Well, Good Morning to You, TOO!

For those who might have wondered what happened to this blog over the past two weeks, my husband Steve and I just returned from ten days in New Orleans. It was a wonderful break in many ways—the weather approached 70 degrees, as opposed to the 30-ish days in Milwaukee; the food was wonderful—I counted neither fat nor sugar (Mardi Gras is only a few weeks away!); and we listened to some wonderful music. 

Our agreed-upon favorite was the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra with Irvin Mayfield.

We had a table right up front and it was amazing to see the interconnections among this six-man subset of the NOJO. I especially appreciated hearing and seeing the pianist, Victor “Red” Atkins, whose playing was like nothing I’ve ever experienced, live.  They all had so much FUN together—something I do not usually associate with performances.

We also heard music at other venues: Palm Court, the Jazz National Historical  Park, as well as Preservation Hall. I was pleased to see several women included in some of the combos—as guitarists and horn players, as opposed to their traditional, somewhat limited role as vocalists. Music was everywhere, and often played, not for a salary, but "for tips."

We did some shopping here and there as well. I visited the French Market, where a man named Oscar demonstrated the New Orleans custom of lagniappe—a little “extra”—giving me a second set of earrings along with the keyboard-like set I bought and wore to Preservation Hall. And another man sold me cds of some early jazz recordings, including Sweet Emma Barrett ,the first woman who ever played at Preservation Hall. 

Not having ever traveled in the South before, I was surprised when I got onto the streetcar and, with Northern “efficiency,” hurriedly asked the driver “Is this the streetcar to Lafayette Cemetery?" She just smiled and said, “Well, good morning to you TOO, and yes it is!” 

Before I arrived, and while there I read Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans by New Yorker writer Dan Baum (2009). Through interviews, Baum traces the lives of nine New Orleans natives from as early as 1965 through post-Katrina.  And Steve and I also watched, before we arrived, the first season of the HBO series Treme, which I highly recommend.

Back home today, I touch my dusty piano, amazed as always at how much slips away after even ten days gone, buy groceries, walk Elliot, and return to life-as-I-know-it in the upper Midwest: business as usual. But before I get going too quickly with Northern “efficiency,” enjoy with me this word jazz by Ntozake Shange: “I Live in Music.”

Despite the urgencies of the day--whatever they may be--good morning to you, TOO!


“Putrid with Paradox” (or “Overthinking Things”)

Thanks to Larry and Peggy, who both responded to my previous posting, which was a riff on the recent NYT article about professional musicians who hesitated to play late Beethoven and other extremely emotional pieces, either because they believed themselves too young to have had the necessary “experience” or else were no longer young but believed themselves not to have “suffered” enough.

I did not mean to imply that I questioned my “suffering” credentials as an (almost) 70-year-old amateur. I question all kinds of other things but certainly not my “right” to play late Beethoven, which I love. 

Wordsworth (or perhaps his sister Dorothy) defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” and, perhaps because of my past, I tend to favor poetry that springs from some experience of loss. However, loss unmixed with hope, meaning, or renewal of some kind is merely melodrama for me, just as unalloyed happiness is merely sentimental.  At my age, I enjoy the Romantic period of music and poetry less than I used to, perhaps for those reasons. Beethoven is considered late Classical, not Romantic, and I think that is why I return again and again to him. He was composing at that moment when classical structures were morphing into something else, which was to become the Romantic movement. And I am drawn to chimerical creations, which are more than one thing.

I was lucky enough to have been given books of poetry for Christmas, including a Louise Glück which I’d never purchased for myself—The Wild Iris—as well as one of Brenda Shaughnessy’s books—Our Andromeda. It is always wonderful to discover a new poet, and though Shaughnessy’s work has been around for some years, I have never read her.  Our Andromeda, like Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel (see September 1 entry--"Making Meaning from the Idea of Loss"), is at least partly concerned with the grief/guilt over their children’s physical and emotional suffering.  As Shaughnessy says in her poem “The Seven Deadly Sins of (and Necessary Steps toward) Making Art,”

Pure art is, in a sense, pure innocence.

But artists are, in themselves, putrid with paradox.

I also mentioned, in my previous post, the painful story of a homeless woman I met about a week ago. She claimed that she had been unable to find a place in the shelter system here in Milwaukee, and so I ended up giving her quite a bit of money (for me).  Reporter Meg Kissinger, of the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, whom I contacted about the situation, did a little digging and found that the story I had been told was not “true.”  Kissinger went on to write an excellent piece on the current situation for the Milwaukee homeless in yesterday’s Journal/Sentinel.

So--was I “scammed”?  Well, maybe,  but only if you believe in simple stories with simple morals. If you are, on the other hand, “putrid with paradox,” you realize that you cannot feel the cold or the “truth” of another’s experience through glass: that “innocence” is not a sustainable mode of being. is Glück’s “Snowdrops”:


Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know

what despair is; then

winter should have meaning for you.


I did not expect to survive,

earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect

to waken again, to feel

in damp earth my body

able to respond again, remembering

after so long how to open again

in the cold light

of earliest spring—


afraid, yes, but among you again

crying yes risk joy


in the raw wind of the new world.


And in her title poem, Shaughnessy writes,

 The new wind is already in us, older sister

 to us all, blowing windfall and garbage

alike to those who do not deserve

either gifts or refuse.

Neither “Tanya”—the homeless woman I met--nor I “deserve/either gifts or refuse.”  Winter holds despair of many kinds for many people; but winter is not the whole “truth.”  The “putrid paradox” of poets (and artists of all kinds) shines light and warmth on the whole picture—at least the parts of it that they can see.

If not for that way into mystery, into a hard-to-see wholeness—and out of the stuck singleness of grief and loss--why would I play Beethoven? Why would I read and attempt to write poetry? Why would I risk being made a fool of?

For your enjoyment, here is Mitsuko Uchida (click link to listen to her fascinating discussion of the four-pointed definition of "talent" for a musician) playing Beethoven’s first movement-- Vivace Ma Non troppo, Adagio Espressivo-- of his Sonata, op. 109 (not op. 110 as I erroneously wrote earlier), which I am currently working on in order to bring it to light and life, once again, in the spring.


Bullett, Beethoven, and the Connection of Suffering to Meaning

We are currently dog-sitting our youngest daughter’s dog, Bullett, a “rescued” year-old German short-haired pointer mix. Yesterday he had a number of “firsts”: first dog-park visit, first trip to Mickey D’s, first cup of ice water, first exposure to Beethoven.

Bullett is a young, very wiggly, very active dog, but when I went to the piano and started to play the op. 110, he sat STILL right under the keyboard until I stopped. (Full disclosure: he did the same thing when I lit a fire in our fireplace.)

An article I had just read in the Sunday NYT’s Arts section, called “Wait, You Need to Suffer Some More” by Vivien Schweitzer, notes the number of musicians today, especially pianists, who believe that they “are not ready”—i.e., they have not accumulated enough life experience to play intensely emotional music such as Beethoven's. The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, 44, says that “Beethoven is not only about suffering—it’s about many emotions, true happiness and ecstasy. … It’s not true that someone has to have been through extreme emotions to play the music, but you have to be able to sympathize and have empathy with the emotions. ….with Beethoven, the slow movements are not so much a confession but more a kind of preaching. He has a bigger message about humanity. Earlier, I didn’t really understand and appreciate that expression.”  Likewise, many musicians believe that they should not attempt to “channel” such music until they themselves have “something to say.”

One of my previous piano teachers “let” me attempt op. 110 a few years ago, but made clear that my interpretation of every measure was lacking in some way. He was in his mid-30s at the time. At nearly 70, I have my current teacher’s “permission” to tackle it. As she said, she’s a great believer in musical exorcisms.

If not now, when? Another pianist in his thirties, Jonathan Bliss, believes this: “On the one hand, Beethoven is unspeakably profound.  On the other, there is not much gained about being too precious about it.” Gershon Gerchikov, 30, of the Ariel Quartet, says simply, “the only way to acquire the maturity and experience is by playing them.” Or, as Bliss says, “Musicians have anxiety about everything. A solution to my anxieties is that you step into the void. Just try.”

“No mortal ever feels totally ready” for Beethoven’s late work, says Paul Katz, cellist. “Those works humble us. We grow into them.”  He goes on to say that many of his teenage students feel that their own lives have been “too comfortable” to emphathize with such despair: “there is something to suffering pain and depression—that somehow does deepen a musician. But most teenagers have experienced that for one reason or another.”

Yes. We have all suffered to one degree or another. But we do not all have the desire and/or perseverance to learn a craft that will help shift our suffering into the realm of meaning and beauty.

Philip Chard, psychotherapist and columnist for the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, writes: “research suggests that real gains in wisdom usually emerge in one’s 50s, and, absent any neurological or personality dysfunction, increase with advancing age.”

It’s nice to think so.

Bullett, like the other “rescues” we have taken from the pound over the past thirty years, was  homeless, abandoned at least once, probably more, and has endured things about which we know little.  

Friday I talked with a homeless woman (I will call her Tanya) who was too far down on the list to get into a shelter last week because she had no children and had no drug or alcohol problem (ironically, according to the police officers she stopped for help, being an addict would have gotten her immediate care).  I drove her to a rooming house she knew of where she could buy a bed in exchange for $25/week, which I gave her. She was probably in late middle-age, though it’s hard to know. She walked with a cane.  Tears streamed down her face as she told me her story: her mother’s house foreclosed upon her death, moving in with a friend until that no longer became feasible, living on the streets for 48 days, terrified of the coming cold (which has moved into Wisconsin with a vengeance). I will go back today to give her more money, hopefully to tide her over until her name comes up in one of the few shelters available.  I called a reporter on the JS staff who is looking into the issue of lack of beds for single women in homeless shelters.

Tanya, like many others, has suffered. Suffering does not make you noble; I cannot believe that it is a prerequisite to experience, understand or to create beauty. On the contrary, if Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” pyramid is even close to being correct, one’s requirements for bodily sustenance, safety, love, and self-esteem must be met before one can even begin to “self-actualize,” which, as I define it, is to create—to become fully who one is.

Who is Tanya? What might she become once her basic needs are met?

Have I suffered enough to play Beethoven’s late sonata, op. 110, written in his 50s when he was not only sick but completely deaf?  Am I old enough? Are these even helpful questions?

I am interested in what you have to say.


Resuming after the Holidays..."Because"

Resuming a practice after a week or more away is always hard, as many are no doubt realizing after the December holiday. This morning was the first time I spent any time at the piano for at least a week. I worked through all of the Rachmaninoff variations and then checked to see how the memory work was coming on the Bach Partita movements. If there was any progress, it was miniscule.

I cannot remember the last time I sat down to write anything besides this blog. I know enough to realize that inspiration comes from work and not the other way around. But there has been no time or energy.

Yesterday I returned to physical exercise—the stationary bike intervals—again, after a week off. And this afternoon, the pool.  I must remember not to be too exacting of myself.

These are all good, repeated lessons in modesty and patience. The limitations of gravity, space, and time will always be there, and we play with them when and as best we can.

Recently I read that you can determine whether you are mainly an extravert or an introvert by what recharges you: being with people or being alone.  While the holiday just past provided many wonderful moments with those I love, my well of energy is now just beginning to refill. I have learned to be patient and easy on myself while it does.

I finished The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham over the holiday, continuing some thoughts about amateurs which I began in previous posts. The character Tyler was attempting to write a song for his wife Beth, who had cancer. He succeeded in doing this, and, miraculously, she went into remission for over a year. When she eventually died (after a Christmas, coincidentally), he and another character, Liz, have this conversation (pp. 243-244):

“I’m done, though,” Tyler says."I’m all done. It’s rough. I mean, I’m alone with the music now.”

She says, “What if that mattered less?”

“Come again?”

“What is your whole life wasn’t about writing songs?”

“I don’t like the sound of that, frankly.”

“I don’t mean give it up. I mean, what if you were a man who’s living a life, and writing songs is part of it?”

He says, “Step away, devil.”

She laughs. She knows enough to laugh.


Liz says, “You thought you could write music that would save Beth’s life. Don’t you think so?”

“That would be delusions of grandeur.”

“Or it would be some kind of frankly very touching idea you’ve got that you can do more than human beings can actually do.”



