Day three of the winter storm:
We’re in day two of a three-day winter storm that’s blowing through the southeastern U.S. Yesterday’s two inches of snow took most of our local weather forecasters by surprise. They told us to expect an early morning “dusting.” Instead, snow fell all day, and cooled off sidewalks and roads so that today’s snow won’t melt, and travel on unplowed neighborhood streets will become impossible.
Local and national forecasters got closer to reality today. Snow began falling early this morning, and is expected to accumulate at the rate of one inch per hour during the afternoon. They warn that our 4-to-8 inches of snow will be followed by a coating of ice, courtesy of sleet and freezing rain this evening. Our last big ice storm hit ten years ago this month, and left my neighborhood without electricity for two weeks. So I’m back to the basics of preparing for the worst.
There’s a waist-high stack of dry wood on the front porch, tucked under a blue tarp to keep it dry in the blowing snow. The candles are in their holders, the emergency oil lamp is filled and the wick trimmed, the wooden matches to light the gas burners when the electric ignition fails are on the counter by the stove. The flashlights are filled with fresh batteries, the electronic devices are charged. I might be a city girl now, but my years of living in the country taught me the value of self-sufficiency and not depending on the power grid during bad weather.
I’m back to the basics with my harp lessons as well. Last fall I read this quote from Deborah Henson-Conant’s blog entry, The Mystery Of Mastery, on HipHarp.com.
“I’m not dissing mastery. I’m just saying that – especially for adult learners – is it really about mastery? Or is it about having simple structures that help us express the richness of the lives we’ve created, and to share that richness with others?
When we, as adults, learn something new, what we want is fluency.
There seems to be an idea that ‘mastery’ means adding complexity – but fluency can be about getting more and more comfortable and creative with simplicity – so that we can express OURSELVES through it.
And expressing ourselves through it is what’s important.
Last year my focus was on performance: playing at Hospice, learning repertoire to play in two harp chapter concerts, and the ongoing jousting with fear and performance anxiety. This year I am still playing at Hospice, but not signing up for other performance opportunities. This year my focus is on fluency and musicality. This year I am investigating what keeps me from expressing myself musically on the harp, what keeps me from playing a tune as beautifully as I can hear it in my head and as fluidly as I can imagine my fingers moving.
My “simple structures” are scales and arpeggios, and my primary tool for investigation is the video camera in my iPad, which when placed on a spare music stand beside my harp, captures everything my hands are doing. Since video-taping my practice sessions, I’ve discovered major inefficiencies in my harp technique that interfere with me playing fluidly and expressively.
I’m back to the very first steps of playing the harp: closing my fingers into the palm when I pluck, and replacing my fingers on the harp strings without buzzes. The videos showed that I have a lot of unnecessary hand motion when I close and replace. These hand motions take more time, which creates hiccups in the fluidity of the music and which traps me into playing slowly.
I am practicing scales with the mental images of “quiet hands,” and fingers that effortlessly fold shut, and then unfold and return to the strings without waving up and landing from above. After lots of very slow practice, I’m able to play ascending and descending scales a good 20 beats per minute faster than before. And my scales sound really good! Not allowing wiggling hands to siphon off energy that should go towards fingers pressing and releasing the strings creates a richer, fuller sound.
With the Alexander Technique lessons, I am developing both the core support that allows my arms, hands and fingers to move freely, and greater awareness of how I am moving and using my body. I can connect suddenly clumsy fingers to subtle shifts in my posture that causes my neck and spine to collapse forward, which then keeps me from supporting my arms and centering my hands on the strings, which prevents my fingers from moving freely.
When my hands are supported and balanced on the strings, my fingers naturally snap closed into my palms without forcing them to move after I pluck a string. That’s what they want to do. With tension released by closing, my fingers unfold, again without “making” them move. This effortless movement feels delicious! For the first time, I’m consciously aware that good technique really does feel good.
But my most significant shift is being able to watch the videos and view my harp technique issues as inefficiencies that stymie fluency and expression, instead of as failures that I should have corrected given the number of years I’ve had harp lessons. The Inner Critic no longer has a seat in my practice room. I know that for all the harp years, I’ve worked hard and practiced conscientiously so that I could play the very best I could. And I know that I’ll keep doing that for all the harp years to come.
