Lessons, a square peg, and the issue

February 8, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 2 Comments
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You have no idea how much I have missed writing.  Not only the writing process itself, but even just having the time and psychic space necessary to sit with myself long enough for it all to pour out and come together.  Right now I am sitting in on Rachel’s violin lesson with my laptop, which I brought with me so I could attempt to keep up with my work correspondence.  Even though the icons in the lower right hand corner of my screen are telling me I am connected to some local wireless internet source (a mysterious wasteland to me at best), I cannot pull up my browser, and my email refuses to either send or receive.  Flexible person that I am, I seized the opportunity to write instead of fighting with the cyber void.

From my seat on this second-hand couch in this classroom/youth lounge in the church where Rachel has her lessons, and later tonight, in a larger room, her weekly youth orchestra rehearsal, I am privy to a quintessential winter scene outside.  There is still plenty of snow on the ground from Saturday night’s storm.  The clouds are high but beginning to thicken, and looming with a darkness that foretells of the next wave, due around midnight.  Even so, there is a wan slice of late afternoon sunlight breaking through the clouds just above the horizon, from behind the branches of the large neighborhood tree, my view of which is perfectly framed by the edges of the window, a striking arboreal silhouette.  I find this kind of picture to be one of the richest gifts of this stark and frigid time of year – how many shades of white, blue, and grey can there possibly be?  I would never find this palette satisfying during any other season, but these few minutes have been like a visual feast.

In this calm before the storm, I submit to the admittance that this has not been an easy year.  On top of the fact that my family is negotiating the bulky and uncomfortable transition of letting go of one adored offspring, and I am walking my own musical labyrinth toward I know not what, I have taken on one year-long working assignment that is siphoning too much out of me and failing to satisfy me.  In my typical fashion, I have been battling with, instead of listening to, my twice-weekly inner experience of engaging in this project.  Every week, as I approach Monday and then again Friday, my step lags and I feel a sinking sensation in my stomach.  I think they call it dread.

I have never thought of myself as an optimist.  I do not tend to look on the brighter side of things, except when faced with someone who is looking at the decidedly darker end of the continuum, in which case I usually feel called upon to find the more luminous lining.  Yet, amazingly, I find myself doggedly showing up, week after week, dragging along the frail yet stubborn hope that I may suddenly stumble into some kind of love affair with this work.  In my more desperate moments I have sworn that after I wrap this up in June I will walk away from it forever.  Yet two weeks ago, when I had to indicate my plans for next year, I found myself unable to make it final on paper.  “Surely we can make this work!” some inner voice sings (or is it whining?) in my ear.

As I write this, I can see the theme that is crying out for my attention.  How many times in my life have I forced myself to do something because my intellect judges it to be good and I am capable of carrying it out, ignoring all the while a tiny voice inside me that is saying, “But.  I.  don’t.  like.  this.”  Bully that I am with myself, I have driven myself straight into many a situation without it even dawning on me to hold an inner committee meeting first.  Even once it becomes clear that we’re not looking at what you would call a good fit, my self-appointed internal judge and jury has usually insisted, tyrannically, on saying yes to the next offer, and again to the next.  “C’mon!” the court-cheerleader is stridently urging my square self, “Keep it up!  You’ll nestle into this round hole soon!”

Warning:  Please brace yourself for what may seem like an about-face.  In all honesty, I am actually very glad I accepted this position.  And, in my own defense, I did confer with myself, heart to heart (okay, I know I only have one heart, but you know what I mean), before agreeing to it way back in August.  I admit, I only had about one week to decide, because it was offered to me on short notice, so it was a rush job.  But the truth is that I could never have known what it was going to be like without just doing it.  And if I had said no and moved into autumn the way I had been planning, I know I would have been annoyed with myself, many times over, for not having been willing to try it.  I have no doubt of that, knowing myself as I do.

