In service to the song: a sociologist takes music lessons

“How does that note get to be in this song?”

It was one of the questions I asked at my last violin lesson. My teacher and I were looking at a song in the key of C minor: Besame Mucho’ (which I refer to privately as ‘that slinky Italian kissing song’.)   The sheet music in front of us had the notes and the guitar chords. He was teaching me bits and pieces of improvisation—particularly how to join in a song when others are playing by playing notes that belong in the song. And as I looked through the page finding patterns, there were two parts of it, two chords that didn’t seem to fit. So I asked: how can that chord belong in a song played in C minor?  It doesn’t seem to fit.

He said: “It’s a fifth of a fifth.”

Then I said:  “Oh, of course. How could I forget about that?!”

I actually did not say that. I said nothing. I cocked my head to the side and scrunched my lips and narrowed my eyes at him.  This means:  “You think I know what that is but I don’t and apparently it’s something that EVERYONE knows so let’s end the awkward silence with you explaining it already!”

Thankfully my teacher is good at reading body language because he sat down at the piano and started showing me what a fifth is and then where the fifth note of that note is and so on. And these are called the ‘roots’ of the chord. And haven’t I ever seen the ‘circle of fifths?’ (sure…)  And when it was all done, what I heard was:

It’s like you’re at a night club and your name isn’t on the list, but Bubba Junior is on the list and you know Stanley Joe who is friends with Bubba Junior so they let you in. You’re a friend of a friend. You get to be at the party because you know a guy who knows a guy who’s invited.

Then he showed me how eventually, when you travel far enough on the keyboard, you get all the way back to where you started—C. And on your journey there, you played every note (or at least every white key). Every single one of them belonged at the party via relationship to the note before. Every note got to be in the song.  Every one connected by their root.

“But”, he said, “you’re right—not every note sounds good in every part of the song.” He got out his guitar and played the chord I was looking at and then played one of the notes in the music with it. And some of them sounded off. He said “It’s unpleasant.  But, there are no wrong notes. There are notes that sound good and there are notes that are taking you to notes that sound good. This one that sounds kind of off because it’s just taking you somewhere else. It’s on its way. So when you play it in this sequence, you accept it because it got you exactly where it needed to get you. By itself it was unpleasant to your ear, but in relationship it works.”

What I heard:  There are no wrong moments. No wrong people visiting your life.  Only those that feel good—or those that are taking you somewhere else. There are ones that hurt, and they are allowed to be there because they are allowing movement. They are part of something bigger, not standalone moments. They are moments in relationship to your life song and so they are allowed.  The people, the moments–they are there in service to something greater, in service to the song.

See, this is what happens when a sociologist tries to learn music. She learns about music, sure. AND she remembers what she’s already learned about relationships and human connection:

Everybody gets to belong—because everyone is connected at their roots.
Every moment, every visitor—even the ones that hurt—get to be part of the story because they are taking you somewhere in service to your lifesong.
Why do those lessons matter so much to me? Because I am standing in or dangerously close to a dozen stories of pain and loss.  In many of the stories, I am in a position to lead others through the terrain.  This lesson reminded me of my opportunity to belong in my own story.  I can turn away from reality–avert my eyes and disconnect.   Or I can turn toward it, and allow it in the song, allow it to take me somewhere.  I can find root-level connection with the others in the story or I can hide.

If a slinky Italian kissing song can allow such connections in service to the song, then I suppose I can too.  Besame mucho…Amen.

besame mucho

Advertisements

fiddle lesson #2

My husband and I haven’t bought gifts for one another at Christmas in probably 8 or 9 years.  The first few times it didn’t go especially well (like, the year he bought me a VACCUM, for instance.)  So when, on Christmas morning, he walked in with a fiddle-shaped package, I was thrilled.   I’ve had the slightest music-crush on Amanda Shires (wife of Jason Isbell, whom we’ve seen many times) for some time.  The violin is like a voice–when I hear it, it sings to me.  And I’ve been wanting to learn it.

