My copy of Little Women, shown here on my daughter’s bed, is over 40 years old. My mother read it to me and I was happy to read it to my daughter when she was about 12.
This scene, of a mother and daughters gathered around a piano singing together, has always touched me, even though it is more substantial to me in imagination than in real life.
In real life I’m a shy, tremulous singer and a self-taught one-finger picker of keyboard melodies. Instead I have found a voice on the violin and viola, and in writing. My family members are not singers either, although both my kids have played, or still play, various non-piano instruments. We played together when they were younger, but teenagers tend not to want to play with mom so much.
Several years ago, when Susan Cain’s book Quiet, the Power of Introverts came out, I was reading Little Women to my daughter, then in 7th grade. We lived in the Boston area then, close enough that we could visit Orchard House, and we did so twice, once for the Girl Scout troop my daughter was a member of, and again years later for her Coming-of-Age class at our UU church.
I started to think about the March girls according to their temperaments, introvert or extravert. In particular, I was able to put my feelings about Beth March in a different context. In the past I had always been a little ashamed that I identified so strongly with Beth. In the book, she was too quiet and introverted to live. What did that mean for me and others like me? I wrote these thoughts down and put them first in a blog post, and then in an essay that I submitted to a new anthology for the 150th Anniversary of Little Women.
I just found that my essay has been accepted for publication in the anthology, which will be coming out later this year, from Pink Umbrella books.
For generations, children around the world have come of age with Louisa May Alcott’s March girls. Their escapades and trials punctuated our own childhoods—maybe we weren’t victims of “lime-shaming,” like Amy, and we probably didn’t chop off our locks for the cause, like Jo, but Alcott’s messages of society and independence, family love, and sacrifice resonate over a century later. 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of Little Women, published to wide acclaim in 1868.
If I had to pick one thing that has made my musical journey more fulfilling now than when I was younger, it would be this: low-stakes performances. I was a shy child, and I regarded performance not as a reward for a job well done, but as an opportunity to be put on the spot. That I didn’t perform much under such circumstances was probably a kindness. But it meant that any single performance was elevated to high stakes in my mind, ensuring that any anxieties and insecurities I had would be self-fulfilling.
What changed? I’d like to say the change was all in my attitude, and much of it was. But there’s also a positive feedback loop triggered when you have a good performance experience in a low-stakes venue. Even if you know you were in a wading pool, a friendly audience, positive comments and smiles, and an adrenaline rush that does not dissolve into a flood of cold hands and tears, are memories you can count on when you head into deeper, rougher waters.
So. I hear the rapids gathering downstream as May 11, the date of my Telemannsolo, approaches. As of this writing I’m at day 70/108–quite a bit over halfway there–which is a little scary. Where did the other 69 days go?? Sharing videos in Facebook groups is nice, but I could still use some real practice performances. Where do you find such opportunities, especially as an adult student?
On the advice of my teacher, I was able to schedule playing Telemann in two church services, one for movements 1 and 2, and another for movements 3 and 4. Movements 1 and 3 are slow and work for a meditation; movements 2 and 4 are cheerful and sprightly and work for an offertory or prelude. And none of them is too long. The service with movements 1 and 2 took place in mid-March.
In spite of feeling like I knew the piece pretty well in my practice room, when I got to the first rehearsal, it all flew out of my head. Libby, the church pianist, is a real pro, a teacher, and an experienced accompanist. She had some helpful suggestions that I just couldn’t process the first time I heard them. Such as, “take your time, don’t rush.” What, was I rushing? . . . it’s hard to *not* do something that you weren’t doing in the first place . . . But, when I listened to my recording the next day, sure enough, it did sound rushed after all. Perceptions of time and space, and even of sound, are more different in the moment, in different contexts, than I would have expected. This makes recording, and the ears of knowledgeable colleagues, even more valuable.
My goal is still to be able to play from memory, but I used the sheet music in the service. It went well, in spite of various logistical challenges that had the minister running around until the last minute. The guest speaker was quite interesting too and took my attention off myself while I was waiting to play. Although I played decently, I did muff a shift at the end of the 2nd movement and played an open D instead of an A for 3 notes, but I got back on track and nobody seemed to notice. It became clear that at least at a church service, nothing was primarily about me, and all the little things I worried about were just not that important.