What’s more, I’m good at it – certainly not stellar, since, after all, I am a novice at it, and I have made plenty of mistakes along the way – but in general people are happy with the job I’m doing.  And even I can see the results, and they’re good!  My co-workers seem to accept me as one of them, and I by no means have a corner on the market when it comes to my complaints about the challenges that are part of the package.  In fact, my colleagues are bending over backwards to help me, so I feel very supported, and those that have come to observe me have complimented me, saying I’m doing a good job.  It’s hard but it’s not bad.  There is a difference.  So what’s the problem?

I had a rabbi who once said to me, “The content is not the issue.”  Truer words have rarely been spoken!  As much as it always seems that it is these particular circumstances, whatever they are, that are causing the problem, it is always my view of and reaction to them at the heart of the matter.  I could list for you the details that continue to make my work difficult, but that is not what is at issue here.

Regardless of the fact that Dan and I are now paying for our FAFSA-determined share of college tuition and we are happy to have the added income, that my learning curve is greatly enhanced by this new venture and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to grow from it professionally, that I am doing something good and that is a pleasant feather in my cap, and that it is possible it could grow into something even greater over time; regardless of all that is good about it, it is simply not where I want to be putting my energy.

You probably don’t know that I used to be a bookkeeper.  It was before the computer age, so I would have to go through a considerable updating process to return to that line of work, but I could do it.  I am a perfectionist (NO! you are exclaiming, in shock.  I know.  But I digress.) so I was a darn good bookkeeper, accounting for every penny, and it always came out right at the end of the week.  I could do it again, but that is not where I want to be putting my energy either.

Okay, this is where I am cringing inside.  The battering voice rises up, and I will share it with you.  Who-the-hell-are-you, it rumbles, that-you-get-to-be-so-discriminating?  Other-people-would-be-grateful-for-a-job-like-this.

Well, I am grateful.  And I want to move in a different direction, even if (and here’s where I feel defenseless against the voice-with-hyphens) I don’t know exactly which, yet.  I love writing this blog and would like to try my hand at writing something bigger than a blog.  I gave up a career in folk music years ago, but would like to take my music into new venues and new rooms and begin to create a meaningful connection with new listeners.  I have for years wanted to bring the arts into the corporate domain to nurture the hearts and right brains of people whose left brains are very effective, to see what could be cultivated.  You should see the pile of books I continue to check out from the library on paper and fiber arts – I am itching to get my hands on color and texture and see what I can do!  I completed the first round of training a couple years ago to teach people how to improve their visual acuity through relaxation and good ocular habits, and found I loved working one on one with clients, something else I would like to expand upon.

And here’s the thing that came to me as I wrote the above.  Yes, I’m busy – too busy – right now.  Yes, I have too many pans in the fire.  And yes, that’s an old and familiar pair of shoes.  (Not to mention the obvious fact that I could add many more pans.  Or shoes.  I’m not sure which metaphor I’m carrying here.)  And, probably like most people, I don’t always love everything I have (over-) committed to.  But that is not the issue.  As true as it is, and as much as I have repeated that history, it is still just a deeper layer of the content.

What lies even deeper than that is the fact that I know what I need to do and I keep resisting it because my mind thinks it knows better.  But how can I allow my mind to rule on its own, without tapping into my heart and intuition?  Surely creativity and wisdom spring from something more than mere intellect.  Six weeks from tomorrow I will turn 57.  My father’s father took up oil painting in his 50s and died in his 60s.  What am I waiting for?

What am I waiting for?

Permission.

From whom?

I am finishing this writing a day later.  The snow came upon us last night with gusto, with a whipping wind and such cold that the dry white drifts squeaked under our boots and tires today.  That serene and achingly spare glimpse of winter beauty that bequeathed itself to me lasted but a few moments and then yielded to sunset, which yielded to darkness lit by a clear crescent moon, which yielded to more clouds, which emptied themselves upon us in a fury, all through the rest of the night and most of this day.  Not one of them asked for permission from anywhere, neither the clouds nor the moon, neither the sun nor the tree.  Each played its part with both grace and passion.  And acceptance, that divine gift of nature.  Thank you, God, for helping me pay attention and for making me teachable.

 

Pans in the fire

August 14, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 3 Comments
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You should see my desk. Of course, that is just an expression, and I would be embarrassed if you even stole a glance at it, so please do not take that as an invitation. What I really mean is you are about to be submitted to a description – or maybe more like a sampling – of what lies literally before me. Between my sternum and the computer monitor: indicators of my pans in the fire.

  • The tailpiece from a bass viola da gamba. Almost three years ago I was putting new strings on my viola da gamba (a hand-me-down) for a concert, when I heard the most horrendous sound of something ripping. As I tightened the high D-string, the gut was pulling right through the wood of the tailpiece, along the grain. The harder I tried to bring the string up to pitch, the farther it tore, until I saw that it was going to continue to cut all the way through unless I reduced the tension, thereby de-tuning the string and rendering the viol unplayable. It made me sick to my stomach to look at it. Dan rigged a temporary fix by inserting a tiny bushing, but then when I tightened the string, the metal bushing shredded the string itself. We somehow finessed it just enough for me to get through the concert.

    I emailed the luthier, who emailed right back, instructing me to take the strings off and send him the tailpiece. He promised to either repair it (I hope not) or replace it (yes, please). Okay, now I had a new challenge. Even contemplating the task of taking it all apart made me as queasy as did the wound itself. So I cleverly put it back in its case and, with the exception of two or three feeble attempts to play the viol in spite of its ailment, I avoided the whole problem. This, I discovered, is a one hundred percent successful strategy, but only in terms of my nausea. So finally, finally, this afternoon I faced my demons (this one anyway) and took it to a local violin maker who removed the tailpiece and handed it to me, flaws and all. Which is how it came to be sitting on my desk. I promise I will be more prudent in emailing the luthier about my progress on this front, in hopes of speeding up the recovery of my poor viol. I’ll update you.

  • Various chord charts, lyrics and program notes. The actual inventory of this small pile: a bar mitzvah service program from September, 2007; one chord chart for an unidentified song; a small essay on prayer; lyrics to two songs, one identified and one not; the chords and lyrics and my concertina part for the final lines of the Beatles’ “And in the end, the love you take…” (as soon as I went to type that, the title of the song flew out of my head); a loose songsheet for a British folksong called “Dockside Cries” by someone whose initials are A.M.B.; lyrics to Lotus Dickey’s song arrangement of Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life”; words to a beautiful song about Israel’s Lake Kineret that I taught at school six years ago; and the chord chart to “Stairway to Heaven” to which a friend adapted a Hebrew song.

    What are all of these pieces doing together? I have no idea. And the bigger surprise – even to me – is that one of my violin students brought them to me last week saying that somehow the pile had gone home with her after her lesson the week before. Not only am I utterly blank as to the roadmap for the journey of this little collection, I have no idea where they were before last week nor where I should return them now. However, I have faith that I will soon need at least one of these items, since they have materialized so magically and mysteriously. I will report back if I’m right. If I’m wrong, you can forget about this one.

  • A hand-sketched (two-sided page) chart of dates and who is available when. Our synagogue is in the process of welcoming a new rabbi, after over a year of searching. This is a joyous time, and simultaneously an opportunity to fill my calendar and many others. Last month I had one meeting with our executive director, the new rabbi, and two of my three fellow High Holidays music leaders, discussing how to be somewhat consistent with how we led last year’s services when we had no rabbi, how to introduce the rabbi to the services we have created over the past four decades, and also how to introduce the rabbi to the congregation-at-large at said services. Two days later I helped lead the services with one of my fellow music leaders and the new rabbi. The following weekend I compiled this chart of the responses of seven families to a query I had put out a week or two prior about when our group of families could perhaps have dinner and get acquainted with the new rabbi. Soon after that I met with the Shabbat services committee and the new rabbi to discuss how things look for weekly services. A few days later I had a one-on-one with the new rabbi to go through the music for several of the High Holidays prayers, just to make sure I’m singing them correctly (at my request), and a meeting with one of the religious education committees to talk with the new rabbi. The next day I “met” on the phone with the new rabbi to decide how the two of us would lead the Shabbat service for that week, and of course that Saturday we had the service itself. And finally, late last month I attended a larger meeting with the executive director, the new rabbi, and several individuals who put the High Holidays services together.

