Questions on a plane

October 31, 2010 at 9:59 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | Leave a comment
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(I wrote this almost three weeks ago and finally feel ready to post it.)

I am sitting on a plane, on my way to three days of study on baroque violin with a colleague of mine who is a sublime musician and an excellent teacher.  I am looking forward to the work though I am sad to say my circumstances are not ideal.  I have been feeling puny lately, especially during the past week, and do not have much stamina, which may prove to be at odds with the prospect of spending three days in lessons and practice sessions.

This book I am reading – Callings, by Gregg Levoy – together with my present status, are bringing up a lot of ponderings.  I guess sometimes a malady makes you go to bed, and sometimes it sends you to your journal.

1. What is important? I was standing in one of four parallel security lines at the airport.  Dan and I had picked this line because it looked ever so slightly shorter when we arrived.  Dan had accompanied me this far, carrying my much-too-heavy pack (actually Rachel’s school pack from last year) and my baroque violin, temporarily housed in a lightweight case for travel.

Our track record so far was astounding.  We got an early start (okay, not actually early when compared to our planned time of departure, but definitely early enough to provide a comfortable margin), there was little traffic, even the stretches of road construction did not delay us, and we found an exceptionally close parking space in a lot marked “full.”  (All the lots were full this morning, according to the signs.  It was a good call, we had to admit.  We were relying – as we always do – on my extraordinary parking karma, inherited from my late father – thank you, Peter!  As we neared the terminal, Dan spotted somebody pulling out of a stellar slot.  We definitely scored.)  So after saying good-by to Dan, I stood on this security line and soon realized I had chosen the wrong one.  My shoulder hurt, my pack was heavy due to the fact that I was carrying my new laptop (which, by the way, is functioning more reliably since Dan worked on it following the FATAL ERROR [see “The nature of moving forward” from my Sept. 27, 2010 blog entry]), and as I said before, I am not feeling well.  So I resorted to the Eckhart Tolle approach of coming into the moment by focusing on my breath, rather than projecting into the future (“It’s going to take forever to get through this line,”) or dwelling on the past (“Why did I choose this line?”)  Two or three breaths.  My shoulders began to drop and my jaw relaxed a little.  (Though I might note here that putting “my jaw” and “relaxed” in the same sentence might be the closest those two will ever get.)  “This is not important,” I heard in my higher mind.  Before I could bask in this momentary possibility of nirvana, another thought – the featured question – leaped right into the space created by the first one:  “Then what is important?”

To me?

My family.  Music.  And then something else.  Something that I have been missing, which may be the reason I am making this trip, even though I have been telling myself and everyone else that it’s all about improving my violin playing.  Maybe I need to remove myself from the trappings of my daily life to have a chance to listen to myself a little better.

2. What am I being called to do? I keep thinking that it’s teaching, because that’s what keeps coming to me.  Every time space is created I find myself being asked if I can take one more student, or teach two more classes, or teach lessons on one more instrument.  The irony is that I do not feel like I have the expertise necessary to be a good teacher.  Lest you think I am being overly modest, I assure you I am not.  I do know that I am by nature a good teacher.  It’s that I lack the years of technique and training on violin, piano, and recorder that most professional musicians have, so I often feel at a loss as to how to help my students when we bump up against an obstacle or challenge.  I could go on and on here to document my long gaps between studies and the patchwork style in which I have gathered what credentials I do have, but I won’t waste the space.  It may be that the universe simply wants me to explore the question, so I will not attempt any real answers.  I might add that I do enjoy teaching, and find it an excellent way to keep myself on the learning path.  I also know that I am a much better teacher, in countless ways, than I was years ago.  But just because the line of students outside my house seems to continue, does that mean it is my calling?  Maybe my life lesson is to learn to say no.  You can see my confusion.

3. Is this a virus or an infection in my spirit? It is an undeniable fact that when we feel a physical symptom such as pain or malaise, something is out of balance.  I will never forget the time I had a sinus infection brewing just on the day I had an appointment with my therapist.  It was a very revealing session, and during it I was able to release some emotional turmoil.  Amazingly, with it went the sinus condition.

The connection that has taken me longer to make is that my spiritual fitness is as important in the equation as the physical and emotional.  Where I stand – and how I feel – with my fellows, both those close to me and the masses at large, cannot help but affect how I sit with myself, in my body, in my hear t space, and beyond.  So what is my body trying to say right now?  Can I listen?  Can I allow myself to hear?

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On Shabbat

October 29, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | Leave a comment
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I had the opportunity to talk with some of the seniors at our high school last week.  They are studying world religions and I shared with them my experience of being Jewish and some background on Judaism.  This is the fourth year I have been invited to do this, and have enjoyed it each time.  The students always come up with great questions, which together with the fact that I have to pull a presentation together, turns it into a chance for me to take another look at my life as a Jew, as a woman, an American, musician, mother, daughter, friend, wife, teacher, etc.

