Friday, July 19, 2013

My Music Project

There is something queerly liberating about starting over.

Last week, I followed Elle around her Suzuki Institute, taking notes, practicing iPhone resistance, commiserating with other parents, and mostly being in awe. In awe of the kids, of the teachers, of the parents, of the beautiful commitment that turns ADD youngsters into prodigies. (Actually, they are not at all prodigies; they are simply kids who are fluent in two languages, or becoming so, anyway.)

But what I really thought about a lot was the benefit of structure. Artists, I have found, need more structure than most. Of course we do: we are grappling with the protean forms that come from the bottomless depths of our rivers. My work as a life coach is often about teaching artists how to structure their lives so that they can both create their work and pay their bills without too much angst.

As a child (who had, instead of a Suzuki parent, a tennis champion parent), I spent many hours per day lying in bed spaced out, sitting in a desk, spaced out, even playing tennis spaced out. I was a spacey kid. I was always in my head, dreaming dreaming dreaming dreaming. When I was 13 or so, I read a biography of John Lennon in which he copped to the same crime––only instead of being apologetic, he flaunted this state as the natural, nay necessary state of being an artist.

Still, if one is to be an artist, one has to have some exterior structure going on, or one’s dreams never get written down, or painted, or danced. The stuff needs to get out of our heads somehow. And once out, it needs a container. And it’s in the journey from head to world where art meets craft, and craft needs practice.

I learned practice not from taking piano lessons. I never practiced the piano. Well, maybe the day before the lesson I might go over what the teacher told me to do the week before, but other than that, nada. I learned how to practice from playing tennis. You show up, you get run around the court, you play other kids, you do this a lot and you get better. I got very good at tennis, but when I was 14 I gave it up for the guitar.

I didn’t practice my guitar so much either, at least not in that Deep Practice way Suzuki kids do, but I did play all the frigging time. I got a job as the music teacher for the local day camp and learned about a hundred songs and played from 8:30am till 3, and then went home and spent my evenings figuring out Suzanne Vega and Neil Young songs. And then eventually I was in the band and we played more nights than not. I put in my 10,000 hours that way. (Suzuki is famous for saying "ability is knowledge plus 10,000 times.")

So the Suzuki concept of “daily” is not new to me. I learned that if you want to make growth happen you had to show up every day. I became a writer by writing three pages every day. I became a runner by running a mile or 3 every day. I became a meditator by meditating every day (badly, but still, for 15 years and counting), and I became a musician by playing every day.

As I wrote before, I am in the middle of a Happiness Project (thank you, Gretchen Rubin), and this month’s focus is Music. What I meant by this, back in April when I set my goals for each month for the next year, was that I would focus on some specific music projects in preparation for Falcon Ridge; namely writing two new songbooks to go with our most recent CDs (Rock All Day/Rock All Night, 2008 and The Full Catastrophe, 2012). But after my week at Suzuki Camp I got a new idea.

What if I put as much time and effort into my own music practice as I do with my kids’?

At this camp, there is an elective called “Fiddling.” A fabulous teacher named Sarah Michel taught the kids Irish, Old Time and Bluegrass tunes. On day 2, I asked if I could bring my own violin and try to play along. I played violin for two years, ages 8-9, and probably only ever played the A string and E string, but I do retain that muscle memory. So I played a bunch of fiddle songs and noticed how much fun I was having. Playing music with others is a lot like playing tennis or hockey: you have to be in the moment, focused on your body and hand/eye co-ordination. It’s a game. A really fun game. Good to remember.

What if, I thought, I married my Happiness Project mojo with my (ongoing) Mindfulness Project mojo with my inner musician who is, right now, kind of lost and directionless? As I posted last week, I have no idea what I am going to write next. I need to get back to being that spacey kid again. But I also need a structure.

The piece that most appealed to me about Gretchen’s Happiness Project was the Ben Franklin Virtues Chart aspect. I loves me a chart. So I have made myself monthly charts where I get to check off boxes at the end of each day. I also give myself a mood score to see if there is a correlation between number of boxes checked off and how I am feeling. (There is.) Why not do a Music Project too?

