Friday, February 24, 2017

Update on My Musical New Year’s Resolution

Have you been wondering, oh three faithful readers, how the musical pursuits are going? No? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway!

George the Piano

My piano project for this year is a somewhat attainable one—meaning I have the ability, but I’m not sure if I’ll have the time. (Right now, I practice maybe an hour or two a week, usually on Friday nights.) What I want to do is learn a handful (or more) of “best-loved piano pieces,” those pieces that get requested most often by friends and family. With all my years of playing, I’ve managed not to learn some very famous pieces, such as “The Entertainer,” “Linus and Lucy” and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” Then there are pieces I learned as a child (“Fur Elise,” the second movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, etc.) that I once knew but can’t play on request. And there are harder pieces, such as Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu, that I once knew but definitely couldn’t play now without some focused practicing and re-learning.

While I’d like to learn these pieces for others, I selfishly want to get them into my own head, so I can play them anytime I want. I guess that’s a worthy enough piano goal.

Waylon the Guitar

I am picking up on guitar much more quickly than I thought I would! I’m managing to practice between 20 and 45 minutes in the wee hours of the morning, and more on the weekends. I’m getting better at switching between chords, and I’m starting to get the hang of bar chords. I’ve started classical guitar lessons and am hoping to get my (as-yet-unnamed) classical guitar (a gift from my uncle in Louisiana) within the next month.

One thing I love about guitar is that I can practice it early in the morning, when Dan and Anne are still asleep. Piano practice would wake them up, and voice practice would have them sitting bolt upright in their respective beds, their hearts pounding in terror. But guitar? It’s quiet enough that I can play without bothering them. And that’s just what I do.

No-Name Voice

I think I hit a couple of milestones recently. For one, I’m learning to sing louder. That has been my biggest challenge, or one of them: simply raising my voice above its usual soft-spoken near-whisper. When I sing louder, my voice is less “breathy” and I can obviously make a better, purer sound. I was also delighted to learn that I’m a soprano, and I’ve surprised myself at just how high my voice can go. (It’s those loud, high notes that would rouse and terrify a sleeping person.) I still have a lot to learn, but I’m starting to feel like a real voice student, and not some lost person who happened to wander into a voice studio.

Still, it's hard to find time to practice voice. I can usually grab ten or fifteen minutes each morning after Dan leaves to drop Anne off at school. And then there is the car on my daily drives to and from work. I'd like more time, but I take what I can get.

I've named my other musical instruments, but it just feels to weird to name my voice (even though it's an instrument as well), so I'm calling it No-Name Voice for now. If a name comes up, I'll be sure to share it with you, dear readers!

So that’s the music update for now. More updates to come!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A (Mostly) Musical Day

My 2017 New Year's resolution was to reclaim my musical self, and I've been doing a pretty good job of it so far. It's a struggle and a challenge to practice every day, but I'm managing to do it.

Guitar: This morning, I woke up at 6:00 a.m. and practiced guitar for over three hours! Anne was at a sleepover and Dan had to leave early for an out-of-town convention, so I had the whole house to myself. I worked on my sight-reading, and then I worked on songs. I practiced singing a lot of them, though my voice is still depressing me.

Voice: I did work on voice a bit, practicing some exercises and the song "Somewhere" from West Side Story. The trouble with practicing songs is that it's very easy to play the accompaniment, and I find myself forgetting to sing as I play and improvise on the accompaniment. I have to stop doing that. It's just that I'm so discouraged by my lack of progress in singing that my love for playing piano tends to seem even greater in contrast. So all I want to do is play piano and not sing. Singing is hard for me, a foreign land and a foreign tongue. Piano is home.

Piano: Speaking of piano, I got a book of etudes and pieces by jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. It's pretty easy to sight-read, so I played some stuff from that book for about 15 or 20 minutes tonight. Next I moved on to Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer"--a song I've been able to play poorly for years but have never played well. I'm focusing on not being sloppy when I play it. I learned to play it well many years ago, but I've gotten sloppy over the years, and I don't want to be sloppy anymore. I also worked on Vince Guiraldi's "Linus and Lucy," one of those songs I've always wanted to learn but never have.

When I wasn't doing music, I was spending time with my kid. We went around the neighborhood selling Girl Scout cookies for a good part of the afternoon, and then tonight we worked on a project she has for school next week. It's been a good, low-key day. Hoping tomorrow will be similar: quality time with my kid, my guitar, and my piano. And my, er, voice.

I haven't mentioned that I've had a problem with coughing for the past seven months. I finally went to the doctor, and antibiotics and steroids haven't helped, so the next step is to go to an ENT so he can put a scope down my throat to figure out what is wrong. The throat problem has definitely had an effect on my voice, so I'm hoping the ENT can diagnose the problem and get me a cure. Until then, I think that learning to sing will continue to be a particularly frustrating uphill battle.

