Productivity

In a product-driven world, we’re always supposed to be producing something, whether it be money, stuff, creative ventures, children, etc.  Since leaving the professional world, I have been forced to change my definition of productivity and what it means to have a productive day in my life, and sometimes, it ain’t pretty. In fact, I get pretty down when I compare a day in 2014 with a day in 2010, so this is my attempt to convince myself that I’m still being “productive” even though I might not have anything tangible to show for it.

Yesterday I made my usual to-do list. The first thing I almost always write on the list is “gym/run,” because if I don’t list it first and do it in the morning, it won’t get done. Taking care of my health is a huge priority, because if I don’t take care of my body, it’s going to shut down, rebel, and forbid me from doing all of the things I need it to do. So exercise is number one. Being a Tuesday morning, that meant taking Eleanor to the preschool drop-in gym program at our local community center, something we do at least once a week. It doesn’t translate into a huge amount of exercise for me, but it’s better than sitting on my duff all morning, and Eleanor takes full advantage of the ball pit, roller coasters, scooters and bikes, slides, tunnels, and balls. Added bonus: it wears her out, so I’m pretty much guaranteed she’ll take a full two-hour nap in the afternoon. Score. On the days when I can go solo to the gym, I usually run three miles and walk one mile, which happens about four times a week.

Before our trip to the gym, I had to rouse two sleepy schoolchildren from their beds at 6:45ish and feed them, like most days. I’m a bit of a food Nazi (more on that in another post), and I almost always cook breakfast for them, usually fried eggs and toast, but some mornings I make homemade waffles or french toast. I like knowing they’re off to school with healthy fuel in their bodies, and I don’t mind busying myself at the stove even at 7:00 in the morning. By the time their backpacks are loaded with lunch boxes, permission slips, books, extra shoes, etc., Eleanor and I wave “bye-bye” to the bus as it leaves our driveway, and it’s 7:50am; the day is mine. And we (meaning I) often collapse on the couch in front of “Curious George” and “The Cat and the Hat” on PBS Kids for an hour to regain my momentum.

Back to the to-do list. “Vacuum/mop kitchen floor. Vacuum/straighten living room. Clean upstairs/downstairs bathrooms. Laundry. Fold/put away laundry (my LEAST favorite task, though sometimes it’s tied with emptying the dishwasher).” You get the gist. Added to my list I include whatever errands need to be run (“Gas, Wegmans, library, bank, Target”), and whatever afternoon/evening activities are scheduled (“Cello, violin, Qabats, swimming lesson, bell choir”). The errands and activities always get done. The chores? Not so much. I consider myself having had a successful day if I can cross off one or two of the chore items from the list. If I get them all done, I earn a gold medal, but that rarely happens, because…

…inertia. Household chores are one of the most demoralizing things ever, because how many of us have experienced the three minutes when the kitchen floor is spotless, only to have a kid or a dog with muddy feet run across it? Why bother clean off the mirror when somebody’s going to splatter toothpaste or soapy water onto in within seconds? And I swear the cats secretly lie in wait as the litter box is being changed before immediately running in to have a pooping party. No chore feels productive when the fruits of one’s labors are undone so quickly.

Which leads to my second area of “productivity”–food production. I love to cook and I think I’m pretty good at it, which is a good thing since a huge chunk of my time is spent planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, and cleaning up meals. Fortunately for me, my family loves to eat (myself included), and I feel that on the scale of productivity, producing tasty, healthful meals and snacks made mostly from scratch is a big check on my list. There’s always the problem, though, of food being EATEN (therefore disappearing), dishes dirtied, kitchen sinks to scrub, and refrigerators that need refilling again…but for some reason, that cycle doesn’t bother me as much. We need to eat in order to survive, and I think home-cooked food helps my family to thrive as well.

Yesterday I felt like I accomplished nothing, which compared to my life as a music educator back in 2010, might have been correct. I didn’t churn out any lesson plans, or rehearse four pieces during Chamber Singers, or teach any piano lessons. I didn’t bring home a paycheck, and I didn’t really have any adult conversations with anyone other than the other two adults in the house. But here’s what I did do:

  • I helped Connor and Adrienne get out the door for school; they were clean, dressed appropriately, had everything they needed for the day, and they didn’t miss the bus
  • I took a shower and put on makeup (sometimes, this is a Big Deal)
  • I took Eleanor to the gym for exercise and playtime, read a bunch of books, and built several towers out of blocks
  • made two different pots of soup (pumpkin-white bean and spicy lentil-tomato-spinach), homemade hummus, lemon-tahini dressing, and two pans of oven fries
  • practiced violin with with Adrienne, helped her shower and get ready for bed, and spent twenty minutes cuddling her on the couch while she told me about some troubles she was having at school

Somehow, when I look at it that way, it sounds like a lot, and it’s all pretty important stuff. And I was exhausted.

