Archive for the ‘Family and Friends’ category

Peace of the Sunday Morning Stable

March 23, 2009

I spent the weekend at my parents’ home, the place I grew up in. They were out of town, visiting a brother of mine.

Life this time of year can be stressful for everyone, because it seems that everything is due “right now”–taxes, forms, insurance payments, reports, results.

Lately, I’ve gotten so caught up in all the tasks I think I have to do that I’ve let the time for quietness get pushed dangerously low. This, I think to myself, will help me get more done, and then I’ll feel better.

But it only makes me feel more frantic, and then I get less done, and feel worse!

On Sunday morning, I did chores by myself. My younger sister was at home, too–she’s still in high school, but she’s an accomplished horsewoman, and the mantle of caregiver has been passed from me to her.

I grew up among goats–milking, delivering babies, bringing in hay, walking pastures. Someday, I tell myself, I may return to it, because it is a life of hard work, but it is also one of intense peacefulness, deep connection to the land and the animals. There is no escaping the spirituality of seeing a creature born, or of standing beside one as it breathes its last. Among the goats, beneath the open sky, you can’t hide from what’s in your heart and mind.

There was no milking to be done this weekend, and there were three horses where there had once been only one. There were two newish barn cats, Pickles and Pepperoni, who had arrived feral and were now all too anxious to twine themselves between your legs as you walked, demanding to be picked up and petted.

It’s amazing: If an animal knows it is wanted, loved, and cared for, fear gradually subsides and is replaced by an abiding trust.

I saw this firsthand with my dogs, Kiefer and Ecko, who each came to me a bit mistrustful of people, but who are both totally devoted to me. Kiefer, at 15, doesn’t follow me around everywhere anymore. His hearing is failing, so he won’t respond if I just call him. But when he wants me, he wants to be right close by, where he can smell me and feel my presence.

As for Ecko, he’s the follower now, the watcher. Wherever I am, he wants to be, especially if the surroundings are out of the ordinary. And he knows my emotional weather better than anyone. He won’t let me get away with leaving things in my heart unexamined. He’ll lean his head against me, then his whole body, and he’ll demand that I first pay attention to him, and then sort out my own internal ambiguities.

Anyway, there was deep healing and comfort for me in the barn yesterday morning. The goats bleated to me and stood up with their front legs on the fence rail, craning their necks to be petted, nuzzling me for kisses, even though I’d just filled their manger.

The horses whinnied to me and kicked up their heels on the way out to pasture–luckily, I was behind a stall door, well away from their friskiness.

The cats meowed at me until I fed them, ate their fill, and came and meowed some more, just to let me know they were still there.

I stayed out there until my hands were good and frosty and I was certain I’d begin to make the people in the house wonder if I’d gotten into trouble. On my way out, I made sure to pet every four-legged creature and thank them for their attention.

It’s Monday morning, and I can think of a long list of things I really have to do–taxes, bills, reports. None of it thrills me, but all of it is necessary.

But just for a bit longer, I’ll stay here, quiet and still, and savor the peace of the Sunday morning stable.


True Intent

March 22, 2009

I was studying my Chopin recital program this afternoon, minding my own business, savoring the Sarabande from Bach’s English Suite No. 5 as played by Andras Schiff. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful dance in the suite, with plenty of room for expressiveness. I haven’t started to learn notes for it myself yet–I’m still somewhere about halfway through the previous dance, the Courante.

But ever since the first time I listened through this program, I’ve had a special affinity for the Sarabande. It feels very intuitive to me, as if it just floated out of my mind and materialized before me without any interference or effort. I feel as if I’ve already played it, and every harmonic turn holds a feeling of nostalgia.

It’s an easy piece for me to get drawn into, lose myself, and leave all the mundane stuff of life behind. It’s meditative, contemplative music, and I want to savor every moment of it.

I was drifting in that peaceful place, my mind free and open, enjoying every note when–


A voice came blasting into my thoughts, completely shattering the tranquility.

