A True Muse

Coming out of my Warner Brothers’  “post-graduate” experience, and thanks to Jim Ed Norman and all the Warner staff, along with Gail Hamilton who managed me and gave me as pain-free a fare as possible for such a novice charge, this picture is me acting like a true muse! The work that went into creating this image was immense! Thanks to Mary Beth Felts(makeup), Edna Page(hair), and Pheee-Nom Photog, Mark Tucker for making this the photo shoot impossible to top!

The Dreamer

This is a dreamer. This is a hoper with hopes fulfilled. This is an ingenue with fire in her eyes. A fire she promised herself would never be extinguished, no matter what darkness shaded her path.

Marla Callahan: Trash or Treasure?

Miss Marla was frantic. It had to be in her possession, but she had no clue where to even begin looking. In the gig folders? Or the curriculum/ensemble books? Or had she left it in one of her briefcases? In moments like these, Marla felt totally justified in being a pack rat and never, ever throwing anything away! She felt there was no argument that could justify tossing anything, especially if that item might one day be important in an entirely different context.

Now the formidably anticipated day had come; Marla didn’t know whether to be proud of her astute prediction or crushed by the shameful frustration that, after so many years, she’d not found an even marginally sufficient organization style that accommodated the chronicling and locating of her important ideas, documents, songs, and writings! Even when she’d attempted to put her life in order, she’d file something and then forget where she’d put it! Here she was again in her fourth walk-through of the third bedroom full of boxes, not filed but piled.

You had a beautiful poem you wrote once, Ms. Thing, and it kept you inspired to stay organized for many years! What the hell???

Marla remembered her housekeeping parable, “Zella’s Housecleaning,” all the time but couldn’t remember where she’d even stored that! Now she was looking for her arrangement of a song she’d written thirty years ago that fit the gig she had coming up so perfectly! She’d even recorded it in one of her early gigs. However, she couldn’t find the cassette tape it was recorded on. Even if she found the cassette, where could she find a tape player anymore to play the darn thing on?

“Technology, my ass!” murmured Marla in her “office” as she adjusted her readers to decipher the scribbled titles on the cases, irritated that she didn’t have enough light in this room to do anything even remotely pertaining to finding something important.

“Why, I can’t even see anything in this room!!” she exclaimed.

This was one of your favorite songs to do live, and now you can’t even find the damned thing! Even when you find it, how’re you gonna listen to it? Where are you going to find a cassette player, for Chrissake!? You only remember the first line.

“Damn technology!” Marla growled.

She went to the piano and played the first few chords. She could remember the progressions and the form of the song, but the lyrics were deep in her memory, laughing at her, she felt.

“Hmmm, was it ‘Don’t Waste My Time!’? Hmmmmm…” she hummed bluesily.

She seemed to remember that the song was an edict slamming the “BS” that so many people engage in, procrastinating with their duties and responsibilities, going through whole days producing nothing, which Marla had always felt that most people did on the average. With eyes wide open and minds closed, most people were, in Marla’s assessment, inwardly, maybe even subconsciously, committed to mediocrity and sub-par performance packaged in excuses and empty rhetoric. The bar was always lower than was necessary for the best to excel. No one wanted to push hard, stretch, extend, gamble their essence on any idea or purpose, fearful of failure or of not receiving the credit commensurate with their effort.

See? This is how you get distracted! Going off on tangents and rambling until you forget what the hell you were thinking about in the first place! OH!

‘I Takes My Time’! That’s the title! Yeah! Ok, now I can really look for it! Maybe that’s why I couldn’t find it in the first place!”

Marla was slightly irritated that she thought she’d seen “I Takes My Time” in one of the folders a day or two before. ” Yes, actually she had been looking, unconsciously maybe, for a few weeks! There’d be a rushed situation in the office, everyone stressing and rip-roaring around to get a task done, and Marla would start humming this tune and finally get home to go through her old music to see what was in the literal piles of charts. There were stacks of folders of charts in every room though. She’d never invested in a file cabinet, though there was one in her office at the school, also in real need of order but a bit better. At least Marla could lock the damn thing and only open it when she was absolutely sure of where she’d put something. “Filed” was not exactly what she called it, though there were some pieces which were alphabetized. Mostly she resisted the label of “hoarder” and made the best of her memory and the instinct she had for remembering where a piece was the last time she’d used it. Well, “I Takes My time” was not going to whistle from the stack of papers it was hiding in, so Marla resignedly decided to put a little thought into the last known sighting of the campy ditty.

