The mohair shawl

November 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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I haven’t written for a long time. So I promised myself I would use the old writing exercise of starting with whatever my eyes fell upon. I am sitting in Barker Hall, listening to Rachel’s weekly orchestra rehearsal, surrounded by my stuff: the bag holding our dinners and water bottles, my pack, my purse, two down jackets (it is supposed to snow tonight as we drive home and it’s COLD) and all my winter weather accessories. So what is the lucky theme for the evening and today’s blog post subject? Drum roll! A dollop of suspense. And the winner is…

My SCARF!

It’s nothing special, actually. I got it two or three years ago when Sierra Trading Post ran one of its specials (this occurs almost daily, but somehow it always feels like an extra bargain – call me a sucker). It is half silk, half cashmere, hence the key word: warm. But also another key, yet less desirable word: itchy. Around my neck. What makes me continue to wear it is its versatility, and of course the previously mentioned and most important quality. It is a thin and pleasantly drapey woven fabric, and though I think of it as a scarf, it actually has the dimensions of a shawl. I have worn it in many a chilly room over the past two winters, around my neck, around my shoulders and torso, or over my legs as a lap blanket.

Pause buttons “on”. Please do not worry. I am already as bored as you are. Let me take this opportunity to acknowledge my gratitude to you for having enough faith in me to have hung in this far! Let me also tell you that the reason I chose this topic was twofold. Number one, as a writer, I wanted to keep the bargain I had made with myself, and literally the place my glance landed was on the fringe of said scarf. Number two, and from here on, more relevantly, the instant I contemplated the subject of “scarf”, my mind jumped to a significant shawl from my early twenties, a gift from a significant friend, and amazingly, almost a twin to a gift from a different friend the same year.

It was back in the years when I was still oblivious to being Jewish and was celebrating Christmas. Most importantly, I was enjoying the holiday in a new way because I was earning enough money to buy some nice presents for people. I don’t know which was the more fun – the selection process, proudly spending my own hard-earned money, or actually handing each over to its intended recipient. And of course, I was on the receiving end at the same time.

This particular year – I must have been nineteen or in my early twenties – I don’t remember much aside from these two gifts. As I said before, the shawls were almost identical. Both were made of mohair. One is a little on the orange side of red, and the other leans more toward the fuchsia side. The pinker one was woven, and sold in an artisan collection. The rust one was also handmade, but by my friend herself, crocheted, I think.

One interesting detail is that up until then, I had never, ever worn a shawl, not once in my entire life. When I opened the first (I do not recall in what order they came to me), I remember being surprised by it. Of course I expressed my thanks (and I hope I was gracious.) But somewhere in there I remember a twinge of discomfort. Something on the order of “Oh! Does this go with who I am?” There was a lick of fear being fanned as I laid eyes on this gift, as if I was being asked, invited almost, to explore a new flavor of personality within myself. I had a vague image of the kind of person who would wear a shawl, and I did not think of myself as that kind of a person.

I was able to put these thoughts aside until the second friend presented me with the second, eerily similar gift. Let us hope that I was just as polite, just as gracious in my thanks. But now you know that I was socked with a second dose of this discomfiting stirring. Was my understanding of myself somehow askew? “This is not who I am!” I wanted to announce, as not just one, but two of my close friends chose to give me the same uncharacteristic, lovely, and somehow intimate gift.

As I was wont to do back then, I chose the rigid and narrow way. I put the shawls away and never wore them. I was about to write “and never touched them” but that would not be accurate. I did touch them. Every so often I would pull one or the other – or both – off the shelf and say to myself, “So-and-so GAVE this to me.” It is difficult to express to you all the meaning in that phrase. What I can tell you is that it meant a great deal to me that both friends went out of their way to pick out/hand-make this shawl. I felt somehow caressed or cared for by both friends. Even if I never wore either one, I felt warmer, as if I understood that both friends could see something in me that needed the warmth, the holding, and the beauty.

It was my friend Mary Jean who had crocheted the burnt orange, using a variegated yarn with mohair and maybe some other fibers spun together. We had first met when we were nine years old, in a beginning violin class in a summer music program. Mary was learning to play not only the violin but the flute as well, a fact which impressed all of us no end. I’m not sure how she worked out the logistics of attending both classes, and I do believe that eventually flute won out. I had not known Mary before, but my best friend from school knew her from church, which made her all the more significant to me (even if the dual instruments status hadn’t already won my admiration.)

Mary and I attended different elementary schools, went on to attend different junior high schools, and continued to run into each other at summer music events. We came together in high school and though we had some of the same friends and occasionally hung out in the same crowd, we were headed in different directions. Mary was a gifted art student, and I was continuing along a musical path. She must have been in the audience for some of my shows with my band, as I know she enjoyed my music. (And by the way, it was one of my bandmates who was later to give me the other shawl.) But all through those years we were not close friends.

Finally, after my band had split up and we were both college students, Mary and I both got a job at the same restaurant. We started off bussing tables, being too young at first to wait tables in a place that served liquor. We both served as hostesses, greeting customers and seating them at their tables, later we both trained as cashiers, and then, once twenty-one, we continued up the ranks into waitress and cocktail waitress, where the real money was.

I want to stop here to make something clear. Lest it seem that I am headed in the direction of romanticizing an old friendship, I should inform you that in many ways Mary Jean drove me crazy. We became roommates for some period of time, I can’t remember how long, and I thought I would end up doing something mean, she was so annoying so often. She would greet me every single time with great flourish and waving arms, crying delightedly, “Carla, Carla!” Never, never did she say my name once. (Look, now she’s even got me doing it, just thinking about her.) I was a moody person back then, and her effusiveness made me dizzy, and I do not mean that in a good way.

But in some ways she was so very good for dark, moody, lost me. I remember one day we went to the big city together, 45 minutes away, and visited, among other places, the art museum. I had never quite seen art the way she helped me see it that day. And for our excursion I borrowed a piece of clothing from her, a skirt, that somehow made me feel beautiful in a way I had never before felt. Fashionable, attractive, and graceful. I suddenly realized I could feel like that all the time if I could dress – and see myself – with a little more flair. As I just now wrote that, it makes me wonder if that was before or after I had received the shawl from her.

We also talked occasionally, that kind of girlfriend talk that just happens if you are there for the right kind of opening in the right kind of moment. She was caring and loving, and there was an air of a certain kind of wistful sweetness all through her that almost made you want to cry. She was quite beautiful. And her artwork was beautiful, with a flourish. You could almost get drunk on Mary Jean. And then you got sobered back up by the quirks that could drive you to distraction.

She ended up marrying someone I didn’t know well, a waiter at the restaurant where we worked. We drifted apart. I don’t know how long they remained married, and then they ended up divorcing. A few years passed. The next time I saw her was at our tenth high school reunion, so we were both 28.

She arrived on the arm of a new husband named Scott, a sweetheart of a guy. And with some news. She took me aside to tell me that she had spent the last year battling lung cancer. She had been sick in the winter, thought it was bronchitis since that was going around until one night she had trouble breathing and began to cough up blood. Scott took her to the ER. She told me that she spent that night in the hospital certain that she would die before morning. But she didn’t. Then came months of treatment. Her hair, which looked like regular Mary to me, was gone – this was a wig. It was good news for the time being, as she was in remission. She and Scott were living in California, and had come to town just for the reunion.

For the next year we continued to stay in touch, through letters and an occasional phone call. The cancer returned. She returned to chemo, which sickened and weakened her. It was her artwork that motivated her to get out of bed some days, and she poured herself into it, as much of herself as there was left. I wrote to her late that winter to tell her that I was going to be driving to California in June. One morning in early spring the phone rang. It was Mary.

“When are you coming?” she asked. I gave her the exact date. She hesitated. “I don’t know if I’ll still be here.” My mind spun. Here? Where was she planning to go? It took a moment for the meaning of her words to sink in. We talked for a few more minutes, though I have no recollection of what we said in that part of the conversation, and then she told me she needed to hang up so she could rest. Breathing took immense effort.

At the end of phone conversations, there are all the normal ways of saying good-by, but suddenly none of them seemed adequate. I was 29 or 30 years old and had never had to deal with anything like this before. “Mary,” I said, “I don’t know what to say.”

“I know. And it’s okay.”

