I lost a colleague recently and I’ve been wondering whether or not I should write about her here. I only knew her a little, worked with her for a few years on and off, so I feel a little sheepish about discussing her when so many other people knew her so much better for so much longer.
But I have, first of all, this place to write. And second, I have some expertise to back up my words. Most importantly, though, I want to write about her because she did so much right–stuff that few others do. So I will write about her. If any of her friends–the many of you who sang for her for so long–want to contribute, I welcome that, too.
Jeanne conducted a volunteer singing group at my church called the Sounds of Joy. It was created before I got to the church, growing out of the youth choir, which Jeanne directed while her daughters were in high school. The choir was so good, sang with such energy, and generally seemed like so much fun that adults asked if they could be in it, too. Of course she agreed, and, youth choir no more, the group was re-named Sounds of Joy, where all were welcome to come sing.
The Adult Choir which sang in the regular service was, at that time, directed by my predecessor, who was rather more old-fashioned about the structure and repertoire of a church choir. Jeanne created exactly the atmosphere I would have wanted: loving, accepting, fun! She was passionate about it and generous with her time and energy. So when I was hired at the church, even though I opened the choir up to anyone, stopped the rigorous and somewhat arbitrary demands of attendance, and widened the styles of repertoire the choir sang, Sounds of Joy continued, and I joined. I sang in Sounds of Joy to support music at the church and to get to know the musicians who sang there but didn’t come to services regularly.
Sounds of Joy was a joy. I had a great time; the other singers were fun and smart and dedicated. Jeanne was a hoot. Rehearsals were sometimes more social than productive, and that’s really what they were about. They call it “fellowship” in churches.
The most important thing about Jeanne’s conducting was that she always brought us back to expressivity. She didn’t get drawn into technical mistakes and worried about fixing wrong notes or cleaning up messy rhythms. She helped with that stuff, but when it came down to it, she reminded the singers to perform, to live the story of the song, to feel the emotion of the music.
And she walked the walk.
Unlike so many amateur conductors, Jeanne didn’t wallow in trying to be right. She understood that her job was to embody the expressive intent of the composer so to inspire the singers to do the same. This fact, which I’ve been blogging about for so many months, is a fact that a tiny proportion of professional conductors understand. Most of the people waving their arms out there are just being traffic cops; most of them are more highly trained than Jeanne. Her own intuition, natural musicality, and generous spirit were so strong that she just got it. She just knew.
She joked once about me giving her conducting lessons and I thought, “I’m not sure what I’d teach her.” Yes, if she had wanted to be a professional conductor she would have needed to learn to read music better so that she could prepare the score more thoroughly, make her rehearsals more efficient, and make expressive choices based more closely on details in the music rather than her gut. But I’m not sure that would have made Sounds of Joy any better. When she made expressive choices based on her intuition, it worked. She was fully equipped for what she wanted to achieve–better equipped than some professionals who are more interested in imposing their will on the ensemble than evoking a meaningful, moving performance.
She reminded me of that. She did work that plainly showed that my master’s degree and professional experience didn’t matter doodley squat if “doing it right” were all that mattered to me.
Jeanne, as herself, is what made Sounds of Joy succeed. Her insistence on investing our humanity, our spirits into the singing was incredibly rare and special and great.
She had agreed to work with Sounds of Joy for Christmas this year, but after just one rehearsal became suddenly too sick to rehearse. I was drowning in school work, so I didn’t even know when they diagnosed her with cancer. The church secretary told me in the middle of December. I took over Christmas rehearsals, conducting in her place rather than, as I had planned, singing.
I, burnt out from papers and due dates, don’t think I did as good a job as she would have done. I helped the singers get the notes right and even do some dynamics, but I didn’t remind them, like she did, to connect their spirits to their voices. At the Christmas Eve services, I made sure the singers knew when to come in, but I’m don’t think I, in that fried state, was able to embody the degree of expressivity that she probably would have.
I didn’t think she could possibly die. I couldn’t imagine it. She was forty-nine years old; how sick could she be? Someone so very full of life couldn’t just suddenly not be alive anymore.
I was wrong.
The shock of her death brought me the thought that, if today were the last day of my life, I would not wish I weighed less or saved more money or finished my DMA. The only thing I would want more of is what she brought to us, her singers: passion, love, fun, joy, and music.
Jeanne inspires me to bring more of that to my singers. I hope knowing a little bit about her will do the same for you.