Saturday, October 24, 2015

Good Music

My First Rock Concert EVER

I heard someone say once, “There are only two kinds of music. Good music and bad music.” And last night I sat through my first ever rock concert, and it was good music.

My background is classical, and that’s still my “genre” of choice. But recently I’ve been making an effort to get out of my box and learn more about other musical worlds: folk music in particular. A good friend, Missy Benefield, invited me to a rock concert by the Anderson Ponty Band at the Sherman Theater. “I think you’ll like their music,” she said. “It's classic rock. You’ll hear a variety of styles.”

The other drawing card was having a chance to say hello to an old friend, Glenn Kern, with whom I worked on a number of stage musicals not too long ago. Glenn is a sound designer and technician and is great at what he does. He has toured worldwide with an impressive list of performers. I had heard him talk about Jean-Luc Ponty, jazz violinist, a number of times. Last night I heard the man play.

Yes, it was loud, sometimes painfully so. Other times it was whispery and almost mystical. The six musicians on stage were all excellent performers and they worked well together. When Jean-Luc began to play his electric violin my jaw dropped, literally, and I sat open-mouthed listening to his virtuosity and showmanship. When I checked his credentials I see he began life as a violinist in a symphony orchestra in Europe and eventually found his way to something different. Now in his seventies, he plays with the energy of a much younger man and is, well, awesome.

The other principal in the group, Jon Anderson, I read was once the lead singer for YES, which meant nothing to me. But for a man in his seventies to sing the way he does is remarkable, and he sounded stronger at the end of the show than at the beginning. Amazing. A very high tenor. I had a chance to meet him the day before and he described himself as an “alto tenor.” We talked – believe it or not – about classical music. He’d recently been to a Sibelius festival. Sibelius as in the composer, not the notesetting program.  

What impressed me most was how they mixed up what they did. Every number was different. Some were what I expected, with a hard, driving beat and virtuoso playing from the bassist, guitarist, and remarkable keyboard player, along with Jean-Luc’s electric violin. The drummer was equally amazing and he had a huge drum set which he utilized more than once to its fullest capacity. Then we’d hear something with a haunting, almost Celtic sound. Then something with a little of a country sound to it. Missy said to me at one point … well, she kind of yelled it … “This reminds me of Pink Floyd.” I just smiled. Pink who?

As I listened, thoroughly enjoying the music I was hearing, the realization came to me that this was a class act … these were first-rate musicians who had put together a show well worth hearing, and they were performing it splendidly. I’m glad I went. I’ll buy the album when it comes out. And I’ll play it. Oh, and I didn’t even mention the light show. It was the icing on the cake.

The theater was pretty well packed, and I understand some people came from a distance to hear this group, so they obviously have had a following for probably decades. Many people were singing along with some of the songs they performed. Many of the songs were greeted with applause and yells of approval. It was not a rowdy crowd; but they sure had a great time.

So did I.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Violins and Violinists

Passing the Torch

One of my characters in Jamie’s Children, my work-in-progress, comments: “In the right hands, the violin can sing as beautifully as the human voice.”  A favorite college memory: hearing the legendary Jascha Heifetz perform the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. String players awe and amaze me. Mastering any string instrument has to be a challenge unlike any other, and I do love the sound of the violin. The Brahms concerto is one of my favorite pieces of music, and it plays an important role in the upcoming book.

I don’t recall when I first met violinist Chris Souza. I believe the first time I worked with him was, interestingly enough, in a musical theater production. In 2010 South High School performed The Secret Garden, which has a beautiful, lush, lyrical score which needs strings, and the school has no string program. Chris and a cellist with whom he frequently plays, Agnieska Rybska, agreed to join the high school instrumentalists and play for the show.

It was magical. The young musicians rose to the challenge of these two fine performers being in their midst; it was probably the best pit orchestra we ever had. The young men and women on stage also responded to the beautifully expressive and well-executed string sounds they were hearing, and the caliber of the show jumped several notches. It was an exceptional production.