Maybe if you try to think of what you were experiencing when the song came to you. It was in the days of working with Chris in the transition from the Lori and Roger collaboration. You were stressed one day, thinking about an upcoming gig that was wigging you out ‘cause you didn’t think you’d learned the songs well enough. Damn! Seems you’d have been cured of that after all these years! But the stress of thinking how down-to-the-wire this gig was, had incited you to sit down and write the lyric.

“Don’t go rushing me through my chores! Ain’t no use in scaramooshing through my day…duh,duh,duh,duh, I Takes My Time…. “

Then the bridge went:

“Now you can wear your nerves right down to a frazzle, looking for the next hoop to jump through,

But how you gonna make a little razzle-dazzle, when all you are is stressed and waitin’, anxiously anticipatin’?…”

That last line’s not exactly right, but it’s a start at least!

As Marla walked into the living room to get her cell phone recharger, she spied a distracting piece of paper out of the corner of her eye. Sticking out of a huge dusty folder of notes, grades, and event programs from over the twenty or so years she’d been at the institution was the yellow-colored legal pad she’d used to write the lyrics to the song.

“Oh, my GOD!” Marla shouted, delighted. She then remembered the last time she’d sung the number. For her first performance at the school, she’d pulled this song out to sing for the introductory department mini-concert. She’d used “I Takes My Time” to telegraph to her new colleagues that she wasn’t one to be peer-pressured or stressed into doing anything! It was funny and yet just honest and candid enough that they ought to get the message, she’d thought.

“And it seemed to have worked over the years!” Marla mused, chuckling.

With a sigh of relief, Marla, totally aware that her organizational skills were still pitifully in need of development, thought, “You can never, ever throw anything away, my dear. Who knows what could turn out not to be trash? Most things you’ve filed away are destined to be treasures if you live long enough. How ‘bout hiring someone to come over and assist you in at least alphabetizing your music!?”

Anyway, Marla, not a total hoarder – yet – was holding on to most things, whether trash or treasure!


Copyright © Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

Illustration courtesy www.pixabay.com

Proud Teacher List #1

Maddie, the young high school student who recently called to let me know she’d been selected to participate in the State competitions with a perfect score

Grace singing In the Garden after being away for years, and still sounding like she did the day she learned it

Heather sending the yearly Birthday greeting

Natalie on the Country Western circuit with her band AND finalist on the Voice

Tiffany starting her own family/arts school/record career, and still being a faithful hairdresser, mother, sister, friend

Jordan never being anything other than a friend and gentleman, talent-be-damned

Angela working it out! That belt and that head voice submitting to her will

Sabreen out on the road DELIVERING the TRUE DIVA WISDOM

Jessica transposing the singing to the cosmetic and skin care and still making it musical

Ben and his wife and baby making the real family experience

Daniele who auditioned in Italy, won a scholarship, blazed through the system, and is now in NYC KILLIN’ IT!!

Christina singing my original songs better than I do and taking her talent to its heights in Nashville while raising a gorgeous son

Annie, recording my song and starting an underground revolution of he own kind

Steve and Jack and Darryl allowing me to sing the demos of their songs, showing singers how it’s done

Lee and Susan, the former president of the academy reaching back and plucking up the essence of the Marla and Jaime’s spirits to spread their love of the music to the world

Mo who never lets a song live in her heart without singing it POWERFULLY

Vaughnette who only took a couple of “consultations,” then was “shooed” out of the nest, I mean, come onnnnnn

Kevin who was already the real deal, just needed to live and learn and do his thing, and is burgeoning on a Dynamite career

Michael who went home to lead and sing his way across the world and comes back to check in often

Maira sang for the POPE!!! That is ALL

Daisy who was finalist in the Voice China and had a BIG life right in front of me

Goapele who took my advice and got the hell out of the school!! She was wasting her career

Roni who was short on the campus but long on the extractions from my studio, and who now has a glorious career in her own country, Isreal, and is artist of the universe

All the beautiful groups of singers who made up Jubilee Spirit over the years

Just reminiscing, and this is just the first submission…

The Joy of the Solo Voice

I still get a funny look from people who are taken aback when I say I did a gig a cappella, by myself, with no other singers or instruments. I have to remind folks that the voice existed before all the other instruments entered into the psyche of man! We heard each other calling out, and it was “music to our ears”, and for thousands of years, man communicated everything by a growl or a coo or a scream or groan that conveyed everything necessary to deliver the message.

