“Of course you had great talent. You were a piano prodigy! ” my mother insisted again and again over the years whenever I pointed out that my musical talents were limited and that it was mostly love of that music which gave me the fuel to plunge into the competitions and performances which eventually won me a Canada Council grant and a degree from Juilliard.
I have no illusions whatsoever. I am quite sure I didn’t have a prodigious talent. I had terrible trouble reading notes, I had no ear whatsoever and unless I had a piano keyboard under my fingers, I couldn’t hold a note for three measures without going flat. Even the familiar Christmas carols we sang in Sunday school eluded me. By the second verse, I would be singing lustily but my voice invariably slipped a full half tone above or below the others.
Apart from my tin ear, I also had unusually small hands. Hitting an octave required slipping my forth finger over the third, stiffening them into a single projectile and aiming for the appropriate keys. A bit of digital gymnastics which horrified each new teacher I encountered.
To exacerbate my limitations, the little finger of my right hand was deformed by an accident I’d had as a small child. It regularly acquired a callus over the bone and when that natural protection sloughed off, the finger would bleed. The caused me horrible embarrassment in competitions when I would monitor the damaged finger carefully and pray the callus would survive the performance. But I always carried tissues in my pocket to swab the keys, if the bleeding began.
One would think with these limitations, I would have chosen another career. I had a natural talent for drawing which far eclipsed my limited musical skills. As I grew older, my passion for reading translated into a fluid and effortless writing style. Art and writing were easy. I had talent for both of these things.
But MUSIC? Not a shred of talent. Not a shred.
“But dear, you loved Mozart when you were a only a baby. I never saw a child so hypnotized by music. When we went to Uncle Bill’s, we’d put a record of Ezio Pinza singing Mozart on the old victrola and you’d sit there for hours. Sometimes you’d even cry and hold your chest. That scared us at first until we realized you just loved that music. You even wanted to marry Ezio Pinza … and you were only four or five years old!”
Here Mother was on more stable ground. I did indeed love Mozart as a very very small child. And I first heard Mozart on Uncle Bill’s victrola. Mother had no interest in classical music, she had endured years of the tedious piano lessons my grandmother had prescribed for her. And had hated them. My passion for music, particularly classical music, was admittedly a little unusual.
And evidence of this precocious appreciation for classical music surfaced many years later when I returned home one summer after my studies in New York. My mother rummaged around in her cedar chest and handed me an old album of 78’s. It was a series of operatic arias sung by Ezio Pinza. And it was inscribed, ” To dear little Nancy Jane on her sixth Birthday”. I held it to my chest and remembered. Oh I had loved those arias.
Then I remembered another album. Music which wasn’t written exclusive for a male operatic bass voice and wasn’t written in Italian. “South Pacific”.
After a year or so of being subjected to those Mozart arias daily, my father had located the vinyls for the entire production of “South Pacific”. Perhaps he hoped to wean his little daughter away from the incomprehensible Italian arias so unfamiliar to him and encourage me to appreciate more popular fare. Or maybe he just liked the songs. The hook was that apart from the fact South Pacific is excellent music, this recording featured Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin in the lead roles.
Dad presented it to me with a flourish. I looked at the album and there was my idol emblazoned on the cover. Ezio Pinza! I was so enchanted with this new image that it was several moments before I realized that another woman was featured on the left hand side of the cover. And that both of them were in enclosed in hearts. Even more distressing, I could clearly see that both hearts were connected by a single branch. My eyes welled up with disappointment. “Who is SHE …?” I wailed, utterly betrayed by this obvious infidelity.
Fortunately my mother, well aware of my future nuptial plans quickly assured me that the woman was Mary Martin and that she was only singing along with my betrothed. That explanation sufficed, but only barely.
I felt the cover needed editing.
Over the years, Mother was intransigent. No matter how vigorously I defended my limitations, she remained convinced that her small daughter was a juvenile genius.
“But you were a prodigy, I remember you playing the Pathètique … you sounded like a concert pianist and you were only a child ….”
