Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Martin Isepp

A friend was saying to me recently over the holidays that it seemed to her in our current fast-paced age, true mentors are hard to come by.  In some ways, I felt a bit of truth to her words, and if that is truly the case, I feel incredibly lucky to have had so many people who I would consider mentors throughout my years as a musician so far.  One of the greatest of these for me would most definitely be the pianist, coach and conductor, Martin Isepp.

I’ve often said that my four summers at Marlboro saved my relationship with music.  After a few years of hustling to carve out a beginner’s foothold in the tough and competitive operatic world, I arrived for my first summer at Marlboro burnt out, somewhat jaded, and a tiny bit unsure why I was going there in the first place.  Hindsight being 20/20, when I look back at that version of myself standing perplexed and terrified at the threshold of my first, rustic dorm room on the Marlboro campus, I strongly believe that the main reason the fates had brought me to Marlboro that first summer was because I was starved for inspiration.  Martin was one of the main people in whom I found that inspiration which I so desperately needed.

Over the course of my four summers at Marlboro, I explored with Martin the many complex layers of the songs of Britten, Schumann, Vaughan Williams, Brahms, Wolf and Mozart.  As Martin guided me through the twists and turns of all this music over the course of our many sessions at Marlboro together, I came to understand that his approach to music came from a place of deepest respect and love for the art form.  A tough and demanding coach, he never let one note of music be poorly sung, nor one phrase pass by unexamined or unstylishly turned. Yet, despite being so rigorous and exacting, his manner was, for the most part, very gentle.  If he didn’t like something one did, he would sigh as if disappointed that you had broken his favorite piece of china and then begin to go about gently prodding the musician he was working with in a different direction, gradually cajoling them to approach the phrase or note in a way that would suddenly unlock the mysteries of the music at hand. At the end of these moments, the “eureka!” light bulb would shine brightly, and the cobwebs of confusion and musical befuddled-ness would disappear.  The music would flow again, and the composer’s intentions and the musical drama of the moment would suddenly be crystal clear.  Always expecting the best, and constantly pushing those that worked with him towards the highest levels of excellence, I found myself in our sessions reaching again for greater heights for the first time in years.  I experienced some songs I had known for years in a completely different light after bringing them to him – for instance, Schumann’s “Schöne Wiege” will never been the same for me after our sessions on Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 24.  Martin revealed the profound depth of the song's protagonist’s pain at leaving the town where he met his beloved by simply adjusting the tempo of the song in one of our sessions, transforming what I once thought of a simple, pretty, melancholy song into a richly layered, complex, heart-wrenching piece of music just as dramatic as any operatic aria ever composed.  After years of neglecting the world of Lieder and Art Song while running the beginner’s operatic rat-race, through our sessions together I rediscovered my passion for the music that made me fall in love with the art of singing.  At a time in my life when I felt that I was starting to lose touch with my wonder, respect, and love for music, Martin rekindled the fire inside of me, reconnecting me with the calling that pushed me to pursue a life in music in the first place.

The news of his passing on Christmas day is a true loss for our musical community, and he will be sorely missed.   As the person who delivered the sad news to me on Monday said, “it is difficult to imagine a person with greater integrity, musical instincts and knowledge, and kindness. There is quite simply, no replacement for him.”  I could not agree more.

Martin, I cannot thank you enough for the inspiration, encouragement, and mentorship you have given me and the musical world around me.  May you rest in peace, and may we remember you forever in our world of song.

Courtesy of YouTube, one of Martin's performances at Edinburgh - with Frederica von Stade: 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Ho Ho 2011

To all those celebrating the holiday today (and taking an online break from the festivities), a very Merry Christmas to you!

As my final concert of 2011 included an ondes martenot last week at Carnegie Hall, it only seems fair and hilarious to celebrate with these youtube performances of some carols on its sister instrument, the theremin:

Silent Night:

O Come All Ye Faithful:

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing:

And on a more serious note, here's a beautiful performance of one of my favorite carols:

Happy Holidays to all!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Rules

A few years ago, I was rehearsing with a pianist for an upcoming concert, and I couldn’t remember what the rule was regarding whether to approach a trill from above or directly on the note when singing a certain composer’s music.  I asked her if she remembered the rule, and she said to me, “I don’t do rules.”

While her response seemed hilariously rebellious at first, I came to see a lot of logic to her point.  Much like Italian cuisine, which varies so much from region to region, so do people’s ideas of “rules” in music.  Encounter an Italian from one region of Italy, they will tell you that unequivocally you do not use garlic when preparing a certain sauce.  Travel just an hour south, and ask an Italian from that region about said sauce, and they will tell you unequivocally that you MUST use garlic when preparing that sauce.  Both are equally convinced that they are telling you the rules, despite the fact that they are telling you the opposite.

Much the same thing happens in music, particularly when musicians speak of the music of the dead.  After my pianist friend’s comment above, this strikes me as also hilarious, because let’s be reasonable – how can we really know?  I always want to say, show me your time machine and let’s go talk to those composers.

Now I understand that we do know some information about how this music was performed – most composers that are in the standard canon of performed classical music have left writing and documented evidence of their tastes.  Rossini wrote often of his distaste for his singers ornamenting his music, and he is documented as being highly critical of what has become the standard, modern-day technique of tenors to carry our chest voices up to the very tops of our ranges.  Nevertheless, when was the last time you heard Una voce poco fa without any ornamentation or a tenor singing Count Almaviva without heroic high notes?  These things are generally accepted as “rules” today and are expected in performance.

Then again – these dead composers were once flawed, imperfect human beings, too, and often contradicted themselves.  Handel was also a bit critical of singers overly ornamenting his arias, but then again, you look at some of the ornaments he himself wrote, and you get a mixed message in terms of “performance practice”.  My colleague, Ann Hallenberg, showed me some of the ornaments he wrote for her arias in Ariodante while we were on a concert tour of the opera this summer, and I tell you, they are crazy.  Sure, they are beautiful and exciting to listen to, but they look slightly insane at first glance.

Handel’s Messiah is one of these pieces that is often subject to “rules”, yet interpretations of it widely differ. To say that the piece is performed in a wide variety of styles is an understatement, and it is performed in many different versions with different cuts and different singers singing different arias.  Just to give you a taste of the wide range of possibilities, here are two examples of the many ways the first tenor aria can be performed:

The first time a younger version of myself encountered a version of Messiah that didn’t conform to my expectations or the set of rules of the piece that I had in my hot-headed, young noggin, I reacted initially with a very closed mind.  But what I quickly noticed is that whether a particular style or version is to my taste or not, each one, when performed with conviction, brings out something new in the piece that I have never heard before.  I’ve sung the piece in so-called “authentic, period-style” performance with period instruments, and I’ve sung performances of the piece with modern-instrument orchestras that approach the piece with more of a romantic flair, and what I can say is that the piece is never the same for me.  This weekend with the Baltimore Symphony, I experienced yet another interpretation, and yet again, there were new aspects of the drama of the piece that the conductor brought out that I had never heard in the piece before.  The piece was yet again kept fresh for me – this is part of what I find so amazing about this music.  There is so much in it to be brought forth and emphasized, and there are so many ways to interpret it.  In the end, whichever "set of rules" the performers choose to subscribe to, the performer has to decide what is to their taste and commit to it.  The point isn’t the rules, but what it is that you want to say.

Just for fun, here's a video of one of my favorite moments in the piece:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving Randomness - Endless hours watching the Food Network has fully prepared me to sit around watching you cook this Thanksgiving.

Confronted with the prospect of a lighter schedule for the first two weeks of this month, my body resolutely decided to go on strike.  Its strike was perfectly-timed: an autumn cold started on the day of our recital in Philadelphia, allowing me to perform the program reasonably unscathed.  The very next day, the cold settled comfortably into my upper respiratory system, setting up house, redecorating all the various respiratory passageways, painting them a lovely shade of infected pink.

Being incapacitated and forced to sit still at home for 10 days straight, restless and needing to direct my stir crazy energy somewhere useful, on top of sitting at my piano plinking out pitches in an effort to cram this music into my head (without actually singing it) for this upcoming concert, I ended up doing a bit of redecorating myself - all I can say is that my closets have never been cleaner or more organized.

My body, apparently satisfied with the vacation terms it had negotiated, slowly resumed cooperating with me just in time to go back to work to sing Bach with the Alabama Symphony last week.  Last week was a particular luxury, as I had the opportunity to work with all familiar faces and great friends.  Singing Bach with these friends was one of those special musical moments when there is nothing but music and play for me in both rehearsal and performance.  My duet partner for the Domine Deus (Kiera Duffy) and I barely had to utter words to each other in rehearsal - we just picked up on each other's musical instincts and responded spontaneously and effortlessly in sync with each other.  It was great fun to both sing with and listen to these good friends sing some of my favorite music ever composed.

While we were in Birmingham, the subject of nerves and stage fright came up, and we all commiserated about how we all have to grapple with it (you can read my colleague, Jenny Rivera's take on our conversations at her blog, here). It's so easy for us to beat ourselves about feeling it - it somehow feels as if we aren't courageous or brave, and because of that we are somehow inadequate to the task at hand. The thing is, I really don't believe that bravery is the absence of fear - I think it's the power to accept our fears and take a leap despite them.  

On the flight back to New York, thanks to the wonders of WiFi in the sky, I stumbled upon the video below by the actor, Edward Norton, discussing his experience with the terror associated with creativity and performance.

In a way, I feel that fear, while it feels like craziness, is actually sanity.  Without it, something doesn't feel right to me, and there is an essential energy that is missing.  The challenge is to accept it and not let it hold you back.

Anyway, I digress...mostly, I just was writing to check in and wish everyone in the US (and any Americans reading this abroad) a very Happy Thanksgiving.  Fortuitously, I am actually free for the holiday weekend this year (last year involved a flight to Kansas City and a surprisingly good room service burger that I ate while watching Monster-In-Law).  So, it will be nice to spend the day stuffing my face with turkey with family members for a change.  Just another moment that I can add to the long list of things I have to be grateful for this year.

I leave with you a gratitude-ful song that was attributed to Handel for a long time sung by one of my favorite singers:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Leadership and Community

Here's a fantastic New York Times profile on the conductor, Michael Morgan, from the other day (picture above is from the NYTimes article).

My two favorite quotes from the article:
“The thing I find most interesting about orchestras is using them to bring the town together...We want the fans of this music and that music, who may never see each other in real life, to come and watch a concert together.”
“All of my ideas about bringing people together come from seeing myself as outsider...Being black in what’s considered a white music culture, being gay in a straight culture. Everything to me is about asking, ‘How do you use your outsider status to bring more people together?’ ”

Thinking back to last Friday's mostly-Britten recital in Philly, those comments coincidentally touch on what are central themes to much of Britten's work, and much of the music that Myra and I performed on Friday night.  It's pretty clear that Britten, himself, felt like an outsider throughout much of his life.  In the liner notes to our Winter Words album (which come with the album when you purchase it on iTunes, if you don't already have a copy), I wrote about how the first time I ever performed Winter Words, I felt very much an outsider in the community in which I was performing, and how singing Britten's music that night bound all of us in the hall together in a profound way.  Ever since then, I've been amazed at Britten's ability to create music that so movingly touches on these common human experiences.  When performing his music, I always feel that there is the potential to draw an audience's attention to the experiences that we share as humans, focusing on what binds us together rather than what it is that divides and differentiates us.  Last Friday's recital in Philly was no exception. 

In the end, perhaps I feel that way about most of the music I perform, but it was most certainly Britten's music that drew me to that realization about the connective possibilities of performance in the first place.

It's so great to see/read about a like-minded soul also making a mark out there in our present-day musical universe.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Britten Humour

In honor of tomorrow's recital in Philly - a folksong setting that will not be on tomorrow's program...

I also came across this sweet picture of a young Benjamin Britten the other day - it looks like it could be his high school senior picture:

If I'm going to show Benjamin's Senior Picture (actually, I think he's 20 years old in that picture), I feel that I must be fair and show mine, too:

I must admit - I think Mr. Britten looks sharper and much more put together than I did...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Purple Day

I'm wearing Purple today.  I hope you are, too.  If you're wondering why - read here.

If you're a young LGBT person being bullied or harassed - there's a wealth of resources for you to get help here and here.  Get help, keep hope, and stay really does get better.  

Here's one of my favorite "It Gets Better" videos:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Happy Coming Out Day

A very happy National Coming Out Day to one and all!  Here's something a little festive to celebrate to (complete with a over-the-top, fluffy gown):

I blogged about my own coming out story a few years back here.  I've been out for 16 years now, and I couldn't be happier.  

There is also an incredible site, I'm from Driftwood, that beautifully documents many people's coming out stories in both video and writing - check out a few of their favorite ones here.

To all those who are out and proud and our allies, I celebrate you, your bravery, and your inspiration.  To all those who are still working through the process of coming out and struggling to find that courage to show the world who you are: you are loved, it most definitely gets better, and there is an incredible community of wonderful people out here waiting to welcome you with open arms and loving hearts.  

Keeping Us On Our Toes

Myra warming up for our recital last Friday

After an entire year of slogging through airports alone, I slogged through the airport security for the umpteenth time on Thursday, only this time to be met by a very welcome sight after having all of my body and luggage scanned by strangers – Myra was sitting very calmly, reading her phone at the gate where our flight was to take off. She saw me and smiled as I sat down next to her, and we marveled at the fact that an entire year had passed since our last recital tour. About a half and hour later, our gate agent shuffled us on the plane, and we were off to our first recital of the 2011 – 2012 season, this one in the small town of Tryon, North Carolina.

Tryon is a beautiful little town nestled in the North Carolina Appalacian mountains, with a quaint little downtown filled with small, independently owned businesses (not a chain in sight!), and beautiful views of the tree-covered mountainsides that were just starting to turn from summer green to autumn red, orange and gold. We were excited to bring our Carnegie Hall Purcell/Britten program from last fall filled with so much beautiful music to this little town also filled with so much beauty.

Between our confident feelings about the program and the isolated, quiet nature of this adorable little town, we found ourselves almost feeling like were on a mini-vacation to the country. I turned to Myra at one point as we were warming up for the evening’s recital and said, “I almost feel too relaxed…this is really strange…”

After our warm-up in the hall, I went out to the lobby to get a program, when suddenly that very relaxed feeling evaporated into thin-air. I picked one up, only to discover that the presenters had not been able to print out our texts and translations in the program. I panicked - How will the audience know what these songs are about? How will they understand this music now?!

The omission turned out to be a bit of blessing in disguise – having toured the program last year and recorded it now, we both felt incredibly comfortable going into Tryon. Perhaps a bit too comfortable…Knowing that there were no translations for the audience to follow provided a bit of an edge to our concentration throughout the recital Friday. We were reminded with extra urgency that no musical nuance, no consonant, no vowel was to be taken for granted, and we felt an urgency to communicate each and every moment with the utmost clarity. It forced us to sharpen our message, and it forced us to refine our music-making. It forced us to stay on our toes.

I'm always grateful for the little reminders not to take anything for granted - It’s always a good thing to be kept on one’s toes, after all...

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


In honor of Helicon's concert last night at the Morgan Library (which was great fun), a quote from Proust, himself on the importance of the arts:

‎"Only through art can we get outside of ourselves and know another's view of the universe." 

Many thanks to my Helicon colleagues last night for an incredible evening of music-making, and to my dear friend, Susie, for sending this little gem my way. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

A Week of Songs

After roasting swans last week in our nation's capital, I get to spend this week singing songs of a different nature.  

Rehearsing Hahn at the Morgan (thanks to Helicon's Artistic Director, James Roe, for the pic)

Tonight, I perform with an incredible, slightly under-the-radar organization called Helicon in one of their few public performances in the group's history.  Helicon is a private chamber music society that meets four times a year for four different themed musical symposiums.  At these evenings, Helicon's subscribers get to experience programs and discussions of chamber music performed and discussed by phenomenal musicians who specialize in this repertoire.  I've performed with the organization a few times now, and their evenings are truly an extraordinary experience.  They are New York City's modern-day, musical salon

This evening's program at the Morgan Library (a unique opportunity for the general public to get to experience a taste of of what Helicon has to offer) focuses on the musical life surrounding Marcel Proust.  My contribution to tonight's concert will be an extended set of songs by Reynaldo Hahn, who was Proust's lover for an extended period. 

Reynaldo Hahn (August 9, 1874 – January 28, 1947)

A friend described Hahn's music as "cabaret music, in the style of French Art Song" the other night at dinner.  I must admit, considering Hahn wrote most of these songs for himself to sing while he accompanied himself at the piano with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, my friend's description is somewhat accurate.  But they are also so much more than that - Hahn was an incredibly complex musical thinker (he wrote extensively on the subject and was a noted musical critic in his day) and the poetry he was drawn to was incredibly sophisticated.  His songs are some of the most breathtakingly beautiful music I've ever performed.  I've noticed over the years that the most difficult music to master is the music that sounds the most simple.  Hahn was a master of simplicity, and each of these gems, while finely crafted and extremely detailed, come off as if they are effortless.  Here's just one example of the beauty he was capable of creating:

On Friday, Myra and I revisit the two familiar friends pictured below in recital in North Carolina.  You can read some of my ramblings about that program here and here...or (if you'll excuse the shameless plug) in the my liner notes for our latest album, which you can purchase here and here.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Commercial Carmina

In honor of my post yesterday...

It's not necessarily a car commercial, but it's a commercial, and it has cars...

And one more Carmina commercial for your amusement:

Last night was great fun!  We have two nights left at the Kennedy Center - if you're around DC and want to see it, tickets and concert info are here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Carmina, Revisted

A lot of classical musicians roll their eyes when you mention Carmina Burana.  “Oh, it’s so silly!” they say.  When you mention Carmina Burana to someone who isn’t super familiar with classical music, they’ll say, “I’m not sure I know that piece?”  To which musicians always reply, “Oh yes, you do – it’s in, like, every car commercial you’ve ever seen…”

Eight years ago, I was walking down the street in New York City when my cell phone rang.  It was Kim Witman from Wolf Trap Opera who wanted to know if I would be interested in singing Carmina Burana with the National Symphony Orchestra in the Filene Center when I got to Wolf Trap in a few weeks.  The funny thing is, when she called, my knowledge of the piece was limited to the following two facts: The opening movement was in, like, every car commercial; and I would have to sing three high D’s. Aside from that, I really didn’t know anything else about it. 

At our first rehearsal here in DC at the Kennedy Center, I realized that I actually knew more of the piece than I thought I did at the time – I’d heard bits and bobs of it here and there on various recordings and in, yes, car commercials. It occurred to me that the main reason that I wasn’t so familiar with the piece was a result of the car commercial thing – I just assumed it wasn’t “serious” music. But these really beautiful and fascinating moments of music that were new to me kept occurring left and right in rehearsal, and I found myself completely charmed and moved by the piece.

Eight years and many performances later, as I’ve been rehearsing the piece with the NSO again, revisiting this place where I learned this piece this week, I’ve been marveling at how Orff's music hasn’t gotten old for me.  I don’t have much to sing in this piece, so I end up spending most of the concerts listening. After all these times doing it, the In Trutina still makes my eyes water up a little but, the Ego sum abbas still makes me chuckle, and the Blanziflor et Helena still gives me gooseflesh.  It’s just extraordinary music.  I guess that accounts for its popularity.  It’s obvious that the reason it has bled so pervasively throughout our culture is not because it is cheesy, but because it is so extraordinarily exciting and beautiful.

If you are in the DC area, we perform tonight, as well as Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center.  More info is here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Album One

You’ve probably noticed the ad for my debut solo album on Avie at the top right corner of the blog for the last month or so…the album was released digitally this week (the physical release was a little earlier this month), so I feel it behooves me to post about it for a moment. Both Myra and I are really excited about the album, as it represents not only what was an incredibly important step in our preparation for our Carnegie Hall debut recital last fall, but also the beginning of a new exciting artistic chapter for us. 

Since the album’s release, the most commonly asked question has been “Why Britten?”  The main reason I was drawn to Britten was that over the past few years, between various recitalings and my summers exploring vocal chamber music at Marlboro, I've become increasingly amazed by the power of Britten.  I wrote a bit about my first outing of Winter Words in a small, Midwestern town in the album’s liner notes, and how I was so surprised by the positive impact it had on the audience there.  I learned many valuable lessons from that concert about never underestimating an audience, and how emotionally moving Britten’s music is.  Since that concert, I feel as if I have become a missionary for his music, proselytizing to anyone who will listen.

Back when Myra and I were given the opportunity to perform a debut recital in Carnegie Hall, the big question was: what music do we sing?  Almost immediately, my obsession with Britten and his music took over, and the next thing we knew, we had an entire program that was mostly comprised of his music.  As we dug deeper into these pieces during our rehearsals, we felt that we simply had to record it.  In the process of learning about Britten these past couple of years, we have inevitably become fascinated with other pieces of his music, and are excited to explore more of it in the recording studio as we put together the next album!

You can purchase the album on iTunes here, and (if you are an old-fashioned CD collector, like me) you can order physical copies of the album at here.

We hope you enjoy!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Decade

Ten years ago I had just moved to New York City.
Ten years ago I was just beginning a Master’s degree at Manhattan School of Music.
Ten years ago my roommate woke me up saying, “oh my god, you’ve got to see this…”
Ten years ago we sat in our living room together, watching our tv in shock and horror.

We watched as one of the World Trade Center towers smoked and burned.
We watched a second plane fly into the second Twin Tower.
We watched as the towers crumbled before our eyes, crushing the people trapped within, clouds of dust flooding the streets, people running for their lives.

Ten years ago we sat around all day wondering what to do, where to go.
Ten years ago we climbed to the roof of our building with some friends who lived upstairs and looked toward downtown.

We watched the giant, thick tower of endless smoke that was rising into the sky.
We watched fighter jets circle Manhattan in the afternoon sun.
We watched as our silent, empty streets filled with people, forced to walk home from work.

Ten years ago we speculated as to who would have done this.
Ten years ago we wondered why this was happening.
Ten years ago we felt under attack.

Ten years ago our world changed.

Ten years ago, I was stunned at the level of violence and hate humanity was capable of. 
Ten years ago, I also marveled at the beauty and compassion humanity was capable of. 

I watched people holding, comforting each other at candlelit shrines all over New York.
I watched as subway stations became wall-papered with pictures of loved ones.
I watched strangers smile at each other as they walked by on the street.
I watched as people committed random acts of kindness in one of the toughest cities in the world.
I watched as one of the loneliest cities in the world to live in became a community, united and strong.

Now, after a five-year hiatus in Houston, I am a resident of New York City again.
Now, I am working at the opposite end of the country in Los Angeles.
Now, after a decade of desensitizing myself to all that happened, I find myself on the edge of tears as the world reminisces.
Now, I am about to sing my first Mozart Requiem.
Now, I think of all the lives lost on that day and since as I study Mozart’s unfinished music.
Now, I am grateful that I am immersed in a profession that is dedicated to realizing the beauty that humanity is capable of.

Now, as the world marks a decade since September 11, 2001, I find that all I really want to say is this:

I really believe that, all being human, we are all in essence one.

When we hurt each other, we hurt ourselves. 
When we kill each other, we kill ourselves. 

I leave you with this excerpt from Handel’s oratorio, Theodora:

Descend, kind Pity, heavenly guest,
Descend, and fill each human breast with sympathizing woe.

That liberty and peace of mind may sweetly harmonize mankind,
And bless the world below.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Checking The Sound

One aspect of hopping from one concert hall to another is adjusting to each acoustic once we arrive.  While the technique of sound production remains the same, the sensation of singing can differ vastly between venues.  What I love about sound check rehearsals is that, in addition to being a chance to feel out the sonic space, it's also a chance for us to tweak things a bit in between performances.  Performance always brings out new things that can't occur in the rehearsal room - sound checks allow us to revisit things and see which new things from each performance worked, and which new things didn't.  It keeps things fresh and alive, and it's a chance for the team to reconnect, regroup, and refocus.

Sound checks are also an opportunity for me to play with my are some shots from both Bucharest and Torino...

Our noble Ariodante for this tour, Ann Hallenberg

Ginevra - Roberta Mameli

Dmitry Sinkovsky - Il Complesso Barocco's fearless leader

Dalinda (who is quite mean to me in the opera...) - Ana Quintans (who is incredibly sweet to me in real life!)