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Mock me, Amadeus

Mozart is a glass mountain, for me. I can just barely, barely make it – after over 40 years of trying – through K. 545 – and not at the tempo you’ll find at the link. And not smoothly. And not very musically. But it’s coming, and I’ve worked on other sonatas for the past years as well – K. 311, K. 333 and K. 330, as well as the delightful “Twinkle Variations.”

I need to branch beyond White Euro Guys – even White Germanic Guys – in my studies (I also spend happy time with Mendelssohn – Felix, not Fanny) – beyond Joplin and his peers. I’ve no urgent personal drive to manage The Three B’s (Bach, Beethoven, & Brahms) that used to be the most famous rep for piano students. I mean, sure, I have some desire to manage them all, if I live long enough with flexible knuckles. But Bach and Mozart are special cases – titans in their ways, and I need titans.

Working at Bach repertoire is like taking open ballet class (except that I’ve given up on that, perhaps forever): it might not be the end goal and yet it provides foundational strength and suppleness for almost everything else. Bach is spiritual reading, counterpoint explanation, and emotional release as well as keen technical exercise. There is no way forward (for me) without Bach.

I remember a conductor who said that in heaven, when the angels want to praise God, they perform Bach; when they just want to mess around for fun, they play Mozart. It’s an image full of twee, white, sugary prettiness, the worst of Classical Music Radio.

(I am constantly impressed by how much contempt is built into my musical formation. Disregard the previous passage entirely. If you can. May you have better success than I.)

With Bach, I have a sense of underlying levity. There’s something to all that glib, assured counterpoint that feels frivolous to me. Bach’s recorded demeanor was cranky and crusty and impatient – but the joy in his music sometimes implies to me a grinning nerd, enjoying his own mastery.

Mozart’s vibe is less geeky. He is more frequently playful, and his expectations of his listeners is more modest. He spells out big, soft key areas, but does unbelievably delicate and convoluted things within them – like a gorgeous rug beneath the Archbishop’s feet, one might notice the general color scheme and definitely the soft texture, without taking on board all the subtleties in the design.

It is hard to get Mozart up to tempo without buffing up scales and arpeggios – but when it settles into speed, it has far more Astaire – the illusion of being easy or instinctive – than Bach ever has. But I appreciate that demand, like trying to live up to one’s spats.

I don’t mean to suggest that Mozart is invariably slick and frothy; not even in contrast to Bach. But he can be both, in a way no other music in my library asks.

I know, I need to spend some time with Haydn.

Good Fences

In the last few days the universe has whispered to me of boundaries.

There is a great deal of material (which I personally find uncongenial), especially in videos, with titles like “Are You An Empath?” The language conjures up that pretty woman on Star Trek TNG, whose character was visually splendid and for whom the scripts almost never provided fulfillment of her excellent potential. There is a mythical glow around the notion of being An Empath – a magical implication. As with telepathy and clairvoyance, I really wish I could believe in it along those lines.

Yet – I have for years recognized that I sometimes respond to emotional climates without having first consciously recognized them. It took several years working as part of a really good work team before I began to notice it. I usually grasp concepts much quicker than feelings. But, I would have said, I am as observant as I am interested, in the feelings of people around me.

The catch seems to be, that sometimes I am neither interested nor observant; yet at those times I can still absorb a disconcerting amount of emotional information from my community. So sure, if you want to call that EMPATHY, as quirky a power as perfect pitch, we can do that. (I want you to feel good – at least while we are together).

There are many reasons to love solitude, and I do; there are many reasons to love my darling household, and I do. Raising young ones, trying to be a good partner, navigating the crises that come even without a pandemic or catastrophic political upheaval – these things load up my antennae. When my people were very, very young, or even very, very distressed, (or, in some cases, both) that perceptiveness has enabled me to provide comfort, to promote recovery, to help articulate confusing parts of life. A good thing.

