Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rebuilding a Dream, Note by Note

“Let’s start at the very beginning,A very good place to start” - Maria in Sound of Music (“Do-Re-Mi” song)

It’s like I’m starting all over.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any time, you know I have a very special relationship with playing the piano. You know it got me into college. You probably know I abruptly walked away from playing during my second year in college, although I haven’t been terribly explicit as to why.

I guess it was a combination of things. I was starting to shut down, emotionally. Playing was my main emotional outlet, and to be graded and judged for my emotional outlet, to be required to practice 3-4 hours a day, and on top of that, to be required to accompany other musicians (something I abhorred) was all too much.

Me with my niece Leigha. I was home after my freshman year in college.
Worst of all, I was intimidated by other musicians who could sight read far better than I could. Sight reading was my greatest weakness as a pianist. It took me forever to learn a piece, but once I could comfortably get through the whole piece of music, I had it memorized.

That didn’t matter at school, though. The practice rooms at school were crammed in one wing. Two floors of tiny rooms with paper-thin walls, all with windows so you could see who sounded awesome and who sounded horrible.

No one sounded worse than I did when first learning a piece. I wish I were exaggerating, but in a small music school with only one area of thinly-walled rooms for practicing, you know what everyone sounds like, whether you want to or not.

Most people sounded at about halfway to performance level when they practiced. But I always sounded like I’d just learned how to read music that very day, until I had a piece “under my fingers”, at which point I had the thing memorized.

I hated anyone listening to me practice. It was something I hated about practicing when I was growing up, too. My mom and grandmother always loved listening to me practice, and I hated that. I wanted to be left alone, so I could fumble and struggle as much as I needed to, without anyone around to hear it.

And in college, I was surrounded by lots of sets of ears who were half-listening to others around them while practicing. It was so competitive that it overwhelmed me, and my need to play piano got lost in the shuffle of intense competition, pressure to sound perfect in practice, and the even greater pressure to sight read perfectly.

I quit. 

Cold turkey.

And I switched out of the music school (and then told my parents. I don't recommend that approach). 

I would say that I never looked back, but that would be a lie. I looked back plenty of times, wondering what really went wrong, why I failed as a music student, and why it seemed so impossible to sit down and play the piano.

The old 1900s piano I bought back in 2002.
I thought about playing on an almost daily basis. In the beginning, I had no piano, and that was my excuse.

But then I met a man and we ended up buying a house together and then getting married. Very soon after buying the house, I bought a piano.

It was a sad, run-down thing from the very early 1900s that needed a ton of work. It had all original parts, and that was a big part of the problem. The case needed to be completely refinished—the wood was so dry and cracked that no amount of lemon oil would help.

The strings needed to be replaced. The hammers needed to be replaced. The felts… and even some of the key action needed attention as well.

The only great thing about the piano was that even with the rough condition of the wood case, it still looked great. And, it had all original real ivory keys.

I was excited at first, but that excitement quickly dwindled when I got the piano tuned and the tuner said it wasn’t really going to sound any better once he was done with it, because of all this work it needed.

Each time I tried sitting down at that piano, all I saw was a giant to-do list, and all I heard was a sad box of keys in disrepair. The case looked good enough, but what was going on inside was a whole lot of discord.

(Yes, one might equate that to the life I was leading...)

I could never just sit and play. I could never just “be” with the keys. There was always a nagging inside. This instrument was begging me to take care of it. 

I played that piano only a handful of times from the time I bought it, in 2002, until March of this year, when I moved out of the house and into my apartment.

In talking with my best friend, it occurred to me that the piano was a giant to-do list, and that I craved simplification and authenticity in my life. I thought that a digital piano made more sense. Since I now live in an apartment, I could always put on headphones or turn the volume down so no one would hear me.

The only challenge was finding one that sounded close enough to a real piano and felt enough like playing a real piano that I would really love it… and really want to play.
I found myself researching digital pianos.

I narrowed the list down to several that sounded appealing, and off to Guitar Center I went.

I played every piano they had multiple times, across two visits. (I assure you, that's a lot of pianos.) I fell in love with one that hadn’t even been on my list before: the Yamaha Arius YDP181, or the piano now simply named Arius.

I was amazed at how much it felt like a real piano. The weighting on it is incredibly accurate.

But even more amazing was the sound. It sounded real and it felt real.

I knew this was the one.

I crunched the numbers and put it on layaway.

On Saturday, just a few days after my birthday, I went in to pick it up. I ended up getting 15% off the entire purchase, thanks to a coupon I had gotten in the mail. I asked the sales guy who had sold me the piano if he could help me get it to my apartment and up the one flight of stairs, and I’d give him some cash.  He obliged, and together, we lifted this human-sized box from my car and up the one flight of stairs.

The box weighed about 130 pounds, by the way.

