The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

All That Jazz March 8, 2016

There are a few things my son will likely remember me for long after I’m gone; a handful of annoying habits, some exaggerated facial expressions and hopefully, a couple of unique and insightful locutions.

Starting when he was teeny, I have always strived to condense matters, facts and various life lessons into concise, easy-to-remember phrases that when spoken will instantly conjure the matter at hand and remind one of the lesson to be learned. One of these such sayings is “Everything is a thing.” While its meaning may not be instantly gleaned by the reader, I think you’ll understand it easily enough if I expand a bit: I offer that within every seemingly commonplace thing or event, there exists a huge back story belonging to that thing; an industry, the thought and careful consideration of many human beings, and certainly the investment of time and money. To some certain folk, the mundane things we so easily take for granted may be the very cornerstones of their lives and careers.

You can take just about anything that is fashioned by the hand of man and find this to be so. The upshot of this idea? That one should take nothing for granted; the toil and thoughtful consideration of many of our fellow human beings are represented in every imaginable thing we enjoy or use. It’s easy to overlook how much was involved in the making of the chewed-up pencil which lies long-forgotten in the detritus of your junk drawer. But someone owns the factory which makes the little metal band which holds the eraser in place. Someone had to buy the materials to make the eraser, someone had to insure the trucks which drove the materials to the factory, and so on. One can take this tack with virtually everything on this earth which is not naturally existing, without the influence of man.

Years ago, when I was in the barfly chapter of my life, there was a charming neighborhood tavern I frequented in which a handsome young man with long, gently-curling, red-blonde hair tended bar. (He himself was not a drinker, and I often wondered how ridiculous we hard-drinking, hard-smoking patrons must have appeared to him as the night progressed.) It was a small thrill to watch him at his work, and as he was a kind and intelligent fellow, I wished I’d had a better opportunity to speak with him outside of the bar environment. One night I got my wish, and the young man agreed to join a small gang of friends whom I’d rallied to meet up after hours at the Green Mill Lounge. With live and top-drawer music every night of the week, there was almost never a bad night to stop in.

The bartender looked quizzically at me. He wanted a bit more information about the proposed destination, so I tried to explain. “It’s a jazz club. There’s live music.” He looked at me, appearing unsure of my meaning. “You know, jazz.” A light of some sort went on in his head and he responded, almost incredulously; “Is that the place where they do all that improvising?”  Yes, yes, that was it! I agreed with great excitement by shaking my head; yes, that was it precisely! He looked almost pained at my confirmation. He shook his head to decline the invitation. “No, I’m not going. Nooo. I don’t like all that improvising“. I didn’t press the matter, the crowd was moving, and he couldn’t be talked into it. There was so much I wanted to add – I wanted to explain the context, the framework of the music so it might have made more sense to him, so he might’ve taken interest. In that moment I realized something: even though people may have some things in common – perhaps even a lot in common, culturally speaking – they can live in radically different private worlds. Jazz was a foreign country to him, but it felt like my home town. Something that acted as a cornerstone and primary identifier for my life was nothing but an annoyance to this guy. There wasn’t any point to trying to sway him, so I took my new lesson as a consolation.

From that point on, I have never taken any of my experiences or values for granted. And even though I may overlook things, or never truly demystify them for myself (case in point: I still have no idea how the game of football works; to me it just looks like a laborious, injury-prone and war-like game of chess which takes way too long), I still give these other worlds their due. When someone tells me they’re into something, or they collect something or play some game I know nothing about, I have a certain amount of respect for all that that might represent. It’s easy to take for granted all the time and energy that things take. Hobbies and careers alike require a lot of behind-the-scenes investment. And I try to make sure that Elihu recognizes that too. Thankfully I think I’ve been successful imparting that to him. (I myself have a lot of my life invested in that kid for sure, and lest anyone toss off the role of mother as a sidebar to a ‘real job’ – my child would certainly prove otherwise on that account!)

