Some years ago, I was struck by a seeming paradox about my former choral director and dear friend Phyllis Zimmerman. No one I knew was so knowledgeable about music, had given so many years to teaching music; no one owned so vast a collection of CDs for that matter — and yet never once did I come through her door, in all the years I visited her, to hear music playing.
In Phyllis, I came to realize that only a caretaker of silence can be a true caretaker of sound. There was a core of quietude to Phyllis that was conspicuous just because it is so rare. In conversation she used words sparingly and deliberately. She loved poetry — that art par excellence of the well-chosen word. But music, especially, has its birth and return in silence. As her students were well aware, “Silence is the picture frame around music” and that music is also the art of “letting the silence sing.” Music was the guest that deserved one’s full attention. Half-measures and lapses in attention were inevitably failures to honor that guest — and, equally, a failure to honor oneself. “Prayer,” she loved to quote Simone Weil, “is absolute attention.”
There is something about an excellent teacher that illuminates a general human dimension, extending beyond her specialization. Phyllis was a gifted musician and extraordinary leader, but she never let her singers forget that art cannot rise above life. Inspiration, integrity, and control in music depend upon the same in life. Many young people came into Phyllis’s music programs at Santa Barbara High School looking for the courage and art to release their voices and found the inspiration and insight to release their lives.
Phyllis’s mind and heart encompassed tremendous breadth, and she encouraged that liberality in her students. You could see it in her programming — works widely diverse in style, era, language, and tradition. Her rehearsals were peppered with spontaneous anecdotes and sidebars about composers and musicians, never long and overbearing: short and savory and apt. She made analogies to painting and sculpture. She read poetry aloud. During the 1970s, she regularly gave out copies of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet as gifts. And that liberal attitude of mind generated a large tent.
Her choral groups naturally accommodated differences in race, faith, and sexual orientation precisely because such differences were irrelevant when weighed against core humanity and a common interest in excellence. Many of us witnessed that inclusiveness in our director’s heart. If you hung out with Phyllis, you discovered something extraordinary — a vast and detailed memory of her students, their lives, families, strengths, struggles, triumphs. Only someone acquainted with the silence could find such room in herself.
Beauty, in an ideal or divine sense, was the lodestar of Phyllis’s life. Honored in 2006 by Concordia College as a distinguished alumna, Phyllis wrote, “Concordia changed my life. From the experience of singing for Paul J. [Christiansen], I gained a passionate purpose for devoting my life to creating beauty. I found a sense of dedication that really goes to what Concordia means: to nurture harmony through love and faith.” Beauty was not an aesthetic hors d’oeuvre, but the object of higher sight.
Phyllis believed that art, at its best, wielded the power for self-transformation. A real miracle occurs when divine beauty intrudes upon our fear, our stale habits, our narrowness, and we are changed forever. A poem “wants to open itself / like the door of a little temple,” wrote Mary Oliver (a favorite poet for Phyllis) and to leave you “less yourself than part of everything.” For years, if you were to call Phyllis’s answering machine, you were greeted by the words of John Keats, “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.” Once, a chronically ill woman came through the receiving line after a Canticle a Capella concert and told Phyllis, “I am in pain all the time, but while you were singing, there was no pain.”
Phyllis directed choirs for 45 years, or 90 concert seasons. Every season involved the labor and patience of Sisyphus, for no sooner did she get the stone to the top of the hill, then the concerts were over and she would have to start all over again. It was an extraordinary thing to observe. Professional musicians rehearse new material for a week or less and secure proficiency. The director of a public school or community choir, by contrast, spends months “building her instrument,” balancing parts and personnel, teaching the music, often line by line, part by part. But that was the hallowed if painstaking mission Phyllis chose in this life. It was not enough to know the music for herself; she dedicated her life to bringing others up the mountain to hear it, too — to become the music. Fourteen weeks later, and for a few nights only, singers and director would soar as one. “I wish I could live at that level all the time,” she would sometimes pine. Now, I am certain, she does.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, November 3, 11 a.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1500 State Street, Santa Barbara. To help planners gauge attendance, please take a moment to record your intention to attend. Thank you.