Memorial weekend always comes as a shock to me. Memorial weekend officially marks the beginning of summer. At this time, the occupational transition becomes complete; once I was a music teacher, and now I am a baker for hundreds of hungry summer campers. I fell asleep Friday night with a happy sugar-plum nostalgia, filled with memories of good friends and springtime and oodles of snickerdoodles. I like baking. Anything that brings me closer to the fundamentals of existence makes sense, and eating food is about as elementary as it gets. Elevating this primary function to an aesthetic, tongue-tempting creation is incredibly satisfying, enough to keep me awake at night planning my strategy for the next day.
I awoke in a good mood today. However, something happened between the dewy ideal that rises with the day and the brutal nastiness of the reality that burns it off. Baking 325 sugar cookies, 320 rolls, 250 servings of pumpkin bars, and 250 biscuits may look about like one simple line of writing on paper. It’s ambitious and exciting in the mind. In reality, it becomes eight numbingly painful hours on my feet, lifting large bowls of dough, scooping, squeezing, scraping, wiping, slicing, pressing, rolling, and arranging. For eight hours. Meanwhile, 300 people took turns at thirty second intervals interrupting my counting and measuring with questions about silverware, pots and pans, cleaning sprays, wash rags, screwdrivers, and general accommodational needs. Combine this with an unsupervised 2-year-old pushing a piercingly squeaky mop bucket around the kitchen for an hour or so, and I was dancing all over the boundaries marked for sanity.
I took a break to grab a cup of hot tea. Someone in the dining hall was playing a Joplin rag–quite well, in fact–on the camp’s clunker piano. I noticed right away because the notes flowed harmoniously and carefree, orchestrated by competent fingers. I smiled, happy to have my ears rubbed with musical salve for a change. But to my dismay, the anonymous performer stopped abruptly once he noticed he had an audience. No amount of coercion on my behalf would make him finish the piece. As a piano teacher, I assumed my authoritative insistence would succeed. Play! I was a little frustrated and disappointed when I failed to pry any further music from the pianist. Why was he so belligerent?
Suddenly, I saw. He was just like me, all those times when people asked me to play and I was too bashful and “humble” to gratify their request. It never once occurred to me that those who beckoned may have sincerely needed to hear music that day. I’d overlooked what a blessing a happy tune can be to a burdened soul.
Thank you Scott Joplin, for writing your cheerful ragtimes, and thank you to all those who have found the time and discipline to acquire a bit of music to entertain a threadbare audience from time to time.
Just don’t forget to share it, okay?
The Sun Came Out
The Ice Went Out
The Loonies Crawled Out
We All Went Out
The Whoppers Were Out
The Paper Ran Out
Look Up! Look Out!
The Leaves Are Out!
To all Steele String Studio students:
Due to current weather conditions, all lessons have been canceled. Normal scheduling is expected to resume upon first frost. Meanwhile, go knock yourselves out.
The method book I use refers to the right hand fingers as sailors who navigate the bow as one would navigate a ship across the waters. Captain Thumb takes charge, the leader of four unruly sailors who report to his curved dominion without fail.
My six-year-old student, Gabriel, listened intently for further instruction as I introduced the bow to him for the first time. On a hunch, I changed the story a little. Instead of sailors, why couldn’t we use pirates? Pirates on the sea, who plundered Violinland for buried treasure. It sounded like a plan. I showed him the role of each pirate and sent him home to ponder the plot of his future plundering.
It surprised me on Monday, when he returned to me with not only a perfect bow hold, but unearthly powers to keep all pirates in line as he navigated through the three tests that would deem him sea-worthy. His pinky held a perfect arch as he twisted his bow this way and that. His thumb never faltered while he hoisted the ship to the sky and back. His bow hold was solid. I eagerly jumped to the next exercise to see how he and his pirates would fare.
“Let's set the bow on the string now, and see if we can get the bow to move in a straight line. If you succeed, the ship will sail a straight course and make a beautiful, clean sound.”
He drove the boat downward on the E string and observed a scratchy, screeching wail. “It needs less pushing,” he noted, without prompting. In a matter of seconds, he adjusted the speed and weight of his bow arm until a smooth, ringing tone emerged. “There, that’s better.”
Of all the students I own, suddenly I come across a six-year old beginner who has the ears to navigate his bow to smooth waters from the very first voyage. Astounding!
My guitar has slept peacefully in its case for nearly eight years now. Wow, I used to play guitar. Back during my first summer here, I used it to lead songs for the evening chapel service over on the other side of the lake, at our summer camp’s “Wagon Train” horsemanship program. Question is, can I still play it?
It took a bit of buzzy thunking around on the fretboard to find the chords I still remembered: G, C, D, A, Am, E, Em... That’s about it. Barre chords were off limits. You have to build callouses along your index finger in order to "barre" chords, and I only had two days before Sarah and I would play at Veronica’s. Luckily, you can get by with only 7 chords for celtic music, so we were all set for some fun: Sarah on flute, and me on my acoustic guitar.
In a moment of clever foresight, I went out and bought light gauge strings to save me some blisters. I unwound the first thin wire from its geared peg, wiping off a shocking buildup of hay dust on the fingerboard. I wasn’t sure which way the new strings should wind. Clockwise? And how do I finish off these trailing wire ends when I’m done? Certainly, there must be an explicit lawbook regarding guitars and their string changing protocol. Maybe I should google it. And what about this neck? It needs adjusted. I found the appropriate allen wrench and twisted it in the hole just under the edge of the neck. One way or the other, I moved the neck so that the strings were closer to the frets again. I wondered if I should have taken it to a guitar luthier (or whatever guitarists call the people who do neck adjustments on guitars).
