Musicians Are Both Particles and Waves

Just like light, we exist in distinct packets, each with our own ideas about music, our own instrument, our own methods, our own instructions for creating a structure of sound and silence. We combine our packets of distinctness, and music is born.

And yet, when we bow or pluck a string, strike a stretched skin or a disc of hammered metal, or use our breath to set a column of air in motion, we are waves. With every dance with our instruments, we create waves of vibration that excite and move the molecules of air and matter, of skin and bone and the tiniest membrane of the human body.

Our waves of vibration travel outward from our instruments, joining the vibration of every living and non-living thing, onward to infinity, echo of the Original Vibration.

Listen.

Listen as a particle would listen, from the the center of your distinct and solitary being, from your seat of separateness. Listen to one pure tone, be it bowed or plucked, blown or struck.

Listen. Follow the sound with your eyes as it leaves you. Do you see the air shimmer as it passes through?

Listen. Follow the sound with your ears to the very edge of audibility. Do you still hear it in the silence?

Listen. Follow the sound as it enters your body. Does your heart quicken in recognition?

Listen.

Become the wave.

Now, fly.

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From the archives: A Christmas Story

I first posted this story in November 2010. I needed to read it again, and thought others might enjoy the trip in the Wayback Machine.

There were two women waiting together for their order at a coffee shop on a sunny afternoon, just a couple of weeks after Halloween. The shop was already decorated for Christmas, with red ribbons and sparkling lights strung throughout the crowded space. Muzak-ed Christmas carols could be heard under the din of coffee grinding and espresso brewing.

One of the women complained about how annoying it was to be bombarded with Christmas music and Christmas decorations and all the Christmas marketing before Thanksgiving could even be thought about, let alone celebrated.

The other woman had lived in Spain for a time, where, she said, not so much was made of Christmas – it was a day, not a season. One of the things she said she missed the most, and most enjoyed when she returned to the States, was all the lights and decorations and music that is so much a part of Christmas here.

The first woman listened to this story and wondered, “Who said that Christmas decorations should wait until December? Who said that this season of joy and good will should be limited to a week before Christmas? When did sparkling Christmas lights and decorated doors and shop fronts lose their magic?”

She looked around her, really seeing the twinkling lights draping the menu boards and window frames, taking in the sight of the baristas in red Santa hats pulling espresso shots. She could hear the melody of an old carol under the noise of people ordering drinks and milk being steamed. She inhaled a deep breath of air spiced with coffee and gingerbread, and smiled as this little bit of Christmas magic entered her heart.

And still this Christmas season, the sights of houses outlined in colored lights, yards festooned with inflated snowmen and Santas, Christmas trees viewed through neighbors’ windows, and the sounds of Christmas music both old and new make her smile; make her happy that this season of joy, peace and goodwill begins earlier and earlier in the streets and storefronts and in her heart. All because of a 30-second conversation while waiting for two cups of coffee to be poured.

We rarely get to know how what we say influences a life, how our story helps rewrite the story of another, or what gifts our words may become. To my friend, waiting with me in the coffee shop, I say, “Thank you – for your story, and the warmth of that cup of coffee, and the delight in Christmas that returned to me on that November day.”

Where Is Winter?

Where is winter? Yes, I know, it’s another 24 days until astronomical winter. The solstice will duly arrive on December 21st, at 11:28 am EST. But meteorological winter should have made an appearance by now.

I remember Novembers with both mountain snowfall and frozen Piedmont ponds. Instead, it’s 65 degrees outside. Spring-blooming ornamentals, like my neighbor’s azaleas, are in full flower. What passes for my lawn sports new violets and buttercups. The cannas outside my front door don’t have the first hint of frostbite.

At least the maple trees have finally assumed their seasonal responsibility for providing autumnal color. They set scarlet, orange and gold leaves adrift on today’s all-too-warm breezes. But none of the oaks, be they red, white, willow or burr, are contributing to the fall color spectrum. They still appear fully foliaged, and are only hinting at the russets, browns and bronzes their leaves are destined to become.

