From Encouragement & Well Being


Making Real Music: The Cuckoo Way

Anju’s interview is the shortest one yet (and yet produced the postiest of posts for my project). For 45 minutes (10 of which I may have monopolized with my own personal narrative…I’m the worst journalist ever), she talks about teaching 45 private viola, violin, piano, and drum students, but doesn’t really “believe” in private lessons. She muses on stress-induced hair loss, resulting from the demands of eccentric singers that expected her to sightread 20th-century vocal literature on short notice. She discusses her Pinnacle Pieces (Beethoven’s Moonlight and Pathetique Sonatas, respectively), one of which elicited one of the only compliments she ever received from a piano teacher. 

But I’ll get to all that.

Anju is a 26-year old musician in Bloomington, Indiana. She’s a private music teacher, a yoga instructor, and makes a considerable income with her band, The Vallures, a seven-piece soul ensemble that plays covers, originals, and is working on an album. She’s a chill cat (evident by her own cat, who took part in our conversation), so it makes sense that she would teach yoga. She’s remarkably at ease, and isn’t afraid to divulge exactly what I was looking for: her real story.

When Anju was little, she saw a flute solo at a church service and “wanted to get in on that.” Her mother thought piano was more practical (mothers know best, indeed) and set her on the wise old path. Anju claims to have had at least twelve piano teachers, and never practiced. “I was the nightmare child.” She distinctly remembers playing a piano piece called The Cuckoo (you’re welcome, Bastien Piano Basics) for about a year because her piano teacher had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t remember re-assigning it each week. “No one ever caught on because I could get away with stuff.”

This, my friends, is the truth. We all have a story like this, and anyone who says otherwise needs a fire extinguisher. For their pants.*

She was motivated to do well in college, but the challenge to be too many things to too many people caused her to lose her hair in multiple spots and gain weight excessively. She was broken by the classical system. She didn’t know how to say no, would take on too many projects, and felt sort of “universally hated” because people were always looking for a scapegoat. “Singers would give me 20th-century literature and expect me to be able to sightread it.” As a vocalist, I can say I’m guilty of last-minute expectations, but I wouldn’t do this to anyone I respected (or anyone, period), regardless of their ability to sightread Webern on a moment’s notice. Anju doesn’t put up with this anymore. She knows when she’s put in the work and won’t take the blame for anyone else’s lack of preparation.

Eventually, she meandered over to jazz, where she finally learned “real” piano skills, like how to effectively cope with the perfection complex (wine). “You gotta own the swagger,” she tells me. “I probably don’t have half the talent of other jazz musicians, but I sell it, and I bring my personality, and I own my performance.”

Her degree is in piano performance, not education, but knows how to reach her students. Her teaching philosophy? “To promote a life-long love of music.” She’ll spend a good portion of a typical 30-minute lesson honing in on technique; the other half is a combination of literature, improvisation, and jamming. Seems legit, except that she doesn’t fully buy into the idea that music is made in a private bubble. “I don’t really believe in private lessons.” Thus, she tries to get her students to jam and collaborate as much as possible. “Real kids want to make real music and don’t want to play the Cuckoo for a year.” Alternately, her college experiences taught her how to effectively squeeze in “pockets” of practice when her students are running late or don’t show up. There’s never a wasted moment (or sandwich) when there’s ten minutes to bang out some Hanon exercises, although she sits down at least twice a week for multiple hours to hammer things out on all her instruments.

Anju gigs at least once a week and travels often with the Vallures. Interestingly, she says she’s one of only two people in the group that have a degree in music. The rest are real people with day jobs who are completely willing to give up 3-4 hours of a Thursday night to rehearse. “I’ve never met any music majors that were willing to do that.”

The more musicians I speak with, the more often I butt heads with the “time efficiency” conundrum. As as musician, I was taught to hoard my time. 30 minutes in, out the door I go. Those were private lessons. It’s not that I’m stingy with my time; I’m generous when the payoff is beneficial. I’ll “scholarship” a promising private student, or join the ranks of a fantastic musical put on by a regional theater, if it means I get to work with a solid director and there’s significant evidence that everyone else is going have their life together (or, at the very least, show up to rehearsal with a pencil, a skill lost on many). Alternately, I’m a time nazi; begin and end when you say you will, otherwise you can bid your meeting and my respect a fond farwell. It’s not a coincidence that Anju’s is the shortest interview I’ve done. When it was time to end, we concluded naturally, like the end of a chill jazz solo.

The world of the “Community Engager” is proving to be my favorite. Anju’s personality seems to fit that mold, but I wouldn’t place her in that category. She’s a unique hybrid tiger, part community engager, part square peg in a round hole, part professional. It seems like an okay place to be.


  • AMmaven

*”liar, liar, pants on fire.” Get with the program. 

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The Fiery Feeling in Your Belly: how one musician found hers

Hana is fierce and fiery, a word I reserve for the most intellectually sexy singers. In fact, “fiery” is a word that surfaced multiple times today as we skyped across oceans. She lives in Munich, Germany, where she makes her living freelancing as a professional ensemble singer. In the US, this job doesn’t really exist, unless you count “subsisting on food other than Ramen” as an indicator of choral success (which I do). It’s a whole different animal in Germany, where there’s a rife market for skilled singers who actually make a living in churches and “project” choirs: short-term, contracted and compensated ensembles that come together for a set number of rehearsals and concerts before parting ways. She made her way on the scene after meeting her significant other, Berthold, in grad school; he was a German exchange student and she studied choral conducting.

Hana is the tenth person I’ve “interviewed,” a term I use lightly because hell if I know what I’m doing (similar: “work,” “clean,” “dress myself”). My friend, Sintia, who’s another sexy intellectual, is a journalist / author / writer / globetrotter / all-around badass (new twitter description. You’re welcome, girl). Sintia said I should be careful interviewing friends and I’ve come to understand what she means. She also said that over time, I’ll develop an intuition for the right kinds of questions.

Hana answers my questions before I ask them. She’s articulate, and her words come easily, but there’s a certain passion and confidence to her story, which is partially why I’ve decided to write about her first. Upon learning that she was a “bottom tier” singer throughout high school and college, she quickly elevated to spirit-animal status in my book.

Hana didn’t make the top choir until her senior year of high school, when was a “horrible singer” (in fact, she says she didn’t really learn to sing well until graduate school…didn’t we all…). She played clarinet and was good at math, but wasn’t passionate about either. She knew she wanted to be a music major after playing a band adaptation of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium (which is a choral piece; the irony of this is not lost on me). But she didn’t get into any of the schools she auditioned for. None. Not one. 

So she started off as a math major at another place and auditioned two more times for the music program before being accepted as a vocal performance major. Then she went to grad school for choral conducting. Again here, she didn’t blow too many minds with her conducting skills (“the other TAs were better”), but found the experience of group music-making and score study to feed her passion for singing, which she enjoyed more than anything. She calls it the “fiery feeling in the belly,” the animal that needs released into the wild and is something that a) is usually only one or two things, for most people (for her: singing and choir) and b) a feeling many never find, which saddens me.

While in grad school, Hana dabbled in the education program before deciding she was ready to leap continents. Like many of us, she had to be given permission. Her advisor pointed out that Hana’s “wear your heart on your sleeve” attitude (read: jaw-dropping boredom) in the K-5 methods courses weren’t really doing anyone any favors, and gently suggested that it was okay for her to quit the program. This brought her great relief, so she promptly skipped town. Munich or bust.

This is grit (and not the kind you eat…although, if you have any, I’d like some). I like the word grit. It’s concrete, both as a verb and an adjective. Hana possesses the gritty perseverance and hardiness needed to succeed at something you’re not entirely good at. It’s like waving your hand over plants to prepare them for the elements. Most people have to have that done for them; Hana does it herself, and none of her decisions, including becoming an expatriate musician in Germany, seem to have remotely fazed her (I may re-interview her and dig a little deeper here; time will tell).

  • AMmaven
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Bad Things Happen in 3s: The Return of the Ravin’ Maven

Well, Hello.

I’ll keep this one short, because priorities. 

  1. I’m back to writing.
  2. I’m not dead of broken knees or dreams, but Academia has left a considerably sour taste in my mouth (which is definitely not the garlicky BBQ I had for dinner, although that didn’t help).
  3. I’ve started a project that I have yet to fully name, but for now will tag as either:
    1. Unsung
    2. EGBDFail (Every Good Boy Does Fail)
      because unless it’s a Mac or an Oreo, labels mean nothing and and there isn’t a shortcut for “hybrid journalism / blog / writing / preservation of knowledge / sociology experiment / community project.” Unless there is, in which case, you should tweet me. 
    3. I’ve committed, at least for now, to writing and sharing Number 3, but will not hold myself to any arbitrary deadlines or meaningless rules, other than that I will eventually finish the project (unlike the many things I’ve tried to knit, but come on. Anyone who can watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and craft AND count should be burned at the stake for witchery).

See you soon.

  • The Maven
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Things I Want to Say Re: The Last Six Months

RE: The Last Six Months.

If I could write a letter to the fickle flock of geese that is/was the Last Six Months, I’d say a lot of things, such as:

Thanks for the downright tropical Christmas weather. Drinking margaritas while wearing exercise shorts was a very mid-Missouri way to celebrate the coming of Christ. 


Where in hades are all my missing socks? Because it’s winter and the mismatched look only works if you do it on purpose. Plus, wearing socks in varying degrees of thickness and texture is sort of like driving your grandma’s car – your feet feel way off and things smell kind of funny.


Forensic Files, thank you for taking me to the darkest corners of my mind. Also, that episode that took place in my very hometown made me reconsider who my neighbors really are. Also, I own two dachshunds who will rip your face off if you try to kill me and bury me in my own basement (which is not very conducive to burying people, anyway). 

Other things I’d like to say about the last six months:

I found my “line” and it is a speck in the desolate landscape of my ever-evolving life. Touche, kind madame.

You thought you could wear me down, but you are wrong. Wronger than an overdone steak that was flipped too often and not allowed to rest for 10 minutes before consuming. Also, I know how to cook a steak. Do you?

