Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Day At Manhattan School of Music.

Yesterday, I witnessed a number of impromptu mini-cabaret performances that left me riveted in my seat, tears just streaming down my cheeks.

It was the birth of something remarkable. Sadly, I do not have video.

Oh, I brought the camera. It was lying on the turned-around piano, fired up and ready to go. But it I had turned it on, the magical things that happened wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have happened.

When I say impromptu I mean that I didn’t know it was going to happen, and neither did the singers, themselves.

It wasn’t some cabaret convention with ladies in gowns and men in tuxes. I went to that, and it was great and all, but this was not that. It was on the sixth floor of a faded-mansion Manhattan school room on the west side “in the hundreds.” Something called the Manhattan School of Music, and I was the guest “lecturer.” I even wore my good suit and pretty red tie, decorated with music staffs. A man in the elevator tried to sing it.

“This used to be Julliard, you know. Until they built Lincoln Center. The people who have walked these halls.” Mark Janas, escorting me down the hallway lined with framed pictures of men in tuxes and women in gowns, all playing cellos or violins or pianos. Or singing. Did that say Toscanini?

We pass a room where the door is open. I peer in and I’m looking at an orchestra tuning up.

Mark says, “It always it thrills me to see that.” I immediately thought of those old cartoons where someone opens a door, and whole city appears. I wondered how big is that room and what it must sound like to sit and listen to your own private orchestra.

We get into an ancient elevator. At first, it won’t move, so Mark forces the doors open and lets them shut again. It moves. 6th floor (the top floor).

The room is large and airy. Walls bare and aged. Tall windows. Shades drawn halfway down. Chandeliers with tiny lights, glaring. Outside, it was gray and cold. A beautiful church spire, probably Episcopal, was near.



Mark again, “You’re gonna like this piano. It’s big.”

At the other end, a concert sized Steinway on a small stage, elevated just a foot above the main floor. Parquet. Facing sideways.

We piled our coats beneath the piano to dampen the sound a bit.
“Let’s turn the piano,” he says, “and put the students around you.”

I recall another time when I was invited to a class, where the students were there, mostly, because it was an easy credit they could report to their parole officers.

Young people are tricky.

Sometimes they look bored at you, or like you’re going to tell them their family just died in a car crash.

But when they’re open and available, when they’re eager and responsive, when they look hungry and curious, it all has to happen so spontaneously and unselfconsciously, that you don’t know it’s happening until it’s happening.

A few of them are already there. 9:30 class.



They don’t know I’m coming. Mark didn’t invite me until yesterday morning. I had performed a song Sunday morning in church that I had worked on with him and Andy Gale this past Saturday in their “Acting the Song” workshop.

“At A Hospice, In The Atrium” is one I had actually sung before, and posted on YouTube. Back then, it was when the song was first written, and I was unsure of the lyrics, stumbling over them a bit, making up the chords as I went along. But the song is so meaningful to me -- one I mulled over for years before finding a way to write, that I posted it anyway. It’s gotten less than a hundred hits, so it doesn’t matter anyway.

(As I write these words, I am preparing to do a concert in Olympia, where I will be singing in a folk cafe. I have always felt like I”m more folk singer than theater or cabaret artist, but really, in an auto-tuned world, these are lines are dissolving.)

I asked Mark what it was that he was teaching, what’s the curriculum? He said the class is a kind of outreach program to the community, but it’s more than that. He’s teaching these opera students to sing jazz and standards, and then do programs for some senior centers, plus they actually write a children’s opera, parodying themes from various operas that teach about opera, and they perform it to school kids. It’s a lot of work.

I’m more than sure there are some students who might feel something like this is a little beneath their dignity, to sing standards? But more than that, as a listener, opera people singing standards can be nails on the blackboard.

Everyone piled their coats under the piano to help muffle the sound. Then we took all the chairs and put them around the piano in an arc.

What Mark wanted from me was simply tell my story and sing some of the songs, illustrating the healing power of music, and the fact that it’s a calling. That lives are changed. Even if you’re cast in the worst show, in the stupidest part, someone will have needed to see that.

I began with “Connected,” the song that saved my life. The song that gave birth to The Last Session. The score that kept me alive. I told them about my online diary, among the first of its kind, about performing with an IV port stuck in my arm.

Then, I started “Lazarus.” I wanted to hear them sing. And, frankly, if I were one of them, I’d be wanting to sing, too. They caught on pretty quickly, with Mark’s help. But it felt only okay. I think we were all just feeling each other out, trying to figure out what it was we were trying to learn from another.

At one point, though, as I was singing “Going It Alone,” one of the girls bounded out of the room in tears. She told me later that it had to do with her mother and cancer, and needing to be strong.

Finally, after about an hour, we took a break and Mark had the idea to tell them to think of a story from their own lives, and then tell that story as an intro to a song.

Well, they came back. One girl got up and told a story about wanting to find her birth mom. How she had registered her name and was hoping someone from the family was also registered. And then she opened her mouth and sang... “Skylark, have you anything to say to me.”

And I was done.

Tears streaming down my face. And then, to top it off -- how well we can be moved by performers with nice intentions but no real singing skills -- she could sing. She could really, really sing. So, I couldn’t escape. She had me in her thrall.

Then, another girl. She remembered being a young girl, in the car. Her mom tells her that she’s pregnant and that this girl will have a brother. She remembered being angry and petulant at the intruder who would take her place. But when the baby brother came, he became the number one person in her life. Then she started singing, “There were birds on the hill but I never heard them singing...”

And, once again, I totally lost it.

And on THAT SONG? Geez, I’ve heard that song so much in my life, if you had told me what she was going to sing, I would have exited the room. A chestnut!

After a few notes, though, Mark stopped her. It was very operatic sounding in the original key. He said, “Let’s lower it and put it in a conversational key.”

Now, that was a term I had never heard before. Maybe he made it up on the spot.

A conversational key.

And, whoa. Phenomenal. Moving. Gut wrenching.

Lesson learned. Any song can work if you give it context. And great cabaret singing is really about telling a very real, personal story. The truth.

I had said to them earlier, “You live in a world that is filled with bullshit. Everything runs on bullshit. Tell the truth, sing the truth, and heads will snap in your direction.

Well, next it was one of the boys. Then another. Each one more emotional and amazing than the last, but all equal on their own terms, if you know what I mean.

One girl, a blond, very pretty. Raises her hand. I feel that I don’t have anything special to say. I mean, especially compared with your story.

“Well,” I told her. “Feelings aren’t facts. You are enough. What you’re experiencing is what everyone experiences who tries to get into the arts. ‘Who would care about me or my story?’” Mark told her she could stand up and use that feeling as an intro to a song.

The experience of the whole morning was so singular and, frankly, transcendent, that I never thought to pick up a camera, not even to just do a group shot. That’s when you know you’ve had a special time, like when audiences would let “Going It Alone” fade into silence.

At the end, I told them, very honestly, that what I heard that morning was as good as anything I have ever heard on a New York City stage. And that’s saying a lot. And I meant it. And I’m so grateful that Mark gave me the opportunity.

I believe all of their performances this year are going to be more or less open to the public. And I believe they’ll be singing at the open mic at Mark Janas The Salon on Sunday nights. I honestly cannot wait to hear them sing again.

But that birth. Yesterday morning. While it was unique, and couldn’t be replicated exactly, it will happen again. As Mark and I both emphasized, nothing they did was hard or complicated. In fact, the idea of stepping onto a stage and being honest is as obvious a notion as drinking water.

But, from experience, he and I knew that the ease with which these students made that transition was both remarkable and inevitable.

Like life should be. Remarkable and inevitable.
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