Monthly Archives: October 2014

Pas de deux thee to the Ballet!

I’ve been a weekend subscriber to the New York Times for about five years now.  I’ve always enjoyed reading a newspaper, even though times have changed. Skimming the Times online, I really miss those clunky advertisements for old-lady orthopedic shoes or the obituaries about all sorts of people who must have been a hoot to know.  Depending on what life is like, sometimes the papers tend to pile up on the shelf under the coffee table and I make a ritual of putting them into chronological order and reading them section by section, usually saving the Book Review or the Magazine section for later.

But, I have to admit.  The New York Times makes me feel dumb.

When the paper thumps against the door in the morning, she already has internalized the unspoken understanding we have.  Yes.  The paper is a she.  Kind of a know-it-all and definitely way smarter than I am.  And she knows it.  No lady who can pull off wearing a blue polyethelene bag everyday when she arrives would be the kind of girl to fade into the wallpaper.  My New York Times is no “gray lady”.  She is electric and she wants you to know it.

Recently I’ve felt a deep attraction to ballet.  The concept of dance has always intrigued me, but I’ve never made an effort to see a performance.  Having frugal tendencies, I’ve always feared that I would shell out a ton of cash for a performance and then fall asleep like I did the last time I saw The Nutcracker over twenty years ago.

Maybe the passage of time has made me more curious and open-minded to take in new things.  I linger on all the articles I come across in the Times about dance.  I study the pictures, the forms of the body and the sinewy leg muscles that I have desired my whole life.  I ask myself what this art form is saying.  What could this be telling me about the world that visual art or music is unable to communicate?

An article I found very enjoyable recently was about a 47 year-old woman who is about to retire from the New York City Ballet.  Plenty of people are mentioned in the article, but with the understanding that the reader knows exactly who they are.  I only recognize a couple of the names (Millepied is married to some famous actress with dark hair and I was first introduced to Baryshnikov when I saw him in the video for “Say You, Say Me”), but I imagine that sophisticated New Yorkers know who they are by mere mention of their last names.   Ballet feels like a world so far removed from my own that I don’t mind wondering who half these people are.  It thrills me to sit out in the suburbs on my couch and stick my sturdy Ukrainian nose into the business of this mysterious world.

This lackadaisical attitude shifts when it comes to articles about music.  I can’t even read the advertisements for Lincoln Center without flying into a guilt-filled pity party.  It’s rare for me to see an article about a performance by the New York Philharmonic, drive right in, and consume it with glee.   Every sentence ends with a reflex statement I hear said, in my head, in my own voice:  I don’t know what that means.  With ballet, I have no frame of reference, except for the couple of months I took ballet in the church basement as a little girl.  An institution of higher learning gave me a music degree and I should at least have some idea of what is going on at the New York Philharmonic, right?

Music has been both a joy and a lifelong struggle for me.  I have always felt pulled toward music and started taking piano lessons the year after the ballet teacher packed up and left town.  I’ve been fortunate to make a living as a musician off and on for several years.  And I always say that one of the few places that I completely lose all sense of time is when I’m singing with an ensemble.  Music matters to my soul, like it does for probably almost every human being on the planet.  But I’ve been caught in this middle place between being truly in love and striving to improve my own practice of it.

Reading the music articles in the paper feel like all the times I felt like I didn’t know what in the world I was doing in music – as a youngster, a student, and as an adult.  What business did I have taking lessons or declaring music as my major?  Reading about music baffles me because I never understood how music could be described by words, only by the burning fire I feel in my gut when something I hear or play just feels right.  I’ve struggled with the rudiments of learning technique and the repetitive execution of scales and Hanon exercises because I simply didn’t feel anything. And writing countless papers on music history in college and getting average grades always seemed like pushing a boulder up a hill.

And that is where the joy of this newfound love of ballet comes in.  There is no middle place about it.  Dance is completely foreign to me, other than what I learn when I take the shiny plastic overcoat off the newspaper every weekend.  A few more weeks of reading ballet articles on the sly and I think I better buy myself some tickets.  I think I’ll stay away from The Nutcracker to be on the safe side.

Sing Along with Sweaty Mitch Miller

This post contains mild profanity.

A friend of mine from high school, also in his early 40s, recently mentioned that his wife’s cousins, who were visiting for the weekend, never heard the song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”.  They made a joke about Meatloaf, and segued into an “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that” comment.  My friend and his wife dug through their CD’s to play that song for a laugh, but they could only find the Bat out of Hell album, which the cousins never heard of.  It was as if sweaty 70s Meatloaf never existed.

Sweaty Meatloaf

My friend related this story on Facebook and it generated numerous comments from the 40-something crowd.  Most were pretty good-natured, but these sorts of comments graze right around the perimeter of fuddy-duddiness.  Some of us are facing the reality that middle-age is a millimeter closer than it was last year, and even though I hope to never say it (or believe it), expressing “I’m so old” has become a more frequent statement among our peer group these days.

As time goes by, I have been surprised that I have a decreased interest in popular culture.  Last year watching the MTV video awards, I had to Google Ariana Grande and just realized the other day that Chris Pratt has apparently been “a thing” for the last few years and I never really knew who he was.  People around my age and older sometimes look at whatever is going on in pop culture right now and simply write it off as “crap”.  And truly, sometimes it is.  I mean, how is it possible that the Kardashians and Justin Bieber are still drawing crowds?  But, in fairness, I am really trying to be open-minded.  Every generation has their artistic expression, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent.  Just because we might not like it doesn’t automatically classify it in the “crap” bin.

At some point toward the end of my high school years, Aerosmith released a song called “The Other Side” that I couldn’t get enough of.  I loved that song and played it over and over and over again. One of my mother’s boyfriends mocked me mercilessly because, to him, it was crap.  It wasn’t the highest quality music, but it was what was popular in 1990.  He insisted that because I was a kid, I didn’t know anything about music and I always thought that was unfair.  What he didn’t realize was that I already knew all the Aerosmith classics by then as well as some of their songs that weren’t even hits.  Because he lived through the original Aerosmith, he naturally dismissed anything that seemed to be of low quality solely because it was new.  He hated anything that was new and current.  Except for the Traveling Wilburys.  God help you if you said one wrong thing about the Wilburys.

My friend’s Meatloaf story got me thinking about how any generation develops an appreciation of music – not just the current popular stuff, but also of the music that came before.  My parents always played records and 8-tracks on the massive TV console – TV in the center, record player on the left, radio and 8-track on the right – in our living room.  We consumed a steady diet of our parents’ music:  Chicago (that heavy brassy stuff with lots of moaning trombones playing glissando), Barry Manilow (the 8-track that changed right in the middle of the Chopin part of “Could It Be Magic”), Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix.  I remember so fondly putting the needle down on the revolving turntable, the static so satisfying when the needle made contact, and then sitting down on the carpet with my head placed next to the speaker, drawn into the pictures on the albums.  One that really sucked me in was the image of the Rolling Stones pressed against glass on the covers of Through the Past Darkly.  There was a poem inside the album cover written by Brian Jones that I found sad, only to learn later that he had died in a drowning accident a couple of years earlier.

Older siblings also influence our exposure to what we hear.  Somewhere around the time I received First Holy Communion, Cheech and Chong’s movie Up in Smoke came out and my 11 year-old brother acquired a cassette tape containing the legendary skit The Finkelstein Shit Kid.  We played it over and over again, roaring with laughter.  I could still recite it by heart at the drop of a hat, thirty-five years later.   You get a goddamn job before sundown.  Or we’re shipping you off to military school,  etc.  Please tell me if you know any seven year-old child who could recite the Finkelstein Shit Kid from memory because her parents definitely should be reported to the authorities.

So if parents are the primary musical influence in a child’s life, what will happen when Mom or Dad are born in a time when only clean-cut, short-haired, ballad-crooning Meatloaf only existed?  And then in a few generations, folks wouldn’t have first-hand memories of any Meatloaf, because by that time, everyone will be vegetarian.  A parallel for me is my exposure to Mitch Miller.  My grandmother, who was born before WWI, played his records and I was shocked when I realized that many people my own age have never heard of him.  My mother certainly never played any Mitch Miller in our home.  In 1999, there was an Amazon Christmas commercial in the style of “Sing Along with Mitch” and I found that most of the people I knew at the time didn’t get the reference.  If a Sweaty Mitch Miller existed, certainly, he has long been forgotten.

In terms of how children today develop an understanding of music, I don’t think anything is necessarily bad.  Just different.  Those of us who grew up listening to records tend to see the past through a soft-focus lens.  I don’t begrudge younger people for their music or the technology they use to access it.  It will be interesting to see how those born in the mid-2010s romanticize their consumption of music when they get to be on the cusp of middle-age.  Will they get a tear in the eye recalling the time they bought Taylor Swift’s twentieth album on ITunes?  (Sigh…she sang so longingly about knitting an afghan with a dozen cats on her lap…and that duet with the 128 year-old Tony Bennett was simply breathtaking…)

Developing technologies and the passage of time will alter our consumption of music and our tastes, just like it has since my grandmother bought her first Mitch Miller record.  Fortunately, we live in an age where we can see Mitch and Sweaty Meatloaf by way of a few keystrokes.