So this happened...
It was part of a magical night of celebration for the Ucross Foundation, an artist residency program situated in the high plains of Wyoming. It is not an exaggeration to say that without my fellowships at Ucross (first in 2013 and again in 2016), the Death Album wouldn't exist.
Ucross is like no other place on the planet. I claim it as one of my "bliss stations" (to borrow Joseph Campbell's potent concept). The people, the artists, the landscape, the solitude, the bigness of heart and sky and mind that Ucross calls forth is -- in a word -- transformative. The evening in NYC reflected this immense power and soul. Thank you, Ucross!
A few weeks ago, I began piano lessons again. (Piano was my first instrument, though guitar quickly captured my heart and mind.)
With minimal internet research, I lucked into an absolute gem of a teacher on the Upper West Side and I've been practicing diligently every day. It's fun! And I revel in all aspects of the process of learning something new. It's utterly fascinating to be a beginner again and there is much I am using in my ongoing study of the guitar and songwriting.
One morning this week as I was working on my scales at the piano, I was flummoxed by the fingerings for the F-sharp minor scale. Even after slowing the metronome down to the rate of a tortoise's pacemaker, I was still unable to coordinate my right and left hands playing together. How humbling. I could hear my inner critic clearing her throat in preparation for delivering a few of her favorite acerbic rhetorical questions, "What's the f-ing point?" and "Why f-ing bother?"
But, I no longer entertain her bad attitude. Oh, I hear her, but I don't listen to her. Meditation, coaching, and my own practices toward self-mastery have taught me just how to handle her un-helpfulness.
Here's one of the ways I deal with obstacles when I try to master something new: I look to other masters.
My new piano teacher inspires me with references to and knowledge of the practice habits of Rachmaninoff and the like. I re-read pianist Jeremy Denk's fantastic New Yorker article "Every Good Boy Does Fine."
Denk's sharp writing about his days as a student did the trick.
Here is Denk on practicing the fundamentals: "As you deal with thumb-crossings, or fingerings for the F-sharp minor scale, or chromatic scales in double thirds, it is hard to accept that these will eventually allow you to probe eternity in the final movement of Beethoven’s last sonata. Imagine that you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address."
He nails it. Even he struggled with the fingerings of the F-sharp minor scale!
And I'm doing this at age 43. Success? Facility? Mastery? Hmmm.
Yet, I know -- as any real student of any craft knows -- that I cannot shirk my duties. I must do as the master has done, as all the masters before have done.
And so, I begin again. Slower this time.
Janis Joplin on the Dick Cavett show in 1969.
Study up! There is some serious bad-assery going on here singing-wise.
For example, her vocal ad lib at 2:18: "Oh babe I wanna talk about it with you some time."
The Parting Shot
"The more absurd the approach, the closer one gets to the crux of the matter. Clarity in absurdity. Absurdity is direct and guileless, whereas the intellect is evasive and illusive."
— From The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Ignat Avsey)
You rock for reading this!
It makes my day to hear from you!
Leave a comment and say hi! You can tell me what skill you're working on (maybe you're learning the piano too).
I read everything you send my way.