The LMU Choruses and Paul Salamunovich

Singing with the LMU Choruses has never lost its powerful appeal, even after my long 22 years of participation.  Second only to singing our glorious music are the opportunities to travel and share this music with new audiences.  Annual Spring concert tours with this group have brought me much joy ever since my first tour back in 1993, during my freshman year of college. For someone who has a hard time approaching others and forming new relationships, these tours have helped me grow more comfortable with my fellow singers, and form new relationships with audience members and host families alike.

All of it through the sharing of music.  There’s nothing quite like the trust and confidence that virtual strangers are willing to extend to each of us, after hearing us perform together!  The insights that I gain in new circumstances and talking to new people also help me sort through other aspects of my life, and put them into perspective.

This year’s concert tour to Northern California was shorter than usual, but more meaningful in more ways than one – for me personally, as well as for our choir in general. We caught a late morning flight out of LAX on Friday, April 4th, arriving in San Jose just after noon.  I immediately called the Nguyens, a Vietnamese couple who had hosted me in their home on past tours.  By the time our tour bus pulled into our hotel in Santa Clara, they were already waiting for me in the parking lot.  We caught up with each other over lunch in a restaurant across the street. Later that afternoon, my fellow singers and I travelled to St. Andrew’s Church in nearby Saratoga, where we held a brief rehearsal.

A buffet-style dinner was provided for us at that site by the parents of one of our singers, whose family had close associations with that church.  We performed an especially poignant concert that evening, trying out our difficult Spring Chorale repertoire with piano accompaniment. Going by the comments that we later received, our audience members were as touched by this music – and our performance of it – as we were.

Cleo with Lien family

Sitting in the front row that evening were my cousin Chia-Yen and his entire family of six: his parents, his wife, and his two young sons.  It was the first time they’d heard me in performance, and known about my involvement in such a wonderful group. At the end of our concert, my cousin’s sons Max and Mason each presented me with a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers.  I then joined them at their home in nearby Cupertino for some rest and conversation. I felt pampered when my cousin’s wife Lifen packed a large Tupperware container of fresh fruit for me to take back to my hotel room.

The following morning, since we were departing at 7:30 for the city of Brentwood (an hour’s bus ride away), I rose at 5 a.m. to shower and pack my belongings – only to discover, to my dismay, that the hotel didn’t start serving breakfast until 7:00.  (That container of fresh fruit that I’d stored inside my room’s mini-fridge sure came in handy!)  We traveled to Brentwood, then held a short rehearsal with the Children’s Choir at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, whose conductor is a fairly recent alumnus of our choirs at LMU.  Among our audience members that afternoon at our joint concert were lots of enthusiastic parents.  We trimmed our own concert program to allow time for the children to perform their own pieces. Childrens Choir

It was a big success.  I believe we succeeded in leaving a positive impression of our university on the students and their parents alike.  Perhaps they will keep LMU in mind when the time comes for these children to attend college! Later that afternoon, we all boarded our bus again, heading to the San Francisco pier for a free evening.   I joined our conductor, accompanist, and three other choir alumni in strolling a few blocks outside of Pier 39 (where we were dropped off) to have dinner at a waterfront seafood restaurant called Castagñola’s.

Castanolas 2

Castanolas 1

My plate of fresh spinach salad topped with bay shrimp was delicious, and my companions that evening, delightful.

Shrimp salad


As we strolled around the waterfront after dinner, passing (among other shops and cafes) a Ghirardelli’s Chocolate Factory, I reflected how much more comfortable I felt among companions older than I – whose more relaxed walking, dining, and conversational pace all suited my own more closely than that of younger college students.


We rose early again on Sunday morning to board our flight back to Los Angeles and conclude this brief but very enjoyable tour.  This particular outing was also much more meaningful than most of our other tours, due to the announcement that our conductor had made on its first morning: that our beloved founder and Dr. Breden’s predecessor, Paul Salamunvich, and passed away after a long illness.