You’re waiting for the “but,” aren’t you? I can feel that (JK). There is one, though. If everyone’s emotional state matters, it becomes important to include oneself among the everyone. When sorting through everyone’s feelings, it is necessary labor to understand which feelings are one’s own, and which are not. I find that part a very slow, murky enterprise.

Lately, several sources around me have talked about Boundaries – and they are reminding me that without a sense of distinction, Empathy becomes Intrusion quite naturally. One can intend to be Caring but instead be Controlling. Your sadness, however it grieves me, is yet not actually my sadness.

If the universe is saying so, I can only suppose I have needed to hear it. These years, when we need so much to connect, it seems paradoxical to stumble around this notion – but maybe that’s precisely why it has emerged. Maybe one needs to understand the difference between Here and There, if one is to forge bonds between them.

It seems complicated – I see any real intimacy requires that sense of where one self begins and ends. Well, one tries to learn.

Dropping Balls

Well, where did this blog vanish? Seems a bit of a while since the previous entry. Lots of things seemed to stop, and was it Covid? Not really, directly.

I’ve been exploring neurodiversity this year – my own included – and what I discover underscores my previously growing sense of … shall I call it passivity? fatalism? futility? Or shall I employ terms like acceptance? affirmation? acknowledgement?

There isn’t so much outward difference: whether one’s language condemns or merely recognizes one’s practical movement, or lack of movement, that movement (or its lack) remain what they are. That’s part of what I was appreciating in my last, about the metronome. Movement is a real thing, is it not? Movement occurs when change consumes time, or when a portion of time conveys things from one state to another. From the most “zen” possible perspective, movement is constant; the rate of movement varies with the thing moving, or the person, or even the observation range.

This is all an elaborate admission that I don’t recall when I last wrote (all right, I checked: over three weeks). Yesterday, I also returned to juggling after a break, and it was a little bit of a surprise.

Here’s what happened with juggling: I remember how to throw the pattern, and can get all three balls into the air pretty successfully, and that feels like an accomplishment. But I can’t keep them moving very long, just three or four iterations at best. And then things start to fall down.

Around me, my people – both the smallest circles and the larger ones – are in something vaguely analogous. The pandemic restrictions seem to be easing – fatalism, or spring, or progress, or something else? – but it’s still tricky to figure out whether to go out, or how; what shapes to put back into our community life; whether to continue in reclusive habits and if not, how to relinquish them.

There’s the juggling analogy – it seems to me many of us are trying to step back, after too long a break, into the patterns and the movement we were in before Covid. Those patterns (what we thought of as “normal” if we thought about it at all) were really always changing. We were all continually working on our community life: seeing more of people we liked, increasing involvements that seemed good, reducing involvements that seemed bad, trying to balance our wants, and needs, and pleasures, and duties.

The Covid shut-down wiped most of that out of all recognizable shape. Now, we’re trying to remember how it used to work – and parts of it feel very familiar – but it’s also strangely difficult and fatiguing. Many of us seem to leap back into social time, and then, instead of easing gregariously into old, dear patterns – we have pauses; we look at one another and ask, “Did I already tell you…?”; we get tired trying to read the signals that we used to soak up almost unconsciously.

The solution is the same as ever.




This post is part of a larger project, #MOC19. Read more about the Mass Observation COVID-19 project here.  


Wondrous Machine… tick…tick…tick

I love metronomes. They aren’t beautiful to listen to, and my most accomplished pianist friend hates them, with Perfect Hatred. He considers them soul-killing, mechanistic blatherskites. Valueless.

Ah, but Jon has, apart from formidable technique, the self-assurance of a lion, the social ease of a howling extrovert, and the energy of an excitable intellect. One does not grudge a friend all these excellences. But, lacking them, one appreciates supports.

I am growing more and more aware how much I tend toward autodidacticism, and always have. Paradoxically, I found “independent learning” very difficult in school days. My greatest successes came either from an oblivious enthusiasm for a subject, or from a dreadfully vain – if accurate – conviction that I could master any assignment quickly. When, in the course of education, that conviction failed me, it didn’t not spur better efforts or harder labors, but withdrawal, dismissal, and self-consciousness. I’ve only just begun to understand this pattern, as I learn more about how other people do or do not learn successfully.

So here I am, pretty old, and wanting to learn how to play piano, and I say again, the metronome is a great good to me. I think I’ve sung its praises before for this very thing: it is Outside My Head, yet still in my ears. By being for me but not of me, it not only provides a steady tempo, it attaches my playing to an external sense of time and sound. It certainly reveals where things are unsteady, but it also confirms things that are steady. That tocking is aloof from my fears, my nerves, or my bravado.

Lately, as I try to notice my internal learning language, the metronome becomes, in addition, an outward measure of self-tolerance. You cannot play that Mozart at tempo? What about 80 bpm? No? No, that’s really a bit rushed and frantic, isn’t it? Come on, honey, slow it down – 65 is fine, or even 54, no, really, it’s fine, and listen to how that passage fits in your hands now! There, that’s so much better – and you will find, yes you will, that as you get comfortable, the music will nudge your speed up all by itself. That’s a promise.

The lovely thing about my recent correction of some alignment and posture is, it’s Quite True – and that is a new and comforting part of the learning. It makes the slow, slow, slow metronome work feel more purposeful; because when I work in a tempo where I can work, there is some real muscle learning.

What the metronome cannot measure is how slowly I have come to these balances, and how many years I have been plodding along with a fool for a teacher, nor even how much time I will have energy, flexibility, health, life, to keep at it. Still, I appreciate the indifferent way it provides only what it is built to provide. It gives only what it has to give: steady, consistent, markers of the time I am using.

Baby Talk, Old Brain (More Piano)

There are probably better ways for more standard students to learn new pieces, or plug away at old ones. There are probably terse, elegant, coherent ways to talk about fingering, and phrasing, and generally getting the body to understand what the ear already desires.

That may well be, but there doesn’t seem to be any such conversation for me. I blame my own capacities for receiving instruction, and that’s enough about that, at least for now.

What I am finding constructive, (at least, I think so), is a slow, condescending kind of self-talk. My inner voice has to get very slow, like a kindergarten teacher with a particularly shy New Kid. A teacher who has enough aides, enough resources, and enough comfort in the environment to take all the time in the world. A teacher who wants nothing more in the moment than to make the New Kid Feel All Right.

That’s what it seems to take for me to work without tension. My other internal voices want to scream with the slow pace that imposes. But that nice Miss L. knows what she’s doing. Or perhaps she’s teaching a beginning swimmer (still a very small child), not only to swim strokes, but to love the water.

Whatever her identity – or his – this Very Nice Person works along with my sharper, far more shrewish inner critic, whom I sometimes call Sister Mary Admonitia. Sister A. is very fierce about mistakes, but I have learned to be thankful for her acuity. Like all one’s interior voices, she has capacities and strengths that can be useful to me – and if I try to squelch her she simply grows meaner and more pugnacious. She is, in this regard, one of the trickiest of my Big Dogs. Give her her due, she’s the energy that focuses on accuracy, on clarity, on fixing things, when my other energies for it flag. But she is not a nice dog.

My kindergarten teacher/swim coach, on the other hand, is entirely nice, and is paying equally keen attention. Her interest is not in accuracy but in flow, in muscle memory, in deep training. Hers is the voice that checks, patiently and repeatedly, not only did a passage go correctly, but did it feel good – did it feel right, did it feel easy, did all the parts of mind and muscle-memory chew 32 times and digest this passage? Hers is the voice that cheerfully suggests taking things back down to a slower speed, or repeating and repeating and repeating, until the last, tired, straggling little pinky finger feels as assured and relaxed as any determined thumb. Hers is the voice that wants to make sure we’re all having a nice time.

This voice is rather new to me; I don’t love her, but how can you be cross with so much benevolence? Beneath that sugary surface is complete devotion to her particular job, which is to help my whole brain and body work as a team. I need that.

The Battle You Know Nothing About

Be kind, says the meme; most people are fighting a battle you know nothing about.

Which isn’t wrong, you know. Also, yes: Be kind. Always a good first plan.

If you look at the various presentations of this idea, the intention is to mitigate reactions like road rage: There is no need to leap into hostility even though someone annoys you; it is most likely a misunderstanding, which – if it could be made clear – would take away your anger, and maybe even your frustration. C. S. Lewis says (though I disagree), that rather than “To understand all is to forgive all,” instead “To forgive all is to understand all.” (I think he’s up in a Chestertonian tree on that, and it’s just wrong, however cutely phrased. It’s close to being true, but not in the gold.)

This is about piano practice. Very recently, I’m not certain why, I fiddled with my seat at the bench – boosted myself up higher, just to see if I could improve the alignment of my body, especially my hands, wrists, and arms, to the keyboard.


Turns out that it makes a massive, massive difference. No, I didn’t suddenly burst into fluid runs and Mozartean flourishes. But all sorts of recurring stumbles and stops just went away. And at the end of a solid practice interval, I had not only a complete absence of tension, but even of fatigue, in my wrists. This is Big News. It is no less than a revelation.

So, here’s the thing: I’ve never understood this before. If I had understood the importance of this alignment years ago – 10, 20, forty years ago – I think very likely I would have been able to move the benchmarks that have defeated me so often. If I had understood how important this was, and that I was doing it wrong, I might have spared myself the embarrassing public stumbles of last Easter Sunday.

You never get to experience your retrospective IFs, of course. Still, one has to evaluate revelations when they come, it’s not enough just to dance around yelling Eureka!

Teachers have tried to tell me. I can name them. But I have not been a good student, and I wasn’t ready to take that guidance from them, especially in the midst of teacher/student conversations about The Music I was studying. It’s a quirk of my nature, which I have considered, but will not expound here, that I am sometimes very hard to instruct. So I cannot really blame my instructors.

But I see, in this shift, how much harder I have been fighting, in a battle I didn’t understand at all, while obstructing my own growth. And I wonder, naturally – how many ways does that happen? For all of us?

It’s important to be kind, of course – but how can I fail to realize many of us are locked in battles that we don’t fully understand, and that – if we understood them – might not have to be battles at all.

Cloudy, With A Side of Conflict

Two scenarios just today:

In the first, I attended a public musical performance, where, late in the event, an old friend took a seat near me. He was visible to me, but maybe didn’t see me. I twitched over the end of the program, when he might well turn around, and we would have to decide whether or not to chat. It would likely be awkward.

That is because, after several years of lunches and shared adventures, I had decided that this friend could not stop hurting my feelings. I believed he held me in esteem and had pleasure in our shared times, yet always there would come some reprimand, some disparagement, even some rivalry, to wound my ego; and some demand for special attention that would boost his own. After a great many attempts to shift our dynamic and these patterns, I simply withdrew from the friendship. I did not “ghost,” in the sense of disappearing, but I also stopped attempting to explain myself.

There is no point trying to answer the unasked question. This friend had failed to hear me and I stopped trying. Today, when the music ended, we did not encounter one another at all.

In the second story, I am struggling with a much younger friend to manage our shared social media life. This friend, deeply concerned about social injustices, has had many things to say, lately – and on my “walls” – about the inadequacies and delinquencies in the way my community sees current events. After a previous, extended exchange with them, I have, just now, privately commented (except that now I’m putting it out here), that I am feeling policed. I framed this carefully, because expressing my own feelings is less likely to sound like a reproof. I expect it to end badly, with accusations from my young friend about privilege, and defensiveness, and complicity, etc.

In short, I suspect I am about to lose this younger friend. I am taking the risk.

Following Lady Bracknell, I am tempted to think that anyone may lose one friend, but to lose two (or more) is sheer carelessness. It also seems like profound discourtesy. It is so tempting to believe that with sufficient tact, it is possible to retain a relationship to anyone, and thus contribute to the work of establishing peace on earth.

I am also keenly aware – probably too aware – that both of these friends would describe our relationship histories in very, very different terms. I make no assumption that I am Right and they are Wrong.

What seems established is a pattern of disharmony. If there were – no, if I had – enough underlying confidence and trust, and perhaps energy, it might be possible to repair these ties. Lacking such confidence, and such trust, and definitely such energy, the repair seems unlikely. So my intention is, instead, to stand by what I have said, and by what I have not said, and to stand back from the conflicts.

It does not seem the best outcome.

Sven (23): Matins

Sven: A mimosa, madam?

ME: Why, thank you, Sven! What a lovely way to start the morning.

Sven: Thank you, madam. Will this be a pedicure day?

ME: Sadly, I think not. Too much rain, I need sandals weather.

Sven: Will you be going out for anything else today?

ME: You know, Sven, I think not.

Sven: Then it will be the grey sweatsuit, I gather?

ME: That will do nicely, Sven, thank you. Ooh, you didn’t have to iron it, Sven!

Sven: I didn’t really, I just touched it up for warmth. I trust it’s comfortable?

ME: Sven, why do I ever try to do without you?

Sven: I wasn’t aware, madam, that you ever do without me by trying to.

ME: (Sighs.) How quickly we get profound, Sven. That’s not quite what I mean.

Sven: More mimosa?

ME: Probably. I suppose I mean something else. Along the lines of: What a treasure you are, Sven; sometimes I feel I don’t appreciate you sufficiently. Other times I feel I don’t give you enough to do.

Sven: I have never been given any requests that are excessive, madam, I don’t believe.

ME: What would that look like? I expect you’d have to just give me a polite refusal?

Sven: I prefer not to contemplate the possibility, madam. Will you be wanting any eggs this morning?

ME: No, thank you, I’ll probably want them for dinner, and one tries to avoid overdoing. A little top-up on that glass, please.

Sven: Naturally. I have also placed your day’s news and word puzzles within easy reach. If you need me for anything further, I will be polishing the silver, and cleaning your costume jewelry.

ME: Only my costume jewelry?

Sven: The actual jewels have all been cleaned lately, madam. It only took a few minutes.

ME: Well, that’s because actually I prefer rhinestones, myself.

Sven: And feathers; and sequins. I quite understand, madam, but even those need an occasional wiping down.

ME: Bless. Would you mind checking on my shoes, if you have time?

Sven: The thrift-store sneakers, or the orthopedic clogs, madam? You have two other pairs of shoes (apart from the second-hand boots, and there is nothing more I can do for them), which remain in their boxes. Also some sandals, which you will not be needing today because of the rain.

ME: See, this is what I mean – well, it’s not what I mean, but it’s one of the things that troubles me, Sven.

Sven: Madam?

ME: I ought to have silver for you to polish, and jewels for you to clean, and silk underthings, and a background more worthy of you.

Sven: Not at all, madam. That is your job.

ME: My job?

Sven: I find my position satisfactory, madam; you, as proprietress, provide my background. It is my concern to provide service, attention, and niceties as able.

ME: Maybe I still can’t believe I can afford you.

Sven: It is our mutual fortune that – so far – you have.

Practice Rooms

People talk about a Practice Mindset, or a Learning Mindset, and it is a Real Thing. It is not the time you have wasted on your rose that makes the rose so important, but that makes the time important. (Why does The Little Prince annoy me so very deeply?)

After what felt like disastrous organ playing (note: for which I have repeatedly, if weirdly, received thanks and even praise), my next practice sessions were physically looser and mentally cleaner. In that same time, as the tight proximity of my full household was providing some excess mental stimulus, I went off and practiced my juggling. In both of these instances, I began to experience a new degree of Practice Mind, and it’s a lovely thing.

I absolutely have not had technical breakthroughs in either field. What I have experienced instead is a slight, but wonderful, transformation of available mental space. In both keyboard and juggling, I still experience a limited capacity to concentrate, and when that concentration evaporates, I stop trying to work. It comes and goes. The emerging discovery is this sense of being in a practice mode as a kind of safe space. I begin to think I’ve tip-toed into this long before I realized it. There have been various times in the last few years when, sputtering over one thing or another, I turned to my keyboard, and its earphones, and escaped there.

The new thing is this conscious sense of entering into a Practice Space. It almost feels like a physically dimensional space, because one enters and departs it. I wonder, how many sessions of prayer, or meditation, would it take to erect that Interior Castle? Because now that I have found a little house of juggling, and a little room of scales, naturally it raises the question of broadening one’s landscape.

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke talks about one’s inner loneliness as a revelation about the immensity of one’s interior spaces. He makes it – as I recall – sound rather magnificent, and entirely promising. This appeals to my Jungian sensibilities as well. I think of as “Jungian” the idea that the soul (psyche), like any living thing, contains capacities for its own healing and growth; that even the most bruised and damaged spirit, given time, will try to restore itself.

We aren’t really post-Covid, and all the world continues to inspire grief and anxiety. I need to develop such spaces, and so, I suspect, do many of us. I’ve been aware of considerable messaging about Wellness, as an industry, as a practice, and as a goal. It’s been difficult to make one’s own wellness the biggest value in the face of other challenges. In fact, one’s own wellness should not always be the first good. Sooner or later, of course, one’s unwellness might demand attention.

That is just the point where one needs interior spaces that are calm, easy to enter, and simple in their own configuration. I am grateful to have stumbled upon some.


Are you one of the people that sometimes thinks stand-up comedy looks easy? I am one of those people. I bet we are legion. I bet that many, many of us extroverted types have watched someone standing up, making faces, delivering lines – the truer, the funnier – and gotten fooled into thinking, “I could be doing that. I should totally try that.”

Many of us are, in fact, frequently very funny.

OK, but don’t worry. Yet another huge gift I have gotten from years of church music is this: When you absolutely own your game, it looks easy. Almost nothing people do in front of each other looks that easy – have you tried to let people know their car lights are on? Adjusted your buttons in the reflection of a store window? Yelled across a street or through the house any sentiment more complex than “STOP!” The darnedest things are really a little tricky.

Patrick Day called it “Astaire,” this quality of apparently effortless ease. It takes attention and discernment to realize that Astaire only happens to those who work very, very hard at it. I’ve never been really that good at working as hard as necessary for the big accomplishments: it’s just been easier to resent and envy those who have.

So, while I have just spent a minute watching a deceptively casual stand-up routine, and thought the thought about doing it, I don’t think there is any actual danger of it happening.

And yet.

What would that job look like, I wonder? First of all steps, it’s a writing task, isn’t it? First, you have to acquire – usually, I believe, create for yourself – the material that you would be delivering in your comedy routine.

I find myself quite amusing, much of the time; but my outward audience is more complicated. Naturally, there are discerning souls who giggle at my slightest non-linear gerunds, but there are not (so far) enough of them to constitute A Public. Still, I do fantasize about this sometimes. There are middle-aged women, and older women, who have done brilliant work in this format.

Here’s one; and another; and another (classic)… they might not all seem funny at a given moment. But there they are, getting laughs, and it doesn’t really show how hard that is. In fact, I can hardly think of a more soul-crushing undertaking; the idea of stepping onto a stage and trying to generate, or maintain, that delicate feeling in the audience, doesn’t really have appeal.

Maybe it did, once; I still like to get a few laughs in a social setting, but to have to prime the pump and then work it for a full “set” seems like weight-lifting.

What continues to interest me is the idea of writing comedy. When I first started blogging, I dreamed of being funny, continually “light and bright and sparkling;” instead I stumbled into an extensive sincerity. I still like the idea of producing 500 words of hilarity at a throw.

Take my wife; please.