Saturday, February 27, 2010

Day 232: A Mother's Musical Hopes Dashed ... in the Best Possible Way

How to have the coolest three-and-a-half-year-old kid on the block: Bring her to an African drumming party on a Friday night. Do this on a regular basis, and she'll assume that life is just full of music. At 12, she'll tour internationally as the opening act for B. B. King.

But this is when a mother's musical aspirations can go horribly awry.

Last night, the Lindsays attended a "bonding party" for Khakatay, the African drumming ensemble at Bridgewater State College, hosted by the ensemble's director and music department chair Salil Sachdev. "Khakatay" means "laughing out loud," and I tell you, the name is apt. Playing traditional repertoire mainly from the West African countries of Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and the Ivory Coast, this group exemplifies joy in rhythm.

For this auspicious occasion, Mini Me (I really should be calling her "Completely Her") dressed in a Mrs. Claus dress and white Capezio tap shoes. As she stomped across the paved walkway to the front door, djembe in hand, I was very excited, thinking, "The rhythm's in her! Brilliant!" Thought she'd have a wonderful experience drumming with about ten fabulous coeds and get hooked.

But when we walked in, she lost the shoes, abandoned the drum, and spent the next four hours ignoring the music and rearranging the African figurines in said Department Chair's sitting room. One by one, each of the students approached her with her djembe, inviting her to join the drumming. As far as I can tell, they were rejected every time. No thank you, she really just wanted to run around the basement pole and hide the figurines under the couch cushions.

So.... maybe not a drummer. Yet. Right now, it's all about the figurines... but I did sneak a look every now and then, and noticed that her little head was bobbing as she was playing. And if she turns out to be half as terrific as any one of those students who were there last night—and I mean, as a person, not as a drummer—I'll be a very happy mom.

Do come see Khakatay, Bridgewater State College's African Drumming Ensemble on Thursday, April 29, at 8:00 pm in Horace Mann Auditorium at Bridgewater State College. The concert is part of the college's all-day World Music Festival. More information here.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Day 231: Getting Your Tunes Up to Session Speed

People ask this question a lot:

Will I ever be able to play these tunes at session speed?

My suggestion? Ask this instead: "How can I get my tunes up to session speed?"

I've said it before but there's no harm in saying it again: The only way to learn music is through mind-numbing repetition...mind-numbing repetition...mind-numbing repetition...mind-numbing repetition...mind-numbing repetition...mind-numbing repetition...mind-numbing repetition...mind-numbing repetition...mind-numbing repetition...

Hey, what just happened? All that repetition, and our minds went numb, right? We didn't even read each repeat; just skipped ahead to this paragraph.

Hm. Perhaps a better approach is MINDFUL repetition, but understand this: as soon as we understand how to repeat mindfully, the next step is to lose our minds.

Some call it muscle memory: playing a tune over and over so many times that eventually your fingers know what to do without your mind getting in the way. (Remember that before you start getting all repetitive in your practice, you must warm up first and then take breaks, to minimize bodily damage and prevent repetitive stress injuries.)

Once you really know what you're doing, your mind can then go on vacation again. Or at least, it can stop paying attention and start having fun. Back when I was working hard on jazz, I found that I could take a pattern around 12 keys at lightning speed with no error. When I hit those beautiful moments, it felt like my body was working and my mind was watching—but the problem was, it was always watching. As soon as the mind said, "Hey! Check that out! Look what you're doing!" I lost it.

So, the next step in mindful repetition is to get your mind out of the way. As soon as you think about what you are doing, you're going to lose it. That's why we can play a tune perfectly a thousand times in practice, but as soon as we get on stage or bring it out at a session, and think about something—"God, I hope I don't mess up," or "Shoot, I hope I remember this tune," or, "That guy on the spoons is bugging the heck out of me"—we mess it up.

What to do? Get your mind out of the way. But how? I don't know. Maybe telling yourself to "stop thinking so much" will work for you. People try everything. They tell themselves "be here now." They buy sandalwood incense and sit on a round cushion for 20 minutes a day. They smoke a lot of pot. They spend years determining the perfect balance of Guinness-to-sobriety that loosens them enough to play well but not be sloppy. They hire an exorcist to rid themselves of the voice of their mother, who left them too long in the crib. They develop a practical "focus on the task at hand, dammit" attitude. Or, they suffer with the great majority of us and live with the fact that sometimes we play beautifully, and sometimes we flub it up so badly that we wonder why we ever thought we could be a half decent musician. Then, we suck it up and keep trying.

