Monday, March 29, 2010

Learning like water (or Sister Patricia Recollection, Part 1)

Who've you learned something from? Something you've never forgotten, something you've so completely absorbed into your daily life that you almost can't remember having learned it? Have you ever had a teacher who changed your life with the persistence of water? I used to think of my voice teacher as no more resistable than the Colorado River on the Grand Canyon. Do you have such a person?

I am in a two-day training session this week, something work-oriented, something I'll probably share with colleagues and which will frame some of my work interactions. This has made me think about learning, and about expecting to learn one thing, while almost by accident learning something far more important. And since my teacher happened to be a nun, my subject was music and it's Easter week I thought I'd ask you.

When I started doing solo work at the Cathderal of St. Augustine an embarrassing number of years ago, the Director of Music was a formidable Dominican nun named Sister Patricia Eileen Consier, O.P. (The "O.P." are the words signifying one's vows given to St. Dominic's order, the Order of Preachers, as she would explain when asked.) She was a tall, sturdy person who nearly always wore Dominican white and black clothing but almost never in the form of a habit. She wore a wedding ring, as nuns do, but because of residual edema in her left arm after a mastectomy, hers was on her right hand. When I met her, she had a delicate touch of silver in her dark brown hair, a firm, no-nonsense attitude and a carefully controllled twinkle. She was the very personification of the word "indomitable"; slightly ironic, I know, but true. By all accounts she was a steadfast, if not stubborn person. Born an only child into a well-off Chicago area family, she seems to have been an affectionately indulged child who appalled her father by announcing at 17 that she was joining a convent. During her time in St. Augustine, she lived for a time with the Sisters of St. Joseph, a teaching order whose beautiful old convent downtown opened its quarters to her, but most of the time she lived on her own in one apartment or another because there was no local convent of her order. I think she missed her sisters in Adrian, Michigan, where she lives now, but her determination carried her through what must have been, at least occasionally, very lonely years. Not that she didn't have a social life. She was close to many of the members of the parish, the choir family, her students...she was probably busier, socially, than many of us, and she also happened to reside in the seat of the Diocese of St. Augustine, where our beloved Bishop Snyder was often in residence. She was certainly busy.

I had known her for some years, had been singing with Miss Judy and Miss Jo and Miss Tracy, and many other friends and beloved voices when Miss Jo and I had occasion to sit down for a drink with her. We'd walked to a local St. Augustine pub just down the street from the rectory and to my surprised amusement she ordered a bottle of Killian's without ado. Something, I can't recall what, prompted her to tell us the story of her reception of her doctorate, which she held in Music from Florida State University. She had embarked as a doctoral candidate under direction from her Mother Superior and was in the final stretch when she was placed under the supervision of a respected member of the Music Department's staff, directing the completion of her degree. He was Jewish, she was a Dominican nun still wearing a habit, and none of the irony or humor of the situation was lost on either of them. He was an exacting teacher, constantly challenging the limitations of her thinking and capabilities (in fact, the very sort of teacher she was becoming, herself.) Because she drove to Tallahassee (about a 3 hour drive, one way, from us), continued to serve as a school principal and was dealing with health issues, as well, the program began to take a toll on her. She wrote to the Mother Superior, explaining everything, and asking to be released from her obligation to complete her doctorate. No word came from Adrian. As the silence lengthened from weeks into months, she was a bit ashamed of herself for having complained, worked more closely with her advisor and was finally awarded the prestigious degree. About a month later, she received a letter from Mother Superior.
"Dear Sister Patricia," it began. "It grieves me to know that you are so unhappy and this program of study is adding to the drain on your health. By all means, please withdraw right away..."

She had been an instrumentalist, a violinist, a pianist and a respectable organist, but when she became a choral director she took every opportunity to expand her learning and especially to refine her ability to teach. Dominicans as an order have a great love of learning. Her best friends in convent had dispersed out to the world as doctors, college professors and law scholars. She took a parallel path, always striving for excellence, taking anything less as a sort of personal affront. When offered she did a seminar with Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus; she traveled most summers in pursuit of learning. And the results were amazing. By the time I started to sing with her, she had a wealth of teaching tools at her fingertips. She shared them generously but with discipline. If you wanted to learn, she would teach you, and you didn't have to pay her or display greatness or do anything else to qualify really, but you had to work very hard. And if you did, of course, it showed. Always at the heart of her work was that unwillingness to settle for anything less than excellence from herself. She taught herself a wide range of visualization techniques, for instance. She told me she'd found that a visualization that had proven highly effective for 10 singers might not work at all for the 11th. She had to have a teaching tool to help that 11th singer and most of the time, she did.

Music is an integral part of liturgy in today's Catholic church, and there is a role for a cantor, following the analagous role in synagogues where a soloist sings certain things alone and leads the congregation in singing other things together. People volunteered for the job, or more often, made eye contact with Sister during rehearsal and got recruited. The first time I had to walk out onto the floor of the sanctuary, which is mostly marble, I would have paid any price at all to have the ancient floor open up and swallow me. I suffered horrors at the thought I would walk out in front of all those people and throw UP, right in front of them. I thought I would die. But I walked out, and I sang the pieces I had to sing and lo, I did not die at all, my loves.

