Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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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.

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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

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Stage Fright

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I don’t get stage fright. After all, one way or another, I’ve been on a stage since I was four years old—ballet, playing the flute, ballroom dance, a brief theater period in college, teaching in a classroom and privately, and of course singing. But when I went to that historical novelists’ conference, lo and behold, I got a little stage fright.

It was standing outside the room where everyone pitched their books to agents and publishers that did it. I was fine, didn’t expect much, thought of it as a way to suck information out of people more than a way to get into print. I got to the room in plenty of time, signed in, and then lurked, listening to the others talk about their books, their pitches, or the weather. Suddenly, my stomach lurched up into my throat. Apparently, it showed on my face, as the nice woman signing us all in came over to me and asked if I was okay.

Heh.

Here’s the thing. I’ve been around plenty of people who get stage fright. You can feel it, almost smell it on them, a kind of quivery stomach, heart in throat extravaganza of sweating palms and loose bowels. But *I* don’t get it. Nope. If you’re prepared, even if you make mistakes, you will recover. Heck, as I always say after singing a solo, “no one was killed.” You just can’t take it so seriously.

But I did. I seriously did.

I pulled myself out of it quickly enough, though. Here’s the tale.

The night before, there was a reception, and we all stood around pitching our books to one another while we sipped adult beverages. This nice young man, a graphic novelist specializing in the Trojan horse era, asked me what it was that I thought would go wrong. I realized that I couldn’t explain. So then he said to me—and here’s the really clever part—give me your bad pitch.

So I did. I slumped my shoulders. I pinched my voice up into my nose. I whined on academically about the driest aspects of my book. I pretended that I was proud of how LONG the book is. I used long words and foreign words to make myself seem smarter. I checked my teeth repeatedly for savory morsels.

Those were all the things I didn’t want to do. So then, he said—knowing I was ready now—give me your good pitch. And I did. I was funny, engaging, and told my story with light in my eyes. I could feel myself just flat out enjoying that I’d come up with this idea and seen it through. I mentioned my second-draft trimming efforts and my plans for the next book.

Ta da!

So there I was, getting nervous in the line to present to important dignitaries, and I just ran that little exercise again. I got all the ickies out before I went in to see someone who could decide whether or not I really did have a good idea.

You know, this works, or so I’m told, for proper stage fright as well. I’ve read that if your hands are all sweaty and your heart is pounding away like it’s a conga drum, you try to make your palms sweatier and your heart beat harder by just willing it so. Apparently, that makes these unpleasant fight-or-flight instincts quiet right on down.

You’ll have to let me know though. Even though I’d only known about the solo for four days (someone had to bail at the last minute), I got away with it at this weekend’s concert extravaganza without a peep of stage fright. After all, no one was killed.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 29, 2011 at 7:37 am

Posted in Thoughts, Writing

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Broken Glass

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About a month or so ago, my dear friend Mindy came over for dinner. I served the meal in some heavy ceramic bowls that she admired and she asked where I’d gotten them. When I told her that I’d had them for many years, she said “the glass is already broken.”

I was mystified. She explained that in her household, dishes and such tended to break because so many people came trooping through, so she was always on patrol for replacements. She went on to talk about the Buddhist koan “the glass is already broken.” She and I agreed that it seemed to mean that no matter how much sentiment, nostalgia, or monetary value we attribute to things, one day, they will break or otherwise no longer be ours. In the spirit of Buddhist non-ownership and impermanence, it is wise to think of the glass/bowl/cup as already broken.

I did a little thinking about it in the next few days (Mindy is very wise, and she is always saying things that make me think for a few days), and then I forgot about it.

Then, I went to this little meditation group that meets in my neighborhood, and the evening’s koan was “the glass is already broken.” I’d already gone down this path a little ways, so I was delighted to meet my old friend in this way.

Again, I let it resonate for a day or two (I ate out of one of those bowls, too), and then it slipped out of my head.

