Archive for the ‘Dreams’ category

Last Walk of the Night

March 3, 2009

We were warned about the cold.

I had been listening to Chopin just before midnight last night, still in my clothes because Ecko and Kiefer had to go out once more. Ecko, who will turn 6 at the end of this month, never passes up a chance to go outside. Kiefer, who is now 15, doesn’t always remember why he’s out there, and even if he does, he’d much rather come back indoors and find a warm spot to curl up and go to sleep in.

But it was the last walk of the night. I’d wrapped myself in a scarf, hat, gloves, even long johns–and who is this John whom we now immortalize in thermal underwear?

The night was clear, and where we walked, I could feel no wind, surrounded by the Pine Bush.

It was utterly still, no rush of cars hurrying from importance to urgency along the road, no birdsong or cricket rasp–those wouldn’t return again until morning in another season.

But the trees shifted uneasily. They leaned in, seeming to listen for their own indication that yes, spring would be coming soon. They rubbed their branches together conspiratorially, like old knights in ancient armor, each small movement making a dry, bitter creaking sound that chilled me even more than the night’s temperature.

I was glad to have the light on my walk this morning, and the chickadees. Somehow, even as the trees continued to make their small, sullen movements, the chill had gone out of me, and I walked among them with my two faithful dogs, reassured.

Half Steps and Whole Steps

March 1, 2009

Frederic Chopin lived from March 1, 1810 to October 17, 1849. He is recognized as one of the giants of pianism, and his playing and composing impact the art even today.

Chopin was a master of smaller-scale works, and most of his output was for solo piano. He was equally at home making grand and dramatic musical statements as well as small and intimate ones.

Drawing on the traditions of great keyboard player-composers of previous generations, particularly Bach and Mozart, he developed his own unique approach to melodic writing. His melodies in and of themselves are often minimal in character, and taken out of context, they appear to not even be melodies at all–more akin to kernels or seeds than full-bloom creations.

However, he mastered the art of using ornamentation–trills, scales, arpeggios, sequences of notes played “outside of time”–and these elements are what create the momentum that allows the melodic kernel to soar.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth. As a pianist, I am keenly aware of history and the heritage I am drawing on when I play. Up until now, while people said I had the talent, I did not have the mindset to play at a world-class level. I couldn’t imagine myself taking a year to study a recital program–I was afraid of boredom, but, perhaps to a greater extent, I was afraid of the weaknesses in my own technique that would be revealed if I focused so intensely for such a long period on such a small repertoire.

As my technique has gotten stronger and my ability and desire to play expressively have increased, my desire to apply that type of single-mindedness to practice has also grown.

So, when the idea for a Chopin lecture-recital pairing for 2010 came in the middle of the night earlier this winter, I didn’t dismiss it out of hand. I played with it, considering how I could illustrate Chopin’s evolution as a composer.

The program took shape fairly quickly:

Bach: English Suite No. 5 in E Minor, BWV 810

Mozart: Sonata in B-Flat, K. 281

Chopin: Preludes, Op. 28

I’d heard someone play the complete preludes on a recital when I was in college and always dreamed of doing it myself. But, while I started a few times, I was quickly deterred and discouraged, lacking the technique and the discipline to tackle such challenges as Prelude No. 3 (an all-16th-note left hand that required equal parts speed, smoothness and dynamic shaping); and I never even looked at No. 8 (if 16th notes were beyond what I could do, then 32nds were even further beyond my capacity).

But, as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So, I have begun, taking half steps and whole steps as my mind and hands are able to find a way.

My most recent victory was to finish the fiendishly chromatic Allemande from the Bach suite. The first half was learned easily enough, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that I was able to hold the final few measures of the second half in memory from one practice session to the next.

I still often catch myself wondering how I’m going to accomplish what I’ve set out to do, especially since, as is often the case when we take an opportunity presented by the universe and run with it, the project has grown into a mission to play the program at least once in all fifty states.