Here's a different way of thinking that might reframe your approach.

I recently heard that there's science out there that supports a certain kind of "muscle intelligence."

Ever play that game with the dollar bill? You put your thumb and index finger in a relaxed claw, and someone else holds a dollar bill vertically above your hand and drops it, without warning, and you're supposed to try to catch it. Most people don't have quick enough reflexes to close their finger and thumb in time to catch the dropping bill.

On a similar note, I recently heard about a study of brain function and tennis players' serves—that the speed of a professional male tennis player's serve is so fast that no human brain can possibly respond on time. It takes time for the brain to perceive the shot, determine its direction, tell the body to move to that place, then tell it to move the arm and respond. Science says that the speed of impulses in the brain, even for the fastest people, is not as fast as a professional tennis player's serve.

Yet, other professional tennis players CAN respond to these serves, and the scientists felt that it was more than just anticipation that made their timely response possible. They theorized that there was something else at work: the spinal cord. They think it has an intelligence of its own that can trigger response.

That can be called muscular intelligence. That is, that the body knows what to do, even when the mind can't keep up.

On a musical level, that means knowing a tune so well internally that your fingers are able to play more quickly than your mind can perceive the individual notes. Sometimes this gets referred to as muscular memory, but this muscular intelligence idea is making more sense at the moment.

So... how do you do it?

1) Get the damn tune in your head. Leave the instrument aside and sing that tune. Can you sing it, without the instrument? Don't pick up the instrument til you know what every note should be.

2) Know where each note is, intellectually. Sing that tune this time slowly, and visualize each note on your instrument as you play... think of each letter name, if you want. For added challenge, do it with a metronome on, or while you're doing something that has regular rhythm, like swimming, walking, or running.

3) Learn the tune, slowly. One. Phrase. At. A. Time.

4) Practice it, a lot. But don't practice ANY mistakes. Identify the spots that are tripping you up, and isolate those until you can play them perfectly... even if it's just a little subsection of three notes.

5) Julie Andrews was wrong. Sometimes the middle is a very good place to start. Start your practice session on the B part. Start your session on the last phrase of the tune transitioning in to the repeat. Start and maybe even end your session with just that little part that's been driving you nuts.

6) Work with a metronome. It forces you to play in time. If you just can't use a metronome, then get someone who can play the tune to record it for you at a variety of speeds—WITH a metronome clicking away in the background, and play along.

7) Buy Roni Music's The Amazing Slow Downer software, and use it. You can import any tune in the world into it, then slow it down or speed it up without losing the original pitch. You can also loop small sections. It's brilliant. Use it to learn every tune off your favorite musician's album, and you'll save yourself a LOT of money on music lessons. Just visit your teacher every and then to identify and help you fix problems you didn't realize you had.

8) Record yourself. It's horrifying, but it will teach you a lot.

All of these things will help you to get your tunes up to speed, but unfortunately, they'll all take time. Musical advancement sometimes happens at a slow and regular pace, and sometimes we move in leaps and bounds. Either way, often we simply plateau. Being fully comfortable on the plateaus, and continuing to practice there, may be the wisest place to be, as in that relaxation, you're storing up energy for the next leg of the climb.

Whatever you do, keep at it and don't give up. It's always darkest before the dawn.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Day 230: Top 10 Reasons Soul Mama Shoulda Been a Canadian Bobsledder

Last night, watching the Olympics made me wonder if I'd missed my calling.

So, this morning, I bring you: 10 Reasons Soul Mama Shoulda Been a Canadian Bobsledder. (Letterman's got nothing on me.)

1) Body type. Well, except that their butt and thighs are made of muscle.

2) Spiderman butts. It's not clear why their uniforms sported silver webbing across their bobsledding backside, but it did accentuate the positive. And jumpsuits hide everything, so...

3) No shaving all winter. Do I really need to revisit this? Sigh... see Day 228. Plus, those jumpsuits are Soul Mama's favorite color....

4) Red. You've got it covered when you're super fast, super shiny, and fire engine red. And if you still want to look a little earthy crunchy, you get to wear...

5) The Canadian flag. I want to live in a country that has a maple leaf as its national symbol. Especially when that country's bobsledding team gets to...

