Friday, January 9, 2009

Happy 70th Birthday, Big Bertha!

 Everything I need to know about the singing business, I learned from my mother. 
    I would love to see the look on her face when she reads that. To be honest, it was difficult to come up with the connection myself. I mean, the woman can’t carry a tune, not even if it were in a bucket. She has very little sense of rhythm, and every attempt to get one -- tap dancing classes, a clogging course -- has dismally failed. Besides, every time I try to describe what it is I do, she sighs and replies, “Well, I just don’t understand that opera business.”
    Little does she know, she has everything it takes to make it in “the biz.”
    First, you need lots of luck. It is a luxury to be able to pursue such a frivolous career as ‘singer.’ If you’re worrying about putting food on the table for your three kids, something like delivering the mail or teaching school or being a secretary seems a bit more reliable. After doing just that for years and years and years, my mother was lucky enough to be able to pursue things she wanted to do -- writing and hiking. In fact, over the years she has even combined the two, having published two hiking guides and a book about the history of women in the Grand Canyon.
    Her identity as an avid hiker is so strong, that my brother, sister and I often refer to her as Hiker Betty or H.B. instead of “Mom.”
    Through hiking she has acquired the Wanderlust necessary for the singing business. You can be content to land a permanent, orfest, contract and stay in one city for a few or several years. If you’re lucky (again with the luck), it’s in a town that you like. But mostly, your singing career will take you from city to city -- just when you get used to the one, you’re on to the next. My mother has been on practically every mountain in Arizona. She’s hiked in Colorado, in Canada, in Switzerland, and in and out of the Grand Canyon numerous times. That might not sound like too much for other avid hikers, but for a country girl from Deerwalk, West Virginia, where moving out  of your childhood home means pitching a trailer in your parents’ backyard, Hiker Betty is quite the adventurer.
    Conquering peaks and traversing treacherous terrain builds up a certain amount of courage after a time. With her gathered courage and a parachute strapped to her back, my mother decided at one point to jump out of a plane. She was 60 at the time. My singing equivalent to the parachute jump may have been my stint singing backup in the country band Miss Behavin’,  or my courageous moment as a rock singer in the Theater Band in Coburg. That little stunt led to me getting roles in many more musicals than I would’ve expected to be cast in. Like my mother reminiscing about her parachute jump, I’m still wondering if that was such a good idea.
    Hiker Betty mentions in the preface of her book that hiking can be analogous to trudging through more difficult times in life. First you’re struggling up a hill, putting one foot in front of the other. Then before you know it, you’ve summited a peak. It’s not always easy to continue singing when you’re “between jobs.” You just have to have faith that you will reach your goal, if you have one. If you’ve ever been on a hike somewhere with a fragile ecosystem (one false step and you could cause erosion), you’ve certainly seen the signs urging you to “Stay on Trail!”
    Opera singers often have to support their singing habit by taking on part-time jobs, or even full-time ones, especially if you’re trying to live in New York City. Though I have dabbled in teaching English, working at the library, babysitting and the like, I have been fortunate (again with the luck!) to stay afloat mostly with singing. While I was still studying however, I had a myriad of jobs, and once decided to take on a position as a pizza delivery driver. It was the only job that fit into my schedule at the university. A few weeks prior to that, a story was on the news about a pizza delivery girl who had been shot and killed by a deranged customer. Having got word of that, my mother called me up and said,   That was the first and last time I ever heard my mother say the F-word. She sure as  @*!#  didn’t want me to deliver pizza! In reality she was worried about my safety, but I like to think it was her way of telling me to “Stay on Trail!” 
    Another lesson I should have learned from that incident is, one should save harsh words for when they are absolutely necessary. That could’ve come in handy during the last meeting I had with my former employer. Live and learn....
    Other than luck, Wanderlust, courage and tenacity, my mother sets a good example by continuing to have fun in her life, surrounding herself with people whose company she enjoys, and steering clear of the ones who bring her down. Mostly, I’ve learned from her actions, not necessarily from her words (this is where she might have trouble in the opera business, since there words must be louder than actions). Still, I remember something she said once, which I often think of when I begin to regret getting into this business in the first place: “If I could do it all over again, I’d just make different mistakes.”
    If another one of her axioms -- “Life begins at 40” -- rings true, then she is, at 70, younger than me. No matter how many mountains she’s been on, Hiker Betty will never be over the hill. And in the singing business, that’s a plus.

Happy Birthday, Hiker Betty!   I love you, Mom!


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