Monday, April 28, 2014

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Banjo Man

Another good man crossed the great divide: Banjo Larry Thompson, a dear, sweet man and a fine, fine musician. He could pick with the best of them, pick along with anything, and he kept a good, steady rhythm. He sang everything with gusto, humor and feeling in a surprisingly tuneful voice. Sometimes he'd break into a falsetto. And songs! Lord, he knew so many songs.  He died and took the song about the D'eautremont Brothers and the Train Robbery at Tunnel 13 with him. I'll never learn it now.

Many of his old pals gathered at the Pioneer Hall in Lithia Park to send him off. We sang a few songs, told a few stories, ate some food; you know, the things you do when the good ones go.  Afterwards, some of his friends went over to his house on Oak Street. I didn't go, but a couple of days later, I received this photograph of the banjo man in front of Banjo Larry's house.

I don't know when Larry had the banjo man carved out of the tree stump in front of his house, but it was decades ago. When we started hanging around his house in the 90s, it was completely covered in ivy. No-one had seen it in years. After the memorial, some of his friends and family went back to the house, cut back the bushes and found the banjo man still standing tall. He rose again.  Larry would approve.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Today's Life Lesson

You can only give of your excess. If you give to others from your essence, that which you need to keep yourself emotionally healthy, it will create a vacuum.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Today's Vocabulary Word

Bootsypedia: (n): 1. The lone Ham-woman’s vast repository of random, useless facts, used to explicate the themes and meanings of obscure song lyrics; 2. Creative but generally inaccurate musical dramaturgy.  

Monday, April 7, 2014


After years of talking about it, I start regular vocal training today for the first time since 1978. At the introductory session last week, I was surprised and happy to learn that my muscle memory is intact. Every time the teacher gave me a note and I was able to make the correction immediately.  My body remembers.

I'm thinking today about my last voice teacher Mr. Stewart Brady, one of the great vocal coaches of his generation. In 1976, I began studying with a small acting conservatory in San Francisco. During my second year, they cast me in a musical adaptation of The Cantebury Tales as the Prioress. I was to sing a song that was right at the top of my range.  After I was cast, my teachers arranged for me to take a course of intensive study with Mr. Brady, who was the singing teacher at ACT. I couldn't afford his fee and so they worked out some kind of scholarship, bless their hearts.

For eight weeks, I drove to Pacific Heights and studied with him in his astonishing, antique-filled mansion. Walking into that house was like walking into a museum. I'd never experienced anything even remotely like it. Oddly enough, I found a photo of his music room on another blog. Imagine uncultured and unsophisticated teenage me walking into this palace:

I was, of course, completely intimidated, but he immediately put me at ease.  He was an odd little man.  He must have been in his 70s when I met him, maybe older. He had been a child prodigy who toured the world singing concerts, but  he quit performing at age 13 and later became a vocal coach. His snow-white sideburns were groomed into perfect corkscrew curls, kind of a cross between hippie and Hasidim. He called me "darling" or "dear child" and, when I did something well, he would clap his hands and cheer "Brava! Bravissima!"   I had been singing as a second alto since childhood, but Mr. Brady immediately pegged me as mezzo-soprano. He taught me to de-emphasize my chest resonance and develop my head resonance to produce a lighter, sweeter tone. It worked. It was magical.

He once said to me,  "You have the kind of voice that most people enjoy, and I don't understand why."  He didn't mean it as an insult.  He was used to training world-renowned opera singers. We both knew he was completely out of my league. But, even though he outclassed me by miles, he was kind, welcoming, absolutely brilliant and generous with his knowledge. He taught me to treasure my voice as a beautiful and fluid instrument. Like a zen master, he taught me to let go and breathe.

I've never studied meditation techniques, but I learned to sing, a strangely similar discipline.

When I was young, I had a three octave range and could place my voice anywhere within that range with absolutely precision, clarity and ease. I didn't have to think about it, I just hit the note. Those days are gone; I won't get that voice back. But I can set up a regular regimen of exercises to repair my technique, reduce strain, and get a few more years out of this old instrument. I still have a few songs left to sing.