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31/13

September 7, 2013

A little over a year and a half ago, I had the great pleasure of playing the piano for a production of Tick, Tick…Boom!, a semi-autobiographical musical by the late Jonathan Larson, better known for writing Rent. The first song in the show is called 30/90, referencing the lead character’s impending 30th birthday (in the year 1990) and related uncertainty about his future as an artist in New York City; facing down my own 30th as well as a move to that city, I considered the upcoming year. 30/12 didn’t have much of a ring to it. 31/13, now, that was a little more interesting, especially since I was born on March 1st. The numbers were clearly telling me that turning 30 would not be such a big deal (and it wasn’t; I spent a pleasant, rainy evening in my Queens apartment with six good friends, drinks, and a plethora of tasty snacks), but I had better make the next birthday count.

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Thirty wasn’t a bad year. I spent five months in two different sublets in New York, where I taught some piano lessons, worked on two shows (one of them brief but exhilarating, the other much less so), saw (and loved!) Once and the revival of Godspell and a lot of smaller things, traveled to Providence for Cabaret, and wrote the music for a new production called Little Red and the Wolf, as well as a couple of other songs for my own amusement. I flew to San Antonio for a cousin’s wedding, read Miles Davis’ autobiography, and watched 5 1/2 seasons of Doctor Who. I landed a summer job in a cute seaside town in Maine; as the season wound down, I applied to jobs in Boston, New York, and elsewhere but only got nibbles from places back home, which was what I’d secretly hoped for. I’d missed my family, friends, cat, and a particular friend who had told me he couldn’t handle a long-distance relationship, but who I hoped might give me a second chance if I came back for a while. He did, and two weeks before I turned thirty-one, we drove to Toronto to audition for future productions of Once, a completely ludicrous adventure that I never would have expected, yet one that forced me to think seriously about singing in front of people, and also got me to listen to a lot of female singer-songwriters I hadn’t known very well.

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I spent the last day of 30 – the year I got paychecks in four different states – helping my boyfriend move from Providence back to Massachusetts: one good reason for me to limit my ramblings. And the reasons keep coming. In April I played second keyboard for a not-very-good college production of a show I had already played and programmed before; it was easy money but there was nothing artistic about it, except that the trumpet player was excellent. His program biography told me he was also a contractor for a handful of local theaters; when I asked if I could send him a resume, he said sure, though he doubted there’d be much work anytime soon. Not two weeks later, he called me to ask if I could accompany a rehearsal that afternoon for the Huntington Theatre‘s annual Spotlight Spectacular. Their music director had missed his flight from New York and would make it in time for the performance, but they needed someone to run songs with the singers. Of course I agreed, but when I got there they asked me to stay for the gala too, which is how I ended up accompanying Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana.

Then I was hired to music direct Bernarda Alba, Michael John LaChiusa’s dark, flamenco-tinged adaptation of the Lorca play, for Stoneham Theatre‘s summer youth festival. I was already excited to work with a small cast of high-school aged girls on this challenging piece, and even more excited when I got to know the rest of the artistic team, who were hands down the most supportive and truly collaborative group of people I’ve ever gotten to work with. The girls were also extremely talented and committed, diving headfirst into the complex rhythms, tonalities, and difficult subject matter with no complaints. I think they all grew in the five weeks we worked together, and I did too.

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I hit the halfway point of being 31 a week ago, which was also opening weekend for the production of Ring of Fire that I’m currently music directing in Grand Lake, Colorado. The job started the day after Bernarda closed; they’d had a mid-season opening in their staff, so I sent my resume, interviewed and auditioned via Skype, and got on a plane for the mountains. The theater itself is beautiful and very professional, with a company of seriously talented actors, technicians, and musicians. I was lucky enough to see all three of the summer productions before they closed, and was astounded by how well the shows were cast and how spectacular they looked and sounded. And now that Fire is open and I have some time off, I’ve gone hiking twice this week, and while I am woefully out of shape (more so than I can blame on the altitude), the incredible views are easily worth all the wheezing and muscle fatigue. I look forward to another three weeks of performances and wilderness adventures. And another six months of unexpected journeys.

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This week’s very small existential crisis

May 7, 2012

It ‘s a cold, rainy, gloomy day, as it has been five of the last six days, so what I’d really like to be drinking right now is a large mug of smoky Russian Caravan tea, crowned with a little steamed milk. But this is not possible, because most of my tea stash – as well as my beloved green Beehouse teapot – is still in Massachusetts. I’m not about to buy another teapot (I do at least have an infuser spoon) and I really can’t justify buying more tea when I already have so much back home. And therein lies the central dilemma of my life at present: I Can’t Possibly Live Another Day Without [insert kitchen implement or food item here], Yet I Already Own It And Refuse to Buy It Again. I have already succumbed to buying a few such things in the last week, since moving to a new sublet that lacked a vegetable peeler and a pot big enough to make soup or cook long pasta. And I already have a replacement bottle of Sriracha, because really, people, I’m only human. But I’m trying to travel fairly light for now, so I’m making do without a lot of seemingly-crucial things.

At root, though, the dilemma is not what to buy or not buy on a daily basis. It’s how long I can wait before “real life” starts – the kind of life where I know where I’m living more than a couple of months in advance, where I feel settled enough to import things like my piano and my cat and my blue cast-iron pot. Right now I feel like I’m only pretending to live in New York, and as much as I’m embarrassed to admit it, it seems what it will take to make this city feel like home is Stuff. And routine. And, you know, a job that takes up more than a few hours a week and is both artistically and financially rewarding. Or at very least, the discipline to structure my independent work (practicing, writing, etc.) so it feels more like a job.

I guess I’m saying I want to have already arrived here, to have my life established and settled, to have paid my dues in the business and found myself a niche. Except that’s also not what I want at all. Because I love knowing that I could, theoretically, take a touring gig tomorrow. I could, theoretically, drop everything and go visit a friend on a whim. And as exhausting as it sometimes feels to have to learn a new neighborhood and a new set of transportation parameters every couple of months, I also really enjoy the discovering. I just came back from a brief reconnaissance walk (goal: try a new coffee place and find some vegetables for dinner, taking note of interesting-looking restaurants along the way), and while I should probably not take too many of those on rainy days, lest the weather cloud my view (ha!), I did have the pleasure of being asked by the man who made my latte if I was a dancer. I always enjoy this question, though I normally only get it when I’ve just started working with a new theater company who doesn’t know me yet, and therefore doesn’t know how emphatically I am not a dancer. I just stand like one sometimes.

There’s a certain pleasure in not being known yet, not being defined or limited by anyone’s expectations. This is something I love about working in theater: you meet new people all the time, people who don’t yet know who you are and what you can or can’t do. Every show is a chance to impress someone, to exceed their expectations, to try on new skills and stretch the boundaries of the ones you already have. That’s true even with a company you already know, but it’s so much easier to just keep fitting into the concept of you that you think they have.

So I do like a certain amount of uncertainty – not just trial by fire, but a different fire every so often. What I’m working on now is finding a balance between the uncertainty and the things that make me feel rooted, even a little bit. Those things currently include: leaving my closet door open because the clothes inside are about the only things in this room that are actually mine. Taking pride in the fact that the one solely decorative item here is a prop from a show I was also involved with (I’m subletting from a Weathervane actor from two seasons ago). Improvising ways to make my favorite foods even without the exact right perfect pan or knife. And allowing myself to be loved by the two intensely snuggly cats that live here, even though they are not my cat.

And while I may occasionally lament the absence of a certain beverage, I’m expanding those horizons, too. Because I’m pretty sure that my dinner (pasta with the brussels sprouts I just bought at one of the ubiquitous fruit-and-vegetable markets around here) will be accompanied by a bottle of the extremely delicious Wolaver’s coffee porter I purchased from the New Happy Deli & Grocery across the street. And while Massachusetts may have many things to boast about, it does not have New Happy Deli or its many convenience-store brethren, where you can run out and buy either a six-pack of really interesting beer, or a bottle of OJ to chase your morning omelet. Or a roll of electrical tape or a lottery ticket or a pint of overpriced Haagen-Dazs. It’s still a little startling to walk through a grocery store and find an entire aisle of alcohol right between the Triscuits and the cat food, but I’m starting to get used to it.

I guess I’m starting to get used to a lot of things, including the fact that I can’t ever really get used to anything for long. And that’s exciting, in a way, even though it’s also pretty unsettling. As eager as I am to eventually “make it,” I’d also be extremely reluctant to skip this phase, and I hope I never become too goal-oriented to enjoy at least something about where I am at any given moment.

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Tomorrow belongs to me?

March 22, 2012

Things are looking a little brighter than a month ago: I’ve had a bunch of auditions and interviews in the last few days, and none of them might pan out, or they all might, and then I might have some really interesting decisions to make. Meanwhile, I’ve signed on to play for a production of Cabaret in April, so I have something to focus on in the immediate future. And in honor of that production, I’m posting a poem about the last time I did Cabaret, five years ago. (For the record, I always have links to a couple of poems hanging out in the right-hand sidebar under “Pages,” which I cycle in and out according to whim, and my stats page informs me that nobody reads them, ever. I’m sure plenty of you don’t like poetry, in which case, game on, but for the two of you who might like to know, I thought I’d point it out.)

CABARET
Kresge Little Theater, MIT, 2007

Same scene every night: just past
the Pineapple Song, the pace slows, loosens,
costumed waitresses clear the empties,
German-labeled bottles. One dancer
taps my piano, whispers something in Spanish
which I never understand, smiles sadly,
slides a few marks in the tip jar anyway.
I nod my thanks and there’s the hostess,
beaming, red-corseted, ready to offer me
more of what makes the world go around
but only if I’ll play her favorite song, the one
with stags and linden branches and the Rhine.
I won’t play your dirty Nazi song, I grumble,
sotto voce: she laughs, knowing I don’t (can’t) mean it
and mounts black stairs to the stage within a stage,
listening for her cue. The sun on the meadow
is summery warm, she sings, and the room goes still,
the waitresses cease their banter. The melody lures
a few men in for the second verse,
harmonies twining around her, falsetto, baritone;
guitar and woodwinds croon. I lead from the piano,
nodding the downbeats, signaling how long
to hold that last fermata — the world is mine

an eternity, on a good night,
the chord a shimmering braid of sound
that finally tightens into unison.

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Unfortunately, this poem was the subject of the least useful graduate poetry workshop I ever participated in. There’s this handy rule in most workshops that says the poet can’t speak while her poem is being discussed, so that she doesn’t cloud everyone else’s opinions with any “but this is what I was trying to say” statements. Normally this is a good rule. Keeps things moving along, avoids unnecessary argument, lets the poem speak for itself.

But sometimes it goes horribly wrong, as when the poem refers to something specific, like a play. And when your professor diligently looks up the poem’s title (it was called “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” at the time), as well as the song lyrics quoted in italics, the first several hits he comes up with have nothing to do with the musical Cabaret, but rather with some neo-Nazi site which has apparently co-opted the song as their anthem, without bothering to mention its original source. Probably just as well for the reputations of Kander and Ebb.

I sat on my hands for twenty minutes, squirming silently in my chair, as my intelligent, sensitive, well-meaning classmates debated whether or not this was a persona poem, from the perspective of someone working in a club in the 1940s. (Close enough.) But why did the dancer speak Spanish? (Character choice. The actress playing Texas was herself Texan and half Mexican.)  Why couldn’t the speaker actually refuse to play the song – what was at stake here? (It’s a play. If I don’t play the next song, it breaks.) And just what is the Pineapple Song, anyway? (Sigh.)

It’s kind of a funny story now, I guess. But there’s a reason why I changed the title to Cabaret. Even though I liked the old title better.

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Rejection!

February 25, 2012

The truth is, I have a lot to be thankful for right now. I’m lucky to be staying in a safe, cozy apartment with a roommate who’s kind, outspoken, and hilarious. I teach seven piano students on Wednesdays, and for the next three weeks I’m also covering someone else’s Saturday lessons, which means an extra 12 students. I have a favorite grocery store, the laundromat I patronized last week is the least sketchy I’ve ever seen, and the bartender at the place on the corner has a lovely accent and a knack for good conversation.

I still have some terrific friends, with whom I have played Skee-Ball, watched dozens of episodes of Bones, visited the Jim Henson exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image, enjoyed great theater, and dabbled in terrible jazz. Friends who, when I despair that no theater will ever hire me ever again, remind me that not only am I good at what I do, but also I’ve only been here three weeks and I’m not allowed to be discouraged yet.

But right now I am a little discouraged, anyway. It seems true that things move faster here, and that means sometimes I can rack up two or three rejections per week, and that’s not counting the places I apply to that never write back. This week I wasn’t hired for a college production of Sweeney Todd for which I felt extremely qualified (I’ve done the show twice before), and I’m pretty sure I blew my audition to music direct Company, which I’m really unhappy about because the group putting it on seems like they’d be wonderful to work with. And because while learning “Another Hundred People,” I was astounded by how perfectly the accompaniment — essentially four separate lines that coexist, all moving in the same direction, to form a solid palette of sound without ever really coalescing — amplifies the lyrical content. Guys, I am finally on the Sondheim bandwagon after years of respecting but not loving the man and his work.

I want so badly to dive headfirst into this show, to tease apart all the musical secrets, to figure out the best instrumentation for the space and the budget and the director’s intentions. And I will be really surprised if I get to, because I played so much worse on their nice baby grand than I do on the out-of-tune spinet in my sublet. All those separate lines that I worked to bring out, choosing fingerings that would boost my accuracy while highlighting the most interesting parts of each phrase — none of that happened in my audition. I got through the piece fine, but it was muddy and indistinct, lacking the colors I had gotten so excited about while practicing.

I know I’m supposed to believe that I’m missing out on these and other opportunities because God has something even better planned. Sometimes I do believe that. But also sometimes I wonder if I’m just not good enough to be worthy of any of the things I want. Which is stupid, because whatever about me is or isn’t “good enough” comes from God too. Even the desires of my heart, small and misdirected as they may be, reflect the things He has created me to want, to thirst for.

I know what it feels like to be in exactly the right place, using my talents and fulfilling that thirst. Right now it just seems like so long before I’m in that place again, and who knows how long I’ll keep fumbling for the right chord, the right thing to say to the right person, before I find it. Or it finds me.

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Punctuated equilibrium

January 10, 2012

I’m the kind of person who, rather than wait 10 minutes for a bus, would rather just walk somewhere even if it takes twice as long. It’s not that I’m impatient; I’d be a less than pleasant music director and a complete failure as a piano teacher if that were the case. I would just rather be in motion, already on my way somewhere, than waiting for something to happen, even if that something is really exciting and totally worth the wait.

Which is why I’m having a really hard time this month. I had intended to find an apartment in December and move in early January, probably last weekend. Stuff came up, and it was good stuff and I’m not sorry, but the apartment thing hasn’t happened yet — I’m going to scout out places this weekend, looking to move in February. In fact, if I don’t find anything this week, I’m still moving in February. New York friends, prepare your couches.

So I have a new plan, but the part of my brain that thought I was moving in January is not pleased. I’m getting antsy and irritable, I’ve been grouchy at people who don’t deserve it, I feel stalled and helpless. Everything I do that feels like motion — responding to housing posts, applying for music directing gigs, even trying to schedule time with friends before I leave — seems thwarted. The most encouraging email I’ve gotten this week was from a potential employer (a college 90 minutes outside of NYC) who thanked me for my application, explained that the hiring process was going slowly due to school break, and assured me that public transportation would work just fine to get me there from the city. Because that was an email from an actual person who had actually read my email, not some automated form letter. Nobody is saying no, but mostly nobody is saying anything at all, and that might be worse.

The funny thing is, just a few days ago I was thinking about how fast life has seemed to move lately, how much I feel like I’ve grown and learned in the last year. I attribute that largely to my willingness to make changes in my life — to end a relationship that, while comfortable and supportive in some ways, was also quietly undermining my self-confidence and making me far too accepting of the status quo. To quit a bunch of reasonably satisfying forms of employment on the vague hope of finding something better, or at least being free to look without guilt or conflict. To leave an area I love, where I almost never have to go looking for my next show because I’ve built up a network of people and organizations who like me and want me back, on the grounds that I will probably never advance within the Boston theatre hierarchy, not without working in New York first.

And this life I’m giving up? It happened while I wasn’t paying attention. While in grad school getting a degree of questionable financial worth, I started gradually building up theatre credits and connections, a couple a year, a pace that would have seemed infuriatingly slow if I hadn’t had another focus. But by the time I crossed the Wang Center stage in my sparkly flip-flops and chintzy robe to accept that diploma, I had enough experience to nab my first summer stock job. Which led to more work in Boston, and meeting more people, and now I get maybe six shows a year (some MDing, some just playing piano/keyboard), not even counting the summer. And by “now” I really mean the last two, maybe two and a half years. Which is nothing, in the grand scheme of things.

So I’m telling myself that what currently feels like no progress is, in fact, progress, even if I can’t see it happening in the moment. That maybe I just need a good distraction to keep me from going crazy while I try to replicate the last five years or so in a new place. And that I’m not actually starting from scratch. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other until the day I look up and realize I’ve made it to where I wanted to be. And hoping the bus doesn’t splash too much mud on my shoes when it passes me on the way.

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On wanting unreasonable things

December 6, 2011

When I was in sixth grade I tried out for Peter Pan – not just the play, the role itself. It didn’t occur to me that a scrawny shy kid with buck teeth and huge glasses wasn’t lead material, or that I hadn’t developed the breath support to sing a convincing high F, or that I couldn’t dance. (Still can’t.) I just knew I loved to run around the house singing “I Gotta Crow” and “Never Never Land.” I saw something I wanted, I showed up, and I asked for it.

I didn’t get the part. I was cast as the only 6th grader in the pirates’ chorus, while my prettier, more agile friends got to play Indians and Lost Boys. But I got to wear a parrot on my shoulder and “play” a prop cello that my dad made out of foam core, dowels, and twine. I was totally intimidated by the older pirates, especially this redhead named Eric who kept trying to talk to me, though I did eventually become friends with an 8th grader named Jen who would tell me about her obsession with Bono while we waited to go onstage. (By the time I reached high school, she’d become locally famous as a guitarist and singer/songwriter in her own right.)

Five years later, having lost the braces, gotten contacts, and discovered Rent, I listened to “Another Day” about sixteen times on repeat before getting up the nerve to ask my crush to the junior prom. No day but today, I told myself. Give in to love or live in fear!

He said no. He’d planned to ask a friend of mine — a friend I knew had plans of her own, though it seemed wrong to say so. My track teammates, a year younger and perhaps living vicariously through me, insisted that even if he came crawling back, I shouldn’t go with him. But I thought that was silly; I did still want to go, and why sacrifice that for the sake of pride? He asked. I accepted. My track friends jumped up and down and hugged me when I told them.  I got my hair done and wore a dress my mother made, and I had a great time, even though I would’ve rather ditched the dance for a midnight showing of Star Wars Episode I. Which we actually did attend after prom, a bunch of us in our dresses and tuxes, practically falling asleep the whole time, and that was just as well, because the movie was awful.

The thing is: I like to think I’ve gotten braver in the last few years. But I don’t have guts anything like what I had when I was 12, or 17. Today I would carefully analyze my vocal range, size up the competition, and try out for a featured ensemble role, all the while secretly hoping the directors might see something special in my audition and upgrade me to the role I actually wanted. Upon meeting a guy I really like, I’ll tell myself all I want is friendship; nobody that talented/attractive/awesome could be interested in me, anyway. And then I try so hard not to betray my feelings that I probably come off as pretty uninterested myself, and a lot colder than I mean to be.

I have musician friends who send out unsolicited resumes all the time, hoping somebody will just happen to need their skills — heck, I hired one of those friends in the first place because of such a submission, figuring I was better off grabbing someone who already wanted the job I hadn’t even posted for yet. So I know that strategy works sometimes, and yet I haven’t tried it myself since college, ostensibly because I don’t want to pester anybody. I limit myself pretty much to responding to explicit job postings, and even then I often don’t bother if I think my schedule will be too difficult to accommodate, or I don’t have the right experience, or I might not live up to the employer’s expectations.

I played a show this weekend that was one of the most joyful experiences I’ve had in a long time, and I almost didn’t apply for that gig, primarily because it was in Rhode Island and I didn’t think I had the time to drive out of state every day for a week. Too many students to reschedule, not financially worth the commute, blah, blah. I probably would have overlooked the posting completely had it not been specifically brought to my attention by a friend who checks the same pages I do, but more often, and with a more flexible sense of what is possible or worthwhile. I thought about it, and I realized it was stupid to sacrifice what I actually want to do — make music with awesome people — just because it would be easier to not inconvenience my students or my boss.

Also, the job ad said they needed “a proficient, detail oriented sight-reader” who could also “completely let loose and rock out.” At the risk of sounding massively arrogant, I read that description and thought it sounded like me. And then I felt bad for thinking that, and tried to mask those thoughts by telling myself that there must be someone else out there who could play the notes more perfectly, AND rock harder, and they probably even lived in Providence.

Stupid. I can psych myself out so easily. But here’s what I would have missed out on if I hadn’t done it: The opportunity to watch some talented, committed kids pour their hearts out onstage, and to see them grow even in the single week I was involved. A couple of potentially useful business connections that I didn’t even ask for — I just told one person in passing that I was moving to New York, and he told someone else who told a bunch of someone elses, and suddenly everyone wanted to help me. A really humbling amount of encouragement and appreciation for the work that I did, which mostly didn’t even feel like work. A small revelation about the benefits of a focused warmup. And a much-needed reminder of the sheer, unadulterated joy of playing the best I know how, in the company of some of the best collaborators I’ve had the pleasure to know.

I think what I’m trying to say is that there’s always a reason not to try something that seems difficult or inconvenient, that requires too much talent or self-assurance. Most of the things I want are irrational and unreasonable; I don’t deserve them; possibly nobody does. But if I don’t dare to want unreasonable things, I’m excluding myself from the chance to be blessed in amazing and unpredictable ways.

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What I’ve been up to

August 11, 2011

This isn’t exactly a real post, just a pointer to this poem I wrote a couple of days ago.

If you wanted the vague, five-second update on my life, here goes: We’ve opened a bunch of shows here. They’re going pretty well. I climbed Mount Washington two weeks ago and have plenty of sunburns and bruises to show for it. (Hopefully some pictures at some point, too.) The couple of things I was hoping for at the beginning of the summer didn’t pan out, so I’m dealing with that with varying amounts of success, while trying to look ahead and make plans for the coming year. That’s about it for now.

It does feel good to be writing again, though. I think there’ll be more where that came from.

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