January 30th, 2011 :: Reading Days
A loyal reader (I believe it might be the "Mary from Montana") once told me that my blogs always made her want to run out and buy some more books. If that is the worse charge anyone can throw at me, I'll take it. Anything to help the straggling old fashioned book these days.
I have not gone over to the dark side, as we call it around our house, and succumbed to the convenience of a Kindle. There are people that I love and otherwise hold dear that now own such a gadget, but I'm staying firm in my untrendy ways. In today's world, I'm convinced the most powerful vote we have is how we spend our money. For now, I'll continue dropping whole paychecks in my favorite bookshops. If for no other reason, I value too highly the ability to scribble in the margins of my books, dog-ear the pages, and rifle back to remind myself what was said back there on that right-hand side page about half-way down. None of these things can be done with any satisfaction on a screen, no matter how smart it might otherwise be.
In spite of the never-ending festive season of the last few months, it has been a great winter for reading. We've seen frigid cold days and nights with temperatures in the single digits. I interpret this as nature's way of saying, "Girlfriend, curl up under a blanket and just read."
There are friends who live too far and visit too seldom, and yet when we see each other one of our first questions always is, "What are you reading?" In the spirit of such friendships, I offer the following list of my most recent favorite books......
by Daphne Kalotay
. I'm not sure why this appeared on my library queue, but I'm thankful nonetheless. Probably I scribbled down the title after browsing in a bookstore and later reserved it at our library. I then promptly forgot all about it until that friendly email reminder came in my inbox: "The book you requested is waiting...." Our neighborhood library is a short 10 minute bicycle ride away, and very well may win the award for the cutest library ever. It was once a house, and a tiny one at that, but today every wall is covered in floor to ceiling bookshelves. (Actually this sounds suspiciously like our house...) When I search the stacks I often find myself tracing the walls all the way into the closets to find the book I'm looking for. The magazines are housed in the bathroom. You return books in the kitchen. Really, in today's world of slick library showcases, this couldn't be more 1950's. Or maybe 1940's. Actually about 1900. Just my speed.
I digress. As I was saying.....
Russian Winter. This is a wonderful novel about a retired Russian ballerina who has escaped her country and is living in Boston. She has a large collection of jewels which she is auctioning off to benefit the Boston Ballet. The story behind her jewels is the backdrop of the book. Any novel set in Boston tugs at my heartstrings, and a book with connections to the ballet (I am convinced that I was a dancer in a past life), does so doubly.
Last summer friends visiting from Jackson, Mississippi suggested The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
. I immediately forgot about it until another friend recommended it. Again, thanks to the gods of library reservation, this one came my way just in time for my trip to Texas. I have since discovered that I might be the last person on the planet to have read this terrific book about domestic help and their employers set in Jackson in the 1960's, but I was always behind the trend. I hear there will be a movie made of this novel, which makes perfect sense as the characters are all vivid in my imagination. I have no doubt it has the makings of a terrific film, but read the book first.
About the time we were drowning in company over the holidays, I was reading Solomon's Oak
by Jo-Ann Mapson
, which provided the perfect excuse and motivation to shut my bedroom door from time to time and lie down to escape the non-stop conversation and bustle and dive into this sweet story. The human spirit triumphs, which is my friend Lora's requirement for any good book or movie.
As we said goodbye to the last of the holiday guests and prepared to burrow in for a few quiet days alone, I began reading The Postmistress
by Sarah Blake
. Another triumph for the human spirit and for good winter read all at the same time. This one was set during WWII in London and on Cape Cod, which after Boston would be my next favorite places to set a good story.
And then just because the weather outside was frightful and the fire was so delightful, I felt my annual urge to read gardening books. This hits me every winter, just when it would be most preposterous to actually think about going outside and digging in the dirt. Or the frozen ground as the case would be. There is just nothing better than reading detailed instructions about how to prune some plant I have never even heard of. My most recent favorite gardening book acquired from a lucky Christmas gift exchange is The Curious Gardener
by Anna Pavord
, the genius writer and gardener from England (of course) who brought us armchair garden dreamers The Tulip
and last year the glorious photo book Bulb.
This is a delightful read of short essays structured around the calendar. I'm already half-way through April's essays.
