The Violin Family

In Vermont the seasons can change in the period of twenty four hours. When we left for Los Angeles it was summer, the sun was high, it was humid and everything was lush. We returned and autumn had fallen. There is just something about the angle of the light that is different, as if a scrim has been placed in front of the sun.

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And so the slower, easy pace of the dog days is replaced with the hurriedness of fall. The stone wall that runs the length of our property becomes a thru way for chipmunks and squirrels with mouths stuffed full of nuts, freezing only briefly to stare and twitch their whiskers at the dogs. Their pace seems to set ours as we begin to stuff our arms full of firewood, like them, anticipating things to come.

This fall there is even more preparing being done. Over the past four years I have been working on a children’s book called The Violin Family. My idea has come to fruition and now comes the harvest. Our goal is for a release date of November 1.

It was important to me to define, to myself, why I was writing the book. Like working an etude, I believe that it helped to focus me - keeping me always true to why I was doing the work. The Violin Family is about THE Violin Family of stringed instruments; violin, viola, cello and bass. This family, beyond actually being these instruments, also happens to be a fictionalized family.

When I conceptualized the story, it was important to me that children be introduced to the stringed instruments. School string music programs are fast disappearing. As a musician and teacher I feel a sense of responsibility to help keep strings visible, especially for children.

I made the family fictional because I wanted to reduce what I term the “high-browedness” commonly associated with classical music. My thought was to humanize these classical instruments, to make them more accessible, understandable.

In our shop we rent stringed instruments and Paul and I also work with a Youth orchestra, so I’m privy to conversations between parents and children about deciding on an instrument to play. I think that the stigma, the “high-browedness” - of classical music often creeps into parent’s minds. Perhaps they, too, are a little afraid of the brown instruments. Maybe the recognizable face of the clarinet or flute, the upbeat, upfront music of the band, makes things familiar. Humanizing the strings in the book is my attempt to make them more familiar, aka more comfortable. Perhaps if you fictionalize the stringed instruments they are like you, no longer “above” you. They eat pancakes, feel fear, love and embrace family.

Complexities within a musical group are like those in any community; I wanted to offer an opportunity for kids, parents and educators to explore these relationships; musical and familial. My long term goal is to write about the interplay among more instruments in the Violin Family’s world: perhaps about their neighbors, the Woodwinds?

Writing the book, finding an illustrator and then the daunting task of finding a publisher has been an enormous growth opportunity for me. I’m pretty comfortable in my regular box, I know all of it’s wrinkles and corners. Stepping into another artistic genre was intimating, but I decided to do it anyway, maybe in no small part because it was scary. In that way Violet Violin and I seem to have quite a bit in common.

And that is a fortunate strings of events … if you ask me.

Melissa Perley

The Violin Family release by Rootstock Publishing November 1, 2019.

This is a Recording

Our son, Ethan was married in Los Angeles last week. In preparation, from afar, there were many  details that would help bridge the distance between us in wedding planning. Ethan and Emily wanted Paul and I to have an integral part of the musical portion of the ceremony. Emily had chosen a piece of music to walk down the isle to and wondered if there was a way that Paul could arrange that for solo cello.  I offered to get a cello in California and play it at the wedding… it is LA after all. Ethan, wisely, reminded me how challenging it would be to play and cry simultaneously. So we all made the decision that we would record the music to be played the day of the ceremony.

Months before the wedding Paul got to work listening to the piece and, seemingly taking the notes out of the sky, put them to paper. We set about preparing to record.

The word “record” has to be right up there with the most feared words known to (string) musicians. Probably because it is synonymous with “naked.”

Recording with smart phones has become invaluable in my studio. I can record a piece for a student with the metronome on. It allows them to play along with “me” or play the second part of the duet at home. However, the biggest benefit of phone-recording comes from the players recording themselves. Often when there is a difficult passage, whether that be because of the notes or the rhythm, if the player will record herself at the very beginning of the practice week, they will definitely be motivated to know what to work on and, ultimately, improve. Oh yes, it is painful to hear yourself make mistakes or play out of tune. No matter how many times you hear your teacher make gentle suggestions, nothing says connection like hearing yourself not connect.

The value of this tool isn’t only about correction. Just today I had a student play a piece and musicality that had been evading him had suddenly shown up for the party. The practice that he had been putting in was stunningly obvious. I suggested that he make a recording of himself playing the piece. I knew that if he had the courage to do that, it would please and surprise him in a way that even my verbal acknowledgment could not. Positive reinforcement… tech-style.

I’ve done a good amount of professional recording. I’ve sat in a playback booth and enjoyed asking the engineer if he could lift that one note just a skosh.  Reverberation is right up there with the metronome as my friend. In recording the piece for the wedding we used excellent mics and equipment. I sat very still while Paul surrounded my cello with microphones and I did my best to put myself into a mental state in which none of it existed. With the equipment on, I played the piece a few times so that we could get the sound of the instrument as natural as possible in an unnatural situation. We recorded take number one which went well.  I put the cello down and donned the headphones to listen to the playback. It was rich and warm..but why didn’t I connect those final phrases?… Let’s do it again.

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Next take- rich, warm, connected...but don’t you think that E seems a little flat at the end?  Again.

You get my point. Apparently recording is over only when the headphones are pried from your ears.

Sitting at the wedding I smiled through tears at our four sons standing up front. The wedding planner gave the cue and the DJ began to play my recording.

I think it was good...they tell me it was. I don’t know - it’s difficult to hear with your hands pressed against your ears.

 

Melissa Perley

Musicians Farming Sheep IV. Arrival

Our sheep arrived yesterday morning in the same horse trailer but separate trips. The first crew was due to arrive between 10:30-11:00. The phone rang around 11:15 and Kimberly told us that “things weren’t quite going as planned..” What wasn’t planned was that one of the sheep had decided that she didn’t really feel like ubering to our place so jumped the fence not once, not twice, but three times.

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Kimberly arrived a little after noon a little sweaty. Paul and I had spent the morning running electronet on each side of the walk way from the driveway to the first paddock, their red-carpet of sorts. Kimberly opened the double doors on the back of the trailer and, after a moments hesitation, out stepped the first sheep. She was, and remains, the leader of the flock. Once she was out the others, deciding it was better to be with the devil you know than the devil you don’t, clamored out after her. There they stood, mashed together, one body, five heads.

Immediately understanding fence philosophy, they began to walk down toward the paddock. We all walked sedately behind them. Sam and Bronte pouted inside the house feeling quite put out that there were, quite obviously, sheep arriving and they weren’t allowed to have any part of it. The sheep proceeded, en mass, without hesitation directly into the first paddock. We humans all gawked at each other in disbelief because we had imagined and prepared for some wrangling. (I think Paul was a bit disappointed that there was no wrangling)

Several times during the afternoon I feigned needing to “get something from the lower shop” just to stand at the gate and watch them. They immediately found the basswood tree and hunkered underneath it out of the sun. The third trip I found the lead ewe sprawled out in the shade - way too relaxed for having just arrived and it occurred to me that I may have already killed her. But no...she was, again, napping.

Around 7pm we got a call from Bruce saying that the second set of two sheep would be arriving within the next half hour, same trailer, different sheep.

We had left the runway fence in place and waited while Bruce unhooked the latch on the double doors. These two were vocalizing up an indignant storm. The door swung open, we all stood back, and waited. Indignant, perhaps, but not stupid. So Bruce used a bit of cajoling to entice them out of the trailer. One they hit the ground they didn’t stop: leaning into one another, they cornered the lower road and zipped into the paddock.

We shut the gate feeling a little smug about how easily it had all gone while Bruce rested on his elbows and waited. Sure enough, after a few minutes the playground got ugly. The newbies are yearlings and a bit smaller than the first five thugs. Apparently, in sheep world, pecking order is established by a lot of head butting. Those smaller ewes tried checking out the water trough only to be banged, bumper-car style, out of there. I stood and watched as one of the first arrival Black Mountain Welsh sheep totally betrayed her own and made a run for the little one, pretty much just for the fun of it. Interestingly, the matriarch/monarch paid no attention and contentedly kept chewing, apparently ruminating on what was going on around her.

As a mother of four sons, I understood this behavior better than as well as most. One of my sons broke a pool cue over the other’s back once...I got this. But something about those little ewes running around trying to evade another whack while furiously and futiley calling for help...got me. I tried clapping, using my best mother-corrector voice, and banging the gate. To no avail. Bruce explained that it was normal, this is how sheep figure things out, it would be better by tomorrow. “If they survive it,” I thought. He smiled, piled into his truck, waved and was gone.

Paul and I stood there in his dust, listening to the bellowing below us and were incredulous that anyone would leave sheep with us. It reminded me of leaving the hospital with my first son, standing next to the car as the nurse handed him to me to put into the car seat. “Are there instructions?” I asked. She laughed, and spun the wheelchair around fast and was gone.

Darkness finally brought silence.

At first light I was down the hill in my pajamas to see if they had lived through the night. I stood at the gate and counted six sheep. Wait...six sheep...until from around the corner, on the other side of the fence came number seven. The Dorset newbie. For a second my mind wouldn’t grasp that she was on the outside of the fence. The outside. I quickly walked the fence line looking for a gaping hole or something, but no, electricity pulsed normally and the fence was intact. Either one of the thugs had thrown her over or she had leaped. I wasn’t upset, I really couldn’t blame her. I walked over to the fence and lifted it up from the bottom: we locked eyes as she decided in or out. Finally she trotted in as if to say “my decision” and joined the, amazingly unified, flock.

I ran down today between lessons to find the group splayed out in the shade snoring lightly. I noticed that the newbies were tucked into the center of them all. I tiptoed away from the gate, started back up the hill and stopped to look back at them. The smell of farm carried past me on the summer breeze.

I realized that our life remains the same and yet is totally different. Exactly the way we wanted it.


Melissa Perley

Surprise

Summer is in full bloom now. As I drive down our dirt road, the maples reach overhead to join hands with the trees on the opposite side creating a lush arch lining our way home. Running errands downtown, the temperature in my car reads 83. As I rumble down the lane into the shade of the trees, the temperature now reads a cool 74.

We have Sam’s pool on the deck. Anytime he has finished working he races up the hill and leaps into his pool where he takes a moment to lie still and relish the cool water before lifting each front paw, one after the other, then dropping each hard enough to generate a big splash that gives him a delighted facefull. He repeats this acrobatic feat making him the first pup to graduate from dog paddle to full-on crawl.

In the warm months my teaching schedule relaxes a bit. In order to give people the chance to enjoy their summer trips and vacations I switch from a set weekly schedule to a sign up sheet. Old school, it sits on the dining room table and offers the times I am available to teach. Everyone can make the decision to come weekly, bi-weekly, twice weekly or...non-weekly. The side effect of not seeing everyone regularly is that I lose some of the connection to their daily lives.

Audrey will study less frequently in the summer but will come in a few times. Now that she drives herself, her schedule is more her own. Early in the summer she asked me if I would be free a certain date in July to play at the local library. It seemed there is a senior program offered. Because she is a library volunteer, and the program head knew that she played the cello, it seemed that music would make a nice addition to the event. Unfortunately I was going to be away during the time she needed a duet partner. When I got her email with the request and knowing I wasn’t going to be able to do it, my first thought was that she would not do it either. It is one thing to sit beside your teacher and play, entirely another to play solo for an hour (even I mouthed, “an hour??”)

I have taught Audrey since she was in fourth grade. She is lovely, talented and an accomplished cellist - she is also rather shy.

While at the lake I received an email from a musical friend who told me that she had gone to the library program and had seen Audrey play. She went into detail about what she had played and what she had spoken about. Her final comment was “I told Audrey that I felt very lucky to just know her.”

As I sat reading the email I felt that wonderful feeling you get when you are aware that something really special has happened. What had happened was Audrey had come into her own.

There are many things that can be taught; reading music, technique and even interpretation, but what you cannot teach is how powerful it is to use the gift of music to help other people. We suggest it, we even require it at certain points, but here was a situation where Audrey had an easy “out” and chose not to take it. She chose to step forward, use her beautiful sound to help, heal and delight others without the promise of any payback.

It is the purest reason why we learn, play, perform. It is the purest reason why I teach.

Melissa Perley

Musicians Farming Sheep 3

It has been fun thinking, talking, prepping for sheep - but, as the time draws closer for the gang of ladies to actually arrive it’s time to get down to business.

The gates that open into the paddocks are in place - at the moment you can simply walk around them because the fencing is not up but…

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Last week Kimberly, who is the pasture person from the UVM extension service and is also the woman from whom we are buying the sheep came at our request to check out the pasture and give advice on fence placement, etc. We put on our Mucks, giving her the impression that we had knee-deep pasture at this point, and headed down the road to the back field. Our border collies, Sam and Bronte galloped along beside us, perhaps in anticipation of sheep, or perhaps a tennis ball.  Either would do.

We wandered around the still-empty paddocks gesturing where the ladies would lunch. Since we are rotationally grazing they will move from restaurant to restaurant every three days. Kimberly told us about what plants were in our fields including sweet clover, wild strawberries, and warned us off touching a few of the wild parsnip plants peeking tentatively (as if hiding) out of the heavier underbrush. Apparently touching them gives you a third degree burn. As we finished she told us two things; that there was the possibility of another sheep, a Dorset cross yearling, to add to the group, making our starting line-up six instead of five, and that we should wait an extra week or so for the gals to arrive to give our pasture more time to “mature.” We were a bit deflated at the news: as former-mowers, our newly grown grass surely qualified as a field by now?

“The book” talked about moving ovines from one field to another and what that takes. One of our concerns was taking them off pasture that they have spent their lives grazing and moving them to new, possibly richer (that is my ego talking) grasses. We decided it might be a good idea to drop some hay for them to fill up on before releasing them into the new field… good plan… if you have hay.

I quickly called my hay dealer, Hillard, about getting a couple of bales. I use the term ‘dealer’ because what I have quickly learned is that good hay, any hay, is a precious commodity especially this year with our cool, rainy spring so my job is to make friends with Hillard. Upon calling he told me he had some very nice first cut hay: second cut would not be ready until sometime in August, if we were lucky. So I made plans to go over there the next afternoon to pick up two bales.

I arrived at 1:30 in the heat of the afternoon. It was a rare sunny, warm, early summer day. I knocked on the door and Linda, Hillard’s wife, greeted me. She was getting ready to head up into their hay fields to help with the haying so was adjusting her bucket hat as she walked out the door. We stood in the sunshine and chatted about the history of the farm. Hillard has been on this farm since he was five years old and is now seventy eight. At one time they milked over ninety head of cattle but arthritis has slowed him down and now his farming mainly consists of haying.

As we spoke she mentioned someone who had just left before me and was buying a load of hay for a start-up sheep-farming operation. She laughed as she told me that the man didn’t even know how to load his own hay and that Hillard had to do it for him. I swallowed hard as I looked over at the standing hay wagon and quickly tried to decipher what would be the tricky parts about taking hay off that wagon so that I would not suffer the same fate.

After we finished chatting a while (good farm etiquette I’ve found) it was time for the hay to be loaded into my trusty wagon- the CRV hay wagon. She offered to have someone help me but I quickly shrieked “No, no, I’ve got this!” way louder than necessary. So I began to climb up onto the bed, easier said than done if you have worn a skirt and flip flops as your farming attire. One knee, pull… other knee… pull… careful not to flash the farm family, up I go. Finally I get up there, say a small prayer that the two bales won’t be crazy-heavy, and haul them up by their twine. I throw them off the wagon and hop down. By now I am totally covered with hay but have a unique understanding of why you feed wool sheep that are standing up so that they don’t get hay stuck in their fleece. I’m careful not to brush myself off at all as I push the hay into the car. I have that casual, confident air of someone who has no sense of confidence whatsoever. I, literally, stuff the hay into the back- it’s a little large for the available space but, embarrassed that I’m not driving a truck AND that I’m dressed in a skirt and flip flops, I make sure that back hatch door closes, no matter how that happens.

Breathing hard I smile, pay her (“Bingo money”) she laughs, “blood money” I mumble, and I climb into my farm car to head home. The whole trip I’m thinking about how I’m going to get an entire winter’s worth of hay into my CRV… .and, of course, what I’m going to wear.

Melissa Perley

Saying Goodbye

The run-up to spring recital is always chaotic. Normally there are about six weeks of lessons focused on recital work, rehearsals with Eliza, our wonderful, kind and patient accompanist here at the studio, programs to write, space to rent, lemonade and cake, always the cake. This season there is the added chajoy (chaos + joy) of having three seniors graduating. So now there is corralling added to the mix. Corralling seniors to rehearse a duet is like herding cats. Even when the commotion stops for a minute, there is a buzz of activity in our ears.