6) Win everything, and on its own home turf. Soul Mama pretends to be Buddhist, but does it always have to be about the process? Winning is way fun, too.

7) You only have to have one teammate. Some of us like to paddle our own canoes. And it never hurts to have someone else doing all the steering.

8) Black girl wannabee hair. You go, girl, Helen Upperton. What's not to like about cornrows AND pigtails?

9) Labatts. What you get to drink after you win. We discovered a few years ago that it goes really well with...

10) Canadian music. Ever been to Celtic Colours at Cape Breton? Ok, so it's REALLY far from where those bobsledders are from, but it's one more reason that being Canadian wouldn't be so bad. If you're not busy on Columbus Day weekend, the Lindsays highly recommend this week-long festival. I'd venture to say that it's the best vacation we've ever taken.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Lindsays are on Facebook!

I suppose it had to happen eventually... we're now on Facebook. Look us up there as "The Lindsays." Photos, news, videos, and a calendar to be added soon.

Day 229: If John Mayer did it, I can too. And upcoming events.

John Mayer is playing the TMI game lately, saying incredibly stupid things in incredibly public places. Brave! Or was it the malt whiskey? Either way, if he can do it, then I will too.


I'm sure this has something to do with being a mother of a three-year-old, recording a CD, working 55 different freelance writing, editing, teaching, and performing jobs to piece together a subsistence living in music, trying to be a half decent wife who remembers the kiss goodbye as she rushes off for yet another commitment, maintaining friendships, keeping the dustballs in our house from getting bigger than our way-too-big and highly contested couch that was a wedding gift from the M-I-L, and preventing my Dad from leaving forlorn messages about how he'd really like it if I would return phone calls occasionally, but... how come every other musician there is better than I am? (For those visiting for the first time: I'm KIDDING!)

I know! Maybe if I wrote shorter sentences, I'd have more time to practice. Problem solved; let's move on.

Despite this ridiculous and completely misguided neurosis, I think this is a good time to tell you a few of the things that unworthy and undeserving musicians like us (nudge nudge wink wink) will be doing in place of practicing in the next couple of days:

-Recording a CD. We spent Monday in the studio with a handful of great musicians. Tom Rohde joined us to put some leads on one of Steve's songs. Evan Harlan brought some killer accordion to the table. Ian Hudson, a former student at Bridgewater State College, played some piano on Si Bheag Si Mor. And Salil Sachdev did some incredible percussion work on several tracks. And for those Brian Haley fans in the audience, there's rumor and high hopes that he might show up, too. This is going to be a really fun and really diverse CD. So stay tuned.

-Tonight: Irish session at Bridgewater State College. Join Steve and I tonight, Weds. Feb 24 from 7-9 pm for an Irish session at Bridgewater State College. Everyone is invited and welcome, no matter what level. There
are likely to be plenty of learners there, so it's a great time to pull out those tunes you've been working on!

Event is held at "One Park Avenue" which is room 004 in the Campus Center building at Bridgewater. You can get directions at Bridgewater's website,

Hope to see you -- and please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.

-Saturday night: You’re Invited to hear the biggest Irish Band in Boston playing tunes at the Littlest Bar in Boston, The Boston Highlands Ceili Band, performing a couple sides from the Johnny Powell Band’s 1950s 78 RPM issues.

5pm - Saturday, February 27, 2010
The Littlest Bar in Boston
102 Broad Street
Boston, MA (click here for maps and directions)

No Cover

The Boston Highlands Ceili Band:
Fiddles: Brendan Bulger and Maureen Calvi
Accordions: Chris Bulger and Mike Reynolds
Trumpet: Glen Carliss
Alto and Soprano Saxophones: Roger Gamache and Sue Lindsay, respectively.
Bass: Larry Flint
Drums: Stevie O’Callaghan Jr.
Piano: Helen Kisiel

Unique listening experience guaranteed. Open Trad Irish Session to follow the performance - so bring your instruments too...


Lots more coming in March, but that's enough for now!

