I met Lynn Werner when she joined the faculty at Goddard High School. I had collaborated with a number of the choir directors at the school by handling stage directions for their musicals. Lynn and I did Little Shop of Horrors. During the time we were rehearsing it, I would sing the parts of the kids who were absent for any of the rehearsals. After the show was finished, Lynn said I should be taking voice lessons. I was deeply flattered she was willing to take me on, but I had no idea what it would mean to be a part of her voice studio.
Lynn was not like any other teacher I ever had. She had a philosophy and a talent that so mixed in her, she simply offered a depth of experience many people might not be able to appreciate.
To begin, Lynn could not be mollified by mere hard work. The vast majority of teachers are seduced by students who try really hard. Even I would eventually hand over the “A” for effort grade. A stumbling, fumbling attempt at doing what was required on an assignment would wear me down, and if a student had tried will all her heart, I would succumb to the honey of consolation and give a higher grade than the work itself truly merited.
Lynn did not do that.
I’ve known plenty of musicians in my life, some talented, some disciplined, but no musician I have ever known or even admired was more gifted than Lynn. True music dwells in a separate place only adjoining the fields of scholarship. There is an intuitive and mysterious element to true musicality that springs from a deeper water than all other genius.
Lynn once described how she used to cheat the drudgery of practicing piano by playing songs she knew while reading a book placed on the piano’s music rack. She got away with this for a time, but her mother figured out what she was doing. Her mother listened closely and could discern when her daughter was engaging her true musical gifts.
Eventually Lynn studied music in college, but the formalization of her studies nearly smothered her natural love of music. She changed to studying something cold and analytical. (It might have been accounting.)
Thank the good Lord, by the time I met her, Lynn had returned to the work of exploring the soul through music. So…this is what it was like to take a voice lesson from a musical genius.
First of all I would arrived at her house and wait while another student finished. When I entered the small room where she gave her lessons, I stood in front of her piano and noticed the volumes and volumes of music on her shelves. She would ask how my day went and after a brief conversation, she would begin playing warm-ups.
I cannot write what it is like. It’s too deadly dull and repetitive to be believed. It’s not words. It’s not music. It’s just scales, intervals, and arpeggios running the length of the vocal register, all in vowel sounds, until I finally had my jaw and my throat and my posture and my tongue, and my feet, and my lips, and my tongue(again), and my breath, and my mind in the right spot. When the lessons first started, we would often spend forty-five minutes of an hour session on warm-ups.
It may not seem like it, but this was hellish. When I finally got to the right state, Lynn would play the introduction to a song I had been practicing on all week. I would open my mouth and sing the first note, and she would stop playing.
“Okay,” she would say. “I don’t want you to start the note. I want you to join it, as if it is already started in your mind.”
I would stare at her. I had no idea what she meant, but I wanted to sing at least one song during the lesson, so I would say, “Okay.” She would play the intro again. I would open my mouth and sing the first note, and she would stop playing.
“Try and picture yourself stepping lightly down on the note from above rather than reaching up for it,” she would say.
I would think, I’m supposed to step on the note? But, I wanted to sing at least one song, so I would say, “Okay.”
She would play the introduction. I would open my mouth and start to sing, and she would stop playing. She would tilt her head and look at me as if I were a riddle she was trying to solve, and (as often as not) I would burst into tears.
My memory may be a little off, but I think that scene would describe most of the lessons I had that first year, a whole year of warm-ups.
I’m not complaining. I’m trying to show that she never settled for “good enough.” At least, not with me. She knew I was trying hard. She knew I was full of doubts, and bad habits, and fears, but she never settled for good enough, and she refused to let me quit.
Lynn was always looking for that transcendent moment when the singer did not have to remember the words. The singer knew the words so well they felt completely spontaneous. The singer did not struggle for the pitch or the rhythm or the phrasing. These all were so perfectly practiced, so completely ingrained and understood, the singer could sing every note, every bar without thought. The song just became the conversation between the piano and the voice.
Because she refused to settle for less than the real power of the music, and because she refused to give up on me, I had some of the keenest pleasures of my life standing next to a piano while she played. We once sang a duet. It was sublime. At her recitals singers of various ages and levels of ability and insight sang truly remarkable music. The songs weren’t perfect. Most of her students were very young (unlike me) or very squirrelly (like me). Performance is always a gamble, a toss-up, but every recital also had its moments when the magic happened. Music, real music, rose up and spread its healing across the room. And, there was always her playing.
I’ve never heard a pianist I enjoyed more. Her sense of the music, her delivery, was pure delight.
Lynn was full of ideas. She would say, “All things that work, work the same way.” She would say, “Learning is like a great spiral. You learn one thing and move around the spiral and you come back to it again, and learn it better, and each turn around the spiral is a little smaller, a little faster.” She would say, “Pick up that mirror and look at your mouth as you sing.” For anyone who hasn’t done this, give it a try. It will teach you all sorts of humility.
I was her student for years, but things changed. Eventually we drifted into separate lives. I changed schools. She left voice teaching for a time. We haven’t spoken in some time.
This week I learned that she died. I was filled with regret and sadness. She was such a dear person, and I let time and space come between us. I let her drift away from me, and I shouldn’t have.
This week a song was released by a composer and conductor of virtual choirs named Eric Whitacre. Seventeen thousand singers sang together in one voice. In it I hear the echo of the music Lynn was always chasing and sharing. I place the link here.
Lynn and I did not have the same religious beliefs, but I believe she does go on. I believe that she is now a part of the great universal song that fills all the edges of creation. That song’s first verse is joy. That song’s second verse is peace, and the chorus is love. Love, love, love…