We had first begun planning this tribute to Paul when we heard the news last September that he was hospitalized upon falling severely ill.  Even before he was diagnosed with having contracted the West Nile virus, we began our plans to dedicate this Spring Chorale to honor him, and hoping he would recover well enough to hear it.  We then built our program accordingly, including pieces that utilized Gregorian Chant, Paul’s area of expertise.

Back in the fall semester of 1992, I’d stepped into my very first rehearsal with the LMU Choruses as a not-quite 18-year-old college freshman.  I had known nothing about the LMU choral tradition, only that its new conductor, Dr. Mary Breden, had just taken over the its reins. She made it abundantly clear, from the very beginning, that we had a tremendous reputation to live up to, created and passed down by Paul Salamunovich, who had departed the previous year to take over the L.A. Master Chorale.  (I’d never heard of that institution, but I had heard of the L.A. Philharmonic.  Assuming that the Chorale was that orchestra’s equivalent, I was suitably impressed.) Paul had founded the entire LMU Choral Program, and built it into its present institution.

“Anyone here who cannot achieve the expectations we demand here will be promptly asked to leave,” Dr. Breden further declared.  “Believe me, there are plenty of others eagerly waiting to replace you.” She then picked at every little mistake that we made, criticized every vocal tone produced that she didn’t like, and fiercely growled her dissatisfaction at anyone whose attention wandered away from our music during subsequent rehearsals that semester.

After she yelled at us at one point, I must’ve had a frightened expression on my face, for the alto sitting next to me – a senior named Michelle Means – leaned over and muttered, “Ha! She’s nice, compared to Paul.  When he doesn’t like something, he would single you out and yell insults directly into your face!”  She demonstrated by screwing her face into a scowl and jabbing an index finger into the air before her.

Hey, you!” she growled.  She proceeded to move her lips in an animated manner, as if firing off a stream of abusive words.

Walking back to my dorm room after rehearsal later that night, I thanked my lucky stars that I’d arrived at LMU only after Paul had departed!

However, these impressions were soon replaced by new ones.  Later that semester, I joined the Consort Singers to perform at an event during our university’s Alumni Reunion Weekend.  As LMU’s most distinguished alumnus, Paul would be in attendance.  We planned to surprise him by asking him to come up to the stage and conduct our final work, titled America – a moving arrangement of all three verses from My Country ‘tis of Thee.

An unsuspecting Paul Salamunovich sat among the audience members at that particular event, wearing a casual shirt in a wild Hawaiian print.  After we finished singing the rest of our pieces, Dr. Breden made her planned announcement, calling Paul down to the stage area.

His eyes widened, his expression freezing in place for a few moments in surprise.  He slowly lowered his head to look down at his attire.  When he raised it again, that expression shifted to one of disbelief, as if saying, You’ve got to be kidding me!

A flurry of giggles erupted from my fellow singers on the risers behind me. Paul then squared his shoulders and made his way down to the stage, where we were standing.  Below his wildly colorful shirt, he had on a pair of khaki shorts, and flip-flops on his feet instead of shoes.

My smile of amusement turned into a wide grin.  I had to fight the urge to run up and give him a big hug!

Our performance of the America nonetheless brought all of our audience members to their feet.

In subsequent years, Paul became increasingly human to me in bits and pieces through the stories Dr. Breden related throughout our rehearsals: incidents that his choirs encountered at festivals and subsequent reactions from audience members; his wife Dottie bustling backstage to manage the women’s makeup and concert attire; the tradition he began of singing “Silent Night” in tribute to his daughter Nannette after she died. Paul himself would attend all of our major concerts at LMU whenever he was free.

I also had various opportunities to sing under his direction: he worked with us whenever we held joint concerts, here at LMU, with the St. Charles Choir that Paul continued to conduct.  He took over one of our regular rehearsals when Dr. Breden was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. And, of course, more than 100 LMU chorus alumni joined us when we traveled to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1997.  At one point during that outing, we surprised him again by singing to him “The Lord Bless You and Keep You”, a short hymn we would bestow to special audiences during our concert tours.  Even though he had conducted that particular piece numerous times himself, Paul was literally moved to tears – for he had never before been its recipient.

Paul Salamunovich

I never did work up the courage to approach Paul and give him my hug.  Instead, I kept him in mind when I created a choir conductor character while writing my children’s novel.  I mixed together my memories of him with all that I’d learned throughout my own years with the LMU Choruses.

While I continue to seek the right conditions for publishing that novel, Paul is always close to my thoughts whenever I sing at LMU. Please join us at our upcoming Spring Chorale concert, taking place on the LMU campus Friday, May 2nd, 2014, where we will pay special tribute to Paul.

Feel free to contact me for more information.

Handling negativity: my secret weapon

I have always been very sensitive to negativity.

As a child, I tried to avoid all of its forms – criticism, taunting, words of dissatisfaction, or even any red marks on my homework assignments – by channeling all of my efforts into pleasing everyone around me. And whenever I couldn’t manage that, I kept my distance by hiding.

In between, I buried myself in novels written for children. Within the stories I read, I could count on conflicts to be resolved in satisfying way, on life make in sense.

Today, I still read plenty of fiction to help me cope with the negativity I encounter in my daily life.

However, I now have an even more powerful weapon to draw upon:

I simply attend a rehearsal with the LMU Choruses.

Last month, we plunged into two particularly difficult works, from composers Morten Lauridsen and Maurice Durufle, respectively. Both were full of intricate melodic lines, with constantly shifting rhythmic meters combined with unfamiliar Latin text. Numerous portions of their musical phrasing needed to be delicately handled. The Lauridsen work, in particular, contained many leaping intervals among all voice parts that made little sense when we first learned the parts.

The first few rehearsals of the semester, in which we initially read through these entire works were nothing short of overwhelming. I constantly lost my place, confused the current rhythmic meters, had trouble pinpointing the correct pitches at the end of leaping intervals, and generally had trouble keeping up.

Most of our January rehearsals were focused solely on taking individual vocal lines apart, apart, drilling their complex notes and rhythms. Without putting in any actual words yet, we plodded through a new section within each movement at every rehearsal. They all made little sense to me, and I had driven home afterward feeling as if no progress was made, and that we had simply wasted our time.

Finally, in early February, we began reassembling all of our voice parts and fitting them with piano accompaniment and singing through entire movements. Now that our individual vocal lines and rhythms were more familiar, fitting these lines together with those from other voices, hearing how we fitted into the context of the overall works – the effect was nothing short of magical.

While we still a good portion of the music yet to learn, could now start refining our vocal tones, coordinating them with musical phrasing and dynamics, shaping the pronunciations of vowels and consonants, and working on the balance between the lower and higher voices. Many dissonant chord clusters, particularly in the Lauridsen work – a trademark technique of its composer, are emphasized, even caressed, before they are resolved.

Taking a physical part in this transformation – from chaos to sense and order – wielded its usual powerful effect on me. At the end of these recent February rehearsals, I drove home with a buoyancy in my spirits – for they served as a forceful reminder:  My daily experiences in life may also seem full of difficulty, not making any sense. But, as in what I’d experienced while singing through our individual voice parts during rehearsal, I could now see that I had not yet achieved the larger picture surrounding them.

I was also reminded not to shy away from conflicts – whether they came in the form of impossible situations or difficult people.  Instead, just as we brought dissonances within our choral works out into the open, shaped them, and dropped them back into the context of the whole, I also needed to take apart individual pieces of each situation, focus on the aspects that I have some control over, and continue experimenting with adjustments that work for me.

When I then combine my situation with my surrounding circumstances, which are also changing, I need to then trust that my own understanding will deepen. And circumstances will also work themselves out, one way or another – the way our music always does through our many choir rehearsals.

For more details on the activities of the LMU Choruses, please take a look at the latest issue of my Quarter Notes newsletter. If you would like to be added to my mailing list, please let me know how to reach you through the “Contact Me” link at the top of this page.

Memory Problems and Negativity

When people ask, and I try to explain the permanent injuries that my short-term memory had sustained, I receive a variety of reactions.

Most chuckle, associating my problems with absent-mindedness (in other words, a bad habit that only requires attention to overcome.)  Those a generation or two older than I often ask, “Is that like Alzheimer’s?”  Still others simply draw a blank and change the topic.

If you’re curious, some formal explanations can be found here:

Short-term memory

Long-term memory

For me, overcoming my memory problems involves constantly assigning some sort of meaning to everything that I encounter, finding ways to immediately link all that I experience with something that’s already familiar to me, and already firmly lodged  in my long-term memory.

It is a process that I work on every waking moment of every day – and often even in my sleep.  It involves finding words to describe everything I encounter, identifying causes and effects, then organizing and shaping those words into sentences and paragraphs.  And, finally, to see these words on paper, or on the computer screen.


I need to get these experiences to mirror, as closely as possible, the format of the novel, with which my long-term memory is familiar. This is how I am able to record new experiences securely.  And this is how I can remember the positive aspects of each experience, without the imperfect bits overtaking them.

Through diligent practice over the years, I have made much improvement in handling this process.  However, much of daily life holds little or no meaning.  And I have trouble unearthing any significance to help me link them to my long-term memory. Examples include objects that I physically handle, names and faces of strangers I encounter for the first time, and new walking and driving directions I navigate, to name just a few.

As soon as things disappear from my immediate field of vision, keeping them intact within my mind becomes difficult.  And there are repercussions to deal with.

Case in point:

My mother sent me on a routine errand to pick up a few things for her at a local Costco over the holiday season.  The store being crowded with customers, I made little progress trying to push my shopping cart through its jam-packed aisles.  At various points, I simply left my cart behind, with my tote bag inside to distinguish it from all others, while I grabbed a few items from nearby shelves before returning.

Then I stepped away for a minute or two to grab two large bundles of toilet paper.  When I turned back this time, my cart had disappeared!  I spent the next two hours walking up and down aisles throughout the entire store, searching for that shopping cart and its contents.

I finally gave up, picked up what items I could recall from my shopping list (which was in my tote bag), and headed home.  The incident bothered me all evening.   Close to bedtime, when mom asked me about an item that on her shopping list that I’d forgotten to pick up, I finally told her what had happened.

Her reaction was even worse than what I’d geared myself up to face.   She pelted me with a stream of accusations, all in Chinese:

 I was forever losing things – what if I’d lost something important, and a hassle to replace?

 True, I had no valuables in my tote bag, but my name had to be on some objects inside.  People could use it to commit identity fraud, or, if they got a hold of my address,                                  too, they could harass us at home, or use that information against our family, for their own benefit.

 How could she ever feel safe, with me around to make our family vulnerable?

 This errand was just a simple task, and I made a mess of it. How could she, or anyone else, rely on me in the future?   

Needless to say, Mom’s words just made me feel even worse.  Later, her negativity disrupted my sleep, keeping me tossing and turning half the night.

The next morning, I made phone call to Costco, to be told that no one has located a tote bag that fit the description I gave.  My dejection lingered throughout all the hours at my office job.

On my way home that evening, I stopped by Costco in person to inquire again – with not much hope of a different result.  To my surprise, I discovered that my tote bag had indeed been located, with all of my belongings intact!

When I told mom the news, however, she refused to rejoice with me.  Instead, she heaped further blame for on me for losing that tote bag in the first place – making me irresponsible, and my judgment unsound.

You see?  This is exactly why everything I do wrong lingers in my mind much more strongly than what I manage to do right – not just with this incident, but throughout my life, past and present.

Fortunately, I have gathered enough experience by now on how to deal with negativity.

During my free time the following day, I went out for a drive, worked out at gym, and went to library to do some light reading.  These tasks, which don’t involve much mental exertion, allowed my emotions to settle, and my subconscious mind to work its magic – putting my emotions back into balance.

In the meantime, my conscious mind worked on identifying the CAUSE behind my mistake – a reliable technique for making memories stick while keeping frustration at bay.

When I stepped away from my shopping cart inside Costco, I had left my tote bag on my cart to help me distinguish it from the multitudes of other identical carts upon my return.   The crowded conditions during my last trip was even more reason to do so, to avoid losing track of my cart and the items inside, altogether.  I had done the same numerous times while running errands, both at Costco and elsewhere.

My mom is well aware of my memory problems.  But rather than accepting my accommodations, she focuses on what goes wrong, and on casting blame.  Her way involves doling out guilt and menace to ensure that mistakes don’t recur. To her, performing tasks smoothly is the norm, and making mistakes not only caused trouble; doing so reduced one’s overall competence.  So mistakes were unacceptable.

Contrast that with my understanding: making mistakes is a natural part of life.  In fact, undergoing the process of trial and error is how I learn and gain competence.  When I make mistakes, I maintain my sanity by focusing on how to resolve them, taking into account my personal strengths and weaknesses.  Then, to better store the entire situation into my long-term memory, where I can easily find it to apply to future situations, I find words to describe those mistakes, putting them into the context of circumstances surrounding them.

This is what I have trained my mind automatically work on, every spare waking moment of my current life.

In an upcoming post, I hope to delve more deeply into the opposing mind-sets I’d illustrated between my parents and myself, along with their impact on me, past and present.

A New Venture

I call myself a writer.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve felt more comfort communicating through reading and writing than through listening and talking.  I had, in fact, picked up my fluency in the English language largely through reading novels written for children – whose characters couldn’t jump out and taunt me for using or pronouncing words inappropriately.  Trying to interact with my actual peers, on the other hand, caused me plenty of emotional trauma.

After college, armed with an English degree, I completed a novel for middle grade readers (ages 8-12), drawing from my own experiences.  I then took several more years to revise and polish it to my satisfaction.  It felt like big accomplishment.

Only then did I realize that getting this manuscript published will likely be even harder than writing the book!  For a brief summary on how traditional publishing works, click here.

For the subsequent two or three years, I invested time in looking up appropriate publishers and sending query letters to them about my book.  Then I became aware that most publishers will not take a manuscript seriously unless it came to them from a literary agent.

Various writing groups that I joined, and a number of university extension courses on the writing profession that I took, provided insights on how to refine my query letters and format my manuscript to the specifications of each agent.  I heeded warnings on how to distinguish legitimate agents from the ones who charge fees before doing any work for clients, who drop names and boast of huge advances.   I contacted masses of the former and received only two or three offers to read my actual manuscript.  All resulted in rejections.

At a literary conference I attended in Portland, Oregon in 2008, I finally managed to meet agents in person, and capture the interest of one who offered to read my book manuscript.

However, feeling that my main character was “too perfect”,  she  asked me to have that character make some mistakes  through a new revision.

I followed my instincts and spent the subsequent year adding a new subplot to explore my main character’s growth through trial and error.  It lengthened my manuscript by eight chapters, and some new subject matter made it more appropriate for slightly older readers (ages 10-14).  But this character growth satisfied my instincts much more than the previous version had.

Unfortunately, my agent did not agree.  She informed me that she was now unable sell this new version, and promptly withdrew her offer of representation.

Months passed by before I recovered from my devastation.  I eventually resumed the process of querying agents.  However, the publishing world had been changing throughout the time I took to revamp my manuscript.  The rise of the Internet and alternate formats for publishing materials – such as e-books – had altered the scope of traditional publishing.  Roles played by the author, the literary agent, and the publisher were no longer what I had previously understood.  Authors now needed to shoulder the brunt of promotion (making their work known to the public), well before those books are put on the market.

For me, this is the scariest part of being a writer – even now that the Internet allows me to do a good portion of this promotion in writing.

So this blog will be my newest venture.  Its formal purpose will be creating a constant dialogue with my reading audience, along with sharing bits and pieces of my writing process.  I hope to include how other aspects in my life shapes my writing, and, in turn, the impact that this process has made on that life.

My other purpose for this blog will be keeping friends and acquaintances – both old and new – up to date on what’s currently happening in my life.   I hope to find a steady rhythm for posting here within a short amount of time.  Please check back every so often for updates!