I’ve been absent again. I’ve been playing a lot of music and it’s been keeping me away from the (computer) keyboard. And also work at the Toy Factory is heating up again, as in addition to the giant extra project I already had on my plate building a new storage and display facility for toys, one of the larger toys I work on is undergoing a new design, a process that has put me in charge of stuff I didn’t use to be in charge of. And then my boss got usurped by another department for 6 months, quite unexpectedly, and so I’ve got some extra things to do there as well. I’ve shifted a little too seamlessly to a 10-hour day, but strangely, I’m kind of liking it. I’m also becoming resigned to the fact that I will never be caught up. It is the way things are.
But music making has been therapy. Some nice things have been happening with the music I play on Sundays. Not such definable things, but we’ve had some moments where everything just clicks and it feels great to play. Last Sunday, we got a very unexpected round of applause after a piece that we were enjoying so much that we were kind of surprised when it ended, an Irishy tune that was a duet between me on violin and my favorite singer. It was a bit of a challenge for me in that I had to sightread up a sixth, which is not something I’m used to doing, but I think the extra concentration required somehow enabled what happened, focused the performance. Because it’s such a chore to transpose at sight, I memorized it fast — one of the things all this playing is doing for me is improving my musical memory — and what was supposed to be a meditation for the congregation became another kind of meditation for the musicians. I’d arrived at the church tired and a little crabby, but left after more than three hours of playing (across two services with some rehearsal in the middle) feeling energized. Somehow as an adult I’ve finally found the flow I had a sense for but couldn’t control as a violin student.
But violin is the least of it, because I’ve become a little obsessed with the guitar (I can hear Mr. Spy saying “A lot obsessed.”) I play every single day, for at least an hour, I think, although I don’t really count it and it’s often a lot more. I don’t think I’ve ever been this virtuous about anything, nor do I think I’ve ever wanted to be expert at something in quite the way I am about the guitar. But it’s not like I say to myself, “If you want to be good, you need to practice everyday.” It’s that it is literally the first thing I want to do when I walk in the door after work. Every day. I think about it while I’m at work. I practice fingerings on the subway, figure out chord progressions while barreling down 35th Street on my way to the office. It feels more and more like an extension of my voice, a way of connecting and disconnecting with the world at the same time. Or something like that. I don’t really know how to explain it. I like the headspace it puts me in. The best therapy I can think of for a hectic day is sitting on the roof as the sun goes down and the dark comes up and playing…whatever comes to mind, really.
Because I pretty much think about playing guitar all the time and because I’ve had some trouble writing here of late, I’m thinking it might be time to try another music meme. Somewhere up at the top of the page is one that I never finished. I may give it a try. Or I may just talk about the songs that I’m working on. Or maybe a mix of the two. I’m not planning on turning this into a theme blog. I’m just trying to rebuild the habit. In addition to playing, I’m doing a lot of listening, as I try to get my head around what songwriting might be like. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what makes a good song, why well-written songs are not always the ones you respond to, and what makes songs meaningful enough that you’re okay with playing them over and over and over again until you can get your fingers to remember the sound.
I. Scenes from my morning commute
* In the park, a middle-aged woman wearing a circle skirt and walking a beagle. She looks over to see if anyone is watching, thinks not, and spins, her skirt standing out nearly straight.
* On the subway, a man in a fencing jacket
* On 35th Street, a belly-up cockroach the size of a Buick*. And another one. And another one. And then one that was flattened.
*(if a Buick were about 3 inches long)
II. Grand Central Station
Things that happened while I was seated in the middle of a long table for a work-related social event.
* A discussion about footnotes that ended with someone showing someone else her dissertation on her cell phone (no, it wasn’t me)
* Two simultaneous conversations about humor. On my left, a discussion of how unintentionally funny Theodor Adorno’s writing about jazz is. On my right, a recitation (accompanied by hand gestures) of several jokes previous told by grandmothers in Yiddish. This particular counterpoint says more about the Toy Factory than just about anything.
* A glass of champagne mysteriously appeared in the middle of the table and just as mysteriously vanished a few minutes later.
III. Scenes from my evening commute
* On the subway, a man reading an article about My Little Ponies
* Outside the shuttered corner store, two men smoking cigars, smoke curling around their faces
This morning, like most Sunday mornings, I hauled my fiddle up to the choir loft and church to play the 8:30 Mass. I waved to the organist, got tuned, pulled out my music, prepped my hymnal, and adjusted the mike. The bell rang to start Mass and I played the first hymn. A few minutes after we finished the song, I heard footsteps on the wooden stairs and a small girl appeared by my side, and stood there very still.