The box stayed on the front porch, and I opened it up, and piece by piece, and hauled it inside, put it together, and plugged it in.

I identified a new fear, too.

I bought this thing (and it wasn’t really THAT cheap, either)… I hauled it upstairs, put it together, and it fits so perfectly in the space I’d left for it… but…

What if I never played it?

All day yesterday, I sat in my apartment, doing very little. I occasionally gazed across the room at the piano, wondering if I was ever going to really practice and try to learn some new pieces, relearn some old pieces, and get back some of the dexterity and technique I once had... or if I was just going to let it become a piece of unused furniture.

Well… I think I broke through that fear today.

My new Arius.
See... I live alone.

And finally, it occurred to me that no one ever has to hear me practice. No one but me will ever have to hear how bad I sound, how terrible my sight reading is, how my fingers fumble with the wrong keys and the wrong fingerings.

I do feel like I’m starting from scratch. I’m practically relearning how to read music, having to count up from notes I know on the page just to make sure I’m not playing an E when I should be playing a G… it’s bad, y’all. Really bad.

I dug out some old music that I’ve played a thousand times… and I dug out some new stuff that I’d had for years but had literally never opened, even to thumb through the pages.

I’m relearning scales and arpeggios, starting with the good old key of C. I’m quickly becoming friends with my metronome.

It really feels like I’m in some distant, far-away land where I used to be fluent in the language, even if I had to think about it a lot at first… and now I’m searching for any word I might remember.

But the wonderful part is that I know no one has to listen to it. Even I don’t have to listen to it, because I’m concentrating on finding the notes, not paying attention to how I sound.

I have never lived alone with a piano in the house. This is the first time, ever.

I am so glad… so glad to have this time to myself, to reacquaint myself with my old friend… on a brand new set of keys that will never have a giant and expensive to-do list associated with it.

I smiled so much while practicing, today. Amazed at how much I remember, and equally amazed at how much I have forgotten. I’d forgotten how to break down a piece so I can learn it, but after thinking about it for a while, I remembered. I remembered how to do a turn and a trill, without having to look at the notes. I have muscle memory and can place my hands on certain keys without looking at the keyboard, and yet, I can’t look at the bass clef and tell which line is for E and which line is for G (or is it one of the spaces?) without counting out, “Great Big Dogs Fight Alligators” for the lines (G-B-D-F-A) or “All Cars Eat Gas” for the spaces (A-C-E-G).

I truly am beginning again. Starting at the very beginning.

A very good place to start…

Friday, May 13, 2011

I've Always Been a Dancer

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be in Girl Scouts. I also wanted to take dance lessons and piano lessons.

I had to choose one.

It was such a hard decision. I desperately wanted to fit in with the girls at school—that’s why I wanted to be in Girl Scouts. I also felt a natural inclination to dance: I vaguely remember a show I was part of in kindergarten and I absolutely loved the dancing.

But, we already had a piano at home that I had spent time tinkering on, so I felt the most connected to piano and ultimately, I chose piano lessons.

I didn’t stop dancing. But, over time, dancing became a strictly social activity for me. I only danced if I went to a club or other social gathering where dancing was part of the event. Even then, I was very conscious of how I moved, aware that people watched me, so I made sure to never make a “stupid” move. I always knew I had a sense of rhythm, but I heavily judged my own dancing because I’d never had any training (so how could I possibly "do it right" or "be any good"?). 

I slowly became more sedentary and turned to other things (like making jewelry) as my primary form of expression. The weight piled on, and then it was so much effort to dance that I rarely felt like doing it. I would break a sweat after dancing for only a couple of minutes, and it just didn’t feel very good.

Through the deep and wide journey I’ve been walking over the past year, my eyes have opened. I see and feel who I really am, and the woman I’ve been denying for so many years is happy to be out and about! I’ve done so many things to get out of my comfort zone, including the Movement Montage I spoke about in another blog post.

Since participating in my first Movement Montage, I’ve rediscovered dancing.

Not just rediscovered, though—it’s on a whole other level for me. It’s more primal and it feels more necessary than ever before.

Thanks to yoga and dancing, I have felt my body open up in ways I didn’t realize I was so tightly locked down. My hips are more open, and my joints are looser. And, hold on...

I have hips!
And a waist line! 

And, my muscles are firming up—yet not holding on to nearly as much tension, and, quite simply—I feel better. Part of that is losing weight, of course, but part of it is rediscovering a piece of me, and realizing that I have unearthed one of my many parts that I chose to bury over the years.

Dancing has become a sacred part of my day.

Recently, I went to see a pain specialist to get help for my back pain. We discussed my MRI results, and he said that with the type of degeneration I have in my discs, plus the fact that my dad has struggled with similar issues, I will likely have to stop dancing at some point.

My response to that?

Make me.

You see, I dance just for me.

