Tag: reflections

We’re All Imperfect Gems (& Other Cliches)

This project overwhelms me sometimes. What has started out as an innocent idea and drive to share musicians’ stories has opened up multiple proverbial cans of worms that I’m not sure I was ready to clean up. I’ve sort of been catapulted headfirst into a full-blown existential crisis. I don’t necessarily regret how I’ve started; my friends and acquaintances are like the perfect diving board for me to jump into this idea – the low, less riskier one. The one that provides a certain level of confidence that I’ll be able to breathe again, not that insurmountable beast that plunges you so deep that you find yourself gasping for air on your way back to the surface. While it’s fitting and comfortable to have started with the people I know, or sort of know, or souls with which I share a loose connection, this bastard of a process is teaching me a few things. One, that Sintia (my friend / editor / life model / sharer of wine) is a wise old owl (we’re the same age, which I keep having to repeat to myself).

She told me I should be careful interviewing friends. She was right, and usually is (damn you, Sintia. Damn all the Romanians).

The thing about interviewing friends is the trust is already there. I have no set of interview questions because I just want people to talk, and there’s a profundity to what people choose to discuss of their own accord. With people I know, I can put a general time limit on a discussion (usually 90 minutes, give or take a half hour), and the beating around the bush is minimal. Because like attracts like, the type of people I’m interviewing, for the most part, will lay it all out before me and tell it like it is, no holds barred, and that’s the type of connection I crave (don’t we all?). I think everyone should interact this way. Small talk bores me. Get to the point. I’ve been faulted for this in the past; I guess this quality scares people sometimes. I got slammed by a few anonymous students in one of my last course evaluations because I was “too honest, too fast, and too hard.”

Well, the truth hurts, people. Confrontation used to be my nemesis. Now it’s my dear aunt. I can thank my father, a retail manager, for my unflinching ability to just face people and talk to them (juxtapose this with a mortally crippling stage anxiety, and when you’re done laughing, maybe I’ll write an entirely different book on this).

The problem arises when deciding what to share. Each interview is like a mini therapy session, for some more so than others. I hit “record” and tell them to smile, they’re on candid camera. We muse and cry, remember and yearn, pontificate and surmise, and when it’s all over, I sift through the rubble for the gems, but they aren’t always pretty, nor are they what people necessarily want shared, despite the fact that they “defaulted” to the very things that make them them.

Yes, the gems are what they are. They don’t have glorious titles, or ideal upbringings, or fame, or fortune, and they are always imperfect. We are all chipped in some way, so why hide it?

Why hide it?

Every Good Boy Does Fail: A Project Update

As of today, I’ve interviewed fifteen music makers. For posterity’s sake and to gather my bearings a bit, here are some updates:

  • My standard M.O: reach out to musicians, schedule interviews 1-2 weeks out, interview once a day or every other day, break for weekends to write and reflect, lather, rinse, repeat. Rely on bread and butter revenue to sustain my new project.
  • Things I need to do more:
    • Write shorter posts. I can’t help it. I try. I really do. I dare myself to keep a post at 750 words, but the story just starts spewing like a kindergartner’s explanation of how to make a sandwich and every part is important. Every tidbit is essential.
    • Reach out to musicians I don’t know. This is hard, but I think I just have to ask for help to move beyond the initial cold call.
    • Take sustained chunks of time to write about every encounter (like, more than two days, and closer to a week…in fact, this next go around, I’m aiming for a 1week:1week ratio of interviewing and writing).
  • Things I need to do less
    • Worry about style
    • Worry about voice (for some reason, I thought this was especially important, but maybe I just thought this because I’m a voice teacher…)
    • Try to be perfect
    • Try to flow (because unless it’s my menses or a keg, things shouldn’t flow just yet, amiright??!!)

That’s all, folks.

  • AMmaven

Old Yeller: one music therapist’s path to normal decibles

Talking to Tammy is like talking to a therapist.

A music therapist.

That’s what she is. A gentle, nurturing, ukulele-playing psychotherapist in purple pajamas. I message her to tell her that I’m running a bit late to our appointment. I’ve just resurrected from a 4pm power nap and I fix a cinnamon toast and hot green tea. My bones aren’t totally exhausted, yet I’m tempted to reschedule our conversation, which I rarely do because cancelations are for the weak. It’s my first hour of downtime after a string of performances (three in as many days), and I’m tired. Tomorrow morning I can rest. For now, I power through.

…in my pajamas.

Luckily, she’s in hers, too. They’re purple, in fact. I take this as a quirky love offering from the universe. It’s like the cosmos made me a cross-stitch pillow with the words “it’s all right, we’re all people” right above a snuggly-looking kitty cat.

Tammy says she is a musician, but not a performer. She is a pianist and violinist, but doesn’t have a piano (which by proxy makes me a professional chef / lingerie model). During her undergrad, Tammy developed an incompatible and troubling relationship with a “super talented” piano teacher, which is kind of her to say. I’ve come up with a lot worse names for less than favorable teachers, like “soul sucker,” “Hanon Harlot,” and “crazy psychopath in need of a beach vacation” …. Not that I’ve thought these through, or anything.

Said teacher was a yeller.

“Old Yeller?” I laugh.

Tammy pauses, and things suddenly aren’t quite as funny. I shrivel a little into my teacup. Sometimes I wonder if I should come with a mouth zipper.

Teacher would yell about a lot of things: scales, practicing, memorization. Old Yeller, in an offhand comment, once mentioned how she had seen Tammy out and about on a weekend…not practicing. As if a musician’s sole identity hinges upon 24/7, unadulterated practice (if it is, I’m in trouble). It’s a shame this outdated mentality prevails among educators. Music makers do a lot more outside the practice room than they do inside it.

Eventually, a missed note was enough to bring on nightmares and panic attacks, so Tammy made the tough decision to take a step back from the instrument, which I find insanely wise. I was a lot more self-centered in my early years, and worried about things like keeping score and whether I was a soubrette or a coloratura (which still plagues me, until Strauss makes it abundantly clear to me that I am the latter). Tammy wouldn’t study again until grad school, and even then, wasn’t emotionally ready to do so.

Tammy is pretty much the opposite of a yeller. She speaks passionately, but at a reasonable decibel level (take note, singers). An average piano student (weren’t we all), she never made first chair in orchestra, and her intrinsic drive for theory and performing topped out at tepid. Lukewarm, at best. In between her degrees, she taught elementary music at a charter school, which she describes as the “worst job of her life.” It’s ironic that she almost, almost glossed over this little detail. We muse at length about the trials and tribulations of classroom teaching. Come Sunday, she would dread the week to come, and lived a serious Jekyll & Hyde dichomety; her constantly stressed weekly persona was totally different and unlike her weekend self.

Hearing this, I want so badly to cry tears of joy and reach through the Facetime vortex to give Tammy a borderline inappropriate hug. Hearing this, I feel more human. When I taught public schools, I could never settle in a way the other teachers did. Friends of mine would seem so at ease, while I could be found rocking back and forth in the corner, panicking over broken xylophones (each of which cost the same, if not more than my yearly allotted classroom budget). I would fret over the constant, unending planning, the miles of red tape to accomplish nothing, or at best, very minor chips in the fucked up granite monuments of public education. The regular “state of emergency” (read: jammed copy machines, triple high priority e-mails) was enough to bring a summa cum laude graduate to her knees. Nothing ever flowed, and my body constantly fought the instinctual need to take flight.

Like me, she got out of it early on. Majoring in “pretty much everything,” she received a music theory assistantship and scholarship at a conservatory in Kansas, where she felt out of place, a nerd amongst the natives (an emotion not lost on most of the people I’ve spoken with). She would fall into step with her tribe later. The tipping point came when Tammy wrote the music for an international project competition with Disney. As a finalist, she flew to California, which was full of people who “really loved their jobs.” Theory was not doing it for her (AS IT DOESN’T FOR MOST, I might say), so she quit the program and moved to another graduate school for music history, then music education. Then she moved into a music therapy program and hasn’t looked back.

Her mom passed away recently; other than an extended weekend, she didn’t take any time off. Like beasts do. Her tribe rallied around her; showered her with cards and assignment extensions. Her peers would stop her in the bathroom to let her know she was cared for (in any other circumstances, this would be profoundly weird). “In other programs, and in performance, there’s so little flexibility for trauma.” An army of musician therapists to shoulder the burden of loss. I would surround myself with these people any day.

Losing her mom has made her a better therapist and lent a new perspective to her work.

“Well, my mom died, so I can probably get up in front of people and play a song,” she laughs.

I wonder what Old Yeller would think about that (it doesn’t really matter).

The Fiery Feeling in Your Belly: how one musician found hers

Hana is fierce and fiery, a word I reserve for the most intellectually sexy singers. In fact, “fiery” is a word that surfaced multiple times today as we skyped across oceans. She lives in Munich, Germany, where she makes her living freelancing as a professional ensemble singer. In the US, this job doesn’t really exist, unless you count “subsisting on food other than Ramen” as an indicator of choral success (which I do). It’s a whole different animal in Germany, where there’s a rife market for skilled singers who actually make a living in churches and “project” choirs: short-term, contracted and compensated ensembles that come together for a set number of rehearsals and concerts before parting ways. She made her way on the scene after meeting her significant other, Berthold, in grad school; he was a German exchange student and she studied choral conducting.

Hana is the tenth person I’ve “interviewed,” a term I use lightly because hell if I know what I’m doing (similar: “work,” “clean,” “dress myself”). My friend, Sintia, who’s another sexy intellectual, is a journalist / author / writer / globetrotter / all-around badass (new twitter description. You’re welcome, girl). Sintia said I should be careful interviewing friends and I’ve come to understand what she means. She also said that over time, I’ll develop an intuition for the right kinds of questions.

Hana answers my questions before I ask them. She’s articulate, and her words come easily, but there’s a certain passion and confidence to her story, which is partially why I’ve decided to write about her first. Upon learning that she was a “bottom tier” singer throughout high school and college, she quickly elevated to spirit-animal status in my book.

Hana didn’t make the top choir until her senior year of high school, when was a “horrible singer” (in fact, she says she didn’t really learn to sing well until graduate school…didn’t we all…). She played clarinet and was good at math, but wasn’t passionate about either. She knew she wanted to be a music major after playing a band adaptation of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium (which is a choral piece; the irony of this is not lost on me). But she didn’t get into any of the schools she auditioned for. None. Not one. 

So she started off as a math major at another place and auditioned two more times for the music program before being accepted as a vocal performance major. Then she went to grad school for choral conducting. Again here, she didn’t blow too many minds with her conducting skills (“the other TAs were better”), but found the experience of group music-making and score study to feed her passion for singing, which she enjoyed more than anything. She calls it the “fiery feeling in the belly,” the animal that needs released into the wild and is something that a) is usually only one or two things, for most people (for her: singing and choir) and b) a feeling many never find, which saddens me.

While in grad school, Hana dabbled in the education program before deciding she was ready to leap continents. Like many of us, she had to be given permission. Her advisor pointed out that Hana’s “wear your heart on your sleeve” attitude (read: jaw-dropping boredom) in the K-5 methods courses weren’t really doing anyone any favors, and gently suggested that it was okay for her to quit the program. This brought her great relief, so she promptly skipped town. Munich or bust.

This is grit (and not the kind you eat…although, if you have any, I’d like some). I like the word grit. It’s concrete, both as a verb and an adjective. Hana possesses the gritty perseverance and hardiness needed to succeed at something you’re not entirely good at. It’s like waving your hand over plants to prepare them for the elements. Most people have to have that done for them; Hana does it herself, and none of her decisions, including becoming an expatriate musician in Germany, seem to have remotely fazed her (I may re-interview her and dig a little deeper here; time will tell).

  • AMmaven

Bad Things Happen in 3s: The Return of the Ravin’ Maven

Well, Hello.

I’ll keep this one short, because priorities. 

  1. I’m back to writing.
  2. I’m not dead of broken knees or dreams, but Academia has left a considerably sour taste in my mouth (which is definitely not the garlicky BBQ I had for dinner, although that didn’t help).
  3. I’ve started a project that I have yet to fully name, but for now will tag as either:
    1. Unsung
    2. EGBDFail (Every Good Boy Does Fail)
      because unless it’s a Mac or an Oreo, labels mean nothing and and there isn’t a shortcut for “hybrid journalism / blog / writing / preservation of knowledge / sociology experiment / community project.” Unless there is, in which case, you should tweet me. 
    3. I’ve committed, at least for now, to writing and sharing Number 3, but will not hold myself to any arbitrary deadlines or meaningless rules, other than that I will eventually finish the project (unlike the many things I’ve tried to knit, but come on. Anyone who can watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and craft AND count should be burned at the stake for witchery).

See you soon.

  • The Maven

We All Fall Down

Greetings from Cancun!

