Pilates and Meeting the Principal and No Child Left Behind

Ever have one of those days planned that when you look at your calendar the night before, you ask yourself what kind of crazy, workaholic lunatic scheduled this mess? And then you remember you don’t have a personal assistant and this is all your fault? And you realize that you can’t reschedule any of it, and that makes you want to run upstairs to your bedroom, crawl under the covers, and never, EVER come out again? Yeah, that was my day yesterday.

Except I have kids, and I’m simply not allowed to hide under the covers all day. I suppose this is a good thing. It makes me face these kinds of days. I now face them with a bit more fluidity than before – reminding myself that I am imperfect, and that if the day does not go according to plan that absolutely none of it is a life-or-death matter. And yesterday presented many special challenges, and that is why I am glad I am bad at mountain climbers.

By “mountain climbers”, I mean the exercise. I have no issues interacting with folks who climb mountains. I don’t understand them, but we get along. I am just terribly, horribly inept at even the most basic mountain climber exercise. And these days, all the trainers and group instructors seem to want to “kick them up a notch”, as though mountain climbing needed kicking up, and as though I don’t already kick myself in at least one eyeball every time I do them. (I am a notoriously clumsy exerciser. When I began working with my personal trainer, she insisted this was simply my perception and not true, and that with some time and work, I would be as well-balanced as anyone. I’m not sure if she meant my mental stability too, but I sometimes wonder. In any case, I have completely proved her wrong on this point, and she seems to have accepted it, as she hovers over me anytime I do ANYTHING that could end in disaster. (I once nearly steam-rolled myself with a foam roller at home, because I forgot I was wearing an apron and the apron became entangled in the roller somehow and I was sort of stuck, lying there with the cats stepping all over me, for at least a few minutes . . . (Yes, I wear aprons at home all the time. When you work from home, you will understand.) I have forgotten how many parentheses I need to end this so . . . )))))))))))) Hopefully, this will satisfy the grammar police.

And so everybody has to do mountain climbers (again, the EXERCISE) in some special way these days, with those horrible, gliding discs that make people like me wonder who on earth needs help being MORE clumsy, while planking on stability balls or small, sturdy animals, or, as was the case in my Pilates Reformer class yesterday, WHILE SUSPENDED FROM STRAPS AND PLANKING.

My Pilates instructor is a very nice person who has occasional flashes of sadism, during which she incorporates TRX training into our classes. As if all the springs, straps, and moving parts on a reformer machine aren’t enough to make me suffer. Anyway, after a certain amount of confusion and a near-death experience, I managed to manipulate my feet into the straps that were hanging from the “tower”, and lower the front of my body into a plank position. I was rather proud of this, and was ready to wipe my hands together in a “Yep, I conquered THAT! Time to go home and eat chocolate!” gesture, when my instructor politely informed us that we would be doing mountain climbers in this position.

And so she cued us, “One piece of steel from head to heal! (But now with mountain climbers!)” I sort of writhed around a little bit in my straps while the other women in the class performed beautiful, perfectly-executed TRX-suspended, pointy-toed Pilates plank-mountain climbers. “Wow! My instructor gasped! You all could be in a video!!” I made some remark to the effect that I was sure she was right about the other three, but that she should probably put a big black rectangle over me and my reformer for the duration of this hypothetical video. To which she responded, with a smile (as she always does), “Isn’t it nice that we all have things we excel at and things that challenge us?”

Huh. I suppose it is. To wit, just prior to this embarrassment in human aviation, we had been performing TRX bicep and tricep curls, which involve using your body as a weight for resistance and actually pulling your body up and down as you curl, with your hands through loops attached to straps, which are attached to the tower. I am a viking at this. This is partly because I work out with a trainer who also incorporates TRX into our workouts, but also because, I think, I just have strong arm muscles. I was always the kid who opened the soda bottle caps when you couldn’t. Yep. I’m that kid. I can’t mountain climb, but when you can’t get that cap off your RC Cola, give me a holler and I’ll take care of it. So, I was kind of reveling in that moment, when I had to take every option my instructor offered to make this move harder for me, because I initially found it quite easy. Stepping in further and further, and balancing on my heels only, and actually seeing the muscles in what a yoga instructor once dubbed my “little chaturanga arms” contract and release, right on cue.

My Pilates instructor is right. We all have things that we excel at, and things that challenge us. I suppose these things are a product of genetics, upbringing, and environment. So I let go of my mountain climber psychological issues, and instead of telling you how terrible I am at it, from now on I’ll tell you what I tell my students to say about particular areas of technique that plague them, “I’m working on that.”

