Harp Lesson Take-Aways: 3/7/2017

Every week, after my harp lesson, I pull out my practice planner and write down what I want to make sure that I remember from my lesson, what workshop facilitators and teachers call “take-aways.” This week’s lesson went deep. My teacher and I discussed a post from The Bulletproof Musician, about musicians being on the same path, and passing the same milestones. Some are just further down the path than others.

My teacher talked about the challenges of working on new music while knowing harpists who might sit down and play the same new pieces in half the time. I talked about my challenge with still having to program every bit of playing choreography into my fingers, slowly repeating each movement until left and right hand can dance together on the strings. I long for spontaneity, for being able to combine accompaniment patterns without first writing them out and programming them into my fingers.

Yet the real challenges are being kind to ourselves, and accepting and welcoming being exactly where we are, and recognizing and celebrating what we have accomplished so far. And from that kind and welcoming place, sitting down on the harp bench and doing the work, whatever that work is right now, today.

For me, the work is to become automatic with more left hand patterns, and to be quicker to knit these new patterns together with a melody line. My teacher assures me that as new patterns and hand shapes become imbedded in my musical vocabulary, the more I will be able to draw on them to express what I am trying to say with my music. Spontaneity will emerge naturally as my vocabulary of patterns deepens, as I carefully teach each finger how to play with these new accompaniment ideas.

I pulled a notebook off my bookshelf yesterday, the one labeled “Left Hand Patterns and Accompaniments.” I remembered that when I first started this notebook, playing a 1-5-8 left-hand pattern was still hard for me to do. I remembered that when I started harp lessons I could not play that pattern at all. For years, every time I found anything about playing the left hand, I put it in this notebook. It’s been waiting for me, waiting for the day when my brain and my hands could understand these new and different ways of moving.

Reading through these handouts, I found out that my left hand can play all of them. My fingers can find the right strings and pluck the correct rhythms of all these complex left-hand patterns. What ever magic happens to create new capabilities of muscle control was at work behind the scenes, without fanfare or my noticing. Now my challenge is to pick the left-hand patterns that offer me the widest range of useful possibilities, and begin to match new left-hand patterns to right-hand melodies and improvisations. I reached another way-marker on the path, without even realizing that I was traveling forward.

My lesson: Whenever I am sitting on the harp bench, present and aware of my practicing, mindful of my work, I am progressing. I am traveling forward on this path of being a musician. I am learning, I am forming new neural connections, I am expanding my possibilities. The magic is at work, making me a more skilled and confident musician, whether or not I notice it happening. What looks like being stuck, or at a plateau, or making no progress at all, is in reality a mysterious and secret consolidation of intent and experience; a process that keeps its own private timetable of completions, of announcing that I’ve taken another step forward on the path.

My harp mantra, the one I routinely forget, is “It takes what it takes.” However much time and repetition it takes to secure a new point of mastery will not be determined by my desires and demands for quicker learning and quicker results. I can’t demand a seed to sprout sooner, to grow faster, because I want to eat a juicy , red garden tomato next week. It takes what it takes to grow a tomato. And it takes what it takes to grow a musician.

My job is to sit down on the harp bench with the harp and do the work. To keep the weeds of expectations and comparisons out of my musical garden. To stop whining about what I can’t do, and what I think I should be able to do, and play. And then, just for a moment, appreciate how far I’ve traveled from when I first pulled a harp to my heart and for the very first time, plucked a string.

 

Holiday Lights at the Garden 2016

I made my annual trip to Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden to see the holiday lights last night. The night of my visit last year was uncharacteristically balmy. This year it was just plain hot-67 degrees at 6p.m. No fumbling for the camera through coats and mitten-encased fingers required.

The new light exhibit this year is called Blue Arches. Come enjoy the garden with me!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

My Christmas Tree Is Full of Stories

I know many people who view decorating their Christmas tree as an art form. Their Christmas tree is the centerpiece of their home for the holidays. Perhaps all their tree lights are white, or only one color of ornaments hang from the branches. Or maybe there is a theme – Santas, or snowflakes, or even favorite sports teams.

That’s not for me. Anything that glitters and can be held by a hook might find a place on my tree. And so, my Christmas tree is full of stories. Every ornament has its own memory, its own story that it holds in safe-keeping year after year. These are a few of my favorites:

img_2034

My first grade teacher, Sister Mary Cecelia, gave all the children in her classroom a music themed ornament for Christmas 1958. Sister Cecelia was my introduction to music. Because of her, we sang in school every day, and learned all manner of music via call-and-response and Kodaly. My first grade class sang Gregorian chant in Latin before most of us could read “Run, Spot, run.”

This little angel holds her bow with her palm facing upwards, which means she is playing a member of the viola de gamba family. Fifty years later, I begin playing early music in a recorder ensemble and hanging out with a vexation of viol players. If only Sister Cecelia could have known what seeds she planted.

img_2023

 

My college roommate gave me this tiny crèche the first year we roomed together. It hung over my desk while I was in college. It has hung on my tree every year since, reminding me of that sweet friendship so long ago.

