Music Lessons

June 21, 2011

If this isn't heaven, you tell me what is.

OK, OK — last Band Camp post.  I promise. In this one, I try to explain, mostly for my own edification, what I learned by singing and writing and playing.  I hope here to name what might be traveling home with me, aside from a whole lot of smelly laundry and a dozen nasty mosquito bites.

Midweek, the sun came out in a big way, and everybody swam — not just the hardcore nature freaks like DH.  The camp organizers cancelled organized activities, and the whole camp spread itself out along the dock.  The bass player and the guy who played the trumpet to call us to meals held Cannonball contests off the diving board.  An Old Time Fiddle Circle established itself at the other end of the dock, with various musicians stepping in and out over the course of hours. (Yeah, I hadn’t ever heard of one of these before, either. But these circle things are a seriously big deal at Music Camp).  Between those two ends, the rest of us lazed around, did a few downward dogs, plopped in and out of inner tubes floating in the water, and shoved canoes and kayaks in and out of the water.  I am pretty sure that if heaven exists, it’s a lot like that dock that particular late June afternoon.

Abigail, having finally found her fill of fishing after two days straight, took to reading in the sun, when she wasn’t spilling buckets of water down the slide to slick it down and make herself slip down faster.

Then she started to tell me that she was thinking that maybe she should play the fiddle.  Instead of leaping for joy and spoiling the whole thing, I played it cool and said Yeah, that might be fun.   But inside, I was ecstatic.  The beautiful fiddle-playing girls all over the island seemed to me like the best sorts of role models — serious about their music, but never so about themselves.  They were self-assured and humble all at the same time.  Exactly the sort of young woman I would love for her to become.  Fiddling could get her there, if that’s where she’s wanting to go.

In the evenings, one of our fellow campers would organize evening events, all of which included music.  We dressed up in lunatic costumes and sang Honky Tonk songs.  I harmonized on a Lucinda Williams tune with a new friend I absolutely adored singing along with, then at the end of the night pounded into a version of “I Fought The Law” that was way more punk than country.  I was of course way more self-conscious and self-defeating than the situation warranted. Everyone by then had had a drink or two or three, and the song was all about the band anyway.

Another night, the kids worked up skits for a talent show — totally on their own.  It occurred to me that this might have been the first time in their lives that they had performed without having an adult tell them what to do.  DH and I brought the girls home after the talent show,  then sat down on the porch to talk.

I asked him: what’s different about this place?  Why am I so happy here?  I asked because I really was hoping to import some of the best aspects of this artificial experience to regular old real life.  No, I don’t need a composting toilet.  But maybe there would be a few things I could pack in my mental suitcase to bring home — like the olive oil, recipes and the family groundedness I brought back after our time in France.

He pointed out that camp felt happy in part because I wasn’t doing any dishes, unless I volunteered to take a shift (which I finally did, early Friday morning.) The food tasted amazing and was seriously healthy without being bland.  Also, I didn’t have to cook any of it.  I spent a full week not picking up a house, or walking a dog, or even making a bed.  I restacked my own clothing one afternoon, picking out the pieces that had gotten too grungy, but only because I felt like it.  Since I can’t bring this easeful life home with me, at least I can notice and be grateful for all the things that the other people in my house already do to make my life easier.

DH also pointed out that all the singing and dancing was bringing me joy.  Music is to me what food is to DH, and I was finally getting my fill of plenty of unselfconscious harmonizing.  This much playing with chords and rhyme and meter and melody — I haven’t been able to get enough of this since leaving The Bluestockings back in college.

I do some music in Brooklyn, now and again, but it felt different at music camp when I played or wrote or sang, because somebody came and took all the judgments away the morning after I foolishly worried too much about I Fought The Law.  As much as I love playing in the bands back home, a certain amount of crankiness always creeps in — above and beyond the level I really need in order to motivate myself to sing well.  At camp, I was surrounded by talented, enthusiastic teachers who seem mostly just to want me to enjoy learning things.  And from them, I took courage.

I’m not sure how to banish toxic levels of judgment from my life in general, but I certainly took a lesson from the stellar musicians and performers around me:  self-consciousness has no place in performance.   It might motivate you to practice more, but really that can’t be your only reason to work a craft.  Those of us who are amateurs play because we love to play, full stop.  We aren’t trying to earn a living, and therefore the standards are different.  So, the next time I sing, I’m going to practice more rigorously at home, then let loose on stage.

