Also known as “Dave Gets Deep,” this section includes reflections on art, life, and the human condition.

woodbowlYou’d think, for all the times I’d shouted “STRONG AND WRONG!!!” at my students with clenched fists in the air and mock rage on my face, that I’d be better at it.

But every time I get ready to upload a new recording to my Demo Recordings page, the script starts again: “Is this really ready to share?  Shouldn’t I listen through again to be sure it’s okay?  Couldn’t I hit that note a little more in-tune?  Shape that phrase a little more precisely?  Bring out that nuance with a little more agility?”

“Someone to Fall Back On,” from Jason Robert Brown’s first solo album, Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes, is one of those songs that just reaches into my chest and makes me feel.  “I am no prince,” he says; “I am no saint.  And if that’s what you believe you need, you’re wrong….”

I have loved singing this song since I first discovered it.  I’ve used it at workshops, in worship, and in concerts.  And I’ve never once sung it perfectly.

There’s that out-of-nowhere high A in the last line of the bridge.  The high G at the end that I want to hold two beats longer than my lungs want me to.  And of course the fact that I can’t actually make it through the whole song without choking back tears.

But every time I’ve sung it, I’ve heard that sound in the audience after the last note fades away: the silence of held breath, of self-recognition, of mute gratitude for the blissful agony of shared pain.  Something in us needs to remember—and to be reminded, often—that to be human is to be flawed, and that therefore to be flawed, in some perplexing but profoundly important way, is to be perfect.

This recording is flawed.  The song doesn’t sound as good here as it does in my mind when I daydream.  But when I listened through just now, before uploading it, I thought of all the people in my life who I’ve been able to “fall back on,” and all the people in my life I hope trust they can fall back on me, and I had the kind of cry that feels really, really good.

Be well, y’all.

frederic-chopin-1838
Frédéric Chopin, 1838. Oil on canvas, by Eugene Delacroix.

One of the things I love most about my career is that I get to experience a never-ending stream of new repertory—between my work at UUCV, at Open Stage, at CASA, and elsewhere, I never have time to get bored with the material I’m working on!  The downside to this excitement is that I seldom have time to really dig in and master a piece of music in a way that feels “complete.”  Or rather, I seldom take time to really dig in….

So today I spent a few hours procrastinating all of the work I’m “supposed” to have gotten done today, and instead put some time into brushing up on one of my all-time favorite piano solos, Chopin’s E Minor Nocturne.  I first performed this piece at senior piano recital in high school, so it seemed appropriate to use this as my first experiment with digital recording.  I played the piece on my Yamaha P-140 digital keyboard into GarageBand on my Mac using Garritan’s amazing Abbey Road Studios CFX Concert Grand Virtual Piano, and produced a recording that sounds almost disconcertingly like the way the music sounds in my head when I think about playing it.  (Did that make any sense at all?)

Anyway.  Take a listen, and let me know in the comments what you think.  There will, I hope, be many more of these “demo tracks” to come!  But for now, I’m going to take this Nocturne as my cue to head off to bed.  In six minutes it’ll be New Year’s Eve!

“I think prejudice is the stupidest thing on the planet,” said comedian Lewis Black many years ago.  “There are so many perfectly valid reasons to hate people on an individual basis.”*  And I’ll be the first to admit that there are some self-absorbed, attention-craving, energy-sapping, validation-seeking, conversation-sabotaging, advantage-taking, smelly-food-eating individuals on the planet** whose inherent worth and dignity I find it difficult to recall over the course of routine interactions.  But cataloguing the individual shortcomings of others (not to discount the puerile delight it brings me) is a pretty inefficient way to wreak discord among humanity, especially when compared to the crystalline phenomenon known to grammarians as the “substantive adjective.”

We use them every day—and no, they’re not all bad.  It really is convenient to refer to “greens” rather than rambling on about “plant-based foods high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, whose chloroplasts tend to give them a green color when fresh.”  But recently (yeah, I’m slow) I’ve started to notice how easy it is to pretend the adjective we’ve “substantivized” is the only important characteristic of whatever it is we’re describing.  (It’s this tendency that’s gently lampooned by dining-room comedians who order mint ice cream so they can say they’re “eating their greens.”)

I noticed it first, I think, when a colleague I’d enjoyed working with for a long time made an offhand remark indicating that she felt differently than I did about some hot-button issue or another.  Intellectually, I knew that this new factoid was simply something “else” I knew about her—a drop in the bucket of her identity—but I spent a surprising amount of mental energy trying not to let all that I knew (and liked) about her plummet into a bottomless pit of otherness: “Oh, she’s one of those?  Horror!”

So not too long ago I did something that, frankly, I was a little ashamed of.  I took the politician magnets off my car.

The shame, I think, came from the same part of me that had been afraid to put the magnets on the car to begin with.  My personal political leanings aren’t necessarily the most popular ones in the neighborhoods I spend most of my time in, so it felt like a real act of courage to make a public statement in support of, let’s say, Pat Spinner, the frontrunning candidate for the Pianistarian Party.  “There are bound to be other Pianistarians out there,” I reasoned, “and they need to know they’re not alone.

“And furthermore,” continued the voice in my head, “I’m such an intelligent, compassionate, well-respected individual that when people see my ‘Spinner For Leader’ bumper sticker, they’ll know that Candidate Spinner is worth voting for, and they’ll rethink whatever other, less enlightened vote they had intended on casting.”

