Tag Archives: piano teacher

Done Dabbling

26 Jul

writing studyA few years back, someone asked me if I thought I’d ever write a novel some day. My first reaction was to laugh. At that time, I had just recently delved back into writing after a twenty-five year hiatus of not writing a single word (actually, hiatus sounds like I was once a prolific writer—I wasn’t—the best word to describe my attempts at writing in college would be that I “dabbled.”)  Sure, writing short essays and a blog post now and then was feasible—but a novel? I couldn’t even fathom writing something that extensive.

I’m not ashamed to admit that my childhood dream was always to become a writer—I thought about it incessantly for years. I loved books so much—the smell of them; the texture of the paper between my fingertips; the way the words jumped out at me from the page; how I could easily lose myself in a story and experience someone’s life other than my own even if it was just for a short time. The library was my home away from home.

Being somewhat of an introvert, the solitary life of a writer has always appealed to me. As a young girl I created this elaborate fantasy in which I envisioned myself writing my literary masterpiece while tucked away in a cozy study with soft lighting and wall to wall bookshelves. While sitting quiet and alone at an antique desk, I would sip hot tea with honey while a blazing fire crackled in the fireplace. When I needed inspiration, I would glance up and look out through the French Doors onto my picturesque English garden where my flowers somehow managed to bloom year round. Oh—I almost forgot—in my fantasy there was always a gentle rain falling outside.english garden

That perfect fantasy never really got off the ground—with a husband, four kids, four dogs and my mother, I’m never alone. I don’t have French Doors, I live in Southern California where it rarely rains and it’s usually too hot outside to light a fire in the fireplace. I prefer Starbucks coffee to hot tea and rarely go to the library anymore because I always forget to return the books and before I know it I’ve racked up over fifty dollars worth of late fees. I read most of my books on my Kindle and I don’t have an antique desk.  I do my best writing while sitting on the couch.

But get this: I’m thirty-three chapters and almost 70,000 words into my first novel. BAM!  That’s right—I am fifty two years old and for the first time in my life I’m doing what I always dreamed of doing—I am writing a novel.

Now, who knows? My novel may very well turn out to be trite, sentimental and cliché, but then again, it might turn out to be a really great read with a real plot and interesting and lovable characters. We’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I’m carving out a little time every day in my busy schedule to sit down on my couch and get a paragraph or two written down, which more often than not gets deleted the following day (I mean, who in their right mind would write such crap?) No matter—one good sentence at a time and somehow the job gets done. And I’m having the time of my life.

Who needs fire, tea and rain to write a book? Not me.

This girl is done dabbling.

 

If  you’re interested, here’s the description of my novel, Lost in Oaxaca:

Once a promising young concert pianist, Camille Childs retreated to her mother’s Santa Barbara estate after an injury to her hand destroyed her hopes for a musical career. She now leads a solitary life teaching piano, and she has a star student: Graciela, the daughter of her mother’s Mexican housekeeper. Camille has been grooming the young Graciela for the career that she herself lost out on, and now Graciela, newly turned eighteen, has just won the grand prize in a piano competition, which means she gets to perform with the LA Philharmonic. Camille is ecstatic; if she can’t play herself, at least as Graciela’s teacher, she will finally get the recognition she deserves.

But there are only two weeks left before the concert, and Graciela has disappeared—gone back to her family’s village in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. Desperate to bring Graciela back in time for the concert, Camille goes after her, but on the way there, a bus accident leaves her without any of her possessions. Alone and unable to speak the language, Camille is befriended by Alejandro, a Zapotec man who lives in LA but is from the same village as Graciela. Despite a contentious first meeting, Alejandro helps Camille navigate the rugged terrain and unfamiliar culture of Oaxaca, allowing her the opportunity to view the world in a different light—and perhaps find love in the process.

 

Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, Oaxaca. This is where much of the novel takes place.

Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, Oaxaca. This is where much of the novel takes place.

Losing Susan

18 Jan

yellow, orange rosesHer favorite colors were orange and yellow. I didn’t know this about her until after she died—when I had to ask her family what color flowers were going to be ordered for her memorial service which I was helping to facilitate. All these years she’s been my friend and I never knew that she loved orange and yellow the best. How did I not know that about her?

For over twenty years, Susan Samuel and I have seen each other at least once a month at our music teacher meetings, recitals and musical events. Although she often talked about her family, I had never once met her two grown sons or said more than a quick “hello” to her husband on the phone. I knew that she was originally from Montana; that she was a micro-biologist before becoming a piano teacher and that she loved music. I knew that she was a brilliant, funny and kind person and that I always felt completely comfortable being around her. I knew that I loved her even though I never once took the time to tell her that. Now I wish that I had told her how much she meant to me.

Two weeks ago, Susan suffered a massive stroke. She was only sixty-seven and in excellent health. She went to her yoga class, came home at noon and was discovered unconscious by her husband later on that afternoon. That night, after emergency brain surgery, she was placed in drug-induced coma until a week later when the difficult decision was made to take her off life support. She died peacefully with her family at her side.

Susan’s memorial was held at the small church where I’m the pianist; Susan also held her piano recitals there, so her husband thought it would be appropriate to honor her in a place where she had a connection. The church was standing room only—people stood against the walls and packed the foyer to listen to the musical offerings and spoken tributes in honor of Susan. It was a meaningful and emotional service.

I had the honor of speaking at Susan’s memorial and this is a part of what I shared:

You may not know this, but we music teachers are a nutty bunch. We’re highly emotional, often insecure and have a habit of taking things personally. We can also get quite hot-headed if things don’t go our way.