In the midst of each year’s talk, I explain about the idea of Shabbat, the Sabbath.  Their teacher pointed out that one of the ten commandments is that we should observe it.  Of course, as soon as something is required, any of us who have issues with authority start to bargain with and resist.  And not only is there the commandment itself, but also the list of thirty-nine acts that are prohibited on that day.  Talk about a great way to stir up creative rule-bending/breaking!!  So why – and in what ways – do I observe it?

Ironically it was a Christian friend of mine who first inspired me to consider the possibility.  She was a neighbor of ours at the time, in a rural section of town that had first been settled as a large orchard.  All the homes, built mostly between 1920 and 1940, had the feel of old farmhouses, and our neighborhood had many qualities of the quintessential old-fashioned small town.  Our children (her three daughters and my two) were together often, swinging in one backyard or the other, going to a neighbor’s pool for their swimming lessons each morning, and playing house on rainy days.  My friend and I were both of like minds about letting our girls be little girls for as long as possible, resisting the urge to rush into all the extra-curricular activities, and keeping our families’ lives as simple as we could.  Somewhere in there she decided to make Sunday a real Sabbath, and she shared her thoughts with me.

I was at the time studying Judaism through a local chapter of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-school, which offers a marvelous two-year curriculum now available in 60 cities throughout the US, England, Canada, and Australia.  My teacher, a modern day mystic, cultivated for our class a rich and deep foundation for learning.  When the subject of Shabbat came up, the seeds had already been planted by my neighbor, and I decided to explore it by trying to experience it.

The traditional interpretation of the Sabbath comes from the Creation story, which tells us that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  Obviously, many modern Americans in the Judeo-Christian world do not take that literally, but the idea of a day of rest is still a valuable one.  Just as we need to sleep at night, we also need to plant breaks into our daily rhythm.  Practices of many kinds recommend taking two to five minutes every hour to get up, whether from the desk or assembly line, take a walk around the room, do some deep breathing.  We digest our meals better if we pause from what we are doing to eat them.  Most studies reveal that if we work too long without a reprieve, we become less productive.

I have to admit that the very first time I heard about the Jewish Shabbat, I stepped right up onto a feminist soapbox.  I was nursing Rachel, a toddler at the time, and Chloe had just turned six.  As a mother of young children, I was not going to get much of a rest, and I spoke up – hotheadedly – to protest that Shabbat was perhaps more about men getting a rest than the women who really needed it.  The person teaching that class was diplomatic, helping to make it a little less black-and-white than the territory into which I had leapt, but I was only a little bit consoled.  Those were my reactive days, and my learning curve was steep enough that I pretty much had to put the kernel of the Shabbat concept aside.  What my family did do at that point was simple (though not easy) and basic.  On Friday nights we ate in the dining room instead of the kitchen, and we lit candles and said blessings over our juice and bread.

So now, two years later, I decided to see what Saturday could feel like, now that our Friday night ritual was intact.  To be honest, I remember no details of the day itself.  What I remember is that I reached a moment of great discomfort.  I wanted to do something.  DO, with a capital D.  And that’s when it hit me that my life was centered around everything I was doing, and what I needed was to take a break from that by just being.  This was not about what my hands were doing.  I could nurse Rachel and at the same time be focused on all the things I was going to accomplish during her ensuing nap, which was what I did all week long.  Or I could sit and nurse Rachel and have it be totally about nursing Rachel.  I could chop carrots for dinner and be thankful that I could feed something nourishing and tasty to my family.  I could breathe more deeply if all I was paying attention to in that moment was my breath.

What came to me that day was that observing the Shabbat is about taking that day to be mindful and present, and not about doing, no matter what I was in fact doing.

So last week, as I stood in front of that class of seniors, summarizing briefly my understanding of Shabbat, I found myself filled with a longing for a real Shabbat.  Fast forward from those precious days with my young girls to now:  Chloe away at college and Rachel a full-fledged teenager, in every sense of the word.  Some Friday nights Dan, Rachel and I are actually home, and we set the dining room table for three, light the candles and say the blessings.  If we are not too exhausted, we play a box game or watch a DVD after dinner and dessert.  Many Fridays Rachel and I have violin classes and we get home after 7:00, to that blessed dinner, prepared and set out by Dan.  Some Friday nights are centered around something that precludes our dining room altogether.  Saturdays are often so busy I totally forget it is actually Shabbat.

The gift of doing things like speaking to a class at the high school and writing this blog is that it gives me the chance to take another look at something.  Pulled away so gradually from the purity of my practice in those early years when the girls were young, I had completely forgotten that I can still carry the spirit of Shabbat with me, no matter the circumstances.  In my own mind – and heart – I can make everything within those fully-booked Saturdays more about being there than about what I am accomplishing.  I’ve had a lot of practice.

 

On cool calendar dates, reunions, and synchronicity

October 11, 2010 at 9:27 am | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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I have always loved dates like today’s:  10/10/10.  My first memory of such a date was June 6, 1966, only days before I graduated from the 6th grade, which made the day feel personally special.  And in that morning’s paper was an article about twin girls who were celebrating their sixth birthday that day.  I think they lived on 6th Street in their town, with a zip or area code with numerous sixes in it.  I was so excited by that.

