Recently, a professional musician friend shared with me an unusual medical condition he has been enduring for more than a year now. I won’t be able to tell you the official name of this, but essentially, he has a perfect tiny droplet of water forming in one inner ear which distorts the way he hears sound. For a pianist, this could be tragic. He learned the only way to reduce the moisture and reduce the distortions (and irritation at loud and unexpected sounds) is to drastically reduce his sodium. This and he has revised how he practices. He now plays on a keyboard with the sound turned off. He tells me this has changed his playing and technique and study in only good ways. I think: Awareness of touch, weight, landing, length of time where flesh connects with key. Imagination: in the absence of sound, what does he think as he reaches for legato? Staccato? What fills in for resonance in his mind as he works through a passage? Think Ray What energy, movement, discipline creates tempo, dynamic? With his ears closed, what does he see? Think Ray Charles. Stevie Wonder. Think Beethoven. My friend says he’s learning more about how to produce the sounds he’s after by not hearing them. Imagination, he says, the primary tool.
Of course, I think of Jan. Of her teacher Sergius Kagen. Anyone who’s read his book On Studying Singing knows he argued that the singer’s ear and imagination are the most important instruments. As did Jan after him. This is how she taught herself to sing, and to sing the most challenging of new music.
I spoke with Bonnie Boyd (flutist and Professor of Flute at Eastman). I’ve taken to asking folks what they think young musicians should know about Jan DeGaetani. Often people say, she was a complete artist. Her intonation was impeccable; her imagination fierce.
Bonnie told me a story I found delightful; although she wondered if I should repeat it, and of course, I told her I thought I could! She recalled a performance of a Warren Benson piece she and Jan did in Kilbourn Hall before its New York performance. Jan entered and sang through the entire piece a fourth off her pitch. Only she and Bonnie and Benson knew in the end, and Benson, Bonnie said, was marvelous about it, enjoying the performers making the piece their own. What else if not excellent intonation and pitch. Steely resolve to honor the singer’s line as written, even if a fourth off?
“Artistry,” Bonnie said, “really was first for Jan. Sense of color and nuance and imagination. Her vision, creativity. It was who she really was.”