“What the hell was that?” I thought. The phrase was odd, and had absolutely nothing to do with anything. “OK, I must just be tired, and my mind is playing–”


“Oh, come on, concentrate,” I told myself. “This is good practice for distractions during your recitals next year. You never know what–”


It was as if a bright orange splotch had suddenly appeared while I was looking at a delicate watercolor print of fog rising off a lake at dawn. I wasn’t really alarmed–I didn’t think I was “hearing voices” in the clichéd way that people do in movies when they’re losing their minds. I’d received too many messages from the universe, and I figured this was just another one.

“Crap,” I muttered, and started the track on the CD from the beginning again. It was getting harder to ignore whoever was saying this stuff. I was still going over these things in my mind when the voice broke in again.


“I’ll do it later–I’m sure I won’t forget.” I was getting annoyed. I’d had a weekend away from home, hadn’t had time to sit at the piano, and today, at about one, I’d finally had a few moments to listen to my practice disc. And now, the dogs were resting quietly, my husband was reading, and I was–


“Fine,” I said internally, and then, because I figured that part of the message was in the delivery, I shouted:


Ah, that felt better, even if I had no idea what I was talking about. (“I don’t have to understand it–I only work here!”)

“What?” My husband was perhaps just as surprised to have his wife blurt something random while he was trying to read.

“You know your Daitoryu?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“Apparently, I’m supposed to tell you that true intent is something that comes a fraction of a second before someone moves. And it’s the key to everything.”

“How do you know that?”

To put it charitably, the only thing I know about martial arts is how to spell “martial arts”. It would be like my husband, a non-musician whose background is in engineering, computers, and, at least lately, shiatsu and Oriental medicine, giving me a twenty-minute dissertation on the evolution and execution of mordents in Baroque music.

“I don’t know anything. But while I was listening to this Bach Sarabande, someone kept saying this and wouldn’t quit until I told you.”

I handed him headphones and the CD player.

“Here,” I said. “This is what I was trying to listen to.”

I waited until I knew the piece had begun, then shouted:


“Stop,” he said, laughing a little.

I waited a few more seconds, then repeated:


I don’t remember what his response to that was, but I didn’t interrupt again. When the music had ended, he handed back the CD player.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “That is a really beautiful piece.”

Yes, I know it is. If played right, it can be heartbreakingly tender. It is such a great contrast to the mischievous, light and cheerful Passepied that follows.

“Well, at least the message got to its intended recipient,” I said. After all, that’s all that was happening. My mind was open, and whoever wanted my husband to know about “true intent” knew I was a reliable messenger.

Art and the transmission of art, the craft and knowledge of it being transferred from one person to another, is a deeply mysterious thing. You can read all the books in the world about an art, cram your head with facts and figures, theories on how things are done a certain way and why.

Yet without that person-to-person connection, the knowledge is meaningless and useless.

I’ve discovered that, if you are passionate about your art, you will be given a teacher that can transmit that art in the most perfect way for you to absorb it.

At other times, though, the transmissions come from unlikely directions. Today, I was responsible for transmitting something of an art form totally foreign to me. For me, it will always be a good story. For my husband, whose art is impacted by the message I passed, it is something valuable.

I could have ignored the voice–and believe me, I really wanted to! Couldn’t the universe find some other way to send this information without bothering me?

Maybe not. Often, a message has more import when it’s received and delivered by someone who couldn’t possibly make it up if they tried.

I’ve got at least a day or two of learning before I begin the Sarabande. When I listened to the piece later this afternoon, there were no interruptions. But even if I never hear that voice again, whenever I play the piece, somewhere deep in my mind, the words will ring out along with the notes:


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.

A Royal Return

February 24, 2009

As a kid, I loved names. I haven’t outgrown that, but some things have changed as I’ve gotten older.

