Dear Switchback fans,
With Mother’s Day approaching in just a few weeks, I thought I would focus on writing about my Moms. That’s right, my many moms. Of course I have one mother and that is Mary Virginia Lang McCormack or “Mini-Mom” as I like to call her. She is only five feet tall and now that she is approaching the age of 90, she seems to be shrinking, but her personality seems to grow.
My mother was the one who inspired me to explore music. At our house out in Woodstock, there was a vast collection of records. Probably the most important to me were the 78s that came along with an old Victrola record player. My mother would allow me to play these and the other LPs of her collection. It was a way of finding out who my mother was, because although she wasn’t a musician, she was musical. And her musicality, her deep love of music, was something that resonated with me. My mother was not one to be on stage, although she could sing and play the piano. She recognized that I had an ability to sing and play. So, in spite of having nine other kids to look after, my mom began my career by bringing me to a nursing home at the age of four to sing “Silent Night.” I was so small, that I was placed on top of a table so that the residents could see me. That was my first stage.
My mother wasn’t a stage mom. She did not hover over any of us and push us toward music. However, we were a musical family. We did enjoy singing and ultimately that led us to performing as a family singing group. We sang for various functions around McHenry County and usually would perform for retirement homes as well. It was not that we did this with an eye toward being famous or even the idea of it being a career. There was a sense of service and the idea “to whom much is given, much is expected.” We did rehearse a bit for these shows and the rehearsals themselves would be a tedious affair, as most of us kids would rather be anywhere but working on songs over and over. Eventually, everyone in my family had a call to become something other than a musician, while it became clearer to me that I needed to pursue music.
And over time, I started to meet my musical mothers, the women who helped shape my career. The first was my guitar teacher, Eunice Mast. She was part of “folk royalty” and was close friends with Pete Seeger. She and her husband, Don, lived in Woodstock and converted their home into “a house of music,” literally opening up their second floor in the living room into a balcony and having visiting musicians present shows. I would visit her every week to learn a guitar song. Eunice taught me the importance of accepting that just being a musician was enough. I didn’t have to obsess about becoming famous. Her own joy at being a musician and creating joy was enough. She showed me how to take matters into my own hands when it came to creating a musical show. Over a bubbling pot of potatoes she was cooking for a dinner concert at the Masthouse (the name folkies gave their home), she explained how the business end of music worked…that the playing field was not level and instead of waiting for permission from others, take the power to make your music available in the present. When Eunice was diagnosed with cancer, she showed the same determination in how she wanted to live her remaining days. She participated in her own farewell party, surrounded by musicians who were nurtured and encouraged by her.
When I had graduated from college, I knew I had to find a good voice teacher. And somehow, I connected with Wilma Osheim. Wilma was an “Iowegian” (a Norwegian-Iowan) who did not learn English until high school, her town speaking the native tongue with English the second language. She went on to become one of the best voice teachers in the Midwest, teaching at the American Conservatory of Music. With Wilma, she taught me to see my voice as an instrument and to use it to master all styles of music. She would tell me how the singer is like a ship at sea, from the outside it looks like it is one complete majestic entity, serenely sailing along. But if one was to see what was going on inside, one could see all the work that was being done to propel the vessel forward. So, under her guidance, I developed my voice. She would have me dissect songs, breaking down lines and phrases so that I could sing with meaning and in the moment physically and mentally. She was a great drill sergeant, pushing me to be the best and use my ability to go from Irish ballads to rock originals to opera. When Wilma passed, I felt I lost the person who turned my voice into an instrument.
It would be a while later when I found another musical mother. Her name is Sheryl Rak and she probably is the best known musical teacher and coach in the Chicago area. I came to Sheryl to further my voice studies, but I found that what I really was seeking was the spiritual connection to why I was called to do music. Sheryl helped me fine tune the instrument, with exercises and a self-awareness in delivery that Brian and I still use today. But it was the time I spent with her, talking about music being a calling and how it directly applied to my life that I will always treasure with her. To visit Sheryl’s studio on Irving Park Road in Chicago was akin to entering a Himalayan shaman’s mountain temple. Everything was decorated in purple, her favorite color, including her clothes. Sitting next to the piano, Buddha-like, Sheryl pushed the spiritual training of the musician through affirmations. Her affirmations about singing, about accepting the musician’s path, helped me through some pretty rocky times. “I am music, I am flexible and flowing,” still comes into my mind when I step onto a stage. Now retired from teaching, Sheryl still has many musicians around Chicago who owe their survival and sanity to her wisdom. Brian and I are two musicians who directly benefited from her teaching.
There are many people who come into our lives that have an impact. But each of these women in many ways took me and brought my music to a deeper level. As only a mother can, they created, nurtured and weaned me when the time was right. I don’t know if I will come across another musical mother in my career. But I am grateful for the ones I have been blessed enough to receive. Happy Mother’s Day, Moms.
American Roots & Celtic Soul