Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Bittersweet Song

I need to talk about something that's leaving a very bittersweet taste right now.

The purely sweet: Three out of four of the Skokie Idol (it's like American Idol but just in Skokie) contestants I coached last week made it to the final two in each of their categories - Kids, High School, and Adult. The girl who didn't lost out to one of my other students and a 12 year old boy who sang Defying Gravity O_O Yeah. Nothing really much to do about that.

BUT she DID get a standing ovation for the song I worked on with her, she belted notes she never thought possible, and the judges said that whoever is coaching her clearly knows what they are doing when it comes to "unlocking potential while still keeping her voice safe."

Seriously what better compliment as a voice teacher could you get?!

All the rest of my students also got complimented for something that I personally worked on with them too. I'm so proud of the work they put in and I'm kind of amazed and beside myself at the idea that I could actually make that big of a difference with such talented people. This has been such a validating experience. A sign that makes me feel I'm really on the right track.

I'm just going to go ahead and be proud of myself too. No humble disclaimers right now. My students freaking rock, and so do I!


Now comes the bitter.

I would not have these techniques to teach if I had never met Kathy Sweeney.

Kathy was my music teacher in elementary and middle school. She became my vocal coach in high school. She taught me techniques that changed the way I sang forever. She taught me how to belt in a way that opened my range and kept me safe. She pretty much taught me everything I know and everything I now teach in voice.

Kathy took her own life in October of 2012.

From what I understand, depression was a beast Kathy had been battling for a long time. I don't know most of her story, and what I do know is second and thirdhand.  It's not my place to talk about or assume anything about Kathy's life that I was not directly involved in, so I won't.

She was my teacher. I was her student. First in elementary school, show choir, school performances, Christmas pageants, and finally private voice lessons. I would also call us friends.  She could be short tempered and impatient (though rarely with me personally), but also incredibly funny and downright inspiring. In seventh grade, she told me she always really appreciated my lack of cynicism and that I should hold onto that. I did my best.

I wrote a bunch of reflections and speculation on the parts of her life I did participate in as part of my processing here, but then I deleted it. Writing it out was therapeutic enough. And once again, it feels like it's not my place to get too raw in this circumstance. I didn't know Kathy the way I knew Jenna.

What I will share is that I wasn't all that shocked when I found out (as an adult) that depression was something she struggled with. I really don't mean that with any judgmental implications or drama. I just knew (and know) a lot of people who also struggle with this issue and it just... made sense in the context of the woman I knew. Like finding out someone you thought spoke particularly loudly was partially deaf or something. It was not an obvious thing, but it was something you always kind of noticed. So once you had the explanation, it was like, "Oh? Huh. Yeah, that makes sense."

I dunno, that's probably a horrible analogy. I hope you all get what I mean.

Years later, when I heard the news that it had finally claimed her... That was a shock.
It always is, I suppose.

I could not bring myself to drive up to attend her funeral. In fact, I had trouble really acknowledging or processing the loss of this woman for a very long time.

It happened six months after my sister died, five days after her birthday.
It was all just... too much.

I don't regret my choice. And I know anyone who might have noticed my absence understood. Remembering how I know I felt at that moment in time, I know that there was no other choice I could have made. But I do often find myself wishing there was some way I could be in a situation like that now that I'm more emotionally stable - Have the chance to be around others who knew her well so I could hear more about her. Share how she affected me. Say goodbye...

Kathy was really important to me and I SO WISH I could have shared with her what her teachings brought to my adult life. I hadn't talked to her in so long, but in these past years since she's been gone, she's one of the people I most want to get in touch with. I would to ask her questions about her technique, I would invite her to come to Chicago to see the school, I would tell her how the first show I ever did at my summer theatre camp was "Help! I Need a Vacation!," I would tell her about how voice students and parents are telling me that they never knew they could sing a particular way until they met me and it's all because of her.

Hell, even my stint as an Elsa performer is because of her. That song did NOT come in my natural range. Without her techniques, I never would have been able to train myself to sing that song comfortably.

As a teenager, I took voice lessons for granted. She used to scold me that I couldn't call her my voice teacher unless I actually came in consistently for lessons. I wish I could tell her now that I'm teaching other high school students, OH MY GOD. I know exactly how she must have felt now. The ones with natural talent are the WORST students! Haha


There are these monsters on one of my favorite TV shows, Doctor Who, called the Weeping Angels. Their attack is very unique. When they touch you, they send you back in time. You still get to live out the rest of your life in whatever decade or century they send you, but those who were supposed to live it with you don't get to. The timeline you were supposed to inhabit is deprived of whatever impact you would have had from that point on. And the Angels feed off of the energy from uncompleted potential your cut-off life has left behind.

