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Author: Kela

The Ongoing Saga of My Baldwin Piano

I love everything about my Baldwin, from the brass hardware to the little scratches on the fallboard from previous owners’ fingernails.

If you have followed my blog at all over the past few years, you know that a) I own a magnificent 1912 Baldwin piano that I chanced upon for fairly cheap and shepherded into loving restoration by one of the Pacific Northwest’s top piano technicians, and b) when I moved to New York, I no longer had room for my beloved, and I had to figure out a place to house her indefinitely.

Now that I live in Los Angeles, again I find myself in a situation where I have a big grand piano and I don’t know what to do with it. I am putting the word out, through this post and conversations with friends and with piano people, that it is time to find a new situation for me and my piano.

In my rather desperate post from August 2016, “Other People’s Pianos,” written during a transient period, I maintained my practice on friends’ pianos, and cried to my counselor about how not having my piano was like having my musical/emotional safety blanket ripped away from me (I’m a Cancer). Looking back over the post, I realized that I also decreed exactly what would end up happening there in my writing: “I’m hoping to find a school, venue, church, or private residence where a piano would be welcome, and where I could also come practice. A mutually-beneficial piano-sharing scenario. Better that than having it wrapped in blankets and going unused in a warehouse.”

And that is PRECISELY what happened. I put feelers out with my musician friends in New York, and one of them very promptly connected me with a church that needed a piano for their music program. They just happened to be in Sheepshead Bay, only a few miles south of my apartment Brooklyn.

For the brief time I lived in New York, it was a lovely piano-sharing arrangement. I would hop on the Q train and ride down to Sheepshead Bay, and walk through the (extraordinarily) long blocks until I got to the church, where I had specific hours for practice. On dry days, I could just hop on my bike and ride all the way down Avenue R. I recorded some songs for The Dreamer & The Dream at the church, and the church has benefited greatly from having a nice piano for their services and music concerts.

But then I was seized by a wild impulse to abruptly move to Los Angeles. I had realized that, after spending most of my life in Puddletown, and then living in New York, I had lost my patience for crappy weather. I wanted to live in a big city again, and so, the natural math of my various requirements of place suddenly became obvious: Big City + Needs to be a Music Town = Los Angeles. Also, having my parents a tad closer (they’re both still on the West Coast) made much more sense than going south to somewhere like Nashville or Austin. (Although recently I’ve been hearing Denver has a great music scene, and dry sunny weather, and maybe a tad less traffic…)

So, I cast my fate to the wind and landed in a fantastic little bungalow apartment in Mid City L.A. I love it, and I have a nice little music studio set up in the dining room (which is, as far as I am concerned, the best use for formal dining rooms).

But now my piano is all the way on the other side of the country.

One of my first side jobs when I landed in L.A. was working for a piano store, where I tried all the possible avenues available for trying to figure out how to bring my grand piano back from New York. In fact, while working at the piano store, I happened upon a donated piano that is a distant cousin of my Baldwin grand, a mid-60’s Acrosonic. For a free piano that hadn’t been tuned in forty years, it ain’t so bad, and it satisfied the need for having an acoustic piano in my space. However, I play it far less than I used to play my Baldwin; once you drive a Mercedes, it’s hard to go back to a Hyundai.

I have determined that, if I could get it out here, there is room for the Baldwin here at my place. (Being that I am a person who has moved grand pianos so, so many times, I am in possession of a piano cutout, which is a large piece of butcher paper with renderings of various piano sizes, drawn to scale, that you can arrange amongst your furniture for assessment. Based on my calculations with this tool, I could technically fit my piano in my current place provided I am okay with blocking access to the kitchen when the piano bench is out. I think, all things considered, that I’m okay with that.)

And so, considering that a piano’s purpose in life is to be loved, maintained, and played, I am temporarily okay with things as they are but also constantly brainstorming in the back of my mind trying to figure this situation out. Considering that it worked the last time I made this declaration through my blog, I figured I should again put the word and the feelers out for a new piano situation: The ideal scenario is a music studio, either a recording or teaching studio, where a grand piano of this style and sound is appreciated (no, adored) and where I have a similar timeshare arrangement where the house gets to use the piano for their purposes and I get to come in and use it for mine. This place is close enough to Mid City Los Angeles that it does not lower my quality of life by increasing my time in traffic too significantly, so I can get to play it fairly regularly (and I could even BIKE there!) This piano timeshare is be a mutually beneficial arrangement for everyone involved.

OR: I drum up the $2,000 or so needed to move the Baldwin back across the country and relocate her here to my place in Mid City, where I will selfishly keep her acoustic charms all to myself.

Here’s to manifesting what we need through speaking it and putting it into the Universe. That’s how this magical piano first came to me–by searching desperately for the right sound until I had pretty much given up, deflated and certain all beautiful pianos would be hopelessly and forever beyond my price reach, when my then-boyfriend happened across an ad for the Baldwin, which was patiently awaiting discovery at a small town piano shop that I never would have gone to in person.

Patience and trust, y’all. Patience and trust.

Music is a Human Right

In my work with Urban Voices Project, a nonprofit that provides music programs to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, one theme I regularly encounter in conversation with members and colleagues is how making music meets fundamental needs. These are needs for expression, connection, community, validation, and identity that can be met regardless of whether a person is housed or not.

The overarching attitude in the capitalist industrialist system would have us to view art as a luxury item, a non-essential extra. Nice to have and life-enhancing, sure, but not fundamental. Typically, the thinking is that you must have shelter, food, water, sleep, clothing, safety, and personal security, before you should, or can, ever worry about making a piece of art to express yourself.

To look to Maslow on this topic, belonging, esteem, and self-realization only enter the picture after the lower tiers of the pyramid of needs have been met. Maslow’s hierarchy is in some ways a sort of compressed, simplified version of the Eastern chakra system of seven energy centers; Maslow’s hierarchy has five sections, whereas the simple version of the Eastern chakra system has seven. More or less, they correlate, though with some variation in ordering. The chakra system puts self-esteem and other solar plexus qualities as located “below” or “before” the heart chakra qualities of love and belonging, whereas Maslow bumps esteem “above” or “after” the heart chakra. The general idea is that we have to meet certain baseline, foundational needs before we can fully self-actualize.

But it is probably a mistake to relate to any model of human health and needs in a strictly linear model, where energy only moves in one direction. This tendency toward rigid linearity is where we get the idea that the whole “goal” of spirituality it to master the animal self with the spiritual, to conquer the beast with the angel. But if you scratch beneath the surface into energy studies just a bit, the one chakra that integrates them all is consistently thought to be the heart chakra, sitting right there in the middle of the energy system — not at the “top.” The heart is the point of integration between the lower and upper chakras. Perhaps the chakras were never meant to demonstrate a linear, one-way hierarchy, but merely the places in the subtle and physical bodies (and especially the endocrine system), where these energy centers each reside and activate. And although Maslow’s Hierarchy is extraordinarily useful in many applications, even groundbreaking in its day, it can also be beneficial to reorient ourselves to a nonhierarchical view of needs.

