Moonstruck and Jan DeGaetani

I know. I’ve been mighty silent.

Writing is hard for me. Always has been. Lay a new full-time high school teaching job on top, and well, you get the picture.

But I am surfacing. Honestly, I’ve never slept better. It’s been years of turmoil at night doused by troubles, aging–a rescue puppy. A separation. Now, a divorce. It’s done. I am a divorced person.

Everything is different and not different.

I’ve found a wonderful group to ride with on weekends. Artists and retired professors and Mississippians who make me want to know more about this here and now; maybe even stay.

I’ve been to Oxford Treehouse Gallery, happy hours, concerts, Thacker Mountain Radio Show. I’m making friends. I’ve been welcomed into a lovely, lively, oh-so-fun writer’s group that meets once a month.

Jan was divorced once, and under similar circumstances to my own. Another coincidence. I think of her all the time, those lean years she was raising on her own two children under the age of six. I am looking as I type this at the small, teak recipe box Jan sent to me in 1987. A wedding present. It has followed me to every home Brian and I ever lived in. And now it’s here in Water Valley.

I remember the summer of 1988, asking Jan to save me a space in her Aspen studio, that I wanted to come spend the season there with her, singing, hiking, studying. Of course, she said yes. But I didn’t go. Brian, a submariner then, was about to leave for months; I called Jan and told her I was conflicted about Aspen. She said, If I were just married and I knew I only had a short amount of time to be with my husband, I’d stay with him.

So I did.

I promise myself I will get back to work on Close to Water in a concerted, finish-this-thing-kind-of-flurry. Because I want to. Because I have to.

It kills me that someone out there is reading this blog every single day. I am so grateful and somehow buoyed by knowing this.

Here’s a short piece I wrote a few weeks ago after my aborted trip to Ocean Springs, MS (the Gulfport) the very weekend Hurricane Nate turned from a tropical storm to a Cat 2. Not focused on Jan, but on me, right now, in this season of letting go, nature’s tricks and fury, beauty and calm. Thanks for reading.


He would say, Moonstruck after Cher’s film was released nationally on January 15, 1988, during our first year of marriage.

1988. Size 9. My lowest weight ever, my hair, long and wavy, pulled up and held in place by the metal clips we found in a Mystic, CT gift shop, a row of small cats or alligators, ornate and cool.

I hostessed and waited tables at Noah’s restaurant in Stonington and took literature classes at Connecticut College.

Wait, not yet. January,1988 we were living in South Berwick, Maine near to where his submarine was in dry dock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.  I subbed nearly daily at all the local primary schools. We’d move to Connecticut that March, weeks after my brother-in-law died in a car crash. He was high, loaded, had hit a tree, the car slowly rolling off the dirt road along the river. Quietly entering the waist-high muddy waters upside down. It was found tires up the next day. We don’t know if he died on impact or if he drowned. My sister wouldn’t allow the autopsy.

January 1988, Brian would still be on land, and though I can’t remember seeing the film with him, I think we would have gone together. And he would have immediately appropriated the story as ours, saying about that night, our first, at Groton Long Point in June 1986, that we, too, had been moonstruck.

That June evening, he’d driven me in his treasured Fiat to the famous Connecticut enclave where we sat at a picnic bench, the only ones there, at dusk, flirting, talking after a day at the beach. We’d met up that morning at the motel where his sister and I were staying. I’d not seen him in at least two years. Brian, the little brother of people I’d known nearly all my life. He was 20. I was 24. Now, here we were, sitting side by side, watching the perfectly round, huge, orange moon lift off the horizon at the edge of this inlet, into the night sky. He leaned over and kissed me, and I liked it.


I drove toward the storm.

Hurricane Nate was named and had already decimated Central America, killing more than 30 people.

Even though I knew what was coming.

Friday, October 6.  I packed my bike, my work, one book to read. Hope against hope. I had a four-day break from teaching and had planned to go down to the Gulf Coast.  I wanted to ride daily out toward the national seashore, through town, visit the Walter Anderson museum again. Drink coffee and grade papers. Journal. Eat dinners out.  Surely the storm would weaken and move quickly as predicted.

When I arrived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Nate was still only a tropical storm. My hosts knew it was coming but believed it would be an insignificant one. By the time I ready to sleep, it’s a Category 1 hurricane coming fast and headed right for us.

Three days earlier, I’d signed my divorce papers.

Nature wins.

Saturday morning. October 7. I learned upon waking that the storm was going to be bad, probably a Category 2; the rains would start in hours. I threw on some clothes, didn’t bother to wash my face or brush my hair (or teeth) and went out to hunt for food. And coffee.  At Starbucks, I learned from several locals that the town would simply shut down and soon. It suddenly occurred to me that spending my vacation in a lovely but small Airbnb with lovely (but veritable stranger-) hosts who were sure to lose power, water, and internet was dumb.

I repacked my car, drove to the ocean just a few streets from my Airbnb, took photographs of Pelicans dive bombing in the turbulent surf, the sky greying and darkening. Studied the outline of the Biloxi hotels which in a few hours would fill with water. 20 minutes later, I headed north out of town.  pelican

I was too tired to be mad, but I wasn’t mad. Not really. I’d seen the moon after all.  And maybe this leaving was another iteration of my now growing-up self who continues to be brave enough to listen, make decisions, and act. To do the right thing. Staying may have been adventurous, interesting, challenging, but leaving was also a right thing to do.  I’d been doing this now for over a year, packing, leaving, knowing when to stay, when to go. Since the morning I’d driven away from my 30-year marriage. Bike and books and work in tow.

There had been no warning.

It had been always only warnings.

People leave. They stay. They put up boards. Take them down. Fill sand bags. Friday morning, at my local coffee shop hours before I headed south, I met a couple living near me now who had moved from Ocean Springs thirteen years ago. Katrina was their breaking point. They just couldn’t do it anymore.


When I’d arrived that Friday evening, I first dumped my stuff with my hosts and then proceeded to walk to a nearby bar and grill on the water, the sun setting over me.  I stopped along the way to photograph the sky: sweeping pinks and roses, terra cotta on the edge. At the intersection, I questioned the intelligence of walking on this major vein on which the bar sat because cars were flying by, and as with every Mississippi road I’ve witnessed since moving here, there were no shoulders, no sidewalks.sunset

As I stood contemplating this, a truck stopped and a fellow with his sweet dog offered to drive me down to the bar. I hopped in and decided to worry about the walk back after I ate.

I sat at a picnic table facing the water, the restaurant’s strung lights dropping into every picture I took on my cell phone.Ocean Springs, MS

The sky darkened; I listened to a couple of retired teachers who played and sang the blues on the small stage inside. I ordered wine in a plastic cup, a chicken sandwich, sweet potato fries. I texted some folks my location, just so they’d know I was here. No one really knows where I am, I think, except for my two Airbnb hosts. I tweet my location accompanied by one of the photos; as I do, I am totally cognizant of this fact: Brian and I are still linked on Twitter. One last remaining thread.

What will he think? I know I ask myself, though I’d like to pretend that I don’t notice these thoughts. He’d be scared sick with worry. But there is no communication from him anymore. And there won’t be.

The sun is gone. I eat. I feel happy. That I came anyway, knowing the approaching storm will mess with my weekend. Alive. It doesn’t take much. Get in a car. Drive. Just go and see what’s out there. Look at people in the eye. Remember what you came here with to give.