    After all these meetings, I can say I have met the new rabbi. However, my task was to pick a date for the other seven families in this group to get acquainted with her. After sending out one group email and carefully recording the responses, I emailed our top three dates to the woman in charge of “congregants meeting the new rabbi.” That email got lost in the shuffle, so after some days had passed, I sent another email, which in turn got handed over to a fellow committee member, who in turn called me and told me she would check those dates with the new rabbi. She did and called me back. None of our three picks would work.

    At my next meeting with the rabbi, I asked her directly which dates might work for her. (I do occasionally learn from past experiences.) She gave me four choices and I emailed those to the seven families concerned and charted the responses as they came to me over the course of the next week or so. The most popular choice could only accommodate four and one-half families.

    We have decided to wait until after the High Holidays and try again.

  • The brand new handbook for high school families at our school. Last year, a fellow mom and I established a new group, open to any parents from our high school. We met at her home on a school night every five or six weeks, and sat in a circle, sipping tea and eating munchies while chatting about topics that were brought up spontaneously by anyone in the circle. The purpose was simply to create a sense of community between us, and to share our experiences and mutual support as parents of teenagers. It turned out to be a very positive thing, and we are continuing it this year.

    Last week we met with the new high school coordinator, just to describe last year’s gatherings and to come to a mutual understanding of the role this group fills. It was a fruitful and gratifying meeting for us all, and toward the end I was given this new handbook. It looks great! Our high school is fairly young and we have been growing steadily in recent years, which creates a high need for clarification of things like expectations and policy. The booklet represents much progress in this area. I have only one problem, the title of which is I DO NOT HAVE A CHILD ENROLLED IN THE HIGH SCHOOL THIS YEAR. Just how nuts am I to have offered to help facilitate this group again for 2010-2011? I guess I will find out the answer to this perceptive and perhaps belated question.

  • CD and playlist. This is my desk. This is Chloe’s CD, a good-bye gift from one of her fellow graduating seniors. Her iTunes and my iTunes are both on my computer, so to enter things into her iPod means sitting at my desk. Do I need another reminder that she is leaving? I will not answer this question at this time.

  • A little teeny drawing of a cake, by Rachel. Rachel has a cake decorating business. She does not have her own computer, so she uses mine, which is great for many obvious reasons. The other day she received an order for an organic carrot cake, decorated with cream cheese frosting and “Happy Birthday Chad” on the top. Rachel does incredible work, almost always off the cuff (so to speak). Over the past few months of baking, there have been a few little bumps in the road, many of which could have been avoided had there been a master plan, including a detailed, measured drawing. This drawing is on a piece of paper that measures 2 ½” by 4 ¼”. The cake illustration itself is 1 ¼” wide. The finished product will be a two-layer nine-inch cake. While I am pleased that she followed some advice and drew an actual picture of this one, I am now aware of the need to prepare myself for a possible cake emergency sometime in the next three days. The cake is due Tuesday.
  • To do lists. Yes, plural. Why would I keep old lists? Partly because I am so worried I will forgot something IMPORTANT that failed to get checked off before I ran out of room and had to start on a new piece of paper. And partly because I occasionally lose my list and have to start another, and then the old one turns up again. And partly because they remind me of something. Like a souvenir. Pause. Oh. I CANNOT BELIEVE I JUST WROTE THAT!! WHY would I want a souvenir of the things I have not accomplished over the past several months?

This blog is so helpful for me! I am laughing so hard at myself right now, I can hardly see straight. Okay, I really get it. Do you know that most stove tops have only four burners? Maybe there is a reason you can only cook in four pots at a time.

Naming my blog: a (slight) retrospective

August 12, 2010 at 11:47 am | Posted in Long Blogs | 4 Comments
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I admit it, I do become obsessed when I’m searching for the perfect whatever.  Decades ago, when Dan and I were planning our wedding I got so wrapped up in the quest for the right dress, I still found myself gazing at silks and pale colors two and three years after the gown had been properly stored away.  Embarrassing, but true (and somehow freeing to say it out loud in public, after all these years – thanks for listening!)  So when I was trying to come up with a name for my blog, it was torture.  Here’s what I wrote while still in the throes of the final decision-making agony:   

So now it’s a name.  No, no more babies, no more dogs, unless you call this blog my newest child or pet.  But perhaps it would be helpful to review the last few name-selecting processes I have been through and survived to tell the tale.