In a recent lesson, one of my beginning guitar students, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, kept nervously shifting in her chair and shared that she was being wracked by aggravating thought loops that were distracting her from the activity we were trying to focus on. Just as we started to get focused again, a large, heart-shaped rose quartz crystal necklace around her neck clanged into the guitar, causing her to stop again and nervously tuck it into her shirt to protect it. This quartz of course corresponds to the heart chakra, the center that integrates all the energy systems, and internally I winked at how appropriate it was for the activity at hand. We refocused again, and as she got a few repetitions of the chord progression in, something clicked.

“Oh okay, the chords are like a loop, but a nice one,” she noticed. We talked about how, using breathing to help focus her thoughts, the simple pattern of switching between two chords can become a new loop that has a more positive feel than the negative, harassing mental patterns she is used to. Integration between mind and body was happening, even if only in fits and starts.

Two of the kids who are more advanced musicians were talking one day about how it’s difficult to make time or have enough privacy to practice their music on the streets, or to take their mind off chronic concerns about getting enough food and where they will sleep that night. All of the attendant “adulting” that kids in their late teens and early twenties have to reckon with, these kids are dealing with in hyper-drive, with zero systems of support outside of circles of friends they know on the street and, thankfully, the support organizations available (like Safe Place For Youth). As one counselor said, one week is like several months on the streets, because daily life experience is so full of obstacles and stresses.

And yet, still, all of these young artists light up with esteem, confidence, and even spiritual transcendence, when they share their musical gifts and have those gifts affirmed and celebrated by others. They might not know where their next meal is coming from (root chakra, survival needs), but they are evolving emotionally, psychologically, and most definitely in their self-realization, nonetheless.

Anyone who gravitated to music during times when their heart was broken, their family was under the stress of divorce or addiction or other types of loss and trauma, anyone who found their way through depression or soothed an anxious and over-activated nervous system with music, is familiar with how humans often intuitively figure out how to meet this need, even if it isn’t charted in official diagrams. (Traditionally, the throat or fifth chakra is thought to correspond with music, singing, and public speaking, but we also activate the root chakra with repetitive drumming or rhythmic patterns, or the sacral chakra with dance, and so on.) Certainly, music is not the only art form with therapeutic benefits, but there is something particularly holistic about how musical activity integrates physical movement, patterns, breathing, and vocalizing.

Many of our students with Urban Voices Project talk about how singing or writing songs helps them self-regulate (our terminology, not theirs) and calm their nervous system (again, not the terminology they’re inclined to use, but nonetheless what they are describing).

Usually these conversations tend to break off and go into the wordless zone — music — which is exactly what they’re supposed to do. Or rather, that is exactly what the music is supposed to do. Every time, I encounter the profound gratification of seeing people who truly need music, get their needs met through song and movement. Too, there is considerable value in feeling a sense of accomplishment and excellence at creative expression, even while struggling with the everyday requirements of surviving in a capitalist system.

Music is not helping these kids survive on a material level, but it is nonetheless fundamental to their survival. None of this is to minimize the homelessness crisis, but simply to help us remember that there are values and needs that can and do operate outside of the materialist value system. Imagine for a moment that alongside our capitalist reality there is a parallel reality where, despite capitalist values not being achieved in their prescribed linear progression, human realization is still occurring — in real time, on the streets, all around us, throughout the city.

To read this post on Medium, click here.

All Hail the Almighty Celery Juice

There is nothing like finally encountering the puzzle piece that connects a litany of vexing symptoms — and points to the promise of a solution.

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Space is the Place

As part of the notoriously laborious process of moving to New York, one day I was required to visit the post office to try to track down a very important piece of mail. I had overnighted it from Portland, Oregon, to my new address in Brooklyn, but it was MIA. My new roommate on the New York end hadn’t seen it anywhere, and offered to go to the Flatbush post office — but if at all possible, asked if I could check on the Portland side before she did that (later I would find out why; I used to think my local Portland post offices were a pain in the ass, until I experienced the Flatbush post office–a situation so bad people write their senators about it. Including, eventually, me. I imagine that amidst the slurry of other more pressing political matters local and national, Chuck Schumer might not have gotten around to looking into my request.)

As it so happens, the envelope in question contained my rental application and lease for my new New York landlord, and therefore, every single possible documentation of the applicants’ Important Personal and Financial Information (New York landlords stop just short of requiring you to sign away the life of your firstborn). Now, all my personal financial shit was apparently just floating out there in the world, somewhere between the post office in Portland, Oregon, and a mailbox in Brooklyn, New York.

I was tense, maybe even verging on frantic.

I pulled into the parking lot—or tried to, but I was blocked by a car idling. A mother and daughter were piling out and fussing with bags and coats and other items, all of which delayed the process of them getting out of the car.

SPACE IS THE PLACEBe patient, I thought to myself. Breathe for a second.

The mother and daughter finally shut the car door and made their way towards the post office entryway. Just as I was about to put my foot on the gas and pull in, I saw a wallet and another personal item lying on the pavement.

I honked, they didn’t hear, and I honked again, and waved. The mother looked back, confused, before tentatively coming back towards the lot to see what I was pointing at.

She scooped her things up and smiled a huge, beautiful, gracious smile, and called out, “Thank you so much! Thank you!!”

If not for that little bit of space I yielded between initially pulling in to the parking lot and feeling frustration, that whole situation could have gone differently. I could have honked and gotten visibly irritated at the mother and daughter, or angrily pulled in right after their car pulled away. I might not have noticed the wallet—I might have even driven over it in my haste to get a parking space. Not only would the interaction have been unkind, but that mother could have lost some very Important Personal and Financial Information if someone else had noticed that wallet instead.

All of those alternate scenarios involve the Other being separate and unimportant; the Other is a problem, an object in our way, an obstacle. But when we check our reactions, we are nudged back to recognizing our sense of connection, how much we, too, might be suddenly dependent on a total stranger. This is one of the things I love about New York, where you are constantly called to remember the humanity and the immediacy of other people’s existence. We are reminded how we can each influence each other in such profound but seemingly tiny ways.

Back at the post office in Portland, in my isolation chamber also known as a car, I pulled in to my long-sought for parking space, feeling a smidge better about life and humanity in general. I went inside, and claimed my spot in the long-ish line (a post office line I would come to appreciate as small town and friendly in comparison to what awaited me at the Flatbush post office in my new neighborhood, every time a package or piece of mail went missing–which was frequent.)

When I got to the Portland post office counter, I explained my situation: “I sent something overnight on Wednesday and it didn’t get there on Thursday. Is there any way to track it?”

“Do you have the receipt or the tracking number?”

“No.” I had completely forgotten everything about everything and thrown all my receipts away on Wednesday afternoon. “I lost it,” I lied, trying to recover some sense of being a grown adult.

“There’s no way to find it if we don’t have that tracking number.”

My chest started getting tight. “Well, what happens to overnight mail if it doesn’t get where it was sent to?”

The post office lady, seeming to relish the opportunity to bring terror on a fellow citizen, proceeded to list off Every Single Possible Worst Case Scenario: “There are just so many hands it passes through. It could have been stolen. It could have fallen off a cart and gotten kicked in a gutter without anyone even noticing. It could have gone to the wrong address….”

She gave me the number for Consumer Affairs, an office which was right down the hall but which was only available for telephone service, not walk-ins. I could see through the frosted glass window on the door that there was someone in there, but I wasn’t allowed to approach the door and knock. It would have been more natural for me to take this all as an opportunity to make a stink and get indignant about this as an example of all the bureaucratic bullshit the post office does that doesn’t make any sense.