 

 

 

img_2035

My first Christmas out of college, my housemates and I were much too poor to buy a tree or ornaments. We found a discarded Christmas tree at an elementary school that was closed for the holidays. (In the ancient days before fire codes, classrooms could have live Christmas trees.) With a couple of dollars worth of felt and embroidery floss, we stitched our own stars. The Grinch is right – Christmas doesn’t come from a store.

 

img_2026

 

My niece and nephew, aged 6 and 4 in 1990, made applesauce and cinnamon ornaments and mailed them to us from Birmingham. The cinnamon scent of Christmas faded away long ago, but this one ornament remains intact, telling the tale of tiny hands wishing their Aunt a Merry Christmas from far away.

 

 

img_2027

 

Christmas is different in the Southwest. Santa might wear a cowboy hat and bolo tie. Coyotes, not reindeer, roam the range. And Spirit Bears help Christmas wishes come true.

 

 

What stories can your Christmas tree tell? Please share your tree tales in the comments section! And on this Christmas eve, I wish you all a very Happy Christmas!

 

 

 

Holiday Lights (And Orchids!) in the Garden – 2015 Edition

After 18 straight evenings of rain, the forecast called for a dry night on December 27th, and I made my annual trek to Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden to see the holiday lights.

Usually I pick the coldest night in December to do my wandering in the garden. But this December temperatures were in the mid-70’s, and the evening was balmy. The garden’s flowering crabapple trees and ornamental cherry trees and witch hazel were all in bloom. Lenten roses decided to be advent roses. A cold craft-brewed beer was more welcome than hot chocolate.

I beat the lines of evening crowds by arriving about 5 p.m., and then waited for sunset in the orchid house. This year the orchids stole the show from the light displays. I’ve never seen so many in bloom at one time. These were my favorites:

The light displays are more beautiful every year.  I hope you enjoy this year’s slide show of Holiday Lights in the Garden.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For a look at previous years’ holiday lights, check out this post.

I wish you all a most magical and joyful New Year!

I’m Doing The 30-Day Journal Project – And You Can, Too!

30 Day Journal

“What if 10,000 (or more!) people journaled together for 30 Days?” That’s what Lisa Sonora wants to know.

On July 1st I’ll be joining thousands of other new and experienced journalers for “FLOW – The 30-Day Journal Project.” Every day I’ll receive an inspirational quote and related journal prompts delivered to my email address. And best of all, it’s free to participate. That’s right – completely and totally FREE!

If you’ve never kept a journal before, this project is the perfect way to start. There’s no need to fear the blank page or wonder what you are going to write. The daily journal prompts will guide your writing as you explore making your creativity flow.

If you are experienced in keeping a journal, this project will help you dust off and freshen up your journal practice. I’ve kept a journal since the early 1970’s, but only recently began using journal prompts as part of Lisa Sonora’s Creative+Practice on-line class.  Writing in response to a journal prompt opened up new information and understanding about my creative blocks and emotional patterns, especially around music and performance anxiety.

Lisa says,

Our minds love to solve problems. When we give it a prompt to respond to, both our conscious and unconscious mind are activated to search for the “answers” to the questions that the prompts evoke.

If you’d like to participate in the FLOW- The 30-Day Journal Project, click the link, and sign up with your favorite email address. June 30th is only a week away. Don’t dawdle! You won’t want to miss your first journal prompt on July 1st.

Devotion

devotion:

a:  the act of devoting <devotion of time and energy>

b  :  the fact or state of being ardently dedicated and loyal <her devotion to the cause> <filial devotion>

It’s another Tuesday afternoon, and I’m rolling my harp and gear down the hall at the Hospice unit. As I walk past an open door I can see a family in the room across from the nurse’s station. Curled on her side in the huge hospital bed is an impossibly old woman – tiny, wrinkled and weathered, wizened, and dying. Sitting at her bedside is an impossibly old man – not as wrinkled, but equally weathered. He rests his head on the bed beside his wife. He is looking into her eyes, and gently stroking her hand that lies atop the turned-down sheet. I can see his love in how he looks at her, in his delicate, soft touch. He loves her even as she leaves him, even as the life he knows with her comes to an end. I see devotion that grew and strengthened over the decades they spent together.

And so, I play for him today. I play hoping to ease the burdens of letting go, of saying goodbye. I play hoping to show that he is not alone as he walks the path of endings, that others knew and felt this pain, and told their stories of losses and leavings in these old tunes from Celtic lands. I play tunes for a breaking heart.

Towards the end of my hour on the unit, his granddaughters help him slowly shuffle down the hall to where I am playing. They find a chair and help him sit close to me. He listens so attentively, leaning towards me to hear the music. There’s a light in his eyes, a twinkle, and he smiles broadly when I finish. He looks deep into my eyes and says, “Thank you.” I look back as deeply. There are no words – the music said all that is needed.

