Category Archives: music

Shoveling up a cumbia in the rain.

I’ve been relocating my garden. Most of the fuzzy, silvery (read unappealing to deer) lambs’ ears from the back yard notgarden are being transplanted, shovelful by shovelful, into an instant garden in the front of the house. This is a time-consuming process as I must step back frequently to evaluate, ruminate, and procrastinate over the direction and flow of the plants, the angle and quantity of rocks and geegaws subsumed into the making of the new garden, and to clumsily punch the minuscule button on  my MP3 player with my muddy garden glove to bypass, or circle back to, a particular song. As always, I was accompanied by that electronic companion, comforter, personal trainer, and virtual Lucifer himself ever ready to distract me, magically squeezed into a purple 1.5″ x 2″ case; my MP3 player. On this typical Sunday morning consisting of neighborhood silence and solitude so thick and clinging as to seem post-apocalyptic, my garden slogging was backed by Ingrid Michaelson singing cheerily against my brain about broken hearts and broken parts and Sheryl Crow reminding me that “all I wanna do is have some fun” and Pitbull rasping that I’m” groovy, baby” and he wants us to” make a movie, baby” and Haley Bonar voicing my exact wish that “I could be my former self, she’d be a fun girlfriend — she got a bad reputation.” Suitable music for gardening, or the end of the world, in case this day actually was and I didn’t recognize it.

The morning’s mucking about was slow going and it was evident the game would soon be called by yet more rain. My $1.25/bag  soil was going to be  nickel-a-pound mud if I didn’t lay the traveling lambs’ ears lickety-split into the dirt to be held in place temporarily by the oval marble cutouts scavenged from somebody’s bathroom sink installation. I continued digging and pulling and wheeling back yard to front.

And humming. And singing.

Raindrops began falling around me. I saw their impressions on the pollen-glazed driveway more than felt them. There would be no stopping the transplant slog just yet, though. I’d been carting this garden around for weeks between rainstorms and traveling. At this pace, autumn would be here before I got this project done. After autumn, the world does end, nearly, for me.

Digging and wheeling, digging and wheeling. Singing. Punching the replay button on the MP3 player with ever dirtier gloves. More singing.

The rain continued upping the ante.

The Blazers queued up on my electronic Lucifer, playing their jaunty “Cumbia Del Sol.” I’d steadfastly cast tempters Ingrid and Sheryl and Pitbull and Haley behind me, but the Blazers held out the ultimate apple. “Cumbia” — a dance form; “del Sol” — the sun.

I looked at the substantial expanse of waiting dirt. Just another wheelbarrow or two would allay my procrastination guilt. At least two more days of rain were forecast. The trees stood near me aloof and dripping and mute amongst their brown leaf carpeting, the sole witnesses to my labors aside from an occasional road biker blazing past.

So, what really mattered here?

I bit the Blazer’s apple.

I poked the volume button. I dropped the shovel.  Stepping over the wine bottle garden edging, I proceeded to trample the nearby clover with my own cumbia, dancing alone and upright and madly in the front yard, dissing the dreary sky, seeing a cartoon-bright sun in my mind. I danced opposite the grubby me reflected in the house windows. I danced among the imaginary crowd on the backs of my eyelids. I danced with my back to every self-imposed Puritanical “should,” hoofing gleefully with the Lucifer of right here and right now. I danced because I could, and because I couldn’t not dance.

And there it is. Don’t wait. Drop your shovel or your phone or your loneliness or your disease and dance, with your eyes closed and your back to your Puritans if necessary.  Whatever’s in your garden, weeds or prize roses or just dirt, nothing’s going anywhere. Right now is all that really matters. Don’t let the chance to be happy, to have fun for just this moment, slip away. Never let that chance get away from you. There’s no replay button for it.


Listen to my temptations:

Ingrid Michaelson, “Be OK” 

Sheryl Crow, “All I Wanna Do” 

Pitbull, “Back in Time” 

Haley Bonar, “Bad Reputation” 

The Blazers, “Cumbia Del Sol” 


We cared, together.

Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 3.0, “Water Night,” streamed live last night online from Lincoln Center. My aging, temperamental laptop and equally frustrating internet connection miraculously made peace with each other, allowing me to watch all 3700+ of us, with a celebratory glass of wine in my hand. The video is now here.

My post, “Virtually Awesome,” talked a bit about how I found Virtual Choir 2.0, “Sleep.”  That video was a tiny virtual shrub poking from the side of the sheer mountain face of despair I was then falling down, and I held onto that shrub fiercely while I found a toehold. I regretted publishing “Virtually Awesome” so quickly after recording my tenor part for “Water Night,” though, because my writing focus wasn’t right. The focus shouldn’t have been me, it should have been Eric Whitacre and those people from all over the world who gave themselves into that gentle, calming, reassuring gift of “Sleep.”

