Tag Archives: music

WriterTeacherSingerSpy

Salzburg

I have been laboring over this piece now for days. It’s the first time I’ve ever sung alto in a choir, and my reading skills are finally being honed after years of skirting by on melody. My music is all marked up in a vain attempt to make sense of the accidentals and crazy key changes and seemingly senseless alto line.

I take a deep breath.

I plunk out the notes again.

Jen tells me to listen to the recording, to try to pick out my part.

“Copland thinks chordally, so it’s really helpful,” she says.

The first moment we began singing it in choir, I thought: Have I sung this before? How do I know this?

Ah, years ago. In Boston — Jen was the soloist and my mom and I had travelled down to see her. It’s a big piece. An overwhelming piece. And I could feel right away that I had heard it before.

It’s kicking my butt.

~     ~     ~

Miss Hawkins, is English your life?

[Just one of them.]

In reference to Edmond Dantés and Mercédès:

Well, obviously they didn’t love each other enough, or they would have waited. They would have gotten married.

[Hold on: What about circumstances? What about life? Is it possible that you can love someone deeply but have it not work out?]

In reference to Aylmer and Georgiana in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark:”

I think he really loved her. He was trying to help her.

[Woah, woah, woah! Careful. What is love? Aylmer obsesses over a tiny blemish on his wife’s cheek, to the point where it is all he sees of her. All her beauty and charm and kindness means nothing. Is that love? Trying to change someone? Trying to make them perfect?]

In reference to a grammar grade:

Wait – so you took a whole point off because I missed a verb tense?

[Yes, it’s called grammar.]

Why aren’t you married yet?

[Because I haven’t met anyone I wanted to see every day for the rest of my life.]

Really?!

[Here is where I wonder at their ideas of love and marriage. How I find it more amazing that anyone has found someone they like enough to see every day than it is that I haven’t.]

Why do you like writing so much? It’s boring.

[No! My heart!]

Why would you want to become a teacher?

[Here, I pause. Why? Do I tell them the truth? That it crept up on me and surprised me? That really, these twelve faces are the reason I became a teacher? And all their manifestations? They think I am not cool because I’m a teacher. This bums me out.]

Miss Hawkins, can I have some of your buffalo chicken calzone?

[No. Way.]

~     ~     ~

As difficult as the Copland has proven to be, it isn’t the piece that excites me. It’s the Whitacre that puts bubbles in my blood, makes my heart swirl. I listen to it over and over. I imagine da Vinci, consumed, obsessed, like Aylmer in Hawthorne’s short story.

the sirens’ song

I wonder what it must be like to feel compelled to create. To destroy the boundaries that the known world has imposed.

I sink into the low notes with silky enjoyment of their depth.

I paint pictures with my voice.

[7th graders: This is one of my other lives.]

A Hundred Years of Singing

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I remember discovering music as a little girl in the old brown church. Out the thin windows, I could see the pink hydrangea tree dipped down to the ground, bent from years of blooming. I couldn’t read yet, but I stood next to my father and followed him. I remember wondering How do I know where to put my voice next? and it was like the first time you think maybe there is more to be known than you will ever learn.

My grandfather used to sing “How Great Thou Art” under his breath while he hoed the garden, sorted the mail, wrote notes in his little breast-pocket notebook. He would hum and whistle, and ever since he’d lost some of his hearing, the tune hadn’t been quite right.

My Maine grandpa would sing fun ditties as he rocked us in his rocking chair. “How much is that doggie in the window?” and other silly songs that came from decades ago. It was when he took out his harmonica, though, that the music really started — his gnarled, hard-worked hands making music unlike any I had ever heard before.

And then there was singing in the car, belting along to Randy Travis and other 1990s country artists, wondering why I sounded different from the man singing. I hadn’t yet learned what octaves were.

I remember staying in the blue van while my family left because we’d gotten to my grandparents’ house, but it was in the middle of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and there was no way I was going to miss that key change, that high note at the end.

