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I’m with the band

January 9, 2016

859089_10153859627244661_1377994805315229975_oWhen you’re a musical kid, people give you music tchotchkes at every possible opportunity, and it can make you feel like a cliché. I’ve had music mugs and pads of paper with “NOTES written on them (the 8th notes are usually written backwards). I had a bag covered in a Bach score that said “Music is My Bag” (at the time I didn’t even know what that sentence meant). I had violin bracelets and earrings that mostly stayed in their boxes, posters of small sad children toting giant violins. These things and others like them were markers of music nerds everywhere. They propped up my burgeoning identity as a musician, even as I wasn’t sure that I’d earned it or that I wanted to be limited by it. After a while you start to think they belong to you and that they are inevitable.

I don’t have any of these things anymore, save the chipped mug with an 8th note for a handle that I bought with my own money on a field trip to Boston when I was in middle school. The glaze is completely worn off, but it still holds my morning coffee. I knew by high school that as much as I loved music and relied on it as a way of understanding and commenting on the world around me, that it was not the only thing I wanted to do. But I kept doing it, sometimes out of habit, sometimes out of compulsion, sometimes out of a sense of retreat, a need to pull back from new things and remember who I was by going back to the last place that I knew for sure. Sometimes out of love.

My career has taken me many places, almost all of them musical in one way or another and this has never ceased to surprise me, even as everyone around me says it looks like I’m doing what I’m born to do. These other jobs, which I love, are about other things to me. They are about music; they are not music. Playing is something else altogether. Despite the physical evidence to the contrary, music-making has never really been about identity to me. It’s about communication. It’s about making meaning out of chaos. It’s about sitting down with people to do something together. And these things have only become more valuable to me as I get older. I couldn’t quite articulate them earlier in my life. It maybe took a nearly decade-long hiatus while I was living in exurban Chicago to figure it out.

Today’s physical evidence is different. It’s a pocket full of Gibson guitar picks (medium), a T-shirt from my kid’s last band concert, the remnants of frayed strings along the side of my bed where they seem to gather like autumn leaves against a stoop. It’s the grooves worn in my fingers and the mark on my neck. It’s the white stripes of rosin decorating the black shirt I wore last night, currently balled somewhere in the bottom of my closet because I got home too late from my gig to turn on the lights to find the hamper. It’s the small metal plate reading “Gibson” from my guitar’s old case that I will keep forever. These things aren’t props. They are evidence. The real thing.


In the last few months I’ve discovered that I’m in a band. It happened slowly and I’m still a sort of apprentice member, but I can’t tell you how much I love it. It’s entirely different from the symphonic playing I grew up with and even from the Irish seisiun playing I used to do in Chicago. There is no fear. I am not so focused on memorizing and creating perfect paths to accurate performances, on impressing anyone. Accuracy matters on some songs more than others – sometimes it’s about a good improv, which is all about communicating with the other band members on stage, the moment of performance. The people in the band are a huge part of what I love about it. We are all nerds with kids and interesting and creative jobs in other fields. Our music is quirky, a mix of unusual arrangements of well-known songs, covers of more obscure songs, and some gorgeous originals. We repeat our rep a lot, which makes it easy to hop in and out of gigs without a lot of work, but we change things up just enough to keep things interesting. I want to play more, so I’m working on arranging. But I’m also enjoying not being the one in charge. I do what I’m asked. I suggest things occasionally, and I do a lot of sitting and listening. Also laughing really hard. My ribs sometimes hurt when I come home from rehearsal.

Back when I had a stack of music stationery in my desk drawer, given to me by assorted aunts and uncles, when I spent a lot of time running between orchestra rehearsals and violin lessons, I used to imagine being in a rock band, standing in front of the mirror on my closet door, my violin held sideways under my arm. Now I actually get the chance to try it. Our rock credentials are sketchy – we play a lot of acoustic instruments. We’re kind of old for this business – we’re more likely to wear clog boots than stilettos. We play tiny rooms in the backs of bars. But our musicianship skills are solid, our repertoire knowledge is large, and those tiny rooms? We pack them and the audience hangs around after the show. Most of all, though, we have fun. There’s a reason they call what we do “playing.”