I went over and crouched down to talk to her and she talked very quietly. I asked if she was here to see the organist and she nodded solemnly. I realized at her height, she couldn’t see over the organ console, so I grabbed him for her. He said a few words and set her up with a mike just her height and gave her some music. But when it came time to sing, she stepped away from the mike. She looked shy.
After the next song, I was standing with my fiddle under my arm running the baroque concerto I was going to play for the offertory quietly. I felt a tug on my elbow. “Can I stand over here next to you?” she asked.
“Of course.” I got her a hymnal and move the mike between our heights so we could both use it. When it came time to sing, she turned the mike back to me. “I’m scared,” she said. “Would you like me to sing with you instead of play?” She nodded. We stood next to each other holding hands for the next song.
“What’s your name?” I asked her afterwards.
“Hi, I’m Harriet.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m 47,” her eyes widened, either because I sounded alarmingly old or because she didn’t expect a straight answer. “How old are you?”
It was time to play my piece. E stood stock still by my elbow watching me with enormous brown eyes.
When I had finished she asked, “Can I try?”
I whispered in here ear, “Not right now, but after Mass I’ll show you how to play.” She grinned.
It was time to say the Lord’s Prayer. I usually fold my hands, like the old timers. But this time it seemed right to hold hands like the current custom. I grabbed her hand and she looked at me and grinned. We said the prayer together.
At the passing of the peace, where you greet the people around you and say peace be with you. I waved at the organist. I held out my hand to E to shake, but instead she threw her arms around me and gave me a giant boa constrictor hug. I hugged her back.
“I need to go down and tell my mama something.”
“Can you wait until after the next song? I need someone to sing with me.”
“I’m just going to go down now.”
“Okay. Come right back!”
She came back a few minutes later. “I was so scared on the stairs.” The stairs are old and warped and they make tight turns where the steps are very narrow.
“I can help you when it’s time to go back down.”
“I want to go down.”
“Sing with me. Here.” I pointed at the hymnal for her as the organ played the beginning of the “Agnus Dei.” I held the mike between us and she opened her mouth and out came a beautiful soft soprano voice.
She took my hand and we walked down the stairs together. She ran to find her mom while I walked up the center aisle to take communion. When I got to the back of the church again, she was just starting to climb the stairs all by herself. “I’m not scared anymore,” she whispered when she saw me.”
We sang the last hymn and after it was over, as promised, I let her hold my violin, far to big for her. She held it and listened carefully to my instructions. She played a note and looked at me with surprise and then played another one. I sang her some rhythms and had her play them back. Then I had her sing rhythms to me and she played those too. Her brother came up to tell her it was time to go. I went down with her and my violin so she could show her mom what she had learned. I met her whole family, who were all lovely. Her mother thanked me over and over and asked if I taught. I said I used to but I don’t do it right now, but I’ve been thinking about it. She asked for my number and I gave it to her.
Later I had a message on the machine. She called to thank me again and to tell me a story. Her daughter has had a hard time. She has severe learning disabilities and is made fun of by other children and not always tolerated by adults. She’s often afraid to talk to people. Her brother is autistic and rarely talks to others. She said that both children were talking about being in the choir loft and about the violin this morning. She said that her son has never volunteered to go somewhere by himself before. He’s usually very afraid of strangers, but he ran right up to the loft. Music is a way he can communicate. She thinks it was because he plays violin too. And if I’d ever consider teaching, to please give her a call.
I was, needless to say, weeping copiously as I listened to this message, which was also full of parental heartbreak, the kind where people chalk up a child’s problems to bad parenting. This, people, is why music lessons matter, why we are in desperate need of music in schools and really just about everywhere. Music connects people when other things don’t work. It was that way for me, as a shy and awkward kid. It’s doubly true for kids like E and her brother. It’s a simple thing.
E. wanted us to take her picture holding the violin, but no one had a camera. I promised we’d do it next week if she’d come back. She promised she would. And I’m going to hold her to it.
Today I was going to write about something else entirely and I’ll probably post it someday. But not today. Today I’m going to tell you a couple of stories.
A few days ago, on a beautiful summer evening celebrating AJ’s baseball team winning the league championship with a picnic and cocktails in the park. I was talking to the two moms of one of AJ’s teammates and they were telling me about what it was like when they were first together and pregnant and living in a neighborhood that was dangerous and not very open-minded. When they took their son to day care for the first time, they weren’t sure what to do but finally told the director, “C has two moms.” “Oh, no,” the director said. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no.” All of us listening made noises of concern. But the woman telling the story assured us it was not what we thought. “The director said, ‘I don’t want the ex wife coming down here and then the wife coming down here — someone always gets in a fight.” We all laughed, but not the teller of the story. “I cried. I couldn’t stop crying.”