“A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” – Author unknown
I thought we were done with winter. Daffodils began blooming in January. The star magnolias and tulip magnolias burst their buds this week and are in full flower. Migratory robins are dining daily on the worms that rain drives to the surface in my soggy back yard, and chickadees are already gathering sticks for their nests. Friday I walked the neighborhood in shirt sleeves, under long-awaited crystal blue skies.
Yesterday I awoke to snow showers, to saucer-sized flakes drifting past my upstairs window. Snow soon turned to another day of the gray, drizzly rain that is the hallmark of this winter, and I thought we were done with the excitement and beauty that snow promises in the South.
About five in the afternoon Charley ran downstairs to where I was practicing recorder. She rarely takes the stairs on her own, but the first flashes of lightning and rolling booms of thunder explained why she sought me out. She hates storms, and usually predicts their arrival several minutes before I am aware of a change in the weather.
With another explosion of lightning and thunder, snow poured out of the sky. An hour later an inch clung to the fence posts and daffodils. By the end of the storm there was almost three inches covering the ground and outlining each tree branch.
This morning I awoke to a crystalline wonderland. The morning sun lit the top branches of the crape myrtle and cedar, making them sparkle with fairy dust. My back yard was transformed from mud and mire to a white canvas that captured the beauty of the snowy night.
The mud and mire of my heart’s distress is also transformed by the comments and emails I received in response to my post The Yawning Gulf Between Where I Am And Where I Want To Be. You helped me regain both perspective and faith that sight-reading skills do not make one a musician, and that I am a musician whether I ever sight-read another note. You helped me remember what I have accomplished with the harp, and helped me refocus on what I can do instead of seeing only what is still beyond where I am today. You assured me that I will find my way back to the joy that is Music. You held onto the song in my heart when I could not hear it, and sang it back to me when I needed it most. Thank you for your caring, your kindness and your support, and for being my companions on this journey.
It’s typical for us to have Christmas weather that requires turning on the air conditioning if we want enjoy sipping eggnog in front of the fire. But on Christmas Day, 2010, snow began falling about 7 pm. Snow continued all through the night, and I awoke to winter in all its stark, textured, crystal glory.
The predictions were right. On Monday night, our 6 inches of snow was glazed by a thick coating of ice due to overnight sleet and freezing drizzle. Temperatures have yet to climb above freezing, so no melting so far. I found some strap-on ice cleats in the back of my closet, so this morning I added them to my boots, and ventured to the end of my driveway to get the morning newspaper and yesterday’s mail. For the first time in the 15 years I’ve lived here, I saw a snowplow on my street. Of course, it was totally ineffective at removing any of the hard-packed ice. The blade just skittered along without digging into anything frozen. I cleaned off cars yesterday, but my driveway is in total shade thanks to the neighbor’s 12-foot tall Leyland cyprus trees, so I doubt I’ll be driving anywhere today. The community college is closed for a third day, so no chorus class today, anyway. I hope to at least bust up some of the ice in the driveway and rake it off. (Don’t laugh – that’s what my neighbor across the street did yesterday, and it seemed to work.)
At least I’ve had lots of time to practice. I started sight-reading for 30 minutes as a part of my daily practice, which according to my teacher is the minimum time required if I want to get any better at it. But my brain is screaming after 20 minutes, so I’m not sure if the last 10 minutes is actually accomplishing anything. Today I found a music theory website that has exercises for identifying notes, intervals and chords, among other things: Ricci Adams’ musictheory.net . Since identifying intervals really slows me down when I’m trying to read, I’m going to try these exercises as the last 10 minutes of my sight-reading practice. Perhaps I can successfully click my mouse to identify an interval after my brain is done with trying to read from an actual score. We’ll see……..
After the last several years where winter made light of its role in the December – March calendar, we have our second major snowfall in two weeks. The last four days of meteorological broadcast hysteria was apparently warranted. The snow started about 4 am, there were 2 inches on the ground by 6, and as the song says, “. . . it doesn’t show signs of stoppin’ .”
