Monday, January 25, 2016

Art for Art's Sake

Ars Gratia Artis

My vocal studio opened in 1979. Teaching is a passion. I love sharing what I’ve learned with people who want to unlock their voices and learn to use them more correctly and effectively. I’ve had very few students who didn’t show at least some improvement from the sessions we had, and some developed dramatically and became singers.

There is a difference between singing and being a singer. A lot of people sing. Of the hundreds of students who have passed through my studio, a handful have become singers. Of that handful, at the present time two that I know of are making a living as professional singers (I am including only opera and musical theater in this category).

So by that criteria, only two have thus far been successful. But so many more have gone on to use their music in so many diverse ways: teaching – both in private studios and schools, performing in amateur productions, directing choirs, singing in choirs of all kinds. performing in rock groups. And enjoying every minute of what they are doing. That is success, to my way of thinking. Some of my former students performed professionally for a time and then moved on to pursue other careers. They still find a way to sing.

It’s a very tough profession, and even arriving at the pinnacle of success has no guarantees. American tenor Marcus Haddock, whose Met debut I witnessed, was near the top of Opera World when he suffered not one but two massive strokes which ended his career. I’ve seen students come very close and have doors slammed in their faces. Yes, luck is very much an element in the performing arts … being in the right place at the right time. And it’s true that the best singers are not necessarily the ones who get the breaks.

So why even try, if it’s that tough? Because if it’s what you love, you have to find a way to do it. You have to measure success differently. Taking part in a community musical production can be enormously rewarding. Singing with a church choir can feed your soul. Teaching music to Sunday School students can give you untold riches, just watching little faces glow because they’ve learned and maybe performed a new song.

Music is a universal gift. If it’s touched your life … you have to give back. That’s just the way it works. We call it “art for art’s sake,” but it’s more than that. It’s being a part of something that is so vast and wonderful we can’t even explain it.

I’ve addressed this from the standpoint of vocal music, but it’s true of all music. And of all of the creative arts. I’ve certainly learned that since I started writing. I know I’ll never be on the New York Times Best Seller List or have a book made into a film. But it’s a thrill to read a new customer review on Amazon. It makes me happy to have someone stop me and tell me they’ve read and enjoyed one of my books.

And honestly, what would life be without the arts? Again, I speak primarily of music (which I also write about in all my novels). “The universal language,” we hear it called. We speak of “the music of the spheres.” It’s everywhere. We are surrounded by musical sounds.

Love it. Enjoy it. Sing. Play. Dance. Act. Write, paint, draw, compose. It’s part of who we all are. It’s what moves life from dreary to dazzling, from morose to magnificent, from gloomy to glorious.

Art for Art’s Sake!

GiuseppeVerdi, Un ballo in maschera, 
Chicago Lyric Opera 2010

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Jamie's Children

Sibling Non-rivalry?

Family dynamics are never simple. They can be complicated and even convoluted. I’ve been working on a book for some months now about a brother and sister, children of a highly successful opera singer, tenor Jamie Logan.

Laura, the older child, is a violin prodigy who begins a career at the age of nineteen. To call her an overachiever is an understatement, to say the least. Discovered at four to have this huge talent, Laura is driven to perfect it and to become the best in the world. She finishes high school early and graduates from Juilliard in three years, and during her final year at Juilliard wins the prestigious Queen Elisabeth competition.

Niall, her junior by not quite two years, is a placid, pleasant child who seems fine with being in his sister’s shadow. But in truth, those shadows contain more than anyone realizes. Niall’s real troubles begin when he is twenty-two. He begins to display symptoms of bipolar disorder. And sadly, this happens just as he is beginning to have a sense of who he is and what he can be as an artist in his own right.

Growing up in the fifties in a small town in East Tennessee, Jamie Logan was the “boy-next-door” personified. But he had a gift ─ an unusually beautiful tenor voice and the potential to take that voice and develop it. Every knowledgeable person who heard him sing encouraged him to consider pursuing a career in opera. His voice teacher at the state university he attended told Jamie he had “the whole package” – not just the voice, but innate musicianship, an ability to learn quickly, an ease with languages, unusual acting skills, and one thing more – he was blessed with physical beauty.

He was also plagued with self-doubt and lack of confidence. His first marriage ─ to his high school sweetheart ─ failed, shattering his belief in himself. Until he found a woman he could love and trust, Jamie’s demons plagued him periodically. Family crises threatened to stall his career. He was not prepared for the jealousy and rivalry he experienced.

The final element for most performers is luck, and Jamie eventually had his share of that. It’s a sad but true fact of life in opera world, and it’s also sad but true that the best singers don’t always get the breaks. But Jamie’s trajectory, while convoluted at times, is basically upward, and he achieved success. He became a star.

So what does that mean for Laura and Niall? Jamie’s family is at least as important to him as his career. He spends as much time with his children as he can, though the demands of his career sometimes make that difficult. How do they see him? How do they see themselves in relation to this loving father who is also a major figure in the world of opera?

