One Patient's Positive Perspectives

Posts tagged ‘piano’

LA’s Musical Background

piano lamp1

Learning to play

First, I am not the accomplished pianist my husband is.  He can just sit down and play, read pretty much any music, add notes, embellish to make it better than what is written, and think on his musical feet (or perhaps musical seat!)  As for me, first comes being a singer, then a student pianist.  Only after struggling with CNS lupus, did  learning to play the piano in earnest become incredibly important.  In the beginning it was primarily cognitive therapy and a musical test eye-hand coordination before commuting.  With slow improvement a vision for more musical purpose emerged.

Playing the piano started almost ten years ago, not long after a fiftieth birthday.  Although a handful of exceptional pianists are friends of my husband and me, personal goals include the realization not ever being in his or their league!  Still, a love for playing the piano makes it fun.  Learning is slower than might otherwise be for young student of the instrument, it will always be a work in progress.

What high and lofty musical goal is being pursue?  To be useful!  As a church musician, I see that there is always a place for any level of competent piano skills, even if just to improve my effectiveness coaching other singers and helping them learn their music.  If I am careful not to overdo it, my lupus arthritis doesn’t flare and I can play the piano without hurting my hands.

So, perhaps quitting the day job to pursue music more fully isn’t reasonable, but then again, maybe it is!  It won’t be too long before I need to cut my work stress down considerably, especially with my lupus.  I consider retiring from my current day-job in government law, collecting my hard-earned pension and doing something less stressful like teaching private voice, piano and music theory lessons to children, or perhaps work part-time as a school choir director.  Perhaps there should be a shingle hanging from my mailbox that reads, “will teach music for health insurance.”

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California State University Campus

Going into college, my talents and gifts included more voice than money, so following music scholarships was the practical choice.  The first three years of college offered solid voice technique and music theory instruction by wonderful music professors in the music school of a large public university in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Then, in the fourth year followed a music performance scholarship to a private Christian college in Arizona.  This opportunity included touring the U.S. performing 8 concerts each week for three summer months.  This experience helps me realize my lack of stamina required for living as a traveling minstrel.  What a wearying lifestyle!  Realizing this hinted that there were greater physical challenges ahead that a few years later would be diagnosed as Lupus.  But, it was a life-changing and broadening experience that enriched a young singer’s life!

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Arizona Campus

Music has always been part of my life, long before the Lupus diagnosis.  Long before a head-first flight through a windshield herniated three discs in my cervical spine and before lupus arthritis made finger joints balloon, it was still possible to hold a violin under my chin, bending neck to the left.  Hands still could cradle the violin neck with vibrato motion in the left hand and a bow in the right.  Now, that violin sits untouched in its case, proper in the corner by the piano.  My younger sister and her first husband were also violinists, and excelled at it.  It was their primary instrument.  The violin was always my second, and the skill with was mediocre, at best.

singing a lupus solo

Just couldn’t stop singing…

Singing was a non-stop activity from the time of my early childhood.  Apparently, there are always going to be a few of us musical misfit kids that show up in kindergarten singing their ABCs with a natural vibrato.  Thankfully for me, there was no stage door mother to go along with that phenomenon, and I was allowed to have a normal well balanced childhood!  I was the elementary school librarian’s daughter, so books and homework always came first, before the music.  But, there was always a whole lot of singing going on!

Everyone at my family liked music, was musical or sang, except my older sister.  (She was strictly an artist, but could draw and paint like no one else we had ever seen, except maybe Norman Rockwell.  Her music was played on paper and canvas.)  Our two brothers have a bit of down-to-earth music in them too, between them playing the clarinet, guitar, sitar and some mean toe-tapping harmonica.  Our dad had a smooth rich Baritone voice and loved to break into songs unexpectedly like, “Swing, Low, Sweet Chariot,” or his favorite, “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and performed for several years in his youth with a barbershop quartet.

But, our mother absolutely loved music!  She played the piano a little, as her mother did, too, and owned some various instruments that she dabbled with, including an autoharp, balalaika, mandolin and a couple of violins.  But, when she sang to us with her sweet pure high soprano voice, we melted. Hers was not a shrill sound like so many women who desperately try to sing in the upper soprano ranges, but rather a warm milk-and-honey sort of lullaby voice with a lilt.  She sang from the happiness of her heart, without affectation or guile.  Her voice was genuine, humble and beautiful.  She could hug you with a song, and then make you feel like singing along.

Mom infected me with incurable love of music and singing.  Family describe me as singing while playing, walking to school, washing dishes, bathing (of course) and every night at the dinner table, my mom would gently repeat a special table manners rule created just for me, “we don’t sing at the table.”  This stern but musing directive would jar me from my humming world of musical bliss to the rude awakening of my green beans, meatloaf and milk.   Not being very objective about my own behavior at the age of five, it’s best to take other people’s word for it.

