Two Pianos

pianos

My house has to contain three things to be my home, a fireplace, a cat and a piano. I love the primal joy of essential and mysterious fire, linking me with my ancestors. Of course I’m cat obsessed so a fluffy kitty or two on my lap is pure joy. The piano is a great friend and comfort. I play when I’m happy, sad, bored, got a minute to spare or to accompany singers or my darling violinists.

I was raised in a very conservative religion that permitted few extra-curricular activities. Sports and dancing were out but not music so I took piano lessons from a young age. My teacher, Mrs. Harter, a lovely older lady and church organist, had a white toy poodle, Baby, that sat on her lap during lessons. When I was in high school I took lessons from Mr. Schneller at a music school. He smoked a pipe and drank coffee during my lesson—very exotic and worldly to this sheltered girl. I had the usual scales, new pieces, polishing pieces and every week a hymn to learn so I would be ready for any church occasion. My two closest friends were very accomplished pianists so we played for each other and learned duets. To this day, when my friend Melanie is driving to see her mother in Nashville she stops by and we play a Mozart duet that we learned almost 40 years ago for our 8th grade graduation. Our performance is little rusty at times but we are once again those young girls skipping class to practice our duet.

I didn’t have the talent to be a professional musician so I just play for my own pleasure. Without the standards of performance that trained musicians have, I learned to compensate for my short comings with amateur tricks like White-out if there are too many notes or just skip the really hard, tedious parts. My cats and husband don’t care, they are an approving audience. Alexandra loves having live music even if it isn’t perfect.

When Hamilton and I married, I was determined to have my dream piano, a walnut baby grand. I had always played a spinet but aspired to a bigger piano. So I took our wedding money to a piano restorer and picked out a lovely 1930’s vintage walnut baby grand piano. I made small payments for a few years until it was paid off. It took up a great deal of my 900 square foot apartment but I didn’t care. The dog had room to sleep under it and the girls played “fort” under it. I started them on violin very young and our evenings were spent playing the piano and violin together. I kept that White-out handy to be able to keep up with them when the accompaniments were orchestra scores.

Next month is my 30th wedding anniversary making my piano a part of the family for 30 years too. It has brought us much joy and solace, entertainment and achievement. Now it is time for my piano to go to a new home. It is a bittersweet parting. A newly married couple is coming to move it in a few weeks. It is a big task to move a baby grand, you can’t just throw it in the back of a van. It requires special movers, strong men, equipment and then a retuning. Definitely a high maintenance instrument.

But I haven’t given up playing. In fact I’m playing more than ever on a new piano. My mother’s beautiful Yamaha piano wouldn’t fit in her new apartment so I have it and it is magnificent. It has better quality tone and touch and is truly a joy to play. Mom can come play it any time she likes but it is mine everyday. In the mean time I have what I call my “intensely first world problem” of two baby grands in my family room. There isn’t much room to walk. This is a bridge time between my cherished old piano that has brought me so much joy and my new piano that will be my companion for the next thirty years. A strange time when I say goodbye to an old part of my life while simultaneously welcoming the new. The last few years have been such a transition in my life; the children are grown, the parents gone, the old house sold. I’m ready to leave this long transition time and bid a fond farewell to my old piano and my care-giving years and welcome with open arms my next phase full of the great unknown with an amazing sound track, compliments of my new piano.

 

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My Caroline

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New Majors at the University of Tennessee

This last year I’ve talked a lot about my daughter Alexandra and our adventures in Spain but I’ve not said much about my precious Caroline. So the other day she sent me this picture of her Halloween prank on the Physics building, I  decided it is her moment to shine.

How I got a child like Caroline I will never know, she doesn’t just march to the beat of a different drummer, she circles an entirely different solar system than the rest of us. Every day she does or thinks something that the rest of us couldn’t even imagine.   I’ve spent her life setting big boundaries so that she could be her creative self without falling off the earth.

