Often, it’s said under the breath. The statement made, but apologetically, sheepishly. You, know, it wasn’t the biggest voice. It wasn’t the most beautiful voice. This also happens during interviews if a story rises that could represent Jan in a negative light, one that paints her less than The Goddess we all saw and experienced her to be. [Do you remember how we called her this?] Oh, maybe you shouldn’t repeat this…We whisper, almost as if she were standing behind our shoulders. We do this because she was so unusually good, in all ways, it feels perverse, sacrilegious to find fault or discord or failure in even the most minutes details of her life. But of course, she was human, and to be human means also to struggle, to be challenged, to learn, to grow.
I think we all agree, it didn’t, doesn’t, matter if it wasn’t always the most beautiful of voices. It was the most beautiful music.
I hadn’t listened to Jan’s singing very much in a very long time before launching into this book project. To do so now is a homecoming. Over the years, whenever I heard live singing or vocal recordings of just about any kind of music, I’d recognize what I came to name, singing from the bootstraps up. This I lifted from a sports commentator during an Olympics many years ago as he described the skating of Michelle Kwan. What does it mean? For me, it means inhabiting fully the thing itself, filling out the whole vessel in the act, be it singing, skating—writing. It means performing from a deeply rooted place—bottom to top—that only becomes available in the confidence and presence of mind and body one achieves through hard hard work and patience. To sing from the bootstraps up is that line Michelle Kwan achieves from ankle to tips of fingers off elongated, airy arms. Intensity, fullness and weightlessness all at once. To sing from the bootstraps up is to connect pitch to pitch, crossing through—into and out of consonants, vowels, highs, lows—that line without interrupting it, all filled out with concentrated energy, flow, from beginning attack to the pause in the air after the period. I recognize it in other singers I admire and love to listen to because I have also understood it in my own singing, this sense of strength, connection, warmth, seeing things through. I think of my eighteen-year-old self standing in Jan’s studio making a line, breathing in and singing through the line—I can hear this young voice, its youth, the mind behind it, also young, earnest reaching, but not quite filling out the need, end to end. I think I began to notice a maturity [and not because of an aging voice loping into wobbly-hood] in my ability to imagine, carry, and inhabit the line as my body grew (and my comfort in it), as my sense of self developed. Ah, I would think, this is what she meant. Here I am. Singing from the bootstraps up. It is connection, legato, Bel canto.
Not long after I began this project again after a long deep gestation [the archival material bestowed upon me resting in wicker boxes under my office futon], I sat with my dear good friend Peggy (Margaret) Kampmeier who was first my friend at Eastman and then my pianist. Peggy played all my lessons and prepared me for my last recital all during my final year when Paul Sportelli, my pianist for three years, moved to New York. He played the final recital with me, but Peggy spent my senior year with me, behind-the-scenes, if you will, and changed my life.
She has a most lovely story to tell about how and when she learned of Jan’s work and then Jan and Gil’s together, [Peggy would go off to Stony Brook to study with Gil after graduating Eastman.] We sat and talked for hours, broke for lunch, kept going. And again, she changed me. She brought me back. To Jan and Gil, to music. To the exquisite beauty that was theirs together and in Jan’s voice and singing. She opened my ears. Homecoming.
And for the how of this, how it was she took me here, you’ll have to read Part Two of this missive on Thursday Dec 22!