I am a singer.
“When we look back, the only things we cherish are those which in some way met our original want; the desire which formed in us in early youth, undirected, and of its own accord.” (Willa Cather, Song of the Lark)
The Early Years: The Fine Arts Building
My first job in Chicago was as a counter girl at the sweet shop in the old Chicago & Northwestern train station at Madison and Canal. A lie detector test was required to get hired, administered by a pasty faced guy in a blue polyester Andy-Frain like uniform, in a nondescript office suite somewhere in the Loop.
That first day on the job, I walked two miles to the Crystal Lake station in the early morning, got on the Northwest line express train, and an hour and fifteen minutes later I was wearing a neon pink apron, serving popcorn and selling candy.
Two or three days in, Michele, whose kids I babysat that spring, came into the shop.
“What are you doing working here?” she asked. “You should come work in my office.”
So I quit the candy counter job, and spent the next year and a half as the receptionist at a fancy law office at Michigan and Monroe, across from the Art Institute, learning the ins and outs of office politics, listening to gossip about indiscretions and deals happening behind closed doors, and witnessing the power dynamics between the all-female secretarial pool and the (mostly) male lawyers. (My attorney-friend Michele being one of the exceptions).
I got to know Chicago, albeit from a limited and privileged vantage point, and fell in the love with the city.
I continued to commute from Crystal Lake, though I was now living with a roommate in a second-floor apartment, near the train station.
I found a voice teacher at the landmark Fine Arts Building, and started taking singing lessons on Saturday afternoons. My teacher, Betty Berry liked my soprano voice, and dove right into classical technique. For young singers that’s basically Breathing 101. Before you get to sing any songs. You breathe, learning the difference between catching a breath after long phrases, and taking a breath.
Betty taught me Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Pretty Polly Oliver, some Dowland songs, and Handel oratorio pieces, in English, by rote. Outlining melodies in her right hand at the little spinet, she conducted me with her shoulders and chin. I quickly adjusted to the formality expected of a diva-in-training, but while I found the idea of going downtown for singing lessons romantic, I thought the selections were staid and old-fashioned.
The Fine Arts Building had an old-world romance all its own, with its Art Nouveau motifs and murals, its open-air staircases exposing you to a wild cacophony of sound. Practicing singers, pianists and other instrumentalists were heard through too thin walls into the halls, and the legendary, hundred year old still manned-elevator had its own high pitch squeak, going up and down.
The building was most likely the setting for Willa Cather’s 1915 novel Song of the Lark. I could relate to that story of the sheltered country girl, a budding opera singer, making her way in the big city.
“From that moment she understands what she wants, and she leaves determined that “as long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height.” (Song of the Lark)
DePaul School of Music
By fall of 1977, bored with office politics and answering phones, I was itching to start a career. I now knew I wanted a life in music. My mom coached my voice audition for DePaul University School of Music. I sang Delibes’ “Bonjour Suzon,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, and the Brahms lullaby, in German. I got accepted to the music school, now in Lincoln Park. With a combination of a talent scholarship and financial aid, I started in September.
Miss Ann Marie Gerts was my voice teacher. She was a stout, cheerful lady, with a blond chignon at the nape of her neck, who wore foundation garments under thick sweaters and skirts. She demonstrated breathing techniques by placing your hand on her very firm, voluminous chest, and telling you to watch as she pursed her thin lips and inhaled, filling that chest with air. Her air of intimacy had a maternal quality I responded well to, and she guided me in all things soprano. It was Miss Gerts who instructed me, during an emotional voice lesson early on, that I must always carry myself as though I am telling the world: “I am a singer. Pay attention!”
Her style of singing German art songs, with its emphasis on the poetry and meaning of the lyrics, gave me a life-long love of language, and of the genre. Miss Gerts master classes always invited us to interpret songs with deep emotion and intelligence. Her method was a template for how I approach folk music and all songs to this day.
A few recitals and vocal competitions out of the way. A few professional gigs at fancy hotel ballrooms under my belt, I graduated from DePaul with a voice degree in spring of 1981. The world, I surmised, was at my feet.
“The heart of a singer is a tender thing. I don’t mean the fierce, trained vocalist who makes an appearance with all its chops and technique and musical pedigree. I mean the sensitive spirit who hummed along to children’s rhymes, and held her own in family gatherings. The one who feels pure joy singing an aria or an art-song. That girl!” (Jamie Blog, March 2018)
Certainly, time took its course. I had marriage and mothering and social justice to deal with. And a huge family full of big personalities and egos to compete with. But I continued to sing. I will always be grateful for the solid beginning and Miss Gerts. The last time I saw her was at my Orchestra Hall debut in 1984. Beaming with pride afterward, older now, and less sure of foot.
“You were magnificent! Bravo! You are a singer,” she told me, rising up to her former strength, in a fierce and teary embrace.
Post Script. My association with Chicago’s downtown culture expanded with over four decades of programming at some great places. Among the singing highlights were performances at historic gems like Ganz Hall at Roosevelt University, the University Club, the Palmer House, and the stunning Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center. In 1993, I gave a concert of music from the era of the Columbian Exhibition. The Chicago Historical Society asked me to create a program for their 1990 exhibition A City Comes of Age: Chicago in the 1890s.
“A Season and a Time,” co-written with Tom and Paul Amandes, featured stories and poems of my colorful O’Reilly relations. (More about them on the Roots Legacy pages.)
Some of the 1890s songs are being revisited in my current program Love’s Sweet Song, and will be recorded in July at WFMT Studio.
More on the Fine Art Building here.
Jamie and John Floeter, DePaul University recital 1980
Jamie at Orchestra Hall debut, 1984
With Winifred O’Reilly