Tiger Time

If you remember anything about primary school (and I do, if little) you hopefully have a few memories of one or more of the fantastic sort of teachers who were the virtual equivalent of extra aunties and uncles and grandparents, but neatly spun into the form of educators whose wise teaching made you learn things without even knowing you’d worked at it, and want to learn things you hadn’t even known you wanted to know just because they were such fine pedagogues that they made it seem possible, if not easy.

You undoubtedly also have a memory or two of teachers who were quite the opposite. My personal least-fave was the third grade teacher who had no compunction about excoriating and humiliating a student in front of the rest of the class regardless of the infraction or any of their previous achievements or behavior, even cracking a yardstick onto desktops to make a point when she was het up, regardless of whether there might be some small knuckles in the way of the stick. At the very same time, she apparently thought it perfectly logical and beneficial to ‘level the playing field‘ and make all students feel they could accomplish something in her class, lest the PTA or school board think her not supportive and informative enough, and this she would do by sitting and doing the weakest students’ homework for them.

I knew nothing of this until one time when I was the unlucky receptacle for her ire, having failed a penmanship test in the first weeks of school because that school required students to learn cursive writing in the end of the second grade and the one in another state where I had spent my second grade did not. Had she asked us all to sing a song in Spanish, I might have been the star of the class, because my second grade teacher Mrs. Mosqueta let us learn a little elementary Spanish from one Señor Ybarra, who taught by the ultra-newfangled medium of televised classes, and I don’t think my new classmates in Illinois had yet had access to such magicks themselves. But there I was, little miss Goody Two-Shoes, who had never gotten anything but perfect scores because I was too prim and much too afraid to not do my homework to the nth degree—if I had any actual training or homework to prepare in the event—flunking my attempt to make Pretend Cursive when that mean lady in her sausage-casing dress didn’t even ask whether I’d ever been trained to write that way. If you think I still sound remarkably bitter about such a small thing from so long ago, well, I probably ought to let it go but I tend to enjoy my little revenge fantasies more than is entirely good for me.Digital illustrations + text: Tiger TimeThis is all in jest, of course. I wouldn’t be so cruel as to want to give any poor innocent tigers indigestion.

 

Slipstream

Digital illustration from a graphite drawing: SlipstreamPeople often speak of the person ‘behind the power,’ the right-hand associate who always plays a large role in making the boss look good or the spouse who remains relatively unseen in the shadows while his or her partner is the well-known face of the duo, but I rarely hear anyone mention the full benefits of this kind of relationship. There are, of course, plenty who abuse such an arrangement as purely a platform for self-aggrandizement and advancement and treat their faithful supporters as unseen and unacknowledged slaves. An image comes to mind of the great old Jean Cocteau film ‘La Belle et la Bête,’ wherein the prince’s entire household was condemned by the curse he’d earned and continued to serve him, but even more abjectly, as virtually invisible helping hands. Even in the case of spouses and assistants and supporters who are treated with fairness and generosity and given regular recognition, however, there remains the probability that in normal circumstances, one is more visible and probably more publicly compensated than the other.

There can be, though, a handful of fine, if unexpected, benefits to this arrangement for the person behind the scenes. I think I can speak with a certain amount of authority, having been in this position both by default and willingly in various ways all of my life. I have always traveled in the slipstream of the leader, the marquee character in the act; I fly somewhere behind the lead bird in the V formation, hunt behind the chief lioness, swim behind the flashing silver of the strongest swimmer in the school of fish. I live in the slipstream of those wiser, braver, and more skilled than I am. And I like that very much. It allows me to see at close range where I am headed, led by the example of someone better prepared, while maintaining a sense of safety in my innate introversion and fearfulness from having to set the example or blaze the trail myself It offers me opportunities to find ways to help showcase those I admire in what they are and do best. It puts me on the periphery of events I would never, on my own, have had access to and often gives me the awestruck feeling that my privilege extends, through those I love, respect and admire, beyond any level I could hope to achieve or acquire alone.

