I'm Afraid Of My A-String

When someone takes up a string instrument for the first time they are reliant on the luthier of the shop to decide on the set up. When we talk about set up we are talking about what strings are on the cello, the tailpiece, bridge, soundpost and how the fingerboard is planed. In our shop we make the determination ourselves by knowing something about the player; how long have they been playing, what kind of playing will they be doing, solo or ensemble, do they have any physical limitations? For a brand new player we will plane the fingerboard so that it is very easy for them to put their strings down- there is enough to learn without needing to lift weights first in order to stop your strings. Another variable is the height of the strings themselves: new players would like to follow the path of least resistance while more experienced players want a bit of push-back.

IMG_4362.JPG

As people progress on their cello it is natural and good for them to listen to varying styles of music that include the cello. I will often send links for students to hear something that is particular to the music we are working on together. However the challenge becomes when someone begins to make progress and starts to listen to recordings against the sound of their live instrument and, to their ears their cello falls short.

Pretty much 98% of their complaint is about their A string. In listening to recordings, with all of their wonderful reverberation, their live cello sounds more like a clarinet than what they are listening to. Sometimes I am privy to the recording they are listening to and I am quite amazed to find that, while it seems that the video is live, the cello sounds as if it was being played under water. Often included is a lot of hair tossing, frequent scowling and occasional chest hair, which I guess is suppose to make everything OK. And it is always the A string that sounds most unlike that of our own cello..

We want balance across our strings, ideally we try hard to find strings that work, not just as individuals, but as team players. However, as you progress, you will find that your star player is your A. As Paul reminds me, “Your A string is your money string.” Even in finding balance, it is necessary for the A to cut through the fog.

What happens is that electronic enhancement in recordings, among other things softens the edges. Advancing electronics can make a cello sound richer, fuller, deeper, devoid of sizzle. But the one thing it almost never does, is to make it sound like a real cello. In live performance the instrument would come across completely differently. More focused, with more bite and you would love those sharp edges.

In Vermont, the crazy flux in humidity levels wreaks havoc on our sound post placement- too tight one day, not tight enough the next. This, in turn, wreaks havoc on our sound production. I am, for many reasons, incredibly lucky to have Paul: but one reason for sure is that he keeps my cello barking. And that is exactly the word I use. (In a private conversation, out of my earshot, Paul might tell you that he would prefer it if that dog didn't have to be adjusted so it could bark at ten at night however.)

We have to examine our reasoning for wanting our sound diminished with a soft A string. Where you are today as a student will not be where you are tomorrow. Of all the strings, the open A can be the most intimidating. I've watched students do some amazing acrobatics to avoid using an open A. But an open A can be amazingly effective when played well and by well I mean with courage.

Perhaps the adjustment we need to make is not with the instrument and not with the strings...and you know who that always leaves.

Melissa Perley

Musicians Farming Sheep: January

The holidays have come and gone. We have made the numerous trips up and down the ladder to the upper storage space in our garage with box after box of decorations. The sparkle of December has left [us] and January has arrived.

Cold Sunrise.jpg

In Vermont, January is traditionally one of, if not the coldest month of the year. It is the month when we are most likely to see the thermostat plummet below zero, sometimes for a stretch of frozen days. We don't see much of anyone, Covid or not, because we are hibernating. The rule in our house is that nobody comes in the door without an armload of wood. When returning from an evening walk the final holler is always “everybody grab an armload.” I want to kick the threshold and thunk snow off my boots as I enter the house and run into a wall of heat coming off the stove. There is something wonderfully comforting about the tick of the metal expanding in the stovepipe as things heat up. I quickly pull a chair up and prop my chilly feet on the footrests so kindly designed into our hundred year old wood stove.

This afternoon Paul, Josh and I spent a few hours stuffing wool to be made into blankets into shipping boxes I relished the opportunity to plunge my bare hands into the pile of mitten material. We stacked two wooden planks on top of the wool and labeled all boxes for shipment: my hands, colder by the second, fumbling with the markers that too, did not seem to like working in the cold. Once finished I piled some thawed blueberries into a bowl to feed to the chickens. I stood outside the hen house and did my best chicken impression, calling the ladies in for an afternoon treat. I watched them come running, not out of the coop, of course, but out of the sheep barn. Wings tucked back, they reminded me, somewhat, of Batman racing to the Bat-mobile. I sat down on the milk crate which acts as a step into their laying boxes and began handing out the cold blueberries. It didn't take long as they are pigs as well as chickens, but my hands were now truly blue, in every sense of the word.

I noticed the handle of the barn door mysteriously (or not) bobbing, so I ducked under the door to the hay storage barn to grab a handful of grain for Mrs. Chubbers. Sam followed on my heels because Border Collies find sheep grain a great treat. I'm not sure that Sam likes the treat quite as much as he enjoys taking those treats from the proverbial mouths of the sheep, but either way he was staring me down...and won. The buckets that hold all grain, etc. are of course, metal and not helping the cold of my own paws.

Finally, wool boxed, chickens, sheep and Border pigs sated, I crunch up the road to the house. I sneak in without an armload because I'm afraid my hands are too cold to hold the logs anyway. I open the front door, feel the heat in front of me while the cold pushes from behind and smell food cooking in the oven.

Normally we are all looking for outdoor things to do on our days off. But in January we are content to be still. Paul reads in the living room while Josh works on editing photos from the couch, a fire coming to life in the fireplace. The dogs stretch out with their backs against the warm stones near the stove, understanding that for now, herding is on hold.

The pandemic has heightened our consciousness of living according to the season. January being the time to curl up into our corners. The chaos of the past weeks making us realize the importance of taking this quiet time to think about defining who we are and what is important, or at least acceptable, to each of us. There is something metaphoric about the frozen landscape and the need for patience as we wait for the thaw and the revelation of change.

Morphing

The snow fell here in mid-December. We all cheered because we so needed the holiday season to have some sparkle. It came surreptitiously in the night, rather Santa-like, defying the micro-weather forecasts of no snowfall for our region. We woke in the morning to over eight inches, the grinding of the plow going past and Mother Nature laughing.

Snowscape.JPG

We had almost two weeks of snowpack. We got to enjoy the festive look on our wreaths and trees, and kids were outside sledding giving parents a well deserved breather. Then Christmas Eve day, Mother Nature started to chuckle again and dumped a steady cold rain on our heads throughout that day and into Christmas. And, like with all things in 2020, regardless of circumstances, time continued moving forward.

For a performing musician, Covid stopped all work. We turned to each other, on Skype, with quizzical looks, what do we do now? Rehearsals stopped mid-rehearsal, music was returned after holding out for months - just in case - and then there was a profound silence.

At the time it seemed peaceful to have evenings to myself. It felt so strange to have each night of the week free. Performances that had been scheduled a year in advance teetered, unsure of whether to try to have the show go on. We twittered about it online only to make the judicious decision to go silent. I would sit down at my stand to practice and wiffle through my music trying to find my way back without any sense of direction.

This went on for a while as spring blossomed into summer, until I realized something had to change, and that something was me.

We had/have no idea of how long it would be before we could pick up concertising again so perhaps it was time to follow the lead of the rest of life and pare back to necessities; scales, etudes, old and new performance works. I began to find the purpose in myself, rather than in the gig coming up, purpose in my desire to work on being the best musician possible. My days began to take shape around my daily practice schedule and, like with all exercise, I felt my muscles ache and then begin to grow with the discipline. I found that I had time that I had not had in a long while to focus on hearing, intonation, expression, reading and the musician in me responded. It felt amazing to find the joy and pleasure in making music for just me. The applause was internal and as good as any I had before.

I began adding some of this into my teaching. Jen, David and Judy joined the online Covid Cello Project and learned how to utilize practice technique and bring that into the real world. Meg, who has struggled with performing, began playing her instrument for friends and family- using her music to speak. Ellen lifted her music to the universe under the summer skies as a gift to us all. Purpose in the joy- what a revelation.

Listening to VPR in the car the other day, the hosts were talking about the morphing of Covid 19 into another strain of the virus in the UK. The virus is learning quickly to adapt. Its goal is survival. So is ours and so we too must adapt: as people, parents, politicians, musicians.

Something has morphed in me. There is a calm, a stillness in the work that was not there before. It is as if I can see through the notes on the page directly to the meaning written there. Without the added distraction from the outside, my focus is sharpened. I can be the musician that I am right this moment.