Jeez, I almost forgot the daily practice routine, which is why I'm blogging in the first place. Well, there's been oodles of daily playing in the last two weeks, but not really daily "PRACTICE." And they are different, folks. I've tried to convince myself that one can do a gig or play a session in place of practice, but you know, what? You can't. Well, you can... but practice and performance are two different things. So, this is when we just simply forgive ourselves and move on.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Day 228, Part II: Making Sweet Music Together, By Request

Some people out there think this is funny: Get up at 5 am, do the... ahem... ablutions, get to conducting class on time (at the pool), change into swimsuit, and notice that one has missed two key "ablutions".... the two that are above the waterline, the ones that show a lot when one just happens to be waving one's arms in a conducting class in a pool.


Last time I forgot them (by choice), I was in college, and it made me very popular among the Smith College girls. Not that there's anything wrong with that... but I've not neglected my underarms since.

If it's any consolation, I also forgot my hair tie, but the lifeguard lent me an elastic. I was a little too shy to ask if I could borrow her razor, too.

And finally, in response to one of my adoring fans: YES. Soul Papa will be also be quite happy when Spring comes.

As it turned out, the subsurface conducting class was an absolute blast, and no one was looking at me anyway. Sometimes I forget that to my students, I'm just the Old-Broad professor freak.

Good God, I hope none of them read this.

Day 228: It's Not Spring Yet. This Is Not Fair.

Last semester in my Music Appreciation class, a student asked, "So what does a conductor DO, anyway?" I admit, I was at a loss. I wish someone would ask me this question THIS semester. Because now I know the answer: Wake up at 5 a.m., not to practice, but to shave.

Friends, in addition to teaching, I've been taking a Conducting Techniques course this semester, and today's class — at 8 a.m. — will be held in the POOL.

Let me say that again: the POOL. Something about working with weightlessness as a conducting technique. I don't know. And at the moment, I don't really care.

Because just the mere thought of "the POOL" gives me the shivers? Does it do the same for you? No? How about this: the POOL with your professor colleague and ten 19-year olds?

Are you not getting shivers yet?

I'm terrified.

Please understand. It's not the cold weather that's getting me. It's the prep. See, guys, some of you may understand that one of the nice things about winter is that we gals get to relax on certain ablutions. There are some who maintain, primp, and preen all year round. They exercise, eat right, do their nails, pedicure their toes. And then there are some women who, when spring comes, bust out the lawnmower.

I envy my friends who've already gotten their PhD in Hippie School (you know who you are) — you don't worry about such things. You are women! Hear you roar! Ah, someday, someday... I hope I become more like you. But for now, I'm still only burning a training bra.

I thought hitting 40 would mean an end to petty worries. You all said it would. Well, you were exaggerating. I forgive you, but still... Couldn't SOMEONE have warned me?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day 225: Disney on Ice: Confessions of a 'Tweener Mom

If you want to make God laugh, try this: Get pregnant, then say, "Well, it doesn't matter to me whether it's a girl or boy, because even if it is a girl, I'll never dress her head to toe in pink anyway." God will smirk, sit back with his arms crossed, and wait. Then, when your little girl is 3 1/2, he'll send you to Disney on Ice. Payback's a... um... princess.

Disney on Ice is how the female 2/3 of the Lindsay clan spent Friday... sitting in the fabled Boston Garden watching an ice show extravaganza, just like I did with my own mom at the Ice Capades back in the 1970s. To be able to carry on a tradition and make for my girl some memories like my own got me just a little verklempt as the lights dimmed and Disney's cast came sashaying out onto the ice. (Believe it or not, I'm going to be able to bring this back to Irish music, so bear with me here.)

The Disney "Celebrations" ice show is a lot of what you might expect: Mickey and Minnie Mouse are the hosts of a two-hour long sensational journey through a little bit of every one of Disney's biggest movie hits, in an on-ice variety show that includes the sinister Fantasia brooms (30 armless full-size flourescent brooms slinking around the rink under black lights), a Mad Hatter's tea party, a positively spooky Halloween skit featuring the skeleton from Nightmare Before Christmas (I think?) and Disney's favorite villians: Cruella DeVille, Snow White's witch, Sleeping Beauty's sorceress, et al.

Then there is the trip around the world that stopped in Japan (skaters donned miniskirt kimonos and fake Geisha wigs), China (red silk mini dresses), New Orleans (Minnie got to wear a purple sparkly flapper dress), and Brazilian Carnival, where the male skaters wore massive feather wings. We got a tiny taste of the music from each place in Disney's stereotypical way... "You want Mexican? Here, throw some chili on your French fries. Chinese? Here's some soy sauce! New Orleans? Let's put our only black skater on the lead in this one!"