My favorite book as of late has to be Lane Smith's It's A Book. During our recent trip to NYC, we were browsing in a delightful children's bookstore on 18th Street and Matt picked up this picture book. The characters are three cartoon animals--a monkey, a donkey, and a mouse. The donkey asks the monkey what he is holding, and the monkey responds, "It's a book." The donkey asks a serious of irritating questions, "Can it text? Blog? Scroll? Wi-F? Tweet?" To each the monkey patiently answers, "No. It's a book." The questions continue, becoming more and more ridiculous until on the final page the mouse whispers to the donkey, "It's a book, jackass."
Which is why this book won't be put on the shelves that house the books for students to read. It takes no imagination whatsoever to imagine how "It's a book, jackass," might become the new motto of the ten thousand stars studio right after those lofty thoughts about birds and singing and learning not to dance.
Happy reading, Mary.
January 23rd, 2011 :: Recipes for Technique
There is nothing like a long, long holiday to clean out your ears and open your eyes. (...now the ears of my ears awake, now the eyes of my eyes are opened...goes a favorite e.e.cummings poem.) Due to the gods of scheduling, this winter holiday was my longest teaching break ever. Even when the three and a half weeks still stretched deliciously before me, I knew it would go by in a flash. And it did.
But even so, it was long enough for me to feel refreshed and ready to return to my daily slate of students. Although I thought little about teaching over the holiday, still my mind must have been working sub-consciously. Because in returning I found myself listening closer, thinking more creatively, and generally teaching better.
My kids were equally refreshed, well-practiced and prepared after nearly a month off, (“You do realize, don’t you,” my husband asks me, “that your students are kinda nerdy. Who practices over winter break?” My students do, thank you very much. This is is why we get along so well, and why my husband isn’t a pianist. His practice habits always did leave a lot to be desired.) The kids were eager to show me what they had learned and beyond ready to put away those Christmas tunes and arrangements, holiday scales and sight-reading until next year. They will be just as excited to see these things appear next November, but limiting our Christmas merrymaking to a few weeks does add to the anticipation. Which only serves to remind me why it isn’t a good idea to leave one’s Christmas tree up until Valentine’s Day, no matter how lovely it might be.
Clearly, the break was good for us all. But there is something about a new year that makes me recommitted to reinforcing the basics, the foundations of good music-making and technique. After a little time off, I can return to nagging about posture and hand posture instead of wearily looking the other way. I am happy to dial things back to the basic level of melody and accompaniment, and of rhythm, movement and musical gesture, instead of getting so caught up in seeing the forest that I overlook the individual trees. This reorganization of priorities is a welcomed shift for it reminds me not to bypass the simple foundational things in my quest for the grand lofty idea.
Take yesterday, for example. I was teaching an adult student, Susan, who is a mid-to-upper intermediate player. After many different teachers and inconsistent lessons for many decades, there are lots of technical holes to fill in Susan’s skill set. Yesterday we were talking about scales, something she had done in the past and knew how to play on an intuitive level, but had very little grasp of on an intellectual level. As is my habit at the moment, I started at the beginning: scaling things back, working slowly, and teaching pre-scale exercises. For once, I resisted the temptation to let her jump in and race through multiple octave scales, something she otherwise might happily have done. Instead of playing actual “real live” scales (as my little kids call them), we did thumb-crossing exercises.
I learned these from Jane Allen, who was well respected for her ability to teach fast fluid technique. Her students had chops, or so the story went. I got my undergraduate degree with Ms. Allen, suffering through every scale exercise known to humanity under her stern and unforgiving gaze. Although by the time I began studying with her I had been playing scales effortlessly for years, in our first lesson together she started me on the old thumb-crossing exercises.
They work like this:
Working hands separately (always a good idea when isolating a technical skill), place your thumb on D. Crossing over your thumb using fingers 1 and 2, play D-E-D-C (1-2-1-2) repeating the pattern four times. Then substituting finger 3 for the second finger, repeat the pattern on the same notes 1-3-1-3, then substitute finger 4 and play 1-4-1-4, and then finger 5: 1-5-1-5, staying on the same pattern of D-E-D-C throughout the exercise. Repeat using other hand. As a variation, do entire exercise using same finger sets with thumb on D, but using C-sharp and E-flat instead of C and E. White/black note-crossings crop up all the time in music, so this combination should be addressed too, but this is actually easier in some respects, because the finger crossing over the thumb doesn’t have as far to go.
With beginning students who have lived in the stable 5-finger position world their entire piano careers, this thumb crossing exercise can be tricky to negotiate at first, especially when using fingers 4 and 5. (Admittedly, finger 5 is just wacky, as crossing 5 over the thumb is never necessary in scales, but I teach it anyway. It doesn’t hurt anyone to fumble through this, and it certainly reinforces the general concept of the exercise to do it with every finger.) Although Susan is an experienced player, yesterday I discovered that this exercise was as challenging for her as it might be for less advanced pianists. Turns out she doesn’t have such fluid thumb crossing technique even after years of playing scales. Which only goes to prove that Jane Allen knew what she was doing after all, teaching this exercise to every student regardless of their previous scale experience. That Ms. Allen was a smart cookie.
January 16th, 2011 :: Traveling Days
The first week of January we traveled to New York City. My sister Beth had a baby boy in November and, this being the first grandchild on my side of the family, there was, to quote my husband, "great rejoicing throughout the land." So like the wise men, we packed our bags, wrapped our gifts and made our way to Brooklyn to pay homage to the newborn baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a vibrating chair. Little Asher is perfect, beautiful, brilliant. The smartest baby ever to be born.
"We will spend an hour adoring the baby and the rest of the week playing in NYC," Matt told friends before we left. He wasn't far off.
We saw the baby, both my sisters and their husbands, as well as my mother visiting from St Louis. We had brunch with sister Sarah and Momma in Chelsea, and another morning brought bagels and coffee to sister Beth and her husband Matt (we call him "Junior," much to his dismay) in Brooklyn. We went to the Guggenheim with our friend Shane
, and wandered for hours window shopping on the upper east side. We sat for an hour in a Madison Avenue espresso cafe and drank cappuccinos. We saw La Cage aux Folles
starring Kelsey Grammer, who sang flat, but was nevertheless likable and charming. I had dinner with sister Sarah and her husband Laurent in Greenwich Village, while Matt went to see Carmen
at the Met. Matt's sister Mary came up from DC and the two of them attended Pee Wee Herman's HBO taping. Shane and I saw A Little Night Music
with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch and while waiting in line at the Times Square ticket booth I met a woman who was a pianist at the Carlyle Hotel. Chatting, we discovered we had friends in common in Boston. The world grows smaller all the time.
We went to see The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a highlight of the week. It seemed both completely natural and surreal to be in the same room as Stewart, who is the world's funniest, smartest man. He is more sincere and kind in person than he allows himself to be on the show. My sister Beth has a friend who considers Stewart to be basically a member of his family, albeit one he has never actually met. We think the same.
The week we were there, New York was still digging out from the blizzard. The garbage hadn't been picked up in a week, and piles of trash bags, Christmas trees and wreaths were heaped up like mountains on every sidewalk. I was struck, not for the first time, about how many opportunities there are in NYC to indulge in the habit of conspicuous consumption. Everywhere one looks cheap knock-offs are being sold on the street corners. Trinkets made in China fill the stores, and evidence of the ridiculous packaging involved in the Christmas holiday litter the street. And yet, there is so little room in most New York apartments. During our own stint of living in a 350 square foot apartment in Boston, I remember feeling liberated from ever buying another thing, simply because there was no room in the inn. If something came into our apartment, something had to leave. Who buys all this stuff in New York City? Tourists? Or have we become such a throw-away culture that we are forever replacing the slightly worn with the brand new? Looking at the garbage piled precariously on the sidewalk, I wondered.
It is easy to recognize the outrageous when one is an outsider. Walking in Chelsea, I pass a guy pushing a baby stroller carrying, not a child, but two bulldogs. It is all I can do to refrain from stopping him and asking to take a picture. During our first meal in a casual crowded lunch spot, the man next to us pulls out fabric swatches. Swatches! This is too fabulous. No one pulls out swatches over lunch in New Mexico. And this occurs in our first two hours in Manhattan. If I want to collect as many absurd moments as possible, this was a good omen for the week to come. Showing fabric to his client he says, "If we choose this one, it will bring the cost down to about $12,000 from $16,000...." (What are they covering? An entire room?)
