• Mina Semyon

My Singing Teachers

I heard about Maestro George Cunelli from Jan Ward, who was also in therapy with RD Laing and was married to Justin De Villeneuve, Twiggy’s boyfriend and manager, just to drop a few names, since they somehow came into my life.

“You must go and see him,” said Jan, ‘he is Russian, says he’s ninety, but his old students say he’s knocked off a few years. The walls of his waiting room are covered in signed portraits of celebrities. Vivien Leigh is one of his successes; he taught her to lower the tone of her voice to give the character Antigone more solemnity, in the Jean Anouilh play. He also taught Rex Harrison to speak-sing the part of Professor Higgins in 'My Fair Lady'. You should go and see him.”

I didn’t feel at all entitled to ask such a celebrated singing teacher for lessons and only dared to make an appointment because he was ninety and we were both from Russia.

I ring the bell. A little old man, quite bent forward, leaning on a walking stick, opens the door. He gives me a fiercely penetrating look and says: “You don't look like a Russian film star.”

Don’t I? Shit. I thought I did.

He sits down at his Steinway Grand and asks me to sing the scales he plays. I think I am doing what he asks me to do, but he smiles affectionately and says: “Ok, I'll give you ten lessons and, if I feel I can learn from you and you from me, we’ll continue.”

We did. Maestro was born in Russia and studied with the best teachers in Italy. He told the story of how, as a young man, he sang in front of Debussy and Debussy said, “Bravo!” But his beautiful baritone voice was not matched by his height – five foot four – so he became a singing teacher. He wrote a book, ‘Voice No Mystery’, with an introduction by the legendary bass Paul Robeson, with whom he also played ping-pong. In his book Maestro recollected how once, on a slanting stage at La Scala, he was wearing platform-heeled shoes to make him taller and to his horror began to slide down the stage. That was the beginning of the end of his opera career.

Although he never returned to Russia his patriotism never waned. He was particularly adamant about music in Russia being of higher calibre than anywhere else in the world: “The West has syphilis,” he used to say.

“You are pregnant with voice … I’ll be a midwife for your voice … don't be a rabbit, sing so they can hear you in Finchley Road … don't make your mouth like a ravioli … when you first came you sang like a seal, now you sing like a canary … darling, in opera you will not sing, but those Russian Gypsy songs . . . straight into the pants.”

Maestro Cunelli had a twenty- year- old Danish au pair and told amusing stories about their life together: “One night I wake up . . . someone’s climbing through my window. Who is it? ‘Maestro it's me, I forgot my key.’ Next she'll climb into my bed.”

Eventually almost everyone from the network of people around Ronnie started having lessons with Maestro. Sometimes he’d get exasperated with all of us amateurs and say to a new student in his short and sweet way: “Darling, it can only get better.”

Maestro and I had arguments about his cast-iron certainty that ‘after this life there is nothing.’ Not that I was ever inclined to speculate about past lives or future lives, but I felt that everything we do in this life counts and creates a cycle of cause and effect. I tried to quote The Tibetan Lama, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s: ‘Birth and death apply to everybody constantly at this very moment.’ Maestro was not moved.

When one of his old friends died, Maestro asked me if I’d come with him to the cremation. We sat side by side at the service, and as the coffin started to glide out of sight and the curtains closed, a deep sob burst from Maestro’s chest. He looked up at me with eyes full of tears and said: “Darling, a rehearsal.”

He died a year later, at ninety-three, having been ill for only three days. That day Maestro asked me to sit next to him and massage his legs because they were aching so badly. He relaxed a little and, looking at the book ‘Leningrad’ on his bedside table, said: “Used to be Petrograd, after Peter the Great. Truly great – six foot four!” Then he looked at me mischievously and his eyes shot towards his studio: “When I get up I’m going to teach you how to really sing Caro Mio Ben.