  1. Chloe’s name.  When I was pregnant with Chloe, we chose no boy-names.  Holding on to the old fashioned mysteries, Dan and I had decided that even though the doctors and nurses and staff people could be informed of our baby’s gender through the miracles of science (I was 38, so they required amniocentesis) we wanted to wait until the moment all of our ancestors had had to wait for.  I’m not saying there were no male names that we liked.  There was Ian, Ewan, Matthew, Martin (except for what “Martin” means), and more that have been long forgotten, but none of them made it to the “possibles” list.  So we arrived at the hospital (with less than two hours to spare, but that’s another story) with four girl-names:   Emma, Laurel, Maureen, and Chloe.
  2. There was no question in my mind.  Chloe was my favorite, hands down, and I couldn’t understand why we would consider any other choice, but since I thought Dan wasn’t sure, it seemed the right thing to do.  And to clinch the list idea, we reached a milestone decision:  How could we really know who the baby was until he/she was born, and therefore, how could we pick a name ahead of time?  Even with my bias, it seemed obvious to us that you have to wait and see who you get. 

    So after she was cleaned off and we got to look at her, we had to walk through the process of ruling out three names.  One look told us she was not an Emma, and probably not a Maureen either.  (I had gone to nursery school with a Maureen, and it forever holds meaning for me as a sweet and adorable bright-eyed toddler.)  That left Laurel and Chloe.  The latter had come from the movie “The Big Chill”.  Chloe’s character is somewhat enigmatic, of a younger, seemingly more flakey and carefree generation from the rest of the cast, but in the end she turns the most troubled individual around and offers him a new chance for happiness and serenity.  I saw her as a caring and wise soul peppered with a sprightly cheer. 

    Was Dan really strongly considering “Laurel”?  I’ll never really know, but I do remember that I breathed a sigh of relief when he came around.  And our Chloe has turned out to be a caring and wise soul, without a doubt, with more than a touch of her own brand of chirpiness.  The irony is that years later Dan discovered that he has been saying his L-sound in the wrong part of his mouth all of his speaking life.  Instead of using the tip of his tongue he has always pulled the back of said tongue up toward his hard palate – a very difficult thing to do, but it’s how he interpreted it way back when.  So, poor thing, either of our top two would have proved a mouthful for him!  It’s okay, she’s worth it.

  3. Rachel’s name.  Another story, first of all because we knew she was a girl.  As it was our second time around, we decided we were no longer in need of a mystery and allowed the clinic to give us the complete report from the amnio.  Actually, she was so different in the womb, I had thought that perhaps she was a boy, and shared my thoughts with Dan and Chloe.  So we spent a few weeks of early pregnancy picturing the little quintessential family with one girl and one boy, and then got the news that our imagined portrait had a major flaw.  That was amazingly shocking!  We found ourselves reeling for awhile over that piece of news. 
  4. Soon Dan and I went to work collecting names again, and this time nothing took.  We spent months combing through name books from the library, my parents’ house, and our friends.  Nothing.  Or rather, each time something sounded good, there was a compelling argument against it.  We liked Gretchen, but as we watched Chloe learning how to write her name, we decided it was too many letters.  I liked Ruby, but Dan felt it was too old-fashioned.  Emma, Laurel and Maureen were not even considered.   

    A few months later, on the way to the hospital in the back of an ambulance after Rachel had been born on the living room floor (I’ll cover that one some other time) I suddenly remembered that we had no list of names, or perhaps more accurately, no names on our list.  Once Chloe was handed off to my parents and Dan caught up with me in the hospital room, we discussed the issue at hand.  Finally we came up with the name Margot.  My parents had been brought together by a folksinging Margot Mayo in New York, which added a nice dimension, and we liked the sound of the name.  During the night, as I lay there too overwhelmed to sleep, the name Rachel came to me.  We decided in the morning to give Chloe the choice. 

