Zen for Ten 16.5: bonus track

“Hello darkness, my old friend…” – Simon and Garfunkel, “The Sounds of Silence”

Today I had one of those mornings where I didn’t want my husband to leave for work, because I didn’t want to be alone with myself and my old frenemy, depression. I suppose it has to be a friend because it comes around so regularly and hangs out so often, raids my mental fridge and parks itself on my mental couch, and it and I know each other extremely well. I’d be glad, though, to slam the door in its face, change the locks, and never see it again.

One of the many frustrating things about depression is that it can be so hard to figure out why it decides to stop by. What set you off this time? I was doing so well. This past weekend was busy and productive. Yesterday I got up early, in a better mood than I’ve greeted any Monday with in recent memory, and spent the day checking things off my “to-do” list. And then this morning happened. For no good reason I could find, I just wanted to slump at the table, in my bathrobe, and stare out the window at the birdfeeder while the world went on without me.

Instead I got on Facebook, which is a terrific thing to do instead of doing anything. One of my friends, a fellow pianist, had re-posted a great blogpost he wrote a few years ago about the kinds of problems professional accompanists run into. Nervous soloists who wear too much makeup, crazy divas, students who show up for their grad school auditions in ballgowns and clouds of glitter. It made me laugh. It also got me thinking about my own recital coming up this Friday and how crappy the program felt when I practiced it yesterday. You chose stuff that’s too hard, Depression told me. You don’t have enough time to get it ready. It’s gonna suck.

I can’t always answer my frenemy back with a good loud “To hell with you.” A lot of the time it wins, at least for a while. This morning, though, thinking about my friend’s post, I thought also about not just how I had to sit down at my own piano for a while, but how I might be able to make someone else smile.

Maybe I’ve mentioned this in other blogposts, but making recordings of my own playing gets me super-nervous. This whole Zen for Ten blog project has pushed my boundaries in a big way. When I practiced yesterday, none of the pieces I’m going to play on Friday was ready to be recorded. Today I decided to push a little farther. Get a little beauty out in the world and maybe make someone smile.

That’s where today’s “bonus track” post came from. Both videos below feature music from this Friday’s program. In making them, I had to haul Depression off the couch and shove her out the front door. She’ll be back, because she always is, but it was a good thing for my brain to get rid of her for a while. Now I’d like to offer this music, which isn’t perfect but is definitely better than it would have been, and hopefully brighten up someone else’s day.

The first video features two short pieces by J.S. Bach, from the same collection as the ones in this past Thursday’s post.

The second video includes all four selections by Johannes Brahms that I’ll be playing on Friday.

Brahms is one of my favorite composers, not least because he was a fellow introvert. I love how his music is so often deeply personal and introspective. For this program, though, I chose a couple of pieces (the first and last in this video) that explore his more virtuosic side. They’re flashy and showy, and while I’ve been working on them, I’ve complained at Brahms plenty of times. Why did you write all those notes? You don’t need all those notes. Why are you showing off? And also, Yeah, okay, we all know you had hands the size of dinner plates. Most normal people don’t. (That’s actually true; Brahms had big hands. You can tell, because of how many notes he asks you to play at once, and how far apart they are on the keyboard.) When you play flashy Romantic-era music, very often it helps to remember that it’s not just about individual notes, but about the musical gesture: getting the drama and passion across. My thought process, though, was something like You want a gesture? I’ll give you a gesture [insert flipped bird here].

All complaining aside, I do love Brahms. If he wants to show off, he has a reason. My job is to figure out what that reason is, and bring it across so that the music comes to life the way he wanted. It’s not perfect (especially not in this clip 🙂 ) but it’s fun to try.

As always, thank you for visiting. I hope this music makes your day a little better. 🙂


Zen for Ten 16: Meditation with Bach

It’s hard to stay away from political commentary these days. After a while I start to feel like a four-note wonder: fear, anger, depression, anxiety, scrub, rinse, repeat.

Like so many of us, I’m thinking a lot about where my place is in “all of this.” Activism doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m glad to be pushed to get involved. For those of us – like me – who generally dozed off between election cycles, maybe this time around is a much-needed and permanent wake-up call.

It’s also true, though, that we all need time and space to breathe and recharge our energy. Finding that balance between activity and rest, that place in which our anger stimulates us without burning us out, can be difficult.

The late, great Carrie Fisher famously told us to “Take your broken heart and make it into art.” Lately I’ve been working on a new short story, maybe the most difficult I’ve done yet. It deals with illegal immigration and what happens to one particular family in the wake of a police crackdown. When I started working on it, only a couple of weeks ago, I thought it might be dystopian and unrealistic. Since then, in the news stories that have become more frequent and more disturbing, I’ve seen that what I’m writing is all too real.

I want to write this story, and many others. My pen (or keyboard) is one of my few weapons. Nothing I write will be perfect, and a lot of it might be pretty lousy, but I’ll use my voice as well as I can.

Also, though, I like to see part of my role as an artist as helping others to recharge. To do that, today I’d like to share some of my own favorite meditation music.

When I’m stuck in a writing project, I often find that practicing, especially playing music by certain composers, can help me find solutions to problems. J.S. Bach is one of those composers. His writing keeps both my brain and my hands busy. While I’m concentrating on the notes on the page, and the precise motions of my hands on the keys, stories can simmer away in the back of my mind and come together.

Today’s video features two of the pieces Bach called Two-part Inventions. These pieces are fun and challenging because the hands are totally independent of each other. In a lot of piano writing, you play a melody with your right hand and an accompaniment with your left, so that one hand is dominant and the other can pretty much coast. Bach’s Inventions are different. You can play either hand by itself and have a complete melody, and then you can put the two together in an intricate dialogue. The back-and-forth between them is fun to play and to hear.

Today’s two Inventions are both relaxed, not too busy or technical. As you listen to them, I hope you’ll find the mental refreshment you need, and maybe a solution or two, if you’re looking for some.

As always, thanks so much for visiting the blog! See you next time.


Zen for Ten 15: Mental Health Break

Like so many of us, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks completely absorbed in politics. Every day, when I check my Facebook feed, I get caught up in the headlines and the passionate responses to them. It’s easy to spend hours staring at the computer, seesawing between worry, fear, hope, and anger.

Again like so many of us, I’m new to activism. For a long time, I didn’t like to share my political opinions on Facebook or anywhere else. I’m still not sure what my role is in this chaotically changing world, but am hoping that in the long run, crucial and long-needed changes to our political system will happen.

One thing I do know, though, is that music is healthy. It’s also something I can do. So this week’s post goes back to the idea I started with for this blog: sharing beauty.

For a few minutes, I’d invite you to take a mental break and listen to today’s featured pieces, three short preludes by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). Chopin was one of the great composers of the Romantic era (ca. 1825-1900). By his time, the piano as we know it today had pretty much evolved into its final form. It offered composers a huge tonal palette, with the biggest variety of high and low notes on any single instrument, plus the capacity to play very softly, very loudly, and everything in between. It was an instrument of terrific power and potential, and Romantic-era composers loved to explore the creative possibilities it provided.

Chopin is often known for his big, flashy piano pieces, that showcase the soloist and show off his or her technical chops. The three preludes in this video, though, are written in a different style, emphasizing intimacy and lyricism. If, like me, you need to take a deep breath and immerse yourself for a little while in something peaceful and soul-refreshing, these preludes are perfect listening.

Today’s feature: Preludes in G Major, B Major, and F Major, by Frederic Chopin

I hope this dose of music will help, as you face these times and answer them by doing the work you do best. Sending positive energy and light your way.

As always, thank you for visiting the blog. See you next time.