Friday, June 17, 2011

What good do I do, what good do I get?

Every Wednesday I spend an hour in the nearby hospice care home and play comfort through the air with the strings of my Irish harp.

I've just filled out my annual volunteer competency test for the hospice organization. There were questions about oxygen use (it's not OK for people to smoke while using oxygen) and hand washing (do it often and thoroughly).

They also want to know what I feel was my most valuable experience as a volunteer. I answered that it was knowing I've provided a pleasant distraction for the staff, patients and families. Some days I know I have lifted spirits and souls. I leave with a spring in my step. I'm not the sick one. I am reminded how good life is.

What I didn't write on my mail-in test, because it's a little selfish-sounding, is that I'm getting a most valuable kind of practice in the hospice halls. Since I'm not at home I can't just quit when I hit a bump in a tune. I have no excuse to stop playing -- no laundry to finish or dishes to do -- so I keep moving my fingers until my brain catches up, and I keep stirring my brain until my fingers catch on.

Compared to the hard work of dying, the specifics of my music are utterly unimportant there. I am free to feel the music my heart and harp want to play, and to let go of the concept of making mistakes.

Playing in the halls of hospice teaches me more about playing the harp than all my music lessons and classes and books. Or perhaps it's more correct to say that it teaches me further.

Each lesson I learn informs each lesson I teach. I must remember, while I'm helping students juggle guitar chords or pick a banjo, to also give them a peek into that other world of music I get to visit on Wednesdays. A world of music that is, sadly, not a part of how we usually learn music in our culture.

How did music get from there and then -- when a person would imitate a singing bird or the rhythm of dancing feet -- to here and now -- where we decipher the dots on a page and worry about playing correctly?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A picky detail

Chapter one is way too hard in most music books! And sometimes for the smallest reasons.

Tomorrow my challenge will be creating a pre-chapter-one lesson for a new mandolin student. She's a total newbie, and she's excited to play some little Italian songs. Chapter one in the mandolin world always leans heavily on how to hold a pick: how to go down up down up with the pick; choose a thin one or a thick; hold it loose, hold it tight, stand up, sit down, fight fight . . .

And I don't want to fight the mandolin. I want to have fun, and so does my student. So I'm going to borrow a page from the uke world and start with just plain finger or thumb. And when her arm will strum down and up, we'll grab a pick and see if we can hold on. And when she goes home to practice, she'll have the option of playing barefoot or of climbing into her high-heel shoes.