Chest of Drawers



View from where I’m sitting right now.

I am currently spending a few days with one of my oldest friends who is a world renowned classical pianist. Tom Hecht lives most of the year in Singapore where he teaches and for a few months in a lovely renovated farmhouse in the Maryland countryside near Baltimore. We met as high school students in 1978 at The Walden School, a five-week summer camp for young composers housed in Vershire Center, Vermont.

Today I’m thinking about the recent conversation I had with soprano Freda Herseth, a student of Jan’s and in Rochester during my first year at Eastman. [I was so gifted to know and hear sing so many graduate and post-grad students that first year I was there.] I asked Freda what would she want someone who has no knowledge of Jan today to know about her? She told me two stories, the second about the chest of drawers.

Freda was working on Chansons madecasses in a lesson, and Jan stopped to tell her about when she was to sing this cycle in New York the same day she learned of her sister’s sudden death. She wanted to demonstrate how one must compartmentalize one’s life in order to perform, to put aside everything but the task at hand, that in fact, one should use life’s hardships in the performance of music.

In a different conversation, Jan told her, and these are Freda’s words,

Freda, your life is like a chest of drawers. Your life, music making, everything, is in            a beautiful chest of drawers. As soon as you start to practice, as soon as you open              the piece of music, you take whatever is in the world and going on in your life and              open one drawer and put this away. Shut it, saying, that’s not going away, it’s                right there, I’ll deal with this later. Then you open another, the most beautiful of                 drawers, where your expression and music and beauty are and you take that out                and with all the joy and love you have, you go there and do it fully. 

I don’t remember the chest of drawers, but I recognize the lesson about how to learn music: be focused and mindful. Know what your task is. Know what you need to do. Know the questions you have to ask and always assume there is a way to solve things. Take patient steps towards getting there.  Find your best self; be that best self and bring her to the work. Open yourself up to that self so you can do what you need to do with the music.

As Freda spoke, I realized that this, in fact, is what I’ve been doing for years and years. Finding and inhabiting my best self. Freda talked about Jan’s insistence that we solve our personal blocks in order to do what the work must have us do. What are those things that get in the way? What’s in that closed chest of drawers? All the insecurities, the problems in life, these are the things we must discard as we work, in order to work. So that we can go deeper. So that we can understand.

I know now, because of some hard, often lonely work, that I have gotten out of my own way.

I understand I could not have written this book ten years ago.

I understand I cannot tell Jan’s story compellingly without also telling my own.




About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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