From Humor

Old Yeller: one music therapist’s path to normal decibles

Talking to Tammy is like talking to a therapist.

A music therapist.

That’s what she is. A gentle, nurturing, ukulele-playing psychotherapist in purple pajamas. I message her to tell her that I’m running a bit late to our appointment. I’ve just resurrected from a 4pm power nap and I fix a cinnamon toast and hot green tea. My bones aren’t totally exhausted, yet I’m tempted to reschedule our conversation, which I rarely do because cancelations are for the weak. It’s my first hour of downtime after a string of performances (three in as many days), and I’m tired. Tomorrow morning I can rest. For now, I power through.

…in my pajamas.

Luckily, she’s in hers, too. They’re purple, in fact. I take this as a quirky love offering from the universe. It’s like the cosmos made me a cross-stitch pillow with the words “it’s all right, we’re all people” right above a snuggly-looking kitty cat.

Tammy says she is a musician, but not a performer. She is a pianist and violinist, but doesn’t have a piano (which by proxy makes me a professional chef / lingerie model). During her undergrad, Tammy developed an incompatible and troubling relationship with a “super talented” piano teacher, which is kind of her to say. I’ve come up with a lot worse names for less than favorable teachers, like “soul sucker,” “Hanon Harlot,” and “crazy psychopath in need of a beach vacation” …. Not that I’ve thought these through, or anything.

Said teacher was a yeller.

“Old Yeller?” I laugh.

Tammy pauses, and things suddenly aren’t quite as funny. I shrivel a little into my teacup. Sometimes I wonder if I should come with a mouth zipper.

Teacher would yell about a lot of things: scales, practicing, memorization. Old Yeller, in an offhand comment, once mentioned how she had seen Tammy out and about on a weekend…not practicing. As if a musician’s sole identity hinges upon 24/7, unadulterated practice (if it is, I’m in trouble). It’s a shame this outdated mentality prevails among educators. Music makers do a lot more outside the practice room than they do inside it.

Eventually, a missed note was enough to bring on nightmares and panic attacks, so Tammy made the tough decision to take a step back from the instrument, which I find insanely wise. I was a lot more self-centered in my early years, and worried about things like keeping score and whether I was a soubrette or a coloratura (which still plagues me, until Strauss makes it abundantly clear to me that I am the latter). Tammy wouldn’t study again until grad school, and even then, wasn’t emotionally ready to do so.

Tammy is pretty much the opposite of a yeller. She speaks passionately, but at a reasonable decibel level (take note, singers). An average piano student (weren’t we all), she never made first chair in orchestra, and her intrinsic drive for theory and performing topped out at tepid. Lukewarm, at best. In between her degrees, she taught elementary music at a charter school, which she describes as the “worst job of her life.” It’s ironic that she almost, almost glossed over this little detail. We muse at length about the trials and tribulations of classroom teaching. Come Sunday, she would dread the week to come, and lived a serious Jekyll & Hyde dichomety; her constantly stressed weekly persona was totally different and unlike her weekend self.

Hearing this, I want so badly to cry tears of joy and reach through the Facetime vortex to give Tammy a borderline inappropriate hug. Hearing this, I feel more human. When I taught public schools, I could never settle in a way the other teachers did. Friends of mine would seem so at ease, while I could be found rocking back and forth in the corner, panicking over broken xylophones (each of which cost the same, if not more than my yearly allotted classroom budget). I would fret over the constant, unending planning, the miles of red tape to accomplish nothing, or at best, very minor chips in the fucked up granite monuments of public education. The regular “state of emergency” (read: jammed copy machines, triple high priority e-mails) was enough to bring a summa cum laude graduate to her knees. Nothing ever flowed, and my body constantly fought the instinctual need to take flight.

Like me, she got out of it early on. Majoring in “pretty much everything,” she received a music theory assistantship and scholarship at a conservatory in Kansas, where she felt out of place, a nerd amongst the natives (an emotion not lost on most of the people I’ve spoken with). She would fall into step with her tribe later. The tipping point came when Tammy wrote the music for an international project competition with Disney. As a finalist, she flew to California, which was full of people who “really loved their jobs.” Theory was not doing it for her (AS IT DOESN’T FOR MOST, I might say), so she quit the program and moved to another graduate school for music history, then music education. Then she moved into a music therapy program and hasn’t looked back.