This endless warmth and green and sunlight has to stop. I need winter. I need to light the first fire on the first frigid night, and lose my thoughts in the dance of the flames. I need to rest my eyes on tones of brown and gray, need to see the still hidden bones of the trees silhouetted against a steel-gray sky. I need to hear the cold silence of a dark morning as stars still sparkle overhead. I need to feel the fierce bite of the north wind wresting the warmth from my face as I pad down the driveway, wrapped in fleece.

It’s been a hard year. Too many hours spent in emergency departments and hospital rooms. Too few hours spent with my dear friend before she was gone. Too much fear. Too much dread. Too many goodbyes.

I need winter. I long for dormancy, for the deep winter sleep of trees. I need to be winter-chilled like a tulip, left undisturbed, underground, to gather life and the promise of growth from the dark earth. I need the coming months of palest winter light and cold, need frost to cover me like a blanket, need darkness to be a bed in which I may rest.

I need winter. Where IS it?

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.

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.

The Words Return

It’s here: The day when the pressure of wanting to write outweighs the pressure to be wrapped in silence. I could be reentering the world from a monk’s cell, where I am allowed neither the input of others’ words nor the output of my own. Some part of the cell is the grief that returned to my doorstep as the first Thanksgiving without Ruth Ann’s earthly presence approached. But the greater part is the need for rest, for time to let my heart’s fields be fallow, for time to allow all the good and the bad, the bidden and the unbidden of this year to settle, to compost and fertilize whatever is next to emerge.

Over the last weeks my internal images shifted. I’ve been at sea for months. First, alone and adrift in a life boat, watching as the ship that was carrying me sinks beneath storm-driven waves. Later, my lifeboat sprouts oars, and I can row. No land is in sight. I have no course to follow, and no stars to guide my way. I row anyway, not knowing where I am going, or even if I am going anywhere. There is just rowing, and the vast expanse of ocean surrounding me.

Weeks later, in France, another shift. The wooden lifeboat transforms into a Zodiac, propelled by two powerful outboard motors. I stand at the helm, the throttle open all the way. The rubber craft skips over the tops of the waves, as much borne by air as water. The salt spray stings my face and eyes. I still have no idea where I’m going, but wherever “there” is, I’m getting there fast, and the speed is exhilarating.

In the gentle warmth of January afternoon sun, a new image, a new landscape, emerges. There is a field, with plowed and ready soil, stretching towards the horizon, waiting. I do not know if I’ve already sown seeds that will soon sprout, or if there are yet unknown seeds to be planted.

The field does not give me an answer. In winter, when life is tucked away safely into dark earth, awaiting warmth, both planted and barren soil looks the same. But I know that I’ve tilled the ground, and that it is ready to support whatever new life is ready to grow, be it already planted or yet to be sown.

 

Ten Years Of Harp

DSC00786I had my first harp lesson on the evening of September 28, 2004. My harp lesson on September 29, 2014 was the tenth anniversary of first sitting in my teacher’s studio and putting my fingers on harp strings.

When I told my teacher that I was celebrating the tenth anniversary of beginning harp lessons with her, she said, “That is so cool! Not everyone can look at the last ten years of their life and say they’ve learned how to do something completely from scratch. You have a lot to show for what you’ve been doing with your life for the last ten years.”

And so I do. The harp is no longer a “someday” dream. it is my real, live life, every day.

A few months after starting lessons I wrote in my journal, “Becoming a musician is turning me inside out.” And so it has. The person I am today was formed and forged on the harp bench. Staring down childhood demons, laying aside the cloak of invisibility that protected me, and having the courage and confidence to take myself out into the world to be seen and heard are all gifts from my harp strings.

I’ve always liked a structured path, with the milestones to be reached clearly defined, and then noted and checked off the master list as they are achieved. When I started my blog four years ago, I despaired of ever having any sense of direction about learning to play, or of having any sense of myself as a harper. But the harp taught me to trust emergence, to trust that what I need to learn next and do next will reveal itself with quiet and attentive waiting, much like seeds nestled in the dark earth await the right season to send out their first green shoots.

The harp is no longer about being good enough or worthy enough or skilled enough to play. For the first time since beginning the harp years, I know I really can play. The harp is not a challenge external to me that I must master, with a required set of skills that I must be able to perform. Instead, the harp is a part of me. It is where I have my place, where I feel completely alive. It is, as Ruth Ann once told me, “where my passion has found her voice.” It is where I both see for myself, and express to the outer world, who I am, and who and what I love. It is where I am home.