Yes, it’s about Chopin, but it’s also about raising awareness of the fact that a blind person can play at the highest level, of showing the world that Braille music is a viable tool for independence, and taking listeners on a journey they might not otherwise embark on.

I could have done an all-Chopin program, and I’m sure many pianists will. The B Minor sonata is on my “must play” list, but not until my technique has grown even further.

In the twenty-four preludes, Chopin put all the different aspects of pianism in miniature form. For me, this is a journey of education. I’m allowing the pieces to teach me how to play, how to produce effects I once only dreamed of being able to achieve. Already, No. 8 has shown me that, by keeping the fingers close to the keys, you can bring out a melodic line and surround it with swirling notes that sound as if they have just blown in on a strong west wind.

Some days, I leave the piano exhausted, unsure how I will learn everything I need to if I want to play this program. I listen to the CD I’ve made of the recital pieces (Schiff on Bach, Uchida on Mozart, Polini on Chopin). With each listening, the music gets absorbed a little deeper into my being, and when I return to the keyboard, things that seemed insurmountable the night before make a little more sense. Even if I don’t have the whole solution, I may have the first step, enough to make my way through two more measures.

This coming Thursday, I will give the first semi-public performance of the prelude from Bach’s English Suite No. 5, the piece that will open the program next year. I will be playing for a meeting of the Etude Club of Schenectady. It is a group for women musicians who gather each month to play for one another. For me, the meetings and the performance opportunities they present are an impetus to bring a piece to the highest level possible, at least given the short time it’s been since I first began working on it.

Throughout the next year, I will set several such performance milestones for myself. For me, these are important because they will compel me to have things finished and in a coherent musical form in time to present them convincingly to an audience.

But by this date next year, I will be unveiling the first full-length public presentation of my program. More than ever before, I know that I can play this at a level of musicality and polish that I never could have in the past. I also am beginning to believe the people who have said all along that I am a great player, with something unique to present. I am beginning to understand that I should be heard by more than just family and friends. And, at long last, my heart is returning to my music, and my voice is no longer content to sing in just a whisper.

Potent Words: Surviving Versus Living

November 8, 2008

If you’re “making a living,” that’s a good thing, right? The bills (mostly) get paid on time, there’s food on the table, warm clothes for winter and a roof overhead. Maybe there are good schools for the kids and good health care for grandparents.

But what if you hate your job, are unhappy with the person you’ve become, dissatisfied with where you’ve ended up and long for change? Are you still “making a living”? And what does that mean, “living”? Isn’t it more like “surviving”?

Two words, meaning similar things, but with big differences.

“Survival” is when our basic needs for food and shelter are met and we have some sense of security. It’s the bare minimum required for a human being to exist. There is no thought beyond the moment you are going through right now, since the tasks associated with keeping yourself and your family fed and sheltered dominate your energy. They are so immediate that there is no room for anything else.

In survival mode, people stop listening to their hearts and the dreams that are carried there. Life becomes too busy, too full of necessaries until it is empty of everything else.

“Living” is what happens when we make time, even among the demands of basic needs, for hope, for grace, for things beyond the next meal. We truly live when we remember what our passion, our purpose in life is and pursue it, so that we get carried along on the universe’s stream, always moving closer to our dream.

In survival, there is just enough to make it through the day. In living, we have abundance, the faith that we have more than enough to see through to tomorrow and beyond.

All of us do both—survive and live. We all want to live, but it’s often very difficult to shift our outlook if we are surrounded on all sides by examples of survival and are constantly being given the message that dreaming is for kids and we’d better grow up and face reality and just do our job and stay in our places.

And yet, some of the happiest people are the poorest. Their physical circumstances are certainly challenging, but they don’t see them as a final destination. They are the ones who fiercely hold on to the belief that education will allow their children to rise above where they’re currently stationed in life. All they ask is for the chance to try.

In this light, simply surviving is no way to live.

Holding Up the Stars

October 28, 2008

In every aspect of life, from business to art, there are people at the top, and there are people at the bottom, with countless others in between.

