Summer, 2016

We are in the middle of summer, actually, as we hit the last day of July we are rounding the corner in the stretch of the season. I prefer to think of us as strolling, relaxedly through the dog days of summer rather than racing, helter skelter toward fall.

I purposefully lighten my schedule for the summer months. It offers students the chance to enjoy family vacations and have the time to sit back and, perhaps process some of what we have worked on. This year it has also offered me the opportunity to train and compete in sheep herding trials with my border collie, Sam.

At first glance this would not seem to fit into my life as a musician. When filling out the yearly American String Teachers Association forms they asked me to write about something “interesting and unusual” that I enjoyed doing besides music. As I wrote “sheep herding” it did seem unusual, even to myself.

But, as I examine it further, it strikes me how common the thread actually is that binds together all of the things that I enjoy doing both for work and for pleasure.

Sheep herding trials were born from a farmer's desire to have some time off the farm. Farms that had sheep normally had at least one, if not more, border collies to work with them in the daily chores of moving the stock, etc. So, like tractor pulls and calf showing, why not get together and take some of those daily chores and turn them into a fun competition and get those few days out of the field to boot?

Many years later the set up for the sheep trials remains very much the same. You are given a random group of sheep and you and your dog have to move those sheep through various gates in a straight line, turn them around the post at which you stand and, ultimately, put them into a small pen, finishing the run and earning you the distinct pleasure of turning to your dog and saying the words immortalized in the movie “Babe,” “That'll do.”

When I step onto the field to work with Sam it requires focus and determination. My mind has to search for all of the possible invisible landmines that might trip us up and I have to have a plan.

When you sit down at your music stand and scan the music, I think you will see where I'm going here.

As I pick up my cello I have to respect it as my partner. There is no music without it and there is no music without me. I know that my instrument requires a certain touch as I move closer to the bridge and it is very clear that without the weight that it asks of me, chaos will ensue.

Sam and I have a routine before our runs. We move off of the crowd of handlers waiting their turns and we sit and watch the other dogs take the field. I talk with him about what they are doing, what we need to look out for and how I think we should proceed. As we walk to the post to begin, he always looks up at me as if to say “I got this, now let's go.” And I have to respect him as my partner for there is no structure and plan without me and there is no speed and muscle without him.

It would seem,simply, that I enjoy cellos and that I enjoy dogs and that much is true. However, what I love about the cello is taking the technique that I have gathered and being able to use it to interpret and convey what a composer is saying to me.

What excites me about working with my dog is that, although we are of different species, we are a team and if we are to get the job done it will require communication that crosses that barrier between human and animal. And when I look up and see sheep coming toward me in a completely straight line (hopefully) with Sam zig-zagging behind them, it absolutely thrills me.

Too many summers I have filled my time with too many things. I over-book myself with playing and teaching. I agree to run a camp or attend too many events and as I cross the finish line of the summer I look backward with regret.

Not this year. This year there have been sunny days filled with swimming and picnicking. Trips to places in my own state that I had never seen before. Long car rides, without phones, for Paul and I to really converse and catch up on things.Walking through open fields and watching Sam chase the ball, over and over and over again.

And ice cream. Lots and lots of ice cream.

It is wonderful to be as determined about doing the things I like to do (or doing nothing at all) as I am about working toward other goals.

So as we round the corner and step into fall, the nut gathering can begin. I am rested and ready.


Melissa Perley