Ella started with me when she was about eight years old. She was at the Waldorf school where I already had several students. She was tiny with dark hair. She would look up at me with the solemn demeanor of a traffic cop. I remember her lessons were filled with my emotional juggling trying to get her to crack, give me a smile, a ticket...something.

She was always musically talented and could pick things up quickly. As she moved into being a tween there were times when she felt that her pretty sharp sight-reading skills might pass for actually having practiced...but between her having a savvy musical mom and myself we came through that stage.

When she entered high school she really came into her own musically. She played several instruments as a favor to the band instructor as well as continuing to study the cello. Suddenly doing well began to matter to her, not just me. Lessons that had been filled with cajoling became filled with...well more cajoling but now there was a grudging acceptance of it due to the newfound knowledge that work actually works!

We’d sit a minute at the start of each lesson and catch up - acknowledging that within each young musician there also lies a life filled with boyfriends and breakups and prom. At the end of each lesson there was a hug goodbye. In the early years that hug was a side hug hanging heavily off my side. But, as time progressed I’d find her standing in the hall waiting - the hug became the release and the reassurance.

I’ve raised four sons. Stood in the parking lot of several colleges and watched them walk away from the car and into their futures. Part of my job, as a parent, as a teacher, is to know when the time has come for them to make that walk.

I really hate that part.

In prepping students in performance skills, I teach them to vibrate their final note long past the finish of the piece. This is so that the sound continues to vibrate as it slowly dissipates into the air.

Or maybe it is really because I just don’t want the sound to end.

Melissa Perley

Musicians Farming Sheep Too (II)

The spring recital went beautifully, everyone performed well, whether they felt that way or not. And so disregarding the calendar, summer begins for us. I start teaching a summer schedule this week and taking more time to enjoy the beautiful Vermont weather...and continue on the road to owning sheep.

Because I have our border collies, Sam and Bronte, who I train at various friend’s sheep farms, I have access to tons of valuable information about buying/owning sheep. I have been wisely advised to join the Vermont Sheep and Goat association (I would join just for the sticker alone) and after chatting with my friend, Google, have been able to find many opportunities to learn more about our new endeavor.

Paul and I are signed up for a pasturing course through the University Of Vermont extension service. Good pasture = happy sheep. We are learning about soil quality, rotational grazing and basic anatomy of our ovines.

“Living With Sheep” was recommended to me and I am reading it religiously for the second time. I find (and annoy) myself beginning (too many) sentences with “the BOOK says.” The author has written a book intended to show us that owning/raising sheep is really pretty simple. I remind myself of this as I begin the chapter titled “The Four Concentric Circles of Fencing.” Paul often wakes up early and looks over at me, my glasses perched and nose pressed into “the book.”

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Yesterday I went to the farm of a woman from the extension service who is retiring from farming sheep. In our (many) conversations via email in which she kindly (and patiently) answered our questions, she also told me that she had some wool sheep for sale. Sam, Bronte and I took a trip to her place to ask (more) questions and to be sure that we were able to herd these particular sheep. My border collies are very good at their jobs, but we have, on occasion, bumped into breeds that confound even my older, wiser, dog, Sam. Fortunately, both young and old collie were able to convince the sheep to take a stroll up to me on the hill. This was good news for everyone. At the end of the afternoon we decided to purchase 2 Black Welsh Mountain and 3 Dorset Cross. They are wool sheep and Kimberly showed me a couple beautiful rugs that they had contributed to. At this moment they are wandering around her fields quite naked as shearing season has come and gone. As I directed the dogs in the pasture it seemed the sheep ran past me quite quickly - I’m pretty sure the nakedness had something to do with it.

Today, with both steely preparedness and giddy anticipation Paul and I put lime pellets on our field to enhance the pasture (formally known as the lawn). Picture it...Paul is driving our ATV with our homemade (think Beverly Hillbillies) wood wagon attached to the back with yours truly standing, precariously in it tossing lime onto the pasture. Sam and Bronte enjoyed leaping in and out of the wagon as we rolled along. With my blue garden gloves on I think we looked rather like a regal royal parade going back and forth. We have no idea if this spreading will actually do any good but we felt very good doing it.

We have mapped out our pastures for rotating grazing and will tackle fencing next.

There continue to be many moments of apprehension joining anticipation. I woke up early with a slightly queasy stomach at the thought of this new stuff. However, as I told my students in their (preparation for the recital, fear is a real part of challenges. It’s important to acknowledge it, even welcome it for a brief visit and then send it on it’s way.

I’m reminding myself that everyone feels the fear in tackling something new and foreign to them and wants desperately to stop, to go back to what feels “normal” to them, but it is the brave of heart who face that fear and simply move forward anyway.

Here we go.

Melissa Perley



Musicians Farming Sheep

My dad tells the story (a lot) of my being a child and communing with animals. He remembers me coming home with the neighbor’s dog, a stick wedged into his collar and my telling my father that this dog was surely lost and surely we should keep it.

Each time we would take a Sunday drive I felt it necessary to announce “HORSE” every time I would spot one. Obsessed would not be too strong a word.

Neither of my parents were animal lovers and my sister was terrified of dogs. Needless to say, it took some time for me to convince/cajole them into letting me have a dog of my own. But, once I began that journey...I have never been without one.

For a few years now I have sacrificed some cello practice time for competitive herding at sheep dog trials with my border collies, Sam and Bronte. What I love most about doing this is developing inter- species communication. This is something that requires not only my skills at giving appropriate commands but, perhaps even more, it requires the development of my skills in listening to my dogs and letting them tell me what should happen next.

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We’ve done all of our herding practice work on various kind friends’ sheep farms. But Paul and I have made the decision to bring sheep on to our property.

This decision is really not about working toward trialing. It is a decision about using our land for something more than mowing. It is about developing parts of ourselves that we have not yet met, it is about going bucolic!

We had a company come out and give us an estimate on what it would cost to have the desired pasture land fenced and gated. Their estimate was nine thousand dollars. It stopped us in our tracks. We know that we need to begin with fencing but there will also be the cost of building a small barn, all of the necessary equipment, as well as purchasing the eight to ten sheep we intend to begin with. Interestingly, I have been the one pausing, coming up with excuses as to why maybe this isn’t such a good idea. But Paul rescues the plan each and every time: clearly, while he is not actually doing the herding, he has the heart of a shepherd.

We put an ad in both Front Porch Forum and Craig’s List asking if anyone had sheep fencing materials that we could buy for a reasonable amount. I am now changing the adage “If you build it, they will come..” to “If you want to build it...they will come.”

Today Paul, Josh and I made the two plus hour drive to Pawlet, Vermont to pick up two hundred and fifty wooden fencing stakes, a post driver and mallet, electric fence charger, five metal gates, various fittings, a bucket of twisty things (that’s sheep-tech talk) and an enormous hay feeder that looks very much like a circus ring. We had to rent a trailer to pick these things up and had to drive home under sixty because there was so much weight in the trailer. To say we are all in is an understatement.

In Pawlet we had to decide what things we needed and drag them over to the trailer. We loaded the trailer there for the trip home. Once home, we emptied the trailer in our driveway in a blistering fifteen minutes as it was due back a the rental spot post haste. We then had to load our own trailer pulled behind our ATV and make several trips up and down the hill to where we are storing fencing stuff. At the bottom of that hill we had to unload (again) that stuff. That made us feel strong, like it was the true beginning for our new adventure, like we were farming. We worked shoulder to shoulder in total silence, not because it was hard (it was), not because we are stoic (we aren’t) but because we knew every time we opened our mouths we would eat another black fly.

And so, tonight I look out the window at the start of it all. Rain is falling on our fencing which makes me feel like it is really ours now, as if whatever newness is being washed off. Paul is going to help me pull the slivers out of my fingers and we will sit and contemplate what comes next.

Don’t you just love beginnings?

To be continued…..(from time to time)

Melissa

Fear Factor

Spring has sprung. I can say that with assurance, not because I have tulips and daffodils opening in my garden, not because the mud has (finally) dried up and not because the evening sky is that beautiful pale blue with streaks of ivory as the first stars appear, and not because, after weeks of watching the leaves sit quietly tucked in on themselves waiting like the rest of us for a strong sun followed by a good spring rain, they have thrown caution to the north wind and truly unfurled. Even that is not sign enough of spring for me….I’m waiting...waiting for the black flies. I know it is spring when they appear in clusters as I walk the dogs up the road. I don’t need the leash for my dogs but rather as a swatting tool. My ego embarrasses me by not letting me put on one of the head nets that I gave both Paul and Josh, I’m then embarrassed by my embarrassment. There seems to be one day that acts as “hatch-day.” Tuesday, no black flies, Wednesday, all in. No need for any extra sources of protein when you swallow multiple black flies daily.

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For us, other rites of spring are orchestra auditions and our student recital. Although very separate endeavors, preparation for both brings forth one common emotion; fear.

They say that you can smell fear, taste fear and we know that we can see fear, but musicians can also hear fear. The moment I mention the “R” word it begins. Everyone in the studio chooses a piece of music months in advance and begins preparing for recital. This season I have a few new students that, while not new to the cello, are relatively new to the recital experience.

Fear = Insecurity. While perhaps not algebraic, it is a truth. Another truth is Fear = Carefulness so, looking at this further, perhaps Fear = Insecurity + Carefulness, which would be closer to algebraic. Fear shows itself in so many ways; playing with a tuner on, checking each note against an open string (you know someone is really afraid when, in the middle of a piece, he is checking a note against an open string and it is a note that doesn’t have an open string….) and maybe most prevalent, playing quietly and playing quickly. It seems reasonable that, when feeling afraid, a player would play quietly - not calling attention to themselves, avoiding risky runs and high positions. Interestingly however, the act of suddenly playing quietly only serves to make me pay more attention to what a player is doing. I try hard to avoid cupping one ear and shrieking “eh?” to get my point across.

What also happens when someone is feeling insecure is that they push the tempo. Nothing screams “help me” like someone playing sixteenth notes in double time. Unless, of course, they are playing those same sixteenth notes in fourth position or higher…

I believe that people come to the cello for a reason. After they have been studying for a while, that reason becomes apparent. For some it is to find a way to express or acknowledge deep-felt emotions, to find that other language to speak in, for others it is to connect to something meaningful outside of their day-to-day lives. But almost always people are looking for something. One of the great joys of teaching is helping people excavate. Often what I find on this journey together is that people are tired of feeling afraid. It’s easier, safer, but ultimately exhausting. They are relieved to take hold of the rope thrown to them and as we work together I can feel them begin to tug on the rope- asking me to let them pull themselves to shore. Not only can I feel that, I can see it and I can hear it. Moving forward, away from fear people develop a “what the heck” attitude. They are able to realize that making a mistake is not only inevitable but invited in any learning process worth something, and that it’s always better to make a big mistake than to be careful.

Careful sounds careful.

It’s spring- confidence is a beautiful thing to watch grow, like tulips- and clouds of black flies.


Melissa Perley

Moms

Paul and I have just returned from eleven days in England. England at the end of April can be showery but, you don’t have to shovel it and you don’t get stuck in it so it seemed perfect to us.

The hotel that we were staying in while in the Cotswold's had over one hundred acres of open farm land that they let a neighboring farmer graze his sheep on. Each evening after returning from traveling we would, carefully, cross the road into the field. You can take the girl out of the farm …

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We’d begin the trek up the path made by the wandering flock. Traversing the hill we trudged, heads down so that we could try to avoid the sticky black piles. As we neared the top and lifted our eyes, looking back at us with expressions of mixed curiosity and disdain were approximately seventy-five ewes with their bouncing babies. When I use the term “bouncing” I mean literal bouncing going on.

Paul and I stood quietly enough that the moms returned to their grazing. The lambs, like any self-respecting kid, took that as a green flag for playing to begin. One moment they would be looking at us quizzically, ears completely horizontal to their heads. The next second they would levitate from a full standing position. Their fuzz-covered, thick little legs propelling them upward with a spring that could only be compared to a jack-in-the-box. Off they would run as fast as they could, their mirror-image twin right beside them.

Clumps of them would congregate; little gangs we said. Sometimes a nibble of grass, often a head butt to a gang member for good measure.

If we took two steps too close, suddenly the mother’s heads would pop up and they would quickly glare at us while calling for their wayward youngsters.

Paul patiently stood on the hillside, thoughts of resuming our walk rapidly dwindling along with the daylight. I was transfixed by the scene. Somewhere primal I recognized those mother/child interactions: knowing the feeling of suddenly realizing that your child has drifted out of sight. You try to contain the panic in your voice as you bellow, “EEEEEETTTHHAN” for the tenth time. Ethan, in the meantime, is busy racing the other lambs to the rock. However, if the perceived danger gets one step too close, even Ethan bolts for mom.

What amazed me is how fast those moms and babes could reunite. Everybody was wearing wool yet, somehow, kids found moms and moms found kids - maternal magic I suppose.

One evening we were back and watching the scene, (“again,” Paul interjects as I write this) and the moms began the round-up on our approach. Fast, furious, fur-balls zipped to their mothers sides. When they would reach her they would both, literally, ram their heads toward her udder lifting her back legs up off the ground. Moms being moms, she would simply continue to chew the remaining grass in their mouths.

There was one ewe who was continuing to yell even after everyone had gathered. She would bleat once, look around a bit and then, with the same note (this was a musical trip, after all) bleat again.

No lamb.

This bothered me terribly. Paul, sensing a camp-out in his near future, assured me that mom and tot would soon reunite.

As we walked, reluctantly, down the hill in the twilight, I could hear her continuing to call, as I knew she would.

All but one of my own lambs live away from home now. They are all happy and healthy but, once in a while, I can’t help but stand on our hillside and bellow hopefully for them to come home.

To all of you fellow bellowers - Happy Mother’s Day.

Melissa

Time To Get Messy

I find myself running to the window if I happen to hear a car drive by. The curiosity not so much about the fact that there even is a car going by on our dead end road but rather: will that car actually turn around and come back past us or will it disappear into the Berlin Pond Triangle...made entirely of mud?

The fifth season of our year has descended upon us. We still have six foot snowbanks but the stream has broken free and there is also a constant rivulet racing down the road. Spring may be in the air..not so much on the ground.

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In our house we have stowed away all irrelevant footwear. Left standing is the trusty Muck boot. I was running errands in downtown Montpelier yesterday and made note of the fact that every single person I saw was wearing mud boots. Mud boots with work skirts, suits and ties, mud boots on babies who can’t even walk and one man passed me wearing shorts (dreamer), a wool jacket (realist) and….mud boots.

It is one of the reasons I love living here.

Like those who climb Everest, we are proud of our ability to survive mud season. In grocery stores and coffee shops you can overhear conversations about who has the worst mud on their road. Living on a dirt road gives you some bragging rights. If the mud on your road went half way up your tires... well on our road our car sunk to it’s floor boards! And so on...I kindly warn students coming to weekly lessons about the road conditions and suggest that they “think high” when choosing the vehicle. It becomes a form of entertainment for us to watch someone in a Prius (it’s mud season- we need entertainment)

I have friends who suffer from lack of sunlight during the long winters of the Northeast. We have had snow on the ground this year since mid November. Temperatures rarely reached freezing and were more likely found in the negative digits this winter. I understand why friends feel the four walls of their homes beginning to lean in on them. I write this in hushed tones, but I love winter, I love bundling up and walking the dogs, fires in the wood stove, wool blankets- all of it. But I admit, I have had to work through some of my challenges with mud.

When I am wiping dogs paws for the tenth time by eleven in the morning, it feels like I've reached breaking point. But it's like being out in the pouring rain- at some point you can't get any wetter and you begin to accept. I haul on the Muck boots, walk the wooden planks that Paul has carefully placed along the walkway to the front door, climb into the, unrecognizable as such, car, which smells like mud inside. I put Shostakovitch into the CD player (yes, CD player) and meander down the road. When the wheel first begins to yank to and fro as I hit the ruts I rail at the road, at the mud, at the neighbor’s dog who is just standing on the side of the road, but then something happens, I begin to realize that if I simply slow down (challenge for me), breathe and keep going I will get to my destination, I will get there. The ruts remain rutted but I will hit pavement eventually. The mud remains mucky but history tells me that it will dry up and the snowdrops will peek their little white heads out of the ground to see if it is safe to make a full appearance. My dogs will continue to race into the house before we have the chance to grab their foot towel but, if I breathe, I remember that this, too, shall pass and they will be racing into the house soaking wet from swimming.

And so I continue on this journey, much like the journey with the cello, following my rutted path. It is, after all, mud season, the perfect time to be messy.