When I open my mouth, especially in this hi-tech era of karaoke, lip-sync, cover, I love to be able to stand flat-footed and sing in key, in any key, arrangement in mind, no chart needed, no dependence on any other player to enhance or aid me in the performance of this message.

When I was a child, I sang, even at 6 months, and was in tune. My first solo was at age six, “In the Garden”, standing in the pulpit of First Virginia Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, too short to be seen over the lectern, but not too young to know I was special.

I always used to struggle with the look I got when I opened my mouth and just sang. The faces of people who don’t know me and have no connection with this lady standing before them, suddenly light up and soften with relief and joy. Relief that I haven’t wasted their time and been just another tone-deaf, un-musical and attention-seeking narcissist, making noise to get attention. Then the joy floods into their faces and they “color up”, getting that blush of happiness. Yes, I know I have this effect on people. I have the same effect on myself when I truly believe in the song I’m singing!

I remember being young and searching for that right sound, the lick that will be the show-stopper, the run that I can sing for ten bars and show ‘em ALL up! Or play a record in one spot for three hours straight, learning and perfecting the notes or inflection in a run, and making a practice of doing that with every artist I covered. This became the basis for my, for lack of a better word, versatility.

When I was learning how to sing, just as I was getting old enough to start knowing what I wanted to do in life and seeing I had this effect on people, The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews, was released and I went to see it at the Rialto Theater in downtown Louisville, KY.

Now, my home was a musical dream factory! In the kitchen, I could dream of being a revered and celebrated gospel singer listening my mother and other great spirit-filled vocalists like Mahalia and Tennessee Ernie Ford, George Beverly Shea, Edwin Hawkins, Andrea Crouch, the Barrett Sisters, Sarah Jordan Powell, Larnell Harris, all revered and cherished by my Mom.

Just ten feet away was my Dad, wearing his trusty headphones so as not to miss a note of Louis’ or Miles’ or Trane’s or Dizzy’s or Prez’s or Lady Day’s or Nancy’s or Mancini’s or Mitch Miller’s(HAH!) or any of the classic contemporary artists of the jazz or big band era. My parents never competed, but they always made it clear:

“When I’m listening to my music, don’t come in here with that mess!!”

And we didn’t if we knew what was good for us! We established our own listening format and territory:

Beverly rehearsing her aria in the bathroom, kitchen, or our little bedroom, or wherever she could hear herself, rehearsing “Misty” for her competition in the WHAS-TV Crusade for Children Contest, which she went on to win second place in, to accompany her scholarship to Centre College in Danville, KY, catapulting an academic career that still flourishes today;

Felix in his room listening to Procol Harum or Hendrix or Joplin or Iron Butterfly or The Byrds or some psychedelic band of the day, in that little room in the middle of our little house with the window open for “ventilation”;

Fred in the same room later in the day listening to a mixed fair from Motown to Miles, but mostly anything African American and declarative, from The Temptations to Curtis Mayfield to speeches of the Civil Rights leaders of the day, Martin Luther King, Adam Clayton Powell, or reciting his own poetry, speech of acceptance, or declaration of independence from the little bedroom reeking of his older brother’s psyche-rock forensics.

It was only natural then, that Donna Maria would be singing all kinds of songs, but mostly influenced by her mother’s sweet and reverent sound. The truest singing I listened to before all the other singing was my mother’s singing. All my current criteria for vocal exceptionalism is stemmed from the womb experience listening to my mother. Imo could SING y’all!

It would stand to reason that my attack on any song is not subtle or indirect. I wanna KNOW what the composer was saying to the audience, and who that audience is/was! In my own writing I follow that same m-o, writing a song with a specific listener-type in mind. Usually, admittedly, it is a listener who thinks like I think, but sometimes not. Sometimes I try to just be universally appealing. Funny, that doesn’t work as well for me. I’m not gonna lie, I can’t presume to speak for you; I sometimes find it difficult to even speak for myself, but I know when I have created the composition it will be pleasing to the ears of listeners, even if not relatable!

