I have enjoyed reading obscure or forgotten literature from the early 20th century. I once read a book called “Arrowsmith,” by Sinclair Lewis (1925) and almost laughed my fool head off over the health care system – as if nothing had changed in more than a century.
I finally discovered, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” by Carson McCullers (1940), and found myself jealous that a college-age girl could write like that. It’s a beautiful and haunting story.
I use a highlighter when I come upon a passage that makes me stop. A phrase, sentence, or paragraph that jumps out, seems to be saying something. Below are a few. The first is from Jack Black’s 1926 memoir “You Can’t Win,” in which he outlines his descent into a criminal career. Here he is describing his childhood:
“Looking back, it seems to me that our life in the convent was not properly balanced. We had none of the rough, boisterous times so dear to the small boy, no swimming, baseball, football. We were a little too cloistered, too quiet, too subdued. There was no wrestling, no boxing, no running and jumping and squabbling and shuffling and shouldering about. Of course I learned all those later. But I learned them quickly, too quickly – all in a bunch. That put me out of balance again. Those exercises should have been mixed in with my studies and prayers.”
The next is from a short story by P.G. Wodehouse entitled, “When Papa Swore In Hindustani” (1901). Wodehouse was a comic British writer who wrote cleanly, concisely and smartly. You could write a stage musical out of this particular comic drama. Here’s the passage:
“Colonel Reynolds, V.C., glared sternly across the table at Miss Sylvia Reynolds, and Miss Sylvia Reynolds looked in a deprecatory manner back at Colonel Reynolds, V.C.; while the dog in question – a foppish pug – happening to meet the colonel’s eye in transit, crawled unostentatiously under the sideboard, and began to wrestle with a bad conscience.”
“Foppish pug”? I giggled like a schoolboy picturing it, before I even looked up the word “foppish.”
This last quote I’ve lost the reference for (having foolishly written it down in my journal without credit), and I apologize. It stopped me because there is a mountain of self-recognition in it:
“So every night he sat in Alcala, and wrote. Sometimes he would only try to write, and that was torture.”
I understand neither Einstein nor notions of a magical universe where every coincidence is none. But an amazing thing happened the other night.
I decided to return to the local Choral Society for winter term. When I arrived on the first night of rehearsal I found that a woman I’d done community theater with two years earlier was present as well. It was a fun re-connect.
On the same night I found that a student I’d worked with in Rock Camp last summer was also there with her mother. Also a fun re-connect, but with the added pleasure of seeing the rare high school student singing in a group who’s average age is somewhere around my own.
When I arrived on the second night I said hello to the community theater acquaintance again, but did not see the high school student, nor her mother. (Everyone is allowed three absences before being dismissed for that term’s concert.)
The two-hour rehearsal concluded, everyone was packing up and heading out. I was helping to stack chairs. A woman called my name. “Mike.” It wasn’t one of those explosive shouts you sometimes hear unexpectedly (which is why there is no exclamation point), but also wasn’t exactly a question (which is why there is no question mark). It was somewhere in between: on the line between “I know that name,” and “I’m not sure what I’m seeing right now.”
I turned around and didn’t recognize the woman standing there. Then she said her name: Ellie MacDonald. Right away it sounded like it should ring a bell. But it took several more seconds of standing there staring at her like a man in a fugue state before I realized I was looking at someone I hadn’t seen in over 40 years.
Ellie MacDonald (I’ve changed her name to protect her innocence) and I were both members of the elite vocal jazz group at our high school from 1977-1980. It was an audition-only choir. I had wanted to be a part of it since middle school, when the choir, known as “Shivesen,” had given a concert there.
I had auditioned as a freshman, but hadn’t made the cut. In the fall of 1977 I auditioned again and was selected. So was Ellie.
The next three years gave me some of the brightest memories of my early musical career. The choral director and I became close during that time, and he was a mentor for me as a developing pianist and writer. Friends and I collaborated on helping to arrange “charts” (songs) for the group to experiment with. One of these charts, an arrangement of an old jazz number called “Cloudburst,” had captured our imagination and the director agreed to help us arrange it for the group’s repertoire in the spring of 1980 for annual festival and competition.
At competition, I was allowed to play piano in the rhythm section. Mendoza sang the solo. When everything was tallied, we were announced the winners of the festival. That moment is still one of the greatest of my life. I can still see Jeff, Pat, Susie, Rick, Sherie, Kelly, Greg, Ellie, and the rest as we floated into the air and laughed and cried all the way home.
It was our last festival together. When we graduated, we moved on, as kids do.
As we stood there the other night, beholding one another (literally beholding), 40 years disappeared in a flash. I was actually stunned, particularly as I had long ago lost touch with anyone from high school. I finally threw my arms open and we held each other as if we were long-lost friends. Which, I guess we were. She actually wept (probably over the shock of me not having any hair on my head).
I said, “But how did you recognize me?”
She said, “I didn’t.” She reached out and tugged at my name tag.
What are the chances that two high school choir mates, having bonded over a unique and exceptional experience 40 years ago, would find each other at a choir rehearsal 40 years later? I can’t imagine this kind of thing happens very often.
Now we will see each other every week. And we’ll sing.
moving in sound
Musicians, mechanics, carpenters, crafters. We can never have enough tools. Even if it’s apparent at times that we have too much gear. I have redundancies of cable, adaptor, hub, headphone, lamp, binder and book, device and device and device.
But redundancy is Queen. Always have a backup. Always have alternatives. This includes songs.
When you teach music you want a long rotating list of tunes in your head, on your pad, in your Mac, on your external drive, in the cloud, whatever. These are teaching tools. Music from any era when teaching any age. You can never have enough music in the files. Melodies, beats, genres, rhythms, moods.
I’ve been in the studio with my friend working up tunes that connect to current Hip Hop feels, but which do homage to classic R&B. You do a lot of listening to that genre so you have that particular groove flowing through your nervous system.
Meanwhile, I’ve been putting off that call to gastroenterology (who doesn’t?) to make an appointment for the colonoscopy that the system insists is indicated and very, very important for people my age. At least you can give thanks that you’re under the gas when they’re doing it – which you can’t say for other delicate procedures.
I’m on the phone with the bot answering system, on hold, in the queue, waiting for a human to pick up. Every once in a while they interrupt the music loop to remind you that they have a website you can use if you don’t have time to wait for a human to show up. Part of the system coding is this: “We are currently experiencing a high number of calls…” Maybe, maybe not, but you can’t do anything about it, so you wait…
And they’re playing music. I have the phone’s speaker on so I can do a few things at the desk while I’m waiting for the human. (Notice how I like saying, “waiting for the human”?)
When suddenly it occurs to me that I’m hearing R&B on the wait loop. Then I’m hearing this:
“Walking in rhythm, moving in sound…
humming to the music, trying to move on…”
It’s the Blackbyrds from 1974. I haven’t heard that song in years. Those words repeat over and over and it’s another tuneful reverb of who I am and what I do. I’ll be damned, right?
I shut off the call because I have too many things to do than to wait for a human to pick up. And one of them is to put that song in my tool bag.
On the first of May in the year 2030 of the Common Era, a wondrous and throughly confusing thing ocurred: the world discovered that unicorns existed. Well, one of them did, anyway.
Even those who loved unicorns were astonished beyond belief. It turned out that unicorns were just a fun hobby for them. They didn’t actually think unicorns existed.
Upon discovery, the unicorn (a Camarillo with a head anomaly) was rushed under cover of night to the city zoo, where it remained safely ensconced until the city officials could decide what to do with it.
And to think all this time everyone believed in God and extraterrestrials. People all over the world were devoted to the notion that they were being surveilled, examined, abducted, studied, and occasionally made to disappear forever by these uber-intelligent green-grey people with ocular monstrosities from some distant galaxy.
Finally, the city officials made up their minds: they were going to rush the unicorn off to a small deserted island in the middle of the south Pacific, where it could live out its days in peaceful solitude, far from the soul-crushing crowds, among whom would certainly be Hollywood producers and infomerical talent scouts eager to snatch it up, get its hoofprint on a contract, and make an instant star out of it – to say nothing of getting filthy rich forever.
At midnight on a Sunday (meaning, just before Monday), when the zoo was closed and they would be relatively sure no one would be about (because they would be in bed early for Monday), the city officials (meaning the mayor and a half dozen garbage collectors) made their way into the zoo to get the, uh, animal.