But instead, I breathed. I noticed the very slightest relaxation of my shoulders and neck. Thanks to meditation and yoga practice, this tiny rerouting of a stress response meant I didn’t get tense at a moment when I normally would.

I sat down and called Consumer Affairs (the office I was standing right in front of and not allowed to speak to in person). After several rings–I could see the shadow behind the frosted glass sitting there immobile as the phone rang nearby–I explained my situation to the next clerk. Very quickly, we determined the cause of the mix up: I had bought a first class envelope, not a prepaid overnight envelope.

“Overnight is like twenty dollars,” she explained. I had paid about $1.50.

Feeling just barely like an adult now, and one who knows nothing about anything, I nonetheless breathed a sigh of relief. I still didn’t have the assurance that my mail was where it needed to be (I would have had to pay twenty dollars for that assurance). But at least I knew it was all just a goof (my goof). Now I knew that most likely that my envelope was just on its way, and would arrive in about three days.

Again, at any one of those points in my little post office adventure, I could have gotten fussy, desperate, impatient, and mean. I could have defaulted to the entitled, crabby, and supremely self-interested manner of conducting ourselves that we learn, by default, in a highly individualist, gratification-oriented society.

And believe me, it is not in my nature to be patient and wise in these situations. I have burst into tears at the car mechanic and boiled over in frustration as telephone clerks at the bank transfer me from one office to another like a raging hot potato. In fact, regardless of how many service jobs I’ve done and the presumed empathy I should have developed, dealing with crappy customer service, or ineffective channels of communication in the face of bureaucratic nonsense, is an area of Adult Life that a part of me will always object to and struggle with.

My only way around this stuff is meditation practice. I didn’t start to sit with the intention to be more kind—I started practice to get a handle on depression/anxiety/insomnia issues, all of which sitting practice has helped with.

But after you fill up your own tank for a while I guess you start to have some to spill over with. Your practice becomes the benefit of those around you (at least in the sense that there is now an absence of ickiness being inflicted on them that they don’t even know about), and you get the added bonus of others reflecting that benefit back to you. Meditation doesn’t make life all flowers and unicorns; it takes away your latent expectation that life should be all flowers and unicorns.

You can not always get your way, experience things that are bullshit and don’t make sense, and still feel basically okay. Even good. Like an adult!

Practicing patience, nonattachment, and the ethic of kindness that arises out of that means that instead of feeling like an entitled individualist constantly at war with circumstance, you feel peacefully—or at least slightly less aggressively—yoked to the world around you. Each of those moments where we find space instead of falling into a negative reactive pattern is a tiny yield in the cosmic bank account. All of those old patterns of reaction, and defense, and armament, can change—if you leave room for space.

 

 

Outsiders In: “Song To My City”

I wrote “Song To My City” in the summer of 2015. Portland had been changing for a while, but 2015 was the year I felt like I no longer recognized it. Being both a long-time Portlander and originally a transplant from California, I had a lot of mixed feelings about the rapidity of Portland’s growth.

On one hand, I’m saddened that the Rose City’s sudden popularity has led to the displacement of so many people. But on the other hand, the venomous attitude often hissed towards newcomers (especially, as always, towards Californians) feels not only small-hearted, but dangerously teetering towards the same xenophobia and Othering that has led many people to want to “Make America Great Again.” The term for this is Portland Provencialism, the cute small-town attitude that “native Oregonians” (which is of course not a thing unless you descend from an indigenous tribe) belong in Portland, and no one else does.

At a show that summer, some guy in the crowd was shouting his views on Portland’s changing demographic, with intensity but at no one in particular:

“Anyone who wasn’t here before 1980 needs to get the fuck out!”

Well, that counts me out; I had arrived in 1990 with my mom, from, of course, the Bay Area. But I had spent the better part of my life in Portland, to the point where a friend from Connecticut couldn’t accept the idea of me leaving, arguing that I was “the most Portland person ever,” (a comment which might have pushed me to leave all the sooner, just to be contrarian–which is, of course, so Portland.) I had been rooted in the Pacific Northwest, the backdrop of my life grey skies, lush temperate forests, the landscape decorated by so, so many dudes drinking craft beers in flannel shirts, for a long time.

I needed other places.

Unrealistic though it may be, Drunk Dude was expressing an attitude that lurks not too far down in the depths of many a longtime Portlander’s psyche: That some people “deserve” Portland more than others, and, of course, have a special claim on the city’s iconic “weirdness.” I’ve even heard the not-so-longtime residents, with only about a year or so under their belt, wax sentimental about how much the city has changed.

“It’s not how it used to be,” is a good catch-phrase to help you blend in better amongst the locals.

Talking shit about Portland’s gentrification with friends who also used to live there has become a new past-time. My friend José who visited from New Orleans couldn’t get over that there is actually such a thing as “personal isolation flotation chambers,” which felt like the ultimate symbol of how strongly Portland has become “Liberal Disneyland.” I told him he better believe it. That cushy indie Portland of yore, now infused with a fat wad of developmental cash, has been rendered into a kitschy Port of Portlandia consumable version of itself.

My friend Kirsten recently observed, on a trip back to the city from Idaho, that “Portland about a decade ago was like a 10 year old, playing in a sandbox, just trying things out. Now it’s like a teenager, it’s changing and going through that awkward, cranky period.” If Portland is a teenager right now, it’s her party and she can cry and be snotty if she wants to.

My friend Lydia who now lives in Oakland wanted to make sure I remembered, after living in Portland so long, that, “Portland isn’t a Real City. You know that, right?”

But if the results of gentrification–skyrocketing real estate prices and the constant mushrooming of traffic in places it never used to be–are qualifiers of city-hood, then Portland has now definitely become a real city (I mean, right? Kind of?) And as convenient as it would be to blame this all on Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, the “sudden” growth is not Portlandia’s fault and not really so sudden; it was apparently always the city’s vision to build up the central core and maintain the urban growth boundary as best as possible–in other words, for the city to get more dense, and with greater population, more commercial. A worthy goal, to prevent suburban sprawl and protect natural spaces. The less forgivable glitch is that this plan seems to require moving all the poor and brown and black people out–what many people of color experience as part of a longer history of displacement at the whim of white Portland and its evolving vision of the city (see Here’s What Four Decades of Gentrification in North and Northeast Portland Looks Like). 

Though Portland likes to think of itself as uniquely progressive, the truth is of course that we do not have much to be proud of in terms of how redlining and other exclusionary practices shaped the racial history and overly-white modern demographic of this city. In this sense, the “Portland provincialism” of today is really only a short hop from the anti-black, anti-outsider attitudes of the past.

Portland’s increased housing crunch mirrors the larger nationwide crisis in housing and homelessness; we have to remember this is an issue across the country—not one that Portland is being uniquely struck with because it is just so damn special.

What has happened in Portland, and San Francisco, and Oakland, and Seattle, and Cincinnati, and Denver, and what continues to happen in New York City, and what is driving residents inland in Miami, is still often defined by issues of class and racism. It is no mistake that it is usually poorer residents who are of color who are driven out of “up and coming” neighborhoods by extreme rent spikes; “up and coming” is code for, “Black people won’t live here anymore in about a decade.”

I lived in one such neighborhood in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn (where I learned the difference between a typical, aggravating post office and a truly underfunded, neglected one). When I lived there, Ditmas Park hadn’t yet “tipped” to trendy, without the name recognition and unreasonable rents of other parts of Brooklyn. I often found myself wishing the process of gentrification could be frozen in place where it was, because many of the longtime residents actually welcomed the area getting cleaned up a bit, and were tired of feeling unsafe and ignored by the city government. I often found myself wishing that the elderly black people who had lived in the building for thirty years, and the younger families with kids and teenagers, could feel safe and not have to worry about drug deals going on in the lobby–without having to then worry about tons more young white people (like me, of course) moving in to enjoy the newly safe neighborhood. I mean, since our rent was low, perhaps it’s true that my roommate and I weren’t contributing as directly to gentrification; it’s not like we were opening a posh art gallery in the building or something. In fact, we were doing what musicians in New York City have done for generations–making a one-bedroom into a two-bedroom, hauling instruments and gear up the six flight walk-up stairs when the elevator broke down, alternating our practice times across our variegated schedules, making it work.

Before anyone gets too high and mighty about being the O.G. in their particular neck of the woods, it’s good to remember that, since most people move somewhere new at some point in our lives, we all have or will contribute to gentrification somewhere, in one way or another. In fact you might move because gentrification itself causes you to find someplace more affordable, to a place where other people have lived a long time, who see you as a newcomer or outsider.

In Brooklyn I had some good conversations with people who had lived in Flatbush or BedStuy their whole lives. Their feelings about gentrification ranged from anger and resentment on one hand, to a detached weariness, on the other.

“That’s just change. You can’t stop change,” one man said. Some might say that’s apathy, others might say it’s realistic.

Regardless of the political lens one takes on gentrification, perhaps it is everyone’s job to be open-minded, curious, and accepting towards new people. If we’re going to create solutions to the problems raised by increased density, we have to at least start with a basic attitude of common ground, an assumption of humanity. If we can’t do that, we’re buying into the Trump vision of America, one where people cause problems for each other more often than they generate solutions, where it is acceptable to simply reject other people up front, branding them a socioeconomic problem that is taking jobs or housing or resources of one kind or another, rather than getting to know them over time, come to understand what their life is about, who they are, where they’re going.

My ambivalence about seeing my own “home” cities–Portland and the East Bay Area–change so rapidly, is why I originally wrote this song. Moving to other cities and being the newcomer on other people’s home turf added a new layer to the song’s meaning for me. On the track, that’s me on guitar, keys and vocals, and that’s my friend Max Johnson on upright bass. Victor Nash at Destination: Universe! helped me with mixing, and then I added some more parts at Virtue & Vice Studios with Rocky Gallo in Williamsburg. The song is available through my new album, The Dreamer & The Dream, streaming now on Spotify and available on iTunes and all other places music is sold.

And here is some more food for thought on gentrification:

Here’s What Four Decades of Gentrification in North and Northeast Portland Looks Like

De-Gentrifying Portland

Is $20 Million Enough to Reverse Gentrification?

“Listening Through White Ears: Cross-Racial Dialogues as a Way to Address the Racial Effects of Gentrification”

OPP: Other People’s Pianos

Piano practice has always been the back bone of my life structure. It is foundational and usually comes before all other types of practice, and sometimes before breakfast. But of late, with my living situation in continual flux, my practice has shifted from luxurious focused solitude with the instrument to:

Where can I find a piano, and for how long?

In April I moved out of my studio in the SE industrial district of Portland, an idyllic situation where I shared zero walls with neighbors, where I could more or less play whenever I felt like it. That building used to house La Luna, a venue of the Portland of old, where I saw Fiona Apple (among others) play in the 90s. The building has that sort of spooky, Old Portland energy, despite the increasing presence of condos and New Portland everywhere. (A few years back the space was included in a piece on Portland practice spaces in 1859 magazine).

But the really amazing thing about that studio was that I was able to fit my 7′ grand piano in there. If you have visited my blog before you may recall that a while back I was fortunate enough to acquire a totally killer 100+ year old Baldwin vintage grand piano. I went into mighty debt to obtain it (recently paid that off and it felt great). That piano really has my heart–like instant, love-at-first-sound, magic-of-music, to-be-wed-forever, heart. The Baldwin was part of many house shows and piano-focused soirees. Two piano technicians sang its praises as one of their top 10 pianos–EVER.

Having a high quality instrument you really, really love is like having a therapeutic biofeedback machine in your living room; you input your thoughts and emotions and experiences into sound shapes, and they get fed back to you as highly-refined musical energy. It’s like taking high quality vitamins. Or getting lots of hugs.

And now I am living without.

I literally spent an entire 60-minute therapy session processing and crying about living without that piano.

A wonderful old clunker at my friends' Bear and Anthony's in the Columbia River Gorge. This is the piano Anthony's grandmother taught lessons on.
A wonderful old clunker at my friends’ Bear and Anthony’s in the Columbia River Gorge. This is the piano Anthony’s grandmother taught lessons on for many decades.

After leaving the studio I moved through various temporary arrangements, one for a month, one for a week, and the current one for four months, with the final goal of moving to NYC at the end of the summer.

During my last slow goodbye to Portland, friends have been generous with their pianos. I’ve played an old upright out in the Gorge at the Hobbit House, and friends at the Pink Palace shared their tired old gal donated by Piano Push Play. My new routine has helped me realize that while it is good to create a private, focused environment for music practice, there is also something good about learning to adapt, musically and otherwise, to different situations. Like a band tracking drum parts downstairs; a toddler running back and forth and seeming to stomp very deliberately directly above me from the upstairs apartment; an electric bassist practicing in another room while I make do with a piano with no music desk and a broken key cover; and an alarmed cat staring directly at me from another room for the entire two hours that I was playing. (It was highly distracting).

All of this auditory distraction is especially important to learn to deal with considering that I’m moving to NYC!

As much as any technical skill, adaptability is paramount as a pianist. When you’re locked away in your apartment with a dream piano all the time, your playing is more easily thrown off by a nice-but-quirky piano at a venue or rehearsal (and pretty much every piano at any venue is nice-but-quirky). As my classical pianist aunt Julie always says, regularly playing different pianos is “part of the tradition.” As an example of extreme adaptability, my friend Thollem McDonas does not “live” anywhere, as he’s literally always on the road, and he maintains a regular piano practice nonetheless. “Everywhere becomes home,” he said, and every piano is just part of adapting your overall self to each situation. The mobile Zen pianist.

For me, the borrow-a-piano routine is a bit too irregular for getting much real work done, so the type of practice I’ve been doing on Other People’s Pianos is more maintenance mode–just keeping alive what I have already written, and making sure to fit in some sight-reading. On a day when I have extra time, I do some improvising, and maybe gather some ideas for composing.

Also, when you have to go without, you make do with alternatives. When I was such a junkie for the loud, emotionally intense feedback of my acoustic piano, I didn’t have much reason to spend time with my Nord 73. But over the past few months I’ve come to appreciate all the fun things I can do with pedals and effects; I went in a new direction with a song I would have otherwise recorded as an acoustic piano tune, because the keyboard was the only thing available to me.

At the Pink Palace in NE Portland, a baby grand donated by Piano. Push. Play.
At the Pink Palace in NE Portland, a baby grand donated by Piano. Push. Play.