As the kids played with their new toys and slime on Christmas morning, I watched youtube videos and learned where the notes were, how to hold the thing, what the rosin was for,  how to tighten the bow, all of that.  I could read music because my mom taught me when I was little and I had learned other instruments growing up–piano, clarinet, guitar.  But this fiddle is different.  You don’t play by sight so much as you play by feel and sound–two things I’ve never been trained to do and two things that don’t come naturally.

I signed up for a lesson at the music story where the instrument was purchased.  My first lesson, titled on my calendar ‘fiddle lesson #1’ was just OK.  The instructor talked an awful lot about himself, all the instruments he played, how long he’d been playing, how much his fiddle was worth, and how he hated playing ‘second fiddle’ in the orchestra.  I can’t say I learned anything  about playing that I hadn’t learned on youtube–which was disappointing because the point of lessons is to have real-time feedback.

A friend told me about another place that gives lessons so I gave them a try.  ‘Fiddle lesson #2’ showed up on my calendar and I went.  As I waited, I spied on the lesson in the next room over.  The door was wide open so I could hear the teacher with the student.  He had her sing a little and play a little.  And they talked about how music was like a language.  When you’re new at reading words, you register the steps slowly and methodically.  That’s letter ‘C’.  And the ‘A’ and ‘R’.  That makes the sounds k-a-r.  Car!  Once you’ve been reading a while, you see those letters in a sentence and it’s automatic.  The car turned the corner.  You don’t even consciously think about it.  That’s how it is with music, he said.  Right now you’re still registering each note and it’s a lot of work.  But it won’t always be as long as you keep reading.  I thought, yeah.  That’s exactly right.

It was my turn.  The teacher asked a lot about me.  Where did I work?  What kind of music did I like?  What about the fiddle did I enjoy?  What did I want to learn?  He looked at my instrument and decided that the pegs needed to be more ‘sticky’.  This would help it tune better.  So he worked on sticky-ing up my fiddle pegs.  And while he did, he explained how it was built, how it was put together.  Why the substance he put on it would work the way it did.  Then, while he worked, he said he wanted to hear what I could play.  So he handed me his instrument.  It was old and beautiful and sounded amazing.  I played one of the few songs I’ve taught myself, “Just As I Am”–an old hymn that was played at my wedding.  I did a terrible job because I was nervous.  And I was giddy because I was actually enjoying myself.

After he finished the work on my pegs, we talked a little.  About the ways you could hold the bow and the physics of it.  Where on the strings made what kinds of sounds and the physics of that.  He drew pictures of where the notes hit and we talked about frequencies and pitch and why certain things sound good to our ears and other things don’t.  He showed me a few tricks about how to learn chords and it was mostly math and science.  He tuned my instrument by ear while he played it.  He made me some worksheets and gave me some real homework to do.  We talked about posture–playing with confidence–and he even referenced the TED talk by Amy Cuddy.

Then, before I left, he said: “Every year or two I pick up a new instrument and try to learn it from scratch.”  Why?  He did it because he wanted to always remember what it was like to be a student–to not know anything about what you were doing.  He said he thought it helped him be a better teacher.  I said I thought it was working.  I took my homework, packed up my newly sticky fiddle and went on my way, saying I’d call to set up the next one.

An hour of my life couldn’t have been better spent anywhere else.  He taught me about trust when he handed me, a novice, his antique instrument.  He taught me about the importance of being a student, especially in our quest to lead.  He reminded me that I could, in fact, learn something new.  He created a space where I could have fun doing it.

A few good friends have reminded me about two things I could stand to do a little more of in 2016: To start fully receiving the good that comes my way; and to play a little more.  I’m grateful that this tricky little instrument will allow me to do both.