After a gig a few months ago, I was taking a very late subway back home after a gig that started at 10 p.m., my mandolin under one arm and my fiddle and tote bag of mics and cables slung over my shoulder. Two people walked by me to wait on the other end of the platform. “You were in the band that just played at Superfine, weren’t you? You guys were great.” I thanked them and we waited a few more minutes on the platform before getting in adjacent cars and disappearing into the night. For a few minutes I felt like a rock star. It was nice, but it pales by comparison to walking into a rehearsal and knowing you’re going to make some good music with great people.

The band’s on hiatus for a few months because we have lives and there are things happening – imminent babies, solo albums to record, apartments to move and theses to write. I’ll be using some of that time to work on some arrangements and maybe a song or two. I haven’t written a song – well, not a rock/folk/pop song anyway — since I was of the age to stand in front of the mirror with a violin-guitar. I’m not sure I know what to do, nor have I done many arrangements. But the kind of playing we do puts ideas in your head and I want to see if I can make them happen.

Part of the process of figuring out how to do this has involved listening – really listening – to lots of songs and trying to figure out what makes them tick. I’ve been thinking about melodies and lyrics and instrumentation, trying to consider what the band does best but also what sounds good to me. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good song in an effort to create some rules for myself to tame the terror of the long minutes at the beginning where you’re moving from noodling on your guitar to staring at a blank page of black lines. I’m hoping that writing about this will help me sort through some of what I’m doing. I think this is likely to be more memoir than how-to, but I’m hoping that maybe a little of the latter will shine through and may possibly be useful to someone. But part of the project is definitely going to be about the role this band has/is playing in my life and the things I’m learning from it. I’m aiming for writing at least once a week – more often doesn’t seem to be too realistic at the present moment, at least not on a regular basis. I hope you’ll join me for the ride.


Happy New Year

January 3, 2016

I haven’t done this questionnaire in a few years, but I’m feeling reflective this year and thought I’d resurrect it. Originally stolen from the lovely Mel Wadel.

