Cooking and Singing Don’t Mix

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I love sewing y’all, but sometimes I need a break.  Sometimes I like to get back to the writing part of my blog.  I really do enjoy writing. It is a stress relief for me, and my fingertips are currently needle-shredded. So here is a little story I wanted to post last week, around Thanksgiving time, but I was just too busy doing Thanksgiving.

It’s another story about my time in France, and I like it because it includes my love of cooking, my love of singing, and, well, my love of talking about my time in France.

In the past, I have blogged about how I started dabbling in the kitchen around the age of 12.  But my passion in those early years was for baking, not cooking.  I hardly ever tried making things outside the realm of refined carbohydrates, so that by the time I found myself in a foreign country at the ripe age of 18 and in charge of feeding myself, I was pretty much limited to spaghetti and sandwiches. My two roommates, having known me to show up at my high school with bread or cookies to feed the entire student body, probably assumed that I knew my way around every corner of the kitchen.  They were mistaken.

Our first essays into the culinary world were laughable at best.  I think the biggest problem we had was that instead of trying to learn how to cook with the traditional French ingredients readily available to us, we were constantly trying to mimic the foods we missed from home.  I remember at Thanksgiving, we got so homesick for American food that we ventured out to find ‘Kennedy’s’, a small store that other foreigners had told us about.  This little store sold imported American goods at outrageous prices.  A can of pumpkin for pie cost about five dollars.  Tiny jars of Jif peanut butter, boxes of jello and graham crackers just about broke our food budget for the month. And don’t even ask how much they wanted for a package of Oreos.

One such memorable episode was around Christmas time, when one of the girls insisted she needed Cool Whip for a traditional dessert.  We set out in search of the precious artificial dairy whipped topping (Kennedy’s being closed) and had to settle for some unknown substance called Crème Fraiche, which came in a similar looking container.  It was a surprisingly good substitute!

I learned something else about cooking while I was in the culinary capital of the world.  If you want to cook good food, it is going to cost you, no matter where you live.  We lived in the dormitory of a seminary with lots of broke students, and there wasn’t a lot of haute cuisine going on in that kitchen.

After a while, and to my surprise, seeing as I was always puttering around in the kitchen, I was often asked how to make things by the French students.  My biggest surprise was when a friend of ours, who was in charge of student social events, asked me to help him oversee a large and important dinner party for the students and the visiting board of the seminary.  In my naïveté (and I must admit I was flattered) I agreed.

We made up a menu. I don’t precisely remember everything we decided to make that night, but I do remember we decided on roasted pork.  I figured that would be easy enough even though technically, I had never attempted to cook a pork roast.  But I was pretty sure I had seen my mother do it once or twice.

While all this was going on, there were other things preparing for the seminary board’s visit. One of those things was a choir concert.  My friend ‘E’ and I had joined the tiny little seminary chorale earlier in the year and had been trying, without much success, to understand the French both in the music and coming from the choir director.

There was also a bit of culture shock coming from the style of the music.  I had grown up as, shall we say, a musical conservative. As far as religious music went, my family was strictly classical and believe it or not, my first real exposure to American contemporary Christian music was in that little chorale. (Just try to imagine Michael W. Smith in French).

The final song for the concert was a piece that I really didn’t care much for.  In my humble opinion it was corny, overly dramatic, and had way too many unnecessary key changes. (I think there were seven in the last two pages, each one climbing higher into the stratosphere) There was also a lengthy solo involved, that would require the soloist (gasp) to walk around the stage and sing all of those ridiculous key changes directly into a microphone held in her hand!  It was a huge leap away from Mozart and Mendelssohn so dear to my heart, but you guessed it.  I got landed with the solo.

Dreading the fact that it was also in a language I was far from mastering, I tried to decline, but to no avail. So there I was, slated to finish up the concert with a melodramatic bang and cook dinner for the whole seminary on the same night.