As a little girl she was adorable, blonde and blue-eyed with rosy cheeks and such a vivid imagination that she was five before she stopped being a cat named Sally most of the time.   She didn’t have an imaginary friend, she was an imaginary friend.    She would use two combs as her pretend violin until I got her a real violin at four and began the all consuming world of Suzuki violin. The violin was her special place where her uniqueness could shine and be recognized by her peers.    By the fourth time through any piece she had it memorized including all her orchestra music.  My girls loved to perform and the “fiddlin’ Bowen sisters” went on the road for any and all occasions.

Caroline’s teen years were a challenge, she did well in school and on the violin but life wasn’t easy for her. I wrote about her challenges  in Demeter and Persephone.   The first few years of college were very bumpy but I made her stay in school because that was what moved her life forward in a positive direction.   I would tell her “just take anything but go to school.”

On April 27, 2011 there were tremendous tornados all across the southern states, wiping out whole towns, Caroline got caught in one of these powerful systems and had almost like a near death experience.   That storm changed the course of her life and she became fascinated with weather.   So after four years as wandering art student she taught herself college algebra and trigonometry and remade herself into a scientist.   She is now almost finished with her Physics degree and has minors in Art and Math.    OK, she is the last person on earth that you would expect to be a physicist but she loves it.   People ask me all the time “what will Caroline do with when she graduates?”    I always reply “something none of us have ever thought of.”

 

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Caroline at 16 trying to have a “Close Encounter of the Third Kind” at Devil’s Tower Wyoming.

 

Spain

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Caroline and Alexandra at The Alhambra, Granada, Spain 2001

So what’s with Spain? It has never been at the top of my travel list, that has always been, France, England, England, France, England. But for the second time I’m happily heading to Spain. All the other countries I’ve visited, I just pack a bag, get some cash and board a plane but not Spain. Both times I’ve been required to spend nearly a year preparing just so I can enter the country.

I went to Spain for the first time in June 2001. My daughters were 8 and 11 and were invited to go on a performance tour with a violin school out of Chicago. They had to qualify by December of 1999 by playing a particular Bach piece than they had to learn a large repertoire for the tour. Every note, fingering and bowing had to be perfectly memorized. It was a big task for a Second and Fifth grader but they did it. They didn’t always enjoy the daily practice but they love to perform and tours and violin camps are some of their favorite childhood memories.

We spent two weeks seeing the wonderful sights of Spain and performing for approving audiences. The girls made friends with the other performers and I was thrilled to be back in Europe for the first time in 13 years.

Now another 13 years have passed and I’m off to Spain on May 1 to walk The Camino. My younger daughter Alexandra is going with me. She is no longer the little violinist with pigtails but a grown woman almost finished with college. Instead of violin cases we will be caring backpacks. Starting in Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees, we will walk around 12 miles a day, staying in hostels, for the 500 miles to the Cathedral in Santiago. Pilgrims have been walking to the shrine of St James for 1000 years and now it is my turn.

For this trip instead of daily practice and memorizing music, there have been over 200 miles of training walks, physical therapy for a bad ankle, a Whole30 challenge to lose weight, an attempt to learn Spanish, yoga and lots of study. I don’t camp so I’ve needed to learn about backpacks, quick-dry hiking clothes and sleeping bags. I have to prepare 7 weeks of office work to keep things running smoothly on the farm. Hamilton is learning to cook more and do laundry. Caroline still has finals and an internship at the Physics Dept at UT. The cats will manage somehow.

My plan is to blog often on this trip. Thanks to a Smartphone I hope to send pictures and stories along The Way. I do keep in mind that the Camino has plans for me and I need to be open to the serendipity of each day. I have a hotel reservations for the first and last nights but for 38 days in between my life will be ……????

So the moral of the story is—-be careful what you name your blog. I thought it was about comfortable air-conditioned bus rides to beautiful archeological sites. I had no idea it meant I would have to actually walk. I’m ready to find out what else the Universe has planned.

violin girl

Alexandra  Spain 2001

The Camino http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Way_of_St._James

 

Billy Joel

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Just a few years ago, in 1982, my parents decided I would join my older sister at the University of Tennessee for my college education.  I had spent the last 12 years in tiny religious schools of around 100 students and now I was attending a university of 20,000.   For the first time in my life I was free of the expectations, scrutiny and control of a small community.  I was anonymous and I loved it.