My Parent's Record Player

My Parent’s Old Record Player

Often sitting cross legged for hours on the hardwood floor of my parents living room, 45 rpm singles would play on an old Zenith monaural record player my parents bought in the early 1950s.  Every note was memorized, mimic each narration and singing along with the different instrumental sounds dramatizing Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”  This was my favorite, and sometimes in the quiet I could silently “listen” from memory to the entire score, just as if the turntable on the Zenith were still spinning.  Some days, I would sing along with Julie Andrews’ songs from musicals like Mary Poppins or the Sound of Music.  By the time I was old enough to learn to read, I had already learned every note and syllable of all the 45s in our house.

My mother was an elementary school librarian, so there wasn’t a lot of television.  It was turned on for a specific program, and turned off again.  Most nights, various members of the family were practicing instruments, doing homework or reading books in one corner of the house or another.  Mostly, there was a calm peace filling our home, subdued conversations, interrupted sometimes by one of us playing records from my parent’s diverse collection of 33 rpm albums.  They had just about everything, the popular music included a little Glen Miller, Roy Rogers or Nat King Cole and the “real music” included a broader selection of symphony and chamber music including Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Berlioz, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Puccini and of course, my favorite Prokofiev.

The advent of rock music seemed respected and nominally welcome at our home, and was tolerated in limited volumes and time frames, as my older siblings embraced contemporary music of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  I didn’t get much past the Beatles and Peter, Paul and Mary into the foray of rock music (if you can even call them rock by today’s standards) and was once again sort of a musical misfit, or simply put, just not “hip” in the hippie age.  I guess I never got the memo, or just forgot to read it.  I was too wrapped up in my love of the classics and by high school was studying Italian and German art songs and arias from composers like Scarlatti, Puccini and taking parts in musicals plays such as Oliver, Oklahoma, Carnival, Little Mary Sunshine and others.

San Francisco Symphony at old War Memorial Opera House on Van Buren St.

San Francisco Symphony at the old
War Memorial Opera House, Van Buren St.

Growing up, we sometimes attended the Oakland and San Francisco Symphonies with my parents, and the love of music grew.  As an adult, my music is pretty much performed only in the church setting, as a member of our church choir, as a soloist, as a duet partner with either my husband or a dear friend, in an occasional ensemble group, or playing the piano for services my church holds for seniors in independent and assisted living residences in our community.  Recently, ab opportunity to serve with playing the piano for an entire church service was a nerve-stretching challenge, and a new milestone in this personal musical ministry journey.

[I posted this a couple of days ago, by mistake, before it was finished and edited.  My apologies to those of you who received the rough, unedited version in your email.  WordPress has had some changes while I was on a writing sabbatical, which I am still learning to navigate.  Thanks!  LA]

 

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CNS lupus, butterflies and a minor milestone piano performance

At the piano every morning

Music and lupus goals

Over the past couple of years, learning to play the piano has been a personal, musical and spiritual goal woven throughout the activities of each day, with a purpose.  My husband is an accomplished church pianist, and music performance is focal point of both of our lives.   We sing solos and duets together, and he is the church choir pianist, and one of several pianists that play for church services along with congregational hymn singing, and solo piano pieces played as offertories.

For most of my life I have studied and performed vocal music, and studied conducting and music theory during four years of college in San Francisco and Phoenix.  I also played the violin for years, although lupus arthritis has challenged my joints and caused me to set my favorite instrument down, because vibrato motion causes my left hand finger joints to balloon excessively.

When I realized that playing the piano did not aggravate my arthritis, and that playing was an excellent morning measure of my neurological abilities, I began sitting down at the piano every morning to sight-read through hymns.   This excellently measures activity of my CNS lupus symptoms, and gauges the fitness of my reflexes and eye-hand coordination necessary to safely drive to work.

Musical stepping stones

Musical stepping stones

Playing piano soon became a regular part of my morning routine, and before very long my piano reading and playing skills started improving.  My long-term desire has been to gain piano proficiency.  I was delighted to learn that my active CNS lupus symptoms would not prevent it, and that the very diagnostic tool I had used to test my mental fitness each morning was actually improving it!  I realized along the way how much I simply enjoy playing and making music at the piano.  I am no virtuoso, but the experience is extremely musically  satisfying.

Recently, I started taking piano lessons from one of the other church pianists.  My husband is a great coach and encourager, but it didn’t seem like such a great idea to have him as my piano teacher.  He heartily agreed, and supported me in this important step toward reaching my personal musical goals.  The added structure, coaching and accountability of formal piano lessons helps my confidence, and helps me find and improve some of my specific musical weaknesses.

For some time now, I have played piano for services at a weekly nursing home church service conducted by our church.  This helps exercise my developing musical skills and allows me to deal with the butterflies and nerves associated with playing a new instrument in public.  A few times recently,  I have also played piano during hymn singing for our adult Sunday school class when my husband was ill at home.  Each new performance setting has strengthened me.

Musical milestone

Butterflies surrounding a musical milestone

Each time the use of my newest musical skills are stretched, my prayers for focus and victory over “the butterflies” have been graciously answered.  This past Sunday evening was a major musical milestone in my piano adventures.  I was asked to play the offertory for the evening service, and for most of the congregation, this was the first time that they have heard me play the piano.

