Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Wolverine that Bit Us

(the seats in the train are very comfortable-this is our conductor and steward getting ready to announce plans)
We were really trying to make our connection in Chicago, really we were! In the original plan, we were going to have a 2 hour layover, eat a wonderful dinner in the city, and enjoy the sites downtown. Then, engine trouble in Seattle, floods in Fargo, and freight train delays made the train severely behind schedule. The train was making up time, it looked like we might have to run for it. We were due to arrive at 6:00 and our train left at 6:15, but they might hold it for us, and
The Empire Builder is an Amtrak train for long distances. There are also commuter trains that use the rails in the bigger cities. In Milwaukee last Monday, Mar. 26, a commuter train hit a man, and he was killed. I don't know how often this happens. It was very sad to me.

All trains were stopped, the commuter train that was going to Chicago was unloaded, and 70 passengers from that train boarded ours. This process took almost an hour while railroad inspectors checked the lines, made out reports, and people found their seats on our full train, trying hard to keep groups and families together. We didn't arrive in Union Station-Chicago until almost 7 p.m. We were now running on breakfast from 10:30 a.m. and snacks. The dining car was not available because they thought we were going to have arrived at 4:00.

As we approached the stop, the conductor announced that our mode of transportation from Chicago was going to be a motor coach by road, rather than rail, to Ann Arbor. I immediately asked whether this "bus" would have restroom facilities because my father would need that option and we were assured that it would.

But it didn't. We were hustled from the bowels of the station to the street, where 15 of us, plus an infant boarded a 24 passenger bus. We were not given a chance to use a restroom in the station until I demanded to get off the bus and take my dad back down the escalator, claiming I had to go too. There was no food, but we were given bottles of water, and eventually they brought cracker packages with a shortbread cookie. We were on our way. I made sure the bus driver knew that we would need to stop for bathroom breaks. He proceeded to drive to Jackson, Michiga, over 220 miles, without so much as a yield. We wondered later why they gave us water bottles.

Strangers thrust together in small places do one of two things, I seem to think. They either try to make their own little bubble and do their best to feel safe and private even though it's not really true. Or, they decide to talk to those around them and commiserate. I'm the latter, while most of my family is is the former. I met a very nice lady who was coming back from a three month travel. She had an artificial foot, which was "acting up, the barometer must be changing." I heard about her mentally ill husband who had an "episode" and was now in the state's care, and her sister who stayed in London because she had met a man. She had taken a ship from New York city to London, and highly recommended it. I thinks she said it was the Queen Mary 2!

I also met Zachary and his mother. He was a sweet 6 month old chubster of a baby who was going to meet his grandparents for the first time. The mom had gotten on the train in Minot, North Dakota over 24 hours ago, without help, without a plan, without enough diapers, no sleep, and was coming back to Michigan, while the father got ready to go to Afghanistan with the military unit from North Dakota. This baby smiled non stop. I got to feed him a bottle, and held him while his very tired mommy took a much deserved nap. He never cried during this long journey, Zac was sturdy though and my arm was throbbing by the time we pulled in to the Amtrak station 3 hours later.

This town was someone's stop, and when he got off, so did I. By now it was dark, and the station was closed. I asked the driver to please find the next gas station or anything, McDonalds, or even a tree. My father was quite uncomfortable, and I have to believe that many other passengers were too, but no one else spoke up. We went another 30 miles down the highway, passing locked rest stops, truck stops and gas stations every 10 minutes or so. Was all of Michigan this desolate? Where were the accommodations that I needed?

Finally, I demanded that the bus pull over in the next town no matter what, and he found a Moto Mart that had a unisex one-stall bathroom. The entire busload got off, stretched their aching legs and one by one, we all used the bathroom. It was terribly dirty, and there was no baby changing stand. I held Zac while his mother went, and then we used the rubber mat over by the soda fountain to change his pants while more people silently waited their turn in the stall. It turns out that this town is less than 15 minutes from Ann Arbor's train station. If I had not been as vocal as I was, we wouldn't have stopped at all. Guess what? The Ann Arbor station was closed too. It was 1:30 in the morning after all.