After the Christmas rain, trees newly bare again, it felt like November. My sheep sloshed around in cold muck and there was a pallor of anger hanging over us. Cheated again. And again.

Last night the wind came down the mountain, a slow moan crescendo-ing into a roar as it swatted the tree tops round. Somewhere in that roaring I thought I heard laughter.

This morning we woke up, peeked outside and it was if the clock had been turned back- everything was covered in white once again.

Perhaps one of the lessons in our experiences this year is recognizing that it is not just the virus that is capable of morphing into another strain of itself. Who we were does not have to be who we are. We have the freedom to change course, we don't need permission from anyone else to do that. Pre-Covid we could be one kind of parent, Post Covid we have morphed into another. Pre-Covid we did one kind of work, Post Covid perhaps we have discovered new talents we didn't realize we had, love we didn't know was as abiding as it is, patience and perseverance we did not know we possessed.

You and I decide the kind of musician and person we want to be. Sometimes clarity comes when it is preceded by confusion and frustration. As Maya Angelou reminded us, “Chaos today, does not dictate chaos tomorrow.”


Melissa Perley

Musicians Farming Sheep: Holidays

There is light snow cover on the ground as we head into December. I’ve pulled on my heavier coat and my boots crunch as I head toward the barn for the evening feeding. Winter has arrived.

Winter House.JPG

The holiday season has arrived as well. As time during Covid continued, I felt a sense of questioning as to whether or not the holidays would actually happen. My logical brain told me of course they would. My emotional brain questioned that. How could the holiday season, normally filled with such sparkle, come in such a challenging time?

Our son and daughter-in-law had purchased plane tickets to come home for Christmas from LA. Living across the country, we don't get the chance to see them more than one a year, at best. This past week they called and told us that they had canceled their trip due to the recent shut downs in LA and the gathering restrictions in Vermont. My logical brain understood and even felt a tiny bit of relief in not having to worry about any of us inadvertently contracting the virus, my emotional brain wept.

Paul has played the Messiah in Stowe for over twenty five years. It has become a staple in our holiday season. Many times we have arrived in a large group, covered in ugly Christmas sweaters, singing various parts that have nothing whatsoever to do with the section we are sitting in, and felt grounded by the purpose and the community joining voices in such beautiful music. This year the church will be dark and there will be no soprano falsetto coming from the bass section.

Each year we open the holiday season by attending A Christmas Carol at the Flynn Theater in Burlington. We arrive in a large group, covered in ugly Christmas sweaters (see the pattern?) and settle into the beautiful old theater to watch a production that we have seen, year after year since our kids were small. The theater is always full and we sit arm to arm. Everyone relishes the warmth after walking to the theater in the frigid December night air. Paul leans back into his winter coat wrapped around him on his seat and begins to doze before the production begins and my elbow prompts him back to sitting upright. Afterward as we walk quietly back up the empty street past the darkened stores toward our parked car, our son Ethan recaps the production, both in song and, if we are lucky, in spinning and dancing. His breath visible as he lifts his voice to the stars. Not this year.

Our traditions make us feel safe. They give shape to important occasions and help our children to understand what family means. I feel adrift without those traditions. Can I live without them? Certainly. But I miss them terribly. Besides, it is really difficult to drink hot chocolate with a mask on.

For the evening feeding I slide open the hay-barn door, heft a half-bale into my arms and crunch across the snow to the sheep-barn door. Mrs. Chubbers nose greets me, sniffing around for her grain fix. As I turn to close the door I look up at the barn light over the doorway. I notice fat flakes of snow drifting down through the shaft of light. I tilt my head up and watch the snow fall silently from the black of the night sky. I can see stars overhead watching me. In the silence this feels like everything and it feels like nothing. I take in a deep breath and taste the peace of it all. I'm reminded, almost jolted to it, that it really is everything; right there, right then: that moment has everything in it that I have been concerned about missing. All I have to do is be in it.

Happy Holidays. I wish you all moments of peace with everything in them and the wisdom to find them; in your children's faces, the falling snow, beautiful music and each other.


Melissa Perley

Learning To Hear

There are only a few leaves left to rattle as the north wind blows down from the mountain. When I step outside at night for an evening walk, the new cold both makes my breath visible and then quickly steals it away.

I find myself standing in the road looking up. Without the canopy I am much more aware of the massiveness of the sky. Paul and I point fingers at the milky way and what we think are constellations. There is a soft dusting of snow on the ground that muffles our footsteps.

Snowy Road (1).jpg

I'm acutely aware of the winter silence in the season of darkness: it is as if I am wearing a hat tugged down over my ears. I can still hear, but there is a new and unique stillness. There is something so peaceful in hearing the nothing.

The word “hearing” has taken its rightful place beside “metronome”, “drone,” and “connection” as some of my favorite musical terms. We have been talking lately about how to listen, not just to the notes you are playing, but to your instrument. While teaching over Skype, I have found that the high frequencies and almost-pure pitch make it easy for me to hear when a note has settled into tune on a student's cello. This is about hearing “the ring” so it is an ear-thing, but it is also visceral for me, so it is also about a gut-thing. When I ask if someone can feel in their stomach when a note has dropped into correct placement, it often elicits a quizzical look. But I am convinced that developing an intimate relationship with our instruments allows us to “hear” when that instrument speaks to us.

When you play a note, all the overtone series on the other three strings are “excited” to more or less a degree depending on what note you are playing. It assumes, of course, that your instrument is in tune. This, technically, is “the ring.”

For a while, students feel that they can create good intonation with their eyes. They watch themselves finger notes in a scale, for example, and use pure logic to put their finger in the right place. Some also choose to watch their tuners when playing, further training their eyes rather than their ears. While calling plaintively to logic and straining their eyes they forget the two appendages on the side of their head. I like to remind people that logic and musicality are a marriage made in heaven and to remember that “it is a scale.”

While all in-tune notes ring, to some degree, the amount of ring that a note produces is determined by the strength of the overtone series on the other three strings. The D on the A string for example, is a super ringy note. I like to use it to help people hear, especially when beginning to vibrate. The oscillation around the D gives off a rather gravelly, fuzzy sound (these are technical terms, use with care) which allows the true D to sit in the center of the vibration, when you hear the D come into its own- you are hearing the ring. I visualize that ring in Vermont terms; we learn that a white ring around the moon means snow. When listening to my cello I use my vibrato to help me put the note into the center of the wobble and locate pitch. Think of it as musical-sonar.

Interestingly, I not only hear when the note drops into the center of the ditch, but I feel it. When you are inside of the music, living the piece you are playing, really listening, a centered pitch feels good in your gut, while shaky intonation doesn't make you feel anything. To work on this we play any scale and play each note with vibrato, holding the note until the student “hears” the pitch against a drone. They can adjust the note in either direction but not move to the next note until they “like” the note they just played, both in their ear and in their gut. They are no longer learning just to play a scale, but more important, they are learning to hear.

One might think that experience in hearing could mean the secret to perfect intonation. Don't we wish. .

There is a very sage saying, “You will never be more satisfied with your intonation than you are right this very moment.”

I hear that.


Melissa Perley

What We Can Learn From A Barnyard

These past two weeks have been especially difficult for us all; the chaos of Covid coupled with the hurricane surrounding the election. We have had to find solace in the small, and be comforted by the familiar. For me that has meant the routine in doing farm chores. Each morning, the moment I close the front door of the house, the sheep begin calling for breakfast. Musicians are not early risers, we live the life of the vampire rather than the rooster. I put a little pep in my step so that they know I am on breakfast business. As I creak open the barn door I am immediately greeted by the head of Mrs. Chubbers, as she manages to wedge herself into the crack of the door the minute it opens. She begins snorting in a rather undignified, pig-like manner, rooting around my pockets for possible grain. Grain is the sugar cereal of the sheep world and I prefer not to give them grain as it adds extra pounds that they don't need. However, Mrs. Chubbers has needed some medication for joint stiffness and, like with kids, I hide it in her food. Once I had done that a few times, more elephant-like than pig, she did not forget and I did not have the heart not to continue our private morning ritual.

Barnyard.jpg

Once I have thrown hay from the loft into the barn and filled their feeders, they begin to eat and peace descends. Periodically they look up at me from their food, mouths stuffed with sweet hay, contentedly chewing. As they tug it out of the feeder they often get streamers of it on their heads making it look as if they have just attended the most raucous birthday party ever.

Suddenly there is the hen explosion. We have created a little chicken-door that allows them into the winter sheep paddock so there can be some neighborly mingling. The hens charge over after they have spent time in their own yard pecking the millet or cracked corn that I have spread. They've successfully chased out the resident bluejay and are now ready for ovine visitation.

I often stand, leaning on my pitchfork, and watch the scene. The barn windows are open, sunshine mingles with the cool November wind. The chickens often hop up onto the back of a ewe: sometimes pairs of them will balance as the sheep munches. She looks up at me as if to say, “are you the one responsible for this balance beam act?” And of course I am. The hens make soft clucking noises unless they have just laid an egg. We built two nesting boxes in the sheep barn out of politeness for the travel efforts of their neighbors. If an egg has been laid the whole neighborhood knows it: the laying hen begins to cluck as loudly as possible with distinct punctuations. I hear her, literally. I felt that same pride after birthing one of my own egglets.

In the barnyard everyone has their place. The symbiotic relationship between the animals is more than simply physical. In this space peace reigns. There is a leader (Mrs. C.. of course), who rules calmly and quietly. She leads her flock away from danger but is also willing to wait in line with them for her food. Her goals always for the good of the whole.

The hens are small but everyone, especially them, understand their importance. They poke in and out of the sheep's legs squawking should a ewe dare to mistakenly step near them. The fact that they are smaller than the others bothers them not at all. If they want a better view, they simply get a lift up from their taller friends.

In the barnyard there are many colors, shapes and sizes but nobody judges. Everybody is willing to share what they bring to the table and even leave an egg or two behind.

Is it any wonder that I want to spend time in their world?

Sometimes I will sneak out in the evening and sit with them under the stars. They stand close to me and I can feel their warm breath moving my hair. I look around and wonder if maybe we all need to create a paddock, physical or otherwise that creates for us the peace of the barnyard.


Melissa Perley

Elbow Grease

In Vermont we ease out of summer about mid-August. Around August 15 you need to throw on a sweatshirt to start the day. The shadows begin to lengthen and the blue of the sky seems to get lighter. No self-respecting Vermonter would think of vacationing at the lake in mid or late August.

We cruise into fall fairly easily, enjoying the first nights of coming into the house to the warmth of the early wood stove season. But sometime in the second week of October things change and we all feel it. Maybe there is something in that colder wind coming from the north, or, perhaps it is our genetics reminding us about things that have happened for hundreds of years. We know the window is closing on the brief time between stick season and outright winter.

Dawn.jpg

We get up on the days that we aren't “working” to begin working. This year new garden beds need to replace the old ones that have begun to sink into the earth. The grazing season has ended and sheep need to be moved into the upper paddock for the winter. Each time I walk outside they see me and holler their disapproval at this new arrangement. Out come socks to replace tattered flip flops and we find ourselves craving heartier foods to satisfy our constant hunger from the constant work.

I've been noticing more work from my cello students as well. On one hand, this is a good thing, on the other, it isn't. Virtual, kinda virtual, half-time, in-person..school has started again. Students who are in school are back under more pressure again. Parents who study are now having to divide their limited practice time in order to be sure that their kids are getting everything they need and verify that they are indeed wearing those dang blue computer glasses. Students who are working from home have to bend practicing and lessons around virtual conference calls, around bosses who think being home means being open for business 24/7.

Everyone is finding that they are having trouble finding time for everything. So the cello sits quiet for the first several (four seems a good round number) days post lesson. Suddenly, the student realizes that a new week has dawned, a new lesson is around the corner and begins to practice. Time is short, so instead of creating muscle memory by being on the cello daily, they are going to create a memory of something by playing for 4 hours straight on Saturday alone: “that should do it.” The reality is that the memory created is one of angst and pain. By continually practicing the entirety of the pieces over and over, everything may get somewhat better, but the trouble measures will always remain significantly behind the better measures. The term elbow grease comes to mind. In a lesson, people will look at me while struggling with a piece, and say “I played this a hundred times yesterday.. I don't understand why I can't make it work.” I'll ask gently if they used their metronome and isolated the parts that they were having trouble with, “well, no.” (they are honest at least), then I'll ask if they used a drone to tighten the intonation they are complaining about (and, by the way - that we discussed doing in the last lesson) “um..no, not this week” The reliance is then on repetition; good, bad and ugly being repeated.

Players who are struggling work the parts that they do well and make them feel good, seasoned players concentrate on the parts that they don't do well.

There is another kind of elbow grease that I've seen a lot of lately and that is actual, physical elbow grease- the push. The brain is working so hard to figure out the notes, the rhythm, and where it all goes, the physical manifestation of all that energy comes out mainly in the left hand. Most of the time people don't realize that they are exerting a lot more force than necessary to put a string down. Often this push is accompanied by a bit of a Casal grunt as well. They are going to be really sure that string goes down, and hopefully with enough push, on the correct note while they are at it. Like any physical manifestation of stress, this is difficult to correct. Unfortunately, simply telling someone “don't do that” doesn't work. This is where using a mirror is helpful. This helps people see when they are grinding their jaw, holding their breath or lifting their elbow and shoulder to emphasize the act of putting the string down. Working on repertoire and etudes that are well within or even a little below a player's ability is also helpful in encouraging relaxation when playing. This can be a real challenge with some players: even with an explanation of the importance of going backward to move forward, they don't relish what they see as a demotion.

Tension in all forms is the anti-cello.

Winter is coming, save the elbow grease for the shovel.

Melissa Perley

Death Visits The Farm

When we decided to bring animals onto our land it brought not only the purposefulness that we sought, but also happiness. It is joyful to watch our Border Collies guide sheep down to the fields in the mornings. I feel peace in walking into the sheep barn in the evenings: the ewes look up from their feeding, startled, heads and faces covered with hay. It makes me laugh to drive into the driveway and watch the chickens come bombing around the corner to press against the fence and witness my arrival. My only true experience as a rock star. However, as in all of life, we also knew that the reality of lightness is dark and, though unwelcome, death is a regular visitor to farms.

I noticed one of our pullets was separating herself from the flock. In all flock animals, the act of deliberately distancing from the safety of the flock or herd can only indicate something not right. In the course of the next couple of days, despite attempts to hand feed her and to carry her back to the flock, she continued to slide downhill. On the fourth day I walked into the coop to find her completely alone in a corner, tilting left. I walked over and gently lifted her to put her into the comfort of the hen house and she made a half-hearted attempt to flap out of my arms but fell over in the process, gave a long squawk, took several stilted breaths and died at my feet. I stood there, stunned. As her body folded into the ground I had a hard time grasping the reality of what had just happened.

Two days later, one of my Brahmas began acting the same way the Bard Rock had previously. She wouldn't come over to eat, hung around the yard instead of investigating the sheep paddock with the others and acting overall dumpy. I fussed and worried over her, even had bad chicken dreams, but, as with all worry, it didn't do any good. I lost her as well.

In talking with my vet about possible causes, we came up with the possibility of their food being culprit. Due to Covid, a lot of locally sourced livestock feed producers were having trouble sourcing certain vitamins and nutrients. In addition some of the food may been sitting in warehouses in storage for too long. Young hens are especially reliant on their vitamin D intake for good development. I immediately got rid of the rest of the 50 pound bag of food (causing Paul to feel ill) and brought in standard chicken pellets. In between students I would race out to the coop to toss cracked corn, which I had been warned might make them fat...which is, at this point, exactly what I wanted. And things turned around. Death took his crook and vamoosed....for now.

There were several things that I felt watching my first farm death; the hens had been feeling ill, that was clear, but, despite that, their last moments were full of struggle to hang onto life. It truly shook me to watch them flap and squawk only to tip over into death. Alive one moment and dead the next. It seemed silly, even to me, to not fully comprehend this; I have given birth and I have seen death. I did not feel that the fact that they were “only” chickens made it any less relevant. At that moment, they represented everyone and everything. In those final seconds, I watched my hens wrestle with death, holler to chase it away, flap to stay with their flock. To no avail.

I called my friend Renee, who owns a cattle farm, but also raises chickens. I told her my story and she was quiet for a minute and then said “Well, you’re a chicken farmer now.” Life makes farming fun. Death makes farming real.

In the weeks following, I find myself more appreciative of my slightly smaller flock. I notice tinier details in their behavior and take time to bring out handfuls of blueberries and sit with them as they peck them from my hand. I listen for the Blue Jay screaming at me to get out of the way of his flight path to the leftover cracked corn. I enjoy the sunshine filtered through the still-colorful fall leaves while leaning back against an old maple. I take the time to really be there.

Interesting, especially now, to note how we never fully appreciate what we have until it has been changed, or, until we no longer have it.

Melissa Perley

Beginning Again...?

The hills are ablaze with color. Paul, Josh and I have been spending our weekend days hiking various mountains and trails and enjoying being nestled at our home beneath Irish Hill on Berlin Pond. Like the squirrels that are racing back and forth across our stone walls, we, too, are bustling around preparing for winter. Once the calendar turns to October, Vermonters know they have limited time before the colorful hillside turns white.

The Road Home.

The Road Home.

After making the decision to keep the cello studio in virtual mode, it is back to full time teaching. Skype lessons mean that traveling lesson to lesson is pretty much instantaneous. A good thing for being prompt and keeping my schedule, a bad thing if I feel the need to use the bathroom or eat something. Sometimes I stash cashews off to the side of the computer and lean left to pop a few in my mouth as I teach, hoping that I'm not asked a question in that particular moment.

In late summer I was contacted by a few new people seeking lessons. I was able to find a way to find time for them in the line up and we have begun studying together. One of my students was an excellent tuba player throughout high school and beyond, another two played the cello through grade school and high school, and still another studied through college. Different instruments, different people, same story of starting over.

It’s hard to begin anything, especially as an adult with a fully formed ego. In our minds, we believe that we can seamlessly return to any activity that we did well as a child or young adult. One big heartbreak of my life was having my new husband watch me do a round-off cartwheel on the shore of Prince Edward Island only to, almost immediately, crouch in agony as I pulled some muscle that included my bum. The hot tears spilling down my face had much more to do with the fact that I, once more comfortable on my hands than feet, was now unable to do a simple round-off! My new (important ego vulnerability) husband raced over to me with concern in his eyes as I lay crumpled on the sand, pretty sure by my position (and tears) that I had fractured one of the big bones, only to be surprised as I sat upright and explained that the true pain was much worse than a big-bone-break; my ten-year-old gymnast heart had been broken.

It takes bravery to come to or come back to the cello after many years without musical study. We are sure that we are going to remember everything we had learned long ago, only to find that, in the first lesson we can't remember what “clef” even means, let alone where to find one. I have found that when someone has studied primarily in a school program, where their teacher's primary instrument may have been something other than strings, certain key things about playing the cello may have been left out. To be fair, when school music teachers are surrounded by teens brimming with hormones, just keeping everyone's attention amid the chaos is difficult enough: if they are hanging onto the bow and some sound is coming out...it's a good day in the orchestra.

This leaves my adult students surprised when they have to go backward to come forward. To them, shifting must have just been invented and seems akin to the new algebra.

I'm finding that the biggest difficulty, once again, lies within. A kid's success in music is often because they are so easily able to let go of mistakes while adults agonize (aka obsess) over them. When you are returning to something that seemed to come so easily when you were a child your ego takes a hit. I am learning that an important part of my teaching is both the observation of and attention to that fact.

Adults find it imperative to point up each mistake, making sure I know that they know. This leads to stopping in each measure, inserting unique vocalization and beginning again. And again. It is necessary for me to establish the emotional safety of the studio and encourage them to be willing to be honest about what seems unfamiliar.

It is my belief that only when we are willing to put ourselves into a teachers hands, fully trust the process and admit that we might not know all we thought we did, that we can indeed start from the beginning again. Which is, after all, where the path begins.

Melissa Perley

Beginning Again...?

The hills are ablaze with color. Paul, Josh and I have been spending our weekend days hiking various mountains and trails and enjoying being nestled at our home beneath Irish Hill on Berlin Pond. Like the squirrels that are racing back and forth across our stone walls, we, too, are bustling around preparing for winter. Once the calendar turns to October, Vermonters know they have limited time before the colorful hillside turns white.

After making the decision to keep the cello studio in virtual mode, it is back to full time teaching. Skype lessons mean that traveling lesson to lesson is pretty much instantaneous. A good thing for being prompt and keeping my schedule, a bad thing if I feel the need to use the bathroom or eat something. Sometimes I stash cashews off to the side of the computer and lean left to pop a few in my mouth as I teach, hoping that I'm not asked a question in that particular moment.

In late summer I was contacted by a few new people seeking lessons. I was able to find a way to find time for them in the line up and we have begun studying together. One of my students was an excellent tuba player throughout high school and beyond, another two played the cello through grade school and high school, and still another studied through college. Different instruments, different people, same story of starting over.

Its hard to begin anything, especially as an adult with a fully formed ego. In our minds, we believe that we can seamlessly return to any activity that we did well as a child or young adult. One big heartbreak of my life was having my new husband watch me do a round-off cartwheel on the shore of Prince Edward Island only to, almost immediately, crouch in agony as I pulled some muscle that included my bum. The hot tears spilling down my face had much more to do with the fact that I, once more comfortable on my hands than feet, was now unable to do a simple round-off! My new (important ego vulnerability) husband raced over to me with concern in his eyes as I lay crumpled on the sand, pretty sure by my position (and tears) that I had fractured one of the big bones, only to be surprised as I sat upright and explained that the true pain was much worse than a big-bone-break; my ten-year-old gymnast-heart had been broken.

It takes bravery to come to or come back to the cello after many years without musical study. We are sure that we are going to remember everything we had learned long ago, only to find that, in the first lesson we can't remember what “clef” even means, let alone where to find one. I have found that when someone has studied primarily in a school program, where their teacher's primary instrument may have been something other than strings, certain key things about playing the cello may have been left out. To be fair, when school music teachers are surrounded by teens brimming with hormones, just keeping everyone's attention amid the chaos is difficult enough: if they are hanging onto the bow and some sound is coming out...it's a good day in the orchestra.

This leaves my adult students surprised when they have to go backward to come forward. To them, shifting must have just been invented and seems akin to the new algebra.

I'm finding that the biggest difficulty, once again, lies within. A kid's success in music is often because they are so easily able to let go of mistakes while adults agonize (aka obsess) over them. When you are returning to something that seemed to come so easily when you were a child your ego takes a hit. I am learning that an important part of my teaching is both the observation of and attention to that fact.

Adults find it imperative to point up each mistake, making sure I know that they know. This leads to stopping in each measure, inserting unique vocalization and beginning again. And again. It is necessary for me to establish the emotional safety of the studio and encourage them to be willing to be honest about what seems unfamiliar.

It is my belief that only when we are willing to put ourselves into a teachers hands, fully trust the process and admit that we might not know all we thought we did, that we can indeed start from the beginning again. Which is, after all, where the path begins.

Melissa Perley

Musicians Farming Sheep. And Chickens?

Not long after the sheep arrived and the final nail had been hammered into the sheep barn, I turned to Paul and mentioned how much I'd love to add chickens to the mix. He asked me to repeat myself, not because he couldn't hear me, but because he was incredulous. He wasn't really able to say too much- a bit of mumbling, stammering and staggering. Because I love him and didn't want to kill him, I let it go.

Once the snow was off the ground I felt it was safe to try to get “Project Hen House” off the ground again. This time Paul’s incredulous had been downgraded to a cross between grudging acceptance and a bit of interest. Josh, Paul and one of my students and friend, Jeff, began working on building the coop and I began researching hens.

I knew that I didn't want a rooster- too many whispered horror stories from conversations at my neighbors hen house. I wanted enough chickens to withstand some attrition (although, let it be known I really don't want any attrition) but not so many that it was overwhelming. Our project philosophy is always to begin well within your comfort zone. I decided on ten.

Breeds- who knew? Once again, each night I was buried in a farm book, this time I was reading about chickens. So many breeds: feathers on feet?, blue eggs? Large, small, medium? Once again I defaulted to the comfort zone; I chose breeds that were described as “good for the backyard chicken farmer”- aka- easy. I ordered: 4 Barred Rocks, 2 Brahmas (yes, it was the fuzzy feet), 2 Rhode Island Reds and 2 Buff Orpingtons.