All of a sudden he made a move to get up. I asked if he wanted me to bring him the bedpan. He said impatiently: “No, I want to go to the toilet.” I brought him his slippers. He got up, moved two steps, held onto the table and started breathing heavily. “Open the window!” he yelled. I opened it slightly, afraid that he might catch cold. “Open the window!” he shouted. I opened it completely. Gusts of cold autumn air rushed into the room. He dropped into the chair and then slid onto the floor, lying face down. I turned him around and put a pillow under his head. But I knew he was dead.

The Danish au-pair was away and Edie Irwin, who was taking her place, was out. I phoned and told her that Maestro had died and she came back immediately. We called the Royal Free Hospital and two men in overalls arrived in an ambulance, put Maestro Cunelli's body in a wheel chair, covered him with a blanket and wheeled him out of his house. It was all so quick and strange. I wondered what, if anything, was happening to Maestro's soul, which he didn't believe in.

That night I had a dream: I am with Maestro in his studio, and he is teaching me to sing ‘Caro Mio Ben’ by Giordani, when suddenly Picasso’s ‘Dove of Peace’ which had been hanging on the wall behind the piano, ruffles its feathers, flies out of the frame and starts doing circles over our heads.

After Maestro’s death I continued singing lessons with his student, Mrs. Madeleine Findon. She was a soprano in her late sixties and a Christian scientist. Excellent at working with professional classical singers, she was not into being a ‘midwife’ for my voice.

When I walk into Mrs Findon’s studio, she is sitting at the piano eating a Mars bar. With a mouth full of chocolate, she demonstrates in a clear tuneful voice, how the phrase I just sang should be sung. I have to go on a purifying brown rice diet for a week in order to sing in tune. I am mystified.

I tell her: “I notice that when I listen to my voice, I sing in tune.”

“What? You don’t always listen? You are the devil,” she shrieks.

After I recover myself I say: “Since I’ve realised that I have a problem with listening, I’ve been praying for help in being able to listen and to sustain notes.”

“If that’s what you pray for you are on the right track.”

Maybe I am on the right track but I still can’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in the key everybody else is singing in.

Harold Miller and Irene, his wife, are both in their eighties. Harold gives singing lessons at Wigmore Hall and Irene has to come with him because she absentmindedly keeps leaving the prunes on the stove to burn. Harold teaches musical theatre performers the ‘belting technique’, pushing the voice to make it louder and bigger.

At my first lesson Harold, banging the piano keys, tries to make me force my voice out, which makes it even more tense and strained. Irene is sitting on the bench, dressed in a grey forties coat, a moss green hat with a feather in it and a half-open empty handbag over her arm, muttering to herself and occasionally bursting out: “No, Harold, stop banging the piano!”

“Irene, shut up.”

Gradually Irene gets more and more loopy and Harold starts teaching at home.

During my lesson, Irene pops her head in and asks: “Darling, a cup of tea?”

“All right, Irene, bring us some tea.”

A few minutes later she comes in, puts the tray with two cups of tea on top of the piano and leaves.

He tastes the tea, grimaces and shouts: “Irene!”

“Yes darling?”

“Irene, you put salt in the tea.”

“Why would I do such a thing, darling?”

A while later a smell of burning comes from the kitchen.

“Irene, you've burnt the prunes again!”

“I don't burn prunes,” says Irene, most offended.

A little later she pops her head in again and asks me: “Darling, did I show you my medal from the Royal Academy of Music?” And sure enough, she brings out the medal and proudly points out her name on it.

When Irene leaves, Harold tells me that she sang Bizet’s Carmen at the Royal Opera House. Gossip had it that when they married Irene was a well-established singing teacher whereas Harold didn't have many pupils, so Irene gave up her successful career to appease his male ego which couldn’t deal with his wife being more successful than him.

Sometimes, after another ‘going nowhere’ lesson with Harold, I sit down with Irene and listen to her stories.

“Darling, my parents came from Russia and settled in the East End of London. We had a very nice house and a grocery store in Brick Lane. Our house was always full of people, musical evenings every night; my sister played the piano and I sang. I had such a beautiful voice my parents pinched and scraped to send me to the Royal Academy of Music. Did I show you my medal? Harold and I never quarrel, but I know he is having an affair.”