And it was. Suddenly annoying and crazy Mary was the wisest person in the world, and it was safe to be exactly how I was in that moment. I felt a great sense of comfort in the face of such utterly cracked-open-honest permission to admit my helplessness. The conversation closed and I hung up the phone, feeling strangely calm. One minute later the phone rang again. “Carla? I believe I might still be here. Call when you get close.”

The night before I was to arrive, I called her number from my motel room. Her husband answered. He spoke to me as if I already knew, and once again my mind reeled until I grasped the meaning of his words. She had urged him to go for a walk the day before. He left her with the hospice caretaker, and while he was out, she was able to let go. The hospice worker told him that often a person cannot bear to give up while surrounded by loved ones, an understanding that offered comfort to him when he came back and was flooded with remorse for having abandoned her. As he talked, I had the sense that he just needed to tell it all to someone, and I was certainly glad to be that someone. But I was also filled with regret that I had come that close to seeing her and then missed by only two days.

Two or three winters ago, some 35 years after Mary crocheted me the shawl, I took it from my closet shelf and put it on. After that, on various occasions, I rotated the other one into my wardrobe, and began to let the Sierra Trading Post scarf slip down around my shoulders. I even added a fourth to my collection, imported from Spain (purchased at a huge bargain from STP.) I don’t know what possessed me, or why, but it suddenly felt just right to wrap myself in the folds of a shawl. I now dress with more of a flair, and find that I like feeling fashionable and attractive. I can still hear Mary’s voice calling me, “Carla, Carla!” These many years later, it makes me laugh instead of gritting my teeth. I can still see her smile. And I am forever grateful for each of the gifts that she gave me, grateful that her life touched mine, and especially grateful for that moment of raw and perfect honesty on the phone, and how deeply connected I felt to her in that crystallized point of time. It is my hope that I can offer that kind of safety and some touch of beauty and sweetness to my friends, at least occasionally, and that I can be honest and true with my fellows in the grittiest, most basic way, when it really counts.  Thank you, thank you, Mary Jean.

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On the road a la Jetsons

July 6, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I am writing this while sitting at the dining room table of one of my oldest and dearest friends, one more temporary home along this path of travel. Just so many beads on a 24-day-long chain. It’s amazing to me to think that this is how Dan and I used to live for weeks on end, back in my touring days. As much as that now seems more like a past life than just part of my own story, I have to admit that I have had a fairly easy time settling into this traveling rhythm. Somewhere in my cells it is a familiar groove.

So. Right here in this paragraph – indeed, in my very next sentence – I am going to tell you something, straight out. I GOT AN ANDROID . Not only that, I added APPS. Many of them. And, though a few weeks ago I would have proclaimed from my very own soap box that I can easily do without such new-fangled high-tech toys, thank you very much, um, it has actually been kind of, well, fun. Chloe and I used it to determine whether gas was cheaper on this or that side of the Colorado-Kansas line (we saved around $3 by waiting until we crossed into Kansas), it led us to the most fantastic restaurant that serves locally-grown and meticulously prepared cuisine (715 in Lawrence, KS), as well as helping us find our way to more than one cleverly elusive destination. It has accurately predicted the weather so I could dress for 70 or 95 degrees (though it couldn’t turn down the insidious overdose of air conditioning once we were inside the building – more on that in some future post. Hopefully they’ll come up with an app for that soon.) It has made it a piece of cake to keep up with my emails. It has located and navigated our path to Whole Foods, music stores, Target, and more. One app supplied us with quotations from famous people for our presentations. I know what the date is every day on the Jewish calendar. If I had figured out how to use it in time (and remembered where it was hiding), I could have helped my teacher by running the stopwatch when we needed it during one class session. I have taken countless pictures and emailed them to Dan and my mother and a college friend of Chloe’s (except it turned out she [Chloe] gave me the wrong person’s email address, so we are actually not sure who received the not-so-scenic view of Salina, Kansas. No offense to any Salinians out there.) And in case you are interested, I am facing southeast at 145 degrees right now, a minor but accurate fact imparted to me by said droid.

Oh. AND I have made and received phone calls on it. Which is, of course, what I got it for to begin with, though it is all too easy to forget that, when trying to figure out how to use all the other stuff, as mentioned above.