Just kidding. I’m not in Mexico. Far from it. Instead, I’m rekindling an unhealthy, yet symbiotic relationship with Relaxor, my sexy leather recliner I got last Christmas. Since my last post, Relaxor and I have become good buddies…sorority sisters, even. I wish I could say this was because I’ve struck a magnificent balance with the universe, one in which I reward the efforts of a fantastically challenging job with the sweet, sweet release of a glass of pinot while kicking my feet up at the end of a long, hard week.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to keep off my feet for other reasons. The long and skinny is this: I’ve got some serious knee problems (see this post from 100 years ago…). I’ve been diagnosed with chondromalacia, or cartilage damage, in both knees due to a patella malalignment / tilt. It’s fairly common, but if you leave it untreated it can get pretty bad. When I say “bad,” I don’t mean like pop-an-ibuprofen-for-menstrual-cramps type of bad. I mean end-each-day-bawling-in-the-bathtub-praying-for-relief-from-this-misery-even-though-you-never-pray type of thing. It’s dark, and I just went there, but the truth hurts.

Only the crazies end up needing surgery, but leave it to me to put something off until I’m literally immobile. Yes, mobility and I (you know, that thing that allows you to get places) are in a serious tiff right now, two surgeries are on the docket before the end of the year, and morale in the Anderson household is basically a really shitty sin wave (trig? Anyone?)

Add to the situation the strict realities of the American health care system and I’m in the throes of a bona fide crisis. It’s an interesting testament to the fact that no matter how well-prepared, emotionally stable, and supported you are, no matter what level of OCD financial planning you regularly implement, no matter how much alcohol you consume, sometimes you just can’t prepare for these things.

So what can you do?

Well, ironically, I like to imagine the many ways it could be worse. I could have a kid, or be pregnant, or have no family, even. I could not have the type of career where I can cancel everything at the drop of a hat (“organize a surgery in less than 3 business days” – check). I could have a job where I have to be on my feet all the day, like the health care providers who are taking care of me (in which case, I’d be done). I could be terminally ill, or be taking care of someone close to me with a terminal illness. I could be a really bad person and people wouldn’t want to help me out. I could be uninsured. My health plan is pretty much a shit show, but after a week of crunching numbers, it appears that it’s not the worst option on the planet, which might be to be purely uninsured (although, I sincerely explored the option of traveling to a different country to have the procedures done, which would cost only marginally more than what I’m paying to have done in the states, except then I’d get a vacation out of it). Don’t get me wrong, though – by the time all this is over, I could have done a lot of other things with what we will have sunk into this nonsense. Things like paying off all of my husband’s student loans, or purchasing 5-8 new water heaters, or buying up all the flexible PVC tubing in the midwest so I can open up my own hoop-making business, or buying a lifetime supply of Chipotle burritos (with guacamole). You know, things that matter.

I also enjoy ruminating on the absolute fuck-up-ed-ness of the systems in which we place our trust, and how those systems pale in comparison to the actual human systems that are infinitely more likely to circle the wagons and pull you out of the well when you fall down. People have offered to do my laundry, walk my dogs, make me meals, and have donated to my recovery in ways that I wish I could say I didn’t need, but I do. I try not to let the fact that there are some straight-up unacceptable things happening in the American landscape get me down, and just appreciate the fact that when I can barely walk myself to the bathroom, my neighbor shows up to lend me his crutches indefinitely – and I kept it together enough not to cry in front of him.

Positivity is key, here. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to not be in pain, so when the doctor told me I would be on the elliptical a week after the surgery, first I balked, then I realized how much I’ve accommodated my movement for far too long. Then I started belting my favorite songs at unacceptable hours of the day and devouring every cute animal video I run across on Facebook. Who wouldn’t love a clip of a dachshund licking a lion, I ask you? I’ve also started just accepting help. Relying on anyone other than myself or my husband is not my jam, but the Gods of Irony are in session, so I’m letting go and trusting that shit will get done. As it turns out, you can’t go it alone.

In the meantime, I’m crowdfunding my surgeries, because I’m savvy and that’s America. If you’re interested in hearing me compose a thank-you song and settling up any karmic debt, you can donate here.

If you donate, you may be privy to a hilariously inappropriate video of me singing Jason Robert Brown while the sweet lull of anesthesia pulls me under.

I’m thinking something along the lines of “Girl Sings I’m Not Afraid of Anything Before Surgery: You Won’t Believe What Happens Next” – the next clickbait viral youtube sensation? Only time will tell.

Until then…

The Roles We Play: When the Hardest Performance Ends

Thursdays are my hardest day. They always have been, as long as I can remember. In high school,  Thursdays meant two more laborious days of mind-numbing school (stoichiometry, anyone?). In college, Thursdays meant hanging out in my PJs until midnight while everyone else was out partying. Did you know that Thursdays became the new Friday sometime around 2005? Yeah. Me, neither. I stayed in and studied for my weekly Friday morning sight singing test. Every damn Thursday.