 

 

 

 

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The Wonderful World of Sports

In case you didn’t already know this, I am not a sports person. I appreciate what athletes do, sure, but I’m turned off by the greediness of the professional sports world, the gloss of Sports Illustrated, and the commercialism of ESPN. My eyes glaze over whenever someone starts talking about “stats,” and unless the team I want to win is winning, I’m probably going to change the channel. Shallow, I know, but since the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres are both lousy teams, you can guess how much time I actually spend watching televised sports.

I took Connor to his first professional hockey game last month at First Niagara Center (or is it HSBC Arena? I can’t keep track of all of these acquisitions). The Sabres were playing the Edmonton Oilers. I believe the Sabres are the worst team in the NHL, and the Oilers are the second-worst team in the NHL (or maybe it’s the other way around. I can’t keep track of those things, either). According to my omnipotent sports friend Jason, both teams were vying to lose the game, because it meant they’d be given the first choice in the next round of drafts for new players. To me, this makes no sense–aren’t you always supposed to play your best and try to win every game? Why would you want to lose simply for strategy? I guess there’s a lot I don’t understand about it, because when the Sabres inevitably lost, no one seemed particularly disappointed, though I suppose when your team always loses, you build up an immunity to it. Or something like that. Whatever the outcome, we both enjoyed the game, and Connor proudly wears his new Sabres cap whenever he gets the chance, just like 45.7% of Western New Yorkers.

I played zero sports when I was a kid. I went to one field hockey practice when I was a sophomore in high school and thought I was going to die afterwards. I went to the homecoming football games only because everyone else did, and the band had to play, and usually I could meet a boy at the game. I’ve attended one professional football game–Baltimore Ravens vs. Some Other Team, and it was mid-November, and we sat shivering in the stadium drinking bad expensive beer along with everyone else in the somewhat affordable nosebleed sections. A few minor-league baseball games here and there, and that’s it. Kind of sad, I know.

I’m willing to bet that my experience with sports practically mirrors the experiences most people have with music. Maybe a school field trip to hear the local orchestra play a kid-oriented concert; tickets to the ballet given by your well-meaning great aunt Esther, or suffering through a middle school band concert because your kid wanted to play the trombone. In my years as a music educator, I discovered that many families were completely ignorant when it came to the amount of time, effort, money, and energy it took to study a musical instrument successfully. I found myself constantly battling invisible team coaches who insisted that their students be present at every practice and every game, even if it meant missing a dress rehearsal or concert. Students were under the impression that missing a lacrosse game was forbidden, but missing the spring concert was acceptable.

Connor and Adrienne played little league baseball last spring. Connor used to play baseball in Buffalo when he was younger, but tae kwon do held his interest a bit more, so we made him choose one sport. When we moved to Fairport, I decided that the team sport experience would be good for him, since “plays well with others” is a skill occasionally lacking in his arsenal, and I thought he could meet some new friends. Fairport Little League is hardcore, I soon learned, and even though I asked coaches and team organizers lots of questions, we were still in the dark most of the time. I had no idea what type of equipment to buy for the kids–did they need their own helmets? “No, they’ll provide everything the players need.” Well, sure, there might have been shared equipment, but every single player I saw had their own bat, batting helmet, pitcher’s padding, etc. As I sat in the bleachers during games and practices, it became quickly obvious that these were families who KNEW baseball, dads who played catch with their sons and daughters since they learned how to walk, moms who played softball as kids. I felt as ignorant as many parents must feel when their child comes home one day and says “Hey Mom! I want to take violin lessons!”

I’m learning that there are so many parallels between the sports world and the music world. Look at the recent Olympics, and how the media latches onto the stories of incredible dedication to one’s sport, hours and hours of practice, injuries, world travel to competitions and meets, the flawless skill and execution required to be at the top of one’s field. We celebrate their accomplishments, as we should. But what about musicians? Why are our accomplishments held in such lower esteem? Professional musicians put in hours of dedicated practice, finely tuning their techniques and skills to flawlessly execute musical miracles. How often do we watch a pianist or violinist whirl through a virtuosic piece and say “Wow, I could never do that?” Many mistakenly believe that musicians require God-given talent or natural ability to success. I disagree. There is something to be said for natural ability, but unless it is accompanied by an unstoppable determination, the right coaching and instruction, and hard work, nothing will come of it.