I really enjoy baseball, particularly the “old-fashioned” notion of listening to games on the radio. Being a New York state resident, I’m interested in the Yankees, but I’m certainly not a diehard. I’ll happily cheer for any team in any game if I think they have a compelling story. Yankees, Mets, Devil Rays, Rockies … give me a good story to follow, and I’ll follow a team.

My one constant, though, from childhood on, has been that I’ve always had a soft spot for the Kansas City Royals. As a kid, I thought it was cool that a team called themselves “Royals,” and not just “Kings” or “chiefs” or “Padres”.

My husband likes to tease me that, once I get interested in something, particularly TV programs, they die and get canceled. That might not seem like it’s relevant, but the Kansas City Royals, over the past ten years at least, have been kind of like those TV shows. They start with lots of “promise,” and end every season with a losing record, not even close to the wild card, let alone the World Series.

Now, with my best friend in Kansas, I’m even more interested in the Royals. (To wit: Never one to pay much attention to college basketball, I gladly got caught up in March Madness and spent the last two days of the run on the edge of my seat, just as overjoyed as any Jayhawk fan when Kansas won it all in overtime.)

Some “experts” are saying the Royals have even more “promise” than usual this year. But we all know about early expert picks–they’re either dead right, or dead wrong, and you may as well just flip a coin to figure out which it’ll be in any given year.

I’m not paying some crazy cable bill just for Kansas baseball games. There’s a strong possibility that I’ll be in the state for intensive piano study this summer, in which case, I’ll find myself a good radio station and, when I’m not at the keyboard, I’ll be listening … and dreaming that this will be the year they recapture their crown.

Sweetness from the Trees

February 23, 2009

Most winter mornings, breakfast for me is oatmeal with maple syrup. This time of year, I think about how the Iriquois had a Maple Sugar Moon, and I marvel that a tree can provide such sweetness.

We have a maple in our front yard, but I’m not sure if it’s a sugar, and besides, sap from one tree, once it’s been cooked down, doesn’t make much syrup.

When I was in sixth grade, I was in what was called “The Outdoor Team”–a class that, along with the usual math, science, social studies and language arts, went on camping trips, hikes, cooked outside, and, in February and early March, tapped the maple trees in the woods on school property.

Every day, we’d go out into the snowy woods and empty the buckets, bring the sap inside, and cook it down. You always knew when the sap was running because our whole wing of the school would be redolent with the burnt sweetness of it as it simmered and thickened.

The season always culminated in a sleepover in the gym. We’d eat pizza on a Friday night and play volleyball, stay up until well past midnight, then awaken later Saturday morning for a pancake breakfast.

My grandmother had woods behind her house, and each year, my uncle taps the trees. I always said I wanted to go with him to do it. But now, it may be too late, as time has passed, he has aged, and I … I’ve had a full life, and sometimes, it’s hard to find time for everything you want to do, and the first thing that gets pushed aside for “later” may, at the time, seem small and unimportant. Now, with my grandmother gone almost two years, the time for walking in her woods, savoring the sweetness that comes from her trees, is past.

But each morning, even if it’s not foremost in my mind, these memories come to me as I eat my breakfast.

First Snow

October 29, 2008

October is a strange month. You can have bright blue days of seventy degrees and sunshine and nights scented with dry leaves and the neighbors’ woodsmoke. Then, not less than a week later, you can be getting snow.

Yesterday, we got our first snowfall of the season, although I’m not sure purists would call it “snowfall” because for a big part of the day, it was mixed with so much rain that it was coming down in clumps instead of flakes.

My afternoon students made it to their lessons before it got too bad to drive, but the evening crew didn’t.

I love teaching piano. So much of it is figuring out each student’s particular mind and designing the best lessons possible for them. Even two sisters, or two students who started at the same time, or two of the same age, all present differences that I find both fascinating and challenging.

But I enjoy “free time” as much as the next person, and there is certainly plenty of things I can fill it with. Yesterday was no exception.

