Sunday, September 16, 2012

Practicing it Up in the Garden

My niece, with her band, has recorded her first single, which she wrote, sings lead on and plays bass on. It's a rocking song called "Speak Up!" and my kids just got their mitts on a CD of it.

"Speak up, stand up/Don't let anyone tell you what to do..." sings my 6-year-old daughter, along to her beloved cousin's vocal. Her little brother Jay mimes playing the descending bass line. We've listened to the song four times in a row. I am blown away by the confidence, the mastery, the reedy sweetness of the eleven-year-old voice. And, to make matters even more delightful, the song is about music itself, and the deliciousness of coming into one's identity as a young musician:

"In music there are no lines to cross/In your own song you are always the boss."

Tom and I just came from a Suzuki parent class, a two-hour affair held for all parents of Suzuki kids of all instruments. I felt tearful--in a good way--by the end of it. Other parents shared their reasons for taking on what is the equivalent of a college class (and we're talking about just the parents' role here!):
-"It gives my son confidence and something he can be proud of."
-"It teaches my daughter that if you practice something, you will get better."
-"If I am there to guide them, it keeps them from laying down the wrong neural pathways," -"This is an opportunity to give my child the ability to master something."
-"She whistles the themes of the music all day long!"

Interestingly, none of the parents said, "Because I want my child to be the next Joshua Bell." Everyone present was more interested in process than product. In fact, the teacher (Emily Greene) even referred to playing the violin as a by-product of the method. The real fruits are compassion, frustration tolerance, self-control, appreciation of beauty, self-esteem and a closer parent-child relationship.

I am all for all of this. And the above are the reasons I show up day after day to the practice sheet our teacher makes and insist Elle pick up her fiddle and play her repetitions of "Allegro" and "Witches' Dance," even when she responds by becoming boneless and falling onto the floor. But I would add to the list: a life-long relationship with music.

We parents also went around and shared what is hardest for us about Suzuki. Most said the conflicts arising around practice. I added that for me the biggest fear is the thought that plays in my head when Lila doesn't want to practice and I am making her: I am destroying her love for music!

Why do I have this thought? Because sometimes I hear from other rock musicians that they were forced to take music lessons when they were kids and they hated "that classical sh*t." (Of course, they went on to become professional drummers...) Or because my father said he hated having to practice his cello growing up (of course he plays guitar now, all the time, whenever he can get his hands on it, and no one makes him...) Or that my daughter herself says, "I'm sick of practicing!" (But if I tell her she can quit, she immediately goes running for her instrument.)

Music is hard. There's no getting around the fact that in order to play half decently one has to put in some hours. And most musicians have some kind of internal struggle with practicing. (Some don't. My friend Pete Kennedy told me he still practices 3-5 hours a day, and I can't imagine he "makes" himself do this. His guitar seems like an appendage of himself.) But anything worth having a lifelong relationship with takes time and perseverance and has hard spots. Somehow we (I) get the idea that music should be all pleasure. Nothing is all pleasure. Everything that matters in life takes work: getting to see a great view from the top of a mountain. Having an incredible relationship with another person. Writing a beautiful poem. Painting a picture. Creating a garden from a patch of weeds.

"At the outset of lessons, neither parent nor child counted on the struggles that can often come between them during practices. First lessons often start after children have seen other children performing – or perhaps playing games in group class. The parent-child duo takes up an instrument with beautiful images of working together happily to produce delightful sounds. There’s usually a honeymoon period, but before long, parents begin to realize that the work of practicing resembles gardening with your bare hands more than arranging fresh flowers in a vase. (And don’t be fooled: even the parents who appear that have practices as graceful as an ikebana also run into a thorn now and then.)

"An important truth from gardeners can help parents who practice with their children: you can’t tug on a play to make it grow. You have to trust the process. But there’s nothing wrong with fertilizing, watering, and generally caring for a plant. That’s what gardeners do. Parents need to do it as well. In the process of tending beautiful flowers and nutritious vegetables, gardeners also encounter weeds. And pests. They also get some dirt under their fingers. In their own way, so will parents.” (from "Building Violin Skills," Ed Sprunger)

This beautiful quotation from the Suzuki teacher, violinist and psychotherapist Ed Sprunger hit me where I lived yesterday when Emily read this to us. As a writer and a teacher of writing, I realized the universality of this thought. You can't tug on your writing, either. You can't tug on your relationship. You have to leave space for the serendipitous, like your 11-year-old-budding-rock-star niece lighting a fire under your 4-year-old pre-Twinkler. For as soon as he'd finished listening to his cousin's single (5 times in a row,) Jay, who just had his first lesson last Thursday, grabbed his tiny 1/16th size violin and started playing her pop song's rhythm on the E string.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Thoughts on the Bhagavad Gita While Climbing Mount Colden

Last weekend, Tom and I took our first ever 2 day weekend away from our kids. We've gone on overnights before, but two nights away? It seemed impossible. Thanks to our most trusted friends and relations, a dream became a reality.

Where to go? The Adirondacks, of course. What to do? Hike for 9 hours, ascending a +4700 foot peak, naturally. What, do you think we'd just sit on our butts reading old copies of the New Yorker? Well, actually, that's exactly what I wanted to do. But Tom has 46r fever, and I am a loving and supportive spouse, so we got up at 7am, made a quick breakfast, packed a gigantic lunch, filled our water bottles and packs and headed off to the Adirondack Loj.

But before we left Northampton, I dropped off my four-year-old at his pre-school and slipped into Yoga Sanctuary for some pre-vacation vacation. Sara, my teacher, preached on my favorite line of the Bhagavad Gita: Better to do your own dharma poorly than another's brilliantly. It was this line, ironically, that led me to abandon my own yoga teacher training two years ago. I had been thinking that becoming a yoga teacher would somehow mold me into the all-knowing, and incidentally gorgeous, guru/life coach I was to morph into now that my music career was in its sunset years. As we worked on opening our shoulders, I pondered this. Instead of feeling sunsetty, I was feeling pretty excited about my music career these days. Over the years, our mission has always been "write and perform songs that kids will one day sing on the back of the schoolbus at the tops of their lungs." We're actually right on track for that. Sure, we once hoped to be the next Beatles, but that ambition faded early on. Fame at that level makes it very difficult to raise a family, deeply know oneself without too many outside opinions, or have a peaceful dinner at one's favorite restaurant.

On the trail to Mt. Colden, there is a 2.2 mile walk in to Marcy Dam. There is a certain pine forest that we both remember well, somewhere on this walk in, but we are too focused on our feet and miss it. It's weird to be on this trail, a trail I have hiked so many times for so many years. Today there are scores of hikers; in fact, we almost didn't get a parking place when we arrived at 8:30am. The trail is also the one for Mount Marcy, New York's State's highest peak, and on this Saturday of Labor Day weekend, everyone seems bound and determined to bag the biggest peak. As we march along, we pass and are passed by hiker after hiker, some with walking sticks, some with oxygen tanks. "Marcy is a highway," said one of my mountain climbing gurus back in the 90s when I was doing the 46r thing. The implication was, real hikers go for the less flashy peaks. Why focus only on Number One?

Marcy Dam used to be a lake: here's Tom and our dog Cody in 2005:

But Hurricane Irene destroyed the dam, and now it's more like a swamp.(Mt. Colden is in the background).

