My father took a job at Eastern Michigan University in 1967. It was his first steady job, and shortly after he and my mother and their two young children set up shop in sleepy Ypsilanti, Michigan, my mother became pregnant with me. Toward the end of Dad’s first year at EMU, I was born and mere weeks later, I first met Emily Lowe. It’s facile to say we were fast friends, but I never knew a time when Emily and I didn’t know and adore each other.
Everyone adored Emily. She was impossible not to adore. She had more zest in one momentary smile than most of us have across all dimensions of time and space. She sang like a bird, taught with blazing enthusiasm, and wrote the most beautiful letters and inscriptions. (“Yes, wistful, impish dear, I still love you,” she wrote in a score she gave me.) I can imagine her beloved husband Don weeping with gratitude at having had 63 years worth of her phone messages and to-do lists, so soulful and bright was she with words.
Unencumbered by worry, she faced trials with faith, warmth and lively intelligence. Her life held more trials than most, including a few hurricanes and a devastating injury to her son that left him paralyzed. Through all these events, her sense of humor remained and her kindness was only strengthened.
She also had style. Her fashion sense was the perfect combination of flamboyant and dignified. It’s hard to describe. She was always “put together” but never dull. Maybe the skirt suit was the color of a bright tropical fish. Or maybe the blouse looked like plain black and white from a distance but had jungle animals on it up close. She found a way to express her individuality within the rather confined standards of professional women of the 1980s. And no shoulder pads either.
Her singing was beautiful and heartfelt, her voice clear like a bell. She conducted with passion and verve, and her musicianship was something I aspire to match. Even her piano playing was good, not requiring the usual disclaimer, “good, for a singer.”
Dad says Emily was a key factor in his getting the job in the first place. The morning portion of his audition day consisted of accompanying her students in lessons and studio class. The two of them hit it off, and by the time the music faculty took him to lunch, things were already looking up for him. (He found out later that the faculty were also impressed that he ate a good lunch.) He played some Bach for the faculty in the afternoon, and by day’s end the job was his. They were to be colleagues and friends for decades, and when I took up singing, Emily was thrilled.
I sang for her in a high school workshop and she encouraged me to come to EMU and study with her. I wouldn’t consider it because I was a big fancy opera singer and had to go someplace prestigious. And when I quit school and quit singing two years later out of discouragement and disillusionment, she did not say, “I told you so.”
Instead she asked me to stop by and see her in her office sometime. Because I loved her company, I did. I could not have imagined that by the end of that afternoon I would be singing again, with abandon and enthusiasm and sheer joy. She suggested I take some lessons with her, unofficially, just to keep myself fresh. I agreed, knowing that if I could trust anyone with my insecurity and heartache it was her. The first few weeks, I tried to pay her. (I found myself chasing her around the desk with a check in hand. I wasn’t fast enough.) She invited me to perform in her studio class. She gave me two-hour lessons. When she was out of town and had someone come in to teach her college kids, she asked that person to teach me as well. In all, she taught me for nearly three years and never accepted a penny for it.
After a time, I regained some confidence, and she included me in her delegation at the statewide NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) competition. When I won, she acted like the credit was all mine. She invited me to join on a recording project which turned out to be a thrilling experience and my first exposure to the contemporary music which would later become so important to me.
When she decided to retire from EMU I was devastated. She had been there thirty years, and she and Donald were ready for something new. They moved to the Florida Keys, where she started a new amateur chorus. She brought her new group the same energy and opportunity that she had once lavished on her Michigan folk. I was a little jealous, and when she invited me down to participate in a master class she was organizing with Benjamin Luxon as master teacher, I couldn’t wait to go! Although she was busy that weekend hosting the Luxons and running the various logistics of the classes, she found time to invite me to lunch at her home and spend some time with me.
She had a way of making me feel like the most important person in the room. Although I realize I wasn’t, I know she loved me. I am feeling more wistful and impish than usual tonight, but I take comfort in knowing how much she did love me. She was a rare treasure and I am so grateful that she was my teacher.
May her memory be for a blessing. It already is.