conductorAt boarding school I traded gym class for music and went into town to study with the worldly Madame Schinnerea. She was accomplished, rigid, expensive and formally trained.  The woman managed, all by herself, to remove any joy I had ever felt for music. Under her training, music became cold and technical. If, at any time, she felt my work was less than perfect, she would cancel whatever engagements had been scheduled.

The minister from the Congregational church was especially put out by this. During my lesson he stopped by and demanded to know why my performance had been canceled.  Madame Schinnerea replied, she does not sing the piece as Handel intended. I won’t have a student of mine doing sloppy work.

The minister pleaded; couldn’t she just sing a simple hymn? It’s the beauty of her voice we love, not the sound of her jumping through classical hoops. She glared at him with all the impatience of a superior mind, dealing with the hopelessly ignorant. No, not even a simple hymn. It was over. I was to be perfect or not open my mouth. I tried; I pushed and pulled myself to become a gifted musical acrobat. I sang arias I didn’t understand in Italian, French and German – still not good. She gave me Hamlet to recite, in the hope of elevating my mind and thus my voice, but I could not please her. Finally I rebelled and joined the cheerleading squad where I screamed for hours in damp weather.  She was furious and informed my mother that I could have had a career on the concert stage, but lacked ambition.

I never had such lofty ideas. I was full of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, never Maria Callas.  Defying her further, I went to church every Sunday and sang hymn after hymn in the choir. I was their soloist, the only dormitory student, and was regarded with curiosity by the white haired ladies. We’ve never had a boarding student take an interest in the choir before. What an unusual young woman you are.

My best friend during those years was a beautiful Lebanese woman named, Susan. She was a townie, as distinguished from a boarding student. The academy was attended by local students, which saved it from being elitist or intolerably over run by the behavior problems of the wealthy. When I spent the night with Susan, I’d put on classical music and delight in the beauty of Chopin’s Piano sonatas, but she’d have none of it. I keep telling you, I don’t like that stuff. Put on something good, like Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan. I didn’t know who they were, so she educated me. When Susan put Dylan on the record player I was very glad Madame Schinnerea was no where around, because I knew she’d die of a heart attack on the spot. I could imagine her gasping for air and clutching her heart at the sounds he produced. Why wasn’t somebody canceling his performances?

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