Children of famous parents are fascinating … whether real or literary. Look for Jamie’s Children, hopefully sometime this coming spring. As soon as Niall and Laura finish telling me their stories!

In the meantime, you may enjoy reading Jamie’s story
in You Are My Song.
On Amazon, paperback or e-book.

cover by Tristan Flanagan

Monday, January 11, 2016

ELI'S HEART, a Musical Love Story

Eli’s Imperfect Heart

In Eli's Heart, my character Eli Levin suffers from a frightening congenital heart condition, Tetralogy of Fallot. Eli’s story takes place in the middle of the twentieth century, when a surgical procedure had only recently been developed to offer some hope to these children, known as “blue babies” because of the oxygen deprivation they experienced.

Eli has two burdens: he is also a prodigiously gifted pianist. He lets neither of these define him. Eli chooses to become an accompanist, or a collaborating artist. He refuses to give in to his heart. Instead, he gives it to music, and to the girl he loves with all his heart, Kristina Porter – who eventually becomes his wife.

When they first meet as teenagers, Eli is aware his life will probably be a very short one. Eventually, a second surgery is perfected which gives T.O.F. patients a good chance at a longer and more “normal” life. Medical science has yet to find a way to make the hearts of these courageous people “normal” even now; and often, medication and more surgery is required.

At this point in the book, Eli is aware of the option for the second surgery, and knows he will have to have the procedure soon. As I learned while researching the book, T.O.F. patients seem to share a great love of life, a desire to achieve all they can despite the odds. They never take their hearts for granted, but most do not let the condition rule their lives. Yet I’m sure they all struggle with their heightened sense of mortality. Eli certainly does.


Sometimes during a break while he was practicing by himself, Eli would feel a sudden chill. He was about to turn twenty-seven. In three years he’d be thirty. He remembered he had told Krissy when he first met her he wasn’t expected to live past thirty, and he was sure she recalled it as well.
When Eli had these moments of fear, Krissy was very much aware of it. He would grow very quiet and reach for her urgently. There was desperation in his lovemaking, a sense that he was afraid he could be making love to her for the last time.
She talked to him about it, stroking his head, his shoulders, his chest. “I think I have an idea what you’re feeling,” she said softly. “I feel it too, sometimes. But Eli, what Les Allen said to me before we were reunited is such a help to me. I know I can’t really understand how you feel, my dearest, sweetest boy. But he told me to focus on life, and not to live or love in fear. Sometimes that has to be hard for you. Sometimes it’s hard for me.” He was quiet but moved as close to her as he could.
“I know you’ve said you don’t think the power in the universe ... what I’ve come to think of as the Eternal ... intervenes in our lives. And you could be right. But I do wonder if we are given a path to walk in this life for a reason. I don’t think you even know what an inspiration you’ve been not just to me, but to many people who know you.”
“Why do you say that? I haven’t done anything ... well, I try to share my love of music when I play. I’m sure there are people who don’t like me very much. You know what an opinionated musical snob I am.”
She laughed softly. “Yes, you are a musical snob. You wouldn’t be my Eli if you weren’t. But people who know you, and know what you’ve been dealing with all your life, admire your love of life, your incredible courage, your artistry.”
They moved even closer to each other, wanting to feel nothing could ever come between them. He said softly, “Having you in my life has meant the world to me, my love. If your universal being ... the Eternal ... did plan a path for me, I’m so thankful it included you.” He was quiet for a moment. “I hope I have more time. I think there are more things I’m supposed to do while I’m here.”
For a few minutes, it seemed to them their hearts were beating almost as one. It was a lovely moment, and they drifted off to sleep filled with a sense of peace.


ELI’S HEART, Kindle edition can be purchased at

 Cover by Tristan Flanagan

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What's In a Name?

The Name Game

I read a status on the author page this morning of a writer I appreciate and admire, Suanne Laqueur, about a character in the work she has apparently recently started on. Her comment was regarding the name of a character … and she further commented she has already changed it. (ASIDE: Laqueur’s debut novel, The Man I Love, is one of the best books I have ever read. It has deservedly won several awards and I highly recommend it.)

Funny about naming characters. Some writers seem to have a difficult time coming up with them for assorted reasons. Since I started on this path not quite three years ago at the ripe young age of seventy-five, names have seldom been a problem for me. Entire names. First, middle, last. I don’t always include that information in the books, but I know it. I visualize the character, and the first name pops into my head, and to this point I’ve only changed a character’s name once … and it was a middle name. But it became his son’s first name, so it was important.

When I wrote my first book, How I Grew Up,  it was based on an actual event which took place in 1954 to a high school friend. I fictionalized it, so I gave her another name. Anita Barker became Melanie Stewart. I’m not sure why I chose the name Stewart, but I had a voice student at the time named Melanie Meilinger. Melanie was … and is … a remarkable young woman with a great deal of inner strength, and my character was going to need that. For Melanie’s love interest in Carousel, I combined two long ago high school boys … I gave my character one boy’s quite remarkable tenor voice, and the other boy’s super good looks. Neither of them was named “Jamie” or “Logan” … it was just that when I looked at the amalgam my imagination had created, that’s who he was.