I strap to my back the bike light my hostess loaned me.  I pay my bill at the bar and ask the young man behind it about the road. He tells me he walks home along this road every night.  “You’re fine. Don’t worry.” But I do, because standing in the parking lot, there appears to be a steady stream of traffic, headlights coming right at me. I look to my left, and then I see it. Of course. This huge, orange, perfectly round moon on the horizon readying to take flight. Moonstruck. I stop and face it directly across from where I stand.

October 6, 2017. One month, one day and thirty years after I married Brian Haines.  72 hours after I’d slipped the 8.5 by 11 envelope in the post box.

“Moonstruck,” he’d always said. And for a long time, too.

I am slightly buzzed, and exhausted, and mostly worried about navigating those yards ahead on this busy road on which I, 1. Do nearly step on a black snake, either dead or alive, I don’t linger to find out, 2. Dance at the grassy edge, not wanting to invite another chigger infestation or worse, and 3. End up running most of the distance, giggling and stopping when a line of cars passes.

Almost immediately after leaving the parking lot, I look left again. Trees, bushes, houses obscure the view.  I can’t see it anymore.

It will rise, and I will keep walking.






Posted in Dawn's Journey, Images, Reflecting on Jan, Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Jan DeGaetani’s Life Lessons


I recently chatted with soprano Karen Holvik whom I   first met in the fall of 1980, my first semester in Jan’s studio. I was eighteen; Karen had just completed her graduate degree the spring before and was headed to her first opera gig at Western Opera Theater. She lived in Rochester that fall, waited on tables, took lessons, and attended our studio classes.

I remember her round, open face. Wide eyes and mouth. I remember hearing about Karen, her successes, her singing. About how she starred with Jan in The Medium at the Aspen Music Festival. I knew then that she was special and that Jan loved her.

Menotti's The Medium

Soprano Karen Holvik and Jan DeGaetani in The Medium

Hers is an interesting path from student to singer of opera and voice teacher. She’s taught at Eastman and has been the Chair of the voice department at New England Conservatory for nearly ten years. She started out in the early 70’s singing jazz and writing songs for the rock band she fronted. They’d been successful: recorded and toured for years. Her mother, a musician (she and Karen’s father met at Eastman!) eventually convinced Karen to study seriously, to train. Karen studied with John Molloy at Eastman and Jan at Aspen. She remembers the moment she knew she had to give up the jazz and gigging. (She’d been earning her keep singing in Rochester clubs.) During her second year at Eastman, she was cast in the lead of an obscure Donizetti opera and found it harder and harder to switch styles as she learned the role. Her body had undergone rigorous training to sing classical music; it was changing, and she knew her singing was suffering. Of course, it was Jan who listened to Karen as she made the decision.

It was also Jan who valued Karen’s jazz singing (she and Phil went to Karen’s gigs in Rochester), and used this to guide Karen into the context of singing classical music.

Her first summer as Jan’s student in Aspen, Karen was attempting to sing Après Un Rêve during a master class, and she couldn’t get out of her own way, she says. She was really struggling. Jan told her to come to class the next week prepared to sing the song as if it were a jazz tune, unaccompanied. This simple idea was a game changer for Karen. As she says, Jan knew how to get her to connect with what made her a singer and gave her permission to be this way, exactly as she was, to sing her true self.

Jan knew the cost of Karen’s decision, and she also helped Karen remember she’d never leave it behind. It was as much and always a part of her musician self as this new classical music.

Life Lessons, Karen calls them. The moments when Jan’s wisdom changed her, stories she tells her own students now. Many times, Karen says, she hears something coming out of her mouth during a lesson and looks up, whispering, Thank you, Jan.

I think about how I’ve grown into a teacher of writing. Of how I read what’s on a student’s page and look for what’s not. For what’s underneath the typed line. For what wants to be there.  For the hint of the human being reaching for something. And then I try to suggest ways for the writer to take another step. A next step. I end my conferences asking, Do you have a sure way to get back to work now?

Jan taught me how to be a teacher. I tell Karen my top two Jan Life Lessons: First, pay attention and be a student of myself.  Second, trust my thinking. Over the years, every single time I asked my growing son, “What’s your best thinking, honey?”  I may not have raised my eyes or whispered under my breath, but Jan was with me nonetheless. This useful, empowering approach came from somewhere. It came from Jan.






Posted in Dawn's Journey, Fun Research Tidbit, Images, Interview, Reflecting on Jan | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Radio Days


These last two weeks, I’ve jumped into a new teaching job. I’m teaching college writing to seniors at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mississippi. I’m beat! A week of training. Everything is online, multiple programs to learn, new building, schedule. I’ve just completed my first week of classes (School starts in August in MS, but we get out in May), and I adore my students. Every single one. So fun to be back in the classroom.

But, not a second to spare for Jan.

In part, because as I was learning this new place and readying to meet students, I was also writing a new essay about my dad Dick Denham and his radio days for an anthology to be published this winter by Hippocampus magazine, an excellent online creative nonfiction journal.  I don’t know yet if the essay has been accepted for Air: A Radio Anthology, but I’m so glad I finally wrote this.  Most of you don’t know that in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s my dad was a Washington D.C. disc jockey at WINX, artist rep and promoter at Columbia Records, and program director at WRC/NBC.  Here’s the first section of the essay and some fun photos.

Radio Days Disc jockey At INX

Dad’s early headshot for WINX


In 1955, my father Dick Denham walked into United Broadcasting headquarters in Washington D.C. and said, “I want to be a radio personality.” He was 24 years old.

Fresh out of the service, a bleak but mercifully short stint in the Air Force after his National Guard unit was activated in 1952, he’d been pumping gas and working the floor at an upscale men’s clothing store in Arlington, Virginia, among other jobs, and dreaming of being on the air.

Dad grew up on radio. Born in 1931 in Washington D.C., his young years were filled with the music, comedy, serial programming, sports, and newscasts of radio’s heyday.  He was an only child and listened to the radio constantly. The Harry James show was an immediate favorite.  He listened to comedians Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Jack Benny. To singers like Eddie Fisher who rose to the top on the heels of Harry James. To The Shadow, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, and The Green Hornet. At ten, he sat listening to a Washington Redskins game when the broadcast was interrupted with the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dickie Denham ran into the kitchen, crying out to his mother, “Who’s Pearl Harbor? She’s been attacked!” He sat enraptured by Arch McDonald’s play-by-play of the Washington Senators games. By the time he’s a young man stationed in Newfoundland, he is missing his music something terrible. Particularly Willis Conover’s jazz show broadcasted world-wide on the Armed Forces radio network. Dad thought, I could lose all this, and started recording Conover’s show so he could listen to his beloved jazz at will. He and his buddies used the tapes to create their own shows on base.

If you asked him, he’d tell you the arrow through his heart called music happened from the very start. Richard Marvin Denham was born to Marvin and Genevieve Denham, a childless couple in their 30’s, living in the D.C. metropolitan area.  Little Dickie’s arrival was unplanned, and he spent much of his young life alone or with many of his older relatives, women mostly, I’ve heard about my whole life: Aunt Addie, Nanny Denham, Aunt JuJu.  Marvin Denham was the boy wonder salesman at Lambert’s, a Hudson dealership. When Dickie came along, the family lived in a lovely white house with green trim and shingles in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Then the depression wiped it all out. The little family of three was forced to live with Genevieve’s parents on Kenyon Street near the NW entrance of the National Zoo.