But not everyone does fully appreciate the value of another’s skills or accomplishments. The other day I had an adult piano student with whom I had the most unusual experience… He arrived at his lesson with an amp, a guitar, a huge boom box and a bag full of CDs. That much wasn’t so crazy; he was primarily a guitar player and wanted a chance to learn how to play on piano what he did on guitar. I got that. Seemed like a lot of work just for an hour’s lesson, but I’ve moved more gear for shorter jobs. But then the ‘lesson’ began to drag on, and almost three hours later I’d hardly given him any instruction, but rather we’d spent the time playing small parts of songs along with the CDs on the boom box (I had my own boom box, but it wasn’t substantial enough in his estimation). We’d essentially just been jamming on half-bits of songs, piddling around, getting nowhere with neither one of us learning much in the process. (I did learn that one of these country artists he liked chose to play a lot in Db, which I found curious.) He’d wanted me to have the boom box – on which great rings of red light flashed like an annoying karaoke machine in a bar – and he’d been most enthusiastic about giving it to me. I said politely that it was “too generous”, at which he agreed and said that we could just call it a trade. My heart sank to my feet. Food stamps were two weeks out, my ex’s payment was late, and I had a $50 tuba lesson in a few days’ time. What the fuck was I going to do? And how could I politely refuse this horrible machine that made it look as if a small spaceship had landed in my living room? I smiled my way to the end of my wasted afternoon and saw him out.

When you play an instrument – and you play well enough to join in pretty much any situation – but you don’t play like a virtuoso – I find it’s easy for people to take your skill for granted. They might think “you’re talented”, or “you’re lucky cuz it comes easy to you”, so therefore it’s no big deal. Something like that. As if you hadn’t spent hundreds of hours supporting that talent or skill. As if somehow, since what you did was “fun”, it wasn’t worth as much. It wasn’t in the same category of the necessary services like litigating, filing taxes or cleaning teeth. Here was a guy who’d somehow thought that because he was having such a good time, and because I was playing along so effortlessly – that somehow my time no longer had as much value. I don’t quite know how a person can come to such a conclusion, but how else to account for his oversight? He even left me with the request that I learn some of the songs on the pile of CDs he gave me. I lightheartedly suggested that he get a gig for us, and then I’d gladly learn them. He reasoned that you need to ‘work up the material’ before you book the gig. He was a nice guy, but he was missing something here. Everything is a thing. And this was my thing.

After stewing over it for a while, I ended up sending him an email. Cuz I honestly feed my son with my teaching income. I couldn’t overlook it. Happily, the fellow had had some similar thoughts in hindsight of our lesson, and he was more than gracious enough to not only pay me for the lesson, but to also tip me $10. That was very kind of him, and I told him how much I appreciated it. I got a little lesson about my self-worth through this experience, and I think he did too. Yup, sometimes there really is more to the story than one thinks at first.

I’d like to get myself a piano single gig this upcoming tourist season, but there’s a pretty good chance it won’t be happening. I’ll give it a try, but I have a good idea of what I’m up against now, and I’m still unconvinced I’ll land a job. Last year I’d made a pretty good effort, but in hitting the streets after so many years, I learned all over again how involved the whole process was. Again, there’s so much more to getting a job as a pianist and singer than you’d think; you must have dozens, if not hundreds of tunes ready to go. That means charts in your key (or charts on a tablet – that’s light years beyond my capabilities and budget at this point), it means gear, sometimes it means childcare (thankfully I’m out of those woods now!) and it means chutzpah, tenacity and salesmanship, not to mention the hours of playing and learning technique and theory. And these days, it usually means you need a nicely produced video of your performance too. Videos from over a decade ago won’t cut it, nor will your story about ‘taking time out to have a baby’. Nope, none of this will buy you an easier entree into this elusive world of the single, working musician. I suppose eventually one breaks down the barrier through sheer tenacity and a relentless drive – that seems to be the missing element in my method – but as of yet, I have not.