Last Monday, I sat next to a stranger on a plane. We talked about our jobs, traveling, being vegetarians, his wife’s religious belief in the Great Spaghetti Monster, and had a nice little conversation. And then, out of the blue, he said “the glass is already broken.”

The plane could have dropped out of the sky in that moment and I wouldn’t have noticed.

I had thought that the koan was about the intemperance of things, about falsely associating things with meaning. I had thought that I’d understood what it was supposed to teach me.

Apparently not.

In the last week or four, I’ve been feeling general dissatisfaction about some social commitments, some musical endeavors, and about my job. Oh, none of it was new dissatisfaction; it just seemed all to be boiling unpleasantly at the same moment. And in truth, none of those things are incredibly unsatisfying. They’re just going through a cycle of unpleasantness on their ways to being pleasant again.

But this expression, the koan “the glass is already broken” coming out of this unexpected mouth, made me realize that I’d been thinking in terms of physical things themselves, and not really about my own attitude toward them. For me, now anyway, this koan is about false expectations.

I expect to always enjoy my musical endeavors, my social engagements, and because it has been true in the past, I even expect to enjoy my job. But really, life is about change, not about stasis. We grow up, we grow old, pets, people, and plants die, people move away, move up, move on. There is no way to stop any of that, and there’s really no excuse for wanting to stop it.

My job, my social commitments, my musical endeavors—all of these add color to my life. It’s really not reasonable of me to expect them to add meaning. Sometimes they do, and for those times, I am grateful. When they don’t, though, there’s no sense griping about it. Change seems to be the only permanent thing, after all.

Someday, whether I own them or not, those bowls will break.

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 8, 2011 at 8:07 am

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Tough Times

It seems like times are terrible these days. I mean, people seem so mean-spirited, so unkind, so thoughtless. When I think about the political environment in the US these days, I feel sad—we (as a culture) are putting the needs of the country, the state, the business, over the needs of individuals. Doesn’t that define communism? Aren’t we, as a country, supposed to be against that?

Did you hear all the folderol about who didn’t pay taxes? Big corporations made the list. People on unemployment, they had to pay, moms and pops, retired people, people who are struggling to pay the lighting bills, sick people who can’t get health insurance. For that matter, look at the health insurance debate. Look at all the redefining of abortion, marriage, which drugs should be legal, how animals should be kept before slaughter, all of that. Everything is about the majority not just controlling things but denying those same privileges, securities, and comforts to others only because they differ or can’t fight for themselves.

It all gives me the blues. So I turned on the radio, thinking I’d get to hear some nice socially interesting piece on NPR, but instead, I got the ramifications of Chernobyl, the tsunami, tornados, earthquakes, flooding, everything but pestilence. No wait. The bees are dying, sharks have been overhunted, and they are finding evidence of DDT in the fetuses of pregnant women who weren’t even born when DDT was still being used. Hmm.

I was feeling bleak about the state of the world, barely recovering from an unpleasant experience with a choral group where people seem to enjoy being unkind to one another and I went to a social event. There I learned that a woman who I find particularly unkind (the first time I met her, she told me how much she hated all the stupid people she worked with and how she was looking forward to firing one of them), told me that she was getting a degree in psychology in order to heal the world of “assholeness.” Hmm.

At work, it was revealed that the whole company was getting a significant raise, except my group because, after all, as the Big Shot explained, the market valued the roles of those people getting the raises. Hmm. The “market” does. Yes, that’s what it feels like: the “market” not valuing me or my coworkers.

So I drove home trying to repeat to myself that the only thing I truly have control over is my attitude. I tried to concentrate “lovingkindness,” as they say, on the world, on the people in my life, on the people who control my world in the smaller sense and in the larger, on the earth, as it struggles to recover from disaster after disaster and all the torments we inflict upon it and ourselves.

