Death and Life

My friend with pancreatic cancer died this afternoon. I did not get to go play my harp for her again. A nasty cold kept me away the past ten days. It seemed unfair to inflict sore throat, fever and sinus congestion on someone who is already dying. Enough is enough.

I am sad that I did not get to see her again, and grateful that she is no longer suffering.

The turning cogwheel of my world is missing more and more teeth: my dad, Leo, Bettie, Patti, Ruth, John, and now Roxann. Yet, “the big wheel keeps on turnin’, ” missing teeth and all, and life rolls on.

The life that rolled on tonight was the end-of-semester Recorder Ensemble concert. Again we had more people in the audience than we had playing on stage, and many members of the audience were not related to any of the recorder players . . . I guess our fame is spreading.

This semester’s music was the most challenging I’ve played since joining the ensemble five years ago. For many of the pieces I was the solo soprano amongst the flock of altos, tenors and basses.

Tonight, for the first time, I can say that I am happy with how I played in a concert. My stomach remained in its assigned place instead of in my throat, and my hair-trigger adrenal glands did not surprise me with a sudden overdose of adrenaline. While I was not note perfect on every piece, I never lost the flow of the music, never lost the beat, and never lost the joy of playing.

Tonight, with my friend’s death heavy in my heart, I am grateful to still be in this silly old world, even with all its missing pieces. I’m grateful to be able to play music, grateful to be able to still walk among the trees and beneath the stars and with the friends who remain close by my side. I’m grateful to be able to say, “I’m happy with how I played tonight,” and to go to sleep with a satisfied mind.

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The Space Around Me

I started Alexander Technique lessons three months ago. A couple of nasty car wrecks left me with a long-term neck and back discomfort that now bothers me more and more when I am practicing. I’m hoping to become more aware of how I create tension when I am at the harp, and to learn how to not do that.

My second Alexander lesson ended with my teacher working with me at the harp. With my neck, shoulders and ribcage loose and expanded, my arms felt like they were floating, my fingers were strong and free, and the sound that burst forth when I plucked the strings was full, rich and glorious – and different from anything I’d heard come from my harp. That was all the convincing I needed that I was on the right track.

Tonight’s lesson was different. No harp, just gentle upward strokes on my neck and head, then me walking back and forth across the length of the room. As I walked, my teacher asked me to be aware of the empty space above my head. “Now feel the space in front of you and behind you as you walk, feel it move across the room with you,” she said. “All this space is here for you. Being aware of it gives you room in which to move, and gives you freedom to relax, to open, to expand.”

What a concept! Despite what I am sure adds up to be hundreds of thousands of dollars of therapy, the idea that there is all this space around me, and that it is mine to move my body in, mine to use, mine to be in, still feels new, and breath-taking. Bourbon took up all the space in my childhood house. I grew up knowing there was no room for me, knowing that I needed to stay safely hidden away, taking up as little space as possible, hoping I would not be seen or heard when the nightly chaos began. I longed to be invisible. Staying silent, small, and unnoticed was as close to invisible as I could get. Much of my work with performance anxiety is about peeling away these layers of fear and substitute invisibility, and finding that I can be safe when I am seen and heard.

Tonight, walking across the room feeling the two feet of space above my head, I feel my neck and spine lengthen and relax. There’s no need to hold myself in. My shoulder blades slide down my back and my arms swing freely – there’s plenty of room around me. As each foot touches the floor it rolls easily from heel to toes. I feel as though I am gliding on smoothly oiled joints, instead of plodding across the room on my creaky oft-broken ankles and my cranky knees. My legs and hips are happy to hold me up and ask no help from my neck, which now only has to balance my head on its topmost vertebrae. Moving feels light, and spacious, and good.

Doing table work, my teacher gently reminds my hands of all the space that exists between the tendons and bones, and of all the movement that my fingers are capable of. After my lesson, again at my harp, my hands find the C-major chord and roll it perfectly without help from finger and thumb splints. My ring fingers stay rounded, instead of collapsing. How or why I don’t know, or don’t yet have words for. Perhaps fingers, too, find support and ease being enfolded in this new, expanded space around me? Each lesson leaves me “curiouser and curiouser.”

Tomorrow I shift to an entirely different space: the annual Southeastern Harp Weekend in Asheville, NC. The space around me will be filled with all things harp, and with people as silly-ga-ga about harps as I am, but will be quite deficient with wi-fi access. I’ll be back in Blogland with harp weekend stories next week.