Standing in front of a large woman at church, in awe of her operatic voice but also afraid of it and confused by why she was always a little bit behind everyone else.

Getting a thrill whenever “Black Velvet” came on the radio. Alannah Miles’ sultry voice and lyrics of desire had me enthralled before I hit kindergarten.

My great-grandma played the piano by ear, sang through the open window while she washed dishes and hoped someone from Hollywood would walk by. She never did get her big break, but she sang for 105 years.

~     ~    ~

We start our lessons with stretching to the sky and then hanging loose like a rag doll. I tell her to take deep breaths, to feel her back expand with air. We do sirens to activate the different registers, we talk about our diaphragm and how it supports our breath, and we talk about opening our mouths as the notes get higher.

She loves to sing hymns. She has big hazel eyes that take in what I say with this look of hunger to learn it all. She asks to sing “Amazing Grace,” but she doesn’t want to sing it alone.

“Can we sing it together? You know, when you sing different things than I do?”

“You mean when I sing the alto line and you sing the soprano line?” I ask.

“Yes, yes! Can we?”

Who would say no? Besides, I love hearing her little-girl voice paired with my slightly-less-little-girl voice, a cappella in my practice room with the string of Christmas lights.

I’m not sure she’ll be able to hold the soprano line, and she falters a bit. Then her voice stops wavering. She sings with confidence. At the end, we smile at each other.

I tell her I love singing with her.

I don’t tell her that she’s been gathering music memories for eight years, that they will build on each other and come out at surprising times.

I don’t tell her that maybe she’ll remember singing “Amazing Grace” with her voice teacher, how the mismatch of their voices mimicked the mismatch of their time of life.

[Photo: geraldbrazell]

Change is Good

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Diana walks slowly across the grass, her hand brushing the porch post as she passes. She settles herself into the Adirondack chair and places the bowl of yogurt and granola in her lap. My friend looks six months pregnant, but no, she assures me, she’s due in January. I look at her belly again. Really? Five more months? The thought crosses my mind — twins — but I don’t say anything. What do I know about pregnancy?

We became friends studying music in college, she a mezzo-soprano and I a soprano. I remember meeting her in Music Theory I and how her bubble bangs curled over her wire-rimmed glasses. Neither of us was quite ready for college, but we entered the practice rooms with conviction: we would learn how to sing if it killed us. It’s only since graduation that we’ve become close, writing letters back and forth. I enjoy the way letters force me to slow down, take note. It was one of these letters on pale green paper that told me Diana was expecting and asked me to visit before fall came.

It’s my first visit to Deer Isle in the summer, and it isn’t hard to see why Diana came home. Eating breakfast in front of the ocean, I see two small islands covered in pine trees across the way, a working lobster pound to my left. In the field is an American flag flapping, and beneath it, we sit in two yellow Adirondack chairs. Kiska, their American Eskimo puppy, dashes across the grass flashing her long white fur. She gets too excited, barking and jumping despite Diana’s admonitions.

It’s my last hurrah of the summer. I go back to teaching in a week, and I drove the nearly five hours to Deer Isle with the hopes of rest and sunshine. I didn’t know till I got there that they actually live on Sunshine, a small section of Deer Isle proper.

“Like a borough,” I say. “So you’re Manhattan.”

She laughs.

“Yeah, we’re Manhattan.”

It’s a Manhattan complete with one coffee shop, one year-round restaurant, and two or three seasonal eateries that may or may not be open when they say they’ll be. The coffee is delicious, and I think as I sip: Maybe I could actually live here if there’s good coffee.

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I’ve come for rest and sunshine and Diana’s voice recital. Four years ago we gave our respective senior recitals, and now, on a Sunday afternoon in August, Diana stands in front of a small group of people with her four-month-belly and a black floor-length dress. She’s shed the wire-rimmed glasses and grown out the bubble-bangs. I know the work it takes to learn this music and the nervousness Diana must have felt this morning. I know that a tiny part of her just wants this all to be over. She takes a deep breath. Her belly moves out as she inhales and then, as she begins the first notes of Ned Rorem’s “Absalom,” her belly tightens beneath her skirt.

