Vibration and frequency: a return to music

Young Clarinet by Tony Macelli (
Young Clarinet by Tony Macelli

At age nine my fourth grade music teacher told me I needed to start playing an instrument. Whether I liked it or not, whether I did it well or not, it was required that I try as part of my proper music education. I’d been taking piano lessons for two years at that point, but that wasn’t an option in the Longfellow Elementary fourth grade band. My parents pulled out my sister’s old clarinet—picked up and quickly dropped once she completed her required musical instrument segment, even though she was pretty good—and suggested I give it a try.

I looked at the scraped up keys, beaten up cork and the thin pieces of wood I was supposed to soak in my mouth and then blow across to make something resembling music. When my sister played it, the higher notes made me wince but the sprawling vibrations of the lower tones rattled through my body like a big truck barreling past the house. Truth be told, it kind of frightened me. But the keys were shiny and complicated, and I did love finding out what buttons do.

Ten years, two performing arts schools, thousands of hours of rehearsing and practicing, dozens of shows with bands and orchestras and ensembles, hundreds of reeds, days of sore lips and one very old and expensive wooden clarinet later, I was still playing that crazy contraption. I was working my way up the ranks of the Ohio University orchestra woodwind section, still taking weekly lessons and master classes, still enjoying it even though it was not my major nor my career focus. It helped there was no more pressure to perform or compete.

After a bit of working together, my faculty clarinet teacher proposed I try out for a coveted student woodwind quintet position. He told me it would require more rehearsal time as they prepared for multiple performances around the state.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not even a music major.”

“Well, then I guess you have a choice to make,” he said.

I’d chosen OU primarily for its prestigious journalism school. Words, I’d decided, were my expression of choice. They were much more specific and impactful, I believed, and I just didn’t love the clarinet enough to do what it takes to make a living playing it. As I looked at colleges and contemplated majors, I justified writing was still an art; it just made more sense to me. And luckily research revealed there were lots of ways to continue to play in college even if it wasn’t my major.

But now in my sophomore year, the more demanding journalism courses were starting to kick in and my adviser began asking what I was doing in my precious non-class time to build my resume and get some practical experience. The school newspaper is one of the best in the country and the yearbook always is looking for staff, he mentioned several times. At that week’s clarinet lesson, my teacher asked yet again if I was going to audition for the quintet, and maybe we should increase our lessons to twice a week if I really wanted to make a go of it.

The next academic quarter I put my treasured clarinet in the closet. Ten years later, I sold it to a music store in suburban Los Angeles owned by a man who could restore its loose keys and nourish the old wood back to its original splendor. He was sure a promising young clarinetist in the community would buy it and use it well.

I hadn’t played the instrument in years, but when I said goodbye I felt a clear sense of loss. Neither choosing writing over music nor selling my clarinet were difficult at the time. My talent, my contribution, is as a writer. But not until it was gone did I recognize a bit of what it offered: comfort in knowing I could pick it up whenever I liked and express myself in this familiar way.

Playing was so clear, so simple. It always seemed like a miracle to me that it worked at all, let alone made music. If I blew air at the right speed across a thin piece of wood strapped to another piece of hard rubber and pressed some buttons to determine where the air goes, I can make a pleasing and unique sound. Playing with these frequencies and incorporating my own voice into the music wasn’t something I understood or knew how to do consciously when I was younger, but I must have gotten it on some level.

Two days ago, I opened up a box and pulled out a brand new (plastic) clarinet, a high-end mouthpiece and ligature, a full set of Vandoren reeds and two new books of sheet music. It was a birthday gift to myself, something my higher self brought to my consciousness only a week or so before. Well, in the universe’s crafty way she’d been bringing it up periodically over the past year in casual conversations, in articles about local adult orchestras, etc. More recently she’d told me I needed to return to this familiar expression, but this time it would be different.

My son watched closely as I slowly put the shiny contraption together. I tossed a reed into my mouth to ready it for squeakless sound and then lovingly placed it on my new mouthpiece and tightened the ligature. It was all so familiar, but completely strange under the watchful eye of my son seeing it for the first time. I walked outside on to the deck for the first blow, unsure if it would be a pleasing noise after so many years. A loud, confident note sang down the narrow passage along the upper level of our home and rang out over the trees. A bird rustled in a nearby bush and flew away. My fingers moved hesitantly, but they knew where to go for the most part.

My mouth found the right shape as it remembered a proper embouchure is formed when you smile.

I walked back inside where my family was waiting patiently for me to share this old but new ability with them. They’d heard the music I’d sung to the forest, and now Henry jumped up and down with excitement yelling, “More! More!”

When the high-ceilinged room filled with sound and echoes, Henry’s eyes went wide. He ran over to me and sat directly beneath the bell of the clarinet, peering up into it trying to figure out where it all came from. When I started a chromatic scale down to a low E, he giggled and involuntarily wiggle-danced, the sprawling vibrations shaking through every cell of his body and mine. He and my husband began to clap and cheer.

The smile of my embouchure remained even after my mouth left the reed. I’d almost forgotten how that note, stretching the length of the instrument, requiring breath from the depths of your soul, could make you feel. It’s a vibration, a frequency that can’t be described by words. It’s an energy that communicates at a different level.

