Lessons From a Ding-a-Ling

At rehearsal last night, we practiced (over and over and over again) a few tricky measures in this really tough piece called Anitra’s Dance – a part of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46, for all you real musicians out there. For some reason, William H. Griffin arranged Anitra’s Dance for handbells, which the publisher (Alfred Music) calls “an incredibly exciting transcription.” I, on the other hand, call it deranged. It’s harder than hell.

Of course, I’m entirely outclassed in this group of mostly card-carrying professional musicians with degrees in music and the ability to count, especially when there are lots of notes in strange combinations and rhythms in a measure. See, I’m a singer first and foremost and, if you’re familiar with musicians, you know that serious ones (read: instrumentalists) consider singers (read: non-instrumentalists) lame because many of them are weak at reading music and counting rhythms. Now, I admit that’s a blanket statement and not necessarily true of all vocalists (nor true of all instrumentalists). In my case, however, I freely admit to fueling the comparison.

My education is in English, history, and journalism. Singing is just something I do for fun, not a vocation. Playing handbells, also something I do for fun, albeit a bit more twisted fun, is even more of a stretch. Don’t laugh. Unless you’re really unusual, you can sing only one note at a time. Playing handbells requires you to read, understand, and play sometimes four notes at any given time. Talk about pressure!

Anyway, surrounded as I am by really good musicians, as you can imagine I’ve already kicked my performance and expectation stress into high gear. Put a measure or two of something like Anitra’s Dance before my eyes and all those little, itty bitty notes might as well be written in the language of the birds, because my brain stops comprehending and refuses to send signals to my arms to ring a bell. I feel pretty stupid sometimes, but I soldier on.

Here’s the rub: give me a chance to puzzle out what note goes where and how it fits and why, and the passage becomes crystal clear. What was complicated and maybe a bit deranged comes into focus and makes perfect sense – so much so that I have to wonder why I ever thought it difficult. That’s what happened tonight as we practiced that single passage.

Consequently, driving home after rehearsal I find myself thinking about how much this applies to life in general. When I’m caught up in the rush of life, feeling a little stressed, anxious, intimidated – you name it – I don’t always think so straight. See, just as my brain refuses to make sense of those musical notes that swarm into incomprehensible configurations, it also refuses to filter my thoughts through my values and my innate understanding of who I am and what’s true and real for me. The end result? It’s hard. It’s complicated. It doesn’t make sense.

But, lower that stress level, stop to take a deep breath, puzzle through the pieces, and, look! Clarity arises. When I take that step back and really examine what’s in front of me, I can make much more conscious choices.

The lesson, I’m thinking, is surely tied to this: I must allow myself the luxury of time without undue pressure and stress – even if it’s of my own making – to sift through information, consider, and puzzle out what it all means. If I do, I’m confident I’ll be on track and understand and make the right choices, whether it’s notes on the page, a decision at hand, or the consequences of an action.

Oh, about Anitra’s Dance? It IS deranged. It will be neat, though.

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