After Harold’s death Irene was put into an old people’s home until they sorted out Harold’s will, which was to provide for Irene to be looked after in her own home. When I go to visit I find her standing in the middle of the entrance hall in her coat and hat with the same half-open, empty handbag over her arm. She looks at me and exclaims: “Oh darling, how long has it been? Yes, of course, you came to hear me in ‘Carmen’ in 1945, I got wonderful reviews.”

We sit down at a table in the visitor’s lounge where the nurse brings us tea for two. I arrange the biscuits I brought on a plate. Irene tastes one and says: “What delicious biscuits, I wonder who brought them … oh yes, Lucy.”

Another resident of the old age home goes by in a wheelchair and says, in a friendly voice: “Hey, visiting your mother?”

Irene replies: “Don't be silly, she’s too young to be my mother.”

With the formalities of her husband’s will completed, Irene is brought back to her home to be looked after by nurses. The nurses have the radio on popular music stations all the time and, with her exquisite musical sensibility, Irene finds it pure torture, exclaiming from time to time: “Stop this ear pollution!”

One day I come in while she is watching a Bette Davis film on TV. She looks up and, pointing at the screen, asks: “Do you recognise me? Darling where am I? Where is Harold? And where is my mother? I don't understand … it's come to that, no mother, no father…darling, how old do you think I am?”

“I think you are about eighty?”

“Add eight, but don't tell anybody,” she whispers.

She stands up: “I’ll give you a lesson in elocution,” suddenly the teacher she used to be. “Repeat after me: ‘Tip of the tongue, teeth and lips’ and ‘We shall wander not unseen through the elms of hillocks green.” She pulls up her chest from under the bottom ribs and says jubilantly: “See, stretched without tightening!”

Loopy or not, she could still sing ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ in a most melodious voice.

The last time we sat together before she died, she looked deep into my eyes and said: “You are blessed with a very nice face; nothing to be proud of, a lot to be grateful for.”

The Russian actor and guitar teacher, Alexey Chesnakov came next! When I arrived for my first guitar lesson he was standing outside his flat in Earl’s Court waiting for me; a six foot tall Russian in his eighties, strong and sturdy like an oak tree, in a white shirt, a polka-dot bow tie and baggy brown corduroy trousers.

Before starting the lesson he showed me around his flat; it consisted of two rooms, the living room where he taught guitar, and the other where he slept. In the kitchen he pointed out two pots hanging on opposite sides of the only shelf and explained carefully that the pot on the left was for boiling water and the one on the right for boiling eggs. There were two cups and saucers and two plates neatly arranged on the shelf.

In the living room two chairs, with a foot-stool next to each one, stood facing each other, the precise height for playing classical guitar, and, hanging on the wall, four guitars he’d collected over the years. “Near the nail, near the fret,” was his continuous instruction for finger exercises – as meticulous about his guitar teaching as he was about the pots in his kitchen. He put a card with my name on it in his file to keep a record of my progress and gave me a book with some simple guitar pieces.

I started coming for lessons once a week and soon began to develop technique, learning to play the pieces from the book. Sometimes he’d pick up his guitar; the moment he struck a chord and started to sing, the Russian folk tradition came alive in that spartan Earls Court room, awakening deep, half-forgotten feelings in my heart. Sometimes, after putting down the guitar, he’d settle back in his chair with a deep sigh and his hands would wander down to his nether parts and give them a little upward shove. I didn’t know what to do, except pretend not to notice.

Alexey came from a small village in Kaluga oblast, situated on the Oka river; the youngest son of a kulak family.

“My father was the first kulak in our village, an independent farmer who owned a large farm and used hired labour, which meant he could afford to send me to boarding school. I remember being nine years old, sitting on my suitcase immediately before departure, which is, as you know, a Russian good luck custom, and then sitting on a sleigh drawn by a horse, my mother waving a handkerchief after a tearful goodbye. And that was it; after the age of nine I never lived at home again, except during summer holidays.”