Nothing is every as easy as it seems upon closer inspection. Me, I’ve only ever been just good enough to play; I’ve admittedly used my ears and natural talent to cover me when hard work may have been lacking. And while I can sing and play, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, what we often call ‘jazz standards’ (which are really just pop tunes from the 20s thru the 60s which jazz instrumentalists have improvised over) I am not a jazz pianist. I can fake my way through some 2-5-1s (the chord progression upon which much of popular music is written), enough to get myself through a hotel lobby gig, but to hold that post all night at a singalong piano bar – I’m not so sure I could do that with unyielding vigor for a full three or four sets. Yeah, I could get there, and I suppose in a pinch I could possibly sub – but again, there’s a lot of infrastructure and time involved. Right now, my time’s needed in other places; I don’t have the time to make the proper investment.

There’s a joke about musicians that goes like this: How many musicians does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: 100. One to do it, and 99 to say ‘I could have done that.’ ! Next time you hear a musician, stop and try to imagine yourself doing the same thing. Hell, next time you see anyone doing anything that you don’t currently do yourself, and ask yourself how you’d fare at the task. How comfortable would you be? How long would it take you to do the same thing with moderate proficiency? It’s easy to say you’d do it better than the other guy – but honestly, would you? Everything is definitely a thing. You can play guitar in your living room, but try doing it in front of a room full of people. Completely different. It takes skill to do anything well, no matter whether it’s cutting a lawn or writing a computer program. Everything is a thing – including all that other, unfamiliar jazz.

Here’s a link to Elihu’s performance of Ghost from Hamlet, which he performed last week at school, and again over the weekend at the Greenfield Talent Show, where he won third place for the same monologue. This too represents a good deal of unseen work. I myself don’t have a clue how or when he learned his lines. But I know they didn’t learn themselves! Proud Mama am I…

 

Red Truck Days March 8, 2015

It’s March, and that means it’s time for the Missoula Children’s Theatre to roll into town! Each year I play piano for this magical production, and although my son’s peers are no longer at the Greenfield Elementary School which hosts the program, I still have some young friends there – some have attended the Studio’s art camp, some are my piano students, some just friends and neighbors. These kids work incredibly hard all week, starting with auditions on Monday and ending up with a performance on Friday night – complete with lines, songs, blocking, choreography, costumes, makeup and sets. Whew! The whole shebang is made possible by two young and talented actors who bring the production to town in the back of the MCT’s famous red Ford 110 pickup truck.

Meanwhile, Elihu’s sixth grade class also had their annual class play this week, so you can understand it’s been a crazy-busy time for us both. Elihu had a generous role as the Muslim emperor in a play called “Crusader, Muslim and Jew”, which, as the title implies, explores the divides between the three religions and in the end (in the most convoluted, surprising twist you can imagine) highlights how ultimately we are all, most importantly, from the same human family. Lots of text to memorize for this one, but my kid’s got a magnetic mind for lines, so I didn’t worry for him. In fact, all the Waldorf kids are true whizzes at memorizing; they’ve been reciting verses and singing songs for years. (The sixth grade is also known as being particularly gifted in singing and acting – a very spirited bunch. A perfect place for Elihu. !)

I finally went to see an arthritis doc about my hands. Basically, he just confirmed for me things I already knew. It’s osteo, not rheumatoid. That’s a small blessing, I guess. But it is frustrating that in this day and age we still don’t know why people get it. It’s genetic, that we know, but in the end, knowing that is of no help. I did receive a script for a stronger anti-inflammatory, as well as a topical cream which has proven to bring a little relief during painful flare-ups (or long sessions at the piano). The doc is himself a classical pianist, and he told me that he also counseled a local jazz pianist about her hands. He told me that she happened to be convalescing nearby – so after my appointment I headed out to meet her. Little did I know I’d arrive just in time to hear her performing! A fantastic surprise.

Now that we’ve crested our end-of-winter busy spell, our attention begins to turn to the season ahead. When that red truck leaves town we know it’s just a matter of weeks before the snow will be gone. Hard to believe today, when flurries still fall, and the snowbanks are six feet tall. But just the other day, as I was cleaning the ice off of my car, I could have sworn that I smelled it. I stopped what I was doing and checked again. Could it really be? Yes, definitely, there was a new smell in the air. The birds are crowding onto our platform feeder with a renewed vigor – and that too tells me something is afoot. Change is coming. Our clocks have sprung forward as well. So now there’s finally some evidence that winter will be leaving soon.

