Richard and I, for the very first time, are taking a full month’s vacation from Phoenix. Many folks who live in Phoenix (and can afford it) do this, but they usually spend a month or two of the blistering summer in a cooler place, often on the California coast. So why are we here in Flagstaff, AZ just when the temperatures in Phoenix were finally starting to be livable? Because my natural habitat is the mountains, and I miss being in a true autumn. Richard generally accedes to my wishes as long as there is a place to play golf, every day if possible. I love the crispness of mountain air, the brilliantly colored leaves, and being surrounded by pine trees. And last night, it snowed!
The last few months before leaving Phoenix on October 1, my most recent bout with creeping old age has involved ankle issues: a ruptured Achilles tendon on the right, and a messed-up peroneal tendon on the left. I have also developed sciatica, something that I’ve learned in conversation with other senior citizens is very common — and painful. It had gotten to a point the week before leaving that I started seeing a physical therapist, because the only solutions proposed by doctors either hadn’t worked or would have necessitated injections or surgery. No, thank you, unless I get more desperate than I am right now. When we left Phoenix, I was back to wearing my orthopedic boot on the right foot, and at the recommendation of the PT (and my friend Kim) was learning to use walking sticks to get a little exercise without hurting myself.
But something miraculous happened when we arrived in Flagstaff. My ankle pain is almost gone, and I can walk quite easily without using the sticks. The only possible explanation (other than a decrease in stress level) is that my body works much better at high altitudes. I was born and lived in Colorado Springs (6,000 ft) until I was 18, and I feel infinitely more at home in the mountains, so this makes sense to me intuitively, though I’m not sure the medical establishment would agree.
The sciatica, on the other hand, persists, and I need to stop what I’m doing every couple of hours and stretch in all kinds of ways to ease the pain. I’ve been told by a doctor I absolutely trust that my back is the source of the pain; it’s hard to believe because all the pain is in my legs, and wanders around from my hamstrings to my calves on both sides. Here endeth my complaining. It does me no good, and even I get bored with hearing it.
My sister Nancy emailed me (a vanishingly rare occurrence) to say that she hopes I’m spending all my time sleeping, reading and doing crossword puzzles. That sounds wonderful, but apparently, that’s not how I roll. Yes, I am allowing myself more time to relax, but I need the structure of an agenda of some kind in order not to lose track of who I am. I have to attend a few Zoom meetings and seeing a few students virtually, but the amplitude of time I have here offers me a chance to do some fun tasks that I don’t seem to get to when I’m at home.
My plans for our time in Flagstaff:
- practice piano (I bought a keyboard with weighted keys cheap from a friend and brought it along)
- practice viola
- do some reading in Spanish
- learn a little Portuguese on Duolingo (some of the immigrants I meet at my volunteer gig are from Brazil)
- reorganize my computer files in Dropbox
- lose weight
- at long last, write a blog post
We are now in our second full week here. So, how is it going?
Check! I brought a few pieces I’ve wanted to learn/relearn in my quest to get my piano fingers back, and I’m managing to spend 10-15 minutes several times a day working on them. There have been other months- or years-long periods in which I played the piano very little or not at all. When I was young (before age 40, maybe?), the recovery took little time. The motor memory had stayed fresh in my mind and I got some skill back quite easily. It’s been harder after each hiatus, and this time my “comeback” has been particularly slow. On the positive side, I have far more patience than I used to have.
I more or less taught myself piano as a young kid. My mother was a pianist and had several piano students, but for some reason didn’t want to include me among them. I didn’t take this as a slight, but listening to her lessons and using the John W. Schaum graded piano books she preferred, it was easy to pick up the basic skills. My first formal piano instruction, at age 11, was from a forbidding woman named Shirley Shaffer. I think she was recommended to my mother as THE piano teacher in our area, and I’m guessing my parents paid more than they could afford for the lessons — which I hated. Mrs. Shaffer had a very formal home and teaching style. She did not seem to either like or respect me, was overly critical, took phone calls during my lessons, and gave me pieces that were insultingly easy. There was not a scintilla of rapport between us. I only remember playing at one recital, a regular routine for Shaffer students. The piece she selected for me was “Sleepy Wind,” which I can still hum (though I never do). As is often done, the beginner students played first, so I was among a group that included 5-year-olds, and we all listened as the other students played in order of who Mrs. Shaffer deemed incrementally more worthy. A girl named Diana, maybe 15, had the audience in the palm of her hand as she gave a witty introduction, then wowed us all with her technique. I felt humiliated and patronized, and since that’s the only recital I remember, my tenure as a Shaffer student must have been quite short.
The piano teacher I had in high school, Roger Boyd, was at that time the music director and organist at the Air Force Academy Chapel north of Colorado Springs. My parents, no longer poor, but not anywhere close to wealthy either, knew Roger as a fellow member of our Presbyterian church. He charged them only $5 for each of my hour-long weekly lessons. In retrospect, I realize just how lucky I was to have this consummate musician as a teacher. At our first lesson, there was instant rapport. We chatted, got to know each other, I played for him, and he gave me the name of a collection of piano pieces he wanted me to buy. We bought the book, and I was dismayed to see that it was full of short, easy pieces. His goal, however, was not to humiliate me, but to humble me — big difference. He would not let me move on through the book without my having perfected each piece: correct fingering, hands perfectly synchronized, dynamics (soft/loud) observed and performed, musical phrasing, etc.
For an organist, correct fingering is crucial. As long as a finger is pressing on a key, the sound fully sustains, but it instantly stops when the finger is lifted, so in order for passages to be smooth and even, there’s no fudging with fingering. On a piano, when a finger hits a key, a felt hammer hits the corresponding string(s). As long as the finger remains on the key, the sound continues but “decays” (decreases). When the finger is lifted, a “damper pad” stops the sound completely. The “sustain pedal” on a piano (the one on the right) disables the damper pads, allowing pianists to finger any old way by intermittently lifting all the damper pads, blurring the sound. Roger, however, considered overuse of the sustain pedal cheating and insisted that I learn the rules of correct fingering. This blog post explains the basics if you’re interested.
Roger also encouraged me to play with each hand alone until the chosen fingering became automatic before attempting to play with both. He taught me to develop an inner metronome to keep tempos steady. As long as he was my teacher, I learned pieces with discipline. When I went to college, those habits stuck to some degree, but my lovably eccentric, Canadian piano professor, George Ross, thought and taught in a different way. He opened up a world of musical literature to me, and we had a great time working together. I think, however, that my practice between lessons became less rigorous.
Well, in my senescence, I’m going back to basics, and it’s alarming just how many repetitions it takes for motor memory to start to “gel.” I’m on it, though, and only feel sorry for Richard and other folks who have to listen. A few pieces are starting to come together when I focus well and play slowly enough. Though occasionally frustrating, it’s fun, not tedious.
In the “before-times” (prior to the pandemic), I started playing with a string quartet, provisionally named the Hidden Track String Quartet (after the wine shop where we first played publicly). We have had a few post-vaccination rehearsals, and may be playing at some kind of chamber music concert in February or March. We are playing a (for me) difficult Mendelssohn quartet, and I am the least proficient of the members: My mind can keep up with the music, but my lack of technique leaves my fingers behind. With the very best intentions, I took my viola out of its case the second day we were here to practice. I was planning to “woodshed” that Mendelssohn, bar by bar, day by day.
Many violin and viola players buy or devise some kind of padding for their chin rest (the ovate thing next to the tailpiece) to avoid getting the dreaded violin/viola hickey. Mine, fashioned maybe 10 or 12 years ago, consisted of a store-bought latex “Strad Pad” (which, thankfully, can be used not only on Strads, but on lesser instruments as well) which I covered with a piece of soft fabric from an old pair of Richard’s underwear and secured with a rubber band. I had not really paid attention to it for a long time, instead just getting the instrument out, tuning it, tightening the horsehair on my bow, and playing. Well, this time, I happened to look at it. It was beyond unsightly: the fabric was filthy, the latex Strad pad had deteriorated and stuck to the instrument and all kinds of muck had accumulated in the seams of the viola.
Off came the rubber band, and I removed the fabric which, disgustingly, continued to hold its shape. Then I peeled the Strad Pad off the wooden chin rest and the instrument itself, bit by bit. Using whatever products I could find (Goo Gone being the most effective), I gently removed the gunk from the seams of the viola. I soaked the fabric, sprayed on stain remover, and threw it into a load of wash. I ordered a new Strad Pad, and it arrived yesterday. It’s the wrong size, but more or less works. I’m curious to find out whether I get busy practicing or wait until I get home and maybe get a new chin rest or pad from a string shop I know. At the moment, this decision does not seem to be under my control. I’ll play it here or I won’t. I’m kind of busy…
I get to use my Spanish a little bit each week, but I love to throw myself in the deep end and, slowly and deliberately, read books en español. I bought a Spanish translation of Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection (in Spanish, Los dones de la imperfección) months ago. Having only recently realized that I’m imperfect and that’s OK, I need to immerse myself in that truth lo más posible. Neutralizing almost 70 years of varying levels of shame necessitates regular mental rehearsal of how to live in this fresh landscape — much as I need lots of repetition in returning to the piano. I’ve only made it through the 10-12 page introduction, but I think this book “hits the spot” for me, clarifying the value of una vida de todo corazón (a whole-hearted life), with the goal of authenticity, not perfection. Unlike reading in English, it’s impossible to scan or hurry through this translation. I need to stop often to look up vocab words I don’t know, and to examine some sentences over and over again to grok the meaning. Es bueno.
I kind of like the app Duolingo just to learn basics of a language, but hadn’t started it until now. I took a short break from writing this to do the first two lessons. I thought Portuguese would be very similar to Spanish, but the vocabulary, pronunciations and spelling are generally very different. Sigh. Am I up to this? We’ll see.
Eh, who cares? I can find what I want by searching Dropbox… usually.
Oy, I don’t even want to talk about it. The first few days, I was disciplined about what I was eating, but a friend arrived with apricot scones (with homemade apricot jam), and another one just made a lasagna from scratch, including the pasta. What with the béchamel sauce, the rich meat sauce, the pasta and all that cheese, it will be a fine feast. The wish/need to lose weight has retreated into invisibility. Later, when we get back… Yes, that’s the ticket! I’ll jump right on it when we get home…
so… how’s it going?
Well, it’s evident that, other than #7, I happen to have listed these goals in order of how much enthusiasm and energy I have to actually make them happen. Good to know.
Now for the photos:
Credits for photos of the AFA Chapel: exterior-ginosphotos/123RF.COM, interior-phototrippingamerica/123RF.COM