Saturday, November 28, 2015


In honor of Small Business Saturday, instead of shopping, we continued to support the small construction business of our amazing carpenter, who spent the day dismantling our kitchen with his college-age son and another young man who is a family friend of theirs. Stuart helped take down the chimney. We gave the built in bookcases a fresh coat of paint. I made chili for lunch and lost my keys. All in all, a productive, exhausting, dusty day. Scroll down to see a bunch of pictures (comments in captions).


They brought doughnuts!

Step One of removing 60+ year old metal cabinets is whatever they're doing.
The fridge now lives in the living room. Something round fell out of the ceiling and Stuart caught it.
This delightful vintage wallpaper was behind the chalkboard. Two people have already suggested that I cut pieces out and have them framed, and I'm actually considering it.
What, you don't store wine glasses and the stand mixer on the windowsill of your bathroom??!

Our temporary kitchen/dining room looks like a bomb shelter.
The dust mask wasn't entirely helpful.
This letter was penned in 1961. We found it stuck between the wall and sink cabinet along with some grocery lists, a bill from Sears Roebuck, a partial sheet of 13c stamps, rules for cribbage, and a hilarious-yet-slightly-creepy brochure for the Big Brother program.
Pretty much everything was out except for the trash.
All cleaned up and ready for asbestos removal first thing in the morning!
I still haven't found my keys...

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


People, I am barely keeping my head above water these days. I have a part time teaching job, which isn't really more demanding than it should be, but I've had to put in some extra hours lately. Also, the freelance work has ratcheted up, as it always does at this point in the semester.  Lately I've had a few 12+ hour work days, including weekend gigs. The end is in sight but I may have to drag my sorry ass over the finish line with a glass of wine in one hand and a sledgehammer in the other. BECAUSE DID I MENTION THAT WE'RE DOING KITCHEN DEMO TWO DAYS AFTER THANKSGIVING? THAT HAS ME JUST A LITTLE BIT STRESSED.

Yeah, I think it's time for a quick update on the renovation project. How about a random list?

1. The siding still isn't quite done, but we're close:

2. It's beautiful, isn't it? Painter guy helped pick out a color that matches the roof and I'm thrilled.

3. One thing that can hold up construction work is lots of rotten wood around the windows because whoever did the siding and windows before did a really crappy job and didn't seal up the nail holes, so water leaked in and rotted the wood. It's getting fixed now but that takes extra time.

4. One thing that can hold up construction work is when you have no power. Example: yesterday, when the electrician and utility people spent several hours moving the power line to its permanent location (rather than across the basement floor, which was an unsightly tripping hazard) and the electricity was off, which meant the carpenters could not plug in their tools.

5. One thing that can hold up construction work is a day of rain and wind gusts, so running saws in the back yard and standing on ladders with large pieces of wood is not only unpleasant, but dangerous.

6. One thing that can hold up construction work is the opening weekend of deer hunting season. I won't elaborate except to say that I can not over-emphasize the importance of this for certain people in Wisconsin.

7. One thing that can potentially hold up construction work is when your contractor's vehicle breaks down and he has to be towed out of your street.

8. Did I mention Stuart has to travel for work before the end of the year? And that I still don't know exactly when he's supposed to leave town?

Despite all these setbacks (which are admittedly minor - we haven't encountered anything catastrophic like a termite invasion or something), demolition is scheduled for this weekend. Tomorrow, the kids are off school and we're going to bake some pies and dinner rolls to take over to my friend Pat, who I think is an angel straight from heaven because she knows what we're in for and invited us to her place for Thanksgiving dinner. Friday we pack up the kitchen, Saturday we pull out cabinets and break down the chimney, and Sunday the asbestos floors will come out while I spend 3+ hours in woodwind rehearsals.

My house already looks like it was raided by angry elves. And that's going to get worse before it gets better. I can handle it, though. I think. We have a plan to put the stove in the basement (temporarily, of course) and I'll be getting up close and personal with the slow cooker and an electric skillet borrowed from a neighbor (a nice neighbor, not the mean one.)

But just in case, if anyone has good take-out recommendations for the west side, bring 'em on. We may need it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

how to practice

I teach and play piano for a living, which will come as news to nobody who knows me personally or who has read my blog for any length of time. I have done a lot of thinking lately about effective practicing. As a collaborator and coach, I work almost exclusively with students (rather than full-fledged professionals), ranging from junior high through graduate level. By the time you're working with grad students, it's often a semi-professional situation anyway, but at every level, anyone studying music is learning how to learn.

I've told people that I make a lot of mistakes (alas), so I have gotten to be an expert at learning how to fix them. It's taken me a long time, and I'm still not perfect. For example, I can practice something six ways from Sunday until the cows come home, but if someone says the wrong thing to me right before a performance, it will screw up my confidence and I have to fight to hold my focus together. Yes, I should be over that stuff by now, but I'm not. It's an unfortunate truth that I will probably work to overcome for the rest of my professional life.