Elihu and I have decided to enjoy the snow while it’s still here, and we’re going to use our snowshoes to visit the wetlands far back in the woods. Come Spring it won’t be accessible anymore, so there’s a benefit to the still-frozen ground. Knowing it won’t always be thus makes us appreciate it all the more. One more round of snow, then we’ll be more than ready for the great change ahead.

IMG_3021Homework continues, no matter what else is going on.

IMG_3024At the Waldorf School, students write in cursive. There’s a lot of writing, but my kid seems to be a bit more verbose than necessary. Hm. I wonder where he got that from?

IMG_3060The sixth grade’s play takes place in ancient Jerusalem.

IMG_3288Mr. Esty leads the final number at the dress rehearsal.

IMG_3347Thank you Cally for repairing Elihu’s costume on the spot!

IMG_3320The benevolent Muslim Emperor Salahadin and Jewish Merchant Nathan agree to be friends and shake hands.

IMG_3308Emperor Salahadin and his good buddy Roger.

Salahadin and Nathan ponder which of the three great religions is best.

The play ends with a song.

IMG_3296The cast, hamming it up.

IMG_3361Within minutes the class was out of costume, back in the classroom and winding down over some friendly games of chess. (Me personally, chess is not a de-stressor. !)

IMG_3279This is what my fingers look like these days. We can thank Dr. Heberden for lending his name to these enlarged distal joints.

IMG_3280Can’t fold them over side by side anymore, and this is as far as I can bend my index finger.

IMG_3159I don’t have a ‘before’ image to help give a better context, but even so you can see how the bone has grown, flaring out at the outer joints. It’s most noticeable in the middle finger.

IMG_3162I really liked everyone at this doctor’s office – and I love that the doctor’s wife has her dance studio in the same building. I love the idea promoting health and movement together. Btw – when I remarked to the nurse that I was rather disheartened at the lack of advancement in the understanding of arthritis, he pointed out to me that ten or fifteen years ago everyone in the waiting room would have either been in wheelchairs or walkers. He insisted that things are better – and that prevention entails healthier living and continued movement.

IMG_3167Now I’m visiting local jazz pianist and icon, Lee Shaw at a rehab center. I arrived just in time for her set!

IMG_3184Close to 90, this woman sounds as good as ever. I was thrilled to hear her.

IMG_3193Wish I could remember this bassist’s name, but he too was top-notch. He and I exchanged a smile when she started to play Billy Strayhorn’s ballad “Chelsea Bridge”. Seriously, what a treat.

The Great Lee Shaw

IMG_3376I got my new anti-inflammatory pills. Only problem is, I can’t open the package. If I could, I wouldn’t need the damned meds! ‘Press here’ indeed…

IMG_3377Screw it. That’s what scissors are for.

IMG_3486Backstage Missoula madness begins!

IMG_3503Grace is now a sixth grader, but she came back to help with the show.

IMG_3508This is Kevin, one of the MCT directors and magic-makers.

IMG_3499Hard to believe these boys are brothers! I bet they don’t always get along so peacefully…

IMG_3387The show’s underway.

IMG_3409Jessie – the cobra’s head – is the daughter of an old friend, and second to the end of the tail is little Coco, one of my piano students.

IMG_3541The entire 64 member cast and both directors. (Sixtyfour, did you get that?!)

IMG_3585A little last-minute post-show merchandise sale…

IMG_3587..and then it’s time to pack it all away again.

IMG_3601Twins Kestrel and Miakoda are regulars at the Studio’s summer art classes and worked backstage at this years’s MCT show.

IMG_3608Elihu pitches in too.

IMG_3597Can’t forget Sam! He helped out with everything!

IMG_3621I love the spirit that the Missoula Children’s Theatre brings to town; everyone pitches in to help get things done, and it puts everyone in a happy and upbeat mood.

IMG_3637

All of the scenery, lights, costumes, makeup and scripts fit into the bed of this ‘little red truck’. It’s more than a marvel. It’s miraculous, really.