Music saved Dickie’s life. He fell in love with percussion first. In elementary school, he was invited to lead the student body into assembly, beating the toy drum he’d been gifted by his mother. He graduated to a small drum set, but as my father tells it now, his mother feared her only son would become one of those bebop drummers like Gene Krupka whom read about in the Star. Dad chuckles, saying, “If she’d ever read about Dizzy, I may never have played the trumpet!”

The Kenyon Street gang, dad and his buddies, all went home after school and listened to the 6 pm Lone Ranger episode, and then, the music program, which for a while was Harry James. This school-aged boy was fascinated by the sounds, the rhythms, the trumpet, his love of the instrument cemented. Someone gave him a phony tin, three-valve trumpet as a gift and soon he’d be found in the evenings on the stair landing, holding the thing up to his tiny sliver of a mouth, pretending he was Harry James and blowing. He’d put 78 RPM records of James’ orchestra on the family’s tiny crank record player there on the landing and play along to the Two O’clock Jump. Only he wasn’t making a sound.

It was during these years on Kenyon Street when Genevieve bought my dad his first trumpet, an ornate Conn, from a fellow in the Navy band. Enthusiasm quickly turned to the cold, hard reality of playing the thing. Dick was surprised when he picked it up, put it to his lips, and couldn’t play like Harry James. He started to practice.

I never knew my dad to be a trumpet player, though that original Conn has remained in my family all these years. When I was growing up, it was the drums. Just as he’d done as a boy on that stairway landing, Dad set up a beet red and sparkly drum set—a Christmas gift from my mother—in the basement rec room of our Rockville, Maryland cul-de-sac ranch and played along to his jazz records for hours. I’d join him and sit in the hanging wicker chair next to my mom’s heavy old writing desk and swing as he played, listening to the beat, the melodies, watch his body keeping time, the swagger in shoulders and neck and head of a person who is inside the music. “The difference,” he tells me today, “is that I was really playing those drums!”

He lived for music and it was everywhere. As a paperboy for the The Evening Star, he had one customer in the Cavalier Apartments, a woman, who played her records nonstop. She’d open the door, and hearing the fascinating Two O’clock Jump, Dad would stick around in the foyer long after she closed it just to listen longer.

At some point, Dick began taking trumpet lessons with a pit musician at the Capitol Theater. Every Saturday, he and his friend Herbert Berger went backstage to take lessons. When he was 16, he auditioned for the Redskins Marching Band and spent three years travelling all over for games.

Here’s the story I love imagining best: Dad, a lanky, dark-haired, quiet high schooler with a wide, bright smile, traipsing around the city at night in his trench coat, playing pickup gigs, in quartets, pop and standards. The nights he’d be out so late, he’d head to a girl’s apartment, a friend, to sleep on her family’s couch. He’d wake early, take the bus back to Kenyon Street in time to wash up and change before heading back to school.

He wasn’t the best of students, but his teachers loved him, the self-professed class clown. “Without my great relationships with them, I may not have graduated,” he believes now.  It wasn’t for lack of trying or smarts; my dad suffered Dyslexia, a disorder in those days teachers and administrators knew little about. In college at George Washington, he found little purpose, was bored. The Dyslexia made it all the harder.

But his ear was good. His love of the music, bottomless. He could play along to anything.  Listen and figure it out. He played this way until the auditions began to outdo him; he couldn’t read the music. That old demon Dyslexia.  Dad stopped playing when he went into the service.

In D.C. after the Korean war, playing wasn’t on his mind anymore: he was working multiple jobs and listening to music. He saved for a car.

“Nat the Cat Battin’at Ya” (Battonatcha) was a local disc jockey, a sportscaster, and a regular customer at the gas station where Dad worked. He’d pull up in his big red car, the black call letters of a radio station on both sides, and Dad noticed. At this time, Nat the Cat (Nat Albright) was recreating the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games in the studio at WOOK and putting these recordings on the air. He had the crowd noises, the calls, the hit . . . “You’d swear you were listening to the original,” Dad says. “And he was doing it all with crude tools.”

Dad told Nat how he was interested in broadcasting, and soon Albright was handing my dad UPI wire to read aloud as he pumped the gas. One day Nat said, “You’re ready” and made the appointment for Dad to interview at WINX, a fledgling station in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Owner Richard Eaton sat behind the big desk looking at my young, handsome, gregarious father, who’d just walked in and said, “I want to be a radio personality.”

“I like the way you just said that,” Eaton told my father.  “I just bought a radio station for my son. You can start Monday.”

Bobby Darin

One of my favorites of the celebrity photos. Bobby Darin and Dad worked together a few times. Here, they’re at a record hop at a brand new pool in Montgomery County, MD, circa 1959


Posted in Dawn's Journey, Fun Research Tidbit, Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jan DeGaetani and Water

Good Morning, Friends,

Here’s a little piece I worked on this morning:



Baritone Tom Paul, asks me, “Did you know Jan was fascinated by Osprey?”

I shake my head no.

“She loved them.”

I find this question scribbled on a torn off page of yellow legal pad, sporadic notes across half the long page. It was a four-hour interview in Tom and Ester’s rambling country house in an old Rochester, New York suburb. I have written less than ten lines.

I’m looking for interview notes with Gil Kalish because I have to start this story about Jan and Gil, but I have been putting off this story about Jan and Gil because I have to get it right. I’m intimidated.

Jan DeGaetani Gil Kalish Eastman School of Music

Jan and Gil at Eastman School of Music, 1980’s

I grab the page and bring it with the Gil folder back to my writing desk of late, a long distressed- white dining room table my sister has given me for my move to Mississippi. Birds chatter and speak all day long here beginning in the early morning hours. Once a few weeks ago, I witnessed a blue hummingbird speed through the tree leaning into my back porch.

I pay attention when birds come to me. [I once wrote an essay about my mother’s death a few weeks after she left us when a family of newborn cardinals attempted flight from their nest precariously sprung among the slender branches of a lilac tree outside my bedroom window.]

I should be thinking about Gil, but instead I look up Osprey online at the Audubon Society site. The homepage for Osprey comes up. Nearly the entire page is a bright photograph of this bird, either landing or taking flight from a stick nest, wings spread, curled talons curled at rest, but no less intimidating. Of hawk, not falcon or eagle, but some part of all these together, its body dominates the screen. Thick, log-like, solid, its haunches symmetrical, sleek and muscular: thigh then knee joint then falling, quiet calf. [I don’t have words other than for humans to use here.] Its beak is black and pointed downward, talon sharp. Sharper eyes, yellow spheres, black yolk. This animal is strong. Fierce. And beautiful, its feathers striped white, gray, black, and downy; you want to stroke where ligament attaches at the bone.

Of course, I think, It’s Jan.

Regal. White. Piercing. Serious. Strong. Beautiful.

I read the osprey is “a very distinctive fish-hawk, formerly classified with other hawks but now placed in a separate family of its own.” [My italics.]

In my notes of my third interview with Gil, I read, “There was an aura about her. She was unusual.”

The osprey travels “along coastlines, lakes, and rivers almost worldwide and is often seen flying over the water, hovering, and then plunging feet-first to catch fish in its talons.”

Gil says, “She didn’t know what it was either.”

[He also says, “She’d be amazed that you are writing this book.”  Humble.]

The bird is only doing its work. What it was built for.

[You would not go so far as to say Jan was hawkish.]


“After a successful strike, the bird rises heavily from the water and flies away, carrying the fish head-forward with its feet.”

Jan loved the ocean. Loved her little cottage on Shelter Island. I have a photograph of her walking along the shore in winter, bundled up, scarf over thick hair, her little dog at her feet. Looking down. At shells? Looking up. Sky.