In other words, I had created a narrative in which anyone whose gaze fell upon the rear panel of my vehicle would be compelled to embrace the ideals of progressive theology, eradicate income inequality, eschew racism….  You know, before the light turned.

But that’s not how these things work.

During the last presidential election I volunteered for a particular candidate, visiting voters who had sympathetic voting histories and encouraging them to make it to the polls.  I signed up so I could feel like I was doing my part for democracy.  But instead, I felt kinda slimy: why were we only encouraging some residents to vote?

In the previous presidential election, I had volunteered for a nonpartisan organization who worked to make sure that all citizens knew their rights and had an opportunity to vote.  True, the organization sent us volunteers to neighborhoods where voter suppression was statistically higher—and true, higher voter turnout does tend to favor a particular demographic at the expense of another.  But there was a universality, a welcoming, to my work with Election Protection that gave me a sense of integrity, of justice, and (don’t let this get out) deep patriotism—and I missed all of that when I campaigned for Candidate X.

Now, I’ve done a little bit of research on the candidates, and I do have my favorites, of course.  And in conversations with people I know (and yes, this includes friends of my personal Facebook page) I’m not terribly hesitant to express very specific political views.  But campaign bumper stickers, yard signs, and the like are a bit like political “drive-bys”: we throw out our own beliefs in a way that prevents feedback, insisting that others agree or disagree, subscribe or reject, identify or repudiate.  There’s no room for nuance, no opportunity for conversation, no chance of reconciliation; we’re forced to label each other substantively as “Republican” or “Democrat,” “Conservative” or “Liberal,” “Friend” or “Foe.”  (Remember that “green” mint ice cream?)

There’s too much hate in this world.  And hurling epithets at one another is worse than useless at solving that.  What would the world start to look like if, instead of seeing nothing but red and blue (and whatever) T-shirts and bumper stickers, we took the time to see the frightened, lovable human beings hiding behind them?

*Or words to this effect. It’s been a while.
**Not you, dear.  You’re perfect.

20151204_125458There’s a trail near my house.  I’ve known of its existence since we moved in nearly a decade ago—its entrance is marked by a charmingly rustic carved wooden sign—but it was only under the scent-motivated encouragement of Jackie (the retriever mix also known as my parents’ favorite child) that I first walked along it, several weeks ago.  And with Jackie on the end of the leash and the autumn sun quickly setting, that first walk was a quick one.  So it’s only been recently that I’ve taken time to walk the trail more slowly, for my own purposes.  And so too, it was only today that I took the time to parse an image that had struck me only as a casual curiosity on earlier trips.

Roughly halfway around the mile-long loop that is the trail, a tree has fallen over into the Yellow Breeches Creek, its clutching roots exposed to the air for what must be years now.  And in those roots, like huge unpolished jewels in a woodworker’s setting, sit several fist-sized chunks of shale.

The first time I noticed them I smiled, picturing boyhood summers in similarly wooded settings, when friends and I built cities out of rocks and sticks.  Wedging these shale chunks into the tree roots would have made perfect hide-outs for our action figures as they prepared to ambush their foes.

But today as I approached the shaly roots, I stopped.  And as the crunch-crunch of my feet in the dry leaves yielded to the airy silence of the woods, I looked more closely.  Images of children with toys and bored teenagers faded away as I realized the truth: this was a natural occurrence.  The tree roots had grown around the rocks.  These stones weren’t placed there after the tree fell; instead, the roots must have broken through a layer of shale as they grew downward into the creek bank.  The insistent force of their growth was enough to shatter the rock, but not enough to completely displace it.  Over the course of years the stone and the wood yielded to one another in turns, creating this accidental collage of wood and stone that now, once the tree had reached the end of its lifespan and fallen, reached upward toward the sun, waiting to be noticed and appreciated by passers-by.

So I stood for a while, in appreciation and gratitude.  And then I continued on my way.


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Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

It sounds like a Harry Potter spell, doesn’t it?  It’s not, but it can have a magical effect on the demeanor of a beginning singer.  So many of the most common challenges for singers are simply matters of acoustics: the physics of how sound bounces around (or doesn’t) on its way out of your face.  Because singing isn’t much more complicated in our conscious minds than “say ah,” it’s easy to forget that the human vocal system is basically a big fleshy oboe, with two reeds (vocal folds) buzzing against each other and the sound modified by the properties of the tube it passes through.

The levator veli palatini (henceforth, LVP) is the muscle that raises the soft palate, that squishy part at the back of the roof of your mouth.  Evolutionarily the LVP has kept us alive by preventing food and drink from going up our noses when we swallow.  (Handy, eh?)  But singers use it to create a larger resonant space for sound.  It’s the soft palate that makes the difference between a Kermit the Frog (low) and a Sam Eagle (raised).  And more importantly, because raising the soft palate actually creates more space in the “instrument,” there are notes we can’t sing (easily or pleasantly, at least) with a lowered palate, that “magically” become available to us when the palate is raised.

Yesterday at our first vocal rehearsal for Pippin, I talked the cast through a few simple vocal warm-ups designed (among other things) to get the soft palate raised.  A few of our cast are primarily dancers who’ve never had voice training, so the effect was something new to them—and the amazement and delight on their faces made me smile.

One tiny muscle.  I wonder how often we feel like some challenge is completely (and shamefully) out of our reach, when all it would take is a small change to discover we’d had the potential there all along?  I wonder what wisdom we could open ourselves to that would make that challenge entirely, delightfully, doable?