Bird

I saw a bird this morning in the top branches of our cherry tree.  All black, songbird-sized, bright yellow beak.  It pecked at the fruit.  I moved closer to the window, and the bird glared briefly in my direction and flew away.    

The best match on an internet search was the common blackbird, aka Turdus merula, aka the Eurasian blackbird.  The trouble, as the last name suggests, is that those blackbirds don’t  seem to frequent the continental US.   They aren’t on The Official State List of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee or other local bird-identification sites.   Types of blackbirds found in my  state include the red-winged blackbird, the common grackle, the brown-headed cowbird, and the European starling.  None of these looked very much like the bird I’d seen, and the starling was the only one with a yellow beak.      

I wondered what kind of symbolism might be associated with a blackbird.  I’m not particularly superstitious myself, but always curious.  I’m always looking for connections between things.  The connections are constructed, but soothing.   I entered the question “What does it mean when you see a blackbird?”   

Top answer:  death.      

Ruh-roh.  I didn’t need anything to make me more anxious about my coronavirus vaccine appointment, which was 28 hours away.   I’m scheduled to get the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vax.  It engenders a mixture of hope and terror (I’m a baby about needles), and it’s on my mind so everything I hear or see gets connected to it.  In response to news reports about extreme reactions to the shot, some CNN doctor said, “Well, it’s a powerful shot.”  I didn’t find that comforting.   Now I had to work bird lore into the mix.     

The blackbird has plenty of other symbolic associations, most of them vibing with black, bird, or night.  Blackbirds can signify change, mystery, magic, night, singing.  Also they can be the Devil in disguise, evidently.   I looked for something benign that would resonate.  Many of the gurus avoided the death aspect entirely and stressed the “change” meaning.   I looked up starling symbology as well, which like the blackbird stuff, was vague and contradictory.  Starling can stand for family relationships, illumination, luck, etiquette, acceptance of one’s lot in life.   

Is it significant that confusion reigns in the 1968 Beatles song “Blackbird”?   Paul McCartney is clear about where the opening guitar lick originated: it’s based on J.S. Bach’s Bourree in E minor for lute, a piece that he had practiced.  As to where and how the song took shape, accounts vary.  McCartney wrote it in India after hearing a blackbird sing one morning.  He wrote it in Scotland while meditating on the US civil rights movement.  He wrote it in his father’s house to comfort his ailing step-grandmother.  The lyrics are about nature, or love, or justice.   

I like the song, although as with a lot of Beatles tunes I mostly know little bits of it.  Mostly  snippets that play on ads.   The Beatles had been broken up for years by the time I started listening to Top 40 radio.   Early in the pandemic, back when we were still trying to do choir rehearsals on Zoom, the director had us sing along to a karaoke version of Blackbird.   “Everybody knows this, right?” she asked.   Sure, definitely, yup.   She muted our mics so we could sing along without the distraction of sound echoes and delays.   

The guitar lick started.  This will be fun! I thought.  This is a great song!  “Blackbird singing in the dead of night,” I warbled, enjoying the lovely leap of a fifth at the end.    

I got into trouble on the second line,  “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”  Same number of syllables, but differing in rhythm and melody—I couldn’t quite remember how.   I got back on track with the last lines of the verse  “You were only waiting/for this moment to arrive” and breathed a sigh of relief.    Second verse, same problems.      

Then the background music changed.  More lyrics popped onscreen.  I couldn’t even guess at the tune or the rhythm.   Across the Zoom gallery some of my fellow choristers were smiling and singing, while others echoed my confused expression.  I kept my mouth moving, chanting the words.  “Blackbird fly, blackbird fly/into the light of a dark black night.”    

Time slowed, as it always does when I’m really screwing up.  The karaoke lasts for just over two minutes, but it felt like two months before I hit the safety of the final “You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”   

The director unmuted us.  “How did it go?”  Some of us had loved it.  Some of us had gotten confused.  One of us, a Millennial, had never heard the song before and had been lost the whole time.       

When it was my turn, I said, “I realized I don’t know this song as well as I thought.”   Which, come to think of it, could be my personal meaning for blackbird:   muddling through life’s dark spots.    

My creation…bwah hah hah

It was a dark and stormy night.  I was alone in my lab with the parts.  Joints that had lain untouched for years in a jumble around me.  Thunder rumbled.  Some would say the body on the bench was deformed.  Unnatural.  I admitted that there was an ungainliness to it.  Feverish, desperate, I fastened the pieces, unwilling to think past the moment when life might return.  Lightning speared the sky.  With trembling fingers I attached a reed to the mouthpiece, ready to breathe life into the Franken-clarinet. 

As in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, I was alone with my creation.  The Frankenstein movies typically have the primary cast members in the lab at the creature’s awakening.  Dr. Frankenstein himself, his fiancée, his best friend, and an assistant or two.  The original Frankenstein, he’s alone, and he flees his creature the moment it draws breath.  Why?  Because he suddenly notices that it’s ugly.   