My first college roommate had a record player and a nice collection of LP’s.  This opened a new experience of pop culture and I landed in the world of Billy Joel.   His music became the soundtrack of my liberation. I listened to those records endlessly until the words became my words and the music my tune.    A few years later I was able to live my dream of seeing him perform in Chattanooga.

Last year Alexandra went to see Elton John in concert after she then told me her ultimate dream was to see Billy Joel but he wasn’t going to tour anymore.  I was so shocked that she was dreaming the same dream I did at her age.   I never played Billy Joel after college and never owned an album so she didn’t grow up listening to his music.

In January I watched Kennedy Center Honors Billy Joel, I stayed up late to see his tribute.  I was so touched when the audience all sang “The Piano Man”, can you imagine having an audience sing your song.   I saw what an iconic figure he is for our culture.

A few days later Alexandra called to say that Billy Joel was touring and coming to Nashville.   I wanted to fulfill her dream.  She was on a plane when the tickets went on sale so I had computer in hand at the appointed sale hour.  In an attempt to get better seats, I ended up with four tickets and decided to go to the concert too.   I texted her the good news when she got off the plane, she was ecstatic.

On the night of the concert Alexandra, friend Jessica, Hamilton and I arrived early to the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville to find our budget-friendly seats.  A producer of the concert came up to Alexandra and handed her two front row seats.  Apparently they needed pretty girls to fill the unsold front row and dress up the front of the stage.  They handed us old folks nearby seats so we wouldn’t be separated.   Alexandra burst into tears of joy.  She went from tickets at the back of an arena the size of an aircraft carrier to the front row.

I spent the evening next to the stage, singing the words I had long forgotten, feeling like that liberated college girl again.  I didn’t know who was happier, Alexandra or me watching Alexandra front and center at the stage fulfilling a dream beyond her imagination.    We are all still glowing from the experience. .

Many of my most intense and life changing experiences are from dreams I couldn’t even imagine.   There is no way I could have made things happen with my own human powers.   I know there are unseen forces at work to bring us all to the places and experiences we are destined.  So here is to dreams we didn’t know how to dream, even if it is to give a mother and daughter pure joy for one evening.

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Very pretty girls ready for the concert

 

Both Sides Now

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Vision of Hildegard von Bingen

Have you ever heard of the lily and poinsettia club?   That is what you call people who only go to church on Easter and Christmas.   I’m not quite sure what I would be called since I only go to church on All Saints Day and Christmas.  All Saints day has some of my favorite hymns and it commemorates my first baby steps on the pilgrim’s path.    This service is dedicate to those who died in the past year and I wanted to continue honoring my father-in-law who died in February.  I attend church Christmas Eve so I can sing all the Christmas Carols with all the verses.  I’m very fond of the “smells and bells” of formal services and it brings back such happy memories of when I went to church every Sunday.

During the All Saints service, I learned of a concert the next night by Chanticleer, an all male unaccompanied chorus of 12 men singing all the parts from soprano to bass.   They sing everything from Gregorian chants to modern spirituals and everything in between some written and arrange just for Chanticleer    I have heard many recordings and was always impressed with the pure voices and unique harmonies.

A group of six friends went to the concert.  We found seats together on the side of the church.   We weren’t facing the singers but the sound was perfect.    No amplification, no instruments, just the magic of well trained voices, the closest thing in my mind to the sounds of “heaven”.    Every piece was exquisite and I could have heard the entire concert a second time.

Two songs particularly moved me that night,  both written by women 900 year apart.  The first song was by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179).  A mystic, healer, composer and Abbess, Hildegard’s visions and music brought the “unseen” into everyday reality.  In one of her later visions, Hildegard wrote of a human astride two spheres, the microcosm and the macrocosm, the seen and the unseen.  The beautiful long lines of O Frondens Virga definitely allowed me to enter the unseen.