The end. Time to go to sleep and dream of more music tomorrow!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Getting There

Today I got a little emotional at my voice lesson. I have some chest congestion going on and my voice wasn't up to par, but that wasn't the problem.

The problem was that I felt hopeless. Hopeless that I would ever be able to sing in a voice that didn't make people cringe.

That's my big fear. That my voice is going to make people cringe or roll their eyes or shake their heads and smirk. That I'm that bad. That even after years of voice lessons, I'll still be awful.

So after a half-hour of exercises and working on a song, I asked my voice teacher, "So, do you think I have any hope?" I meant to make it sound like something of a joke, but I guess I was too invested in the answer to be flippant about it. Before he could say anything, the tears came, and I was cursing myself when he finally spoke.

He said I have a beautiful voice, but that I've spent my entire life singing with tight, closed vocal cords. My entire life. That's forty-something years of something I'm having to un-learn. And on the few occasions lately where I've managed to relax and really sing out, he said, my voice is lovely. Only thing is, it's very hard for me to relax my vocal cords! Not only do I carry my stress in my neck/jaw, but I have all kinds of self-consciousness going on every time I open my mouth to sing. So, even if I wasn't stressed before, I get stressed.

Maybe I need wine before each lesson. Or a three-mile run.

Or I just need to learn to relax and let my love for singing erase the self-consciousness. It's something I'm having to learn, like a baby has to learn to walk or talk.

I'm so glad I'm doing this--taking voice lessons. I want this so badly. I've wanted it for a long time. And I think that's part of why I get emotional, too. There's the hopelessness that I'll never get there, but there is also the joy that comes with taking these first few steps, steps I've been afraid to take since I was a teenager.

I think I'll get there. There are probably be a few more teary-eyed sessions in store for me (and my hapless voice teacher), but I think I'll get there.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Runs

Folks, how the mighty have fallen. I was once a buff forty-something, and now I'm getting flabbier by the day. I've had so much trouble motivating myself to exercise. This is partly because I've gotten out of the habit after a year of not being able to walk/run without pain, but I've also gotten lazy.


So, in an attempt to guilt myself into exercising more, I'm going to post my workouts here periodically. Most of them will include some degree of running, so I'm calling these updates "The Runs." Ha ha.

So, here goes.

The Runs, January 7 - 14

Saturday, January 7: Walk/Run - 30 min, 2.25 mi.
Sunday, January 8: Walk/Run - 31 min, 2.1 mi.
Friday, January 13: Walk/Run - 31 min, 2.41 mi.
Sunday, January 14: Walk/Run - 40 min, 3.2 mi.

As you can see, I can manage to work out on the weekends. The problem is during the week, when I'm sitting on my butt at work all day plus I don't exercise. The best time for me to exercise is early, as in 5:00 a.m. It's been so hard for me to motivate myself to get up that early, even if I manage to get to bed early. I need to get back into the habit. Let's see if I can do that tomorrow.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Voice Lessons, Or Lessons in Humility

I've never been a singer.

I've always loved to sing (who doesn't?), but I've never sung loud enough for people to hear, save for a few (mostly drunken) occasions. I never want to make people cringe at my off-key gusto. I don't do karaoke. I've always known I couldn't sing, and for some reason I couldn't bear the thought of other people hearing me, laughing at me, ridiculing me, or even just pitying me.

How did I know I couldn't sing? I think my brother was the first to break the news to me. He was in high school chorus, and I think it was partly his job as big brother to destroy any sense of confidence I might have about anything (and he did), so he told me my voice was horrible. And then in youth choir, not one but two adults told me I couldn't sing. One kind of rolled her eyes when I said I was tired of being the piano accompanist and wanted to sing. The other came right out and said it: "You can't carry a tune in a bucket."

Now, the eye roll may have been disbelief that someone who so clearly loved piano wouldn't want to play piano. Maybe it wasn't about my voice at all. And the woman who said I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket? I don't know. I want to make an excuse for her, too, but I can't think of why any adult would say such a thing to a 14-year-old, unless they really meant it.

I've always been self-conscious about my singing voice. When I was writing music in my teens and twenties, I always wrote words, but I never sang them unless I was alone. When I'm in the car with other people, I don't sing along to the radio—even though that's all I do when I'm in the car alone. If I do sing in front of someone, I purposely make myself sound worse than I am, I guess so the eye roll and the cringing will be in response to that, and not in response to ... my actually trying. My real voice.

I first wanted to take voice lessons as a teenager—the one who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. Of course I never did take lessons. The idea was preposterous, really. And presumptuous. And I know I wouldn't have lasted a single lesson.

In college, I played with the idea of lessons but decided against it. In the music building (where, being a music minor, I spent a lot of my time), I could hear the voice lessons going on from the main hallway. And I cringed plenty at the shrieks that came from the lesson rooms and the practice rooms. I rolled my eyes a lot. (Which wasn't nice, I know.) And I wasn't about to put myself in a position where people were going to cringe and roll their eyes at me.