However, when they reached the zebra cage (where they were temporarily housing it), they were astonished to find it gone! Someone had beaten them to it! Someone had stolen the unicorn! The mayor was apoplectic and the garbage guys were struck dumb – so dumb, in fact, that they froze looking at the floor, waiting for the mayor to do something.
Since the mayor could do nothing without making himself look foolish and ruin his chances for re-election, he went home to bed.
A few hours later the unicorn was having its hair brushed by the makeup department of the local GNN affiliate. Turns out it had broken itself out of the zoo. One of the garbage guys (who happened to recognize that it had the ability to understand human language) had secretly related the mayor’s plans to have it shipped to a deserted island. This was something the unicorn couldn’t allow. It was the only thing worse than being discovered in the forest disguised as a moose.
So the beast had hoofed it straight to the TV station, where (after the news crew and office staff had all recovered from their fainting spells) it urgently explained the need for a press conference, having no choice but to break the news that, yes, unicorns existed and, yes, it was one.
Now, they polished its hoofs and brushed it down and sprinkled glitter on it and applied eye-liner to make its eyes pop, and buffed its, um, corn. And they even wound a silky rainbow around its hair. (This, it thought, was overdoing things a bit.)
“And now a special report…we take you to our downtown correspondent, Merrycay Heyday, who has an amazing story. Hello, Merrycay!”
“Hi, Stan. Yes, we never thought we’d see this day!! I’m super excited because the world is about to wake up to a different world! I mean, everybody is going to wake up to a different reality…Wait…here she comes now!”
“Hi, everybody. Mr. Mayor, I’m sorry to do it this way, but I can’t be deserted on an island in the south Pacific, which is what you were going to do with me…”
(Gasps from the press corps)
“…I think it’s time everyone knows anyway…yes, unicorns are real and I am one. We’ve been in moose costumes for about 180 years now, and…well, they don’t work anymore. The inseams were coming undone and that’s how the hunters found us. Fortunately they were too stunned to shoot at us.”
“How do we know you’re not in a costume, now??!”
“Do you have a name?!?!”
“How many of you are there?!!??!!”
“They put all this makeup on me. Unicorns don’t look like this. We’re just horses with corns. I mean, horns. I’m not going to tell you how many of us there are because that would be the end of unicorns. And to prove I really am one, I’m going to rear up like a stallion so you can see I’m not two circus clowns in a costume.”
(Gasps. Camera flashes going off.)
“Oh, and one more thing. I know it’s been a lot of people’s fervent wish that unicorns really exist. But fervent wishes don’t amount to anything. The only things that are truly real are the things you believe in your heart.”
“Wow, that was impressive…well, Stan, the glitter’s about to hit the fan when this rolls for the morning news, eh? Hahaha! I made a cute joke! Back to you!”
“You can say that again, Merrycay!! Thanks a lot and…wait, what’s that sound?? Is that a flying saucer??!!??!?!?!?!?”
(Unicorn: “Oh, crikey…”)
Thanks to Andrea, Children’s Book Illustrator (https://edoodless.wordpress.com), who gave me permission to have fun with a thoroughly silly story based on her cheeky illustration. Check out her doodles!
More than once – maybe many times, I haven’t counted – I dream of trying to navigate a difficult path through a massive road reconstruction project. It is always something that is so huge in scope that it is taking years to complete, and tests the patience and endurance of anyone who is forced to travel through it in order to get anywhere.
I’m not navigating a path though, really, because there simply is no path. Just a small mountain range of rocks, boulders, gravel, mud, and sometimes a chaotic and random assortment of earthen and manufactured materials (i’ve seen piping, metal railings, temporary wire grid platforms, steam works, etc), all without function or apparent purpose.
It’s supposed to be a work in progress, but seldom resembles one. It appears to be more of an apparently impossible task that will be finished “some day” and which is always held up by complications and errors and forces beyond anyone’s control, such as weather or geography.
I never see the people who are supposedly working on it. It is always just me, alone, struggling but determined to climb, shuffle, totter, fall, slip and trip my way through. It’s frustrating and hard but I have to do it. There is no alternative. And I never have the impression that there is a specific destination I’m moving toward.
These dreams are always of the rough forward motion of a continuously rough path for which I have to fight every step…and do.