Her mom passed away recently; other than an extended weekend, she didn’t take any time off. Like beasts do. Her tribe rallied around her; showered her with cards and assignment extensions. Her peers would stop her in the bathroom to let her know she was cared for (in any other circumstances, this would be profoundly weird). “In other programs, and in performance, there’s so little flexibility for trauma.” An army of musician therapists to shoulder the burden of loss. I would surround myself with these people any day.

Losing her mom has made her a better therapist and lent a new perspective to her work.

“Well, my mom died, so I can probably get up in front of people and play a song,” she laughs.

I wonder what Old Yeller would think about that (it doesn’t really matter).

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The Terrors and Perils of Starting a New Job

I started a new job last week. It’s a spiffy gig – I even managed to negotiate…take that, glass ceiling. All this has been a nice way of testing the limits of my slowly-eroding sanity, because I didn’t actually do too much reducing in the other professional areas of my life. Oh, no. Other than slightly lowering the number of private students I teach, I decided it would be a good idea to open the floodgates to Niagara Falls (aka Stress Level 10), you know, to balance 2.5 months of yoga, calm kombucha-making, and getting my hair back on an every-three-day shampoo schedule (a somewhat grisly undertaking).

I forgot how complicated it is to step outside of your comfort zone, which is inevitably where growth happens, but where the waters are choppy and damn difficult to navigate. I think it’s important to grab new challenges by the balls…or, as the case may be, maybe just gingerly tug their ponytails and then apologize profusely.

I present to you

My Terrors and Perils

  • Cryptic post-its, penned in hieroglyphs, copulating and breeding on my desk. Attempting to pass off the Da Vinci Code-esque scribblings to people who clearly know what they are doing more than I do.
  • Forgetting to eat entire meals and then creating a whole new, co-dependent relationship with bottomless chips and salsa.
  • Going entire days without remembering to drink liquids. Then waking up at 4am and guzzling all the water. Then waking up at 5am. Then 5:15am…and 5:30am…and 6am.
  • Going soft from a desk job. Answer: seated butt clenches. When caught mid-squeeze, claiming they are physical therapy and then dealing with the awkwardly quiet aftermath.
  • Diplomatically insisting to the IT guys that I am no longer a student and therefore the useless statistics course I took in 2010 shouldn’t be showing up in my class list and that no one should have to relive that hell. Then remembering that I now share a wall with the person that taught that course. Then silently praising myself for being a neurotically good student.
  • Bypassing the bureaucratic hell that is the parking pass line because I’m not taking classes, showed up with the right document, and was wearing a black trench coat that added a few years and upgraded my appearance status from STUDENT to …student…?
  • Unapologetic shoulder shrugging, usually following a highly specific, specialized question I should know the answer to. Frantically texting the previous guy in my position for the solution and finishing off each text with an uncharted emoji: a way of saying “sorry for asking this terribly stupid question.”
  • Realizing that there are, in fact, stupid questions and anyone who says otherwise is high.
  • Finding out I am the same age as one of my graduate TAs, who has comparable life experiences and holds all the answers.
  • Seeking solace in artisan chocolate.
  • Creating a sophisticated password for my HR documents: watchmewhipwatchmenaenae-1!*
  • Forging the campus jungle for Human Resources, where some woman named Tricia with Blonde Hair sits on top of a totem pole, ready to process my paperwork so I can get paid and finally afford “next level” cheese (hello, consistent supply of gouda).
  • Not having time to mow the lawn ever again. Budgeting funds to pay a high-school neighbor to at least hit the front yard so my studio families can come to my door without navigating the Serengeti or using smoke signals.
  • Staying humble about paying someone to mow my lawn.


Here’s to New Challenges, Terrors, and Perils. I’ll check in here again after I’ve pulled up my big-girl panties, which seem to have fallen around my ankles….


*this isn’t actually my password :p
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Music Shit I’m Too Old For

Or the more grammatically appropriate “Music Shit For Which I Am Too Old.”

