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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hail and Farewell

Small schools have small music departments. My high school, with its total enrollment of 350, had a chorus and a band, but no orchestra. Given the rural setting, there probably weren't many prospective violin players around anyway. So stringed instruments remained a mystery to me.


When I turned 65, a little voice in my head said, "If you ever want to learn about stringed instruments, now would be the time. It's later than you think." So I took up the cello.


I rented a student model, found a young and inexpensive teacher, and began. It wasn't easy. It was exciting ("Look, Ma, I'm playing the cello!") and daunting and frustrating. Knowing how to find middle C on a piano doesn't give you an advantage when it's a cello in your arms. The very concept of "middle C" means nothing on the cello fingerboard.


With piano, your two hands are doing more or less the same thing: they may be playing different notes, or even different rhythms, but both hands are resting on piano keys. When you play a cello, the left hand presses down the strings to give you the notes you need, but until the right arm sweeps the bow in a smooth arc across the strings those held-down notes won't sound. The left arm and the right arm are in totally different positions doing totally different things. Pat your head, rub your stomach.


I can remember tears of frustration in those early days. When I learned that my left hand would have to become accustomed to different positions along the finger board in order to play all the available notes, I was sure I would never be able to master it. Remember that, unlike a guitar, the cello has no frets. Playing in tune depends completely on placing your fingers correctly. Every time.


But I learned. Every day I practiced the major and minor scales (both melodic and harmonic minors) and arpeggios, along with the diminished seventh arpeggio.


I was assiduous. Diligent. Serious. I was a keener, and I made excellent progress, or so they said. I could see the progress, but it felt agonizingly slow. My teacher passed me along to a second teacher, I bought a new (non-student-model) cello and a lovely, expensive bow. I worked harder and harder.


I described myself as a student of the cello. When I attended chamber music performances, my eagle eye never left the cellist: is his bow-hold the same as mine? Does she raise her elbow properly? How does he coax such MUSIC from his cello box?


For that was the key: the music. I was making great progress, but the actual music-making eluded me. Each phrase of a piece had its own technical problems to work on. So I worked and worked on the difficulties of that phrase, and then it was on to the next and ITS problems. A piece of music often felt like a long series of problems to be solved rather than a musical experience.


And then came the Christmas when I turned 70. If there were ever a time to rethink one's activities and one's life, moving to the other side of that boundary line is the time. There's pre-70 and then there's post-70, and the latter is where I find myself now.


From this new position in life, I looked at all the things I do and put each one to a pleasure/pain evaluation. Does the joy of an activity equal or surpass its pain? If not, then why am I doing it?


Having taken up the cello five years previously with good will and curiosity, I found, during this re-evaluation, that the joy of the experience had been lacking for some time. I loved my teacher. I loved seeing myself as a "student of the cello." I loved finally learning the lessons of one piece and moving on to the next.


But I no longer loved the tight shoulders that curtailed my practicing. I never loved hearing myself play out of tune. I no longer appreciated the pressure of trying to schedule two practice periods every day, juggling appointments to fit the demands of the cello. I no longer loved carrying the cello on my back to my lesson, striding jauntily along the sidewalk. I found myself instead plodding up hills, mincing across icy patches, and just generally wishing there were some other way to carry my cello.


You get the picture. You see where this was going. Two weeks after my birthday, having spent several months noticing that I wasn't happy and several weeks imagining what it might be like NOT to study the cello, I threw in the towel. It was the end of a noble experiment.


When I woke up the first morning after formally taking leave of my teacher, a huge weight had lifted from my shoulders. I would never have to practice cello again!


I am grateful for all the things I learned about cellos. I am grateful to know now (I never did before) that slow and steady actually does win the race: if you keep practicing and don't attach to the results, you will be amazed at the progress you make. I went from zero to a little Bach in five years. I have no regrets at having spent five years with that big, ungrateful lug of an instrument. But equally, I have no regrets at having ended the experiment when I did.


Five years ago it was "Hello, cello!" And now it's "dear cello, farewell-o!"




Copyright 2012 Ann Tudor

Sunday, August 19, 2012



Anthuriums must be the ugliest flower in the world.


My friend Donna got married soon after our college graduation—soon enough that her college friends willingly traveled across several states to help celebrate the event.


Donna was tall, blonde, and pretty, but very retiring. When you met her mother, you understood why Donna was shy: her mother was a tall, blond, beautiful drama queen. When she entered a room, she drew every eye to herself. Every event was about her, including her daughter's wedding.


For the wedding, Donna's mother wore a form-fitting red satin dress. In the final half hour before the ceremony began, the mother rushed up and down the aisles, chatting, making last-minute adjustments to the decorations, and just generally drawing attention to herself.


Donna came down the aisle, demure in her bearing, as she always was, and wearing a traditional white dress. She was a sweet bride. Except for her flowers.


Until that day I had never heard of anthuriums (anthuria?). Seeing them for the first time as the feature flower of a wedding bouquet was surreal. My eye was pulled to those bright golden phalluses sticking out of the heart-shaped red flowers. I thought it was a joke. Surely these weren't real flowers! (The shiny, waxy surface of anthuriums convinces you that they are artificial.)