We both agreed how happy we were watching our girls.  They felt free in part because they were cared for just by the structure of the island itself.  There was nowhere they could go to get hurt, so they went off by themselves a lot.  There was nowhere that anybody needs them to be at a specific time, so they follow their own internal clock.  It turned out that without an endless supply of snacks, they were indeed hungry at mealtimes.  It is both this tiny amount of real structure, and the absence of required “activities” that works so well for them.

Plus, they were buoyed by the values of a community.  They could watch other people around them taking risks in a safe way, and try out something new.  One night the kids took over the band instruments, and grabbed the mikes.  The girls sang back up to their friend Holden, then Grace sang all of “Jackson,” with serious attitude. And then Abigail took on “Don’t Stop Believing.” Since this song is like crack for people of my generation and a little younger, she had all of us jumping up and down, hands in the air by the end of the song.

At the talent show, Abigail earned real, hearty laughs with a wholly-hers performance of a clown skit.  She was directed by her new friend Ellie, another girl just a little bit older than she.  Grace did the weirdest skit I had ever seen, a series of stand up comedy jokes delivered while she and her friend Holden were lying down.  I was amazed and not a little shocked by how boldly all of the kids struck out.

DH and I both felt free in their ease.  He could finally realize his longtime dream of sending them off to play like he did when he was a kid.  I could feel free because nobody expected anything of me.  I didn’t have to run around being somebody else’s sheepdog.  There are no wolves, and the sheep were just fine as they are.  Time, food, space, stuff — none of it needed my tending.

Instead of being the sheepdog, I could be myself.  I could sing whenever somebody would be polite enough to listen, or just while walking on my own.  I wrote songs that sound like hokey old classic rock, or pop ballads, and elected not to care that I could not write them in 12-tone scales or a 7/8 meter.

By the end of our week together, I was full of ideas and emotion.  Of course, the high of summer camp is always artificial.  Having been to camp, I also remember that the joy is generally followed by an equal and opposite sort of crash.  The pleasantly free feeling of being away, of being in the woods, of being with other people who are not living their normal lives isn’t real, and can’t continue once you’ve left.

I won’t spend the rest of my life with musicians. That ship sailed long ago, and I stood happily on the dock and waved while it went away. But spending a week with them reminded me that I can make a larger place for creativity in my life.

I want the effects of this place to linger in myself and in my marriage and in my children.  I want my girls to see themselves as musicians, not just fans.  I want to find more opportunities to have them spend time around people who see them the way they are here.  Whole, beautiful, full of potential and depth. I want to let them feel the embrace of something larger than just our family, just our way of being.  Camp can’t be our community, but it certainly reminded me of the importance of certain key elements of human connectedness.

So when I go back home, I think I might be able to create for myself a structure that allows a little more music, and stamps out a little of the foolish unhappy patterns I fall into when I’m not living my life consciously.  I will ask everybody I know for suggestions for new music to listen to, then I will teach myself the songs. I will to play the Steinway in the living room and not care whether the neighbors think that what I play sounds good or bad or indifferent.  I will sing the new songs until I really know the words, and then throw away the lead sheet when it’s time to perform.

I will find a book of writing prompts and use them to write something new every day and stretch my use of genres and modes.  I will finally bite the bullet and either find or create a writing group to help me push this new habit along.  As Abigail told me about the fishing, “If you do something you like, you can just keep doing it.  And pretty soon, other people know that’s who you are.”

And then, perhaps once I have convinced other people that I’m this new sort of person –the sort of mother, wife, writer, singer and dedicated friend I aspire to be — I can more fully convince myself.

Full Moon

T. June 21, 2011 at 10:45 am

Thank you so much. These last three post have given me so much to think about. You’re giving voice to lots of stuff I’ve been struggling with and trying hard to sort out. Too much to write about here, so you’ll just have to check my blog later in the week!

Sounds like you had a wonderful week. We always struggle with that “how do we make life feel more like camp” issue. Living in a place that a lot of people come to vacation makes it seems like we ought to be able to make it happen. But it’s a state of mine, more than a physical location, as you’ve pointed out. And life has a way of stamping the “camp” out of our days. It’s a good thing summer comes back every year to remind us.

Thanks so much for sharing all of this.

Carol June 21, 2011 at 10:54 am

Mom xx

GailNHB June 22, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Lovely posts about camp, Launa. And the photos are fantastic. No apologies necessary – in fact, I would imagine that there are four or five more pieces about camp life in your back pocket. Keep ’em coming! And if you don’t write anything more about camp, at least post the name of the book of prompts you find – or perhaps a few websites with good writing prompts. I could use some new ideas myself.

Wishing I lived closer to you and your singing crew… Gail

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