After last night’s “Water Night” premiere, Lincoln Center hosted a three-person discussion among composer John Corigliano, “Water Night” composer and conductor, Eric Whitacre, and Chris Anderson, conference curator from TED. These three talented and insightful individuals clearly realized that the Virtual Choirs were ground-breaking and universe-denting, and they seemed just as awed and humbled by them as the participants themselves have been. Notes I scribbled while watching them include, “The singers cared about one thing, and they cared together; there was a profound oneness; the singers are a part of a larger family; no singer was left behind; music changes how we respond to things — it opens us up; the singers are part of something bigger than themselves, which is a key to happiness.”


Corigliano, Whitacre & Anderson


I’ll probably never find my little square among all those other videos comprising the whole “Water Night,” (though, based on a static group photo, I am 4th row from the bottom and 27 places from the left edge), but that’s okay. I know I’m there and  care about that one bigger thing, and I’m surrounded by literally thousands of virtual singing family members who also care about that one bigger thing that took on a life of its own, and who support and improve my performance a thousandfold. I took part in this because of them, not because I wanted visual recognition, or to stand out from everyone else. I wanted to inhale the breath of our community, and release it into the same magical sound with my family from Brazil, El Salvador, Namibia, Hungary. Our breath, our determination, our triumph, are now a part of this universe, as the rising moon in “Water Night” watches over all of us.

Virtually awesome.

I have a persistent furball in my throat. My mornings are spent hacking and “aheming” until I can settle it into an acceptable place. This mucous meatball significantly crimps any singing I might want to do.

During a Very Low & Lonely Time last year, I discovered Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir performing “Sleep.” Here was this cool composer guy talking about souls on virtual desert islands, going to any length to find and connect with each other. The individual singers, connected in the video by nebulous bands, showed me that distance and isolation could be overcome. The music itself was painfully gentle, and healing. Through my ocean of tears, Scarlett O’Hara-like I vowed to take part if another virtual choir assembled. I wanted desperately to be part of something that mattered. 

“Water Night” came out over the 2011 holidays, and I did participate. And I am unashamedly freaking proud.

Even in my long-ago, pre-furball days, I never sang solo. I was an alto who could sing well within my section. The alto line of “Water Night” is too difficult for my current voice, so I chose the tenor line. Then I procrastinated ordering print music. We went out of town over the holidays. I waited weeks for practice videos that turned out to not meet my hand-holding neediness. My voice could support only a limited amount of practice before disintegrating. I had to relocate my aging laptop with its very noisy fan closer to the router so the conductor video wouldn’t hang. My laptop had no webcam. Mike’s newer laptop did but wouldn’t play the official recording video without downloading a new browser.  The submission deadline was galloping toward me.

Virtual Choir 3.0 (VC), as the “Water Night” project is named, had an active Facebook page with people posting their accomplishments, encouragement, and tips. I saw a suggestion there to use a camera and upload to YouTube rather than record at the VC website. I had never used a web cam, filmed a video on a camera, or uploaded to YouTube. I didn’t know if the camera microphone would capture my voice or the noisy computer fan, or record the entire song. But I figured if all those people all over the world were doing it, I could too.

The music studio.

On the day before the deadline, I set up shop in our recording studio (Mike’s office), beside the wireless for best reception. Lights meant to illuminate my face gave me a Blair Witch Project appearance. I ditched them and turned on the recessed ceiling lights with their broken dimmer switch, leaving me with an orb on my head in the video. I stacked jewelry boxes beside the laptop to raise the camera so the video would not be solely of the inside of my nose. After falling off a couple times, the camera found its own niche and stayed in place. I then discovered it had developed a lingering lens motor noise after being turned on. But I was now a train not to be stopped. I clasped a wedding-gift necklace from Mike around my throat, donned headphones,  and started singing.

I recorded four videos. They were all equally bad, or rather, I’m equally bad in all of them. One filmed me walking into the room in my underwear. I’m rolling my eyes at being out of tune on another. All of them have a beer bottle and antique insecticide containers in the background, as well as drywall patches and bursting book cases. Every one has off-tune notes, and I’ve discovered that, like Homer Simpson, my upper lip is far too long for my face. After the third attempt, my voice began rasping significantly. There was no way I was going to improve my performance, despite alternately sipping water and swallowing honey. In the final video, I am literally gasping at times and lip-syncing at others. But I’m smiling at the end.