    Unbeknownst to us, Chloe had gone through her own process during the months prior, and had decided the best name for the new baby would be Diamond (taking off from Ruby – another gem?  I’ll never know.)  I can easily imagine the kind of appeal that name would hold for a four-year-old who is becoming a big sister.  What I cannot imagine is what went through her mind when Dan called her at my parents’ house and offered her our two options, which had to seem unquestionably inferior to her.  Luckily she was by nature quite agreeable, and since there was in her mind no contest between Margot (ugh) and Rachel (yay!) she came through.  Definitely a family process.

  5. The Folkaltones.  I think I still have all the sheets of scrap paper on which we brainstormed for just the right way to capture the essence of our trio.  We loved Tribe of Three, until we Googled it and found it was already taken.  It went from there, and every time we ran a search engine we found we were not as clever and unique as we had believed.  It was ego crushing, not to mention frustrating, and it was getting annoying that we had no name.  I honestly have no memory of how it happened, but we finally settled on the Trifolkals.  We liked the implication of 3-ness, the obvious folk reference, and we decided to capitalize on the “focal” aspect by giving our music the subtitle “visionary folk”.  Egos back, intact.
  6.  Until we had printed out business cards and had the graphics all ready for our debut CD and a friend of mine from Chicago mentioned that there was already a trio by that name.  I had even already even made the acquaintance of their songwriter/leader, Greg Trafidlo, at a conference.  That was close!  So we had to return to the drawing board.  We played around with all the ideas again and, happily, stumbled fairly quickly upon Folkaltones, which took.  We like it, but most people think we are the Folka (like polka) tones and that continues to drive us mildly nuts.  It’s better than a lawsuit (though Greg is way too nice to think of it.)

  7. Naming my song Adjustment, and then changing the name to Bouncing Back.  I wrote this song in 1979.  Dan and I had split up in September of that year, after two years of dating, and two months later the song pretty much wrote itself, the result of a wrenching time.  “Can I help it if I’m not bouncing back…” is how the song starts, and the refrain echoes it at the end of each verse.  So when it came time to give it a title, a poet friend of mine suggested I call it what it is.  To me it was about adjusting to being alone, separate from Dan, when I wanted to be with him.  Once I had performed it a few times, audience members started to request the song about bouncing back.  It isn’t about bouncing back, I would respond.  It’s about not bouncing back.  Aren’t you listening carefully to my lyrics?  (I didn’t say that last part out loud, it not being a good idea to criticize fans.)  It went on my first solo album as Adjustment and retained that title.
  8. Until three years ago, when I decided to re-release a compilation CD of songs from my first three records.  This was my chance to make any changes.  The pain having been eased during the past thirty years, it dawned on me that perhaps the song was about bouncing back after all.  Maybe I wrote it during the early phase, when progress on that front was slowest.  Maybe my fans had been right all that time.  So for the first time ever, I re-titled a song.

  9. Naming this blog.  I keep going back to the advice of my poet friend, call it what it is.  What is this blog about?  Based on past experience, I may not really know the answer to that question until around the year 2040, but in the meantime, I think it is about two main things.  One is walking through the process of letting go of my older daughter as she leaves for college.  The other is figuring out what on earth I am going to do with my own life now that most of it has revolved around being the mother of two daughters and I will only have one living here.  Those don’t sound like they are related, except that both of them involve me, and I do happen to be the one writing this blog.  And one is catapulting the necessity of figuring out the other (you can work out which is which for yourself.)
  10. The challenge is that it is difficult to encapsulate both of those in a four-word title, give or take a word.  I had first come up with “Notes from the nest” but it’s taken.  I contemplated how this nest is going to be half empty – “Half-empty nest”.  Already taken, but also it is seen as leaning toward the negative, which is not my desire.  So I brilliantly and optimistically went for “Half full nest” but it’s taken.  And I decided also that it kind of sounds more like the earlier years of child-raising (especially when you read the blogs at those sites.)