Fearless On The Harp Bench

20130609-122719.jpgThe Hospice music ministry volunteer coordinator called at the end of March and asked if I would play my harp for their annual Service of Remembrance in early May. Play solo harp, that is. For the entire ceremony. By myself. I could distinctly hear the ghost of Nancy Reagan whispering in my ear, saying “Just say no.” But thanks to my Three Non-negotiable Decisions, what I heard myself say was “Of course. I’d love to. It would be a pleasure. Thank you for asking me.”

She asked me to play 20 minutes before the service started, approximately 20 minutes while people walked from their chairs to place a white rose in a wreath in memory of their loved ones, and another 15 to 20 minutes while people left the hospital’s labyrinth courtyard where the service would be held.

Thanks to the past months of playing at the hospital hospice unit, I had more than enough repertoire to play for an hour. I selected a medley of Celtic tunes for gathering music. I’d been working on a long piece with a soothing melody in the middle section. My teacher helped me figure out how to introduce and then loop that section so I could play it multiple times during the wreath ceremony. I wrote a bridge to another soothing tune that I could play until the last flower was placed. I selected four of the contemporary tunes I play on the unit for the closing music.

Driving to the hospital on the morning of the service, I prayed for calm, and quiet and steady hands. I arrived early enough to sit in my car and meditate for 20 minutes. Following my breath, I found a place of alert and steady awareness, of easy breathing and quiet mind. I had plenty of time to load my harp and bench on my cart and walk slowly through the hospital corridors to the courtyard. I had plenty of time to set up and tune my harp, and to try the beginnings of several tunes, which warmed up my fingers and let me preview how the harp would sound in the brick-walled space. Hospice staff rehearsed the order of the ceremony, so I was clear on my cues to start and stop playing. The low gray clouds spitting rain finally lifted, and pale sunshine tried to warm my fingers. I peeled off my fingerless gloves and began to play.

On this morning I was blessed with an absence of fear. I was blessed with the focus of being of service to those who wished to remember their loved ones and ease their aching hearts. I was blessed with gratitude to be able to offer Music as a balm for healing. I was blessed with grace to play more smoothly and comfortably than I ever have before.

I had a few fumble-fingered moments, but on this morning I played through them without panic. A couple of weeks before the remembrance service I participated in Madeline Bruser’s second teaching call. That night’s exercise was to play a phrase extremely slowly, and let the sound enter my body without rushing to the next note – instead, to just let the next note emerge from the sound I was already feeling. The carryover from that exercise on this morning was trusting that the next note was on its way, was streaming towards me, was already present. I didn’t have to panic about finding it. I just had to pluck the string.

It really was a pleasure, and an honor, to play for the remembrance service. People stopped on their way out of the courtyard to thank me for playing, to say that the music was perfect for the ceremony. The hospice administrative staff offered enthusiastic thank you’s. But it was my friend and fellow hospice harp volunteer Dani who recognized what I had accomplished, saying “Today is a real milestone for you. You looked and sounded confident, and the music was beautiful. You would not have done this a year ago.”

Dani and I play together in the harp ensemble. She’s witnessed the fear freezing me, or making my hands shake so violently that I could not keep my fingers on my harp strings. She’s been recruited to be an “audience” at my lessons as I practiced breathing and moving forward playing a piece while my adrenal glands hijacked my hands and my memory.

During the worst of the performance anxiety, when I could not even play at my lessons without shaking from massive adrenaline overdoses, I told my teacher that I would not be doing this work, would not be persisting in staring down the terror, were it not for my completely unreasonable assurance that someday I would say, “Oh yes, I used to be bothered by performance anxiety, but not anymore.”

On this morning I took a leap into the reality where that is so, into the reality where I am fearless on the harp bench. Playing my harp without fear – it’s a blessing long sought, and an accomplishment dearly earned.

Sometimes I Get It: Playing Without Fear

I gave a friend my courage stone – a small polished piece of hematite etched with the word “courage” that’s been on my remembrance altar for almost 25 years.

She faced a major challenge, one that would require all of her intellectual, emotional and spiritual resources to get through. I wanted to give her something tangible to remind her that she had what it would take, a talisman to hold close when fear appeared. I left it for her with a note saying “You will have all you need.”

And I remembered when a different friend put the courage stone in my palm and gently closed my fingers around it. I was slogging through therapy, doubting that I would find the path through the darkness, doubting that I would survive to ever find joy. I needed all the courage I could muster.