I don’t know what the future holds for my Baldwin piano. Space is of course ridiculously limited in New York City, and a 7’x5′ grand definitely won’t be fitting in the one bedroom apartment I’ll be sharing with another musician.

But there is a chance that through a piano technician friend I can luck out on a cheap shipping deal. If I do, I’m hoping to find a school, venue, church, or private residence where a piano would be welcome, and where I could also come practice. A mutually-beneficial piano-sharing scenario. Better that than having it wrapped in blankets and going unused in a warehouse.

But for now, I’ve got a keyboard, and Other People’s Pianos, to keep me going.

If you have any leads on available pianos in the NYC area, please message me in the comments or through the contact form!

Transcending The Cultural Amnesia of ‘Women-In-Music’

I’ve never seen a soul detached from its gender,

but I’d like to. I’d like to see my own that way,

free from its female tethers. Maybe it would be like

riding a horse. The rider’s the human one,

but everyone looks at the horse.

-“Horse,” by Chase Twichell* 

*used with permission 

A while back Dazed published a brilliant piece by Emma Hope Allwood about the co-opting of feminist empowerment into a meaningless tool of commercial branding (“The word ’empowerment’ has literally lost all meaning”). From ‘girl power’ t-shirts made by girls in UK sweatshops to “empowering” activewear and protein powders, Allwood notes the consumeristic hypocrisy of how feminist consciousness manifests in mainstream culture. “When we’re sold the idea of power as a purely individual force rooted in buying stuff rather than a collective one with the potential to drive forward change,” Allwood writes, “all that results is a kind of tokenistic personal brand politics that doesn’t go much further than the square crops of our IG feeds.”

Indeed, such marketing ploys naturally tend to neuter the very power out of ’empowerment.’ Allwood muses that back in 2012 she never could have imagined this strange new future where feminism would be so popular that ’empowerment’ could even become a marketing slogan. But the truth is that the co-opting of feminism has a long history, one that operates in predictable patterns.

I actually first wrote this essay a few years ago, in 2015, while on a long layover at JFK airport. These were the pre-Trump days when race and gender politics were important, but nonetheless seen through a lens made a bit hazy by the hope-filled Obama glow. In writing, I was trying to capture my mixed feelings as I noticed a familiar tide coming in, with the topic of women-in-music popping up on the music culture radar with increasing frequency. Over that previous year, I’d seen interviews with women musicians detailing the sexism they endure in the industry, and even entire websites and magazines exclusively devoted to female artists (She Shreds, for women bassists and guitarists, Tom Tom Magazine for female drummers).

While in general I support the idea of women and girls being encouraged to find role models in the music industry, I also know that a few mentions of the ’empowering’ female rocker is all it takes to set off a media trend that ends up making a fool of feminism. As I saw more and more interviews about sexism and the music industry, I started to flash back to the late 90’s, when my young feminist brain was trying to make sense of how to proceed with proclaiming oneself a feminist with any integrity anymore now that the Spice Girls had taken over pop culture. Ani DiFranco and Sleater Kinney’s growls of power had suddenly become co-opted into a feminist-lite version of “Grrrl Power,” plastered all over girls’ backpacks and hair scrunchies. It was disheartening and altogether disempowering to see feminism rendered into easily digestible (and thus easily forgettable) pop culture phenomena. As Allwood discusses, whether this consumeristic reduction takes place in wellness brands or entertainment or even in politics itself, the central problem is the way in which a force that is supposed to be an agent of cultural change becomes subsumed into the larger capitalist status quo.

As I poked around the topic as a teenager, to my dismay I found that this exact same ‘women in music’ trend had in fact happened back in the 70’s, too. Gloria Gaynor and Helen Redding roared and survived and proclaimed their female independence up the charts, and the industry took notice, trying to repackage all the existing female singer-songwriters in the “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” branding. (Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Aretha Franklin were a few of the already well-established artists the industry tried to retrofit  into this new “women artist” packaging, each of whom, you might have noticed, has nonetheless circumnavigated around the “women artist” categorization enough to maintain their own artistic legend–but each did it with considerable longevity and persistence in the industry over a very long period of time.) After that rash of proto-feminist media attention in the 70’s, women artists didn’t “go” anywhere, but the industry returned to its centering of the male norm in all discussions of everything music.

In her 1992 book “She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock n’ Roll,” feminist historian Gillian G. Gaar noted that “women in music” trends in fact reappear with startling regularity, about every 15-20 years. She wrote her book as Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls the grist for the “female singer-songwriter” pop culture mill du jour, but a few years before the peak of the bigger “women’s movement in rock.” Though all of these are part of one loosely defined cultural period, the “She-Rock” peak came after the original Seattle Riot Grrls, but preceded the Spice Girls, who were its commercial peak and fizzle. Around 1996-97, the mainstream music media was all abuzz with Alanis Morrissette, Queen Latifah, Ani Difranco, PJ Harvey, Meschell Ndegeocello, Tori Amos, and Bjork. Sarah McGlaughlin and the women of Lilith Fair would soon convene each summer for a women-only summerfest which the press heralded as a revolutionary idea that was really only a more palatable (e.g. less lesbian, more traditionally-feminine) version of the long-running separatist Womyn’s Music Festival, which had been held every summer in Michigan since the 70’s.

Same as in the 70’s, in the 90’s women artists were profiled and interviewed with special attention to their female plight in the industry. Sure, there is no denying patriarchy is real and everywhere, so there are ample experiences of sexism, harassment, and disadvantage to discuss and analyze. Thus, the double-edged sword of the media coverage of these women-in-music “trends” is that it always feels alternately insulting and, well, empowering. Whenever and wherever women give voice to the reality of living through sexism, we validate each other and a teensy bit of consciousness of shared experience is raised. It’s just that when it is Rolling Stone magazine telling the tale, for example, too much patriarchal detritus can sneak in and muddy those waters, ultimately only reinforcing the idea that women artists, and their music, are mostly only relevant to women.

As had happened a generation before, after all the mid-90’s media buzz about women in music, the female artists portrayed as torch-bearers of a new feminist movement were effectively sidelined into a nonsensical, gender-specific “women’s music” side-genre. After each of these women-in-music “uprisings” the pattern is that feminists and feminist dialogue inevitably branches off again into separate subcultural quarters, and the women musicians who enjoyed a temporary spotlight generally return to the cultural periphery. And the irony is that through all this supposedly feminist attention,  women musicians are ultimately held back from being fully integrated into the cultural canon. This means that the work of female artists is continually, repetitively categorized first by gender, and its true musical value becomes secondary.

Women-in-music is the music industry’s WNBA; women are never assessed on the same terrain as the men because it is always a foregone conclusion that men are simply “naturally” the definitive players, with women artists an ongoing gender-specific variation of the male norm. And our constant recycling of the sidebar of ‘women in music’ perpetuates a type of cultural amnesia from one generation to the next–both about women artists of distinction from earlier generations, and about feminist backlash in general.

In appreciation for Gaar’s math, this “movement” was precisely twenty years ago. Hence, my ambivalence around 2015 as I noticed stirrings of the same gender-specific phrases starting to recirculate in the music mags. On one hand, it is good and thought-provoking and healthy to do revisionist histories of forgotten women artists alongside profiles of under-recognized women artists, as She Shreds and other mags often do. There is no shortage of supposedly earth-shattering new retrospectives on Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the “gods of guitar” greeting us every year at the newsstand. A bit of intelligent, feminist counterbalance is necessary, by Goddess.