Things went fairly well that day.  Between prepping food and last minute choir rehearsal, I was on my feet most of the day, but things were coming together.  I even managed to fit several large pork roasts into the miniscule oven that we had to use.  Everything was roasting and simmering that should be roasting and simmering, the tables were all set, and I just had time to run and get dressed before the concert.  I changed, ran a brush through my hair and slapped on some lipstick.  But just as I got back downstairs, I thought it would be wise to check on the pork one last time.

I raced into the kitchen, grabbed a potholder, opened the oven and yanked out the pork-laden oven rack a trifle hastily. Before I realized what was happening, a wave of scalding, simmering water and pork drippings came sloshing out the side of the pan and deluged the oven, the floor and my startled legs.  I yelped in panic, both from the pain in my shins and from fear of a huge grease fire.  I grabbed some towels and started frantically mopping in every direction.

Thankfully the pain in my legs passed quickly and I think the nylons I was wearing were the only thing that saved them from severe blistering. I cleaned up the mess as fast as I could, knowing that I was already late for the concert.  But as I raced out of the kitchen I knew that something had to be done about my legs.  Grease soaked and smelling of pig, they had to be attended to.

My shoes were full of drippings as well so that I slipped and slid all the way back upstairs only to  be met with another dilemma.  My slicked up shoes were the only dress shoes I had.  There was only time to do three things.  I kicked off my shoes, peeled of my burn-prevention nylons and grabbed my roommates shoes. I raced to the other building, shoes in hand, where the choir was lined up waiting. I gasped my apologies, dropped the borrowed shoes on the floor and tried to slip into them.

People- it was like that scene from Cinderella where the ugly stepsisters are trying to force the glass slipper onto their bony feet. The shoes were two and a half sizes too small.

But alas, the choir was already on their way out to the stage and I had no choice but to wedge my toes in as best I could and toddle my way out after them.  That concert was a misery.  Not only were my feet in agony, but I had all the dread of that solo to come.  And come it did.

I made my way to the front of the choir as best I could, considering my swollen and blood-deprived feet.  The microphone was slippery in my greasy hands that I hadn’t had a chance to clean properly, and there in front of me was a room full of austere looking (to my nervous eyes) board members. I stood there in my too-small shoes, fully aware that I was about to butcher their language in a song that I was almost too embarrassed to sing.  But the show had to go on.  I focused on a spot in the back of the room and got through every last key change.  It was done at last.

The rest of the evening was kind of a blur.  I think the dinner turned out pretty well considering; even that treacherous pork.  But my poor roommates shoes- they were never quite the same again.

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And when I want to sing

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My maternal grandmother was a wonderful Christian woman. She brought nine children into this world.  From those nine came so many grandchildren that I have lost count. I consider myself blessed to be numbered among them. She came from hardworking, no nonsense German and Norwegian ancestry and she was an efficient and very practical woman. This practicality applied even to music. She was a self taught musician, played the organ for many years at her church, and taught me and my sisters to play the piano.

We weren’t as disciplined in getting to our lessons as we might have been if we had been paying for a teacher, but we made some progress. Grandma always made it very clear however, that she would only take us so far in our musical education. Her goal for us was that we might be able to be of service to the church, to play hymns for services and to be a good accompanist. She always said that the sign of a good accompanist was when they weren’t noticed, which is very true. Grandma also often warned me that talent and ambition were highly dangerous things that usually led only to vanity. It was safer to be in the background.
I carried that warning with me when I went to college, and as I wrote before, found that balancing my love of singing with true humility was indeed a struggle. After graduating and after abandoning my feeble attempts to join the opera world, I found myself a member of a wonderful university choir in my home town. I was determined to be content as a supporting member of a larger group and I truly enjoyed my time there. But after a year or so, that old ambition reared up it’s head. My director introduced a new piece that would be the core of our next concert. It was a lovely mass, combining our choir with a local children’s choir, and there was an extensive and beautiful soprano solo woven throughout.
I wanted to sing that solo. I just ached to sing it, and as I sat in my car after practice, debating whether or not I should audition for it, my grandma’s warnings kept echoing through my head. What did it mean to glorify God with my talents without drawing attention to myself?  How could I truly be humble and stand center stage at the same time?  As I struggled with these questions, snatches of hymns came to mind.

Take my voice and let me sing; always, only for my King. Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from Thee.”  

And this simple but lovely line from an old spiritual-

And when I want to sing, give me Jesus.”  

I prayed there in my car, and told God that if I tried out for that solo, it would be for his glory alone.  I wouldn’t do it for any praise or personal recognition. I just wanted to sing his praises to the best of my ability.  I truly believed that I meant it, and decided to try out for the solo.  I got it.  Well, partially, at any rate.  It was such a big concert that we were doing two performances, so my director split the solos.  Another soprano was to sing on Friday night and I was to do the Saturday concert.  I was elated.  I told my hubby and my mother, but didn’t bother broadcasting the news much further.  After all, I wasn’t singing for myself.  My mother told people- my sisters, some aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, but that was nothing to me of course.

The night of the first concert came, and I was so glad I wasn’t the first one to sing.  I would be able see how the other soprano did, and have one more night to get over my jitters.  I walked into the practice room and my director smiled at me.

“You ready to sing tonight?”, he asked.  I laughed, thinking he was joking and I told him I would be ready tomorrow.  His face fell, and he said

“Didn’t I tell you we had switched nights? That the other soprano can’t be here tonight?”

My face must have answered his question, since he began apologizing profusely and asking rather nervously if I would be ready to go on anyway.  In a falsely confident voice I gave him my assurance that I would be, and left the room.   I was shaken up.  I told myself it was fine, that it didn’t matter what night I sang, so long as I got to sing. But then I thought of my hubby and my folks and all the people they had invited, and I burst into tears.  I wanted them to hear me!  I didn’t even have a cell phone in those long ago dark ages, but someone passing by saw my distress and offered to help me.  I asked her if she had a phone, which she readily lent me.  I called my husband and through my tears, I tried to let him know what had happened.  The concert was starting in fifteen minutes, and I knew he had a twenty minute drive to get there, but I hoped he at least could make it for part of it.  That was all I could do.  I had to be on stage.

As I stood there, watching the last of the audience filing in, I had to laugh at myself.  I realized that God had taken me at my word, that I was being given the chance to sing for his glory without the praise and encouragement from my family and friends that I was so often greedy for.   I sighed a little, and then shot up a little prayer saying, “All right then God, give me Jesus.”

I will never forget the feeling of joy I had that night as the concert began, but my heart nearly burst a few minutes later when I saw my hubby sneak into the concert hall, followed by my mom and dad, my sisters, even a few other relatives and friends.  I never learned what super human efforts they all made to get there that night.  I did learn that when you ask God to give you Jesus, it is sufficient.  But I also found that God is not stingy.  Along with the peace of Christ, he can send the love of a supportive husband, the pride in a parent’s face, and the devotion of sisters who came, even when they were sick and feverish and suppressing their coughing so as to hear you better.   He can even give the opportunity to stand in front of four hundred people and share the grand and ancient hymn of his people that we closed our concert with that night-

Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise him all creatures here below

Praise him above, ye heavenly host

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

To sing or not to sing

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I’ve been told that a blog needs a focus- a mission statement, a raison d’etre if you will. As I look through the thirty or so posts I have put up here, I am laughing at how totally random this blog is becoming. Clothes and dolls and cooking and childhood memoirs- it’s all a hodge-podge without much aim. But it’s a pretty good picture of my life. I’ve always been a multi-tasker, so my blog should be too, right? Can I add one more thing to the mix?

It’s just that it seems strange to try and share the ways that God has worked in my life without mentioning music. I am a musician- a singer to be more precise. Yep, really. I have a piece of paper and the student loans I am still paying off too prove it.  But it’s not just a piece of paper. I was born into a rich heritage of singing. My mother and all of her sisters and most of my female cousins were and are strong alto singers. You should hear one of our family reunion hymn sings- so much harmony, very little melody. My father grew up with three sisters who used to travel and sing together and they could raise the roof off a church when they got going. .