We are promised ice and freezing rain later, and I don’t doubt this prediction. My friend in Birmingham (Alabama) says they are coated with a 1/4 inch of ice. The city is under attack from falling trees and tree limbs, and is coping with resulting power outages. The ice part of this storm is set to barrel up I-85 to North Carolina and arrive by this evening. After our last ice storm we had no electricity for a week. So I have a fire laid in the fireplace, wood stacked on the front porch, candles and flashlights at hand, matches ready to light the stove burners when the electric ignition fails. All I have to do now is enjoy the sight of the comparatively benign snowflakes, which are falling so densely that I cannot see my back fence in the back yard.
Birds are taking cover in the azalea by the patio, waiting their turn at the feeders like planes lined up for take-off on the tarmac, which is the only place planes would be today had not all flights in and out of the airport been cancelled. There are robins, cardinals, juncos, black-capped chickadees, rufous-sided towhees, goldfinch in their winter plumage, titmice, purple and non-purple finches, some wee wrens, and for the first time at my feeders, bluebirds. My yard is home to several bluebirds, but I typically see them catching their preferred insects on the wing, or plucking blue-black berries from the cedar tree. In this snow, they wait their turn at the feeder, then fly in and delicately grasp a single black-oil sunflower seed in their beaks, fly to the evergreen hedge, and crack it open and eat it.
It’s strange to feel like the this storm has given me a day off. I’m retired. I no longer have to call the employee weather line like my working friends, who at 6 this morning were on their phones, hoping to hear that county offices were closed due to inclement weather. And I no longer have to struggle to make it to work when against all common sense and good judgement (for a city that does not plow neighborhood streets,) county offices remained open. Trekking to the end of the driveway to fetch the morning paper is the extent of my mobile adventures today.
But the snow creates a completely unscheduled day and evening, which is still a lovely gift. The community college is closed, so I won’t be starting the new chorus class today. The Monday evening yoga class is cancelled, and my teacher delayed the start of spring semester harp lessons until next week. So there is this luscious, unfilled time stretching before me, an unplanned holiday.
I have bread rising in the oven, a domestic pleasure I don’t enjoy often enough. I’ve read my friend Catherine’s entire blog, Listening for the Whisperings, which transports me to a world where the workings of soul and light are treasured and entwined. I have new music on the music stand and time to slowly work my way through it, phrase by phrase. My cat is on my lap, purring her approval of my writing as I type. This day could not be more perfect, or contain more joy.
It wasn’t really a white Christmas, despite three days of meteorological predictions and hysteria that we would awaken on December 25th to the first Christmas snow in 63 years. When I rushed to my window at 7 am on Christmas morning, all that greeted me was the same brown Bermuda grass and green winter weeds that pass for a lawn in my back yard. But the snow started to fall at 7 pm; by 11 pm it covered the tops of the dead grass and chickweed and henbit. And by Sunday morning, the world was encased in winter: house eaves were bedecked with beards of icicles, the trees were crystal, and each bud and berry on the dogwood tree sported its own jaunty hat of snow.
Three days later, there is still snow on the ground in all the shady places, and in some of the sunny ones as well. The squirrels’ nests in the tops of the oak trees still have white blankets, as do many of the holly shrubs. A whole street of North-facing houses has front yards still snow-bound, save one. It’s the same house where in autumn there is never a leaf to be found disturbing the perfect carpet of grass. As I walked past this morning, I could easily imagine the homeowner, in the height of the storm, diligently blowing and melting the snow from his yard with his lately all-too-quiet leaf blower.
I’ve just finished reading (for the second time in two weeks) the most wonderful book: Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Boston: Trumpeter Books, 2010.) Anyone who has walked the path of sorrow will find a companion in these pages. One of her essays speaks the words “New snow revealed what had been hidden…Snow hid what had been revealed.”
This snow hid the ordinariness of a gray, cloud-blanketed Sunday and revealed a world sparkling in the low winter light. Undisturbed snow covered the yard and driveway, save for a single line of deer tracks. Every link of the chain-link fence was outlined in ice and gleamed like a net of spun jewels. Trees were made of snow, each branch and twig appeared to be only the slate gray shadows of the snow resting upon them. Banks of snow under decorated bushes and trees reflected the glow of colored Christmas lights.
Snow fell all morning, and most of the afternoon, extending the Christmas hush by one more day and evening. One more day where we were given a world calm and bright. One more day when cars and malls and merchandise were out of reach, leaving us with the gift of just this silent snowy day, in all its fullness and beauty, and one more silent, holy night.