Gone are the old days. Dan and I can remember countless occasions when we had to be near a pay phone at a specific time on a specific day for a radio interview or to call a hard-to-reach contact, way back in the 1980s when we drove for all my tours. It was often next to impossible to find a phone when we needed it. Do you ever have one of those dreams where you finally find the phone booth only to discover it is out of order, or someone is already using it, or the buttons don’t work right or you don’t have the right amount of change or your long distance calling card somehow doesn’t work? Or the temperature is either ten below or 95 and humid? It was like that more often than you might guess. I will never forget the time when we called our answering machine from the back office of one of my gigs, and heard a message from our neighbor that was cut off in the middle: “So we don’t want you to worry, and the police came, but they told us—“ It was just like one of those nightmares – I couldn’t get our long distance card to work, the connection kept getting interrupted, and I was frantically dialing (we actually had a “dialer” that we carried around to beep the tones into phones that still had dials) while Dan and I were picturing our front door broken down or our house burnt to the ground. (In the end, it turned out okay, but the stress of getting through to our neighbor took at least eighteen months off my life.) None of this would have happened if we had had cell phones back then.

And now a word from my devil’s advocate, or old self, take your pick.

By sometime in the 90s Dan used all the evidence from the above adrenaline-sucking paragraph to try to convince me of the virtues of an (early) cell phone. I agreed with him that having one in our possession could spare us – or at least reduce the frequency of – the nightmarish challenges of keeping up with communications while being on the road. In my very next breath I always went on to say – and here comes my actual soap box moment (just a warning) – that maybe it turns out that it’s actually good for us to have some private time. Maybe it’s all for the better that there are times that nobody knows where we are or how to reach us. Yes, I can turn my android off, but it’s possible that even just knowing that someone could be calling or emailing me keeps one tiny set of neurons on alert when they should be taking their twenty-minute power nap or meditating on a mantra that bears no resemblance to a handheld superpower device.

So while I’m happy to have this new instrument from the Star Trek era in my employ, I still feel uncomfortable with the fact that our host for this Friday night reached me when I happened to be shopping for lead refills for my No. 7 mechanical pencil and a backpack last night. And while I was able to carry on a perfectly coherent conversation with her as I navigated the aisles of the mega-store, it’s just plain weird that she didn’t have to know where I was while we were pinning down the parameters of tomorrow’s visit. I find it on the edge of icky when a woman in the stall or dressing room next to mine is chatting with someone I cannot see. (Granted, I cannot see the woman in the stall or dressing room next to mine either, but I know you know what I’m getting at. Please don’t let me lose my momentum here.)

When we were kids, my brother and I watched the Jetsons on television together. We wanted what they had – the TV-screen phones, the instant food, the remote camera intercoms, etc. – so bad we could taste it. While I know we have not gotten as far as flying cars (thank goodness – can you imagine bad or raging drivers filling the airways in addition to the highways?) we are using a lot of things that look like Jetson imitations as it is. My android is teaching me that it can be fun, just as that happy animated family from the future made it seem. But I also want to remind all of us that the Jetsons had their daily life issues, as do we all. George, Jane, Judy, and Elroy had all manner of things to contend with at home, at school, and in the workplace, which was what the episodes were REALLY about, even if my brother and I missed the so called point. It’s not how I call Dan every day, it’s the fact that I do get to talk to him. It’s not how we found the gas station, it’s that we are fortunate enough to be able to afford to pay for this trip so that I can develop further in my profession, and also so that Chloe and Rachel and I can enjoy being together in our respective musical endeavors, re-connecting with several old friends, and making new friends along the way. I am glad to have my droid’s help so that perhaps I am less frazzled when I get there! But let me remember that the tool, no matter how seductive, is still just a tool.

Valentines Day, the blob on the screen, and growing up

February 21, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Very Long Blogs | Leave a comment
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It is Valentine’s Day.  I am actually wearing red, coincidentally or unintentionally (whichever way you want to think of it), but don’t tell anyone I didn’t plan it.  We sent Chloe a care package on Friday – two homemade cards (one from Rachel and one from me), a store-bought funny card (from all of us), and a bag of Lindor chocolate truffles.  Not that we have any special family connection with this holiday.  It’s just that Chloe’s roommate always decorates their room in a season- or holiday-appropriate way, and I didn’t want Chloe to feel – left out?  Forgotten?  Perhaps I am merely (desperately?) grasping at any opportunity to do something special for her, now that she is away.

