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.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


My New Year's resolution this year was a little different from that of previous years. Of course I want to get into better shape, read more, write more, hike more, be a better wife and mom, etc. But this year I've decided that it's time for me to get back in touch with my musical self. I forget that I'm musical. I really do. I think, "I'm just a normal person who likes music." But the truth is, I have some natural talent. And I love to make music. I can't help but think that it's wrong somehow for me not to be involved with music in some way.

In my efforts to rediscover my musical soul in 2017, I'm taking some steps I've never taken before. I'm studying with two music teachers, 30 minutes a week (for a total of an hour a week) ... and neither of them are piano teachers. I'm expanding my horizons this year. I still love piano and play it every day, but I'm exploring other areas of music that, until recently, I've never explored.

I started taking voice lessons a month or so ago. I was delighted to learn that I can carry a tune. I always sounded okay to myself, but I figured my singing was cringe-inducing to anyone who listened. (Of course, no one ever listened, because I've rarely sung in front of another person, even in the car.) I have zero confidence in my voice, and that makes it worse--even if I sound good, I sing in barely more than a whisper. It's awful because I love to sing ... in the car, alone, where no one will roll their eyes or grimace.

I also met with a guitar teacher yesterday, seeing as I have a brand-new acoustic guitar, a Christmas present from Dan. I was more nervous about the first guitar lesson than I was about the first voice lesson, oddly enough. It went well--I think the teacher and I are going to get along well. He's a Bach nerd, too, and I learned quite a bit in just that first trial lesson.

I've titled this post "Reasonable?" because I don't know how reasonable it is for a mom who works full-time and is a Girl Scout leader (Girl Scouts requires at least two hours of volunteer work per week, and usually more) to take on lessons in both voice and guitar. Financially, it's about $200 a month, and money is tight. Time-wise, it's an hour of lessons, plus 40 to 60 minutes a day of practice. That's a lot of time. Do I have that kind of time? Will I burn out before spring gets here?

I didn't mention piano, but I want to keep playing piano for a steady 30 minutes a day. So that's another three or four hours a week of music.

I think of a couple of semesters where I've taking writing classes with the Great Smokies Writing Program. Those classes were two or three hours long--much more per week than I'll spend in music lessons--and I typically put in at least an 40-60 minutes a day of work, on average. So I don't think this will be all that different, at least as a time commitment.

Of course, I still need to write, even if I'm not pressuring myself to work on a major project.

But regarding music, there is the big question: Why study voice? Why study guitar?

I'm still trying to figure that out, and I'll write more on that later. My immediate, gut answer is that "I want to sing and play guitar with the same confidence and ease that I feel when I play the piano." (That might be a tall order, since I've played the piano for more than 40 years.) Another is, "I just want to make music, and I'm tired of piano being my only means of doing that well."

THose are the gut answers. I'll explore this question a little more later ... when I have time.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Looking Back on 2016

2016. Most people agree that it was an awful year. It's true that a lot of celebrities died. We are a culture that worships celebrity, and it can be devastating when our gods pass away. I felt sadness over the loss of the 80s icons I loved, particularly Prince and George Michael. They didn't mean much to me personally (though they did at one time), but the sadness came when considering how "my era" is drifting further into the past. Not much anyone can do about it, but it made me sad.

So, on that happy note, I'm going to pick up a tradition I've had on this blog, on and off, for years: a year in review. The questions below are questions I've answered most years. The last time I answered these was when I looked back on 2014, so I'm going to include short versions of those answers here, along with my husband's answers to

1. What was the single best thing that happened this past year?
2014: I got a job that I love, and we moved into a house that we love. (Dan's answer: "I think the single best thing that happened to you this year was getting your meds straightened out.") 
2016: I'm still at that job, we're still in that house, and I have managed to stay off meds for two years now. (The meds in question were Prozac, Depakote (for bipolar disorder, which turned out to be a false diagnosis), and Ritalin (to treat the ADD that was a side effect of the Depakote).