My mother’s definition of what constitutes a “prodigy” conveniently overlooked the fact that I didn’t even start piano lessons until I was nine years old. By that time Mozart had written five symphonies and hundreds of assorted compositions for almost every conceivable musical instrument. At the same age I was learning the major scales … with difficulty.
My first teacher had been so bent on instilling a love of music in her young students that she had skimmed over note reading and finger exercises and had allowed me music which thrilled my soul. She would play a few measures of Beethoven or Mozart for inspiration, and I would immediately demand to see the score and try it. Even if I had to learn it laboriously, measure by measure. I would pore for hours over a few bars and commit them to memory. However, without knowing the notes fluently, the learning process was dreadfully slow.
But oh I loved the music! I took to the drama of performance as if I’d been born with my fingers straining towards those piano keys. With my woeful lack of note reading practice, even after months of practicing I could only play a small handful of the classics. Oddly, no one ever challenged my exceptionally small repertoire.
Until at the age of fourteen, when I was awarded a scholarship at the prestigious Québec Conservatoire. Predictably the backbone of my audition was my perfomance of the Pathètique and the panel of adjudicators was suitably impressed with my dazzling performance. I was promptly accepted and assigned to piano classes with Lubka Kolessa, one of the finest teachers in Canada.
However it didn’t take more than a couple of lessons before my technical and sight reading inadequacies were revealed to a cadre of horrified teachers. Madame Kolessa promptly condemned me to six straight months of pure techncal exercises which required a daily three hour stint of holding my hands two feet above the keyboard, relaxing and then descending unerringly on the correct note.
And I was quickly enrolled in the first of several years of training in “solfège” … a rigorous method of learning the relative pitch of various notes in relation to each other and then singing them using the traditional “do re mi” note names. Thus with a woefully poor natural ear, I was wrestled into a state where I could hear the notes in my head as I examined an unfamiliar score. I also learned those notes. It took me five miserable years to acquire the “Diplôme de Solfège” from the Conservatoire before leaving for New York and Juilliard where I hoped never again to hear “do re mi” or be required to sing on key. I was a piano major, for heavens sake!
But on my arrival at Juilliard I was immediately introduced to several obligatory courses, one of which was chorus. All students were required to flesh out this enormous 500 voice choir, no matter what their major instrument was. We suspected that even the ballet department was commandeered to add ballast and volume. The sheer size of the group allowed some little known pieces of music demanding an unusually large number of singers to gain a public performance. And our young director Jorge Mester, had a penchant for little known compositions by modern composers
Among these works was “Belshazzar’s Feast” … a contemporary cantata by English composer William Walton. Originally it was presented to the public at the Leeds Festival in 1931. Scored without a key signature and with a great number of accidentals, the avant garde nature of the piece was exacerbated by the impromptu addition of couple of brass bands already on site for another performance at Leeds. The Festival director, Sir Thomas Beecham reportedly said to the the young Walton “As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?” But under the able baton of Malcolm Sargent, it was an immediate success, despite its severe challenges to the chorus.
To my ears, accustomed to the mellifluous melodies of Mozart, this complex and dissonant piece of music sounded cacophonous. Weird intervals usurped any semblance of harmony and five hundred voices seemed to shriek in protest against the two orchestras which combined the seniors and juniors in one enormous assemblage of chairs and music stands. We were a force sufficient to peel the roof off the Juilliard concert hall.
The twice weekly rehearsals went on for the entire first semester. While those tortuous years of solfège classes at the Québec Conservatoire had indeed equipped me with reasonable note-reading abilities, the wildly eccentric intervals in the score scuttled my ability to hit the notes accurately. Or even sing them within an acceptable range.
There was no doubt about it, I was missing most of those notes. The soprano section would start off with a few familiar intervals and then the augmented 7ths and incomprehensible accidentals would appear. I gripped the edges of my music and plunged in. Admittedly the sheer volume of hundreds of voices swelling to a shrieking climax and sending palpable vibrations thrumming through the hall, the stage floor and my chair was intoxicating.