So my kids are going to study musical instruments, and they’ll probably be pretty good, because I know how to coach them and point them in the right direction, not because they were born gifted or exceptionally talented. They’re also going to play baseball, and though they probably won’t be as good (Adrienne runs like lightning, however), I’m going to help them however I can. I can learn about the sport with them, and teach them the skills that cross into every discipline: show up, work together, work hard, always do your best, have fun, be fair, be a good sport, don’t give up, try again. Those are life lessons that work for everyone, whether you’re a sports nut or a music nut.

Reverberation and Reconciliation, Part VII

Moving is always awful, and the summer of 2012 was no exception, what with soaring temperatures and a new baby. We packed up the contents of our house in North Buffalo and tried to figure out what we truly needed versus what could be stored in the attic. We’d be temporarily moving in with my mother-in-law who lives in Fairport, and her house was already fully stocked with furniture, dishes, and all sorts of other treasures, so basically we could bring our clothes, kids’ toys and books, and other necessary day-to-day items. Obviously I needed the contents of my studio, so we paid several hundred dollars to move my grand piano east. Most everything else we shuttled with our own vehicles. I brought all of our music books and manuscripts, and the contents of my desk. The remainder of our belongings would stay behind, as I planned to rent out both units in my house as an income property, not that I wanted to be a landlord, but I couldn’t deal with the hassle of selling a house on top of everything else.

We had most of July and all of August to get settled, enroll the older two kids in the Fairport School District, and figure out child care for a still-nursing infant. Adrienne was all set to enter kindergarten, and Connor would be entering fourth grade. Our first hiccup: though Adrienne had been accepted into the gifted/talented kindergarten program in Buffalo, she was too young for Fairport’s strict cutoff date for kindergarten entrance. We’d have to enroll her in a private school, less than two weeks before school was supposed to start. We did some scrambling and found a private Montessori school just up the street from our house, but that was an unexpected wrinkle in our plans.

I went to Eastman’s orientation week, giddy with excitement. I felt like my life was starting over–now that I was an adult student, I was free to take full advantage of everything my education was going to offer me. I had the maturity to handle situations with both fellow students and faculty members that I would have been clueless about before, and by god, I was going to practice, work hard, and come out of this experience an unstoppable musical force. I would show the world that I could do it all–raise a family, nurse a baby, cook, clean, and do laundry, and earn an Eastman doctorate.

Yeah.

I can pretty much guarantee I am the only person to walk the Eastman campus with a Medela Pump ‘n Style (nicknamed Bessie) slung over my shoulder. I made friends with the nurses in the health center, who kindly helped this crazy woman maintain her pumping schedule between coachings and classes. I packed snacks and stored them in my locker (yes, I had a LOCKER) in the basement of the main building, along with Bessie when she wasn’t in use, and textbooks. Somehow in the year 2012, we were still using textbooks, something that appealed to the old-fashioned side of me. I met with my musical partners and hammered out schedules. I attended German language and diction classes, a seminar on Romantic music, and music theory review (because strangely enough, I hadn’t been working regularly with Schenkerian analysis while teaching high school). By the end of the first week, where I think I slept maybe four hours a night at best, because remember I still had a nursing infant who woke up at least twice during the night, and who thought five a.m. was a fabulous time to wake up for the day, which is when I was trying to get my assignments done, I was exhausted.

I should also mention that Eleanor screamed bloody murder when anyone held her besides me, her dad, and her grandmother. So here I was, leaving her at various family member’s houses, feeling guilty the entire time. I told myself it was just like work; so many moms were doing the same thing, and all of these babies survive the trauma of being “abandoned” by their moms at daycare, only this wasn’t just like work. I wasn’t bringing home a paycheck; I was contributing to my own personal growth as a human being, and sucking our bank accounts dry in the process. Oh, and I was never home. Classes met in the mornings; lessons were in the afternoons, and studio classes/recitals were in the evenings. In between all of this, I was supposed to be doing homework and practicing.