One of the last songs on the program was an arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s classic Both Sides Now.  The etheric, haunting quality to this ballad sent me straight back to the unseen like Hildegard’s music had.   The song stayed with me for weeks, a constant reminder that I live in both side now, astride the two spheres.    The invisible is just as real as the visible, the magic and the mundane exist together.   Heaven and Earth are always with me.

www.chanticleer.org

 

Crystal the Pink Bunny

Easter bunnies

On Easter Sunday my friend Stacy showed up at my house dressed in a light pink sweat suit. The first words out of my mouth were “Oh my, it is Crystal the pink bunny.” Stacy had been moving and it was the only thing she could find to wear that morning and it was very appropriate for the holiday. Crystal the pink bunny has been a friend for 18 years. She is the imaginary friend of my younger daughter Alexandra.

Alexandra walked and talked very early and hated being a baby. Her body just didn’t do what her brain already knew how to do. It made her very mad and she screamed hours a day in frustration. She was only two when she started to talk about Crystal the pink bunny. A “Harvey” like giant friend who went with us everywhere. I had to drive around the block and open the van door to take Crystal with us when we went to school. Even Alexandra’s preschool teachers were friends with Crystal.

When Alexandra was about nine my friend Rachael, a Medium, came to visit for the first time. Earlier that day my daughters had been trying to work out the music to The Pink Panther, they had hand written it on musical staff paper and it was on the music stand in the living room. When Rachael saw the music she knew that it was a sign from Russell, the young son of her friend Gwen

Russell had passed away many years before but was such a strong spirit that he communicated easily through Mediums and was always sending signs of his presence. Russell’s symbol is the Pink Panther and his latest communication was there on my music stand.

That evening as I learned more about Russell I realized that Crystal the Pink Bunny wasn’t an imaginary friend after all but Russell communicating with Alexandra. At two she was much too young to know about the Pink Panther so she thought he was a pink bunny and I can see how “Russell” could sound like “Crystal” to her.

After meeting Rachael, Alexandra was able to understand what she saw and heard and no longer crawled in bed with me every night. We had many interesting conversations about what she saw and I was careful to protect her from places and situations that might frighten her. As she got older she chose to put away that side of her and just be a very normal teenager. She still has razor sharp intuition and I’ve always encourage her to use that skill. Mediumship will come back when she wants because it is her choice, not an outside force, closing those channels for the time being.

On our 2005 trip to England Alexandra met Russell’s parents Gwen and Alfie and they shared stories. Gwen wrote a book about her experiences and it is a beautiful story. Russell still shows up occasionally, not as a pink bunny but as the Pink Panther. A few months ago I was a bit sad and I went off to a concert to cheer myself up, the first thing the performer talked about was how his next selection was featured in a Pink Panther movie, I knew that was Russell with a big pink hug for me.

Russell by Gwen Byrne

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Beauty Remembered

Peur 2011

The great composer Rachmaninoff has once again has been woven into my life in a deeply meaningful way. The concert to mark the 70th anniversary of his final concert was an outstanding success. The auditorium which holds 1000 was overflowing and many had to stand in the back. The excitement of this historic event was palpable and the pianist, Evgeny Brakhman, played with enormous talent and deep love and understanding of his idol’s music. The room was electric with the immense beauty and appreciation for art at its highest level.

My father-in-law, John, was a patron of the concert, but unfortunately he died the day before the concert from pneumonia after emergency surgery. At the concert he was honored and it made the evening all the more poignant for his family and friends. Once again Rachmaninoff’s music brought healing and solace for me during this sad time.

Beauty was everywhere in John’s life. Raised on a small farm in southern Mississippi during the depression, survival was what life was about, but education was important to the family and he worked hard and went to Medical school. He was a typical Taurus and loved land and home. Although he had a wonderful career, his home and farm were his deepest love. He nurtured his place on earth for 60 years, restoring his home and tending the land. He said to me just last fall, “I can’t believe I get to live in a place this beautiful.”

