Sunday, September 29, 2013

Medley: 9/29/13

From What Charlie Heard: the Story of the American Composer Charles Ives, by Mordicai Gerstein, Frances Foster Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002:
Charlie grew older and became ill. He had to stop writing music. He and Harmony lived in the country. He had hundreds of pieces of music that had never been performed, all on paper, all silent. Charlie continued to send his music out into the world. But few people had anything encouraging to say.
“If only they would open their ears,” he said to Harmony, “they might open their hearts.”

Watching the face of one of The Violin Project students while I read this book to them Friday afternoon: I wish I could share with you the concern and intensity with which he listened.

“’Every one of us has an artist in us,’ he says. ‘Really, some may be asleep and some are fully awake, you know. So I think I have a kind of commitment to waking up some people in whom it is asleep. Teaching—my work is still teaching.’”



It rained this weekend. We were glad.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

This Trail

But I can stop today. The picture barely begins to capture what is around me, but it will do the job. Tucked away in my cell phone, it is only slightly more tangible than most of what I carry out of the woods after these runs.
It is crazy-beautiful this morning, mist so heavy on the lake we feel like we’re at the edge of the world. The rising sun edges it all with peach and gold. A barred owl calls, “Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you-all?” It takes a while to catch up to my running partners, but I can hear their voices ahead of me on the trail.
I was out here with them almost every weekend last summer and early fall, training for my no-way-that’s-insane race, a trail half-marathon. The first time I was on this trail, I was not convinced my ankles could take it. I could envision all sorts of horrible  falls. And honestly, I really enjoy meandering through the woods. But I had to try.
It took about five minutes to get hooked.
I turn my ankle regularly enough, but it doesn’t matter. I love the ruggedness of the path, the rocks and tree roots. I love how there are places the earth lies in folds like a tossed-off blanket, how I have to slow down for the terrain.
There are hills here that still slow me to a walk. I tell myself I am not a wimp. I’m still moving forward and that’s what matters.
There are turns in the path—gentle curves close to the lake that suddenly follow an inlet into some rocky low place—where I can still feel the ghosts of past conversations. What I didn’t know before training was that if you run enough miles with a person, they will hear your story and you will hear theirs. There was a time I had no idea why you might find somebody running through the woods, or around a lake, or down a street. Now I know there is every reason in the world.
It makes me wonder how many stories this trail has heard. I wonder about the feet that pounded it, heavy with anger and frustration, light with hope or wonder or laughter, clumsy with exhaustion, and yes, even just surefooted, strong, in the moment. I wonder about the steps that slowed with pain, or exhaustion, or emotion, and all the ways they somehow kept moving forward.
This trail must hold a lot of wisdom, a multitude of experience.
This year is different than last. I feel stronger emotionally, but weaker physically. I had hoped (assumed?) my hard work would find me stronger-stronger, not stronger-weaker. But that tendency I've had for as long as I can remember for every cold to settle in my lungs and stay there—I recently found out that settling is also known as bronchitis, and I’ve had it at least four times since January. Between that and pneumonia in June, I need to just be glad I’m running. Finishing this race will be this year’s accomplishment, not finishing it faster or stronger, not running something longer, not doing something harder. This is frustrating. I know the path better, and yet somehow it is not the same path.
I think about those hills I still walk. Still working hard, still moving forward. That’s the important part. Oh, how I love this place. It is not mine to conquer, but I can try to learn the path well, and carry bits of it with me out of the woods.


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Sunday, September 15, 2013

For Real


They all have superpowers, you know.
Hidden, of course.
I know one who has the power to read in bed at night without falling asleep. Woe to the parent who forgets to tell her to turn out the light. The more tired she becomes, the harder it is for her to fall asleep.
I know another who can make herself heard in any situation.
Another can make you see into the future with nothing but a flash of his hands or the presence of his broadening shoulders.
They are creatures of mystery. And no, they are not miniature adults, but they are short humans. It’s up to the taller humans to figure out the difference in any given situation.
All of them can turn the world upside down.
A certain mother, who thought once—before children—that she knew something about maturity, celebrated a birthday recently. She doesn’t feel older. She cannot remember feeling older on any birthday, ever. She figures if all goes well she still has more than half a life to live. But more than once, now, she has almost crashed the car when one of the short humans in the back seat shrieked, “Mom!!! Your hair is turning white!” She has had more faults and flaws pointed out than she cares to think about, especially the ones she thought were maybe not so noticeable.
Take note of that superpower as well: the ability to see all, and then some.
This mother doesn’t get quite as excited about her birthday as she did when she was shorter. She remembers the excitement, but getting older doesn’t feel as glamorous as it used to. Then again, she doesn’t always take into consideration the special powers of the people around her. They do, after all, see things differently. This birthday one of them wanted to know how old she was.
“Forty one,” she answered, determined that a real lady has no need to be coy about her age.
“Forty one?! Wow! You are awesome!”
“And what, exactly, is so awesome about forty one?”
“Well. It’s what you are!”
That’s an especially strong superpower: that mixture of love and grace that can make one of the tall people feel 100 times bigger and 100 times smaller, all at the same time. Take note of that one, too.
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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Q, Quasar

Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

It’s there in the opening, that wandering. Again at the end of the first movement. And in those chords at letter Q in the fourth movement, the spot our conductor in college had us start over and over. “Q, quasar,” again and again. I loved his choice of words. It was a transition moment, with chords that sounded as mysterious and distant as outer space, the lead-in to the final triumph of the piece. It was a spot to pay attention to, not only because it needed to be done right. When the music gets so that you’re not really sure where you are, it’s a good sign that you should pay careful attention. The composer is about to take you somewhere.
And now, listening to Brahms’ 1st Symphony this morning, I hear it shot-through with wandering. Not aimless, but full of searching. Heartfelt. Soulful. Shifting between sure-footedness and uncertainty. A working-through, a…what?  A working-out of something?
Well of course. Did you forget? What is music like this if not a working-out of themes? You knew that. Did you think it was all just a mental exercise?
Maybe I did. It seems like I continually have to re-teach myself things I already knew.
It was a deliberate decision to listen to this music this morning. I wanted to remind myself of that other-worldliness at Q. That wandering. I had forgotten, somehow, that it wasn’t the only place, just the last and most nebulous. I love pointing this kind of moment out to my students. “Listen. What’s going to happen? What is the composer doing here?” And here, somewhere around 51:23, you’re sure that whatever’s coming will be big. Listen to how it builds. When you get to 52:15 it’s one of those moments you want so badly, have waited for since the start of the piece. When you finally arrive it almost hurts.
Maybe it’s so satisfying because in real life not only are these moments rare, they don’t always have the same kind of definition. And they seem to happen within the context of a three-ring circus (at least three rings), which means you don’t get to drown yourself in those glorious brass chords for very long. Then again, even Brahms moves on.
I chose this particular music this morning because I find myself in a wonderfully good place after spending several years in a very hard one. I don’t know how to write about it at this point—I expect that to take time. At the very least I can tell you that I have found myself the recipient of a miracle. And it’s so good. I’m enjoying the goodness, enjoying that I have some room to heal. But here’s the thing: I don’t know how to heal any more than I knew how to go through the stuff that necessitated healing. Or maybe I know in part, but not enough to make it go any faster. And it’s been a long time since I pretended I was patient.
So I find myself considering what I know about art:
How it’s in those wandering-est moments that you should pay attention. They usually mean you’re being taken someplace new.
How when you don’t understand it’s helpful to be quiet and listen. And watch. Absorb all you can.
How Brahms wanders, how beautiful it is, and how wandering isn’t quite wandering after all.
After all, the spot I’ve thought about most through the years is rehearsal letter Q.
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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Treble Clef

When I introduce the term, somebody invariably hears me say “trouble clef.”
“I want a purple one of those,” one girl told me recently, after hearing me tell another student what that curly thing was called. “Wanna know why? Because I’m trouble!” I peeled off a sparkly purple sticker and placed it on her forehead, a reward for a completely silent last six minutes of class that day. The way she said it made me think she’s been told that only in the most endearing of ways.
I always try explaining that it’s treble, but students don’t always hear the difference. They don’t have a lot of context for treble.
Clefs are all about context, really. Sitting on the far left of the music staff, they tell you which note names are assigned to each line and space. If all instruments and voices shared a common clef most of them would find their parts written well above or below the staff. Which is difficult to read. So each clef designates a certain set of note names—treble clef, sometimes known as G-clef (its swirls lock down g on the staff,) accommodates the higher pitches.
The idea that pitches aren’t necessarily fixed is difficult. I, for one, live as though they are. Violinists don’t spend a lot of time reading in other clefs. When I look at a note, I hear a particular pitch in my head. Sound and physical location are linked in a way that is hard to break. Learning to read bass clef when I started piano lessons in 5th grade was like learning a new language. I’m fluent now, but it still doesn’t feel like my native tongue.
Besides, a violinist can get by, living as though this were a world of fixed notes, thankful she doesn’t play some other instrument that has to deal with relativity and perspective a little more up-front.
And isn’t it easy, living that way? Thinking you know exactly what fits where? Believing everybody else reads off the same staff?
I say treble clef, and somebody in the room hears trouble clef, and it always makes me smile.
As tempting as it is to behave as if everything is fixed and sure, though, I am just as tempted to be overwhelmed by the complicated definition, the deeper answer, the mystery of it all. In music, in life, wherever. I see generosity in a treble clef. Part question mark, part ampersand: Treble voice, in the vast world of sound you are here. This is your starting point. Play—make it music.
A starting point is a wonderful place to start, wherever you are, whatever the notes.

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