Jan DeGaetani Shelter Island

Jan and Phil walking on the beach at Shelter Island

Gil Kalish tells me, “She was one of a kind.”

Jan readily told people she must have been born close to water.  By the time I hear her say it, I know she doesn’t mean of the religious bearing, not anymore, but of something else, earthbound and human and emotional: she cried. Jan cried at everything beautiful: a student’s soaring sound and phrasing, what a friend just shared, the symphony or quartet washing over her, the funniest thing that just happened and I have to tell you—we all know that image, sparkling blue eyes under salty water—and it was because she was happy. At beauty, at connection, at divine human experience.

Osprey. Tom Paul said this to me during our long, fast, emotional reckoning. I wrote it down. I remember sitting at his kitchen table thinking in that second that someone else had mentioned this to me, Jan’s adoration of some genus of bird. It was Jane, Jane Adler, a little story about a bird.

I open my notes from my interview with Jane and read: Jan had said she wanted to come back as a kind of bird, a seagull. Jane says Jan’s son Mark told her this once when they drove from the city to the cottage on Shelter Island for a party. Jane tells me she later learned that Mark took some of Jan’s ashes to this beach where he threw them into the wind,

flying over the water, hovering, and then plunging

I have been told again and again how Jan loved the shore, her little island cottage [close to water]. It is something else I never knew about Jan. She said she wanted to come back a bird. I have a hard time thinking it was a seagull. This is what happens with the telling. The thread. The broken connections. [Remember that game Telephone?] We all have to decide to accept this, that the essence  ashes in the wind  of the truth is what rings true. That ocean and flight and fierce beauty is enough.


Posted in Dawn's Journey, Fun Research Tidbit, Images, Reflecting on Jan, Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Jan DeGaetani, July 10, 1933

Oh my. I’ve never been good at birthdays. I gave up a long time ago. My sister makes an annual calendar with photographs; she’s never sent one to me. I’m not mad. I think she knows I’ll forget all the dates anyway.

My husband’s aunt has for over 30 years mailed me a birthday card. She calls every year on the day to sing me Happy Birthday.

Today, my iPhone calendar daily reports whose birthday it is. For awhile now, I’ve noticed repetitions for the same day, or consecutively. At least once every day, someone’s birthday shows at 112th or 116th or 96th.  I don’t know how to shut that whole thing down, just stop the birthday madness. [I’m not too good at the phone technology either.]

And so, I miss what would have been Jan’s 84th birthday, yesterday, July 10, 2017. I am reminded because of some emails I received and John Kramar’s annual tweet.

In case you missed it, here’s some writing from the book about her childhood (and you can read more here):

Everybody knew Earl D. Ruetz had wanted a son.  Perhaps that’s why he and his young wife Eleanor tried so many times. Both born in 1903 and raised in Pennsylvania, Earl and Cora Eleanor Hayman married in 1927 after Earl’s graduation from Law school and settled in northeastern Ohio. They rented a one-room apartment over a garage in rural Stark County between Massillon and Canton. The kitchen hung off the back. They paid nine dollars a month. It was the depression, and although Earl had started his own practice, money was scarce and neighbors couldn’t afford lawyers. Their little circle of friends—all lawyers and judges— in the worst of times, fronted money to each other for baby food.

Their first child, Vera, was born in January 1929. Louanne came along three years later.  She wasn’t a boy either and became known throughout town as Scotty. Janice (nicknamed Jannie) came a year and a half later, on July 10, 1933, the same date of her mother’s birth, this   first elemental connection a harbinger of their life-long devotion to one another.

Jan DeGaetani Birthday

This is a page from a scrapbook Jan’s mother Eleanor made for her. You can see from where Jan inherits that fabulous sense of humor.

By the time fourth daughter came, Earl was the local bank’s attorney and had moved his family into a small two-bedroom house in Stark County.  Born Nadine, Earl called his last child “Pete” for the rest of her life.

It seems Earl made peace with his brood of girls, and he and Eleanor made a loving home in the tiny house and backyard where they spent many happy hours playing together.

Jan DeGaetani in Massillon, OH

Jan, “about 9”. From scrapbook her mother made for her.

The girls grew as did Earl’s practice, reputation, and presence in the tight knit community. Clients, unable to pay in cash for Earl’s services, bartered, and often dropped whole chickens at the door.

One day, the year Jannie Ruetz was five, Earl came home and said, “I just bought us a new house. We can go see it.”

63 Prospect Street was built in 1906 in the heart of the grandest neighborhood in Massillon where no house was like any other. Here the girls’ neighbors would be people of prominence, industrialists, bankers, and humanitarians who helped fugitive slaves. Five Oaks, a veritable castle, the grandest of them all, was at the other end of their block. It housed the town’s Woman’s Club and had once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Popular American actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, also Ohio natives, frequently visited their aunt and family at 74 Prospect right down the street.

Jan DeGaetani childhood home

63 Prospect Street (now 225 Fourth Street, N.E.) Massillon, OH. A famed Heritage home named to the National Register of Historic Districts.

Massillon jeweler Albert “Bert” Coleman built the mausoleum-like tan brick Colonial Revival where Jannie would spend the rest of her young life. The fourteen-room house included four bathrooms, bay windows, and a wide front porch and entrance flanked by double Ionic columns. Even now, it stands austere, solid, serious, befitting a young professional such as Earl Ruetz and the social status his post assumed.

“It’s a castle!” Vera says Jannie exclaimed, as she leapt from their car and ran up the several steps at the sidewalk.


Warm water lapped at the tub’s edge.  Her little hands like china, like the porcelain surrounding her, splashing. Flimsy lace curtains fluttered at the window. Droplets of warm water gathered on black and white diamond tiles. She heard muffled sounds below. Her mother, sisters, the soft thud of one of them dropping a book.

“Are you washed in the blood…” her voice, a reedy strain, echoing. “Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?” Singing as she slapped the flat water, she raised her cloth to her face, scrubbing up and down hard several times. “Are your garments spotless?” The hymn asked as her crystal blue eyes grazed the ceiling. Waiting for response.

Below her, the thin strain of singing reached the kitchen where her mother Eleanor added flour to her dough. My Jannie. She wiped her dusty hands on her apron, picked up her rolling pin. In the living room, Scotty and Vera chatted loudly.

 There is a sense of peace at 63 Prospect Street at dusk. The fat light fills the kitchen at the back of the house, a room all its own, not like the galley in their previous home in Stark County, or the appendage off the garage one-room apartment where, at the depression’s eclipse, all her girls, one after another, came screaming into this life.  Here, Eleanor has room to move, to expand, to inhabit and fill all her family’s needs.

Janice Ruetz is five years old and has just had her bath. Her father will come through the front door any moment.

            “Keep going, darling,” her mother says to no one, not looking up from the crust she’s rolling at the counter.

            Humming, Jannie softly, evenly, descends the wide stairs, heads to the Library where her sisters are already pulling at one section of the bookshelves lining the wall.

            “You’re not supposed to do that!” She says abruptly at the doorway. “Daddy’s coming!” Vera and Scotty reveal the opening behind the shelf and begin stepping through it.

            “No he isn’t. Not yet!” hissed Scotty in her younger sister’s direction. And, “Get in here with us!!”

It was mostly a way to keep Jannie from telling on them more than their desire to hide with her, and maybe Jannie knew it somewhere deep down, but not on the surface; her sisters’ urging, a sweet call. Still, she didn’t want to rouse her father’s disappointment or worse, anger. Earl had forbidden the girls to ever play in the secret hideaway.