I tried to think about the people I love, the people who make me a better person than I am otherwise inclined to be, the people who ask me be part of their lives, despite all my negative personality traits. I tried to think of the things that went well today, the short trip to the grocery store, the recipe that turned out well, the moment of insight on a complex project at work, the lack of traffic on my way to that social event, the thoughtful gift from a friend who went on a trip I’d planned to go on but couldn’t.

I thought about the friend I hadn’t talked to in a few months, who called out of nowhere last weekend for no particular reason, and we ended up talking about things that were deeply important to both of us, a sort of accidental parity. What a gift, unexpected, rare, and without strings or boundaries.

I thought about another friend, the epitome of kindness, with whom I’d had a strange synchronicity of reconnection with old friends last week. I thought again, for the gazillionth time, of her kindness and attentiveness when I was so ill last year, of her patience through all my whining about it. How thinking about her makes me wish I could express my joy at knowing her in some way that would make it a more joyous experience to know ME. I wished that I had a tail to wag or something that would send a clear signal.

I thought about the softness of the ears of the lovely dogs I’d petted tonight, of the sunshine glistening on the drying puddle this morning, of the bird singing so enthusiastically along my path. I thought about how unreasonably long daffodils were staying in season this year, my favorite flower. I thought about how that woman who wants to become a psychotherapist really appreciates a good pun and all but barks with laughter, which made me think of my mother, the queen of Shaggy Dog stories. And that made me think of a fellow I work with (sort of), who is the perpetrator of many a dreadful Shaggy Dog story, and who wants to read my novel as a critical reader and wants my advice on his own, an unexpected symmetry.

I thought about my father defining intelligence to me on the telephone this week and how a few years ago, he would have defined it so differently, less kindly. And I thought about how open he has become, how much more like my mother now that she is not here to be herself anymore.

Yes, there are nice people in the world, there are beautiful things in nature, and I’m sure if I look hard enough, I can find something about politics or government that is going well.

It’s possible to find peace in a world that isn’t always very nice. Usually I find it in the smaller things, the silences, the “somebody let me change lanes” kindnesses, the familiar greeting of a grocery clerk, the welcoming handshake of a stranger. And some days, like today, I have to enumerate these things, counting blessings, if you like, to get myself out of the doldrums.

Written by Melanie Spiller

April 27, 2011 at 12:56 pm

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I Love a Good List

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It all began as a kind of a joke. We were sitting in my parent’s backyard on a warm summer evening, sipping lemonade made from the fruit of the ancient tree in the corner. My brother had said something about being harassed by bees, and my father had teased him about there only being one truly persistent little fellow.

I don’t know who said it, but someone said there was a bunch of bees lurking, waiting evilly to sting my poor brother without mercy. I picked up on the expression “a bunch of bees” and started listing all the other kinds of collectives that it could be. A bunch of bees, a bevy of bees, a bale, a band, a crowd of bees, a crew, a club, a flock, a fleet, a flotilla, a group of bees, a gaggle, a gang, and a herd of bees, a pod, a throng, a smattering, heck, I even went to a murder, an unkindness, and a business of bees. (Those last three go with crows, ravens, and ferrets, in case you were wondering.)

It became a thing with us, especially my dad and me. I’d spend hours trying to track down the name of a group of turtles (a bale). This was long before the Internet was much more than a bunch of forums. I even tripped over an old high school boyfriend on one of those forums in my mad quest to collect collectives. Later, I discovered that there are whole societies of people like me who collect these words.

It does seem like those people are all kooks, though. Hmmm.

My collection grew, and more than a decade later, my father requested the list, so I posted it to my website. (http://melaniespiller.com/Completely_Off_Topic/GroupNamesGroup.htm)

When I was doing my research on Hildegard of Bingen, I was curious about why she began listing the local flora and fauna. I mean, it was a great idea but a rather enormous undertaking. Her motives seem to be about providing medical information. If you read some of her advice, well, it’s downright scary. She’d have you ingesting bits of iron ore that had been “soaked” in wine. Yikes. But I digress.

