Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Archive for July 2011

Role Models

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Another rock star is dead before the age of 30. On Facebook, in among the expressions of sadness, people are ranting about what a bad role model the dearly departed was. Does everyone in the public eye have to be a role model? Really?

I started thinking about other public figures and whether or not they were always considered role models. Politicians? Check. Writers? Check. Millionaires/billionaires? Check and check. Opera singers? Check. Actors? Check. What about on a smaller scale, like teachers? Check. Religious leaders? Check. Business owners? Check.

Other than teachers, it seems like all these folks have a reputation for running amok. What’s the deal? Is there something about being in the public eye that attracts people who are damaged? Or is it that being in the public eye causes such damage that the psyche breaks down and indulgence takes over?

I started thinking about the nature of over-indulgence and self-indulgence. It seems like the line of work influences that too. Rock stars overdo with substance abuse. Opera singers with food. Actors with ornamentation like jewelry, clothing, houses, and cars. Politicians seem to indulge in many directions, often including the thing they most vigorously campaign against. Religious leaders seem to fall off the straight-and-narrow when it comes to making predictions or caring for young people. Business owners get obsessed with the bottom line and step over the ethical line.

What’s the deal? As a musician and a writer myself, I thought for a while about the people with whom I do these things. Do we over-indulge too? Hmm. Not that I know of. Is that why none of us are famous?

Now wait a minute. Do you have to be famous to be a role model? My parents were my role models, and some teachers. I can’t think of a single famous person that I considered a role model when I was young. Oh, there were people that I idolized—the Beatles, Amelia Earhart, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Isadora Duncan, Louisa May Alcott. But did I want to grow up to be just like them? Not really. Did they inspire me to do my best in some things? Absolutely.

So what is it about today’s youth that needs to emulate famous people? Has it always been true? Did I want to be Bach when I grew up? Or Agatha Christie? Do they make it look easy enough that the rest of us think that we can do it too?

Are we, in the end, drawn toward role models whose virtues—and failings—we want to emulate? Did I become a classically trained musician because I want to feel a little out of touch with my own times? Did I choose writing, technology, and music because people with the same inclination toward introversion, introspection, and celebration are also involved?

Do I still have role models? Well, yes, I suppose I do: My parents, certain teachers, several of my parent’s friends. Oh, and there are those individuals who teach me about kindness and humor and grace in the tiny little lessons of living their lives in light of those things. These are my role models now, and frankly, the list looks much the same as it would have when I was thirteen even though many of the names have changed.

There are still the Theodore Bikel characters, the Pete Seegers, those standing up for truth and against injustice, and those committed to their craft, whatever that might be, and who follow their destinies even if that doesn’t make them rich, famous, or even popular. These perfectly ordinary people are my role models now, and apparently, have always been my role models.

Perhaps there is no famous person with whom I would trade places—isn’t that what a role model is? No, I would rather achieve my own fame and notoriety under the steam of my own efforts and skills. It’s not that I don’t want to be rich and famous, of course. It’s that I want to be expert at my own craft and be recognized for it. I don’t have a problem with working hard to achieve whatever it is that I’m going to achieve, either. If it were easy, I probably wouldn’t value it as much.

So, do people who, say, choose rock and roll, do they choose it because it represents a lifestyle that they want for themselves? And is that the same for all rockers?  Is it loud guitars, driving bass, crashing drums, and mind-altering amounts of drugs and alcohol? And those who choose writing, is it because they like being alone, being moody, and experiencing a lot of rejection? What about opera singers makes them so obsessed with the pleasures of the senses?

Is this a chicken and egg question? I don’t know.

This week, another famous person is dead from self-indulgence (presumably) and people are decrying the poor thing as a bad role model. Isn’t it really the obligation of the individual to choose role models who inspire us to do our best and not our worst? And when we choose a role model who proves to have a tragic weakness, is it their fault that they fail us? Or is it our own bad choice that is at fault?

Is it our wanting them to be perfect that drives them to the point where they are completely consumed by their own imperfection? Shouldn’t we pick role models without such obvious defects? Or do we choose them because they succeed despite their failings? Do their failings become huge and inescapable because we expect impossible perfection from them? Or is it their imperfections that allow them to become the role model in the first place? Did someone who knew that the individual had issues choose them as a role model expecting that somehow, the result would be different this time?

I don’t know what the answers are, but I wish we wouldn’t berate the dead for having not lived up to some indefinable standard. Let’s choose role models based on the whole person and not the surface of them. I think that means that we mustn’t idolize people we don’t actually know without reading about them in the tabloids. And it means that if they are only public figures but not otherwise living their lives in a way we would emulate, let’s admire their gifts but not call them role models. Let’s let the poor things own their own lives without being responsible for ours by implication.

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 27, 2011 at 12:53 pm

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Making Jam

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I love my bread machine. No, really. I’ve made bread pretty much every week since I bought it, spending seventy-five cents per loaf rather than three dollars plus AND I can completely control what goes into it (okay, I’m not grinding the flour myself, but other than that…) so I know that it’s not just homemade but it’s actually healthy and nutritious.

But I also love that my bread machine has a wide variety of settings including a knead-only dough cycle (great for making free-form loaves like focaccia, plus pizza dough and homemade pasta), sourdough and whole wheat settings (for different crust types and crispiness), and, wonder of wonders, a jam setting.

Yesterday, intending to make fig jam but finding a great price on apricots (no, this did not stop me from buying rather a lot of figs), I used the jam setting for the first time. Talk about easy, even on a hot day! You cut up the fruit, drop some pectin (I found a nice fruit-based one) on it and let it think about stuff for ten minutes, then throw lots of sugar/honey/agave and some fresh lemon juice at it and turn the machine on. The machine heats quietly for about 15 minutes, which starts melting the sugar and encouraging the pectin to do its thing. Then it starts to stir. Every five seconds the little stirring device gives a single whirl for about an hour, and then there’s a quiet cool-down of another 15 minutes.

The result is a glorious color, and after another 15 minutes cooling down away from the machine, the jam is ready to be put into an ordinary jar. No sterilizing, no tragic glopping on the counter (because the loaf pan is square, it has those nice corners to facilitate pouring), and a pint of so of fabulous summer-fruit jam is ready for consumption. I don’t have to have a hot kitchen or a huge pantry or any special supplies at all.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’d made a loaf of wheat bread earlier in the same day that had a little orange zest in it, and I was pretty eager to see how these marvels went together. Still hot from the machine, the jam was delicious. Three hours later when it was room temperature, it was happy-dance worthy. In the morning with peanut butter…I don’t actually have the words.

I immediately began plotting to make fig jam. All I needed was some more pectin from the grocery store.

So I went for a walk to the grocery store, thinking about the magic of pectin and sugar and fruit, which is already sweet, and a little heat. You just sprinkle a little pectin on, let it sit for a bit, add sweetness and acid, and agitate for a while. More sitting makes it astonishing.

It struck me how making jam this way was like a koan. You receive/hear the koan and think about it for a bit. After a while, it begins to change, both in meaning and in context. Then you actively agitate it and see what happens to it. Then you sit with it again. The longer you sit with it, the more precious and amazing it becomes, even if you come back to it after it’s had some time to cool.

All this magic in a bread machine that cost about $50. [Editor’s update: It took me two days to post this because the fig jam was so amazing, I had to lie on the floor in a sugar-happy coma or something.]

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 22, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Posted in Food, Thoughts

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Worlds Merging

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Last night my Jewish choir joined forces with my Gregorian chant choir. I’d set it up with the same anxiety that prospective brides have about the two families meeting for the first time. But I needn’t have worried. It was as if we’d all known each other forever.

I’m so proud of all of them—all of us—I feel like I could float.

The Gregorian chant group has existed for about a dozen years, and I’ve been part of it for most of those. We sing from the block note neumes (see my post on the History of Music Notation, if you’d like more about that), and meet every single Monday night except for December, and sing at a proper Gregorian mass on the fourth Saturday of every month except December. Some in the group do not read modern notation and others are accomplished musicians from a lot of eras and instruments.

The thing about the group that is most striking is not musical ability or the music we do. It’s the uniformly sweet temperament. Oh, sometimes we get a bug up our noses about whether there should be a breath here or not, and whether this could be sung with that emphasis or another, but it’s always about the music and never about the person whose opinion we’re ignoring. Some of the sweetness could be that I’m the youngest person in the group by at least a decade and the older we get, the more inclined we are to be sweet, or it could just be that no one is fighting for prominence because we’re all made better by every other person who shows up and we know it.

