The Weekly Poem Project is obviously going like gangbusters, but other things have been progressing as well. Here’s a brief update of the non-poetic aspects of my sabbatical.
First: I completed a proposal for the book I’m working on, which is currently titled, How the Other Half Laughs: The Comic Sensibility in American Literature and Art, 1895-1920. The title, I admit, is not particularly sexy. But it’s not bad for an academic book :-). It’s about the intersection between comic strips, popular fiction, and painting in the early twentieth century. The proposal was dangedly difficult to write–I kept being reminded of a quote from Hollywood screenwriter Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” I’ve bled a lot in the past month. But the proposal is done, and in the mail. Fingers crossed.
I also, finally, had my first flute lesson! Apparently my teacher and I experienced a classic email-related mixup: for some reason, my emails were not getting to him and his emails were not getting to me, and we both thought the other person was simply not responding. This is given that we live 3 blocks away and could easily have knocked on each other’s doors. Or maybe just yelled out the window. But no. We continued to launch our missives into the ether, where they were met with demoralizing silence. It took another neighbor, who is the mother of one of David’s students and married to my club mixed doubles partner, to set the two of us straight. When she heard my sad tale of woe at a potluck, she rolled her eyes and said, “so why don’t you just call him?” She apparently then said the same thing to him. And so we scheduled a lesson. Isn’t it crazy how easily we can let our silly insecurities prevent us from accomplishing even the simplest things? Apparently it takes a village not just to raise a child, but to keep all of us straight.
Anyway, the lesson was great. David gave me lots of new ways to think about playing that will help me get from my adolescent-level understanding of practice (just play the damn piece over and over until you get the notes & markings right, dammit!) to something that is more– I don’t know how else to say it but to say that it is a more “adult” way of playing. I’ve noticed as I’ve continued to play the piano over the years that while my technical level has definitely fallen off from where it was when I was practicing for hours a day, my sense of the music has grown a lot. I used to hate playing the slow pieces–I was a demon for speed. These days, I’ve been loving the slower, quieter pieces, not because they are technically easier (some actually are not), but because you can do more with them. Or at least, I can do more with them. And now the fast ones seem doubly daunting because now I realize that what makes them truly difficult is not simply the speed, but being able to play them musically at speed. Oh well, one step forward is still one step forward, even if it might feel like two steps back.
David focused on showing me ways to get at the music of the piece, and especially, how to use the physical demands of the piece to guide interpretation. For a wind instrument like the flute, it’s all about where and how you breathe, and controlling air, and meshing that with the sound the piece is asking you to make. It’s where physics and physiology meet music, aesthetics.
Taking a few lessons here and there as an adult (I took some piano lessons during my last sabbatical, which really helped me get back on track with that instrument) has been incredible. I highly recommend it. Have any of you picked up an instrument as an adult? Doesn’t playing music seem like a totally different experience as an adult than when you were a child? It’s not just about being older and wiser, or knowing more about the music, or whatever. Maybe it’s that the reason you’re doing it in the first place is so different.
At the end of our lesson, David (who also teaches at Loyola, as well as at other area colleges and universities) and I got into a conversation about how playing music, reading literature, doing math and science, playing sports, how everything, really, all goes together. Turns out David was a junior chess champion in New York state back in the day, so he knows of what he speaks. It’s too bad these days that not just kids, but adults, too, are expected to specialize so much. To become really good at one thing, rather than trying lots of different things and maybe becoming pretty good at some of them. Or maybe not any good at any of them, but a person who understands (or is trying to understand) the connections between them. In my post about Piet Hein, inventor of the grook, I mentioned that he was described as a “universal man,” someone with a deep understanding of science, technology, language, art, and what it means to be human, period. We pay lip service to the “Renaissance man,” the “well-rounded person,” and so on and so on. But so few of us actually are well-rounded anymore. And our system of higher education, where students are not only expected to know what their dissertation is about before they start grad school, but expected to know their major before they start college–maybe even before they start high school!– where everything is about finding your niche, your concentration, your (single, special) metier: all this, I think, actually prevents you from understanding how things work together, which is real knowledge, in my book.