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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Aging: Is This the End of the Party?

Some equate the Land of Old

with the end of the party.


(doesn't it?)

on the definition of party.


If your idea of a party

is to be what you've always been

(or perhaps a little more so)

then, yes, you win:

the Land of Old


the end of the party.


But there's more to our lives

(of this I'm pretty sure)

than being secure.

There's jumping off the cliff.

There's hang-gliding.

There's floating on the updrafts

until you get the big picture.

And there's letting go.


Which, in fact, is more attractive?

Clutching (with eight fingers,

two thumbs,

and ten toes,

with two clenched knees and two canted elbows)

to keep from letting go—

or just not clutching any longer?


And what will happen then?

I'm not talking about letting go

so that you can move into

what you think "next" will be.


I'm talking about letting go

when who knows what will happen?


Unclench your little toes-ies, tootsie.

Unclench your little tootsies, dear.

Pry your frozen fingers from the railing

of that safety platform.

One finger.

Two fingers.

One hand off.

With that free hand,

drum on your knee

that, with its mate,

still twines around the pole.



Pry away the fingers of the other hand.

Clap those two hands together

And feel the beat.


Are you still perched?

What's holding you there?

Tootsies, tootsie?

Well, wiggle your toes.

Spread those toes apart.

See the broad plane of your foot as it lets loose,

Toes spread and alive.

Can it fly, this foot?

Can it glide through water like a manta ray?


The other foot now.

Oh, free at last! Free at last!


So now what's holding you?

It's your long legs crossed and twined

As if you were shinnying up to heaven.


Let go! Let go!

It's time to let go and fly!


I'm talking--

and you are listening, I hope--

about the end of the party.


Whatever your idea of a party is,

would you consider, instead,

the party of letting go?


I won't tell you that you'll fly.

You might not.

I don't know what will happen.

And neither do you.


And that, dear tootsie, is the party.



Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Music: Arpeggios "R" Us


I don't remember how I found the job. It was probably just a classified ad in the Lawrence, Kansas, paper: "Church looking for pianist. Sunday service, Wed. evening rehearsal."


Well, I thought, I can do that. I'd done it in other places we'd lived. I played a little electric organ at the Lutheran church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, while the congregation sang their solidly Lutheran hymns. Church jobs are a reliable source of pin money for impoverished pianists and organists.


So I called about the ad. Well, this was something different. It was an AME Zion church. A black church. After my phone call I figured I wouldn't get the gig. Some much more appropriate black musician would want it.


But no one else called them. I was it. I was the new pianist/accompanist at the AME Zion church in Lawrence, Kansas, with its completely black congregation.


In order to understand my apprehension, you have to know that I approach the piano with a straight back, playing from music that sits firmly in front of me on the music stand. I read the music as it is written, and that's what I play. I knew, at some level, that more would be called for at the AME Zion church. And I was right.


The first rehearsal was wary on both sides. I was very conscious of being a blue-eyed dishwater blonde, with all the lack of soul that might imply. The choir members were reluctant to greet me. After all, they hadn't hired me. The minister and the choir director had.


We came to an edgy truce. With my ingrained desire to please and to be liked, I was determined to do whatever it took to succeed at this job.


The hymns were standard southern Protestant hymns. The two I remember best were "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood" (and isn't THAT a cheery thought?) and "Precious Lord."


When we first worked on "Precious Lord," the director asked me to play through it once before they sang. I played the music in front of me, at a standard hymn tempo, a walking tempo, andante.


There was silence when I finished. The director then said, "We sing it a little slower than that." She gave me a sample.


Yes, quite a bit slower. Quite a bit of rubato. A free-style version of "Precious Lord" that allowed for solo melisma at the ends of the phrases, long drawn-out personal vocal statements about the hymn. It bore very little resemblance to the version I had presented.


Okay. I got it. They take it very very slowly. I can follow the director's lead.


But no. There's more. She asked if I could fancy it up a bit. Fancy it up? Does she not know that I read the music and that's all I do? Apparently not. Fancy it up.


I'm the one who can't improvise, remember? But it was clear that they expected more flourishes than the written music provided, and it was up to me to figure out how to produce those flourishes.


Overcoming my acute embarrassment, faute de mieux I came up with arpeggios. Even I could do that, thanks to years of classical piano exercises. At the end of each phrase (and even in the middle, if there was time—and there usually was, given the ambling tempo), I would run my hands up the keys in three-octave arpeggios of whatever chord we were on. It certainly fancied up the piece. It seemed to make them happy. It was quite a stretch for me, but it was manageable.


So whenever a hymn called for fancying-up, that's what I did. E-flat major arpeggios. F major arpeggios. I floated those two-handed arpeggios up the keyboard just like a pro.


Other pianists might have used such a job as an opportunity to expand their style, to find a gospel-sounding beat and to begin a really appropriate use of the whole piano, the entire eighty-eight.


But I didn't. I gussied it up when I had to, and otherwise, I played the hymns as written. Apparently, I wasn't yet ready to change my approach to anything.


I'm sure there were times when the choir would have loved to hear a real key-thumping rendition of one hymn or another, but they had to settle for me. I played what was written, and not a note more, except for those rolling arpeggios.


You get what you pay for, they say. The AME Zion church in Lawrence was paying $5 a week, and they got me.


Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Music: The Best Things in Life Are Free

When I was in high school, a budding pianist who could sightread like the wind, I was embarrassed by my inability to improvise.


Hazel Wood, who played for Marilyn Smith's dance classes in town, played "by ear." She could hear any song and reproduce it on the piano, harmonies and all. She couldn't read music, and it's true that she didn't play with much nuance or sensitivity. But she could play absolutely anything after she'd heard it once.


I, on the other hand, could play anything printed on a page of music. But I wanted HER skill. I really wanted it. My parents heard of a woman in town who gave lessons in improvisation and otherwise playing without written music. They set up a series of lessons with her, in addition to my usual piano lessons.


The piece we worked on, for eight weeks, was "The Best Things in Life are Free." She pointed out to me the harmonies of the piece, the building blocks underpinning it. She showed me where to use the tonic and the fifth or the fourth or a diminished 7th. I listened carefully to everything she told me, then went home and practiced the piece from the sheet music, as I always had.


The next week she showed me harmonies again, showed me the stride bass, showed me little tricks. I went home and practiced from the sheet music, as I always had.


I quit after four lessons.


To me, my inability to improvise reflects rigidity, a trait that occasionally rears its ugly head in my life. I'm less rigid than I once was. Less rigid than some people I know. And yet. And yet.


Half a dozen years ago, a very smart person suggested, as I was bemoaning my inability to improvise—that I simply put my hands on the keys—anyplace—and play. It took a month of her urging before I was actually able to sit at the piano, take a deep breath, and put my hands just anyplace on the keyboard. I had never done this before, during some 50 years of piano playing.


But I did it.

Playing any old notes at all, I played loud. I played soft.


And I liked it.


I played single notes, little melodies that were beautiful but that were never to be repeated. I used my other hand to play block chords wherever I wanted to on the keyboard. I crossed my left hand over my right and played. I crossed my right hand over my left and played.


I made ugly sounds. I made beautiful sounds. For about six months I sat at the piano several times a day and just amused myself. And the result was that one rigid layer simply shattered.


I still can't play "The Best Things in Life Are Free" without the music in front of me, but I no longer care. Whenever I want the feeling of flying or of surfing the waves, I simply let my hands do whatever they want to do on the keyboard. It may be ephemeral, but it sure is fun.  



Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor