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THE PIPER

Piping down the valleys wild,

  Piping songs of pleasant glee,

On a cloud I saw a child,

  And he laughing said to me:

 

"Pipe a song about a lamb."

  So I piped with merry cheer.

"Piper, pipe that song again."

  So I piped: he wept to hear.

 

"Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;

  Sing thy songs of happy cheer."

So I sang the same again,

  While he wept with joy to hear.

 

"Piper, sit thee down and write

  In a book, that all may read."

So he vanished from my sight;

  And I pluck'd a hollow reed.

 

And I made a rural pen,

  And I stain'd the water clear,

And I wrote my happy songs

  Every child may joy to hear.

- William Blake

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: The Piper from Ten Blake Songs | Nicholas Phan, tenor | James Austin Smith, oboe

I’m performing Vaughan Williams’ Ten Blake Songs with Bay Chamber Concerts this week in Maine, and it’s a wonderful reminder to get back to this long-neglected blogging project about these songs. 

Blake’s poem, The Piper, is about inspiration and where it comes from. Singing it here this week in Maine has had me thinking about creative inspiration in my own life, which is something I (like any artist) have grappled with over the years. While I have heavily relied on the tools of Julia Cameron’s Artist Way books over the years when it comes to my creative survival, my mind keeps coming back to a very specific instance of inspiration each time I revisit The Piper this week.

A little over 10 years ago, I was in NYC on some off-time in between opera engagements, and I made plans to meet up with an acquaintance for drinks at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, ironically named Therapy, of all things. I had met Philip after a performance of Monterverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the LA Opera, and we had stayed in loose contact over the years since. After a few casual “let’s meet up for drinks sometime” exchanges that never came to fruition, we finally were following through. At the time, Philip was working in classical music public relations, a field I knew little about. I wasn’t really sure what would happen at drinks – I mostly went with the intention of making a new friend in NYC, and thought it would be a quick drink before heading back to the Upper West Side to make myself some dinner at home. Drinks turned out to be much more – it inadvertently became our first date. We quickly fell in love with each other and began what would be a roughly 8 year relationship. At one point, a stranger at the table next to us grabbed my hand in the middle of our conversation and purported to read my palm. He said that we had 15 good years together – a psychic estimate that turned out to be off by about 7 years. But more than all of that, the conversation I had with Philip that night at Therapy would change the course of my artistic life, radically expanding my musical sphere and honing my creative vision.

The pivotal point for me in that conversation over drinks was during a moment when were discussing my work and the music world, in general. He asked me something that on the surface seemed like a natural question: “So, where do you want to go with all of this? What are your goals? What do you want?”. I was stymied, because I realized that it was not a question I had asked myself in a very, very long time. I had non-specific answers that were a natural production of my general ambition, but I was shocked to discover that aside from being very practical goals that were in line with all the ‘shoulds’ I had learned from my time in operatic young artist programs, they really had little to do with what I actually wanted. I was even more dismayed to realize that when I thought about what I really did want, I couldn’t come up with the answers, because I was afraid to say them out loud.

Later that night, when I finally got home, the first thing I did was pull out a piece of paper and try to answer that question for myself: What did I really want? Knowing that no one would ever see this piece of paper aside from myself, I finally found the courage to center into my heart, reconnect with the teenager who fell in love with music, and begin to dream big. The answers I found there and wrote down onto that piece of paper were revelatory – I began to realize that I wanted a different musical life than I had. One in which I wasn’t just largely running from opera house to opera house, hoping to keep being cast in their productions, but one in which I was driving my own musical bus on a long journey that was filled with not just opera, but also orchestral concerts, song recitals, and (most importantly) making my own recordings. 

When I think back on that list of answers I made after those drinks a little over ten years ago, it seemed like an insurmountable mountain at the time. Yet, even though a few of those dreams have yet to be realized, I find myself driving that musical bus largely on the path that I hoped for that night. Not only was Philip a creative angel by asking me that question at Therapy, but he also played a pivotal role in helping me realize more than a few of those dreams during the course of our relationship, endlessly encouraging me to keep walking the path my heart wanted to tread every time I hesitated to take the next step. Philip, like Blake’s child in The Piper, appeared to me out of nowhere and sparked the creative fires of inspiration, helping me find the courage to make the music I really wanted to make. While our relationship has evolved into something else now, and we both find ourselves in separate next chapters of our individual lives, I’m forever grateful for the tremendous and miraculous impact he has had on my life, which is filled with so many realized dreams.

I perform Vaughan Williams’ Ten Blake Songs with oboist James Austin Smith at Union Hall in Rockport, Maine on Friday evening, July 26, 2019.

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