  1. What did you do in 2015 that you’d never done before?  Joined a band! And also started a pick up band at work that lets me play guitar with others. Let’s put a big checkmark in the midlife crisis column, shall we?
  1. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions and will you make more for next year? I didn’t make any. I seldom do. But I actually have one this year, which is to write more here. More about that in my next post.
  1. Did anyone close to you give birth? My now far-away friend Fairlywell had a beautiful baby boy!
  1. Did anyone close to you die? No. But a number of people close to me lost parents this year.
  1. What countries did you visit? I stayed stateside this year. But I’m looking forward to making my first ever trip to Vancouver in 2016.
  1. What would you like to have in 2016 that you lacked in 2015? An assistant at the office. Ain’t gonna happen, but a girl can dream.
  1. What dates from 2015 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? The day my husband’s book went to auction
  2. What was your biggest achievement of the year? Speaking at a conference on a panel with much more senior scholars than myself and not freaking out. Starting an acoustic jam at my office (not sure if that’s really a “biggest achievement” but it’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most), joining a band and playing in public for the first time in a long while.
  3. What was your biggest failure? There is one particular task at the Toy Factory that continues to frustrate me. I wouldn’t call it a failure exactly in the sense that I got done what I needed to get done, but I have some sort of mental block about it that I’m hoping I can get past this year.
  4. Did you suffer illness or injury? I broke my finger on Halloween and will most likely be continuing to deal with that injury into 2016, unfortunately.
  5. What was the best thing you bought? My guitar, hands down. I’m still in love.
  6. Whose behavior merited celebration? I’m kind of fond of Carrie Fisher right now.
  7. Whose behavior made you appalled or depressed? Pretty much anyone in Washington or anyone who wants to be in Washington. Also anyone with a gun.
  8. Where did most of your money go? Rent, duh. This is NYC.
  9. What did you get really excited about? My kid’s rock band concerts. Have you heard him play? He’s awesome.
  10. What song will always remind you of 2015? For a song that captures the general zeitgeist of the year, I’d have to pick Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” But personally, I’d pick “Angel City” off of Rhiannon Giddens’ album Tomorrow Is My Turn, which was released in 2015. I also got to see her live this summer in the park by my house. She didn’t do this particular song there, but I’ve been playing and singing it non-stop for months.
  11. Compared to this time last year, are you:
    happier or sadder? Happier, I think, but pretty close to the same.
    thinner or fatter? Fatter. Definitely. Need to do something about that.
    richer or poorer? Richer.
  12. What do you wish you’d done more of? Reading. Sacrificed at the altar of the guitar.
  13. What do you wish you’d done less of? Working late. It almost never fixes anything.
  14. How did you spend Christmas? In Chicago with my husband’s family.
  15. What was your favorite TV program? I watched almost no TV this year, but I did binge rewatch Gilmore Girls and was surprised to find it holds up well.
  16. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?  I didn’t hate anyone then and I don’t hate anyone now. But I’m not too happy with the idiots making laws about guns, letting cops who shoot children dead in cold blood off the hook, gunning down innocent people in the name of religion, etc.
  17. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2015. Do not underestimate the importance of making time for the things that keep you sane.
  18. What was the best book you read? Hmm. Good question. Maybe Stoner (not what it sounds like – it’s the main character’s name) by John Williams (not the composer). I got the novel in my office’s holiday book exchange last year and I’d never heard of it, but it was excellent. I think it was the first book I read this year.
  19. What did you want and not get? A raise.
  20. What was your favorite film of this year?  I only saw one, but it was fun – Spy.
  21. What did you do for your birthday, and how old were you? I turned 48. I had cake with my family.
  22. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? It was actually pretty satisfying. But some overseas travel would have been nice.
  23. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2015? It fits and it’s (mostly) clean.
  24. What kept you sane? My guitar.
  25. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? None of them? AJ would be telling me to say “Say Bernie Sanders! Say Bernie Sanders!” So maybe I’ll say Bernie Sanders.
  26. What political issue stirred you the most? The Syrian refugee crisis. Black Lives Matter. Gun violence. I can’t pick. They all break my heart.
  27. Who did you miss? My mother-in-law, who died in 2014. There were so many things that I wish she’d been around to see – AJ’s confirmation and 8th grade graduation, his first day of high school, his band concerts, Mr. Spy’s book contract.
  28. What did you want and get? My guitar.
  29. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year. I’m not sure, but it’s probably something by Courtney Barnett, because, as Mr. Spy put it, “She writes about people like us.” You know, nerdy, arty types with social anxiety. “Nobody really cares if you don’t go to the party” is a good one. The chorus is “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home,” which should appeal to introverts everywhere.

Music meme 2: A song you don’t mind having stuck in your head when you’re having a midlife crisis: Buddy and Julie Miller — Rock Salt and Nails

September 21, 2015

I’ve written here before about my frequent possession of earworms. Everyone gets them sooner or later, but for me it is often the status quo. I regularly get tunes stuck in my head for days at a time, often because there’s something in them that I’m trying to figure out.

Last night’s rehearsal was a blast. I never knew that I always wanted to be in a band until I began to play occasionally with this group a few months ago. I started off at my friend S’s apartment, where we ran through the fiddle duos ahead of the main rehearsal while sitting on her couch, figuring out new harmonies, cracking up every time we crashed and burned and whenever we’d land on an especially dissonant chord. After a while, we packed up our fiddles and walked up to the bench on the corner to wait for the accordion-player M to pick us up. As we drove to the guitar/dobro/harmonica-player’s house for rehearsal, M an S told stories about a house concert they’d been to the night before where the performances were, shall we say, a little uneven.

House concerts are big around here, maybe because finding public venues can be difficult and expensive, but maybe just because it fits with neighborhoods that likes organic produce and backyard chickens, Maker Faire and Brooklyn Flea. But we are not playing a house concert. We are playing in a bar. We are coming with mikes and amps and cables and lots of instruments. We are closing the festival. And we had come to rehearse.

I’m playing on just three songs, which meant that I had the pleasure of listening to what others are doing. I’ve played with them before, so I know most of their repertoire pretty well, but I haven’t played with them in a while, so it’s nice to hear it again.

One of my favorite songs that they do is one called “Rock Salt and Nails.” I’m particularly fond of this version by Buddy and Julie Miller (2001). It’s also the one that is most similar to the way the band does it:

The song’s been around for a few decades. It was written by Utah Phillips, whom the Washington Post described in his obituary as a “folk singer, rabble-rouser and anarchist,” which might explain the sort of shocking last line of the song (the one that gives it its title).

Here are the lyrics in their entirety:

On the banks of the river where the willows hang down
And the wild birds all warble with a low moaning sound
Down in the hollow where the waters run cold
It was there I first listened to the lies that you told

Now I lie on my bed and I see your sweet face
The past I remember time cannot erase
The letter you wrote me it was written in shame
And I know that your conscience still echo’s my name

Now the nights are so long, Lord sorrow runs deep
And nothing is worse than a night without sleep
I’ll walk out alone and look at the sky
Too empty to sing, too lonesome to cry

If the ladies were blackbirds and the ladies were thrushes
I’d lie there for hours in the chilly cold marshes
If the ladies were squirrel’s with high bushy tails
I’d fill up my shotgun with rock salt and nails

What makes this song work, is its heavy reliance on standard tropes of bluegrass/americana/country. It’s packed with cliches of the genre “On the banks of the river,” “where the willows hang down,” “down in the hollow,” “too lonesome to cry,” etc. By the time he brings up the ladies in the last verse, you think you know what this song is about because you’ve heard it before. And then you get to the last line. Um, maybe not. At least, I wasn’t expecting it. Lucky most versions repeat it, so you get a second chance to hear that yes, in fact you were right about the lyrics. Possibly the most bitter song ever written.

There was a different singer at last night’s rehearsal. Last time I played with them, this was the singer:

Last night’s singer/guitarist had a much lighter voice, so the song sounded quite different, but still just as wrenching. And of course they played it through several times and then the first and last verses a few times so the dobro-player could make sure he had time to get all his finger picks on and grab his slide — no mean feat.

I might have had this song stuck in my head anyway, but after hearing it several times, there was no shaking it. There are some people who, when they get tunes stuck in their heads, try to chase them away by playing something else. I am not one of those people. I approach earworms more like exorcisms. I have to burn them out by listening in So today, I piled a bunch of versions onto my iPhone and spent the day listening. Here are a few of the most noteworthy (in chronological order):

Rosalie Sorrels (1961) with Utah Phillips. This is the original:

Bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (1965):

Joan Baez (1969). I love Baez and I love her voice here, but somehow she doesn’t quite seem to have caught the spirit of the song:

There’s a beautiful version by Kate Wolf and Don Lange from the 1970s (released 1994) here.

And there are a dozen or so more recordings. Want to explore some more? Find a list here.

As for me, I keep coming back to the recording by Buddy and Julie Miller. Either that or the recording in my head from the living room of a neighbor, my fiddle laid out on a lace-covered dining table while I listened and wished I were playing too. I came home feeling like I’d had more fun than I had in months, maybe years. It carried me through the day. And tonight, when I pulled out my guitar, it was the first thing under my fingers.

What songs do you not mind having stuck in your head?

Music meme 1: A song for making friends: The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun”

September 20, 2015

I’ve reached the point now with guitar where I can do things with reasonable speed. I can sightread most songs. I’m gradually adding new chords and chord voicings to my repertoire. And so I’m trying again to work on singing and playing in different rhythms at the same time, something that still doesn’t come easily to me.

One of my techniques for practicing has been to take a song that is basically a simple chord progression and arpeggiate it. That is, instead of playing the chords in one big chunk of a bunch of notes all at the same time, I string the notes out melodically. One of the best examples of arpeggiation I can think of is “House of the Rising Sun” as performed by The Animals

The song is a folk ballad and has been recorded by dozens over the years. The earliest known recording dates back to the 1930s. Ethnomusicologist/folklorist Alan Lomax collected a version shortly thereafter, which helped get the tune out in front of a bigger audience. But The Animals version is the one that most of us have heard, along with the slightly earlier version by Bob Dylan, from which they took an inspiration. Their chord progressions are similar to Dylan’s, but Dylan doesn’t arpeggiate. (Listen to Dylan’s version here).

Songs that are arpeggiated like the Animals’ version aren’t always that interesting to play. They feel a bit étude-like, and are good for you like an étude — playing them forces you to be really methodical about rhythm. Good for woodshedding. But I’ve always liked this chord progression, mainly because it does that simple trick that a song can do to get me to like it — it plays with your expectations of major and minor chords. The melody is resolutely minor, the darkest despair of a tune. But most of the chords that accompany it in the Animals’ version are major. Only the tonic chord (the chord that defines the key the piece is in on which phrases begin and end) is minor. That tension between what the melody leads you to expect and what you actually hear is what makes this piece interesting and what can sustain it through a bazillion verses (only a fraction of which are presented here). Arpeggiating the chords also gives the tune motion, a sense of moving along even as the rhythm and chords relentlessly repeat, so it feels both stuck (as is its narrator) and also energetic.

“House of the Rising Sun” is one of the songs on the set list for next Sunday night, when I join my friend’s band at the Brooklyn Americana Festival. I’m probably not playing on it — I literally play second fiddle and not every song needs a second fiddle. But I played mandolin on it last time I gigged with them — a shimmery, jangly, arrangement with more than a touch of urban anxiety–and thought I’d like to try my hand at the guitar part just for fun.

This afternoon I was on a roll. I played through the whole thing twice at tempo, worked on it for a good half an hour. And then I grabbed my bag and went out to run some errands.

First stop was the music shop. This is one of my favorite local stores. It mostly sells records and CDs, but they also have a small selection of strings, picks, cables, rosin, and other music-making paraphernalia, just enough to get me through when I didn’t manage to place an order with the string shop soon enough. A guy was standing at the counter chatting with the owner but stepped aside so I could approach. “Can I get a couple of sets of electric guitar strings? One light, one medium gauge, please.” He pulled a couple of d’Addario’s off the rack and handed them to me.
Do you carry Gibson picks, by any chance?” “No, but I’ve got Dunlop.” I weighed my options. Dunlop are pretty good, but I’ve gotten really attached to my Gibson picks. They just sound better. “No thanks. We’re picky in our house.” I hadn’t meant to crack the lame joke, but grinned anyway. “No pun intended.” The owner kindly fought an eyeroll as he handed me my change. “Enjoy your day.” “Thanks, you too.”

“House of the Rising Sun” is a good song to have in your head if you’re taking a leisurely stroll through your neighborhood on a beautiful sunny day, taking a good look around. I felt the bassline in my feet.

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

Next stop was another one of my favorite neighborhood stores. It’s a clothing shop/sewing workshop about a mile from my apartment with a hot pink door and a black and white striped awning. They teach sewing lessons and sell clothes handmade out of vintage or vintage-inspired fabrics, along with manufactured clothes that fit a similar aesthetic. It’s one of the few places I actually enjoy shopping for clothes, and even if I don’t find anything, it’s always fun to see what they have. About 30 seconds after I walk in the door, I hear The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” come on over the store’s stereo system. I looked up, because it felt like some kind of joke. About the same time, a guy shopping with a friend for their wives turned to the friend and said, “that’s so funny, I was just listening to this.” He showed his friend his phone as evidence. I turned to them and said, “I thought it was funny too, because I was just playing this on guitar about 10 minutes ago.” We had a brief Animals vs. Dylan conversation with a sprinkling of Alan Lomax and then we went our separate ways, they to the cash register, me into a fitting room.