I’ll admit that my creature wasn’t the prettiest.  Nor are many of the other Franken-clarinets around.  It’s a common practice among clarinetists these days to change out one or more pieces of the soprano clarinet in order to improve the instrument’s sound or tuning.  Practically nobody sticks with the factory mouthpiece.  The upper and lower joints, where the key work and tone holes are located, are the most important and are usually kept together.  The barrel, which joins the mouthpiece to the upper joint, and the bell, which fits onto the lower joint, are often swapped out.  The substitute barrel or bell can be of a markedly different color and shape than the original version; these clarinets can sometimes look as though they are well advanced on the journey to lamphood that is the ultimate fate of many aged instruments.   

Victor Frankenstein just can’t see past his creature’s ugliness.  Some critics have noted that the crime in the relationship of Frankenstein to monster seems more a violation of motherhood (rather than fatherhood) in its abandonment of nourishment and guidance.  Shelley was just 18 when she started the book, the idea originating from a ghost story competition at a house party.  She was pregnant at the time and had already lost one baby.  She knew firsthand that a newborn thing may not be particularly beautiful and can inspire both love and fear.  A baby is sublime—a word that comes up a lot in the text.  The term is used in the Romantic poetic sense, to mean a human reaction to something overwhelming (a mountain, an electrical storm, a birth) that combines ecstasy and terror.  

It goes beyond standard Franken-clarinetting to mess around with the joints, but I was desperate.  I have loved playing clarinet more than most things.  My experiences with the sublime have chiefly come through music.  My Yamaha CSV Bb clarinet, now 14 years old, had a creamy sound and was once a joy.  Except that the upper joint had a habit of cracking.  Once in the first year, then about every two or three years after that.  Cracks make playing effortful and perilous, especially on the high notes.  They are expensive to repair.  I got the latest one fixed in November, but the instrument still felt like it was pushing back on every breath.  

My husband Dave, who stopped playing clarinet about five years ago, said I could have his Bb Buffet if I wanted.  Buffet makes great clarinets, too.  Dave’s horn had been in its case for so long that its keys were fuzzy.  Also a rubber thumb rest cushion had disintegrated also, melting and spreading into the tone holes of the lower joint.  It was unusable.  

I had two unusable Bb clarinets, two different brands, and hope and terror.  That dark and stormy night, I stuck Dave’s Buffet upper joint onto my Yamaha lower joint.  Unnatural!  The  Buffet joint, grayish black, the key plating worn off in patches where fingers had hit them.  The Yamaha joint ebony, with keys  still bright.  

Shelley’s creature, also a jumble of parts, starts out with plenty of potential.  Strong, tall, and (in the book) graceful, he learns to feed and shelter himself, teaches himself to talk and read, and spends many months doing humans hidden kindnesses.  All to no avail; the humans misunderstand and attack him.  “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend,” he tells Frankenstein when they meet at last.  The movie creature achieves this psychological transition in a matter of days; the novel creature, years.  (The novel is of its time and moves slowly.)   

I apologized to the thing I had made and tried a few notes.  They felt easy and free.  It had been so long since playing felt that good.  

Frankenstein never apologizes to his creature.  He agrees reluctantly to help it, then breaks his promise, leading to more deaths and a final chase to the ends of the earth.   

Some of the Frankenstein movies have happy endings (at least for most of the principle characters, including Doctor Frankenstein and his bride).  The novel doesn’t.  Frankenstein, unsuccessful in his chase, dies.  The captain who has helped with the last leg of the journey turns away from his quest for the North Pole.  The creature proceeds Pole-ward.  The sublime remains unattained.  

The tuner reassured me that the notes were where they needed to be.  I set to work with a polishing cloth, tape, thread, and screwdriver.   Soon I had a working clarinet (though I’m still tinkering with barrels and bells).  The sublime remains unattained—but possible.    

Spring in some direction or other

Last night I dreamt of music theory again.  There was a boy and a birthday party and a dominant seven chord gone wrong.  I tried to explain to the boy that he needed Bb, not B natural, while fumbling with the ribbon on the present I’d brought. The bow kept coming untied.  

My eyes jolted open in that definitive way that makes it clear there’s no settling back into a doze.  The clock read 5:40, in the general neighborhood of when I usually get up.   

Dave, who rises earlier than I do, pulled a pair of socks from the dresser.  I asked if there was any chance he could bring my coffee upstairs.  “Sure.  Oh, and I’ll remind you that it’s Spring Forward today,” said Dave.  “It’s almost seven.” 

Just like that, I was running an hour late.  

I hate the change to Daylight Saving Time (DST).  Even on this Sunday, when when my morning tasks are simply to make the bed, shower, write the blog, and grocery shop.  I understood why the anxiety dream.  

Every year around this time the weather people start wagging their fingers at those of us dolts who can’t remember that it’s Daylight Saving, not Savings, Time.  I change the channel before the diatribe works up steam and then forget to reset the clocks.  Grammar is one of my most shameful failings, along music theory.    

I love the results of DST.  The sun will set tonight at 6:49 p.m.!  That makes me almost happy enough to forgive New Zealand entomologist George Hudson, who proposed the idea of DST in 1895.   It proved a slow-moving notion, with the first governments to adopt DST nationwide being Germany and the Austrian empire in 1916.  Nowadays some form of DST is more common than not.   

Opponents of time changes, many of whom argue that we should be on DST permanently, say that the back and forth is hard on people, especially little kids.  (Truth!  And on pets, too!) Some studies show statistically significant side effects.  Traffic accidents and some health problems tend to increase, while electricity costs and prime time TV ratings tend to decrease.   

In England and parts of Europe DST is called “summer time.”  That feels a bit confusing, but I could get used to it.  It’s a lovely phrase, appropriate, and not nearly as complicated as the difference between Saving and Savings.  The image I’d associated with DST back when I thought it was savings was a jar filled with bits of sunshine.   Nonsensical, but pretty.  A foray into the internet grammarverse turns up site after site purporting to explain.  I squint at the computer screen.  Countable and uncountable nouns, verbs, adjectives, hyphenation, capitalization.  A tiny hammer in my head starts to pound.  Savings accounts, a saving grace, saving the whales.  I close the browser, giving my blood pressure a chance to come back down.  Perhaps someday I will understand.  

I taught myself to read words at age four and music notes at age five, fitting them into structures that made sense in my head.  When teachers tried to teach me the theory behind the words or notes, with new bits of information mixed in with old bits, the structures didn’t synch.  My autism undoubtedly played a role as well.  I would ask questions that seemed weird or premature (“We’ll be getting to that in Chapter 6”), not pertinent to the rest of the class.  Various humiliations ensued, so I stopped asking and listening.   

I scraped by with little grammar until grammar school.  We freshman comp teachers were given a quick-and-dirty grammar guide, which helped me become temporarily competent.  After I stopped teaching the knowledge flitted out of my brain.  

I avoided music theory for even longer.  A jazz piano teacher helped me feel comfortable with chord progressions, and then I started online courses. Sometimes theory was easier than I’d expected, but much of the time it was frickin’ hard.  Also: worth it.  Adding even the first few new concepts expanded my understanding and created idea after idea.  

There’ve been lots of ideas for dealing with waxing and waning daylight.  Some civilizations changed the shape of the hours, deciding that daylight would have twelve equal segments whose lengths would vary throughout the year.  A slender winter solstice hour lasted 44 minutes, while a summer solstice hour rounded out to 75.   I love that.

However…if I decide to spend an hour or two reviewing grammar, maybe I should wait until December.    

Abundance

I made it to the dress rehearsal an hour early.  In record time, in fact: the traffic gods had been kind.  

I killed some time at the Dunkin Donuts down the street from the playhouse.  (Just as you’re usually less than eight feet from a spider, in Massachusetts you’re usually less than a mile from a Dunkin.)  The counter ladies were talking about the virus, of course.  There were no cases in the area so far.  The whole United States had recorded just six official deaths.  I gathered my hot black, no sugar and blueberry muffin, nodding in full agreement that it was crazy that the town, out of an abundance of caution, was thinking about shutting down school for two weeks!    

I had the tables to myself for a few minutes.   Then class finished at the dance center next door, generating a line of moms, the daughters with their toes turned out ballerina style.  One of the girls coughed.  “Don’t worry: it’s allergies, not Covid,” said her mom, with a nervous laugh.  In an abundance of caution I headed back to the car.   

The playhouse had a brick facade and fancy columns.   It looked a lot like my local library.  Still too early for rehearsal, I took a quick walk.  There was a park across the street with playing fields and a pond, which I’d already explored, so I headed down a residential street with a little frisson of uneasiness.  This was for personal reasons, not Covid.  

Early in our relationship, my husband Dave had driven me around various North Shore neighborhoods, with commentary.  Beverly: his elementary school, his high school.  Gloucester: his family’s first house, the one with no heat upstairs.  Salem, Marblehead.  And this town, where his first wife Lily had grown up.  After their four-year marriage collapsed she’d moved back.  

Now was twenty-five years on from those tours.  Lily and Dave hadn’t stayed in touch, but according to the family grapevine and Facebook, she had found someone new, had a couple of kids. I didn’t know whether she still lived in this town.  There was a good chance that even if we met, we wouldn’t recognize one another.  I knew Lily solely through album photos 30 years old: blond like me, beaming on her wedding day, watching TV, relaxing at an Independence Day barbecue.  

I wondered if I’d passed her house, whether she’d be coming to the show.  Maybe we’d bond unawares in a Dunkin line, commiserating about abundances of caution and shutdowns.     

The only person I saw outside was a man with his dog.  Back at the playhouse, with about 15 minutes to spare, there was the usual chaos.  Hammers banging, people talking, a portable radio playing oldies, the smells of coffee, fresh paint, dust.  I  looked around for someone to tell me where to set up.  The director, Brian, an energetic man with a beard, rushed over.   “I’m so sorry, rehearsal’s cancelled for tonight.  There was a text…”  

I checked my phone and found a message about 25 minutes old.    

“Stick around if you want, there’s going to be a board meeting in a few minutes and we’ll have more information for you.” Traffic back home would be terrible; I stuck around.  The stage crew continued managing the million-and-one last-minute details, moving a Victorian-style sofa back a few inches.  The male lead  huffed in, asking if there was any way to reverse the board’s decision.      

The Keyboard 2 player had also missed the text.  He was unhappy to find that he would have to move all his gear, which we’d schlepped upstairs after the first rehearsal, back to his car.  We were a tiny pit, just three players.  Charlie, the music director and Keyboard 1, offered to help.  On the sidewalk outside, he pulled both of us aside.  “I’m sure we’re not going up next week,” he said.  “I’ll let you know about new dates.” 

“I hope I‘ll be able to play,” I said.  I already had the next couple of months’ worth of shows booked, plus Sonny’s senior recital and graduation, and Easter, bunches of stuff.   I left the book with Charlie just in case my schedule didn’t synch and then screwed my courage to the sticking point and asked about compensation for that afternoon’s drive.  Charlie conferred with Brian conferred and agreed to pay half a service.   

“Guess I’ll see you in a few weeks!  I hope you don’t have to cancel the show,” I said.  

“There is no way we’ll cancel,” Brian said.  “I have a budget to meet.” He shook my hand.  Out of an abundance of caution we were supposed to be bumping elbows, instead, but nobody in musicals land had adopted that precaution.      

“You’re home early,” said Dave. 

“Yeah, let me tell you about my evening…”      

Over the next week or two I practiced the parts for upcoming shows, sourced toilet paper, and fretted.  I started blogging pandemic diaries.   The then-president intimated that by Easter things would be opening up, but the emails warbled a contradictory counterpoint.  Sorry, they said, out of an abundance of caution the gig’s postponed!  Then: we’re rescheduling to June! Then: Sorry, we’ve canceled.   

Brian did manage to put on a skeleton production of the show.   Just before Labor Day the company performed the musical outside, in that pretty little park.  Charlie accompanied on keyboards in a one-man socially distanced pit.  No word on how the budget turned out, but no checks were ever mailed in my direction.  I never got another chance to run into Lily at Dunkin.  

Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday when I packed my instruments into the car and headed for that gig, but most of the time it feels like a decade’s passed.  A few venues are starting up shows again; out of an abundance of caution, the musical accompaniment involves backing tracks or musicians who can wear masks while playing.  Wind players are too risky for the close quarters of a pit.  In an abundance of caution, we remain on the sidelines, where we watch our embarrassment of riches dwindle ever further.  

Being off the road gives me an abundance of time to check social media, which is packed right now with anniversary tales about the week when our industry folded in on itself. This is mine.            

The dog-paddler

Around the time of Sonny’s autism spectrum diagnosis our family life was very busy.  He had homework, social skills groups, birthday parties, tae kwon do, art classes, etc.  I taught private music lessons and did medical transcription to have a schedule flexible enough to take Sonny to his appointments, help with the homework, all the parent things.  For a few years I was too busy to participate in music groups.  Gradually I realized this was making me miserable.  Even though the  schedule was still crazy, I began taking baby steps back into playing in a group.    It felt great: I was playing clarinet with other grownups!  It felt crappy: I hated my sound!  I had way less control of the instrument than I wanted.  I needed to find a teacher.     

I feel similarly at the moment about writing.   A bit stuck.  Maybe I need to rebuild my process?   It was in this spirit that I (re)started The Artist’s Way (by Julia Cameron) a few weeks ago.  I’m still trudging through the book, doing the morning pages and exercises.   No sense of magic or renewal, though.  That’s possibly because I find Cameron’s writing persona off-putting.  I’m thinking about looking for a writing coach, somebody who could help me the way that my music teachers have.  

I’ve taken private music lessons on several instruments—piano, flute, voice, clarinet—off and on for much of my life.   One of the things that I valued most was the personal interaction with the teacher.  I’m always fascinated by my teachers’ lives and their homes, which are usually on the maximalist side, a cheerful clutter of instruments, scores, books, and pets.  My own students seem to enjoy the pictures in my studio, the Beethoven action figure who guards the pencil cup, the mobile, Trapeze Quartet, that hangs from the ceiling.   They eye the bookcases.  “Wow, you have a lot of music!” they say, these kids whose sum total of music books consists of a couple of method books and a band folder.   Yes.  

My first clarinet teacher, Bob, first chair in the local symphony, lived with his wife in a house in the swanky end of town.    He had a little brown dog who skedaddled into the kitchen (where his wife would be fixing dinner) when we took out our instruments.  His music stand was stacked with orchestra parts and excerpt books.   A butcher block table with purple boxes of Vandoren 5s, screwdrivers, sandpaper,  pencils, an ashtray, and a coaster for his martini.  Our lessons were at five p.m., and Bob liked a smoke and a drink before dinner.   I’d play my Beethoven six assignment to an accompaniment of clinking ice and rattling pans, the air filled with the smells of tobacco and meat.         

Several of my clarinet teachers have been smokers.   It seems counterintuitive for wind players, but cigarettes have a calming effect and are notoriously hard to quit.  The teacher I found during my midlife clarinet crisis, Mark, was a smoker, also.  (Though he would never smoke during a lesson.) 

He lived in a first-floor apartment on a quiet street in Jamaica Plain.  Cigarette butts in the garden.  His studio had a workbench and built-in bookcases that stretched to the ceilings, loaded with books and music.  Instrument cases lined against one wall.  His two cats, unusually for the species, seemed indifferent to clarinet acoustics and would often hang out while we were playing.  Mark had contracts with a some big music companies, Selmer and Rico (now D’Addario), was a professor at a conservatory, and had performed as a soloist all over the world.  The day of our first lesson, it took me several minutes to work up the courage to ring his doorbell, but he was warm and welcoming.  

Mark was also uncompromising.  He had a ferocious musical mind and an incredible ear.  He was supportive while also being picky.  Really picky.  Earlier in my life, when I perceived any flaw as an indictment of my worth as a human being, I would have fled after a couple of lessons.  With my earlier teachers, I had cultivated a self-protective ambivalence, practicing some weeks and then other weeks rehearsing excuses instead of my pieces.  Deprivation had made me desperate enough at last to work hard and consistently, even with the possibility that I would fail.  This mindset kept me going with Mark as we changed everything:  my breathing, embouchure, hand position, articulation, finger action, pitch, phrasing, rhythm.   As is true of many big changes, things often sound worse while the new technique is forming.  Some days picky would turn waspish.  Those were hard days for me and my neuroses.  I suspect that both of us wished for a cocktail and cigarette.  However, by the time our lessons ended, Mark having moved to New York, I was a different, and much better, clarinet player.      

I’ve expressed my worries about writing a few times in this blog.   Fear that trying for real will just prove that I’ve been wasting time, that the disapproving voice in my head has been right all along.  I remind myself that things didn’t work that way with Mark, who was and always will be a much better clarinetist than I.    He helped me swim in the deep end, even if I’m dog-paddling while he’s  doing the backstroke.   

Off google writing coaches.  

Holiday songs part 2: perils of caroling

You’ve probably seen them on a street corner, or at the mall, at a holiday party, or even strolling through your workplace or neighborhood. Carolers. People tend to love or despise them. I’ve felt both emotions on encountering these groups of smiling singers, especially if I have no warning ahead of time. However, I may as well confess: I spent a few years with a company that hired out a cappella caroling quartets.

We wore Dickensian (early Victorian) outfits. The men in high-waisted trousers, vests, and top hats. Women in long skirts puffed out with scratchy crinolines, bonnets decorated with bits of floral fluff and ribbons, and a wool wrap draped over the shoulders. These picturesque outfits were always wrong for the ambient temperature, leaving us sweating while singing indoors and shivering outdoors.

We worked from a book with around 120 tunes, most of them traditional carols photocopied from hymnals, plus a few Hanukkah songs and some mid-twentieth century hits like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, “Let it Snow!” and “The Christmas Song.” We strolled or stood, whatever the venue decreed. When we’d sung for a bit, drawn a crowd, we would invite people to request songs. Always interesting to see the audience’s reaction to being put on the spot. Some people would have a brain freeze, while others eagerly shouted out “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “All I Want for Christmas is You” only to get a “Sorry, we don’t have that in the book, would you like to hear something else?” This is when, inevitably, one of the following three songs would be suggested: “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” or “O Holy Night.”

Over the course of a one- or two-hour gig we would sing Jingle Bells one miiiillion times. Okay, 10 or 15 times. It’s a short song even if you do all the normal verses, which tell a tale about the joys of riding in a “one-horse open sleigh” (the original title), even when the occupants get “upsot” in verse two. This song has a Massachusetts connection. Its composer was sometime-organist James Lord Pierpont, who was born in the state. High Street in Medford, MA, features a plaque claiming (mistakenly) that Pierpont composed Jingle Bells in 1850 while pounding ales in the town’s Simpson Tavern. Pierpont did live in Medford for a while, but in 1850 he was in California. He copyrighted “One-Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857 while living in Savannah, Georgia, so the people of Savannah also lay claim to the birthplace of the song. Like “Let It Snow,” this is a song about the winter sport of sleigh-riding rather than Christmas, but it’s been associated with that holiday since at least 1900. Fun fact: Jingle Bells was the first song broadcast from space, on December 16, 1965! Not so fun facts: Jingle Bells was first publicly performed in 1857, at a blackface minstrel show in Boston by the singer Johnny Pell. Also, after his move to Georgia Pierpont fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederates.

Despite its shady origins, Jingle Bells peps up a crowd. With a range of just a fifth, the chorus is eminently singable, and the audience often joins in. Silent Night, on the other hand…It’s a beautiful song, but with a big range for casual singers (an 11th) and a bunch of treacherous high notes in the second half. Maybe because of the high notes, the audience tends to listen to Silent Night instead of sing along. This was our most cried-to piece. It’s been stirring emotions since 1818. The lyrics were written by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, while the music was set by organist Franz Xaver Gruber. The first version was for voice and guitar because the organ in Mohr’s church was broken. I’m glad Mohr specified guitar: in my opinion the emotional content of Silent Night is beautifully expressed with voice and guitar.

The truly scary high notes come in O Holy Night. Many arrangements give the melody to the tenor, but our book followed the original performance practice and gave the soprano the high Bbs. (Fortunately I sang alto and stayed below the Death Zone.) Whenever a listener would request this this piece, if we’d already done it once or twice, the soprano got the veto. O Holy Night was our most-denied tune. It’s another song from the 1800s, 1847, to be precise, with music by organist Adolphe Adam set to lyrics by one-handed poet/wine merchant Placide Cappeau.

The original title is “Cantique de Noel,” and its lyrics are quite progressive, opposing slavery and elite abuse of power. Here’s a sample from verse 2: “Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur,/A votre orgueil, c’est de la que Dieu preche.” This basically translates as “Mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness, It is to your pride that god preaches.” Even though the song was a popular hit, the French church authorities banned it from religious services for a time because it turned out that Cappeau was an atheist. John Sullivan Dwight , a Unitarian minister, liberally translated the lyrics into English in 1855, giving the last verse an expicitly Abolitionist bent.

I enjoy singing the old songs. Just as with reading a novel from the 1800s or a poem written in 900, there’s a thrill in the connection with the past. However, by the end of a 20-Jingle-Bell gig my singing smile could stretch a little tight.

Back at the dressing room, the first off would be the bonnet. Once I had my sweater and jeans back on and had shoved the last prickly bit of crinoline into the depths of the garment bag, I donned my headphones. Something non-holiday to drive the carols to the back of the brain, until the next time I needed to sing them with a smile.

Holiday song checklist: one

In which I measure my life against one holiday classic at a time, starting with the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn tune “Let It Snow!”

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

July, 1945: Los Angelenos were sweltering in record heat. Styne wanted to go to the beach to cool off; his songwriting partner Cahn wanted to cool down by writing a tune about winter. The song doesn’t mention a holiday, but it was quickly looped into the December playlist in the Northern Hemisphere. (In the Southern Hemisphere, people sing “Let it Snow!” in July.) Styne and Cahn followed the song a year later with “The Things We Did Last Summer,” which was a hit, but small compared to the accidental winter classic.

A brief look outside: yesterday it was in the 50s; today it’s snowing sideways. Check!

But the fire is so delightful…

Our house has a big chimney with three fireplaces (one in the basement, one in the living room, and one in the master bedroom. When we toured the place 13 years ago, those fireplaces were a big selling point. Winter came and so did the fire fights–not fights handled by muscular humans hauling hoses, but relationship fights about how to get a fire started and keep it going.

Dave skipped a lot of the stereotypic manly man stuff in his formative years. His lack of interest in golf, for example, has saved us a lot of money, which we can then use to pay the odd jobs man for home repairs more complicated than picture hanging. However, he has a few regrets. Possibly due to his Boy Scout days, Dave views “fire-starting” as a core male competency. It turned out to be tricky to manage the fireplaces. I developed somewhat of a knack for starting fires that didn’t burn out 20 minutes later, and this led to the kind of little conflicts that afflict our marriage from time to time. Unlike Styne and Cahn, who wrote together for about eight years and then abandoned that partnership, Dave and I have stayed together (but we stopped making fires in our fireboxes).

The decision was made easier by the fact that every fire stunk up the house for days afterwards. Sometimes I wonder what the previous owners burned in there: angry ghosts of Christmas past? Definitely something with payback on its mind. We swept the chimneys annually without any improvement. Until 2020, our hearths remained purely decorative except in the case of winter power outages that require a substitute heat source. This summer we finally donated the cord of wood that had sat unused in the garage since 2011–it’s dried out for sure–to one of Dave’s buddies from high school.

Then I saw a picture in a magazine: a fireplace stuffed with candles and mirrors, et voila! I made my own version, so now we can have firelight without the mess. The candles, alit, do look quite pretty, but fall short of delightful. Maybe if we had some holiday lights up…

I’ll just take a couple of minutes and pop some Christmas lights on the mantle. Even though it meant a trip to the spider-ridden corners of the basement. Yay, me! They string a bit tangled–No, Capone, not a cat toy!–back to the basement to find the extension cord…

Cobwebs, cat scratches, and curses later: Delightful! Check!

Since we’ve no place to go…

Coronavirus wasn’t a thing in July of 1945. However, this banner year in world history also featured the first flu vaccine authorized for use on civilians in the US. We’re all hoping to get the COVID vaccine as soon as possible, so that we can enjoy the 2021 holiday season. Until we’re able to move about safely, though, most of the time we’ve no place to go. Check.

Let it snow!

No one will ever convince me that I have no influence over the weather. I can keep the rain away simply by carrying my umbrella. When I can find the darn thing. Did my wonder at Friday’s temperatures (in the 50s) and brief thankful thought that at least we hadn’t had any snow since the Halloween storm cause this Nor’easter? Probably. “Let it snow!” Check.

Let it snow!

Unfortunately I’ve never been able to work out a practice that stops a snowstorm. Cursing, putting the snow shovel on the steps, saying “tut tut, it looks like rain” regularly fail me. For now I’ll turn to a phrase I embroidered on a sampler, once upon a time: grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change. Check.

Let it snow!

The song keeps pushing this line. Maybe it’s asking something of me. Maybe an attitude adjustment? There is, I finally admit, something about being in a warm, sheltered place with people I love, watching Nature do its thing. Check!

Stress test

NaNoWriMo report, a quarter of the way through. The good: I worked on the novel every day and am now more than 10,000 words in! A little behind a straight line to 50,000, but not so far behind that catching up will take a herculean effort. Every day I brewed tea, set up the laptop in the dining room, and put words onto the screen. (A lot the words are lousy, but that’s to be expected.) My story is moving forward. The bad news: spending time writing didn’t disconnect me from the world as I’d hoped. It didn’t sent politics and the pandemic and human rights scuttling to the edge of my awareness. Every day still felt like a year.

I managed to keep up with practicing my instruments as well as with writing. As part of my 2020 music practice I’ve been going through the orchestra parts I have in roughly chronological order. This week I was up to 1815-17, which included several Schubert symphonies. Talk about staying productive under stress…

By 1815-17, when Franz Schubert was writing his third through fifth symphonies, Vienna had suffered major losses in the Napoleonic wars. The government reacted to the loss by cracking down on all forms of dissent. The state’s secret police and censors prohibited and punished political speech and made restrictive new laws. For example, males had to make a certain income in order to get married (which kept Schubert single). There were spies everywhere. Citizens reacted by putting their heads down. Or by joining various underground revolutionary movements. The protective, inward-looking choice was to perform a cozy home life with “Hausmusik” around the piano, letter-writing, painting, crafting, and novel-reading, and never any talk of revolution or how societal problems could be managed differently. It reminds me of the apolitical domesticity on display in today’s lifestyle and family channels–and, yes, often on this blog. Artists in Vienna had to avoid any norm-questioning content or risk being forcibly silenced. This must have been incredibly stressful.

Schubert, living in these interesting times, doesn’t seem to have had his creativity much stifled. He wrote piano music and chamber works, much of it appropriate for the Hausmusik set, as well as symphonies and other big pieces. And he wrote songs, quite a few of which put dissenting lyrics to music, also performed as Hausmusik. (He seems to have gotten away with that, maybe because the songs themselves tended to be gorgeous.) By the time he died at age 31, he had composed around 1500 works.

I’m also living through “interesting times.” My anxiety level for the past four years has mostly been stuck at the three-days-before-finals level. For the past couple of months, as the election approached, it’s risen to nightmare-where-I’m-being-chased-through-the-house-by-a-knife-wielding-maniac. Watching my country inch, and sometimes sprint, away from democracy has been draining. Instead of creating things, I’m consuming things: cheese, chocolate, merlot, television.

Yesterday’s projection that Biden will be the winner of the presidency had people dancing in the streets. I danced in the grocery line and put the peanut butter cups back on the shelf instead of in my shopping basket. I wrote in the afternoon and woke up this morning feeling ready to write some more. I will never be a Schubert, but week two: here I come.

Four strings

It was the final round of the TV show Wheel of Fortune. For her final puzzle, the contestant had to figure out a mystery word. She was able to pick five consonants and a vowel, but even with a six-letter spot, the clue was largely empty, reading ” _ _ _ _ E _ E.” She muttered her answer so softly that the host had to ask her to say it again, louder. “U-ku-lele?”

My husband Dave still remembers the look on Pat Sajak’s face. Dumbfounded.

Did you know they sell ukuleles at Target? Inside the actual store! My local Target regularly runs out of toilet paper, sweetener packets, jigsaw puzzles, and Clorox wipes, but the ukulele stock remains current. I discovered this while shopping for Sonny’s birthday last week in the electronics section. A pair of them nestled on the bottom shelf in a short, dusty aisle containing clock radios and boombox CD players. The price for the instrument, instruction manual included, was $39.99. Hmmm, I though: no wireless headphones here. But a few days later, when I was pondering how to allocate my own birthday money (my birthday being the day after Sonny’s)–like cookies on the kitchen counter, I couldn’t get the Target ukuleles out of my mind.

The ukulele will be the third stringed instrument in our house. There’s a violin that I’d like to learn to play (someday) (maybe) and a pink, rarely used guitar that Sonny won at music camp. I learned a bit of guitar as a kid. My mom had one–not pink, sadly. However, the wire strings made my fingers hurt, making clarinet practice difficult. My best friend’s mother was a professional classical guitarist who had a radio program on the local NPR station; she used to say that a decent practice session was when her fingers started bleeding. She wasn’t joking. I preferred my music-related bleeding to remain metaphorical, so I gave up guitar soon after I’d started.

While guitars were everywhere during my childhood, I grew up during a trough in ukulele popularity. The only ukulele player I knew of was Don Ho, mostly from his appearances on the Hawaii episodes of The Brady Bunch. The ukulele is a Hawaiian instrument, modeled on the small guitars (cavaquinhos) played by Portuguese sailors in the later 1800s, whose fingers dancing on the strings inspired the name. Ukulele means jumping fleas. Ukuleles felt fun to me, but a little tourist-trappy, like a plastic lei or a Tiki bar.

As staying at home in 2020 became practically permanent and it became clear that my music-making would be in my living room or by video, I began to covet an instrument more portable than a keyboard. One that I could try for fun. The ukulele is ranked as one of the easier instruments to achieve a basic proficiency–of course, like any instrument, to play it well is a lot of hard work. I also figured the smaller strings would be easier on my fingers than what I remembered from guitar.

Once home the ukulele sat in the box, untouched, for almost a week. When it comes to starting things, I’m better at preparation than execution. After dinner yesterday, though, I took the plunge and opened the box. The instrument features a cheerful red lacquer on the back, a black neck, and white nylon strings; the front of the body is the color of our dining room table. Easy to learn, easy to learn, I reassured myself, and logged on to the Hal Leonard audio course that supplements the beginners’ book.

Five minutes later I was swearing. Tuning: how could it be so hard? About 20 minutes in, Dave poked his head around my studio door. “How’s it going?” My fingertips hurt like hell, I complained. Not as bad as with guitar, but still: ouch! I’m going to stop in a couple of minutes and try again tomorrow. Two chords is plenty for the first day. Forty-five minutes after that conversation I set the ukulele on the piano bench, having added four more chords plus five melody notes. The wonderful thing about a new instrument: the incremental improvements are enormous when you start from zero.

Also I had spent an hour without worrying about politics or climate change or that guy down the block who’s flying one of those racist thin-blue-line flags. Distraction from the horrible present, my search for which is ongoing, had been achieved. For a bit.

It’s close to impossible these days for me to lose myself in a book. Sometimes a game will do it, sometimes drawing, sometimes writing, but the sweet spot of absorbing, focused activity is hard to achieve. With ukulele, for now, there’s enough new information to keep my brain involved, plus sensory stimuli as my fingers learn what to do, plus the comforting feeling of the ukulele resting against my body like a sleeping baby.

My practice session left me happy but wired. My left hand fingers tingled whenever I leaned them into any surface, so my sleep was interrupted. Not exactly painful, but a reminder of what I’d done to them. Even as I type this, they still feel a bit sore. They’ll get tougher–and faster and more accurate–with time. Maybe someday they’ll be ready to run off with the flea circus, though probably never as fast as those old-time sailors, playing their cavaquinhos on the Hawaiian docks. I discovered that another name for cavaquinho is machete and realized also that machete would have been another possible answer for the puzzle _ _ _ _ E _ E! I fall into a fabulous daydream about explorers slashing through the Hawaiian jungle with their ukuleles, watching for feral pigs and carnivorous caterpillars, all the while accompanying the songs of birds of paradise and linnets.

My ukulele waits on the piano bench.

Unexpected Russians, and rushing

In July, 2019, a couple of thousand clarinetists, myself included, descended on Knoxville, Tennessee, to attend the annual International Clarinet Association convention.    I go to an ICA convention about once a decade.    I’d passed Tennessee a few times as a kid on trips from Virginia to Texas, but never lingered.  Knoxville, which is located in the Tennessee Valley, was totally new to me.   I liked it: the downtown area was compact and delightful, with plentiful green space, interesting public art, and fun restaurants and shops, plus a nearby river.    Extremely walkable, which is a plus, with only the minor drawback that I found myself walking a bit faster than the Tennesseans.    City life in cold climates tends to speed up one’s pace.

The ICA events occurred at the University of Tennessee, a bit more than a mile from my hotel.  Free trolleys were available but in the mornings, before the heat came crashing down, I would usually walk over to the university campus.   One day I cut through the World’s Fair Park (Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair in 1982) on the way to UT and found something unexpected, yet serendipitous: a 12-foot-tall, bronze statue of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff!  How did it get there?  The answer’s interesting, but sad: Rachmaninoff, who was a pianist as well as a composer, gave what turned out to be his final concert in Knoxville in 1943 and then died five weeks later in California of melanoma; he had also recently become an American citizen.   The statue shows a tall, bony, slender man in concert dress with enormous hands.

Finding the statue felt serendipitous because an excerpt from one of Rachmaninoff’s compositions is on the short list of many clarinet auditions.  Probably at least one of the master classes at the convention would at least touch on this excerpt, which is from the slow movement in Rachmaninoff’s second symphony.   It’s an enormous clarinet solo, slow and with places to breathe few and far between.  The way to get through it successfully is by relaxing, taking a full, humongous breath, thinking through to the end of the phrase, even if it feels as though your lungs are going to burst if you don’t take in more air, and never, ever rush the melody.  

I have to admit:  rushing’s an issue for me in numerous life dimensions.  It’s not just walking faster than southerners.    I always want to get onto the next thing before I’ve absorbed the present—sometimes before I’ve even noticed the present.    Teachers filling out my report cards from kindergarten through sixth grade point out that I “tend to hurry through” my work and turn in papers that are “messy.”      

At UT—modern, stylish buildings, blessedly air-conditioned—I remembered an audition I took once.  It was a practice audition, a warm up for an important one.    I expected that I might make some nerve-induced mistakes and (theoretically) welcomed the idea of critique.  And boy howdy, did the critique come:  after a bit of pro—“you sounded great…your technique is solid”—the conductor gave me the big con:  “but you were rushing like crazy.”   So much that he moved me down from the first section to the second section because of it!  “Unless you were unusually nervous…” he said, giving me an out that I didn’t take.  

I went home and worked like hell on de-rushifying my playing.    The important audition included the Rachmaninoff, which I didn’t rush.  I got the position.   I’ll probably never fully master my rushing tendencies, but I can be aware when I start to get too far ahead of the beat.   I seek out models who have such a solid sense of pulse that they can spin out a melody that’s not necessarily right on the beat, but still syncs with the song.    

After a day of workshops and recitals, I took a different route from UT to downtown.  I was walking at a good clip, thinking ahead to how nice it would be to have a cocktail at the Hyatt’s rooftop bar.   At a zebra crossing I started towards the other side of the street.  As a pickup truck was nearly at the crossing, I broke into my usual pedestrian triple-time shuffle .  That’s what I always do with oncoming vehicles back home in Massachusetts.    The driver leaned out of the window, smiled, and drawled, “Take your time, Darlin’.”  

I’m trying, Sir.  I truly am.