Cynthia Tarr Is a Treasure

Sonoma Treasure Artist reception set for January 29.
Story & Photos  David Bolling

Among the numerous things that Cynthia Tarr did not know a few short weeks ago was just exactly what the annual Sonoma Treasure Artist is and does.
Another thing she didn’t know was that she was one—a Treasure Artist.
She gets home one night from a late rehearsal of her Performance Workshop and finds a note by her computer from her husband, Cliff Hugo. It says, “Call this guy, George Thompson, ASAP tomorrow morning.”
Cynthia has never heard of George Thompson.
Then, in the morning, Cliff wakes up Cynthia and says, “Call this guy, right now.”
Cynthia asks, “Is this a bad thing?” Cliff says, “No, it’s a good thing.”
So Cynthia makes the call and says, “Hey George, it’s Cynthia Tarr. What’s up?”
George Thompson says, “Have you heard of the Sonoma Treasure Artist of the Year thing?”
Cynthia says, “Yeah.”
George says, “Well, you were nominated.”
Cynthia says, “Oh, that’s really nice.”
George says, “Yeah, and you got it!”
Cynthia is stunned. “What? What?” she manages to gasp.
In the doorway Cliff is saying, “Oh my God!”
Cynthia asks George what being Treasure Artist involves and he tells her, “Well you serve for a year.”
Cynthia, who has clawed her way through, and ultimately out of, the L.A. music industry, has spent a lot of time as a waitress, so she asks, “So what’s involved in that? Do I have to feed the City Council?”
It’s not clear if the question is serious, but George Thompson, who serves on the Sonoma Cultural and Fine Arts Commission that reviews nominees and chooses a Sonoma Treasure each year, explains, “Well you’re in the (Fourth of July) parade. Oh, and they give you a party.”
It turns out that Tarr has been nominated by members of the Free Spirits Gospel Choir, which she directs, and when she tells them about being in the parade, she later explains, “Everybody thought that was hysterical, because that means I have to wake up to be in the parade, because I don’t do mornings. I told them I wanted to stage them around the route so they could wake me up.”
The Sonoma Treasure is an annual honor bestowed since 1983 on someone selected and recognized for outstanding achievement in the arts, as well as for their service and involvement in the community. MFK Fisher has been a nominee, as has Norton Buffalo, Stanley Mouse, Kate Kennedy, Jim Callahan, Cynthia Hipkiss, Chester Arnold, Roger and Diane Rhoten, Keith Wicks, Dennis Ziemienski, David Aguilar and Peter Hansen. It’s heady company, and the wonder of it all is still fresh as Cynthia reflects on what it actually means. One thing it means, she admits in a moment of Sally Field revelation, is that a lot of people really like her, especially members of the Free Spirits Gospel Choir.
“I think there’s a lot of love in that room,” she says. “I just love them up. I accept them exactly where they are. I think I inspire them a lot, I write to them a lot. I make them laugh all the way through choir so that they feel more a part of it, and we become a community, it’s a very special community. We do things for people if they’re having a tough time. They feel immediately loved and cared about. One of the women said to me, ‘I think a lot of us really joined this thing thinking, oh, this is a fun thing to do Wednesday nights, but the buy-in has just gotten bigger and bigger.’ People really care about it, and we’ve gotten a lot better.”
Cynthia directs the music department at the Sonoma Community Center from a small ground-floor office crowded by a grand piano. And another reason people love her is that she’s taught a whole lot of them how to sing.
How many? Cynthia equivocates because the question leads into sensitive territory. She was taught by her mother to be modest.
“I don’t know, a lot of people. A thousand? That sounds too high. Hundreds, anyway. Many hundreds. I teach a lot of people over 50. It’s a really fascinating thing to do, and it’s also a very deep thing to do. Because if you come in and say, ‘I want to learn how to sing and I’m 60,’ you’re doing it for the joy. I’m clear on that.”
She pauses to frame the thought more clearly.
“I think singing is a really powerful metaphor to pursuing joy. It’s a really powerful metaphor for not coasting, for saying, ‘I want more out of this.’ A lot of people come in saying, ‘Why am I here? I don’t really know why I’m here, but I’m going to try it. I can’t sing. I’m never going to be a soloist.’ Almost all my people start that way, and then they’re in performance workshops, kitchen concerts. They get there. So I think there’s a third act thing there that’s really rich.”  
And how do you teach people to sing?
“There are muscles and skills, and you have to get to a point where you start to really get that. There’s a million teeny, tiny increments, and part of the thing about teaching that’s really interesting is that it’s a process you’re gleaning intellectually, and it’s a process your voice is getting experientially, and they’re not the same two tracks. So sometimes your voice is learning faster than you are, and sometimes you get the sense of it, but your voice isn’t there … Sometimes somebody comes in after working a couple of months and suddenly their voice is twice as big. I’ll always go, ‘What happened there? Did you notice that? That’s a huge change.’ They go, oh, I don’t know.’ Sometimes it happens just because they’ve been working for a while, and suddenly it just opens up.”
Cynthia herself promises to open up and sing for her Treasure Artist reception, scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, January 29, at Andrews Hall, in the Sonoma Community Center, 276 East Napa Street. Tickets are $25, available only in advance until January 23 from the Sonoma City Clerk’s office on the Plaza, 707.933.2216.   

One Comment

  1. Your writing, David, expresses exactly who I know as Cynthia Tarr. She’s an amazing talent and person and truly is loved by most of us who know her through singing. She’s a true cheerleader and very funny too.
    Love your writing, David!

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