I’m not the only one who finds things like that attractive and intriguing.  Tonight Dan and Rachel and I will be attending a party.  The host couple has commemorated the appropriate date for the past few years:  5/5/05, 6/6/06, etc.  (As I am writing this, I just want to say that in five minutes it will be 10:10 on 10/10/10.  Yes, my heartbeat accelerated just a wee bit as I typed that.)  And remember when we could actually watch the numbers turning on our car speedometers turn over from 99.999 to 100,000? (Assuming your car made it that far.  And let me just note here that one of our two cars still does have that old-fashioned mechanism.)  And who of you knows what I mean by our golden birthday?  That’s when you turn the age that is the same number as your birthday date.  For me it was turning 22.  Poor Rachel had to celebrate it on her 5th birthday, before she was old enough to understand it.  At least the rest of us enjoyed it!

I don’t know if it was the stars and planets lining up because of this date approaching, or just coincidence (though I have to say I hardly believe in coincidence anymore), but I have intersected with three different threads from my past in the last two days.  I feel a little stirred up by having so many memories and connections sparked by all three.

One was an email from someone I have not seen since Chloe was very young, I think even before Rachel was born.  She was one in a circle of friends.  Though the two of us were never super-close, as a group we were bonded.  For me, one of the most significant ways in which she affected my path was after I had written a particular song, back in my active folk performing days.  It was such a personal song that I could not imagine anyone understanding it, let alone identifying with it, which made me very reluctant to sing it in concert.

I’ll back up a little here to try to describe what it used to feel like for me to perform a new original song for the first time.  Somewhere pretty early in my solo career I was practiced enough that I was never very nervous in concert.  I really enjoyed the interaction I had with my audiences, and felt like I could ride that energy and have a very relaxed, fun, and also meaningful exchange with them from the stage.  But performing a brand new song was nerve-wracking by nature.  There was always the strong possibility of forgetting words or messing up a guitar part, as it just wasn’t completely a part of me yet.  If it was a song I had recently written then there was even more heaped on top of that normal anxiety.  One aspect was that it felt like I was exposing something about myself.  (Usually this was justified, because I was!)  This always made me feel like I was taking off all my clothes and performing naked, it was such a fragile thing to share from my heart this way.  Another piece was that I was always, at that point in the life cycle of a song, totally in love with this newest piece of work, and desperately wanted everyone to share in that love.  It was not unlike whipping up a self-invented delicacy and wanting everyone to feel deep rapture while eating it.  And finally, there was the precedence set by my previous songs, and the fear that perhaps this one would fail to live up to a higher expectation.  Rather lofty, and clearly daunting on all counts, though also clearly self-created and perpetuated.

So back to my friend and my newest song.  This particular work had been forcefully ejected from me by a powerful muse, and though I kept running away from it mid-stream (literally leaving the room right in the middle of composing it, hoping to escape the painful birthing process of those verses), I was consistently marched back to the drawing table by something far stronger than my own urges, until it was finally completed.  I had never experienced such a wrenching creation process.  I truly felt I had written a song against my will.  It took over a month before I had the courage to play it for one other person.  I was attending a music conference and found a willing audience in a fellow songwriter.  She sat on my hotel bed as I sang it.  When I finished and looked up at her, she asked me if I would sing it again, which I did.  I think she had me sing it a third time before we talked about it.  Agony.  But she liked it.  Very much.

So finally a month later I decided to debut it at a small concert in an intimate setting.  My friend, along with a few others from our circle, sat in the audience.  It was her face that gave me the courage to start, execute, and finish it.  And again the response was good.  So it became part of my repertoire and eventually the title song of the next album, though I never would have foreseen that!  And two days ago, after years of silence between us, she emailed that she had been thinking of me and listening to my music and felt like reaching out to me.  It was like a little electrical jolt to see her name there on my screen after all that time.  What do you say to a friend, fifteen years later?  So I answered her, with a brief update, and will see what is to follow.

Earlier that same day, I had had a cup of tea with an old high school friend.  Similarly, we had never been close when we were in school together, but we had gotten to know each other and had a few classes together.  Though on a different schedule, as I graduated a year ahead of my class and then took time off to record and travel with my band, we graduated from our hometown university at the same time.

Three months ago I was part of a concert that deliberately featured music from three differing styles of music, held in a small art gallery.  I was wearing my singer-songwriter cap for the first time in a long while.  Since this performance was being given in a new location for this series, I sent out an email announcement to try to generate a little more interest, as ticket sales were slow.  As a result I knew several people in the small audience.  Greeting people before the show, I was very surprised and pleased to find myself saying hello to this high school friend.  After living on the east coast for a few decades, she and her husband had recently moved back here, where most of her family had remained.  We agreed to get together.

Circumstances being as they are, it took until late last week for that to work out.  We had such a lovely quiet time together, exploring where our paths had led us through all these years, and sharing what we are navigating in the present.  I am sure we will see more of each other.  And she may even become my neighbor, as she and her husband are house-hunting in my neck of the woods.  I came home with a little excited flutter.  All these years that I have been a mother raising two kids, I have shared much with many friends, felt nurtured in several communities, and Dan and I have grown many new friendships.  Somehow this single hour over a cup of red berry tea felt new, like the beginning of a fresh chapter that put me in the center instead of my children or my relationship with them.  I pictured inviting this friend and her husband over for dinner, Dan cooking up a gourmet meal, and the four of us enjoying each other’s company as grown-up friends.  It’s not that this hasn’t happened at all in the past 18 years (though I have to admit it hasn’t happened with great frequency!)  It’s just that the image conjured itself up and it excited me with its sense of promise.  That is definitely new.

The third brush with my past came yesterday afternoon in the form of a get-together to remember a recently passed co-worker and friend.  I spent my college years working in a local restaurant.  My fellow waiters, bartenders and managers were some of the most intelligent, creative and fun people I have ever known, and many after-hours were spent in each others’ company during those years.  The restaurant business often attracts people who are on their way to something, and this group was no exception.  In our midst were future doctors, lawyers, artists, scientists, mountain climbers, dancers, actors, writers, poets, teachers, and many more.  Our beloved manager died last month of cancer.  His mother and his brothers celebrated his life – and what would have been his 64th birthday – at his mother’s house, serving the same food we dished up when we all worked together.

It is always such a bittersweet thing, these gatherings.  I cannot help but find myself thinking, “Why couldn’t we have had this party while he was still here?”  And yet I do not want to diminish the gift of having had that time yesterday with these people who all cared deeply for this sweet man we all called a friend.  It was a treat to find out what everyone has been doing all these years, to see how well everyone is aging, who remembers what, and who is still connected to whom.  There were, of course many people missing from our circle, some due to other commitments and some because we have lost touch.

Okay.  So now it’s time for true confessions.  I came home with my mind swirling.  Even today I am calming down from the dizzying effects of over-stimulation.  As fondly as I remember those years, they were also some of the most despondent in my life, fraught with uncertainty about myself in the world, desperately lonely even when I was surrounded by people, trying hard to be someone I wasn’t, and being hit over the head repeatedly with the lesson that I could only be myself, yet refusing to learn it until decades later.  All of the unhelpful and hopeless tapes that were helplessly recorded in my subconscious back then have been trying to pull themselves back into the forefront (wherever the forefront of my sub-conscious could be) since last night, and my very grey matter is tired, all the way to the tips of my just-as-grey hairs.

Sitting here writing this, I also find myself pulling something else together.  A few days ago, after a hard day of teaching beginning violinists, I asked the universe to offer the guidance of a few clearer signposts.  (Interesting.  I had to correct my mistyped word “soundposts.”)  Everyone at the party, my out-of-the-blue email, and my tea date, everyone asked me if I’m still doing music.  Yes.  But what music did they mean?  The last each of these people knew me, I was a folksinger, not a violinist in a baroque orchestra, taking and teaching private lessons.

Just this week I picked up the guitar, for the first time in quite awhile, and a new thought began to come forth.  There is no extra energy or time in my life these days to set up a solo folk concert and do all that is necessary to publicize it.  Could I put a show together and show up and do it?  Absolutely, with pleasure.  But performing is not just giving a concert to an audience.  In fact, that part, which is the most rewarding and fun, is in many ways the easiest part.  So now it suddenly came to me:  what if I were to pick one song and work on it, at my own pace, up to performance/recording level?  And then I could employ our little digital camcorder and post it on Facebook or YouTube, or both, and let my friends know about it, just to be able to connect to people with my music in some way.  It’s not that I have no desire to play the very music around which my entire life revolved for all those years, now in my present tense.  It’s that while I was resting from it, and raising my children, the world – and in particular the folk industry – continued to evolve, and I cannot step back into it without a major commitment on a lot of levels.  It would be hard to do it in a micro or fractional way.  This is the first inspiration I have had to move back out into the public as a soloist, just a little bit.

Just last week I read an article about a singer who goes into corporate settings and rallies these business people in meetings to sing together!  Not surprisingly, it has helped co-workers deal with conflicts, stuck energy, and many other challenges in the workplace.  Just before I left the stage and the touring circuit, this was an idea I had had, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it together and market it.  Reading about this woman rekindled that question – could I work with local companies?  I would love to provide some inspiration to grown-ups who do not have enough music in their lives.

So here I sit, my mind reeling with questions.  For my own sake (and to contribute to your possible boredom or at least overwhelm) I will try to articulate them.  The big one:  what am I being called to do? (This might be an appropriate place to mention that last week I went to the library and checked out a book about finding and following your calling.  What attracted me to this book six days ago?)  A smaller and more immediate one:  can I quiet the noise in my head and find some stillness?  It is out of that stillness that I am usually able to identify something to do just right now, in the short run.