As far as the single best thing that happened in 2016 ... I think it has to be that Dan and I are still married. Seriously. Without going into details, I'll just say that we've had a difficult few years. 2016 was a year of arguments and compromises and decisions and tears and frustrations. Some of the frustrations are still there, but we're in a much better place than we were even three months ago. We both took steps toward trying to make things better, and those steps worked, for the most part. I think it's because we both wanted this to work, for Anne's sake if nothing else. And it's starting to work again.

2. What was the single most challenging thing that happened?
2014: Medication issues.
2016: Marriage problems.
3. What was an unexpected joy this past year?
2014: Loving our new house, Anne's new school, and my new job.
2016: Girl Scouts. I decided this past summer to be a Girl Scout leader, specifically for the Daisies (Kindergarten and first grade). I did it for two main reasons: (1) I wanted my daughter to stay in Girl Scouts, and she was losing interest after just one year; and (2) I was grabbing at straws to have something in common with my husband, and he was already involved in Anne's troop. I didn't think I would like being a leader; I'm extremely introverted, and I've never considered myself a "kid person." So I was probably more surprised than anyone when I took to Girl Scouts like a fish to water. I love being a Daisy leader; I love my Daisies, I love planning things for them, and I love playing a positive role in their lives. The experience has also made me less wary of social situations, at least with the troop and their parents. I look forward to every meeting I have with them.
4. What was an unexpected obstacle?
2014: I was writing a novel, and hit major walls after the relatively easy process of writing the first draft.
2016: Physical injury/pain. I've always been able to run, or jump, or do just about any kind of exercise or activity that I wanted. This year, thanks to a knee injury that turns into a hip/groin injury, I've hardly gone a day without pain. (And the pain-free days are only because I've gobbled up a lot of ibuprofen.) It has been very frustrating not to be able to exercise. I particularly miss running. I've been to an orthopedist, a chiropractor, and physical therapy. While they've been able to help with the pain (particularly the PT), no one's been able to diagnose the source of the pain. So it keeps coming back, and I keep having to treat it.

5. Pick three words to describe this past year (or to describe yourself this past year).
2014: Insecure. Afraid. Frustrated.
2016: Confident. Loving. Happy. (Despite the lows of this year, I've been very happy with who I've become, with my role as a mom, and with my professional life. Having suffered from depression and insecurity for so much of my life, I'm really enjoying the feeling of confidence that comes with getting older and more sure of who I am.)

6. Pick three words your spouse would use to describe your year—don’t ask them; guess based on how you think your spouse sees you.
2014: Dedicated. Busy. Distracted.
2016: Confident. Angry (at times). Devoted (to my daughter).

7. Pick three words your spouse would use to describe their past year—again, without asking.
2014: Improved over 2013! (Hubster had kind of a crappy 2013. Things got better for him on all fronts this year.)
2016: Stressful. Busy. Focused (on work).

8. What was the best book you read this year?
2014: I read quite a few books on writing, along with a bunch of trashy novels. And then, in November, I re-read Pride and Prejudice. And that was the best book I read this year.
2016: I read a book called Story Physics that offered quite a bit of insight about writing--which is saying something, because I've read a lot of books on writing in my lifetime. Another good one was J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. It wasn't a big year of reading for me, and I read very little fiction--unusual for me, I know.

9. With whom were your most valuable relationships?
2014: My daughter and my husband.
2016: Same, although Girl Scouts has brought me a few new friendships that I value highly.

10. What was your biggest personal change from January to December of this past year?
2014: I am no longer on medication. I also have extremely curly hair, which I didn't have last January. The curls are completely natural. My hair just decided last spring that it was going to be curly. I couldn't do a thing about it.
2016: Good news! My hair is long and wavy and pretty now! As far as my biggest personal change ... hmm. I am a lot flabbier, thanks to my knee/hip injury. :( I'm also dedicated to staying married, which is a change from a year ago.

