Wednesday, December 30, 2009

‘Tis STILL the Season

Just two days ago – December 28 – I saw a discarded Christmas tree out on the curb. Three days after Christmas, and already it’s over? The mall parking lot was jam-packed with shoppers crowding the stores for “after-Christmas” sales, and radio stations (even the classical ones!) abandoned holiday music by December 26th.

But Christmas isn’t over yet; in fact, today is only the sixth day of Christmas, which lasts for twelve days until Epiphany on January 6. (Yes, those are the “twelve days of Christmas” made famous in song. An interesting discussion of the possible Christian symbolism of the lyrics may be found at

“Twelfth Night” is generally celebrated with revelry on the evening of January 5th, at which time Christmas decorations are removed, wassail is drunk, and a “Lord of Misrule” commands the feast and advocates reversal of roles for men and women, nobles and commoners, and the like. Shakespeare’s wonderful play Twelfth Night was written as an entertainment for that occasion; the Bard’s inclusion of reversed or backwards roles (a woman pretending to be a man, a commoner hoping to wed a noblewoman) is in recognition of this Twelfth Night custom.

In some cultures, especially those of our Hispanic neighbors, Epiphany (called “Three Kings’ Day” in honor of the Magi) is the day set aside for gift-giving and family celebrations. And for Orthodox Christians, Christmas is still several days away; they celebrate Christ’s birth on January 7, and observe Epiphany or Theophany on January 19th.

So, with so many reasons and occasions to continue our celebrations, why is there such a rush to end Christmas so early? Perhaps the people who live in the house where I saw the discarded Christmas tree are among those who put their Christmas decorations up on the day after Thanksgiving, and after six weeks, they’re ready to move on. But I really think that the rush has its origin in our retail culture; increasingly, our observances of holidays (holy days) and days of historical or cultural significance (Fourth of July, Hallowe’en, etc.) are driven by retailers and marketers. And that’s why Valentine’s Day merchandise (as if we need it) is already in the stores. (There’s no more money to be made on Christmas; what’s the next holiday we can exploit?)

At our house, we wait until mid-December, usually around the 14th, before we get a tree, decorate indoors and out, or even bake Christmas cookies. (We didn’t even finish our Thanksgiving turkey until well into the first week of December!) We then leave the indoor Christmas decorations up until Epiphany, and leave the evergreen wreath on the front door until the end of January.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Christmas Carol: A True Story

.At the end of November, I received an inquiry from a new customer at GraceNotes, the business through which I provide program annotations, writing, and editing services for classical musicians and ensembles ( ). Here’s that first message, followed by the entire correspondence I had with this young musician. (I’ve edited the messages for clarity and to protect my client’s privacy; I also added a few explanatory comments in square brackets.) Merry Christmas.
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[From London] – Dear Sir or Madame, I am preparing for my Diploma on Piano for the end of December. I have already written my Program notes but I would like that someone proofreads them for me as I am originally from Barcelona and I may make mistakes in English. Please let me know if it would be possible for you to do so. I found your webpage and services very reliable. Thank you very much.” [The attached program notes were for a prelude and fugue by Bach, an Intermezzo by Brahms, and an early Beethoven sonata.]
[From Connecticut] – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, wonderful! I have just read Jan Swafford’s wonderful biography of Brahms. Yes, I can proofread your notes. Please let me know when you need to have it done, whether you want just proofreading (looking for spelling errors, etc.) or if you also want some light editing to adjust stylistic matters, etc. … Sarah

[From London] – I have also read Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms and I found it very factual and useful to understand his music. Well, I’d like if you could just proof-read my programme notes. I have allowed other musicians to read them and they say the content is good, so I think if you could just check that the grammar and expressions are correct it would be enough. But, of course, if you see anything very wrong about the content please let me know! I need them for maximum the 18th December. I live in London … I thank you for your answer and hope that you like them. Kind regards…

[From Connecticut] – Your notes are very nice - I enjoyed reading them. I do see some areas that I think could be strengthened with some light revisions - just the adjustment of a word here or there. [There followed some discussion of work to be done and my suggested fee, which was a student rate, about half of what I would normally charge.] I can take care of it today and get it back to you this evening so you have time to make changes. Let me know if that is OK with you. I hope your recital is wonderful. I am also a pianist (and singer) and I love to play Bach above all. This week I have been playing Brahms, though; I recently sang in four performances of his Requiem and have had his music very much in my ear. … Sarah

[From London] – Dear Sarah, I am sorry but I cannot afford to pay your fee. I am student and I work as well to pay my studies’ expenses and I have to be careful because my budget is very low. I have had a look at your webpage and it’s fantastic all the information from different areas that you can find it in there. I enjoyed it a lot. Thank you very much for your interest My best wishes…

[From London, a week later] – Dear Sarah, I have been ill during this past week so I couldn’t do a big search to ask someone to proof-read my programme notes. My Diploma is on Monday and I need it so urgently.... I have asked my family to help me and pay for it. I would love if you could have a look at them as all the other proof-readers I’ve found don’t know about music. I have changes some things to make them more appropriate to a bigger range of audience. Please let me know what you think. They should be for an audience who are familiar with music but not musicians themselves. For a generalist audience. I think I may have included too much technical terms... Please change or modify anything what you think would make them more appropriate. I am sorry to have emailed you so late. I have had a very bad flu and I had to stay in bed and do nothing for days, and I don’t have access to internet at home. I would be very thankful if you could inform me as soon as possible if you would be able to have a look at the programme notes before Friday night. I’ll pay the amount you think is convenient. Thank you very much. My best wishes…

[From Connecticut] – Hello…I am sorry you are ill! I seem to be on my second round of cold and flu, too… Yes, I can review your notes [and send the revisions to you tonight]. … I remember what it was like to be a student without money! In lieu of your paying me a fee, I would be delighted if you would make a donation to your favorite performing ensemble, or perhaps give some free or-low cost piano lessons to kids who might not otherwise be able to pay. ... Sarah

[From London] – Thank you very much. … Please, tell me if you really want me to pay, I’ll do it. I teach music to children while studying (I have to pay the rent!). If you really wish it I’ll teach one hour free to one child who his parents have problems with money and can’t come so often. He is 6 and has an amazing capacity for playing but overall for inventing his own music. Now we have started to write it down and he loves it so much that he says he wants to be a composer! Please, tell me whatever you want and I’ll do it. It is already a gift to be able to meet someone who still having human values and believe on people. ...

[From Connecticut] – Hello … Here are your program notes, with proofreading and light editing all done. These are very nice notes! I enjoyed reading about each piece. I corrected the spelling and grammar issues as you suggested, and also restructured a few sentences to make them easier to read. I hope you are pleased with the results. I did spell-check, but you should also read it over carefully to be sure it is as you wish. Good luck on your recital! I hope you are feeling much better and can enjoy the great music you have chosen. Now, if you would give a few lessons to that promising young musician you mentioned, I would consider myself well paid for the two hours I spent to revise your notes. Over the years, I have benefited from colleagues’ assistance, so I can pay that back by helping you this time around. The world needs good music and musicians...and we are part of that! Best of luck, Sarah

[From London] – Dear Sarah, Thank you very very very much for your revision. I loved the way you understood the meanings of my sentences and you modified its structure without changing its content. Thank you very much..... Your way of writing programme notes is beautiful! I promise you I am going to give that boy at least four free lessons. I would like to enter him to do a young composer’s competition but he needs help. His parents can’t afford to pay for more. You made me a great Christmas present, and I offer myself to help you in anything I can be useful. [Here, the client offered to do free translations for me in her native language and in two other languages!] I am very thankful to you and I wish you have a wonderful Christmas surrounded by your loved ones and by the most eternal and loyal love: MUSIC. Good wishes for the New Year!

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If this story moves you, perhaps you’ll also find a way to help someone in a meaningful way. This was my best Christmas present this year.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Early Bird Special

On most mornings, I’m the first person in our household to awaken. I head to the kitchen to make my first cup of tea and check the bird feeders to discover the day’s “early bird special” – that is, to see which birds made it to the feeders first. It’s fairly predictable.

In the summer, when I’m often up by 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., the first bird I see is often a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a tiny dark blur in the dim pre-dawn light. The little hummers must eat almost constantly when they are awake. During the night, they enter a semi-torpid state, almost like a mini-hibernation, so as to conserve fuel during the cool night hours. The hummers are often the last at the feeders in the evening, too, getting their bedtime snacks.

In the colder months, the first birds to arrive at the feeders are usually the Northern Cardinals and the White-throated Sparrows. I can hear the Cardinals’ “chip!” notes and the White-throats’ “tseep!” notes, and when I peer out into the darkness around 5:30 a.m., there they are. These two species come and go all day long, and are usually the last ones at the feeders in the late afternoon, too, sometimes staying on into twilight.

The Cardinals are year-round residents; we have at least two pairs that nest in or around our yard.

The White-throated Sparrows are winter residents, having migrated from their breeding grounds in the far north. They are very pretty birds and excellent songsters.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I Wish the Hawk Would Eat the Sparrows

Thoughts on the presence of a Cooper’s Hawk at our feeder, which is continually plagued with House Sparrows.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I wish the hawk would eat the sparrows,
break their bones and suck their marrows,
pluck their feathers, pull off their heads,
rip their flesh into little shreds!

They eat all the birdseed. They cause other birds stress.
They poop on the window and make a big mess.
They poop under the awning when weather gets cold
and poop on the top of it when it’s unrolled.

Among our birds, these finches are trash;
they haven’t even got panache.
Their incessant tuneless discordant chatter
drowns out the birds that really matter.

They don’t even belong here, you know;
they were brought from the Old World long ago
as part of a plan to bring to our shore
birds familiar in Europe of yore.

The reasons now seem bizarre and absurd:
The plan was to establish here each bird
mentioned in the plays of Avon’s great Bard.
Now we have sparrows in every yard.

That’s why we also have the Starling,
a good mimic and Mozart’s darling.
But our bluebirds became the sacrifice
to someone’s idea that the starling is nice.

Who thought our landscape would be more pleasant
with introduced birds like the Starling and pheasant?
The House Sparrows and Starlings have adapted so well
that their destructive numbers continue to swell.

If I had a tiny bow and some tiny arrows,
I’d shoot all the pesky, nasty House Sparrows.
I’d mince them fine and put them in boxes
then set them out to feed the foxes.

But as I have no bow or tiny arrows
to eradicate my hoards of sparrows,
I call upon our neighborhood raptor
to chase, and pounce, and grab, and capture.

More bad poetry about house sparrows:

December 9, 2009

© 2011 Quodlibet. Dissemination, re-use, or duplication prohibited except by express permission of the author.I pay attention and I will find you if you cite, republish, or use my work without credit or without attribution.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Persistence of Summer

One brave pansy, as yellow as yellow can be, continues to bloom on my back deck.

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The Promise
Summer persists in a single yellow bloom,
a drop of gold in autumn’s mauve and grey:
The season’s last bright pansy does not presume
to know that winter frost is on the way.
The golden sun still glowing in its face,
its leaves still neat, with gently scalloped edge,
it shines a note of poignant hope and grace
among the leafless vines and thorny hedge.
The last of hundreds that brightened our front walk
with white and yellow, and chestnut-purple note,
this last of all, the brightest, seems to mock
the coming cold, though summer’s now remote.
Wind will blow, and winter frost will sting,
But in that pensive face, I see the promised spring.

© 2011 Quodlibet. Dissemination, re-use, or duplication prohibited except by express permission of the author.I pay attention and I will find you if you cite, republish, or use my work without credit or without attribution.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Birding on Thanksgiving

Only one bird is on my list today: Turkey.

When I asked K to write down what she wanted on today’s menu, here’s what she gave me:

Cranberry sauce
Mashed potatoes
Squash purée
Sparkling cider

This translates to “Make all our favorites the way you always do.” (How nice!)

Here's the detail:

Slow-Roasted Turkey with Herb Butter Baste Brush the prepared bird (17lb. this year) with melted butter, salt and pepper liberally, sear at 500˚F for 10 minutes, then cover the roasting pan, reduce heat to 275˚F and roast covered for four hours. Baste every 45 minutes or so, but the covered roasting pan ensures a moist bird and lots of pan juices. Uncovered roasting evaporates the moisture and vents it away! Why lose all that goodness? During the last hour or so, uncover the bird to brown it if you like.
Herbed Bread Dressing D and I agreed that this year we want some dressing cooked in the bird and some cooked as a side dish; usually I bake the dressing separately. I make the dressing from my own homemade oatmeal bread. A large bowl of cubed bread has been drying on the kitchen counter since Tuesday night. This morning I’ll add chopped onions, celery, crispy red Macoun apples (skin on!), almonds, herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme), and perhaps a minced shallot or leek. Season with freshly ground sea salt and black pepper. Moisten with a combination of chicken stock, wine, brandy, cider – depending on my mood and what I’m drinking this afternoon. Bakes beautifully as a side dish.
Yeasted Dinner Rolls I have a wonderful recipe for a soft white yeast bread that makes the best dinner rolls. This year’s are square rolls; usually I make them into crescent rolls. They are so good. Here's the recipe:

Silken Giblet Gravy I’ll brown the giblets in olive oil and butter, then simmer them in broth with aromatics like carrot, onion, celery tops, and herbs. I’ll use the resulting stock to supplement the pan juices for gravy-making. We like it highly seasoned, not too thick, smooth and silky except for the finely-chopped giblets. I bought extra giblets so I can make plenty of gravy for our leftovers. Add a dash of brandy at the end.

Zesty Cranberry Sauce I made the cranberry sauce on Tuesday. I cooked whole fresh berries with cloves, a cinnamon stick, sugar, and a dash of salt, then stirred in the grated zest of an orange at the end. It gelled beautifully and will look lovely in a white dish.
Golden Potato Mash I like Yukon Gold potatoes for mashing. I’ll scrub the spuds and quarter them, leaving the skin on, then boil them with a chopped onion and sprig of fresh thyme. After draining the cooked potatoes, I’ll add plenty of butter, salt, and fresh pepper, then whip them with a hand-held mixer. I might add a little milk if needed, though I prefer a dry sort of fluffiness in anticipation of the gravy.
Green Peas Plain frozen petit peas, steamed. A requirement with mashed potatoes. ‘Nuf said.
Maple-Ginger Butternut Squash Purée This has become a family favorite. On Tuesday I cut up and roasted two butternut squashes, cooking them long enough so that they caramelized a bit. Yum. While the turkey is cooking, I’ll puree the squash with butter, salt, pepper, a bit of ground ginger, and a generous portion of my sister’s best-in-the-world maple syrup. This will go into the special oval casserole dish and bake for a while ‘til it’s hot and a bit browned around the edges. Sometimes I dust the top with finely-chopped pecans before serving. I’ve got some hazelnuts in the pantry, so I might use these instead.
Bacon-Braised Brussels Sprouts Not on K's list, but a new favorite that will complement the other flavors. At Tom and Lee’s house last spring, we enjoyed some delectable Brussels sprouts cooked gently and with some lovely seasonings. We thought we didn’t like Brussels sprouts. I think we didn’t like poorly-cooked Brussels sprouts. A few weeks ago, I tried cooking some and we affirmed that we like properly-prepared and seasoned Brussels sprouts. I’ll repeat that recipe today; it’s a simple braise seasoned with browned bacon and onion, chicken (turkey?) stock and fresh herbs. The trick, as with cabbage and broccoli, is not to overcook. Yum.
Sparkling Cider And fresh cider, a nice cabernet-merlot for D and me, coffee, tea.
Homemade Pies Last night, while K and E and S and N were here (fun!), I baked three pies: pecan (D’s mother’s famous recipe), pumpkin (fresh pumpkin), and cherry. Each of the pies was sampled and approved late last night. Add ice cream.

Monday, November 9, 2009


.Make some applesauce this fall. Make it now, while the apples are fresh and crisp and juicy,

It’s so easy, and so good.

First, get a Foley Mill or food mill. This is an inexpensive, easily obtainable hand-powered mill that makes it possible to make the best applesauce ever.

Buy good apples. I like to use Cortland apples or a blend of Cortlands with a few tart Macoun or Macintosh apples thrown in.

Wash them carefully and remove any leaves. Don’t peel them!
Cut the apples into chunks, removing any blemishes. I cut small apples into halves, and cut the medium and large apples into quarters. No need to remove stems, cores, or seeds. Don’t peel them! Just don’t – there’s a reason.

Put the cut-up apples into a large, heavy-bottomed pot (I use my Dutch oven), add some fresh apple cider (¼ to ½ cup or so, depending on how many apples you’ve used and how juicy they are), and throw in a cinnamon stick or two, or a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. That’s it! Don’t add sugar. Just don’t. The apples are already sweet and flavorful. The cider adds a bit of concentrated flavor. Really, try this without sugar and see what you think!

Cover the pot, bring the apples and cider to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer until the apples are very soft. Mushy, even. It’s OK to let it cook longer if you are busy, but longer cooking won’t make it better. In fact, I like to stop the cooking after 30 minutes or so to preserve as much of the fresh apple flavor as possible. Stir it all up once in a while to ensure that the apples cook evenly. If it looks dry, add a splash more cider, but not too much. This will probably not take more than 30 minutes, depending on the quantity.

Remove the pot from the heat and let it cool a bit.

Position the Foley mill over a large bowl. Start processing the apple mixture through (all at once for a small amount, in batches for a larger quantity). The seeds, cores, and skins will remain in the mill – the lovely, warm, fragrant, applesauce will pile up in the bowl and soon people will start coming into the kitchen to ask, “What smells so good?”

And now you will see that the red of the apple skins has created a lovely pink color in your homemade applesauce. When you taste it, you’ll discover a flavor that you simply can’t get in a jar. Many people who taste my applesauce ask, "How much sugar did you use?" They are always surprised when I answer, "None!"

This applesauce is delicious on its own, warm or cold. D had a bowl last night with fresh date-nut bars. I love it hot over buttered toast. K likes it for breakfast with toast on the side. It keeps for a week or more in the refrigerator, and freezes beautifully.

We have a big week ahead – tech and production week for all three of us – so I’ve planned some “comfort foods” to have on hand, and this applesauce is one of them.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Desk Work

Last week I wrote:

This morning I indulged in some “desk work” with my Brahms Requiem score, in preparation for [ensemble]'s upcoming performances. “Desk work” entails sitting and staring silently at the score. Well, there’s more to it than that, of course; what I’m actually doing is thinking, working over the music in my inner ear, embedding words and rhythms in my memory, analyzing the forms and structures of the music, and taking time to understand how my part fits into the entire work. “Desk work” is entirely separate from practicing, which is vocal work done at the piano or (sometimes) with a recording. Sometimes during desk work I go to the piano to work out an intellectually challenging vocal line or to unravel some knotty counterpoint, but most of the “desk work” actually takes place at the island in the kitchen, laptop at the ready, so that I can enrich my thinking with research and supplemental information. (Read the whole essay HERE)

The “desk work” part of performance preparation is so important (to me, anyway) that I thought I’d expand on it a bit.

Composer and conductor Paul Halley (under whom I sang in Gaudeamus a few years ago) always stressed the importance of “desk study,” the term he used for working silently with a score, not playing or singing aloud, just hearing it internally and mastering it intellectually. Silent score study is especially helpful for sorting out rhythmic and textual issues.

Silent study of melodic and harmonic aspects works best for people who can actually hear the music in their “inner ear” when they look at the dots and squiggles on the page. I am lucky to be able to do this quite easily, so I find silent score study effective in learning all aspects of the musical score. (Sometimes I have the opposite experience: often when I hear music, it “writes” itself across my inner eye, even appearing on multiple staves for orchestral works. This is why I can’t hold conversation easily when there’s music going on. If you want to beat me at Scrabble©, put on some music while we play.)

Here’s what my personal “desk work” covers:

Prepare the Score. First – and this must take place well in advance of the first rehearsal, and certainly before any personal study can begin – I edit and prepare my score according to the director's instructions, if any have been given. (Read more about that HERE.) I love this process! It gives me a chance to study the score as a whole, not just my own part; it provides an opportunity to see how the director intends for the voice parts to interact; and helps me to understand that my part is just one of many threads that make up the whole work. If no instructions have been given, then I do my own prep, erasing marks from used scores and adding any notes or cues I might need. This is also a time to note errors or other areas in the score that need to be checked with the director or one's section leader (or, when I am serving as section leader, to pass on to my section).

Prepare the Texts. Next – and this is essential for any vocal music – I study the texts so I can understand what I’m singing about. If the text is not in English, I must find and read a translation, and write the English translation into my score if it is not already present. I can’t emphasize how important this is. If you don’t know what you’re singing about, you might as well be playing an instrument instead of singing.

Listen. It’s always nice to listen to recordings, score in hand, in order to develop an understanding of the work as a whole. Get the big picture. Listen and watch the score, but do not sing. Look at parts other than your own. Listen for how the orchestra or other instruments interact with the choral parts. Mark your score with cues or other notes to identify entering pitches, rhythms, etc. Recently, I’ve listened to two different recordings of the Brahms Requiem; they are very different. One was vocally ravishing (Shaw); the other (Klemperer) offered more insights into Brahms’ orchestration and how the vocal and instrumental parts complement each other (important to understand prior to orchestra rehearsals and performances next week).

Internalize. During silent “desk work” practice, I concentrate mostly on texts and rhythms, as described in the opening paragraph of this essay. This sort of study can’t be done during rehearsals or even during vocal practice; it must be done prior to joining with the other singers.

Analyze. In order to sing in a meaningful way, one must (in my opinion) have a basic understanding of the form and structure of the music. For example, a chorus may be asked to differentiate (by varying dynamics, vocal color, articulation, etc.) the subjects and countersubjects of a fugue. (Fugues are very common in large choral works, especially those with sacred topics and texts.) How will one be able to do this if one does not know where (or what) the subjects and countersubjects are? And some understanding of fugal structure is helpful in understanding (and executing) the subtle melodic differences that can occur in restatements of fugal subjects. For example, there’s one spot in the Brahms Requiem that is confusing for many sopranos – that F/F# confusion in the sixth movement! (m. 226) Perhaps they do not understand the reason for the F-sharp where F-natural had been used in the previous iterations (it has to do with the harmonic movement in the fugal episode) so they continue to sing “by ear” and continue with the F-natural. Ouch. One would think that after making the mistake two or three or four or five or six times they might notice it.

Read. I should add here that by this point, especially for a large work, I will have already done a fair amount of background reading on the composer and the music, particularly when I am preparing a large work, as is the case now as I prepares to sing the Brahms Requiem next week. This reading will often include a scholarly biography, the best program notes I can find (and there are some lousy ones out there!), musical and textual analyses, and other relevant materials. Many of my discoveries, questions, and musings end up in essays on this blog. Click HERE to read my preview essays on the Chorale’s upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Don’t miss what promises to be a magical performance of Brahms' wonderful Requiem. Call for your tickets today!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Who Really Composed the Brahms Requiem?

Yesterday The Hartford Symphony issued an email promotion for the upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem. The message included the photo of Johannes Brahms shown at left. I suppose that this near-iconographic image of Brahms, taken in 1889 when the composer was 56, is useful as a sort of shorthand to communicate “Brahms-ness.” Certainly this is the image most of us bring to mind when we think of Brahms: the bearded elder statesman of German music of the mid-19th century. But many of his compositions with which we are most familiar were written much earlier in his life, before he grew the famous beard and before age and illness had whitened his blond hair and beard.

I was thinking about this on Monday night, as [ensemble] finished its final piano rehearsal of Brahms’ first masterwork, the Requiem.

Brahms was just 35 when he completed the Requiem in 1868, 33 years before the famous photo shown above was taken. At left is a portrait of Brahms from 1866 or 1867, around the time he was composing and revising the Requiem (which had its premiere in 1868).

To me (having just turned 50), 35 seems very young, but as we hear in the Requiem, Brahms had certainly achieved musical maturity, though he may still have appeared youthful.

Does this beardless face surprise you? Though Brahms had tried several times in earlier years to grow a beard, it was not until 1878, when he was 45, that he succeeded. He never shaved the beard off, grew it long and full, and remained bearded for the remaining 19 years of his life. So though we usually think of Brahms as bearded, he was actually beardless for most of his adult life.

Here’s a selection of photographs of Johannes Brahms from his youth to his old age. It’s a remarkable sequence. He was considered very good looking, especially in his younger years. Though many young ladies sighed after him throughout his life, he remained unmarried.

The lovely oval portrait at left shows Brahms around 1853, probably aged 20. He remained very boyish, with an unchanged voice and beardless cheeks, until well into his forties.

This pencil portrait of Brahms, also dating from 1853, is by the French artist Jean Joseph Bonaventure Laurens (1801-1890). It's my favorite of all Brahms images.

Here he is around 1860 (left), still boyish at age 27 but beginning to express the seriousness and strength that would characterize much of his music.

The intense and stubborn character for which he was famous is evident in this portrait from 1862, around age 29 (right):

The next photo at right is my other favorite portrait of Brahms, made in 1874 when he was forty-one. I love his thoughtful expression and the sense of quiet confidence that implies an intense inner vision. His eyes were bright blue.

In this portrait (left) from 1878 (about ten years after he completed the Requiem), we see that Brahms has finally succeeded in growing a blond-brown beard.

His incessant cigar smoking aged him prematurely, and he was to die of liver cancer in 1897, at age 64. The photo shown below at right was taken in 1896, when he was already ill. But his sense of humor is evident in those twinkling blue eyes.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


I’ve been rereading The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – certainly one of the best novels of the last fifty years – it’s brilliant and wrenching and very subtle. The mood of regret that pervades the book brings to mind this poem, one of my favorites.

Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born,
Relieve my anguish and restore thy light,
With dark forgetting of my care return.

And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventured youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn
Without the torment of the night's untruth.

Cease, dreams, the images of day-desires
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising sun approve you liars
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow:

Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain.
And never wake to feel the day's disdain.

Samuel Daniel (1562-1619)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Expressive Language

One of the things that every English-speaking musician – professional and amateur – must master is the presence in musical scores of instructions in languages other than English. Most often, these markings are in Italian, which seems to be the most widely used language. And some of these, of course, are used so frequently that soon become so familiar that they almost need no translation, such as markings for tempo (allegro, andante), volume (piano, forte), and expressive style (such as dolce, meaning sweetly, or marcato, meaning with marked emphasis).

Of course, composers will often add specific instructions or descriptions in their native tongues, and sometimes there will also be notes, instructions, and other jargon printed in the language of the country where the score was published. Sometimes this yields an interesting combination.

Last year, for instance, when [ensemble] performed the Verdi Requiem, we used scores published by the German publisher C.F. Peters. The sung text, of course, is in its original Latin, but the title page, preface, primary translation of the Latin, and other peripheral texts are in German. An English rendition of the Requiem text is the only part of the score that has been translated to English. Where Verdi has used standard Italian musical directions (andante, sotto voce, crescendo, leggiero, etc.), these are printed in Italian. Verdi also offers copious interpretive instructions that are not “standard” musical terms. When he penned his manuscript, surely he wrote these in his native Italian. In the Peters edition, these are rendered in German, without any English translation. It seems very odd to see, in this most Italian of Italian music, an instruction like this: Äußerst leise, mit düsterer Stimme und sehr traurig (“Very softly, with mournful voices”). It’s too bad that English translations, either in the music or in a separate list, were not offered in this edition that is sold in English-speaking countries. I translated these terms on my own (and also found them online in simpatico Italian in a facsimile of an old Ricordi edition), but I wonder how many [ensemble] singers missed out on Verdi’s insights because we did not have translations?

[Ensemble] is presently in the final week of preparation for its upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem. Several weeks ago, I went through my score to look for and translate any terms that are unfamiliar to me. Turns out that they’re all in familiar Italian except for the major tempo descriptions at the head of each movement, which are in German. I’ll post the translations here for the benefit of any other singers who might find these useful. (The tempo markings for movements III and VI are in friendly Italian.)

Movement I: Selig sind, die da Leid tragen
Ziemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck – Rather slow and with expression

Movement II: Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras
Langsam, marschmäßig – Slow, moderate march
Second section: Etwas bewegter – With somewhat more motion

Movement IV: Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen
Mäßig bewegt –Moderately moving

Movement V: Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit
Langsam – Slowly

Movement VII: Selig sind die Toten
Feierlich – Solemnly

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Monday, November 2, 2009


The fall colors here in Connecticut are unbelievably beautiful this year. I laugh sadly at the "reports" in the newspaper that tell us that the colors are "so-so" or "not really very good" this year. Well, it has been cloudy a lot this month, so not every day is brilliant, but how can one ever call autumn's scarlets, golds, oranges, and russets "so-so" or “not really very good”?

What do people expect? To me, the fall colors, whether muted or brilliant, are always beautiful.

I guess people in our society expect perfection. Our over-hyped media sets us up to expect perfection. Big perfection, knock-your-eye-out perfection, once-in-a-lifetime perfection. But since Big Perfect Perfection rarely happens, people are often disappointed.

For those of us who seek out and savor small perfections, perfection is all around us, abundantly.

Yesterday afternoon D and I walked around our neighborhood: past the small pond, down to the old bridge near the meadow, and through the cemetery by the river. We saw breathtaking colors in the sky, trees, grasses, and birds. D spotted a fox, which is always a special treat. We picked up a few scarlet leaves – they were perfect. We watched a sapsucker feasting on poison ivy berries, pulling them from a vine that wound through a golden-leaved tree arching over a backwater on the little river. We walked through a flock of white-throated sparrows, enjoying their high-pitched lisping calls all around us. We watched a huge red-tailed hawk soaring in front of the enormous rising full moon. The air was fresh and cool, with a bit of warmth from the late afternoon sun. We walked and talked together.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vicarious Déjà vu?

.This morning I indulged in some “desk work” with my Brahms Requiem score, in preparation for [ensemble]'s upcoming performances.

“Desk work” entails sitting and staring silently at the score. Well, there’s more to it than that, of course; what I’m actually doing is thinking, working over the music in my inner ear, embedding words and rhythms in my memory, analyzing the forms and structures of the music, and taking time to understand how my part fits into the entire work. “Desk work” is entirely separate from practicing, which is vocal work done at the piano or (sometimes) with a recording. Sometimes during desk work I go to the piano to work out an intellectually challenging vocal line or to unravel some knotty counterpoint, but most of the “desk work” actually takes place at the island in the kitchen, laptop at the ready, so that I can enrich my thinking with research and supplemental information.

This morning, I was deep into a silent study of the D major fugue of the third movement, internalizing the wonderful syncopations of the soprano part in the extension of the first exposition (mm.185-187). Hmm…that sure reminds me a passage in the Credo of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, specifically, the countersubject in the “et vitam venturi” fugue. I went online to see if there might be any info on this connection…more on that another time. But while I was browsing, I did find a real gem: a photofacsimile of a full score of Brahms Requiem that had belonged to Richard Barth (1850-1908). I believe that this is the first edition, issued by Brahms' friend and publisher J. M. Rieter-Biedermann.

Barth, a virtuoso violinist and conductor, was a friend of Brahms and was a member of the composer’s inner circle of musicians and intellectuals. As a youth, Barth had so severely injured his left hand that he could no longer play the violin conventionally; nonetheless, he taught himself to play “backward,” executing the fingerings with his right hand and bowing with his left hand (his instrument was also strung “backward”). Barth, who had studied with Joseph Joachim, performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto under Brahms’ direction, and toured to Amsterdam with the composer.

During his career, Barth often performed and conducted Brahms’ works, in particular the Requiem. The facsimile I found online seems to have been the copy from which he conducted; on the verso of the title page is a list of the dates, cities, and soloists for ninenteen performances of the Requiem between 1894 and 1917. Inside, the score is liberally marked with red and blue penciled cues and notes. Of particular interest in Barth’s score are numerous notes about the contrabassoon and organ, indicating the passages in whichthese distinctive instruments should (and should not) play. There has been much discussion over the years about the contrabassoon and organ parts in the Requiem; perhaps Barth’s notes provide some clue to Brahms’ wishes?

A little frisson comes over me here…one can imagine Brahms and Barth sitting down together, score between them, a bottle of Brahms’ favorite Rhenish near at hand, sorting it all out with great good cheer. Take a look...see if you get the same feeling that I did – can I call it “vicarious déjà vu”? It’s not a memory of my own experience; rather, it’s my imagined memory of what Barth’s experience might have been.

Note the bookplates inside the front cover…on each you may see the main theme of the fourth movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. While on one of his beloved mountain vacations, Brahms had famously jotted this theme on a postcard that he had sent to his close friend Clara Schumann; that anecdote lives on in the mountain-themed bookplate on the left, which shows that this score had once belonged to Richard Barth. The bookplate on the right implies that this score was later owned by Brahms scholar Kurt Hofmann.

(There’s also an intriguing poem handwritten in German on the flyleaf…If I’m able to find or devise a translation I’ll post it. Unlikely, though.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beethoven’s Stars

Over the past two or three years, I’ve had the pleasure of performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony several times. One of the many advantages of performing this music so many times within a relatively short time is that I’ve really had a chance to learn it inside out, not only as a singer, but as a music historian, poet, and person. The Ninth Symphony is so substantive – not just the music, but what Beethoven tells us about humanity as the music unfolds – that to begin to understand it requires care, attention, and desire, not just during the weeks of preparation, but for months before and after the performances. As I’ve written earlier (see link at the end of this paragraph), as part of my personal preparation for these performances, I invested substantially in reading, studying, and analysis of the score and text. I’m still thinking and learning about it all, and looking forward to performing the Symphony again later in the 2009-2010 season. You can read about my reflections on preparing and singing this music so often, and for different audiences, here:

Beethoven packages his Message of (and to) Humanity in what is certainly some of the most memorable music ever written. A few years ago K pointed out to me, very astutely, that Beethoven had been wise to devise a simple melody for the “Ode to Joy” theme (“Freude, schöner Götterfunken”). “It’s like a folk song,” she said, adding that “Beethoven wanted people to remember it. It’s easy to remember and anyone can sing it. That’s important for music that carries such a big idea.”

There’s another moment in the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony that I find equally compelling and very magical. It’s in the section before the final double fugue, beginning at measure 627, marked Adagio ma no troppo, ma divoto (Slow but not too much, but devotedly). Here the music drops to its knees as the choir asks: “Do you fall down, O millions? Are you aware of your Creator, O world? Seek Him above the starry firmament!” Beethoven responds to the question musically: a rising stair-step series of diminished intervals unfolds in the high winds, practically forcing us look up, up, up to find the answer, “For above the stars He must dwell.” The stars shimmer ethereally as the orchestra repeats the diminished harmony in pianissimo triplets. Then the brilliant and climactic D-major double fugue bursts like comets and meteors from the starry sky: “Let me embrace you, O millions! Joy, beautiful, divine!”

How this moment must have burned itself on the heart and mind of Johannes Brahms! Some forty years after Beethoven completed his Choral Symphony, Brahms invoked Beethoven’s starry heavens in his own masterwork Ein deutsches Requiem. In the third movement of the Requiem, the baritone soloist and choir ask, “Now, Lord, O what do I wait for?” Though the passage builds powerfully, it is restive and unresolved, and it finally falls away in a series of diminished chords, as the choir repeats the searching question, “O what do I wait for?” Brahms answers the question not in words, but in music, by giving us, unmistakably, Beethoven’s starry sky, in a suddenly-familiar series of diminished chords, sounding quite high in the orchestra in pianissimo triplets. The music commands us to Look up! to find the answer. Brahms’s double implication – that what we wait for is above us, in the starry heaven, and that Beethoven’s musical depiction of this concept is definitive – invokes an immediate sympathetic response and recognition in any listener who knows Beethoven’s Ninth. Brahms’ setting of the phrase which follows (“My hope is in Thee”) is ecstatically reverent, rising inevitably in a searing crescendo before the joyous D-major fugue that closes the movement.

Knowing as we do the degree to which Brahms revered Beethoven, it is not surprising to find homage to the Ninth Symphony in the German Requiem. But earlier this year, I found Beethoven’s stars in a less likely, and wholly unexpected, place. It was during [an event] devoted this year to choral music of Maurice Duruflé, with that master’s Requiem as the centerpiece of our study and performance. The opening words of the final movement, In Paradisum, are these: “May the angels receive you in Paradise.” The first four bars of the movement which precede these words unfold as stair-steps of diminished chords, piano, rising, rising, rising steadily to heaven. The evocation of Beethoven’s starry sky is unmistakable – indeed, it is almost an exact quotation, though in a different key – and the command to the listeners to Look up! is irresistible. One does not customarily think of Duruflé as having been markedly influenced by Beethoven, but perhaps the starry diminutions of the Ninth caught his ear and his imagination, as happens with me, every time.

© 2009 Sarah Hager Johnston All rights reserved.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sapsucker Season

To a large degree, seeing interesting birds depends on plain old good luck.

A few minutes ago I went to the kitchen to fix a cup of tea. As usual, while the kettle heated I scanned the backyard feeders to see what might be out there. A few Mourning Doves, the little flock of annoying House Sparrows, and a pretty red male Northern Cardinal. A woodpecker flew past the kitchen window to the suet feeder in the wisteria, swooping so close to the window that it was nothing more than a dark blur.

A dark blur? Hmm…that’s different! Dark. Chunky. That’s not a Downy Woodpecker, which is very small and mostly white… And it’s definitely not a large, slender, mostly-white Hairy Woodpecker… And the brown Flickers never come up this close to the house… Oh boy, it’s a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker! Wait! There’s another one! Two Sapsuckers!
As I watched these two pretty birds explore the wisteria arbor just outside the window, then move to the elm tree where more feeders are hung, I made a mental check-mark on the seasonal birding checklist that I maintain in my memory (I’m a “listless” birder, as I wrote about HERE). I’ve been waiting and hoping that a Sapsucker would arrive here soon, and here were two. Lucky day!

In late October 2006, a single juvenile Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker stopped at our suet feeder for a few days, feeding and resting during its migration. A single male (the same bird?) also stopped by briefly in October 2007. I didn’t see one in the fall of 2008, but a single adult male Sapsucker (the same bird?) arrived in early January 2009 for a lengthier stay, creating havoc among our flock of resident woodpeckers. (Read HERE about that bird, its remarkable feeding behavior, and the resulting “Woodpecker Wars.”)

The Sapsuckers at our feeders this morning are juveniles, sporting intricate, very attractive black, brown, and white plumage. Their underparts show the soft yellow wash that gives them their “Yellow-Bellied” name. (They are very assertive, if not aggressive, certainly not “cowardly” as we might associate with “yellow-bellied.”) On one bird, I could see bits of red emerging on throat and nape, marking it as a male, and enabling me to differentiate the two individuals easily. I wonder if they are offspring of last year’s adult? Did he lead them here to “drop them off” at a known food source?

As striking as their plumage is, these young birds blend in beautifully with the vari-colored and highly textured bark of the elm tree where the suet feeders hang. When they are still, they can be hard to spot. They are quiet birds, too, especially compared to the noisy Red-Bellied and Hairy Woodpeckers, which typically announce their arrival with loud calls.

By the time I head back to the kitchen for my next cup of tea, these two travelers might already be gone, continuing on their southern migration. Or perhaps, like last year’s visitor, they’ll stay for several days or weeks. Either way, it’s a thrill to see them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Tyranny of Poetry

If you’ve visited here before, you may know that I love reading, and writing, and words, and the way words are used. In fact, I often fall prey to the tyranny of poetry, a phrase that came to me this afternoon. I’d been thinking about a note I sent to a colleague and wondering if it had been a bit over the top, and whether I’d been blacklisted (it happens). When the inbox remains eerily empty for nearly a week, where normally there is an abundance of messages, you can’t help but wonder.

I get into all sorts of trouble because I cannot resist the rhythms, the shapes, the varied and marvelous meanings of words. Perhaps it's because I'm also a musician; my thinking seems dominated by rhythms, tones, and structure, whether it's in music or in words. Much as I revel in the internal harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic structures in music, I delight in parallel constructions, tidy metaphors, expansive vocabularies, the cogent appeal of a well-turned sentence, and the inevitable and natural rhythm of iambic pentameter.

I’ve never met a thesaurus I didn’t love, and I confess to being “one of those” who reads the dictionary for fun. (And in each of my choral folders there's a stack of crossword puzzles for those occasional stretches backstage or before rehearsal when I need a quiet bit of something to do.)

Words can be seductive, enticing one into entrapments and snares, woven of golden and silken threads that are so beautiful, sounding and feeling so very good that one fails to see how very dangerous they are.

Now, while this propensity is useful when I’m writing poetry, or describing a bird watching outing, or (especially) writing about my musical experiences, it can sometimes be a real liability.

I always have to be on guard not to introduce lyricism for its own sake, despite the temptation.

If I’m writing a report for a client, for example, I have to work very hard to keep excess poetry out. The client does not care if I’ve used a beautifully turned metaphor, and he may not even notice the subtle phonetic or orthographic alliterations that turn dull prose into something bright and interesting. He may sense that this is not “business writing as usual,” but will probably not take time to consider what makes it different and why he might find it interesting and engaging.

In writing program notes, a certain amount of lyricism is encouraged, even expected, but only when it serves the larger purpose of illuminating the music about which I’m writing.

My biggest challenge comes in personal communications, especially when I'm writing to those who also love words, who I hope will respond to the lyric touch. But too often, I let words shape my message, rather than the other way around. The poet in me hopes (assumes?) that the reader will sense my desire to impart beauty and to rise above the ordinary, and will understand that I let the words flow because they must. I regret that this writer-reader connection doesn't occur as often as I hope it would. In my personal interactions, I probably confuse and distance people who read or think prosaically, or who don't expect sudden influxes of lyricism in routine communications. And email complicates everything, since it’s too damned easy to send off a message and impossible to recall it, and where, like a comet, a sent message seems to leave a burning trail of regret as it flies off through cyberspace. [See what I mean??]

So the days go by, and I wait and wonder and worry.

[Oh, isn’t that the coolest alliteration?]

[revised 10-23-09]

Driven to Distraction

A few days ago I sent a letter to the editor of The Hartford Courant. It was published yesterday. Here it is:

In her Oct. 19 letter ["Mom-itering Young Drivers"], M. Regina Cram wisely advises that parents forbid teens' use of electronic devices while driving. But teens are only part of the problem. In the same issue of The Courant, a summary of new research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety [World & Nation, "Hand-Held Bans Vex Drivers, Study Finds"] provided numbers to back up what many of us see every day on Connecticut's roads: Most people who use hand-held cellphones while driving are adults between the ages of 25 and 59. I was recently nearly broadsided by a middle-aged woman too busy texting to notice she had run a red light.

Here's an action plan:

To legislators: Give us a law with some teeth. Penalize phone-impaired driving as severely as we punish drug- or alcohol-impaired driving. They are equally risky. Provide enough money so that police can get dangerous drivers off the road.