Melissa Perley

Muscling

The calendar flipped to the month of Spring a few days ago. Today I was out walking the dogs down the still frozen dirt road, still frozen and icy dirt road. As I trudged uphill I could hear the chickadees chattering in the bare trees- flitting back and forth to my neighbor’s feeder then tucking themselves into the conifers to sit, split seeds and watch over the dogs carefully. It was the only sign of spring visible as I neared the crest of the road and the northern wind found me. My being without a hat, a nod to “spring”, frozen ears, a nod to winter.

I’d spent some of my morning in conversation with a string-player friend who was struggling with tendinitis, a common injury among us. It is an ailment that can be brought on/aggravated by frequent use or, especially in early players, by working too hard.

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What is infrequent is the number of times you’ll hear an instructor tell you not to work too hard. However, at the very center of playing a stringed instrument is the question, “how much muscle is too much?” This issue comes up the first time you put a cello (let’s say) into your hands. Once you have been green lighted for using a bow vs pizzicato, there is the great temptation to play twenty three out of twenty four hours a day. You run to your instrument first thing in the morning, play for a while, get up, do some work, walk past the cello and suddenly you are seduced by all of that beautiful flame...so you sit down, play again for a bit...but, because you are new at holding the bow (not like your fork, your pen, your paintbrush, screwdriver, steering wheel….) your hand decides the only way to make this thing do what you want is to grab it but good, herein after known as the “club grip.” That grip, in itself, causes tension on your elbow because of the position it bends your wrist into. So, using that incorrect club grip twenty three out of twenty four hours per days adds up to that elbow seeing a lot of unwarranted action. You find that while writing a check, the simple act of using the pen causes you pain as if writing the check itself is not pain enough it seems.

Your instructor continues to have you hover your right hand over the bow, take a deep, cleansing breath and, very zen-like, release the hand down onto the bow then slide it into the long-explained (herein after known as hated) position. Watching yourself in a mirror, every time you see your hand sneak back into the more comfortable, easy and incorrect position...you stop that sweet business and begin again.

And you progress.

Now you are able to use your bow regularly with the correct grip. You work, feed your family and get dressed as well as play the cello. You begin to play pieces and find that once in a while you recognize them as such. However, in that same practice mirror, the Evil Queen looks back at you as you play and chastises “That right elbow IS always bent….you DO look like a pirate hoisting a mug!” “There is so much going on,” you retort, “sixteenth notes, dotted rhythms, staccato, legato- who can open their elbow while bowing at the same time as trying to read that micro-printed music?” So your brain focuses so hard on reading and your still pirate-y right arm reacts by mirroring that effort- pushing even harder to hoist that mug.

The next day you find that trying to lift your dog into the bathtub, because of the freakishly early mud season in February, is not only painful in your elbow but now your shoulder is belly-aching as well.

Time off the instrument takes heat off the joints...for a while.

And you progress.

After a long period of studying you find that you are able to use your bow with much greater relaxation. There is even a glimmer of flex in your right wrist. This all works very well as long as you are playing pieces that are familiar or well within your ability range. But the mountain of progress only goes in one direction...up. New pieces with new challenges are placed on your music stand. You find that you have to use crampons to climb this mountain. Your instructor notices that both right and left hands are, indeed, working in tandem...working together at literally pushing this boulder up the mountain! You give a little “oomph” of effort while putting down the notes with your left hand and a little “arrrgh” of effort as you push the bow up. (Casals did it, right?)

Your instructor notes that it is winter and the strings are actually almost touching the fingerboard...can it really take that much effort to put them down.

The effort...the effort. It seems that in almost every other endeavor extra effort is rewarded. In bike racing it is what wins the Tour De France.

In playing the cello, I like to call muscling the “anti-cello.” The still fascinating thing to me is what that requires of us. Recently music that I was working up for a performance had some super fast runs that were apparently written for a player with bionic fingers...but I persevered. I practiced them slowly, I broke the runs apart, I named the notes and intervals in my mind and I swore. At the end of my practice sessions I noticed my right elbow was cranky and it struck me; the exertion of my brain was directly proportionate to the exertion in my right arm/hand. When I sat down again I took a moment to focus my brain, to let the notes come to me slowly, no matter how fast I was playing and I took note that the bow had begun to drop into my hand vs my trying to manipulate it. Suddenly things were much easier to manage.

Part of learning to play this instrument, perhaps all instruments, is learning to center ourselves. Performance, especially, requires us to be still within ourselves in the midst of chaos. Our brains have to delegate responsibility to our right and left hands and then leave them alone, trusting that they can do the job without too much interference. After all, isn't delegation at the very heart of all success?

Homing From Work

It was one of those perfect winter days in Vermont; the snow had been falling all night and was continuing into the morning, the flakes coming down so hard it looked like a scrim passing over the landscape. I looked out at the thermometer which read ten degrees. Our picnic table bore a bowler hat of white. When I say it was one of those perfect days it was, in part, because we didn’t have to drive to work in the storm. I sat at the counter in our kitchen with a cup of peppermint tea and watched it unfold. Warm next to the wood stove, our dogs splayed at my slippered feet, I let it be.

When we kiss each other “goodbye” in the morning Paul's commute is about 30 yards to the cello shop while mine is a no-boot-required 20 feet to the studio.

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I have friends and family on both sides- those who work in an office-type setting and those who work from home. Not that long ago the only people who worked from home were moms and/or artists. Finally the workplace is beginning to catch up, realizing that there are many ways to get things done and many spaces that people can get work done from. The benefits of a happy worker are becoming more and more apparent to companies. Now people work from their computers at home. I know several people whose home office is a plane ride away. For a weekly online meeting the top half of them is in presentable office- fashion while their bottom half sits comfortably in baggy sweats and all is well. On the other hand they not only don't share lunch with their co-workers, they often don't even know what their co-workers look like.