And some of the people who’ve been in the group but aren’t anymore, some of them are the most special people on the planet too. (And we miss them regularly.) We’ve had a transfer teacher from Poland, a music major from U.C. Berkeley, a math doctoral student, professional translators, editors, peace activists, school teachers, engineers, and cancer survivors. (Rather more of our share of cancer survivors than is comfortable, but I suppose that’s better than the other way around.) We’ve had marriages and babies from among our number, and cried on each others’ shoulders about relationships and politics (a lot about politics) and natural disasters, jobs, health, and just plain being in a bad mood. We’ve had former and current monks and nuns, we’ve had Buddhists, Episcopalians, Jews, and Quakers—oh and a few Catholics, while we’re at it—we’ve had people who wanted to chant as a form of worship and people who wanted to chant as a musical expression and people who just wanted something interesting to do on a Monday night.

Yes, some of the best people in the world have sung with that little group over the years. And I, for one, am made better for it.

Now, the Jewish group, they’re new. This is their third year (I think—it might only be their second). They sing music from all eras, the only rule being that it’s either by a Jewish composer or expresses Jewish sentiments. Again, I was astonished to find the nicest people on the planet in their rehearsals. Like the chant group, it’s a diverse crowd in skills, age, and faith. I knew a few of the members before I showed up for the first time, so I felt quite welcome from the start. But others have joined since, and I can see that that is just their way—they are a very nice bunch of people.

The thing that struck me from the beginning was how alike the two groups are—in skill, in musical focus, in temperament. So it was natural that when the Jewish group took the summer off, I invited them to sing with the chant group (they rehearse on the same night and I’ve had to alternate which group I rehearse with). Things went swimmingly, with people saying whether they could or couldn’t come, and if they were interested in hearing the chanted mass rather than singing it. And I didn’t have any doubts at all until I was driving to the rehearsal.

Then I had a moment—what if this is the night one of us is having a bad day? What if it’s harder to sing from the neumes than I made it out to be? What if we get locked out of the hall for some reason, and have to stand on the sidewalk until someone can find the priest to let us in? What if no one shows up after I talked it up so large????

But then, people started to arrive. People who’d never met each other before hugged. There were smiles and laughter. And when we went in to sing, there was focus and fun and a lot of good music. The Jewish group sang as if they’d been reading the neumes all along and the chant group was helpful and welcoming and—all those things I went on and on about in the earlier paragraphs.

I’ve made a lot of music in my lifetime. It’s one of my favorite activities. But that rehearsal made the best music ever: the music of love and friendship and a common purpose.

Maybe I am actually floating.

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Music, Thoughts

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Taking the Train

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Last week at meditation, the koan was about a student going to the master and plaintively asking to be shown the light. The master responds that the light is nothing but the reaching for it is of value.

What struck me about this was not the obvious—that it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. For me, it was about fighting the urge within myself to resist change that I do not originate.

First, the destination versus journey words came up for me and then I got an image, the metaphor of a train. I am traditionally the engine, pulling things where I want them to go, riding high near the light, large and in charge. But the truth is, some of the best journeys I’ve had in my life were from the caboose, content to see what comes as it comes, not to control or direct.

I thought about this for a while, seeing how the metaphor fit into various aspects of my life present and past. Yes, as an introvert, I have a tendency to be the engine and not notice or know whether there are other cars on the train. But what I love about travel is exactly the caboose metaphor. I might have a plan and know how I’m getting there, but I love to let things unfold and just see where the train goes and where that trip takes me. I love to flip a coin to decide my path when I’m on vacation.

Why do I have such a separation between my “normal” life and my traveling self? How can I put that willingness to go with the flow into my daily life?

Hmmm. There is change afoot nearly everywhere I look. Some of it excites me, some frightens me, and some I seem to be ignoring. If I think about the exciting changes, they have to do with the season (figs are in the stores again—did you hear me? Figs!) and with some creative endeavors. If I think about the frightening ones, they are mostly creative and somewhat financial, which I suppose ends up being creative, and they are also somewhat physical, with some concerns about health, mine and others that I care about. And the changes that I ignore? They are too numerous to count and I suppose mostly in the category of the mundane (such as the dust accumulating on things), some more things to do with the seasons, and a kind of relaxing of musical effort as the season comes to a close.

So creative things are both exciting and scary. What does that mean? And what if I think that nearly everything I do is creative? That would seem to mean that I find creative efforts exciting, scary, and mundane. Hmm.

So where does that leave me on the train? Can I make my way to the caboose? Is it possible to instigate creative things and then let them run amok without taking charge of them? Just let them go wherever they go and not try to take charge?

Perhaps the expression shouldn’t be “taking” the train, because that implies control of it. Perhaps it should be “riding” the train.

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Thoughts

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