(originally posted 3 March 2009, livejournal)
Elizabeth Appling, for the uninitiated, is the founder of the San Francisco Girls Chorus. She is also a great many other (impressive) things but, to myself and several hundred other once-young women, she is the creator and founder of what was, for many of us, our entire world.
If my mother instilled in me stubbornness, Elizabeth is the one who honed that into dedication. If I from somewhere inherited neurosis, Elizabeth forged that into perfectionism.
Elizabeth showed us who we were by bringing us up against seemingly impossible challenges. If she ever doubted the ability of one of us to memorize complex melodies in Czechoslovakian in 24 hours, she never showed it. We were never children, we were never coddled. We strode confidently onto stages, into city halls, before queens and presidents, never doubting our abilities.
She showed us the great equalizer – we were all powerless before music. If we weren’t properly conveying the emotion of a given passage, she would sit us down and tell us a story. These stories could take up a quarter of our rehearsal time … they were mesmerizing, and incredible, and never failed to achieve the goal Elizabeth had set out – the goal of getting 50 girls under the age of 17 to express sensuality, or the bitter grief of death.
My first 5 years in the chorus before being promoted to Concert Group, I lived in terror of Elizabeth. A woman who would cut off hair that covered the eyes if it wasn’t dealt with by dress rehearsal. A woman who reduced girls to tears for lack of preparation.
I was never so terrified as my first camp (a two-week memorization intensive with evening activities with names like “mandatory fun”). My first direct exposure. I had never worked so hard…but I learned how hard I can work. And, over the course of my three years in the Concert Group, I learned something for more important; a lesson that can only be learned by experience. That is this – that, for the things that matter in this world, attention to detail, preparation, compassion, and care will serve. They are the best things we can do for ourselves. They show others what it is of which we are capable and, more importantly, they show us, ourselves, what it is of which we are capable.
If I can walk into any room of any group of people and know they are my equals, it is because of Elizabeth. Make no mistake – I do not refer only to presidents and queens. I refer to children, to seniors, to the homeless and the rich, and the sick, so very often, the sick, who are so healed and enriched by music… they drink it up more thirstily than anyone else, and sickness is the other great equalizer.
My dedication to what I do, my perfectionism and attention to detail, allow me to find equals everywhere.
Of all of my memories of Elizabeth, I hold one dearer and closer to me than the others.
We were all in rehearsal, on October 17, 1989. We were in the basement of the first Unitarian church on Franklin Street, had just finished singing in a circle around the room. The earthquake struck as we walked back to the risers. As I dove under a riser, convinced I was going to die at 14, I saw Elizabeth, back ramrod straight on her conductor’s stool, quietly observing the chaos as a grand piano slowly made its shaky way across the floor.
Once the shaking subsided, we went upstairs and continued the rehearsal in the courtyard.
I don’t know what Elizabeth was thinking as the earthquake struck. I know only that, in my deepest moments of chaos, I remember that straight back, that calm observation, and I try desperately to emulate that.
It has been more time than I care to recall since I first met Elizabeth, at my first audition, in 1983. I sang “Tomorrow”. She later asked how I managed to get in singing that song. I remember noticing her nerves, at the first Davies Hall Christmas Carol sing-along. I felt so guilty missing my first one, in 2008, as though someone, somewhere, were still tallying my perfect attendance record.
And I remember, with surprising accuracy, the shock of being granted my very first solo, to be sung at my last Davies Hall as a chorister, in 1990. My legs trembled as I sang my verse of “Go Tell it on the Mountain” in front of 3,000 people, but I knew I could do it, because this amazing, powerhouse of a woman had faith in me.
I wish more people had had an Elizabeth in their lives. I wish more people had learned personal responsibility, and pride in their work before they graduated high school.
I count myself so, incredibly fortunate to have had this Elizabeth in my life when it mattered most.
Her belief in me, the expression on her face when I sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria” publicly for the first time, come with me on every audition, and further, help to quell any doubt I could have in my abilities.
There is no way to give back to such a woman, such a force, than to live well, with dedication, compassion, and just a touch of perfectionism.
SFGC singing at the inauguration: