Graceful Phrasing

digital illustration from photosFrom my privileged perch in the corner of rooms where music is being studied, rehearsed and discussed, I hear all sorts of interesting and enlightening things on the musical topics at hand. Also, plenty of stuff that goes right straight over the top of my pointy head. After all, I’m hanging around with a bunch of scholarly and often exceedingly experienced musicians, and they’re speaking their own language, one that has jargon and concepts far beyond the reach of someone who took five years of childhood piano lessons and a few voice lessons, all without ever actually learning to read music. My poor teachers had no idea how far in over their heads they were in taking me on, but I must assume that most of them figured out my scam of ‘play [or sing] it for me so I can hear how it should be done’ so I could learn it by ear in lieu of figuring out why the notes never seemed to be where they were supposed to be in my fancifully dyslexic internal designs. In any case, I rarely hear musicians talking without getting off course myself a few (million) times along the way.

It’s not all that different, for me, from sitting in on a conversation between those speaking, say, German, Swedish or Norwegian, Spanish, French or Italian: if I already know the theme of the present discussion and a few of the key words, and can suss out the attitudes of the participants to the topic, I may be able to follow the conversation in a vague, generalized way, and nod yes or no on occasion with pseudo-intelligent accuracy. But could I actually participate in the talk? No, don’t make me laugh! Contribute anything meaningful? Not an atom of a chance!

All the same, the musical musings I overhear have a certain advantage as far as I’m concerned, since the discussion of music necessarily entails terminology (not least of all, the Italian words and phrases that are the lingua franca of score study and rehearsals), and to the quickest and clearest way to describe something musical on the fly is often to simply burst into song on the spot.

How one conducts or performs the phrasing in a musical work does a lot to determine not only its flow from beginning to end, but how text, textures, colors, sonorities, melodies and meanings may be enhanced or diminished, heightened or made more subtle. The way one phrases a discussion of music in front of a non-musician can, as I’ve found, affect how much she understands what’s being said, suggested or sung as well. Ultimately, I find that many such opportunities for listening in not only enhance the eventual performance but also my enjoyment of the preparations for it, which can stand alone as entertainment or, who knows, even education.

And if it sounds mellifluous and marvelous along the way, the invitation is almost always accepted, even by this ignorant listener. Just as when I listen to entirely unfamiliar songs and performances and sometimes take quite a while to warm up to them, hearing chatter among real musicians of any level gradually helps me to learn a bit of the way that they approach their work and play and to understand their still-mysterious language. I may not know much, but I know that there’s a lot to learn to like!digital illustration

Another Serenade

mixed media drawingEcstatic

A quenchless love, dreaming of fire,

In sparkling rain, still heart’s desire;

Still filled with stars and wind and joy

And graces formed without alloy—

A pretty hope, a shining night,

That place where blessings all alight—

Give breath and meaning to all things—

This is my love, and yes, it sings,

For in the center of it all

Into such ecstasy I fall

As cannot be divined or plumbed

When earthly spirits have benumbed

The finer senses made for this—

Stop here, and end it with a kiss!

Amazing but True

Some years ago on this very date there was a shift in the universe. It wasn’t exactly an unexpected one, in the sense that it had been foreseen for about nine months, but surely its full grandeur could not have been predicted. And not everyone on earth knew right away what a wonder had occurred, because the wild and wonderful event in question was the birth of my third sister.

digital painting from a photoWhile she was, like the others–I can’t speak for Big Sister‘s first two years except upon having studied pictures of her effortlessly spectacular adorableness before my own appearance in this plane of existence–charming, pretty and charismatic from the start, there was no way of knowing in advance just how fabulous she would prove to be. That’s the thing about siblings: they are inherently outliers to our frame of reference until their influence on our lives appears in real time. And like our two other sisters, the youngest was her own brand of greatness from the start.

What we quickly learned was that she had a uniquely clever and witty point of view and was rather fearless about besting her trio of big sisters in many a moment simply by sitting back and watching our various adventures, figuring out where we might have gone a bit astray with them, and powering on ahead when her turn came. This was perhaps most evident to the rest of us when she would check in with our parents on whether a particular action of any of ours that seemed just a little outrageous was in fact worthy of our getting in trouble over, and if not, then couldn’t she do it, too? [I am not entirely certain that she wasn’t occasionally disappointed when we weren’t in trouble for the activity in question, but that’s a topic for another day.]

And Little Sister wasn’t very old at all when some wise guy quizzed all of us girls on our life’s plans. What did we intend to be or do when we grew up? Undoubtedly he was looking for some nice, pat conventional answer like Teacher or Nurse or some superlative man’s nice little wife, but my littlest sister’s response was unhesitatingly ‘Amazing but true!’ We did not quite grasp at the time that this was indeed both a plan and a vocation, but by cracky, she turned out to have gotten it exactly right. In all of the years since, she has been and done many things, accomplished a tremendous amount, continued to be charming and beautiful and charismatic, and absolutely has embodied a life’s saga that despite being utterly Amazing is still entirely True. We can all vouch for both

She has been, in various turns, an outstanding student, a fine violinist, and an intrepid traveler; all three of my sisters studied and/or worked overseas at college age, and this youngest met and married our superlative brother-in-law while doing so and has now lived longer in Norway than she did in the US. She speaks Norwegian not just like a good student of the language or even like a person whose lineage encouraged her to hone it to refinement but like a native-born speaker, which prompted one of her nephews in his youth to proclaim her the Smartest Sister in our family. Since I happen to think each of my sisters the Smartest One as well as the Most Fabulous (and if you can’t do that kind of math, refer back to my post on Auntie Ingeborg’s science of favorites) I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. My sister has been an administrator, translator, friend, daughter, wife and mother, and much more. She has navigated the waters of an adventure-filled life with both nerve and verve and I still marvel at her excellence every day.

So, on this anniversary of that auspicious occasion whereon she first graced us with her presence, I can say as I always have and always will that her arrival completed the set of our family in ways that we could never have expected or would have dared to wish, and filled any empty spaces, even where we didn’t know they’d existed, with a rare form of love and happiness. I thank her for this gift of herself. And I wish for her many, many more years of being as Amazing as ever!photo

Into Tomorrow, Endlessly Singing

You all know by now that I am not a singer. I get asked all the time, since I’m married to a choral conductor (who happens to also be a lovely singer himself) and I hang out with an enormous cadre of the vocally talented. When I demur, I get asked what kind of musician I am, then, because after all, so many denizens populating the rest of our joint life are outstanding composers, instrumentalists, conductors, and all of the rest that, well, it just seems so obvious. In truth, I did take the obligatory childhood music lessons–about five years at the piano, if you remember–ending with a certain rueful amusement on my teachers’ part but no great skill on mine, plus a brief period of voice lessons from a well-meaning coach who’d heard my sisters and me sing and gave the elder two of us a go. Where again, my failure to learn to read music with any ease was further complicated by my inability to understand and make use of the very important concept of singing with a head voice. Having become accustomed over my earlier years to being mistaken for Dad on the phone, or for an older girl because I was extremely shy and therefore more reserved than many kids my age plus having a relatively deep voice for a girl, or for a more skilled singer than I really was because I was willing to sing any part–and did, at one point, sing in all four choral sections because that was how the need was distributed in my various school and church choirs–well, it all probably let me learn a whole array of bad vocal habits that pretty much put the kibosh on my becoming an actual skilled singer. The likely absence of a notable native vocal “instrument” wouldn’t’ve helped either, had I tried to force the issue, but by the time that I hit high school and time management demanded that I narrow down my interests a bit, choir fell off the list other than occasional singing at church. Who knew I’d end up partnered with this guy!

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Sketches from a Swedish Radio Choir rehearsal, my husband conducting (if you've seen him conduct enough, you can recognize even the rough sketch of his hand positions) . . .

But as I also pointed out some time ago, the influence of music and of singing remained large and happy in my life, even if I was not destined to be a producer of them. I continued to love listening, cultivated many musical friends who provided the sonic tapestry that was the backdrop of my happiness, and even collaborated with musicians on projects where they provided the aural elements of a performance and I the visual imagery to accompany it. For a few years, I served on the Concert Committee that produced a reasonably ambitious season of musical offerings at our church, which was conveniently located just across a university campus from the music department where many of my fine-musician friends happened to work. It must be added, in fairness, that the draw of being on said Committee was not purely musical but also deeply social, what with all of the musicians and music-lovers therein, and also exceedingly delicious, because most of the musicians I’ve known are committed eaters if not foodies and so the Committee’s meetings quickly evolved into elaborate gustatory events as well.

And that’s precisely why music has remained so largely writ in my life, if not burgeoned and positively exploded, over the years since: music is so intertwined with so many parts of what I love in life that I can’t separate one happiness from another. If music be the food of love, play on! What hasn’t followed for me is what followed for Duke Orsino, because I never found either that I became surfeited by listening to good music or that I became surfeited with love by loving life with musicians–one in particular. Tough luck, your Grace! So I am not dutifully following, wagging my tail obsequiously, as I go to a rehearsal and sit in the darkened hall while choirs work their repertoire into their voices and souls to prepare for performance; I am both absorbing the inner workings of music that don’t exist in me innately or by scholarly wisdom, so to appreciate and bathe in the final production all the more, and also having the beauty of the practice itself wash over me in waves that can inspire me to write, to draw or paint, to design my better garden bed or concoct a more delectable dish for dinner. Waves that, at their best, lift me out of myself and let me feel the singing pass through me as though I, non-musician-non-singer that I am, with spasmodic dysphonia that presumably means even if I ever figure out my head voice and/or learn to read music, I won’t become a great singer–as though I myself were singing.

So, though I may struggle to sing a simple ditty nowadays, I have this magnificent vicarious experience available to me that few are privileged to share, and in this rather out-of-body experiential way expect to sing my way through the rest of my very happy future. As I do the usual end of the year assessments and look ahead to what I imagine and hope for the year soon to come, the imagery is suffused in every possible way with music. I am immersed in song. I write lyrics because I cannot sing them. I listen to rehearsals because I cannot read music well and don’t know the inner workings of music preparation the way performers and conductors do. I attend concerts because the kinds of beauty and grief, daring and humor, poignancy and brilliance that come through well made music embrace, interweave and transcend all of the other parts of my life so that I feel transported, changed to a better self. As though I too am singing in a song that may never have to end.

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Conducting another Sparkling performance . . .