My concern four years ago, as I wrote the first iteration of this article, was that we were about to go through the same whole quasi-feminist circus again without it yielding enough permanent gains. I wondered if feminism, with female musicians as its poster children, was about to be dragged into the cultural spotlight, only have its power neutered, yet again. When the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford debacle revived in horrific precision the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, reminding us that our revolutionary feminist feelings post-2016 are really only a repeat of the early 90’s, I felt this same weariness again. Moreover, I felt a sort of matriarchal protectiveness over the activist generation coming up, so inspired and full of intersectional feminist vision. I cringed at the thought of the high likelihood of their politics getting sucked up into the branding machine?

When Brandi Carlile swept the Grammys in 2019, in one of her after-show interviews she deftly claimed the “women artist” question first, before the press could frame it in their familiarly reductive terms. She saw the 90’s as an era where women dominated, and as an example by which we can only hope the modern music industry can reframe its appreciation of women artists.

(In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if women’s predominance in 2019’s award show was Grammy president Neil Portow’s way of apologizing and side-stepping around the pile of political poo he created after defending the almost exclusively male winners of the 2018 ceremony with his “Women artists have to step it up” line.)

I agree with Carlile that it would be nice if the music industry evolved to value women permanently. But considering all the evidence, we have to ask ourselves, is another round of girl power in music what we really want? “Female empowerment” is so pervasive a sub-genre by now that advertising houses and labels with pop divas looking for new song material regular post for girl power anthems. It is a concept that has been thoroughly bookended by the limitations of commercial purposes.

True, today is different. Since the 70’s and the 90’s women-in-music media blitzes, the entire music industry has nearly collapsed–except thanks in large part to the cash cow of hip hop. New artists aren’t invested in and developed by labels in the way they used to be—which is part of what fueled the women-in-music trends of the past (A&R developing female acts according to the successful prototype of previous hits). Second, today, everyone is their own “brand”—and no one stands out as a triumph of  feminism on one hand and identity politic branding so much as Queen Bey, whose deft blending of marketing and empowerment could easily leave most people feeling there isn’t much difference between the two after all. This is all a far cry from the mid-90’s ambivalent Ani Difranco singing, “I am a poster girl with no poster,” an artist who was as clear-headed and feminist as she was in great philosophical conflict about being expected to represent an entire generation’s varying feminist impulses.

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of feeling like feminism and branding go well together, the ongoing issue is that there is still a need for feminism in the music industry and music culture. But stopping short at relegating that attention to a ‘women artists’ category inevitably encourages the analysis of gender in music only in relation to women, thus subtly reinforcing the idea of the ‘male norm’ (not to mention the gender binary).

In other words, to speak in gender-specific terms is not by default feminist, nor does it necessarily correlate with feminist intentions. True feminism analyzes all aspects of gender and power. Why not, for example, analyze how male identity and masculinity are formed in music and its many subcultures? What about all the gender-specific ways in which music and its accessories are so heavily marketed to men as extensions of their masculine identity?

In my first stab at this essay, I philosophized on how music actually transcends gender, and how feminism, too, should not be allowed to fall prey to becoming merely a reactionary arm of the larger patriarchal system, but should hold steady on the path to ultimately transcend that system altogether….Ah, back in the glow of the Obama years, there was headroom to reach for the broadest, most abstract visions of what feminism going forward in the 21st century could look like.

As Allwood notes, with a pussy-grabber in the White House and amidst the initial gains of the Times Up and Me Too movements, this is a moment when we simply cannot afford to have our rallying cries get watered down into ad slogans. We need feminism to be strong, robust, and capable of calling bullshit, now more than ever. This is especially true considering the larger wave of white supremacy and xenophobia taking over the world’s political stage. Feminism, when done right, is one of the best cross-cultural modes of communication and activism available to us. Women are everywhere, of course, and everyone is impacted by women’s issues. Maybe this magnitude of potential is why feminism is so vulnerable to co-optation?

When our empathetic impulses to create a more just world are numbed into individualistic consumerism, it is a direct, precise hit to the political nervous system. That this phenomenon has precedent tells us how swiftly and reliably any stirrings of radical feminist action bubbling to the surface can be rendered mute and ineffective through commercial co-optation. As Sut Jhally has been saying for decades, advertising has completely permeated every aspect of our lives; our politics being fed back to us as products shouldn’t really surprise us.

In the same sense that we cannot transform gender and its norms through the capitalist system, which specifically insists upon gender as a central organizing tenet, we cannot expect the marketplace to transform or empower us. That is a job we can only do for ourselves and with one another.

Perhaps in music culture what we can all begin to aim for is the vision of the poet Chase Twichell, the rider and the horse. The rider is the human, the musician, and their music and their soul is the horse. Perhaps we can all muster the generosity and imagination to treat our music first as expressions of our soul, and only secondarily with regard to gender. Gender is only one detail that informs the music’s context, but does not define the maker or the music. Maybe this is what music really wants, and what our souls are often really after.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Roslyn Farrington, a visionary feminist teacher and leader who inspired zillions at Portland State University.

DEAR JONI

It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan. Maybe devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning.

Hearing of Joni’s health in jeopardy earlier this week made me realize that the long-dreaded day that Joni is not in the world any longer is getting closer. It feels much like when I finally started realizing my maternal grandmother was not going to live forever: I understand it intellectually, that no one lives forever, but my heart seizes in objection nonetheless.

joni mitchell with guitarI still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, and from there I discovered altered tunings.

If not for Joni and her exotic tunings, I probably wouldn’t have become a guitarist, maybe wouldn’t have even kept going with music.

Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”

Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilities for a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.

Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums. It wasn’t only the musical aspect, of course; it was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics, which gave an intriguing glimpse into a grown woman’s love affairs, independence, politics, opinions, and struggles–not something that is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, even today.

Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe entirely; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.

As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities.

Today when I look back at those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses” (it’s too long a list)–I see how this entire musical vocabulary was internalized into my playing and my eventual songwriting. Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had.

Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant: her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then); her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture.

As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality.

Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.

Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015
Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015

Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved. Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that too often undermines authentic expression.

Piano Nerd-Out Time: The Journey of Refurbishing & Regulating a Vintage Piano

In my life I have loved many a piano. But none so much as the vintage Baldwin grand I met and became betrothed to about six years ago. And like shorter term relationships that “prepare” you for a more significant investment, there were many educational pianos along the way before I found her.

There were the pianos I grew up playing; a Baldwin spinet with a squeaky, orange velvet-covered bench, and later, a Krakauer baby grand that my mom inherited after my grandfather passed away. It was the piano my mom and her sister grew up playing, and after being shipped across the country, the movers had to haul the piano–legs removed, kidney-shaped body wrapped in quilted blankets–all the way up the sharp incline of our driveway, an ordeal that took an entire afternoon. Once it was inside I couldn’t stop playing it.

The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.
The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.

Then there was my first piano of my very own, an old grand upright with ornately carved legs, rose vines hand-painted on the interior soundboard, and enough chips in its surface you could see decades of past paint colors. (Honeydew green was the most interesting shade that peeked out; I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to have a melon green piano in the living room with me).

