Recording and Release

The first time I recorded a set of songs for my composer friend Thomas Oboe Lee, I got

Calvin and I at WGBH Studios in Boston

back spasms. Tom came up for a rehearsal on a Sunday afternoon. With my friend and fabulous accompanist Calvin Herst on piano, we worked through each song clarifying notes, rhythms and articulations. The set is called “Love Songs.” They are lovely, hard and exacting.

Tom said, “You guys both sound great.” Calvin and I exhaled with relief.

Over dinner, Calvin asked Tom, “ Do you get to hear your music live very much?”

Tom chuckled. “No. As I’ve gotten older, I want the music to be played the way I wrote it and that hardly every happens. So now I am recording all my music, one piece at a time, so I can hear performances that are nearly perfect.”

Calvin and I looked at each other. Tom laughed. “But you guys are great. No need to worry. Besides, we’ll record a few pages at a time and then the engineer, who is a whizz at splicing, sticks the best bits together. Seamless. Easy.”

Two days later I was laid flat with back spasms. There was my body’s familiar response to the pressure of perfection. I was mad. I thought I had gotten over my back spasm time. I took all my remedies, laid on a heating pad, and saw my energy healer, who helped guide my body back to balance. The day of the recording, I woke exhausted, but pain-free.

Calvin and I drove to WGBH studios in Boston. We walked in to the studio where the Boston Symphony records. It was the biggest studio I had ever seen, bigger than my house, with a ceiling at least three stories high, a wooden floor, wooden slats at various angles on all the walls and mostly empty, except for a nine foot Steinway and some microphones arranged on an oriental rug in the middle of the room.

Thomas Oboe Lee going over music with Calvin

Our footsteps clipped through the space like percussion. I sang a few notes to test the acoustics. The sound soared clear and pure. Calvin fingered the keys – divine! We were in heaven. While the engineer finished setting up, I walked around the studio noodling notes in the cavernous space, relishing the fluid tones. Calvin trailed scales up and down the keyboard. When I was warmed up, I lay my music in single sheets over two music stands so we wouldn’t have any noise turning pages. I took my shoes off so I could feel the floor with my bare feet. I looked at Calvin. Ready? Ready. We began.

“This face so fair first bent mine eye…” Calvin and I dropped into our groove. Without the need to sing and play every note perfectly for the whole song, we were free to focus on the notes of the moment. We’d finish a section, pause, and record it again two or three times, fix particular spots Tom or we had heard, then move on to the next section. Eventually, Tom would say, “That’s great. I think we’ve got it.”

There is a delicate balance between delight in the music we are making, trusting technique to support the sound, letting go into the flow of beauty and skill, singing with mindful concentration, and expressing the music with heart. The tight rope of recording demands absolute focus in each moment, like meditation. It was thrilling and fun. We finished at 5:30pm and crawled our way through rush hour traffic, gabbing the whole way home.

This month, Calvin and I recorded a second set of Tom’s songs called “Jack and the Blues,” on poems by Jack Kerouac. My back and shoulders began to hurt the week before. I went for an energy session to release any accumulated tension. I was determined to record easily and with joy – spasm free.

We arrived early with time to warm up and prepare. Ten minutes before our scheduled start time, the piano tuner showed up. He tweeked and tuned for 45 minutes. Tom had booked two hours. We had 5 songs to record. Time was ticking.

Finally we began.

Calvin and I recording.

“Mexico City Bop, I got the huck bop, I got the floogle mock, I got the thiri, chiribim, bitchy bitchy bitchy batch batch, chipperly bop, noise like that.”

The first two songs were very demanding – pitch, rhythms, getting our timing precisely together. On one tricky phrase, I had to watch Calvin’s hands so I could sing the words exactly when he played the chords. Tom said, “Good. Let’s move on.”

The melody of the second song has as a motif large interval jumps, particularly on the last word of the phrase. The last word or syllable frequently jumped up by a seventh, an octave or a ninth. Tom said, “Could you sing the last high notes softer?’

I knew what he meant, but it was harder that way. I tried it and heard my voice sing soft, lilting high notes. One take. Trust your technique, I thought.

On one phrase, Tom said, “Let’s do that page again. The high F is too flat.” I penciled an upward arrow over the note and sang it again.

“It’s too sharp. It should be flatter.” I sang it again. And again. I could no longer hear the problem. I said to Calvin, “I’m just going to sing it the way I want to and we’ll see.”

“Perfect,” said Tom, “let’s move on.”

Unlike the spring recording session, this session was tense and intense, but I didn’t realize why until the end. Between takes, I jiggled my legs, rotated my shoulders, fluttered my wings, flopped upside down breathing in to make space, breathing out to let go. Every few pages, I wrote the word JOY on the top of my music. It made me smile and relax, remembering my true purpose.

We finished in 90 minutes, only 15 minutes overtime. It was the time crunch that created this atmosphere of pressure. I could feel my insides vibrating from the adrenaline kicking in to help us do a good job, and also the excitement of recording, of playing well, of delivering songs that were jazzy, fun, exacting and meaningful. Calvin and I were in this music bubble together and we nailed it.

I shook my hands vigorously, opened my jaw as wide as it would go, stuck my tongue out and sighed. I’d done it. Stayed present. Focused. Flexible. We’d done it. Played with skill. Beauty. Breath. We were in sync musically and very happy we could deliver under pressure.

The big milestone for me was that I was able to do all of that without creating more than the usual tension in my body – no aches, no throbs, no spasms, just ordinary tension that melted away when we were done. A turning point. How thrilling!



  1. A music writer myself, having retired to my own blog at 92,I want you to know how much I enjoyed reading this! Thank you for sharing this experience on Facebook. You and Calvin, who knows me, may enjoy my new patriotic hymn since there is a politician in your milieu.

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