November 26th, 2008 :: Extraordinary Days
Although I can hardly wrap my mind around it,
Thanksgiving is upon us. Staring us in the face. Jumping in our
laps, demanding us to Be thankful, damn it!
I love Thanksgiving. It is by far and away
my favorite holiday. I like it because, aside from those awful paper
turkeys you could tastelessly tape in your windows, Hallmark hasn't taken over
this day. I like it because I have fond childhood memories of Thanksgiving
on my grandparents' farm, with dinners of turkey and roast
beef, a million sides of creamy vegetables from the garden, ending with cherry
and apple pies with fruit from Grandpa's trees. Once my grandmother came
to visit us, and Matt persuaded Grandma to teach him to make her piecrust.
Grandma called it, "Bride's Simple Pie Crust." Matt didn't find
it so simple, apparently, because he has never made it again.
I also love Thanksgiving because I love the food,
and any excuse to gather a lot of people around a table to eat is a good one in
my opinion. When we lived in Boston we used to have Thanksgiving at my
cousin's farm in southeastern Massachusetts (a small farm bought, incidentally,
out of my cousin's own nostalgic memories of my grandparents’ farm). Scott's farmhouse and Thanksgiving
table were special indeed, always a merry assortment of cousins and friends,
and food to die for.
But mostly I love Thanksgiving because it is
blessed time off in what is otherwise a dauntingly busy time of year.
Some years we travel, but my favorite Thanksgivings are by far the ones
we stay home. This is one of those years. Some months ago, my
friend Anne invited Matt and me to share Thanksgiving with her family:
"Are you going anywhere this year? No? OK. You are having Thanksgiving with us." But
about a month ago she stood in my kitchen and rescinded the invitation, saying
that they had to go to Austin to visit Dan's brother or some other lame excuse.
(In her defense, I must say that she did this with an extremely guilty
look on her face, but still...) Fortunately, we have lots of
good friends. We accepted an invitation with a family from church --
daughter Katie used to be in Matt's youth choir, but is now away at college.
She and her parents are dear friends. We shudder to imagine that we
are nearly old enough to be Katie parents, and like her folks we are eagerly
awaiting her visit home. (She e-mailed me just this morning: "You
seem really stressed out. Any errands I could run for you of the
non-musical sort?" What a
great kid. We'd happily be her parents.) Jerome, my flute-playing buddy
and frequent collaborator, also sent an invitation our way,
saying that we "probably had never had Thanksgiving with real live
Indians." That is true, and would, no doubt, be a story to tell.
Maybe next year.
This year in particular I am thankful not to cook
or do dishes on Thanksgiving. I say this after a weekend in which I did
little but load and unload the dishwasher. Jerome says that the
"festive season at the Greers’ has begun" and indeed that does seem
to be the case. Several weeks ago, Jerome and I played a recital
together, after which we had a champagne reception at our house.
"If I bring a case of champagne and all the food, can we have the party at
your house?" Jerome had asked me. Of course. Then,
last weekend, we had visiting our dear friends Ken and Beverly.
Ken Medema is a pianist and composer who happens to be blind. I say the last part almost as an aside, because his blindness
is not the most remarkable thing about him. Matt laughs that Ken is the only man who is allowed to walk
up, hug his wife and say, “Hello, gorgeous!” I point out that the man is blind, so one must to take that
into consideration when assessing his judgment. “Oh, but Ken knows,” Matt assures me.
Ken was in town to sing and lead worship at
church, and to do a concert on Matt’s series. He sings and plays the
piano, but his biggest schtick is that he invites audience members to
tell stories, and then improvises a song to illustrate the story --music and lyrics.
The music itself is of such originality that it would be
impressive alone, but the lyrics---they are poetic and profound, and even
rhyme. It is a stunning thing to
see. But that gift should be
balanced with the fact Ken “can’t drive very well,” as one of my little students astutely noted, causing us to laugh.
“Yeah, you’re good, Ken, but you can’t drive,” we reminded him all
A visit from Ken and his wonderful assistant
Beverly, whom we also adore, is reason to pop open more champagne, for sure.