So there was sweet, shy Donna walking down the aisle holding a huge bouquet of phallic symbols.


I never knew who chose the flowers for that wedding bouquet, but I'll bet it had something to do with the mother of the bride wanting the bridal bouquet to match her own red satin dress.


Copyright 2012 Ann Tudor

Sunday, August 12, 2012

We Regret to Inform You

The policeman at the door. The doctor in his office.


How very quickly a life changes from routine to unrecognizable, from ordinary to something completely different from what it had been.


Ordinary, routine, stable, settled. These adjectives are the enemies of life. One of life's messages seems to be this: go beyond. Whatever that means to you, go beyond.


It can be small, this going beyond. You don't have to become faster than a speeding bullet or leap tall buildings at a single bound. You don't have to go from a weekly walk in the park to a three-month solo trek in India (unless that appeals to you, of course).


Going beyond is more than physical. There are many ways to foil the dread demon "routine" and to de-stabilize what makes us so comfortable that we forget how to move.


Let me count those ways for myself. First, I must know what I am doing. I must see my dependence on routine. And having seen, can I then imagine one foot going beyond the marker that limits me? Can I see myself—not changing, necessarily, since that's sometimes equivalent to leaping tall buildings at a single bound—but perhaps edging a toe over that line in the sand that I myself have drawn?


Recently one morning I played a CD of medieval music composed by women. Because we were having guests for dinner that night and I would be away all day, I needed to make a pie crust before I left the house. I found myself in a trance, music soft, house quiet and dark, my hands purposefully rubbing the butter and lard into the flour as I've done for 40 years. The fats were cold and not easy to smoosh, but my fingers knew what to do. When I awakened and found myself still standing there, fingers still rubbing the fats and the flour, not yet quite finished, I felt I might have been there forever.


Was this going beyond? For me it was, because I usually do so many kitchen chores at once. And if I'm not multi-tasking, I'm planning the next steps even as I do one. This time, asleep at the counter, I was with the flour, in the flour and the fat, letting practical fingers lead me to the world of medieval music composed by women.


"Going beyond" has to be slow. We're told not to say "must" or "should" these days. But I MUST go slowly. It's like a yoga stretch. If I take the position and breathe every day for just a few minutes, over the course of time I will change the relationship of one body part to another. But if I push it, stretch my muscles till they're damaged in my rush to "succeed" at change, then I will have ruined it all. I'll have to start over.


Let. Let. Three little letters. I obviously need to become a little "let-ter" myself. Why is it so hard for me to let things happen? Why must I always be in control?


"We're sorry to inform you." When the doctors say that to me, will I be ready? Is anyone ever ready? Perhaps some people are. I think one can be. One can slowly prepare oneself, even for deep change. By preparing every day, by moving my toe over the line a fraction of an inch every day, I'll practice being ready for that knock on the door.



Copyright 2012 Ann Tudor


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Depression, Again

I wrote recently that I had finally asked the Universe to help lift the cloud of gloom that has always hung over my head. I wrote that I asked for help and it was given to me and I was almost immediately lightened.


Well, the very next week put the lie to all that. The depression came back. I felt gloomy and hopeless. I was creating problems where none existed, then obsessing about those problems. Oh, woe is me, it was back.


Well, here's a little history before I go on. I am not a chocolate junkie. One of my daughters is, but I am not. I have always been able to take it or leave it. If you put a high-quality truffle under my nose, I would most definitely snap it up. But I wouldn't go out in a winter storm to indulge a craving for chocolate truffles.


Recently, however, I became aware that if there was good chocolate in the house (say, if someone gave me a box of very nice chocolates for my birthday), I had no control over my obsession with that chocolate. I found that I awarded myself treats throughout the day. I just put a load of clothes in the washer? Time for a side trip to the kitchen for a reward. I spent an hour writing? Hurrah! Give that girl a chocolate! You get the picture.


In fact, I didn't really need the excuse of a "reward." Just walking past the kitchen counter that held the box of chocolates was reason enough to snake out my hand and take one. This addiction was out of control.


If the chocolate was not in sight, however, I would forget about it and thus not eat it. (This held true only if someone else put it out of sight so that I didn't know where it was.) So I asked my husband to hide the remaining three-quarters of a pound in the basement.


And that's when the depression recurred. I didn't recognize the coincidence myself. I was complaining to my husband that I was severely depressed (telling him mainly so that he could protect himself and stay out of my way). Several hours later he came up to me and held out his right hand, with two beautiful chocolate candies on the palm. I ate them. Several hours later he brought me two more. And by the end of the day my depression was gone.


I know this isn't original. In fact, he got the idea from a recent newspaper item that touted chocolate as an anti-depressant. It might be true, or it might have been from the press release of a Belgian chocolate company. But it seems to have worked.


Ever since, I've been sure to take two chocolate candies a day, simply as a prophylactic measure. I recommend it. Along with asking the Universe for help, of course. A serious depression needs a two-pronged approach.



Copyright 2012 Ann Tudor