I learned piano from my grandma, had music class at school, and I sang alto, and even tenor in school and church choir. I loved piano and worked hard to excel, but my fingers just wouldn’t do what I told them to do. When it came time for college, I thought about studying piano, but was afraid it would simply be too frustrating. Then a friend suggested I study singing. I thought it was a funny idea- to study singing.  I already knew how to do that- there would be nothing to learn, right? So I signed up for singing lessons as an easy option.

When I auditioned for college choral, I proudly wrote down my singing range as alto 2/ tenor 1. I sang a nice alto solo and showed off my impressive part reading on a few hymns. My teacher then asked me to sing the tenor part an octave higher, which I did, straining for the higher notes as I went.  When I finished, he simply said,  “Ah, that’s what I thought,”  and put me down on the roster. There was just one problem. He put me down as soprano 1.

Through the next four years I fought that designation as I struggled to stretch my range. I thought it was absurd. I was an alto. My teacher had clearly never been to one of my family hymn sings! But he persevered in asserting that there was a soprano buried deep in there.

I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a soprano. Soprano’s were warbly and shrieky, and, well, prima donna-y.  They sang opera and wore helmets with horns on them and they were showoffs.  I didn’t want to be classed with that type of person.  I was raised to play a supporting role- to be a strong and unseen foundation, not a diva.  But there was no denying my love of singing, and I slowly grew more comfortable with the high notes.  There were discouragements along the way, like the day I was practicing and a guy knocked on the door of my practice room.  He asked me why I made my voice all wavy like that. Embarrassed,  I asked him if he meant my vibrato. He said, “Yeah, that.  I don’t like it. Can you do something about it?”  and walked away.  I mean, sheesh!

Then I had a terrible misunderstanding with another teacher when I got lost on the way to a concert in which I had a big solo to sing. I never made it to the concert, and in the aftermath of that mistake he intimated that I was the most stuck up prima donna he had ever met and threatened to fail me.  I was crushed and I almost left the music department.  No matter how much I tried to the contrary, I was going to be branded as the self-absorbed diva.  I didn’t know how to reconcile the humility God demands of his children with my love of standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people and singing.

After college, I really struggled with decisions.  I was already married at that point, and I couldn’t figure out if I should continue on for my masters and teach,  pursue a career in opera, or give it all up and start a family.   Or maybe I should just be content to play a humble role in a struggling church choir somewhere.  But I had my diploma in hand and I figured I couldn’t just give up like that, so I started hunting around for auditions.

The first one I found looked really fun.  It was a local production of the Sound of Music.  I had been mimicking Julie Andrews since I was yay high, and maybe here was my chance!  I got to the auditions, but much to my chagrin, I realized that all the lead roles had already been cast.  I was told by a very snooty Mother Superior that I could play nun # 972 if they could find enough habits.  I wasn’t willing to spend all that time in a production if I wouldn’t even get to sing “How do you solve a problem like Maria” so I tried for option 2.

A small local opera house was putting on Madame Butterfly.  The main lead was already cast, but I thought I might have a shot at one of the minor roles.  Ah naive child that I was!  I dressed nicely in slacks and a blouse, grabbed my folder of music and headed to the audition.  I got there early, so I was able to realize my folly to its fullest extent as I watched each subsequent soprano come through the doors in satin and sequins and fake jewels, followed by a harassed looking agent in a black suit, carrying her portfolio full of glamour shots and talking rapidly on a cell phone.  I wanted to sink through the floor.  When they called my name, I could feel all of those false-eyelashed and scornful eyes burning into the back of my Target clearance-rack blouse as I walked past.  I was nervous as all get out, but once I started singing, things went a little better.   Even so, as the song ended, and before the judges started talking, I knew the answer would be no.   More importantly, I wanted the answer to be no.  I thanked them for their time, sneaked out the back door and laughed at myself all the way home.

I decided for the time being to find a struggling little church choir, or maybe teaching wouldn’t so bad.  And hey, at the very least I could now sing the melody at family reunion!