Out of the Closet

 

Every September in Luxembourg, local residents find a large, orange transparent sack shoved through the mailbox (or sometimes, dumped unceremoniously on the ground somewhere in the vicinity of the front door.)  This is the time to go through closets, locate items we no longer wear and wish to donate to charity, and pack them into the bag for pickup, usually scheduled for the first day of autumn.  Whether this is coincidence or deliberate seasonal gesture, the timing is fortuitous.

In our neighborhood we also have a giant orange container for the same purpose, next to the bins for recycled glass and paper, perched outside our local Portuguese greengrocer’s shop.  On the afternoon the orange bag arrived (this year, still clinging stubbornly by one corner to the mailbox), I got excited.  My natural impulse to give things away and to clear space kicked in with a sort of frenzy, and soon I was happily laying waste to my closet and chest of drawers.  Once I started, I didn’t want to wait the two weeks until pickup of the sacks, so I ended up taking 4 bags down to the corner container.  Clothes I hadn’t worn in a really long time.  Clothes given to me that I had kept just to be nice.  Clothes I wasn’t sure why I bought in the first place.  Clothes hanging under other clothes, forgotten.  Clothes I imagined someone else would take pleasure wearing.  Clothes that didn’t quite fit my body, or my personality, but that had continued taking up space, “just in case.”   A few holdouts from the 90’s that had survived several such purges and changes of residence gave me pause, but sometimes it’s simply time to let go and move on.  (Apparently, I was fond of leopard prints in the 90’s…)

Cleaning out a closet isn’t such a big deal, really.  Making space in my head, in my heart, my spirit – that’s another thing.  What in my life have I been carrying around that I haven’t needed for years but haven’t released?  What burdens have I taken on from my family, friends, colleagues, society in general, and never examined?  What do I hold onto from the past that no longer serves me, but stays in my psyche, “just in case?” 

Releasing old baggage and destructive behavior patterns is as easy – or torturous – as we allow it to be.  My Reiki teacher, Don Alexander, often spoke of resistance, of the many ways we hold onto the familiar just because we know it and are afraid of who we are without it.  Even, and sometimes especially, the pain.  Why do we identify with our limits, physical or intellectual?  Why do we let the old tapes in our heads tell us what we cannot accomplish, why we cannot be free?  Don teaches his students a wonderful meditation about this.  After centering and finding a calm place inside, you slowly strip off, one by one, all your physical layers.  Who are you without your hair and skin?  Who are you without your muscle?  Without your eyes and ears?  Without your soft organs, your blood?  You continue this until you are down to your very bones.  The idea is to pare everything down to its most essential, its basic components. 

Who am I without my horn playing?  Who am I without my need to make people feel comfortable and happy?  Without my anxieties and desires?  Without my intellect?  Without my taste in literature, my ability to cook, my health, my marriage, family, senses, thoughts, emotions, even without my name? 

Obviously, we don’t throw everything away.  (I still have clothes in my closet!) But if we take a moment now and then to look deeply at the things we carry, to discover what is essential and what is not, and to release just a little of what burdens us, we can breathe so much more freely.  I’m still working on it, that balance between resistance and release, but the releasing part gets easier with practice.

Oh, and by the way, if you ever see me decked out in leopard prints again, send me home to do another closet purge, please.

 

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(Over)view from the rooftops of Paris

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I’ve just had the pleasure of spending a couple free days in Paris between performances with the OPL at the Opéra Comique.  Our Sunday show fell on my birthday, so Kerry and I stayed afterwards and indulged in an Ethiopian feast at one of our favorite restaurants in the Latin Quarter.  We found a very cute studio through the airbnb website (if you don’t know it, it’s a bit like Craigslist, but you are better protected from scams.)  The view out our window (7th floor, luckily with elevator, which is by no means a given here!) is lovely –  a double rainbow greeted us upon arrival, crowning the Jardin des Plantes right across the street.  Yesterday the master craftsmen at L’olifant Paris whipped my horn back into shape and gave me the opportunity to try some beautiful horns and mouthpieces.

It seems a good place and time to bring a little perspective to the goings-on of the past and future couple of months, especially because I haven’t written a blog for a good long while.  The “doing”/”being” ratio has tipped more to the “doing” side, as it often does when I don’t pay attention to seeking the inner stillness and reflection necessary to feel whole.  Mind you, I love pretty much everything I have been doing lately – playing great music with the orchestra every week, preparing and presenting concerts with the American Horn Quartet, taking Pilates lessons, going to plays and dance productions, and all the normal bits of everyday living.  A huge bonus lately has been to have so much time together with my husband, sadly lacking this time last year with all the traveling.