I had created the perfect storm. The final straw was a Tuesday afternoon when both Adrienne and Eleanor ended up in Irondequoit at their great-aunt’s house due to some scheduling glitch or miscommunication. I left whatever lesson or class I was in, drove all the way from Eastman to Irondequoit, nursed Eleanor for maybe ten minutes (“MORE!” she screamed), loaded the girls (one still screaming, one crying because she didn’t want to leave) in the car, dropped them off at home, then I had to race back to Eastman for a 5:30 studio class, where I showed up completely unprepared to play for a student, because in the time I was driving all over greater Rochester, I’d planned to practice. I came home bawling.

“I can’t do this.”

How I actually extricated myself from my degree program and the subsequent fallout is still a delicate and sensitive matter, and I don’t want to bore anyone with the details, but I met with my teacher and the graduate dean that Friday afternoon and withdrew as a full-time student. I had the option to return the following fall once the dust settled, but one thing was made clear: this would be my last chance, so unless I knew I could make it work, I should think long and hard before I said a definitive “yes.”

As we all know, the dust never settles when there are children involved, and I had to accept defeat. I might have been able to handle the rigors of an Eastman degree program when I was in my twenties, unencumbered with familial responsibilities, but not now. It was not the same as a full-time teaching job. Sacred Heart, for the most part, allowed me to leave my work at school, and when I was home, I was home. Eastman was all-consuming; it owned me, whether I was there or not, there was always something that needed to be done.

I was so disappointed. And angry. Why the hell had all of these people gone along with my crazy plan? What was I thinking? What were they thinking? I raged, I wallowed, I grieved. I had to redefine everything I thought about myself as a musician and as a human. I had always been a working mom. Now I was “just” a stay-at-home mom, changing diapers, doing laundry all day, cooking meals, doing the dishes, driving kids places. I had gone from a professional Cloud Nine to the utter depths of postpartum despair. Worst of all, I felt like no one understood what I was going through.

There isn’t a whole lot more to share, but I want to end my series on a positive note. I continued to dabble with accompanying that year–I played for a few student solo festivals and coached some talented young musicians. I practiced occasionally, but my fingers were already out of shape. When I had the time for practicing, I felt tugged in so many different directions–I should be doing x, not playing Mozart, and Mount Laundry was continuing to grow, and…

I made the decision this past fall that I would no longer accept students for coaching, and that I was pretty much done with paid accompanying gigs until my kids were older. There have been one or two exceptions, of course, but once I made that decision, I felt much more at peace than before. I also had an important realization; one that seems painfully obvious, of course, but my kids needed me around. I hate to succumb to clichés, but kids are young only once. I missed most of Adrienne’s babyhood and toddler years because I was working and my life at the time was a tumultuous mess. I missed most of Connor’s younger years past the age of one when I started teaching. Now I had the chance to be at home with Eleanor, and as maddening as it can be sometimes, I didn’t miss her first steps, or have to hand over parenting decisions to other caregivers.

I also realized that my path had led me towards my perfect job: coaching my own children in their growth as musicians. Let me be clear: I will never insist that they become professional musicians; knowing how difficult that life can be, I might even discourage it! But I firmly believe that musical study has so many benefits for anyone, regardless of their interests and aspirations. I have had the joy of watching Adrienne blossom into a sensitive, talented violinist after just a few months of study. Connor has gained so much from studying the cello and I know it brings him more pleasure than he’d care to admit. Someday Eleanor will play an instrument, too; already she wanders around the house with Adrienne’s box violin, singing “Tinkle Tinkle” and taking her bows. Thanks to this tangled, convoluted, confusing journey I’ve been on, I feel confident that I’ll be able to help these wonderful little people become the outstanding human beings they were meant to be, and that’s far more important to me than a DMA.

Reverberation, Part VI

On February 10th, 2012 (my mother’s birthday), I showed up at the Kodak Theater at the Eastman School of Music at 9:00am, along with dozens of other prospective students. It was audition day, and I was thirty-three weeks pregnant. Needless to say, I felt a little self-conscious heaving myself into one of the seats with my ten-pound audition binder, and I was nervous. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t let my heart rate or blood pressure go haywire because it would be bad for Bun, but when I learned my audition time was 10:30am (the first slot!), I freaked out.

“F@#$.”

Off I went. I felt good about my audition afterwards; it was 45 minutes long even though it felt like five, and I knew that regardless of the outcome, I had done something pretty amazing. I’d managed to prepare a challenging audition program: two instrumental sonatas (Sonata in A Major, Op. 100 for Violin and Piano by Brahms, Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 5 No. 2 by Beethoven), five songs in different keys (for soprano, mezzo, etc.), an aria, and a memorized solo (Bartok’s Suite Op. 14), and I had to sightread. I was also applying for two graduate assistantships–class piano and choral accompanying, and had prepared materials for both interviews. I got up at 5:30 almost every weekday morning to practice at school before classes began, and practiced during every available free period and after school. Weekends were trickier because my kids were home and I needed some family downtime, but I did what I could. Daniel and I presented a recital at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, showcasing the vocal portion of my audition, and I played my solo piece. I found professional string players to help me with the sonatas, and had a lesson in Baltimore with Nancy to help prepare me. All of this was in addition to teaching piano lessons and classes, music theory, directing the Chamber Singers, doing the musical in the fall, and coordinating the school’s music ministry.

I don’t know how I did it. Besides, by February 10th I was a WHALE, and I still had eight weeks to go. I was standing in line at Pizza Plant with Connor and Adrienne on a Friday night about a month after my audition, waiting for a table. I knew I’d be finding out results pretty soon, and I’d been checking my email all day long, crossing my fingers. I took a perfunctory glance at my inbox, and there it was.

I’d been accepted.

I jumped up and down, screaming and shaking. My kids just stared at me, and when I told them the news, Connor let out a huge WHOOP! right there in the restaurant. I called Daniel, I called my mom, I posted it on Facebook, and I still couldn’t believe it.

Eleanor took her dear sweet time entering this world, and after a sonogram on April 4th estimated her weight at over eleven pounds, my midwife convinced me to have an induction. Just before midnight on April 5th, she arrived after an hour and a half of active labor (thanks, Pitocin, but I’ll never forgive you), weighing in at 9 pounds, 15 ounces. She was a tank. She was also a nice distraction for two weeks, and since I didn’t have to notify Eastman until a month after my acceptance, I wasn’t actively thinking about the huge decision I/we had to make.

A telephone call from Dr. Jean Barr, coordinator of the Accompanying program, gave me the push I needed. It wasn’t fair to make others on the waiting list…well, WAIT, and I already knew in my heart what I wanted to do. We were going to move to Rochester and give this crazy plan a chance. I had promises for assistance coming every which way, and I viewed the opportunity much like I viewed my teaching job–it would be difficult, but I’d made it this far, and I wasn’t going to give up just because it was difficult. I was tough.

And then September hit.

Reverberation, Part V

It’s been almost exactly two years since I left Sacred Heart Academy. Eleanor, the child formerly known as “Bun,” was due towards the end of March and I started my maternity leave somewhere in the middle of that month. So even though it seems like SHA must have been in another lifetime, it really hasn’t been that long. Like sands through the hourglass…

Summarizing eight years of Catholic high school teaching into five or six paragraphs is a daunting task, to say the least. I do find it hilarious that I ended up as a high school choir director anyway. How I actually got the job is a bit of a mess, of course, because it wouldn’t be my life if it weren’t messy. In June 2004, after moving back to Buffalo with an almost one-year-old Connor, I sent a bunch of résumés and cover letters on fancy fake linen paper to all of the area private schools, ending up with interviews at two schools. Not bad for a blind search. The interview at Sacred Heart went great–I was asked to demonstrate my “conducting skills” (HA HA HA HA HA) with the Chamber Singers and teach a piano lesson. The head-of-school and I really hit it off, and she seemed eager to hire me. “You’d probably like something full-time, wouldn’t you?” she asked. “I would!” I replied eagerly, knowing that my chances of securing a full-time teaching position with no teaching degree were slim to none, but hey, it was one of my more optimistic moments.

It turned out that I ended up replacing the former music director in what could only be labeled as an “awkward transition.” Kudos to my head-of-school for taking such an enormous leap of faith that this girl would figure out what the hell she was doing, with so many people dead-set against me being there in the first place. That first year was a nightmare–I went from twenty-eight Chamber Singers to thirteen the following fall. I had to figure almost everything out by myself–nearly all of the other music faculty quit when the former director left, so I was left scrambling through bits and pieces of information squirreled away here and there. Trial by fire, that was for certain. But I stuck with it because I needed a job, my family needed to eat, and there were people who believed in me, and guess what? I DID figure out what the hell I was doing.

My job required skills beyond most music education majors–I was part school accompanist, part musical director, part music ministry coordinator, part vocal coach, part piano teacher, part theory teacher, part administrator, and part travel agent. I had so many hats to wear, I was constantly losing track of them in my first few years. I was the music director (different from the actual Director, to clarify) for seven different musicals:

  • “Cole–A Musical Revue”
  • The King and I
  • The Sound of Music
  • Annie
  • Thoroughly Modern Millie
  • Cats
  • The Pajama Game

As director of the Chamber Singers, the school’s audition-only choir, I dragged them all over the Northeast–we toured Virginia Beach, Toronto, Philadelphia, New York City, and Cleveland. We sang for various Catholic Education events; we sang for a September 11th memorial ceremony, we performed at NYSSMA festivals, we sang at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, we even spontaneously broke out into song at the top of City Hall, looking over the Buffalo skyline. We sang for U.S. naturalization ceremonies and in the middle of Wendy’s. We ate at Tim Horton’s too many times to remember. We sang for Mass in our humble school auditorium, and we sang a Mass at the cavernous Philadelphia Basilica. It took a few years, but those girls and I bonded, and they taught me more than I probably taught them. Side note: you haven’t really lived until you’ve driven a 15-passenger van loaded with sixteen girls in formal black dresses into a city parking garage.

By the way, I should mention that I am not Catholic, so learning the Catholic liturgical year and order of the Mass was a steep learning curve. But in a Catholic school, you have a lot of help, mostly in the form of indiscreet sidelong glances (“Play here. Yes, now. NOW!”).

There were two projects of which I was particularly proud. With the support of the administration, I had a Clavinova digital piano lab installed so I could teach multiple beginning piano students in group classes. SHA is unique in that the school offers private music lessons during the school day as a part of a student’s schedule. Considering how much a parent can fork over for music lessons, it was quite the deal; the fee that the school charged practically gave lessons away. I knew it would free up my time considerably to have four students working together at once, and based upon my experiences teaching keyboard studies classes at Peabody, collaborative learning enhances any experience. I knew the girls would benefit greatly from learning together. The pianos were well-used during my time there–I often found girls practicing with their headphones on during their study halls, and I certainly utilized them in my own practicing.

The second project was to record a CD of the Chamber Singers in 2010. I had a particularly strong group of singers that year, and the last CD that the choir recorded was in 1996. I figured another one was due. The recording process was in itself a great learning experience for all of us, and the CD turned out beautifully.

When I took the job at SHA, I told myself I’d give it five years and then it would be time to move on. In the fall of 2011, Daniel and I were expecting a baby, and though we often talked about moving to Rochester where his roots were, there were no pressing opportunities that could justify bringing us east. One day I had a thought: what if I could get into the Eastman School of Music? I’d often thought about going back to school and had dabbled with earning my teaching certification, but I just couldn’t get excited about the mechanics of teaching third graders to read, something which every certified K-12 teacher in New York State is required to do regardless of their area of expertise. A doctorate would be much more fulfilling work, and I’d get to do the thing I loved the most: collaborate with other outstanding musicians. Preparing my audition would be hard work and would require time management skills and dedication, but I knew that I worked best when I had a goal, and this would certainly be a worthwhile goal. And there was no pressure–if I didn’t make it, I still had my job. If I was accepted, we could make the decision whether I should attend after the baby was born, and we’d figure it out then.

May the road rise to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

The sun shine warm upon your face

The rain fall soft upon your fields

Until we meet again

May God hold you in His hand

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Reverberation–Part IV (Interlude)

I’ve skimmed over quite a bit of the actual piano playing I did during my undergrad/graduate years, mostly because so much of it was skill acquisition. Before it sounds like I either spent all day in the practice room or playing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and subsequently calling myself a “concert pianist,” I want to highlight several events that changed the way I thought about myself as a musician.

It was during my junior year of college that I developed a love for collaborative piano. I worked closely with another student on his junior recital, and the experience of learning the repertoire and putting it all together was like one big warm fuzzy affirmation that I’d made the right decision regarding my major. I also accompanied the Hope College Chapel Choir during rehearsals that year. I’ll be honest: I was a terrible accompanist. I couldn’t sightread anything, especially not multiple staves, and choral literature took a back burner as I prepared my junior recital program. After being reamed out by the choir director one day for being unprepared at a rehearsal, I went boo-hoo-hooing to Charles, who didn’t mince words when he told me that my reputation as a pianist was on the line every time my hands touched the keyboard, and that the director had every right to be upset with me. I’ll never forget it. Though I won’t say that from that point on I showed up to every choral rehearsal with my music learned upside-down, I no longer made excuses that “I just didn’t get to it” or “Your tempo is faster than the one I practiced” or things like that. If I wanted to call myself a pianist, I was basically “on call” whenever I was asked to play. It was an important lesson for me to learn.