I started early: as the next sibling born to a first child who was, and is, extremely bright and wide-ranging in her interests and accomplishments and unabashedly her own opinionated, funny, clever and challenging self—and admired by a great many others for it—I could easily have been, or felt, eclipsed by her. Instead, I tended to feel shielded and guided from the start; others (along with me) generally found her a more interesting focus for their attentions, so she bore the brunt of any critical scrutiny before I would ever feel any, and if there was any entertaining to be done, she managed quite effectively to keep the occasion afloat intellectually and/or with her trademark smart-alec witticisms. That she did all of this shielding of me and leading the way without my hearing much complaint or entitlement either one from her remains a marvel.

On top of that fortuitous training of mine in playing a willing and contented behind-the-lead role, I had parents who were the leaders in their community, too, and in a particularly exemplary version of this star + supporting player arrangement. Dad, the natural extrovert, led active congregations in his primary work role as a pastor and later, bishop, but always had parallel roles as chairman of this, board president of that, and consultant or advisor to the other; Mom, as his one-woman entourage, managed the household so that he was both free to do all of this stuff and looked after enough to be healthy, fed, rested and prepared as well as possible to do so to the best of his abilities. She was also his sounding board at home for anything of import that was underway in his life away from home, helping him to find his way to tough choices and decisions and think through all of the permutations of those situations that anyone tends to carry outside of official work hours. She stood as his consort for official functions, his representative when serving on committees and boards and doing community work as well.

Besides that my father’s work and status allowed me, again, to be quietly in the shadows while attending and participating in all sorts of events and occasions I’d never otherwise have had opportunity or reason to do, my mother was equally quietly setting an example for how to take advantage of all of that in a way that was mutually beneficial. During and through all of those years, I saw Mom come into her own as an equally respected leader among their community, a person looked to for influence and inspiration and committed, intelligent work, but all in her modest and unfussy way. When I finished graduate school and started working at my undergraduate alma mater as a teacher, it was near enough my parents’ house that I simply moved back in with them and paid the cheap rent that put me close to work affordably and, it turned out, in a position to train as the next-level behind the scenes person. Living there, I could keep the household running when they were on the road for work, be assistant-to-the-assistant when they were home by helping to set up for a few of the social obligations or special events tied to their work, and even get assistance from them when I was beginning to have such obligations of my own. By the time that I first went out with the man whom I got to marry, I was remarkably well-versed in the ins and outs of this sort of partnership.

I did, of course, have to learn new variations and nuances to the operation when he and I got together. My spouse is a music conductor. He teaches classes, like I did, but beyond this similarity of standing in front of classes and the variety of preparatory work that gets teachers ready for the classroom time, he had, and has, a much more publicly visible leadership role when he is in conductor mode. I am very glad to stay out of the limelight at those times!

The administrative and preparatory work, the selection of literature, score study, negotiations with guest performers, board interactions, service in the community, publicity commitments, writing program notes, collaborations with commissioned composers—these and so many other aspects of backstage life remain hidden from the public yet can’t be accomplished without time and concentration that are harder to afford if I’m not there to keep him in clean clothes and check that he’s had a meal or two, to chauffeur him to and from places where there’s no parking close enough to get him to a rehearsal on time, and yes, to be a sounding board for him when tough choices or decisions loom. I’ve learned a few things about music along the way, but not so much that I fancy myself anything like a musician or music scholar. But it’s the other parts of his life that I consider the arena for my contributions and participation. It’s the stuff that gets him to the podium that I think I can do best.

When my husband is conducting singers and/or instrumentalists in a concert, my role is to happily sit in the audience and bask in the music along with everyone else. My vocation, my modest part in earning our living, is to slide along in his slipstream and do what I can to keep impediments from holding him back or dragging him down, and whether that happens because I stand near him and shake hands with his bosses and supporters after a concert or because I took the car in for service while he was in administrative meetings doesn’t matter. I’m happy to be a small fish in the big pond as best I can.