So one night, we had a small group of friends at the house to meet Ken
and Bev. Matt made Algonquin Punch, which was potent
indeed, and many of our closest friends gathered to talk and drink and nibble
cheese. As always, at the end of the evening, Ken graced us with music,
playing his arrangement of "All The Things You Are," which also wove
in "Fly Me To the Moon," and somehow, incredibly, a four-voice fugue
on the first phrase of the original tune. Improvising fugues is one of
Ken's trademarks. "Oh yeah," I said sarcastically to him,
"anyone can do that." Then he made up a song about the evening
-- incorporating the punch and the cookies, the jokes and the stories, the idea
that this was a moment in time that we would always treasure. Everyone
in the room was in tears when he finished, sealing his point completely.
The next morning Ken taught my performance
classes. This was a morning I had been enthusiastically selling to my
students for months. The kids were prepped and ready, "Wow.
He is the opposite of Beethoven" at least four of them told me.
One little girl, remembering our class last spring
with pedagogical composer Dennis Alexander, said, "Cool.
Just like Mr. Alexander. Only blind!"
Not surprisingly, Ken was brilliant with the
kids. A handful performed for him and he made musical suggestions.
I had a couple of students who compose play for him and he helped
with their compositions. One high school kid who has a Friday night gig
at a country club played the arrangement that he had worked out by ear of the
theme from Titanic, after which
Ken proceeded to sit down and play it about a dozen different ways,
demonstrating how the song could be varied. Greg stood behind him with a
grin from ear to ear, just shaking his head. When Ken finished I asked,
"So, what do you think?" to which Greg answered, "I think
this was amazing."
Parents stayed for the classes and raved about
it, one father remarking, "It is so good for the kids to just see what
might be off the charts like this." I agree. This was not
necessarily a class to inspire them in any concrete way, for Ken's ability is
so extraordinary that it isn't something any of us can really aspire to. But
I wanted the kids to rub elbows with this kind of talent for a little while,
for you never know what might stick.
Ken, Bev and Matt went off to do choir
rehearsals in the afternoon in preparation for Sunday's events. I loaded
the dishwasher with another load of wine glasses, vacuumed, put in a pot
roast. Saturday night we had two of our favorite couples—Brad and Karen,
Anne and Dan--over for dinner with Ken and Bev. Sunday was full of church
and the concert, and then dinner in Old Town complete with a pitcher of
Ken has recently re-recorded a song he wrote 30
years ago for the Bicentennial, called “I See America.” There is an underground campaign to get
it to Obama in time for the Inauguration, for it reflects the hope and dreams
that seem tangible these days after the election. It’s been my soundtrack for the last two days, its text
scrolling through my brain this Thanksgiving week…..
I’ve seen the white sand beaches near the town where I was born…..
breathed the mountain air so fresh and green.
But I’ve been in other places where it’s hard to breathe the
and the high-rise nightmare blocks the morning sun.
And once played in the dirty streets
and no one seems to care.
America’s children, look what we have done.
America through the eyes of love,
and I long for all the children to be
And if you see, put your
hand to the job,
there is work that must be done
till freedom’s song is sung
from sea to sea…*
This work week is short, thankfully: two days of
teaching, an extra choir rehearsal to play, and then tomorrow Lora and I are
hitting the mountains at our second attempt at taking La Luz, said to be the
toughest hike in the state. Today is a grey November day; you can taste
winter in the air. Writing this
with a cup of coffee at my elbow, I am acutely aware that there are a lot of
reasons to be thankful this year.
We have families that love us, wonderful friends who fill our lives and
our home with their laughter and music.
In spite of daily warnings about the state of the world, I am more
optimistic than I was four and eight years ago. We have work we love, and are privileged enough to get to
spend our lives doing tangible things that make a difference, nudging the world
in a small way towards futures we believe passionately in. Friday night is our annual St. Cecelia party, another marker in the festive season. It’s time to raise a glass to fact that for another year, we
got away with making a living making music.
I’ve seen the untold millions whose birthplace freedom made,
who nourished by
her dreams grew strong and tall.
I’ve seen them teach their children so that the dream would never fade.
And I’ve seen them stand to answer
But I’ve seen how greed and carelessness can wipe that dream
create a living nightmare in its stead.
Well, rise up children, dream again, for its time for
us to say,
though some may scoff, the dreamers are not dead….*
But this weekend there will also be time for the
stack of books I've been collecting by my bed, maybe a movie or two, some time
alone with just the two of us and the two felines with which we share our home.
I'll raise a glass to that.
see America through the eyes of love,
and I long for all her children to be
And if you see, put your
hand to the job,
there is work that must be done,
till freedom’s song is
and freedom’s bell is rung--from sea to shining sea.*
*I See America music and lyrics by Ken Medema
November 19th, 2008 :: Performing Days
I am resorting to bribing myself these days
to get my work done. This is really a last resort, because
nothing else is working.
I shouldn't imply that I haven't been
working, because I have. Obsessively. All the time.
Morning, noon, and night. I am in a high energy cycle,
which is dangerous on lots of levels. Dangerous, because I
don't get enough rest, and because I don't allow any space between my
actions, thoughts or obligations. Dangerous, also, because I
get totally out of balance during these times.
I am acutely aware of this at the
moment, because I just returned from yoga class and every pose only
illustrated how out of kilter my body (and therefore my life) was.
My scoliosis makes finding symmetry hard on the best of days, but
today, I had no idea where center was. This, I should admit,
was the first yoga class in over two weeks, which is the first sign
that things have gone awry around here. I know better. I
KNOW BETTER. I know that in order to have some kind of center,
some kind of balance in my life I need certain things: I need
to eat well, get enough sleep, go to yoga regularly, bike and walk,
write every day, and practice. Of that list, I have been
managing decent eating, marginal sleep and way too much practicing.
And therein lies the whole problem.
Other things that help keep me
healthy and on top of my life: taking some time to do some
teaching preparation, instead of just winging it every day. (Yeah,
I'm good at winging it, but that's not the point.) My days
start better when I take time to do some reading as I drink my coffee
in the morning. My days end more serenely and contentedly when
I have dinner and conversation with Matt. But a close look at
that more detailed list only shows more holes, for the last several
weeks have been all about my fall studio recital, which took place last Saturday night. That is a big megillah indeed, requiring
serious attention to picking out recital
music, working especially hard in lessons on recital pieces, and then doing the program and organizing the reception. In
addition, no matter how confident and together my students generally
are, there is always an increased amount of hand-holding for both
parents and students in the week prior to any big performance. So
in answer to why I am not on top of teaching stuff I have two words:
And the rest? Well, I have been as preoccupied as the rest of the country with this recent election. I have read the paper more closely, watched more news than usual, and in general, given too much time to the whole thing, considering how little I could affect the process. ("Yes we can!") Election day itself, I baby-sat for someone doing voter rights kind of stuff, doing my extremely small part to insure that this state turned its rightful shade of blue. On top of all that, Matt has been gone the last week, taking any hope of my staying firmly anchored to my life with him.
So while some of the reasons I am
less than well balanced right now has to do with these very specific
things and my own energy fluctuations in response to them, the other
huge part of this equation is just the normal cyclical nature of
being a performer. Given all of that, I have lots of reasons these
days to be thinking about recitals and what they require of us.
Not only was Saturday night the fall recital in my studio; last
weekend I played a big recital with a flutist; this weekend I am
doing a recording project with a singer. Without a doubt, there are certain areas of my life I have to put on
hold in order to have the attention and focus required to do these
things. In students' lessons, I have no choice but to let many
important things go in order to simply have the time to devote to
getting recital pieces ready. I fall out of habit of doing
teaching prep work----picking out new music, reading through
collections, sending organizational emails and newsletters out about
upcoming events----because these things seem less pressing when we
are getting ready for a recital. In fact, to look too far into
the future when the present needs our attention is more than just
distracting, it can actually be unhelpful. Of course, now that
the recital is behind us, I find myself swimming madly to keep my
head above water. I'm out of habit of putting in the teaching
preparation time, and now I need to do so desperately. If we
are going to take this recent performance momentum and run with it, I
have to do some major catch-up work both in terms of picking out and
reading through new music, but also in terms of asking myself, "OK.
What does this kid need next? What have we neglected
lately? What do we need to circle back to? What should we
be revisiting now that we are playing at this new level?"
This is a lot of work for 25 students, but it has to be done.
And it is the same with all the other
things I need in my life---the writing, the exercising, the time with
my husband. It is so easy to get out of the habit of making
sure my days include all these things, and so painful to realize how
out of balance I have become when they are missing.
Which is a long way of explaining why I am now resorting to bribery. I don't have to bribe
myself to practice: That has never been a problem, and at the
moment the sheer pressure of the gigs in front of me is enough to get
my butt on the piano bench. But all those other things: the
exercising, writing, reading, teacher preparation and so on that I
need to do in order to not spin off this planet, I am now bribing
myself to accomplish.
I am a big fan of bribery and reward
systems, if not used by organized crime or our government. I
have broken bad habits by using rewards; I get myself to yoga class
and in front of the computer with the promise of chocolate or lattes. I may be too old for such silliness, but I have years
of evidence and piles of accomplishments to prove that it works.
At the moment, I don't even care about accomplishing anything, I just
need to find a way to slow down, breathe deeply, and gather together
the loose ends of my life and sanity.
Or at least that's the idea. But
in the meantime, there's chocolate waiting.
November 1st, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
Uncharacteristically for fall in the
desert, it has rained lately. Quite torrentially, actually.
Although I like cozy rainy day more
than about anyone, this weather pattern hasn't been particularly welcomed as
we now have a leak in the bedroom. More like
multiple leaks in one sad corner, causing the ceiling to begin to
peel away alarmingly. We need to get that fixed, and would have
on Tuesday if it hadn't rained again.
If I can just ignore the whole
leaking roof business, I could fall head over heels with this season.
Certainly, there has been nothing not to love about the
weather lately. The days are delightfully warm and sunny, when
it's not raining at least, and the nights are deliciously cool,
requiring us to dig out that comforter and the cozy pajamas.
"A two-cat night," as my husband says.
I have been making soup and green
chile sauce around the clock. Green chile is harvested and
roasted in the fall, sending wonderful smells wafting throughout the
city. The first year we were brave enough to buy our own green
chile (as opposed to just going to Frontier and eating it there), we
hesitantly bought a half-bushel thinking there was no way we could
eat it all. It was gone by February, and this was before I had
learned to make my own green chile sauce. The next year we
worked up to a bushel; now we calmly order two bushels (thanks to
Lora and her empty freezer around the corner, which gives us more
storage options), and know that it will be gone by mid-winter.
But with the abundance of fresh green
chile at the moment, and the fact that every time I turn around
someone is thrusting tomatoes upon me, I am making green chile sauce
practically every other day. This requires a good hour of
peeling, chopping, and assembling, which explains why I don't know
the Bach sonata I am playing with a flutist in two weeks as well as I
Besides the autumn
rituals around green chile, last weekend I bought pumpkins for my
courtyard. One of the benefits to being childless, yet working
with children, is that I feel authorized to adapt any child-like
custom to my own adult desires. Hence the need for pumpkins,
and lots of them, scattered on walls and tables, and propped against
doors and pots. But here's the best part: I don't have
to actually carve them, as I have no demanding children requiring
this. I don't much like carving pumpkins; it's messy and
no good at it. I'd be
better off spending time on that Bach sonata.
This year must have been a
particularly good year for pumpkins because my piece de resistance is
a 44-pound pumpkin sitting cheerfully by my sun-room door. "Miss
Amy!" Madeleine squealed when she came into her lesson
this week, "Is that pumpkin yours?"
But all these
seasonal rituals have me thinking: just this week a student was
playing a little piece in his sight-reading book. One of those older
Alfred books has a piece called "Raindrops." It is a
jaunty, staccato number, just as you might assume, which for this little guy proved not to be that easy. It requires
hands to alternate, playing the same notes one after another like
little raindrops. This was a trick, because no matter how
hard he tried, he couldn't get that left hand to lead. Which,
of course, got me thinking about our next 5-Finger
24. LH leads;
all notes staccato:
Do (Do) Re (Re) Mi
(Mi) Fa (Fa) Sol (Sol) Fa (Fa) Mi (Mi) Re (Re) Do (Do)
25. Same; RH
I do hope that teaching
this 5-Finger Position this week won't produce the adverse affect of
causing more rain, or at least not until that roof gets patched.
However, another seasonal rite waits for me this weekend: buying
and planting pansies to line the flower bed along the driveway.
I'll be happy to water them by hand and save the raindrops for the
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com