Archive for January 2007

Boxes Full of Books

January 31, 2007

Last night, my friend Tina and her husband came to collect boxes of Braille books to send overseas. Most were headed for a girl in Indonesia, but there were three for a pastor in Malawi.

Braille is expensive, and most countries don’t have very much of it, especially in the developing world. So after I’m finished reading magazines like “National Geographic,” “Poetry,” and a weekly edition of “The New York Times,” they get packed into boxes and shipped abroad.

It had been a few weeks since we’d gathered the boxes and sent them, so there were a lot, at least fifteen by my count, and I don’t think I was counting very well.

It’s really amazing what a small gesture can mean to someone else. Something as simple as recycling books and magazines brings tremendous joy and expanding education to those who receive them.

It also keeps a lot of bulky paper out of landfills and gets several uses out of an expensive commodity, i.e. Braille.

Too often, we think of the things we discard as just trash. Having worked for six years with the pastor in Malawi, though, I’ve gotten quite an eye-opening. They can and do use things we in the U.S. just unthinkingly get rid of.

I’ve always been fairly practical, and good at distinguishing between “I need” and “I want”. But I’ve learned a lot by reading the letters from Malawi, and as long as I can, I’m going to keep sending books abroad. I’m sure there will always be someone who can use them and who will be delighted to have them.


The More the Merrier

January 30, 2007

Playing the piano is usually a pretty solitary pursuit. But there’s a large body of literature for piano four hands.

In the 1700’s and 1800’s, this literature was for two people playing one instrument. It was perfect for men and women courting each other in “polite” society. They could sit close together, and often, their hands would touch.

Playing two at one piano involves figuring out how to share space. The person playing the lower half of the keyboard gets to control the pedals by default (kind of like the person playing chess with the white pieces always gets the first move). Assuming you and your partner listen to each other and agree on how a piece is to be conceived, some very beautiful music can result.

Later in musical history, works began appearing for two pianos played together. This lent itself well to orchestral works, concertos, and other large-scale pieces that needed more range than two at one piano could provide.

In this configuration, each player has the run of their own instrument. But with both players having use of pedals, if you’re not careful, you can easily end up with muddy, blurry mush because both people are using too much damper and their instruments are ringing in sympathy with the notes being played by their partner.

Also, because you’re not so close together, staying in a tight ensemble can be a challenge. Lots of practice time goes into figuring out how to signal to one another when you want to slow down, speed up, pause for a breath.

You also have to match tone and dynamics more carefully. And, if the two instruments involved are out of tune with each other or have vastly different timbres, it can make for interesting results. And that’s assuming you can find a place that has two pianos!

Well, I’m currently working on the two-piano version of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”, in particular “Jupiter”. It’s a hair-raising piece: it starts out with layers of fast notes repeated in patterns, with each pianist adding a hand to the mix after a second or two. The effect is the sensation of spinning around at warp speed and getting dizzy (as a listener). As the player of the Piano 1 part, which has more of this spinning stuff than Piano 2, I spend the first minute or so of the piece counting franticly and trying not to screw up, because if I do, the whole thing falls apart!

Then, dropped in the middle of this swirling mass seemingly out of nowhere, is a majestic, lyrical section that only an English composer of a certain era could craft. I recently learned that the main theme of this section happens to be the national anthem of Jamaica! I just thought it was a cool-sounding Anglican hymn.

Anyway, I’m scheduled to play “Jupiter” with a partner for a noontime concert in someone’s home in April. We will begin rehearsing together later this month.

Holst explores seven planets in this cycle: Mars (bringer of war); Venus; Jupiter (bringer of jollity(; Mercury: Neptune: Uranus (the magician); and Saturn (bringer of old age). He wrote the two-piano score before doing the more-famous orchestral version, and I’ve wanted to play it for years. I’ve done parts of many of these pieces with students, but never one in its entirety with a colleague who plays at my level. So this is going to be fun.

I’m fortunate to have two pianos in my studio: a 1904 Chickering and a 2004 Kawai. They sound pretty good together, too, although the Kawai is a much fuller, stronger instrument.

I have no idea what the pianos will be like for our performance in April, and I’ve only heard my partner in solo work or accompanying other people on other instruments. But I like how she plays, and she works hard in preparing music for performances, so I think this will be a good match. It’s not like ice skating, where you have to be able to trust your partner to catch you after a throw. But it helps if you get along with and respect your partner.

I’m about a quarter of the way through memorizing “Jupiter”. Since I use Braille music, I can’t read and play at the same time, unless the piece is for only one hand, and even then, I’d rather memorize anyway since it leaves me free to concentrate fully on being expressive.