“Come on, Goody Two Shoes,” Vera chided, practically pulling her into the cramped and stuffy space behind them.  Like Jannie, Vera, age nine, Scotty (Louanne’s nickname), eight, and baby Petey all had coal black hair, thick and wavy. The three girls stood in the closet-like space and said nothing. It was the closest they’d get to their own catacombs like those of Five Oaks, the castle at the other end of the block. Stories told of a train that once ran beneath it holding cargo of escaped Negroes. Jannie tried very hard to even her breathing and stay very still so as to not touch her sisters’ hands or sleeves.  Her disobedience thrilled her, and she prayed she would not be found out. They were ghosts in the dark. 


Happy Birthday, Jan. We miss you. We’ve missed you for a long time.


Posted in Excerpt from Book, Images, Reflecting on Jan | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jan DeGaetani and Dance

Hello, Friends,

As promised, here’s some work about Jan’s use of dance and movement as a singer and teacher.


I wonder if people remember how committed Jan was to the soundness of her physicality. How upright and easy her stance, her posture, regal but relaxed. She taught us all to be mindful of the body as instrument, as vessel. She never asked me to read and study that thick compendium on vocal production and singing I lugged around the summer after my first year at Eastman. She asked me to sing and notice what my body was doing, what my body needed to be doing, how my body—muscles, breath, phonation [flaps in the wind] would do it all on its own. Then, to learn what to do next, to better, to lengthen, to diminish, to shape by experimentation and practice and noticing, always, noticing in the moment of doing. Making decisions because of flesh and bone and air and teeth and because of the writer who composed the thing in the first place.

She was strong. Her large shape belied the well-used and honed muscles she developed. [Later in life, some would deride her for the weight gain. When her mother called her fat, she laughed.]


She learned to dance, once. She studied body movement in New York early in her years there. She was rehearsing the role of the Old Maid in The Old Maid and the Thief in Woodstock, and wanted to figure some things out. Dancer Elaine Summers, an avant-garde choreographer in SoHo who summered upstate observed Jan rehearsing: a 20-year-old trying to be an old lady in body and sound. She offered to teach Jan a set of relaxation exercises she used with her dancers. She saw at once what I was trying to do, and why I wasn’t able to do it.

Jan studied with Summers for almost four years until 1961 and created her own mishmash system for attuning body-mind awareness and alignment.

Soon, others wanted to learn her system. Composer and friend Stanley Walden introduced Jan to Joseph Chaikin who asked her to teach it to his actors at his Open Theater.

You have a channel, Jan would say; for an instrumentalist, it’s the instrument, for a singer, the voice.

But you need to support the channel at the source, the body, the mind. You need to care for, exercise, know the source.

She would learn Alexander Technique, yoga, practice daily to be free physically while identifying which parts of her instrument, the whole body, weren’t functioning well.

In 1973, Jan was teaching two days a week at the State University of New York in Purchase. This post was among her first teaching jobs. Ancient Voices had already been nominated for a Grammy and Jan had been singing it all over the country. But she wasn’t teaching voice at Suny. She was teaching instrumentalists.

I try to teach them to let go, to breathe, to find a way to be musicians and public people.

It was the only required course in the music department. Vocal Improvisation and Body Movement.

They were not allowed to bring their instruments to class.

She was in part teaching vulnerability.

Your feelings must be involved, but your ego must not.


During the second semester of 1985, Jan is musician-in-residence at Skidmore College. She teaches four master classes, private lessons, and performs twice. One of the master classes is devoted to movement and the body.

Your body is your instrument, Jan tells the circle of singers surrounding her in the small recital hall where she teaches. You have to use it—move it—to bring your music alive. The nature of life, all life, is to be in motion.

The young singers hadn’t expected to dance.

[I imagine Jan flashing that wicked little smile, thinking, Well, no, not ballet, but movement to go forth to meet…

“What,” they must have wondered.

The music.]

The relationships: body, space, time, inert marks on a score. Mind. Gut. Heart. Body moves both voluntarily and involuntarily. The other depends on that channel.  What is the dance here before sound emerges? During? After? How do they inform what is happening?

There’s a common misconception that singing is some kind of aethereal, artistic activity that happens as if by magic. But it’s not. Singing is very definitely a physical matter, involving the body, and above all, the body in motion.

Bounce on the vowel, she says.

Put on a record and dance when you sing.

Conduct yourself as you sing.

You see, singing is like dancing; you don’t want to stop and think about rhythm. You want to listen, to move to the music—to feel it—not count off the bars. You want to let your body just breathe into the rhythm appropriate to the music.


We all received this body-wisdom, regardless of the instrument. It was all the same to Jan.

Jan DeGaetani movement techniques

Skidmore College, 1985. Teaching an entire class of movement.


On Saturday mornings my second year at Eastman, I woke early, headed to one of the dorm lounges to learn movements of the Alexander Technique because Jan suggested  that we, her students, do this. It was quiet on weekends, people sleeping in. A man, a woman—I don’t remember them speaking much at all—worked with students one at a time on long massage tables, at straight-backed chairs. We learned to sit by bending appropriately at the waist, how to remain in alignment as we descended, hips, quiet; sacrum, purposefully reaching back to chair. We learned to walk, shoulders easy [mine would never drop much, nor could I ever lay them down flat against the floor of an evening yoga class I took on Gibbs Street across from the school, another Jan suggestion.] These Saturday mornings went on for some weeks, I think, maybe six. I was eager to learn. And to please. I wanted to have a deep relationship with my body, its movements, alignment, disconnect, pain.  Possibility.


Posted in Excerpt from Book, Fun Research Tidbit, Images, Reflecting on Jan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jan DeGaetani and Turnau Opera Players

Hello, Friends,

This week, I’ve thrown myself back into research mode as I piece together Jan’s steps from Juilliard in 1955 to the year her first marriage to Tom DeGaetani ended sometime in the early 60’s.

Gems. Open one more file. Turn over one more copied ancient article or review. Read one more paragraph. Round the corner.

This past weekend, Dad came over for dinner and we streamed The Lost City of Z on Amazon. We both liked the movie a lot, appreciated the slow walk of the first half and the sudden accumulation of well-laid plot lines, characterizations and suspense of the second. (I just ordered the book.) As I sift through artifacts I found and received at Eastman in Rochester last fall and from more boxes in Carole Cowan’s attic, I feel the momentum. Press on. It is a jungle-hunt in the Amazon, following this path set decades before I cross it.

I’m endlessly humbled by the seeming chance–fate?–of what I find, I’ve what I’ve been given. The synchronicity. After all the research I’ve organized, filed, stored, there are still pieces handed to me by folks along the way: Thank you, David Raymond for your collection of seeming disparate articles. In this pile, I find the missing links about Jan’s two seasons with a fledgling New York City opera company, The Turnau Opera Players.

Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild

Jan sang here with the Turnau Opera Players from NY, NY in 1956 and ’57. Woodstock, NY.

Jan spent 8 weeks in Woodstock, NY during the summers of 1956 and ’57–the group’s 2nd and 3rd seasons, singing multiple major and lead opera roles.

Dorabella in Cosi, The Queen of Spades in Ashley Vernon’s Grand Slam, Volpino in Haydn’s The Apothecary. Venus in Vernon’s Cupid and Psyche, a World Premiere. Zanetto in Mascagni’s Zanetto. 