I sought out accompanying opportunities at Peabody, but my teacher mostly discouraged me from collaborative playing, saying I needed to focus solely on my technique. In my typical fashion I ignored her, justifying it by saying I needed more playing experience and to learn more repertoire. I’m not sure who was ultimately right, but playing with other Peabody students greatly improved my accompanying skills and sealed my love for musical collaboration. My experiences at the time included playing for an outstanding mezzo-soprano for the Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions, accompanying a young cellist as she played for numerous competitions and recitals, and premiering an exciting piece for piano and percussion at the Baltimore Composers Forum.

I struggle with competitiveness; it’s in my nature to want to be the BEST at something, but as I’ve mentioned before, self-doubt is my worst enemy, and I have an unfortunate tendency to crack under pressure. In order to perform beyond required recitals, however, it was necessary to put myself out there and audition for opportunities to play. I played in a few concerto competitions as a teenager, but at Hope I had the chance to audition for the annual Bach competition, the DeVos Showcase concert held every year in Grand Rapids, and the concerto/aria competition. I was successful at all of those, though I have absolutely NO memory of playing the first movement of the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor with the Hope College Symphony. NONE. (If anyone reading this blog has any memory of that performance, please, share it with me, because apparently my subconscious decided to block the entire experience out of my mind to protect my fragile ego from further trauma.) In early 1999, I learned the rest of the concerto and played my junior recital program for the Music Teacher’s National Association (MTNA) regional competition, right around the same time I was playing all of my graduate school auditions AND learning my senior recital program. Did I mention a left shoulder injury?

In 2006, I was teaching at Sacred Heart Academy in Buffalo, and though I was playing piano all day long, it wasn’t anything terribly substantial. I had stayed in touch with Nancy Roldán, the professor I assisted at Peabody, who was now at the helm of a new music festival and competition in the Baltimore/DC area, associated with the American Liszt Society. She encouraged me (well, actually she TOLD me) to apply and audition for the American Pianist division, which required preparing a Bach Prelude and Fugue, a sonata movement, and an étude. I drove down to Baltimore several times for lessons with Nancy in preparation, and was ultimately selected as a semi-finalist. During a month-long trip to Scotland to visit my cousin and her family, I insisted on practicing whenever and wherever I could. We took a week-long sojourn to the southern coast of England, and desperate to keep my fingers somewhat in shape, my cousin and I even went so far as to knock on the famous folk musician Billy Bragg’s front door to ask if he had a piano I could use! I’ll give my cousin full credit for having the chutzpah to spearhead that mission.

The competition was in September 2006, held at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, and I spent the week in advance preparing for that performance like I’d never done before. Lessons, practice, rest, good food, more practice, tears, frustration, elation, pure unadulterated fear–that week was such a roller coaster. When it was time to perform, I played my heart out on a gorgeous Fazioli in LeClerc Hall, possessed with a focus and sense of calm I’d never felt before. I ended up winning second place in what is now called the Liszt-Garrison International Festival and Piano Competition.

Unlike any other performing experience until that point, the Liszt-Garrison competition proved to me what I was able to accomplish with the proper focus, work ethic, and support system in place. Obviously at that time in my life, it was unsustainable; I had a family and a demanding full-time teaching job, and I wasn’t about to dump all of that and hit the concert circuit. But in terms of how I viewed myself afterwards, everything changed. Whereas before I never saw myself as a performer, I was able to assimilate that role in future performances, almost like an actor becomes a character on stage. I was able to detach myself from playing; no longer a slave to thoughts such as “what happens if I mess up” and “what do people think,” I started seeing myself as simply doing a job, expressing the composer’s intentions. It sounds like the exact opposite of what most people view as the essence of music-making –isn’t music by definition a reflection of the human spirit, with all of its tumultuous emotions? But I found that if I allowed those emotions to get in the way of the more practical aspects of playing, I was ultimately less effective at communicating those emotions.