My brother should have received a text from my daughter stating that we were 10 minutes away, but her cell phone didn't send it in a timely fashion. We called him after the bus left, wondering whether he was on the way, and he showed up as fast as he could. It was cold and rainy, and my mom and dad were exhausted. Our beds never felt so warm and cozy. We had arrived, even after all the missed connections!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Train Food and Music

The train has two food options, a dining car that was open limited hours near meal times, (11-2, and 4-7) and a snack car that had more hours but less delightful choices. When we went to Washington DC, the food at dinner was outstanding. This time it was really only mediocre, and I thought the prices had gone up, but the service was only adequate. We're not sure if we'll eat in the dining car again, unless we have to.

We brought along a cooler for our journey, planning to eat lunch on the train. Because of the delay and the late breakfast, we merely snacked our way to Chicago instead. Our cooler had snack size pineapple cups, cheese and crackers, jelly beans, a can of mixed nuts, granola bars, and a variety of soda, water, and juice. It was a nice mix, some salty, some sweet, some crunch some chewy items. It was a time and money saver. Again, the train is friendly and allows you to bring on any of these items with no comment.

With the exception of the rhythm of the rails, the train is very quiet; many of the travelers worked on laptops, and used iPods or other mp3 players. There was only a mildly fussy 2 year old, that soon fell asleep to the gentle beat of the wheels on steel. Teens, parents and I all napped too. Musically, my kids sometimes share one ear bud of their mp3 each. I think this looks so funny with the cord draped between them. They each have distinctive playlists, so they went through one and then the other's. I read a whole book without getting motion sickness, a first for me. Traveling by car I cannot read.

Our train from Minnesota to Chicago is called the Empire Builder. The connection we had hoped to catch was the Wolverine. Being 3 hours late, we didn't make it. But I did meet some lovely people, whom I will introduce tomorrow!

(The water was high everywhere we passed. When we were waiting to board the train, I noticed the top of the vending machine. Healthy! hmmmmm, and the music below is fun, but the guy plays none of these instruments, and doesn't appear to have a clue where to start-sorry about that. But I loved the footage of the trains coming into Chicago!)

An Amtrak Journey

We took an Amtrak to Ann Arbor, Michigan last week. I will fill you in about details this week. When we arrived at the station, the news was not good. There had been engine trouble in Seattle the day before, and floods in Fargo had put the train 3 hours behind. So, we went to breakfast, visited historic Sugar Loaf Mountain, went to an antique shop that was in former beer brewing caves, and came back to the station. They had made up 20 minutes giving up the smoke stop in Red Wing and the Cities. So we hopped on.
One of the beautiful things about the train is that it's still simple. There are no security features like taking off your shoes, no seatbelts and such a laid back "we'll get there, eventually" atmosphere. It takes you right out of the hurry-scurry mode you may have been in.

The Mississippi River was high and just overflowing some of its borders as we rode over it. And this is the song that came to my mind. The Highway Men were country stars in their own right, who all got together in the 90s to tour and sing together. I wish I would have gone to a concert-it must have been amazing. They included Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash.

Let me just say, "All Aboard!" right now and welcome you to the beginning of the journey with a view of the Winona Station, and a favorite traveling train song.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Right Thing

Today we hope the Health Care Bill becomes reality. In speaking to Wolfy about it, I said, "I hope we as a country do the Right Thing." What is that really? What is the Right Thing? For me the right thing is to get everyone covered. I'm ultimately a socialist. I believe that you can't really be spiritual and also believe that everyone can fend for themselves. It mystifies me, really. Why do I care about my neighbor? Somewhere deep inside I feel they are my brother. How many people would be against this if they were in need of these services? The gap of have/have nots is growing. Yet, I'm confronted again today by a person who just wants "what is his".

Here are 2 ways to look at money. One is that the money is mine-I earned it. If I am asked to give you some, I think, "What? This is my money, how much do I have to give you? I have $100 dollars and you want $10? That only leaves me with $90!"

Or: My father gave me $100. He asked me to please give my brother $10 and to keep the rest. I feel compelled to say, "he's my brother, are you sure that's all he needs?" I still have $90. $90-that was a big gift! Big difference.

Last done in 2000, the World Health organization ranking of the health systems of the world, the Unites States ranked 37th, below Costa Rica and Dominica. Our system is broken. A world superpower, we are not really caring for our people. If you want to grow old and be healthy, move to Iceland. We were 24th in Healthy Life Expectancy.

Yet, there are those who will try hard to attach their own stipulations, greed and agendas to this bill because they sense the wave of pressure riding with it. Their Right Thing is different than my Right Thing.

