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.

YouTube

As the pages of the calendar flutter to March there is a very perceptible change in both the angle of light and the warmth of the sunshine. When it shines, of course. The combination of those things reaches critical mass on one single day, “Mud Day,” which signals the beginning of our fifth season.

Sumac.jpg

One day it is frigidly cold, the road frozen and slick as we walk on it, old ruts hardened into icy troughs. The next day you drive to the grocery store and suddenly you slip around on newly wet spots on the road. If you are a Vermonter you shift, automatically, to mud-thoughts; time to retire the low car and only drive the high car. Are you paid up for towing with AAA?, and how much money should we set aside for having the mud cleaned out of our brakes?

Things will settle down for a bit, the cold will return with blasts of north wind designed to lull you into thinking mud season is still down the road a piece. But I know better, I can smell the earthy mud patches waking up and this drives me indoors, where things are warm and dry.

In the studio the change in angle of light is evident because we need to use a shade to keep the afternoon sun out of players’ eyes and also because our thoughts begin to turn toward more challenging pieces. Like I smell earthy mud, students smell spring recital in the air.

I have a friend and colleague who is a very fine violinist and he maintains that chamber work is best learned directly from the score of the piece you are working on. He follows the dictate of the great players of the past who, while traveling by train on tour, would only have the availability of the score to learn or review the next piece that they would be playing. They could “hear” the piece by reading the music and learn not only their parts, but all the parts of the orchestra as well, get off the train at the next gig, have one rehearsal with the orchestra and perform.

I see great value in being able to read a score in preparation for performance: you both see and hear not only your entrance but also the entrances of the other players. However, I have also come to value technology that allows us to both see and hear. YouTube.

As a performer, I find it wonderful to be able find a link to a good performance of a piece I am working on. If it is a chamber piece, the group shares that link and we all can study the performance and take from it what we feel is valuable and/or sometimes disregard it.

As an instructor I am of two brains on YouTube. I find it beneficial that you can watch more than one performance of a piece, therefore more than one interpretation. You can slow the tempo of the piece down as a tool to play along with, whether that be for one particular passage or the entirety of the piece. YouTube enables students to see how others choose to finger challenging sections. YouTube, if nothing else, offers exposure to great works and masters playing them.

However.......I also find that students forget that anyone can upload performances onto YouTube, including those whose performances might be better ignored

In using YouTube, there is a real risk of mimicry. Students feel that what they are hearing is the definitive version of the piece, therefore there is no consideration for other approaches, to include fingering, tempo, etc. Listening to the whisperings of great composers telling you where the pain and joy are in their music is a skill that needs developing more than learning to mimic.

Also, while it is wonderful to listen to masters playing, there can be cold moments of feeling that you will never be able to play like that.

But perhaps the greatest risk is not when students are playing along with YouTube, slowed down yet cranked up on their speakers, but when they are practicing without that accompaniment and the sound that is in their ear remains the master’s rather than their own. A false sense of your own intonation, connection and flow is as dangerous as not developing your own sound at all.

A tool that has stood the test of time, has been used by countless performing musicians, and is available on both old and new technology, is recording yourself.

There is no better way to hear yourself than to record yourself. “Ouch” you say? Ouch, indeed, for a while. But nothing encourages like disappointment, and many players find that, if they can have the patience (arrrgh that “P” word again) they will begin to hear real progress in their intonation, their connection, in the flow of phrases.

So, if you have a hankering to listen to a YouTube performance, how about bending that a little and listening to a YOU performance?

Gotta love live music.


Melissa Perley

The Price of Wisdom

I toss another chunk of wood into the wood stove noticing, as I pick it out of the wood bin, the distinct marks from our wood splitter and I suddenly recognize the piece from my splitting, like an old friend that I inadvertently cut up.

I'm watching the falling icy rain pellets turn to fat balls of snow. The snow on our metal roof has slid down and stopped at the edge, as if, unwilling to hit the ground, it hangs there clinging, a large snow/ice claw, to the roof line.

A student who makes the drive up from NYC each Friday has canceled his lesson already and I'm wondering how many more will follow. We have a customer who is coming from the north to look at instruments and I'm sure this storm has turned her driving into crawling. Like any good Vermonter, I love a snowstorm. Until it keeps me from doing what I want to do.

Fortunately the weather cooperated for David to pick up his cello which was being repaired We emailed him ahead of his lesson to let him know that the cello, which had been in the shop for about a month was back together again and ready for him to play. In the interim we had been able to loan David an instrument so that he could continue to practice, play and have lessons, during the repair time.

The day of the accident, he came for his lesson and found the damage that had occurred earlier in the day from his case being blown over in the parking lot. After assessing everything, we talked about his choices; to have his cello undergo extensive repairs, or purchase a new instrument. Some of the decision rested on insurance factors of course, but at that crossroad I could see him thinking about how easy it might be to simply purchase a newbie. After careful thought, he decided to repair his instrument.

He had used the loaner to practice each day to play in lessons and even to perform in the winter recital. It had served him well and he had gotten used to it, finally. The cello that was loaned to him was about ten years old: a baby in cello years. The cello that he had originally purchased from us was over one hundred years old. It bears the battle scars of the well-played; worn areas where left arms have rested over time, nicks and scratches from the bow being dropped and various dents in the edge. Often, when talking about or showing an old instrument, Paul and I feel the need to address age in the appearance of the cello to customers. Acknowledging that in music, like the rest of life, looks do matter.

David lifted (carefully) the loaner out from it's case and handed it to me. I could see a brief moment of hesitation as he put it into my hands. Paul came in from the shop with David's cello and David lit up with recognition at his old friend. But the reunion was just beginning.

As he sat down to play he passed his hands lovingly across the top of the cello. Wizard that is he, Paul had also managed to fill and cover some of the recent dings on the face of the instrument. So, in a sense, the cello had restorative AND cosmetic work a cello face-lift, if you will.

Tunbridge, old farmer.jpg

The new kid sat on the stand in the corner, a bit forlorn, as David began to play his “new” old cello, And as he drew his bow across the strings, his mouth dropped open. His instrument had always been amazingly resonant - as a cello ages, the winter grains harden helping give it that complex sound we all love, however, the fact that it had a new neck mated, precisely, to it's body, made the resonance even greater. Every note was round and full with beautiful overtones. Looking around the room, everyone was wearing huge grins, the biggest being David's.

He pulled the cello away from him to look at it. There it stood, slightly small and dark with it's Germanic coloring interlaced with bumps and bruises. As I looked at it, I thought I detected the slightest amount of pleasure from it under our admiring gazes.

In the corner stood the younger, shinier, smooth-faced cello. It filled the stand with its taller body and broader shoulders. By all accounts shouldn't that be the cello most worthy of David's love? And yet, there was David stroking the (albeit) smaller shoulders of the old lady. And when she sang, we could hear the years and years of experience, of struggle, of wisdom in her voice.

And there was no contest.

Happy Valentine’s Day- Love the one you're with.

Melissa Perley

Musicians Farming Sheep: A Little Sparkle

Last evening Paul came in from a walk with the dogs saying he heard a lot of coyote commotion. I recognize that the time to worry about coyote activity is not when they are barking and howling but rather when they are silent...however, I quickly put on my barn jacket, muck boots, slapped on my headlamp and headed out to the paddock. Both Sam and Bronte charged along beside me sensing the possibility of excitement. They immediately picked up on the strange sounds and smells and raced off into the darkness barking, leaving me to finish crunching along the path to the barn alone.

Sheep in Barn.jpg

I swung open the door and flipped on the light. Mrs. Chubbers lifted her head at the creak of the door and came lumbering in to greet me. For the past few weeks I have had to sneak some Meloxicam into a handful of grain as she was suffering from a bit of a limp. It took all of one day for her to recognize that when I appeared there was grain to be had. Although she is properly healed, I’m the one having trouble breaking this evening habit. It is the expectant head lift and the charge in to see me. My brain knows that it really isn’t me, but the golden handful of grain, that lures her in - but how can I resist such adoration? I’ve had teenagers: even false adoration is better than none.

I fluff up some bedding with my fork, check that the heater is keeping the water from freezing and make sure that the feeder has hay in it for the cold night ahead. Then I head out into the paddock to check fencing, looking to be sure that the coyotes don’t have enough snow-pack to make a ski jump into the paddock. As I walk, the ladies all watch me. I had no idea that sheep were such curious creatures. Mrs. Chubbers clomps over and follows me out into the snow. A few other ewes wander out after us.

This time of night is wonderful; the straw in the barn smells sweet and warm although the air is cold enough that I can see my breath. I tilt my head back and look up at the stars. The sheep are quiet beside me and there is a deep peace.

Suddenly Beulah begins hopping quickly across the paddock. Sheep don’t really run, but hop on those impossibly skimpy stick legs of theirs. Many times I have put hay into their feeder and one of them will do a happy hop and prance to the food. But tonight as Beulah began to dance across the paddock, everybody seemed to want in on the game. She would stomp, stomp, stomp and then suddenly stop, arch her neck and freeze in place. Charlotte picked things up and began racing in nutty circles. Ethel did her own hip hop next to Charlotte then they looked at each other and did a gentle head butt. Beulah started again and it was on. Anne chased her in her own, odd, stiff legged way. Mrs. Chubbers and I stood quietly watching the sheep show. I wondered if she might join in but, as matriarch of the flock, she seemed to watch the rest with a look of bemused tolerance, the same way we humans watch toddlers play.

Standing there, I felt a combination of delight and privilege. During the day they mull around calmly chewing their cud- but tonight a veil had somehow been lifted and it seemed that they had forgotten that I, a different species from them, was there. Or, maybe even better, they didn’t mind.

I laughed out loud as they charged around packing down the snow with their game. Sam appeared at the fence and his tail began wagging as we watched their silliness.

I knew that, in the morning light, the flock I know would be there: standing calmly, contemplatively chewing and watching me work. But tonight, for a moment, the world within this paddock sparkled, and it was enough.

Mini Me's

At the book-signing a mom approaches me with her daughter who looks to be about four. She has purchased my book, “The Violin Family”and her daughter, Saskia, is carrying it to the table for me to sign. I ask her name and we chat about her brother, who plays the viola. She is animated in that sparkly way that only a four year old can be. When there is a pause in the conversation I know the perfect filler, “Frozen II.” I ask her if she has seen it and she fixes a gaze on me that says “duh” without words. We talk about Ana vs Elsa, she corrects me about which character actually wears the side-braid, then off they go.

A few days later I'm headed to Waits River school where I have been invited to read and bring instruments for grades K-5 at the school where my friend, Tom, teaches music. Paul has kindly agreed to make the trip with me: I have plied him with an offer of stopping at a well known truck stop for pie on the way home. I need him to help the young readers try their choice of some violin-family instruments in a variety of sizes (we aim to please), I need his support as I make this first trip to a school to read my book and frankly, I need him to sherpa.

We make our way into the school library and I'm struck by the wonderful, familiar smell of schools; hot lunch somehow always cooking and books, blessed books. In the library it feels a bit like Lilliput as we dwarf the small tables and chairs. I toss my winter coat over a chair, completely covering it.

The first group of kids come in and plop on the floor in front of where I'm stationed. I'm going to begin by playing some cello and have instrument in hand, so they keep moving closer until they ring around my endpin. One of the teachers gets their attention by doing some clapping that they all then mimic with their hands. A good rhythmic beginning.

I start to read and they are rapt. Every few minutes one of them asks a question or makes comment about their family and how their dog likes to eat music or how their mom bought them a guitar but their sister stepped on it...here they pause and look at the ceiling in deep thought before reporting that they are pretty sure she did it on purpose..

Life is about the journey and about the training - I have four sons to whom I spent hours reading. I speak violin, viola and can do it all in a French accent if the need arises. I talk softly when the characters are sad but can bellow with the best of them. I have been in training for this moment for years.

After reading, the students were delighted to spend some time with Luthier Paul trying instruments. Although he didn't wear his apron - Paul was completely recognizable from the book. When I introduced him as one of the characters he non nonchalantly lifted his hand to wave to the kids as they cheered but I could see a bit of color rise in his cheeks...

Students lifted violins under their chins, others laughed as they made a half-size cello talk with its lowest voice. Some of them had never seen a stringed instrument and my cello was as foreign to them as if I had walked in with a wolf on a leash. The experience was everything I had hoped for; an introduction and brief education in strings.

I stood with my cello in a receiving line of sorts as the students lined up to walk out the door. They alternately high-fived me and/or patted my instrument. As one young reader passed he stopped, tipped his head back to look right in my eyes and said “Oh, I wish you could bring that cello to my home.” Then smiled and got back into his line headed for hot lunch.

A week later I was at the pre-school of the little girl with whom I had chatted at the book signing. When I walked in, my arms full instruments, I got an excited greeting from even smaller children with even tinier chairs. I played a little Mozart (Twinkle) for them and they sang along. I'm not sure when I have been much happier than this; having my cello in my hands, sitting next to a terrarium with a box turtle in it, surrounded by children who understand music with their hearts and are not afraid to sing aloud.

However, I did become just a tiny bit happier when Soskia came over to me, put her little hand on my cello and whispered into my ear that, above all, she had noticed and liked that I had worn my hair in an Elsa braid.

Score.

Melissa Perley