I’ve mentioned Sacred Heart Academy a few times; this wonderful institution was my professional home for eight years, and the tale of how I ended up as their Director of Music from 2004-2012 is a good one. I started my musical career wanting to be a high school choral director, but that path changed significantly over the years. Now I was about to find myself doing the exact thing I set out to do at age seventeen, only with no formal training. It was time to improvise!

Reverberation, Part III

It was 2001. I was a newly appointed keyboard (NOT to be confused with piano!) faculty member in the music theory department at Peabody. I now had a regular paycheck, health benefits, a 403(b), a new apartment with actual bedrooms, and a roommate (the long-distance relationship had become an in-person relationship). I also had a pet–Igor the hedgehog, brought back from a pet store in Nebraska. Nebraska, by the way, is another story for another very distant day.

I also now had wheels; my friend Audrey sold me her 1991 Dodge Caravan (“Lady”) for $500, and I couldn’t believe how much of a difference it made, having a car. No longer was I tied to the Light Rail, the Hopkins shuttle buses which would drop me off near the overpriced, crummy Safeway but wouldn’t pick me up, the Metro which took you to the Reisterstown Mall and that was about it, or my own two feet. I now had a bicycle, too, but I was so afraid of either having the bike stolen or being hit by a car that I rarely rode it anywhere. The perks of owning a ten-year-old van included not worrying about bumps or scratches (hey, bumpers are there for a reason), and I even had a “Club” for the steering wheel.  Quaint, I know.

Having a car meant I could now drive myself to piano gigs that were a result of Peabody’s referral service; anyone seeking musicians for an event would call the school and be given a list of names and phone numbers of available players. I played for private parties, weddings, students, you name it. It was work I absolutely loved doing, not only because it paid extremely well for the amount of time and effort it took, but it was fun and I was good at it, and I accepted gigs whenever I could. I was also a paid alto section leader at First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church, blocks away from Peabody, so I was still singing. My life was full of the things I loved, and what a relief it was to no longer be a slave to a student’s schedule.

Instead I was responsible for five sections of keyboard studies, both graduate and undergraduate levels. The undergraduate classes were no problem–even though several of these students could play circles around me, I could still harmonize “Amazing Grace” in all twelve keys and secondary dominant chords and they couldn’t, so that was okay. The graduate students were trickier. Let me remind you that in 2001, I was twenty-four years old. Many of my students were my age or older, which might not make a difference for some people, but for me it was difficult to get past the fear that maybe I didn’t know anything that they didn’t already know. I think my first task was to make sure that anyone who studied with Ann Schein or Leon Fleisher was automatically exempt from my class.

The year went smoothly enough; there were the usual bumps and missteps on both teacher and student ends, but for the most part I enjoyed what I was doing. I took a few lessons with my teacher, who encouraged me to consider working on a GPD (Graduate Performance Diploma, also known as a Graduation Postponement Degree) while I taught. It was an opportunity I should have taken, but I was still reeling from the rigors of the previous year, and I doubted my ability to juggle full-time teaching and another degree, albeit a much lighter load academically, and do well at either.

I went ahead and applied for the permanent faculty position because it would have been foolish to not do so. I spent weeks honing my résumé and writing my personal statement, and I remember submitting the application with a sense of accomplishment, accompanied by a dull feeling of dread. Was this really what I wanted to do? What an honor to be considered as an educator at such an esteemed institution! But I knew that along with my teaching duties, I would be expected to do much more. There would be a push for me to continue playing and performing at an extremely high level, something I felt I could barely do without having a recital or a jury deadline looming over me. Perhaps I’d be expected to compile a book, or present at conferences, or do all of those professional things that “real” music educators did. I felt too young and inexperienced; I didn’t have the maturity or wisdom at the time to know that I would grow into any situation, to understand that my worst enemies were self-doubt and a lack of belief in my abilities. So I withdrew my application, and ended up helping the committee select the candidate who was ultimately hired. Summer 2002 arrived, and I was free.

I was free to leave Baltimore and move to Lincoln, Nebraska, where I got married, had a baby right away (Connor, born July 1st, 2003), fiddled around with some music here and there (accompanying students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, singing at St. Paul’s Methodist Church, singing with the incredible vocal group Dulces Voces, teaching a handful of private students), and decided I needed to move back east, back to my hometown of Buffalo, where I would soon embark upon the next eight years of my musical career: Director of Music at Sacred Heart Academy, a private girls’ Catholic high school. Peabody had only been the beginning.