Tom and I talk about the article in the New York Times by Firmin DeBrabender a few weeks back; in it he write about the myth of individualism, much discussed in this presidential election. I am thinking about the many many reasons that right now I am motivated to climb this peak, why I made the choice to exert myself this way instead of resting. There's no right or wrong; it's just curious. Am I climbing instead of resting because I want to be with Tom? Yes. Am I climbing instead of resting because I am driven? Yes. Not to become a 46r (I became one of those in 1993, in a kind of lemming-esque way; my whole family and group of friends were doing it, so I tagged along). Am I like Hillary, climbing "because it's there"? Definitely. And I like hiking. I love the expanse of time, part of it in silence and part in conversation with the one I love best. It's time with God. My mind needs days like this, where I am so focused on a task that it can't wander too much--especially on the steep or tricky parts. As we ascend through the woods, over rocks and soft pine, I feel myself relax, even as I exert. I feel my legs strengthen, my lungs work. I breathe in the smell of balsam, that seminal scent from my childhood, my own madeleine.

What is my dharma? Is it to make music in exactly the way I always have? Is it to encourage others to see the bonds music forges? Am I supposed to go to Divinity school? If so, why? Do people really have a dharma that is so specific, like "be a doctor" or "be a poet"? What if my dharma is just to be Nerissa?

My mission today was to be as present as I could be; to witness the journey, appreciate the birches (which have a relatively short life-span, Tom tells me, and they are my favorites.) I make a point of looking up every few minutes so that I don't get caught in my thoughts. Still, I get pretty caught up in my thoughts.

We come to many false peaks and one stinky stagnant lake (Lake Arnold). We run into a couple of young friendly Cornell students who are happy to just recline at this lake. "Don't you want to get to the top?" I say, bewildered. "We're thinking about it," they say.

At the summit, we sit and gaze at Algonquin and Iroguois, my favorite peaks. Then we pick up our lunches and move to the other side to stare at Marcy and her neighbors. A couple of very professional looking hikers come up behind us. "Is that Redfield over there?" I ask them, pointing.

"Yup, I'll give you that," says the man.

"And is that Grey?" I continue, pointing to a peak in the foreground.

"Sure is, at least I think it is," he says. I continue asking this stranger who surely must know. Then his wife says, "Congratulate him! He is a 46r today!" So we do; and then I realize that he has no better sense of which peaks are which than I do. I wish my dad were with us.

On the way down, my legs are like spaghetti. We pass the Cornell kids who decided to summit the peak after all. We are descending on a dry very rocky creek bed, with rocks the size of basketballs and watermelons for footing. My ankles wobble, and I keep tripping. "God, please strengthen my ankles," I pray. For good measure, I add, "Jesus, please strengthen my ankles," just in case. Then my mind goes off on matters of the trinity, the deity of Jesus, are they really one, etc. And the next moment, I am in midair. My hands go out to catch my fall, and my left knee scrapes on a rock. "God!" I think furiously. "What gives?"

"Are you OK?" Tom calls back.
"Yes," I say right away. But I stay where I am, even though there are a couple of older women behind us, and part of the reason I tripped was that I was hurrying to keep them from passing us, as we'd just passed them. I assessed. Scraped palms, a tiny bit of blood. Everything in working order. I got back to my feet and continued, gingerly down. "I just prayed for exactly this not to happen," I thought grumpily. "So much for prayer."

That's not exactly the point, I heard. Do you think you get whatever you pray for? What else could this mean?

And it came right back: that I will fall, even when my entire will is behind the hope that I won't. But that I will be OK. And even if I am not OK, I will not be alone. We are not guaranteed a life of ease, or to dodge every bullet when we chose a spiritual life, or to be the next Beatles, or even the next cranberries. But we are promised some company for the journey.

We staggered back to Marcy Dam a few hours later. This time I was determined to see what Tom was now calling "The pole forest," because these pines are so straight up and down that they look like they will soon be harvested as telephone poles. We look and look. Everywhere there are deciduous trees, ancient ones, new ones, mixed with all sorts of evergreens. And then finally, about a half mile from the parking lot we come to it. It's just a few hundred yards of forest, but the trees are uncannily uniform. And even with the occasional hiker passing us, it's eerily still, with that trademark whistling the wind makes in tall pine trees. We both stop and let the hikers pass.

"This is my church," whispers Tom.