Hello, Friends,

Here are two brief passages from the opening of a chapter on Jan’s early years singing in her church.  Many know that Jan was raised Baptist and spent much of her youth singing in church choirs. I’ve imagined this is where her love of music bloomed. She’s on the record as saying she could not read music until she studied at Juilliard. Below are some photographs I took in May 2015 when I spent a couple days in her home town, Massillon, Ohio. The family church was walking distance from their grand home on 4th Street.


It begins because there is church and hymn and song and choir, robed angels piously standing before rows of starkly dressed, straight-laced men, women, and children, her neighbors, her school chums, sending their voices to the heavens. To worship through God’s divine instrument is holy. Jan still cannot read the tiny black and round marks on the slippery, thin hymnal page, the notes organized between, over and below the black lines and white spaces. She won’t learn their meaning until years from now, when she goes off to study music in New York. She knows their character—shape, length, the number of little flags at the tip—all add up to how to sing the notes, but she cannot decipher them. As soon as they sit, she accepts the worn bound book as they are passed down rows; all in the congregation are invited to sing. She looks up for the hymn numbers written on a board to the left of the Alter. She turns to the pages leaving her finger wedged between the book’s thick halves to mark the first one. She knows that when the notes go up, she sings higher; when they go down, she sings lower.  But she doesn’t need to read the music; she sings her hymns automatically, the melodic line no longer a script to follow cautiously, sheepishly, but a specific measurement of time and space to fill with breath, word, and sound. She sings by heart. These hymns are her constant: at night as she lies for sleep, in school as she walks the long hallways, her saddle shoes scuffing the waxed floors. During her often solitary and quiet walk home in the late afternoon. She’s been hearing these hymns her entire life.


Light pink cherry blossoms bloomed to the left of the doors at Central Presbyterian. As Jan carried the soprano line forward, breathed, and entered again and again, she thought of them. Her eyes moved to the bank of long rectangular windows where she spied, truncated, several blossom-laden limbs.   A light, warm breeze blew in the half-opened windows. She closed her eyes. Easter. Pink and blue and painted eggs her mother drained of their albumen and yolks. She had already sung the sunrise service at First Baptist. Now, she and others from several of Massillon’s churches were performing together. In a minute, she and Scotty would duet on “In Joseph’s Lovely Garden”.  This evening, they’d all sing the Easter Cantata “Love Triumphant”.

Pink, and soon gladioli, white snapdragons, baby’s breath. Potted palms and ferns replaced by blue-tinged hydrangea, calla lily. Each petal its own shape and offering. 

Waves of layered sound washed over her, filled and transcended her. All this sound. She only knew this about it now: that it made her feel. img_0691

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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1 Response to Excerpt

  1. Pingback: Jan DeGaetani, July 10, 1933 | The Stream and the Broken Pottery: a blog by Dawn Haines

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