John came back to voice lessons after a break of several years. He said he wanted to sing to “keep the black dog” away. I figured he meant some kind of depression. He told me after a few weeks that he had recently been diagnosed with aphasia – the Greeks said it was “speechless”– and he was already having trouble remembering words.
I do my best to not furnish words for him, but instead let him describe around the word or just nod patiently and wait. But when it comes to singing lyrics of songs, he sometimes gets frustrated and shuts down. His normal lyric tenor sounds tight as he closes his mouth, tightens his jaw and sings a half-hearted “luh luh” instead of the words to the art song.
His love of music has remained, and he brings in familiar songs he knows, in German, Italian, French and English — Renaissance and 19th century — and some family songs from his childhood (He rarely gets the words wrong for those).
At first I encouraged him to sing a nice open Italian “ah” or some other open neutral sound when he forgot the words, but he really wanted to do as many lyrics as possible.
Late this summer, John wrote me an email saying he wanted to learn how to “read music better.” I knew what he meant. He had always learned a few things wrong in each song, even before the aphasia. And once we learn a mistake, it’s hard to correct. But now the musical notation was feeling less decipherable. I wrote back that he reads music fine, but his rhythm has always needed work, so we should focus on keeping the beat, which has always given him confidence that he’s singing what’s on the page.
I don’t know why this works, incidentally, but in my years of working with singers I have witnessed again and again a great improvement in everything—words, rhythm and melody—when a student taps the beat with their hand, or even marches. John and I have done a lot of walking in lessons, when he wasn’t slapping his thigh loudly.
One day I was speaking with my friend Daniel Kempler, a professor of speech pathology whose specialty happens to be aphasia. He told me that perhaps there is too much going on in printed music, and maybe just reading the words would be easier. He told me that we “overlearn reading” so that it stays as a skill, even when someone might not understand the meaning of the words. I agreed. Writing the words is helpful to me, as I learn and memorize my songs. Indeed, I give an assignment to all my students before their first lesson to write down the words of their song. It’s a great way of getting in touch with the poetry without the tyranny of a notational representation of what the composer heard in his/her head.
John was unsure if this was the way he wanted to go. After all, he is hoping to retain these musical skills. But he wrote down the words of his Purcell songs and in the lessons, we worked out a way to handle repeats.
He reads great! We stayed with English for quite a while.
One odd thing: he keeps reading as if in a sentence, even if the melody expands on a single syllable (many notes on one word). So we are working on a system that he can devise (and remember) that will make sense to him. “Come, co-ome a-way-ay-ay-ay” might end up sounding like “Aye, Aye,” if one loses the context, which he can do.
In the early Fall, he told me he wanted to sing with his wife playing piano. I consult with her teacher, a colleague at the Cambridge Music Consortium, about a good piece for the pianist, and I am delighted we all love a Schubert song, “Gute Nacht”, the first song in the long cycle, Winterreise.
John used to sing pretty well in German, but there are many long verses in “Gute Nacht.” I suggest we look for an English translation he can sing and maybe cut some of the repeats.
John comes back the next week with his lyrics and a decent translation, not singable but at least we know what each word means. He tries to sing it, but of course it does not scan–I tell him that singable translations rarely get the total gist of the original.
The next week he comes back with several verses for which he has made his OWN translation. And a lot of it really scans well and even has some of the alliteration and vowel sounds. This excites me to no end. We work on the awkward spots, and still, he sometimes just keeps reading the words. We still get to work on the “good ni-i-ight”.
But it is coming.
I know John was a journalist. He was the Washington correspondent for a major newspaper during the Watergate era. It is a thrill to witness the tenacity and inventiveness in his preparation for the lessons. To me, he is a Noble Member of the “Enemies List” of a certain president of the United States. And a really fun student to teach.
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Liz, what an inspiring story. I hope it goes on and on. Happy Thanksgiving!
Thanks, Ken. John is now working on a song we wrote together a few years back. He had a favorite poem and I asked him to read it, took his rhythms and gave a few melody ideas. He liked some of them and others we worked out to his liking. It’s quite delightful to revisit this piece. Even as his aphasia progresses (slowly, thank goodness) he can still read his favorite words easily, even in the old English.
Happy Holidays to you and yours.