Friday, April 30, 2010

Practice, practice, practice

I got to practice for 45 minutes tonight!

They weren't 45 consecutive minutes, but whatever.

My relationship with practicing has changed over time. As a kid I hated it. For the first three or four years I took piano lessons, my mother sat with me every night to make sure I didn't slack off. If not for her, I wouldn't have made it five minutes without abandoning whatever I was working on to plink out something much easier.

She had to prod me into doing anything that challenged me, like, say, playing a piece with both hands at the same time after I'd learned to play the left- and right-hand parts separately.

Putting the hands together sucked. I didn't like that at all.

Eventually I could handle practicing without my mom looking over my shoulder. Sometimes I'd even find a groove. Practicing a leap over and over again, contemplating the smallness of this act within the immensity of the universe, was the closest I've ever gotten to meditation. Despite these moments of grace, however, it was usually just boring.

Fast forward a couple decades and change. I have responsibilities. Lots. The world doesn't care whether I practice. The world throws many obstacles in my path when I try, obstacles that provide ample excuses not to bother.

The result? Practicing is less of a burden, more of a privilege. OK, there are still times when I come home from a long day at work, and the prospect of sitting down to do a different kind of work doesn't thrill me. But having to fight for the time to do nothing but improve my playing and singing makes me appreciate it a whole lot more.

45 minutes. Yay!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

She don't want to come, my soprano friend

Whitney Houston has been having difficulties with her vocals while dealing with a respiratory infection. During a recent concert in London, those difficulties came to a head.
Houston was obviously having trouble hitting the high notes, and eventually abandoned one of her big anthems, The Greatest Love of All, after a couple of verses ... Fans waited with baited breath for the show-stopper I Will Always Love You, but Houston was not able to manage a Hollywood ending, instead stumbling through it, and eventually telling the audience, "she don't want to come, my soprano friend."
(Full article here.)

As a snarky music lover, I can't help but think that Whitney Houston being unable to hit the high notes is not a bad thing. She has an amazing range. I admire her range. I wish I had her range. But, y'know, just because you can hit those high notes doesn't mean you should.

I'm just not a fan of the sound.

As a singer, though, I feel bad for Houston. What a nightmare.

When we have a gig, and I come down with something that seriously interferes with my ability to sing, we cancel the gig. But we've had that option because the few times it's happened, the gig in question was a coffeehouse atmosphere dealie. I've always wondered what the heck we'd do if I were hacking up a lung when 20 thousand people had bought tickets to see us.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy to be there

Gig at Old Town Artisans tonight went well. A couple of new friends showed up to hear us live for the first time. One of them liked the fact that even though we played some sad songs, I didn't act as though I was unhappy to be there. He specifically praised me for smiling at them.

Yet another data point.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Too late

Last night I rambled on about how I wrote "Everybody Knows About Me" after reading about the life of Joseph D. Greene. I told that story because it's a good story, but also because I wanted to thank him. He never knew that his book had influenced me in any way. I figured I'd drop him a line and give him the link.

I'd thought about doing something like this for years. I didn't before because I wanted to have something impressive to show him. Writing the song didn't seem like enough. Recording the song and releasing it during ME/CFS Awareness Week didn't seem like enough. Once the ME/CFS video featuring the song went live, though, I decided it was time.

You know where this is going, right? Yeah. In the search for his contact info, I found out that he'd died over two years ago.

Here's the obit.

I was stupid. All my reasons for waiting were stupid. I know as well as anybody that when you create something, anything, what you want to hear most is that it connected with somebody. He wouldn't have shrugged off the acknowledgment because I hadn't accomplished enough yet.

Next time I need to thank someone for nudging my life in a better direction, remind me not to wait.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ripple effect

When people ask why I wrote Everybody Knows About Me, our song about living with undiagnosed ME/CFS, I usually give the short version: I know somebody who has it.

The short story ought to be the whole story. I witnessed the suffering of a person who is very close to me. I saw how the prejudice around his disease compounded his suffering. Of course I would want to get his message out to the world in the best way I knew how.

And I did. It just happened a little more circuitously than that.

Back in 2005, I copyedited a book called From Cotton Fields to Board Rooms. It's a memoir by an African-American, Joseph D. Greene, who grew up in Georgia when blatant and brutal discrimination was taken for granted. Starting out with only $35 and a high school diploma in his pocket, he worked his way up the corporate ladder, earning a bachelor's degree and a master's degree along the way.

With what miniscule free time he had, he gave back to the community. He became the first black person to serve on dozens of governing boards. When stricken with cancer later in life, he became active in fundraising for a cure.

This man's life blew me away. With so little money, so little opportunity, and all of society conspiring to keep him a second-class citizen, he thrived. He made other people's lives better.

And what about me? Here was a cause staring me right in the face: thousands upon thousands of people crushed under the heels of a disease that few believed existed. What had I, the middle-class white girl from the suburbs, contributed to that cause? Nothing at all.

With all the resources and opportunities I had at my disposal, I should be Doing Something. I should found an organization! Form a committee! Raise money to find a cure for chronic fatigue syndrome!

(Back in 2005, I didn't know that there were other, better names for "chronic fatigue syndrome.")

When I tried to think of how I might found my organization or form my committee, I stalled out. I had no clue as to how one accomplished such things. I also couldn't quite see myself as the leader of this little movement. I'm not the kind of person that other people follow.

This rattled around in my head for a few days, and then something else occurred to me. Other CFS organizations already existed. Other fundraising efforts were already underway. It wasn't like I had some brilliant idea for raising money or awareness than they hadn't already thought of.

Finally, the part of me that's smarter than the rest of me spoke up.

You're not the type who does committees, it said. You write songs. Why don't you write a song?

Huh. Yeah.

It's funny to think about this now. Today it baffles me that I didn't write "Everybody Knows About Me" years earlier. The inspiration was right there. But the truth is, I wrote it when I did because someone with a greater sense of duty to his fellow humans jolted me out of my complacency.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

ME/CFS video

There's a new ME/CFS video up on YouTube. Members of the Phoenix Rising forum have been contributing pictures and ideas over the last several months to make this happen.

The video features "Everybody Knows About Me," Cinder Bridge's song about living with the disease. I am beyond flattered that they used it.

Pushback from WPI

Since the Whittemore Peterson Institute's discovery of a link between XMRV and ME/CFS in October, subsequent research teams have failed to replicate their findings. Some of the other researchers claim the discrepancy exists because of flaws in WPI's methods. Specifically, they say the WPI's subjects all came from the Incline Village outbreak in the '80s.

Earlier this week, WPI challenged these claims in a letter to Dr. McClure, first author of the first negative study.
This statement about the origin of the 101 patient samples is untrue. The patients in the Science study were well defined in the paper as having CFS by the Fukuda and Canadian consensus definitions of ME/CFS. More importantly the patient samples did not come from the “Lake Tahoe outbreak” as you assert, but rather from patients who had become ill while living in various parts of the United States.

We would also like to report that WPI researchers have previously detected XMRV in patient samples from both Dr. Kerr’s and Dr. van Kuppeveld’s cohorts prior to the completion of their own studies, as they requested. We have email communication that confirms both doctors were aware of these findings before publishing their negative papers. In addition, Dr. van Kuppeveld asked for and received reagents and a positive patient sample to determine if his testing procedures could in fact detect XMRV in a positive blood sample before he published his paper. We wonder why these materials were not used in his study which also failed to detect XMRV.
Full letter here.

I was gratified to read this, but wondered if it would make a difference to anyone besides ME/CFS patients and the people who know them. Would anyone else listen?

Today I was gratified once again to learn that others are taking this ball and running with it. From Dr. Speedy's site:
Gendringen, 2010/04/16 - Researchers at UMC St. Radboud announced in February no XMRV virus has been found in the blood of Dutch chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) patients. They concealed, however, that U.S. reseachers did found traces of this retrovirus in blood samples of the same patient. This is shown in a web publication of Ortho magazine, which is put online today.
Here's hoping the new studies in the works will get it right. Whatever role XMRV plays in ME/CFS, we need real answers, not politics.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A special situation, seven years on

When I was laid off a few years ago, a musician friend suggested I look for work as a lounge pianist. I could demo some keyboard music and send it to resorts. The idea sounded like it was worth a try. I set up a recording session with Hank Childers at VGB Studio.

Once we'd compiled a sufficient number of tracks, Hank asked me what my plans were.

