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.

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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.