For the final rehearsal, Mester gathered together an epic conglomeration of musicians and instruments, including an anvil. In all we comprised almost seven hundred performers.What had previously been an exciting experience as I stood surrounded by five hundred voices in chorus rehearsal was now magnified by the two orchestras, brass band and that anvil. I was transported to a state of aural awe. Brandishing my music aloft, I got into the spirit of the upcoming concert and raised my flat voice to the rafters while we howled, “For Babylon the Great is fallen, fallen … ”
As the rehearsal went on, it became more and more enthralling. The sound was overwhelming. Dissonant, harsh, dischordant … and loud. I was confident that whatever notes I produced would disappear imperceptibly into the musical chaos. All links to ordinary tonality seemed to have been jettisoned so I threw back my head and abandoned myself to a performance worthy of a rock star.
From time to time, Mester left the podium and strolled amidst us, bending close to one musician or another like a robin listening for worms under the grass, He would cock his head, concentrate for a few seconds, then nod and move on. Finally he reached our soprano section and waggled his head a few times. I suppose I was so engrossed in the music that I must have missed his expression suddenly change as he bent towards me. And it must have changed dramatically. Because when he finally returned to the podium to dismiss us and offer a few words of encouragement for the evening’s performance, he turned in the direction of the soprano section and said softly …
“Miss Tomkins, could I have a few words with you before you leave?’
I gathered up my music and as the other students filed out of the hall, I approached the podium. Jorge Mester looked very uncomfortable, struggling to offer me a conciliatory smile as he said, ” Unfortunately you are singing … off-key.” He wrung his hands as he added, “And you are pulling the entire soprano section down almost a half tone. So for this evening, would you sing as if you are singing, but without sounding a note.” (In those days the phrase “lip sync” had not yet been born .)
For a horrible moment, I thought I was being tossed out of Chorus, which would effectively ruin my chances of getting those necessary credits. But Mester was sensitive to the situation and quickly assured me that I must remain in situ for the evening concert.
“You have good energy. Just make a lot of energy and no sound. And it will be good,” he assured me.
And it was. That evening, as the hall filled and we peeked out from behind the curtains, the excitement built to almost unbearable levels. We filed in to our assigned places and after considerable arranging of chairs and music and the preliminary”tuning”, we were primed and ready to begin
Jorge mester lifted his baton, gave an almost imperceptible nod of his head as he signalled the opening beat. And five hundred voices, two orchestras, a brass band and one anvil launched into Belshazzar’s Feast. And what a feast it was! Galvanized by our audience and each other, we seemed to double our volume. I waved my music aloft and strained to imitate Maria Callas in the throes of an aria. I bobbed my head and swayed with the sound. Mutely.
Over half an hour later we built up to the grand finale singing ….
Then sing aloud to God our strength.
Make a joyful noise to the God of Jacob.
For Babylon the Great is fallen.
As the last note sounded and faded, there was a long moment of complete silence. Then the audience rose to its feet and the clapping began.
From the back of the concert hall, weaving his way up the aisle was a single figure. As William Walton, approached the stage, the applause swelled to a climax rivalling the output of our entire assemblage of musicians. It was deafening When he reached the edge of the orchestra pit, we could see tears streaming down his face.
Oh it was a magnificent moment. I had heard applause before in competitions. I’d even had an audience rise to its feet in Montreal after a particularly brilliant performance, a thrill I thought would never be equalled for the rest of my life.
But this was even louder … hundreds of people pounding their palms together and cheering. The composer in tears. Oh, nothing could match this moment ever. My debut at Juilliard!
And I hadn’t sung a single note.
I graduated from Juilliard, completing a four year course in only two. Mainly because I ran out of money …. not you understand, because I was unusually talented. I didn’t learn to read notes fluently until I began teaching almost twenty five years later. I’m still tone-deaf.
But along the way, I’ve learned that there is one thing which can carry a musician farther than natural talent or a perfect ear. It is the LOVE of music. Loving music so much that it seems to permeate your very soul. So much that it makes every cell in your body resonate with joy. When you feel that you ARE a musician. Even if you are tone deaf, have tiny hands and one mangled finger.
Here is a very fine recording of Belshazzar’s Feast performed by the BBC orchestra under Tadaaki Otaka. There is also a brief and charming interview with the composer.