Can't Get It Wrong: Interview with Virginia Smith
Today, it is my privilege to post an interview with the author Virginia Smith. Ginny is one of my favorite authors. I got know her in Xenobia, the long-lived science fiction writing group in Utah, where she gave good critiques of manuscripts, and where she brought good manuscripts for us to work with.
As many of you know, her career as a writer has flourished. She has branched out from science fiction to write powerful mainstream novels. She has co-authored a series of three books about Amish families in 1800s frontier America. The first of these books, The Heart's Frontier, may well be one of the great American novels. It is the story of a clash of cultures—and the discovery of a common humanity that unites, rather than divides. I admire this book. If you haven't read it, I encourage you to do so: you will discover, in it, a message that is not just important, but timeless. Here is a link to it on Amazon.com:
The interview follows:
Y4M: What is your earliest memory of music?
Virginia Smith: I’m sure music was part of my life from the very beginning, because everyone in my family is very musical. My dad played the guitar, and he and Mom would sit in the living room after dinner and sing. I was only 3 or 4, and I remember singing “Little Brown Jug” with them. About that same time Daddy used to sing “Susie Q” to my sister, who was named Susie. I wanted a song about Ginny, and he made one up. “Ginny, Ginny, Ginny, won’t you come home with me? Ginny, Ginny, woooo, Ginny, Ginny.” I loved it! I also remember my grandmother playing the dulcimer. I was fascinated by that sound, which was so different from Daddy’s guitar.
Y4M: How much time do you spend with music each day?
Virginia Smith: Sadly, not as much as I used to. I’ve been a singer pretty much my whole life, and at one point considered vocal music as a career. When I moved to Utah I sang with a contemporary Christian group called The Joyful Sound. We had ten vocalists and a band, and we traveled around performing in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado. I also sang in a ladies’ trio, and performed for luncheons and retirement homes and so on. But since I started writing as a career, it seems singing has taken a backseat. Of course I listen to music every day, especially when I’m exercising and when I’m doing my morning devotionals and prayer.
Y4M: Do you have one piece of music that you turn to again and again? Why?
Virginia Smith: I don’t. But I have certain songs I listen to, dependent on my mood. If I feel overwhelmed by life or stressed, I listen to Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Be Still and Know.” It reminds me to stop, be quiet, and trust God with whatever situation is causing the turmoil. When I’m in the car with my grandchildren, we listen to Disney tunes, and a favorite (of course) is “Let it Go” by Idena Menzel from the movie Frozen. My granddaughter and I can belt that one out! When I am in the mood to hear beautiful harmonies and really revel in intricate vocals, I listen to Celtic Woman, which is my favorite vocal group.
Y4M: Here is a link to Stephen Curtis Chapman singing, "Be Still and Know" (from the album Performance Tracks):
Here is a link to the scene from the movie Frozen, in which Idina Menzel sings "Let It Go" (posted on YouTube by the Walt Disney Animation Studios):
And here is a link to the song on Amazon.com, from the official soundtrack:
Y4M: What, in music, currently excites you the most?
Virginia Smith: When I do sing—which I don’t do as much as before, but still do when I can—I love really digging into a piece and internalizing it. One of my vocal coaches had a quote: “An amateur practices until he gets it right. A professional practices until he can’t get it wrong.” That’s my approach to a performance. Even if the piece is one I know, when I am going to perform it I have to live and breathe the music for weeks beforehand.
Earlier this year my daughter and I performed a voice/flute duet of “Amazing Grace.” Everybody knows that song and I’ve sung it many times. But dueting with a flute is different. The dynamics needed to be perfect, and the feeling I put into certain phrases changed based on what the flute was doing at that time. I get excited by the process of perfecting a performance. That duet turned out beautifully.
Y4M: Have you ever come to love a genre of music you did not before?
Virginia Smith: I’ve never been much for classical music, but a few years ago I wrote a book about a classical pianist. The book is called Lost Melody (co-authored with Lori Copeland). I did a tremendous amount of research for that book, and listened to some amazing classical pieces. I discovered Franz Liszt, and fell in love with his “Liebestraum.” I also like Schumann’s “Traumerei.” So beautiful! So yes, I fell in love with classical music, whereas before I never listened to it at all.
Y4M: Here is a link to the great pianist George Bolet playing Liszt's "Liebestraum" (from the album Jorge Bolet: Favorite Piano Works):
And here is a link to Nina Postolovskaya playing Robert Schumann's "Traumerei" (from the album The Classical Piano):
Y4M: If a time traveler came to you and said that he would take you into the past to hear one musical event or moment—what would you pick to hear, and why?
Virginia Smith: I would go back to Musick Hall in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and hear the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. I’ve sung that many times, and it is incredible. And, of course, one of the best loved pieces of sacred music ever is the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Did you know that when Handel wrote it, his assistant walked into his office just after he finished and found him crying? The assistant asked why, and Handel held up the musical score and said, “I have seen the face of God.” How powerful!
Y4M: Here is a link to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, in Handel's Messiah (from the album Messiah):
Y4M: If you could change one thing about how you currently interact with music, what would that be?
Virginia Smith: I would learn to play an instrument. I play the piano only enough to pick out my part. Since I am a soprano, I’m pretty good with the treble clef, but I’m dismal on the bass clef. I’d love to learn how to play the guitar. Recently, I bought a ukulele and have been teaching myself a bit. When I was in Hawaii in January, I came upon a ukulele band playing on the beach, and they actually let me play a song on one of their instruments. Know what I played? “Little Brown Jug!"
Y4M: "Little Brown Jug" was written in 1869, by Joseph Winner. It was a drinking song that eventually became an American folk song and even nursery rhyme. Because of its references to alcohol, the song was hugely popular during the Prohibition Era. I could not find a ukulele version of "Little Brown Jug." But here is a performance of it by the BBC Big Band Orchestra (from their album The Age of Swing):
Y4M: What piece of music have you picked for us to hear today, and why did you pick it?
Virginia Smith: Celtic Woman’s rendition of “Danny Boy.” It is one of my all-time favorite pieces, and their arrangement is . . . well, it’s inspired! I can’t hear it without closing my eyes and losing myself in the music. Their voices are so clear and pure, and their harmonies are gorgeous.
The members of Celtic Woman have changed over the years, but they always do this song. It’s one of their trademarks.
Y4M: Here is a link to the Celtic Woman website, and to a video of a rehearsal of "Danny Boy." In it, the three singers are accompanied by violin and guitar—it is a lovely performance:
And here is a link to the song on Amazon.com, as recorded live at Powerscourt House and Gardens in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, Ireland:
Y4M: I want to thank Virginia Smith for this interview, and for the music she has brought to my attention. I am richer for it.
Virginia Smith is a prolific author: she has just completed her 28th novel. Here is a link to the Virginia Smith page on Amazon.com, where you can peruse (and purchase) her excellent works:
And here is a link to Virginia Smith's official website:
I created "Take the Winds of March with Beauty," the image above, in 2006. It is based on Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from Shakespeare's Winter's Tale (4.4.118-20):
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty.