Amarilli, mia bella,
Non credio del mio cor
D’esser tu l’amor mio?
No, not speaking in tongues. Not yet, anyway. These are the first lines of a 17th century Italian song, one of a group that comprises the beginning repertoire for classical singers. Ask any sixteen-year-old. If she's studying voice, she's sung "Amarilli".
After all my years of vocal training at New England Conservatory, "Amarilli" is also the only piece of music I could sing. Sing so that it actually sounded like music, I mean. The only one. Heartbreak.
So what was the problem? Hmmm.
Well, I was already thirty when I auditioned with the one art song (kind of) that I knew: "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes." I had spent most of my twenties living and working out of the country. The Philippines. Palau. Mexico. Libya. And more. Sounds romantic, right? It wasn’t. Unless you somehow consider my stint as a cucumber washer on the island of Crete the Stuff of Love.
Also, what was I thinking? I knew nothing about classical music. And by nothing, I mean zero. I didn’t grow up with it. Or even in a musical household. It’s true that my dad looked like Bing Crosby. But he sounded like Hank Williams. If NEC was a conservatory for music like “I’m Thinkin’ Tonight of My Blue Eyes”, no problem. I would have graduated at the top of my class.
It's impossible to fully understand Freud had to say until you've washed cucumbers 10 hours a day.
Also, in my heart of hearts, instead of the mediocre tenor that I was, what I really wanted to be was a window-rattling soprano. Oh well.
But all is not lost. (Though quite a lot was. That school was expensive!) Classical singing is one of the things that brought B into my life. She had studied privately with a former Met star, and is still a beautiful singer. That money was worth every cent.
These days I've been thinking quite a lot about my vocal training and what it taught me about writing. Of course there’s the obvious. In the writing world, we call it "learning your craft." In the musical, it’s "perfecting your technique." And then there’s the boring necessity of daily and vigilant practice in both arts. But there’s more than that, too.
I'm not sure this is what Ben Johnson had in mind when he wrote the poem in 1616.
My teacher at the conservatory, Susan Clickner, was a mezzo. An amazing singer, arguably the most sought after teacher at the school. I pity her now -- the hours she spent doing everything she could to get me to be less homicidal as I murderized song after song. Bach, Handel. Schubert. Rorem. It made no difference to me. I was the musical equivalent, say, of Jack the Ripper.
Okay. To be fair, maybe not quite that bad. But still.
Clickner's speaking voice is still the most resonant I have ever heard. And one of the loudest. (It was all that breath under it.) I can still hear her shouting -- or was she whispering? -- over and over again a single, three-word sentence. “Tone never stops! Tone never stops!" Sadly, her good efforts were in vain since, in my case, tone had never actually never started.
Me, getting ready to sing the beautiful Handle aria from Semele, "Where'ere You Walk."
Tone never stops. What might this mean? It means that from the moment the singer takes that first diaphragm-supported breath, the music has started. And it's the singer's responsibility not to let it stop until the last evanescent note of the piano has vanished into the ether. It means that tone continues even through the pauses, the breaths, the consonants. It never stops, always moving, spinning itself forward, every nano-second an act of creation.
And what does this all highfalutin talk have to do with writing? Easy-peasy, my friends. Just like tone, story never stops. The minute it does the reader is yanked out of what John Gardner calls the fictional dream. When that happens, you're done for.
Story never stops. I find myself saying this to my students again and again. And if I'm honest, to myself, too. From the first word on page 1, to the last sentence hovering over THE END, story never stops. All that expository material? The unnecessary, flat dialogue? The metaphor that, while stunningly beautiful, belongs to a different book? The painstakingly crafted sentence that bellows, "See what a great writer I am!". If these stop the story even for a second – and they almost always do – they gotta go. If not, the reader will put down the book, think about what to have for lunch, and turn to his favorite episodes of Friends.
Of course there are exceptions. If you've read Moby Dick or Nicholas Nickleby, you get what I mean. But who among us is Melville or Dickens? For us mortals, story never stops.
The One With Ross's Teeth. It never gets old.
As an aside, I’m finding this idea oddly comforting as we head into what is sure to be among the darkest days of our republic. In every good story, there are chapters that chronicle a frightening period of anxiety and despair. But story never stops. There will be chapters that follow these, new chapters in which the villains are vanquished, and goodness restored, however temporarily.
I'm not a Pollyanna though; I know that this could be a very long book.
Here is a link to the great Russian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, singing "Amarilli". I hope you take a moment to listen to it. It’s the way the song should be sung. (By the way, don't be thrown by the Italian. In the song, a plaintive lover is pleading with Amarilli to believe that he really does love her. Some things never change.) Hvorostovsky's rendition is followed by this link, an analog to my version of the same song.
See you in a couple of weeks, pals, As always feel free to leave a thought or two below.
In the meantime, fight the good fight.
I still sing. In the car. Even Quiggy, my purported best friend, doesn't like it.