To law enforcement: Arrest drivers who break the law and put the rest of us at risk. Wouldn't you rather issue a ticket than respond to a fatal accident?

To drivers of all ages: Hang up and drive! Pull over if you must use the phone. Is it worth the risk? Your lives — and ours — are at stake.

You can read the letter online HERE at The Courant's website, where you can also review (and add to) the comments that other readers have appended.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hide and Seek

I was at the living room window watching White-throated Sparrows (always hoping to spot another White-crowned!) when a flash of scarlet caught my eye. Our large, very handsome resident Red-bellied Woodpecker, with its scarlet crown and nape, swooped flamboyantly into the oak tree, a large chunk of suet in its bill. It appeared to be looking for something, hopping and scrambling here and there. Finally it pushed the piece of suet into a hole where a small branch had been broken off. The bird had been looking for a good place to stash a suet snack to enjoy later on a cold winter day.

Wait – no good. The bird was not satisfied with the hole; it removed the suet piece and flew to one tree after another another, trying and rejecting several places.

Next, the woodpecker flew to the top of the backyard fence, where he found a niche between the two cross-pieces of lumber that connect the corner post to the gate post. OK, in it goes… Wow, it went a long way down! Where is it?! He looked under the cross-beam where, sure enough, the suet chunk had fallen through. No problem…he grabbed it neatly and tried the other end of that section of fence, where a similar hole was found. In went the suet, and this time it did not fall through. Great!

Uh-oh… a nosy House Sparrow was watching, hopping closer and closer along the top of the fence. (Those pesky sparrows love suet – read about it HERE.) The grey-brown female sparrow, undaunted by the bigger woodpecker’s menacing wing-flashes and rasping calls, crept closer and closer.

The woodpecker removed the suet from the hole, hesitated, then returned to the no-good bottomless hole, keeping his back to the sparrow. He then pretended to stuff the suet in the hole, giving a persuasive performance as he jabbed his head and beak several times toward the hole, holding the suet in his bill the entire time. Then, without turning around, keeping his back to the sparrow, off he flew with the suet firmly in his grasp, to find a secure, more private hiding spot.

As soon as the woodpecker was gone, the sparrow dashed to the fake hidey-hole and spent several minutes trying to find the suet chunk that she was sure was in there.

A few minutes later, the woodpecker was back at the suet feeder, grabbing another chunk for his winter larder.

Did the woodpecker deliberately trick the sparrow into thinking he had left the suet there? Researchers report that eastern grey squirrels create fake caches where they pretend to hide food, and scrub jays, crows, and ravens (all members of the highly intelligent corvid group) have been observed in similar behaviors. So perhaps our woodpecker was, in fact, pretending to hide the suet. In any case, the sparrow certainly was fooled.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Traffic Stops

On my morning drive today, I had the option of sitting in traffic on the north side of the river, or sitting in traffic on the south side of the river. I opted for the south side, having done more birding on the north side in the past few weeks. The southern route takes me through the Meadows, where I’ve seen some great birds in the past.

I paused there to check a large flock of resting Canada Geese, hoping that some rarer geese might have been mixed in. Last year at this spot, I found a rare White-Fronted Goose and (on a separate day) six Snow Geese. Today – no such luck. But as I watched, I noticed that the muddy field in the foreground of my view was alive with little birds – about 100 American Pipits (read HERE about my experience last week with pipits). Their silvery calls seem just right for the golden-silvery light that streams across the meadow during the early morning, illuminating the rising mists and touching the vari-colored trees with fire. So that was nice.

I drove on across the meadows and was about to leave the area when an unmistakable shape caught my eye…. Oops, can’t stop, there’s a line of traffic behind me. Shoot ahead to a little parking area, turn around, rush back and park in a convenient gravel lot … there it was, a lovely Northern Harrier, a juvenile bird with rich brown plumage and that unmistakable white rump. It glided low over the field, tipping and tilting as it went. Like owls, harriers hunt for prey by listening for movements on the ground. And like owls, harriers have facial disks – concave feathered areas around their ears – which gather sounds and help them pinpoint the location of their prey (frogs, mice, etc.). The harriers tip and tilt as they fly to “point” their ears in various directions.

(Earlier this summer, I was lucky enough to watch an adult male harrier hunting over large fields by the Saint Lawrence River. With silvery-grey plumage and black wingtips, this beautiful bird is known affectionately by birders as a “Grey Ghost.” And it really is ghostly, as it flies low over the field, dipping below the grass now and then, leaving an impression of a silvery wraith…)
The harrier rose over the trees and dropped down into the next field. As I started to pull out of the lot, another distinctive shape flashed by… I jammed on the brakes… Peregrine! A large, dark Peregrine Falcon (a juvenile) landed on top of a light pole very close by, calling and calling. I had a perfect view and got a good look at this, my favorite bird, before it took off again. It circled high, then dove down low over a flock of pigeons, scattering them but failing to grab one. It rose up and over the field again, then headed for an interior meadow.

So, in just one week, I’ve seen all three of our falcon species in town: American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. I also saw a Red-Tailed Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a Cooper’s Hawk this morning, leaving me feeling raptor-ous.

I also stopped briefly at a small lake across the highway, where I saw Greater and Lesser Scaup, a pair of Spotted Sandpipers, a magnificent Great Blue Heron, a Belted Kingfisher, several noisy and colorful Killdeer, Ruddy Ducks, distant teal (sp?), cormorants, and a flock of Mallards. On the way home, a few roadside stops yielded some good mixed flock action: American Robins and Cedar Waxwings devouring cedar berries; dozens of Yellow-rumped warblers eating poison ivy berries, a nice Blue-headed Vireo, a Blackpoll Warbler, and a bunch of Flickers.

In the past several days, we’ve had some new visitors at home, including first-ever yard sightings of White-crowned Sparrow and Palm Warbler. The Dark-eyed Juncos have arrived, and I hear the White-throated Sparrows in the hedgerow, though they aren’t at the feeders regularly yet. Ruby-crowned Kinglets come through almost every day, and yesterday a Yellow-rumped Warbler was at the suet. The family of Cardinals has emerged from the woods, visiting the feeder every day now (all five of them). The woodpecker action has been non-stop all year.