November 30th, 2007 :: Traveling Days
It’s just that Matt and I have different ideas about Thanksgiving. It might be the one time of the year where I go all out for the traditional: the turkey, the firelight, the stuffing and too much to eat and four whole days where I can catch up on sleep and reading and no! I can’t even imagine hitting the stores at 4am on Black Friday. I love Thanksgiving.
In any way to imply that Matt does not love a traditional Thanksgiving would be to paint an unfair picture. He is all for turkey. But he sees four days as--whoopee! Let’s take a vacation. Somewhere. Anywhere. How ‘bout Mexico?
I was not having it. Mexico does not celebrate Thanksgiving, I pointed out rather haughtily. Even though we actually had five days this year, not just four, due to some fluke of the Albuquerque Public Schools calendar, giving us a potential Tuesday through Saturday vacation week (we always have to be back for Sunday morning. Matt, church job, you know.), I was lukewarm at best about the idea of going anywhere. I like Thanksgiving at home or with family, even though one of the best Thanksgivings ever happened on a trip by ourselves to New Hampshire some years ago. Instead of squashing his enthusiasm entirely, I compromised: if he could find a trip that involved a not too stressful traveling schedule and keep it in the US, I would consider it.
Of course, within hours, he had two tickets to San Francisco—one of them even a free Southwest ticket, which only maximized his advantage. His plan meant leaving Tuesday morning at 7:30am and arriving in San Francisco by 9am. Then after five full days, leaving San Francisco on Saturday night at 7:30pm, arriving back in New Mexico at 10:30pm. Of course, I couldn’t say no. He was so excited, and in his defense every other time we had tried to get to San Francisco (long stories, another time), we had ended up in Canada. This time it truly looked like it was meant to be.
So what I did was just not think much about it. Although we had our tickets since September, I forgot to tell my mom until the week before. I made no plans, read no travel books, gave it no thought whatsoever. Matt mentioned at one point that he had booked us a great hotel by Priceline in downtown San Francisco. I think I grunted in reply. He asked if I had been reading any of the California books he had been getting from the library and if I had any ideas about what I might want to do. I said no. It’s really not that I was indifferent—just busy and preoccupied, first with a string of performances, then St. Cecelia (“I love how St. Cecelia is now a day in your house,” one friend remarked. “You know you made this up, don’t you?”). And if nothing else is going on, life in general is enough to keep me humming on a daily basis. Even so, with all my excuses, I should give the man a prize for effort; it’s not easy being married to me. Finally, last Tuesday morning, we got on a plane headed west.
Luckily, for the most part, we were pretty much on the same page about this trip. Both of us wanted to walk a lot exploring (perfect in a city like San Francisco if it weren’t for the hills!), eat a lot of good food, and then also take it easy: take naps in the afternoon, read, enjoy cable TV, which we don’t have at home. So immediately our days settled into a familiar rhythm of small adventures and lazy hours of reading, writing and napping, interspersed with regular great meals. Mary, Matt’s sister, sent us repeated text messages: “OK, what are you eating now?” Oysters,
we responded one evening. And champagne. 18 small pancakes from Sears Fine Food
, we told her another time. With loganberries.
What are loganberries anyway? We rode cable cars and trolley cars, sat in Starbucks near the Embarcadero and Peet’s Coffee near the Museum of Modern Art. After much walking around and heated discussion, we found a wonderful French restaurant near Union Square where we had our first dinner that Tuesday night, and then breakfast on subsequent mornings: a hazelnut café latte, a croissant, and a blank book to write in and it’s a perfect morning.
We heard Garrick Ohlsson play Barber’s Piano Concerto with the SF Symphony, Leonard Slakin conducting. And according to Matt, sitting in the third row applauding wildly was Francis Ford Coppola. I wouldn’t know. Thanksgiving day we took the trolley car out the Ocean Beach (could they not come up with a better name?). Who would have thought we’d be staring out at the Pacific on Thanksgiving?
We had Thanksgiving dinner in one of those fancy buildings with a restaurant at the top with wrap-around views. From our table we could see pieces of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Prison. The buffet was amazing: a seafood table: oysters, crabs, shrimp, salmon, crab cakes. All the traditional holiday foods: turkey, stuffing, vegetables, cranberries, roast beef, ham. And a table of desserts that went on for miles. We ate for two hours and then staggered back to our hotel room and didn’t leave again the rest of the day.
We stumbled upon the big Christmas tree lighting in Union Square the day after Christmas, visited Grace Cathedral, I went to the SF MOMA and was under whelmed by the amount of experimental art. While I’m all for it, I just won’t necessarily seek out, so I like to be warned that it is what I am in for. I especially want to be warned, as a migraine sufferer who has spent years on epilepsy prevention drugs, that the fifth floor is a performance art piece that is going to involve flashing lights, wavy lines, weird sounds, resembling, I suppose, a crazy fun house, or in my opinion, the ninth circle of hell.
Our last day, after fueling up with our daily lattes and croissants at the French café, we rented a car and headed north. Across the golden gate bridge to Marin County to the Muir Woods, which I wanted to see. It was like Disneyland. There was no place to park, the highway getting down to the entrance was like a rollercoaster with its sharp curves and steep banks, and I have never seen more people. There were more people there then at the Macy’s Christmas Tree lighting the night before. I don’t have a problem with crowds, except in nature, where I like the idea of, well, nature and not thousands of people. Frustrated with the lack of parking options, we left and headed up to explore highway one—something we had long had on our life to-do list: drive the Pacific Coast Highway. Except we soon discovered that Matt will be crossing off that dream with someone other than his first wife, because I immediately got terribly sick, what with the migraine I already had and the crazy winding roads. So much for that.
We aren’t easily discouraged, however, and after backtracking we made our way to highway 101, a bustling freeway—straight and wide, yippee! —and drove up to Sonoma for lunch. After a great lunch, a little puttering around the square, we made our way to Napa along roads with views of fields of vines and changing yellow and red grape leaves. While this was not the trip for wine tasting, due to my headache, we had a lovely drive, saw some beautiful countryside, and then made our way back to the city and then home to Albuquerque.
Home: that must be one of my favorite words. But no matter how less than enthused I might be about traveling, it never fails to open up my world and perspective. I always return with new ideas about how to live and work, eat and play. I always come back recharged about infusing my life with some fresh things. This time was no different. Moving from Boston four+ years ago was the hardest move ever, certain that I was leaving behind forever a city life that fit the patterns of my soul so well. But I have carved out a life for myself here that still carries much I loved from Boston: I still mostly walk or ride my bike everywhere. For the most part, I shop and visit restaurants and coffeehouses within my neighborhood, deepening my grooves here as I encounter the same faces in the same shops day after day. To my surprise, visiting a great city like San Francisco does not make me pine for a more charged city life, but reminds me that with intention, I can build this anywhere. Boston taught me how to live this way; I have to want it bad enough to keep it. Lately, I think my dissatisfaction with traveling comes not from the hassle, or even the time away from my own cozy walls, but with the feeling that I’d rather live in many different places than travel in many different places. That to skim the surface as traveling forces us to do, is not nearly as satisfying as developing rituals and routines and patterns and shape our days and our lives, which are ultimately colored by the places we find ourselves. So while I am thankful to have a husband that forces me to go, I am equally thankful to come back, and even more thankful that he has the grace to say nearly every day as we putter around our home, “Now this is the best place to be.”
November 19th, 2007 :: Performing Days
Cecelia, you’re breaking my heart
You’re shaking my confidence daily.
Oh, Cecelia, I’m down on my knees
I’m begging you please to come home.
Come on home.
It’s been one hell of a ride the last two months.
Of course, I did it to myself. In spite of what everyone -- from my husband to my father to my best friend -- thinks, I really have tried to cut back and practice the art of saying no. I had thought I was doing OK, with one big recital a month, but I miscalculated horribly on the timing, because suddenly I realized I had three huge recitals each two weeks apart. This put me in the position of having to practice and rehearse multiple recitals at once. I usually avoid this, if not to protect my hands and my sanity, then simply because I don’t have enough time to be doing rehearsals with multiple musicians or groups. I can manage three or four hours of rehearsals a week on top of my teaching and practicing, but that’s it. And three or four hours goes quickly when rehearsing a major program with a serious musician.
In September, I played a program with a flutist that I work with often. This included the glorious but daunting Franck sonata—a piece that has always seemed like a watershed piece to me. For years, I thought I didn’t have the technical chops or large enough hands to play that particular piece, then suddenly I find that I do. (My hands haven’t grown, but thanks to a new teacher
and a lot of work, my technique has.) I had plenty of time to prepare for that program, and plenty of rehearsals, so that recital went swimmingly. It was after that one that things got dicey.
I rather reluctantly agreed to play several pieces on a university choir concert in October. I agreed because it was one of those two rehearsals and performance kind of deals. In the first rehearsal, due to no fault of my own, I discovered that I had the wrong edition of one of the pieces, so had to sight-read a very different part. In another of the pieces, the tempo was incorrectly marked. Of course, it wasn’t in my favor: it ended up being twice as fast as indicated and unfortunately it was a tricky Bach reduction. I had two days to fix those problems.
Next, I played a recital with a graduate oboe student. Her preview in front of the wind faculty was the same week that I was struggling with the above choir music. The preview is essentially when a student’s recital grade is given, so it is a big deal. Regardless of the fact that we might still have two more weeks to pull things together (or finish learning music in my case), the rehearsing race is always to the preview, not to the recital itself.
Two weeks after that I played several pieces on an all-Brahms concert. I played a late solo intermezzo, and was one of two pianists playing the Brahms-Haydn Variations. I was also one of the duet accompanists in the Liebeslieder
Walzes with a small professional chorus. The first rehearsal of the Liebeslieder
was also the same week that I had to pull music together for the university choir concert and the oboe recital preview. I was the rehearsal accompanist, which meant I couldn’t wait until the week before the performance to learn the score, regardless of how doable that might otherwise have been. That same week was also the first rehearsal for the Haydn Variations. At that point, I was far from having that piece under my hands.
Both the Thursday before and the night after the Brahms concert, I played for two additional performances of one of the pieces from the graduate oboists’s recital: the Loeffler trio for piano, oboe, and viola. A great piece. Fantastic piano part. Needed lots of attention and maintenance even after getting one performance under our belts.
Two weeks after that I was scheduled to play another recital with the same flutist with whom I began this whirlwind of recitals. Included on this recital was the Fauré Sonata and the Piazzolla Historie de Tango
—both big, four-movement works. In the midst of all of these other performance deadlines, we were to begin rehearsals. Somewhere in the middle of this madness, my arms and hands started tingling. I would wake up at night with numb fingers. This was not good; even I could recognize the signs of carpal tunnel problems. I was convinced that it was not misuse I was suffering from, but simply over-use. Small comfort when I could not feel my hands.
Clearly I need to better perfect the art of saying no. But these were all great gigs, and at one big recital a month I thought I could pull it off. “Pulling it off” meant getting up at 6am to put in a good hour or two of practice before my 8 o’clock lesson. It meant practicing all day on the weekends when I was not teaching or in rehearsals. It meant sleeping less, eating less, and teaching from a less than balanced, centered place. This was not good. Matt began tip-toeing around me. The cats began whining and crying for attention. I had e-mails backed up and phone calls that went un-returned. I was far from being in my happy place.
During the first rehearsal with my flutist for our December recital, I admitted to the hand problems. “I’m sure I can get this under control,” I said breezily. He admitted to feeling a bit pushed to this next recital and suggested we postpone it until February. I jumped at the delay, believing that there might be light at the end of the tunnel after all. Suddenly, everything seemed possible—we would cut down rehearsals to one per week and stretch out the learning process to the point where we could, in his words, “inhabit the music.” Lovely phrase. This is the place from which I want to work and perform when I am not pretending to be superwoman and taking on more than I can really handle. I know this. I just repeatedly make the same scheduling mistakes, believing that maybe this time I will transcend my human limitations and perform miracles.
In the end, all the concerts went fine. More than fine, actually. The Brahms concert was a huge hit—the performance stars aligning for me in a wonderful, mysterious way. Oh, I know that generally I play well, or I wouldn’t be playing this much (“you are only as good as your last performance,” goes that little voice in my head…), but every once in a while a performance is particularly special. This was one of those times. As my husband told me later, “You hit it out of the park.” God knows, that doesn’t always happen. I shouldn’t complain, because base hits get the job done. But a home run feels damn good.
Last Friday was our annual St. Cecelia party, in honor of the feast day of the patron saint of musicians. We have held this event annually for the last ten years, with the parties reaching a new significance now that we have been in New Mexico long enough to establish a tradition. In August, people begin to ask us, “When is St. Cecelia this year?” It’s always the Friday before Thanksgiving, kicking off the party season early. There are always lots of people of many stripes: people we work with, people we just like, musicians we know, and other assorted characters. We ask guests to bring offerings of wine, chocolate, or song—and the music goes on late into the night.
Blessed Cecelia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire…
There is not a year that goes by when I don’t secretly think that maybe this year we could skip St. Cecelia. We are always up to our eyeballs in obligations and this party is a lot of work. We design and send out invitations, eating up countless hours of addressing and putting together these small creations. The house is always a mess and needs to be dug out and transformed. We light luminaria along the sidewalk and courtyard walls. This year we had a fire pit in the courtyard. I bake cookies and cakes, and we put together cheese plates and gather and wash all 60+ wine glasses. We always use every glass and then some. It’s not only the preparation that kills me, but often the recovery. I have played recitals the day after St. Cecelia. I have taught five hours of performance classes the next day. One year I played for Santa Fe Opera auditions.
This year, I planted bulbs. Last weekend in between Brahms rehearsals I went and bought 100 bulbs: daffodils, alliums, tulips -- insuring that I can greet the spring with flowers once again. The thing is, there is not a year when I don’t need to raise my glass to St. Cecelia and toast the gods that allow me to earn my living making music. For all the times I get it wrong, (and there are plenty) there is still nothing I’d rather do.
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
November 12th, 2007 :: Extraordinary Days
My husband is the youngest of five children. I am the oldest of five. Matt and I have been married for thirteen years. In that time, not one of our siblings has gotten married, all of them remaining single or in long-term, but unmarried, relationships. Last April, surprising us all, my brother David announced that he was getting married. He had met a girl on the internet and, after a few weekend visits, they had decided to get married. “I wandered into the wrong room and met the right man,” JoDee told us later, describing how the two of them had met on a free Yahoo chat room shortly after Thanksgiving last year. He is 31, she 28, and they each had been visiting chat rooms divided by age group: 20’s, 30’s and so on. “What are you doing here?” David asked when she identified herself: Single. Female. 28. “You are in the wrong room!” Typical David, both to reach out to someone who doesn’t belong and to be perfectly blunt in doing so. From that inauspicious opening, however, the relationship took off, the two of them chatting for hours every night. As characteristic of David’s private nature, he did not breathe a word of this budding relationship to the family until she came to visit one weekend in January. Even so, his casual announcement about their engagement caught us all off guard, “Hello Mom. Is Dad there? I need to talk to him about a wedding.”
Needless to say, we all had reservations about this engagement. After all, it happened so quickly, miles apart from one another. Could they possibly know each other well enough to get married, we asked each other. Does David know what he is doing? He doesn’t have a long string of past relationships to compare with or learn from. Maybe this girl was equally inexperienced, and if so, were they rushing blindly into this? In spite of our reservations, a late September wedding date in St. Louis was set, and plans began forming.
This would be a momentous occasion in another way. Due to crossed schedules and busy lives, the five kids in my family had not been home at the same time for years. Mom and Dad recently had put their home on the market and bought a new smaller condo in St. Louis. Returning home would not be “home” anymore. There was the question of where we would all sleep and how we would all get fed. Most importantly, in a family of musicians, who was going to be in charge of the music at the ceremony?
We began arriving for the weekend on a Wednesday. My brother Bob, and my Aunt Jan arrived first. Immediately, Jan began baking cake and arranging flowers. Matt and I flew in Thursday night, meeting JoDee and greeting a new, prouder and more confident David. My sisters Beth and Sarah and their boyfriends arrived from New York on Friday. They checked into the hotel, Matt and I took over the guest room, and Bob slept on the couch downstairs in front of the big screen, high-definition television. We began discussing who would play what music at the wedding and ran errands to the drycleaners and the grocery store for more powered sugar and cream. Beth went to get a manicure and the guys left for haircuts. Cousins and their children began arriving into town. Dad went into serious introverted withdrawal. At 5pm on Friday night, with the catered rehearsal dinner for 40 people to be held at the condo just hours away, the plumbing backed up. “Roots,” the plumber announced when called, “And I can’t do anything about it until at least tomorrow.” Frantically, we changed clothes and headed off to the church, leaving aunts and uncles in charge of the catering and the dicey plumbing.
At the rehearsal, we met JoDee’s family who had arrived from Indiana, and settled the music details. Dad, who was performing the ceremony, went into work-mode, giving him a welcomed distraction from the emotional toll of the weekend. After the rehearsal, we returned to the condo, now full of out-of-towns guests and relatives and a table full of barbeque. Quickly, the five kids and our partners filled plates with food and headed out to the deck, spending several hours laughing and catching up, rather oblivious to the party going on inside. “How did you two get together,” we asked JoDee eagerly. “David won’t tell us.” We heard about Beth’s obsessive-compulsive roommate and Sarah’s business plans for opening a boutique. We exchanged memories and retold favorite old stories. We have needed such an evening for years, living so far away from each other. Even in the best of situations, we are a disparate bunch, a mixture of adopted and biological siblings, each with our own strong personality. Bob is a personal trainer in Cincinnati. The girls both live in New York: Beth is a professional jazz musician. Sarah is a buyer for Armani Exchange. David has worked a series of retail jobs in St. Louis. Each of us is full of excuses (valid or not) of why we don’t stay in better contact with one another. Only the two New Yorkers see each other regularly, as they live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. The rest of us depend upon Mom to act as a messenger between us, going months without talking to one another. In a fragile world, these siblings ties are growing more and more shaky, as we, for all our similarities and shared history, drift farther and farther apart.
At midnight, the food put away and the kitchen cleaned up, Matt and I moved to the hotel, not wanting to add our contribution to the growing plumbing problem in the basement. We get up the next morning and put in a day’s work—decorating the room where the church reception was to be held, practicing for several hours, running countless trips from the condo to the church with carloads of cake and decorations, gifts and clothes. Late in the afternoon, we gathered for pictures. Who are we? I wondered as I looked at these beautiful family members, dressed in their wedding finery. Mom was stunning in a floor-length black dress with a dusty blue jacket, carrying the evening bag and wearing the diamonds inherited from her grandmother. Dad, who as a minister does countless weddings a year, was simply dressed for work. Bob was parading around in a new black suit. My always-fashionable sisters were gorgeous in navy dresses. Beth, staring at my red dress, muttered that maybe I didn’t get the memo about the colors. I shot back that I had asked if I had to wear blue and was told I could wear whatever I wanted. I wanted to wear red. I always want to wear red.
Our 90 year-old grandmother arrived in a wheelchair, escorted by my aunt and uncle. She has been failing in the last year, dementia taking over more and more of what was once her sharp mind. In the weeks prior to the wedding, when agitated, she would tell my parents that she was going to “run away.” “You don’t want to do that,” my mother would say to her, “the kids are all coming home soon. Don’t you want to see the kids?”
Well, yes, she would admit, she did want to see the kids. Daily her mind continues to go, sadly this may be her last great memory. “We’re all here,” we greeted her as she came into the church. “Grandma, everyone is here.”
At some point, Beth and her boyfriend began the music, easing us into the evening with their saxophone and guitar duo. The touch of your hand is like heaven, a heaven I’ve never known…my one and only love… they played as the guests were seated. I played Brahms’ A Major Intermezzo, Op. 118 as the grandmothers were escorted down the aisle. Matt sang as the mothers came in. Beth’s boyfriend joined me for the bridesmaid processional. David’s church choir sang while the bride walked down the aisle with her brother, and suddenly, we were all in place.