Curious Neighbor (Daisy).JPG

I have a good friend, Renee, who owns a nearby diary farm but sidelines in chickens. She orders approximately 40 chicks each season and said she would be happy to include mine with hers: the more the merrier. I would buy chick food, have visitation rights and pick them up once they were Adolescents.

Like all expectant parents we took what we termed “our last vacation” in July. We got a sheep sitter to come each day to the farm while we spent a week at the lake. When we returned I grabbed my muck boots and headed for Renee's farm, crate in the back of the car.

Remember the scene in Rocky I when his grizzled trainer had him chase chickens to increase his speed? He growled and said “if you can catch a chicken- you've got speed!” Turns out that wasn't just movie talk. Fortunately, my brood had been separated from the original group so at least we didn't have to chase and sift. Finally we got the last of them into the crate: screeching like any self respecting teen.

Once home they spent three days quarantining in the coop. This is necessary to teach them where their new “home” is so that, come sunset, they will return to roost. Finally, day four, we opened the side door, complete with a little chicken, or chicken little, ramp to their yard. They came careening out of the house, shavings flying all around. Once in the yard they raced back and forth a bit, squawking and flapping. Some mock fights to establish the pecking order then they settled down to scavenge for bugs.

Chickens are really curious little dinosaurs. Each morning I walk to down to let them out and they are always crowded at the windows of their front door looking for me. Their funny little heads titling back and forth in anticipation, continuous guttural chicken chatter going on.

We haven't been quite brave enough to let them free range. Living in the woods, we often see fox, coyote and members of the weasel family sneaking around. The day after the chickens moved in we heard a Broad-Winged hawk screaming his welcome from a nearby branch. While the ladies have a large area for being outside of their coop, Paul made an adjoining gate to the sheep barnyard for additional space for them. They come running when I head over to open the extra gate in the morning once I have taken the sheep down to their summer fields. They then spend their day playing king of the manure pile, pecking flies and sheep poop and bedding down deeply into the straw inside the barn. One evening I brought the sheep up a little early and the door was open from the barnyard to the chicken yard. I had thought about what that meant for chickens paying neighborly visits, but had not fully processed that the passage goes in both directions; I wandered out and noticed a large, white-fleeced rump sticking out of the chicken door going into the coop. I opened the front door and a startled Daisy looked up at me. She didn't have any particular agenda, although if she could have reached the hanging food, she would have partaken of a hen-snack. She just seemed quite content to check things out. Some of the hens were sitting above her on their roost watching her watching them.

Adding chickens has added work to my life. There are new morning chores each day that need to be done, rain or shine. Each evening I button up the sheep then head over to the hen house for a visit. They are roosting quietly but for the occasional clucks. I make sure that the gate is latched with Paul's twenty-step locking safety system and shut the front door softly.

Often I find myself standing outside the buildings enjoying the stars. One of the sheep might be standing, front feet up on a stump, looking out at me, but all is quiet. We have found the deep satisfaction and purposefulness that we began all this for. These are things that keep us outside of ourselves and yet are inherently a part of us.

Did someone hear oinking?

Melissa Perley

Eye On The Prize

In Vermont you can almost set your watch by the beginning of the seasonal change. August fifteenth we begin to see the shadows lengthen. As I walk the sheep down to their pasture in the morning, the grass is newly wet, as I walk them back up the hill at night, I'm in the dark. Suddenly we feel the need to close our windows a bit in the evening, retiring our fans. If I look closely at the hillside I can begin to see change; the green, so vibrant in June and July, is slightly faded, a bit of yellow here, a dab of orange there. All are signals that fall and winter are bearing down.

I've often thought it would be nice if life put up a flag when something momentous is about to occur. Wouldn't it be helpful to see a red flag waving, look at it, turn to your partner and say “something's coming...”

Last Tuesday I was swimming in the river, floating on my back with the knowledge that my time swimming was short. Last Wednesday I noticed some flashing lights in my right eye. As someone whose occasional migraine headaches are precipitated by an aura, I assumed that this was what I was dealing with. Throughout the next day I would catch a shooting star type of light whiz through my right visual field. I'd swipe at an invisible hair or insect. Paul noticed and asked me what was going on.

Last Saturday morning Paul turned to me and asked, gently, “would you please call your eye doctor.” And, because he was so quietly concerned, and because I knew deep down I should: I did.

Last Sunday morning I was sitting in an examining chair in the ophthalmologist office. After a long period of eyeball adjusting (which is as bad as it sounds) I was told that I had a tear in the retina of my right eye. What this meant was that I needed to go to a surgeon to have it repaired by laser surgery. Not next week, not tomorrow. Now.

Paul and I drove to the surgeon's Sunday afternoon. My pile of ripe tomatoes sat on the counter no longer needed for the dinner party we were supposed to attend that evening. My surgeon came around the corner in full exercise gear: although on call, he apparently was going to get some running in. I quickly found out that the running was going to be mutual. He motioned for us to follow and I leaped out of the car to catch him. We zipped down the empty hallways, we had masks up but I wished I had thrown on my running shoes like he had. He talked quickly as we moved, taking in the bits of my history cutting me off once he heard words that mattered to him. I sat down in the chair, my head spinning a little with confusion at the speed of all of this, and that I was slightly out of breath from the running.

He quickly put more drops in my already dilated eyes. I tasted them in my mouth as they ran into my mask. I hoped that my tongue didn't dilate as well.

More eyeball manipulating, only he used something that reminded me of a cooking spoon used for meatballs. Yes, I did have tear but fortunately only one on the right retina, medium sized but “what made me special” was that it had crossed a blood vessel so I was bleeding behind my eye. Now, the gross-out factor of this is that I could see that blood..behind my eye. It is rather like a dark amoeba creeping across my visual field. One really should not be able to see the inside of their body parts. It feels creepy and oddly intrusive.

Within a few minutes I was in another room laying on a bed. “People can pass out from this surgery.”

I was also told that the blinding flashes of light might trigger a migraine. this was indeed icing on the cake.

At this point I just wanted to get it going to get it over with and he, clearly, was late for a marathon.

I had no idea what to expect besides the passing out and a migraine, and so we began. There was a blinding white light followed by a blinding green light accompanied by a rhythmic hammer sound- which, I learned, was the laser burning a fence, of sorts, around my tear.

As a Shepherd it was interesting to note that there are 288 fence-posts around my tear.

I should explain how this happened, if I am able to. Apparently we are born with a vitreous fluid in the interior our eye and as we age it sloughs off. If, during the sloughing, it tugs too hard on our retina, we develop a tear. The key phrase in that sentence is “as we age”. A retinal tear doesn't happen to you unless you are, for example, a rugby player and get belted in the eye or unless you are aging, aged.

When I got home Sunday evening, I was dazed and dilated and, being honest, addled. The addled part was evident in my admittedly incorrect thought process, that this would be a quick fix and post surgery life would continue as normal. No dinner party, but life would go on.

Monday morning I opened my eyes and saw, what appeared to be, several black threads moving around my right visual field. It was the reverse of the feeling you have when you wake up from a particularly bad dream and are so grateful it wasn't real. This was real and I got up realizing that this was what I was going to be looking through for the unforeseeable future.

I spent a lot of that first day weeping.. All would have been OK had I fallen mountain climbing, or wrestling a bear. But I had done nothing except age. In looking inward I realized that the surgeon may have nicked my ego while fencing my eye. As someone who has, fortunately, been very healthy all of my life, I was a person who thought that my healthy eating and exercising would put a protective barrier around me. Although this was certainly not the worst thing that could happen, it was something and it was my first surprise-something and there had been no red flag warning me it was coming. My wise oldest son likened it to having my knees swiped out from under me.

Sitting down to practice I was tentative. My biggest fear being losing the ability to see music. Interestingly, as I continued to play and got deeper and deeper into the music, my brain let go of seeing the amoebas and only saw the notes. Once I stopped, squiggling commenced, but I was filled with relief.

As I move further away from the incident, I realize that this, too, is a process. It is all part of the whole; the fear, the pain, the feeling of betrayal, the reckoning and finally, the healing. I thought about how many times I have talked with students about staying on the path, continuing to walk when it feels unwalkable. Recognizing that it is all OK.

What is important is giving ourselves permission to feel what we feel for as long as we feel it. And I would like the chance to remind my surgeon to try to see things through his patients’ eyes (literally), but I doubt I can catch him.

I like to think that with age comes wisdom, and that I can take this, move forward and remember to be patient, kind and caring when someone is on their path and it is rocky and seems impassable. To simply be willing to take their hand and walk alongside them.

Melissa Perley

Virtual Recital

The studio was knee deep in recital prep when I moved lessons to Skype due to the Corona Virus. Everyone had their pieces set and were in process of shining them up for our annual event.

The spring recital is not only the culmination of half of their year of work (the first half year works toward the winter recital), but also traditionally marks the end of the calendar year for scheduled study before we move into our summer sign-up. So there is a little bit of looking forward to recital - because when it is over they can breathe - and a little bit of dreading recital because...it is recital.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle having a recital without a venue, a piano and physical proximity. Those are big hurdles. I had a graduating senior, Audrey, who has studied with me since she picked up the cello at age seven: it was important to both of us that we celebrated her journey with a senior recital. Early in the process of picking her music for this, she had decided that she wanted to play a Bach fugue duet with me. She felt it was fitting to go out the way she came in, with me at her side. We found the music and began working it up together...and then not together.

So, I sat, deep in thought as the ground began to thaw and we became deep in mud. I decided that I would go ahead with a recital in the same way that I had decided to go ahead with all lessons- via Skype. Paul and I would take two full weeks and each of us sit for the other’s student performances, which would take place during a regular lesson. What we were talking about was, virtually, 2-3 recitals per day.

In spite of the virus situation, the world went on spinning as it always does, reminding us of our smallness. I was startled to see daffodils come up from the soil, as they always have. I began planning a garden which meant online ordering of plants and seeds and curbside pick up at the local nursery. Hope was, indeed, springing eternal.

The week recitals began, I came home to find a beautiful, enormous bouquet of flowers in my kitchen. Beside them was a platter of dinner plate size chocolate chip cookies from a neighboring bakery. One of my students, Suzette, had wanted to “normalize” recital week for me and turned the tables by giving me the flowers and cookies. It touched me deeply and helped me to realize how important this process really is to all of us. So the bouquet sat beside me each and every time I would listen to an individual. The cookies did not. Because they are cookies, and I have a son.

For the first recital I began by using our finely honed communication system from the house to the cello shop; the way it works is that I walk into the bedroom, lift the window and bellow. Paul heard me, as did my sheep who began returning the bellowing. He came in and took his place in the “hot seat” as I put it. We had two stools and whomever was the “invited” adjudicator sat in front of the screen. This gave the student a sense of playing for an audience that wasn't completely familiar. Each person also was able to have any family/friends who could be in their home safely and with adequate distancing. We often had grandparents from other states patched in on the call as well. The fact that I was able to pull this off might lead you to believe that I have some technical savvy. Actually I have none. If there was a t-shirt with Luddite on it- I'd be wearing it. Luck, and our computer-wizard son, Ethan (aka our IT guy) were behind it all.

I would introduce the cellist to their audience and say a bit about what they were playing, etc. and then the students would play their piece. Once finished, Paul would then make comment about their progress, as he heard it, since the last recital, and talk a little about what he felt they did especially well. Once he was done he would hop from the stool and head back out to the shop to continue working. I would then applaud loudly and chat with the group on hand.

Audrey played her part of the Fugue for her senior recital. Her mom,dad and grandmother sat in the audience as they have for so many years. I watched this lovely young woman, whom I have known since she was a young child, play part of a piece that we were supposed to play as a duet. There was sadness about what was missing but true joy in what remained.

Paul and I worked this way for almost 23 students. Our ability to work together, and the fact that Paul is amazingly flexible and kind, stood us in good stead.

The smile on everyone's face made it all worth it. There is something very important about closing a circle.

If I'm in a state of mind where I am able to see the good that is coming from this pandemic, and being honest, that is not always the case, I would see that the fact that each student had two teachers’ undivided attention was unique and priceless. Changing the status quo was good for us all. I am better for being flexible and a better instructor for knowing how to bend and still be able to instruct.

Meg had never felt comfortable enough to be part of a recital. She decided to give it a try this time and offered up a suggestion for something different; she arranged “When I'm Sixty Four” and would have her wife sing it while she played. This met my criteria because, a. it was music, b. she had to arrange it and write it out.: bonus - like hidden broccoli on pizza, c. she would face her fears about performing. For months she and I worked out the kinks of the arrangement, etc. When we found out we were unable to go live for recital, she wanted to do it anyway.

We got Skype up and running and saw Meg and Elaine, all dressed up and ready. Meg looked nervous so I telepathically sent some energy and she launched. She played, Elaine smiled and sang beside her. As Elaine sang, she turned her head toward Meg and did a little dance- which I refer to as “the love dance” because it was, clearly, intended to be supportive and to lift her partner. When the clapping died out, Meg had a huge smile of satisfaction on her face, Elaine was aglow with pride as she beamed at Meg. They clasped hands and took a bow.

Many things have been taken away from us in this pandemic- but there are gifts- and this was mine.

Melissa Perley


Musicans Farming Sheep. one

The other day we found a large box had been delivered and left on our deck. Given that we ship and receive large stringed instruments, big boxes aren't too much of a surprise. However, on closer inspection, the return address on the box was Prince Edward Island and, I knew, immediately, what had arrived.

I tore into it like a kid on Christmas morning. Inside, each wrapped individually and carefully placed in the box, lay three wool blankets made from the wool of our seven sheep.

Blanket.JPG

I lifted one out of the box and was surprised when I felt tears come to my eyes. They were a raw gray in color, flecked with black cross hairs; across the center lay three cream stripes. I could see each of our sheep in the blanket colors. I realized, immediately, that the emotion I was feeling was tied to everything that it took this past year to bring these blankets to fruition. Looking through them I could see, not just the beautiful colors of my sheep themselves, but hope, toil, failure and, finally success.

Beginning the journey to becoming a small sheep farm by dreaming. Gathering the courage to step forward into something we had no idea how to do. Further gathering of materials, watching our check book balance drop as we raise a barn.

Buying the sheep; asking for help, sometimes getting it, sometimes not. Watching them arrive and take their first tentative steps out of the truck and forward into a place they had never seen. Sam and Bronte herding them into their summer paddock for the very first time. Sam looking back at us in disbelief and delight that he had achieved position of flock manager.

One of the ewes getting fly-strike only five weeks into our adventure. Fortunately, having read pretty much every book on keeping sheep that has been written, I recognized the signs, raced up the hill and called the vet. The ewe survived-so did we.

Waking up early to the call of sheep who had, quite quickly, recognized they could see our bedroom windows from their barn and that the lifting of blinds meant the waking of people and people equaled hay.

Learning to rotationally graze our sheep - moving them every three days onto a new paddock. Paul, Josh and I rolling electronet and dragging it across the field. So many times my Muck boot snagging the net entangling and tipping me over. Understanding that we are not only raising sheep but, perhaps more important, raising grass. Knowing much more about composting manure, fertilizer and the value of having a pocketful of pasture mix every time I go out, than I ever thought possible.

Finding a good shearer....finding a good shearer EARLY.

Finding Hillard, our hay source- finding Hillard EARLY.

Reading my dog-eared sheep books about how to pull manure tags off wool and what constitutes wool that can be processed versus shipping wool that will end up in the bin. Standing in the early spring sunshine, the north wind reminding me that summer is still a ways away yet. Sorting wool, my hands shiny with lanolin. When I go inside, smelling its beautiful, distinct odor on my clothes. Feeling, for the first time, like a sheep farmer.

I had long conversations with Dale at MacAusland's woolen mill in Canada and it was his kindness that helped me work through how the heck to ship wool. His most valuable suggestion comes from asking if we have anyone big in our house. This is our son Josh's moment. At 6'4 and built like a solid maple tree, he is perfect for standing, quite literally, on top our box of wool - the goal being to fit 38 pounds of fleece into one smallish box. He did and we did.

And so here they are, the blankets that represent and are the product of this year of learning and growth. Our sheep are back in their summer paddocks, all of us having survived their first winter. They are strong and healthy.

As the flock heads down the same dirt road to the fields that they did when they first came, Sam still at their heels, they have some idea of where they’re going. And, because we have also stayed on that path, so do we.


Melissa Perley

Undecided ... I think

The sheep are semi-back into their summer pasture so I am spending more time outdoors trundling up and down the dirt road that leads to the back fields. I'm watching the birds nesting seemingly everywhere around us. I put up an old gourd in one of the maple trees in our front yard and saw a chickadee check it out, almost immediately. She popped in, deemed it livable and hours later was back with a mouthful of nesting material and her suitcase. Each morning I am awakened by a Cardinal's repeated whistle and I end the day with a walk to the bells of the Hermit thrush.

Enchanted Forest (4).JPG

I'm delighted and amazed by the brilliant green leaves that unfurled overnight after the last rainstorm. Every spring I am ridiculously surprised by their sudden appearance. It is as if I had never seen leaves before. It has become a seasonal rite for me to ask Paul if these particular leaves don't look “just a little different?” He always smiles and dutifully answers, “you know, I think they do.”

Spring has arrived, seeming to part the darkened clouds hanging over all of us for the past few months. With it comes renewed hope (and black flies) Businesses are tentatively reopening their doors, owners peek out of their shops, faces festooned with brightly colored masks. Everything is the same, but everything is different.

When I first had to move my entire teaching studio to Skype it was hard; there were as many video glitches as eighth notes. But, slowly, I got used to perching on my stool in the kitchen, toasty warm next to our wood stove and modem. Tea and big pile of music on the cherry counter each day. There was comfort in the sameness. It seemed true that anything could become normal, over time. Periodically, I would look out the window to watch the snow fall and I understood the blessing of being warm and comfortable while working. But the icicles always melt, the ground rises up from under the snow and things thaw.

There began to be talk of restrictions loosening and there is an undercurrent of restlessness. My students have begun to ask me if I've thought about when they might come for a lesson in person again.

Seems people thaw also.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a person who doesn't scare easily. I tend to laugh when terrified and do it anyway. But there is something in the lack of information about this situation that really does frighten me. I feel at a crossroads and am unsure of which way to turn. One day information seems to indicate that things are improving and I think, “soon.” But two days later numbers are up and our very breath is being compared to a sprinkler system, and I think “never.”

I'm not sure how we got here and I'm not sure where we are going.

What I know for sure, is that, although not listed as such, my job, teaching music, is essential. People need music for their souls. When things are most difficult in their lives, they turn to what they know, what is innate in their very being. The need for this cannot be fully filled virtually. They want to clunk into the studio with cello cases in hand, laugh, cry, clap in rhythm and get chocolate.

I understand.

How do the birds know when to come back, where to nest, how to fly? While I am watching the numbers, I will also be standing at the top of my hill, listening to the wind, waiting for the answers.

Melissa Perley

Teaching Middle C

We have been spending our weekends alternately hiking in the woods and scratching and stacking. We've been raking out both flower and vegetable beds, stacking piles of dead raspberry canes to burn, cutting down a tall dead tree teetering precariously above our lower shop, and sweeping sand remnants from not-far-gone piles of snow. All in preparation for new growth.

Spring Meadows.20.JPG

I continue to teach via Skype and have been approached by a few people who feel that the sudden slow down seems a good time to finally begin studying music, something they have always wanted to do.

One might think that the easiest place to teach would be the beginning. But, it is not only teaching virtually that makes teaching middle C difficult. I borrow the term “teaching middle C” from my good friend and pianist colleague, Vladimir Odinokikh. During rehearsal breaks he would regal me with stories of his frustration at teaching piano students who are in the place where they have to begin by knowing what note is middle C.

One of the first hurdles of teaching early lessons is dealing with the student's insecurity at beginning anything. Adults, especially, feel uncomfortable coming to the cello at what they feel is a later time in their lives: they feel the need to reassure me that they recognize their own lateness, handicaps, and how, perhaps, they should have listened to their mothers when they quit studying music as a teen.

Once we are all okay with beginning, we begin. It is wonderful to put an instrument into the hands of someone who has never played before. There is such reverence in their faces toward the cello. We spend a significant amount of time talking about the anatomy of the instrument. How and why it actually makes sound. I'm following the theory that the more you know about how something works, the better you will be able to make it work and the more you’ll take care of it. This can be true for our cars, our animals, our computers, our bodies.

For a while we don't even pick up the bow. Having an instrument as large as a cello filling your lap seems enough for a while. I like students to spend some time getting to know their cello. Cellist Gregor Piatagorsky loved to describe the time spent getting to know a new instrument as their “honeymoon period.”

Once we have introduced some pizzicato (plucking) technique on the strings and everyone is a little more comfortable with the cello we pick up the bow.

Here is where we can run into some trouble. It is at this point that students become enthralled with all things cello. They become impatient with my asking them to wait a few weeks before we begin using the bow so they decide they will pick it up themselves and, under the guise of “making me proud,” go online and learn a few tunes.

At the next lesson the students proudly display their new found virtual knowledge. I sit silently watching them grip the bow like a club and saw across the strings, rosin dust flying, somewhere between the bridge and the pegs.

Can you spell “undo?”

Putting a student on a bow gives them an experience that is unlike anything they ever do in their real lives; it isn't like holding a pencil, hammer, fork or baseball bat. It is introduced only to be reintroduced time and time again. There is very real reason that we call it our “bow hold” versus our “bow grip.”

After some time, students are able to draw the bow successfully across the strings, straight and true, and the cello rewards them with sound. Here is where the fun begins because nothing is as addictive to a budding musician as sound. My goal is for them is to be able to create a sound that they can fall in love with so that, if nothing else, their default is to making that beautiful sound. I ask that they spend a significant part of their at home practice simply bowing. We talk about the meditative qualities of calmly bowing each string repeatedly, watching the bow engage the string into action.

We are now beginning to understand some musical terms, work on some rudimentary reading skills and refine position of cello and bow.

It's now that we have prepared the ground, learned middle C, done the raking and sit, patiently waiting, for new growth.


Melissa Perley

Musicians Farming Sheep IV

The robin has returned to the empty nest outside the window of my studio. I stand and watch her sit, wiggle and flick her tail a bit: get up, sit again and repeat the whole process as if searching for the best fit.

While hiking this past weekend, among the tangled dead wood and dry leaves, were leek shoots of the brightest green.

Spring has sprung.

We have added a new celebration to our repertoire, alongside Christmas, Halloween and the end of black fly season..sheep shearing day! The ewes were about as puffed up with wool as they could get. They now needed a running start to push between the others for a place at the feeder. It was definitely time to lighten their load.

Shorn sheep.JPG

In determining a time for the shearer to come, we needed to find balance between nights that were still dropping below freezing and days beginning to climb into the warm zone. Warm being a relative term here: when you are wearing a twelve pound wool coat, warm is pretty much anything above freezing.

Once we decided on the date, we began to prepare. We needed to clean the straw bedding out from the barn so that the shearer would have a solid, flat surface to work on. She needed electricity and a hook above her head for her shears to hang in wait. Paul and Josh hauled extra gates up into the winter paddock so that we had an entrance and an exit. The goal in all of this, to include shearing – smooth.

Friday night I felt that odd combination of excitement and fear. The feeling that wakes you up in the night running details through your brain in a circular pattern that I believe one calls a stress dream.

It is recommended that you don't feed your sheep before shearing. The position they are put in is pretty much folded. This particular sheep yoga doesn't sit well on a belly full of hay. When I went out, for the fifth time, to make sure things were in place for shearing and to be sure the gals had water, they bellowed at me the moment they heard my boots crunching across the driveway. I avoided their pointed gaze as I hauled water buckets through their paddock. They knew, in the way animals do, that something was up.

I learned, from working in the holding pen at sheep dog trials, that it is important to keep sheep calm when in tight quarters. Sheep that are nervous have no sense of safety or, it appears, boundaries (I have watched a frightened ewe careen straight into a fence) I decided that I would be in the pen with the queue of sheep waiting for shearing. They trust me and I hoped that I could keep them calm with my presence and pocketful of grain.

Our lead ewe took the lead. What I assumed would be a difficult start went quite smoothly as I led her into the barn. Our shearer took her from me with a quiet confidence. The buzz of the shears creates almost white noise in the space. She moved purposefully, deliberately and without extraneous motion. It was a ballet of sorts and quite beautiful to watch. Once the ewes are sitting on their rumps, back resting against the shearer's legs they sit quietly. A couple of the ladies did some air-bicycle pumping but, for the most part they waited like my sons getting haircuts: with patient disgust.