You know, a beautiful thing happens once you surpass college. You gain a sense of command over your own time. You attract friends that are actually worth your time. You hang out with people that are older, wiser, and from all walks of life. You start to believe in the old adage “you get what you pay for,” and are overly-vocal when you realize the price of tampons has tripled in ten years and you are seriously considering free-bleeding like this marathon runner gal did. Then you read posts like this and think to yourself she might be onto something (sorry, guys, but this is fairly important).

I recently made myself do a serious (and I mean serious) closet purge. I downsized, streamlined, and went so far as to log all my clothes and accessories into an app (and there is an app for that) in an effort to adult more, a verb I’ve run across a lot lately on websites that waste my time. Like any torturous self-reinvention tactic, I learned a lot about myself, and found the process to be strangely creative. I ended up getting rid of a lot of stuff I keep around for no clear reason, and found a sort of weird, demonic satisfaction in throwing out jeans I’ve owned since high school that still fit somewhat, but would fit even better if my hips would just rewind eleven years.

I think clothes are a fantastic metaphor for the self. We wear what we are. We keep what we think we are, just in case we ever are that person. I had these awesome shoes that were cosmetically divine. They looked like they fit, but they hurt like hell. I went ahead and threw them out because no one should have to suffer to be who you are. The blisters aren’t worth it.

Then a good friend of mine posted this article about shit we’re too old for, which I found entirely appropriate. I could add a few things to that list, like sheets that aren’t at least 500 thread count, or splitting checks, or fake flowers. I’m only pushing 30, but I think I’ve gotten a general handle on a basic life principle that takes a lot of people a long time to discover. Even as I try to write what that is, I can’t articulate it. I do know that I just don’t want to waste my time. Ever. In any situation. I have the exact same amount of time as every single person in this world (despite what “really busy” people tell me), so why would I want to waste it on mediocre conversation and shitty coffee?

To bring it home, here is some shit I’m too old for, as it pertains to my musical life:

  • Poor return policies at music stores
  • Scores that aren’t digital
  • MP3s I can’t instantly download
  • Apologizing for my teaching outfits
  • Learning yet another notation software program
  • Dramatically different and overly-complicated online assessment tools (like D2L)
  • Staff meetings / rehearsals that take more than 90 minutes
  • Top 40 radio hits without any semblance of substance or depth
  • Music teachers who don’t value all music, even poorly-written top-40 radio hits
  • Staff meetings / rehearsals that don’t provide food or coffee
  • Waiting longer than 10 business days for items I purchase online (I could have just gone there myself and written off a small vacation)
  • Bad musicals (and not the good kind of bad)
  • Cheap instruments
  • Releasing new editions of expensive textbooks in less than 5 years
  • Last-minute lesson cancelations
  • Invalid excuses for last-minute lessons cancelations
  • Late payments
  • Excuses for late payments (notice I did not include the word “invalid,” because they are all invalid)
  • E-mails from people wanting to know how much I charge for lessons (it’s all on my website)
  • People who don’t “do” e-mail or websites
  • Negotiating a “salary” that you know is available, but for which you have to jump through multiple hoops / perform a pagan ritual to get
  • Breaking in the spines of my music books
  • The phrase “I’m feeling under the weather today.” Just stay home. I do.
  • Pretending to know what I’m talking about. Never again.
  • Having relative pitch and not perfect pitch
  • Having health institutions assume that because I’m self-employed / on obamacare that I can’t pay for my doctor’s visits
  • Taking on students for less than 16 weeks.
  • Being asked to play or sing for free in exchange for “exposure.” Expose this, pal.
  • Adjunct teaching
  • Saying to students “it’s all in the syllabus.”
  • Keeping up with the latest 24/26/28 Italian Songs and Arias
  • Accompaniment tracks that can’t be accessed online
  • Working without a contract
  • Poorly designed assessment in higher education (or, hell…all of education)
  • 15 American Art Songs
  • Rehearsals that go late
  • Poor conducting or general directing
  • Inefficiency
  • A general disregard for growth or improvement
  • Taking jobs I don’t want
  • Taking jobs that really won’t help me in any way in the long run
  • Generally caring about what people think of me
  • Not getting fringe benefits (like comp tickets or wine) for poorly-paid but fun “pleasure” projects
  • Worrying whether or not I’m good enough
  • Caring about playing or singing wrong notes
  • Not enjoying every minute of what I do, most of the time.


So there you have it. What are you too old for?


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Tales from The Pit

“The Pit.”

The colloquial abbreviation for “pit orchestra,” or the oft-preferred alternative, “orch dorks.” Contrary to what the title may lead you to believe, “The Pit” is neither a body locale in need of antiperspirant (though, that remains to be seen) nor the most recent installment of Tales from the Crypt.

Many things it is not, yet The Pit perseveres.

I just completed my second musical theater pit stint. Perhaps a little foresight on my part might have sent me screaming in the opposite direction. Instead, I stayed and endured the most difficult music I have ever directed in my life. Even the piano/vocal reduction of Bach’s B minor Mass isn’t 600 pages. I kid you not, I got a whopping four opportunities to down my water and pull my wedgies, because the rest of the time, we were on. Never before has every facet of my degree(s) been put to the test. If you’re considering producing Legally Blonde the musical, make sure your music director has tits of steel (or balls, as the case may be), a conducting gesture that doesn’t quit, and a penchant for self-punishment. It also wouldn’t hurt to substitute a light saber for a baton because that would make shit more real.

It was during these conflicting six weeks that I came to understand what The Pit really means to me.

Pits are dark, dingy, often dirty and unvacuumed, cramped, seldom climate-controlled, and let’s be honest, sometimes in Sibera. I was lucky this go around to be in the townhouse of pits: relatively spacious, solid builder-grade quality, but generally lacking in the charm department and missing some fairly important fixtures, like a video monitor that didn’t get set up until the day before we opened (type-A response alert: 10). We did, however, have oodles of elbow space, which is more than I can say for 99% of pits, yet this caused me to feel strangely distanced from my Pit family, toward whom I am used to making subtle faces and having them overly read-into, resulting in a kind of strange, under-played presence from my musicians at times. At least my players feel comfortable enough to tell me when my face scares them into submission. My response to that was the phrase “please, just come back to your pit mother,” which was met with a few lukewarm laughs. Once again, pit purgatory: where the cockroaches are numerous and the chuckles are awkward.

On opening night, armed with my baton, I took my bow before the audience before descending into The Pit. Then in my frisky new conductor’s dress (pink, in honor of the lead character), I kicked off my heels and awkwardly stumble-sat upon my director’s tuffet: a 4-foot high wooden stool with no padding and a circumference area that just barely accommodated my 140-pound frame, and, after 2.5-4 hours a night, caused a severe case of bleacher-butt (where your derriere goes numb and you don’t feel the bruises until the next day, when you attempt to ride a bike and then decide maybe not so much). All that is to say I actually failed my first attempt to saddle that horse, so instead of gracefully remounting, I audibly said the words “shit balls” in an otherwise silent house. Nobody but the pit heard me, and they stifled laughs, but still. Shake it off.

The curse words flow freely in The Pit. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you’ll end up saying (or, at the very least, nodding appreciatively toward) some pretty colorful statements. A normally composed academic said “why does what I’m playing sound like absolute shit?” or delightful high-schoolers witnessing in horror the phrase “sex up that wah-wah pedal some. Think pornographic, not victorian.” Or, the oft-repeated “I missed that mother-licking key change again.” I love it in the pit, because I feel like we have our own neolithic language, consisting primarily of dirty adjectives and expletives. It’s like therapy for conductors and players, and it really works.

What do you do when an actor skips an entire section of a song? You violently attempt to communicate a measure number to thirteen people who are all looking different directions and inevitably counting different numbers (sometimes out loud, rarely correctly). You do this one of a few ways: actual sign language, which only works for the 3% of the music in which the measures are actually labeled with alphabet letters (wtf, composers?) and for the one person in the pit who understands fingerspelling. Other times, you physically stand up and begin exaggerating your gestures like an overexcited mime because for god’s sake, none of us are in the same place! But then you’re stuck there until you have a moment to re-mount your Throne of Despair, where the feet fall asleep and the muscles atrophy. Sometimes you tap into your adolescent gorilla and sign measure numbers in your non-dominant hand, but this only works for numbers five and under, and for someone who knows sign language quite well, you get strange looks for how you sign the number three, because what the general public perceives as the sign for three is actually sign language for six, and then we’re all fucked. I’d make a killing patenting a digital measure display attached to a clicker, for use in pits. Someone make that happen and send me my royalty check kthxbai.

