Sing Your Own Kind of Music–Always by Nevada McPherson

Florence Foster JenkinsLet’s welcome back monthly columnist Nevada McPherson as she shares with us “Sing Your Own Kind of Music–Always!” Enjoy!

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I recently saw the film Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep in the title role. It’s about the New York heiress and socialite who loved music with a passion and supported musical productions with her patronage. She herself also sang—badly. Surrounded by a coterie of friends who complimented her singing and encouraged her, she performed private recitals and developed a devoted cult following.

In the film, Florence takes lessons from one of the Met’s foremost singing coaches. He would tell her if her singing wasn’t up to par, right? Wrong. He pockets her generous payment for lessons but plans to be out of town when her first big performance is to take place, whenever that might be.

Florence’s husband, St. Clair, played by Hugh Grant, is Florence’s most devoted supporter and protects her from anyone who might scoff or make fun. He keeps her in a cocoon of ignorance about the true sound of her voice because singing makes her happy and St. Clair likes to see Florence happy, even though he has his own pursuits that often leave Florence home alone.

Florence’s pianist, Cosme McMoon, played by Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, is initially amazed by Florence’s ability to sing so terribly with such gusto, but he finally gets on board, accompanying her in her lessons and later her concerts. At first, it’s because she pays him well, and then because he comes to appreciate Florence’s kindness and generosity of spirit.

Florence is more than happy to give money to the cause of sharing music with others, but eventually that isn’t enough; she wants to share what she believes to be her own gift, to entertain and to captivate with the operatic arias that so captivate her when she hears them sung by famous soprano Lily Pons. Florence underwrites a concert for Pons conducted by Toscanini, but when Florence wants him to attend her own concert later, Toscanini tells her gently that he has other plans.

What does all this have to do with writing? What is it about this film that so moved me that I had to see it twice in one weekend (and cried both times)?

It’s a little difficult to articulate but I’ll try. It’s because I loved seeing someone who so believed in her cause pursue it with such passion, love, and joy.

One critic in the film characterizes Florence’s determination to give a concert at Carnegie Hall as a supreme act of egotism, but to see the “backstage” version of Florence, to see her devotion to her husband, to Cosme and her friends, is to see a woman who shares gladly of herself and her resources. And she truly loves music.

It’s Florence’s idea to make a recording of her singing a song that Cosme composed, and her idea to give copies of the record to all the members of the Verdi Club, a club for lovers of music that she founded. When Florence packages the albums and wraps them as Christmas presents, we see how willing Florence is to put herself out there, to do the work herself, but her true act of going out on a limb as an artist is her concert at Carnegie Hall.

She gives away a thousand tickets to World War II veterans, and the rest are for sale to the public. St. Clair is terrified of what might happen when those outside their select group hear the truth of Florence’s signing, and of what it might do to Florence. He tries to talk her out of it but she insists on pursuing her dream.

When Cosme considers backing out, worried about what all this could do to his reputation, St. Clair, resigned that this will happen, has a frank conversation with Cosme about reputation, about his own past ambitions of being a great actor, and how realizing he would never be as great as he’d hoped was actually liberating.

It’s a fascinating conversation about letting go of the fear of failure and the tyranny of ambition, of doing the thing you love, no matter what anyone thinks. It reminds me of the song by The Mamas and the Papas, with the line, “Sing your own kind of music, sing your own kind of song–even if no one else sings along.”

Sounds easy enough, but it takes guts to do that, and especially if you’re front and center at one of the world’s most famous artistic venues, with an audience full of people who may not treat you with kid gloves like the ones who love you most often tend to do. You may be forced to hear jeering and laughter, or even dead silence.

We as writers and artists may sometimes feel daunted by the reaction we get when we wear our hearts on our sleeve and put ourselves out there; we may get the opposite reaction from what we hoped or expected. Or we may get silence, which could last for a long time to the point we wonder what to do next. Leave the stage? 

Perhaps we stand in bewilderment, trying to decide what we should do, if anyone will ever get it or ever care.

Then we’ll hear that voice from the crowd, someone we don’t even know, but who gets it, who’s become a fan in spite of themselves: “Sing, Madame Florence! Sing!” And we’ll go on to perform the next aria, write the next novel, paint the next painting.

St. Clair couldn’t always protect Florence from what people would think, but if Florence and Cosme had let that stop them, they wouldn’t have played Carnegie Hall.

If we don’t have the courage to go out on that stage, we’ll never know what might have been, so warm up your voice, wear your heart on your sleeve, cast a last glance at the ones you love waiting in the wings, and let your show go on.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nevada McPherson and MitzPrytaniNevada McPherson lives with her husband Bill and rescue Chihuahua, Mitzi in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she is a professor of Humanities at Georgia Military College. Nevada received a BA in English/ Creative Writing and an MFA in Screenwriting from Louisiana State University- Baton Rouge. She’s written over a dozen feature-length screenplays, plays, short stories and the graphic novels, Uptowners and Piano Lessons. Queensgate, sequel to Uptowners, is her third graphic novel. For more information, visit www.nevada-mcpherson.com.

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