Lately, though, I’ve found myself walking around in a bit of a daze, not taking everything in.  Other than while playing music, when the habit of years of laser-like focus kick in, the edges seem a bit blurry to scenery, conversations, even the taste of food (for those of you who know me well, that’s a clear sign that something is amiss!)  Even this morning, I had originally planned to go to a museum but feared just drifting by the exhibits without appreciating them.  I go through this cycle often, not realizing it’s happening for a while.  This classic Far Side cartoon says it beautifully:

 

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The trick – the art – to living is in balance (being married to a Libra will teach you a thing or two about that as well!) – especially that between the inner and outer life.  The next few weeks are just as activity-laden as the previous ones, including more performances in Paris, an AHQ tour to the States, Götterdämmerung on Wagner tuba when I return, then brass quintet rehearsals and a Britten Serenade performance etc….  But I am going to do my best to find the inner stillness and perception to be fully present in the big and small moments, including the ones that don’t have a website link attached. But there just may be a double rainbow in the offering.

 

 

 

 

A change of pace

The quote “You are human beings, not human doings” has been attributed to various sources – little wonder, really, as we can all relate in times of intense activity.  Indeed, until quite recently, I’ve felt like a tetherball with Luxembourg as the pole, constantly spiraling towards and away by rail and by plane.  I think I was home for something like 15 days between May and the end of August, mostly in 36-hour chunks, emptying one suitcase and packing another.  Two of my suitcases are nearly the same size for just this purpose.  Endless gratitude to Kerry for putting up with Suitcase A on the bedroom floor while Suitcase B was on a conveyor belt in some airport.  Summer 2012 was particularly dizzy.  A combination of professional engagements and family-related visits led me to Japan (twice), Oregon, San Antonio, England and Scotland, Thailand and UAE.  There’s a beauty and freshness to travel and to the feeling of being a part of the international cultural scene as well as opportunities for growth and connection with other people and places.  I’m so grateful for all the experiences I have had and wouldn’t trade those memories for the world.

At one point after popping home for one night then rushing off to catch a train to another airport for two long-haul flights in a row to Asia, I just wanted to weep. (That came, eventually, late at night in a high-rise hotel room on the other side of the planet.)  Somewhere in the world, people were leading normal lives, cooking dinner at home for their families, doing a yoga course on Wednesday nights, leaving their instruments in lockers in the brass room of the concert hall, growing herbs on the balcony…

Then, in rapid succession, two events changed the course of the near future.  The first involved our landlord deciding to sell our flat so that we had to find another place to live.  Moving house has been physically and emotionally taxing in more ways than we could have foreseen, as well as having the extra burden of giving up our large rent-controlled place in Strassen.  We had to downsize or move further out of town, so we chose to find a smaller, albeit more expensive, apartment.  For much of the move preparation, I was commuting back and forth from a gig playing first horn on Schoenberg’s mammoth “Gurrelieder” with the Beethoven Orchestra in Bonn, playing a rehearsal, taking the next train home, packing several boxes, then catching the early train the next day for an afternoon call back in Germany….Now that all is said and done, we’re living in a gorgeous renovated 1950′s apartment in one of our favorite neighborhoods in Luxembourg City.  It’s full of light and charm, about a 10-minute walk from downtown.  What seemed painful at the time has ended up being a wonderful thing.

Around the same time this move was going on, I was offered a 75%, 2-year position playing 2nd horn in the OPL (Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, where Kerry and many of my good friends work.)  The opportunity came more or less out of the blue, just when I was longing for a more stable situation and more time at home.  Since then, the position has morphed into a Wechselhornstelle (position playing 2nd and 3rd horn.)

We took probably a dozen trips to the local recycling center, getting rid of “stuff” we didn’t have room for anymore.   Though we loved many of the items we threw into giant bins or sent off to be sold on consignment, each time we let go of another load I felt this enormous sense of relief and freedom, a release of pure energy.  Our excess possessions and attachments make it harder for us to breathe, to move, to fly.  Likewise, though I’ll be traveling less in the coming months, my new job feels liberating too (not counting three trips to the States in a row this coming spring, but that’s the subject of another blog!)

So… what will I do with all the time at home now?  Cook for my family and friends, grow herbs on the balcony, leave my horn in my locker at the Philharmonie, certainly.  Perhaps I’ll even do that Wednesday evening yoga class.