Sometimes the Pit just makes up music. Because it isn’t musical theater unless there’s five sharps or flats (or sometimes both), eighteen key changes (in one song), and made up tempo notation, as is the recent trend, and who can keep up with all that, really?

This is not really a tempo marking, but nice try.
I get the sentiment, but this is not really a tempo marking. Nice try.
Excuse me, but only I am allowed to make up words that don't exist.
Excuse me, but only I am allowed to make up words that don’t exist.
Thanks for painting us that picture. Also, re: key - blow me.
Thanks for painting us that picture. Also, re: key – blow me.
No, YOU strut. Nobody tells me what to do.
No, YOU strut. Nobody tells me what to do.
Fat? We are all God's creatures.  Also, Bb minor? REALLY?! That's one-half step away from A minor, so maybe try again in a real key.
Fat? We are all God’s creatures.
Also, Bb minor? That’s one-half step away from a real key, so try again.

Instead, we just make it up. Like when my grip was too loose on my baton and it went flying in the drummer’s face on my two-count, and he managed to get ahold of it and put it between his teeth without missing a beat.  Seriously, I just looked over there and it was in his mouth, like a bone, and he just kept playing. I don’t know if he actually caught it in his mouth, or what…

Other times, we create strange, politically incorrect label-names for certain areas in the music. For instance, “lesbian bass line” or “Kyle’s bootylicious saunter,” or “the gay parade.” Still other times, the only way we can remotely figure out what’s going on is to listen to what’s happening onstage and write singers’  cue lines in our scores, which is more often than not something obscure and ridiculous, like “he left while we were shaking junk,” or “wake him up with your red hot booty.” If you know the show at all, all of this will make sense to you. If you don’t, you’re left deliciously contemplating what this could possibly mean.

Throughout all this, The Pit endures. They don’t even usually get to see the show they’re playing for. They are often under-appreciated, under-paid (if paid at all) professionals or quasi-professionals who are continually asked to “play softer, dammit” and sit through relentless tech rehearsals where they might play one song, in total, in three and a half hours. Yet, they surface from the caverns at intermission with only slightly broken dreams, and they usually obey their master follow their conductor. Which is why I always buy them sandwiches and cookies, and if I really have my shit together, a hand-written thank-you card and some candy.

And you should, too.


These are tales from my Pit. What are yours?

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Creative Frustration: A Gallery of Accurate Portrayal |

Creative Frustration: A Gallery of Accurate Portrayal

99 98 97% percent of the time I’m a pretty straight shooter and have my shit on lock. Like Condoleeza Rice or…Judge Judy. The other 3 percent of the time, my juices get corked. I wrote this song in about sixty minutes because my creative juju and I had an understanding. There were no proverbial blockages. It just came to me.

…other times my anti-muse seduces me to the piano with its coloratura siren sounds and leaves me with jack shit on the page and a caffeine crash that only heroin addicts could possibly understand (because when in doubt, french press). I hate un-productivity more than I hate bleu cheese and stupid people (the ones who don’t just walk to the right. It’s not that hard, people).

Instead of ruminating extensively on this, I’m going to share some images that accurately portray this damn dam. If you need me, I’ll be performing a creativity rite by jumping backwards around my house and chanting in a dead apocalyptic language (French).

a sandwich rife with mold
a sandwich rife with mold

The green = my dreams.

all senior citizens should have life alert
all senior citizens should have life alert

…and by senior citizens, I mean frustrated creatives.

bogged down by the sludge of corporate America
bogged down by the sludge of corporate America

…I actually cried a little at that one because that poor thing! Where’s Sarah Mclachlan when you really need her?

C. The answer is always C.
3. The answer is always C.
creative block: being dragged by a horse while pointed and laughed at
creativity block: people pointing and laughing at you as you’re dragged around by a horse…

…seems about right.

this is a moose nose.
this is a moose nose.


then there's this
then there’s this

I wish I could remember which word search yielded this photo…instead I’m just going to leave it up for interpretation.


Also, I’m pretty sure I am now red-flagged over at google and a few other stock photo sites.

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