We hear a lot about reaching our full potential, and we try to do this. But just as one person’s fingerprint is unique, their potential is, too. We have our own ideas about just how much we can achieve, and, whether we like it or not, the feedback we receive from the people around us plays a big part in shaping these ideas.

When we are children, no matter what environment we grow up in, we absorb things from around us. These can range from language and pronunciation to parenting style. They can include notions about what kind of career we will have (notice how many funeral homes include “and son” in their name!) to who we will marry.

No wonder, then, that we get ideas about what we can—or can’t—do, expectations that many people simply accept without thinking about where they came from, who they came from, and whether or not they are truly theirs.

Not everyone can become an internationally renowned musician, best-selling author, millionaire athlete or top-flight surgeon. Not everyone can become a teacher, farmer, veterinarian, secretary, cook, mother, or garbage collector.

To say that “surgeon” is better than “garbage collector” is impossible, since both are necessary. Without the surgeon, we have no recourse if something needs to be repaired in or cutting out of our bodies. At the same time, without the garbage collector, we would soon be overwhelmed by waste and clutter.

There are always people, in various callings, who will garner most of the public attention and recognition. Those are the “stars”. But for every one of them, there must be thousands of others behind the scenes, keeping things running smoothly.

We are all intricately bound together, from the surgeon to the garbage collector. The surgeon discards used sponges, needles, syringes and gloves without thinking twice about what happens to them once they leave the operating room. So the surgeon is directly connected to the garbage collector. Their salaries may be different—six figures versus five—but both callings, both professions, are invaluable.

Each of us is a star, and our light is the brightest thing in someone else’s skyscape. We shouldn’t necessarily go around trying to be this light. If we did, got caught up always wondering how a particular action or word from us will increase our shining, we’d become unbearable.

But every once in a while, particularly on the days when someone stops to mention it to us, it’s good to consider this, and even take time to savor what we’ve done that has inspired growth in another human being, lifting them higher so they, in turn, can become brighter stars in their own universe.

Six Steps to Optimism: Day 6

October 4, 2008

“There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality: and then there are those who turn one into the other.”—Douglas Everett

Optimism and living one’s dream is like planting tiger lilies in your garden. Once they take hold, they grow and spread, and pretty soon, the whole place is filled with the brilliance of their blossoms.

When you make the choice to be an optimist, and then follow that with a series of actions that will further your dream, opening yourself to the experiences and wisdom of others so that they become captivated and energized by your enthusiasm and begin to put their strength behind you, and when you consistently take the opportunities that come to you, optimism will become an integral part of you. Even in moments of doubt, indecision or hesitation, it won’t be suppressed.

Take a minute and think about someone you have known who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Perhaps she was a colleague in business whose passion for her work was infectious, and no matter who she was working with or what project she was assigned, she got bigger and better results than anyone could imagine.

Or maybe it was a doctor who spent years pursuing research that everyone else passed over because it was too tedious, too unglamorous, or just too damn hard. Yet he persevered and ended up discovering a breakthrough that no one expected.

It could be the kid next door who was terrible at every sport. Everyone made fun of him, and he always got picked last for teams at school. Yet he kept practicing, kept trying, kept asking coaches how he could improve and then went back and actually tried to put their suggestions into practice. He might never have gotten onto a pro team, competed beyond his small town, but he became a coach and led another group of kids just as unlikely and unassuming as him to victory.

Over the years, all these people probably heard, countless times, “Why don’t you just give up?” They were told, “That’s foolish, you’ll never make it.” People whispered about what a waste of time and talent these people’s lives were.

Still, every one of them heard those words and chose to ignore them. They followed their hearts and were rewarded by seeing their dreams materialize into their reality.

Living a dream isn’t walking through life in La-La Land, completely oblivious to anything outside yourself. Living a dream also isn’t fighting so fiercely for chances and then guarding them so jealously that you jeopardize other people’s dreams just to get yours.

