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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.

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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.

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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. 8: What I'm . . . .

1. For shameless escapist pleasure I like to read blogs about WHAT I'M WEARING! WHAT I'M BAKING! WHAT I'M DECORATING! But, I'm not doing any of those things at the moment. Instead . . . 2. WHAT I'M SELLING!: Just look at this lovely Baldwin Acrosonic piano, with beautiful needlepoint bench in excellent condition. I've kept it in tune and have enjoyed having it in my home for lessons and recitals, and great parties for the past couple of years, but I need to make room for a bigger piano, coming soon. Do you want it? Make me an offer! photo 1 photo 2

Harry Truman played piano   , , just not this one.

3. WHAT I'M PRACTICING!: I've made headway in learning "Two Oceanic Poems" by Eliane Aberadam for my March 2 concert at University of Rhode Island! Here is the text of the second song, kind of appropriate for our snowy weather:

Winter Dusk by R. K. Munkittrick The prospect is bare and white, And the air is crisp and chill; While the ebon wings of night Are spread on the distant hill. The roar of the stormy sea Seem the dirges shrill and sharp That winter plays on the tree - His wild Æolian harp. In the pool that darkly creeps in ripples before the gale, A star like a lily sleeps And wiggles its silver tail. 

4. WHAT I'M PRACTICING, PART 2!: I'm performing with the Ariosti Ensemble on April 6. I'm singing an aria by Bach, an aria by Ariosti, and an aria by Leonardo Da Vinci, not to be confused with this artist:

This woman IS smiling . . because she found a cool aria.

Vinci's aria is called Mesta O Dio and it's going to be great! My smile will be obvious. 

5. WHAT I'M NOT DRIVING!: I said goodbye to my 2006 Saturn Vue last week. I owned it for 5 1/2 years. I'm proud of that car because I paid for it entirely myself, from the trade-in to the down payment to the monthly installments for four long years. It was a great car for my Michigan life (heated seats! All-wheel drive!). But when I picked up the keys, I had no idea I'd be moving to Rhode Island and driving hundreds of miles per week to ferry kids to school and to teach all over the Ocean State. Out here, the Saturn has been more of a pain than a pleasure.

6. WHAT I AM DRIVING!: So now I'm the proud owner of a brand new Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagen, the first brand new car I've ever owned. I've never named a car before, but this one seemed to want a moniker. I asked my dad and sister for some good German girl names. My sister suggested Brunnhilde. My dad suggested Gretel, and after thinking about it, I decided it was perfect -- because with my unsteady sense of direction, I'm sure to get her lost! But we're now enjoying mpg in the 50-60+ range (no kidding!), so if I do get lost, I'll have plenty of fuel to find my way home. 

Gretel, not lost yet

When I turned on her stereo for the first time, I played Beethoven's Ninth Symphony . . . it seemed appropriate.

7. WHAT I'M READING: My brand-new car CD player is spinning Steve Jobs biography on 20 CDs. He was a jerk, wasn't he? A very talented, very smart, very charismatic jerk. Jerks can and do change the world for the better, but I haven't yet gotten to the part where Jobs found his own humanity. On a recent sleepless night, I finally finished the thousand-page Harry S. Truman biography by David McCullough. President Truman was fallible and human (and a decent pianist), but a person of great character, wasn't he? My favorite Truman story was his angry response to a music critic who panned his daughter Margaret's voice recital debut: "When I meet you . . .you'll need a new nose . . . a beefsteak above and a supporter below." So I guess he could be a jerk, too. (Truman and the music critic made up, eventually.)

Have fun doing whatever you're doing! EC

 

 

The Seven, Vol. 3. "Watch this!"

MERRY OCTOBER to you! 1. I've already assigned "Jingle Bells" to a piano student, I've heard the flute choir at Salve Regina University playing "Let It Snow," and I've started buying frosting and colored sugars for our Annual Cookie Bake-A-Thon With Caroling. (You're invited! It's an open house!) I buy every kind of color sugar and decor I can find, including food-safe pens and custom-color frosting. The Best Photographer In The World bakes a lot of cookies beforehand, but we keep rolling and cutting and baking while everyone arrives. We have a few savory snacks available, but the star of this show is sugar. Sugar, sugar, sugar. We sing carols around the piano (and sometimes venture out to serenade the neighbors -- does anyone still do that? I always loved that as a kid), and decorate like mad:

IMG_1198

2. And then we send the kids home, fully aware they will not sleep or stop moving for the next four days. Shortly thereafter, I bemoan the fact that I was too busy playing Christmas carols and singing to eat more than 10 or 20 cookies.

