Recently, and much to my delight, I was asked to write a piece about two of my earliest mentors, Barbara and Blair McClosky, both of whom had been renowned teachers of singing in their day. You see, I had a long and storied history with both of them, having started singing in their studio at the young age of 13. As the tale goes, I showed up on their doorstep and begged to be taken on as their student, and strangely, as I look back, I wonder that this was not at all daunting to me at the time – I mean, they were famous teachers, and I but a barely-teen with a passion for singing – but they listened, and must have heard something promising, though they insisted that any singer worth his or her salt had to be able to play the piano and read music, and “Yes, Dearie,” once I had accomplished that, I could come back and have the early (7:30 am!) slot on Saturday mornings. Well. Maybe for some 13-year-olds that would have been the end of it. But I badgered my parents (endlessly, I might add) until we got a piano, and I started taking lessons, and set about trying to teach myself French and German and Italian, because, well, you know — I wanted to be an opera singer! Finally, several months later, I began my Saturday sessions at the McClosky “salon.”

Yes, it was a salon, in the old-fashioned sense of the word – in general, the concept for a salon is that it is an intimate gathering of people for the exchange of ideas, art and literature. In the McClosky house, it was just that; there were two teaching studios, each with a grand piano and an accompanist (one downstairs in the basement, and one in the living room), and a lovely kitchen in between. Mr. McClosky (or “Mac” as he was known to his students) held court in the lower studio, while Mrs. McClosky (Barbara) taught upstairs, using the piano she had grown up with, which boasted a lovely paisley scarf, an oval mirror, and was littered with books of various song cycle collections, in every available key. They taught from early in the morning until late afternoon, with a luxurious break for lunch, and I soon learned that you were invited to stay either just for your own lesson, or you could stay and watch others’ lessons, stay for lunch (and discuss music and singing and art and life in general), and generally make a whole day of it, were you so inclined. As you might imagine, I opted for the latter, soaking up everything I possibly could, from the subtleties of German pronunciation, to the correct way to embellish after the da Capo – all heady stuff, indeed, for a mere 13-year-old, who until that point had been relegated to singing along with Partridge Family records. Geez.

After lessons were finished, we’d gather at the kitchen table to share a meal together. At my very first lunch, I met beloved old Arnold (one of the legendary accompanists) at that table, who must have been about 60 back then, who looked remarkably like Toulouse-Lautrec (complete with monocle), and who terrified me at first with this admonition: “You’d better practice quite a lot before you come back next week, young lady” – but who later became a dear and trusted friend, who would scrounge around his own crazy-mixed-up-studio for “just the right piece for that beautiful young voice.” Or there was the time  my lunch partner was Barbara’s roommate, Jane, from their New York theater days, a sultry broadway baby, who winkingly threatened to tell my mentor’s  “secrets” of life in the theater – you know, the ones that were too tawdry for tender ears – which caused me to realize, for the first time, just how beautiful a lady Barbara was. I tasted my first single-malt scotch at that kitchen table (the Laphroaig), and was hooked for life. In fact, even the tiniest whiff of the deliciously peaty smell of the Laphroaig sends me straight back to that table in Duxbury, and those idyllic, life changing Saturdays. I made life-long friends at that table, all of whom were at least a generation older than I, and who came from all walks of life; some were long-established professional singers, some teachers of voice, and still others, just making their way in the professional world of music. I learned so many things from being around these interesting people, who never once hesitated to include me, and who thought it not at all unusual that a young teenager could share their passion in a serious and meaningful way. It was the music that brought us all together, despite our differences. Looking back, I can see now that I was being encouraged to find out who I was – right at that table.

I suppose the most powerful lessons I learned were the ones that I was allowed to watch unfold in the studios, very often difficult ones, in the soul-baring attempts of other singers to reach for that seemingly unattainable perfection in their art. I was privy to epic fails, tears, great accomplishments, joy, and everything in between. I heard these lessons over and over again, shown in a myriad of different ways, of goal setting, of the power of practice, of determination, of learning from your failures, of daring to try, of vulnerability, of mentoring, and of the value of sharing your passion for what you love with the rest of the world. I learned that hard work and a commitment to following through can take you just about anywhere you want to go. Most importantly, though, I learned that you can’t follow your dreams if you don’t dare to take that first, often scary, step.

I’ve written about some of these lessons as they relate to my evolution as a sailor. Having learned them as a singer, where every single aspect of your progress is laid bare in order to be constantly judged and analyzed, has indelibly etched within me the powerhouse gifts of resiliency, unshakeable determination, and the courage to step out of my comfort zone and to dare to take a risk. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Who would have thought that a plain ole’ kitchen table could do that?

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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