Seeing potential that will never be culminated as something so tangible you can EAT IT is an image that really speaks to me when I think about losses like this.


Sometimes I wonder... If she had managed to hold on a little longer, would that have made a difference? If I had been able to reach out to her and show her that a huge portion of what will become my life's work was built on what she taught me?

But then I shoo it away. From what I understand, she was already in contact with several former students. She had people who cared about her. 

Depression is never that simple.

The best I can do is imagine that maybe I DID get to keep some part of her. After all, I started working at Top Note that following February.

This place has given me so many opportunities to push my life forward and keep my fire blazing despite the downpour it's suffered through. And it's the perfect place to do what I can to serve the memory of a woman who, quite frankly, gave me some of the main tools I make my livelihood with.

And what are we really in the grand scheme of things, if not the pieces we leave to others?

Story Time

About a year and a half ago, my boyfriend lost his grandfather. When I went to the funeral, I was affected in a very odd way.

At Jewish services (which this was), anybody who wants to come up and speak is encouraged to do so. It can be a small blurb, or pages long. Additionally, at most kinds of Russian receptions, it’s traditional for anyone who wants to speak to say something. After each speech, you take either a shot of vodka or sip of wine. You can drink anything really, but you must drink something. But you don’t clink glasses. You never clink in someone’s memory.

I heard about four or five people speak at the funeral. The people speaking at the reception brought the number up to at least a dozen.

Of those dozen speeches I heard that day, only ONE of them was in English.

Dashi interpreted to me from time to time, but I have to say, it was fascinating watching all these emotions to a language I didn’t understand. Even though I didn’t get the details, it didn’t take me out of the moment one bit. Watching all these people speak with such feeling over this man, I was still totally connected.

I found myself mourning the loss of a man who I never even really knew. He and his wife had come to visit multiple times when Dashi and I were dating, but scheduling just never permitted us to meet. Once he was living with the Ardashnikovs, he was already very sick. It was a very personal time and it was understandable that he didn’t want any new faces to see him like that. I understood.

But when I realized I would never get to meet him, I felt… devastated. It was bizarre. I had no idea why my emotions were coming on so strongly. It felt self centered and stupid. When I found out he had passed, I cried. Again, strangest thing. I knew that it would have been perfectly normal to feel sad for Dashi, his father, the rest of his family… And I did. I totally did. But I was also personally grieving for a man I’d never even met. And that was a bit strange.

But then I realized… This is what life after death really is.

Dashi talked about his grandfather all the time to me. His connection and love for him made me feel like I was getting to know him. And being at his funeral, hearing all these stories, interacting with all the people who loved him… It painted a fuller and fuller picture. Everyone in the room was saying goodbye, but I felt like I was just starting to say hello to this man. The fact that he was no longer here on Earth did not mean that I couldn’t get to know him. If that wasn’t proof that he was still here, I don’t know what is.

I mentioned this to Dashi’s little sister, Sasha later that day when she was telling me how much she missed him. She turned and said, “I hope this doesn’t make you sad, but that’s how I feel about your sister.”

I told her that didn’t make me sad at all. In fact, it made me very happy. And that whenever we miss our people, we should tell each other stories. That way, we’ll be able to keep those people alive. She liked that. So did I.

It’s true what they say about Russians not being very comfortable with feelings. Without going into too much detail, I witnessed a variety of different coping mechanisms that day and most of them supported that assertion. But that’s where the stories come in. No matter how you deal with pain, telling stories seems to break that barrier across the board. It’s a way to express what that person meant to you without having to delve too deeply if you don’t want to.

I’m sure you can guess why that practice was so appealing to me. What is one of this blog’s main function? Every time I collect a new story about Jenna, it’s like getting a little shard of my heart back.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Any dumb animal can eat, breathe, and live in the technical sense. Love is what sets us and certain other creatures apart from insects. It’s the relationships and love we build with others that give us more than just our basic lifespan. Love is what gives us our stories. Love is what gives us our souls.

I loved Kathy very much. Not in the way her family and close friends did of course, but I realize now that I will always love Kathy for what she gave to me. How could I not?

I've been thinking about her a lot lately. All the things I'll never get to discuss with her or ask her... I have to believe that on some level, I can still show her what I've been able to do with her help and most importantly, contribute to her "life after death" in my own small way by continuing to share the knowledge she imparted to me.

Just to be clear: The LAST thing I want is to claim a position of significance in the grand scheme of Kathy Sweeney's life.

I knew her more than some, but significantly less than most. I can only say that even though I played a very small role in her life, her role in mine is growing every day. And I am grateful.

She taught me how to sing.
She taught me how to teach others to sing.

I cannot share very many stories of Kathy, but I can share this particular one over and over.

It's the least I can do.

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