Eden Casteel

Rhode Island Based Voice and Piano Teacher

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Laura Lee Hickfang, RIP

I recently sang at the memorial service for Laura Lee Hickfang, the wife of my late voice teacher Prof. Paul Hickfang. Laura Lee died in April after a short illness. Teenaged Laura Lee Green, about ten years after her first piano recital

Her obituary and her eulogizers described her as a true Southern Belle. She was all that and more, a tiny little Texan with prodigious musical talent, perfect pitch (a gift we shared and joked about), occasional dark moods, occasional wicked sarcasm, and a heart full of loyalty and love. Even though her husband was a fellow Texan, she always sounded far more Texan to me. She called her husband Paaaaahooul.

(I was also blessed to have an Arkansan as my piano teacher. I think I will always associate great musicians and teachers with Southern accents.)

When I arrived for a lesson at the baby grand in their living room, Laura Lee was almost always in the downstairs den of their split level home, watching a soap or whatever was on WCMH at four o'clock on a weekday. The two of them shared custody of the piano and taught their private lessons at different times. Laura Lee had the much larger private studio, and in retrospect I was probably making noise in her living room on her rare day off. She didn't disturb our lessons and we didn’t disturb her shows.

Prof. Hickfang was a survival-level pianist. He met Laura Lee when they were grad students at University of Texas at Austin. She was his piano teacher -- for a little while. He broke up with his serious girlfriend and started courting Laura Lee. Terrible pedagogy, but smart move. If you can't play piano, get a fantastic pianist to marry you.

Mr. and Mrs. Musician

So, at voice lessons, he would play the opening few notes of whatever song I was working on, and maybe a quick arpeggiated chord. Then he would grab a pencil and start conducting the beat, expecting me to just sing a cappella. For a girl with perfect pitch, this was no problem. It was a good system for us.

Occasionally, though, he wanted me to practice with accompaniment. And so he would stretch his 6-foot-7-inch frame from the piano bench, and pad (shoeless but sock-clad) over to the entrance to the finished basement, and supplicate his wife.

"Laura Lee? Could you come play this aria for Eden?"

(Long pause. The sound of shuffling.)

"Ahool rahgt, ah'll be there in a mihhnute."

And up she would come, all five feet of her. She walked over to her beautiful dark brown Steinway (covered with an elegant brass piano lamp, a Mexican serape, a metronome, a bust of Beethoven, and growing mounds of piano books), and sat down. She adjusted her glasses, and began to play whatever was put in front of her, flawlessly. Prof. Hickfang would try to conduct her, too, and it was fascinating to watch them work together on music. They were a true team. She would play about once a year for me, at most. She never told me what she thought of my singing. I just knew it was a very special occasion when she would play for me.

Every other summer or so, Prof. Hickfang would tell me he couldn't schedule a lesson with me for a few weeks, because it was time to take Laura Lee to Texas. Her very best friends were a group of girls she had known since kindergarten. They would reunite about every other year to catch up, while the husbands played cards together. I wondered what it would be like to be that loyal a friend for so long, and what kind of spouse would follow his wife to a girls’ weekend every two summers. Most husbands would stay home.

Paul and Laura Lee, incognito

When Prof. Hickfang died in 2009, I was one of three singers who sang at his funeral. I sang "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" from Handel's Messiah. I got through all of it, all those pages, and then I was down to my last few bars: "For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep." Sopranos know there is a lovely G-sharp on the word "risen," and it's usually held an extra beat or so, to make the point. I nailed the G-sharp, held it an extra beat, and then thought, "Oh, he would have loved that." And then I thought it again, "Oh, he would have loved that," and began to feel my lip tremble. I made it through the final phrase and began to weep immediately as I closed my music. I couldn't stand the reception and went home.

The next day there was a voice mail on my parents' machine. "Deeeear Eden, it's Laura Lee," she began. "Ah wanted to thank yeeeuw for singing soooh beayutifully yesterday. You were a little off pitch on a few notes, but overall, it was very good. Ah miss him very much, but ah know that Pahool is in Heaven now. Love to yeeu and your family." That was so her. A combination of love, sweetness, and a little pedagogical advice.

As a widow, she threw herself back into her piano teaching, the cornerstone of her life for over 50 years. We stayed in touch. We had lunch, I sent Christmas cards. She got a cute little dog, and her children Gary, Carrie Lee, and Chase began to spend more time in the house with her. Her eyesight got worse and she had to stop teaching. It was a terrible but necessary step.

Last June, with her health declining, she was moved to a nursing home. I visited her there. She was very unhappy that day and kept asking Chase to take her home, but she knew who I was and she was able to keep up with the conversation. I helped her grab her walker and we shuffled around the facility, and when I left her she was sitting happily with some residents, cuddling with her cute dog, and giving me a kiss goodbye.

Once a pianist, always a pianist.

I drove back to the home she had left. The house was being readied for sale. The Steinway sat in the corner of the empty living room, and the piano lamp was still sitting on top. The serape was folded.  Chase told me to take whatever sheet music I wanted, voice and piano, from the stacks that still remained. I took as much as my car could carry. The lamp now illuminates my own baby grand piano in my own living room. I tried to bring them both with me.

Carrie Lee called me the morning her mother died, and asked me to sing at her memorial. Of course, I said. Then, I promptly contracted a terrible cold (or a slightly less terrible flu, not sure which). I went through boxes of Kleenex as I packed my suitcase. I was feverish. My ears were blocked. I took Dayquil and Nyquil. I ached all over. I chose two songs that I thought I could sing in any circumstance (cold, jet lagged, and/or grieving) and hoped for the best.

Laura Lee's memorial was held at the same church where her husband's was. The organist pointed out the place where they had sat together for services. I said hello to Rickie and Jim, the other former students who had come to sing. We rehearsed quickly with Rose Zuber, the excellent pianist who had played for all of us five years before, and I managed to keep my sniffles and coughing at bay. I decided to just focus on technique, in order to get through the service physically. I also rationalized that since I had cried a river  at Prof. Hickfang's funeral, I'd probably manage to be dry-eyed for Laura Lee.

I got up and sang the Bach/Gounod version of Ave Maria. I've sung it at countless funerals. I kept my composure by refusing to look at anyone in the family row. A few minutes later I got up and sang "Pie Jesu" from the Faure Requiem.

[audio mp3="http://www.edencasteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/My-Song.mp3"][/audio]

I don't sing it at enough funerals. It's such a lovely piece. I could see the Latin text going by in my head, and the English translation. Dona eis requiem . . . grant them rest. Them. And I suddenly realized, I'm not singing for her, I'm singing for them. The two of them. The thought filled me with great happiness. I'm singing the two of them to Heaven. The reunion is complete. I finished the song, smiling. Wow!, I thought. I'm not crying! It's like I'm a professional or something! And then I sat down, and began to weep, and did not stop. Didn't even try.

There was one more song. Rose, a friend to the Hickfangs for decades, played Debussy's Clair De Lune. It was a perfect tribute: Brilliant, heartfelt, demanding, emotional, and filled with beauty. And we all cried, knowing that while the music was coming from Rose's capable hands, it was Laura Lee we were hearing, for the last time.

[audio m4a="http://www.edencasteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/11-Track-11.m4a"][/audio]

When the service was over, people came over to me and said I sounded wonderful, and they meant it. I was flattered.

In Heaven, I dearly hope the reviews were mixed.

Happily ever after

The Seven, Vol. 1

NB: I can't always add up "7 Quick Takes" and I can't always blog on a Friday, but here is my first attempt at Jennifer Fulwiler-style mini-posting. EC 1. I am trying to figure out why “Not A Day Goes By,” from Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, is printed in the key of F in my music theater anthology, but always sung in lower keys in actual performance (at least on YouTube). Here is Her Curliness Bernadette Peters doing it in D major. [video width="480" height="360" mp4="http://www.edencasteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Not-A-Day-Goes-By-by-Bernadette-Peters.mp4"][/video]

And here it is in the printed key, F major, which makes it sound . . .different: [video width="640" height="360" mp4="http://www.edencasteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Not-A-Day-Goes-By-from-Merrily-We-Roll-Along.mp4"][/video]These kinds of mismatches happen all the time in the printing/performing world but this one is a headscratcher. I have consulted my colleagues at SomaticVoiceWork and they are also a little puzzled. One suggested that the song was switched at some point from a male to female character, and that would explain it.

2. I like it when women keep their fertility plans private. “2014 is the year of the baby,” announced Chelsea Clinton. Wow, I hope her ovaries wrote that down. It’s good to (quietly) prepare for pregnancy with vitamins and leafy greens, but what if the stick doesn’t turn blue when she has decided she wants it to? Conception is not an item on a to-do list, it’s the Major Life Event (and a blessing from God). I am happy when I hear someone is “hoping” for a baby, which is usually more accurate, anyway.

3. I’m reading David McCullough’s biography of President Truman, all 992 pages, and I am up to his second term in the Senate. I didn’t realize he was such a late bloomer -- he married Bess when they were both 35! He was just too poor to marry her sooner, and she waited for him.

4. My little girl loves to plan parties -- from decorations to food to activities. Her 9th birthday is in November, and one option is hosting a slumber party. Do you remember slumber parties? I remember many of them as slumber-optional and lots of fun. Both of my kids have not attended or hosted them, it’s just worked out that way with their friends. What do I need to do to prepare myself?

