I had the piano tuner over today, since the upper register was now a quarter step off. Twice a year, like clockwork, I’m supposed to call him for an appointment. It had been sour for a couple of months now, but all the same, the timing for the tuning must be appropriately coordinated to the season. I wait until it’s good and darn cold before attempting to adjust, so the best times would be in the dead of winter, and alternately in the heat of summer. (You know that famous Alaskan heat.) The sound of those cluttered pitches makes waiting difficult, though. Greeting him at the door eagerly, I offered him a hot drink. “Come in, come in, ooh, it’s cold!”
I witness a change of character in people in general when the weather gets like this. It happens with animals, as well, in the face of adversity. Chickadees, for instance, will pile up by the dozens in the hollow of a trunk to survive. While a warm human dog-pile is an amusing thought, most people handle it in a similar, but less literal, way. Petty rifts and arguments temporarily fall aside, as man unites against nature. People smile and nod. They usher you inside. Strangers offer you hot drinks. Political and religious debates cease for a while, and everyone talks about the weather. How about that weather? Boy, we had twenty-five below at our house last night. Thirty below? That side of town is always colder, isn’t it? Remember that time back in ‘99, when it stayed 40 below for two weeks straight...
At a certain point, car tires freeze to the ground. Windshields crack and break. Engines may fail if you leave them off for more than a short coffee break, so all around town, the cars sit idling, filling the parking lots with steam fog. Fingers and joints are perpetually stiff. Students crack and bleed on my piano keys. Dogs prance as they try not to touch the ground while they find the quickest tree. Pipes break. Frostbite is just a sniff away. ...And yet, everyone is happier today, because each of us knows for certain that we are not alone in our misery, and the comfort found in such awareness is bliss.
Two hours later, tidy notes sounded once again from down the hall, in the studio. “Yeah,” he added, packing up his tools, “It doesn’t matter what precautionary actions you take, when the temperature plunges fifty degrees like this, pianos everywhere go out of tune overnight.” I noticed a hint of a smile as he spoke. Now I know why a piano tuner might choose Kenai for a home. I’m also suspicious that he might be giving me better attention because he knows I can’t stand the constant torture of having to hear twenty students play mismatched scales. He knows I’ll be calling again soon, with this kind of weather. Regardless, I wished him well and felt a bit of empathy as, red knuckled, he gripped the metal latch of his truck’s frosty door.
Kathryn Hoffer, the concertmaster of the Anchorage symphony, will be coming to town next weekend to adjudicate our first ever raggle-taggle Soldotna String Festival. Ida has the certificates (so it's official), Maria is accompanying, and I am responsible for the refreshments.
(I can't quite put my finger on why this feels exactly like I'm a fourth grader playing house.)
Once again, Maria encouraged me to pursue a lesson from Kathryn. Only two years of Maria's pestering, and today, I finally got the nerve up to email her. I didn't even ask if she'd teach me. I only basically tapped her shyly on the shoulder and asked if we could meet and talk.
I'm scared to death to find a teacher. But I'm so thirsty for instruction after two years of creative experimentation, I'm finally ready to commit to driving 300 miles round trip through Turnagain pass to get the dreaded constructive criticism and some kind of direction. If there's a chance that it will make me play better... I think it will. I hope it will.
This feels just like a date. I never was any good at dating, either.
I wasn’t even sure what day of the week it was today, after working in the kitchen for a conference at our retreat center. I don’t usually work weekends. Monday, right? The 16th. The banks will all be closed because this is Martin Luther King Day. Which means...
I forgot to call my mother on her birthday.
She sounded so kind when I heard her voice a day late, as though it was the perfect day anyway, as though it was just fine that she didn’t get cake or ice cream, or that she wanted steak and got chicken, or that her only daughter forgot to call... My mom works overtime to keep from putting guilt trips on me, since a.) I have an overactive guilty conscious and b.) I do a lot of lousy things sometimes, like forget my parents on their birthdays. Both of them this year. I tried at least eight times to remember, too. When I can’t remember simple things like birthdays, I question whether or not I really miss my folks, and whether I love them at all. I must love them, but why do I put them out of my mind like that?
She was telling me about a song she was learning on her dulcimer. “Here I am, Lord” was the title. “Oh, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that hymn. I wish you could record it and send it to me or something.” As we chatted, she moved toward the piano to find the melody for me.