Back then, I had a fear of being bad at something. If I'd signed up for voice lessons, they wouldn't have lasted because I couldn't bear to be less than perfect. I know I never would have allowed myself to sing loud enough for anyone to hear me from the hallway. The thought of their cringing and laughing would have stopped me cold. And at I probably would have burst into tears of self-loathing at that first lesson and wanted to kill myself. (I was kind of messed up back then. I pray that my daughter never has to go to that dark place where I spent so much of my teens and twenties.)

Since then, I've thought about voice lessons numerous times over the years. I do love to sing, and I love music. I love to play songs on the piano and sing them, whether they were written by me or someone else. I hate that I can't truly enjoy that experience—even when I'm all alone—because my inner critic constantly tells me how awful I am.

At a Girl Scout camping trip last fall, I ended up leading the songs because the volunteer song leaders all got sick or just didn't show up. I "sucked it up" as they say, and did what had to be done, because ... really, who ever heard of a campfire without songs? Much to my surprise, I realized I liked leading songs. I liked being the one up there, leading this group and that group in a round. No one cringed or laughed (to my face, at least), and everyone appeared to have a good time.

After that weekend, I knew it was time: After 30 years of wishing, it was time to find a teacher and learn to sing. I wanted to be good at song-leading—to have a nice, loud, on-key voice that people could follow. And I wanted it for myself: I wanted to be able to fully enjoy singing, inner critic be damned.

So I signed up with a local teacher and took lessons with her for about a month. She assured me that I could carry a tune, which was news to me and a huge boost to my confidence. At the same time, I didn't want someone to tell me how good I was; I wanted to know how bad I was so I could start improving. As it happened, that teacher didn't work out due to scheduling conflicts, and I found someone else. Yesterday was my first real lesson with him, following a free trial lesson to see if we got along. (We did.)

Oh, wow. The guy teaches out of his house in the country, which is a blessing to me because I don't have to worry about people cringing on the other side of the door. And he has me sing loud. Middle age has rendered me much less self-conscious than I've ever been, but I still don't know if I could sing that loud if there were people on the other side of the door.

That first lesson was a lesson in humility, and I'm sure it will be the first of many. At one point, my voice cracked on a loud, high note and his chickens in the backyard started squawking in response. Later, he had me sing (loud) notes and hold them as long as I could. On several notes toward the end, my tired voice was cracking all over the place. If was awful. He said not to worry, that the goal now isn't to sound beautiful but to get volume. I accepted that and kept singing, but my goodness ... it was not pretty. Ten years ago, there would have been tears. And then last night, I practiced holding a long note (loud again), and my sweet, concerned seven-year-old came running into the room, asking if I was hurt.

Fortunately, I'm at an age where I can genuinely laugh at myself and move on. And that's just what I did.

But still ... with piano, I'm good and I know I'm good, even though I always have more to learn from people who are better. With guitar, I'm not good yet, but I'm musical enough that I'm picking it up pretty quickly. With voice? I'm bad. Horrible. And the whole idea of me taking voice lessons—someone as awful as me—is bringing up some of the latent self-hatred that I thought had left me forever. That self-hatred was once a monster that ravaged me and occasionally tried to kill me, and now it's more of an annoying mosquito bite ... but it's still annoying and it still tries to demand my attention. So I'm dealing with that.

I know have a long way to go, but I'm glad I finally decided to do this. It's scary, but I think that's because it's important to me. If it weren't important, I wouldn't be having all these feelings.

I'm going to keep at this thing until one day, probably a long time from now, I open my mouth and a beautiful sound comes out. And when it does, I'll be the happiest 89-year-old that ever was.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Songs I Can Play on Guitar

So, I got a guitar for Christmas, and I'm learning to play. I'm a novice but have learned a few songs already, now that I know a few chords.

This blog post is where I'm going to keep a list of songs that I can play/sing on my new guitar. I started keeping lists a couple of weeks ago elsewhere, and now I have half a dozen nearly identical lists on scraps of papers around the house. And I've misplaced most of them.

Since I can't misplace the blog, I'm putting the list here.

As you can see, I'm well on my way to folk-singer/campfire-guitarist stardom.

Amazing Grace
Blowin' in the Wind
Hobo's Lullaby
Home on the Range
Kum Ba Ya
Night Rider's Lament
Puff the Magic Dragon
Rhinestone Cowboy
Rock My Soul
Say Why (a song from Girl Scout Camp)
Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
This Land Is Your Land
Today (John Denver)
You Are My Sunshine

I'll be updating this list as I learn more songs. I'm currently not booking shows. ;-)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Trying This Again

If I vow to post every workout I do on this blog, will it motivate me to get my once-buff self back into shape? We'll see! Today was a walk/jog on the treadmill--30 minutes, including warm-up and cool-down. The back of my left knee hurts. Keeping my fingers crossed that it won't hurt tomorrow.