Quietude.

Yes, it really has been almost two years since I published anything on this blog.  And that is because I have been struggling in several ways.

Firstly, I ended up giving up a life of freelancing and building my own business for the time being. While I still believe in getting more people who enjoy music to play it with others, I realized it wasn’t a viable option for me on which to make a living.

Secondly, I enjoy teaching flute, traverso, and historical performance practice.  Piano lessons, however, are not my bag.  I shall leave that to those fantastic instructors who fit that role so much better.

Thirdly, I had to admit to myself that I am very selective in the music I enjoy hearing and playing, and tolerate a little outside of that.  Though I am willing to try out different genres of music, I have to be honest with myself as to what I can stick with through the long haul.

Many other factors played into this:  I was tired of asking for monetary help, I tired of dealing with depression and various health difficulties. I disliked so much in life, and attempting to wear the positive face with all of that going on drained me so terribly that I was exhausted all the time.

Life is slightly better now since I started working at a music publishing company.  I can get by financially. Since I’ve started walking and jogging, I feel better overall. And I’ve been working on music projects that I enjoy that also challenge me.

I hope to post a bit about musical projects that I’m doing in the near future.  Additionally, I have another blog that covers life in general, not just music, at Garden of the Muse.

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Finding One’s Voice.

A quote from Williams' character in

A quote from Williams’ character in “Dead Poets Society”

At this point, the world is mourning the loss of Robin Williams.  His humor and quick wit, as well as his depth in the portrayal of complex characters, was appreciated by so many.  My favorite film of his was Dead Poets Society, which I saw as a teen.  That movie gave me hope. It encouraged non-conformity, influence of the world through the passion of words, ideas, and the arts, and who could forget the carpe diem segment.

Those are all wonderful concepts to take in during one’s formative years, but the concept I find as my challenge right now is that of finding my own voice. It’s tough, especially when it seems that none of the conventional molds really fit oneself.  In my case, I’m in a place at which I know what is not for me.  I enjoy the quest of research in music as well as historical performance practice of it. Creating a conversation with music, about music, and around music seems, to me, one of the best ways to deepen its culture, in addition to getting more people interested in gathering to play music together so as to have their own experiences.

Getting others to understand what I’m about and what I’m after is challenging, as well.  We are in a society that thinks in terms of pre-formed, long-standing establishments.  New ventures are not embraced often. While I have tried conventional ways of inviting people to participate, I think this is best handled by simply doing as demonstration. Listen to performances, hear how we sound, enjoy conversing about music, then realize that music can be a greater part of your life, if you work with it. It might be slow, but it is an authentic way of gaining trust and understanding of a targeted audience.  And through this process, may it be possible for us all to allow our true talents, skills, characteristics, values,  passions, and personalities to shine through, being the best we can be.

“You know what music is? God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, everywhere, even the stars.”
-The Wizard (Williams’ character in August Rush)

from

from “Quack this Way”

I hope that, at some point in the process, I will find a circle of people with whom I resonate, much like David Foster Wallace had written about in his book called Quack This Way. But make no mistake:  having peers with similar tastes does not equal having voices you can plagiarize. Austin Kleon provides guidelines for developing one’s own voice in ten steps. Confession:  I have been stuck for quite some time because I have been holding out until I figured out exactly who I am and what I’m doing before getting started, or before sharing any of the process of the work that I’m doing (see step 2). And it really is of utmost importance to have other hobbies and projects to provide variation and interest.  This is why long-time readers of this blog have read a few entries on gardening here, and I may occasionally take other detours here to discuss my other interests like dance, sauerkraut-making, and using collage and glyph art to work out mental blocks. By doing this, you get a complete picture of myself and work and how other pieces of the puzzle of my life fit together, as I work out what the picture will ultimately be.

I post this, not just as an alert that this is not just a music blog, and not just as a warning that you will see some entries that might be rough and about process.  Consider this an invitation for you to do the same. What kind of art and work do you want to develop in your own life, and what steps are you taking to get there?  Share it with me here, on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or in person.  Look to unique souls such as Williams and Wallace to speak your truth and be yourself. Ask yourself what Mr. Keating asked his Dead Poet Society class:

“…the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

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Belsky’s corner: at the intersection of Carrey and Rhimes.

With the graduation season past us, we now have a plethora of commencement speech videos circulating on the internet. Some of them are classics from years ago, some are fairly new, and some have gone viral.  There are two that were presented this year that have very different messages.

Jim Carrey’s commencement speech to the Maharishi University of Management showed up in a few places on my Facebook feed first. I should preface this with the caveat that I’m not a fan of Jim Carrey’s movies, nor am I a great appreciator of his sense of humor.  Because of that, I almost clicked away from it, which would have meant missing the main messages he had to give. He spoke of being authentic, enthusiastic, and limitless, and connected to everything and everyone in his surroundings.  His bit on fear encourages us to take a chance on doing what we love because it’s possible to fail in pursuing the safe route, as well as our dreams.  Carrey promotes a strong sense of servant leadership, inspiring people to figure out how they can go out into the world and serve others the best. “The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is, because everything you gain in life will rot and fall apart, and the only thing that will be left is what was in your heart.”  Also, support of the adages of “know thyself” and “to thine self be true” are offered, as Carrey suggests “To find real peace, you must let the armor go. Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. Don’t let anything stand in the way of the light that shines through in this form. Risk being seen in all of your glory.” And free yourself from the negativity in your head, as well as the constraints and labels we tend to put on ourselves. “It’s about letting the universe know what you want, and working toward it while letting go of how it comes to pass.”

Carrey concludes with this summation:
“You are ready and able to do beautiful things in this world, and as you walk through those doors, you will only have two choices:  love or fear. Choose love, and don’t ever let fear turn you against your playful heart.”

The other speech that has gotten some press is that from Shonda Rhimes at Dartmouth this year.

It is one that has all the hallmarks of Rhimes’s quick and quirky narrative style with which Grey’s Anatomy fans are familiar. She starts to go in a similar direction as Carrey, speaking of people and their dreams, then abruptly informs us: “I think that’s crap. I think that while there are a lot of people busy dreaming,  the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people are busy doing.” Lesson 1:  ditch the dream, and be a doer, not a dreamer. Rhimes had a dream to be Toni Morrison until she realized that role was already taken, so she figured out how to encourage the best in becoming herself through writing in film school. Her next lesson: as graduates from an ivy-league school, they have reached a pinnacle of achievement of their lives, about to go into a world that treats others as ordinary and not special. Though this circumstance is tough, Rhimes insists that the new grads guard themselves against acting like privileged jerks. Instead, she suggests giving back to others by volunteering or somehow helping to make the world suck less. There is a level of balance in life, meaning that successes in one part of life are countered with failures in another part of life.

Like Carrey, she advocates for standing up, being heard, and being yourself.

Two very different speeches with some intersections and some seeming contradictions.

I found them both useful because they offer a sense of balance of what we need to do in our lives in order to achieve worthwhile goals and be happy and productive. This kind of balance among doers, dreamers, and incrementalists (who are a blend of both) is found in Scott Belsky’s book, Making Ideas Happen: The Dreamer, the Doer, and the Incrementalist. Interestingly enough, Belsky does not recommend that everyone strive to be an incrementalist, but rather to embrace what one is and make it a point to collaborate with those who are different (or those who can fill in the gaps.)

Keeping all of this in mind, I am planting myself more firmly at the intersection of Carrey and Rhimes, at Belsky corner, acknowledging my dreams, planning what to do, doing it, and finding others to help execute the doing when I tend to get too stuck in my head. And, of course, showing my true self in its entirety is of utmost importance.

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Springing forward to meet a challenge.

Today marks the spring equinox, so many people are spreading hopeful messages of green growth and warmer weather.

I’ve been contemplating ways to meet difficulties as they have been cropping up.  Some are personal challenges, and others deal with the troubles students have making the connection with doing the work of practicing in order to improve.  Many of them have to do with abandoning the comfortable for the unknown (hence the image with “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”). In other words, rather than doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results (which is a possible definition for insanity), real steps must be taken to take divergent actions and react as best as we can.

This means I have to approach networking with others in different ways, students need to try out the various methods I offer regarding practicing, and I can better serve them by customizing my lessons, classes, and assignments differently for them.

Sometimes, our attempts will work, and other times, they will fail.  It’s better to find out what doesn’t work and move on to what we can do.

Once again, we may use a gardening metaphor.  Consider a seed or a bean.  It is possible for it to sit, intact, in an envelope, allowing all of its genetic information to remain contained in its little walls. A perfect little container, the seed has so much potential in it, but it must give up being a seed in order to really flourish.  It pushes through the stages of seed to seedling to plant to fruit- or vegetable-bearing plant, and it is through this process that we get to see the capacity that was once within the little seed.

Sometimes the seeds don’t make it to seedling or plant or bearing stages.  That is why gardeners plant more than one. And it’s never too late to plant the seeds (literal or metaphorical) that you have.  See the Judean date palm, thought to have been extinct in 150 CE, only to have been sprouted in 2005 from a 2,000-year-old seed. It’s never too late to bloom, or, at least, to attempt growth.

Consider what you could try doing differently that might change your life for the better, whether it’s in your music practice routine or some other area in your life.  Even if it doesn’t improve something the way you expected or hoped, you will have learned something through the experience, and you will be better for it.

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Moving forward, teaspoon by teaspoon.

“My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right, it may help to save the planet.” –Pete Seeger
By now, the internet is abuzz with memorials to Pete Seeger in the wake of his death.  From these tributes, I’m learning about Seeger’s drive to use music as a way to build and strengthen community.  The quote in the image, “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right, it might help to save the planet” especially resonates with me, simply because I whole-heartedly agree.  More inspiring, still, is his encouragement for everyone to pitch in to do what they can, no matter how small one’s actions might seem. Read about this in an interview done with him awhile ago to learn about his “teaspoons brigade” concept.

This reminds me of a quote that I have hanging on my office wall that says, “Little and often do great things.”  I’ve had this framed with the image of a nautilus shell for about four years now, and I feel like I understand it better as the years go by.  It helps to keep in mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”  So many of us don’t want to take the first step because we feel like we’re not ready.  There’s a level of perfectionism that is downright crippling, and it is the barrier for many on the cusp of taking some kind of action.

There have been a lot of issues in my own life that I have started to address step by step, even though I can’t clearly see the whole path.  While I’m getting better at understanding this necessary approach, it is sometimes difficult to get others to see where you’re coming from (or where you’re going to). That’s why it takes time to develop a foundation of trust among students, musicians, and colleagues who either understand what one is striving for, or are willing to attempt to learn what one’s approach is about.

Recently, I attended a class about the Suzuki method and its philosophy. So much of what I experienced there fits into what I want to do through Harmony Hall for All and the Wisconsin Baroque Musicians Collective, which is to encourage self and others to constantly improve technique and expression and self through the study and practice of music.  One of the best Suzuki quotes I’ve found so far is this one, “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline, and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.”  What a wonderful idea, to use music as a vehicle for improving the world.  I would like to go further and say that we should encourage the same kind of involvement and improvement from adults, so that the work and play done on instruments and singing can carry on throughout one’s entire life.

So this entry is meant to remind you (and me, too!) that the only way to keep going forward is by initiating movement forward.  Think about children learning how to walk – they don’t run a few blocks right off the bat.  Many begin with rolling over, raising their heads, pushing themselves up, crawling, scooting, standing, then walking.  Oh, and falling.  Lots and lots of falling. But that’s okay. Because the more often you try, the more of a chance you have for failing or succeeding, which is fodder for learning better ways to do something.  If you need to crawl forward, do it.  It will be worth it, for you will have added a few teaspoons worth of improvement to your music, as well as yourself. Over time, that adds up, and the music you share with others will likely help them in some way, as well.

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Music and Memory.

Some may know that, many years ago, I worked as an activity assistant at a home that specialized in dementia care.  My job was to do what I could to keep the residents there engaged, which would maintain some brain function, keep their spirits up and their agitation levels down, as well as to keep them out of trouble.  When I was hired, my musical background was considered a great asset because music really seems to have a positive effect on those with dementia.  I ended up sharing music with them on a regular basis. After a typical sing-along of old songs, it was typical for those who couldn’t talk to be able to answer questions with comprehensible sentences, and they were not bothered by the disruptive cloud of not remembering. In fact, they were happy.

Because of this background, I was grateful to have been in my car to hear a radio spot featuring  the work that is being done across the US on this subject, both by the efforts of music therapists, as well as simple programs, like “iPod therapy.”  I know that I had already put a link to the viral video of Henry, who came to life listening to his music on an iPod, but after listening to this radio program, I thought it would be great to revisit and expand on this.

In the interview, Brenna Beecroft described the work music therapists do, and the prescriptions of music suggested to patients.  Ultimately, she posited, such prescriptions may be covered by health insurance for a wide range of cases, beyond dementia into extreme chronic pain or trauma.

I support music therapy wholeheartedly. Additionally, I question why we are waiting for humans to get critically ill before making music a priority.  If music can be this helpful for improving mood and brain function as well as language facility, why aren’t we all listening more, attending more concerts, or, better yet, participating in making music through a choir, band, or chamber ensemble?

It is my wish as well as my working goal to make more music in 2014 and to help many others do the same.

In the meantime, if you would like to help others with music somehow, may I suggest

Donating an old iPod to Music and Memory

Donating a musical instrument to Charity Music Inc.

or look for helping out local music ensembles and organizations with whatever would be the most appropriate for their needs or situations.

I wish you the best in this season and I wish for more music for all in 2014.

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Music that saves lives.

Bronislaw Huberman

Bronislaw Huberman

Often we look to music as something that uplifts us. In some cases, music has saved lives.

I just watched a documentary on the life of Bronislaw Huberman.  It is a remarkable story of a man who founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra,  which afforded a place for Jewish musicians in European countries to survive and thrive in making music. One of the lines that struck me in the video (which you can view online here)  is the following:

“Huberman fought to save Jewish lives. Huberman was a visionary. A visionary from a humanistic point of view. He had the courage and he did it. He was much more than a musician. Today, a great musician wants to conduct. Back then, a great musician wanted to change the world.”

There are other examples of people and organizations using music to raise people up out of desperate situations, such as the El Sistema movement,  as documented in the film Tocar y luchar.  The Landfillharmonic, which I had mentioned a few months ago, falls into this category, as well, making something beautiful from a rather squalid environment.

All of these movements began with one or more people passionate about helping others.  How might we do the same?

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Improvement and Growth.

In our time in school, we put ourselves on a steady track with the endeavor of continuous improvement. Get a better grip on the English language,  learn mathematical functions of ever greater complexity, and improve one’s technique and expression in the playing or singing of music.

It is expected that professional musicians would, at the very least, maintain their level of technical skill throughout their careers, but it would be even better to continue to polish musical abilities as an ongoing process. Many musicians attempt to do this, some stagnate, and some regress because of a lack of interest or time. Getting stuck in a practicing rut is more likely than not, especially if a musician relies solely on solitary practice.  Though that is a large piece of the puzzle, it is difficult for one to objectively analyze the end result, due to being a functioning part of an instrument or voice.  What else can we do to foster improvement and growth in our field?

The Deming Cycle

The Deming Cycle

Continuous improvement requires continuous evaluation. Some of this can be done on one’s own with something like the Deming Cycle, in which one plans the steps needed, does them, checks in to see how it is or isn’t working, and then act accordingly.  However, it is beneficial to get the opinion of at least another person. Read  Patrick Ross’s article about how he improved his award-winning article through peer review. Peer writing circles are common, as are peer reviews in the area of visual art.  Musicians could do this as well. The challenge for presenters of an idea or  piece of music is to check the ego at the do, make peace with our imperfect selves, and recognize the criticisms given are to offer us a different perspective on aspects of our work, and not a condemnation of us as human beings.

Consider working with a small group of your peers whom you respect and trust, and see what actions you can take to become a better musician.  Also, check out this article from The Bulletproof Musician and this one from Lifehacker regarding different approaches to practicing.  Sometimes we can get ourselves to see a different perspective just by changing our routines.

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“What good are you?”

This as well as the Vonnegut quote found on the Entrepreneur the Arts FB page.

A few years ago, I had to work often a man whose mental faculties were slipping, which meant that, most of the time,  he would speak “without a filter.”  He’d ask for something and when I couldn’t help him, he’d retort, “What good are you?”

His oft-used phrase came to mind today when reading an article about music, dance, and arts education for children. This article, titled “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument,” really just boils down to that phrase, “What good are you?”  Or, more apropos, “What good is music?”

Oppenheimer does not seem to believe that learning a musical instrument is helpful to the average child.  After all, many of them grow up to be non-music-playing adults.  So why waste the time with such “pointless” endeavors?

Learning how to play or sing does build self-confidence, and it teaches perseverance, as the author points out, but it also creates more neural pathways in the brain, much in the same way as learning a foreign language does.  This allows for greater brain elasticity later in life, which is a fantastic asset.

Am I saying that all children should be forced to complete music lessons for many of their formative years?  Not at all.  Especially if a child does not enjoy learning how to make music at all, I do not think it should be mandatory for him/her to complete a large block of lessons.  It is simply very important for us to present the options to them, so they are introduced to different kinds of music, as well as various approaches to and perspectives about music. Also, for those who are drawn to music-making, they might find that playing with others creates a connection that may make musicking more enjoyable, which has been proven to be uplifting in mood or spirit. For this and many more reasons, we need to develop more opportunities for people of all ages to play and sing with one another.

We also need to keep in mind that signing up one’s child for beginning lessons does not mean that we are pushing him or her to become part of the next generation of classical music soloists or orchestral musicians. It simply means we wish to expose them to new skills and outlets of expression, and to give them tools with which they could develop their creativity.  Teaching them more about process and life as a journey will help them grow in so many important ways, no matter if their attempts are perfect or not. Continuing to walk such a musical path can only enrich one’s life experiences and bring light and joy to existence.  And that seems to be the furthest thing from pointless.

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Of peppers, tomatoes, and people.

(Note:  I believe I have, in earlier blog entries, warned readers that, at times, I will go beyond music and address other things that affect the whole person, of which music is a part.  This is one of those posts.)

“Golden Treasure” mild banana peppers

As I spent time in the garden this morning, I got to my banana peppers and Wisconsin 55 tomatoes, and realized how their journey of growth is both a learning curve as well as a metaphor for my own life for me.  To explain this adequately to others, I need to go back a few years when I first decided to grow the peppers.  I planted them indoors when I thought I should based on basic pepper knowledge, transplanted them, and, two years in a row, got close to nothing.  I finally read up on them more and found that they only have a *chance* of bearing peppers eighty days after transplant.  EIGHTY.  That is a lot, in Wisconsin gardening terms. So I dealt with this issue in two ways, this year:  I started the seeds a few weeks earlier, indoors, and then I transplanted them as early as I could in May.  And it worked.  It took a few years to figure them out, but the failures of years past created informative lessons that showed me how I might be able to successfully grow this particular variety of pepper.

Wisconsin 55 tomato

Wisconsin 55 tomato

The tomatoes in our garden have had problems in past years, but this year has been particularly tough, likely because of a fungus that’s got them down. We planted four varieties.   This allows us to cultivate  different-tasting varieties of tomatoes, as well as to have a backup variety or two, in the event that something goes very wrong with some of them.

The sweetest and most colorful variety is the Gold Medal, which looks like a sunset:  beautiful vibrant yellow at the stem end that darkens to an orange at its middle, and red at its blossom end. The plants develop a few large fruits and they almost always go on sandwiches or in salads for fresh eating.  The Hillbilly Potato Leaf variety is similar to the Gold Medal, with the flavor not being as pronounced, the fruits not as large in size, but the plants producing bumper crops.

Every year we experiment with various red tomato varieties.  This year, we tried the Italian Heirloom, which produced huge oxheart fruits early in the season in such great number that it broke the plants. (Guess if we get that variety again next year, we’ll pinch off a few of those flowers.)  But, from the beginning, upon the advice of a long-time gardener, we have grown Wisconsin 55s.  This year, I have recognized a cycle that I perpetuate, and, really, I’m writing this as my reminder for next year.

This is how it usually goes:

1. We plant the seeds indoors.  All of the other varieties of tomatoes take off. The WI 55s are no shows.

2. I threaten to throw them out. They begin growing measly seedlings, in stark contrast to the other stalky seedlings. (And, yes, I realize they would grow at that time whether I threaten them or not.)

3. We transplant everything outside, covering them with bottomless pails, so they all get sun and rain but not too much wind.  Some plants croak, some look just fine, others look like they’re hanging on, but barely.  The WI 55s belong to that last group.

4. Because they look weak and had no fruits on them when everything else was taking off, I start to say, as I do every year with them, “I don’t know WHY I bother with this variety. The others are bigger, tastier, prettier, and they don’t dawdle like this.”

And then, every year, the Wisconsin 55 variety produces a modest crop of medium-sized tomatoes that are in fairly good condition.   Every year, this is the variety that is our rock. This year, it is the only variety that produced consistently healthy fruits.

When I realized this, I couldn’t help but realize that these tomatoes are like different kinds of people. They grow and develop much differently, and they set fruits on at different times. It doesn’t make one variety better or worse than another one, just different.  We are also like this. We have times in our lives when we seem almost dormant, times when we want to give up, or times when we don’t know what we are doing.  It’s okay.  All of those times are helping us learn more, gather more information, and develop a way to take the steps forward for growth into a new phase of our lives.  We need to have more trust in that and work on it so we get there in our own time, not some predetermined time that has been dropped on us. Keep growing, nurture the growth, and enjoy the journey!

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