I remembered those dark years, and the long-ago comfort of that stone in my pocket while on the way to the Consort dress rehearsal I was dreading. While wandering through the backstage hallways, I realized that if I thought of all the things that were truly frightening and truly life threatening that I survived, this or any dress rehearsal was not on that list. This wasn’t cancer, or my mother’s violence, or a head-on collision, or a nearly lethal viral infection. This was just playing music I practiced and played all semester with people I know and like. That’s all. Nothing hard, nothing threatening, nothing to dread.

I played the entire rehearsal without fear, without dreading some future moment when I might screw up, without arming myself with strategies for managing the shaking hands, twisting stomach and racing thoughts of performance anxiety. What a joy to just play, to feel confident, to revel in the sounds of the different instruments coming together, to feel the music fill the recital hall. What a delight to enjoy the rehearsal and to have fun playing!

A week later, I had just as much fun playing in our concert. By remembering the past, there was nothing to fear in the present. By giving away courage, I had all I would ever need.

You Are More Beautiful Than You Think Reblogged from: Baddest Mother Ever

I don’t do Facebook so didn’t see this video that is making the rounds. Lucky for me, my favorite new blogger, Baddest Mother Ever, posted it today.

It is such a revelation to see oneself through another’s eyes, through eyes unimpaired by the filters that block us from seeing our true selves and our true beauty.

And the video reminds me that it is also a revelation to hear myself play music through another’s ears, to allow myself to listen to the beauty they hear, when what I hear are the mistakes.

You Are More Beautiful Than You Think | Baddest Mother Ever.

Forty-Three Harps Play “Danny Boy” on St. Patrick’s Day

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My local chapter of the American Harp Society presented a concert this past Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day. We had forty-three harpists of all ages and forty-three harps of all sizes playing a very eclectic program of pieces, including Londonderry Air, better known as the melody of Danny Boy. I doubt that you could have heard that anywhere else in the country.

I’ve not played with the harp chapter for a few years, and I’d not remembered the more challenging aspects of playing in so large an ensemble when I decided to play in this concert. My celtic harp is in the center back of the photo, lost in a sea of pedal harps. Seeing the conductor when sitting behind so many taller harps requires contortions of harp and harpist. Staying on the beat when there is so much sound echoing from the walls and ceiling requires trusting my eyes that are glued to the conductor’s baton, and not my ears. And just walking through the harp forest without crashing someone’s music stand into their $20,000 instrument requires more grace and coordination than I usually have at my disposal.

But despite the challenges, that many harps playing together sounds wonderful. And with forty-two other harps, I could relax, play, and enjoy the process, knowing there was no way that any of my missing notes would be noticed.

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The most delightful aspect of the performance for me was seeing my friends in the audience and afterwards hearing how much they enjoyed the music. Just their coming to support me and hear me play made me feel very special. But after the concert, Darci said that her mother always gave her flowers after her ‘cello recitals, and she gave me this beautiful bouquet of roses. And Susie gave me a ‘feather for my cap” which now adorns the glass vase she brought me from Bermuda that sits on the small altar in my practice room, both reminders of her caring.

Playing in this concert reminded me that the more I focus on performance as an opportunity to share a gift of music, the less I am plagued with performance anxiety. And my friends’ delight in the concert reminded me that the more I experience an audience’s enjoyment, the easier it is for me to truly believe that sharing music really is offering a gift, and the easier it is for me to be grateful for, instead of frightened by the opportunity to perform.

What Would You Do If I Knit Out Of Tune?

Would you screech, put down your knitting needles, and not knit another stitch?  If I knit instead of purled, would you roll your eyes at me? If I miscounted and knit an extra stitch, would you huff under your breath? If I didn’t read the stitch pattern correctly, would you care?

NO, I didn’t think so. Neither do my knitting friends, which is why my Wednesday evening knitting group is the perfect balance for my Wednesday morning ensemble. There is no judgement, no measuring up to how another woman knits. Every new and every ongoing project is oohed-and-ahhed over. Stepping out to try something new – a new technique, or a new pattern – is cheered on. We mutually groan about having to “tink” (knit spelled backwards) and laugh at our mistakes. And the experienced knitters help us newbies figure out whatever new thing we are trying to do, or whatever old thing we have thoroughly screwed up.