At first, I thought it would be nice to just curl up and read. There’s nothing like a damp, cold day with grey skies to encourage staying tucked in.

But there were groceries to buy, dog blankets to wash, compositions to work on, phone calls to return, writing to do, a calendar to fill in for November, mail to sort and bills to pay.

Before I realized it, I’d filled the time, and it wasn’t “free” anymore.

What do I have, beyond clean dog blankets, an organized datebook, a smaller stack of mail on the table?

This time last year, I was in between trips to Poland and Kansas for piano recitals and lectures. These autumn days always make me look back over what I’ve done and where I’ve gone, remembering the people I met along the way, some of whom are still traveling with me yet, others departed long (or not so long) ago.

Perhaps this is a harbinger of old age, that autumnal season in life, when we are past the majority of years we’ll spend on this earth. If so, what life event coincides with the first snowfall?

Courage Comes in Many Guises

October 26, 2008

Yesterday, I went bowling with a group from my church. Now, I make absolutely no claims to greatness. In fact, when asked if I was interested, I think I only said that I did bowl, not that I bowled well.

I lived up to my own reputation for ungreatness. I finished my first game with a 34. I thought, “Oh, next time will be better–maybe I’ve just got to get warmed up.”

Oh, it wasn’t, though. My second game earned me a whopping total of 7.

In jest, I said that I would tell people I got four strikes in a row–just wouldn’t tell them how long it took me to get them, or that they were “broken” strikes.

But really, what’s the point of my going bowling with a bunch of people? It was to have fun, and I definitely did that. I think it was more frustrating for the people who were so graciously (or mercifully?) giving me suggestions to try and make me better.

But really, it was a lot of fun. If I want to demonstrate publicly that I’m good at something, I’ll walk up to a piano. In that realm, I’m great, and I’m getting better.

This morning, I got a certificate for being “Bowler of the Day”. Everyone thought that was great. Me, I turned really red. Mention was made of my “courage”.

At first, I thought, “Oh, come on! How much courage does it take to go somewhere and pay money to eat really greasy pizza, wear hideous shoes, and throw a ball that weighs more than some newborn children?”

I was just about ready to dismiss the whole thing as sappy–hey, let’s give the blind lady an award!–and then I stopped myself.

To me, it’s not “courage” at all. I do all kinds of things every day. (I came home after church and vacuumed my house, and I’ll take out the trash later, plus write an article, practice a Beethoven concerto, feed my dogs … you know, typical Sunday or every day stuff.)

“Courage” is a sort of catch-all word. It’s what people call it when you do things they don’t think they could do if they were in your situation. So, for most people, doing lots of things without looking seems really scary and close to impossible.

It’s not, and I spend plenty of energy convincing people that it’s not. Many folks learn this, but many more don’t. Still, even if they come to accept that I, or anyone else with a disability, can do things they don’t think they’d be able to manage, “courage” is the word that gets used to describe what pushes us to do them anyway.

To a majority of people in my church, who only see me on Sunday mornings playing piano, the idea of my bowling, or flying cross-country with my guide dog, or cooking–all those things just seem too big, and they can’t get their minds around them.

But, little by little, they’re all learning. Whether I’m helping carry chairs from one room to another, bringing dishes to potluck suppers, or any number of other tasks, they’ll figure out that most of those things are no big deal to me. They’ll stop being a big deal to them, too, and there won’t be any more certificates for courageous bowling.

That’s fine with me. Mark Twain once said: “On the whole, it is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them.” To me, there are plenty of other things more courageous than a blind person bowling. Save the accolades for the soldiers fighting overseas, the police who work on some of our most dangerous streets, the people facing daily struggles with the pain, loneliness and heartache caused by lifelong illness or family disintegration.

We all have to have courage at some point in our life. Courage doesn’t mean we lack fear. It simply means that, faced with a situation that induces fear either in us or in others, we find it within ourselves to keep moving forward. We refuse to let doubt or others’ misunderstandings limit what we choose to accomplish.