And then, we got the princesses.

Oh the princesses.

As you can imagine, this was the apex of the show, when all the Disney princess and their princes slid out one by one, doing their "I almost made the Olympics" pairs skating programs to a song about falling in love, from the new Disney princess movie "The Princess and the Frog." This is when we first got to see Tiana, the next color in Disney's non-white princess kick, an African American princess. It is wonderful that Disney is slowly tripping beyond it's all-white, all-star cast to include the Native American Pocahontas, the Middle Eastern Jasmine, and the Asian Mulan, but that it took Disney 100 years to finally feature America's very first non-white immigrant culture is just a little disturbing... especially when, among its many accomplishments, this group created America's popular music, which Disney uses so freely in all of its movies... (What? You don't follow Disney princesses? Well, goodness, get educated here.)

Oh, I admit it. I liked the show. The skaters were fabulous, and I found myself thinking about the Irish dance extravaganza, Riverdance. Riverdance provided one of the very first professional outlets for an Irish step dancer who just loves to perform. It gives Irish dancers a place to be once they hit 18 and have outgrown their dance classes. Likewise for Disney on ice, I think. These young skaters who absolutely love to perform... where do they go if they don't make the Olympics? I'm glad they have these ice shows, and folks, I will tell you that the princesses and their princes were wonderful. Jasmine and her prince stole the show; it's no wonder that Disney found several opportunities to present them in as little clothing as possible; I suppose it's a way to placate the parents. Anyone with six-pack abs like those two would be most happy to go shirtless, I am sure.

Still, I do get concerned about how much our little gal might be buying into the cultural models we're seeing in these movies: poor girls marry rich and wear sparkly dresses. The end. Let me add to the chorus of bra-burners who say: Sorry girls, but unless you later become a shriveled up witch or a portly fairy godmother, you're S. O. L. with Disney. Disney will either assassinate you (Cinderella, Pocahontas, Alladin, Beauty and the Beast) or doom you to obsolescence (Sleeping Beauty). And if you're a Dad, you can be mean and controlling, or you can be the bumbling, silly guy who'll do anything for his little princess. Ag!

I want a new cultural model, Mr. Disney. We had so much fun at Disney on Ice, but right now, I'm a Disney "Tweener," caught in the neverland between princess and hag. Why is there no Disney story about this: the mom with the pocketbook who shells out cash for the overpriced Disney toys in the lobby...who will willingly buy Cinderella toothbrushes, polyester nightgowns, mugs, sippie cups, undies, costume dresses, Barbie dolls, ankle socks... to name a few of the Disney guns in our personal arsenal.

I remember when Martha Stewart first came out with her products in the mid-90s. I was standing in a bedding aisle at Target and heard a man say to his wife, "That Martha Stewart would put her name on a whorehouse."

Oh goodness.

Disney, I'm starting to worry about you. We like you here in this house. We recognize and accept your foibles, and we don't take it too personally that as parents, we are risking our very lives by walking into your stories. Loved the ice show, and so did our girl. But still... can you at least let us parents live?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Day 223: The Pigeon on a Gate

Well, good morning to you!*

I haven't had my coffee yet, but the Wizard in the Woods has commanded this tune, and so the Bardesse shall oblige. Wanna learn a new tune? Try this, below. It's the Pigeon on a Gate.

Techies, alert: I don't even know what kind of whistle I played this on. It's early and the rest of the house is asleep, so I grabbed the most quiet looking one out of my whistle jar, and started playing. It might be a Generation? It might be a Walton's? It might be a newer Feadog... it's gold and green.

And, now, techies, if you think that was bad, now it's time to take a valium. As it turns out, Blogger doesn't seem to let one post audio, so I had to make movies. So... I am using iMovie for the first time ever, and I admit that this, my first attempt, is of the "Gramma Got a Computer" quality. In other words, my three year old will be able to do better in about a year. For now, enjoy some random scenery and stills from our November trip to Ireland, while you listen to a version of this tune that is a composite of versions learned from two different fiddler friends, Nikki Engstrom and Eddie Murray. Nothing fancy, but it gives you the tune nice and slowly.

Here's the "learning" version of the tune. It goes a little something like this...

Here's the full-speed version, with lots of cemeteries. (I blame the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying for this recent preoccupation.) Again, nothing fancy, but at least a representation of the tune.