Michael Charry was Maestro. In one review by Alexander Semmler, the company is lauded: “Sung in an excellent English translation, Mozart’s opera buffa came vivaciously to life, musically and dramatically, with all the sense of fun, musical wit, and exquisite tonal charm that Mozart’s genius for the theater endowed the work with. Here was living theatre, pure in style, yet unburdened by academic stuffiness. Here was musical comedy on the wings of great music. Here was an integrated ensemble of beautiful voices…A rather unique feature of the performance was the beautiful blending of voices between soprano Lucille Sullam and mezzo-soprano Jan Ruetz as Dorabella.

Turnau Opera Players Woodstock, NY

Turnau Opera Players’ second or third season, Woodstock, NY. 1956 or ’57. This opera was performed in repertory both seasons.

During the 1957 season, Jan sings in English Cenerentola, Miss Todd in Menotti’s Old Maid and the Thief, again, The Queen of Spades, Zanetto, and Dorabella.

  1. One review for Cenerentola from the Catskill Mountain Star dated July 11, 1957 states, “Ideally suited to the title role was Jan Ruetz, Mezzo-soprano, who brought not only beauty of voice but a beguiling believability to the exacting role. Miss Ruetz was in complete command of her pristine pure voice as it floated out beneath the proscenium arch. This
  2. blue-eyed Cinderella came into her full stature in her final aria, which is indeed a vehicle for the voice, but which she sang with a sure touch and with much beauty.”

    Jan Ruetz (DeGaetani) Professional Headshot

    This professional photo was most likely taken by the time Jan graduated from Juilliard or shortly after in 1955. It is the one she uses through the late 50’s for all promotion.

Indeed, behold that stunning photograph of her stunning self, her “headshot” for those early years of singing and performing after graduating from Juilliard.

And at the end of this review, the writer states, “ A special bravo to Tom DeGaetani for his excellence in scenic and lighting effects.”

Here’s what I mean about reading one more article, turning one more stone: Finding facts about Tom DeGaetani and their marriage in the late 50’s has not been easy. I have been able to learn details about Tom’s career (it’s interesting and for another post), but exactly when and how they met, I really don’t know (yet). Tom was director of lighting and sets at Juilliard for many years. Raymond Gilbert, a graduate student when Jan was there told me stories about working with Tom as a grad assistant and how he often saw Jan backstage, “hanging around” to be near Tom.   “She was always nice, gracious, and had a lovely reputation!”  But here is evidence of their blossoming romance: they both worked for Turnau Opera that summer of 1957; they were married in ’58.

I read this batch of articles, research the Turnau players online and learn more about those early years of Jan’s life and career after leaving school. It’s fun. I mean, to learn that she and Tom spent a summer together doing essentially summer stock (many reviewers and patrons called it this even though it was mostly opera) somehow makes them both even more human to me, and I feel as if I’ve discovered the missing city…every little nugget feels like a win as I imagine in greater detail her early life in New York as a professional singer.

And everything begins to connect. As I finished a draft last week of the piece about composer Pia Gilbert , I uncovered more about the dancer who taught Jan the importance of movement in her singing and music making. Then this week, I understand now how it was Jan would have run into this woman while rehearsing Miss Todd in The Old Maid and the Thief. More on that next time.

PS: Jan DID do summer stock during the summer of 1956 as well. She was most likely hired in the chorus at The Dixie Theatre in-the-round at the Music Fair Tent in Toronto Canada. Check out this newspaper clipping for upcoming shows.

Jan DeGaetani at Dixie Theater in the round, Music Fair Tent, Toronto Canada

Jan spent at least one season performing musical theater in Canada at the Dixie Theater in the round Music Fair Tent. She is actually featured in two articles, up front and center! Always genuinely smiling. Having a good time.


Posted in Friday Roundup, Fun Research Tidbit, Images, Reflecting on Jan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jan DeGaetani and Dawn

Dawn was once a popular name. I don’t know anyone naming their daughters this today. There are four Dawn’s from all around the country still in my life, all born within years of me in 1962. It was once a popular name.

Dawn (Drury) Dekker was my first best friend the years my family lived in an old farmhouse atop a hill overlooking Sharpsburg, a tiny gulley town caught smack dab in the middle of the battle at Antietam, the bloodiest day of the Civil War.

The Antietam Battlefield

Sharpsburg, MD at the time of the Civil War

I didn’t know this then, when on a chilly drab April day we moved from the suburbs of Washington D.C.–Rockville, Maryland–to the 26 acres roaming down to the corner of Mondell Road and East Chaplin Street, one block from the town Square. My father’s father had died, leaving his only child whatever he had, and my parents hitched their wagon to the promising “back-to-the-land-movement” in the early 70’s, though they wouldn’t be necessarily building our house, harvesting all our food. But close enough. It was my mom’s dream to be “in the country” out of the sterile and “ticky-tacky” suburbs, to raise chickens, can vegetables, drink whole milk from the neighboring dairy farmer. Dawn Drury is two years older than I; she joined my mom’s Girl Scouts troop soon after we moved there. After Dawn graduated high school and went off to Georgetown, I visited her there, and by the time I left for Eastman, we’d lost touch. In 2010, because of Facebook, we reunited and have been close since.

Dawn Flynn

Dawn Marie Flynn

Dawn Flynn, soprano

is a soprano and teacher who came to Eastman to join Jan’s studio a year after I started. The two Dawn’s. She was big and brassy and seemingly completely self-possessed, funny, cheerful and kind. Classy. Always dressed and lipsticked and polished. She is still in Europe singing, arrived there after she left Eastman. We’ve reconnected because of this book I’m writing.


It took me more than seven years, no kidding, to nail down an interview date with soprano Dawn Upshaw. In September 2015, we shared memories and breakfast in her now hometown of Rhinebeck, New York. Gil Kalish joined us as they were performing that evening together at Bard College. Dawn and I have an unusual “non”-history that makes talk and connection easy when we do run into each other.  We met when I was a sophomore at Eastman because of a boy. One we both loved and she married. [You cannot make this stuff up.] She studied with Jan at Aspen and almost came to Eastman for graduate school, but instead stayed in New York at Manhattan School of Music. I remember being in the audience for her final recital there in the spring of 1984, her singing Kurt Weill‘s “Je ne t’aime pas.” I remember weeping by the end of this gorgeous and prescient concert.  I was there for her quick and eminent rise: the contests won, the radio broadcasts, the opera roles, the recordings. So many I love, too much to go into now, but she will figure in this book on Jan. Because she has in many tangible ways followed Jan’s lead and in her footsteps. Since 2004, she has been the Charles Franklin Kellogg and Grace E. Ramsey Kellogg Professor of the Arts and Humanities and artistic director of the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at the Bard Conservatory of Music, a program she created. She figured in my life, too, a little larger-than-life presence I looked to and admired, was curious about endlessly, and for so many reasons. She was the real deal, something any of us who knew or observed her in those early days simply understood. A step apart. Clear, directed, unattached to the art but wholly in it. She seemed to have zero self-consciousness about herself as singer, performer, especially to this young, insecure undergraduate studying at Eastman. Like Jan. Dawn was like Jan. Is like Jan. She’s been giving concerts all over the world with Gil Kalish since Jan’s leaving us. Circles. Full circles.

Singers of 20th Century Music

Tony Arnold, Lucy Shelton, Dawn Upshaw open the 2015 Resonant Bodies Festival with a three-hour plus concert at Merkin Hall, September 2015. I was in the audience.

We sat over breakfast and laughed easily, warmly, as if we’d been in each other’s lives all our lives. Which for me, she kinda has been. I’ve posted a bit about her here, and she will return in the book’s pages.