And so I moved on through my day. Through the Costco, waiting patiently even though I was in a hurry when an elderly couple blocked the aisle, because they probably aren’t quite as aware of their surroundings as before and those are also things that make them different but not worse. Through the Costco gas station where the pump didn’t read my card, and the attendant didn’t come when I honked my horn like the sign says you should when you need help, and so I had to run all the way back to the attendant’s booth (which is very far away at our Costco) to get help.

And I called my favorite sushi place from my car and told them I was having a busy day and running late, and they rush-prepped a dragon roll for me. (Gotta love a small town.)

And I came home and put away the Costco that needed putting, and scarfed down the dragon roll. (Ok, I didn’t scarf it. Dragon rolls require at least momentary savoring.) And then I did a quick, slightly cheater version of “getting dressed for work” (read, “no time to shower” and “thank you, inventor of dry shampoo”), and headed to my kids’ school to teach a flute workshop and to (insert ominous public domain music here) A MEETING WITH THE PRINCIPAL.

And in this meeting the principal and I discussed the broad spectrum of families at our school – in terms of economic, social, and ethnic backgrounds, and how to meet all those needs and still keep music, art, and P.E. part of the equation. (Mostly, this was me arguing that music, art, and PE shouldn’t be considered optional in the first place, and him mostly agreeing, and bemoaning the pressure from the state to emphasize reading, writing, and mathematics. And me saying it seemed they were willing to sacrifice most anything to meet these pressures and pointing out that many of the kids at our school aren’t going to pop over to the local arts academy and sign up for private instruction should he close the doors on these programs completely, and me saying at one point, “YOU ARE their arts academy.” And him agreeing and telling me about his vision for fixing this issue, which is actually quite promising if he can get it to work, and then ending with us quoting Monty Python at each other and him telling me I should either come to work with him or be a stand-up comedian. (NO.)

And then I raced home to meet my daughter’s bus, and she told me it was Chipotle fundraiser night, and usually I say I already have dinner planned, but since today was so tightly scheduled I actually jumped up and down, slightly yelling, “Yes!!! It’s Chipotle night!” And so we picked up Chipotle and tried to pick up my son from band practice (he usually walks) on the way home, but he didn’t answer his phone and he STILL hasn’t set up his voice mail like I asked him to, so I say to that, “Happy trails, kiddo”.

And then I was still too late getting home to actually eat dinner and I had to go to a meeting at church which was necessary but boring and also very cold. And then I came home to grab a bite to eat, and my daughter, who never has questions or issues with homework, had questions and issues with homework, and of course they were word problems, and my son who is brilliant at math was at karate, so I had to eat Chipotle AND simultaneously help my daughter figure out what Stewart’s monthly payments would be if he paid $400 up front on his bank loan and then paid off the rest over three years. And I want to know where Stewart is banking because they seemed to have forgotten to charge him interest. Go Stewart! (Note to mathematics question creators: my daughter’s first question was, “What’s a loan?” Thanks so much.)

And then I had to run out AGAIN and coach a (blessedly) short rehearsal. And come home. And clean and do laundry. And collapse.

And do all this with a smile.

And it helps to know that we all have strengths. Thank goodness there are people who do mountain climbers and other things better than me. Thank heavens for people who work in customer service and run small, local businesses well and make a mean sushi roll. Thank goodness for the person who organized the boring but necessary meeting I had to go to at church – and who probably puts up with quite a bit of parental griping and moaning and complaining about how she does it. I’m glad someone excels at putting that sort of thing together. And how lovely that some people are born administrators, comedians, or musicians.

And how I would love it if our legislators understood this in regard to education. And allowed schools to once again have the flexibility to give ALL children what they need. Namaste.

Practicing (Gratitude)

“So, is that all it is? Just practicing and taking auditions?”

I was standing in the hallway at the National Flute Association Convention, talking to one of our outstanding Youth Flute Day participants – a high school flutist with an excellent ear, a good piccolo tone, and a fine personality and drive to match – and her mother. The daughter and I bonded when I had to fill in at the last moment for the missing piccolo player in the advanced group’s flute choir session.

Is that all it is?

And so I answered her.

“No. That’s not all it is. You also, quite simply, have to be a good human being. Someone who is easy to get along with. You have to use good manners when you’re working with other musicians, and even when you think no one is watching. Because a lot of the time, especially when you’re the new flutist in town, you will get work simply because a personnel or orchestra manager needs a flutist, and the other musicians like working with you.”

As one of my teachers said, “Anybody can get hired once. Getting hired again is the success.”