After that, I had a Wurlitzer spinet around for a while, with a sound as loud and metallic as a brass band. (I sold that one to a piano student). Then, I replaced it with an electric piano with settings for historical tunings (interesting and useful for a time because I’m drawn to microtonality, but that board, too, was ultimately also sold to yet another student). Thus I was back to my upright, which was showing its years with each move into every humidity-variable room or basement apartment I asked it to survive in.

In the backdrop of all these temporary fixes, I had other fleeting loves. On the second floor of the piano store where I used to teach lessons, I would take advantage of breaks between students to get away from the studio keyboard and practice on the three rooms of used for sale pianos. It was vintage pianos wall to wall, row after row, like aging maidens waiting to be asked to dance. There were the many Steinway uprights, which almost always had a red SOLD tag on them, and notes about the final work to be completed before they were to be shipped to their new owner. And the regal, crystalline tone of the Chickering grands, or the perfectly even action and balanced sound of the Yamahas.

My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.
My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.

These were all out of my price range, so for my home studio piano, I found a black Chickering console with unusually high pedals, which I always had to wear heels to play; it made me feel like Tori Amos. But like my previous spinets and consoles, I needed something better for regular practice and composing.

For a few years I regularly visited every piano shop that I knew of with a good used piano selection. I routinely scoured Craigslist: “Pianos>Used>Any.” And then finally, after a long, desperate, demoralizing search, after only ever seeming to be feel an attraction to pianos that were way to expensive for me, finally, I found her:

A 1912 Baldwin 7′ grand piano. An oldie but goodie. The first few decades of the 20th century was the best era for the Baldwin piano company, with a sound like nothing else I had played; a symphony in a case. The first day I found her, in a shop called the Piano Technology School for the Blind, in Vancouver, Washington, I just sat there, smitten.

Sure, she had some prominent scratches and nicks on her case, including many tiny, weird etchings into the wood above the keys. I imagined a Liberace type with fistfuls of ruby- and emerald-encrusted gold rings, scratching away at the wood on the key cover over the years. But for me, the point wasn’t to have a perfectly smooth, glossy case; it’ was the sound.

I was so mesmerized by the sound, in fact, that I didn’t pause long enough notice the Baldwin’s considerable quirks. She had suffered a hard couple of decades in her century of longevity: partial refurbishings, objects being dropped or slammed on the keys, parts warping, and the general malaise of never being in any one technicians’ care for long enough to get a full refurbishing. But I was swept away by her sound. I sat there on the bench, in a Glenn Gould hunch, face close to the keys, playing one at a time, mesmerized by the gradually, softly decaying overtones.

For a while I was content to get lost in the Baldwin’s endless chambers of resonance and overtones. I wrote all the songs on my first record on her, including “Theory of Survival,” for which I used prepared piano techniques to create sonic layers:

But the Baldwin’s actual playability was another matter. For a while, I couldn’t practice for more than twenty minutes without my arms getting sore. I was also worried about the impact on my technique because the piano had such limited aftertouch and heavy key weight.

Even finding a piano technician who was willing to work on this old gal was a process; in fact, one practically hang up on me when I told her I had a partially-refurbished grand piano on my hands.

“I don’t touch a grand piano that’s had unknown hands working on it,” she said flatly.

Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.
Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.

Finally, I found master piano technician John Rhodes. He was passionate about pianists having good instruments to play, and keeping the tradition of quality, acoustic pianos alive–he felt so strongly, in fact, that he was willing to donate his time to come by and do an assessment to figure out exactly what was wrong.

He came over to my house and we ate cupcakes and talked about cats and pianos and pianists all afternoon. John said he would take on the project–pro bono, all I would have to pay for was parts–but it would mean the piano would need to be in his shop for a while, and he wouldn’t be able to promise a completion date.

During a nearly year-long field trip away from home, the Baldwin’s action was lovingly, meticulously reworked. John kept extensive records on each stage of the entire process.

Upon returning home the Baldwin was definitely in a much-improved state, but even with all that work, there remained the final leg of the restoration: regulation. I had to wait yet again until it was in the budget, and in the stars, to have it done. Then, on a soggy Portland night in October 2013, after a Piano. Push. Play. event, under the eaves of the smoky outdoor patio at Roadside Attraction on SE 12th St., I met piano technician Alvin Alghrim. After hearing about my piano Alvin said he had to come “meet” it, and after playing it once, he, like most people, fell in love with it too and proclaimed it one of his favorite pianos. He said he wanted to work on it.

Le grande dame of my living room.
Le grande dame of my living room.

Before launching into the project, Alvin did intensive research over the next few months going over John’s extensive notes, absorbing John’s process up to that point, and factoring in how that would influence his approach to the regulation. Once Alvin decided he had everything he needed to figure out how to approach the regulation, and he whipped it together in two afternoons. The result:

I’M IN PIANO HEAVEN. I didn’t realize that one of the bonuses of a regulation job is that it actually improves the sound, too. (As if the old girl’s sound could get any better).

xoxoxoxo
xoxoxoxo

At times I am a little bewildered to have such a special instrument, just sitting there waiting to be played, in my daily life. Lest I forget how lucky I am after this long journey, I am reminded by each pianist who comes over and gets to share in this special little slice of acoustical heaven, as they sit down and play and gaze off into dreamland.

I remember an opera singer friend once told me that every singer has to go through some type of profound illness that prevents them from singing for a while; it’s part of the spiritual journey of opening up your voice. Maybe instrumentalists go through a similar thing, that manifests in our instruments?

At any rate, the journey of getting to know and rework an old instrument yields just as much as the attainment of the improved working instrument itself, as through that process we develop an appreciation for sound, how it works, and come to better understand how we respond to it. The oldie-but-goodie instruments might be a bit work, but they are most definitely worth the trouble.

 

Spring Things

Summer display of Diascia, Celosia, Coleus, and ornamental millet.
Summer display of Diascia, Celosia, Coleus, and ornamental millet.

Last year I decided I was finally going to learn how to grow a proper vegetable garden. I’m not new to either vegetables or to gardening—in fact, in my daily life I could be mistaken as somewhat of a “plant expert” where I work, as a visual merchandiser at a garden center. With a few plant ID classes and a lot of time around nurseries under my belt, I can answer questions about plant illnesses and rattle off botanical names with the best of the plant nerds—but behind this image of horticultural prowess lurks a shameful secret: I can’t grow a decent tomato to save my life.

One year when my finances were especially lean, my dad suggested I garden to supplement my food budget.

“Can’t you grow some vegetables and reduce your grocery bill that way? Any little bit helps,” he reminded me. I hesitated.

The truth is, each year I do put a tomato plant or two in the ground, along with a casual sprinkling of fertilizer in May or June (or sometimes, as late as a relaxed early July). After watering a few times I then completely abandon them; from this routine I consistently earn a small handful of desperate tiny cherry tomatoes that arrive sporadically throughout August and September—even if their variety was supposed to be a “Roma” or “Slicer” type of tomato, all tomatoes are rendered equally forsaken and puny in my garden. Any basil planted goes straight to the bugs, while the rosemary and thyme never realize their culinary ambitions and remain purely ornamental. I will, however, get to eat a strawberry here and there—should the plants manage to produce a crop on the outskirts of the veggie bed, where it honestly gets dry as a desert precipice by July, and should I remember to get to them before the slugs.