“When the Revolution started in 1917, I was at college studying to be a mechanical engineer and, suddenly out of the blue, I got arrested by the Bolsheviks for being on the wrong side. I didn’t know there was a right side. I managed to run away from prison and cross the border into Finland, which had just declared independence from Bolshevik Russia and become a free country. As I crossed the border, I wept. I loved my country; I was being forced to leave it.”

“Eventually I ended up in England and, having to earn a living, started to play guitar and sing Russian songs in small clubs. I formed a guitar society to which Segovia was invited to play. I also lectured on Russian history, as Russia was then on the agenda. I became an actor, playing secondary roles in some first class films; I played Brodsky, a Russian liaison officer, in the British film noir, ‘The Third Man’, with Orson Wells; and I also acted with Clarke Gable. I kept bees during the war and supplied my neighbours with honey and wrote a practical guide to bee keeping.”

“I never married; a few women proposed to me but I felt I had no means to support them in the proper style, so here I am, having lived alone all my life. I can’t complain; it all feels biologically correct: everything is deteriorating at the correct rate and, if it wasn’t for arthritis, I’d be quite comfortable and what’s more important, my fingers still allow me to play guitar.”

“How did you learn to play guitar?”

“Need, darling, need is the best teacher.”

“And where did you learn to act?”

“I learned to act by watching my mother during my summer vacations. Our village was by a lake, and quite a few people drowned in it. My mother would come back from washing the laundry and re-enact the whole scene: the turbulent lake, the drowned man, his wife on the shore lamenting, the children holding onto her skirt, crying . . . the lake suddenly becoming still. She was a wonderful mimic, my mother, so that’s how I learnt to act.”

Alexey was a real star at my musical soirees in Little Venice. Wearing a white shirt with wide sleeves and a polka dot cravat he’d sing the old Russian romances, accompanying himself on the guitar; his voice, a little cracked from age, but so tuneful and full of authenticity.

‘Do not scold me; life is hard enough as it is.’

‘My memories do not awaken.’

‘Seagulls are flying over the sea; their cries are full of sadness.’

‘I’ll die to the soft rustle of the grass in the wind, my voice, full of longing, will tell you that I loved you with all my soul, so trustingly tender.’

Ronnie loved listening to Alexey’s singing, sometimes joining in on the piano.

Alexey taught me more than guitar. One day he asked me: “Why so worried?”

“I worry about money,” I replied dejectedly.

“Have you read Gurdjieff’s ‘Material Question’? No? Read it. You’ve heard of his project ‘The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man’?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Well, he was a major Western guru; he was at once the sage, the adventurer, the comedian and the trickster. Have you heard the story of how he raised funds for his Institute by catching sparrows, dying them yellow and selling them as ‘American canaries’?”

“Yes, I read the story of how one day at the market everyone stood around watching as the rain washed the paint off his ‘canaries’ and Gurdjieff had to grab the cage, the birds dripping with paint, and run from the angry customers demanding their money back.”

“Oh yes, I remember that. I’m not saying you should start painting sparrows yellow, but I suggest you get imbued with his spirit. Gurdjieff had an unshakeable belief that his knowledge, aspirations and efforts to sustain The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man deserved financial support. What you are doing is of as much benefit to humanity; you are helping people become more harmonious by aligning their bodies, minds and breathing; if you’d only believe in the value of it, you’d also get enough money. You can learn from every situation, as Gurdjieff used to say to the new-comers at his Institute: “Remember, you come here having already understood the necessity for struggling with yourself—only with yourself. Therefore, thank everyone who gives you the opportunity.”

Next time, when I arrived for my lesson, he looked very frail, wearing a red nightshirt instead of his usual dapper white shirt and polka-dot bow tie: “I’m very ill, darling; the doctor will be here soon.” He shuffled back to his bedroom and asked if I’d make him some breakfast: “When you come into the kitchen, do you remember I showed you the pans hanging on the wall; the one to the right of the centre is for boiling eggs; please boil one egg, four and a half minutes after the water boils. To the left of the centre you’ll see another pan, this one is for boiling water, make us a cup of tea.”