I remember when a large ensemble in which I played principal added a summer concert to the schedule, one that wasn’t covered by our regular contract. I had already accepted other work for that date, and so management had to find a sub for me for that concert. The sub they found was a pretty big name, and I worried my colleagues might not be so happy to see me back after playing with this person.

It turned out they were. When I sat down for my first rehearsal after the concert with the sub, there was this quiet applause from the woodwind section. Apparently, the sub had been quite difficult to work with – unwilling to compromise, unpleasant, and unwilling to put the demands of her own ego secondary to the needs of the ensemble. I looked around, confused, and the principal oboist, a veteran player who mentored me daily in this ensemble, put a hand on my shoulder and explained, “We’re so glad you’re back.”

We’re so glad you’re back.

Isn’t that what we all want to hear after a short leave of absence?

So strive to be that person – the person who shows up to rehearsals, prepared and on time, and in a pleasant mood. When it is time to shine, SHINE! But when it is time to back off and let your colleagues shine, get out of their way and play the best supporting role you can. Be willing to work with others. Carpool with your fellow musicians. Ask your colleagues (on breaks, not in rehearsals) about their lives and their projects. Take constructive criticism gracefully, and learn from it, especially if you are one of the younger members of the ensemble. Learn how to compromise, and accept that other people’s ideas have merit, even if you’ve never considered them before.

And say “please” and “thank you“.

The National Flute Convention is a great place to hear wonderful concerts, attend master classes, and visit vendors. But for me, this year, saying “thank you” was my theme and my mission. I thanked James Galway for making all those records, so that as a young flutist with no private instructor, I had an idea of what a flute was supposed to sound like. I thanked Jim Walker for telling me, as a young freelancer, that I should be taking auditions. I was taking auditions, but hearing that Jim Walker thought I should be gave me a confidence I hadn’t previously had in preliminary rounds. I thanked another flutist for being a role model to one of my students when she needed some positivity. I thanked the authors of several method books for writing those books, because they are so valuable to my students and me.

These people were genuinely delighted to be thanked. These are hard-working people, and I’d like to think it made a difference in their day to hear their work was appreciated. Jim Walker said it made his day, and then asked me what I’d been doing in the intervening years. He then said, “I hope you will pay that comment forward someday.” I told him I do that every day.

So, as I told the young piccoloist in the corridor: Yes, practice your flute. But also practice all those good manners I know your mother is teaching you. Because while your beautiful sound will open many doors for you, your personality and they way you conduct yourself will keep them open. And the act of expressing your gratitude to those who have helped you along your way will energize YOU to move forward and help others. And that’s what it’s all about.

You Could Do More

Last week, I wrote about how excited I was to return to a regular practice routine.

I’m still excited, but man, I forgot how PHYSICAL practice is.

In the past decade, I have been lucky if I logged any practice at all on a given day. And if that practice time was extensive enough to include Moyse’s De La Sonorite, I considered myself immeasurably blessed.

So that didn’t happen often in the last decade, the Sonorite thing. It’s been a rare thing – that moment where I knew, or was reasonably sure, that no one would need anything from me, and that I could engage in this exercise, which, (as it was taught to me, first as a teen, by Christine Ertell (Richmond (VA) Symphony), and later by my mentor, Frances Averitt, at Shenandoah Conservatory, who studied this exercise with Moyse himself), is an exercise that requires the utmost concentration and energy. The first time we worked on it together, Frances said, when I finished playing the first exercise at a tempo slow enough to satisfy, “Are you tired? Good. You should feel tired when you finish playing this exercise.”

Frances taught that Sonorite was not intended as a warm-up, although many flutists do use it that way, and it does work well for that purpose. During warm-ups, we simply made note of what was going on with our tone that day. We didn’t return to a note or passage to correct. We just continued playing the warm-up and letting our tone find itself as we played, using our minds and ears.

Sonority was a different story. Frances had her students play it without vibrato, as Moyse instructed (although what he meant by “without vibrato” remains unclear), and often referred to putting the tone under the microscope in this exercise. We could repeat a two note segment multiple times until we were happy, could stay on one note and examine it, looking in a mirror, listening, adjusting, repeating, and then we could reverse the exercise, playing a short segment or the entire exercise backwards. This was in-depth tone work. And that’s how I use this exercise.

And, oh boy, I’d forgotten the energy that took. Paula Robison is right. We are athletes of the flute. And I think, during my time mothering small children, that while I may not have physically practiced as much as I would have liked, I’ve certainly raised my standards regarding tone. And also musicality.