And this morning, I texted my friend painter/ singer/writer Dawn Boyer whom I met a few summers ago at a writing workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts where we both earned our MFA’s. When we met, we learned we literally lived four miles from each other in Southern New Hampshire. We both sang, performed, wrote, and we were both named Dawn. I wrote to her this morning because her beloved partner–whom she found a little later in life, musician and writer Brett Hartenbach–has been fighting brain cancer for many years now, and I knew the end was near. According to a recent article about his life, Brett was one “who has long played in the shadows of others – albeit brightly – as a sideman and collaborator… with such folks as Daniel Johnston, Rachael Davis, Wooden Eye, his wife Dawn Boyer, as well as sharing the stage with Ellis Paul, Mary Lou Lord, Teddy Thompson, Eddie from Ohio, Susan Werner, Garnet Rogers, Girlyman, Kris Delmhorst, Mark Erelli and Josh Ritter.  He died on April 15th, Easter Saturday.

Now this Dawn is on the road just as I was last year, to see family, the country, “to find herself.” I can’t wait to welcome her here to The Blue House in Mississippi.  I sent her this photo of one of her paintings I adore; it’s hanging now in my new kitchen.

Poppies by Dawn Boyer

Posted in Contemporary Vocal Music, Dawn's Journey, Fun Research Tidbit, Home, Images, Reflecting on Jan, Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jan DeGaetani and Composer Pia Gilbert

First, Friends, an update:

I’ve been in my new Mississippi home for three weeks, and I love it. Last night, I sat on my blue porch as the sun set, watching fireflies spark.,_Mississippi

The Blue House

My dad and I had brought buckets of flowers home and he watched me pot them all. This morning, I wake again to 66 degrees and clear skies. I don’t understand and I’m not complaining. Prejudice. Preconceptions. I simply believe Mississippi in summer is treacherous. Torture. They all say so right here. But it’s not. Not yet, at least. End of June, and I’m still sitting on my porch in the mornings, drinking tea, reading. Today, I did a short 20 miles on the road to Coffeeville, right next door. Beautiful. I don’t know, but I hear tell that at some point in the future, the southern Delta will be the most habitable place in this country.  Yeah, I know. July and August still to come. We’ll talk then.,_Mississippi

Just a few miles from my house in Water Valley.,_Mississippi

I spent the latter half of this past week working on a piece about Jan and Pia Gilbert, certainly one of Jan’s closest friends and accomplished pianist, teacher, and composer. You can read the extraordinary oral history she gave to UCLA’s World Arts and Culture/Dance Department in 1986 here: UCLA Music Oral Histories Pia Gilbert (I am heavily using this text in the writing of this piece about Jan and Pia.)

Pia’s book Music for the Modern Dance, co-authored by Aileene Lockhart.

I posted a brief first section of this piece earlier, but I’m posting it again here with a few more sections. Happy Reading. And thanks to all who keep returning and viewing my work. Please note: there are now very helpful directions in the upper right of homepage for leaving comments at the end of posts. I’d love to hear from you!



I don’t know what Pia Gilbert looks like today.  I’ve never seen Pia face-to-face. I probably never will.

I invent her face, her hair, a diminutive figure, all from the sound of her voice. Sound. [What had Jan heard?]

I picture small bones, bird.

I don’t have much mobility.

I picture tiny frame, thin, strong jawline, small face. Tiny loopy curls of wispy white and gray encircling it.

I picture pale skin. Intense dark eyes.

I hear in her voice pebbles in the path, moisture tumbling these stones against throat, larynx, breath.

I hear kindness and earnestness. And un-urgency, though certainly she knows this won’t last much longer.

Pia is almost ninety-five. [Today, Jan would be 84.] Pia says, I never know how old anybody is. We agree it doesn’t matter. But at 95, it does matter to Pia who declares she feels old and doesn’t accept it.

I don’t know what to do. It’s becoming more of a question.

She is German. Come to this country in 1937.  In time. Decades of living, composing, and teaching in Los Angeles and New York, and still the sound of her home language rides the edges of her English.

They were friends. Everyone just knew that we were very close.

When we said goodbye, she called me Dear.


Pia Gilbert was born on June 1, 1921 in Kippenheim between Freiburg and Baden-Baden Germany, 1800 people then.

Not quite in the Black Forest, near the foothills. She could see the main mountain near the Rhine, Feldberg, near the French border.

Alsace-Lorraine, 30 minutes away, French/German mix occurs.

People have always wondered if Pia was French because of this.

Her village basically, a farming town. Beautiful landscape. Wine growers. She remembers picking grapes. White asparagus, strawberries, all kinds of berries. Violets.

Every village had its own forest…as did hers.

Pine forests.

It was a ritual, when she was a little girl, to climb into the hills and pick the first violets for her parents each spring.

But she didn’t grow up on a farm. It was a big house in what would be called the village square.

Later the swastika lands in front of her family’s home because it sat in the middle of the village.

Very threatening.

Built in the 17th century, it was a beautiful house. It once had three porticos which became the three living rooms. Large windows. A barn which became a garage. Cellar where wine and apples were kept.


Running water and electricity, but no hot water, no steam heat. Tile and porcelain stoves.

Old coal stove in the kitchen and new electric one. (These were changing times. Schizophrenic.)

She says the way they grew up was fairly tough (even though they had personnel).

Farm girls lived with them as maids.

But, no heat at night.

But, running water and real toilets.

But, the bathtub was outside.

They bicycled everywhere: 3.5 miles to school and back in the snow.

Four miles to Piano lessons.

She thinks she must have been a tough kid, even though I couldn’t’ see very well; she was nearsighted. One of her theories: she was a difficult birth, got stuck. Caused a kind of palsy which she overcame; shaking head. She had to overcome a certain misalignment. She says it was difficult to be a peculiar child. The physical handicaps.

(Musicality was also a handicap.)

Her father Richard Wertheimer had a smoking-articles business, and he traveled through Germany during the week. He was gone a lot.

Her mother was Berta.

Both parents had grown up in Kippenheim; they’d always known each other.

Father was enormously mercurial but it was a loving ideal marriage.

This put a strain on the family: Storms. Shifting winds and tides.


Both Berta and Richard Wertheimer were musical.

The German-Jewish community at large had great appreciation for culture for the theater for the arts for literature for music.

They all played music together. [This was taken for granted.] Selbstverstaendlich.

This was before phonograph records. They played violin and piano; Berta and Pia played piano duets. Salonmusik: nice little after-dinner pieces such as serenades, Mozart minuets, semiclassical.

Once Pia started playing, it was just a couple of weeks in that her parents knew she was a music addict.

(As a baby, Pia’s screaming could be stopped if someone played or whistled a song.)

She was determined. She stopped her palsy and defended what she could see. She was a loner.

She says others didn’t understand her.  She didn’t either.

Pia felt ugly. Both parents were gorgeous, her brother, gorgeous.

She just played piano as soon as she could. As soon as she could reach the keys. Climbed up and played.

One grandfather, a tenor and lay cantor in synagogue.

Maternal grandmother, excellent pianist.

Tante Fanny had a beautiful singing voice. She had a guitar and would sing every week when we got together.

My first teacher was my Tante Lina Wertheimer who was trained to be a pianist and studied in Freiburg at the Musikhochschule.

Pia was seven or eight years old.

Growing up, there was music constantly, but Pia also had to seek it out. When someone in the village got a radio, she’d go to listen. Her father wasn’t keen on getting one. He didn’t want it to vulgarize music.

