Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

On Tuesday, responding to a NaNoBloMo prompt, I wrote about my eighth-grade teacher.  Which is what you get for being too literal:  Like most people (I hope – I’d hate to think I was that dense), I was thinking in terms of schoolteachers.  In fact, there were two teachers who made the single biggest impact on my life:  One was my German teacher, about whom I blogged last November, and one was the poor soul who made his living casting the pearls of music before the neighborhood piglets.

I had wanted piano lessons ever since watching Liberace’s television show in the 1950s.  Of course I had no idea of the effort involved in learning piano, but just to be able to make those sounds…!  But with Dad earning $35 a week and our family growing by leaps and bounds, that was never a possibility.  At some point, however, my aunt got wind of a man who taught accordion in people’s houses; I guess he was teaching the son of one of her neighbors.  She got accordion lessons for her son, and then, I suspect, paid for lessons for me, as well, since there was no way my mother could have carved lessons out of her budget.

Now, accordion-playing wasn’t as nerdy back then as it sounds now.  For one thing, this was New York City, the Land of a Thousand Ethnicities.  Many of them were Eastern European, and the accordion was enshrined as the instrument of choice for polka music.  (It was pretty nifty for klezmer music, too.)  Then there were the Italians in the neighborhood, who simply adored hearing Italian music on the accordion, including, bizarre as it sounds, opera arias.  I guess they were desperate for a little culture.

So every Tuesday for three years, John Livio came to our house and taught accordion.  From him I learned to read music, the functions of G-clefs and bass clefs, harmony, musical structure, fingering – all the basics of  instrumental music for a keyboard instrument, not a few of which stood me in good stead in high school when trying out for Glee Club.  I practiced for an hour each day, frustrated because I just didn’t seem to be achieving the fluency of professional players; I had no idea, and no one told me, of the hours and hours the pros put into it.  That kind of time would never have been available to me, anyway, with six kids running around a four-room house.  And I had my regular studies to contend with, which, let’s face it, were incredibly boring compared with music.

But the lessons were contingent upon my maintaining good grades, and I probably convinced my teachers that I was far brainier than I actually was, because I was such a Good Student.  Amazing, the price you’ll pay for what’s valuable to you.

The lessons came to an abrupt end the day he announced he was going to teach me “Flight of the Bumblebee” – I took one look at all those hemi-demi-semiquavers and said, “I don’t think so,” or whatever the 1959 equivalent was.  I had a week to get used to the idea, and over that week I thought I might like to give it a shot.  I’m sure he would have been pleased to hear that, except…he never showed up.  Maybe he was sick, we thought, but he was MIA the next week, too, and the week after that.

I kept up the accordion, anyway – I did enjoy making music on it – went on to high school and Glee Club, then, in adulthood, to church-choir singing.  Over the decades I developed my voice by listening to good singers and paying attention to the various choir directors I had.  Eventually I directed the choir in my own parish church, then went on to obtain a certificate in choir direction.  When I got that certificate, I took it in to my dad’s sitting room, where he was watching television, and thanked him for shelling out for the accordion lessons, since I don’t actually don’t know if it was my aunt who paid for them.  He looked surprised, delighted, and not a little confused; I don’t think he got what the certificate was about.  But I thought he should have the satisfaction of knowing that the music lessons he was so opposed to hadn’t been in vain.  The one I should have thanked, I was never able to, so here it is:  Thank you, John Livio, for the lessons you taught.  Both musical and otherwise.

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“Name one thing you wish you could go back and change about your education.”

Only one?

Considering how my life has unfolded, the biggest change I’d make is that I’d have gone to college right out of high school.  Back then — and I didn’t know this at the time — it didn’t matter what your degree was in, the main thing was that you had a college degree.  You could go anywhere with that magic piece of paper that had Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Sciences on it.  Knowing that, I’d have chosen to go for Music; but back then, I thought you had to know what you wanted to do in life, and that college was supposed to be tied to what you did for the rest of your life.  And a career in music was the equivalent of a Bachelor’s in English nowadays:  I would have expected to spend my life singing, “You want fries with that?”

And yet, music is what I have spent my life doing, whether playing piano (badly — not enough lessons) or singing, or, for two exasperating and wonderful years, directing a choir.  If I had realized any of that, I would have let nothing stop me.  Particularly exasperating is that, having been brainwashed by the Cost of a College Education (even 50 years ago, it wasn’t cheap), I thought, what was the point in trying?  My family could never afford it.  It wasn’t until long after I was married that someone told me that the City University System of New York was absolutely free, if you went to the college of your own borough.  In my case, that would have been Queens College.

And, in light of that piece of information, I can’t help wishing that I had gone to a public, rather than a parochial, school.  We got a fantastic grounding in the English language — its mechanics, as well as putting together a coherent composition (not that you could judge by this post!) — but not in much else.  Again, I was an adult before I realized the importance of the Iroquois Nation in New York State history; what we learned, this being Catholic school, was, “The Iroquois were the bad guys because they sided with the English, who were Protestant, and the Hurons were the good guys because they sided with the French, who were Catholic.”  I hasten to add that the Hurons were up in Canada…  And this had what to do with New York State history???!  Our math and science education was also minimal, and the Arts were non-existent.

So yes, there is a very great deal I wish I could have changed about my education.  That said — it was still a better education than what my kids got, described by my daughter as “eleven years of brainwashing, followed by one year of real education.”  Both my kids took three years of Latin (and no foreign languages), and learned in three years what I learned in one.  (And I took three years of French, besides.)  Neither learned very much at all about European history.  In fact, I used to love it when my son would get suspended from school for fighting; we’d watch public television together and talk about what we’d seen.  One program focused on an island in the Netherlands where cars are banned altogether!

Foreign cultures, foreign ways:  Now that’s a real education (from the Latin “e”, “out of,” and “duc”, the root of the verb “to lead” — as in, “leading one out of one’s own experiences, and into a wider world).

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Question:  What would your profession be if you didn’t need money?

My first reaction was, That’s easy:  I’d be a professional  musician, of the classical variety.  I love classical music, have done since I was twelve or so, and would have loved to study it.  But with seven people living in four rooms, there wasn’t a lot of room to spare for a piano, and Catholic schools weren’t teaching flute or violin or recorder or any of the nifty stuff that public-school kids get to learn; they were afraid that musical accomplishment would lead us into the Sin of Pride.

So I did what I could.  I joined my high-school glee club and learned choral singing.  Then, upon graduation, I did what any other girl of my class did:  I went out to work to help support the family.  Took my secretarial skills and built a fairly successful career for myself, one at which I turned out to be rather good and which I have always greatly enjoyed.

But if I hadn’t had the threat of Earning a Living hanging over my head, definitely, I would have gone to college to learn real music.  I don’t say I would have had a career in it, but my life would have been infinitely richer.

Or maybe not; it might be that the adversity of my circumstances have given me a much deeper appreciation for music, overall, than I would otherwise have had.  I think it’s for sure that I would not have gone so deeply into the riches of Orthodox Church music, if I had been a professional musician.

The other field I would have liked to explore is nowadays called “textile art.”  I’d love to be able to design my own cross stitch, put together lines and colors in the kind of fantasy that real designers of cross stitch do.  A quick look at my Lust List will show you what I mean.  As it is, having devoted 30 years to the practical skill of knitting, I’m just now learning how painters get those spectacular color and light effects in their art – learning it through fine-art cross stitch.

So there you are, fine-art cross stitch and music.  Professional dilettante, that would be me, if I hadn’t had to earn a living.  So it’s just as well that i did.    😉

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“If stranded on a desert island, and could only bring one music album with you, which would it be? What is it about this music that never gets old for you?”

OK, we must really be scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Yesterday’s topic was so off the wall, I didn’t even bother posting in response to it (aside from which, I had appointments up the wazoo).  But this one just leaves me shaking my head:

One music album.  On a desert island.  What is it about desert island that I’m missing?  Wait…it’s coming to me…could it be…electricity?!

Or am I just being too prosaic?!  I mean, what good is an album without something to play it on?!  Solar batteries, maybe?  It’s the only way this topic works.

And why do you need an album, anyway?  Are you so brain-dead that you can’t even make your own music?  ‘Cause that’s what I’d do.  If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d want enough water to keep my throat from getting dried out so I could sing to my heart’s content.  And I’d need food to keep up my strength, of course — singing is a workout, if you do it right.

All this assumes I would even put myself in a position to be on a desert island in the first place.  Not me, sister.  Day-to-day living is enough of an adventure, thankyouverymuch.  I don’t need Assistance.

Come on, WordPress — get real!

