Grasping for Echoes

I awoke the other day from a beautiful and terrifying dream. There was a swarm of fireflies around me like a constellation. Specks of light pooled into one glowing cloud. I tried to catch one of the fireflies. I was not able to because the glow of the cloud was more powerful than the parts that created it. I was surrounded by light but I could not catch the source.

I have a taste for subtle things, and subtlety is the currency of my art. Choral mastery requires rigorous refinement. The most dazzling moments in choral music are by nature human-sized; when one note moves to another, the vitality of a collective-silent breath, the sensual profundity that occurs when harmony collides with unison and redefines the air. These moments are best experienced in a quiet space. Careless volume is an adversary of these subtleties. In choral music, loud is actually a robust quiet. The sound fills the space around you, but it leaves a distance- if you wish to make contact you must meet it half way. If you lean in and make contact, you’re hooked.

I was on choir tour in Europe when I noticed a change in my hearing. It was 1993, and I was 21 years old. Upon returning to the States, I had the first of dozens of depressing hearing exams. My first audiologist thought it was hilarious that I was a music major.

I was told that I was born without a stapes bone- a congenital anomaly, apparently. The stapes is one of the three small bones in the middle ear. Situated between the incus and the inner ear, it transmits sound vibrations from the incus to the oval window, a membrane-covered opening to the inner ear. (By the time vibrations reach the oval window, they have been amplified over twenty times from what they were when they contacted the tympanic membrane). I have been the owner of 3 different prosthetic stapes bones. I like to imagine that my oval window is cracked, but made of the most beautiful stained glass.

My three surgical procedures have each been preceded by a mucky, dull sound. The effort taken to engage in a conversation is exhausting, and only sustained solitude provides recovery. Music, the central component of my creative life, becomes something to endure or avoid. Have you ever listened to music with headphones that only work on one side? One can twist the chords, but it’s a tenuous fix. And while it is not the end of the world, one does want to rip their face off, a little bit.

There are several weeks of dizzy-waiting following the surgeries. I had a procedure in 2001 that healed into nearly perfect hearing in my right ear. This procedure was done at the House Ear Clinic in LA. In retrospect, it was an uncharacteristic display of faith that saw me auditioning to go to graduate school for music in the months before this surgery. In the years following, I graduated with an MM in Choral Conducting from the University of North Texas, started teaching in Long Island, and conducting in Manhattan. I fulfilled my biggest career dream by conducting the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus at the National ACDA Conference in Chicago. I’ve conducted over 50 world premieres, working with the brightest composers, singers, and conductors of this young generation. I was going places, surrounded by a dream cast of friends, students, and singers, reaching a point of satisfaction that can only come after years of sacrifice.

In February 2015, the gains in my right ear disappeared. Another anomaly. A recent procedure in June 2015 healed with no improvement. The surgeon was confident before the surgery, dismissive and distracted after.

I’m in the midst of an exciting year of conducting; my high school choir is performing concerts in Cuba, and YNYC is celebrating its 15th season. It has become clear that I can’t function with these responsibilities while being physically and emotionally impaired. I know I can be a good mentor and curator, and I can operate an efficient rehearsal, but there are critical tools missing. I want my singers to know that I’m trying very hard, and I’m often frustrated with myself, but not them. I want to be transparent, but mostly I want the best experience for all my ensembles. I’m going to keep giving them what I can, and that includes enlisting some help from awesome and fun musicians along the way. It includes leaning a bit on YNYC’s incredible assistants and leadership, and on my rock-star colleagues at school.

I’m taking swift, expensive action. I’m going back to Cali! If all goes according to the most positive scenario, I’ll be back and running in a few weeks. Actually I have no idea, but the more I focus on this big thing now, I can better deal with the lovely stuff when it matters. In the meantime, all will go, as is our custom, smashingly well.