A Star is Born

Thinking about the Performing Arts


I’m going to stretch out in this blog post and tell you a story. The little girl on the left (the one with the giganimous headset on…) deserves no less.

You know those Sports Illustrated action shots of a wide receiver leaping into the end zone, his fingertips barely touching an in-flight football? That’s what you’re looking at here. This is high-speed photography of a Vocal Touchdown.

Soprano Jenni Samuelson is on the far left. And next to her: introducing wonderful Jessica Spencer. You’re looking at her very first-ever-in-life professional studio recording debut for our new collection of songs: Once Upon a Lullaby; Beautiful Songs for Bedtime.

Okay, so let me set this up. It was Jenni’s idea to ask a child to sing some harmony on a track called “Once Upon an Evening.” The song is a big prayer for peace-on-earth couched in a little prayer for peace-in-the-nursery. Jenni thought one of her students might be up to the task, so she sent Jessica home with the score.

I have to talk music here for a second to do Jessica justice: these deceptively easy-to-listen-to lullabies are no cake walk for singers. They’re tough to learn. They’re tough to perform. The melodies (that is, the lines of music Jenni sang) require agility. They’re full of difficult intervals (that’s the space between one note and the next) and long arcs of sound that your average singer just can’t manage. These are challenges that classical singers are trained to handle as if tossing off a ditty. So that’s what Jenni had on her plate.

Meanwhile, you’ve got the harmony. That’s where Jessica came in. Whew! Tricky stuff! Not simple thirds tracking along beneath the melody (in most popular songs, the harmony parallels the melody). Here, Jessica’s harmony is an independent chromatic vocal line with its own big intervals. In other words, it’s not what the average ear would call tuneful.

In the backs of our minds, Jenni and I thought, “Well, let’s give it a shot.” If the music proved too difficult, we’d have Jenni sing the harmony herself.

As if!

Months went by. We found ourselves on our last recording day. Things had gone well enough, BUT (those of you who have ever spent time on a recording project know just what I’m talking about), we were out of studio time. We’d lost the main recording booth. The concert grand we were using was being moved out for a recital. And yet, here was Jessica (and her mom and newborn little sister), right on time. Beautifully dressed up. Poised. Not a hint of nerves. Ready to record. Ready to do something she’d never done before.

So we scrambled. We set up an impromptu recording booth, rigging mics and cables to capture Jessica’s performance. That’s what you’re seeing here. It looks as if their eyes are glued to a conductor. Or maybe sight-reading off the score. In fact, they’re inches away from a blank wall of sound baffling in the kind of environment that sends divas into hissy-fits. Certainly one that distracts your average newbie. Not Jessica.

I do not exaggerate. She nailed it. NAILED it. Take after take. Crazy-hard music. Kooky surroundings. She was totally on from first note to last. Cool as a cucumber. Sailing right through. Laying down re-takes for mic problems, for safeties. No problem. Here it came, every time, note-for-note perfect.

“How did you do it?” I asked after we were done. (Keep in mind, Jessica is no Juilliard student. She lives in Merced, California. That’s farm country. She goes to school, sings in choir, takes some lessons. She hasn’t been steeped in early-learning music theory. So how did she do it?)

She told me her grampa taught her the harmony at the kitchen table. One note at a time. Watching the score. Memorizing the music a cappella (that means, without accompaniment). Establishing pitch, then working as if she were singing a solo. It was a family affair. Making music at home. Grampa and grandchild. Wow. That’s how things used to be. And still are, at least in one tiny corner of Merced.

So here’s to Jessica. I’m thrilled she sang with us. She’ll have this recording for the rest of her life. To listen to with her kids and grandkids around whatever a kitchen table might look like in the future. How fun to think of digital music as an old-fashioned technology, as weird and scratchy as a 78 seems today. Here’s to making music as a family. Here’s to one special girl who quietly, confidently showed us how it’s done.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

About Amanda McTigue

Author. Director. Teacher. My debut novel, GOING TO SOLACE was named one of four "Best Reads of 2012" by public radio's KRCB "Word by Word." A collection of short stories, "Convergence," is due out in 2015. A second novel, "Monkey Bottom," will follow.
This entry was posted in Artistry, LIFE, Music and Singing, Once Upon a Lullaby, Once Upon a Lullaby, PAGE, Small Towns and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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