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“Describe the wackiest but most useful advice you’ve ever received.”

That’s a tough one.  I don’t seem to be the kind of person who invites wacky advice.  I can’t say that all the advice I ever received was useful, and some of it was downright lousy, but I can’t think of a single piece of advice that was both wacky and useful.

Wait a minute:  Yes, I can.  High-school Glee Club.  We had a music instructor from Czechoslovakia (for you young folks, that was back in the days when the country of Slovakia was paired with the eastern German principalities of Bohemia and Moravia, both of which now make up the Czech Republic, and they called the whole mess Czechoslovakia).  Professor Rybka was a classically-trained musician who had been forced to flee his country when the Nazis annexed it, and he eked out a living by giving private voice lessons to talented singers, in addition to being on the payroll of the Catholic girls’ school I attended.  I sincerely hope he had other sources of income, since I can’t imagine he made much off casting his pearls before all us little piglets.

He was full of wacky advice.  Those vocal warm-ups:  “Mi-a-lo-la, mi-a-lo-la, LA-a-a-a-a-a-a-a” (on a descending scale).  “BrrrEEEEd!” he would command (he meant, Breathe.  Like we were all walking dead or something, which, considering the average mental state of the average teenager, isn’t too far off).  “SmILE!” he’d say, and broaden his own mouth in what was supposed to be an expression of musical bliss, and this was how we were supposed to sing, as if we were enjoying every second.  And the wackiest of all, “Oooooooooopen your mooooooooooooouuuuuth.”

Have you ever really opened your mouth to sing?!  I mean, wide open, like you were at the dentist?  Let me tell you, nothing feels more ridiculous, especially if your definition of singing involves the hottest rock ‘n’ roll band.  You don’t hold it in a perfect oval, either, like those pictures we all see on Christmas cards of angelic choirboys.  You literally “open wide,” just like at the dentist, and you feel like a complete idiot.

Well, I made it through high school, and Glee Club, for all its absurdities, was definitely the highlight.  I was relieved to be delivered of Professor’s injunctions, but I knew I would miss Glee Club, all the same.  Then I realized something:  I was grown up (at age 18), and could join the church choir.

So I did.  And what did I hear?  “Smile!  Breathe!  Open your mouth!”  And yes, all the same ridiculous warm-ups we had done in high school.  The thing was, this was New York City, so every rinky-dink choir out there was directed by someone who had been graduated from college with a degree in music, and full training in choral singing; so no matter where I went, if I was in a choir, that was what I was hearing.  Professor was on to something.

Fast-forward fifteen or so years.  My husband and I were on vacation in Upstate New York with our two kids, and had decided to track down a church on Sunday.  As we stood there, we heard a chanter, a woman with absolutely the loveliest, purest voice I have ever heard in my life.  “Oh, I wish I could sing like that,” I thought, and then it hit me:  You know all the tricks.  You know what you’re supposed to do to get that sound, so do it.  Bit by bit, week after week, I worked on my voice until I had a sound that approximated that exquisite, crystalline voice that I had heard one Sunday in church on vacation.

That was thirty years ago.  People still tell me what a wonderful voice I have — not just people who hear me in church, but professionals, too.  The best compliment I ever got was from a Russian opera singer who, like Professor, gave voice lessons:  “I wish I could have you for six months,” he beamed.  “You have such a young voice.”

Since my teen years, singing has been my life, my worship.  And whenever I Oooooooooooooopen my moooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuth to do it, I think of Professor Rybka and his wacky advice.

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5 things I was doing five years ago:

Trying to get used to the idea that my son had moved away from home
Working on an analoy cover for church
Trying to get used to the idea that I was actually a grandmother
Anticipating a new daughter-in-law (the less said about that, the better)
Having my kitchen redone, which was not nearly as bad as it should have been, mostly because my contractor hooked up the stove and sink every night so we could use them — I hope God has a special place in heaven for him

5 things on my to do list:
Talk to my priest about Jordanville (he was out of town last week)
Cross stitch (always, always)
Update diary
Pay parking ticket    😦
Find laminate flooring at Lowe’s for my porch

5 things I would do with a million dollars:

Pay off the home-equity loan that we used to have our front porch redone
Establish a perpetual trust fund for my church
Buy a vacation home in Germany so I could park dh there while I visit Russia
Hire a full-time maid
Install a floor to ceiling bookcase in the living room…and in each bedroom…and in the basement…and then I’d open the Gonic branch of the Rochester Public Library.  Heck, we have enough books to do it, anyway.

