“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow……” Jimmie Rodgers
My Mother would have been 89 years old today. Born on Thanksgiving Day, she loved the holiday, the food and having her family around her. Today my family is gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving of course, but also to reminisce about Mom on her birthday…it’s the second one we’ve had without her. One of the reasons I became interested in Choral Ethics is because of Mom so it seems appropriate to blog about her today.
Mom was an opera singer, singing the role of the Queen of the Night and many operettas roles (she’s playing the role of Countess Henrietta in a production of Martha in this photo) as well. As her six children came along, she specialized in oratorio work and was a paid church choir ringer until her early 70s. We didn’t think it strange to have a mother gone several evenings a week for rehearsals or to be asked to help figure out what jewelry would go with which gown. During one of her last hospitalizations, in the corridor outside of her room my brother and I agreed she must be feeling better because she “had her Diva back” much to the horror of one of her nurses. We explained she had been an opera singer and we meant “Diva” in that sense…and it was a good thing she was asking for her lipstick!
Mom’s death two years ago wasn’t a surprise but the quickness of her downhill spiral was. Driving back and forth to my parents’ home gave me time to think about my Choral Ethics Project. And I came to the conclusion the real inspiration for Choral Ethics and the whole concept was because of my mother, the coloratura soprano Rose Marie (Ditto) Grass. In those drives, it became clear my lessons at Mom’s knee are attitudes I have brought into my adult life. I kept thinking about Mom in various situations and how she practiced what she preached. Through all the opera productions, concerts and worship services where Mom was a soloist or Prima Donna, she had a graciousness, humbleness and kindness I thought everyone who was a musician possessed.
I remember, very distinctly, her practicing the Queen of the Night runs almost every day well into her 60s, usually while doing the dishes. These are the kinds of things most “civilians” take for granted; those runs have to be practiced and practiced for them to stay in the voice. In order to be ready to do difficult things, you have to practice. Even when doing dishes. And Mom’s practice work ethic was incredible. She taught us much by the way she lived; managing to have a bit of a singing career, raising six very different individuals while being married to the same man for almost 60 years.
There is an incident when I was in high school which sticks in my mind. I was a junior and had just auditioned for the spring show, with my audition being pro forma since it was understood I would have the lead. I came home from the audition gloating and, as Mom would say, “being ugly.” She snapped at me about my behavior. She told me I should not get too comfortable and think I’ll always get the part; there would be plenty of times in my life I wouldn’t. She told me to treat everyone the way I would like to be treated if I hadn’t gotten it. And she said if I didn’t behave as a “gracious winner,” she would pull me out of the show. I shaped up pretty quickly! Being a gracious winner, in addition to being a gracious loser, was just one of her lessons. We were expected not to gossip, be on time if at all possible and to pick up after ourselves. As an adult, I’ve tried to uphold her values …but it is not always easy.
The evening she lay dying, we sang songs she taught us…songs no one sings anymore because they are old fashioned. I like to think her legacy besides those old songs will be the Choral Ethics Movement and being an ethical, moral choral conductor will never be out of fashion. It will be another “song” she has taught me. And I am incredibly thankful.