5. There is a lot of wonderful music in little Westerly RI these days! Salt Marsh Opera just performed Donizetti's Don Pasquale. It was a sweet, funny production with excellent performances all around.The surtitles failed in the middle of Act 3, just before the beautiful love duet, but in a way, it was such a treat -- we knew they were singing about love, and nothing else mattered. Go see it at The Kate if you can.

Whoops! Gosh, I sure hope this opera buffa ends the way all the other ones do, otherwise we are in trouble!

6. I'm really looking forward to seeing the awesome Kevin Short perform this Friday! Usually I only see him from my perch on the Chorus of Westerly risers (and that view ain't bad either, sister). This will be such a treat. And Chanticleer arrives later this month, too!

7. Yesterday, I played a funeral for a nice lady named Helen, married 52 years, who prayed the Rosary daily. The music was the usual mix [shoulder shrug]: Ave Maria, On Eagle’s Wings, One Bread One Body, How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace. Helen, I’m honored that I got to play for your funeral, but I’m ecstatic that I didn’t mess up the pedals on your hymns and songs, and I fired all of the stops in the correct order (okay, they were presets, but that's a big leap for me!). I'm playing my first Catholic wedding next weekend, and playing your funeral helped boost my confidence. Your Communion hymn sounded soft and melodious, and your concluding hymn sounded triumphant. Helen, I hope I helped play you to Heaven.

Music for Funerals

When I lived in Michigan, I had an informal agreement with the organist at my parish, regarding music for our own funerals: One of us would make sure that the other got really good music. We worried that our relatives, prostrate with grief, might program some lousy music. We even made a little list for each other. We did a lot of funerals together, and sometimes we would whisper, "I want THAT hymn!" or, more often, "Please make sure that song is BANNED at my funeral, ok?" On Eagles' Wings did not make the cut. And now I have stated it here on my blog, too. Take note, family! I love the Faure Pie Jesu for funerals. It's short and beautiful. But, I think for my own funeral I would rather not have a soprano soloist. I'd like to be the Star Female one last time. So . . how about The Call, by Ralph Vaughan Williams? I love choral music, too.  . . the In Paradisum from the Faure or Durufle Requiem would be lovely, but I'm practical. I know there won't be a lot of time to rehearse anything. Do the chant version of the In Paradisum and I'll be happily on my way. Do Be Not Afraid and I'll haunt you. I'm tickled at the thought of having a New Orleans Second Line, but that's hard to come by up here!

The last time I sang the Pie Jesu for a funeral, it was for a baby girl who died in her mother's womb a couple of days before she was supposed to be delivered. I had just formed a small children's choir at my parish, which included some of the girl's older siblings. The parents asked if the children would sing, and they sang God Who Touchest Earth With Beauty. It was heartbreaking, and yet also hopeful. I could feel the sadness in my own voice as I sang, but I held it together. At the request of the parents we also sang Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones, a great hymn looking forward to happiness with the Communion of Saints.

My dad played the organ at both of his parents' funerals, and he accompanied me as I sang Albert Hay Malotte's The Lord's Prayer. I know it brought him comfort to be able to play. He also delivered the eulogies. My mother sang at her own mother's funeral. I don't think I will be able to do anything but hold my sister's hand at that time, but we'll see. When your heart is broken, sometimes music is the only way you can bear it. If I have to sing, I'll sing.

This week my True Love and I attended a funeral at the same parish where we were married. It was a service of thanksgiving for the life of Laurie, a woman I had never met. The church was packed. The choir sang Herbert Howells' Pray For the Peace Of Jerusalem. At Communion the choir sang several short motets, including one of my favorites by Theodore DuBois, Adoramus Te Christe. (It's on my list. It's quick to learn, too.) We used to sing it at the Altar of Repose on Holy Thursday.

The final hymn was For All The Saints, and we sang all eight verses. I noticed that as I sang each verse, my voice was stronger and stronger, and I was happy to help sing this beloved woman to Heaven. The organist played a dazzling fanfare, and we began the final verse. The choir soared past all of us, with the descant reaching higher and higher. The music in the hymnal got blurry as tears came to my eyes, and I choked up so much I could no longer sing, just listen and be thankful.

The entire congregation stood as the grieving mother and children processed to the back of the church with the casket, while the organist played a triumphant postlude. A few people left the pews, but most just stood and watched. The choir was invited to recess but they remained standing in the loft, motionless. The organist kept his eyes on the music and completed the postlude, and everyone remained standing, weeping silently for the gift of the beautiful woman and the gift of the beautiful music.

Laurie was the organist's daughter. He played her to Heaven.

Laura Kent Hynes 1962-2012

 

 

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Eden Casteel Music Studio, 81 Post Road, Wakefield RI 02879. Phone: 401-932-5589.