One afternoon, Matt is on the subway when a street musician steps on his train. To the accompaniment of guitar and harmonica, he begins singing "Blowin' in the Wind" in an accent so heavy as to make the words unintelligible. After a few minutes, Matt realizes that the man never gets past the questions, repeating the verses over and over again (How many roads must a man walk down . . . how many seas must a white dove sail . . . how many times must the cannonball fly . . .). But he never reaches the chorus. This goes on for several stops, and then the man gets off the train, leaving the questions blowing in the wind.
Garbage issues and unanswered questions notwithstanding, I am there for all of 5 minutes before I feel that recognizable lift of spirits that only a big stimulating city can bring. I forget, until I am back wandering the streets of a metropolis like New York, how much freedom there is in being anonymous. I love the possibility that I can walk for hours and everything will be new, that I can stumble upon unfamiliar coffeehouses to sit in, and bookshops to browse in. There is a rush in knowing that as I nurse my cup of tea and write, I know no one and no one knows me, that the day is rich with possibilities, and that my creative well that so often becomes overdrawn and dry in my desert life, will be filled to overflowing after only a few hours. Once again, Matt and I vowed to get to a city at least once a year for the burst of inspiration such visits bring. I will need to draw on this artistic stimulation for months to come. As much as I love my quieter life back home, I still miss my city self. It is so easy to step right into this bustle as if I haven't spent the last 7 years cultivating a garden and a home in the desert. After all, my entire wardrobe is black, which makes it easy to disappear in the sea of New Yorkers. It's nice to dig out my urban persona, dust it off and wear it now and again.
One evening we hail a taxi on the Upper East Side and decide to head toward mid-town to find dinner. Not sure exactly where we wanted to go Matt tells the cab driver to take us to Carnegie Hall. "Carnegie Hall? Where is that" Matt and I give each other a long look. This is unbelievable. This guy just asked us how to get to Carnegie Hall, almost but not quite, feeding us the age-old joke on a platter. But he is not joking. "The address?" he asks insistently. "Do you have an address?" "57th and 7th," Matt answers. Things are different in New York these days. The cab drivers are asking the tourists how to get to Carnegie Hall
Returning home, I have to be intentional not to get sucked back into my frantic, fast-paced existence. Even on the plane, I am aware of a tightening in my chest when thinking about the upcoming weeks and months, and walking into the house it is hard not to immediately start multi-tasking. There is a pile of mail on the counter, bags to unpack, a week's worth of e-mails to attend to, phone calls to return. It takes conscious effort to slow down and stop, to pet the cats and to putter a bit aimlessly instead of switching into my hyper-efficient mode. We order dinner from the Thai restaurant down the street. I feed the cats, sift through the mail, unzip the suitcase. Walking down to fetch our take-out food, I try to not hurry. The night is cold, the sky littered with hundreds of stars. Rising over our house is a crescent moon. Tilted at an angle, it looks like rain, according to old farmer's lore. Back at the house, we eat dinner. I take a steaming hot bath in the dark. Friends stop by for a glass of wine and to hear about our trip. Tomorrow awaits with a to-do list as long as my arm. I have one single day to regroup before the semester and all its looming obligations settle on my shoulders. I didn't make resolutions this year, preferring the more gentler word "intentions." I know it is only a difference of semantics, but intentions are something I can more readily embrace. My life is already too crowded. My intention is to embrace slow living in all its forms, which closely mirrors my friend Anne's resolution to "not hurry." Obviously, I am not the only one out there with this resistance to the pace of our lives on her mind.
Slowly, I pick up the pieces of my life. I practice, practice, practice, my own version of getting to Carnegie Hall. I put away stacks of books read over the holidays into already overstuffed bookshelves. I find my breath in a yoga class and poach a chicken. At night I dream of swatches and baby strollers filled with baby nephews and tiny bulldog puppies.
January 9th, 2011 :: Reading Days
We worry rather than ruminate. We fret rather than speculate. Even football teams take time-outs, but it is so hard for us, as artists, to do the same. So often we feel there is so much we yearn to do and so little time to do it in. We could take a cue from music here: "Rest" is a musical term for a pause between flurries of notes. Without that tiny pause, the torrent of notes can be overwhelming. Without a rest in our lives, the torrent of our lives can be the same.
Even God rested. Even waves rest. Even business titans close their office doors and play with the secret toys on their desks. Our language of creativity knows this. We talk about "the play of ideas," but we still overwork and underplay and wonder why we feel so drained....
As artists living with the drone of commerce, we have forgotten that "Rest" is a musical term, and that to hear the music of our lives as something other than a propulsive drumbeat, driving us forward as the war drums drove men into bloody battle, we may need to rest.
The ego hates to rest. The ego doesn't want to let God, or sleep, mend up the raveled sleeve of care. The ego would like to handle all that itself, thank you. As artists, we must serve our souls, not our egos. Our souls need rest...
-from Walking in This World (p. 28-29)
by Julia Cameron
January 2nd, 2011 :: Extraordinary Days
I write that with no small sense of relief. This morning I took my dad to the airport at 4:30. When I returned, instead of crawling back into bed, I made coffee, took a shower, did some yoga and read for a couple hours. As I sit here, it is not yet 8am. I feel like I have been given the gift of time, a whole day open in front of me. Except to persuade the cats to move over on the couch, I may not say a word all day.
It's been an amazing, magical, but exhausting few weeks. On the heels of finishing up a semester's worth of lessons, statistics projects and papers, I spent a weekend in the Dallas area visiting friends. I have decided that this must become an annual tradition, this ritual of going to Texas in December. This is the state where--bless their hearts-- the motto may very well be: more is more. Texans have never seen a surface that didn't merit a bright red bow or a ledge that didn't deserve a string of lights. In one subdivision I stumbled upon a house that even in broad daylight I knew would satisfy my every over-the-top Christmas fantasy. After dark, I walked back to the house just so I could take it all in without being rushed. There was not one, but TWO Santa and reindeer displays lit up on the rooftop and dozens of snowmen, manger scenes, herds of reindeer, carolers and any other Christmas character imaginable outlined in colored lights on the lawn. Completing the scene was a sparkling Jesus is Lord! written in flashing lights. My favorite touch, the piece de resistance: a life size Statue of Liberty. And, at its feet, were real carousel horses circling around. Taking in this Vegas-like decor, I laughed out loud and, not for the first time that weekend, wished that I had my camera with me to document the whole thing. No one back home would ever believe me.
I landed back in Albuquerque just hours before the arrival of a string of guests: friends, my dad, my sister-in-law, three french hens, two turtle doves, and the partridge in the pear tree. This was hardly an introvert's paradise. And so the fun began. For days, I did little besides cook and clean and load the dishwasher.
We set out luminaries on Christmas Eve and drank wine at 1:30 in the morning after the last service.
We made two trips to Santa Fe: ducked into the Cathedral on the plaza, wandered up Canyon Road with our imaginary budget of 20 thousand dollars, ate enchiladas and poblanos under outdoor space heaters.
We had friends over for Matt's birthday, and hosted a Christmas Eve dinner party at noon.
I made daily trips to the grocery store and washed a hundred wine glasses.
"You two like to entertain like no one I've ever seen," said one visiting friend.
It's not quite true. We love filling our home with friends and family, but relish our privacy and solitude just as much. Last night, sitting around our table with our best friends and my dad, Matt turns to me, "What do you want to do tomorrow night? Want to have some people over?" He is joking, teasing me and my Martha Stewart-like behavior of the past days. "No," I said firmly looking around at the people I hold dear. "I love you all, but I'm way done. No more."
As wonderful as the last few weeks have been, I close the door on the festive season quite happily. I'm beyond ready to settle in on the couch with my cats and my pile of books. I have music to practice and sentences scrolling in my head demanding to be put down on paper. There are closets that need my attention and at least a million leaves to rake. I plan on taking extra yoga classes and swimming meditative laps at the pool. The pendulum has swung.
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org