Photo by Kathleen Fink
I met Joanna Porackova (left), several years ago when she was rehearsing for a concert. My choir director and talented composer, Jeffrey Brody (right), was accompanying her. The sanctuary where they practiced looked like a large overturned wooden boat with pews lined up under it. Sound bounced all around inside that space and musicians loved performing there.
I sat a few pews back. I was hoping for some feedback on a PR piece I had written for the local newspaper. When Joanna noticed me sitting there, she asked Jeffrey to start over again, so I could hear the piece they were rehearsing from the beginning. Joanna said, “She worked so hard on that article.” I was to learn that kind of thoughtfulness was typical of her. I do not take it for granted. I still feel honored that she did that.
Then the two of them performed just for me. Time stopped. Awe is no stranger to me. But the glorious sound of her voice took me over. They were in perfect accord about what the music should do. I knew at the time, I would never forget that experience.
When I came in early for choir rehearsal, I would sometimes see them in the sanctuary. At times, she was giving voice lessons to one of her students with Jeffrey accompanying. Other times, he would be coaching her on a new opera role, or a solo part in a major classical work. It was obvious they were good friends. Jeffrey is an expert on Wagner who coaches opera singers on Wagnerian roles, and Joanna’s voice is suited to that music. It was clear they both know the world of opera from the inside out, and enjoy talking about it.
Jeffrey suggested that I take a few voice lessons with Joanna. I did not take him up on the idea. I had been singing in one choir or another for much of my life. I loved choral singing, but I knew I was no soloist. However, when a choir friend suggested I join her for the warmup portion of her lesson with Joanna, I could not resist. That is how I started formal voice lessons in a limited kind of way, anyway, with a kind opera singer whose voice awed me.
The vocal warmups we did might look quite peculiar to someone observing us. We would position ourselves some distance apart on the strip of carpet in the center of the sanctuary. We held our heads up while lying on our stomachs in the Cobra position, practicing ever higher scales and coming back down again. We paid attention to filling our lower back with air in the Child Resting position. We ended by singing scales on various vowels while standing on one leg in the King of Dance and Tree positions. Then my friend would work on singing various pieces, and I would watch.
As I learned, early voice lessons are all about letting go of tension that shows up in the voice. Unlearning deeply ingrained habits can take time. Each person’s body, mind and experiences are different. It is the voice teacher’s job to figure out what would be most helpful. The routine she taught was how Joanna’s teacher taught her to do vocal practice. That made sense to me. Yoga is a way to free up energy in the body that works for many people. The sound I made was usually richer and stronger when I was in one of those odd positions, especially the arching ones that opened up the air way.
When I mentioned her kindness, Joanna told me she had intentionally chosen kindness as her way of coping in the world. She even used it during the unnerving auditions that all professional singers endure. To manage her fear, she uses her singing to send healing energy to those who are judging her. By her kindness, Joanna made herself totally trust worthy.
That kind of trust is useful for voice students since a high degree of exposed openness is involved in singing well with one’s whole heart. Before I started lessons, one of her professional students told me that all of her students love her. I have no doubt of that, even regarding any of her future students who have not met her yet.
My choir friend stopped taking voice lessons, so I began taking them on my own once a month. I explored a bit, discovering haunting Celtic songs that seemed a good match to my vocal quality, and my heritage.
For one of my lessons, Joanna asked if I minded if another person joined us for the warm up. I was happy to accommodate him. I sensed she wanted to help this young man in some way using the healing power of music. After the lesson, I said, “If you were not a professional singer, you could be a healer.” That was when she told me she had spent much of her career as a pediatric nurse.
Someone working in the hospital overheard Joanna singing to one of her young patients and suggested she contact a voice teacher he knew. By the time she had advanced to teaching nursing, her singing career was really taking off. She had a choice to make, and she chose music. She then performed opera roles and solos all around the world as well as appearing in radio programs and recordings.
She became known for her sense for the inner drama of the music and her wide vocal range. Those of us who know her well, however, would add kindness to her list of outstanding talents. Joanna told me that she still visits shut in senior clients in their homes and sings to and with them.
I stopped taking voice lessons when I became a graduate student in Lesley’s Mindfulness Studies program. I learned about many wonderful mindfulness practices and tried them all. Nonetheless, I consider singing one of my favorite mindfulness practices. I continue to sing with my choir friends. And I keep in touch with Joanna. I still wonder at the fact that I have a famous opera singer as a friend. But why not? She and I have many common interests including music, spirituality and healing.
Although I have not discussed the subject with her in detail, I am sure she would agree that singing is advanced mindfulness practice. While learning a new piece takes thought and voice lessons take effort, with singing itself, there is no time to stop and think about anything. One is aware of one’s breath, the nuances of the music, the words and their pronunciation, and the pitch and the quality of one’s sound, but it all flows. Letting go, over and over again like that is excellent mindfulness practice.
When a group of singers who like each other also like the music they are singing, a very strong communal awareness can arise. This sensitive and dynamic awareness is very much alive in its own right. The audience senses it when it is there in the sound. It is not guaranteed. Everything has to come together. I find singing in the midst of strong communal awareness to be a fundamental bottomed-out joy with freedom to it, a bit like taking flight.
Eventually we were able to find a slot of time when Joanna could join me in the tea hut I had installed in a mossy corner of my yard. I also invited a new friend who practices Tibetan Buddhism sensing that the two of them would like each other. I explained a little about Japanese tea ceremony and poured them bowls of tea in an informal version of the practice. Afterwards, we spoke of many things including the importance of making time to slow down and share like we were doing.
Joanna mentioned that she did not think she had told me she had learned to chant the Heart Sutra from a friend. My new Tibetan Buddhist friend asked if we could hear a bit of it. The three of us were standing in a triangle only three feet away from each other on the tatami mats in my small tea hut as she began. Time stopped.
Her vocal quality was entirely different from that time when I was first transfixed by her voice in the church sanctuary years earlier. There was an unexpected gruffness of tone that only enhanced the spiritual depth as she chanted the words. It was incredibly powerful. It was as if she were channeling an enlightened medieval monk.
It is not unusual for time to slow way down when I am in my tea hut sharing tea. But this was different. She told us there were tears in her eyes as she chanted because she knew that the two of us would understand.