When I was writing Eli’s Heart, I needed a violin and piano sonata that featured both instruments equally, and when I asked Chris for a suggestion he named Franck’s A Major Sonata, which I listened to and promptly fell in love with. The piece features prominently in the book, and last year when I held a “musical book signing” at the Pocono Community Theater … short readings from the book about specific pieces, followed by performances of those pieces … Chris and pianist Scott Besser played two movements from the Franck sonata. Hearing them was enormously gratifying. It was more than that; it was a thrill.

My current work in progress, Jamie’s Children, is about a brother and sister whose musical lives move in very different directions, and at very different times in their journey. Their father, Jamie Logan, is a world famous opera singer whose story is told in You Are My Song. Laura, Jamie’s firstborn, is discovered to be a violin prodigy at the tender age of four. Chris has been my “go-to”” person for learning more about Laura’s life and career. As a way to better understand what a child that age might have to experience when first beginning to play, Chris generously invited me to attend his studio classes one morning last week. It was an educational and delightful time.

Chris is as impressive a teacher as he is a violinist. I watched a few minutes of his “older” class (all these kids are home schooled and these were morning classes) and heard some nice playing. Then I watched him work with 5-year-olds who are just beginning. There were four little girls in this group but I believe Chris said two were missing.

I loved that one of the first things these children learn is respect for their instrument. They spent quite a bit of time learning to do a “concert bow” … how to hold the instrument and bow in one arm, keep the feet together, bowing to the audience, etc.  The kids were very attentive, partly because of Chris injecting humor into this part of the lesson. After he had shown them the proper way to do this, he had them close their eyes as he then demonstrated the wrong ways, one at a time, and had the kids tell him what he was doing wrong. It was a very effective teaching tool (and one I’ve used in audition workshops for aspiring musical theater performers).

At the beginning of the class they sat on mats and did rhythm exercises. Then after working on their concert bow, they worked on how to correctly hold the violin … they all seemed to have a good basic understanding of holding the bow … and did some open string exercises, and then were shown how to use the ring finger … the third finger … on the strings. As they played he moved among them, gently adjusting an elbow here, a bow arm there, checking hand positions.

He then had the children sit again and used some flash cards, again for practice with rhythm. When he asked them to stand, one child in the group said, “I’m sitting now.” And refused to stand, and her wise and wonderfully patient teacher ignored her and continued the lesson. Eventually she did get back on her feet.

Chris kept the class moving and I appreciated his soft-spoken and low-key approach with these munchkins. While I became very much aware of the amount of strength and coordination these young violinists would need to develop in order to play well, the kids were absorbing it a step at a time, and Chris made it fun for them.

At the end of the lesson they all took a final concert bow. They were a happy and excited group when they left, having experienced a joyful time with the violin. How great to witness a fine violinist passing on his passion for music and for his instrument to these fortunate children.

Chris Souza
photo by Tristan Flanagan

Friday, October 16, 2015

Who Is Jamie Logan?

You Are My Song

Jamie Logan, my book blurb reads, is from a small town in Tennessee, and is “a good-hearted young man with a superb tenor voice.” He gets off on the wrong track when he marries his high school sweetheart two years after they graduate; and two years later it’s apparent Sarah never wanted to be a wife. The year at this point in 1958, so here is Jamie, with an associate’s degree in business administration, running a car dealership because he thought that’s what his girl wanted.

Pretty depressing, to be twenty-two and feel that you’re a failure. Jamie has always wanted to be a father. His own family means the world to him: his father Jim, a good husband, father, and provider; his somewhat mystical mother Laurie, third generation Irish; his six-years-older sister Carol, her husband Larry Sweeny, her children, Jamie’s niece and nephew Anna and Steven, whom he doesn’t see nearly enough of since Carol’s family lives in Florida.

So where does he go from here? Devoted son, brother, uncle … and possessor of that splendid voice, which he used to its fullest in high school but hasn’t really used in four years. Jamie knows one thing: he can sing. He starts studying voice with his former high school choral director, now teaching in a private studio in Jamie’s home town.