I doubt that Tyler is alone in believing that, if art cannot actually lead the dead back to life (e.g. Orpheus and Eurydice—see my chapbook Rescue Mission elsewhere on this website: art by Leslie Xuereb), that it can at least heal.  But the artist/healer must take care not to identify him/herself with the power that heals.  I think this is what Liz suggests, above. What if I were not Poet or Musician, but “a [woman] who’s living life,” and writing poems and playing music is part of it?


One of Milwaukee’s current Poet Laureates, Jeff Poniewaz, died earlier this month.  He was a man who lived a rich, full, active life in which poetry and music were huge elements. But he was also more, as are we all.   

Probably it’s easier on some level to clothe ourselves, to fix our identities, with titles like Poet, Composer, Musician. But, like any title, these can come to pinch, demanding more than our one life can supply. It’s my belief that there is more to each life than one practice, one truth, one way of being. We may be drawn to one thing over another, and sometimes we live our our lives deeply exploring that one thing. But others of us live our lives as richly as we can, following our hearts as well as our noses. 

If we are “meant” to do anything, pehaps that’s it. Why?

Perhaps there is no better answer than that suggested by the translation of Jeff’s last name: “Because.”


The Limitations/Gifts of Amateurs

   My former piano teacher, Elaine Bliss, writes:  “ever since your last blog, I have been  thinking about and composing a great pedagogical lecture about the art and techniques of practicing. About listening, discovering sounds, finding surprising new connections, revealed shapes of line, heard ‘silences’ between notes, unspoken ,ongoing messages to body about openness, receptivity to gradual magnification of inner voices/feelings.  All of that has to do with the sculpture of the music which comes carefully, thoughtfully, lovingly, arduously, while preparing the materials---the notes, fingerings, tonal /dynamic relationships, pedaling, underlying fundamental rhythm.  How to say these things as a prelude to the question of time of hours spent in practice that you brought up in your discussion?  The number of hours is just something that happens as necessary to achieve results. And many times, there aren't enough.  And maybe never will be if the ends established by the performer are either not understood or not possible to achieve by  that particular performer. It is not the number of hours, but what what the musical goal is--------when that is clear, the  hours take charge.”

I love what you say, Elaine, but suspect that your insight stems, not just from your own innate talent, but from your many years of formal musical study. I am afraid that, for me, the  notes, fingerings, and fundamental rhythm of a piece still take precedence over the “sculpture of the music” that you speak of “which comes carefully, thoughtfully, lovingly, arduously, while preparing the materials.”  Perhaps, as you say, it is a matter of not having enough hours to work on it.  And, too often, I tend to take a teacher’s lead on the rest, without actually working that “sculpture” out for myself.  Maybe someday. It’s a slow process, as you say.

Stefanie, my current teacher, recently posted a link to a blog post on the site Musicovation: “On Amateurs” by Emily Hogstad, who writes, “Adult amateur musicians are almost universally embarrassed to play in front of other people. An adult who has just come to classical violin (or just returned to it) will invariably apologize for how they sound. Self-deprecating jokes - with an edge of desperation - proliferate. I can relate. If I'm ever complimented on my playing, I'll smile graciously, but in the back of my head I'll invariably think: honey, go to Minneapolis, watch a program of their Sibelius, and get back to me on how good you think I am.”

 She goes on to speculate about why: “Maybe the attitude comes from increasing levels of specialization not just in music, but in all fields. Maybe it's because the boundaries of the musical world have grown so dramatically, from Bach to Xenakis, that you need to spend your whole life studying to start to do any of it justice. The proliferation of professional musicians? The way that classical music itself often attracts people who are obsessive and self-critical perfectionists?”

She nevertheless believes that listening to professional musicians is important because”we amateurs can't do what they're doing. Our shortcomings make the full glory of their achievement possible, and special.”  Again, I think of Elaine who recommends Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording of the Rachmaninov Variations on a Theme of Corelli that I am preparing for my recital next year. I will listen to it eventually; but not until I have enough of it “under my fingers” that I won’t be too discouraged by the distance between what he can do with it and what I will be able to do.

Hogstad closes with this encouragement: “If you can draw out a sound from your instrument that is occasionally halfway beautiful, you are capable of instilling joy. Even amateurs. Especially amateurs. Take advantage of that fact. So if you're an amateur, I want to hear how you play. More than that, I want you to be proud of how you play. Unapologetically so. I want to congratulate you for caring enough about yourself and the art that speaks to you to take the time out of your busy day to do something as demanding as playing a musical instrument.”

Thanks, Emily.

I have just started a remarkable novel, The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham. One of the characters, Tyler, is a 43-year-old composer and musician who now plays at a bar two nights a week.  His brother describes him as “Tyler, with his fierce concentration and his athletic ease and his singular gift for music (who knew, at the beginning, just how gifted you’ve got to be?).” Tyler is trying to write a wedding song for his long-term girlfriend, who is dying. As he works on the song, he keeps undercutting himself, thinking about the song the way he wants it to be: “he can imagine it, and as time goes by he lives with growning unease in the region between what he can create and what he can envision.”

But perhaps we all do that; some of us just beat ourselves up more than others when we can’t achieve what we envision.

Lora Keller, in response to my last posting which was partly about Madeline L’Engle’s journals, sends this link to the article “Madeline L’Engle on Creativity, Hope, Getting Unstuck, and How Studying Science Enriches Art” by Maria Popova, who writes, of L’Engle,

“Like Einstein, whose mythology holds that he came up with his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks, L’Engle turns to music to overcome creative block in her writing, tickling the timid intuitive self into reengaging with the intellectual when the latter is on overdrive:

Playing the piano is for me a way of getting unstuck. If I’m stuck in life or in what I’m writing, if I can I sit down and play the piano. What it does is break the barrier that comes between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind wants to take over and refuses to let the subconscious mind work, the intuition. So if I can play the piano, that will break the block, and my intuition will be free to give things up to my mind, my intellect. So it’s not just a hobby. It’s a joy.

“Indeed, this cross-pollination of different faculties is central to what makes L’Engle’s writing so bewitching. She applied it not only to different aspects of the self, but also to different domains of knowledge. To write her most beloved book, A Wrinkle in Time, she drew on quantum mechanics and particle physics; she infused A Wind in the Door with cellular biology; in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, she fused ancient Celtic religions with relativity theory.”

Popova goes on to say, “Indeed, [L’Engle’s] greatest gift is the assurance that strength — creative strength, moral strength — is gained not despite the presence of adversity but because of it. Compared to the greatest failures of humanity, the personal failures and rejections and fractures of the spirit we encounter on a much more microscopic level in our daily lives may be less dramatic and consequential, but they often feel no less disheartening. L’Engle’s own creative journey was paved with them — A Wrinkle in Time was so unlike anything else that it was rejected by every major publisher for more than two years, until one finally took a chance on what would become one of the greatest children’s books of all time. …. [L’Engle] aims to remind the reader of the world’s ‘grim realities’ but to frame them in a way that makes the possibility of overcoming them feel equally real, using storytelling as a “way to keep people from falling away from one another.”

How much we need such storytelling in times of darkness-- either what we see as our own personal failures (another rejection this week) or the world’s (the Taliban’s killing of schoolchildren in Pakistan).

Passages from the I Ching (Richard Wilhhelm translation) come to me in light of all this: from Limitation (60): “unlimited possibilities are not suited to man [sic]; if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted;” from Modesty (15): “A superior man of modesty and merit/Carries things to conclusion. Good fortune;” and The Creative (1): “The Creative works sublime success,/Furthering through perseverance. …Furthering is correlated with justice, which creates the conditions in which each receives that which accords with his being, that which is due him and which constitutes his happiness.”

The image for Limitation in the I Ching is a lake. It says, "A lake is something limited. Water is inexhaustible. A lake can contain only a definite amount of the infinite quantity of water; this is its peculiarity. In human life too the individual achieves significance through discrimination and the setting of limits."

Dr. Edward Slingerland also refers to Chinese philosophy of wu wei in his recent book, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. “Our culture is very good at pushing people to work hard or acquire particular technical skills. But in many domains actual success requires the ability to transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing, or simply forget ourselves as agents.”

So, to come full circle, Elaine, probably you are right. Eventually, like L’Engle, we need to “relax” into our training and to trust it to produce something of value.

Perhaps, come to think of it, that is precisely what we amateurs are particularly capable of doing.