And, no, I'm not giving you the letter notes for this tune, because it's much better to learn by ear. Let this be a reminder that although I am occasionally funny, I'm not at all nice.

*I actually wrote this at 6:30 am today, but didn't get to upload this post until midday.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Day 222: Got your ashes?

When I woke up this morning and started thinking about what to write (oh my goodness, I think I just started a blues song...), seriously... pancakes did not even enter my mind.

But last night was Pancake Tuesday, so it's not too far fetched, after all. What is Pancake Tuesday, you ask? Well, if you marry an Irish person, Pancake Tuesday is what you do instead of whooping it up at Mardi Gras. When you marry an Irish person, you spend Shrove Tuesday eating eggy pancakes with lots of sugar on them. Thanks to an invite from a Tralee, Co. Kerry native who lives in town, we enjoyed them last night the traditional way, with lemon and sugar sprinkled on, then rolled up. They are not fluffy like American pancakes; they much thinner and are far more eggy. Good food. So good that you eat twenty.

In the Christian tradition, Shrove Tuesday traditionally is a feast day, the last day you get to eat fatty things like sugar, fat and eggs, before the ritual fasting of Lent.

I think this means that the diet starts today. A great second chance for the unlucky ten thousand whose New Year's resolutions didn't quite work out.

I've always been fairly suspicious of people who give up chocolate, beer, cakes, sweets, etc. for Lent, thinking that they were being a bit, well, hypocritical... using the sacred season an excuse for weight loss, not a soul-purifying Lenten sacrifice.

So, I'm taking the high road on this one. I'm going to give up sweets not for myself but for that pure and sinless higher being, the Easter Bunny. I hear that he's partial to bikinis.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Day 219: Yes, Virginia, there is a Charlie Parker.

Oh my friends, forgive me, for it's been four days and no writing... but frankly, I've just been having too much darn fun. Life has been kind of nice lately, in a "I love my kid" kind of way. When you feel like that, it starts to feel as if nothing else matters. Except that it does.

A long list of terrific things have happened. I played in the band at the prom, and all the boys wore ruffly tux shirts, while the bari sax player dressed in so much silver that she looked like a size-12-albeit-shapely baked potato. I brought a stack of helium-filled balloons home for my gal, who has told me she loved me, unsolicited, at random intervals, about fifty times in the last three days. Together, we baked a heart-shaped cake. We raced at 85 MPH to make an Irish dance class that it turned out was canceled anyway. I sipped tea and played Coleman in a hidden cottage that love built, tucked away on a back road in my hometown. I had a rehearsal with Caravan, and meditated on sound, accompanied by a Sruti box and two magical fellows. I contemplated the development of a musician's mind, and tried to define the point at which it is appropriate to start teaching. I've practiced every day. I've attended one of the most enjoyable Irish music parties I've been to in a long time, and enjoyed the peace of knowing that I have true friends... friendships that music has glued together, more instantly than time. I didn't clean the kitchen, nor did I put away the laundry. Still, I fell in love with my hub-zind for the fiftieth time.

But I haven't told you any of this, til now. You know what J. D. Salinger said? He said,

"There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It's peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."

Oh my goodness, J.D., I do get it. Surely, you left volumes there, tucked away in Cornish, New Hampshire. Write every day, and the audience be-damned, right? After several months of blog-induced anxiety (serious psychiatrists diagnose it as hypershare-a-phobia) I do believe I now understand why J. D. Salinger has spent the last, oh, fifty years or so in silence. It is a joy to write. But my goodness, it's scary, too.

Poor auld J. D.... Someone once said to me long, long ago that what you say about others often reveals more about you than it does about those of whom you speak. J. D.'s posthumous peanut gallery agrees. They say that his fiction characters reflected who he was.


Listen to what I read last week in the Boston Phoenix newspaper, from an article about a new album from songwriter Stephin Merrit. He said:

"If you're not writing about yourself, you can say anything you want, and it will probably be more revealing of your personality than if you're writing openly about your own life."

So, allow me to write about someone else: The Kid.

Last night, I had a rehearsal and brought Wee-One/She-One along. Driving home, it was late. Normal people would have had their kids in bed by then, but we like to be the exception that proves the rule. We are not normal. Our abnormality helps you normal people to feel like you've been making the right decisions all along.