After a few days of playing alone, I put in the CD I have of this work with two players and play with the disc. If I can keep up with the disc and still be musical, then I know I’m prepared for rehearsals.

So I’m off to the piano now to practice making myself dizzy with notes and not losing count of how many times I have to do it before going on to Jamaica!

Reading for Pleasure

January 29, 2007

For years, Ted has told me I should read Terry Pratchett, and for years, I’ve said I would but didn’t.

I tried some of his earliest books in Braille, but I couldn’t get into them. Ted would occasionally read me passages in whatever new Pratchett he was exploring, usually after a few minutes of uproarious laughter.

I’ve had “Maskerade” since late last year, borrowed on cassette from the Library of Congress. I don’t know what I was waiting for to start reading it, but somehow, every time I thought I had the perfect opportunity to start, I’d put it aside for another perfect time. Needless to say, I wasn’t getting anywhere.

Last night, I decided to bake applesauce cakes. One is for a friend whose Christmas gift from me was a dessert of the month. Since the recipe makes two, though, Ted and I get to enjoy the other one ourselves.

By the time I was finished and the cakes were in the oven, it was almost ten o’clock, and I had a forty-minute baking time ahead of me.

So I went downstairs and got my cassette player, plugged it in in the dining room, and popped in the first cassette of “Maskerade”.

I proceeded to get completely engrossed in the book. Ted ended up taking the cakes out of the oven and taking the dogs out for the last walk of the night. I listened as Pratchett drew me in, mixing the stories of a country girl with amazing musical talent who gets a spot at a city opera house, two old witches, and various other characters into his unique blend of fantastic fiction.

You’ve got to pay attention while reading Pratchett, because there’s not a line that goes by that doesn’t include some buried treasure of ironic wit or sharp observation about people. The references to music, magic, farming, and just plain human nature come so fast and thick that you could easily stop and have a deep consideration of any one of them. But the characters are too well-drawn and the plot too much fun, and you just can’t stop yourself. You have to keep turning pages, or, in my case, keep listening.

Finally, at almost midnight, I quit. I’d reached the end of the first side of the first cassette. Of course, I could have easily turned it over and kept going. But I knew I’d never be able to stop until I was finished, and I might never go to bed at all!

If you’ve ever enjoyed opera, or explored metaphysics, lived on a farm, or read classic literature, there will be something for you to relate to in this book.

I think one of the reasons God gave us winter is so we’d have a great excuse for getting wrapped up in the written word. There are “winter” books and “summer” books, and while I think that each person can make their own lists of these, for me, it seems that the British authors seem to do “winter” books best. A few years ago, I got lost in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” during a frigid January. I think Stephen King is better for summer, but I’ve read some of his “Dark Tower” books with abandon during the colder months, too.

Pratchett, I think, is going to be another one of the “winter” authors for me. I haven’t started reading again yet today; I’m saving it for after my teaching is done and I have no other obligations for the evening. And, on the recommendation of Ted, after “Maskerade” I’ll look into “Weird Sisters” and “Witches Abroad”.

He may be enjoying several months of chances to say, “See? See? I told you so!”, but I’m going to enjoy several months of laughter over goatkeeping, the futility of reading tea leaves, the stereotypical ballerina at a 19th-century opera house (who faints carefully to avoid dirtying her clothes!) and who knows what else.

Oh, and the applesauce cake was good, too!

Falling in Love with Franz

January 28, 2007

By all accounts, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) smoked like a chimney, drank like a pirate, had affairs or one night stands with more women than is usual, and wrote a ton of music when he wasn’t partying.

I had played several of his songs in college while accompanying singers. He wrote over six hundred in all, and it’s obvious that he had a natural gift for using the human voice, poetry, and the piano to convey emotions of tremendous depth.

As a piano soloist, I’d played some of his small-scale works, like the Impromptus Op. 90, a few of the waltzes, and even most of his “Trout” Quintet. But I was late coming to the piano sonatas, and only studied my first one in 2003, in preparation for a competition in Prague.

What I discovered is that I am in love with this composer and his music.

Compared to Mozart, he’s not as organized in form and content, and he’s got more interesting parts for the left hand, too.

Looked at beside Beethoven, Schubert isn’t as tonally rich or as passionate. He doesn’t have the ornamentation and humor you find in Haydn, either.

But if you want a composer who follows a melody as far as it will carry without restrictions on how it’s used, Schubert is your man. He didn’t seem bothered by the fact that, in pursuing these melodic ideas to their full flowering, he often had sonatas that ran upward of thirty-five minutes, especially if you take all the repeats.