* * * * *
Yesterday, I met up with a toymaker I work with at a conference I was attending. He lives on the West Coast with the man he’s been calling his husband for longer than he’s been legally able to do so, and I only get to see him once or twice a year. When I ran into him in the hallway yesterday, he had his phone in his hand, checking the Supreme Court rulings like my son checks for White Sox scores. We both cheered at the preservation of ACA. “Tomorrow,” he said. “They say it’s going to come tomorrow.”
* * * * *
* * * * *
Months ago, the park near my apartment scheduled a screening of Paris is Burning for tonight. I remember seeing thing film in college and being overwhelmed. It’s not a happy film, but there is joy and I predict it’s going to be the biggest fucking party my neighborhood has seen in a long time.
* * * * *
Today I’m thinking about everyone who will feel this most and I’m happy for them. Tomorrow I’m going to be happy for me, because tomorrow, the world will be a little bit better than it was yesterday.
Yesterday, AJ put on a red cap and gown and graduated from middle school.
Yesterday I conquered my nerves and took my very first guitar lesson.
Yesterday it was hot enough to fry an egg on the street – I have seen photographic evidence.
The graduates were soaked through by the time they got into the church.
My guitar was out of tune by the time I sat down to play.
The heat bends everything out of shape.
They looked so tall, in their red robes, with their faces, some smiling, some solemn, in concentration.
I frowned at my recalcitrant fingers, always one step behind my brain.
The breeze of the fan cleared the air.
AJ accepted his awards as we stifled cheers when his name was called out.
I tried not to smile with relief when I heard I’m holding my hands the right way.
Tut, tut, looks like rain.
A fourteen-year-old boy gave an impassioned speech about his education and the earthquake in Nepal, the country from which he emigrated just five years ago.
I reshaped my fingers, learning to roll them and flatten them to make the sounds I’ve been dying to hear.
The sun melted soft spots into the sidewalk.
The children stood and turned their tassels as the crowd erupted.
My fingers mapped the fretboard, and suddenly they knew what the chord inversions let like, the shape of them, the way they make you feel.
The sun was relentlessly sunny.
The children sang and AJ played a guitar solo and we were all surprised and moved.
I learned a new way to play the B section of Blackbird and it changes everything.
We forgot about the heat, just for a moment, despite the sweat pouring down our brows.
A 14-year old girl quoted Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
My fingers finally landed F# major, while I sang under my breath, “These are the words we use to say goodbye.”
Nighttime, still steamy, church windows open, a horn, a laugh, and the sound of bells – we strolled home humming in our heads.
A long time ago, I went to France to study music and met a boy who told me he loved me as we stood in lamplight on the Pont Neuf,watching the boats go by. I didn’t believe him, but it was what I wanted to hear. We’d spent the day squiring an eggplant sporting my sunglasses, around Paris and taking pictures of it in front of major tourist attractions. The eggplant was part of a theatrical production the boy was in. He wanted the pictures for the show, but the eggplant provided a convenient distraction from the awkwardness of the question we didn’t really want to be asking –what happens when you go your way and I go mine? The eggplant is in nearly every photo I have from that trip.
What happened when he went his way and I went mine? Not much, really. It was messy but brief. And then we didn’t speak for a long time, years. And then out of the blue he invited me to a concert he was doing and I was so surprised that I went. And then I unexpectedly ran into him at a conference, literally the minute I walked in the front door. And now we are friends again and we live in the same city, albeit on opposite ends. The eggplant did not survive the immigration process.
Over the weekend, the boy wrote about a play in Brooklyn that he’d seen. He posted it to VisageTome and tagged me and a few other people, urging us to see it. I looked up the play and discovered it’s at a theater company founded by one of the other parents of a kid on AJ’s baseball team. I mentioned this fact to the boy, and he said they were old friends.
I talked to the parent about our mutual friend and he told me they’d gone to college together. “And how do you know him?” the logical question I should have been prepared for, after which there was a pause while I groped for an answer that didn’t involve vegetables or make me sound like an overly nostalgic ex-girlfriend. “Oh, we were in school in France together, a long time ago.”
New York can feel like the world’s tiniest place.
It was a good weekend all around. On Friday, I had the day off and spent most of it sitting in the park with my guitar and my conference paper in progress. AJ went to his 8th grade dance and came home in one piece. On Saturday, I had dinner with a good friend visiting from Chicago and two of her friends who live a block away from me. We ate at a fantastic new restaurant in the neighborhood.
It is perhaps worth noting that I did not have the eggplant.
This afternoon AJ stepped up to the plate, the very first batter for his team, and whacked a home run. Afterwards I stopped to chat with a couple of friends watching their kids play later games. I went home and ran into Mr. Spy who was coming back to the park with cocktails. So I went back with him and we found our friends and poured out gimlets. At that very moment, it started to rain. We finished our cocktails under an enormous tree, but we were all pretty soaked (in both senses of the word) by the time we left the park.
And now, I’m trying to get myself organized for a trip to Boston this week for which I still have not bought my train tickets. I am not planning on packing any vegetables or cocktails but am nevertheless looking forward to the ride.
It’s a totally different thing learning an instrument as an adult than it was as a kid. This does not come as a total surprise. I’ve taught violin to adults. I’ve always loved working with adult beginners. They’re interesting because they’re incredibly passionate about it and they also tend to box themselves in with their expectations or their habits or those walls that all of our knowledge and experience can build.
As a kid I came to the violin because I loved the sound, but my experience of learning the violin was one of learning to do things right. Violin pedagogy is very focused on technique, on getting things just so. It’s necessary, because getting a good sound out of a fiddle can take years. It’s a complex process. But all the focus on technique can make it easy to lose sight of the music. I had many wonderful teachers over the years, all of whom focused on the minutia of technique. The ones that stuck with me, though were the ones let me know how and why they loved it while they did so. The generous souls. I may have learned more from the ones that made me cry, but they are not the reason I still do it. Practice was a chore for them and playing well didn’t always feel like much of a victory.
Guitar is a different thing entirely. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked this hard at something for no reason. I have no real expectations. Sure, I’ve been known to entertain a fantasy that Neko Case might walk by me playing in Prospect Park and invite me to slip in the side entrance to the bandshell and sit in with the New Pornographers. And sure, I’d love to play with a band, any band. But I’m also pretty happy doing what I’m doing, chipping away at the things that until a few weeks ago I didn’t know how to do. I didn’t learn them because someone told me I had to know how to do these things in this way. I learned them because there was a song that spoke to me and I wanted to play it. And the things were what I needed to do. I’m enjoying the process.
As I tune up my guitar every night when I get home from work, I think about the struggles I had with math growing up. I would regularly get high scores on aptitude tests but do poorly on my homework. It puzzled more than one of my teachers. But I was never interested in memorizing formulas. I wanted to look at the problem and figure out how to answer it myself. I wanted to think it through. And there’s not a lot of room for that in the early years of public school math.
I hit the same wall in grad school. As an undergrad, I’d had music theory teachers who let me dive into analysis of pieces with a limited number of tools. To me, music theory was looking at the questions I had about a piece and devising ways to get at the answers. The process of the inquiry was what turned me on. In one of my papers, one I ended up submitting with my grad school applications, I attempted to analyze a highly complex string quartet by Elliott Carter. In order to explain what I heard and what I could see on the page of the score, I gave each pitch a number, so that I could show how the pitches were ordered and reordered, broken into parts and put back together again. When I got to grad school, I discovered this was a tried and true theoretical method for music like Carter’s –it’s called set theory. But I’d never heard of it or learned it. The process of figuring it out, though, turned out to be much more interesting than learning the ins and outs of the technique. In fact, I became increasingly frustrated with the limitations of the theoretical toolbox. I didn’t want to practice anymore. I switched fields.
It never occurred to me that these are all the same problem. I’m a person who needs to take things apart and learn how they tick. There can be no shortcuts. In my dissertation work, I got sucked into the endless vortex of archival research because I didn’t trust the shortcut of secondary literature.
In all of these areas, what I like is to find my own tools.
With guitar, I’ve had only myself to guide me, so the tools are all mine. I’ve taught myself every thing I know. But now I’ve had to admit I’ve hit a wall. So I emailed AJ’s guitar teacher and asked if he’d give me a lesson or two. I can’t remember the last time I had a lesson. Probably a conducting class in grad school. And even though I haven’t scheduled it, I’m already getting nervous. I’ve been playing until the tip of my left pinkie goes numb. I record what I do, so I can hear my progress. It’s humbling most of the time, but every now and then I get a glimmer of something, a moment where I relax just enough, where I land a barre chord squarely so the strings ring instead of clunk, where I managed to sing a different rhythm than I’m strumming – still a challenge after so many years on a melody instrument. And suddenly, it’s not about counting each and every mistake – my hesitating entrance, an overlong transition between chords – but about the moments where I get it, where I’m not just playing what’s on the page but saying something. It’s a good feeling. And right now, I can’t get enough.
Harriet sings Sam Phillips’ “Reflecting Light”
Practice track, recorded on my iPhone with Voice Memos – doesn’t do the Gibson justice