I’ll wager than non-musician mothers do not find themselves rocking their children to sleep while simultaneously analyzing the Prokofiev Sonata. But I did. I did tons of this in-head analysis. I’d be humming to my child and suddenly, “Hush You Bye” would morph into the J.S. Bach’s B Minor Sonate, and I’d find myself analyzing phrases and chords. Sometimes I’d be replaying a piece in my head and deconstructing it, and also thinking, “If I ever perform this again, I won’t breathe THERE. I’ll breathe HERE.”

The end result of all this late-night in-head analysis is this: I find myself with some very exacting musical expectations, minus the polished skills required to meet those expectations. I have become my worst nightmare of a teacher.

Except that maybe, this is the best teacher I can be to myself. To have these expectations, and to remain patient as I redevelop (and further) my technique so that I can execute these phrases, these movements, these pieces to the exacting standards of my demanding inner teacher.

I remember the first time I played dynamics to suit Chris Ertell. I was a somewhat defiant high schooler who thought I knew most of what there is to know about playing the flute. One afternoon, Chris had brought me upstairs from her basement studio to her living room, so we could listen to a record of the piece we were working on. I don’t remember what the piece was, but I would remember this lesson for the rest of my life.

After listening to the piece, Chris said, “Do you see? Do you hear the amount of expression he uses? Do you hear the dynamic range?” I said that I did, but I really didn’t get it.

So Chris had me play an excerpt from the piece for her. When I finished, she said, “No, I don’t hear any dynamics. Do it again.” And so I played it again, and again, and again, and each time, Chris said she didn’t hear any dynamics. It was becoming quite clear that I wasn’t leaving until she believed I’d played some dynamics.

I looked out the window to the street.

“Your next student is here.”

“And they can wait.”

By this point, I was seething. Why was Chris telling me I wasn’t playing dynamics when I SO clearly was? Barely able to contain my anger and frustration, I played the excerpt again. I decided I was going to play it the way a circus clown would – I exaggerated the dynamics and phrasing, to the point I felt they sounded ridiculous. I played to the very fringes of my abilities, and when I was finished, my heart was racing and I was breathing fast, and I thought, “That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done.”

And Chris said, “That was better. I heard some dynamics that time. You could do more.”

You could do more. And that became my mantra, as I rocked my children to sleep at night, analyzing this flute piece and that, and orchestral pieces and chamber music and anything else that came into my mind. You could do more.

And so, I’ll keep practicing, a bit more each time. And I’ll keep doing the unglamorous work of rebuilding and refining my technique. And I’ll unleash the clown when it’s time, and do more.

13 years later . . . Back in Black?

I gave up regularly practicing and performing when my oldest son was born. This was not intentional. It was definitely not part of the plan. I was one of those naive parents-to-be who thought my new child’s world was going to revolve around ME, not the other way around. When I became pregnant with my son, I was newly uprooted from the west coast, back to my native Virginia. As a trailing spouse, I had settled, with my husband, in a suburb of Washington, D.C.

It was incredibly easy to gain new students in my new county of residence. The school band programs in that area were (and are) strong – legendarily strong, in fact. The students are very competitive, and everyone either takes private lessons or is on a waiting list to do so. I contacted a few band directors and music store owners, and soon found myself with a full roster of students.

I decided that when my son was born, I would continue playing and teaching. I scheduled lessons around my husband’s rehearsal schedule, and that part worked out quite well. My husband, visiting relatives, and parents of students were more than happy to keep an eye on my infant son while I taught.

It was the practicing part that didn’t work out so well. For years, my daily routine had been something like the following:

  • Teach college courses in the morning
  • Practice in late morning/early afternoon
  • Teach private students
  • Dinner
  • Rehearsal or teach more private students

Looking at that schedule now, I find it laughable that I thought I’d be able to continue with anything resembling that life without a rather hefty staff and child care.

My son, who has grown into a wonderful young man who is quite easy to get along with, (for a teenage boy), was something of a nightmare infant. He was, and is, very sensitive to sound and other things (light, taste, scratchy tags on shirts). He was colicky for several weeks after he was born, and my husband and I had no family in our area to help. We were one worn out couple for those first few months.

One day, after my son had finally settled into something resembling a schedule, and my husband was at work, I decided to return to practicing. I settled my son into his little vibrating seat with the duck mobile on it, and placed it at the far end of the room, pulled out my flute, and played ONE, SINGLE, mezzo-forte, B natural long tone.

I have been told I have a huge sound. I have been told my sound fills the room. I have been told my playing touched an audience member’s soul. All of these were intended as compliments.