Repeats are a tricky thing for a performer. You’ve got to decide when to do them, and when to leave them out. In Schubert’s case, I often take my audience into consideration. If they’re non-musicians, I often leave the repeats out. But for formal performances, or if I’m recording to CD, they’re all in. Some people might think they make the piece too long, but another group, which includes me, enjoys hearing how Schubert uses the melodic ideas he’s found, and often it takes that second hearing to understand what we’ve just witnessed.

I’m currently playing his Sonata in A Minor, D. 845, a relatively late work (although anyone who dies before they’re halfway through their thirties can’t really have a truly “late” or “mature” work). The first movement is full of places where the silence is just as important as, if not more than, the notes surrounding it. The second movement starts simply enough but spins itself out into an extended set of variations that are luxurious to play because of how lyrical they are. I love seeing what kind of beautiful and expressive sounds I can get out of whatever instrument I’m playing on, and this movement is ideal for pushing the limits of tone quality: can I make an instrument that’s essentially a percussion instrument sing like something with breath?

The third movement is full of drama. It looks back to the Classical era’s penchant for form in that, dropped like a rainbow amid grey clouds, there’s a breathtaking trio tucked in. It has nothing to do with the melodies we’ve been hearing all along in the movement, but who cares? It’s just plain gorgeous music!

And to cap it all off, there’s a rondo, which is a form that keeps returning to the music heard at its outset, with each repetition of the beginning ideas separated by different sections. The repeated visits to the familiar opening themes build tension and excitement because, no matter where Schubert wanders, he always gets back to square one somehow. A listener can spend the movement in wonder at how he gets himself in and out of some of the places he goes. In other words, it’s an exciting and exhilarating way to finish.

I’m glad I didn’t try these sonatas any sooner than I did. I think you’ve got to have a certain amount of patience and indulgence for a composer who doesn’t always take the usual route to creating a large-scale work like a sonata. They’re kind of like those big, baggy novels we sometimes read because, even if they’re not the best-written stuff out there, the dialogue is believable, the plot(s) captures our imagination, and it’s easy to get lost in them for hours at a time because they’re just good fun.

I think you also need to have patience because, as someone who was keenly aware of the human voice and what it could do, Schubert approached much of his composition, especially the piano music, with that ideal in mind.

The pinnacle of his sonata output was the final three sonatas, D. 958 through 960. I am fortunate to own a Braille score for D. 960, in B-Flat major. With all repeats, it’s almost fifty minutes long. It’s a piece I plan to study next year.

With each piece I encounter and memorize, I learn something and grow in what I can do with my instrument. I have no doubt that that final Schubert sonata will be an excellent teacher. In the mean time, I’ve got more to explore in the sonata I’m playing now. It will be a regular feature of many of my recitals this year, and I’m looking forward to sharing the journey it carries us all on, whether as performer or listener.

Schubert didn’t live very long. But we have a lot of music from him to be very, very thankful for.

A Nose for Trouble

January 27, 2007

Last night, I was curled up in bed, reading, and the two dogs wer sleeping peacefully at my feet on their own beds. Suddenly, Ecko popped up and started sneezing violently and shaking his head.

Ecko is a very scent-driven dog. He’s always sniffing something, so it’s not uncommon for him to sneeze if he gets something up his nose.

But this sneezing wouldn’t quit, and he began licking everywhere, too. So, after a few minutes, Ted came in to see what the fuss was about. I was just laughing, because it seemed funny at the time. Ecko would quiet down for a minute, then sneeze again.

After a little while longer, when he wasn’t stopping, I got out of bed. When I looked Ecko over, I couldn’t find anything, but now, not only was he sneezing and licking, but he was drooling. His bed cover got soaked. My nightgown got soaked. He left puddles on the floor.

We figured he’d gotten bitten or stung by something, most likely a spider, so we gave him a dye-free Benedryl, and Ted took him outside.

When they came back in, Ecko lay back down on his bed, but he wouldn’t settle down. He didn’t want to put his head down, and now, there was some swelling on his lips on his left side, just below the nose.

So Ted and I both did Reiki on Ecko. He’s a “spirit dog” and loves being around when either of us do energy work. He’s also very responsive to stones, and I’ve used them to clear him or treat him for other issues.

After a while, Ted went back to working on his computer, but I stayed with Ecko for about twenty more minutes. He finally relaxed, and stopped drooling and licking. The sneezing, fortunately, had finished long before this.

I got back into bed, and Ecko settled down. Occasionally, he’d start licking again, but if I called his name, he stopped and just put his head down.