Modern-Day Traveling Minstrel

I’m heading home right now from 2 wonderful weeks as guest principal horn of the Beethoven-Orchester Bonn, performing and recording a CD of works by Gustav Mahler (Adagio from Symphony #10, the symphonic movement Blumine, and Das Klagende Lied.)  The train route between Koblenz and Trier winds alongside the beautiful Mosel River – forested hills rising from one bank, vineyards sprawling on the other.  The sun sparkling on the water’s surface is a welcome sight after our unseasonably murky May. Charming old wine villages with their tell-tale crooked timber frame houses compete for attention with castle ruins on the hilltops and tiny mountain chapels.  A few weeks ago, on my way home from another guest principal horn gig in Mulhouse (Mozart, Schoenberg, Webern, Schubert), my husband and I visited the Montagne des Singes (Monkey Mountain, hosting a colony of 200 free-roaming Barbary apes) and wound our way through the lovely countryside of Alsace.  Of course we had to stop for a delicious glass of Gewürztraminer and pot of creamy Bibelekäs.

One of the perks of this life as a traveling minstrel is the down time provided by the journey.  Though it’s a train that will have me home this afternoon, I feel a connection to the troubadours of old, slinging their harps and pipes and drums over their horses’ backs, or their own, traveling for days at a time in this same region of Europe to reach the next court, festival, or market town, singing for their supper.   One of my favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, features itinerant musicians and artisans in many of his books, focusing on their personal journeys as great events unfold around them.  Sometimes the musicians themselves are the movers and shakers, even princes of lost lands.  But more often than not they are mere mortals whose talents take them into the fray of excitement and danger.  My life’s not very dangerous, really (unless you count the possibility of throwing out my back lifting suitcases over my head onto luggage racks, and working with conductors) yet I feel the sense of adventure when the next voyage approaches.  The coming 3 months include trips to Burgundy, Bonn (again,) Antwerp, Brussels, Rotterdam, Osaka, Tokyo, Oregon, Texas, England, Scotland, Japan (again,) Bangkok, and Dubai, many of these destinations for gigs.  I’d like to meet the horse that could carry my hornpipes and me on this itinerary!

Putting together the AHQ “Tour de France”

Geof, Charlie, Kerry, and I have just returned from playing concerts and giving master classes on our mini-France tour which included stops in Mulhouse and the beautiful Loire Valley.  The preparation phase for this tour was, by necessity, spread out over several  months, with the initial correspondence well over a year in advance.  It’s an enormous undertaking to assemble even a 1-week tour like this – since we don’t have an agent in France, Kerry made the initial contact with several potential venues and professors.  After we had received positive feedback, he and I worked together on all the details of dates, venues, contract negotiations, itinerary planning, etc.  Sorting through literally hundreds of e-mails in French and handling the ridiculous minutiae of French bureaucracy was a challenge, especially because we are both involved in so many other projects at the same time, often away from home.  Invoices, purchase orders, program details, stage setup, contact addresses, phone calls with bad connections in rapid French, a last-minute cancellation, the wrong personnel listed on the publicity for one venue, no street address for another hall, GPS programming, merchandise gathering… and that’s just the non-horn-related parts!  You either need the patience of a saint or a lot of extra hair to tear out during this process (I fall into the latter category.  Or used to.)

But of course, the reason for all this is the music.  The new jewel in our repertoire is Walter Perkins’ arrangement of music from Porgy & Bess (in four movements with a fifth, “Summertime”, as an encore.)  Walt sent the score, Geof made printed parts, and we had an initial reading last autumn – after which we switched a few parts around to fit the quartet better.  Then we met for 3 days in February and a weekend before the first engagement in the end of March to put the whole program together.  Finally, the fun part!  We generally start off by getting the general feel of the pieces and the program, making sure everything flows, then we dive into excruciating detail to make sure every chord is in tune, every articulation matches, every entrance is clear as to who gives what, every nuance has a chance to find expression.  Often, it’s me coming into a piece for the first time and the rest of them reviving something that has been in the repertoire and done a certain way for over 20 years, but in the case of Porgy & Bess, it’s fresh for everyone.  Here are two clips from our concert in Cholet:

On the road finally, we fell into the usual whirlwind of packing up the tour van, driving to the next location (with the invaluable assistance of Geof’s wife Sherry), meeting our hosts, being whisked off to give a master class, fitting in a nap when possible, having the sound check in the hall, getting a pre-concert snack, giving every ounce of concentration and energy during the performance, going out for large and late dinners afterwards with great wine, getting up the next morning to repeat the process again.  It’s an intense and beautiful experience.

On this particular tour, we planned in an excursion to Chambord Castle on our way through the Loire Valley.  This provided us with a backdrop for an impromptu photo shoot. Some of the shots were more serious than this one: 

and this one:

Here was our favorite:

It’s important to find time during the tour to relax and recharge before the next burst of energy.

Here are a few pictures of highlights from the tour:

Virginie Maillard, our gracious hostess in Mulhouse, led her students and the workshop participants in a horn choir at the beginning of our concert.  The felt hats she made for everyone were priceless.

