Mar 7, 2022

Now that I was making a little more money, I made an appointment with the voice teacher—I no longer remember his name—of a beautiful soprano I’d heard recently. At his studio in San Francisco, sitting in a waiting room, I was able to listen in on the end of the previous student’s lesson, a relatively inexperienced singer—and I wasn’t encouraged by what I heard. Wanting to make a good impression, I was dressed in a summery white voile dress with red apples that I’d made myself—and when the other student left and I entered the studio, the teacher’s eyes lit up. In the course of the lesson, he stopped and started me—again and again—to instruct me, the way most voice teachers do, which I didn’t find particularly helpful. When I left, I was seized by the notion that before I made a commitment to any other teacher, I had to try at least one more lesson with Mrs. Unruh—to find out if she could still work the magic she once did with my voice.

She’d been angry with me when I had to quit five years earlier—and she wasn’t an easy person—so I took pains with the conciliatory letter I wrote her. When she agreed to give me a lesson, I drove to her house in Oakland, a few blocks from her former studio, which she’d since relinquished.

About that session, I don’t remember a single detail, though for me there was so much riding on it, I’m sure I was a nervous wreck. The only thing I do remember is that by the end of it, my voice was lifting off, as though in time it would be soaring again—and that the experience was transformative just the way it had been five years before.

In A Patchwork Memoir, I’d written about the first year I studied with Mrs. Unruh:

She was an old battle-axe…but a magician with voices. All the students I heard at her studio had the same quality of freedom when they sang. Goose bumps are my barometer. I get them when I hear that quality of naturalness in a voice; I don’t when I don’t. Everyone has an authentic voice, potentially. But training, in all its variety, only helps a lucky few to fully realize it. Mrs. Unruh loved doing what she called “remedial” work—with professionals whose voices had broken down after years of abuse, as well as beginners like me, who hadn’t the least idea how to use their voice at all. “Support!” she used to bellow at me from the music room when she heard me chatting with other students.

For a short story I wrote this description:

Cory sat beside Mrs. Rundle, one buttock on, one buttock off the piano bench, which seemed only fair, there was so much less of her than her teacher. Mrs. Rundle was dressed for summer in a pilly polyester suit—chartreuse—with a matching plastic corsage. (In winter she wore an identical plum-colored one with another matching corsage. These two outfits comprised her entire wardrobe, except for a third corsage of frosted bells and silver holly that she wore at Christmas time.) Her iron-gray hair, riveted to the top of her head with a battery of bobby pins, was now loosening. Her pink, powdered jowls quivered while her hands pounded and feet—in holey support hose—pedaled, and flakes of skin—eczema—drifted down from behind her ears. Her little bow mouth, with its perfunctory smudge of vivid lipstick, was set like a tyrant’s.

“Relax your jaw,’ she shouted over the thundering piano.

“Ee-yaw, ee-yaw, ee-yaw…’ Cory sang up the scale, braying like a coloratura donkey.


“Cory drew a breath to swim a lap underwater by and sang still higher.

“From the top of the piano, in a curlicue silver frame, a mild-faced , white-haired man—Mrs. Rundle’s long-deceased husband—beamed at Cory with beneficent sympathy.

“A voice is like a baby carrot,’ Mrs. Rundle announced, stopping suddenly, her tone gentle now. ‘If you weed too soon, you kill the carrot.”