This is why I play music, why I play the harp, why I devote my time to harp lessons, to practicing, to learning repertoire. This is why my love and my energy and my desire are all found at my harp bench. This is why I haul my harp and bench and music stand through the hospital parking deck and corridors and elevators on Tuesday afternoons. I play music for connection, and for transcendence. Today I receive both – gifts from Music, and from the ripened fruit of devotion.

Facing Another Goodbye

It’s magnolia time again. Walking through clouds of their heaven-sent aroma each morning tells me that the earth turned ’round the sun to another May.

Last May, I was at the coast on a rented pontoon boat, sifting Ruth Ann’s ashes through my fingers and into the ocean she loved. This May, I sit in a hospital room, watching another friend sleep after exhausting afternoons of leaking IV’s, painful turnings, disgusting lunches, and procedure after procedure as various doctors engaged in “the practice of medicine” attempt to find the cause of her downward spiral from vivacious, sparkling musician to bedridden invalid.

Calling her my “friend” isn’t exactly right. We are friends, but it’s more than that. But we’re not like sisters, and we’re not mother-daughter either, despite the difference in our ages. After days of sitting with her, I decide that she is as close as I’ll ever come to having a fairy-godmother. For she’s made my wish of being a musician come true.

I first met her at a concert that I attended solely because the advertisement said a harp trio would perform. I was looking for a harp teacher. After the concert I asked her if she taught harp. She quickly said, “Oh, heavens, no. But I have a wonderful teacher. Let me give you her name and phone number.” And so I found my teacher and started my harp journey.

I met her again a year later, when I started playing in the community college harp ensemble. Then, I could barely read and play two notes per measure with my two index fingers. She sat beside me, and counted out the measure numbers while she played so I would know where I was supposed to be in the music.

When rotator cuff surgery ended my African drumming days, I dusted off my 7th grade recorder and decided that I wanted to play in the community college recorder ensemble that she directs. I asked her if she could teach me enough basic recorder technique to be able to join the group. She took me on as a student that summer, and I joined the ensemble in the fall. She continued my lessons so that I could keep up with learning the ensemble repertoire. A couple of years later, she told me it was time for me to up my recorder skills and go to the Mountain Collegium, a week-long summer early music workshop. She then set to teaching me how to play the alto recorder, so that I would be ready for the intensive Collegium classes.

Sometime during those hours of sitting beside each other in lessons, playing our recorders together, we became more than just student and teacher – we became friends.

Three years ago, after one of my most disastrous performance experiences, she dragged my reluctant self to a Hospice volunteer recruitment lunch. While I was ready to never, ever play beyond the walls of my practice room again, she told me that I needed to play on the Hospice unit. As we walked through the doors of the Hospice offices, she told the Hospice staff that I played the harp. The volunteer coordinator grabbed an application and a clipboard and shoved them into my hands, and insisted that I complete my volunteer paperwork right then and there.

One of my favorite things since becoming a Hospice volunteer is playing with my friend at the hospital. We have a program of recorder duets, harp and recorder duets, and harp and viola de gamba duets, that we play both in the hospital lobby and on the Hospice unit.

She was my chief cheerleader and practice coach when I played in the Early Music Consort. Eating our lunch together after Consort rehearsals, she would always tell me the things I did well in my playing that day. She was my antidote to the overall negative experience of playing in that ensemble.

All of my adventures in music trace their paths back to her. In addition to connecting me to all these opportunities, she taught me about being a musician: how to listen, how to hear the music inside my head before playing, how to use my breath to create a flowing musical line, how to play well with others, how to keep moving forward in the music despite my inevitable train-wrecks, and most of all, how to share my love for the music and the instruments I play with whoever might be my audience.

Now she’s facing her biggest challenge, far worse and more difficult than anything she’s ever faced on her music stand. The result of all her tortuous medical procedures is a Stage IV cancer diagnosis. The chemotherapy she began this week has only a 50-50 chance of bringing about a remission. And that is only if she has the strength to endure the four different poisons that will kill the cancer cells.

The treatment pretty much destroys her immune system, so she is in a specialized hospital chemotherapy unit that is designed to reduce the risk of contracting what would be fatal infections. She’s not allowed visitors outside of her immediate family. Fairy-godchild does not meet the hospital definition of “immediate family,” so my time spent sitting at her bedside is over.

I don’t know how this story is going to end. Ten days ago, when she didn’t recognize me, when playing my harp in her hospital room failed to spark any response, I thought Music had left her heart and her time was over. This week, she wishes that there was a piano in her hospital room so she could “just play something.” Music remains her dearest friend and strongest ally. I don’t know if Music can keep her heart and spirit safe enough for her to survive this assault on her body. But today I believe in her spunk, and in Music’s potential to save her. Today, I do not have to say another goodbye.