11. In what way(s) did you grow emotionally?
2014: I am learning to stop blaming my shortcomings on conditions found in the DSM-V. It's very difficult to differentiate what is "mental illness" and what is simply laziness or lack of confidence . . . but I'm learning to do that. Or trying to.
2016: I had some wonderful therapy sessions this year with a therapist who has since moved on. With his help, I learned to let myself be vulnerable in my marriage again. I have also become much more comfortable with people--I am still an introvert, but I've learned to enjoy social situations.

12. In what way(s) did you grow spiritually?
2014: Oh, me. I could write a book on that ...
2016: I've adopted what I could call "Closer to Fine" spirituality, from the Indigo Girls song, circa 1990. I no longer torture myself with struggle, and I think that's good.

13. In what way(s) did you grow physically?
2014: I gained five pounds! Yay! (I needed to gain five pounds!)
2016: I sure don't need to gain five pounds anymore! I don't weigh a whole lot more (though I've probably gained two or three pounds), but I'm not muscular anymore. I don't like that. I'm seeing a doctor on Wednesday for a lingering sinus infection, and I may talk to him about what exercises I can do that won't put me out of commission for the next week and a half.

14. In what way(s) did you grow in your relationships with others?
2014: Scout is becoming more mature, and that's being reflected in our relationship with each other. I love being able to have conversations with her, and I feel like our relationship is a totally different animal now than it was a year ago. I also improved my relationship with the Hubster. Due to a number of factors, we managed to spend more time together this year than we typically have in the past.
2016: Mending things with Dan. Even closer to Anne--we have "deep conversations" all the time, and I love it. Also, as I mentioned above, I've made some new friendships through Girl Scouts and hope to see those grow in the year to come.

15. What was the most enjoyable part of your work (both professionally and at home)?
2014: Learning new things! Working with great people! Being in Asheville! Having an income!
2016: My co-workers! I work with a great group of smart, funny people who make me laugh every single day. I also love the work I do; I feel like I'm helping to make a difference in the world, and that goes a long way. At home, I wrote eleven chapters of a novel and had a great time doing it. All of that came to a halt in the fall when Girl Scouts started.

16. What was the most challenging part of your work (both professionally and at home)?
2014: Starting my job and having it be incredibly hard to learn because my medication was making me so stupid. It was unbelievable how much easier life became after I stopped taking the Depakote.
2016: Professionally ... hmm. I guess it's that our team grew from three to five, and for a while we had four people crammed into a relatively small office. While I love my co-workers, I don't love feeling like a sardine and felt almost claustrophobic each day. That was a challenge. My responsibilities also changed a bit, and that adjustment has had its challenges (though I'm happy with it overall). Personally? Having to lay my novel-in-progress aside. It's a decision I made, but it wasn't an easy decision.

17. What was your single biggest time waster in your life this past year?
2014: Oversleeping. But I think I might have a sleep disorder of some kind (my new Fitbit tells me I average about 2.5 hours a night of sleep, even though I'm in bed for 8-9 hours per night), so maybe my answer next year will be different.
2016: Facebook. I hate to say it, but definitely Facebook.

18. What was the best way you used your time this past year?
2014: One-on-one time with Hubster, and one-on-one time with Scout.
2016: A combination of camping with my family and being a Girl Scout leader. Definitely both great uses of my time.

19. What was biggest thing you learned this past year?
2014: My kid and my husband are more important than my writing dreams.
2016: I'm good with kids.

20. Create a phrase or statement that describes this past year for you.
2014: Struggling for/against contentment? (That doesn't seem to make sense, but it does make sense. Trust me.)
2016: Landed. I feel like I've landed. I feel at peace and hopeful for the new year.

Blogging Elsewhere

Hi, Strangers! I've been blogging with my friend Anh over at Then a Gentle Whisper . Check it out!