Jamie became the protagonist for my third novel, You Are My Song, and I needed a middle name for him at that point. I introduced his parents, and since his looks were definitely black Irish, his mother was Anna Laura Cleary, nickname Laurie. Jamie’s middle name was her father’s name, he was Ian Cleary. Until I learned Ian was Scots and not Irish.

My first dilemma with a name. I knew Jamie and his second wife (and if you want to know her name, you’ll need to read the book … it’s a good story, you won’t regret it) would have two children, and the second would be a son whom Jamie would name after his grandfather. As it happened, this character is a protagonist in novel number four, my work in progress, which I guess might have been percolating even as I wrote You Are My Song.

It was definitely hard to let go of Ian. I loved James Ian Logan. What a great name. So it had to have the same flavor. Finally, with some help from my Facebook friends, Larysa Martone-Bunn in particular, Jamie told me his middle name was actually Niall. Niall, meaning “champion.” He had just been humoring me that it was Ian. James Niall Logan … that name worked for me, and it has no doubt colored the way Jamie’s son, Niall Roger Logan, has evolved. Roger is Niall’s maternal grandfather’s name. It’s a family thing.

Oh, and it just dawned on me. Those two high school boys I melded into Jamie Logan? The good-looking kid’s initials were J.L. The subconscious at work, no doubt. He was also a super nice young man … a quality I gave Jamie.

But this is strictly a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

(The photo below is the late great tenor Franco Corelli in the role of Don José in Carmen, Jamie Logan’s signature role. This particular photo is very much how I envision Jamie, the mature artist.)

Friday, January 1, 2016

Music Is Enough for a Lifetime -- Take Two

But a Lifetime Is Not Enough for Music

            In an earlier blog post I referred to this quote from my favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff. It’s one of my favorite quotes because it proves true time and again.

            In my work in progress, working title Jamie’s Children, my protagonists are both musicians but are following very different paths. Laura is a violin prodigy who discovers her music at the age of four and begins an international career at nineteen. Younger brother Niall finds his way to his music later in his life. He’s drawn to folk music and learns to play guitar. He begins to use his voice … a voice he inherited from his opera singer father … and finally, Niall begins to write songs; all when he is in his twenties.

            As much as I love to listen to violin music, I knew very little about the instrument when I started writing this book. A local friend who is an exceptional violinist and teacher, Chris Souza, has been a great help to me in understanding more about the challenges of mastering the instrument, and I’ve listened to a lot of violin literature. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons I write about musicians; I can’t think of anything I would rather do than listen to music.

            The Brahms Violin Concerto plays a prominent role in the book. I first heard this concerto as a freshman or sophomore at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music when the legendary Jascha Heifetz played it with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to a standing room only crowd in Cincinnati’s Music Hall. It was mesmerizing, and I’ve loved the Concerto ever since.

Listening to it when writing the book, I tried to put myself in Laura’s place. How would it feel to bring this magnificent piece to life?  For Laura it represents a milestone in her professional … and personal … life. The work is filled with technical challenges for the soloist. But along with those technical challenges, there is Brahms’ brilliant and descriptive music. What a joy it must be for a musician to become one with that music.

Niall’s path presented many more challenges. Folk music was a genre I was only dimly aware of, though I appreciated and particularly loved some folk songs and singers. I’ve always loved some of the music of Simon and Garfunkle, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, John Denver. I’ve come to appreciate the artistry of so many more great folk singer-songwriters, among them Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, James Taylor, Jim Croce, Judy Collins, and especially Gordon Lightfoot, whose music I find especially appealing.

I’ve come to appreciate the skill of these performers as well as the beauty of the songs they write. “Both Sides Now” … wonderful lyrics, beautiful melody. John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” is quite possibly one of the loveliest songs ever written. Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” is, I believe, skillful writing and a great song. It’s become one of my favorite pieces.

Again, I’ve had help trying to understand the folk singer-songwriter, this time from a former voice student who over the past couple of years has begun writing and performing. Nate Taylor has been kind enough to read my attempts at lyrics for Niall’s first songs. The more I work on these, the more I appreciate what I hear from established folk artists. Playing the guitar … another instrument that’s beyond my experience. So I’ve been watching videos and listening to the different ways in which folk artists use guitar.

And just when I think I’ve come to know a little more about music, I find out how little I actually know. I’ve barely scratched the surface. I heard a recording today by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. A magnificent artist with an astonishing mastery of his instrument. Intricate finger-picking that seems impossible, yet in the video I saw his fingers fly across the guitar strings and he makes it look easy. And I never heard of this man ─ who was world famous and had a career which went beyond flamenco to jazz and classical guitar ─ until today, nearly two years after his death.

“Music is enough for a lifetime … but a lifetime is never enough for music.”  (With apologies to Maestro Rachmaninoff.)