5 places I have lived:
New York, New York (well, Queens, actually, but it is part of NY)
Moerfelden-Walldorf, Germany

Morgantown, WV (ye gods and little fishes)
Greater Boston, MA

Gonic, NH

5 things I want to be doing in 5 years:

Being alive would be nice (I’m at the point where I read the obits every morning to make sure I’m not in there)
Still stitching
Teaching Typicon to members of my parish
Being part of a start-up Russian parish in Seacoast NH
Enjoying my finally tidy house, which at this moment is alive and well in Fantasyland

Thanks, Mimi!

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As of tomorrow evening, I will have been back a week from my annual effort to polish my meager musical talents.  This year, I was especially eager to focus on a slightly different aspect of Orthodox worship:  the Church Slavonic language that was especially formulated for worshipping God, in the Slavic tradition.  As the instructor of that course pointed out, the beauty of using a liturgical language like Slavonic is that there are no curse words in Slavonic (other than the curses in the Psalms, presumably), so it is completely suited to addressing God and talking about Him.

Well, I took the third-year course and didn’t pass it, which isn’t too discouraging, considering that I took four swipes at the first-year course before I passed that.  The “trouble” with these courses is that they are designed to address the needs of someone who reads this language on a weekly basis, and needs to be familiar with the grammar of what he’s looking at so that he knows how to read it.  That isn’t my situation at all; I just want to have passed the course, and to be able to read/sing the funeral service, should we ever have another Russian funeral in our parish.

However, the beauty of Jordanville is that there are always extra snippets that come my way.  Last year, there were fewer than usual, and so this year, the balance was restored; it felt as if I was running smack into grace every time I turned around.

There was the young woman (32 years old) who was literally dying of cancer, who had just begun her second round of chemotherapy.  So, doesn’t chemo cure cancer?  Not always, and in her case, definitely not — at this point — she has peritoneal cancer, which so far is always fatal, and this is her second bout with it.  She told me that had it not been for the intercessions of St. John of San Francisco, she should have been dead three years ago.  And she talked about all the blessings that had come her way because of her disease. Can you picture talking about cancer in terms of a blessing?! I would feel as if I were betraying a confidence if I mentioned them here, so I won’t, but the peace on her face, and the smiles she had for everyone, were more than remarkable; they were like a benediction from God Himself.  This is a girl completely aware of, and completely in acceptance of, her limited time on earth.

Then there was the bonus class — no extra credit, just extra proficiency — in reading Church Slavonic aloud.  This was the course I really wanted, and the monk who taught it was very aware of my goals.  Nevertheless, we would get sidetracked from actual reading into actual theology, and at one point, he mentioned that one Christmas, he and his brothers stopped in to visit the man who had been choir director of their parish, to say goodbye to him:  He was dying of cancer.  When they got to his house, the man’s wife said, “Don’t mention anything about cancer or dying to him; you know, Christmas and all that.”  So these guys get in to see their former choir director, and the first thing they say is, “You’re not looking so bad, considering what’s going on.”  “And the man started crying,” said the monk.  “He was so grateful to be able to talk to somebody about what it was like to be dying.  Christmas and all the festivities and all the carols and all that stuff had no reality for him.  What was real was facing his own imminent meeting with his God.”

OK, I don’t need to go into how I feel about all of this.  If you don’t know by now, you haven’t been reading my blog for very long.  So when I got home, I e-mailed this monk to ask him:  What’s better, to use any means to prolong life, or to accept that it’s at an end and prepare for death?  And he answered, God bless him, exactly as I had hoped he would:  That we do need to take care of our life in the ordinary way, not take ridiculous risks, eat healthy, and all that stuff, but that when serious disease like cancer strikes, we need to decide what we want:  Do we want more time for repentance, or are we able to come to grips with our mortality and go from there?  Phew, what a relief that somebody can grasp the real question and answer it!!

The young woman, by the way, is married (no children — thank God for small blessings).  Her husband is a deacon, preparing to spend the rest of his life as a monk.  What was so remarkable about this couple is that this obviously not the life they had planned for; but they are able to accept it as God’s very clear laying out of their path, and are planning the rest of their lives with this direction in mind.  Phenomenal blessings, this trip!  More in my next post.

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