The point is, as I researched, I could see that it was fashionable to make lists in her lifetime. The greatest list ever written had been completed a little over a decade before she was born (the Domesday Book). It’s not clear whether this census of England and Wales (completed in 1086 for William the Conqueror, and meant to account for all of Britain’s assets) was the beginning of that fad or just the epitome of it. But it certainly triggered the tradition of applying a surname, which spread across Europe—they had to say WHICH John or Tom it was: the smith, the dark-haired one, or the one from Leadenham.

But there were tons of other lists. Scientists listed stars and planets and such (as they knew them), mathematicians listed equations and formulas, botanists listed plants, doctors listed bones and cures, women listed fabrics, ribbons, and other sewing notions, and so on, each according to his or her interests. For more than a century, Europe was compiling lists of things.

It’s a wonderful snapshot, really. Domesday set the trend for inventorying, and businesses made lists and itemized for customers, taxes, and their own reckoning of personal wealth. Private citizens listed their belongings and their friends, public figures listed their accomplishments and their supporters. Even lists of lists were in vogue.

The good news is that scientists and historians alike have a wonderful insight into the Middle Ages because of this fad. If you spend some time at your local university library, you can even see some of these lists in action. My personal favorite is the bestiary. These lists of animals (real and imaginary) included stories and fables, attributions of traits (so that when you made your family crest you had the right traits highlighted), and sometimes illustrations or attributions to who might have made the association. There’s a good online bestiary at www.bestiary.ca.

During the Middle Ages, the age of chivalry, you might recall, if you were an aristocratic family, you came up with a family crest. This was made into stained glass windows for your castle, emblazoned on the doors, cutlery, and household tapestries, and most certainly could be found on your sword’s hilt and front and center on your shield. 

If you were royalty, for instance, you might choose a lion because it’s the king of the other beasts. It is thought to be wily, wary, and fair in judgements. A lion’s strength is in its chest, its firmness in its head, and its courage in its forehead and tail. The roar of a lion makes other animals weak with fear. The lion is thought to represent Jesus to Christians, to illustrate both irrational fear and irrational courage to readers of Aesop’s Fables, and Pliny the Elder’s readers think of the lion as a kind of self-regulating study in moderation. Rampant (reared up on its hind legs), standing, and lying down lions were options, as were forked tails, two heads, two bodies (with a single head), three or even four bodies, wings, webbed feet, and a fish tail from the waist down.

You and your family leaders would choose the suitable heraldic beast and design something that was meaningful to you. So you consulted a list and later, your crest was added to a list of crests.

In short (is it too late for that?), my interest in lists may SEEM innate, but really, it is yet another outcropping of my interest in the Middle Ages. Put it on the list of things I’m inadvertently consistent about.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 31, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Reviving or Resuscitating

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It has been a long time—nearly three years—since I blogged. You may have followed me here  http://blogs.officezealot.com/spiller/ when I had a regular spot with the nice folks at Office Zealot. I took a break, a hiatus, you might say, while my day job interfered somewhat, because they asked me to write on pretty much the same subject.

I finished that project, and now I feel free to write about writing again. Meanwhile, in my spare time, I have finished a first draft of my Hildegard von Bingen pilgrimage (non-fiction) and 18 chapters of a 20-chapter work of fiction about Hildegard. So this year, 2011, is going to be about finishing the latter and beginning the revision process on both. I hope to start looking for a publisher as well.

This blog will be different from the last. The last one was solely devoted to writing about writing. This one will do that, but will be more personal, as well. I plan to talk about my musical endeavors, my travels, my plans for the next work of fiction, and anything else that strikes my fancy. There will be some major themes.

I want to welcome you back and thank you for your patience, and I want to encourage you to visit the OZ site or my Web page, www.melaniespiller.com, for all those old articles about writing. They are mostly about technical writing—or for technical writers, I should say—but there are a few about fiction, political satire, travelogues, and advertising copy.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you, too.

Keep on Writing!

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 9, 2011 at 10:42 am

Posted in Thoughts, Uncategorized

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