So with that I will close for today.  First, I will do the mundane and necessary thing that string players must do often, which is to clip my nails so I can practice.  And then I will practice.  And after lunch I will lie down and breathe, and do my best to let everything fall away for a short time.  I have a lecture and a concert to attend – as an audience member and friend of the performer – and then a 10/10/10 party to attend.  With dear friends I have known for decades and care very much about.  Hmmm.  Recurring theme a la mode.

10,000 times and counting

October 6, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Posted in Short Blogs | 4 Comments
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I was working with a piano student this afternoon, going over a passage that challenged her fingers a little.  “Just practice this section about a million times!” was my prescription.  We laughed.  And suddenly I remembered how, years ago, our family explored what it is to do something a million times.

We were driving in the car and someone must have said something about a million – maybe it was Chloe wondering what it was like to have a million of something she wanted, or perhaps a character from one of our books-on-tape said something about a million.  I will have to ask Chloe, because she may remember.  (Rachel was too young at the time.)  Anyway, we set about figuring out how long it would take to count to a million.  I have to admit that the math was way beyond our two daughters at the time, but it was a fun exercise nevertheless.  I have no memory of even a wild estimate.  But I do remember that we had to time ourselves counting pretty far in order to come up with a guess.  And of course it is way faster to say “one” and “fourteen” and even “seven hundred twenty-three” than it is to say “eight hundred seventy-six thousand five hundred eighty-one,” and there are definitely more of the latter than of the former.  So we had to take that into account, and somehow we arrived at our version of an answer.

Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who developed the Suzuki pedagogy for violin, said that knowledge alone does not equal ability.  “Knowledge plus 10,000 times,” he claimed, is what produces ability.  Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop extraordinary ability.  So though my recommendation to my student is obviously an exaggeration (and goodness knows how long it would have taken her to follow it to the letter – but I’m not going to go there!) it is more on track than off.

It makes me wonder how many hours I have actually put into violin or piano over the course of my lifetime.  And what else have I repeated enough times to be able to put it in the category of expertise?  What internal tapes have I replayed that many times?  What knee-jerk reactions?  And what have I cultivated, as opposed to enacting by default?

I will have to get back to you on this one.

 

Homeschool for mom: an update

August 9, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 4 Comments
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In my first blog entry, I told how my family had come up with the idea of creating my own “university curriculum” since I was flirting with going back to school.  Since three weeks have passed since that post, I figured it was time for a progress report.

  • Violin lessons.  First and most importantly, I have found my violin teacher!  I had my first lesson last week.  I am happy to say that as much as I enjoyed getting acquainted with her over the phone, working with her in her studio was all the more wonderful.  I have been dutifully, and for the most part, eagerly, practicing all week on etudes (Kreutzer), scales (Flesch and just plain), exercises (double-stops), and one piece (Meditation from Thais).  It feels to me to be the perfect balance of challenge and manageability.  I am starting off with one lesson every other week, which seems to work well for my teacher as well.  And the bargain I have made with myself is my old standby – I will keep to my practice and lesson protocol imperfectly.  When I miss a day, fine, back to it tomorrow.  If we have to go an extra week or two between lessons, which will undoubtedly happen, I will have no trouble finding more to work on.

  • Composition lessons.  Not.  The husband of my teacher is a composer.  The night before my lesson I had listened to two of his compositions and liked them very much.  When my lesson was over, my teacher introduced me to her husband, and I asked him if he taught lessons in composing.  No, he doesn’t.  However, he went on, why don’t I just begin composing a piece on piano and violin and see how it goes?  Yikes!  This was a dive-right-in approach I had not expected!  And he was so pleasant and relaxed, almost innocent, about it, I found myself agreeing to try.  So…

  • Composing.  A few days ago I sat down and began to write.  It morphed instantly into a trio for two violins and cello.  I am very happy with the theme and the harmonies of the first section, of which I have written eight bars.  Well, seven and two-thirds.  It took me hours!  And I have no idea where to go from here, but then, I had had no notion of how to start until I did it.  It appears this will be a long-term project, and I promise to keep you posted.

  • Music theory school.  In the meantime, I have been tutoring a student in music theory to get her a little better prepared for her theory placement test when she arrives at her college, and Chloe has been going along for the ride.  It has been a great opportunity for me to review what I know and start to learn some more around the edges.  I have to say, it is quite dry to learn music theory from a book!  This is one discipline that is truly alive when using it, but utterly dead when on a printed page.  So I hope to find someone to work with this fall.  I know I will enjoy it far more in the company of another human being.

  • Writing my blog.  I am very excited to see that my list of subscribers and my readership in general are both on the increase!  Thank you all for sampling something along the way in the past three weeks, and for coming back for more!  Here’s the conundrum:  the more active in my home-university I become, the harder it is to keep up with the chronicles!  This is especially frustrating to me because I have been finding the writing to be a gratifying experience.  I’m pretty sure that once Dan and I return from getting Chloe settled at her college, and Rachel has settled back into her school rhythm, I will have a little more time to follow my own pursuits.  I look forward to that!