“We are now going to interrupt this concert to have a wedding,” my dad announced as the congregation chuckled. Many have watched us grow up playing music and had a special interest to see us as now professional musicians at work. How fitting for David, who as much as all of us, spent years and years in music lessons. Concert over, the ceremony began, Bob wiping his nose repeatedly on his new black suit. Watching the couple, I found myself marveling at the surprises life throws us. After all, the chance of these two finding one another were laughable. Like many people, both of them might have imagined that they might never have a chance at marriage or a family. While their stories of personal heartache and loneliness are their stories to tell, not mine, the likelihood of any of us being there witnessing their marriage was astonishing. I realized that in the purest sense, us coming together to celebrate the two of them had made us all behave better towards one another, had made us even for a short time believe once again in the simplicity of love, romance and the importance of family relationships. No doubt, all too soon we would once again revert to harboring old grudges and not trying hard enough to connect with one another, but for tonight David and JoDee had managed to bring out the best in all of us. As the ceremony continued, Dad spoke to the couple, and using an Old Testament lesson of the Israelites in exile as a model, he talked about the common human condition of feeling like a stranger in a alien place. He told them that no matter how exiled or lonely they may have felt in their lives, that in finding one another they had finally found home. Vigorously, they both nodded their agreement, sealing his words. All at once, David was married, and marched his bride down the aisle. The music began again, and the night’s celebrations unfolded—music, dancing, food and conversations with friends, the romance of a wedding doing its magic on each of us. I suppose that’s why we bother with weddings in the first place, because somehow in the grand overblown affair that nearly every wedding becomes, we can believe that anything is possible, that lifelong romance is as simple as saying “I do”, that love conquers all. It is a cliché. I think that’s the point.
Their honeymoon delayed for several weeks, JoDee and David spent much of the next day with the rest of us—opening presents, and eating leftover barbeque and wedding cake. We made a run to Ted Drewes, the famous St. Louis frozen custard joint. The sisters had a coffee date, laughing and crying over shared confidences. We made one last trip to see Grandma in the nursing home, bringing her a piece of cake. “The music was so beautiful,” she kept repeating to herself. “The music was so beautiful.” “We love you, Grandma,” we answered her. “And look! We’re all here.”
Weeks later, we are scattered once again across the country. JoDee and David are settling into their new married lives, with four coffeemakers and five sets of silverware and what seems like hundreds of other gifts, which must be somehow stuffed into their tiny apartment. Mom reports that there is still wedding cake in the freezer. The other day, I picked up my dress from the drycleaners and hung it back in my closet where it will wait for the next wedding. While David and JoDee have not known each other long, they consider themselves lucky to have found one another and are determined to make this marriage work. They have as much chance as any of us. I browse the photos and smile, remembering.
Thanks to Gerald Wiens (Uncle Gary) for use of photographs
November 2nd, 2007 :: Ordinary Days
Fall has arrived to New Mexico. After a long hot summer, it has snuck in, creeping through the state. I’d almost given up on fall, drowning as I have been lately in work. Until last weekend, there was no reason to change over my closet or dig out boots and sweaters. I’ve barely taken time to appreciate the final roses of the season. The trees outside my windows are changing slowly, sheepishly almost. It looks like we won’t have the brilliant gold aspen and cottonwoods this year. Too many leaves are simply drying up, turning brown and falling off, reminding me of the raking to come without the gift of the colors.
And yet, the season hasn’t been without its rituals. For the past four years, we have set aside a weekend in October to go to Taos. We time this trip to happen during one of the Balloon Fiesta weekends. The first year we lived in New Mexico, we were very excited about Balloon Fiesta, but after experiencing first-hand the crowds and hard work involved with ballooning, now we are eager to avoid this event. In its place, a long weekend in Taos is heavenly. There is usually more foliage color up north. The nights are always cooler—this trip usually marks the first time we wear boots and jackets every fall. We stay in the historic Taos Inn, just off the plaza, with creaky old rooms and ceilings so low we can almost reach up and touch them. There is a kiva fireplace in every room and a great bar with heavenly coffee and alcohol concoctions. During the day we shop, sit in coffee houses, take long walks, and maybe even stumble down a trail or two (our version of hiking.). We have favorite places we eat—The Trading Post
, Old Blinking Light
—and this year found a great new restaurant—Graham’s
-- which will certainly become a yearly haunt.
Every year, this weekend comes at a bad time. We always have too much to do and taking a couple of days away feels like a real sacrifice. I have never been to Taos when I wasn’t stressed out about something, and this time was no different. But this annual trip reminds me why we love living in this state. The drive north is spectacular. We always stop at Vivac Winery to replenish our wine rack and indulge in their hand-made chocolates. It has become important to us, this yearly getaway. I hate to imagine a fall without it.
Back home, we find touchstones where we can. I have started baking our favorite cranberry apple pie and have set pumpkins out on the adobe walls of our courtyard. Pumpkins look just right propped against this rounded architecture. We buy our yearly quota of roasted green chile, filling our house for days with the intense fragrance. Even after only living here a few years, I associate the smell of green chile with autumn. This year I hung a wreath of dried red chiles on a window. Usually I would resist adopting such clichés, but now I cook with chile regularly—it isn’t a stretch at hang chile ristras outside to use later in the kitchen.
The gardening chores are slowing down, the plants beginning to hibernate. I still have to buy my yearly fix of bulbs so I can greet the spring with tulips, but mostly the time I would spend outside working is now mine. After months of cold weather, I am always itching to get out in the garden, but by the end of the summer, I am more than ready to come indoors for the winter. These natural cycles are good for my soul, even as they surprise me. Who would have thought that I had latent gardening instincts buried inside a perfectly happy city girl all these years? On every side of my family there are farmers. Those grandparents must have sent down strong genes through the DNA code.
Last night was my fall studio recital. It is always a stretch to get ready for a recital this early in the semester, even with my students taking more or less regular summer lessons. This one came even earlier than usual, it seemed. Almost every kid could have used another week or two (month or two?) to get ready. But as I know all too well, performances arrive whether or not we are ready, so I tried to use this rushed performance as a teaching opportunity. I wanted students and parents to think about the process of becoming musicians, not the fleeting importance of this particular recital. To this end, the students made “memory maps” of their recital pieces—a good idea even without an upcoming performance, but a critical step when trying to cram music quickly. I hung these colorful artistic renderings of their pieces in the reception area, and let the high school students use their maps during their performances, each of them tacking them to an easel after they finished playing, providing the audience with changing visuals throughout the recital. I did the same with my recital piece; the display grew more and more crowded as the recital went on. I had parents do readings interspersed with the performances: Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, about children and creativity; Noah Adam’s Piano Lessons, about learning to play Schumann’s Traümerei. Three of us read poems: Billy Collins’ “Piano Lessons” and poems by Michael McFee and Stephen Dobyns.
All and all, the evening went well. The readings were a big hit, the performance maps a helpful safety net in several cases, and the performances came together better than I had hoped. I heard things—I always hear things--that will need my attention over the next few months. We need to take more care to subtle differences in dynamics. Students still need to put more space around their performances—although no kid actually stood up while playing the last note in their hurry to bow, something I have seen all too often in the past. No doubt about it, if we would have had a few more weeks, I could have fixed some of these things, but there is never enough time. Someday, I may get better at working far enough ahead that even the fall recital doesn’t feel like a push, but I doubt it. It is the process of becoming musicians, artists, creative beings that is most important, not these particular pieces, I told the parents last night. “Tonight is not so much about this music, although it too has its place in our growth as human beings. Instead, tonight is about the process of becoming musicians. It is about the relationships we form with composers, music and each other in the presence of this grand instrument we play.”
Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water, “We write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing . . . In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.”
There is no doubt that I will get to December and wonder where my fall went, wonder how these glorious autumn days ripe with promise managed to escape. While my attempts at filling my life with comforting touchstones help, some days it doesn’t seem to be enough. Too often I only focus the ways I am pulled in too many directions, and don’t stop to notice the small bright joys right in front of me: the dark red tree in my courtyard, the piles of gourds at the farmers market, the warmth of the furnace when it comes on for the first time one chilly morning. I even overlook the significance of the just-beginning student who after his first recital excitedly told me, “Miss Amy, after the recital was over I felt like I could play my piece even better than before!” Blinded by all I have to do, I lose sight of all these little things that make up my world.
Yesterday I attended a pumpkin carving party hosted by some of my young students. “Well, Ellie, do you think I should give up my career as a pianist to be a pumpkin carver?” I asked one kid as we surveyed my rather pitiful results. “No,” she answered tactfully, “Because you can be a pianist EVERY DAY, but only a pumpkin carver once a year.”
Every day: “…we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.”
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com