Finding Music

Well it’s a magical fifth Monday and I’m writing to you today about something that technically belongs in the old-lady-hobbit category, but in actuality spans a lot of my life. And that is music.

I’ve recently had an infusion of music into my life. Jonathan plays the bass guitar and the guitar, and he loves sitting around in the evenings learning new songs. He likes the feeling of getting better at something (and he likes rebuilding the guitars). Often when we both are home in the evenings, we’ll set up a Google Hangout and I’ll do school work and he’ll  play for a while. Watching him has made me miss playing my own instruments: the flute and the piano.

I started playing piano in fourth grade, taking lessons with Mrs. Wilderman. She taught English with Mom and lived behind the high school. On Monday afternoons I’d ride the bus to the high school and Mrs. Wilderman would take me home with her. We’d play for an hour and then I’d walk back to the high school. In the beginning, I drew a keyboard and taped it to my desk to practice. Soon after that, my parents got me a keyboard for Christmas. For the most part, I practiced frantically on Sunday afternoons and did my music theory homework on the bus on Monday, but I enjoyed playing.

In high school, I took lessons from Mary Martin Stockdale. My frantic day-before practice sessions continued, but I fell more and more in love with playing. I was incredibly lucky that my grandpa gave my family a real piano, and it changed the way I played. It feels so different! One of my friends also played with Mary, and we swapped pieces of music and practiced at each others’ houses. I dabbled a bit with writing music, which I also really enjoyed. And when I graduated from high school, I sadly left my piano behind.

I started playing the flute in fifth grade and played through middle school. I loved playing in a group and only having to read one note at a time! But mostly I loved playing in a group. It was an entirely different feeling to be woven into the tapestry of sound, rather than creating the whole thing myself. In high school, being in band conflicted with being on skier schedule, but I still got my flute out every once in a while.

I carried my flute with me to college, but it wasn’t until grad school that I started putting it in my backpack and playing from the top of a rock up in Chautauqua. During my undergraduate years, I didn’t play very much at all. I played my piano when I went home and pulled my flute out once or twice a year, but that was about it. It was during this time that I gave my keyboard to my Granny, who had also loved to play.

This changed last week; Granny decided to move to California and move in with Uncle Curt, and she gave my keyboard back to me. That’s a whole other lot of emotions and stories; I’m glad she’s going somewhere she’ll be happy and cared for, and sad she’s going farther away. I loved having her close by for so many years.

But now my keyboard is sitting next to my bed, begging to be played again.

It drives me nuts; the middle E key doesn’t have touch volume control anymore, and the keyboard is partial. I run out of keys on both the low end and the high end fairly regularly. My keyboard was perfect for me to learn on, but I outgrew it in some ways.

Even so, I’ve been messing around with some songs I like on Spotify and playing by ear again; the Peaceful Piano playlist has some really simple things I can practice with. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing again.

My fingers don’t have the dexterity and the strength they used to; I miss all kinds of chords that were second nature to me.  But I can tell that I’m listening to music differently now, even just after a week. It gives me something to do for ten minutes between getting home and getting started on grading. And it makes me really, really happy. It’s like a different method of communicating, one that doesn’t require words. And as much as I love words, sometimes they get in the way of emotions.

Your homework: What is your favorite thing about music? How do you choose to interact with music?

Hej då,



Creativity and Community

My friends laugh at me when I remind them I’m a hobbit. They know it’s true. I like to stay at home. I don’t like crowds or meeting new people. Sometimes I find myself thinking I just don’t like people in general. This year in particular, however, has made it clear that I do, in fact like people. I’m a teacher, after all. And in my hobbit-ness, I especially like my people.

I wrote a little bit about this in my post about having breakfast with my family. I enjoy the things I enjoy more when I’m doing them with people I love. I like sharing the experience in the moment and reflecting on the shared memories later. And I think this is more true in creativity than I originally thought.

See, when I think about a creative genius I think about someone pouring over a manuscript or music score for hours, forgetting to eat or sleep or generally about the outside world. I think about an inventor in a lab or a baker elbow-deep in flour. But without a community, creativity is like shouting at a mountain. All you get is your echo.

My friend Matt made this especially clear when he wrote me about creativity. Matt is a Knowles Fellow who teaches math in Washington state. We were going back and forth about things we’d stopped doing when we started teaching, and we both mentioned music. I played the flute in middle school band and I took piano lessons through high school. I still have my flute, but a piano is a bit harder to move. I miss practicing and playing and the occasional composing I did. Here’s what Matt had to say:

I miss playing music. I played viola. The other day though I got my hands on a piano and was missing around and really want to get in touch with that part of me again. Especially playing in an orchestra or group. I would always be overwhelmed after a performance thinking, ‘Man. We just made that. We just made music.’ It’s…hard to explain. But I got to feel like I was a part of something great. I miss making things!”

I think he nailed it. One of my favorite parts of middle school band was the feeling that I was a part of something. We were making something way bigger than any one of us could make on our own. I liked imagining I was weaving the sound of my flute into a tapestry that was made of all the sounds of all the instruments.

Once Matt got me thinking about this, I started wondering about my other forms of creativity. One thing I love to do creatively is bake. I like the flour, the way it smells as it’s in the oven. And I also really like sharing my baked goods. (Seriously, any potentially sticky meeting you have? Bring brownies. Or snicker doodles. It is automatically better.) I like making huge batches of things so my people and I can enjoy them together. So baking is also very much a community creative thing for me.

I also like to write. Writing especially seemed individual when I started thinking about it. And it’s true to some extent; the initial act of writing is fairly solitary. But grab the nearest book to hand, and look at the acknowledgements. Depending on the author and type of book, it might be a list of a handful of names or it might be three pages long. Revision and editing is a process that takes a lot of people.

And at its heart, writing is about communicating. It’s about joining a larger conversation about what it means to be human. I’m nerding out a little bit here, but I really think that’s the heart of literature. Reading is a passive way to participate, but writing is actively contributing. That conversation evolves over time and across culture, but there are similarities in every story.

One of the reasons I started writing fanfiction was because I wanted to participate in the conversation. I love the Harry Potter series. I may or may not have broken the bindings of three of my books because I read them so often. And when I found a place where people were joining that conversation, I was delighted. And I wanted to join in too! So I did. I started writing. And more than that, I started getting feedback on my writing. I made friends with some of the other people who write. One person, Gerry, was my beta for my last story. (A beta is like an editor; they read your chapter before you put it up and give you feedback for revisions.) It was incredible to have someone to have a conversation with about my writing. I learned so much about writing styles and language and characterization from this process!

And, like all good thoughts, I took this one to my mom. When I told her I was pleased with myself for figuring out that writing was totally about community, she laughed at me a little bit. She pointed out that I had formatted this blog in such a way as to encourage interaction. After all, don’t I give you all homework? I want to start conversations!

So…yeah, Mom’s always right. I’m definitely ok with this.

I really do believe that being part of something bigger than myself is really important for my sense of purpose and happiness in my life. It’s part of why I love teaching. It’s why yoga class is better than yoga at home. And it is a huge part of what inspired me to start this blog.

This fall I attended the National Association of Biology Teachers annual conference. I got to see some of my Knowles friends, meet a lot of amazing people, and in general get inspired by how many absolutely incredible biology teachers there are. And I decided I wanted to be a part of it. All of it. I wanted to reach out and look for opportunities. I wanted to participate in the conversation.

Sometimes sharing my creative “masterpieces” is scary. When I create something, it’s directly a piece of my heart. But without the sharing, I think the creativity is seriously diminished.

So my homework for you: How do you participate in the human conversation? What is your creative community?

Hej då,


Music and Memory

One of life’s more wonderful feelings is having that song come on the radio. You know, the one you used to belt out with your friends however many years ago. Our memory is powerfully tied to music – many oral histories include songs and poems because the melody and rhythm increase retention. In my own life, different songs elicit memories of different times, and usually a smile.

I’ve been thinking a lot about music lately because my brother taught me how to use Spotify last weekend. He saves songs he thinks I’ll like and got sick of searching up YouTube links for me, so now he can share them through Spotify. Once I figured out what I was doing, it’s a really fun way to go back to old music I love and to go through all the new things he’s found for me.

I’ve long used music to modulate my moods. Before bike races I would play “Final Countdown” by Europe, “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and “We Are the Champions” by Queen. My favorite song for ski racing GS was “Jerk it Out” by the Caesars and for slalom it was “Here it Goes Again” by OK Go. Jack Johnson reminds me of Telluride and Third Eye Blind of Winter Park. This music is my adventure music.

Other adventures have become permanently linked to songs. The summer I lived in Panama was when Daft Punk released “Get Lucky.” I wouldn’t be a huge fan of this one except for the fact that it was on so incessantly while I lived in Bocas that now I can’t not think of that summer when I hear it. When I’m on a plane I always feel like listening to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (for which I entirely blame United’s marketing department).

But the music I like varies wildly. When I want to focus I go in for Bach’s cello suites or Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. I’ve been listening to a symphony radio channel for the last seven months and I’ve been really enjoying it. The pieces are long enough that I am only now starting to recognize some of them.

If I really need to get stuff done, I put on the soundtrack for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It makes me feel like I’m on an adventure! If it gets too stuck in my head though I can’t relax anymore, which can be obnoxious.

When I’m with my dad we listen to Jimmy Buffet, the Beatles, and Eric Clapton. My mom taught me to love John Denver and Gordon Lightfoot. My mom also really likes George Winston, a new age pianist, and she would play it after my brother and I had gone to bed. I still have never heard the end of that CD because I fall asleep halfway through.

It’s been fun to find all of these things on Spotify (although I think I’ve confused the recommend feature a bit). But mostly I’ve been listening to music that has been closer to my heart in the last couple years of my life.

Gregory Alan Isakov is a Boulder-based artist who I’ve gotten to see play at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony. In particular, his album That Sea, The Gambler has been my constant companion through every difficult point of the last three years. The music is beautiful and calm. And lately my brother has introduced me to a band called Pandas and People. They’re based out of Fort Collins and their music always makes me want to sing along.

In January Jeffrey drug me out of my hobbit hole and we saw them play in Denver. I was up until one in the morning, which is FOUR HOURS past my normal bedtime. It was a small venue but Jeff and I had a blast. I almost never go to concerts because they are so contrary to my hobbit-self; they’re loud, crowded, and late at night. But going with my brother and seeing a band I know and love made it a really fun night.

But my favorite album, since I was six and still today, is New Moon Shine by James Taylor. We always played it in the car on the way to the cabin my dad and my grandpa built together. My dad always whistled along to it as we bumped along the dirt road. For me, this album means coming home, it means time with my family, it means running around in the mountains in my hiking boots. There is no music that makes me feel more like myself.

Your homework: What is your favorite song today? What memories are tied to music for you?

Hej då,