"I'd like to find a guitarist and start a band eventually," I said. "Maybe in a few months. First I need to become a better singer."

"I know someone who's looking for a project," said Hank. "Would it be OK if I gave him your number?"

The someone was Ron Amistadi. He played drums, not guitar. But what the hell. I was up for any opportunity to jam, and decent drummers are hard to find in Tucson.

Ron called. He seemed nice enough. We scheduled a day to meet, and he arrived at the appointed time. After we got his kit into my living room, I played him some of my songs.

It didn't surprise me when Ron turned out to be a good drummer. Hank wouldn't have connected us if he weren't. The thing that got my attention was that Ron understood what to do with singer-songwritery songs like mine. He came in exactly where I would have asked him to. He made the songs sound a lot more like they were supposed to sound.

Ron noticed that we were connecting as well. "This is a special situation," he said. He uttered the phrase "special situation" several times that day. He wanted us to start a project together.

I told him about how I wanted to learn to sing first. That we couldn't gig with my voice in its current state.

No dice. Ron wanted to start this bad boy now. The singing, yeah, it needed work, but it would get better as we went along. Why wait?

Somewhere in the middle of my protests, the part of me that's smarter than the rest of me interrupted my thoughts.

Susan, it said. Here is a drummer who plays well, who understands your style, who's a nice guy, who shows up when he says he will, and he WANTS TO WORK WITH YOU. Don't be an idiot.

So, with many caveats about my weak vocals, I agreed. We called our new project ... our new project. The name would come later.

That first meeting happened on April 14, 2003, exactly seven years ago.

Cinder Bridge exists because Ron had enough faith that I could learn what I needed to learn, and faith in what we could accomplish together.

Happy anniversary, Ron the Drummer. Happy anniversary, Cinder Bridge. It's still a special situation.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Six years ago, my piano's sustain pedal stopped working. Whatever connected it to the rest of the piano snapped. I called my piano tuner, someone who'd been recommended to me because he was so cheap, and he went to work.

Unfortunately, he didn't have the right materials on him, and he didn't realize this until it was too late to run out and buy what he needed. So he obtained some strong wire-hanger wire and used it to jerry-rig a connection.

It wasn't a great solution. The wire squeaked every time I used the pedal. But it worked. I figured I'd ask for a real fix the next time I got the piano tuned.

Except, I didn't get the piano tuned. After Ron and I recorded our first album, I went back to practicing exclusively on my keyboard.

Last week I started practicing on a real piano again (more about that later). The second day or so in, the sustain pedal began to die. Nothing snapped this time. It just didn't give much of a sustain.

The number for the original piano tuner was no longer in service. I got a recommendation for another guy, this time not for being cheap, but for being good.

New tuner didn't think much of the first guy's work. He fixed it for really real.

Because I love metaphors, I'm going to take this event as a gentle reminder that fast and cheap solutions can cost you later. On top of the regular tuning fee, I paid around $30 for the pedal repair.

On another note, I wonder if I can work the word "jerry-rigged" into my next song ...

Monday, April 12, 2010

The source

Songwriter Jeff Shattuck has an interesting post up about creativity and atheism. Specifically, he takes issue with artists who claim that God is responsible for all of their creations.
... claiming that some god wrote your song is not the height of humility, it’s the height of arrogance. After all, you’re basically saying that of all the people on earth, the god you believe in chose to give you a particular song.
(Full post here. Hat tip: Tom Slatter.)

Up to a point, I'm right there with Shattuck. I am also an unbeliever. I am also comfortable with my lack of belief.

Comfortable for the most part, anyway. When it comes to songwriting, it gets a little awkward.

See, I never intended to become a songwriter. One day, while musing about some hard-won insights, I sang three words. They were sort of related to my musings, but I hadn't been thinking those particular words, or about music. I hadn't realized I was about to sing. It was as though the words hadn't come from me at all.

Nothing quite that surreal ever happened again. When I wrote the rest of that song, and the others that followed, my efforts primarily involved ... well ... effort. Crafting a song meant rolling up my sleeves, going to work, and thinking up stuff with my own brain. Still, every now and again I'd get a flash of insight. As if someone or something outside of me had put the words in my head.