I am aware of every movement, of the muscle strength it takes to breathe and support. Her voice fills the white room, and immediately I see how much she has grown. Not just her voice, not just her musicality. Her face. Her body. Her ease. Diana wasn’t the only stiff performer in college; we all moved with inhibition and a fear of risk. We struggled with too much pride and easily wounded egos. I remember how hard it was to change my focal point, just to lift my eyes from the exit sign at the back of the room up to the right where the sunshine was supposed to be. But here she is, this beautifully strong musician who moves with grace. The piece isn’t happy: her mezzo-soprano voice bemoans Absalom’s betrayal of his father, King David. For a moment, I am David weeping in the high chamber: my child and my betrayer.

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Diana ends the final note with an emphatic sadness. She is David for a second longer. Then she is Diana again, snapped back to the small hot room with her belly that may or may not contain twins. She sings through the program, taking on each character and making me forget I’m just an audience member sitting in a hard pew. We clap her back onstage and her encore — “Summertime”  — is a show-stopper. Later, the audience lines up to greet her. Too many people comment on the size of her belly, the possibility of twins. She laughs and says something like, “Yes, I’m getting a little scared,” but she doesn’t seem scared, with her dark hair perfectly smoothed back and her diamond necklace and earrings.

She doesn’t seem scared of this baby or spending her entire life on an island of three thousand people. She looks at her lobsterman husband with a gentle kindness. There’s a power in her, a new ease. Maybe a good word for this new Diana is calm; she moves slowly but with thoughtfulness I envy. I read once that “rushing is the sign of an amateur,” and I know this is me, always frantic to do that next thing, accomplish that goal, fill that hole in me or my life. I feel this no more strongly than right now, in this place of steadiness and home-grown families. I wonder what it takes to grow from rushing to rest, and why it takes some longer than others to settle into rhythms.

~     ~     ~

On my drive home to Massachusetts, I think about my next visit to the island. There will probably be a baby — maybe two — and our conversations will not be about pregnancy but sleeping habits and resemblance and how to teach voice lessons with an infant. I will probably knit a tiny sweater that will only fit Diana’s child for a few months, and she’ll marvel because she can never believe I find time to do things like that. She doesn’t understand that picking out blue and white yarn for a sweater with whales on it is how I participate in the changes. I might not be in the same place she finds herself, but I can sit on my couch in the fall and knit something that will keep her baby warm. I like to think I’ll be learning the habit of contentment as I slip stitches from one needle to the next.

Lemongrass and Music

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You’ve got to do things that make you happy, Cath. It’s okay to take care of yourself.

So I brew lemongrass-ginger tea in my little brown teapot.

I curl up on the couch and knit a blue sweater with white whales on it.

I ask for book suggestions on the sovereignty of God, on the unknown. I start to read Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God, Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy. There is comfort in these words.

I journal in haphazard ways, round and around with no goal. I think about making sure I burn all my journals before I die.

I sit beside my roommate as she sings me this song. I sit and look out the window while she plays the guitar.

I buy a few too many dresses for the weddings and other occasions this summer. I wear the mint-green one to work.

I drive with the top down and feel the sun on my winter-skin.

I listen to all the music I love: The Lone Bellow, Ivan and Alyosha, Ray LaMontagne, Josh Garrells.

I sit at the piano and play hymns. We used to sing them with my great-grandmother in the living room, and now they are as much a balm to my soul as they are an offering to the Lord.

I preoccupy myself with apartment searching. I go a little crazy, a little manic. I apologize to my friends profusely, but it pays off. September first will find us moving into a city-apartment that I never thought we’d find.

I re-read old poems, old blog entries. My past self speaks to my present self, and I try to believe her and not feel like I’ve let her down.