John and my mother-in-law Dusty had a deep appreciation for all things beautiful, fine books, well made clothes, beautiful music and wonderful food. They lived a beautiful life and they passed this love to all who were part of their lives, introducing them to fine art and music and gracious southern living.

Dusty can no longer remember her beautiful life after many years of dementia but her family is making sure the she still lives with the grace of a “Southern Belle”. A coal-miner’s daughter from Kentucky, she also improved her station in life through education and an appreciation of beauty. She was very social and found an outlet for her enthusiasm at the Knoxville Opera and it is through her influence that I have become a great opera lover. Dusty brought beauty into the lives of her granddaughters by gifting them violin and ballet lessons.

Beauty is the greatest way to raise your vibration and level of spiritual development. The great composers, artists, architects, writers and poets knew how to touch the Divine and bring it to the human level. The beauty of our planet is stunning; mountains, oceans, lakes, trees, flowers and animals. Beauty is all around. Everyday find something of beauty and let it bring you closer to “Heaven on Earth”.

Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff

photo by panoramia.com     Rachmaninoff Statue, Knoxville TN

Knoxville Tennnessee doesn’t have many claims to fame but it does have a few notable events in its history, the 1982 World’s Fair, the moonshine running roots of Nascar, the home town of a few celebraties and authors. There is one event that has always been important to me, the great Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff played his final concert at the University of Tennessee Alumni Gym 70 years ago this month. He died a few weeks later in California.

I’ve been helping my friend Jane, a fellow music lover, organize a concert to commemorate this great composer on the same stage and date of his final concert. February 17, Evgheny Brakhman an award-winning pianist from Russia is going to play an all Rachmaninoff concert in the Cox Auditorium. We will have several parties and visit the statue of Rachmaninoff at the World’s Fair Park as part this event. I went to the 50th anniversary concert in 1993 before the new auditorium was built. In the audience were a dozen or so people who had attended that final concert 50 years before.

Rachmaninoff and his beautiful music have been a part of my life since I was a little girl. My piano teacher saw Rachmaninoff play in Chattanooga and would tell me stories of that experience. When I got accomplished enough I was required to learn the famous Prelude in C# minor, a devilishly difficult piece that took months to learn and required my long fingers to play large, complicated chords. I can still play the first few measures by memory.

The Friday after 9/11 I had symphony tickets to hear Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece the 2nd Piano Concerto. The Russian pianist Alexander Toradze drove down to play the concert since there were no planes allowed to fly. It was a somber audience that night. The orchestra first played Barber’s Adagio for Strings in memory of the tragedy. During the spectacularly beautiful second movement of the 2nd piano concerto I felt my personal sorrow healed. I will never forget that evening and the healing music gifted to me by the great composer and pianist.

It is popular to say in spiritual circles “we all are intuitive”. Yes, that is true, but that is like saying we can all play the piano. Everyone can play chopsticks, some can play hymns, others can play sonatas but only a very few gifted individuals can play Rachmaninoff. When you come across the teachers and intuitives who are “Rachmaninoffs” your world is changed forever by the mastery and beauty they bring to your life.

Remembering Rachmaninoff:   February 17, 2013  8 pm, Cox Auditorium, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Mountain Music

himalayas-stupa-nepalStupa in Nepal

When the Bowen sisters practiced the violin around the house they played Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi. Since we live in Appalachia, they were always asked to perform fiddle tunes.  The ‘fiddlin’ Bowen sisters played many local gigs for charity events, flag pole raisings, nursing homes and anywhere else they were asked.   They put on a nice show playing music that is now universally recognized like Amazing Grace, Ashoken Farewell and Orange Blossom Special.