It’s not our fault—we can’t help it. After all, we’re artists, and as artists our greatest desire is to bring as much beautiful music into this world as possible. Who has time for organization, protocol and good sense? Who has the skill and ability to handle all those annoying details so that recitals and events run smoothly and easily?

Well, once in a great while, along comes an artist who has all of aforementioned attributes—someone who was passionate about music AND was able to keep a level head and civil tongue, as well as a smile on her face. That artist was Susan Samuel. And to be honest, I don’t know how anything ever got done in our music teachers’ organization before she came along.

When I was nominated as president of our branch, I took Susan aside and told her I didn’t want the job. She looked me right in the eyes and said, “Yes, Jessica—you do want the job,” in that reasonable, no nonsense tone of voice which meant, you’re doing it whether you want to or not. Well, okay then. Then she invited me out to lunch to talk about the job responsibilities, and I thought, “Good. Here’s my chance to pick her brain about how she does everything so effortlessly.”

But that didn’t happen when we went to lunch. In fact, we never even discussed it. Instead, she asked me about my other life—my husband, my children; my gardening and my writing. It was the start of many meaningful conversations over the years where she would tell me about her life—that how before she was a piano teacher, she was a micro-biologist; what Montana was like during the summer; about her two brothers and their struggles; about her father’s antique car collection; about how she loved to play the piano. She especially liked to talk about her husband, Chuck and how proud she was of her two boys, Jon and Dave—and how Jon’s wife, Emilia was a keeper. Oh, yeah—and the grandson on the way. She really liked to talk about that—a lot.

Susan was always our go-to person. At one time or another, most of us in our branch have relied on Susan to give us the correct answer or word the sentence in exactly the right way. I know I’ve never once made an important decision without calling her first to ask her opinion. Last week, when I found out that Susan had suffered a stroke, I wondered when it would be appropriate for me to send out an email to the membership to let them know what happened and my first thought was: I need to call Susan and ask her what I should do.

The fact that none of us call Susan any longer is beyond my comprehension. That we won’t see her smiling face at our monthly meetings and listen to her laugh or watch her roll her eyes over something ridiculous. That she is gone leaves a huge space in our lives and I can say with certainty that our branch will never be the same again.

Susan touched us all with her warmth, her kindness, her graciousness and her humble nature. We will miss her intelligence, her wit, her funny, yet gentle sarcasm, and especially how easy it was to spend time with her. We will miss how she kept us grounded.

Yes, it’s true that we musicians are artists, and we often walk around with our heads in the clouds. Sometimes we ignore the details; sometimes we forget to be diplomatic; and sometimes we fly off the handle. But Susan set the bar for us—she showed us how to do it right; and how to do it well, and for that we will be forever grateful.

We will always love you, Susan. Rest in peace, our dear friend.

Since Susan died I have been walking around with a lump in my throat and a burning sensation behind my eyes. I realize it’s because Susan is the first close friend I’ve lost.  I know there are many profound lessons to learn from her death,  but as I’m in the midst of grieving it’s difficult to figure out what those lessons are right now. Perhaps it’s that I need to learn to live each day as my last, because it may very well be. Or that I should not be afraid to say aloud to those people I care most about the words I should have expressed to Susan: Thank you for being so wonderful. I love you. 

Susan Samuel 1946-2014

Susan Samuel
1946-2014

I’ll leave you with two poems—the first on was written in honor of Susan by a member of our music teachers’ group and the second was read at Susan’s memorial by her close friend. I believe that both capture the essence of Susan’s spirit.

What I knew of you

was warmth,

humble rays of winter sun

and solidity,

like the piano’s ivory keys.

Your music is a hand

now secured

between our shoulder blades,

your steadfast kindness

a melody

humming within our ribs.

–Linda Holland

Let Evening Come  

Let the light of late afternoon

shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing

as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned

in long grass. Let the stars appear

and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.

Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop

in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

–Jane Kenyon

Allegro non tanto–notes from a beginning blogger

5 Sep

Allegro non tanto: Italian words used to describe the speed of a piece of music.

Fast, but not too fast.

I’m a piano teacher by profession, so I consider myself pretty much an expert when it comes to music, but I often find this tempo marking difficult to interpret. How fast is “fast, but not too fast”? It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.

In our stressful, over-produced lives, we often go too fast for our own good. Now, going fast is not always a bad thing—oh, the tasks we accomplish when we speed through life! Our existence seems so much more exciting and dramatic when we race toward the finish line. What we fail to realize is that there is no finish line.

In our haste to get where we think we’re going, we miss out on so much on the way. Life flashes by when we’re always trying to reach that unidentified goal; but because of our ignorance, we truly believe that when we get there, we’ll finally encounter that state of bliss that has always been just out of our reach. I’ve been living my entire life in an “Allegro” state of mind, when all along I should have just added a little bit of “non tanto” to the mix.

I often tell my piano students that they must slow down when they practice. Most children will choose a tempo that is faster than they can handle at the moment; their notes will come out uneven and sloppy in their haste to master the piece. They will unintentionally create hesitations and pauses that disrupt the flow of their music. They rush the tempo because they want the music to sound the way they think it’s supposed to, before they’ve put in the time on the piece necessary to make it a polished performance.

After practicing so fast for so long, these disruptions are very difficult to get rid of.  In practicing the piano, I’ve found the only way clean up these problems is to start over and slow down. Go fast, but not too fast. Give yourself time to breathe; to feel the phrasing of the music, hear the nuances buried in the musical line. The reality is that a great piece of music is never finished. You can always make it better. Just like life.

Take your time—Allegro non tanto…