I sit by the lake and sip a Dunkin iced coffee. My feet dangle like I am happy, but really it’s just because I’m short.

I imagine teaching my new courses next year. I make a list of books to read, activities to do. And then I stop when this feels overwhelming.

I think about our annual trip to the Cape and the ocean and the fact that the ocean is still there.

It’s been there all along.

So I do these things that make me happy, and I practice patience and trust. Risk involves not knowing what will happen, I know this. Time will tell, they say, and it will.

Give thanks in all circumstances. Like I wrote almost a year-and-a-half ago, we do not know how to praise God because we do not know all that he has spared us from.

A Thank You Note

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I’m standing in a living room filled with fancy strangers. I’m wearing my new black dress and a string of pearls. I’m standing in the rosy-soft lighting, and I’m about to sing. I’d been asked to perform at a fundraiser for a local theater company, and as I look out at the faces I don’t know and the few I do, I wait to sing.

~     ~     ~

The day before, I sat at the piano teaching a voice lesson, and I was trying to get my student to become the character. She was singing Eponine’s “On My Own,” and I kept asking her questions, trying to pull the character out of her imagination instead of handing it to her from mine.

What are you thinking about?
Why are you singing?
Are you sad? Angry? Lonely? Anxious? Disappointed?
WHY ARE YOU SINGING?

She was a good sport, my student, and she started to craft her character. It was harder to get her to open her mouth, though, to support the higher notes, to let go of her fear.

I said, “You’ve got to just trust yourself. Just let it out. Think about Eponine and her feelings, not the note or the pitch. Just sing the story.”

And it hit me – right there in the tiny practice room with the twinkly Christmas lights and art I’d hung on the walls in September – that I’m a little bit of a hypocrite. I’m pretty good at encouraging other people; I see their potential and I push them and help them and tell them not to give up. There are times, maybe, when I push too hard, but more often than not, I’m right and they can.

Then there’s me. There are the nerves that I haven’t felt since early college right before a performance. There’s the fear that I’ll mess up, and – because everyone knows I studied voice in college – the judgement will be harsher, sharper, like a final indictment.

I pushed my student to embrace her character and let go of her fear, and I sat on the piano stool clutching to mine.

My student looked me in the eye, shook her head with determination, and sang through the entire song. I sat there, listening, but also a little bit ashamed.

I’d be singing this same song the next day, but would I be able to sing the story? Would I be able to get over myself? Would my student be proud of me? Or would she wonder where I got off, chastising her for not having courage while I floundered exactly the same way?

When she stopped singing and stood there for a moment in silence, the last moments as Eponine, I saw on her face a little hint of transformation.

“Beautiful,” I said, quietly, because both of us know that we get emotional when we sing this song.

“Beautiful,” I said, because there was a part of me that envied this 8th grade singer who is slowly discovering her voice.

~     ~     ~

As I start to sing, I know I am too quiet, and that I’m letting my fear take a stranglehold on my voice. I release. I open up. I become Eponine. For me, though, this is a tricky balancing act . So often becoming a character leads to too-strong emotion, and there is nothing worse than a performer experiencing deeper emotion than the audience. I become Eponine, but I restrain myself. I feel her pain but at a distance. I see the hopes and dreams of lights on the river and mist and moonlight, but I do not let myself settle in too comfortably.

I forget a few words but it’s okay because I sustain one word through the line and it’s smooth enough and maybe two people realize.

And as I get to the last page of the music, the part where she’s lonely and broken and loving emptily, I take my time. Because that’s what it’s all about, really, taking time. Resting in silence and resting in the soft suspension of song.

As I stand for a brief moment as the piano finishes and I release Eponine into the room and out of myself, I wish my student were sitting there, just so she could see what a work she has done in me.

Grumpy Mornings

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I believe in morning singing.

Every year I was in College Choir, we’d have a morning Christmas concert for donors and trustees. It usually started at 10:00, which meant we were expected to drag ourselves out of bed around 6:30 because it takes three hours to wake up the voice (according to our conductor). I’m not a morning person now, but throw in late-night conversations over tea (wait! I mean late-night studying!) and I’m even worse.