Whatever I sing I truly MUST believe in! If I believe it, I can sing it anywhere, anytime, any situation. I tell my students to choose songs they could sing a cappella if they had to. If you can’t hear the melody in your head, hear it with your inner ear, you don’t know it as intimately as you need to! I mean, suppose you’re on live broadcast and your monitor doesn’t work!!? Just sayin’…

When the song is on your heart, when you know that you know that you know it, when the folks you sing it to are emotionally in need of a SONG, not a “cover’ of someone’s recording, or a pyrotechnic demonstration of how many notes can be squeezed into one syllable, then you have to just let the song do some of the work, let the message breathe, let the lyrics live, and let your ear carry you through the performance. Isn’t it curious that there are some folks who will read ALL these criteria for the best a cappella power, and still get up and try to sing. These folks would probably sound bad with accompaniment, I suspect!

All this is my way of praising the person who can hear the CONCEPT of key, interval, melody, range, and can find said key taking into consideration all these other aspects of the song and its melody. Thinking of the countless YouTube posts of the National Anthem started in one key, and visiting many, many more keys before the rendition is complete! Sad, and nobody can have that three minutes back! Solo singing is not for the many, but the few. That’s why I love a cappella performances! Kudos to the singers who get out and do it! And if you sing alone, know that you, singing to anyone else, can move a whole population!

Sing it!

Not for the applause!

Sing it for the Joy of Solo Singing!

© Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

The Chronicles of Marla Callahan, Teacher – Part 2

Shirley, Marla’s supervisor, was quite pleasant when she welcomed Marla into the office for “a little conference,” she said. It was never a good thing to have the “boss” call you in for a one-on-one!

Marla wondered which of the spoiled little brats had ratted on her. She could just imagine Shirley saying, “I didn’t make the rules! I’m just following the syllabus distributed in the school’s registration manual!Marla imagined herself replying, “In that case, change the requirements to read, ‘Effective contingent upon the students’ desire to follow through,’ unless the catalogue’s not going to have any legitimacy.”

“Hi, Shirley,” said Marla. “What can I do for you?”

“Hi, Marla,” said Shirley. “Hope you’re doing fine! I wanted to mention to you a currently un-official complaint lodged by one of your Private Instruction Students. Like I said, it’s not official, but the student just wanted to make me aware of your actions in her lessons. She said you spend a lot of time talking about yourself and your career and all the songs you know and all the stars you’ve sung with. She says every lesson she comes to is another session reminding her of your resumé. She said you make her feel like she will never get anywhere or be successful at anything, because you seem to have ‘done it all!’”

“I wonder, Shirley, is this one of the students who brings in their assignment? Did they mention that they didn’t get to sing their assigned songs? Or did they say I was talking about my experiences since they had not brought in their assigned songs to sing to me!”

Marla did have an anecdotal style, especially when the student came in with no music, sat in the chair next to Marla’s desk, and didn’t have any of the “stuff” she’d given them to work on in their previous lesson in their bag. Perhaps it was unfair, but Marla knew her career experiences were substantially more interesting that anything these young people could dream of to talk about, so the only other option was to allow them to talk about their boyfriends or girlfriends or enemies or bands they liked to “stalk” on the internet. When she talked about her actual experiences on the road, sessions and the artists she’d sung backup for, the tour life she’d led, the things she’d learned as she’d packed and unpacked over the years, Marla tried to stay positive and joyful about her career, always finding the most hilarious or sarcastically humorous way to narrate her stories. And there was definitely no shortage of stories!

I oughta write a book, Marla often thought. At least a written account of her experiences would be a guide for a novice singer to compare notes. Then she could cash in on her autobiographical saga by assigning passages to be read and discussed in the next class period. That was how the instructors used to do it, Marla remembered, only they were called teachers when she was in school. They were actually hired to teach back then, instead of babysit. That’s what it seemed the occupation had evolved to, a baby-sitting job, watching young people grow up and decide what they wanted to do with their lives and careers. Nice, except that this was college, and Marla had always thought that college was for developing and training for the career that had already been chosen, not an incubator for waking up the minds of the brain-dead.

She was always thinking, “Come on, you people! Don’t you have any idea what you want your life to look like? By the time I was your age, I had already won my fourth Grammy in my mind! Of course, I didn’t have a clue how to get it, but I at least knew I wanted to win them!”

