by Joyce Hall

Nora Ephron may feel bad about her neck, but I love my back. It’s a bit crooked and sometimes it hurts a bit, but it has this strong place that has saved me and allowed me to be ME.

Let’s be direct: I’m 72. I grew up in a culture of seriously set patterns. Any diversion from the norm was likely to bring reprimands of the dreaded "What will people think?!" or "Who does she think she is?" and the like. But it really is preposterous to think there were two ways of thinking: men should/women should.

I believe I have fulfilled my responsibilities, but by taking a different path. The German language has a term I love — "alleinstehende Frau." Literally that means "alone standing woman." For me, this has been an absolutely comfortable course to follow.

It all started in a small Southern college town with a "lovely" Southern upbringing of family, school and church, in a "lovely" home with dresses, hats and white gloves. All expectations were that I would marry well and carry on these traditions. (Of course, it was never mentioned that there was a cold war going on within the walls, but that is the Southern way.)

From the time I was 2 and threw tantrums so I could go outside and eavesdrop on our piano-playing neighbor, there was always music captivating my life and enthusiasm: piano lessons at age 5, followed by flute and pipe organ; endless, glorious choirs and choruses; and, finally at 17, voice lessons. My soul found its home and passion. Surely, though, all of this "foolishness" that was my music could be contained within the structure of a lovely Southern life.

But, there was that spot in my back — right behind my heart. It was there when I was 11 and knew that someday I would get out of the world into which I had been thrust. It was still strongly there when, after the obligatory double major in voice and music education ("If there is another depression there will always be jobs for teachers," said my father), I walked to the plane that would take me to graduate school at a music conservatory in Yankeeland. And what adventures it has brought me.

There was the "good" marriage, the lovely home, the golden child, the successful husband in the prominent position, the prestigious social circle, the parties, the dinners, the galas, the openings, and — oh yes, somewhere in there was me. There was some wonderful singing, some of it fairly important, but always around the edges. And there was the endless rescue, the life energy sucked up with taking care of the crises of the day, the excuses, the nursing of the ego, the myopia. At a certain point, the sheer dishonesty of it all was just too much.

There was that spot. I was approaching 40, the perimenopausal energies were simmering, the daughter was heading off to school. Just perhaps, I could have my life. People often tell me how courageous I was to leave, but as I look back, it all seemed so inevitable.

In "The Song of the Lark," Willa Cather writes, "Nothing is far and nothing is near, if one desires." Relying on the thought that every journey begins with one step, and knowing the strength of my back, I arranged the amicable separation and freed myself.

The apartment in New York City is ridiculously smaller, but it is mine. And the years — menopausal and post — have been so glorious. Yes, there have been struggles, but I have not been bored, and I have not been lonely. There have been wonderful friends, a few selected beaus, and the exciting life of the theatre world in New York.

The teaching certificate my father insisted upon came in handy soon after I arrived in the city, and I easily found a job teaching primary music in a private school. Then friends and I formed a chamber opera company, and for a year we played "Little Red Riding Hood" in at least half the schools in New Jersey.

And, lo and behold, I was offered leads in tours of Gilbert and Sullivan, opera and Broadway shows around the United States and Canada. Topping off my love of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a dream came true when I was asked to sing Shirley Jones’ songs with Gordon MacRae, one of my early crushes, in summer festivals around the country.

Wonder of wonders, this adventurous soul was contracted to circle the globe, singing on the world cruise of an elegant small ship. In 1980, I stood in a city park of Canton, China, listening to a Chinese soprano sing one of my favorite Verdi arias, as Mao-clad Chinese, unaccustomed at this point of seeing a red-haired American, stole furtive glances at my designer jeans and high heels.

This fascinated traveler was in bliss. During my years of freedom, I had managed quite a bit of European exploration, but on this trip I found myself gazing at the Taj Mahal itself — gadzooks! — trying to figure out if I was shaken by a volcanic hot flash or the 120-degree-heat in February in India.

Fortunate accidents often lead to significant changes in our lives. Another of those came along 25 years ago, when one of my friends became too popular for the hours of the day and directed superfluous voice students my way. A new stage of life began as I became a voice teacher and coach. I have worked with stars of Broadway and the movie world, along with the hard-working Broadway "gypsies," the starry-eyed high school aspirants, the amateurs who just love having an outlet for their musical spirit, and even a European prince for a while.

The past two decades have contained hours of gladness and filled multiple scrapbooks as my beautiful daughter has grown up and now has three gorgeous children. Today I see them successfully negotiating this world as smart, good teenagers. I treasure such precious memories of our adventures together.