In their Suzuki lessons, my kids have a weekly practice sheet, which is a grid. They get to put stickers in the boxes when they fulfill their little tasks. On the grid: Listening, Scale, Tone, Rhythm, Technique, Review, Working Piece, Polishing Piece, Something Special. Review is the heart of the practice: here is where the new technique really gets practiced. Obviously you can’t get better at your craft when you are trying to bend your brain around a brand new piece. You improve your craft—say you are trying to learn vibrato–– on some Twinkle variation.

Last night my family sat down to dinner and I felt my heart beating hard. I swallowed and then screwed up my courage.
“Guys, I have something to tell you.” They all looked up at me over their corn cobs. I cleared my throat.
"What is Mommy’s job?"
“Musician,” they grunted.
“Yup. And how do musicians get to be better musicians?”
“Right! And how often do you ever see Mommy practice?”
They looked at each other.
“Never. Right?”
They nodded.
“So I am going to practice from now on, just like you do. And when I practice, I want you guys to let me practice.”
They rolled their eyes. But they didn’t say no.
So here is my music practice:
Every day:
-I play one scale.
-I do a five minute free write on a prompt.
-I play through one Nields song (I am going chronologically. Yesterday it was "Be Nice to Me." Today, "James.")
-I play through one Beatles song, strumming the chords and singing. The next day, I play the bass part. After that, I try to learn any extra parts that are within my musical reach (like the violin part on " Am the Walrus"––but not, perhaps, the violins on "Eleanor Rigby.")

That’s it. I get ½ hour a day. I am putting it first, before exercise, before tidying, before showering. That’s how I know I mean business. I will keep you posted on my progress.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Too Many Pots on the Stove

The last thing I should be doing right now is posting a blog. So maybe that's why I need to do it.

I am navigating the world of ebooks, to self-publish my 2008 title How to Be an Adult. The first time around, I had a deal with a local publisher to format the book. This time I am trying to figure all that out myself. Also, I am trying to write songs, and learn the 3 songs I've written so far this year, in time for Falcon Ridge. And I want to publish songbooks to go with our CDs Rock All Day/Rock All Night, and with our CD The Full Catastrophe. For the latter, I have a vision to put together a collection of essays on motherhood culled from this very blog. And I am deep in revisions of The Big Idea, my novel about a family rock band.

And even writing this, I am having trouble breathing.

I know I would be a lot more sane if I simply picked one project at a time to focus on and stopped trying to rotate the hot pans on the stove. But to let any of these projects go feels like death to me.

Add to all this a work schedule and a family schedule that's kept me extremely happy and occupied to the tune of not having a day off since Memorial Day. So on Saturday, Tom sent me to Williamstown, my ancestral home and the birthplace of my band (we got our start at the Williamstown Theatre Festival) for about 22 hours. What did I do? Sat in air conditioning and worked on all my projects. I sang through my new songs, recorded them on GarageBand for Katryna; worked on laying out How to Be an Adult and uploading it to CreateSpace; typed in a new first scene for The Big Idea; walked to the Co-op to eat dinner from their salad bar; and in the morning I went for a run to the graveyard where my grandfather and his family are buried.

Today I spent the day at Elle's Suzuki Institute, which meant I followed her around and took notes, avoided my iPhone, stretched my back a lot and listened to countless kids aged 5-14 playing a huge range of the Classical music canon. It's been beastly hot in New England––and everywhere I imagine––and no one is in an especially good mood. As I made a commitment this year to shake my bad moods, this didn't sit well with me. But the more I tried to "snap out of it," the more unpleasant I found the entire experience. And I kept asking myself, "Why am I not feeling the magic I always feel when I'm here?" Because for the past 3 years, Suzuki Camp has been one of my favorite places to be. I am usually a sucker for the whole package: the play-ins, the awesome teachers from New York, Maine and Boston, the lunches on the lawn, the antics during group class, the camaraderie of both kids and parents. But today, I was just bored and uncomfortable and sick of “Perpetual Motion.”