 

 

Singing For the Cure

We had a sell-out concert last night: 1020 seats filled, and over $25,000 raised for Susan G. Komen. Nothing in the rehearsals prepared me for the energy of our performance. I was still awake at 3:00 a.m., still riding the waves created by our sea of voices. We rocked the house.

Lying awake this morning, I thought about cancer, thought about the fear and pain and despair that cancer creates. Cancer takes away our loves, steals our hopes, trashes our plans, turns our dreams into nightmares. But cancer also gives us gifts, if we can face our fears and look it in the face.

Cancer forces us to know our mortality. Our lives, and the lives of our loved ones are suddenly finite, and more precious. Everyday becomes a gift. Every moment can be alight with hidden treasure – cancer reminds us to look for it. Each breath becomes a gift of presence, in the present.

Cancer, by blocking our chosen paths, makes us gather our courage and take new ones. Cancer made me see that the man I loved and planned to marry was not for me. Cancer invited me to step into a new life, a life free of others’ plans and expectations. Two years after my diagnosis I met the love of my life. This year we celebrate 38 years together.

Cancer inspires artists and writers, composers and musicians, to create and express beauty and meaning in a world that often seems short of both. Sing For the Cure is but one example.

And cancer creates community and connection, inspires reaching across the distances and differences that we think divide us. Last night, every singer remembered the dear ones who are gone from our loving embrace. Every singer celebrated the survival of friends, family, and ourselves. Every singer gave life to the hope and determination that cancer will be defeated, and promised that together we will look fearlessly towards our future, with one glorious voice.

Turning Towards Light

Ruth Ann died five months ago. Meanwhile, the earth completed another quarter of its journey around the sun. Spring’s pastels of iris and dogwood are replaced by bold watermelon pink and purple crape myrtles, scarlet gladiolas, and orange day lilies that defy soaring heat and lack of rain. The last of the magnolia blossoms still perfume heavy summer air. The hours of light grow imperceptibly shorter each day, while the hours of night lengthen towards the darkness of winter.

I live in a precarious balance between light and darkness. Daylight hours of walking, music, knitting, and being encircled in the kindness of friends brings laughter, peace, and grounding among the living. Quiet nights bring reflection and sadness. In daylight, when I remember to breathe slowly and appreciate the fragility of all that I love, grace and gratitude can guide my way. Darker nights assail me with futility, with knowing all will be lost in the end, and leave me relieved to see the sunrise.

Someone had just passed away when I arrived at the Hospice unit last Tuesday. Family had not made it to the bedside before the patient’s final breath. I had unpacked my harp and was playing in the hallway outside this hospital room when the family arrived in a rush of heartbreak and weeping.  Once inside the room a young girl began keening,”No, no, no….I don’t want her to be dead.”

I kept playing. I kept fingers moving on the harp strings while her sobs crescendoed into wailing that echoed down the hallways with desperate cries of “No, no, no….come back, come back.” I hoped that Music could in some way comfort her fear and ease her pain, could in some way say to this family, “The world has felt this grief, and created these tunes to stand beside you on this hard journey.”

I’ve thought about this young girl all week. Thought about how she was able to scream her pain and give voice to the same words I mouthed so quietly to myself when I found out Ruth Ann was dead: No, no, no. . . . Come back, come back. . . . I don’t want you to be dead. And I see how these are everybody’s words, everybody’s desperate desire. The price of love is that we will tumble down in seemingly endless eddies of grief and fear when the ones we love leave us behind on this suddenly empty and lonely earth.

When I was twenty-something, I thought the Buddhist concept of non-attachment meant that we were not supposed to love, not supposed to care. That we were supposed to walk blasély through the world, indifferent to who and what it offered to us. Life and love and loss teach a different translation: that we must care about, and love, all that the world offers with all our heart, but with open hands. Open hands that do not clutch and grab at what is passing from them. Open hands that allow the heartbreak of endings. And open hands that once empty, are willing receptacles for approaching, as-yet-unknown joys.

In the heat and glare of a July day, darkness grows, and winter approaches. But today I remember that it is in the darkness of December, and the cold depths of winter, that the earth again turns towards light.