FullSizeRender

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the music never stopped

We recently took our 7-year-old son to his first concert.  Because it’s what my husband and I have been listening to almost daily for the last couple of years, one of his favorite artists is Jason Isbell.  Isbell came to play at a venue about 45 minutes away so we made plans to take the kiddo.

Leading up to the show, he would grin every time we mentioned how cool it was to go to your first show at age 7.  He wore his Jason Isbell shirt the day of the concert.  We dropped his brother off at a sitter and we took him to deli that we go to every time we see a show in this town.  Sandwiches piled high with processed meats and cheeses.  Cash only.  Delicious and so bad for you and perfect, really.  The kiddo ordered a kids meal–a huge grilled cheese sandwich, potato chips, a pickle, a soft drink, and a cookie and ice cream…all for $2.95.

We finished our meal, paid up, and headed to the auditorium.  We were there in time to see the opening act that started at 7pm.  The band was good, but not quite our favorite kind of music–and certainly not who we were there to see.   Kiddo’s attention was drifting.  Finally, Jason Isbell came on stage.  His face lit up and I could tell he was a little overwhelmed. He played the opening song, which we all knew every word of, and it was so good.

By the third song in, I looked over at our son and he was sound asleep.  It was right at 8:30 (his regular bedtime) and he was completely out.  I wanted to wake him.  I didn’t want him to miss the music.  Especially when I heard the beginnings of “Flying Over Water”, an older song that I didn’t expect–and kiddo’s absolute favorite one.  I patted his leg and whispered in his ear but he did not wake up.

The music played on.  We were there for our son–not for ourselves.  We have seen and heard Isbell live a few times, once at the Ryman in Nashville.  After that, nothing will sound better.  We were here so our son could be blown away by live music.  He wasn’t really blown away.  He was just sleeping.  We enjoyed the show which seemed to last forever and then left before the encore so we could make it to the car ahead of the crowd.  He slept the entire way home.

The moment illustrated a haunting truth: the music plays on even if we miss it.

The kids play happily, pretending they are fast cars in a race and help each other to the finish line.  Pure joy expressed while you are on the phone in the next room.  

Trees drop their leaves in a beautiful act of surrender and you are in the house vacuuming.  

A customer in the next line pays it forward in an act of simple generosity while you are busy thinking of what you’ll order.  

A musician belts out poetry to indescribably beautiful sounds and you’re asleep.

Last week I wrote about false choices.  Our awareness is a different story.  Our awareness forces us to be single-minded.  To choose.  We can’t be two places at once.  Our awareness has boundaries.  We can’t be fully present with our spouse and also be outside talking to a friend.  We can’t be at work and playing blocks with our 2-year-old at the museum.  We can’t be asleep and rocking out at the concert.

My first reaction to my son’s sleeping at the concert was disappointment and a little bit of panic.  He was missing out.  We paid money for him to see this and he never got to take it all in.  He was missing the beauty, the sound, the fun.  How could I allow that?

My second reaction was joy: the music plays on.  For those of us who are awake.  Even for my sleeping son.  What better lullaby than this?  The music plays on.  If for no one else, for the one playing it.  There’s something really humbling and magical about living in a world where beauty happens just for happening’s sake.  Flowers bloom whether you see them or not.  Babies smile in rooms all by themselves.  The music plays on while you sleep.

There’s a big difference between “I’m missing out” and “the music plays on.”  The first says that there isn’t enough.  That the world is a scarce place and I must hustle to get my fill.  The second says the world is a place of abundance–so much so that even when I don’t show up, there will be enough.  As Geneen Roth says, “Enough isn’t a quantity–it’s a relationship to what you have.”

We are surrounded by more magic and beauty than we’ll ever be able to take in.  I am reminded to pay attention. To be a witness to the life around me.  I am reminded that the problem of scarcity is a problem of my own attention.  The problem isn’t that the magic doesn’t exist–it’s that I miss it.

Here’s to a 2016 of awareness and attention and gratitude.  Here’s to a 2016 of the second response: The music plays on.