After our concert in Cholet with the friendly and enthusiastic Prof. Jerome Percher.  Afterwards, Geof ended up literally giving him the shirt off his back.

Charlie imparts his wisdom about low chops to a student in Mulhouse:

Kerry is the MC for all of our concerts, and giving the whole presentation in French didn’t phase him one bit! 

My folder…

posing under an advertisement for our concert in Sainte-Hermine

After playing for the Journée du Cor in Mulhouse, the Festival des Veilées Musicales in Saint-Hermine, another Journée du Cor in Cholet, we ended the tour by performing the 1st movement of the Schumann Konzertstück with the Brass Band Pays de la Loire followed by a 30-minute program on our own.

After all the hard and often tedious work of putting together a tour, I have to say that the thrill of performing and the enthusiasm of our audiences and the students we teach make it all worth it.  (Remind me when I’m sitting here grinding my teeth organizing the upcoming 2013 AHQ tour in America :->)

The Big (and small) Picture

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Last May, Kerry and I were featured artists at the Brass Explosion Festival in Singapore.  Part of our residency involved giving master classes, something I have always found to be a joyful challenge.  My approach has usually been “person-centered”  – listening to each student, watching movement, sensing energy patterns, waiting and seeing what comes to me to say to help.  This intuitive approach can bring surprising results, but it helps to have a “method” of some sort to organize the time and situation.  While eating Singaporean hawker fare and drinking fresh-squeezed lime juice in the glorious heat, an idea sprang into my head. I decided to try it out on that afternoon’s wonderfully receptive guinea pigs!  Its work-in-progress name was “macro-micro-macro,” but now I call it “focusing the lens.”  (I’ve just named it that now.  Perhaps it will stick.) 

Bringing a new piece to life can be a daunting, though exciting prospect.  Many people dive right into the smallest of details before they’ve given themselves the chance to experience the feel of the music, the way it flows, what they want to say, by means of the notes on the page.  First step: focus on the big picture and don’t worry right away about minutiae.  Be gentle during this process, as you would be with a child at play.   The important thing here is to discover your connection to the music, to imagine what it could become, with the full and glorious force of your creativity.

Second step: after this initial “getting-to-know-each-other” phase, now is the time to zoom in on details. Tackle the basics first (get the notes, in tune and on time, of course) through slow practice, identifying a few elements or passages each time that need attention.  You can be creative during this part of the process, changing rhythms or articulations on the tricky bits, playing legato passages excruciatingly slow to feel one note moving to the next, isolating large intervals and practicing them out of context, exaggerating dynamics (especially the soft passages!) Use a metronome.  Be efficient and pragmatic – if one fingering doesn’t work, try something else.  Use what tools your teachers have given you and see what works for you personally.  During this step, be critical, in a cerebral, detached way, never beating yourself up for perceived mistakes.  You’re building a bridge from your initial vision to performance readiness, and putting in the time and awareness at this stage will keep the bridge from collapsing.  It takes time, awareness, attention, diligence.  During this stage as well as the next one, I find recording myself to be immensely useful.

Step 3:  many creative artists are loath to go here, to step back from the “micro” level and back to the “macro” – the big picture.  We’re afraid to trust the work we’ve done up to this point, afraid of relinquishing control over any aspect of our performance, and end up screeching along with the brakes on.  This is the time to bring your initial fascination and vision to life through the fine-tuning of all the little details you’ve worked on so diligently.  Rediscover the flow, make the phrases mean something in relation to each other, tell a story.  Love the music even more because you know it intimately.  Present the whole piece to your audience so they can enjoy it – let them think it was easy!  Most people come to a performance or watch a YouTube video to be entertained and moved.  As for the few who listen to a whole concerto then focus in on that clammed Bb at 3’24” – you will always have them among you.  Don’t let self-judgment or the judgment of others paralyze the artist within. 

In Singapore, working with a student that afternoon last spring on this “method,” it was beautiful to hear, and watch, the transformation in his music-making.  It takes courage to engage in the process of creativity, but we were born to it.  At every stage of practice, rehearsal, and performance, remember your ability to focus the lens.

Virtuoso Horn Duo – Dark and Stormy Night video

Wow, I never expected to let this blog lapse for so long!  There are many reasons for that, some of which I hope to address in an upcoming post.  But for now, I wanted to share this video.  The Virtuoso Horn Duo is in the middle of a project right now performing concertos with the Orchestre de Chambre du Luxembourg (OCL) and is also preparing for a Valentine’s Day recital with our fearless pianist, Lauretta Bloomer, at the Foyer Europeen in Luxembourg.  

 

Here’s my first attempt at iMovie, a little slideshow of pictures to accompany Kerry Turner’s “‘Twas a Dark and Stormy Night” from our 2007 CD: