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When I went to college, studying music was the furthest thing from my mind. Although I’d always sung in choirs, musicals, and a cappella groups in high school, I had no formal music training or education. One of my roommates, however, had an extensive background in both and she encouraged me to audition with her for studio voice lessons at Barnard. When I arrived at the audition, it seemed as though hundreds of other students were there, all singing opera and other complicated pieces I’d never even heard, let alone dreamed of singing. Certain I didn’t belong there, I turned to leave the building, but ran into my roommate on the way out. She dragged me back in, my shaking hands holding the sheet music for the sweet, simple song the piano accompanist would play at my audition. When the accompanist began playing, I realized that the sheet music was written much lower than the key in which I, with my high soprano voice, had practiced the song. Panicked, I closed my eyes, put my hand on the piano, took a deep breath, and sang anyway. After what seemed to me an endless performance, the judges asked me why I wanted to take voice lessons. I had no answer for them other than that I loved to sing. Looking back, I wonder if that simple expression of joy is what won them over.

Later that semester, one of my voice lessons was life-changing. I was struggling with a piece of classical music that I still couldn’t read, and at the moment felt I couldn’t speak, let alone sing, amidst simultaneously juggling tests, writing papers, doing lab reports, singing at Bacchantae a cappella rehearsals, and navigating the complexities of the social life of a young Barnard woman, when my voice teacher, Lynn Owen, halted me in the middle of the song. She stopped playing the piano accompaniment, turned to me, and said: “You’ve just got to sing through everything. You sing through the good. You sing through the bad. It doesn’t matter what else is going on. You just sing.” Neither of us could have realized it at the time but these words were transformative in my life.

I majored in Psychology at Barnard and, when I graduated, my plan was to continue pursuing the subject in graduate school. To further this goal, I began working in a bio-psychology research lab nearby at Columbia University’s hospital. At the same time, I also began singing at open mics, singing for musician friends who needed a back-up vocalist, or who needed a vocalist for recording a demo of a song they’d written. Little by little, music started trickling into all areas of my life. I’d sing while running an experiment alone in the lab or re-string my guitar while waiting for data to download. I sang lullabies to my actress roommate when she couldn’t sleep. I wrote my first song on a train ride from New York to Philadelphia on my way to a rehearsal there. Then I wrote another song and another.

When I was encouraged to apply to the graduate psychology program affiliated with the lab I was working in, I had a tough decision to make. Should I go to graduate school or start taking singing more seriously? I took a leap, and decided on singing.

I quickly learned that this was a pretty big leap indeed. I hadn’t counted on the multiple day jobs I’d need to support my singing ‘habit,’ or how my lack of education in music would mean I’d have to work very hard to learn new material whenever a possible gig popped up. But it was a wonderful leap. As a young Barnard alumnae, it brought me to living in Europe and marrying a musician there. Living with this leap later led me back home to New Jersey, where I went through a painful divorce, followed by life as a single mother. However, I had a great day job at a university as an executive assistant and I loved my life, raising my then toddler-aged daughter on my own. Nonetheless, my days began very early and ended very late, and I wasn’t sure how I’d ever sing again. For a time, in fact, I didn’t but I was content, feeling that my daughter was my song now. I told myself that if I’d made all the music I could, at least I’d gone for it when I had the chance, and that now I was in a new, very challenging, but even more wonderful chapter of my life.

As my daughter progressed through elementary school, however, I had a feeling, a strong feeling that I was supposed to sing again, that I wanted to sing again. It seemed an unreasonable desire, and I struggled with the idea, but one day I pulled out my old vocal exercises from my teacher at Barnard. As I went through them, I began remembering my voice again. It felt wonderful. It felt like coming home. But it still seemed impossible to try to ‘really’ sing again.

My ‘story,’ at that time, when I tried to tell people what being a single parent was like, was about how some other single moms and I had tried to put together a support group for each other, but none of us had enough time to attend it, and it never got off the ground. Being a single mom is a pretty busy profession and most days I had only a handful of minutes to sing amidst the busy-ness of my job at the university, cooking, doing laundry, pushing my daughter around in the shopping cart at the grocery store where she practiced her reading aloud as we’d zoom through the store, playdates, dance lessons, more homework, and going to the playground where we would swing together almost every evening. But I promised myself that every day I would find five minutes to sing. Sometimes the five minutes would stretch to twenty or even more, and every day, through the harder days and through the easier days, the good and bad ones, for however much time I had, I sang just as Lynn Owen had told me. I just sang.

Some time into this, an idea for a song came to me, something that hadn’t happened in a very long time, and then another idea for a song came, and another. Today, I am amazed, I am thrilled beyond any description to say that I sang these same songs recently with my band-mates in our first concert together and that I am creating a lullaby project based on the lullabies I wrote for my daughter during those busy, hard years, a project through which I aim to help other mothers and children in difficult situations, situations much more difficult than anything I, as a Barnard graduate, have had to endure. This summer, I will sing those lullabies to children and their mothers who are living in a nearby homeless shelter and I am even prouder to say that I learned about the possibility of sharing music at this shelter from my now middle school-aged daughter, who performed there with her flute last winter.

When I was selecting a quote for my yearbook entry during my senior year at Barnard, I had my eyes on a totally different future, but the quote I chose, from an E.E. Cummings poem, is about the life I have today:

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

I did learn ‘from one bird’ how to sing. More importantly, I learned how not to quit, how not to give up ever, to follow my calling no matter what else, good or bad, is going on in my life, and I am teaching this to my daughter every day.


Rich Miller September 22, 2017 @11:53 pm

Beautiful, Frances. I'm glad you posted this. Kudos to you for recognizing the blessing you have in music and for pursuing it, as you say, no matter what else, good or bad, is going on in your life. I've recently come back to music. Although it's always been an important part of my life, for many years it was on the back burner while the pressures of home and family were upon me. Now music is front and center in my life, and I'm much happier for it. I came across a statement a while ago, I don't remember where, and it's stuck with me: don't die with the music in you. I'm on a mission to get the music out now and record the songs I've written and the arrangements I play of other songs that touch me. To what end is my recording, I don't know...but I don't want to die with the music in me. I look forward to seeing you again soon. Rich

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