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Strong and Wrong

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When novice, fourteen-year-old ballet dancers at the high school where I used to teach struck a pose both confidently and incorrectly, the dance department head used to praise them in faculty meetings for being “strong and wrong!”

That’s the phrase that came to mind when I saw the new Meryl Streep movie, Florence Foster Jenkins on Friday night, about a wealthy music lover whose passion for singing and classical music was so strong that it blinded her to her own comically imperfect technique.

In contrast, her husband, played by Hugh Grant, has come to terms with the mediocrity of his acting career, but seems to find redemption in perpetuating Jenkin’s dream of herself, literally trashing bad reviews, screening Jenkin’s concert goers and bribing potential critics to ensure that Jenkins sees herself as a true member of the 1940s New York City music elite.

Streep’s performance was predictably on point, and Hugh Grant played the dapper gentleman convincingly, but the real stars of this movie, in my opinion, are Mr. McMoon, Ms. Jenkin’s diminutive, timid accompanist, played by Simon Helberg, and the costume designer, Consolata Boyle. Both McMoon, with his quivering, fluctuating facial expressions, and Boyle, with her quivering star tiaras that jostle in time to Jenkin’s operatic “hah ah has” and nude mesh stomach overlays that display Jenkin’s sizeable midrift, play up the physical comedy that makes this movie so enjoyable.

And yet, as I laughed through it, it struck a deeper chord: how refreshing it is, when some of the most technically astute dancers starve themselves, and many of the writers the public admires end their lives in suicide, when the phrase “tortured artist” is a cliché we take for granted, and when some of my most talented creative writing students warn me at the beginning of the semester that they are perfectionists, that we sometimes need a laugh-out-loud display of really bad art, delivered with great joy, to remind us that good art, while fundamentally challenging, finicky, and demanding, is about joy, too.

When I think about my own singing journey, it amuses me to observe that the work of most of my voice lessons was learning how to relax my throat. Thinking down when you ascend the scale, yawning exercises, and the like — when I practiced them regularly enough, my range went from 2nd suprano to 1st. A pleasant surprise, the notes I could hit, by simply keeping my throat open.

I suppose that this effort — relaxing into the moment, staying open, to joy, among other things — as much as refining technique, is the challenging work of a singer, or any artist. In that sense, Florence Jenkins truly hit a high note. No joke.

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