Let's turn back to the positive for a moment, shall we? Once I became a parent, my practice time was immediately limited and I learned to be much more efficient at the piano. I only take gigs I know I can prepare for, and I make sure to learn all the hard stuff first without any putzing around. Sometimes I literally make a plan, and it might go like this: 20 minutes on this, then 30 minutes on that, then 5-minute break for tea, and then I better read the pile of vocal rep in case any of it is harder than it looks.

Mistakes happen all the time. Musicians practice to avoid mistakes. In fact, a very, very smart person once told me that the goal of practicing isn't just to play the music right; it's so that you know you'll play it right, that there is no second-guessing left. That is a goal I reach for every time I play, and to that end I've analyzed mistakes I've made so that I know how best to fix them. There are infinite reasons we miss notes. Sometimes it's technique, or a poor grasp of the rhythm, or a harmony that is difficult to untangle, or the phrase is awkward, or it's an orchestral reduction with too many notes and you have to eliminate some of them, or you forgot to eat lunch and your blood sugar is low, sometimes your left hand is just doing everything wrong...whatever it is, you will do a much better job fixing the problem if you know why you're making the mistake in the first place.

Now when I'm rehearsing with young students in particular, if I notice the same error over and over, I speak up. I help them figure it out. I try not to be obnoxious about this, but I believe this is my job as a coach, as someone with plenty of experience making - and fixing - mistakes. This often involves removing one or more elements of the music getting in the way of a successful run-through (i.e. speaking words in rhythm if a singer is having trouble with text, or playing a rhythmically tricky passage under tempo if coordination with a solo instrument isn't working).

Perhaps "mistake" isn't always the correct word to use. Often, it's not that there are errors to fix as much as finding ways to make the music work better. Usually it has to do with tempo or timing, like starting too fast or slowing down too much in the middle of a phrase, or speeding through the climax of a section when it really needs more time for the dramatic moment to be effective.

I'm not describing any rehearsal or teaching techniques that are new or revolutionary. I'm not reinventing any wheels here. I just know that the longer I do this, the better I get. I just wonder, will I ever actually feel like I'm good enough myself?

Thursday, November 12, 2015


I teach and play piano for a living. It's a meagre living, to be sure, and I couldn't do it if I weren't married to someone whose job provides a regular salary and health benefits. I have days of frustration and discouragement. I have learned to practice confidence and self-affirmation. (Yes, I have to practice those things! It's all part of being a woman. And a freelancer. Topic for another day.) And some gigs are more compelling than others, to be sure.

But I keep doing this because there is nothing else, nothing, that fills my heart and soul more than learning a great piece of music with someone else. I am an introvert, and I have been able to connect with people on a deeper level through my line of work than I ever would through talking to them.

One singer I have worked with for the last year or so has shown tremendous growth just in the last few months. He's a bright, engaging young man on the cusp of adulthood, eager to learn and share his talent with others. His teacher, a wise and seasoned baritone, is capable of coaxing surprisingly sophisticated musicianship out of students of all levels. 

Today we performed this song (video and text below) in his studio class. The weather is awful - blustery and cold and just what you'd expect from November in Wisconsin. I had to leave the kids on their own and drive downtown, find a parking meter, walk two blocks in the bracing wind to the music building, where I spent all of 10 minutes in the recital hall to run through the song and work through some coaching from the teacher in front of the class. It's a pain in the ass to make a special trip to campus for such a short gig, and usually I grumble about it. But today it was worth the trouble. The singer sounded beautiful (despite being scheduled for hernia surgery next week!) and the brooding song was so fitting for the day.

I heard a wonderful interview with a fiber artist who said she knows a work is going well when the hairs stand up on her arms. That's a perfect explanation for why I do what I do. At times I wonder why I studied music. I've had to work harder to be a good pianist than anything else in my academic life. Seriously, it would have been easier for me to go into microbiology or something. But music, more specifically collaborative piano, makes the hair stand up on my arms. It's how I share the best of myself with the world. And that's why I do it.

Enjoy the youtube video. It's Elly Ameling, who is one of the best singers out there of French repertoire. Gérard Souzay would have been my first choice, but I couldn't find a recording of him singing this particular song.

Automne (Armand Silvestre)
Automne au ciel brumeux, aux horizons navrants,
Aux rapides couchants, aux aurores pâlies,
Je regarde couler, comme l'eau du torrent,
    Tes jours faits de mélancolie.

Sur l'aile des regrets mes esprits emportés,
Comme s'il se pouvait que notre âge renaisse!
Parcourent en rêvant les coteaux enchantés
    O´u jadis, sourit ma jeunesse!

Je sens, au clair soleil du souvenir vainqueur,
Refleurir en bouquets les roses déliées,
Et monter ´a mes yeux des larmes, qu'en mon coeur
     Mes vingt ans avaient oubliées!

Autumn with a misty sky, with heart-breaking horizons,
With rapid sunsets, with pale dawns,
I watch the flow, like the water of a torrent,
   Of your days made of melancholy.

My thoughts, carried off on wings of regret,
As if it were possible for our life to start over,
Travel while dreaming through the enchanted slopes
   Where in former days my youth smiled!

I feel in the bright sunlight of a victorious memory
The slender roses blooming again in a bouquet
And I feel rising to my eyes tears that in my heart
   I at age twenty had forgotten.