I am sitting in the sanctuary of a church.  It is Monday evening, time for Rachel’s weekly orchestra rehearsal.  This is what they are calling the “dress” rehearsal, though the students are not required to wear their concert black.  The performance is Wednesday night.  In it they are premiering a piece by a local Grammy-winning composer, and he is here tonight.  He and their normal director are taking turns conducting and listening from the hall.  It is a beautiful piece, and we are so excited that Rachel gets to play it, as only the first few chairs in each section were selected for this work.

I have performed with my orchestra and with various other chamber groups numerous times in this room, and I do not often get to sit out in the pews.  Never did I think, six years ago in my first concert here, that in a few years I would be watching Rachel play in such a prestigious group.  Nor did I at that time picture Chloe at music school.  And 1,300 miles away.

Before Chloe was born, I was active as a touring solo folksinger.  Dan booked my concerts and traveled with me, leaving his computer training and consulting assignments behind each time we went out on the road.  I took a few months off during my pregnancy and then when Chloe was four or five months old, we hit the road anew.  She traveled to countless places with us during the first two years of her life, and let me take this opportunity to mention what a super nomad she was – eager and bright-eyed for every leg of every trip, and forever good-natured.  Anyway, once she turned two, not only was it suddenly more expensive to take her with us, it had also become increasingly costly to me in terms of energy and focus.  As she became more affected by the changes in her surroundings, it was harder on her, and therefore on Dan and me, which made it challenging to balance everyone’s needs while we toured.  So I went out there by myself for just over one year more, leaving Dan and Chloe behind at home for each of my four- or five-day trips, twice a month, until I could no longer find enough of a reward so far afield to lure me away from the bosom of my family.  When Chloe was three and a half I gave up traveling and became a stay-at-home mom, doing whatever gigs I could find close to home.

One month after my final tour, I went to Chloe’s nursery school to watch the children in their special Christmas holiday performance.  They got up on their little platform, two inches above floor height, and Chloe, who had never given me even a clue as to her thoughts about my being a performer, turned to me from her place up on the “stage” and said, “Mama, now it’s MY turn to be up here!”  As they launched into their first song, I observed several of the children gazing blankly around the room, mouths open with wonder at what was going on, utterly oblivious to the fact that they were performing.  In the meantime, Chloe and a small handful of others were singing their hearts out, clearly, spiritedly and confidently, fully cognizant of the attention their adorable selves were garnering.

(Note:  Lest you be misled by this quintessentially cute scenario, allow me to bring you back down to earth by informing you that Chloe had at that time almost no sense of pitch.  It filled me with dread and alarm to think that I had actually hatched a tone-deaf child, and for all her early years I did my best to not discourage her vocal efforts with my clenched teeth and too-bright smile.  My anxiety was relieved around the time she turned eight, as by then she had finally settled into a reliable and well-tuned relationship between her ears and her vocal cords, thank goodness.  Until then I had not realized that for some children, developing a sense of pitch is a developmental thing.)

Chloe is now not only playing in her college orchestra as well as the designated string quartet of the music department, and working on solo repertoire with her private teacher, but also was accepted into the women’s chorus for this semester.  Next week they will be performing Handel’s Messiah.  At Christmas, when all the choruses and the orchestra put on the annual holiday concert, it was live-streamed for those parents who live too far away to show up for every performance.  Dan and Rachel and I were way more excited to watch it than I would have expected, especially once we saw that the visual quality was disappointingly far from sharp.  “That blob has to be Chloe!!” we assured each other in front of our long-distance computer screen.  And we were right, of course.  Family members can always tell.

Rachel’s orchestra has just begun the opening theme of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, one of the most lovely melodies out there.  In waves, I find myself overcome with emotion as I listen.  First of all, music is a personal thing, somehow intimate even in a giant hall (which this is not).  When it is delivered in performance it feels as if it has been handed To You, even as you sit among five others, or hundreds or thousands of others.  And the intimacy extends to the others in the room, as you are all receiving it together.  There is that level of it, enhanced in this case of course by the fact that it is my kid up there!

Then there is the piece that is just particular to my family and our experience of performances.  We all have almost always been there for each other’s special events.  Dan has been there for close to every concert I have ever given, with the exception of that dreadful year when he stayed home with Chloe while I was still touring.  Chloe and Rachel stayed with a sitter for a few years, and then began to come to my shows with Dan, even if they fell asleep during the show.  Once I joined the baroque orchestra, not only have they come for almost every single performance (even coming night after night when we have a multi-night run), they generally sit right up there in the front row.  My fellow musicians have come to expect them to be there, and have missed their shining faces on the few occasions when they have either missed the concert or been banished to a seat farther from the stage.

So this year presented me with this multi-faceted loss as well.  We don’t get to be there for Chloe’s shows, and she doesn’t get to be here for mine or for Rachel’s.  Maybe that doesn’t sound like such a big deal.  My words don’t carry the charge that I feel about it.  This is part of how we live together.  It’s part of how we know each other.  We eat together, we talk, we listen to each other practicing and we are there for each other’s performances, cheering each other on – and enjoying it.

When I played at Carnegie Recital Hall back in 1980, I don’t think it ever dawned on my parents to fly out for the concert, nor did that possibility occur to me.  Since both of them were from New York and had many friends and family members who still lived there, they simply wrote to everyone they could think of to tell them I was coming.  And my fan club definitely showed up, stand-ins for my parents, who waited excitedly back home for the reports of the event.  I think they may have sent flowers, but I can’t remember for sure.  And my aunt went with me to the Russian Teahouse and a long string of other places after the show, as we celebrated well into the night and then some.  Expectations have definitely changed over the past thirty years, as has the world of travel.  While Dan and Rachel and I cannot possibly fly out for every show Chloe is in, we certainly plan to be in the audience for the big ones.  I don’t know how we will distinguish between those that are important and those that aren’t, but I assume we’ll figure that out.

Nobody tells you, when you hold your precious little newborn, that this is going to be only one season in your life.  Let me try to explain this from my own point of view.  There was the season of my own childhood.  The season of college and young adulthood.  The mating season that resulted in marriage, those early years with Dan that were filled with music and travel, the wrestling with career and dreams of starting a family, which took time to sort out and clarify.  Then there was the season of early parenthood, mixed in with the loss of Dan’s parents.  And then all the decisions that come with that phase:  school, activities, priorities, the forming of new traditions.  Somehow my view of that season was often blurred by and partly merged into the recollection of my own growing up.  And in a way, “growing up” came to feel like a permanent state to me.  After all, my parents remained my parents even after I was technically an adult.  Maybe because that felt permanent to me, I took up with the idea that the tangle and closeness that is the nature of raising children would be, similarly, without end.

Of course, everyone tells me that it would drive Dan and me absolutely crazy, off the deep end, if our kids stayed with us forever, and I believe them!  Isn’t it amazing how we humans can want two opposing things at the same time?  In the early years, I wanted Chloe and Rachel to remain forever small, adorable and snuggly, imbued with that kind of worship that only the young bestow upon their doting parents.  And at the same time, I can remember how crazy-making it was to have them on my skin every waking (and, often, non-waking) moment.  I remember saying to Chloe as a baby, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”  Of course I want them both to grow into adulthood and find their respective paths.  And I want some sunset years with Dan, bookends to our early years together.  And I want Chloe and Rachel here with us because that is what feels complete now.

I can still remember the last time Rachel fell asleep on my lap, two or three years ago maybe, at the concert of a friend.  It was a Sunday afternoon, those sleepy after-lunch hours of the day, and she leaned on me, and then when I looked down into her face, she was asleep.  I sat there in the concert, tears streaming silently down my cheeks because I was fully aware that it was likely to be the last time that would ever happen.  The end of an era.  She may still be my baby, but she is definitely not a baby anymore.

In less than four months, we will attend her 8th grade “continuation” – in every way a graduation, even though, yes, she is continuing on into high school.  Chloe will be home for the summer by then, and will be sitting in the audience with Dan and me.  It’s not that our times together are all behind us, and, God willing, we will certainly be in each other’s audiences for many years to come.  I am seeing that these four years are indeed an extended transition into something else that might also be considered a transition into something further on down the line.  Maybe each stop along the way in life is more of a transition than a station.  I am beginning to think so.  May the valentines and bouquets and phone calls say it as loudly and clearly as applause and smiling countenances, in both directions.  And may we all ride the continuing surf, sometimes lulling and sometimes tumultuous, of transformation.

 

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?

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.

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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