It seemed these young people didn’t have any idea what kind of music they wanted to sing, let alone what paths to take to get to the Grammys’ stage and accept the highly-revered sculpture. They just wanted to sit at the piano slumped over, play those same three chords over and over, riff and run, then go to the “caf” and hang out, happy to be back with their friends again, in the company of fellow disciples of dereliction. Somehow, and often when she thought of standards and all the melodies she knew, she longed to compose her own anthem of laziness, call it, “I Do Nothin’, and I Do It Good!” She’d only have two notes, ti and doe; that would be all the singer would have to memorize, to make learning and singing the song as easy as possible.

Now here was another one who was only interested in herself and didn’t want any input from the instructor, just wanted to arrive and be praised for doing nothing and then leave and return to the world of “Me.” Seemed she hadn’t gotten to talk about her boyfriend or the fabulous time she’d had in New York city the previous week. But no music had been memorized and no choices had been made of selections she was going to sing in her final proficiency examination. The thirty-minute lesson that her folks had paid so much for her to blow off was essentially only important in the registration process; as in, “I got Marla Callahan!”

Marla was so unmoved by the hype. She knew that the moment she told the student, “Come in,” he or she would be recording everything she said, soaking in all her wisdom like a sponge, totally expecting the marvelous miracle of her wisdom to fall on them like alpine honey. Yeah, but if you don’t believe in yourself without me, how are you going to make it? thought Marla. What’s your four-year plan, your career goal, your personal destiny? How are you going to take what I say to you and in ten years still be interested in being a professional musician? She had asked this so many times to a myriad of students, some of whom now would “hit her up on Facebook” and thank her for the “heads-up.”

“I learned everything I am, I do, I teach from you, Mothah!” She’d read it just the other day. Luanna, her student organizer back in the day when Marla had been a rooky on the PROTEAM, the group of faculty who helped to put on all the semi-professional shows at the school, had written her to play a vocal production idea she’d sung all the tracks to for a new artist she was producing. It was actually incredible, and Marla heard traces of her own extensive career as a backup arranger coming through as she listened to this sweet intoxicating arrangement.

Luanna had written, “I learned it all from you, Mothah!”

Marla was proud to say the least. But more than just proud, she knew her griot style of teaching, word-of-mouth, experientially, credibly, was fading, and that her steadfast commitment to this form of spreading of the musical “gospel” had to continue through her students. The ones who listened anyway. Marla knew without a doubt that even a student like Arianne would write to her one day with the request she’d once had for Mrs. Jörgenson: “Tell me, what was that you said about lower-body support?”

Marla would have the pleasure of repeating it again for the millionth time to Arianne one day, if instinct served her, just as Mrs Jörgenson had to Marla! Lives and priorities changed, but physiology and pedagogy did not. Ever.


© Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

(picture courtesy pixabay.com)


The Chronicles of Marla Callahan, Teacher – Part 1

Marla glanced at the clock as Arianne knocked and waltzed in.

“Hi, Ms. Callahan! Sorry I’m a li’l late, I was finishing up at the Caf!”

It was ten after. Marla wondered, just out of curiosity, what Arianne would have had to give up in the session with her lunch mates to arrive on time for her lesson. She wondered if closing out her conversation and arriving on time ever occurred to her precocious student. This was habitual, Marla speculated; a life style. It was a culture. All the students did it, she thought, to avoid being labeled “complicit” to the rules of the institution. It was “the thing”!

“Can you warm me up?” It was 3:30 in the afternoon.

“Do you have any ensembles or singing classes earlier in the day, Arianne? Can we sing some of the assigned materials I gave you last week? You don’t really think coming to class ten minutes late allows you to warm up, do you? Plug in your cell phone and let’s get started… Uh, you did bring something to sing for me, didn’t you?”

“Uhhhh, no, Ma’am, I was wondering if you could warm me up ‘cause I have a gig at 6:30 in Harbourstown. Actually, I have to leave a little early so I can get to the train in time!”

“So you haven’t sung today, you just woke up, and you came to me late to get you started, huh? Hmmm… And leaving early means you’ll do a couple of hums, a scale, sing through the chorus/belt part, and then, ‘see ya’!?”

“Uh, I guess so…. Do we have to do the hums and the scales?”

