Thursday, December 19, 2013

The birth of a song

I have a bachelor's degree in music composition. I have always found it difficult to write music without the immediate possibility of a performance, though. I have this unshakeable idea in my head that music isn't music until it is heard. And more than that, I believe MY music isn't music until it's been through the mind of a performer. (Granted, sometimes that performer is me. But writing music is very different from performing it.) In my mind, a composition is never truly whole, never a fully formed entity until it has been performed.

So, I wrote a song this week. I was in a holiday concert last weekend, and one of my colleagues in VOX3 has a spectacular voice and I was just totally inspired. Actually, ALL of my colleagues in VOX3 have spectacular talents and I am often inspired by them. This time I did something about it.  I pulled out the book of poems that my aunt gave me a few years ago. "Feel free to set anything in here!" she said when she gave me the copy-store bound volume.

So I made the computer play my brand new piece for me. Finale plays it using sounds like a computer. It doesn't sound like a song. It sounds jagged and rocky. I know it's not going to sound that way when humans perform it. If humans perform it. If my colleague even likes the piece I wrote her. Now my nerves kick in. What if she doesn't like it? What if it never gets performed? What if it languishes in a computer hard drive...never to be born?


It's been a few days since my last post. We are preparing to host Christmas for both sides of the family this year (though the only person able to actually be here on Christmas Day is my Mother In Law). But by the 30th we will have my parents, my mother in law, my brother in law and his girlfriend...all under our roof. OH! And husband's extended family is coming to our house (all...what? 25 of them?) on the 28th.

We moved into this house in April, and have never really thoroughly cleaned it, so I have a maid service here right now. Of course, that meant I spent the entire morning cleaning up in anticipation of having the maids in. How silly I felt! But I had to get all the STUFF out of the way so they COULD clean. I smell chemicals wafting down from upstairs. I guess they're doing something. I did close a few doors to indicate they shouldn't clean some rooms. Like, for example, my craft room/office. Not professionally cleanable. Too much stuff.

Oh, and they can't clean the basement either. We had a mold problem in the basement over the fall, which has been fixed...all but the floor. The flooring is supposed to go in before Christmas, but there's only 2 days for working! It's nerve wracking. If we don't have that space to use for the 28th, it's gonna be a very tight squeeze! And we intend to have that room available for my parents to sleep in on the 30th...

So much stress. I thought the holidays were supposed to be peaceful and reflective!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Why celebrate?

Last night was the first night in our "new" house when I was actually cold while sleeping. We have a tall skinny house and heat rises, so it's not been a problem till now. But now it's very cold outside, and the cold is seeping in. My teeny backyard is filled up with snow. It seems only yesterday it was all lush and green and filled with tasty tomatoes and peppers. But this is winter. Everything is dormant. The blanket of snow (and the University's winter break) brings quiet to our little urban neighborhood. Even the snowplows seem quiet with their golden twinkling lights. It's the time of year when we all hunker down under our blankets and cuddle. Just like my raspberry bushes, in their winter dormancy.

The winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, has been meaningful to humans since we became aware. It was the deadest, darkest night. Ancient humans may have had superstitious ideas about winter. They seem to have thought that if they didn't do things exactly right, the sun would not return and bring life back to the world. Now we know what causes the variations of daylight hours throughout the year (the earth's axial tilt), and we know that our actions have no bearing on how or why that happens, but it's still nice to take a moment at midwinter and reflect on the wonder of winter. Many people in the US celebrate some form of religious holiday this time of year (most notably Christmas and Hanukkah) but what about those of us who are not religious? I suppose some people don't bother thinking about it. They just go on with their lives, as if the changing seasons have no effect on them. And I can't blame them. For many people, winter is not really significantly different from summer. They still have to go to work, pay bills, grocery shop...

But for me, winter is my favorite season. And the end of December is the epitome of that precious time. The shortest days of the year. The least sunshine. The most dark. (Maybe not the coldest...Nature likes to save that for February around here.) In these last weeks of December, I like to take a moment and remember how different people's lives were, not so long ago. As I sit here in my warm and well-lit home, I remember that the first public electricity supply was in Surrey (UK) in 1881. The Chicago El started operation in 1892 for the World's Fair. Before that, people heated with wood or coal (it's not clear when people started using gas to heat, but gas was not commercially available in the US till the 1830s). And they lit their houses by candles (later, gas). And they travelled by horse, or they walked. The winters were cold. The winters were DIRTY. People couldn't often take full baths. To fully submerge oneself was cold and hazardous to health. They just sponged off the stinkiest, dirtiest bits and made do.

It was not so long ago, in the history of humankind, that winter was a dangerous and scary time of year.

I am not religious. I don't thank god for my warm home. I don't thank god for my grandmother's hand-me-down comfy chair. I am, however, very grateful for them. I'm grateful that my mother didn't get rid of these chairs, even though she thinks they are ugly. I am grateful to those who have made the scientific discoveries that have made my comfort possible. I am grateful to the people who made my (store-bought) warm clothes. I am grateful to those who picked the leaves for my evening tea, and those who shipped them here from India. I am grateful to the farmer who raised the chicken I made into soup today. I am grateful to the Wisconsin artisan who made my beautiful spinning wheel. And to the people who work to keep the power and gas supply running to my luxurious (by the standards of 150 years ago) home.

Do I have everything I can think of? No. But I certainly have more than I need. And for that I am very grateful.

To me, that's what celebrating the winter holidays is for.

Being mindful that for me, in this time and place, winter can be a time of pleasure and beauty and enjoyment instead of a time of cold and fear and danger, as it was for so many hundreds of generations of my ancestors. And I hope and dream that my descendants' reality is even better than mine.

ADD in the grown adult

A couple of years ago, in my mid-thirties, I was diagnosed with ADD. Obviously, I managed to get through a graduate degree without a diagnosis, much less treatment. But there it was.

What was I to do about it now? Was it responsible for the fact that I took so long to get through school? Was it responsible for me flunking out of college on my first attempt? (Does it even matter what/who is responsible?) 

The fact of the matter is, my ADD is mild enough (and I'm bright enough) that I got through school without a diagnosis or treatment. That's not to say that all ADD can go untreated, but mine could.

Upon reading about it, I recognized myself. I find it nearly impossible to focus on things that I have no interest in. My mother used to get unbelievably frustrated with me when it came to arithmetic. I hated memorizing my arithmetic tables, and in order to get me to "pay attention" she would say "Just imagine they all have dollar signs in front of them!" Needless to say, that didn't help. I'm not sure I ever actually learned my arithmetic tables. What helped was when we finally got to MATHS (you know: algebra, geometry, trig, pre-calculus) and there was some creativity involved, so it was interesting.

I've always been more interested in a subject if there's creativity involved. No one ever found a way to make history appeal to me. At least, not the parts of history that one can write a test about. I love reading about how all the timelines interconnect (military history, art history, music history, religious history, etc), but I can never remember the exact dates. I love the personal stories, but I hate the memorizing of exactly when things happened and to whom. And did I mention dates? Forget about it. 

Music theory (like maths) always appealed to me because it was like a puzzle to decode. I had to figure it out, not just memorize things.

I still find myself with the same dilemmas in real life as I had in school. The things I enjoy doing (cooking, decorating) are the things that involve some creativity. And those things I can do for HOURS on end without getting bored or restless or losing my train of thought. In high school, I'd spend 8 hours on a Saturday sitting at the piano working on my latest musical composition. And now I can spend hours upon hours spinning wool into yarn. The things I hate (cleaning, paying bills) are things that are always the same every time. I know I need to do them, but they are difficult for me to focus on for any length of time and I need to take regular breaks from them or I turn into a brain-dead grumpy monster. 

What's your experience? Can you relate to my attention-span problems? Or are you one of those people who actually can do the monotonous tasks until they are finished without taking regular breaks?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

New Year, New Blog

OK, so it's not quite new years yet, but I'm a little old-school and I like to think of the winter solstice as the beginning of the new year, even though the modern calendar doesn't quite line up with it. (Yeah, go ahead. Point out that it's not solstice yet either.)

Well, in an effort to be more thoughtful about the things that are important to me, and in an effort to share my thoughts with the general public, I'm starting this new blog. I tried to resurrect my old blog, but it seems to have been eaten/disappeared when Google took over Blogger. Oh, well. Probably better this way.

The Miracle

As a singer and composer, a fiber artist, and a privileged white American, I've spent a large part of my life doing "frivolous" things. We don't need music to survive. We don't (in the modern, post industrial age) need hand-made mittens or hats or sweaters. We don't need movies or ballet or fancy balls or smelly french cheeses. We don't need walks in rose gardens or snow-laden forests or up to the summit of the mountains. We don't need pilgrimages to chalk cliffs or grand canyons or giant waterfalls. We don't even need Target or Home Depot, much as I love them. The basic necessities of life are food, shelter, clothing...but we don't actually need music. To survive, that is.

But to thrive, to lead fulfilling lives, I believe we do need those things. Or we need something like them. Part of what makes us feel complete and worthwhile as human beings, part of our human nature, is the desire to feel wonder and amazement. And each of us fulfills that need with something in our lives. Or else we spend our days miserably searching for that feeling of wonder.

When I was younger I watched friends become completely overwhelmed by religious fervor. I had one friend tell me that music was worthless unless it was for the glorification of god. That statement has stuck with me for over fifteen years. The human voice is a miracle. An accident, or maybe not, of nature. It's a pair of fleshy folds with muscles attached to them that we breathe through to make them vibrate. It allows us to communicate. It allows me to ask my husband to pass the pepper. It allows that one lady to chastise the guy at Jimmy John's when he gets too busy and accidentally puts mayo on her sandwich. It allows my friend to tell his dying father that he loves him one last time. And it allows us to sing, when words just aren't enough. We sing to babies to get them to sleep. We sing to toddlers to get them to stop screaming. We sing to children to teach them. (Why is it so much easier to remember something when you know a song about it?) We listen to the cooooooooolest boybands when we're preteens. Or, if you're a geek like me, we take the final aria from Madama Butterfly to the lipsyncing contest at our grade school. In rural Illinois. In the 80s. Yeah. I'm that girl.

When I witness a particularly powerful performance it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. My arms get goosepimples. I shiver. Maybe I cry. I am overwhelmed by a feeling of wonder. And a performance could be powerful because of the musician's impeccable technique, but seldom. More often, it is powerful because of the musician's presence. Their communication. Their intention. Their spirit. Their wonder. And their willingness to share that wonder with me.

The human voice is a miracle, but we don't need it in order to survive.

We need it in order to be fully human.