IMG_12173. Speaking of Christmas, I'll be singing the Christmas portion of Handel's Messiah at Calvary Church in Stonington CT, on Saturday December 21 at 7pm. It's their annual sing-a-long event and I'm so thrilled to be a part of it again. I love those solos and those choruses! I have no idea what I am going to wear.

4. Messiah Part The First is a great time for soprano soloists to catch up on their correspondence, as we don't start singing until about 40 minutes in. But, since we are usually seated facing the audience in a really nice dress (which I have yet to buy), we just sit there and smile, and hum along on the choruses to stay warmed up. We sit through choruses and solos, we sit through an instrumental section, then we finally get up and rock the house with a recitative and the coloratura-riffic "Rejoice Greatly O Daughter Of Zion." Then we get our legato on with soprano/mezzo duet "He Shall Feed His Flock/Come Unto Him," and then we sit some more until the "Hallelujah Chorus." I'm thinking Handel either really loved or really hated the very first Messiah soprano soloist.

5. I have two or three favorite Messiah moments. I love hearing the tenor sing the very beginning of "Comfort Ye, My People." For me, Advent begins when I hear that aria. I love hearing a fantastic mezzo wind up the end of "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings To Zion" and then feel the place shake as a huge chorus of singers bursts out the melody, as if they just can't wait to join in any longer.

6. And I love standing up at the very end of the "Glory To God" chorus, slowly moving to whatever place I will be singing "Rejoice Greatly." I've only been sitting down for about 45 seconds, having just finished my recitatives, and my adrenaline is flowing because I have some coloratura work to do and it's going to be fun. The trumpets fade out and the violins get smaller and softer as the chorus ends, finally concluding on a sweet little dominant-tonic cadence. I time my movements so my folder opens with the music ready, right at the moment they play that final chord, and I smile broadly at my conductor and at the audience. One year I sent out a Christmas card that showed a cartoon of an angel looking down over sleeping Bethlehem, with a trumpet near his lips, talking to his angel buddy. The inside of the card had only two words, "Watch this!" That's the excitement I feel when I am about to sing "Rejoice Greatly."

7. The other reason October always feels like Christmas? October is the month for Operation Christmas Child. You don't do this? You should do this! You do this? Good for you! Get a box from a local participating church, or visit the website, or just grab an empty shoebox. Designate an age and gender, and fill the box with small toys, hard candy, personal toiletries, even flashlights and batteries. (Here is a good list.) I buy lots of small, lightweight items at the dollar store and Target and save them all year, just for these boxes. (And yes, for a split second I do think, “Is it crazy that I’m sending something plastic made in China, shipped to the US, over to Africa or to Central America?” And then I think, “Eden, this kid may have lost everything while fleeing some war or famine, and a small toy and a washcloth from a total stranger may be all the gift he gets this year. So stop worrying, and be generous.” Then I get out of my head and shop.)

My friend Sue, who volunteers every year to help pack and ship the boxes that stream in from around the country, said there is a special need for boxes for 10-14 year old boys. They get forgotten because there are so many neat things for younger kids and for girls. So, I’m going to make two boxes for tween boys this year, PLUS two boxes for girls my daughter’s age. For the boys, Sue recommended personal care items, small toys, and deflated soccer balls plus a small pump. My kids help choose the items and pack the boxes. I'd like to say that this experience always leads to Thoughtful And Motivating Epiphanies About Expressing Gratitude For Our First World Lives . . .  but no. Not yet, anyway.

Fill your boxes and return them around Halloween or early November to your local church or charity, along with a small donation to cover shipping. The boxes are sent to a processing facility in North Carolina, and then they travel to the corners of the world. You can include a photo and address if you hope for a reply, but you don’t have to. I send a note without a return address, and just add prayers for health and happiness. 

 

page_ChristmasChild

Comfort ye my people . . . feed His flock . . . rejoice greatly  . . . . watch this! XO Eden

(thanks, CONVERSiON DIARY, for the link-up. . if it actually happened? . . . )

 

 

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