  • Sleeping.  Here on the home front we will be a little sleep deprived once school begins.  It is so very hard to get up over an hour earlier than we have been through the summer, and somehow so very easy to stay up just as late.  Darn.  Why is that?  Chloe, on the other hand, will have a class that starts at 8:00 only one day a week, and all the rest of the days she won’t start until 10:00 or later!  Hey!  I want to go to college!  Okay, that was kind of an in-house joke, just in case you didn’t pick up on it.

Insurance cards, faulty memories, and the muse

August 3, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 3 Comments
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The mystery arose late last week.  We were approaching the deadline to submit health forms to the medical clinic at Chloe’s college.  In addition, we were asked to photocopy her insurance card and then fax all three pages to them.  When I was Chloe’s age I used to love to fill out forms, but let us just say that she does not take after me in that respect.  Simply put, there was procrastination – and not just on her part.  I have to admit to having evolved to the point where I do not relish them anymore either.  And Dan was busy with other things.  Finally, two days before the deadline and hours before Chloe was to leave for the weekend, we hunkered down and with my guidance, she completed the task.  I went to my wallet to pull out her insurance card, and discovered it was not in its designated slot. 

Surprisingly, and with startling synchronicity, I had just gone through the same kind of sequence with Rachel earlier that same day, and with the same results.  Rachel had been invited to join a school friend and her family on a road trip to the west coast, and we thought it would make sense to send her with at least a photocopy of her insurance card.  As you have now guessed, when I went to my wallet said card was not there.

Hmmm.

So we backtracked.  When was the last time I had seen either card?  It was the week prior, when Rachel had gone with a different friend for a three-day outing (she has been quite the social butterfly and traveler this summer) and the friend’s mother had suggested she take the card with her, just in case.  So I emailed said mother (I’ll call her Ursula) and asked her if she could return the card.

Ursula’s response appeared a little later:  “I never had her insurance card.”  What?  Dan and I remembered the conversation clearly.  I emailed back, telling her as much.  (Nicely.)  Later she emailed back, admitting that maybe she needed to check her purse again, and promised to get back to us afterward.

In the meantime, I was tracing our steps through recent weeks to remember when we had last used Chloe’s card.  That was also no problem to recall.  Two days before she and Rachel flew to Florida for a dance competition, I finally took her to the doctor to check out the two-plus-year-old pain in the ball of her foot, which turned out to be a stress fracture.  (Another story, perhaps a future post.)  She was new to that doctor’s clinic, so we had had to give her card at the front desk to allow the receptionist to photocopy it for their files.  Had it been returned to me?  I was pretty sure I remembered putting it back in my wallet.

As I reviewed the sequence of those days, I asked Chloe, “We didn’t send the insurance cards to Orlando with you and Rachel, did we?”  She was sure we had not bothered, and I agreed.  I had no memory whatsoever of handing them to anyone – either Chloe or their friends’ parents – as we met up with their fellow travelers at the airport.  The trip was only for two days, and she hadn’t wanted to be responsible for carrying them.  Dan concurred.

Another email from Ursula appeared:  “I was thinking.  Maybe the card looks like my insurance card and I missed seeing it.  I’ll get back to you after I check again.”

A little perplexed, I called the clinic where Chloe’s foot was examined and explained the nature of my plight to the woman at the front desk.  She was exceedingly sweet and very helpful.  We spent ten minutes on the phone while she checked through the pile of abandoned insurance cards tucked away in a special corner of her drawer.  Apparently this is not an unusual occurrence.  Not finding it there, she continued to chat pleasantly with me as she combed every possible nook and cranny that might hold an unclaimed card.  And when she failed to uncover it she was truly apologetic.  I left my phone number with her just in case and said good-by to my new friend.

Ursula’s update appeared on the screen:  “I searched my purse and didn’t find it.  Sorry.” 

Okay.

Dan ordered a new set of cards from our insurance company and we decided to wait another two days to fax Chloe’s health forms, just in case the old card turned up.  By this time, my mind resembled the ball on the green and white table. 

On one side of the net:  Ping!  “Am I going nuts?…”

Other side:  Pong!  “What a weird coincidence that both cards are missing at the same time…”

Ping!  “I could swear I remember giving the card to Ursula…”

Pong!  “I can’t believe we lost two cards in two different places in the same week…”

Chloe left for the weekend.  Dan and I joined my mother for dinner in a noisy restaurant on the edge of town.  We were waiting for Rachel’s call from some hotel in Las Vegas.  Yes, my 13-year-old was spending the night in a resort casino hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Dan’s phone was on digital roam and Rachel was taking forever to call. By my admittedly long-distance reckoning, they should have arrived at the hotel hours ago.  As we ordered and then dined, the image of the crash on I-15 was beginning to sketch itself in my mind.  And of course, they don’t have Rachel’s health insurance card so they won’t know who they are treating in the emergency room.  Assuming they are willing to treat her seeing as she has no card.  I kept all this to myself so as not to worry Dan and my mother.  Finally Dan’s phone rang.