So... 11 pm and WGBH was playing jazz. Oh, Charlie Parker and Dizz, to be exact, from classic 1940s Dial masters. It was after 11. Wee-One/She-One appeared to be sleeping. It was quiet. Then, suddenly, from the back seat, a sleepy little voice said, "Mommy, is this bebop?"

Be still, my beating heart. We've been doing something right, after all.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Day 215: THIS is what it's all about.

Mahalia says it like it is. If music does nothing else, let it do this:

Day 215: Thinking with Your Heart

Typically we place our thinking place in our heads. What if we reoriented ourselves, and physically moved our thinking place to our hearts? Now do me a favor and try that with your practice--whatever your practice may be. Spend 20 minutes doing your practice activity, with a conscious focus on your thoughts coming directly from the center of your chest, at your breastbone, rather than from your head, where most of us in this culture orient our thoughts.

Does everything change?

It did for me. My shoulders relaxed, my body felt more spacious, my fingers worked better, and I finished the session by writing a jig dedicated to my sweet girl, who looked so joyous and beautiful as she ran across a playground today that it made me cry.

Let me know what you discover.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Day 213, Part 2: What the Walk Taught

Sometimes I just love New England. There's a certain, shall we say, non-sentimental, way of expressing love here that makes my heart tingle.

This morning brought me back to the frigid waterfront, though today the sun shone brightly and the ocean was a deep beautiful blue. But it was still as cold as a seagull's tailfeather.

On the path that weaves directly next to the water, I came across a strapping man in his 70s, walking two happy looking cappucino-colored, medium sized dogs--just the kind of dog I've had a yen for lately. So, as dog people do, I stopped and talked.

"Hi! What kind of dogs are those?"

He stopped, and turned to me. With a stone face and not a hint of sparkle in his eyes under that tweed Irish scally cap, he said in a strong Boston accent, "Pains in the asses."

What's a girl to do but laugh out loud?

He sought them out specifically, he said. You can't find them in petshopts. They are Tibetan mountain dogs, he said, bred by the Dalai Lama himself to have "hearts of love."

Bred by the Dalai Lama himself to have hearts of love, and still, they're pains in the asses?

I can relate.

Day 213: Going for a Walk

Yesterday morning after practice, I decided to take a walk instead of writing. It was darn cold, and the snow was whipping sideways across the grey morning ocean. Because, of course, when it's 10 degrees and snowing and windy, and you've decided that today's the day you're going to start going for walks, why not go straight to the ocean?

Well, there was a reason. I had to pick up my car, which was being repaired at a waterfront repair shop.

So I did it, and I loved it. My face froze, and my jeans did little to prevent lowerbody frostbite, but my heart was soaring. Outside! Fresh air! The Ocean! Blood pumping! Beautiful historic town!

Full of the joys of the world and grooving on the fact that I was actually out for a walk for a change, I burst into the autoshop office with a smile and proclaimed how nice a morning it was. The man behind the counter just looked at me.

"Yeah," he said. "I used to like the cold too, but after thirty years of doing this"—he gestured to the gas pumps outside—"my hands are shot and I'm pretty happy to be inside right now. Out there in the cold, and you can't even wear gloves, because then you can't count the money. We're not being tough guys out there, we have to do that."

He wasn't complaining. He was just saying.

The Buddhists tell us we're all going to die, so stop worrying.

I guess they're right. But I also wonder how much that helps the guy at the gas pumps with the raw, red, stiff hands. Or the almost-homeless friend of mine who stopped by Friday night to borrow $5 and a bag of food, since he has absolutely nothing and his food stamps won't come in til Wednesday. Or the woman I passed on the way home that morning, leaning into the wind and stumbling across the street with six carrier bags and ragged duffles, all packed to the gills and probably containing all her possessions. Or my music teacher friend who's struggling with high blood pressure because he's working so hard to support his family right now for meager income, because he chose to pursue music, his sole passion in life?

And what good did those compassionate observations have when I then passed by the chi-chi boutique and went just a little gaga for that overpriced flouncy striped skirt in the window?

What to do? I think I'll go for a walk. A walk will know what to do.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Day 211: On "Autobiography in Five Chapters"

So... today, yes I practiced. But yesterday, a wash. It's day 211, and really, I still don't feel like I've made practice into the automaton wake-up-and-smell-the-reed habit I had hoped to establish by this point. (The jury is out on whether the goal is realistic or not, of course.) The solution came to me (again) last night as I was falling asleep: If you don't do it first thing in the morning, it ain't gonna happen. Armed with that (re)discovery, I woke up, made tea, watched the weather, then went straight to the practice room. That worked. For today.