In fact, I did it so often and became so used to it that things like this happened and my blood pressure scarcely fluttered. On the night before Easter, the Easter Vigil Mass takes place at Catholic churches everywhere. It is considered to be the "queen of liturgies", because it's so beautiful and filled with symbolism. (It also takes a LONG TIME, starting around sundown and lasting about 3 hours. And parking in downtown St. Augustine was always a challenge for this one.) One of the sung parts of this liturgy is called the Intecessory Prayer. It's a lovely call-and-response thing, for us set typically in a Gregorian chant form, in which the cantor sings, "St. Augustine", and the people answer, singing, "Pray for us". The cantor may sing a long list of saints' names, depending on the circumstances. I once accidentally scrambled a bunch of pages, completely lost my place in the list of saints, and continued singing, putting in the name of whatever saint I could think of, blithely continuing while Miss Judy (who is not The Boss of Us for no reason) tried to re-shuffle about 14 pages of saints for me. But by this time, you see, years had gone by and I had thoroughly learned Sister's lessons of composure, which, more or less, were these:

Trust your voice, and Just keep singing.
People will rise to your expectations. Never lower them. Sing.
Do what you know to be the right thing, count your blessings, and when someone tells you how wonderful your voice is or what a great job you did, Just say, "Thank you", dammit. Keep singing.
Be honest. Be kind if you possibly can. Don't oversing the people who are singing with you. Oh, and just keep singing.

I spent several hours each week in her company, over the course of more than 10 years. My voice grew stronger, more confident. My range increased. I became capable of ambitious classical work I'd never have imagined without her. One Good Friday, Judy and I did much of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater in two voices, me having learned my part from a recording by Cecilia Bartoli (the soprano in the recording is June Anderson) and Sister's vocal coaching. All the effort and courage it took for me to sing, it takes many of us to speak in public. While I learned what I thought was the the hard part - the singing - from Sister, I found that public speaking became the easy part.

Some years ago, Sister developed a form of dementia and went home to Adrian to live in the mother house. However far her illness may have progressed, it is certain than she found comfort in the life of a religious community, one of the things she told me was hardest for her about living on her own. And however far dementia has taken her from memories of her enormous extended family of hopeful or budding or once-were musicians, it is also certain that she is present to many of us every day. When I speak to audiences at work of 20 or 30 people, when I speak at MadriGalz engagements to 1 or 2 or 10 dozen people, the confidence she taught me guides me always. And in music, she is poigantly with me all the time.

I can never listen to ANY part of The Messiah without hearing her voice and seeing her intensely focused direction, thinking of the first time I sang the choral sections at Christmas, holding hands during the Hallelujah Chorus with two more seasoned altos with tears streaming down my face, abandoning myself in the power of the music all around me, giving up any attempt at singing. There are many other pieces of music I can't separate from her: Mozart's Coronation Mass, the Requeim of Durufle, the choral music of Brahms...the list goes on and on. There is one dear old hymn, pulled out by our circle on every imaginable occasion, in which she seems especially present.

My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation
I hear the real though far-off hymn that hails the new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I'm clinging
Since Love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Humble dreams came true under the care of a great teacher. I speak confidently, I have sung some of Western history's great music, and when called on I can even teach simple vocal techniques to other people. This last was among her own criteria for having learned something: you never truly learn something, she would say, until you've taught it to someone else. You know what? Come to think of it, Mac does this. He teaches people to play guitar. She would love that.

So who was your teacher, my friends, my teachers? Whose life carved a path in your very self that changed you forever?


  1. The teacher who stands out the most in my mind was my Algebra teacher, Mr Kearns. A big man with a big heart, he never stopped wanting to teach kids when they paid little attention to him, and he always showed everyone to strive to be the best you can be in whatever you do.

  2. Well, clearly YOU paid attention, since you've integrated his real lesson into your approach to your writing and probably the rest of your life. As I mentioned, my teacher used to say you never really learn something until you teach it to someone else. For me, your reading of and thoughtful comments on my work are part of my learning and re-learning the "striving for the best" lesson. That may sound silly, but it's quite true since my growth as a writer depends in part on feedback from other writers. Indirectly, Mr. Kearns is still teaching now, through you. Thanks, Michelle. :)

  3. No. I am not going to discuss my teachers. I am only going to say that this was a most beautiful tribute to a woman and a teacher and to your own spirit which found the teacher it needed when it needed it.
    Angie. This was beautiful.

  4. Angela, I have been following your blog from the onset but usually in chunks as opposed to daily. When I can eek out a quite time I'll sit and catch up on a week or two's worth of postings. Always hearing your voice since you write as eloquently as you speak. I don't usually feel that my "two cents worth" is worth commenting but of course when it comes to SPE and our time together in her ministry I felt compelled to check in. Not to add anything profound but simply to be apart. hugs to Rodney and the boys (HA! ) Happy Easter

  5. Dear, dear Miss Jo,
    Your support and unwavering friendship have meant so much to me through the many years. Looking back on our time with SPE, I have to marvel at the miraculous circle of St. Augustine, where our mutual friendship with Debra brought us together, and formed part of my entree into the World of SPE. I love you so.


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