    So I have been brainstorming for days.  Partial list:  Face the Music, Cries at Weddings, So Far from the Nest, Musings from the Nest, Mom in Search of, Tune-up in the Nest, Mamatone, Take Your Vitamins, Whose Life Is It Anyway, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Love in the Translation, Tune-up for Mom, Losing my Marbles, Recomposing (maybe a little too close to “decomposing”), Lullabies for Mom, Apron strings and A-strings…

    Finally I stumbled upon Roots and Chords, which everyone in my house (at the time) liked.  I liked it too, but there was no sign from the universe to go ahead and grab it, except that it wasn’t already taken.  Up stepped my Great Doubting Mind:  If it isn’t already taken, maybe it’s not so good!  However, that kind of logic has a fatal flaw, which is that I will never ever get to post my site if I am seeking approval from an already existing title, SINCE I CAN’T HAVE THAT ONE.  Okay, breathe in, breathe out.  I finally just went to bed after that episode.  And this morning I jumped onto a new and different track:  Apron strings and metronomes.  Or Bach, Baez, and Bombeck.  I’m kind of liking that approach and have two hours in the car this afternoon to come up with more tries.

    Obviously, by the time you read this, the decision will have already been reached, since I will have chosen a title and posted my blog site.  OR you and I will be dead because waaaaaay too much time will be taken in making the decision.  As it is painful for me to imagine this being read at my funeral – or worse, used as my epitaph, I choose the first option.  I promise you will hear from me soon.

Back to August 12, 2010.  You can see where I ended up.  I think it turned out to be the best choice, just like all the others.

More on tension

July 28, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Posted in Short Blogs | 2 Comments
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After posting yesterday’s blog, questions came to me.

  • How much tension is “necessary” for what I am trying to accomplish?  More to the point, am I adding tension?  If I have habitual tension in my shoulders, and I place my hands on the piano keys, it is likely I am holding myself differently than I would if I tended to move more freely.  When I was working with an Alexander Technique teacher, we spent one session exploring my piano playing.  It took many tries to play one phrase without engaging my neck, back, and jaw, and when I finally accomplished it, there was so much emotion released in that act of free movement, I almost started sobbing!
  • Do I hold any attitudes or beliefs that contribute to my tension?  Can I explore these? 
  • How can I “work on” not being tense?  What an ironic question!  It will not help me to approach this with my usual drive and determination, because that will add unnecessary tightness.  In the aforementioned AT session, I did not sit down to the piano until we had spent a good half hour getting into a lighter and more effortless place with my posture and breath.  I cannot will myself to relax – I have to walk down a patient and conscious path in that direction, every time.  And it is a different path each time, otherwise I am approaching it in a rote way, which I have found to be almost useless.
  • How can I approach this with my mantra of doing it imperfectly?  There are so many days that I have only a limited time to practice.  Is it more important to work on technique as often as possible, or to work on “practice readiness” by walking down my AT path first, which might cost me my practice time?  I don’t have an answer to this right now.
  • I understand that if I practice a piece with tension, I am practicing playing it tense, which is the result I will get.  I also know myself well enough to say that one of the most important things I am learning these days is how to say “This is good enough for now.”

For the present I am going to do my best to dwell in the paradox this last piece contains.  A friend once asked me if I could expand myself enough to hold two (or more) conflicting feelings at the same time.  I have just been given another opportunity to explore that frontier.

On tension

July 27, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 3 Comments
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I figured something out.  It took awhile, but they say it takes whatever it takes.  Last year I was taking a violin lesson from a very wonderful and insightful teacher while studying at a workshop at Oberlin Conservatory.  He was helping me with a section of a piece that put my hand into an uncomfortable stretch, and I commented that I couldn’t find a way to play that combination of notes without my hand being tense. 

He looked at me – he has a way of really looking at you – and said, somewhat off-handedly, “Tension is okay.”  I was dumbfounded.   We had just spent several days in technique class working on how to hold the baroque violin and baroque bow, exploring our breath as we made big counter-clockwise circles in the air with our right arms, allowing gravity to assist us with an organically heavier beat on the down-bows and the resulting inhale and lighter touch to our up-bow and pick-up notes.  The object, I had been led to believe, was to learn to use the structure of the bow and the inherent qualities of the gut strings to our advantage so that our playing would be graceful and flowing, free of the bad and undesirable T-word.  Tension is our enemy, isn’t it? 