Don’t Blame Me, My Teacher Did It

photoThe drawing professor responsible for mentoring me in my undergraduate specialization in drawing and printmaking had no idea he was creating a monster. Safe to say there was nothing especially distinguished about either my skills or my scholarship in those days; he may be forgiven if he thought there was little hope of my passing his classes, let alone succeeding in being an actual artist at any point in the future. But for whatever reasons of commitment and kindness and selfless dedication to his pedagogical efforts, he took it upon himself to tutor and nurture me in my studies besides working wonderfully hard in the general studio sessions he taught.

Like any teacher, he had his characteristic methods and terminology, to the degree that any of us who took more than one semester of classes from him had our own favorite little catch-phrases and loving parodies of his work. One of the most frequent phrases (so we thought then, at least) to leave his lips was ‘texturally rich’—and you can bet your sweet pencil sharpener that any of us giving any imitation of him was bound to quote that one.photo

No surprise at all, then, that as soon as I started teaching, which thanks to his intervention and my subsequent hiring I did for the first time out of grad school in the very classroom where he’d taught me, it was as though I was instantly possessed by his spirit. I think I may have visibly started when I heard myself say that mystical phrase, standing there in the very spot where he’d once stood and repeated it to my classmates and me, never having remotely suspected that I would ever quite understand the term let alone use it so glibly and with such conviction a mere few years later. In my turn, I found it became a true favorite topic of study and tool for art-making and there were undoubtedly students of mine who thought it a funny catchphrase of mine and parodied my use of it.

That’s the way this stuff works, isn’t it. We become our teachers. First we find ourselves imitating our parents and siblings and playmates, learning from them both the persistent bad habits and, if we’re lucky and perhaps not too dumb, the worthy and useful skills and knowledge that will stay with us as we grow. Then we turn to teachers outside of the walls of home and neighborhood, as we get to school and move forward, and learn to imitate them too. This, not to put too fine a point upon it, is what helps us create for ourselves our texturally rich lives.photo

In art, it is the visual or tactile form of texture that I most often seek, finding in the wide variety of possible touchable or perceptible patterns and surfaces worlds of ways that I can shape and delineate and describe whatever subject I choose. As I work to make the art deeper and more complex, the textures I seek include less concrete, more metaphorical and philosophical ones that lend further meaning and impact to it. And that is where it begins to intersect with the learning and growing processes of life in general. A life well lived will be inherently texturally rich. I had no idea of the magnitude and import of this when my professor was saying that simple little phrase. But I’m very glad he said it often enough that I did internalize it, ponder it, carry it with me, and eventually, find a wonderful and purposeful truth in it.

Perhaps even fine teachers like him can’t make me into what I never was, a great teacher myself, but there was clearly a place in my heart and mind that resonated to the phrase ‘texturally rich’ happily and hungrily enough for it to take root and teach me good and useful things long after the echo in the classroom had faded away.photo

All Things in Due Season

digital illustrationBoon Companions

When shadow steals across my eyes, when chill sits in my soul, when cries

Of hopelessness and bitter cold would turn me hard, regretful, old,

I turn my memory to when I cradled happiness, and then

Remember that what shaped me so was love, the kind I came to know

From those great luminaries whose wisdom it was to seek and choose,

From the remotest needful place, pursuit of happiness and grace,

Who told in kindly, teaching voice that peace and joy are bought by choice,

That when the frozen dark descends, we’ll find our light

among our friends.digital illustration

Heroes & Icons

What if we memorialized every great person who ever existed with a monument? Would there be a spectacular array, an endless crowd of museums and statues, or would it be a pitifully paltry showing?