When he hears a recording of the great tenor Giuseppe di Stefano singing an aria from Puccini’s opera Tosca, Jamie has a life-defining moment. This is what he wants to do – no, this is what he has to do. After a few months of study he auditions for the nearby state university’s opera program and is accepted. And that is his first step into a world that can be exciting, fulfilling, nerve-wracking, stressful, daunting, challenging in ways Jamie never anticipated.

His college teacher tells him he has more than an exceptional voice. He has what’s called “the whole package”: he’s a gifted musician and actor, learns quickly, is adept with languages. Oh, and he’s also an unusually good-looking young guy, a definite plus for a tenor, who usually plays the love interest in an opera.

His voice teacher also cautions him that it’s a tough business. While it can be rewarding almost beyond belief, it can also destroy people. It’s not for the faint of heart. Jamie’s not so sure he’s up for the challenge. He sees himself as a pretty simple guy who tries to get along with people, who sings because he loves to sing. Part of Jamie’s charm is his naïveté.

He battles with his self-doubts. Sarah divorcing him has almost destroyed his self-confidence. In Tennessee at the time, “no fault” divorce did not exist: there had to be a specific reason for the divorce. The only one that will work for them is for Jamie to declare he was impotent during the marriage. He agrees, to please Sarah one final time, but it’s a high price for him to pay.

He also has a rival who does his best to undermine Jamie and get him dismissed from the opera program. But two things happen: Jamie falls in love again, this time with a woman who will do whatever she can to help him succeed. And he sings in his first opera and it’s an experience like nothing he’s ever had. Despite everything that’s happened to this point, he wants to pursue the art he’s become passionate about. He has to do this. It’s why he’s alive.

And the rest of the story is in You Are My Song. There are obstacles in his path. There are also successes. There’s sorrow, but there’s also happiness. There are surprises.

But it’s all about this good-hearted boy from Tennessee who has this gift … he can sing.

You Are My Song on Amazon

Monday, October 12, 2015


About Jamie Logan, Tenor

    The nineteen-fifties. Elvis is wearing “Blue Suede Shoes.” Country music reigns supreme at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville.
     But in a small Tennessee town Jamie Logan ─ a good-hearted young man with a superb tenor voice ─ stars in his high school’s musical theater production and begins an unlikely, almost magical journey that could take him to the pinnacle of the opera world.
   The path is far from simple. Jamie just wants to sing. He is ill-prepared for the jealousy, rivalry and politics he encounters on his way. Family crises and even a hate crime also sidetrack him and threaten to undermine his journey.
    But Jamie has a voice beautiful beyond belief ─ and the love of a woman who inspires him to believe in himself. His desire to sing becomes his reason for being. Will that be enough?

     I introduced Jamie Logan in How I Grew Up; he played opposite Melanie Stewart in their high school production of Carousel. I like my character Jamie. He has a naturally beautiful voice. He has innate musicianship and an ability to learn quickly, and no ego. He’s friendly, generous, outgoing, considerate. Oh, and unusually good-looking. He and Melanie have a strong connection, and they both wonder if they could be in love. But no, Jamie has a jealous girlfriend he later marries, and she doesn’t want him to sing.

     When You Are My Song begins, it’s four years after Jamie’s graduation from high school, and his marriage has failed. I had to laugh at my readers’ reaction to that; two of them commented they weren’t surprised to learn of Jamie’s and Sarah’s divorce. I wasn’t either. I wanted to see what would happen if I allowed Jamie to reconnect with his love of singing.
     The best singers don’t just perform. They share their souls with us. Because of the remarkable beauty of the tenor sound, we may feel he does that more intensely.

     Jamie eventually has the tools to pursue a career in opera, but when we first meet him he's a high school senior with a splendid voice and a good heart. Here’s his introduction to the reader in my first book, How I Grew Up, remembering the narrator is Melanie Stewart:

     Alice [Melanie’s sister] was right; Jamie was a very handsome boy. He had very dark hair, but fair skin and startlingly blue eyes. But it was more than that which made him so appealing; Jamie was someone everybody liked. He was friendly and kind, and always had a ready smile. Jamie had a truly beautiful tenor voice and he loved to sing, but he wasn’t conceited about it. When people complimented him on his singing, he always seemed a little surprised. He was just doing something he loved to do, and if people liked hearing him, well, that was great.