The Early Music Consort met yesterday for the first time this semester. It was not an auspicious beginning. My recorder was cold, my fingers were stiff, my ears had not played with another recorder player since the beginning of December, and we were sight-reading new music. So I didn’t blow a high “G” in tune, I played B-flat instead of B-natural, I didn’t count correctly and got ahead of everyone, and my fingers and eyes did not work fast enough to get to a lot of the notes on music I’d not seen before. This was all too much for the normally calm recorder player sitting next to me, who screeched about my tuning, put down her recorder, and stopped playing.

It’s easy for me to become upset and panicked over how badly I am playing when someone is reacting to what I am not doing correctly. But through some measure of grace, I kept calm and carried on. I breathed slowly. My tuning improved and my fingers loosened up. I remembered what my recorder teacher said the previous night about sight-reading: skip the notes you are not going to play and direct your attention to the notes that you are going to play. And the recorder player on my other side pointed out that I could play one of the impossible tunes at the written pitch, so my fingers got all the notes the second time we played it.

This moment of grace, where I could detach both from another’s reaction and from my own too easily triggered panic, crystallized my goal for this semester. I could work on any number of musical skills that need improvement. But what I need most in my playing and in my life is equanimity.

equa·nim·i·ty  – noun \ˌē-kwə-ˈni-mə-tē, ˌe-kwə-\1: steadiness of mind especially under stress <nothing could disturb his equanimity> 2: right disposition : balance <physical equanimity> (Miriam-Webster online dictionary)

My knitting friends make equanimity easy to find and practice. Sitting around the table sipping wine and eating chocolate while we knit and laugh, or laugh and knit, it’s easy to feel calm, to be steady, to have both right disposition and balance. Yarn won’t hurt you.

And neither will an out-of-tune note, a misplaced fingering, a miscounted measure, or a disgruntled fellow recorder player.

Harp Ensemble + Gratitude = A Concert I Could Do Again

Last year, the day after the harp ensemble concert, I was so physically undone from the stress of performing that I doubted I would continue in the ensemble. I could not imagine choosing to endure another night of nausea, sweating, shaking, heart palpitations, chest tightness, and all the other symptoms of involuntary adrenaline overdose.

This morning I thought, “Hmm, our concert last night was fun. I could do that again.”

I don’t know that I played that much better in last night’s performance. There were long passages of air harp as I searched for a measure that everyone else was playing. When I played my solo, there was enough adrenaline coursing through my body to cause the last five measures of the first section to disappear from my brain, leaving not a trace of their prior existence on my cerebral cortex.

But no panic ensued. I managed to find my way back on board and end tunes at the same time as everybody else. In my solo, I kept the mangled arpeggio going all the way up the harp, ended on a note that would soon be heard in a chord at my “rescue spot,” breathed, and started the next section. Only my teacher and the people who’ve heard me practice Grandjany’s Barcarole recognized my moments of “spontaneous composing.” (Thanks go to Joanna Mell for the wonderful re-naming of improvising one’s way out of a musical crash-and-burn!)

The last eight weeks of grounding myself in gratitude for being able to play the harp, for having a harp to play, for being blessed with an incredible teacher and a community of friends to play with filled up all the places in me that last year were occupied by doubt, dread, and fear. It’s not that I didn’t have performance nerves – my chest was tight all afternoon in anticipation, and my hands were definitely shaking as I wondered where in the world that strange, unplanned arpeggio might end up. It’s that the performance nerves just didn’t matter. Gratitude posted a no vacancy sign and told fear and doubt that there was no room for them in my thoughts or in my heart. Gratitude informed the Inner Critic that no one was interested in his commentary. Gratitude reminded me to enjoy every note I was able to play, and to appreciate the love of the music and the harp that we shared with our audience and each other. And Gratitude whispered of the improbable miracle that a frame of wood, a bunch of string, and human hearts and hands can join together to create beauty, and said, “Rejoice!”

Harp Weekend, Rehearsals, and Socks, Oh My!

No, the space gypsies did not return me to my home planet – I’m still here, despite my long absence from my blog. I returned from an intense, inspiring and instructive four days at the Southeast Harp Weekend blown about by the edges of what was still Hurricane Sandy, and fell into three weeks of extra rehearsals and practice for the upcoming end-of-semester concerts.