When you thought you had me pinned, I bet you were surprised to find me slamming down the minor victories, like putting my pants on without assistance, or tossing my loaner crutches in time-out (because they’ve been bad, bad, crutches). Or NOT climbing down stairs with the fragility of a newborn fawn (or, more accurately, a person who has had two knee surgeries in as many months).

If you even try to pull what you pulled on me these last six months, I’ll beast mode my way through it again. Like I do.

Put that in your dollar-store recorder and smoke it.


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We All Fall Down

Greetings from Cancun!

Just kidding. I’m not in Mexico. Far from it. Instead, I’m rekindling an unhealthy, yet symbiotic relationship with Relaxor, my sexy leather recliner I got last Christmas. Since my last post, Relaxor and I have become good buddies…sorority sisters, even. I wish I could say this was because I’ve struck a magnificent balance with the universe, one in which I reward the efforts of a fantastically challenging job with the sweet, sweet release of a glass of pinot while kicking my feet up at the end of a long, hard week.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to keep off my feet for other reasons. The long and skinny is this: I’ve got some serious knee problems (see this post from 100 years ago…). I’ve been diagnosed with chondromalacia, or cartilage damage, in both knees due to a patella malalignment / tilt. It’s fairly common, but if you leave it untreated it can get pretty bad. When I say “bad,” I don’t mean like pop-an-ibuprofen-for-menstrual-cramps type of bad. I mean end-each-day-bawling-in-the-bathtub-praying-for-relief-from-this-misery-even-though-you-never-pray type of thing. It’s dark, and I just went there, but the truth hurts.

Only the crazies end up needing surgery, but leave it to me to put something off until I’m literally immobile. Yes, mobility and I (you know, that thing that allows you to get places) are in a serious tiff right now, two surgeries are on the docket before the end of the year, and morale in the Anderson household is basically a really shitty sin wave (trig? Anyone?)

Add to the situation the strict realities of the American health care system and I’m in the throes of a bona fide crisis. It’s an interesting testament to the fact that no matter how well-prepared, emotionally stable, and supported you are, no matter what level of OCD financial planning you regularly implement, no matter how much alcohol you consume, sometimes you just can’t prepare for these things.

So what can you do?

Well, ironically, I like to imagine the many ways it could be worse. I could have a kid, or be pregnant, or have no family, even. I could not have the type of career where I can cancel everything at the drop of a hat (“organize a surgery in less than 3 business days” – check). I could have a job where I have to be on my feet all the day, like the health care providers who are taking care of me (in which case, I’d be done). I could be terminally ill, or be taking care of someone close to me with a terminal illness. I could be a really bad person and people wouldn’t want to help me out. I could be uninsured. My health plan is pretty much a shit show, but after a week of crunching numbers, it appears that it’s not the worst option on the planet, which might be to be purely uninsured (although, I sincerely explored the option of traveling to a different country to have the procedures done, which would cost only marginally more than what I’m paying to have done in the states, except then I’d get a vacation out of it). Don’t get me wrong, though – by the time all this is over, I could have done a lot of other things with what we will have sunk into this nonsense. Things like paying off all of my husband’s student loans, or purchasing 5-8 new water heaters, or buying up all the flexible PVC tubing in the midwest so I can open up my own hoop-making business, or buying a lifetime supply of Chipotle burritos (with guacamole). You know, things that matter.

I also enjoy ruminating on the absolute fuck-up-ed-ness of the systems in which we place our trust, and how those systems pale in comparison to the actual human systems that are infinitely more likely to circle the wagons and pull you out of the well when you fall down. People have offered to do my laundry, walk my dogs, make me meals, and have donated to my recovery in ways that I wish I could say I didn’t need, but I do. I try not to let the fact that there are some straight-up unacceptable things happening in the American landscape get me down, and just appreciate the fact that when I can barely walk myself to the bathroom, my neighbor shows up to lend me his crutches indefinitely – and I kept it together enough not to cry in front of him.

Positivity is key, here. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to not be in pain, so when the doctor told me I would be on the elliptical a week after the surgery, first I balked, then I realized how much I’ve accommodated my movement for far too long. Then I started belting my favorite songs at unacceptable hours of the day and devouring every cute animal video I run across on Facebook. Who wouldn’t love a clip of a dachshund licking a lion, I ask you? I’ve also started just accepting help. Relying on anyone other than myself or my husband is not my jam, but the Gods of Irony are in session, so I’m letting go and trusting that shit will get done. As it turns out, you can’t go it alone.

In the meantime, I’m crowdfunding my surgeries, because I’m savvy and that’s America. If you’re interested in hearing me compose a thank-you song and settling up any karmic debt, you can donate here.

If you donate, you may be privy to a hilariously inappropriate video of me singing Jason Robert Brown while the sweet lull of anesthesia pulls me under.

I’m thinking something along the lines of “Girl Sings I’m Not Afraid of Anything Before Surgery: You Won’t Believe What Happens Next” – the next clickbait viral youtube sensation? Only time will tell.

Until then…

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