     That was Jamie at eighteen. My new book begins when he is twenty-two and follows him through the next seven years of his life, and Jamie goes through a lot in those seven years. You can order You Are My Song, as well as How I Grew Up and Eli’s Heart, in paperback or e-book format on Amazon. People who live here in the Poconos can purchase paperback copies of all my novels at a slightly discounted price at the Pocono Community Theater. I’ve loved writing these books. I hope you enjoy reading them.

You Are My Song,
Here's a link:

Cover by Tristan Flanagan

Broadening Horizons

Jamie’s Children

In my upcoming book, working title Jamie’s Children, I follow the stories of a brother and sister whose lives take very different paths. Their father, Jamie Logan, is an opera singer. His daughter, Laura, is discovered at the age of four to be a prodigiously gifted violinist. Laura’s brother Niall, younger by not quite two years, says at one point in the story: “Laura touched a violin at the age of four and the heavens opened up and announced what her life would be.” Niall battles the demons of bipolar disorder as he tries to understand who he is and how he fits into this family which is defined by music.

I’ve set myself quite a challenge with these two characters. In Eli’s Heart, Eli Levin was a prodigy, an immensely gifted pianist with a frightening congenital heart disorder, Tetralogy of Fallot. While I don’t consider myself a pianist, I spent many years studying piano and learned enough to be aware of the talent and dedication necessary for a career as a pianist.  And as a singer, I learned to appreciate the special skills required by a good accompanist. Eli Levin became a great accompanist. This was territory I entered fairly comfortably.

Laura plays violin. While I love the sound of the instrument, I’ve never played one. Fortunately, among my good friends I count a fine violinist, Chris Souza, who is my “go to” person for questions about the world of string music. Laura has isolated herself because of her genius, despite her family’s best efforts. She has to work through her own emotional problems to try to free herself from her self-imposed ivory tower.

Niall plays acoustic guitar, another instrument I know little about. I am learning what an aspiring folk singer needs to do to break into the field, thanks to a former voice student. Nate Taylor is in the process of doing what Niall thinks he might like to try, and Nate has generously shared some of his experiences with me. (He’s very good, by the way, and I’m going to include his website so you can hear Nate's music ─ As a classical musician, it’s good for me to broaden my horizons with this music, and I’m listening to a lot of great folk artists these days.

The most difficult task of all is trying to gain an understanding of Niall’s terrible burden of bipolar disorder. To write a character, I have to know him. I have to be able to get inside his head. Niall’s bouts of mania and depression are something I thankfully have never experienced.

Writing about Niall’s first manic experience wasn’t easy, and will no doubt be rewritten, possibly more than once. It’s difficult to understand how Niall’s mind works because it doesn’t work at all the way mine does. Whether Niall’s music will help him live the kind of life he wants remains to be seen. My belief is that music is a powerful force in our lives; indeed, in the universe.

It was invaluable to have a cardiologist as my guide when writing about Eli Levin’s heart disease. For Jamie’s Children I’m fortunate to have a young friend who is a medical researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital whose specialty is mental illness, bipolar disorder in particular. Dr. Andrew Rennekamp has provided me with a wealth of information about the condition.

Bipolar disorder presents in many ways, and it often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years. Medication is just one part of treatment ─ therapy, the support of friends and family, and the patient’s strength of will all must combine to make a productive and happy life even a possibility. 

People with bipolar disorder are suffering from a life-threatening illness. Far too many of them become overwhelmed and end their own lives. Somehow, we have to find a way to make that stop. It’s heartening to know there are researchers like Dr. Andrew who are working hard to provide more answers and more help.

While you’re waiting to read more about Niall and Laura, you can
 meet their parents in the third book of my Carousel Trilogy.
You Are My Song is about Jamie Logan’s journey in the world of opera
and the professional and personal challenges he must face along his way.
Here's the link to the book:

Nate Taylor
photo by Lauren Peters-Collaer