When you work solely for yourself you not only dictate the hours of your business but you also dictate the philosophy and the execution of it. When someone calls Paul Perley Cellos they always speak with one of the owners of the company - someone invested in its success which means someone invested in the satisfaction of that customer. Now, like with the weekly online meeting attire, the fact that we are in our kitchen means that you might be talking cellos with me while I'm washing dishes in my pajamas.

This, of course, is the double edge of the sword. Working for yourself you are the sole provider of your income. There is no 401K plan, no vacation or sick time, no dental plan, heck, no insurance and... no set hours. I might decide not to begin working until noon on a certain day that I have a dental or car appointment but I don't get paid for the hours that I don't work and I have to make up for it somewhere which means when people are sent home from work because of that snowstorm we talked about, their day is done. Mine is not. If there are students needing help via email, my practice, or phone calls at 8pm- I'm working. In my pajamas again, but I am working. If we get a call from someone who would like to look at an instrument and can only come on a Sunday...odds are good that we'll make that happen because we won't get that sale unless we work when there is work. We believe in the farming adage 'making hay while the sun shines.'

Flip it again though and we see that while there are no retirement accounts, sick or vacation days, there is also nobody who will downsize our business unless it is one of us. If one of our kids was sick when they were in school, there were no daycare hassles and we made every basketball game. If it has been raining all week and the sun suddenly comes out - so do the bikes. In the summer we might be talking shop but our feet are in sand, our mouths full of crackers and cheese.

The bottom line is that the people we have to trust are us. When you choose to work for yourselves there has to be confidence in your ability to take care of things because we are the bottom line. Fortunately that is our strong suit (and the only suit you will see us in): Paul and I have faith in us. We share the philosophy that a good business is built on the trust between the customer and the shop.

Cello Blogs

I know it is a rare thing for a happily married couple to also be happily married business partners. So many of my friends choke on their salads at the idea of working with their partners. It does give a whole new meaning to Yin and Yang. It works for us because we really do enjoy being together- but we also recognize that we bring very different things to the table. Paul is a wonderful negotiator, he is fair, kind and is able to see all sides. I can run out of patience more easily (I can hear you kids…): if I'm not doing well in Backgammon, I tend to tip the board over. However, if someone has “forgotten” to pay us rent on an instrument or needs to be “reminded” that they owe us for a repair...I'm your gal!! Yin and Yang.

In the end we realize that, as my sister so aptly puts it, “we only get one spin at the dance.” We get one chance at following our true passions and creating our own destiny. When someone says “I'd love to work for myself, but what about security?” We’ve seen too often that security is a myth. Every day we hear of companies laying off employees who have dedicated their entire adult working lives to that company. Years of retirement savings stolen from people just when they need them the most. My boss, while hard on me, is also fair and kind to me because my boss is me.

You can keep your gold watch and dental plans. We will probably always have to work, but the bonuses - all of them - really belong to us.

Melissa Perley

Competition

As I write this I am watching the snow pile up outside the studio door. The picnic table that houses a big bucket of geraniums in the summer wears a cap of white. Sam begs at the door to go outside only to turn around and, within minutes, push against the door to come right back in to lie on his side next to the woodstove. it was a good effort though.

Cello Blogs

A peaceful moment in an otherwise chaotic season. As we finish packing away the holiday lights and vacuuming the needles there is more than piles of snow at the studio door, the music competitions stand just outside waiting for our attention.

It is a challenging time of year for music students (and their teachers). For my studio there begins the preparation for the regional festivals, both middle and high school, as well as the All-State and New England music festivals which require auditions. Adding to it I have a winter recital. So it seems students are required to be All-Everythings.

I have a unique vantage point from both sides of these competitive auditions. I have to prepare students for them as well as being an adjudicator for one of them, A bit of a two-hat situation.

Preparation takes months. We begin working on audition scales in the fall so the work doesn’t all come crashing down just before the holidays. For some auditions you choose a piece from the list provided and for others you have to be prepared for a required piece or pieces.

I let the students make their own decision about competing. I am of two minds (which works well with two hats) about it all. On one hand just being part of music competitions and festivals looks wonderful on college applications. Also I believe that preparation of anything helps all of us learn how to bring out the very best in ourselves and to strive for excellence (thus my recitals). There really is no better reason that requires us to narrow down our focus on the details of playing. That said, I understand the difficulty in both the preparation as well as the actuality of auditioning; I have watched the bow of many capable cellists almost bounce off the strings in response to their extreme anxiety about the process.

Making music is an inherent part in teaching someone to play their instrument. As soon as possible I begin finishing a lesson with duets so that students feel the wonder of playing with another person. As a player progresses we weave musicality between layers of technique - never forgetting to express rather than simply mimic. So it has been challenging for me to present these ideologies in my studio while simultaneously asking them to come to a place where most of what matters is “winning.”

For the New England auditions there are only twelve cellists chosen. It seems to me that perhaps the most important part of the preparation process belongs to the teachers and parents of the auditioners. How to we respond if our student/child is not one of the twelve chosen? In the hours spent driving to lessons, listening to scales, being human metronomes, carrying around bags of pre-lesson snacks, how much of ourselves become entwined in the success of the student?

As teachers it is a great resume builder to have our cellists get into the events they audition for but how much time do we spend assuring our students that not only is it not imperative that they “make it” but they really don’t even have to audition if they would rather not.

This is a hard world in which to be a child. What kids need to succeed is a sense of self esteem that will help them believe that they are capable and worthy not only as little-leaguers, soccer stars or concert musicians but simply as people. It is here where we, as parents and educators need to focus our time and attention.

Maybe our musician is completely contented in concertizing for the stuffed animals in her bedroom.
Success can have many definitions.


Melissa Perley