Somewhere along the line, my Thursdays eased up some, but not really. They just became second nature and I enjoyed them more. In the professional world, Thursdays mean show openers and concert nights, sometimes auditions. Other times, Thursday means late-night margaritas because Fridays are my coveted (and only) day “off.” This specific Thursday, today, means ten lessons divided up into two teaching blocks that sandwich a droopy, midday lunch/practice/get-shit-done session during which I play (and inevitably lose) the mental game of “don’t drink coffee while you sing.” It is what it is.

Last Thursday was the hardest Thursday of all my life.

I found out my grandmother died.

It doesn’t really matter what you know or what you don’t know, or even what you think you know, or know you don’t know. Nothing prepares you for death. Nothing. No amount of assumptions or expectations can prepare you for the moment your own mortality becomes disturbingly real. Tangible, even.

The arrangements were swift. Found out on Thursday (damn you, Thursday), dropped everything and drove across the state the next morning, funeral Saturday, reluctantly returned on Sunday, the “day of rest.” Life resumed on Monday. Damn you, too, Monday. You’re just as bad as Thursday. Damn all the days.

Being me, I volunteered to sing at her funeral. Volunteered. To my family’s credit, my mother’s immediate reply was “are you sure you want to do that?”

Of course, I said. I’m a professional. This is what I do. I choose music, I play, and I use my voice to celebrate the life and times of people who have gone on.

I kept it together like a fiend. Like a BRICK.….okay, I almost lost it. Almost. I did allow the grief to flow after the songs themselves were over (Homeward Bound by Marta Keen and Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which shouldn’t need a link). I even got to jam with my cousin, who is a guitarist, though it’s ironic that the one and only time we’ve played together was in that moment. The roads we take….

It was hard. Really hard. I witnessed my depression-era grandfather, with his total rock-solid demeanor and unending loyalty to his wife, break down in tears several times, which is something I’ve never seen in all my life. The hour before I left, he gave me some of her jewelry to keep. That’s something you think you’re prepared for, too, and when it happens, trying not to totally lose your shit is, well…impossible. I’ll never be able to erase the image of him with his hands planted on her casket moments before it was to be lowered into the earth. You just think you’re prepared for it, and you never will be, not ever.

My mother, my beacon, my shaper. I don’t know if I’ll ever be strong enough to do for her what she did for her mom last weekend. One day, I’ll have to, and that’s mortally terrifying.

Her ceremony was simple and beautiful. She loved pink roses, so we cleaned out every flower shop within a 40-mile radius. I stood by her with the family that raised me and my cousins that I grew up with, each of us decades older in that moment. I spent the day pretending (successfully) like I knew what I was doing in the kitchen, and if nothing else came together, at least there’d be good, strong coffee. My other grandma brought a fruit tray and made dinner for us on Friday (“sometimes, all that’s left to do is cook,” she said). We ate fried chicken and chocolate cake and laughed about how we used to play pranks on her because she liked a meticulously organized fridge and we were little shit-stirrers who would go in and move the dressing bottles around and wait to see how long it would take before she noticed. She hated that.

When the laughter settled and those thick pauses dissipated, we said our goodbyes. I stripped off my black boots, my knees aching from a long day of kitchen-managing in heels, and broke down in my husband’s arms. My husband, the only person who is allowed to see my vulnerability, who knows that the best, most “with-it” version of myself can only serve as a fortress for so long until the walls have to come down.

Yes, the hardest things happen on Thursdays.

Today marks one week since her death. I thought I was fine until a colleague asked me how I was and I lost it.  It wasn’t the most lost version of lose-itness. When I really get going, I develop these ridiculous headaches because all the muscles of my face contort into this blubbery, mascara-laden mess when I have a good cry, resulting in some fairly attractive sinus swelling. I didn’t get all the way there, but I did immediately attempt to tuck away that sad vulnerability, that sense of utter mortality that makes us human and beautiful, and I just couldn’t bring myself to withstand yet another performance. Sometimes the performances have to be turned off, the roles are no more, and what are we left with? Nothing but our most naked, sensitive, exposed, and unguarded versions of ourselves. I had never met that version of myself until last week. It’s sort of like the Raw-Chicken-Robin: tender, full of holes, and pummeled by a meat mallet.

It’s still inside me, that “non-performer” that doesn’t feel the need to keep it all together or have all the answers. My grandma always knew me as that version, though she was proud of me and my life, and always took the opportunity to tell me.

If only I could have had one last opportunity to tell her that her legacy will live on….

photo 3
damn kids. 

photo 1

Something tells me she’ll know.

Happy Thursday.