I was just about to relax when my Reiki guides spoke up: put Dalmatian jasper under his bed. So I got up, found two pieces, and tucked them in. Thinking I was finally done, I climbed back into bed. Ecko sighed, but my guides piped up again: hematite.

I have one piece that I use for myself most of the time, but I wasn’t sure where I’d put it. We’d just bought a pound of hematite, but it was in a kitchen cabinet. So, reluctantly, I went into the kitchen, shivering in bare feet on the tile floor, and dug out two pieces, came back and tucked those under Ecko with the jasper.

I got into bed and burrowed under the covers. Ecko sighed again, curled himself up into a ball, and slept soundly for the rest of the night, no licking, no drooling, no sneezing (well, at least not when I was awake, anyway!).

This morning, he showed no signs of trouble, and while there’s still a bit of swelling where he got bitten, you can touch the spot now without him flinching away from your hand.

I took the jasper and hematite out from under his bed and put it on selenite to clear it out. Who’d ever have thought that I’d have my own piece of hematite, and my dog would get a matched pair to go with it? But, hey, it works!

Night Visitor

January 26, 2007

Last night, I took the dogs out for their final walk before bed. It was one of those winter nights when it’s so cold that the snow literally crackles and squeaks under your feet. There was no wind.

Our house is set among trees, and even though we have neighbors close at hand on either side, behind our backyard and across the road is nothing but woods. It’s wonderful to have the peace that comes with those woods as well as being able to drive five minutes and be on a main road, close to everything.

Anyway, we were outside, and I heard something running in the woods behind the house, its footsteps crunching on the dry twigs and leaves that cover the ground.

Ecko, who used to be a very timid dog, suddenly became very alert. His head went up, his tail went up, and he barked, then let loose with some of the most menacing growls I’ve ever heard come out of him. Kiefer just stood there.

The thing in the woods didn’t exactly run away, but it did run to a different spot among the trees. It was still outside our yard’s back fence, but it was definitely somewhere Ecko could either see clearly or he had its scent.

Growing up on a farm, I spent a lot of time outdoors, running around with my brothers and sisters and our animals, which were mostly goats. Hide-and-seek was one of our favorite games, and I became very good at picking out footsteps in the leaves because it meant I was about to be found or, if I was “It,” I was about to do the finding.

I learned to tell two-legged kids’ footsteps apart from four-legged kids’ steps; there’s a different rhythm and pattern. The creature in the woods tonight was definitely four-legged, and it sounded too heavy to be a coyote or other kind of dog. It had the same hoofy trot that an adult goat has, so I figure it was a deer.

Ecko stayed interested for a while, but he and kiefer finally did their peeing and we all went back inside. I wasn’t frightened by what I heard, but for the next half hour or so, I was very alert to every creak and crack of our house settling into the bitterness of a winter night.

And this morning, on our first walk of the day, there was no sign from Ecko that anything was amiss.

Stepping Stones: Smoky Quartz and Chrysoprase

January 25, 2007

A week ago Monday, I had a very vivid dream about stones. I was given two stones, one light brown and glassy, the other “mint-green” and a smooth, thin slice.

I had never had a dream like that before; I usually don’t dream about stones, let alone have their color described to me by someone else in the dream or register the way they feel when I’m holding or touching them.

Needless to say, I woke up pretty intrigued. I didn’t know any light brown stones, and although a lot of green ones came to mind, I had no idea which ones were “mint” green. (And, by the way, what exactly is “mint” green? How is it different than “grass,” “lime,” “kelly,” “hunter,” “moss,” or “envious” green … well, I made that last one up, but … ).

So Ted looked in books, and I asked my teacher Maggie. The consensus came back to smoky quartz and chrysoprase.

Ted and I went to a local stone shop Sunday. I’d E-mailed ahead saying I was looking for these particular stones. So, I wasn’t terribly surprised when I picked up my first piece of smoky quartz and knew it was the exact one I’d held in my dream. A few minutes later, the same thing happened with a little piece of chrysoprase.

I put the smoky quartz under my pillow last night for the first time. Quartz has a high vibration rate, and I think between that and the brown color, which I think linked with some things buried deep inside me, I had some pretty crazy dreams. I can’t recall any of them, except that they were really working on my mind and my heart without disturbing me.

As for the chrysoprase, I carried it all day in my pocket. I’d often touch it when I felt annoyed or rushed, and it helped me refocus myself and clear away the frustration before it became something bigger and more destructive.

These are very different stones than I usually work with, although I’m not quite sure how to explain the difference except to notice it at this point. I haven’t spent enough time with them to really know what they’re for or what they can do. But a dream that vivid shouldn’t be ignored, and I have two beautiful stones that will always remind me of that.