It’s not an image thing. It’s not even a control thing. It’s about totally letting go of control and just being.

And, yes, it's also about surrender.

(And heaven knows I need all the practice in that that I can get.)

I dance because I want to—not to impress anyone or try to get anyone’s attention—and that is freeing in a way that I’d never thought possible. I’m free to just be my hammy self and move in ways I want to move.

A friend of mine recently marveled at how my hips move as well as my strong sense of rhythm, and how I can sense the flow of music. She knew I was a musician just by the way I danced.

That got me thinking. When I'm dancing... it feels good, and I am utterly connected to the music I'm dancing to.

I feel sensual… even sexy.

I’m realizing something else, too.

I am graceful.

I dance with abandon.

I dance for the love of dancing.

I dance because I can’t not dance…

And no matter what any doctor says, I will keep dancing—from now till the end.

Monday, May 9, 2011

How I Got Into College

I was so clueless as a senior in high school. All of my friends were gearing up for college, and getting early acceptance letters to Texas A&M, UT Austin, Texas Tech, Baylor, or any of the other Texas schools.

Not me.

I had to get out. I was absolutely clueless, though. All of my friends had taken the SAT months before, and here it was—November of my senior year in high school, and I was forced to sign up for the latest date the SAT was offered.

On top of that, my parents wouldn’t let me take an SAT prep course. They wouldn’t even let me buy an SAT prep book—because after all, they thought the SAT was meant to test my actual abilities, and any prep course or book I used would unnaturally “enhance” my scores.

Of course it would, and that was the whole point. But my parents didn’t like the sound of that. So, in December of 1992, I walked into the SAT test classroom, cold. I had no idea what would be on the test—I didn’t even know the format.

I opened the test and immediately thought I was screwed. I finished each section of the test before a lot of others in the room did. I found myself going back over my answers, questioning what I’d chosen on some questions. Sometimes I’d change the answer and other times I didn’t. I was frustrated and anxious. I wanted out of that room as fast as possible. 

And then, just like that—the test was over.

All I could do was wait. I knew I had done poorly. I figured I would easily get in to A&M, but I wanted something different. I wanted to go out of state. I looked at my sister and the life she had chosen, and I knew that didn't feel right for me. I looked at my parents, at the life they’d chosen, and I knew that wasn't the right fit for me, either. 

I had no clue what I wanted, but I knew I was different and would have to find my own way.

I got my test results a few weeks later, and sure enough—I had done pretty poorly. I was fortunate to at least break 1000, but I knew this would make it tough for me to get into any school, especially out of state.

Still clueless, I strolled college hall—the hall of my high school where all the college posters resided. I grabbed a card from each poster, mailed them all in, and waited.

Brochures and packets peppered the mailbox daily. I had several tall stacks of brochures when it was all said and done. I read through all of them, and I narrowed my choices down to three: Marquette, Tulane, and Vanderbilt.

I don’t even remember why at this point. I guess I thought Marquette’s English program sounded good, and I have no clue why I selected Tulane—probably because I knew it was a good school. And Vandy? Well, I certainly had no idea it was a Top 20 university. I chose Vanderbilt because of the Blair School of Music. It was growing, so I knew they’d be more likely to admit someone with lower test scores (even though I had straight A’s in high school) because they wanted to grow the program exponentially over the next couple of years.

And I thought to myself… music school. Perhaps I could be the next Van Cliburn. The next Horowitz. I could be a concert pianist.

I talked to my piano teacher at length to help me make this decision. I could only apply to one school, because my grandmother could only afford to give me the money for one application fee. So I had to choose carefully.

I probed Mrs. Hansen about my chances for getting a repertoire ready for audition by the end of February. I had to play pieces from the four different genres—Baroque, Romantic, Classical, and Contemporary. We took up an entire lesson time going over the requirements and what pieces I could use for the audition. I was already in preparation for the Lois Boyer competition: a competition that only high school seniors are allowed to enter, and you have to play 30 minutes of music representing the four genres. So… I already had music picked out for that, it was just a matter of accelerating my ready time by three months.

My piano teacher knew me quite well. She’d taught me since third grade, and she knew what drove me, she knew my favorite composers, she knew my discipline issues.

Mrs. Hansen also knew that I could pull a performance out of my ass like none of her other students could. At the end of our conversation, we had set out a plan for how I was going to prepare myself for my February 20th audition.

I had two months. Two months to prepare about 30 minutes worth of music: to learn, memorize, and perfect my entire program.

I left Mrs. Hansen’s house filled with absolute determination. Up to that point I had never worked so hard for anything in my life. I was driven by the notion of getting out of Texas and away from everything and everyone. I wanted to start over. I wanted a clean slate.