Dan cupped his hands over his cell phone and his other ear.  It was clearly not Rachel on the other end.  At the end of a short conversation he chuckled lightly.  “Okay, thanks for letting us know!”  Probably not the ER.

It turns out Chloe’s cousin was aimlessly sifting through the contents of Chloe’s wallet sometime between dinner and the Shakespeare play.  Hidden way in the back, stuffed safely in the midst of various gift cards from graduation two months ago, were the wayward health insurance cards.

(Rachel finally called us at home much later.  They had indeed arrived hours before, but went swimming in the hotel pool before calling.) 

What I find the most fascinating about this story is how none of us could piece together a complete memory of actually taking the insurance cards out of my wallet and handing them to Chloe who then stuffed them into hers.  Dan and I remembered the conversation with Ursula, but not the upshot.  And Ursula in turn began to doubt not only her memory but even the tangible hands-on search through her purse.   Chloe and Dan and I could remember discussing whether to send the cards with Chloe, but not one of us had even a vague recall of the actual decision.  And the receptionist at the medical center, who had no reason to remember the details of Chloe’s card – for all I know she wasn’t even working the day we came in – was totally open to the possibility that it was floating around there somewhere.  It happens.

Dan is currently reading Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan.  From the little he has told me about it, it is the perfect companion to this episode, examining what we do and do not remember, and how we tweak our actual memories to fit our view of the present.  I plan to read it when he is done, as I find the implications staggering.  What does this tell us about eyewitnesses in a court case?  Just a few weeks ago Chloe’s senior class did a production of “Twelve Angry Men” (it included women, of course, but I just don’t like the ring of “Twelve Angry Jurors” so I’m holding to the old, though gender-biased, title) and I wondered all the way through it, Would I be able to remember anything clearly enough to testify under oath?  I don’t think so.  Even as I am telling all of this to you I am very likely committing errors in the sequence, timing, and what people said, felt, and did.  The gist is only as true as I can make it.*

And in the context of music, how well do I remember what my teachers told me to practice?  How accurate is my understanding of their appraisals of my musicianship and skills?  How well do I hear myself play?  One of my teachers demonstrated for me that, while playing out of tune with terrible tone sounds – not surprisingly – terrible, playing out of tune with gorgeous tone sounds amazingly tolerable, even passing for, well, playing in tune.  I’m obviously not campaigning for inaccurate pitch, but there is a kernel here that is immensely helpful to my paralyzingly perfectionistic self, and it goes something like the following.

Can I make a bargain with myself to practice all the ingredients – fingerings, shifting, articulation, phrasing, vibrato, dynamics, expression, etc. – and then let go of the belief that I need to micro-manage the performance?  Can I apply the perfectionism selectively and use it “mostly/only” during practice sessions?  In other words, if I do my homework long, hard, and well enough during the practicing and rehearsing, can’t I trust the muse to sprinkle a little magic on the stage the night of the concert?  Assuming one is a good musician, how much of the performance is “fact” and how much is “illusion”?  Is it really all about a million tiny details, or is the music greater than the sum of all its parts?  I really do know the answer to that question.

I can now see that I always relied on the magic of the muse throughout the decades of my folk career, and she always proved herself to be reliable.  So apparently I have piled all the perfectionism into the arena of classical music.  Perhaps the learning curve that lies before me (or am I already ascending?) is to tear down the wall between those two worlds.  I wonder who built the wall in the first place.

*With two disclaimers.  Number one is that Chloe claims she did not procrastinate.  She needed my help and I was busy, which is totally true.  Number two is that after Dan read the above, he reminded me that we actually photocopied his insurance card and Rachel took that with her to the west coast.  Here’s what’s perfect about this one:  I have no memory of it!

Violin lessons: a retrospective

July 30, 2010 at 11:59 am | Posted in Long Blogs | 2 Comments
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Yesterday I called a local violinist to see about taking a trial lesson from her.  As I wait for her to return my call, I will share some of my violin-lesson memories through the years. 

  • I was lucky enough to be raised in a school district where music was valued, at least back in the 60s.  Every summer, for the first few weeks after school ended, instrumental music classes were offered through the public school system, for a very reasonable fee.  It was there that I began, in a class of what seemed like a hundred freshly-graduated third graders, squeaking and grinding on half- and three-quarter instruments.  Toward the end of the (three- or five-week – it’s a little vague in my mind) session, I came home and triumphantly announced to my mother, “Mommy!  Mr. Seguine said I’m the BEST ONE!”  Years later, my mother shared with me her actual reaction to this happy report.  She closed her eyes and said silently, “Then God help the other mothers.”

 

  • Because I was the BEST ONE, and given that my parents were already stretched by paying for my piano lessons, my instrumental music teacher at school told my parents she would teach me privately for no charge.  So every week I spent a half-hour with Charlotte Hilligoss, may she rest in peace.  I adored her, but unfortunately did not feel the same about scales and etudes.  I didn’t have the words to tell her that I didn’t like the pieces she assigned me, and having no idea there was repertoire I would have enjoyed, I never asked for anything different.  As much as I liked Charlotte, (and my god — she was so generous to give me lessons on her own time!) I was not inspired to work and I was certainly having no fun.  So after a year or two of dragging myself there, feeling guiltier and guiltier about how little I practiced, that chapter came to a close.

 

  • Charlotte handed me over to a grad student at the university whose name was Henry Kolar.  I have no memory of Henry-the-person.  What I do remember is that he made me practice with my left thumb flying in mid-air, away from the neck of the violin.  I had developed a tight hand vibrato (which I’m confident was my own fault and not Charlotte’s) and had a habit of squeezing my thumb very hard against the side of the neck, resulting in a collapsed base knuckle.  Henry saw his mission:  SAVE THAT GIRL FROM A TIGHT LEFT THUMB!  He took it seriously, and I whole-heartedly resented him, every lesson I had with him, and each and every practice session at home.  Poor guy – I pity him for having had to work with me!  He must have been either very persuasive or incredibly intimidating because I actually did do what he told me to do.  In truth, I now bless him and the ground he walks on.  Having watched people play violin with a tight left thumb, I am happy to have escaped that fate.  Henry Kolar’s mission was accomplished!

 

  • I stayed in school orchestra, but had no further private instruction.  My junior high and high school orchestras each won best in the state, and the former even made a record album, which was pretty big stuff for the 60s.  (Our conductor chose what I thought was a lame photo for the cover, however.  Just saying.)  While still in high school, I played in the local community orchestra, which I continued to do for two or three non-consecutive years through the 70s.

 

  • Violin confusion ruled through my twenties.  I was by then studying fiddle music from the traditions of Sweden, Norway, Romania, Greece and the Greek Islands, Hungary, and a little conjunto music, all with native teachers.  I took lessons briefly from a classical teacher, but here’s where I got stuck:  the more ethnic folk music I was exposed to, the less “pretty” I wanted to sound.  It seemed to me that classical playing sounded smooth and lovely, and to my ear that didn’t mesh with the repertoire I was exploring.  After one or two lessons I quit, feeling somehow misled and lost, but I placed the blame on myself.

 

  • Fast forward to summer of 2003.  Chloe was 11, and I took her on a three-day trip to experience the Aspen Music Festival.  This, after two decades of enjoying a full folk music career, followed by a very clean and complete break, and then eight years devoted entirely to being a full-time mom and having a mid-life identity crisis.  (Life would be too mundane doing one at a time.)  What made me suddenly choose Aspen?  I have no idea.  But while there we attended a master class in piano, taught by Misha Dichter.  I found myself welling up throughout the class.  Why had I left this world of classical music?  I could no longer remember what had possessed me back in the 70s, but I was now determined to re-join it.

 

  • Immediately upon my return home I decided to work toward an audition to music school on piano and violin.  Okay, I can now see this was not only over-ambitious but also a bit hasty.  But at the time I was the most euphoric I had been in decades, which must count for something!  I practiced on both instruments every minute I could find.  On piano:  Bach’s English Suite V in E minor, Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 330, and a Chopin Nocturne, Opus posth. 72 nr. 1.  On violin:  Mendelssohn Concerto and the Allemanda from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor. 

 

  • So what happened?  Opening that door seemed to welcome in the music universe.  Suddenly all sorts of opportunities began to avail themselves to me, at my synagogue, in the folk music community, my teaching studio began to attract more students, and it began to dawn on me that hunkering down as a full-time student would narrow my world more than it would expand it.  Plus Chloe made a little comment about all the books she had read in which some character’s mom went back to school and became mostly unavailable to her kids, not to mention irritable, sleep deprived, and stressed out.  “Please don’t do it, Mom,” she pleaded.  Okay, slow down and rethink my whole life plan.  That put the cap on the school idea.  I continued to study piano with my teacher, and just practiced violin on my own.

 

  • Two years later I was having dinner and catching up with an old musician friend.  It’s amazing to me how it can happen that just as some idea is coming together enough to put it into words, there sitting in front of you is the perfect witness for that very thought.  I found myself telling her that what I really love the most is early music, and that playing in an orchestra that emphasizes that repertoire would be like a dream come true.  Immediately following my words came her timely announcement that a mutual friend was forming just such a group.  The universe lined it right up for me.  Within 24 hours, I ran into the mutual friend.  I told him I was interested, and within two months I was having my first lesson on baroque violin with the concertmaster of said new orchestra.  Eight months later I joined the group for the final concert of the first season. 

 

As I was writing this, the prospective violin teacher called me on the phone.  All I can say is that so far I LOVE HER.  Okay, I know it was only a ten-minute phone conversation, but after all, first impressions do count heavily, don’t they?  I go for my trial lesson next Tuesday.  I am excited and nervous.  I am fairly certain there will be more about this soon.  And hopefully also later.

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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