I have spent a lifetime trying to let go of the tension in my body.  I wake up every morning with my jaw and tongue – not my teeth – clenched.  Since my childhood I have walked through my days bracing myself, my gut held tight as if I am about to be punched, bearing down from my head into my throat into my neck and shoulders and from there into my middle.  I was utterly unconscious of all of this until it began to cause pain in my early adult years and then gradually I woke up to these patterns.   The more aware I became, the more I worked to rid myself of them.  And with the help of several therapies and practices, I have released many layers of them over three decades.

As I tended to these habits, I held highest the goal of being entirely free of them.  Drawing from another habit, I saw the picture as black and white, categorizing as follows:  being tense (read “the way I do it”) is bad and wrong, and being relaxed (read “the opposite of how I do it”) is perfect and right.  Corollary:  I should be doing it the right way. 

As I sit here writing this, I am almost laughing, but not quite.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that what I said in the previous paragraph is sadly laughable, but I’m not much beyond a wry smile yet.  I still fall into that way of thinking countless times a day without noticing I have returned to familiar territory in the blink of an eye.  Here’s the paradox:  I am still trying to be perfect, even though I have identified perfectionism as one of my greatest faults.  I am even trying to be perfect at not being perfect.  I just slip right back into the echoes of the very thing I think I am overcoming!  At that I can laugh whole-guttedly.  It reminds me of a woman (someone I don’t know) I once heard talking about how very hard she was on herself.  “I need to be MUCH MORE GENTLE ON MYSELF!” she hammered out fiercely.  Those of us listening to her were torn between the humor and the pathos.

That moment from my violin lesson stayed with me, perplexing me for months.  Then recently one day I was explaining a fine point to one of my students.  “There is a difference,” I pointed out patiently (I have patience with my students, just not much with myself), “between tension and rigidity.  It’s not that we want to be limp!  A musician needs to play with strength and firmness, and that’s not about being relaxed, it’s about…”  And then I realized I was on the edge of the issue myself.  What is it about?

Some moments in our lives simply call for us to rise to something.  We work hard to climb a mountain, to learn something difficult, to execute an excruciatingly fine act with grace, precision, care, etc.  It’s just important that we do not stay there!  Nobody can live every moment to the intensity that those moments demand of us.  We all need to breathe out after we achieve them.  Astoundingly, we even need to breathe out while we are working the hardest, right in the thick of the act itself.  The challenge is to continue to focus while we are in motion and then let go of the physical tension and keep breathing and moving.

So I tried it the next time I was practicing violin.  Could I climb the peak of even the most dramatic and gripping phrases with strength and vitality – even with tension – and then release it and let myself back down?  It did not come easily, but it was thrilling to experience it to even a small degree.  I did my best to stay with it all the way through the phrase, ascending the notes as I breathed in and out, moving forward, not grabbing onto anything along the way, so that the momentum could lead all the way to the climax.  Then I experimented with the sensation of letting go – to some degree – of what it took to get there, while still maintaining the musicality of the diminishing line.  Wow!  I could only begin to integrate it all, and no doubt a bunch of other fine points went out the window in the process, but it was exhilarating!

It provided a new touchpoint for me.  In recent days, without consciously thinking about it, it suddenly dawns on me to seize the opportunity to release the effort that I habitually exert throughout my day.  For a few seconds, I am free from that pattern of bearing down.  I experience a lightness and sense of flow almost instantly.  It allows me to breathe more deeply, and then the breathing out brings an even greater release.  I am instantly more gentle with myself (I hope somewhere, somehow, that nameless woman can read this!) and even the black and white thinking vanishes.  I do not expect it to make a permanent departure, but for those moments it is inconsequential.  It misses the point.  This moment, whenever it happens, is utterly filled with life.  And with practice, I am hopeful that it will become easier to integrate it into my violin playing as well.

Thank you, Teacher.  And thank you to the Muse for helping me to understand a little more along the way.

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