My son did not like my B natural. AT ALL. It touched his soul alright. He immediately SCREAMED one of those ear-drum rattling screams that makes you wonder if you’ll survive parenting. Wondering if it was due to the sound or to the visual of mom playing the flute, I calmed him down, set him in the NEXT room, ran back into my studio, and again, I played one note. He wailed as though he were being tortured. Sigh . . . . I considered taking up the recorder.

It quickly became apparent to me that I was raising a sensitive child who would not tolerate my practicing the flute during his waking hours. My practice time was diminished to during his nap times and after he went down for the night. As any parent will tell you, nap times are also used for:

  • parental napping
  • cleaning your house, which will look like a grenade went off in it
  • doing laundry
  • more parental napping
  • staring at walls

For some reason, my students’ playing never bothered him. I suspect this is either because most of their sounds weren’t fully developed, or because we were behind closed doors and he was being entertained and indulged by happy relatives, student parents, and my husband.

In any case, I began practicing and playing less and less. We moved again. We had another child. My daughter was not bothered by the sounds of the flute, and we were now in a two-story house, and I could practice downstairs, or in the basement, while my son napped upstairs. But by then, I was going crazy with the TWO kids and their competing needs, as all parents of multiple young children do. One professional flutist said to me, “You will simply tread water during these years. You will practice in bits and pieces, when you can, and when you need to. You will not make progress. You will simply maintain your skills.”

That was such a helpful thing to hear. I’d also heard, from a well-known teacher of flute, “Meh! Just let him cry!” (Not going to happen with this kiddo.) And I’d also heard another flutist say she just stayed up late to practice. (I don’t do well on less than 6 hours of sleep.) I hope that flutist (the first one, not the latter two) knows what a gift she gave me in that statement. She let me know it was ok that I wasn’t getting hours of practice, and in fact, on many days I wasn’t getting any. And she gave me hope that a time would come when I would practice and perform regularly again. Because it was getting depressing not to play, and to think that I would never play regularly again. Most musicians will tell you that our practice time and our performances are integral to our souls. In fact, every now and then, when my kids were little, I would start to feel a bit “off”, and it would take me sometimes 24-48 hours to realize that I’d forgotten to practice. I always felt better after I did.

And so now I find myself at a place where practicing and performing regularly can re-enter my life, gradually, “organically”, if you will. My youngest is starting middle school. And while my children still need me (oh yes, teens need us more than ever), they need me in different ways. And I find myself with more time to practice. I’ll continue to teach passionately. Teaching not only sustained me during these years, but became my primary focus and mission. But in order to be a better teacher, my soul needs to be complete, and it won’t be complete if I don’t play some flute. My husband is preparing to retire from his position in a performing organization – and will no longer commute or travel as much, leaving me free to do some traveling and performing of my own.

It’s terrifying and exciting to wonder where this journey will take me. And I’m so grateful to the music industry itself for being such a creative and flexible bunch of folks. Musicians can work part-time, full-time, over-time, whatever they choose.

So, if you’re a musician going through these early childhood years, the Years of Little Fluting, I promise you, this too shall pass, and you too will soon be “Back in (Concert) Black”.

Now, to go practice some long tones . . . sans background screaming.

But I Don’t LIKE Classical Music!!! (And one can hardly blame him . . . )

“But I don’t like classical music!”

A friend and I were attempting to convince her 13 year old son, who has an excellent ear, that he should take guitar lessons with a local teacher of my recommendation and become musically literate. I went through the usual conversation points, pointing out that learning music by ear is limiting, using all my best analogies, and finally asking him what he did like to listen to. He produced a list of rock bands that actually inspired me to update my rock listening – I’m getting stale. Clinging to songs and albums and groups I’m familiar with, rather than branching out with my listening.

And that’s the problem with so-called classical music, too. As I admitted to my young friend, I wouldn’t like “Classical” music either if I confined myself to listening to what my local public radio stations play. Most of the time, it’s Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. “Safe” music to keep the listeners tuned in. (Pop stations do this too, unfortunately.) And the Baroque performances the classical stations are broadcasting are often so uninspired and risk-free.

It’s no wonder folks talk so much about “relaxing” to classical music. Most people are hearing nothing new, and the Vivaldi twittering away in the background becomes white noise, and so why wouldn’t we go ahead and clean up the kitchen after dinner, make a phone call, or do homework?

In the hallowed halls of Academia, Classical Music is now referred to as “Art Music”. In some ways, this term is better. If it’s art, it means it’s something special, something we should listen to and pay attention to, listen to again and again. It’s something to discuss and enjoy. And on the other hand, if classical music is art, what is non-classical music? NOT art?

