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