The following weekend, I played a movement of the Harold in Italy viola solo with a reading orchestra called TACO (the “Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra“). One of my viola colleagues in the South Bay Philharmonic is the husband of the TACO conductor, and they organized a special session of TACO focusing on the viola. I couldn’t play Telemann again with them because it’s only for a string orchestra and TACO has winds and brass too. So I worked on the 3rd movement, the Serenade, in which a Mountaineer from the Abruzzi region sings to his mistress. This is a very pretty movement, but according to the program notes I read, Harold (as represented by the viola) is unsatisfied with what he sees and hears in the pastoral scene, and in the next movement he gets swept into an orgy of brigands.
This experience too was less about me than I might have feared. The afternoon opened with viola jokes and segued into birthday cake. The Harold in Italy movement was indeed challenging to put together in an afternoon, but it really didn’t matter that I had decided to just play the upper note of some of the fingered-octave double stops rather than risk repetitive stress injury to my 4th finger. What mattered was meeting some new people, celebrating the viola as an instrument, and having a good time playing with people who love music and playing together. I also got a viola clef T-shirt, perfect for wearing to rehearsals!
Even as an adult, I have a complicated relationship with performance. A few years ago I blogged about the potential development of an unbalanced “performance self” of a child who feels his or her worth is founded only on ability and accomplishment. Psychologist Lisa Miller offers the “spiritual self” as a counter to this limited worldview.
Although I personally find playing in church very rewarding, I don’t think a musician has to go to a place of worship to develop his or her spiritual self. It can be encouraged and fostered by steps such as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature, and modeled by such traits as caring for others, empathy, and optimism. Practice performances like these give me a chance to give both selves, spiritual and performance, something they need. I think that the goal (probably a lifelong one) is to integrate the two and become a more complete musician.
Good YA literature will stay with me long after I am finished with it, even as an adult. I would have been in the prime target audience for this book when I was a teenager, and I would have devoured it (pun intended). The story was a pleasant surprise on several levels. First, the author has a real gift for character and voice, especially with young teens. She manages to tell a fantastical story without talking down or condescending to her audience, while at the same time not going to any of the despairing, hopeless, or crazy places I feared she might be heading with the supernatural element. Continue reading Book Review: The Winter Knife by Laramie Sasseville→
My 17-year-old daughter got her learner’s permit a few weeks ago. I had avoided thinking about it until absolutely necessary, but there’s quite a bit of parental teaching expected in CA: 50 hours of driving experience before she can take the drivers’ license test. This phase of my own teenage life was hard on my parents (and on their car repair budget), so I need to take it seriously now.
Almost every Sunday morning I sit in church in one particular pew and look out of a stained glass window at a makeshift stone labyrinth onto a parking lot beyond. The church building houses two congregations: the UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale, which I attend, and the Congregational Community Church of Sunnyvale, whose services immediately follow ours. The building is architecturally interesting, and modern. Low to the ground, it’s easy to miss when driving by. It’s all triangles and peaks, not like the gothic cathedrals of old with their famous rose windows and gargoyles.
Last Sunday the UU church I joined in December, the UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale, held a service called the Our One Wild and Precious Life service. The title is inspired by the last lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day.
The day after Christmas is also known as “Boxing Day.” Traditionally in Britain, servants were given December 26 to celebrate Christmas and received a box to take home, containing gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftover food. Churches also displayed boxes for people to give Christmas donations to charity. Boxing Day is still a national holiday in the UK and Ireland but not here in the US (except as the day Christmas is observed when it falls on a Sunday). Continue reading Mundane Monday: Boxing Day→
I am again taking a slightly different approach to the Thursday Doors theme. For one thing, it’s not Thursday . . . but these are still doors. They just aren’t doors that humans can literally walk through. They are doors to the imagination: doors to books!
In my writing life, I tend to chafe against expectations of starting in medias res. I like backstory, I like to be prepared for the action when it comes. I don’t mind a leisurely pace. I am easily hurt by the implication that readers will not be as interested in my protagonist’s innermost thoughts and reflections as I think they should be.
This is the second book I’ve read from the Justice and Spirit Unitarian-Universalist Book Club on Goodreads. The book club unfortunately seems to have withered away. There was a little discussion of the Rosa Parks biography in January, but last month there were maybe 1 or 2 comments and there was virtually nothing this month on this book at all, except for a thread I started with the subject line, “Anybody There?” This is too bad, because I think this book deserves a wide readership, especially outside North Carolina.