On Christmas Day I watched a documentary called “Mountain Music Project”.   These same fiddle tunes my daughters played seemed to be even more universal than I realized.   A fiddler from Virginia visited Nepal and noticed that uncanny similarities between his tunes and those of the local mountain people.   He went back to Nepal with a translator and started investigating the musicians high in the Himalayan Mountains.   These musicians played a type of four string instrument with a bow they make from a log, goat skin and tennis racquet string; about the size of a violin, but held like a cello.   The tunes and singing along with the stories of these mountain people and their struggles for survival mirror those of Appalachia.  Maybe these mountain ranges on opposite sides of the world are connected.

I haven’t been to Tibet and Nepal, but last May Tibet and Nepal came to me when I went to a lecture at my local library by  Ven. Lama Norhla Rinpoche.   More than 200 hundred people came to hear about  Lama Norhla’s escape from the Chinese invasion of  Tibet when he was a young monk.   His journey to safety was long and dangerous, and was nearly caught by the Chinese before finding refuge in Nepal and then India.   He said the first time he saw the Great Smoky Mountains a few years ago he was instantly reminded of his first glimpse of the Himalayas during that escape over 50 years before.      Because of this connection, Lama Norhla has established a small retreat center on border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is building a Stupa (a sacred shrine) on this border to help stabilize the weather patterns and heal the land from the Civil War and Indian Removal.

There is a connection between these two great mountain ranges, and I love it when I can make these connections between opposite sides of the world letting us see that the human experience is universal. We all have so much to learn from each other.

www.mocd.org   Retreat Center and Stupa in East Tennessee

www.kagyu.com  Lama Norhla’s Monestary in New York

The Mountain Music Project:   A Musical Odyssey from Appalachia to Himalaya

Aida

I’m so excited that it is December 2012 that I decided to celebrate 21 days of Egypt from December 1 to Winter Solstice December 21. I was so pleased when the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and The Metropolitan Opera in New York decided to join me in honoring Egypt.

On December 2 the famous Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow simulcast live to theaters around the world a new production of The Pharaoh’s Daughter. An obscure ballet about Egypt, the Bolshoi is the only company dancing this classic ballet. I was delighted with the unimaginably incongruent combination of classic French ballet and ancient Egypt, like Swan Lake danced in King Tut’s tomb. I loved it because I believe tutus are appropriate any time, any place, any millennium. When the Princess fell into the Nile and met up with Neptune, (ooops wrong country, wrong god) I was enchanted. The entire afternoon I was immersed in total joy and beauty.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York, wanting to participate in the grand celebration, also simulcast live on radio and in theaters the magnificent Egyptian opera Aida on December 15. I couldn’t have wished for more. Verdi’s masterpiece was premiered in Cairo in 1871 and has become one of the most beloved operas. Every moment is beautiful, from the love duets to the famous triumphal march. It is a timeless story of love, rejection, betrayal, heroism and pageantry all with spectacular music, bringing together hundreds of the world’s best musicians, singers, costume designers and stagers. Opera is the best of all art forms coming together to tell the timeless truths of the human experience.

A few years ago I was sitting in the lobby of the Meridian hotel in Egypt when a half dozen porters and waiters came rushing to the front door, hurriedly putting on their ancient Egyptian attire and pulling out trumpets. Several large buses of tourists had arrived and this little ensemble was there to greet them with the great Triumphal March from Aida. Several rounds of the chorus later, all the tourists were in the lobby and the porters went back to carrying bags. At the Luxor home of Howard Carter, who discovered King Tut’s tomb, there was an old wind-up phonograph; under it was a hundred year old copy of Aida. I can just imagine the tired archeologist sitting outside with a cool drink after a hard day’s work listing to the opera for comfort and inspiration.

When I was sitting in the theater watching these two celebrations of all things Egypt, I kept thinking about what an amazing world we live in. I’m sitting in Knoxville, Tennessee but also on stage of the Bolshoi in Moscow, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Through the magic of satellites in orbit I’m in two places at once on different sides of the earth and immersed in the energy of ancient Egypt, and during the intermissions texting friends in different states enjoying the same experience. We are teleporting and time traveling and didn’t even realize it.