The idea crept into my mind that I could actually pull it off. I gained more confidence as the days passed and I learned my music better than I’d ever thought possible. My progress was excellent. I practiced at least two hours every single day—and for a high school senior with a very strong case of senioritis, this was a pretty amazing feat.

The time came for my trip to Nashville for the audition. Everything inside of me seemed to be colliding all at once, and the adrenaline was pumping in overdrive. My skin felt like a loose shell that might explode and expose all of my uncertainties at any given moment.

My mom and I arrived at the Blair School of Music. I was ushered to one of the professor’s studios to warm up. I couldn’t get over what I saw—a room twice as big as my bedroom, with windows and two grand pianos. Two! I could hardly believe it.

I sat down and started warming up. A wave of confidence and subsequent calm washed over me and formed a protective shell around me.

I warmed up. I went over some potential trouble spots in my music.

Then, I sat and stared out the window, fighting back tears. I had already fallen in love with the campus. I fell into a daydream about starting my life here and never turning back.

Then, a knock on the door—a messenger, letting me know it was time.

The nerves and sweaty palms instantly take me over as I’m writing this. It was the most important audition, the most important performance, of my entire young life.

I quietly stood while the judges (all professors) introduced themselves to me. There were four: two men, two women. I immediately forgot their names. I made my way to the auditorium’s stage. I carefully adjusted the bench to the appropriate height.

And I sat, hands in my lap, thinking about my first piece. I closed my eyes. I tried to forget about the four judges in the back of the room.

I opened my eyes and the lights focusing on me nearly blinded me. I could already feel myself sweating under their heat. And my hands were sweaty.

None of this fazed me.

I took a deep breath, rubbed my hands against my dress, and placed them on the keys.

I played.

The magic that poured out of my fingers and into that room still amazes me to this day. I had never performed so well and with so few mistakes. I wish my whole family could have been there to hear that performance. I wish my friends could have heard the expression from deep within my soul, finding its way to ivory keys, hammers, strings, and finally—the emotion bursting into the air, embracing the judges and taking them on my journey.

A journey filled with pain I had yet to realize, a journey filled with anger deeply seated in my heart, a journey filled with promise and desire and passion.

My journey.

I nailed every piece but one, and even in that one, I only had a couple of small “bobbles” as Mrs. Hansen always called them.

But I’m convinced the piece that won over the judges was Toccata by Jack Hawes (Disclaimer: that's not me in the video. I figured you knew that, but just in case...). None of them had ever heard it before, and I played it absolutely brilliantly. I was in my comfort zone by the time I got to that piece, and I literally flew through it. I played it faster than I’d ever played it before, and my fingers found their home on those keys. I surprised myself with my performance on this piece.

I never wanted that performance to end. My favorite part of playing piano was performing. I loved to show off. I loved showing off my ability, my dexterity, my emotional expression, my posture, my hand position—everything. I loved performing.

When those moments were over, I sat on the bench for a pregnant moment before giving the room one last glance from the stage and making my exit. The judges thanked me for coming, and I strolled out of the auditorium feeling myself walking tall, with a big goofy grin on my face.

I knew I’d done well.

I knew I’d get in.

And, three weeks later, I got that letter in the mail. 

The letter that changed my life.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

From Suspicion to Surrender

When I’m in a really good place, I try to relish it because I feel like it means I’m in a glorious resting period—that peace and calm that comes just before I am stretched again by the next storm of my life.

But that’s really just a sugar-coated way of saying that I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And that makes life black and white— either good or bad. And life isn’t like that. It just doesn’t work that way. Life is full of gray area. Life is full of color, too, and to siphon living into black or white is so limiting… so small.

And I don’t want to live like that anymore, where I’m waiting for the next bad thing to happen because—after all—it’s bound to.

That’s not living in the moment. In fact, it’s anything but. It’s like sleeping with one eye open, or with a gun under my pillow.

I end up feeling a little suspicious of every good thing that happens to me, as if I don’t really deserve good things, or as if bad things are my penance for living a good life.

That means I’m just limping through life… or worse—Army-crawling on all fours, under imaginary barbed wire, across imaginary enemy lines.

I make things harder than they have to be, and harder than they actually are, all because I'm trying to stay in control. Always suspicious, always on guard, always considering and calculating who’s going to wrong me next, or what awful thing is going to happen next, or what my next move will be—

Instead of letting go, living in the moment, and standing tall through those moments when life is really hard.

I should note that I’m so much better about living in the moment than I used to be.

I slip up, though. And, still, whenever something deeply wonder-full comes my way, that question hangs in the back of my mind:

Shit. What’s next?

A slight sense of dread, clouding beautiful moments in my life. How ugly… how utterly sad.

The beauty of constant growth is—now that I am aware, I have something pretty specific to work on.

Apparently my current, ongoing mission is to let go of control.

There’s a word for that, ya know. I’ve mentioned it very recently and alluded to just how difficult it is for me to do.