Let’s not get too deep here; money is not so important to many people anymore. The fact that your folks pay twelve thousand dollars for your voice lessons out of the thirty-eight-thousand- dollar full tuition, has no bearing on your value system. It’s just one more thing they got for you to “entertain” you through your adolescence. It’s merely a technicality, morphing from meme to post to video to flirtation, never landing on any one thing or idea that warrants your full attention, or, heaven forbid, commitment. It is also not a facet exclusively of affluence, the total unconsciousness to cost – value – expense. Youth is inherently a state of unawareness of the value of life. Regardless of economic status though, the consciousness to cost is lost on some youth. It was interesting to Marla that the students who did not come from a more economically enriched background were preoccupied with cost only from the position of want and pining; the other end of the economic arc was a world of total disregard for what it cost the parents, with a simultaneous preoccupation with display of their access to everyone who cared enough to pay attention. Either way, it spelled doom for the youth of the day whom Marla felt were committed to a new term Marla had made up, “Obliviosity”!

Marla kept remembering the line her voice teacher used to say to her.

“You will have students like yourself one of these days!”

She remembered she used to laugh and say,

“Oh, no, Mrs. Jörgenson, I am going to be a singer! I will never have to settle for teaching, I’m gonna be on the road!”


These days in the latter part of her teaching career, when it felt as if she could easily assume no one heard her anymore, Marla had a strangely calm inner peace about the state of education in her school system. Maybe the fact was that the same hopelessness had come over her own elders in dealing with her and her contemporaries. Maybe it was generational. Maybe it was the human state of being. It certainly seemed that Mrs. Jörgenson hadn’t been so lazy, so lacking in discipline, commitment to learning as Marla remembered herself as being. She had been a highly respected performer and eventual mentor in the field of classical pedagogy. Marla had never had even a hint of self-indulgence or laziness when she went to Mrs. Jörgenson’s office half hung over twice a week for five whole semesters. (It would have been six, but Marla painfully that she had indeed flunked one semester when poor Mrs. Jörgenson had had enough. Art and pictures from performances in La Scala, the Met, and all the roles in which she had been so glamorous covered the walls of her studio from ceiling to floor! Marla had been awed but not inspired in viewing these pieces hanging in her voice teacher’s office. She knew she’d never live like that! It was too much work! She thought to herself…So one of the semesters, her spring semester junior year she’d done absolutely nothing! And paid for it with a grade of “F”!

“You have students just as lazy and un-focused as you were, and they will have students like them! Get over it and listen to this girl’s song so she can get out of your office!”, she hrrrumphed.

Marla’s social life had conflicted with her need to get out of college and ease her own parents’ financial strife. Now she recalled that conflict over and over every time Arianne and a few other students were late or absent. Some never even showed up for class after the first meeting. This was a half-assed style of student-hood she’d forgotten. Blow it off, and if you do go, just hit the joint a couple times before you leave so you can stay chill while she’s raking you over the coals about being unprepared. It’s just a fifty-minute lesson! You can make it! Go in fifteen minutes late and lie and say you have a gig and have to leave early. Then come back to the room and finish the roach, take a well-deserved nap and wake up in time for the next class where you have to do the same thing. Then go to dinner, hang with the other loafers, spend the evening playing spades, drinking, getting wasted, and wake up the next morning to do it all again. Listen to some Gil Scott-Heron, Last Poets, glance over at your Brahms book, you know, so you’ll be able to say you “studied”.

“Boy, if my students could hear what I’m thinking! They’d be blown away! They think we have no past, no misspent youth, no way to relate to their immature dalliances. Pitiful little buggers!”, she chuckled to herself.

Marla’d had no sense of how to structure her life, especially not financially. The concept of savings, investment, dividends, the language of an organized monetary scheme were other people’s luxuries. The Callahans didn’t have that advantage with all the needs of six children spanning nineteen years. Marla was your typical middle child, a clown, a disruptor, conscious of the stress their parents were undergoing to keep the ship afloat, but still immature enough to long for and resent not having the things she saw other kids having. Any other kids! The condition of Want was one Marla had taken most of her life, well into her thirties, to heal from, to grow out of. It was a lesson she had been fortunate enough to be cured from in the wake of all the opportunities she’d been blessed with. In the midst of interaction with people who needed no money, Marla had been smart and wise enough to sense the true nature of the hypnotic effect of perceptions of wealth. All her adult life (if there ever was such a thing, she’d muse)she had seen time and time again couples who, for all the things they could afford, were bankrupt of compassion for anyone, even each other! The money just distracted, substituted for richness. Wealth was the consolation prize for lack of wisdom. Marla realized more and more that each soul was its own counselor. She realized that were she going to achieve this structure she needed so desperately, it was all up to her, that family couldn’t save, assist, retrieve, console, or care. It was all up to her. 

“I’m so glad I know who I am and whose I am!”

Up and coming, bright and shining, THE most promising, a phenomenal talent, a natural, prodigy, old soul, the next…

She’d heard it all, and Marla wasn’t having any of it. She’d grown up in a family of pragmatists and immediate suppliers. You do what you gotta do to make it to the next phase, then you push on, doing what you gotta do to get beyond that. Never look too far ahead and get your priorities twisted. And on the way, try to be as kind as possible to folks, bearing in mind that, on the way down, these same folks will be either the pokes in your ass or your landing pad. Steady and even keel was the best route to ultimate glory. No explosive bursts, no flashes in any pans.

As she kept in league with the class of recalcitrant fellow students who would become her life-long friends, Marla was, of course, unmindful of the retrospective regrets she’s endure, like the Arianne’s she faced every semester. In the the beginning days, however, there were only one, maybe two per semester. Now it seems the week was totally filled with the slough of unadulterated disinterest in being told anything other than what was already known.

“What the heck am I here for?”

Marla would sit and listen to the “self-accompanined” singer-song writer playing his new song he was going to in a few hours to record. She was also not so enthusiastically looking forward to the final mix, done on some recording “software”.

Funny, she would often say to herself, this doesn’t sound like the warm analogue live music like the stuff we listened to growing up. These kids really don’t know what their missing, nnh, nnh, nnh.

“Did you just want five bars in that phrase? The usually is four or maybe eight bars in a phrase, I’m just saying…”

“How about a new section of different chord progressions or a new melody over those ones you’re playing over and over?… Oh, it’s the groove, yes…”

Well, it’s certainly burning a groove into my brain! The thought that repetition is the style now was not consolation for the fact that the melody and lyrics didn’t change either.

“We’ve been working on a mixed range when you’ve come to class. Why is this melody sitting in your lower range? Could you sing the chorus an octave up? Could you do anything to give the “groove”, as you call it, a little more interesting dimension?”

In Marla’s day, back in high school, it was called “make-out music”. The lick was hit and it stayed there for forty-five minutes or so, folks a-grinding and whispering lustily into each other’s ears. Hell, Arianne might be the product of such a grinding session at one of those parties!

“That would explain it,” Marla mumbled to herself, on the verge of chuckling.

The nebulous but not nefarious approach to learning was not Marla’s concern these days as she was getting older. Marla was un consciously growing increasingly paranoid about her well-being and peace of mind, her safety in the days ahead as she got older. She existed of late in a state of unacknowledged panic, constantly thinking she should take Krav Magah lessons, buy a gun, take ammunitions instruction, collect AK-47’s as a hobby, go back to school and major in thermos-nuclear annihilation or something constructive like that. She had nightmares of owning a weapon and having it used on her. She had always relied on her sense of humor and a positive outlook, both fading as she interfaced with fewer and fewer people who gave a damn.

Oh, there was no shortage of passion. Passion abounded. The one thing Marla knew would never be lost in this human population was passion. She was constantly feeling the pressure to re-focus this passion in herself first. Then the ripple effect would radiate from her living example and touch everyone around her.

“If I can show young people that there’s no sacrifice in giving up a little time, attention, assistance to another,” Marla thought, “compassion has a chance at least to radiate to a few folks!”

The cell phone rang, vibrating on the desk and flashing the number of her band member, Dejuan.

“Yes, Dejuan, wassup?!”

“Did you talk to Cesarrrr?” asked Dejuan, slightly irritated.

Dejuan, who was the son of a Colombian father and an African-American mother, could not control his rolling “r”! He laughed at this inability to eliminate this betrayal of his Latin genealogy, but really found there was no essential need to work on it that hard, though fellow band members and his girlfriend, Xu, from the Bronx, perennially awaited his soliloquies to jeer and snicker at his residual Hispanic identity.