The Harp Weekend ended up being totally perfect for where I am with my harp and what I want to learn. Not only were the instructors in my classes excellent players, they were also excellent teachers. I’m already using new ideas from Dee Sweeney’s Music From the Soul class when I play at the hospice unit, as well as Nadia Birkenstock’s approaches to learning a new piece of music. I’m experimenting with Kim Robertson’s Musical Sandwiches as segues between my arrangements of Christmas carols.

The outer bands of Hurricane Sandy arrived in Asheville on Sunday afternoon, bringing spitting rain and a temperature drop of 20 degrees within two hours. I drove home in wind gusts following a glowing column of rainbow light until the sun dropped behind the western mountains. We had two days of potent wind gusts at home but no serious rain, snow or damage.

I left Harp World and reentered normal time and space facing extra Consort rehearsals, harp ensemble repertoire still not up to tempo, and recorder ensemble repertoire not yet mastered. Three weeks later, the recorder ensemble repertoire is in pretty good shape – there are a couple of entrances that still throw me, but with two more rehearsals before our concert, I think I’ll be ok. The recorder pieces for Consort are in my fingers; it’s the harp piece that continues to prove that I cannot actually count to four.

The harp ensemble concert is next Monday, and my brain/eye/finger/two-hand coordination is maxed out several beats below our performance tempo. My friend and I have a secret pact to divide up the left and right hands for the two most challenging pieces, creating one whole harper between us. I’ll play a good bit of one-handed harp on the remaining tunes, with selected left-hand notes added in when there is no danger of my right hand crashing and burning.  Last year the prospect of one-handed harping created an engraved invitation for the Inner Critic to come calling. This year I remain grounded in gratitude to be playing what I can play, and that’s slammed the door in IC’s face.

Second Socks

Knitting socks is now my before-sleep decompression activity. My brain slowly winds down with the meditative repetition of looping one strand of yarn over another strand. I finished my second pair a couple of weeks ago, and started another sock that will be a Christmas present (so no pictures yet.) These socks are knit with self-striping yarn, so while they look complicated it was the yarn that did all the work.

I am looking forward to reducing my practice and rehearsal time so I can catch up on all the blogs I’ve not read, and all the comments I’ve not replied to. Alas, that probably won’t happen for another couple of weeks. And now I hear my harp and metronome calling, demanding that I get those descending passages of Angels We Have Heard On High lined up with the metronome’s 100 beats-per-minute clicking.

In case I don’t find my way back to the computer next week, I’d like to wish everyone a bountiful Thanksgiving Day. May we all enjoy sharing the gift of gratitude!

Playing At Hospice For The Second Week

I played at the hospice unit for the second time yesterday. I was more comfortable than last week, probably because I knew what to expect. Plus, fewer patient rooms were occupied, and the people inside them were much quieter than last week.

A few people spoke to me while I was playing. The daughter of a man being admitted today stopped to say that the music was soothing. Two social workers and one of the nurses stopped and thanked me for playing. I discovered that I can now just manage to say “Thank you” and “I’m glad you are enjoying the music,” and still keep a tune going. Fortunately no one wanted to linger for conversation, or my fingers would have to come to a complete stop.

I brought two new tunes out to play for the first time. There’s nothing like playing something in public to learn where it is going to fall apart. Both tunes keeled over someplace completely different from the measures I drilled intensively last week. At least those drills fixed the measures I worked on. And I don’t have to wonder what I am going to drill this week.

Despite feeling more comfortable, my brain and fingers played many more tricks this week. I misremembered phrases, forgot whole measures, and repeatedly landed on unintended strings. I did lots of creative improvisation, making something up until I figured out where I was and where I was going. But the huge difference was that in the midst of my confusion, there was no fear and no panic. I knew the note I just played was still ringing, and for once I felt like I had all the time I needed to play another note, whether or not it was the one written on the page. Without the panic, I could work my way out of the slips and tangles. Without the panic, I could remember that I was the only one who knew what were mistakes, and that they just didn’t matter. While I was puzzled about why I was missing notes even on tunes I know so well, in the end that didn’t matter either. What mattered was being there and sharing the music I love.

I still don’t know if the music is helpful to patients. But as I was logging my volunteer hours at the end of my shift, one of the nurses said, “I could listen to you play all day. Thank you so much for coming.” And the nurse manager suggested that next week, instead of setting up at the far end of the unit, I play by the window in the unit’s other short hallway. That’s the hallway right next to the nurses station. So I trust that Music is working her magic wherever it is needed, with staff or patient alike.