“I don’t think I can grow enough produce at my place to really make a dent in the grocery bill,” I responded to my dad vaguely. You see, he grew up on a farm in Ohio and is an organic and non-GMO food advocate. Growing produce is a family tradition—and profession, as my great-grandfather was an agricultural scientist who contributed to the development of modern hydroponic gardening and even wrote a book called The Vegetable Encyclopedia and Gardener’s Guide. Under this weighty mantle of familial inheritance, it’s always been hard for me to admit to my dad that I’m such a slacker when it comes to veggies.

‘Natura Morta’ by Walter Marcetti, installation at Yale Union.

This lack of agricultural prowess makes me not only a black sheep in the family but also an exception amongst the neo-homesteading culture that is especially prevalent—and political—in Portland, Oregon. Come Spring each year the air is thick with aspirations towards a sustainable and virtuous Mason jar and apple crate-decorated lifestyle. Everyone here seems to keep chickens for eggs and bees for honey, plus runs their own home canning operation and maintains at least a few raised beds and fruit trees—everyone except me, that is.

One year my friend Kirsten asked me about my plans for the garden at my then-home. Kirsten then lived on a yurt at a Community Supported Agriculture farm with her husband, Shaun. Far more economical and resourceful with nature’s offerings than most people would ever aspire to be, when Kirsten and Shaun see roadkill they are often known to pull over to pick up the carcass and render hides for fashioning new boots or hats.

“What kind of crops are you going to plant this year?” Kirsten asked—not whether I would plant them, but which kind.

“Well, I’ll do a few veggies in the bed by the patio,” again skirting the issue of discussing the ill-fated tomato bed in much depth, “but most of the yard is for all the other stuff.”

“What ‘other stuff’?” Kirsten asked, perplexed.

As much as she couldn’t fathom what else a person would dig in the dirt for, I didn’t even know where to begin. I grow plants for their beauty, not for any practical purpose that would serve me or other humans. Actually, simply being in nature is proven to improve health and quality of life, of course. Beyond that, appreciation of nature and the perception of beauty helps us stay connected with the rhythm of life and the universe. I wouldn’t dare take this on as a platform against a sustainability advocate (especially not one from Portland, or my dad for that matter), but I have always enjoyed the quiet ethos of growing plants to feed my soul—rather than my gut.

There’s the shade bed along the perimeter of the back garden where grows a Hosta that’s now nearly as big as I am; the bamboo-filled containers, potted heliotrope and geraniums on the patio; the hot sunny bed along the side of the house with New Zealand and Mediterranean plants, and then the front North-facing bed where fuchsias, conifers, and Cyclamen battle some tremendously tough and fertile weeds that I spend much of each summer making futile (but at least, poison-free) efforts to eradicate.

Evidence that I can, in fact, make some green things grow.
Evidence that I can, in fact, make some green things grow.

To be fair, my plants are not grown solely for pleasure; they also serve as green (or mottled or purple or striped) markers of my life and reminders of the people in it. I look at the hydrangea and hope my friend José comes to town while it’s flowering this year, because it’s his favorite shrub and he always likes to take a bouquet to his mother on his visits from New Orleans. I keep an eye on the soil beneath the mimosa tree, looking for signs of the flower seeds I scattered last year as a memorial to commemorate Nonnie, my maternal grandmother, and her love of flower gardening. A few of the plants in my yard were planted by former roommates, or by the squirrels and birds who like to rearrange things a bit each year. Others came from cuttings of the many species I planted at my mom’s house before I had a place of my own—most of which originally came from the free pile at the nursery where I worked back then. Much of the rest of the garden came from friends whose homes foreclosed in the dark years between 2009 and 2011; more than once I attended a work party at friends’ foreclosed homes, and like horticultural rescue teams, with shovels and buckets and nursery pots, we furtively dug up long-established plants as carefully and quickly as possible.

“I can walk away from the house and the man just fine,” my friend Jillian lamented, “but the Hellebores! I can’t leave my Hellebores!” Her only comfort was that at least her beloved plant friends would grow on in the gardens of people whose homes she visited often. And each year, her purple hellebore comes into bloom in my shade bed, a symbol of survival and new beginnings.

So you can see why my gardening energy is drawn towards these sentimental and aesthetically appealing plants that come back reliably year after year, instead of dealing with some scraggly squash plant gasping for life over in the “Edible Bed.”

It will only be there a couple more months anyway,” I often find myself thinking, passing over the desperate vine with a brief hose sprinkling. That’s the other tough thing about edible gardening: it’s so much effort that all goes into annual plants that are only with you for a season. At the end of the summer, you take everything they have to offer, all of their efforts towards their own biological reproduction, and summarily rip them out. This reminds me of Nonnie’s argument against the logic of vegetarianism:

“Anything that’s living has to be killed for us to eat it; when you pull a carrot out of the ground, you’re ending its life,” she would say pragmatically. “Is a carrot any less worthy of life than a cow?”

What we innocently call “vegetable gardening,” then, is only ritual plant murder. I wouldn’t tell that to a permaculture activist, but maybe that is part of my block around nurturing my peppers and squash along to term—because I know I’ll only have to kill them. Like many a city kid, somewhere in my psyche there probably lurks a Pollyanna version of nature, where humans and plants and animals all live alongside one another in a nonviolent, picturesque tableau.

Still, I admire the knowledge and economic efficiency of the neo-homesteaders. And it stands to reason that if I can maintain an entire landscape of perennial and hardy plants, I should be able to grow at least some of my own food, right? That’s why I don’t want to give up yet, even though my track record is poor.

IMG_2054My last hope, it seems, to address this gardening handicap is to hop on the “edibles are beautiful” trend that is hot in the gardening magazines lately. This is a gardening trend that I could really get behind. If the aesthete in me can be retrained to experience the scratchy leaves of tomatoes and the crowded faces of marigolds as “beautiful,” perhaps I can be lured to tend them more consistently. I’ll have to keep the end-of-season killing time, aka “the harvest,” out of mind.

To experiment with this new approach, instead of torturing anew that same 4’ x 6’ plot of land, last year at the garden center I had the idea to build an employee community vegetable garden. The idea was the garden would provide food for the staff while demonstrating that edible gardening can be done in a small amount of space, and that is can be just as visually appealing as an ornamental bed. For the sake of my gardening self-image, and for the IMG_2055survival of the plants going into these beds, I really hoped this would all be proven true–and the fact that the beds were to be a shared responsibility boded well for our collective success. But what ended up happening was the clearing out of the area where the beds were going to be kept took way longer than anticipated, and the beds were never in fact built. I scaled back my ambitions to simply two small raised beds built onto a pallet, which could be moved around as needed throughout the season. And move them around we did–or rather, out of the way–as by late August there was only a scraggly, desperate-looking bunch of onions outcompeted by an aggressive mint-like thing. And that was that.

This year–every spring is a new beginning, a second chance, right?–I have scaled back my ambitions even further, and my only nod to the idea of urban farming is one medium-sized focal point display situated between the fruits. Provided the plants are watered regularly, this approach should be pretty bulletproof, as none of the plants are actually planted, they’re just in containers–which could be sold and taken home to a loving family at any time–and the entire set-up is entirely temporary. I admit to nursing dreams of living on a farm someday, and having the know-how to participate in it like a true earth mother. But for now, I will stick to making things look pretty and buying my produce on sale.