Then came the practicing. I frowned at the sound I was making. Should I relax my right wrist more? Is this pick too thick? How do I get all six strings perfectly in tune with each other? Pythagorean, just, or even-tempered tuning? Probably even-tempered. ...I feel like I’m really squeezing the neck! Oh, my picking. Is it okay to pick each note from top to bottom? Is that cheesy? When do I pick upwards, versus downwards? I could use an infinite combination of picking and strumming, but which ones are the best ones? Gosh, my sound is tense. I need to relax that wrist. I’m hunching too much. My legs are crossed, is that okay?
Augh, stop it! Stop the scrutinizing! What am I doing to this instrument I used to play so indiscriminately? Back in the day, I didn’t care about any of this! I just sat there and played. No one told me what was right or wrong. (Except for this one time, someone pointed out I’d wound my strings the wrong direction. But I didn’t care; I knew which way to go to get it in tune, so what did it matter?)
My guitar was a free spirit. I kept it in the hayloft and snuggled it up to campfires at night. I used white paint from the outhouse project to decorate its case. And me? I was decorated with a straw cowboy hat. I wore work boots and bathed twice a week, even though the dust I slept in smelled like manure. I sang silly songs. I ate moon pies without flinching. Do you think I cared about Pythagorean tuning and string brands and right hand guitar etiquette? No. I had guilt-free, not-so-perfect fun, strumming my not-so-perfect guitar with a bunch of mediocre singers, there in the Wagon Train chapel service.
I remember what an awful summer I thought that was, smearing whitewash over outhouse cobwebs every morning before horsemanship lessons, and shoveling out Ben and Duke’s pen every afternoon (stupid Belgians). Between the Lakeside program and the Wagon Train program, Wagon Train became known as “The Dark Side.” I’d have cried myself to sleep on my dusty Wagon Train pillow in my dusty Wagon Train shack every night if George hadn’t walked the sawdust trail from Lakeside and snuck me out the back window to meet up with friends over at the archery range. Really, it wasn’t so bad, swatting mosquitos and eating stale popcorn by twilight. It was far from perfect, but I was in love, and I didn’t care as much about all the flaws as I thought I did.
When the high polish of professionalism encroaches and threatens to put to extinction all the whims and whimsies of the musical spirit, it is important to reserve some sacred retreat to be used solely for the purpose of unbridled enjoyment. For me, it’s folk music, be it fiddle or guitar. I know I’m not that good on the guitar. Some would call my style amateur. Literally defined, I’d say they’re right, and I prefer to keep it that way.
(photo courtesy of Lee Johnson)
I needed to get to the pit rehearsal right away. So I rounded up my stuff and hopped in my car, which happened to be conveniently located in my bedroom. The exhaust bothered my roommates, but I was on the road to the PAC before they could finish their complaints. Upon arriving, I noticed I had no music. Not only that, but I seemed to have forgotten my violin. My violin! Where is it? I ran from the pit to the backstage, to a long series of winding halls and staircases. I had no idea where I was, or where my violin was. After interrupting several classrooms of students and making my way out of the building, out into the neighborhood, I found my car. The violin case was in the passenger front seat. It was too light when I picked it up, so I opened it and saw it had no violin. Oh no, where could it be? After cruising around on the streets of Honolulu, I drove home, which wasn't really home at all, but a place I'd never been, with unidentifiable roommates. One of them had displayed my violin amongst a row of other fiddles, all standing on their sides on the coffee table. My bow was between the table and the wall, and when I withdrew it, I immediately noticed that it was broken in two. The phone rang. It was the conductor, wondering if I would be making it back in time for intermission. “We need you to play Turkey in the Straw. It’s important to have a full sound from the violins for this part.” Ah, if only I could find my shoes...
A bear ate all my pigeons, just now, while I was practicing.
For a while, I couldn’t recall any of my dreams. But lately, I have nightly dreams with a recurrent theme: I dream of trees. Each time a tree occurs in one of my dreams, it plays a significant role, yet not always the same one. While many are stately, perfect, and awe-inspiring, others provoke feelings of adventure, terror, sadness, or longing. Sometimes I hide behind trees. I climb in the branches of trees. I run from falling trees. Lightning strikes in front of trees. Yellow and red trees swirl on the grey streets of my childhood. Every night--for a few weeks now--I dream of trees.
Out of curiosity, I researched traditional symbolism involving trees. Among many things, they portray a link between heaven and earth, with roots and branches stretching in either direction. Famous trees in history include the Biblical Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, and the Buddhist Tree of Enlightenment. Even the cross, taking on the same symbolic value as the tree, is a meeting place of the divine and human. Dream interpreters claim that tree climbing is a sign of reaching toward one’s goals. Green trees stand for growth, and fall foliage could signal a migration away from old concepts or muses which are no longer useful.
I’m not quite sure what my own trees are, though. In my waking existence, I’m actually a bit disinterested and dull-minded lately. We’ve already concluded the symphony season, and my end-of-the-year studio recital is Sunday. I ended up cancelling my own recital. With no immediate musical goals, I have nothing special to share, really. Nothing new under the sun to write about, just waiting for the ice to go out.
We are currently watching the lakes open up. Two days ago, I finally heard bird songs for the first time since September. Now the sun is warm enough to awaken musty old smells of earth and sap, scents that have long been sleeping dormant under the snow. The warmth budges the last bit of film from the water. I look out at the bare branches, up at the new birds in the trees, who are also waiting. Periodically, their songs puncture the silence.
Birds make music, you know, like you and me. They also fly, and they harbor in trees. It’s funny; unless you count dreams, I’ve never been a bird. But sometimes I feel we are akin. Who knows. Maybe at night, they dream about trees, too.
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