There are enough dreams in the universe for every one of us. The universe is limitless in its abundance. So while we’re striving for our own personal crown, we can take moments along the way to help another person get theirs, too.

Dreams unfold and fill our lives. Just as some people see tiger lilies as a nuisance or an undesirable weed, plenty of folks will just shake their heads in befuddlement when you tell them what your dream is.

A few years ago, I had a thriving goat herd. I was passionate about it, and I was good at taking care of it. I loved trying to make each generation better, stronger, more beautiful, more productive than the last.

At the same time, I had a very busy and successful piano teaching studio and was beginning to do a lot more traveling for performances.

When I was away at concerts, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. And when I was surrounded by the goats, I could think of no better thing to be doing.

But while I was able to reach a certain level of excellence in both areas, I had to choose between them. Goats need care every day. There are no vacations, no paid leave, no sabbaticals, no sick days. And the piano demanded time every day, and not always at home.

I loved my goats, and I still love goats. But I chose to follow the path the piano was leading me on, and for that, the goats could not go with me.

It took me months of internal struggle to reach my decision, and the first day I actually spoke it aloud, I cried. My heart felt as if it was being broken beyond repair. I had nurtured countless does and their kids from birth to their last days on earth, and wen the world seemed too crazy or confusing, the pasture and the barn was always a place of peace and reassurance. I could curl up in the hay and feel the warmth of whichever doe was herd queen at that moment, or I could channel anger and frustration into the hard, clarifying rhythm of stacking hay or cleaning stalls. Even the bucks accepted me with respect and without judgment, whether they were well-mannered about it or not. And for pure nurturing and expression of unconditional love, there is no replacement for carrying a newborn kid around nestled in my arms, or under my jacket if the day was cold, and feeling it nibble my chinn or nuzzle against my cheek with the milky velvet of its nose, feeling the fast, strong beating of its heart beneath my hands.

I still spend blissful moments among the goats at my mother’s farm, savoring the chances to milk or play with new babies or hear them bleat to one another from across the pasture.

But once the choice was made, the actions followed. Things began falling into place and carrying me toward much higher achievement at the keyboard. Now, aside from my old dog, there isn’t a whole bunch of critters who need me to feed them or, when I have to be away, find someone else who will.

I said that I wanted to be doing something musical every day of my life. I am living that dream now. There is no telling where my reality ends and my dream begins because they are one and the same.

My goats were invaluable companions on my journey. I learned countless lessons from them about compassion, integrity, perseverance, and any number of other attributes. I learned what unconditional love was so that, when I encountered it in another human being, I would recognize and appreciate it.

At some point, each person has the potential to have a life so filled with their dream that, to them, reality is not in a different sphere. There are many forks in the road to this dream, and each one can raise painful choices.

As I have often said, we make the best decisions we can with the information we have and the tools we possess in each moment. Hindsight has a way of making many people second-guess themselves or regret what they’ve done. But we have no way of knowing that, with a different choice, we would have unlocked a different outcome. People often get stuck in hard or unpleasant situations and react emotionally by saying, “I should have chosen differently—then I’d be happy”. Or they blame others, when in fact, we are the only ones who can choose or act for ourselves, and the consequences of our choices and actions must be completely owned by us.

Once the choice is made, the action begins, and the dream takes flight.

What choices have you been faced with in pursuit of your own dream? Looking back, how did the decisions you made shape the journey you experienced?

Six Steps to Optimism: Day 5

October 3, 2008

“Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again: and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.”—Anais Nin

It isn’t enough to just look at your window optimistically and say to yourself, “Life will be wonderful.” If you expect your dream to blossom but do nothing to cultivate it, then it won’t flower. We must each discover our own dream for ourselves. No one can give it to us.

Once discovered, it must be nurtured. Choices must be made, actions taken, each following on the foundations laid by the one before, but all aiming for the fulfillment of the dream.