After he finished his breakfast an idea occurred to me: ‘ah what the hell; be a free spirit, lie down next to him and just hold him and soothe him’, but sadly my imagination was ahead of my ability to just go with it.

The next day he was taken to hospital. When I came to visit he was sitting in the chair next to his bed, leaning forward, looking as though he was about to fall over. He gestured to me to come closer and, in a barely audible voice, asked: “What do I look like to you?”

“You look very weak, you should be in bed.”

“Thank you.”

At this point the nurse arrived and asked, in a chirpy voice: “Mr Chesniakov, how are we doing? Oh, you’ll be home in no time.”

“Can’t you see he’s barely able to sit up?”

“It’s good for him to sit for a while.”

Alexey died the following day at the age of eighty-nine. He passed away a few months short of realising his dream: to live until the Russians had completed laying the gas pipe from Siberia to Europe.

Alexey left me with another valuable lesson, this one after his death. He told me: “After I die, go to my book shelf, take Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, published in Moscow in 1956, and read the last chapter carefully.” I did as he said; I took home the large illustrated hard cover volume in Russian. On the inside sleeve I found an inscription, written in a very shaky hand: ‘To my dear Russian friend Mina- ‘unforgettable Mina’ - from an old Russian man, who remembers Russian life more than eighty years ago’, Alexey Chesnakov, November 1981.

I read the last chapter, as if reading it for the first time. It was the chapter about redemption. In it Raskolnikov, who is serving a hard labour sentence in a Siberian jail for murder and is so unrepentant that even the other prisoners call him infidel, the most God-less of men, is touched by feelings of love for Sonya, the young woman who followed him to Siberia.

‘How it happened he didn’t know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms around her knees. They wanted to speak but they couldn’t, tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin, but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love. The heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other’

‘Seven years, only seven years! At the beginning of their happiness at some moments they were both ready to look at those seven years as though they were seven days. He didn’t know that the new life wouldn’t be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.’

‘But that is the beginning of a new story – the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our story is ended.’

Tears spring to my eyes. Redemption and love are possible, even for a murderer like Raskolnikov!

I’d been carrying the feeling of being condemned for my mistakes all my life. I was riddled with guilt; the hereditary Jewish guilt, like this guy who suffers from Alzheimer’s and forgets everything except his guilt. On a more serious note, I also felt guilt about things that I’d done irresponsibly, even if unconsciously. It seems that pleading unconsciousness doesn’t exempt you from responsibility once you wake up and feel accountable for your actions. But there is a difference between guilt and remorse. Guilt means beating yourself up while still feeling sorry for yourself. Remorse is acknowledging that you’ve fallen short of being a self-respecting human being, forgiven yourself and begun to act more responsibly.

Guilt turned into remorse when I realised that, although I had not been exempt from the consequences of my actions, it did not mean I had to pay for my sins for eternity. I don’t know; I pay as I go.

Ronnie Laing said: ‘True guilt is guilt at the obligation one owes to oneself to be oneself. False guilt is guilt felt at not being what other people feel one ought to be. Make up your mind which side of the footlights you want to be on.’

My voice started to connect and find its place when I met Anthea Parashchak. Her teaching is based on the same principle as the Yoga I practice and teach: grounding in the centre of one’s being and allowing the release to happen. This helped me understand how different it was to sing from within rather than trying to perform from without. But I didn’t yet feel that I could really sing a song.

Then I met my present singing teacher Guillermo Rozenthuller, who, quite simply, relaxed me into singing by telling me to stop dramatizing the early memories and let go of my attachment to the past. He guided me to connect my experience of Yoga and breathing in order to sing freely from a centred place.

The howling wolf of my childhood, which I associated with fear and poverty, turns out to be my birth totem. ‘People born under the sign of the wolf are sensitive and intuitive. They have the ability to rise up in both mind and spirit to the clear heights of knowledge and understanding.’


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