I think I woke up at 6:30 ONCE for a concert.

After that, I relied on strong coffee and elaborate warm-ups sung to the wall of Phillips Recital Hall.

The thing is, my professor was right. My voice never woke up in time. Those were certainly not our best performances in the early mornings of December.

But I believe in morning singing.

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[I’m the blurry one right in the middle. Good memories of being one of a thousand daughters in “Pirates of Penzance”.]

I thought about this as I drove to work. I thought about it as I listened and hummed to a silly song on the radio (I won’t tell you what it was, but if you’ve ridden with me in the past few months, you can probably take a good guess). I thought how terrible I sounded as I sang and how I had to sing it up the octave and lightly because, well, my voice was still asleep.

I also thought there might not be a better way for me to start my day.

I am grumpy in the morning. Ask my parents. They are chronically happy when they wake up, and they don’t understand why I’m flying about, angry about this or that, the world collapsing around me as I’m not-late-but-almost-late for work.

My Dad sings almost every morning.

No, not hymns. At least not usually.

He tends more towards classic rock or whatever’s struck his fancy on the radio lately. And I’m trying to get ready for work, my voice is sleeping,  the rest of my body wishes it were, and I’m trying to hold it together while he sings.

I wish that I greeted each day with singing.

I wish that my voice woke up as soon as my eyes opened. I think maybe then I’d have better starts to my days.

It’s easy to sing when the sun is shining and the air is warm. It’s harder to sing when it’s dark in the mornings and dark in the evenings and rainy in between.

I miss the days of singing with friends. Of creating music because it was our job and our delight. Yes, I still do occasionally. But it isn’t quite the same.

Sometimes I sing in my car on the way to work. Sometimes I don’t. I think my students can tell which kind of day it is as soon as I walk in the door.

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[This is from our second-to-last class recital ever. Goofy is always better.]

Good Things #47

So I haven’t been writing that much. I don’t feel the urge – or, I do feel the desire to write, but there isn’t much going on up there…It’s all I can do to get these weekly “Good Things” posts up.

What’s my problem?

I’m not really sure. Except that I’ve been having a love/hate relationship with social media, and right now it’s on the hate side.

But there are still good things out there. One of them is this song:

Even though I’m not entirely sure what “they don’t make you like they used to” means.

And I don’t think I want to be done like Michael or kissed like Prince.

A fun song’s a fun song.

 

I did write a post that I want to publish but I’m waiting on pictures from a friend…

Until then, enjoy your Wednesday and this catchy song.

Good Things #44: Technology Edition

Image 6I’m loving my technology these days.

Music. I’ve said this before, but really, I would be nowhere music-wise without friends. And now in my second year of teaching, my students are just as good at making recommendations. One of my tenth graders asked if we could follow each other on Spotify (totally awesome way to get music fo’ free!) and this may be one of the best music decisions I’ve made so far.

Recently I was talking about music and what I like and why I like it. I admitted that I don’t choose to listen to Christian music very often. As I was talking, I felt like I was a freshman in college again, apologizing that I didn’t like most Christian music I heard. It just wasn’t very good (this is my opinion, of course). I kept tripping over my words because I hate it when people think I’m a) less of a Christian, or b) a snob. I like to think my music taste doesn’t make me less of a Christian, and I do not want to be a snob. It’s unattractive in pretty much everyone.

And what do I find on my student’s playlist?

A Christian artist who isn’t bad – who’s actually quite good. Someone I’d choose to listen to and I wouldn’t feel like I were betraying good music.

Listen on.

Also, Nick Drake. Another student-prompted discovery. They teach me something new every day.

Instagram. Okay, the cat’s out of the bag: I have an iPhone. Yes, the woman who rejoiced over her outdated technology and her inability to check email on the go is now the not-so-proud-but-it-is-what-it-is owner of an iPhone.