Are you ready to start learning to play the piano? Are you ready to start learning what makes music music? are you ready to begin one of the most enriching activities your brain will ever enjoy?
Let me say a few things, then.
Research shows that playing an instrument engages multiple areas of the brain at one time: the visual, auditory, executive, motor function and creative pathways are engaged at the same time. Few activities create more pathways in the brain than playing a music instrument. It enhances the brain’s ability to learn almost anything else.
You’re going to be building a relationship with the piano. Like any other relationship, this involves a positive, healthy approach and good communication. Your posture and bearing at the piano are not just about good technique and care of the body; they are about the kind of input you give to the instrument and the kind of response you receive.
You’ll be practicing a calm, focused and disciplined approach. You’ll learn to breathe, if you haven’t already. You’ll be unlearning self-judgment, perfectionism, and impatience.
You’ll also be learning some Italian words. The Western development of music included the adoption of this language for the classic terms. Piano actually means “soft,” and is an abbreviation for “piano-e-forte,” meaning “softandloud,” and was the way Bartolomeo Cristofori redesigned the clavichord in 1700. (People love to abbreviate things.) So, the piano is just a percussive harp: instead of plucking the strings, you’re triggering hammers to strike them. Give a soft touch, the piano will answer with a soft, gentle voice. Give it more weight and pressure, it will answer with a more robust voice. Piano and forte.
Your fingers are numbered 1 through 5 – 1 being the thumbs and 5 being the pinkies. Whenever you sit at the piano from now on, these will be the names of your digits.
You must understand that the piano was made for the human hand, not the other way around. See those five black keys that repeat over and over? Fingers 2, 3 and 4 are the longest, so they will naturally be the ones to spend the most time on the blacks, set back from the front edge of the keyboard.
Your adventure in piano starts, I would say, with those five black keys. Using one finger for each black key, you could play them up and down, over and over and it would sound beautiful. It’s a five-tone (pentatonic) scale of notes, the basis of many songs and instrumental pieces throughout history.
Now you’ve begun. You must sit at the piano every single day, if only for ten minutes, to develop this relationship: to strenthen the muscle memory of your hands, to train your ears…in short, to begin one of the most romantic, satisfying, and healing experiences the world has ever known.
It’s a fine summer day. The bands are rotating and the music is good. The energy is electric and the crowd is resonating. Children are playing. Laughter rises up like bright flares of light from this table and that. The entire scene is that glorious gradient of sun and shadow from under and around our parasols.
But now there is a distraction. Faces are turned toward the sidewalk behind us and we follow them. Oh, no. It’s him, that peripatetic character whose labors we’ve seen on sidewalks all over town; him and his white chalk describing invective and hardcore dogma of pseudo-christian entrenched battle positions from which no prisoners are taken. He’s hard at work. He might be a little off in the head.
There’s a shadow over there against the wall where a trio of women are standing by, stunned witnesses they; mouths agape, casting mute judgment and scorn on the pukings from mr. chalk’s head. That pretentious vandal, daring to mar a fine day like this with his first amendment rights devoid of music or wisdom.
The half dozen of us are looking and looking, our heads on 360-degree swivels and our eyes like the owl’s as well. Finally we are just looking at each other. The looks on our faces are these: we can’t watch anymore. We can’t just sit here anymore. We must dance. There is good music and little children are dancing. We can’t dance in our seats.
So we rise up and walk over to that little battleground. We begin quietly, keeping one eye on him to see what he’ll do about us, and one eye on the trio standing against the brick to see what they do about us.
Look, you guys! They like it! Haha! they’re nodding, smiling, clapping. Approval.
So, seconded and motion passed and adopted, we turn it up. As we dance, we twist and turn like vandals, our feet grinding up white chalk words as if we didn’t have a clue. We’re acting like naughty, egotistical children.
What is this, exactly? I mean, what would you call it? Point and counterpoint? A song for a song? Is it a demonstration?
I’ve never joined a demonstration. I guess this is the closest I’ve ever come. We’re just dancing to beat all hell. We won’t have it.
Now look what we’ve done: a dozen more have hopped right onto the sidewalk, dancing. We made a party. And where is mr. chalk? Nowhere to be seen.
There is cheering from the sidelines. We’re laughing. It’s a fine summer day.