“When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’ it is a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.” Erma Bombeck
Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. The last couple of years, I hadn’t remembered, or even noticed the date, until long after the fact. But this year, as time has progressed, I’ve thought of her more and more as we got closer to the date.
It’s hard to say why. Maybe it’s because I wonder what she would have said about the Pandemic predicament we find ourselves in. Or maybe, when I don’t feel like singing or vocalizing at all right now, I am thinking of her work ethic.
My mother, the coloratura soprano Rose Marie (Ditto) Grass, had an amazing work ethic. 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–but those runs must be practiced and practiced for them to stay in the voice.
Mom sang the role of the Queen of the Night and many operettas as well. As her six children came along, she specialized in oratorio work and was a paid church choir ringer until she was in her early 70s—and still had lovely High Cs. 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 hospitalizations that last February, one of my brothers and I agreed in the hospital corridor outside of her room 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 good she was asking for her lipstick!
I keep 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 soloist or Prima Donna, she had a graciousness, humbleness, and kindness I thought everyone who was a musician possessed.
A few weeks before her death, she complained she could no longer do her breathing exercises, ones she had done every morning before she got out of bed since she was 15 years old. None of us had any idea she did them! Considering her colon cancer had metastasized to her lungs, this was not surprising. But it struck me that she continued to practice SOMETHING everyday until she could not, only weeks before her death. I like to think doing those breathing exercises for all those years gave us a bit more time with her.
Mom’s death 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 Choral Ethics. I came to the conclusion the real inspiration for Choral Ethics and the whole concept was because of my mother. And in those drives to my parents’ home, it became clear my lessons occurring at Momma’s knee were attitudes I have brought into my adult life. She taught me much by the way she lived; managing to have a bit of a singing career, raising six quite 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 a school musical production, with my audition being pro forma since it was already 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 not to get too comfortable about “always” getting the part and 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 the part. And she said if I didn’t behave as a “gracious winner,” she would pull me out of that 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 and conductor, I try to uphold her values …but at times it is difficult. 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.
Until next week, be well and be safe!
I am taking my Choral Ethics Blogs to my chamber choir’s Facebook page for the foreseeable future. Please join me there this morning!