So, when we look out the window of our perception onto the world, it is colored by all our experiences and interactions. The decisions we make and the actions we initiate all spring from this place of accumulated knowledge and wisdom.

To return to my own life as a pianist, I can say, “I want to play a concerto with an orchestra”. But first, I must learn how to use my hands to create the sounds at the instrument I will need to give the most expressive and artistic performance of that concerto. Even after mastering the techniques with my hands and fingers, I must then learn the notes of the concerto and commit them to memory, absorb them so deeply into my heart that the music becomes an extension of who I am and I become an extension of the composer who wrote it, so that it’s impossible to see any of the seams between where one ends and the other begins.

And once I have learned the notes and made them into a work of art, I must find an orchestra to play with and practice with them. Once the rehearsing is done, other people must come to the concert hall, fill up the seats and be quiet long enough to hear the fruits of all our labors.

So, I can’t just sit in my chair in my house and let the sounds from my CD player wash over me and think, “Oh, my dream is to play this piece”.

I must get up out of my chair, go to the piano, take out my music, and begin, step by step, to build the dream into reality.

Then, when the concert is finished and the applause has died away, after the hall is silent and empty and everyone has returned to their own home, I must take a few moments to savor the sweetness of what I’ve accomplished, take a clear look at what I could do better next time, and begin again.

Sometimes, beginning again is the hardest part. It is easy to become complacent and settle for “just enough” or “pretty good” or “almost”.

The optimist looks at their gold medal, or their standing-room-only concert hall, or their million-dollar book sales and says, “What can I do next?”.

It’s not that they aren’t satisfied or don’t appreciate the richness of their experiences. It’s just that they are always seeing further up the mountain, just beyond the place where the path bends in the trees and they’re not quite sure what lies ahead.

After all, “dream” is only a noun until, by choice, you make it into a verb.

What stage on your dream’s path are you in, and what action will you take next? What choice have you made today that has moved you a step closer to realizing your dream? And, if you are at a pinnacle in your mountain range, look out and see: Which mountain in the distance is calling your name, beckoning you to begin anew?

Six Steps to Optimism: Day 4

October 2, 2008

“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”—Colin Powell

Optimism is something that can’t be held in check. You can’t restrict it or put limitations on it. Sometimes, in the medical profession, you’ll hear people say that they are “cautiously optimistic”.

If you are cautiously optimistic, it means that you are still struggling between optimism and doubt. This is fine, but true optimism inspires faith and encourages enthusiasm.

If one person is optimistic and they interact with others who share the same dream or even just the same space in the world, the optimism of one can often spread to another.

One person’s belief and faith in the rightness of things, even when they’re seemingly incomprehensible or unfair, is contagious. Before long, if you hold on to the certainty that comes with optimism that, yes, you can and will reach your goal, then other people will join you in believing this.

When multiple people believe the same thing, their power to manifest results becomes magnified. It’s like building a house. One person can do it alone and many have, but it’s hard work. The end result may be a beautiful house, but it might take five years for that one person to complete the task. If, on the other hand, that same person talks to ten other people, and of those ten, three get caught up in the first man’s optimism and decide to help him build the house, the task might get finished in two years instead of five.

Now, let’s say those three people carry their optimism and enthusiasm and passion for house-building and each talk to twenty people. Assuming twelve more people get excited and join the project, now, instead of just one man working five years alone to achieve his dream of building a house, sixteen people work together, complementing one another, encouraging and strengthening each other, and the house is done in a year.

You can see how this works. It’s not always clear how each person who gets excited and optimistic about your dream will be able to help you on your journey. But every time you share that dream with another human being, you increase your chances of gaining assets that will help you, and you also increase the chances that, inspired by your example, another person will make the choice to be an optimist and begin their own journey toward fulfillment.

Yesterday, I asked you to treat each person you encountered as “source material”, someone whose wisdom had the potential to change your life.

Today, contemplate and act on this: At the end of the day, what do you have that you didn’t have at the beginning, and which person did you choose to interact with to produce that growth in assets?