Are my young friend’s favorite rock bands any less an art form than Bach, Brahms, and Vivaldi? I say no.

Yet there are still great numbers of people in the classical world who want to elevate this type of music ABOVE other types of music, and who shun new classical works as well, and THAT is what is killing classical music.

My young friend is not interested in listening to or playing music that is so erudite, so status-filled, so, so, so . . .¬† SNOBBY that clearly only adults, and increasingly AGING adults enjoy. My friend’s son wants something new, something exciting, and, because he is a teen with raging hormones and boundless energy combined with the ability for extended periods of sloth, something edgy.

Classical music, as he sees it, is not that. This young man’s view of classical music has been confined to what he hears on the radio and what his string-playing sister plays in her youth orchestra – Bach, Beethoven, and Vivaldi. Why would he aspire to that? Why would he put himself through what he sees as drudgery, mastery of the fundamental skills on an instrument, to play music which does not inspire him?

I am, I promise, NOT saying that Bach, Beethoven, and Vivaldi have no value. Of course they do. J.S. Bach was a genius, and every undergraduate music major must study his works; Beethoven practically invented musical Romanticism. But these fellas are a small handful of DEAD composers.

Those of us who teach younger students (most of whom, if we do our jobs well, will grow up to be the audience members of tomorrow), have, as I see it, a mandate, if we wish to see our profession survive:


We must play music by living composers for them. I do this with students in the lesson, because I know they won’t do it at home. Because I know their parents usually aren’t at all informed on the exciting developments in so-called classical music today. I send them links to music by composers they may have never heard of. I have them sightread contemporary music, and we program it on our recitals.

What is interesting to me as that these same students¬† who have just solemnly stated, “I don’t like classical music,” when forced (ahem, strongly encouraged) to sit down and ACTIVELY listen (no multi-tasking allowed) to a piece of music, will surprise themselves with how much they like it. Further, they are often able to make some rather brilliant observations about the piece we’ve just listened to.

We don’t always listen to new music. We listen to old music too. Most students I have taught love J.S. Bach, once they’ve played his music.

The rebuilding and (oh, how I hate this word) rebranding of classical music starts with us, the teachers of the young.

I was tired when I got home last night, and I could have let my conversation with my young friend go. But I remembered this mission. Sometimes it takes just one piece. I sent him a link to an intense piece for concert band by a young composer. (Protip – when introducing classical music to young listeners, start with easier-to-like intense pieces and work your way to the subtle.)

Let’s rebuild our classical music community – performers, listeners, and composers – one young student at a time.

Snow, the South, and Hardees

“Do you wanna go to Hardees?”

My college roommate and I often enjoyed late-night trips to the nearby chain burger-joint. But this time, I saw a problem.

“Are you crazy?” It’s snowing.

“It is?” And she went to the window to check, and turned around, and LAUGHED AT ME.

“Charlene, this is called a flurry. It’s not even sticking. Let’s go to Hardees.”

“You’re going to drive in THIS?!”

And so began the dawning of my understanding that my people, the southern people, are snow wimps.

Where I grew up, in central Virginia, it DOES snow. And once in a while, it sticks. On the other hand, we can go entire winters without so much as seeing a flake. We’ll even argue over WHETHER we saw a flake.

“Nope, that was just ashes from Cooter’s chimney, y’all.”

And when it DID snow, we had the good sense to cancel EVERYTHING and stay indoors. Nothing got plowed. Maybe, once in a blue moon, if there was a big snow (like maybe SEVERAL inches), the government would declare a state of emergency and plow the routes to the hospitals. All other activities – school, church, grocery shopping, non-emergency medical procedures like child-birth, for instance – were wisely put on hold.

We simply stayed home and waited for the stuff to melt.

By the way, no one worried that we were missing too much school, either. They’d just tack the days on the end and our parents would pull us out anyway because “Goddammit, those reservations were made in January, for Pete’s sake!”

We’d sled. We’d build forts. We’d fortify the forts and have epic neighborhood snowball fights. My Dad would pull the neighborhood kids on our sleds with his tractor, dangerously swinging us around corners like water skiers at Cypress Gardens.

But now I live in an area that DOES get a good bit of snow and ice in the winter. I saw my first blizzard a few years back. I’d never before had to dig a car out of the snow. (I’d always assumed the “rock and roll” method I’d learned in the south would suffice for any amount of snow. Not so, apparently, if the snow is taller than your children.) I’d never before seen neighborhood sidewalks that looked like little labyrinths for the pedestrians to busily swarm through. I’d never before seen SNOW fall so fast you could barely even SEE it!

It was fun. One of our neighbors called all the others, and we had a potluck party. One of the wine and beer shops in walking distance was open and was having a “1% off per inch of snow” special, and it turned out we’d all walked down there at some point during the day. So we had a more than ample supply of booze. I’m pretty sure one of my neighbors had to be hauled home on a sled by his wife and kids.

This winter, our area hasn’t had a big storm like that one. (Sorry Boston, it’s all about you this year.) We’ve had a series of hyper-annoying storms with little snow, but with the dreaded ice that makes even the most seasoned snow drivers nervous. And school has been out, school has been in, school has been late, school has dismissed early. It’s driving all us parents and teachers mad! It’s not the missed school; it’s the inconsistency that is completely problematic.

So, I propose the following. We’re not THAT far north. In fact, we were many times a Confederate city during the War Between the States. So why don’t we adopt a more SOUTHERN attitude toward the snow?

I can hear all my Northern friends now. “You can’t let the snow keep you in or you’d never go anywhere!” “You southerners don’t know a thing about driving in snow!” “You can’t close school every time there’s a flake!”

I know – we’re not hardy about it. Not at all. I know you chuckle when we post our photos of a couple of inches of snow here, a tiny little snowman in a bare yard there. But I have to tell all my Yankee friends, with love, mind you, that we feel the same when you complain about humidity. “Hahahah! Ohhh, it’s a little sticky out so you had to go inside and turn on your air conditioning! That’s cute. Come sit on the porch with me and have a julep. Bring a towel.”

But I think there’s something to it, this resignation that life is out of our control. This beautiful, peaceful bliss when the stuff starts gently falling and we realize, without question, that all our obligations for at least the next 24 hours are null and void. So next time, cancel everything. Sit inside. Watch it fall. Go play with your kids or your grandkids or your neighbor’s kids or your dogs. And school administrators, I implore you, forget about the delayed start or early dismissal. Just cancel. But only for ice or substantial snow. A couple of flakes up here won’t cut it.

I did learn to drive in the snow that night. My roommate taught me. We went to the Hardees, and she was very sweet about it. “See? I just have to give myself a little extra time to stop, like when it’s raining. And I’m keeping extra distance between us and the other cars. Aren’t you glad you came?”

Yes. And no.

My Practice

“I think I’ll just play through these Bach Cello Suites for fun . . . ” was the thought that drifted through my ears as I was trying to figure out what to practice next. (My next thought was, who AM I?!) I’ve always been a Deadline Practicer. My routine, for years, was a 3 hour total daily practice session that included an hour of warm-up, scales, technical exercises and etudes, followed by two hours of work on repertoire for upcoming performances. In deciding which work to practice first, I would simply open my calendar, look at the first date, pull up the first piece on that rehearsal or in that folder, and work on it. I break my practice routines into 20 minute sessions with small breaks, and I never work on any one piece (or movement of a larger work) for more than 15 minutes per day if I can help it. After roughly 10 – 15 minutes, I move on to the next thing in the folder or on my agenda.

This worked beautifully when I was a busy free-lance musician on the west coast. I always had plenty of performances to prepare for, and if I ran out of work, I would either return to the beginning of the pile and work a bit more on pieces that needed it, or read pieces and choose repertoire for upcoming recitals. There was always something.

And then we moved east for my husband’s military band job (which he won on the same day I was unofficially offered a full-time college teaching position on the west coast) and we had kids. And I confess it. My practice routine and free-lance career has suffered ever since.

Before my son was born, I was still naive enough to think that our lives would continue much the same as before. My husband and I would do all the same things we did before – whatever that was – and we would simply take this very compliant, happy, gurgling baby along for the ride. (Every now and then John looks at me and asks, “What DID we do before kids?!”) We were the first of our group of friends to have a kid, and I clearly remember (as clearly as any parent of a colicky new born can) a friend calling up and inviting us to meet them in a new brew pub for the evening. “Just bring the baby!” Right. This was Virginia in 2001, when you could still smoke in trendy brew pubs, so right, we were totally about this – bringing our newborn into this smoke-riddled pub. Also, we were just exhausted.

The moment I realized my practicing life had changed was when our son was two weeks old. He was content for the moment, sitting there in his cute little carrier, and I thought, “Ok, I will practice. I will at least do warm-ups.”¬† I sat him across the room from me, took a breath, played one note, and he SQUALLED. I tried this a few more times, before I realized that practicing would have to be done during his nap times.

As any parent will tell you, this might look fabulous on paper, but it is simply not practical. I was very fortunate that Kevin slept through practice sessions. I would put him to bed in his crib on one end of our fortunately very LONG apartment layout, and I would practice at the other. For the entire nap time. Hah. This was my plan, anyway. Nap time, for parents of young children, is when the very tired parent does one or more of the following: naps themselves, cleans up stuff that they couldn’t clean because they were walking the floor with said colicky infant in hopes the colicky infant would take this nap, does laundry (possibly falling asleep in a pile of whites), attempts to socialize with other adults via phone, Skype, text, social media, and maybe even carrier pigeon, and, if the parent happens to be a professional musician who has moved across the country with her spouse and hopes to ever work again, she practices.

For like, maybe 20 minutes. She might practice again, later, if her spouse is home and willing to distract the baby or take him out for a stroll.

So much of my practice in the days my children were young was mental practice. While I was rocking my daughter to sleep, pieces I knew well would play in my in-head Pandora, and I would mentally slow them down and really think about the phrasing and the harmonic structure. I would even think about the way I’d played something in the past, and rethink it while nursing my daughter and think, “Wow, If I ever play this again, I want to do it THIS way . . . ” If I ever play this again. . .

I was fortunate enough, when my son was very young, to get a call from an old friend, Dr. Jena Root, who happened to be the Theory Division Coordinator at Shenandoah Conservatory, which was five minutes from my house. (We’d moved from the enlongated apartment.) Jena asked if I wanted to come in and teach some theory classes. I said I’d look into child care for my son, and she said they’d work around my schedule. After calling a few preschools and finding they were full, and, truth here, crying in frustration because I thought I’d have to turn this down and I was DYING to do something in my field, I called a preschool recommended by another parent in my son’s Early Childhood Music class, and they had an opening. My son went there three mornings a week, and I sneaked over to Shenandoah and taught ONE theory class for them.

I also began working in the Instrumental Division as needed – teaching applied flute and coaching ensembles. I can’t tell you how wonderfully flexible my colleagues were. When I had to sit on flute juries when my daughter was 6 weeks old, flute juries were scheduled with “nursing breaks”!

Teaching at a school of music also gave me performance opportunities – I sometimes filled in with the faculty quintet and collaborated with my colleagues in soul-satisfying chamber and orchestral performances.

A few years ago though, I left academia, due to health reasons and also due to the fact that my private flute studio was booming – and while I enjoy teaching theory and music literature, my heart is in teaching private flute. The downside of this otherwise good decision is that my performance opportunities dwindled. Aside from having the conservatory here, our town is no cultural mecca, and performance opportunities are few and far-between, unless you make them.

I have never been good at CREATING my own performance opportunities. I love to perform, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t like the coordinating, marketing, and financial side of setting up a performance.

And now that my children are older, this leaves me staring at the wall when I practice and thinking, “What next?” So, I decided to spend some time boning up on my technique and tone, which have been sorely neglected during this past decade. I hope to begin performing more again, but it will take time to move into that new phase of life. In the meantime, I find myself intrigued by the Bach Cello Suites, by old etudes and new ones, and by exercises you’d think I’d be tired of in the Taffanel and Gaubert Scale book.

I used to approach technique practice as simply something to get through – just play the dang scales and etudes and move on! I’d much rather play repertoire. Who wouldn’t? But when you take something as amazing as a Bach Cello Suite and make THAT your etude, or discover the beautiful line in an Anderson etude, this becomes something more than dry, rote STUFF you must get through in order to move on to playing your repertoire. There is MUSIC in these etudes. There is art in taking 5 minutes at the mirror to double-check that thing you sometimes do with your right hand third finger and making sure it’s properly placed. It’s a PRACTICE.

A practice is a life-long journey. In yoga, instructors speak of “your practice”. “If this is part of your practice . . . ” Practice is simply what you DO. It’s not a time to check out, or think about homework due, or what you’re going to make for dinner. (Oops, I need to put on a soup for tonight.) It’s a time to focus on only you, your flute, and the music.

Try treating your scales and etudes as that – a practice. A fulfilling practice. Discover the divine in a phrase, or the beauty of a particular color on an expected note. Perhaps you’ll look forward to practicing more. Perhaps, like me, you’ll miss it like you’re missing a part of yourself when you can’t. Perhaps this time will become so valuable to you that you will make it happen – even when tired, with a house full of domestic chores waiting on your attention, with emails awaiting your reply.

Take solace and nourishment from your practice, and you will benefit more than your technique. Namaste.