Many of my closest family and friends were kind enough to support me in personal prayer.  They understand my desire for the music to bring attention and glory to God, and not undue attention to me.  Those closest to me, who understand my battles with CNS lupus, were also interceding on my behalf for God’s help with my mental focus and memory.  These personal “prayer warriors” were asking for God’s gracious help to keep my lupus from interfering with my mental processes during my performance.

The result was both encouraging and humbling.  It was clear to me that I must be humble enough to risk making mistakes, in order to cross over to the next threshold of usefulness as a pianist.

Performing butterflies

Finding “the zone”

That afternoon, I was as well-prepared as possible, well-rested and “prayed up.”   A couple of hours before the service began, I slipped onto the platform and sat down at the grand piano to familiarize myself with the feel of the piano.  It was very different from ours at home.  The keyboard was lower, the touch of the keys was softer, the bench was  slightly different height, and the sound and resonance of the notes I was playing were crisp and clean, slightly different than my piano at home.  There were enough different sensations around me to easily distract my focus from the music, but it seemed like my CNS lupus was being quiet.   The piano seemed pleasant and enough different from home to give me a sense of heightened awareness.  I had a “green light” to go ahead.

I realized during this run-through that a great deal of mental discipline would be required during my performance.  I played through the solo I had prepared several times, as well as another short piece that I have worked on for mental contrast.  This short rehearsal helped me minimize and prepare for the distractions and disorientation that might have overwhelmed me if I had encountered them for the first time during the performance.  This dry run also helped me find the mental “place” that I would need to return to during my performance.

There were many members of the church mingling in the sanctuary as they assembled for the afternoon choir practice.  This helped me practice “zoning” them out, and I was pleasantly surprised (and encouraged) that I was able to concentrate on playing the piano without making a mistake when the song leader, and a couple of other people came up to me at the piano and spoke with me briefly while I practiced.

Focus on music, purpose and message

Spiritual preparation and intercession

Although I must admit I was slightly tempted to “chicken out,” it was clearly the time for me to put my apprehension aside, and take the next important musical step.  I mentally rehearsed the pleasantness of my encounter with the sanctuary piano during my quick rehearsal.  I intentionally repeated the idea that I was looking forward the opportunity to play such a lovely instrument (instead of rehearsing  apprehensive thoughts.)

One of the other pianists encouraged me greatly when she enthusiastically expressed how much she was looking forward to hearing me play.

I knew success would require tuning out all other thoughts except the keyboard and the music.   To meet the spiritual and musical goals associated with playing a solo for a church service, I would need to have my mind completely off of myself, not thinking about what others might think of me or my musical skills, risks to my self-esteem or any other self-preserving concerns.  Focus belongs solely on the music, its purpose and its message.  I would need all of my lupus-impaired mental abilities 100% focused on the music.

It is my philosophy that performing music for a worship service is not about the performer, it is about the message of the music and the One being worshiped!  I replayed the mental mantra that playing this piano solo, “Rejoice, Ye Pure In Heart,” was not about me.

This mental and spiritual approach, and the prayers of others who supported me,  helped me keep my focus where it was needed.  My offertory went well, and although I made a couple of “mistakes,”  these were unnoticed by the listeners.   I had a couple of transient moments when my ability to mentally multitask was at its absolute threshold, and I could not quite mentally embrace all the notes on the page in front of me.  I was able to compensate by simplifying notes for a couple of beats, and leaving out a couple of chords in the mental “overload” zone.

More musical adventures ahead

 

The next adventure is ahead

Feedback I received after the evening church service was very encouraging and supportive, and very honest.  One of our close friends commented about how “focused” I was, and how they are looking forward to the time when I will be able smile while playing the piano, as is my custom when singing solos.  It was easy to admit that  smiling was just one too many things for me to think about during this first public performance.  This important refinement will have to come later, when my skills and ability to split mental focus while playing are stronger.  I was happy to have been musically successful.  Unfortunately, the aesthetics will have to wait a little.

Another pianist complimented me, explaining that she enjoyed my “absolutely perfect” rhythm.   Her unsolicited comment meant a great deal to me.  Other friends expressed their kind compliments and encouragement, many also expressing their surprise to learn that I could play the piano.

I was very grateful to have successfully crossed through this important milestone in my musical piano development.  Getting through these experiences of first public performances, dealing with the nerves, “butterflies” and distractions and learning to keep focus is essential.  In order to cross over to a place of piano competency and usefulness in music ministry, this process cannot be side-stepped.  Every new instrument a musician learns, allows re-experiencing beginner’s humility, and learning these important truths all over again.

This week, I passed through a major musical transition successfully.  Whew!

I am grateful those whose supported my musical adventure emotionally, spiritually and medically.  All three are necessary in my lupus and life support network.  My life goals of piano proficiency, and my specific desire to acquire skill necessary to accompany my husband for his vocal solos, and to teach private music after I retire from my “real” job in a government law office, are now a bit closer.

I am careful to praise the Lord for his goodness and help!  After all, my music is for Him.

The latest “score” in my piano proficiency v. lupus adventure:  Pianist 1, Lupus 0!

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