or the musical show. Our vision needs to be based on what we find in the text and the music, and sometimes even in the stage directions the composer has provided. If we start to speculate on what the composer might have meant, we have broken that rule and are now imposing our own flights of fancy on a work of art. We’ve taken that treasured painting and covered it with another layer of paint which presents a totally different concept. At worst, we’ve smeared it with excrement. And that seems to be what is happening more and more often in opera world.
     Many much more eloquent people than I have written at length about this. Heather MacDonald’s carefully considered treatise, “The Abduction of Opera,” is well worth reading. The Europeans have a phrase for it: Regietheater, or “Director’s Theater.” You can Google it and read about it and draw your own conclusions, as I have. It seems to me much is dependent on the integrity of each director. You can also draw your own conclusions about that.
     Opera will survive this, I’ve no doubt. But I hesitate to encourage people who’ve never seen opera to attend a live performance of some of the productions I’ve read about, most recently the Met’s production this past season of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. I think they would find them confusing and strange. It seems to me that sometimes what is seen on the stage is at odds with what the words and music are intended to convey. And when that happens, it ceases to be the opera which the composer wrote. That can’t be a good thing.
     When I listened to the Saturday afternoon broadcast of Un ballo in maschera recently, I didn’t have to watch the strange things asked of the cast – the chorus in particular – which made absolutely no sense. I just listened to the wonderful music and appreciated what a genius Mr. Verdi was, and how beautifully it was performed by singers and orchestra.
    That’s the sad part. Opera is meant to be visual as well as aural. Sight and Sound. Let’s hope the sight comes back and joins the sound before too much more time passes.

Un ballo in maschera, Act III, Chicago Lyric Opera, 2010

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Changing a Battery

You Need the Right Word

     Not long after my husband shuffled off this mortal coil for a happier place, I decided to have an alarm system installed in my house. I live just off a major artery in our neck of the woods and commercial development has been exploding nearby. It seemed a prudent thing to do.
     The initial installation took at least twice as long as it should have because the installer had only been with the company a short time. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have wondered if my house was his first solo installation. He left at the end of over eight hours with the sensors he had installed not sounding a signal when tripped and my phone line no longer able to access the Internet. This couldn’t be right.
     My older son contacted the company the next day and advised them this had to be corrected. Steve can be very forceful and the correction took place quickly, and all was well for many years. In fact, the system was so effective that, some five years later, between my efforts (an immediate 911 call) and those of the local police (incredibly fast response time), the burglar who broke into my house and tripped the alarm was captured. Before he got out of my circle. High fives all around!
     After that attempt I added three more sensors, and a few months later when I discontinued my phone land line, a wireless unit connecting my house to the monitoring system of the company was installed.
     That was interesting. After two false alarms within weeks of each other, a very nice technician showed up and checked the wireless unit, since that was what had caused them. He made an adjustment which avoided any additional false alarms. Good thing; I read last week about a local man who’d been arrested because of seven false alarms in twelve months.
     All had been well for the past two years until very recently, when I received a message from the pleasant male voice on my control panel. “Sensor Five, Living Room Motion Detector, low battery.” Okay, folks, no problem. I phoned the company and asked for a technician to take care of this.
     “We can send a technician, ma’am, but there will be a service charge of $130. The policy is now that our technicians’ time is valuable and our customers are capable of changing batteries. We have videos on our website that will show you how to do it.”
     “But I’ve had technicians take care of this kind of thing in the past. When did your policy change? This sensor is very close to the ceiling. I’ll have to use a ladder to reach it and I am a very short senior citizen. Shorter than the average ten-year-old. I avoid ladders whenever possible.”
     I didn’t say “senior citizen,” though. I gave her my exact age. I never do that.
     “You can contact the business office and ask them to waive the charge. The policy changed about two years ago. We sent out a letter,” she finished, a little lamely.
     “I don’t remember any such letter,” I said, a little shortly.
     “We sent it,” she insisted.
     So I went to my computer and to the personal page I had set up on the company’s website. I don’t like to climb ladders but I am fairly computer-savvy. The company monitors its customers pretty thoroughly, and my system page showed the low battery.  I looked further in the site. Sure enough, there was a video. A lovely young woman was shown removing the unit from its bracket and then replacing it, just like that, including a head toss after she replaced the unit and walked away. Obviously she was not on a ladder. I looked up the battery that was indicated. It did concern me a little that the actual removal and replacement of the battery hadn’t been included in the video. Another phone call.
     “I’m just checking on this battery to be sure I buy the right one.”
     “Yes, that should be right. Or it might be two double A batteries. We have no way of knowing which ones you will need until you open the unit.”
     “I’m still not thrilled about climbing this ladder. I’m sure I’m not the only senior citizen customer you have, and some might not even be able to get a ladder from their garage to the second floor. Let alone climb a ladder.”
     “We can send a technician for $130 minimum. Charges could go as high as $300.”
     “To change a battery? No, I’m still fairly agile. I will try to do this.”
     Next step: find the battery. One of the sources is listed as Walgreen’s, a store which is nearby that I visit often. They had a lot of batteries, but not this one. Radio Shack. I drive up the hill to the shopping center and just as I pull up to the Radio Shack, I remember it closed recently. No problem. Down the hill to the Mall, walk inside, go right to the Radio Shack store. Also closed. I finally find the battery on a friend’s suggestion in a local camera store, $8.00 plus tax.
     Back home, and back on line to read instructions about how to open the motion sensor. I am advised I may need a flat head screwdriver. Armed with three of them and the two different kinds of batteries, I go to the very top step of the ladder and am able to remove the motion sensor from its bracket and get back down to ground level without incident. Success!
     Now to open the thing. “Depress the two tabs at the top and the one at the bottom at the same time, then grasp the sides and slide the unit out.” Right. I have small hands to go along with the five feet tall thing. There is absolutely no way I can depress three tabs, two at the top of a two- to three-inch battery case, with one hand; I have to use two hands. Unfortunately, I don’t have a third hand. I struggle with this, and succeed in breaking two fingernails.
     Another phone call, and now I am getting frustrated. “I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to do this. I am a senior citizen. I’ve already risked my life climbing to the very top of a ladder and now I need three hands. Or hands like Rachmaninoff. And I’ve broken two nails.”
     Silence on the other end of the line. She probably never heard of Rachmaninoff. Now I get a little snarky.
     “Rachmaninoff. Very famous Russian pianist and composer who could span at least a twelfth on the piano keyboard.”
     “Can you hold, please, Mrs. Jordan? I need to speak with someone.”
     While she is gone I begin to try prying the thing apart with one of the screwdrivers. Voilá, it works! But guess what I find. Nary a battery in sight. Instead, I’ve reached the darned thing’s motherboard.
     When she comes back I share this information with her. “The batteries are behind the board,” she says helpfully. No kidding.
     “How do I get back there? And what happens if I destroy this computer board?”
     “Can you please hold again, Mrs. Jordan?”
     While she’s gone I take stock: I had to take every item out of a bookshelf in order to move it out of the way, so my living room is covered with books. I climbed to the very top of a stepladder, and am now sitting on my sofa staring glumly at this motion sensor which is laughing at me.
     “Mrs. Jordan, we’re going to send a technician out to help you.”
     “I can’t afford a $130 technician fee to change a battery.”
     “No charge. Just $25 for the service call.” This is part of my contract with the company. “Are you going to be home between twelve and five?”
     “You bet.”
     “The technician will call before he comes.”
     “I’ll be here.”
     The technician is a great guy who has helped me in the past. He fixed the false alarm problem for me, among other things, back in the good old days when a phone call to the company resulted in a helpful technician arriving at my door rather than a major trauma. He told me I had done good and almost had reached the mother lode … er, the battery. Except it was two double A batteries. I have enough double A batteries to last the rest of my life. He changes the batteries, replaces the motion sensor, and commiserates over my broken nails.
     “I’ll get you a check,” I said.
     “No charge.”
     “$25.00 fee for the service call.”
     “No, that fee was also waived. Can I put this furniture back in place for you?”
       I tell this story to a friend. “You had them with ‘Rachmaninoff’,” she says.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Inspiration for ELI'S HEART

A Courageous Musician

Eli’s Heart was inspired by a friendship I had decades ago with a brilliant teenage pianist born with the congenital heart condition Tetralogy of Fallot. 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.

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.

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.

(First published in July, 2014)

ELI'S HEART is available on Amazon as both paperback and e-book.

Cover design by Tristan Flanagan

Thursday, May 7, 2015

My Mother and the Prodigy

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

     If you had met my mother when she was a poised, accomplished adult, wife of a Vice-President of Borg-Warner, you’d have most likely been very surprised to learn that she had grown up riding a horse on a working ranch near Norman, Oklahoma. And possibly even more surprised to learn she’d dealt with discrimination from a very young age, since her father was the son of a member of the Choctaw tribe. In other words, a “half-breed Indian.”
     At some point in what I laughably refer to as my adult life, I realized what an extraordinary woman had given birth to me, and I made a point of telling her how much I appreciated who she was. She married my dad the summer after her high school graduation (I realized eventually it was most likely a shotgun wedding) in the depths of the depression. I recall she took some college courses when I was in elementary school. She read constantly. She was one of the most observant people I knew, and because of that and her intelligence she remade herself as often as necessary to keep up with my dad’s rise in the corporate world. She was devoted to my father. She was the wife he needed; she kept a beautiful home; she was a gracious hostess.
     She was also an incredibly kind, witty, loving, nurturing, and considerate person. When writing Eli's Heart and recalling the friendship I enjoyed with Samuel Sanders the summer I was fifteen, I also remembered the role my mother played in that relationship.
     We met him one spring evening near the end of my sophomore year when he performed for our Junior Music Club while visiting his sister, who lived in my home town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. His genius as a musician and pianist was apparent from the first notes he played, and everyone who was there that night was enthralled.
     When he returned for a longer visit during the summer he came to our house on several occasions. As I recall, he generally arrived in time for lunch. Mom and I were both aware of Samuel’s heart condition – one of the first things he told us was that he’d had an operation which took away the blue color from his lips and fingers, but that he wasn’t expected to live past the age of thirty. So we knew this extraordinary boy was dealing with two challenges, a bad heart and the burden of being a prodigy.
     We weren’t allowed to go outside, so I asked Mom what we could do to keep him entertained and happy while he was at our house. She wisely suggested I let him determine that. It turned out he liked playing piano duets with me, though heaven knows why. He also liked the copies of Sporting News and Sports Illustrated he spotted in the magazine rack, and he was delighted when I admitted those belonged to me.  He was a huge New York Yankees fan. We listened to baseball games on the radio, and he liked that I had a little knowledge of the game so could appreciate what was going on.
     He seemed to enjoy playing piano for me while I stood next to the piano and watched and listened. He played with such confidence, and the music seemed to pour out of him. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe this prodigiously gifted boy was seated at my piano, performing solo recitals for me.
     Mom’s biggest concern was making sure lunch was something he enjoyed, so she always offered a choice of sandwiches, salads, or soup. He always wanted grilled cheese: “And please don’t cut it in half.” He liked to rip the sandwich into sections and watch the melted cheese try to flow away from the fried bread. She also offered a choice of beverages, beginning with milk. Next was water. Last was soda, which was inevitably his choice. “I’d prefer Coke.” Dessert was always squares of Hershey’s chocolate, which was a staple in our house.
     She did comment after his second or third visit, “I wish he’d ask for something besides grilled cheese and Coke.” She was fine with the chocolate.
     On rare occasions we went out for ice cream, and I believe his sister initiated those outings. If you’ve read Eli’s Heart, you may recall Eli and Krissy had a banana-split-eating contest and Eli won. That’s drawn from life, and I’ve never even been able to look at a banana split since. I remember the two women laughing almost hysterically as they watched us try to inhale all that goop.
     Samuel seemed much younger than sixteen and I looked at him as a sweet, funny, slightly geeky little boy with this huge talent. Mom never said much, but she may have seen what I did not see – that he was most likely going through a late puberty and experiencing a lot of emotions I was totally unaware of. She said many nice things about him, but never suggested I should look at him differently or think of him as anything more than a good friend. Both my parents encouraged me to think for myself, to be my own person. Which meant making my own sometimes bad choices.
     After that summer I saw Samuel Sanders only one other time, when he returned some months later to perform with our local symphony orchestra. He played the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto – brilliantly, passionately. He’d also grown up. He wasn’t a little boy any more, but a poised and appealing young man. I think my extraordinary mother saw what this extraordinary boy was going to become.
     My book Eli’s Heart is not about Samuel Sanders, but it was inspired by the remarkable opportunity I had to enjoy a brief friendship with him. My mother, (Lillie) Erma McKee Moore, appears in the book as Lily Porter. And Lily definitely is my mother. I’m glad I had the foresight to preserve some of her wonderful qualities in the book.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

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 to make it work. Try your hardest. Never stop trying.

And never stop learning.

First published April, 2014

Sunday, May 3, 2015

If You'd Just Listen!

Confessions of an Opera Junkie

     Nobody’s life is perfect. In my case, I’ve spent my entire life left-handed, and my entire adult life shorter than the average twelve-year-old. Well, these days, probably more like the average ten-year-old. But I learned to cope. More recently, I’ve had to work out being old, and since I’ve never been old before, I’m mainly playing it by ear. It’s definitely one of those “hands-on” experiences.
     But there is one area where I feel isolated and am really not handling well at all. I am a confessed opera-lover. Do you realize how rare we are? Probably not, unless you happen to love opera and live in a small community where being an opera-lover makes you someone your friends aren’t sure what to do with.
     I’ve loved opera since I was fourteen years old and turned on a Metropolitan Opera Saturday afternoon broadcast. I seldom missed one after that. I went to a high school of over a thousand people, and I was very active in the music department. Do you know how many people I met in my school who loved opera? One. Well, some people sort of liked it, but …
     Now, I wasn’t exclusive to the point of not listening to the pop music of my teenage years. But I enjoyed and appreciated all classical music (that in itself made me odd). I took piano lessons and studied ballet, and I was involved in the high school musicals and loved singing in chorus and our select group, Choral Ensemble. I liked band music. 
     But I loved, I mean loved, opera. And until I went to music school – I like to think of it as my time in Nirvana – I generally listened to operatic recordings and those Met broadcasts all by myself. It was okay. I had the music, and the singers. Those amazing voices, people who without amplification could sing over a full orchestra. How in the world did they do that? And they made it sound so easy!
     I’m not sure how, but I was accepted as a voice major at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and started school when I was seventeen. I was convinced I had died and gone to heaven. All these people were just like me. They loved opera. We shared recordings. We sang, talked, ate, drank, slept opera. When summer rolled around, I spent most of my time at Cincinnati’s Zoological Gardens. That’s because the opera pavilion was located there. Oh, yes, I occasionally looked at the animals. The ones near the pavilion.
     I heard some great singers. I heard some not-so-great singers. I heard great singers on a bad night. I heard great operas. In those days I thought they were pretty much all great – the Zoo Opera mainly stuck to standard repertoire, and it’s hard to go wrong with Puccini and Verdi and Carmen. I loved every minute of it.
     Eventually, I left Cincinnati after marrying and having three children, and found myself in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Not much going on locally in the early nineteen-seventies, but we found our way to New York and Philadelphia. You know what’s in New York, right? The Metropolitan Opera. And for a long time, the New York City Opera as well. Nirvana was in the East. I was going to be okay.
     Those trips to the Met became fewer and fewer over the years, and eventually wound down. Sadly, the NYCO got into big trouble. But wait! The Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts would be there forever. And then, like manna from Nirvana (yes, I know what I just did) – the Saturday HD live streaming telecasts from the Met stage, sent out worldwide. First to a neighboring town, and eventually to a theater in my local Cinemark!
     Well, of course I always had recordings. First LPs, then CDs, then DVDs. But here’s the thing about opera. It’s better if it’s shared. I tried sharing it with my kids. They heard operatic recordings blaring at all hours of the day, and on them it had the wrong effect. We took them to New York to see Die Fledermaus at the NYCO. The parents thought it was great. The kids were bored out of their skulls and referred to it ever afterward as “Deflatable Mouse.” I obviously handled this all wrong. I should have forbidden them to ever listen to opera.
     Since I was now teaching voice privately, I sometimes assigned arias to those students who had voices that were compatible with opera. Some of these students liked singing arias. Some would even listen with appreciation when I played them recordings. When the Internet appeared on the scene and YouTube along with it, I began to email students videos of arias. Usually an aria they were working on.
     Then I discovered Facebook and set up a Facebook page. Now I could from time to time post these videos to share with my Facebook friends. Once in a while somebody would even listen to one of them.
     I’m starved for the company of fellow opera-lovers. I see them at Theater #10 in the Cinemark from time to time, sneaking in guiltily to partake of our addiction. Sometimes I find a friend who will go with me. But I want to sit and dissect what I just heard and saw, the way I did when I was a music student in those far-off days of yore.
     After thirty-five years of teaching, I have a couple of students who are living the dream. When I send them PMs on FB they are kind and respond. They’re sweet. I try not to bore them with my opinions (I pretend they are “thoughts,” but they are definitely opinions. What are these stage directors thinking these days?) It’s just not enough. Maybe I need to start a local group that meets after the Saturday HD telecasts.
     In the meantime, I’ve checked out the HD offerings for next season. Some great operas! And I’m determined to make a pilgrimage to the Met next season. That might help.
     You see, there’s this amazing new tenor …

Tenor Bryan Hymel as Énée in Les Troyens