IMG_3643Goodbye and thank you, Olivia and Kevin! All the best to you in your future careers!

IMG_3577Now that the dust has settled and the week has ended, it’s back to the bottom line.

 

Threshold March 7, 2014

March has historically always been a jam-packed month for us. And yesterday we’d both kinda reached our limit. By the end of the night Elihu had shut himself inside his bedroom, where he cried and screamed out his frustration… He had said that he was upset over a perceived transgression of mine… I’d picked the bed covers up off the floor and put them back onto his bed, and in so doing had ‘ruined things’ as he’d had his bed ‘just the way he liked it’. Mm-hmm. Crazy talk, and I knew it, but there was no reason to press the point. Instead I left him to cry, sulk and in general get the residual crap out of his system. No point to counter his mood with volume, anger – or reason. I knew what it was about: this had been one incredibly busy and stressful week and it was finally manifesting.

Late winter is always a bit busier for us as I play piano for (among other things) the traveling Missoula Children’s Theater group, which produces a musical at Elihu’s former Elementary School. I love doing it, it revives for me the skill of light sight-reading, it always has a cute musical theme and is fun to play – and of course seeing all the kids (63 of em this year!) rising to the challenge of singing, dancing and reciting their lines – all in these incredibly inventive costumes – makes it more than worth it. But it’s an investment of time for sure, and our rehearsal days begin just when the school days leave off – and since we’re on an earlier schedule at Waldorf, it adds a bit of a challenge. Elihu just doesn’t get enough sleep during this week, plus the poor kid has to sit through hours of rehearsals (and it’s microwaved pasta for supper all week long too. Ich). He’s a trooper, and once again at the end of it all, I realize how much of a team we are. By the end of the show he knows all the songs, even offers me notes, and ends up having a ball watching the final production. (He was once in the chorus a few years back, and while he had a good time, he didn’t enjoy the overall experience enough to do it a second time. His performance skills shine in other ways…) Yeah, just about anywhere I go – teaching, playing, working – he comes along with me. It bonds us in a way I can hardly describe.

Today, as we left the school post-show, post-picture ops (with kids he’d known since Kindergarten all those years ago), we entered the cold, clear winter night with joy and relief in our hearts. Finally, finally, finally….  Finally we were over the hump, finally we could go home and just do nothing. I took one last look at his old school with a deep feeling of nostalgia. It was the last time he’d be there for Missoula while still a peer of the cast. Next year both he and his old classmates will be middle schoolers. I sighed, and tried to remember the moment, to capture it and lock it away in my memory bank… the sounds of the kids laughing, yelling, running and playing, shouting their goodbyes, and one by one finding their way back to their family cars. We all drove off into the night and within minutes we two were pulling into our long, beautiful country driveway. As we came closer to our little house, we mused that we’d always be part of the family we’d just left, and how lucky we felt to have a home in both Greenfield Elementary and Waldorf too. It made us feel included, safe, happy. And as we walked across the moonlit snow to shut in the birds, we both stopped for a moment to admire the exceptionally crisp and bright stars (one of which Elihu corrected me was Venus) and velvet-black night sky. How lucky we were, we marveled over and over to each other. That this quiet, lovely oasis was ours. We lived here. Every so often we’ll share a pause like this, and we’ll just sit in the stillness as we take it all in. And tonight, with this crazy week – and even crazier day – behind us (including a quick visit to the urgent medical care unit – more on this later), we really were present for those stars, the moon, the sparkling snow, the deep, beautiful dark woods beyond.

There is much more to come, more than I myself can even truly understand at this point (The Studio is but one item on the full menu of projects and commitments before us), so I realize that tonite’s respite might not be quite enough time for us to recharge our batteries for the next phase, but hey, sometimes ya just don’t have any choice but to keep going. I suppose one could simply throw in the towel and retire from all meaningful existence (and don’t think I haven’t considered that option a time or two!) but that really isn’t the responsible person’s option now, is it?

So on we march, over the threshold and into our future adventures…