Again, I don't subscribe to a belief system in which a god or the universe gets personally involved in human affairs. I don't believe in muses either. But damn, they make pretty good metaphors for the way it feels when ideas come out of nowhere. And silly as it sounds coming from an atheist, I don't feel right claiming credit for the out-of-nowhere bits.

Unfortunately, I have no clue what to give credit to.

To the source of all those ideas, words, and notes: If you ever feel like divulging your identity, you know where to find me. I'll be happy to share royalties with you. 'til then, all I can offer is my undying gratitude.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The realm of infinite possibility

When I was in college, I imagined something I called the realm of infinite possibility. It contained every word, every note, every everything, in every possible combination. I liked to think about this when I needed to write a paper for class. Writing was always a struggle, but somewhere in the realm of infinite possibility, the ideal paper already existed. I just needed to discover it.

I found this idea comforting.

It didn't occur to me until years later that, if the possibilities are truly infinite, there's more than one version of whatever it is you're trying to create. I realized this after I started writing songs. The process is so random.

For instance. The song I'm currently working on has a melody and a basic sense of what it will be about, but almost nothing in the way of actual lyrics. Tonight, while taking a shower, I thought of a few lines for the last verse. They involved hiding from the world by locking myself in the bathroom and taking a bath.

Obviously, my immediate environment inspired the lines. If I had been somewhere else, or if I hadn't been thinking about the song at that moment, the last lines would have turned out completely different.

Some physicists believe there are alternate universes for every potential happening. In this universe I stopped at Trader Joe's after rehearsal, but in some alternate universe I went straight home. If it were possible to observe myself in the alternates, I'd spend half my time thinking, "Wait, the song isn't supposed to go like that," or, "Shoot, that's better than the way I wrote it."

I find this idea disconcerting.

When I write a song, I try to chase down the best lyrics possible. If some other me could think of something better, or even just as good, how do I know when to declare myself satisfied with what I've done?

This is the point where I decide not to think about it anymore.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Perfect tempo

Something occurred to me after practicing with the metronome tonight. People make a big deal out of perfect pitch, where you know which notes are which without being told. Why is perfect tempo not a thing?

It would be pretty useful, if somebody told you that a song was 92 beats per minute, to be able to count that off exactly. Or to hear a song and think, That's 92 beats per minute.

I wonder if it's possible to learn to do that.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Time mismanagement

Tonight's rehearsal was cancelled due to drummer illness. I used the unexpected free time to attend to some personal tasks I'd been neglecting. Unfortunately, this left no time for solo practice.

I hadn't gotten to the personal tasks before tonight because I've been spending more time practicing.

I'm still way behind on both the personal stuff and the musician stuff.

If I made mortgage payments the way I deal with my time debts, the bank would have foreclosed long ago.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The voice of authority

I finally got to listen to Border Songs by Jordan Bullard, the the guy I met on the airplane. He writes the kind of folk I like, with skilled, soulful strumming and strong messages that don't scream "listen to this message because it is important!" Jordan and I had talked about how we hate songs that explicitly preach at you, so that didn't surprise me much.

What did catch me by surprise was his voice. You can never predict how people will sound singing by how they sound speaking. Jordan sings a lot deeper than he talks.

More than that, though, was the sense of authority. In conversation, he was just like anybody else—a person with opinions that might be correct or incorrect. Now, as the singer, he gave the impression of being all-knowing, simply presenting reality as it was.

That's the beauty and the power of music. When you sing about the world as you experience it, it's hard to be wrong.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Finding the beat

Ron the Drummer and I have taken our metronome out of mothballs. Our goal is not only to tighten up the rhythm, but also nail down the optimal tempos for our newer songs.

This is harder than you may think.

Just about every song we do has more than one optimal tempo. For instance, the best speed for the choruses might be juuust a little different than that of the verses. Ditto the instrumental bits vs. the parts with vocals.

Why don't we simply play the choruses slower than the rest of the song, or the instrumental parts faster? Because the inconsistency sounds sloppy. Tempo changes generally only work if they're deliberate.

So, we decide where in the song the tempo is most important—often the chorus—and make that the tempo for the entire song. Then we work with the unoptimized sections to make them sound better at the new speed.

The funny thing is that when we play to the metronome, Ron and I always find that we're slowing down and speeding up in the same places. I'm not sure if this means that the optimal tempos are truly inherent to the songs, or if we're just on the same wavelength.