[You could say she was born to music. Like Jan.]


Posted in Cycling, Dawn's Journey, Excerpt from Book, Fun Research Tidbit, Images | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jan DeGaetani Juilliard Student 1951-1955


Some more work on the Juilliard years:

If you encounter a great teacher once in your lifetime, you are one of the blessed. I can count many, many, among them Henry Brant, Norman Lloyd, and from my earliest years, Cleo Ressler and Florence Boyer.*

*The italicized text is from Jan’s writing begun in 1988. She was working on a book about singing and pedagogy during her spring sabbatical to London. She never finished it. I found these pages, handwritten on 81/2 11 lined notebook paper in that attic.


Choral Sight Singing with Norman Lloyd for one. (Norman Lloyd [they would be friends a very long time] who was a very big part of my early Juilliard years.  Lloyd who would have snatched her up for his Saturday morning madrigals group soon after meeting her. Someone said, “He could sniff talent a mile away.” Six singers—Lynn Clarke, Bud Burrows, Barbara Crouch, Alan Baker, Ray DeVo, and Jan together for four years; they’d become the Riverside Chamber Singers, perhaps her first professional ensemble, singing well into the early 60’s

Norman Lloyd

I learned the intricacies of madrigal writing, the incredible beauty of Dufay, Lassus, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, and great modern, too, like Hindemith and Poulenc. This group repeatedly talked about such things as tuning, use of vibrato, and attack, dynamics, etc. Now these are all things you would certainly expect any musician to be dealing with as a matter of course, but the sad truth is that much of vocal teaching doesn’t address them at all. The repertoire is exclusively classics and romantic (occasionally a little Baroque). The emphasis is on sound, its beauty and quantity. The skills of craftsman and artist are separated.


Each Saturday morning, I climbed the grand winding staircase at the front of the building to the second floor, pushed open the heavy brown door to a small classroom filled with table top desks, a piano, a lanky middle-aged man whose face melts into blur now who was—memory tells me—dis-passionate and brutish. I felt stupid in his presence. Or blank. For an hour, I’d sit in this austere room with high ceilings, peeling paint, next to one other student, a boy, who seemed to get everything I did not. This was theory class. I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and I was totally in the dark. The pad of staff paper damp under my clenched and writing fist, my pencil marks deep and crude, cave man. I tried to follow. Time signature. Key. Bass line response to treble. Theoretically, I knew they must speak to each other, with each other. I couldn’t hear a thing.

You must hear the pitch in your mind, first.

He played lines we were to notate. My legs stuck to the chair in the early fall, my armpits, wet. He said counterpoint, chord, mode. He handed us pages of music. I really remember only one day: test day, sitting in the hard wood table top chair, pencil in my right hand, sweat, staring down at the paper, the light purplish-blue mimeographed staff lines, the commands underneath: notate…

Greek. Greek. Greek. I stare and nothing happens. No connections. No synapses going off. My mind a total wipeout. The agony of not knowing, not comprehending, of the grade at the end of all this. I would fail. This is torture. I am not here. Not here at all, this isn’t me in this straight back chair, how can one be so foreign to one’s own self? Imposter. Cannot act or fool myself out of this one.  Not this.


At the start of his career, Norman Lloyd played piano for silent movies. He dubbed himself an “artistic gadfly.”  He believed teachers must “try to make the study of music and dance deeply felt experiences.”  He admonished critics of his pedagogy to look for purpose, not flash. What do you have to say? And why have you come to say it?

He was connected to dance. On the faculty of Bennington school of dance (He is probably Jan’s initial connection to Bennington where she first taught voice, where she encountered Jane Bryden!), and besides composing for dance, widely, he would have also instilled in Jan a commitment to the physical—the body—the body in response to music. The music’s dependency on body.

Music is language. Music as language. He argues

“Learning a language means learning the meaning of a sound, not just the production of the sound.”

Gadfly, Definition: an annoying person, especially one who provokes others into action by criticism.

He is one of the architects of a new theory pedagogy begun at Juilliard in 1947, Literature and Materials of Music. And Janice Ruetz falls right into the lap and root of this curriculum.

He’s using this to ask if students ever get the chance to know the new language of the classical music they study. It’s the difference between learning and playing notes and playing the music contextually. It’s about musicality. It seems he argued that it was through the act of improvisation, repetition of riffs, learning the clichés and repeating them to freedom that would help students know the context, become musical beyond good sound proficiency.

What did play-ing to know [freewriting, journaling, writing in the margins] look like initially at Juilliard to Janice Ruetz?  Lloyd’s classes, his Madrigals group. An introduction.

The gift? She learns “to trust music of all periods with respect, to keep her mind open and alert to how her own talents might best be used.”


When I am 27, newly married, I will spend a lot of time with Maria Lambros, my roommate and dear friend from Eastman who lives outside Boston. I am less than an hour’s drive away living in Southern New Hampshire.

We attend a weekend workshop with a woman famed in self-realization techniques to free the body, to free the holds keeping us from moving forward. I wish I could remember her name.

On the second morning, we gather in the large circle and this woman’s first question is, “Who had a dream last night?” My hand flies in the air, and she can’t not pick me.

I go to the center of the circle and tell her my dream about Jan and bunnies. It is a dream about regret and shame and longing. But what the facilitator hears is this: I was in a room—an apartment living room? A house? with Jan. She was fully there, no eerie floating head, not young but the age I knew her as; she was kind and smiling and talking to me. [She’d died that year.] We were surrounded by bunnies. Shapes, colors, sizes, length of fur. Hair. She may have held one, petting it. They hopped and lounged, were only happy in their dispositions, and she was standing there saying, “Play. You have to play with them.”


Dimension Four

“Henry Brant was a [crazy crazy man ] whose classes made me deal with improvisation and orchestration.”

Composer and teacher at Juilliard.

A photograph from the 50’s or 60’s: Intense look: dark hair, thick, dark brows, round spectacles.

“Experimented with living stereophonic music.” Would set players and singers all over the concert hall.

Composed with taped music.

Taubman review in the New York Times, 1960. A concert of Brant, Boulez, and Luening conducted by Bernstein: “Different, but no more terrifying than a paper tiger.”

Joined faculty in 1947. [Birth year of L&M; where Jan most likely meets him.]

Inspired by Charles Ives. The multiple settings for ensembles.

In the early 1950’s, he began to find “that as his music became more texturally complex, the details of the individual lines within a work became more difficult to hear,” says Kozinn in the New York Times.

Brant used space as a compositional element calling it the fourth dimension: pitch, timbre, duration, space.

Black and White from 1951: at a table, score on stand to his side. Eye-level. Young and bent over with intensity. Intent. Not unfriendly or approachable. Serious. Dark under his eyes. Thick hair almost standing up straight, almost mad scientist. Spectacles lay on papers before him.

He died at 94.

Won the Pulitzer prize in 2002 for Ice Field. Inspired by his crossing the Atlantic by ship at age 12 in 1926. He said, they were a “field of ice bergs.”

“Collage artist. Works with large-scale forces, everything dependent on wide open spaces from which comes clarity,” says Neely Bruce for the Associated Press in 2008.  [Because then he can hear.]

In 1953, when Janice Ruetz is in her second year at Juilliard, Brant’s first  spatial piece Antiphony 1 premieres at Carnegie Hall. His five orchestral groups placed throughout.

[I wonder if Jan saw this.]

Henry Brant

Posted in Excerpt from Book, Fun Research Tidbit, Images, Reflecting on Jan, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment