Birdbrain Musician #2 — “Please, Kind Sir”

It’s been a long time since I’ve made a video. I really missed it! It takes hours, but probably because I go on wild goose chases (ex. finding the perfect picture of Helen of Troy). Coordinating the visual with the soundtrack is my favorite part. If I were going to do this one over again, I would make sure that the background was the right size (so there’s no black border), and that the background didn’t have a pattern that’s slanted! I could have gone back and cropped all the black out, but that would have meant re-doing the captions, and it was 3 am, so…

This semester I have found out that I have health issues that have become chronic. I’m on a new medication, which may help, but it takes a long time to act. In the meantime, I can work on lifestyle changes that minimize symptoms. Getting good sleep is very important. Does that mean no more artists’ life for me? But…there’s already so many things I’ve had to eliminate. Coffee, tea, dairy, tomatoes (no pizza! no lasagna!). Do I have to give up my late night sessions, too? Working on a creative project — riding out the wave of inspiration til 3 am — is one of the great pleasures in my life. I hope my body will let me get away with it… once a week?


The Brand New Testament

Watched a strange little movie this evening called The Brand New Testament. It’s a Belgian film, a surreal comedy with beautiful music.

One of the strangest and most beautiful parts of the movie is when a lonely young girl has a dream about the hand that she lost in an accident years ago.

The music used here is “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s opera “Rinaldo”. The lyrics mean “Let me weep over my cruel fate, and let me sigh for liberty. May sorrow shatter these chains for my torments, just out of pity”.

I found another version of this aria by a French soprano named Patricia Petibon…

…which made me curious about her. Yes, she really does have red hair! Here she is singing the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. I loved watching her facial expressions and the movements of the conductor.

The Queen of the Night is like an over-the-top comic book villain. This version features soprano Diana Damrau. She appears to be laser-beaming her daughter with those high F’s.

“Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!”

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!


Dr. Robert Greenberg on “What is Music”

Here’s an extended quote from the audio course Understanding the Fundamentals of Music by Robert Greenberg, lecture 1.

Music is a language; a mode of sonic communication through which a tremendous amount of information of all sorts — aesthetic, stylistic, emotional and so forth– can be transferred with an ease that belies its complexity. […] I would suggest that music is the ultimate language — a mega language — a language in which our hard-wired proclivities to use successions of pitches and sounds to communicate are exaggerated, intensified, and codified into a sonic experience capable of infinitely more expressive depth and nuance than mere words alone. […] The great mid-century composer, Roger Sessions (who was the teacher of my teacher, a gentleman named Andrew Imbrie) said that music is the “controlled movement of sound in time”. Although we respectfully ask, “Controlled by whom?” Our working definition will draw on what is best from Sessions’ definition. Music is sound in time — or, if you prefer — time ordered by sound. That’s it! And that’s enough. That definition isolates the two essential aspects of music — sound and time — without any qualifications.

Notes from Piano Lessons

Since I am pouring my heart out this morning, here are some observations on my piano lessons.

I love my piano instructor. She reminds me so much of my choir director. High standards; patient, but a little ascerbic. Here is a difference, though. When my choir director would say “Ladies, you sound like wimpy little girls. I need a strong tone”, I knew exactly what to do. With piano — I play something and finally manage to get through it with minimal stumbling — my teacher says “Good. But all I could hear was the left hand” — I literally CAN NOT do it. My left hand isn’t coordinated enough to control the pressure. When I try to touch the keys lightly, I often produce no sound at all. I have a long, long way to go before my piano experiences are anything like my choir experiences.

Here are some of the Big Revelations I’ve gotten from lessons so far —

  • sitting like a tripod formed by legs and “sit bones” — then move from the waist. LLLLLEAN to the right or left to reach the higher / lower notes of the piano. DO NOT scoot with your butt on the piano bench, DO NOT sit on a chair with rolling wheels while you practice.
  • lifting the hands between phrases. Do not treat the piano like a typewriter.
  • If you are playing equally forcefully with both hands, the left hand will overwhelm the right because the piano strings are longer and thicker. Bring out the melody even if it travels from one hand to the other.
  • Sharp and flat key signatures are no more dangerous than the other keys. Get to know them. They will not bite you. Well, they may “bite” (when you miss a black key) but it’s not a poisonous bite. Recover and move on.
  • If you are playing and something starts to hurt, you are doing something wrong. It shouldn’t hurt.
  • The “Bach boys” are fascinating — they lived during a small slice of music history during which many changes were made. (This was an eye-opener for me because all my music history comes from the audio courses of Dr. Robert Greenberg. There’s no course on the Bach Boys.)

Snowy day; feeling discouraged

This is our first snowstorm of the season. I’m always a timid driver and normally I would have no issues with taking time off class. The problem is that I’ve missed a lot of classes already. I had a big family project that had to be done by Monday. That took up my normal homework and practice time. I could have been disciplined and managed to do both the home project AND my music work, but instead I took the usual amount of time to escape and to take a look at the outside world (checking Twitter and my favorite political blogs). It’s as if the hours in my day form a pie chart, and my music hours were taken over by the project. All the other slices of the pie stayed the same. I could have changed this; earlier in the semester when this sort of thing happened, I would cram the homework in no matter what else was going on — usually by skimping on sleep and taking naps on the weekend.

The result of the sleep-skimping is that I got sick and I’m still carrying the aftereffects of that. I’m not in a lot of pain anymore but I still have symptoms. I’m on an expensive medication and on a very restrictive diet. I think the restrictive diet makes it harder to resist the temptations of Twitter and my favorite blogs.

So the big stumbling blocks this semester have been 1) getting sick 2) taking care of that (doctor appointments, meds / diet) 3) big family project 4) the midterm elections.

I’ve been very invested in politics for the past few years — starting when the fight for the Affordable Care Act was being debated — and I’ve followed the ebb and flow of the conflicts, the cast of characters. I’ve rejoiced with the victories and been worn down by the losses. I remember staying up late to watch the vote on ACA repeal and saw John McCain give the thumbs down (saving at least part of the ACA). I was up til 3 am watching the midterm election results come in last week, and have been obsessively reading the blogs I follow to see what the aftermath has been.

It’s just been in the last few days that I’ve been able to breathe a sigh of relief. Looks like the ACA is safe for now; looks like a lot of environment-destroying legislation will be (mostly) blocked. The most uplifting news is that a LOT of younger people — including women and people of color — have been added to Congress. I read that the average age of congressional members has gone down 10 years because of this incoming class!

I’m happy that this new group of people is coming in — even though all of their legislative ideas will be blocked by the Senate. During this time they can formulate policies and build energy. I have hope that in 2 years they will have some ability to bring these policies forward.

Even when progressive politicians have some control, there is enough of a range in their priorities and opinions that moving forward is not a sure thing. Earlier this week our youngest new member of congress, Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, took part in a climate demonstration in front of Nancy Pelosi’s office. Was the democratic party splitting over this important issue? It turns out, no, it was an opportunity to bring attention to the issue and for Pelosi and AOC to express solidarity. There were a lot of hot takes on Twitter though, and I worried over each one.

All of this taking time and mental energy away from school.

This week I didn’t have the energy to force myself out the door. It’s always difficult for me to go to class when I don’t have the homework done; hard to go to lesson if I haven’t practiced enough. It takes courage and energy to force through the fear and worry; a sort of hammy boldness, putting on a role, getting out there, taking the consequences, bouncing back. Even when the bounces have turned out well, they still were bruising. All semester I have been struggling against the head wind of my own worries and self-consciousness and fear of judgement. It is exhausting and I chose to take a break, get caught up, get in out of the wind. Now it’s hard to get back on my feet.

I can remember the Chromatic Solfege assignment — staying up til 2 am, studying on the bus, singing in my car on the way to the bus stop, sitting in my hideaway in the stairwell, practicing, practicing. I was terrified. It took courage to decide “OK, I’m only going to learn PART of this, I’ll take the C but at least I’ll have that part down solid”. Then the test was postponed; I don’t know if we will ever get credit for having done it. I’m proud to have learned it — I think it has carried over and helped in other areas (intonation, sight reading) — but I feel bruised by the process. Not the assignment itself but the stress of my own reaction to it.

Every time I raise my hand in class — and feel stupid afterward — is a bruise. “Seriously Carol, did you have to SING the bass line to Dido’s Lament, nobody has heard of it but you and the prof, just answer the question and shut up”.

Doing a make up exam — in a drafty hallway — with a drummer practicing a samba rhythm in one ear and in my other ear a pianist forging away at arpeggios — was bruising. Not to mention having to re-schedule the exam twice because I mis-read the family calendar.

It takes about an hour and a half to get to class — half an hour to the bus stop, half an hour on the bus, and about 20 minutes before class. When I have energy I use this as an opportunity to study.  I do vocal exercises in the car, experimenting with feeling the resonance as I make different sounds. I use my large-print solfeggio book, or flash cards, on the bus. Hallway time is great for last-minute reviews before class. But it’s stressful — that’s about 3 hrs out of my pie chart of time.

Well, this has turned into more of a journal entry than a post. But in conclusion.

Music school. Positive or negative?

Overwhelmingly positive experience — I love my instructors and fellow students — and I’m learning so much and have made so much progress already — but the act of BEING A STUDENT is too much for me. I suck at it. I’m tired of dealing with my own inadequacies. Executive function, being on time, taking care of my health — I suck at it. I should have stuck with taking online courses. Then I wouldn’t be having bland chamomile tea and white rice for breakfast. I wouldn’t feel sick with guilt because it’s snowing and  I’m afraid to drive in the snow.

Well — getting discouraged, feeling like a failure, and wanting to quit are all legit parts of the musician’s experience. I guess this is my topic for this week. Dealing with Failure and Self-Loathing.

I got through the week on Transposition and the week on Chromatic Solfege; maybe I can do this one too.