Such a natural instinct, breathing, a physical and essential need and yet we forget to engage in it deeply and viscerally. With all that is currently plaguing our world, we have yet another reason to hold our breaths and stop taking in the air we need to survive.
Paul was a classically trained singer. Breathing was his life’s work while he trained others to find their natural breath and expand it into song. The first time I saw Paul, he was sitting at a read through for the musical Oklahoma! I hadn’t been involved in a play or musical since high school and it was an exciting new phase for me. I was intently observant as we sat to watch and listen to the leads of the musical read their lines and sing the music. Paul, playing the role of Curly, struck me immediately as he stood up to share his voice. He took a large sweeping breath and his beautiful tenor voice filled the auditorium. At that point in my life, I hadn’t been in the presence of a trained singer and I was amazed at the power and vibrancy of his voice. He took my breath away as I watched him use his breath to give wing to the words and notes on the page.
Now that he is gone, I think about that moment quite often. I think about that initial gorgeous, luxurious breath and what it did to fill the room with glorious sound that day. I also recall the many, many times breathing came into our conversations and our teachings together. He taught music, and I taught theatre and breathing was the natural element needed to be successful in both. Training younger singers and actors about diaphragmatic breathing and phrasing was an integral part of our work together. Paul prepared singers for performance and taught voice lessons to all ages. I prepared young actors for Shakespeare competitions and theatrical performances and we simultaneously engaged our students in a deep and deliberate form of breathing. Breathing exercises ranged from the silly to the profound, and all of them enhanced the lives and skills for our students who were learning their beloved craft.
When Paul was diagnosed with Poorly Differentiated Thyroid Cancer, what a cruel twist of fate it was. My gorgeous tenor who had spent nearly fifty years of his life dedicated to breathing life into his voice and that of his students was suddenly silenced. His natural voice deteriorated quickly. With his sudden and incredibly fast weight loss due to cancer and the treatment, his vocal chords lost their life, and atrophied. His voice was sometimes hoarse and he strained to speak. Sometimes his voice became just above a whisper. Soon, the man who everyone knew as the “music man”, and one of the best people to have a stimulating conversation with, grew fairly silent. He didn’t want to see friends or family because he couldn’t engage in a full conversation with them and it tired him out so quickly. Very early on in the process he only had small windows of time during the day when he had any energy at all. I think that is what I missed most about him in the beginning. His vibrant energy was pulled from him in a silent and quick manner. I couldn’t seem to hold onto him. He just kept slipping away. Before then, we never had a break in our conversations. We would sit together and talk about everything under the sun. Suddenly the conversations became one-sided as Paul’s voice retracted and his fatigue became overwhelming. Cancer stripped this wonderful person of two of his most beautiful gifts; his ability to speak and to sing. His “swan song” was an incredible version of the “Ave Maria” sung for our beloved niece and her boyfriend as they became husband and wife. His voice filled the church to the rafters and he was in superior voice that day. It would be his last public solo.
During the last week of his life, he was in hospice care and sleeping in a hospital bed right next to the bed we had shared for years. So close, but yet so far away from me. One night I awoke to the sound of singing. It stirred me awake and before I could make out what was happening I said “Paul, what are you doing?” He said, “I’m singing”. Bleary eyed after my own restless night, I regret that I hadn’t been awake to hear his twilight solo concert fully. I do know that he was happy and he was in his element. Whether amidst a dream or not, I love knowing that his heart was singing just before he died.
A day or two later, on his last minutes on this earth, I had the extreme fortune/misfortune of being in his presence and holding his hand while he breathed his last breath. Paul had a powerful instrument and when I thought he had already passed and his life had gone, he took the biggest most incredible breath I have ever heard from any human being in my life. Knowing him, he was engaging his diaphragm, to ready his voice for the solo of a lifetime. I knew that even though I wanted so much to be a part of his ethereal performance, I was going to have to wait until my time comes to join him.
Maybe, just maybe, we will be singing duets together again someday. I will breathe alone until we breathe the same air again and ready ourselves for our next performance together.
Here is a poem I wrote for him when he passed on November 12, 2019
by Lynne Johnson
He was…beautifully written
A charming, sweet melody
encircling the hearts and souls
of all who heard him
From his intricate prelude to a resounding finale
He sang his song
Reaching the ethereal highs of a gifted tenor
To the rich and resonant breadth of a bass
He sang his song
Varying dynamics added more color
fueled by his infinite passion
His phrasing as soft as a whisper
or as vibrant and powerful as
thunderous ocean waves
His song was melodious,
dancing sweetly into the ears
of those who heard
Forever written on the hearts of
those who listened
His gentle aria grew to
a lyrical and harmonious trio
of his own creation
His voice was heard by a
tender and loving soloist
joining him in an everlasting duet
creating the rich and loving sounds of
two more voices
Each voice added more harmony creating
a vibrant and colorful sextet
His opus then strengthened with the
warmth and tenderness
of an adoring children’s choir
His song rose to a powerful crescendo
Blending together with passion and flare
the staff filled with gorgeous and brilliant tones
tight harmonies rang softly
Underscoring a gentle and gorgeous finale
When his song was complete
a peaceful silence filled the air
His beautiful melody lingering in
The hearts of all who love him…