We are accustomed, most of us nowadays, to thinking of people celebrated for simple excellence as entertainers of various kinds as being iconic or heroic. Does this last? Of course it does–in some small few out of the thousands. Mostly, though, at some point it becomes easier to see through the facade of greatness to recognize natural, ordinary  mortality, albeit often tinged with real excellence. photoAnd what recognition and reverence do we afford the true human treasures among us? The teachers and nursing home attendants, the hard-working janitors and the patient and nurturing parents who all work without expectation of worthwhile recompense for the true betterment of the world? Imagine the world decorated with art and architecture honoring the dedicated fireman who didn’t die in a dramatic explosive fire while saving orphans but instead served faithfully as a firefighter in his town for twenty-six years before quietly retiring to a modest split-level where he keeps his two young grandkids under his loving, watchful eye after school until their mother gets home from work. Picture statues commemorating the great deeds of the quiet lady who owned the small neighborhood grocery and after a hundred-year storm opened it and gave away everything on the shelves to the neighbors so they could survive until the needed services could be reestablished.photoThe collection of dedicatory art might be a lot less flashy and showy. But if every real great among us were recognized in this way, there would surely be a whole lot bigger and more meaningful museum of marvels among us, wouldn’t there.

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

Röda tråden (The Red Thread)

Röda tråden is the Swedish phrase for connectivity. I learned it from my husband, who in turn learned it during his dissertation studies on modern Swedish choral history, and in a way it’s the perfect encapsulation of what his research revealed: that the astonishingly deep and broad influence of such a small country, in such a short time, on such a large field as Western choir singing and music came about primarily because of the remarkable and unique confluence and joining together of a huge number of events, people, ideas and resources in that little land at the end of the Second World War. As unimaginably terrible as war is on any scale, it’s all the more a testament to connectedness that at the end of one of the largest we’ve known, such good and meaningful and positive elements were all drawn into one significant, beautiful growth spurt in the art of singing together.digital illustrationAs a miniature of String Theory in the arts, this surge of the choral art in Sweden is notable (no musical pun intended) not only because it posits a reasonably substantial explanation for the larger choral sector’s modern expansive development amid the general devastation and struggle following the end of WWII, but also because in doing so it illustrates wonderfully how the intertwining of all sorts of seemingly disparate elements such as safe havens from political unrest and postwar reevaluation of norms, personal and professional relationships and experimentation with new media could come into contact and interact to create a new mode of thinking, acting, composing, teaching and singing. In turn, this is a striking model of how people from distinct cultures, educational backgrounds, economic resources and political systems and of widely varying personalities, unified by the one tiny thread of choral music, could be pulled together into a complicated system that, though still colorfully messy and imperfect, led to a potent common end that has had lasting and marvelous influence for long and fruitful decades since.

I am, of course, grateful on a personal level because this Swedish postwar influence on Western choral culture has not only enriched my husband’s professional and artistic endeavors–not to mention was the basis for his award-winning doctoral dissertation that in turn opened a lot of friendly doors to us both in Sweden–but because it produced so much spectacular music and inspiration for so much more.

digital illustration

Röda Tråden is the Swedish version of the idea that–indeed literally–fascinates so many of us: the connecting thread–that which binds one thing to another. I can think of nothing greater than to spend life seeking the Red Thread that shows us our commonalities and binds all people together as well.

Further, though, I am grateful that such an otherwise inexplicable event as the ‘Swedish Choral Miracle‘ seems to me ample proof that all things and people really are connected. And that through recognizing and making good use of those connections, however, odd or tenuous they may appear, there is hope for new and better songs to be sung everywhere.

If I needed further proof of this, last night’s concert gave it amply. My spouse conducted the combined forces of the Chancel Choir of the church where he’s currently interim choirmaster plus their excellent hired pro orchestra in performing Haydn and Dvorak’s two settings of the Te Deum text as the concert opening and closing, respectively, bookending the extraordinarily lovely and moving Missa Brevis of Kodaly. I came in to sit for the concert among strangers and acquaintances from the church and discovered a friend from another parish sitting across the aisle from me, then learned from one of the choir administrators that a friend of hers in attendance turned out to be a long-ago colleague of my husband’s from another state, and finally went up to greet my guy after the concert and found him speaking with a group of ladies in the front row, one of whom was the wife of a former US president. What brought all of us divergent people together in this moment? Music. Beautiful singing and playing. Chance, kismet, divine intervention. Call it what you will, the slender but unbreakable thread that connects us all drew us into one place for a time of basking in the inscrutably beautiful harmony that is beyond craft, beyond art. That is a concert without peer.