(What happened? It’s called “one night I got a text, opened my phone [yes, opened, because it was a flip-phone] and the entire screen was sideways and white and I lost all my contacts and the iPhone was cheaper than another flip.”)

One of the perks of an iPhone is Instagram. Okay, okay, yes I made fun of my dad when he got an account. Yes I would say, “What, you gonna insta that?” every time he took out his phone for a garden picture. And yes, I hate the filtered lifestyle Instagram creates.

What I do like? Pretty pictures.

How many posts have I made?

Three.

Internet. I am so grateful for the internet right now. Not only does it allow me to do this thing called blogging, but it also lets me stay in touch with my globe-trotting brother. The guy’s off in the land of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein (and BENEDICT), and even though he’s thousands of miles away, I get to keep up with him via Facebook and texting and twitter. I’m so proud of him, and I a little bit want to be there. A lot bit.

But the internet is the next-best thing.

Happy almost-summer!

P.S. My second chicken class is this Saturday. Supposedly we have five students signed up…I better prep the girls.

Good Things #39

Spring. Spring. Spring!
It finally seems to be here after weeks of teasing. Proof? The bluebirds are back, we planted onion sets this past weekend, and I rode with the top down twice in the past week. Dad put the nucs (short for ‘nuclear’) in the hives we lost this winter. It was a tough one, and the bees felt it. But now the new bees are buzzing about, and I can’t wait for more honey.

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TV…
So, this isn’t something I usually put on my list (other than Sherlock of course), but my brother finally convinced me to watch House of Cards. I’m only two episodes in, and stylistically, I’m hooked. I love the direct address to the audience, I love Kevin Spacey’s voice, and Princess Buttercup is even more stunning thirty years later. I’ve heard through the grapevine, however, that things get a little racy. We’ll see if I can handle it. It always makes me wonder what kind of person I would be if I’d ended up in Washington or in some other political arena. I’d probably be some ruthless cutthroat with pork-filled bills.

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Celebrating poetry month…in Latin.
My students, while not in English class, are still not immune to National Poetry Month. For three weeks we’ll be memorizing Latin poetry together, and I tried to sell it by using my 105-year-old great-grandmother as an example:

“You know what? My great-grandmother is 105, and sometimes she doesn’t remember who I am. You know what she does remember? What she learned in third grade.”

That got their attention. Yes, Gramma can recite poems and songs she sang as a child. So I told them I was giving them the gift of poetry for when they’re old.

They laughed, because none of us is getting old, please.

One of the poems we’re memorizing is Ecce gratum (See, welcome). Written sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries, it is one of 245 poems in the Carmina Burana. Feel free to memorize it yourself in honor of spring and poetry month!

Ecce gratum
et optatum
Vēr reducit gaudia.
Pupuratum
floret pratum.
Sōl serenat omnia.
Iamiam cedant tristia!
Aestās redit,
nunc recedit
Hiemis saevitia.

 

Iam liquescit
et decrescit
grando, nix et cetera.
Bruma fugit,
et iam sugit
Ver Aestatis ubera.
Illi mens est misera,
quī nec vivit,
nec lascivit
sub Aestatis dextera.

 

Gloriantur
et laetantur
in melle dulcedinis
quī conantur,
ut utantur
praemio Cupidinis.
Simus iussu Cypridis
glorantes et
laetantes
pares esse Paridis.

 

See – welcome
and longed-for
Spring brings back joys.
Purple
flowers the field.
The sun clears everything.
Now let sadness recede.
Summer returns
and retreats
the savagery of Winter.

 

Already melts
and vanishes
hail, snow and the rest.
Winter flies,
and now rises
Spring, the heart of Summer.
His mind is miserable
Who neither lives
nor loves
under the right hand of Summer.

 

May they exult
and be joyous
in the honey of sweetness
who try
to make use of the gift of Cupid.
Let us be by the order of Cypris
exultant and
joyous
to be on par with Paris.