My studio families are deciding what is the Right Thing for their spring schedules. What would be the easy decision for many has become a very thought provoking choice for them regarding the honors concert.

Tomorrow I am taking my parents to visit my brother and his wife in Ann Arbor. Rather than take a more southerly route, I decided that the Right Thing was to help my folks to get out of town. It's a 12 hour ride. It's not a warm and sunny destination. We are going to take the train-chugga chugga woot woot! This way we can travel, with no pressure of driving through Chicago, Gary, Indiana, or potty breaks. There is food, movies, and some card playing in my future. We plan to see the campus of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor while we're there. Is it right to take Mom and Dad away from their doctor and travel so far? I believe they need this desperately. They haven't left their home since August, and used to be so footloose and fancy free. I think I'm doing the Right Thing. Some might disagree.

I applied once upon a time to the Ann Arbor piano graduate program. I wasn't accepted there probably because I performed terribly and was an hour late. Young kid that I was, I forgot that they are an hour ahead of my time zone! So I drove and drove but never changed my clock. Huh, oops! That bad news turned out to be the Right Thing for my career; I loved my time in Connecticut and The Hartt School of Music was a good choice for me.

How can we know what is the Right Thing, for ourselves, for the future, for health care? All I know is that what we have right now is the Wrong thing and it's time for a change for the better. Those who can not speak for themselves are hoping we do the Right Thing.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Is the Honors Concert a Prize?

The winners have been chosen for the annual state piano solo contest. The big blessing at my studio this year was that I had no alternates. Being an Alternate is the highly feared no man's land of not quite winning. An alternate waits for the winners to claim the prize of a Northrop on stage appearance. If a winner can't make the rehearsals and/or concert, the alternates are chosen, one at a time, from a list. (Students do not know what number they are on the secret list, it takes someone in the know to find out the likelihood of a call.) This ranking is done on the final contest day by the judge in their room. If you are deemed an alternate, you get a critique stamped in red indicating that you may have won. I always equate it to seeing Ed McMahon's face in my mailbox. This has been the bane of my teaching the last two years as we wait over a month to see if anyone cancels or misses the first rehearsal. Then my student might be called. My studio won outright this year! No dead zone, no maybes, they got outstanding critiques, only one didn't win!
I sent out congratulatory emails immediately and gave out the details of the honor they've been awarded. It is an opportunity to play before 4000 people in a duet, in an amazing historically significant space, with a conductor, with the other state winners on June 12. 20 grand pianos grace the stage. It is a magnum event with gala gowns and proud parents. With this duet comes rehearsals at a central location north of my studio about 45 minutes one way, in a music store warehouse. Many from around the state book hotel rooms and make weekends out of these rehearsals. This was a huge award for me as a child. We got to the big city several times, made a day of it, ate out, got a pretty long dress and shoes, went to a mall! I was so excited to win and perform in this event. I loved the idea of playing with all the other really good pianists.
Times have changed. I am starting to hear my parents' email replies to my wonderful news. "Well, we're not sure we're going to do the Honors Concert thing; we have several conflicts on Saturdays in the spring." "It's great that we won, but we did the concert last year, so we're going to take a year off." "This is expensive to buy music, drive all the way up to the music store 3 times, and twice to the U of M, buy clothes and then they charge for tickets?" "I will have to get back to you about the Northrop concert, how many rehearsals can they miss?"
Yikes! What is going on here? Who would work so hard, pay entry fees twice (to the one who thought it was expensive), win, and not take the prize? Is it indeed a prize?
Here's what I'm hearing.
1. It's time intensive. Yup, sure is. The duet needs rehearsals, with the conductor, all together, many times. This involves 4 Saturdays in the spring/early summer. We are lucky to live in the metro area. It does not involve sleeping over, or 4 hour car rides. The concert is lengthy and we can't play games on our iPhones.
2. It's about the music. We have to learn a new piece, quickly, and it's not a solo. Across the state, 600+ win, from ages 7-20. This would be the longest solo concert ever. We got to choose our solo piece, but sometimes the duets are poorly written or not in the styles students wanted.
3. It's about the money. Lessons are not cheap. Renting the warehouse and the auditorium and pianos are not cheap either, but I also think MMTA makes money on this event, which in turn is spent developing more programs to help students succeed. I consider it a "paying it forward" mentality.
4. It's under the radar of the world. There's no trophy or media hype; at least when they win other things they are mentioned in the paper. Wow. You would like a trophy for a piano event? You're right, there is little in potential scholarship money, college tuition or Nike commercials going to come from your performance.
5. It's just too much effort. Now, that one I believe. I see my families zooming to every soccer field in the county more Saturday mornings than they're home. They have no qualms about paying big dollars for grass and referees and shin guards. An away tournament once per month? No problem. So, what's the difference? I've given this some thought.

I think it comes down to the culture right now of "sports reigns supreme". The world understands and acknowledges a baseball tournament. It is not well educated on the work of a musician behind closed doors for months to prepare for 3 minutes or artistry. At this musical event, there is no blood, no shouting from the sidelines, no whistles. At the final concert, you're expected to dress up, sit quietly, with no food or beverages. Rather than beat a team for the championship, the music students work cooperatively together for a sonorous outcome. It's peaceful and loving, and potentially boring as hell for those used to bad mouthing the opponent.

There are lots of analogies I could make. But my question today is this.
Why would you try out for the varsity team, and when you make the team, you turn it down? Why did you try out?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

72 birthdays

My family went to Rochester for the afternoon Sunday. It was a lovely day for a drive-warm, sunny, and spring was in the air. I had made my Dad's favorite German chocolate cake, and held it on my lap for the 70 mile car ride. My mom used to bring lemon meringue pies to her father-in-law the same way, and also about 70 miles. Jiggle, jiggle, and you wonder whether it will make it there. She had the added concern that the meringue might fall! I just hoped the cake wouldn't slide on its glass foot!

Dad looked good but said he felt weak. We had good conversation, which turned into a few games of Scattergories and Apples to Apples. Dad opened his presents. We had wrapped a few simple things just to remember the day. One of them was a tiny 2gb memory card for the picture frame we gave them at Christmas. We had opened the package and loaded 45 recent (within the year) pictures of the family. We wrapped the little memory card seven times, each in a bigger box. It was silly but the kids and Grandpa seemed to enjoy it.

When it was his 70th birthday, we wrapped 70 of 10 different items, like 70 kernels of corn, 70 nails, 70 peanuts, etc.

The hardest part of the day for me was that Mom and Dad seem so sad. It's like life has stopped them cold. I can't help them with this attitude adjustment that's needed either. I wish I could remind them that Dad isn't dead yet, that they are so lucky, that Dad is still Dad, even if he doesn't DO the things he used to do, he still IS the man, my Dad. He said he doesn't think like he used to. He says it's so hard because he can't see right and doesn't get the information all straight inside, but he knows it's not right. I can only imagine how frustrating that is. I have no idea what it's like to have had cancer. I just know that it seems like they're waiting for him to die now. And it makes me grumpy, and then forlorn, and then pissed off, and then resigned. Everyone will handle adversity differently. My Mom and Dad were of the "Buck up, it could be worse" variety until this happened to them.

Where did their faith go? Their friends still stop over; they still get to their community events. They have stopped a lot of the more physical volunteer work they were doing. But I hear them focusing so much on what they've lost. What might their faith leader tell them? Could friends or family say the right thing? Are they just showing a brave front when I'm there and it's really bad when I'm not? I don't know. But I do know that to look at this man blowing out his candles, you might guess there was very little amiss. Look at the grin-there's still sense and smirk there.

Yes, their lives have changed-a lot. I wish I could bring it back, but the new reality is what is present is a gift. A tremendous gift in my opinion. Every day is a treasure for them to still be together.

I left wanting to yell at them and kick them in the ass. What a pretty picture, huh? I'm so mature.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Let Everything that Hath Breath

We had a great time hearing and playing the song yesterday. this is not the Rosemount choir, nor is it me on piano. I would say we went faster in tempo, and as big in spirit. Enjoy your Monday!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Playing Well is Winning the Contest

The state contest finals are Saturday and Sunday, as students perform and judges write. Volunteers aplenty help at registration tables, feeding people, gathering critiques, monitoring doors, and inputting scores.

Also today, the Apple Valley Music Teachers Association held their annual Federation Festival. As the state finals over 2 days hosts 6000 students, AVMTA hosts 600 local students in one day. The finals are piano only, the festival is a wide variety of flute, strings, voice, theory, duet, ensemble, concerti, and solo piano. And I probably left something out-it's an amazing day.

I was behind the scenes for both events this year. For the state contest, I invited the judges, 19 on Saturday, 16 for Sunday. We had two that canceled in January and one that was ill and called on Friday. I hope we don't have illness tomorrow, as my substitute list is empty and I'll be at church. Several of my students competed today, and one little one will perform tomorrow. Nerves were already running a little high at their lessons this week-everyone wants to have a good experience, and win. I remind them that playing well is winning. I don't know whether they heard me or understood.

I set up the piano tuners for the Apple Valley event. We used ten pianos, tuned by three people, which took all day Friday. The church had four pianos which were tuned by their staff tuner. We had six pianos delivered for the event, which were tuned by two other local Piano Technicians Guild members.

It's a big day at church tomorrow as the Rosemount High School Chamber Choir is coming to sing. I'm looking forward to hearing them, and accompanying one of their pieces, a big gospel number. Maybe someone will record it and put it on YouTube? There are always some parents that have their video cameras at the ready.

After lunch, we are going to Rochester for my father's birthday party. I'll try to take pictures!

The pictures today are of the concession table and registration table at our local event. Cookies are still 3/$1.00, homemade, best deal in town! Proceeds go to student awards. It's not a huge money maker, but every chocolate chip helps!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thomas Arne Birthday Wishes

Will the world stop spinning long enough for me to post regularly again? I have no idea, but here's a quick one!
Tomorrow several students from around the state of Minnesota are competing at the state finals in piano solo. In the 15-16 year old category, many of them will be performing a "Gigue", (pronounced jig), by Thomas Arne, who would have turned 300 today. His most famous piece is "Rule Britannia". Here's a little more about him, the famous piece, and the gigue our students will be performing. Happy happy, Thomas!

Arne's father and grandfather were both upholsterers and both became officials of the City Company of Upholsterers. His grandfather fell upon hard times and died in the Marshalsea prison for debtors. Arne's father earned enough money not only to rent a large house in Covent Garden but also to have Arne educated at Eton College. But later in life, he also managed to lose most of his wealth and had to earn extra cash by acting as a numberer of the boxes at Drury Lane Theatre.

Arne was so keen on music that he smuggled a spinet into his room and, dampening the sounds with his handkerchief, would secretly practice during the night while the rest of the family slept.

"Rule, Brittania", is a British patriotic song, also used by the British Army. It's famous lyric chorus is:

"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

First heard in London in 1745, it achieved instant popularity. It quickly became so well known that Handel quoted it in his Occasional Oratorio in the following year, when it was sung with the words "War shall cease, welcome peace!"

Here's a clip of an amazing performance at Hyde Park, London.

And, finally, a clip from You Tube with the Gigue. This was the better one I found, but I'm certain that many of the students tomorrow will play this with so much more energy and life. hear that, kids! You Tube awaits; publish yourselves-you amaze me!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Welcome, let's March on

February is a blur to me, dear blogger friends. I took pictures and wrote things, but not here. I will try to fill you in on the who, what and wow of the last month as the early days of March shine in my southern windows.
It is going to be a great month, if the first day is any indicator. It will be a month of competitions, exams, and spring breaks, music and thoughts. Are you ready for Spring? Yes, yes, yes, I am.

First in the queue is a most excellent soup made on a not so sunny February weekend. sirloin, barley, vegetables and fresh graham bread, and a good book-the makings of a weekend on the couch. The recipe is from a local restaurant, and the owner said I could reprint it! Thank you, Cherokee Sirloin Room, in Eagan, Minnesota, for keeping my inside warm when my outside was frosty.

Cherokee Sirloin Soup
1 1/2 pound cubed cooked prime rib or sirloin
1/2 pound ground chuck
1 1/2 c. carrots
1 1/2 c. diced potatoes
1 c. green beans, fresh
1 c. onions
1 c. celery
1 bay leaf
2 c. cabbage
1 1/2 c. diced tomatoes (I used canned)
1/2 c. barley
1 T. sweet basil
1 T. garlic
1 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. black pepper
4 ounces burgundy wine, (opt.)
3/4 gallon beef stock
Saute the chuck, onions, carrots, celery on low for 5 minutes. Move to stock pot, and the rest of ingred. Bring to boil, reduce heat, simmer 90 minutes. salt and pepper to taste.

Who's been to Visit?