Infallible, I am not. But apparently, none of us are, as Portia Nelson so beautifully philosophizes in her poem "Autobiography in Five Chapters" (Presented in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, p. 32:

1) I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost... I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

2) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I'm in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

3) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in... it's a habit.
My eyes are open
I know where I am
It is MY fault.
I get out immediately.

4) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

5) I walk down another street.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Day 209: How Much Should I Practice?*

"How much should I practice?"

Well... how much time do you have? And how good do you want to be?

If you're a professional performer or aspire to be, you probably aren't even asking the question. For most professionals I know, the question doesn't even come up. They know it's every day, that usually means every spare moment. They can't help it, anyway.

But for the rest of us, the answer is tricky, and you have to take the two above questions and combine them. You see, everyone wants to be as good as they can be. But how much time do they realistically have available, and how can they maximize that time? For most adult learners, who are balancing their interest in music with their full-time jobs, their life partners, their children, and their passion for golf, the best answer to the question, "How much should I practice?" is this: As much as is appropriate for your life. If you've only got ten minutes, then do ten minutes. You can make it work.

At the very least, practice does need to be just about every day, because playing music is a physical activity that requires dexterity and flexibility, and though I haven't read any science on the matter, I believe that the mind/body connection--making sure your brain remembers the tunes and tells your fingers what to do, on time--requires daily exercise, too.

Practicing is very much the same as exercise, in terms of its time demands. How much should you exercise every day? If you wish to be a body builder, then three intensive hours a day or more makes sense. If you don't care about the poses, but want to look hot in red leather pants, then maybe two hours a day, including some heavy lifting? If you want to feel better, then an hour a day will do wonders. And if you just don't want to throw your back out when you're reaching across a table for the salt, then even ten minutes a day is more than enough.

In musical practice, you would be surprised at how much you can accomplish in ten minutes, if you focus on the right things. Yesterday, in a class at Bridgewater, Brassdoc said that he can accomplish much more in one hour of practice than he used to be able to accomplish in four, because he's learned what to focus on. He said, "Sometimes all you have to do is just correct three little notes, and a whole phrase comes together."

If you're really frustrated because you've been working on a tune and the same part keeps stopping you up... but you're also really crunched for time... then just work on that part for ten minutes. Get those four little notes at the end of the B part, and you may find that the rest of the tune falls into place. And when you have time during the rest of the day, visualize that phrase, sing it to yourself, and imagine your fingers playing the right notes. That counts, too.


*I think it's time to shorten my headers! We've already established that we're going 365 here, so let's just get to the point, it's day 209.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

100 Days of Practice, Round 3 Day 8: Happy Imbolc

Today's Groundhog Day and, guess what, we've got six more weeks of winter. But we knew that. The calendar told us that, long before the pudgy little tailless rat poked his head out of its Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania hole.

Hello, Neo-Celts. It's your day! It's also Imbolc, St. Bridget's Day, and Candlemas. And the Gaels used to think that the hag showed up today looking to replenish her log pile. If she got a new coat for Christmas and wanted to keep wearing it, she would make it sunny, so that she can collect lots of wood. How a hag became a groundhog is not so clear, but I do think I prefer the fuzzy little bugger.

And then there's the rest of the Celtic world, too isolated from each other to share the same legends.

-At the Hill of Tara, some stone passage is lit up.
-Somewhere else, a ewe or tewe is getting its milk.
-Some virgin is getting purified. (The Catholics are doing this; I swear, it's not my fault.)
-Brigid was walking the earth last night, blessing your clothes lines and the sock you left outside your neighbor's gate.
-The Neopagans just finished reading Harry Potter (again) and are burning their front door wreaths in the fireplace.
-The Celtic Reconstructionists are drinking Scotch and reciting poetry from The Silver Bough.
-The Wicca chicks are reapplying black nail polish.
-Helen is burning Rosemary because she already tossed out Holly.
-And MiniMe is at school making groundhog holes out of styrofoam cups.

It's a celebratory day, all around. More winter!

That's just fine with me. I only got the summer clothes into storage in November, anyway.