“I have not… Wassup?!”

“He’s in the hospital! He didn’t call you? He’s probably embarrrrrassed…”

“What the…! No, he has not called nor has anyone else! Please tell me it’s not life-threatening!”, Marla pleaded.

No, Cesar was in the hospital with his daughter who had swallowed his key fob for his garage door.

“Damn, this guy gets all the breaks”, Marla thought sarcasticly.

“Well, I’ll be finished here at school in about an hour… I have one more student, and some grades to turn in, then I’ll be headed over to rehearsal. We can do without Cesar for this rehearsal if we have to. I’m just glad he’s not laid up indefinitely like the last time, remember?”

The previous adventure with Cesar had been fraught with a lot of ripping and running and bailing out and smoothing over and explaining and, oh, the usual. The guys in the band said often it wouldn’t be Cesar if there weren’t some “extra”. That’s what Bob called it. “Extra”. As in, not just a bit of, but a lot of tumult!

“Gotta go now, here’s my last student!”, Marla whispered breathily as Brandon Wilson knocked and came in bright and a little on the hysterical side. Brandon was always on the verge of screaming, it seemed to Marla, but that’s what made him exciting to teach. To keep up with, to find challenges for. This kid was the real deal. He was curious, people-oriented, knew the aspects of the different styles he sang in, got straight “A’s” on all his proficiencies, was in a local band, played in several ensemble projects, had a cd being released soon… Marla wondered how he did it.

“Hey, Ms. Callahan! I produced my track of the accompaniment to my proficiency mats! I wanted you to listen to it all today so I can make adjustments according to your observations and have this music all finished when finals week comes up. So I won’t be caught off guard, you know? I got too much on my plate for any slip-ups, and I gotta leave right after my proficiency and fly to Miami for a club gig with my cover band! We’ve been getting a lot of out-of-town gigs, and the manager gave me a raise!”

Marla was so impressed, slightly on the verge of being star-struck. This was the kind of student that kept her putting up with the Ariannes on her roster. One of these every two or three semesters was worth the wait.

“To whom much is given, much is required…”, she sighed, thinking she’d later find that verse in the Bible just to get an idea of the inspiration and context of its utterance.

Mama would know exactly the book, chapter, verse, story, context, spiritual lesson, corroborating hymn, the works!” Marla missed her mother desperately! To invite her mother’s spirit into the room, she said to Brandon,

“If my Mom were still living, I’d call her right now so she could hear you sing that…it was one of her favorites and the last hymn I learned from her.”

“My Grandmother said she hadn’t heard that song since she was a little girl! She started singing it for me when I told her the title!! Wow, Ms. Callahan, you sure do know a lot of songs!” Brandon was grateful for a reason, he wondered why. Marla knew his understanding was only hampered by his youth.

Marla reminisced with melancholy about the afternoon the old family friend, Jonnie, had knocked on the front door, and Marla had curiously risen to answer it. Mama had arranged the mirror on the wall opposite the front door to reflect the occupants on the front porch. She often would say she didn’t have time or energy to be running to that door whenever somebody knocked.

“Jonnie!!!?”, Mama screamed with delight!

She saw immediately, even with her cataracts, that it was Jonnie, and her voice got lighter and playful! Marla, who didn’t remember who this old lady was, knew she must have been close to the family, as they hugged, giggled, ran the recent histories of all family members, who’s passed on, who was in the rest home, who was coming out of intensive care tomorrow, etc. Then they settled in talking about the church and the old people, their upbringing, the old songs… The got to singing and old one Marla’d never heard before; “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked, in days of long ago, …”, Mama singing bass, Jonnie singing broken soprano. Marla remembered rushing to find a hymnal to sing the tenor part. It was the last time she’d heard her mother sing. So these days, whenever she had a student curious about the “old songs”, Marla always went to this song and assigned it, or one like it that she’d grown up hearing the “Senior Choir” warble in her childhood.

Brandon left and Marla packed up her things to go to rehearsal, waxing nostalgic. In traffic she sang some of the hymns, hummed some Gershwin, some Ellington, a little Kern. She thanked her mentors for planting the excellent seeds and prayed God enrichened her “soil”, kept her hungry to learn.


© Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

(picture courtesy pixabay.com)