I'm sick of my own work too, at times. And sick of myself and my inability to pour my everything into just one project. I wish I had a boss, or a life coach, or a really tough friend, or my sister to tell me "Drop this and this and this and focus on that." I wish sometimes that someone would make me choose.

In the middle of the day, after lunch, the whole campus troops over to an old church where kids have their recitals. Over the course of a week, every kid in the camp gets a turn by him- or herself on stage to play a solo. Elle is playing something called “Gavotte from Mignon” by a composer named A. Thomas. It's cool–– and sounds the littlest bit like the theme from NPR. But today she wasn’t playing, so the two of us sat with another family, turned our programs into fans, and took turns fanning each other while we listened to the 13 or so kids get up and take their turn. Some were good, some were beginners, most had that stereotypical Suzuki Glaze in their faces that made me doubt the method way back when I thought I had a choice about my life. That was before Elle grabbed me by the hand at age 3 and dragged me to our current teacher, Emily Greene and insisted on studying the violin with her. And pretty much, until today, I haven't looked back or regretted any of it. Suzuki has given a lovely structure and flow to our lives, and I mark my days by the CD we put on for the kids to listen to in the morning, and the check boxes on their weekly assignment sheets as we go through our practice items together every day (Suzuki says, "We only practice on the days we eat.") As I listened to the kids play, I felt listless and hot and despairing. Completely uninspired. My new songs are ok, but they are all over the place. There is no core to them, nothing that links them together in any way. I can't see our next CD. I have no idea in what direction to write.

The last kid to play was a 12 or 13-year-old boy. He put a chair down on the stage and sat down with his cello. The director of the institute, who doubles as the piano accompanist, left her post; the boy began playing a movement from the sixth of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello: the Allemande in D. He played with his eyes closed, as though he were as much a listener as a player. After a minute, I poked Elle who was busy fanning her neighbor. "Listen to this," I whispered, and she did, sitting up in her pew for the rest of the eight-minute piece. The room held the music tenderly: the bruised sentiment of a man who had recently lost his wife. I was absorbed into the music, forgetting about my own artistic woes, forgetting about my big problem about how to get out of my bad mood, forgetting the heat, forgetting the glazed faces. I rode the current of the music. And when the boy pulled that last lovely D out of his cello, I rose to my feet and applauded, tears spanking my eyes.

The rest of the day I was more present for what I love about Suzuki and this camp in particular. Elle took a fiddle class with a remarkable teacher named Sarah the Fiddler who explained to the kids that the great thing about fiddling is that when you make a mistake you get to incorporate it into your playing and figure out why it works: which is basically my modus operandi. Then there was orchestra, where the amazing Tyson somehow gets a group of kids who sound like they are each playing the “Star Spangled Banner” at a different speed to pay attention enough to him to get them, by the end of the week, to sound coherent. And he does this without ever yelling. I knew the day was a success when I told Elle it was time to go, and she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Is every single other kid at this whole camp going home too?" I said yes. And only then did she say, "Well, OK" and followed me out the door.

Maybe this is what being an artist in midlife is all about: moving the different pots around. Maybe it’s about doing the thing that calls you in the moment, even if different things yell at different frequencies. As I wrote a few months ago, it’s become clear to me that my mission is not, after all, to write some memorable songs that will outlive me and be sung by kids 100 years from now on the back of school busses, or whatever it is they might be driving. My mission is to have a good life and to spread around some of whatever it is I’ve been taught so that others get some of the goods as well and get a chance to live as well and joyfully as I have lived. Process over product has been my motto of late. So this evening I played with my kids. We got wet, and I picked a bouquet of flowers from my garden. And instead of working on either of my books or trying to write a new song, I wrote this post. Tomorrow I will pack our cooler and violin and music stand and we’ll go back for another day of Suzuki, and let my own projects simmer on the stove.