The YouTube upload took a relatively unattended hour while I watched “Being Human.” The audio portion came out surprisingly clear at the website — and the visual was flipped on its side. No amount of button pushing could get me upright. I posed my dilemma to the Facebook support page, and had the instant answer that the VC techies could get me to sit up straight at their end.

I surrendered control.  I let go, and my video went into the Virtual Choir cue.

My pinpoint on the VC map.

And the hammer on my happiness meter came down so hard it nearly blew out the top.

I don’t care if they don’t use my video. If they sent it back with a form letter that says it doesn’t meet the lowest available standard, I would understand and accept that. I climbed over my self-consciousness hurdle and ignored the embarrassment trap. I had done the best I was capable of; I hadn’t given up because of or been intimidated by the thousands of much better singers. And I was now a part of something that had lifted my spirit in the past, something that mattered. My breath, my determination, my triumph are now a tiny bit of the universe.

I am awesome.

I might have the blues.

I was once a somewhat musical person. That most delicate of instruments, the accordion, “ran” in our family. My father played briefly when he was young, my oldest brother played, and I was the last to take up that weighty mantle. I’m sure the squeezebox contributed to my somewhat, ahem, flattened front anatomy, not to mention arms that seem rather too long. I attribute the extra length to lugging around that boulder of an instrument. If you want a girl child of normal build and curvature, have her play piano or flute.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate the music lessons my parents gave me, but they served me well later in life. When I joined the Ultimate Party Choir at St. Cyril’s of Alexandria in Houston, I could read music, blend my voice with the alto beside me, and hold my own at the tailgate parties in the church parking lot after Easter vigil mass (till the police arrived to shoo us away for being too loud and probably drunk).

Did I really think I could play this?

I ate and drank classical music. I slept with Dvorak, a few of the Bachs, the odd Mozart or two — all issuing forth nightly from my bedside radio (remember radio?) If I could understand the words, i.e. the song was sung in English, my nose would twitch upward. Only Latin or German met my standards, and preferably would be written by long dead white guys. There might be a guilty bit of Gilbert & Sullivan, but you’ve got to think mighty fast to be able to keep up with those words. Better yet, there’d be no words at all — the best pieces were strictly instrumental, and God forbid the instruments be anything other than acoustic.

At the middling age of 40, I took up classical guitar. It was really a desperate attempt to kick-start a brain atrophying from years of mind-numbing clerical jobs and living in the suburbs. It took five years of lessons for me to figure out I was probably not meant to play a stringed instrument. If the notes were anywhere above or below the five lines and four spaces of the musical scale, I was basically lost. My instructor (bless him for trying) was a stickler for tone, and I was lucky just to be able to even get the notes, let alone make them sound pretty. I developed serious anxiety about attending lessons to the point where my hands shook so much I could hardly play at all.

That's me to the left with the kids in the guitar ensemble.

The one scenario where I could play was with a group or in a duet. Just for the heck of it, I enrolled in a community college music class where I played, nominally, with a group of long-haired young men about half my age who were waaaaay better at guitar than me. I was the only female in the class and would sit in the back with an older guy who played bass who was also there just for fun. I drove 60 miles one way to participate in that class. And it was fun, right down to the little recital we had at the end of the session.  My most important part in that recital was playing a low “E” for about 60 measures of “Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. But I played that “E” really well and was proud of it. Mike came with friends to our little recital, bringing me a bouquet of yellow silk roses like I was Somebody, and the four of us vacated to the parking lot to send a cork flying and drink champagne after the musical ensemble took its bows.  I still have those roses.

I want to do something musical again, but I haven’t figured out what that is. With a twinge of sadness, I’ve set aside my once-beloved classical music. It’s just become far too regimented and controlled for me. Now I’m rolling like a dog in cat poop in the blues and Texas music. There’s a wildness and raw, unrestrained emotion and big time fun in both of those genres and I’m mining them to the utmost.  I realize I’m late to the game but I feel really bad about Stevie Ray Vaughan. He died (August 27, 1990). And I’m running as fast as I can to catch up my music education, blasting “The Road Goes on Forever” at top volume in the Magic Bus (which has an excellent sound system, especially with the windows open in a really quiet neighborhood), and listening to Muddy Waters sing “Mannish Boy,” and snickering at Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”, which ain’t nothin’ after seeing Big Mama Thornton perform it.

But that leaves me wondering where I fit in. Can I reinvent as a blues singer?  I’ve noticed if I drink enough vodka my voice gets exponentially lower but stronger so maybe it’s time to start wailin’. I guess I’ve been doing that for a while (wailing, that is); I just need a musical angle. What would Big Mama do? I bet she’d put on a big ol’ grin, blow on that harmonica, and sing Elvis out of the building. I think I’d look great wearing that hat.

You ain't nothin' but a hound dog!