Watching her, I couldn't help notice that it was as if they were stepping out of a wool sleeping bag. She “unzipped” them in one piece and what stepped out of the wool was a teeny lamb! Someone said that the term “sheepish” was derived from the look sheep give you right after shearing as they skulk out of the barn and turn back to give you one final look.

As the number of the shorn increased, the more obvious it was that it wasn't only us who didn't recognize them- they did not recognize each other for a bit. Suddenly - like school kids wearing uniforms, everyone was equal. Without her gorgeous silver wool round her, Beulah seemed to lose her I’m-way-more-fashionable-than-you look. Where as before she sashayed, now she skittered on skinny legs. Anne, the smallest, no longer seemed so small and decided she would vie for an improved position in the flock with some good head-butting. Maybe that was payback. I'm not sure.

Charlotte, the Black Mountain Welsh, went from having chocolate brown fleece to returning to the coal-black of her infancy. The most feisty of the group, when she stepped out of the barn's exit door- she broke into a stilted-sheep gallop, so happy to be released from wool that almost dragged on the ground. When I gave her a good rump scratching, she leaned into me with a contented sigh at being able to actually feel the scratching for once.

Our border collies watched from outside the fence, at the ready. When we needed the sheep to be put into the pen to begin, I opened the gate and asked Sam to help out. With a few commands and a couple minutes work, he had them all secure and ready to shear. A few neighbors were standing along the fence and they made suitable impressed sounds which always delights Sam. As I asked him to leave the paddock there was a bit of stuff in his strut: rightfully so.

Once finished we had a paddock full of sheep who were calm but a little confused at the feeling of the spring breeze on their backs.

Paul, Josh and I began the task of putting layers of new straw into the barn so that, should we get some cold spring nights, the sheep could take refuge. As we were undoing gates and sweeping up, I couldn't help remember standing and looking at these same gates almost a year ago and having no idea what we were doing. That odd feeling of excitement and fear.

As things seem to stand silent now for an undetermined amount of time- there is something especially poignant and comforting about the Robin's return, the crocus's brave rise and our sheep being sheared.

For Steve.

Melissa Perley

Virtues Of Virtual

Yesterday ,without mandating, I asked all of my students to convert from live to Skype lessons. Fortunately, I am used to teaching through Skype so am able to walk people through the conversion. Some people felt a sense of relief at having the decision taken out of their hands, others came dragging their feet a little.

To begin, I need to send out a little introductory emoji who begins to wave, inviting my new Skype friend to join me in virtual world. Once my student “accepts” my emoji we can begin to chat. I can always tell when someone hasn't used Skype before - it is the shock at seeing yourself from a vantage point of just a few feet. Most people are startled back a bit: there is the tell-tale head snap, and then almost 100% of people adjust their hair in some way, immediately.

I keep a notebook and write notes during the lesson. This allows students to completely focus on their playing which is challenging enough in the best of circumstances. I have found that the cello's low-frequency notes, especially, work well through Skype, since Skype takes the low out of low-frequency so I can more easily hear the actual pitch, much to people's dismay at times.

Lessons normally begin with chatting about the week of practice, defining a musical term I have given them and then opening their playing with a particular scale. They launch into the scale the first time with one eye on the screen, thinking they have to watch me and play. This can create a bit of a train wreck and so I assure them they can simply play their scale and I will take care of the rest. In running the notes, if I need them to stop, it does require me hollering at the screen and flapping my arms to get their attention.

At some point everyone begins to relax and forget about the camera. We laugh and joke normally and they can even tolerate leaning into the camera to make a point- this often creates what I call a “cyclops effect” if they come in too close. But it’s all good.

One of my concerns about the aftermath of Covid is the landscape of small business as we have known it. I worry that after a long period of time of running your restaurant as a take out operation, will it, perhaps, be easier to leave it that way? Or, can one person at a counter and two people loading trucks maintain a feed store - do we really need all that stock? Should we take down the plastic shields in front of the grocery clerks or does that make sense in the grand scheme of things anyway. And do they come bullet proof?

One might use this same logic with virtual versus live music lessons. If you have virtual lessons, nobody has to drive to the lesson. Mud season...no problem from your living room. Lessons begin and end promptly, you can fix your hair and be sure you don't have food in your teeth and, if things are set up correctly, you can study in your pajama bottoms. What you can't do is come in from the cold and feel the welcome of the studio, you can't play duets, I can't correct your hand position by moving it, can't hug you when you leave. You can't pat my sheep or dogs and, YOU CAN'T GET CHOCOLATE.

However, I'll take any virtual over no music. It allows me to joke with David from his man-cave, wave at Betty from Ellen's living room, meet Jeff's poodle, help Suzette decide what color beret to wear and watch Chris play Kol Nidre from the view at his feet.

I can do without going to the movies, out to dinner and shopping, but I cannot do without music. It continues to connect us on a level that nothing else does.

So come tomorrow morning, I will be sitting at the bar, in the warm sunshine of my kitchen, unfolding my computer and checking my hair, starting another day of teaching- virtual style.

Melissa Perley

The Music Stopped

I remember watching the first season of “Stranger Things” and simultaneously feeling fear and relief. Fear because of that invisible “thing” that kept taking over Will, and relief because, after all, things like that don't happen in real life.

As each day passes things get weirder. First we had to limit our group gatherings to fifty, then thirty, now ten. We had to be careful with hand washing, and now we can't hug. We've gone from elbow bumping to kicking each others foot with affection. Kicking is now a show of affection. If I had only known that in sixth grade dodge ball games.

In the past few weeks, each day brought new requests to have me come, with violin-family instruments in tow, to book events. The Violin Family was featured in Vermont Kids magazine: that was me smiling back at me. It felt exciting and wonderful...and fleeting. Now every day another cancellation surrounded by Covid 19 information and warnings pops up in my in-box.

Music gigs (aka how I make a living) followed. Three performances that are annual events collapsed on top of each other. The news talked about paid sick leave and the senate passed bills for company leave. There is no company leave when you’re the company.

We had delusions of safety: we thought that because we live in a such a rural spot, in order to get here Covid 19 would have to circumvent icy troughs and muddy ditches. Who would bother: we can't get Fed Ex to come out here.

Our world’s increasingly become smaller and yet more isolated. My parents, who are in their eighties, canceled coming over for dinner. They called with small and unsure voices: they just don't know the right thing to do.

As we watch our Italian neighbors struggle with decisions that don't belong to us, we sit, six feet apart, silent in our horror.

I'm a true believer in playing the cards you are dealt; “it is what it is” is one of my favorite phrases. But there seems to be an internal statute of limitations on that which I was unaware of. Saturday, after the cancellation of a music and book event on the same day, I sat and cried the hot tears of the frustrated. We all know, with absolute truth, there are so many who are dealing with so much worse, and so we cry for them as well. Once I get started, I'm crying for everyone.

Watching the news we are kicking ourselves for being unprepared. We knew that our planet had been at critical mass for a long time. Doesn't anyone watch Doomsday Preppers?

Companies close, restaurants empty, concerts cancel, art galleries vacate- how do we prepare our souls for the unpreparable? I miss my friends, my family, my musical colleagues. The other night Paul asked me if I wanted to work on some music, normally a no-brainier, but I said “no”, because I really struggled with the reason to do it. The emptiness rang around me.

Fortunately, he didn't listen to me. Ignoring my dissent, he pulled up the piano accompaniment for the Shostakovich Sonata and started it. For a bit, I sat out in the kitchen puffy-eyed, enjoying my pity party. But who could ignore such beauty? Who could help but realize that, even with our disrupted routines, changes in the things that are elemental and familiar to us, even surrounded by high piles of toilet paper and water bottles, music still speaks louder than mere words or actions.

Lying in the morning light, watching the sun come up like it does each morning, every morning, I thought about where we can go when the unthinkable becomes thinkable. And the answer is as clear as the spring morning air. We go inward. What will lift and sustain us lies tucked just underneath our hearts. It is where music and joy are created and stored. For occasions like this.

Ultimately, we sit directly in the eye of the storm. As everything swirls around us we have to be valiant in our efforts to find our center, to find our peace. Maybe now is exactly the time to learn that new music or paint that scene that has lived in the back of your brain for so long. Maybe now is the time to read to your child with intent, or video chat with your parents.

Staying on the path.

Chaos today does not dictate chaos tomorrow!

Melissa Perley.