And here I am at 72, so grateful to still be here. Yeats suggests that we must keep our old friends, for they remember us always as our youthful selves. Last April I attended the 50th reunion of my undergraduate class from my Southern women’s college. As my eight closest friends and I had dinner on the last evening, we talked of how we were all absolutely the same women we were during those school years — only more so.

I looked at all of them and thought of the huge things we’ve all accomplished since our graduation in the mid-1950s. What lucky women we have been — just at the cusp of women’s lib! Our daughters have had even more possibilities, but we had so many more paths open to us than did our mothers. I look back on it all with immense gratitude for all these days.

I have read that Jean Sibelius was asked the question, "What has kept you alive all these years?" His answer: "This life I love so much!" In a joyous old age (that does not feel "old"), it is a sentiment I totally understand.

It’s my wish to encourage any doubter that change is possible — to urge you, with a big hug, to find the strong spot in you. I do remember the years of longings, of wishing with magical thinking that things would be better. But I also distinctly recall the morning I woke up and knew that Santa Claus was not going to come. Change in my life was up to me.

Reading has always been my source of encouragement, including "six non-lectures" by e.e. cummings; anything by Willa Cather; "Markings," by Dag Hammarskjold; "The Animal Hotel," by Jean Garrigue; and "Prayers From The Ark" by de Gasztold.

I recommend all of the above, but ultimately finding your path is up to you. Listen to your body and spirit — wherever that strong spot resides — and believe in your own direction.

Joyce Hall is one of New York’s busiest singing teachers and coaches. She has degrees from Winthrop University and Eastman School of Music.

Join the conversation

  • Lisa Fogel May 21, 2009 at 2:30 am

    I am a former student of Joyce’s, living in Arizona. I am glad to see Joyce is still making an impact in New York and enjoying life.

    Reply
  • annette July 26, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    Hi,
    I also was a student of joyce and i am trying to locate her today. I have her address but no phone number to call her. I’ve misplaced it and i would like voice lessons again. i’m also 52. please contact me with any info on how i can contact her again? Please!! thanks
    annette

    Reply
  • Susan Secunda April 19, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    I was 18 and a private student of Joyce’s in that little northeastern college town where she was living with her then-husband and young daughter. I was there when she decided to make her move.
    In spite of everything she was facing at the time, things that I couldn’t possibly fathom in my myopic little undergrad world, she invited me to her tiny apartment in Manhattan once a month for voice lessons and life lessons. She helped me prepare an audition for her alma mater, Eastman, from which I also graduated. I have always considered her my mentor.
    I’ll be 52 next month. Joyce is my voice teacher to this day and has been a wonderful friend and mentor to countless singers over the years. Should you come to New York City with the wish to open your voice, I highly recommend her!

    Reply
  • Jane Finalborgo March 9, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    Bring on the grits and the okra! I can really relate to Joyce Hall’s piece. I too grew up in a southern landscape of expectations. (I wore those little white gloves to church).
    In my twenties, I moved to New York to take a job as a reporter for Newsday. Looking back, I can see how that move away from the familiar allowed me to grow and change. At 57 (children grown, still happily married, no longer at Newsday), the challenge is to keep growing and changing.
    Joyce Hall’s mid-life “awakening” is an inspiration. I started practicing Yoga two months ago. I hope it will help me find my “strong spot.”

    Reply
  • naomi dagen bloom March 7, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    delightful to read, think about. as 73 year old who retired to manhattan from a different place with kind of different issues, i’m delighted to find another woman of age who asks sharp questions.

    Reply
  • Dr. Pat Allen March 6, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    I know the Southern world that produced women like Joyce Hall, who are often referred to as an iron fist in a velvet glove. Still, it took enormous courage to leave a life of attractive pretense and security to move alone to New York City and begin to live her dream at 40.
    Joyce is a role model for all women at the cusp of mid-life reinvention. She found her passion, she acted with courage and faith, and found a life of self reliance, beauty and adventure. I am so grateful for this forum that allows us to hear the voices of our varied generational demographic over 40. I will keep this story close to my heart.

    Reply
  • Carolyn Hahn March 6, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    “Yes, there have been struggles, but I have not been bored, and I have not been lonely.”
    Ezackly. And how funny, that everyone thought you were ” so brave” for leaving [a safe, societally sanctioned marriage, however sterile, etc]. And funny how each of us still has to negotiate that: if you’re a woman alone, there’s something wrong with you? Better to be with a man, any man, than alone? This country is changing, but not everywhere and not that fast.

    Reply