Those unmistakable old notes from the out-of tune piano, in the background over the phone, they were exactly as I remembered them when I was at home. Suddenly, I was three years old again, lying under the covers in the dark, upstairs, listening again. Mamma used to play after she tucked all us kids in and kissed us goodnight. Lullabies from the piano would hush us to sleep in that familiar, comforting way. It was my first taste of music, the wonderful thing that music could be when it communicated love. As I drowsed off into slumber, the worries of the whole world slipped away, and the last thing I remembered was the steadfast love of my mother, which was all that really mattered to me.
How could I explain to her the tears that I was silently chasing off my cheeks? And all because of the silly old hymn, played by familiar fingers on a familiar piano, thousands of miles away, and a memory of years past. She reminded me of a bond that never grows old, despite my thirty years and forgotten birthdays.
Someone sent me this photo of our gig last night (posted with permission of Lee Johnson). Perhaps underexposed, but I kinda enjoy the gothic flavor. Lovely evening, with snow and single digits.
A review of the Amanita Trio:
"The Amanita trio is famous for its toxicity. There are many good performances from Amanita, but listening on the wrong day can get you into heaps of trouble, not to mention the delerium, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, liver failure or death you may experience. So, if you plan to hear this wild group, make sure to arm yourself with the proper knowledge, and don't listen to any old wives' tales about how to tell a good performance from poisonous ones.
"As knowledge is your best defense in avoiding Amanita poisoning when at a social gathering, it is wise to become familiar with all the parts the group. Unfortunately, some of these identifying characteristics are delicate and can be removed by wind and weather, or unorthodox practice routines. This is only a major problem if they are attempting a Reger serenade or certain Beethoven variations. If after all this, you still insist on listening to the Amanita trio, then you're on your own!"
George was mistaken in believing the peppers were mild. I asked before adding them to my salad, just to make sure. Make no mistake about it, the slice I stuffed in my mouth proved to be every bit as spicy as a pure mouthful of jalapeno. Oops! It was burning before I knew what was happening. Holy... !?
I drank milk. I ate bread. I sought ice. Burnt lips, burning, burning. Can I even think about anything but blistering pain at this point?
I went to the studio and returned to my double stop exercise, curious to see which would win, the prominent pain in my mouth or the pain in my ears.
Double stops win, hands down.
The cycle of moons rolls January around once again, the heart of the lull of winter. Temperatures zap the humidity from the air, making the strings lifeless; the bow hair feels brittle and dry. I wish for lotion to rub into my notes, to liven them up and make them less scratchy. Having no solution, and unable to soothe my irritated mind, I break for mental regrouping.
Nearly two years have lapsed since this all started. When I first began my repossession of the violin, I thought if I could only get the sounds inside my head to come out of my instrument exactly as I heard them, then I would be content. And thus it began.
Maria asked me why I do this, practice like I do, with such obsession. Will I leave? Do I plan to audition for a conservatory, join the symphony, abandon the state? No, I answered, this is simply for music’s sake.
At one point, I had some notion in the back of my mind that this musical gorging would eventually have to find a point of saturation. My appetite would be satisfied, and I’d sit back one day with a sigh and a belch, and say to myself what a wonderful journey this was, and now I am here with all the notes at my disposal, and can play anything I could possibly imagine with grace and ease. And then I would mellow in my maturity, like an old retired person on the front porch in the rocker.
Two years, and I discover that the goal lies exactly as far away as when I began. It is not as though I haven’t made ground. On the contrary, I know that I am so much better than I was. It’s not fair, though: as we travel, the ear becomes wise, and begins to hear things further ahead, more sounds to achieve, more gains to be made. Two hours a day become three, then four, yet the object of my desire lies perpetually on the horizon, right where it was two years ago. No. In fact, the endless horizon itself is the goal, with the the same expanse always between us. I’m not fooled. It never ends.
This makes me happy.
I resolve to:
--hang out with my friends more.
--go to a concert.
--catch a king salmon.
--meet Hobo Jim.
--give my own recital.
--eat oatmeal for breakfast instead of donuts. At least once.
--try a new cheese.
--do my taxes.
--not smoke crack.
--write a letter to the editor.
--buy new running shoes.
--drink coffee every single day.
--shoot my gun.
--Go to bed before midnight at least once.
--say something nice to Josh Poland.
--climb a tree.
--send a card to someone.
--tell others about Hawaiian 105, the Hawaiian music station.
We fired our shotguns, blew our party favors, and threw confetti as we shouted across the lake for some fifteen minutes before collapsing in hysteria.
Emily Grossman is from Soldotna, Alaska. Biography
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