When I came out, they were gone, but another guy had come in, although I didn’t notice him at first. I always think it is especially brave of guys to come into this shop. It is so very pink. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in there. I went to the counter to pay and was chatting with the clerk who asked about our conversation about the song. She thought the coincidence was funny too. “You play guitar, are you in a band?” I explained about my friend’s band and how we were playing the festival next weekend and that I was actually in the store trying to find something to wear to the gig. “Well this is great,” she said as she wrapped up the blouse I’d picked out, black with white silhouettes of birds. “I hope so,” I said. “Not too Portlandia?” “Definitely not.”

On my way out, I passed the guy who was shopping. “Excuse me,” he said, “Did I hear you say you were in a band? Because our band is looking for a keyboard player.”

“Oh, I’m just a ringer for a friend’s band. I’m a fiddle player, mostly. But I know some people. Do you have a card? I could pass on some names. Is it based here in the neighborhood?”

“Oh, we’re all over. I don’t think I have a card with me” he said, rifling through his wallet anyway. “But maybe I’ll run into you again. In the neighborhood.”

“See you around!” I said, shrugging my shoulders. The bells jingled as I walked out into the afternoon sun, humming under my breath.

My mother was a tailor
Sewed my new blue jeans
My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans

After a quick stop at the hairdresser’s to make an appointment for later in the week, I stopped in the wine store. No music there. Just wine. I grabbed a couple of bottles from the refrigerator and a couple from the shelf. The owner rang me up. “That’s supposed to be a good one,” he said looking at a sparkling wine made from malvasia, “but I haven’t tried it yet.” “Someone talked me into trying it the last time I was here. I’ve been looking forward to it.” “Let me know how it is.” I nodded and paid and was back on the street.

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk

As I hiked up the hill to home, I could still feel the song running through my fingers. But now, in the door, it’s time to move on to the next song and the next instrument. With a glass of wine in hand, I’ll tune my fiddle and play through a century’s worth of waltzes before tonight’s rehearsal. Life is sweet.

Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain
Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one


September 5, 2015

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been interested in doing another music meme here, but existing suggestions don’t seem to be inspiring me. Instead, I think I’m going to build my own. It’s likely to be quirky and personal and maybe not suitable for others, but if you’d like to play along with one or more of the subjects I propose, I’d love to hear your songs.

Blogging about music is now part of my job – not a big part, but a little part. And one of the things I love about it is that it gives me a chance to talk about music that matters to me — often figuring out the reasons along the way. I got to write an obituary for Lou Reed a couple of years ago and it turned out that the things I wrote about were not about sound. They were about the role his music played in defining myself, in belonging and not belonging, in growing up. That wasn’t what I was expecting to write.

Music for me has never been just about the sound. It’s always been a way of relating to the world, of learning about things I haven’t yet experienced. And there’s still so much to know.

I’m part of a small book group at my office that is reading books about music and psychology and cultural practice. We are not all musicians, but we’re all interested in the question of why we listen, how our listening and performing practices and preferences reflect other things about ourselves and our world. It’s been interesting, because we all have backgrounds in academia but we’re driven by questions that are primarily personal, practical, observant and curious. We’re doing this for fun. But in the course of our discussions, academic discourse has seemed ever more relevant. It’s made sense of my work. Past a certain point in an academic career, it can feel risky to dabble outside the area of your focus. But it’s so good to do it. It keeps me going, reminds me that just because you’ve selected your scholarly diet doesn’t mean you can’t be constitutionally omnivorous.

But while music blogging has been a way to sort out my own ideas about things, it’s also opened my ears and eyes to new things, new ways of thinking. The other great pleasure of blogging about music is hearing what other people are listening to and why it matters to them. So when I say I’d like to hear your songs, I mean it. Post in the comments, tag me on your own blog, slip me a note during social studies. Whatever works for you. I hope you’ll join me.


August 25, 2015

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.

Symphony in three movements

July 15, 2015

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 38th Street, The Cinderella Building

* 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