I guess I was finally ready for it.

Unsafe choices

LeapOfFaithMy son lives in a world that wants to make all his choices for him. Others want to tell him how often to brush his teeth, when to cross the street, whether to wash his hands after he goes potty, when to start kindergarten, whether to wear a jacket, how long to play at the playground. As most young children testing their boundaries and figuring out how they fit in the world, he resists this, but that doesn’t stop the adults around him from trying to protect him.

When he’s climbing on a precarious chair or I see the mischievous twinkle in his eye as he considers darting into a crowd, I often say, “That’s not a safe choice.” This awareness may or may not deter him from the activity, but most of the time it does.

As we get older, that external voice moves inside our own heads and egos. Is this smart? Are you prepared? Is this really a safe choice for you right now? For years I let that voice deter me from countless experiences and opportunities. I still do too often.

My family and I recently made what some would consider a string of not-so-safe choices. In fact, my friend Beattie might say we’re on a “risk bender.” A year ago my husband quit his well-paid, stable job to start his own business. We then went on a month-long road trip in a rented RV down and back up the West Coast. Then a month ago we moved from Seattle to Central Coast California without salaried jobs or any other external catalyst to propel us there (except the 30-day notice from our landlord telling us they want to move back in to their home; thank you for the kick in the pants, universe). We simply wanted to live somewhere else, somewhere we loved, and since both my husband and I work out of home offices we had no reason not to go. Others might disagree with this assessment, and have, but most are too busy admiring the relative size of our balls to voice it. I get where their trepidations came from. With few major employers in the area, we were finally and fully committing to our freelance lifestyle and entrepreneurial spirit, all in a down economy. We locked into place our dependence on our talents, business sense and good intentions to earn enough to keep a roof over our heads.

To top it all off, I recently completed and soon will publish a memoir, titled Laugh at the Sky, Kid like this blog (more on that soon), that basically outs me as a practicing clairvoyant and energy healer. This is something I’ve never before written or talked about publicly for fear of the inevitable skepticism and criticism from those who only know me outside of that world.

I’m done making only safe choices. Safe doesn’t bring about change or growth. Safe words don’t reach or move people. Safe actions rarely affect anything below the surface. The old ways, the safe or “proven” ways, don’t move things forward. Inside a cocoon of security, it’s rare to find true happiness or your true purpose. Nothing shifts and there is no reason to search for or even be interested in anything beyond the end of your nose. That is no longer acceptable to me and to so many of you. Thank ever-loving-goodness for that.

As a society we are quickly learning that within the presence of infinite possibilities we all enjoy, there are no wrong choices. There are only ones we are comfortable with in this moment and those we are not.

When the inevitable fear arises as I start down a riskier path, I let this truth wash over me like healing waters. And when I can turn off the narrator in my mind asking me to consider whether this new path is safe or not, I find freedom. I find a place where I can fully be.

Communication liberation

I’m finally willing to acknowledge it. Publicly, in fact. Words are an inherently flawed form of communication. As a writer, you may think this is a strange thing for me to say — in a piece of writing, no less. (The irony, it burns!) But I find it liberating. In fact, I’m guessing most writers are well aware of this. Who hasn’t struggled to find a word or phrase that can satisfactorily convey an emotion, a thing of beauty, a horrifying experience, a grand concept or an intuition, only to resign to the “next best” description?

You’re not a bad writer. It’s the words, I tell you. They just aren’t equipped for the job.

As a couple of you may have noticed, I haven’t offered a blog in more than a month. The sheer amount and scope of energetic changes going on in my/the world is boggling. There are stories to tell. But the words simply don’t match up yet. They may never. Heck, I’m having trouble writing an anniversary card to my husband. Words aren’t enough. And truly they’re not meant to be.

By their nature, words are a limited reflection of one person’s perspective and they will be received the same way — through a filter of the other person’s experience and perspective. With words we try to boil down even the greatest things into a few marks on a page. That’s why writing is an art. It’s a beautiful and powerful art, but it’s a terrible way to communicate if you’re trying to do so clearly. So, I’ve given up trying.

My three-year-old son Henry doesn’t talk a lot, and when he does in the conventional sense he tends to speak in a mix of the English he’s been surrounded by since we brought him home from Taiwan at 11 months old, toddler sign language and his own uniquely organized collection of sounds.

He is the most effective communicator I know.

He always is heard when he wants to be. He almost always is able to tell me what he wants and needs or what he’s afraid of. He can share a lesson with a look. He can tell an entire story, what happened and where, complete with how he felt or how he reacted, acted out with exaggerated facial expressions. And some days he may use only ten clearly understood words.

He talks to me all the time. His intention, his energy, his heart and where he is in that moment are always honest and usually crystal clear. He doesn’t need words to communicate them. Even when I don’t hear him quickly enough, he doesn’t try that hard to say it differently. He may get frustrated, but I think he knows he’s saying it as clearly as necessary, he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be and I will hear him if I open up my heart to a different way of listening. And then he waits until I do.

I love words, but I’m freeing myself from any expectations for them. I’m giving in to their undeniable nature — to the limitations, to the lack of clarity, to their frequent un-necessity. When there are no words, then don’t say any. When the intention is unclear the words probably are too, so choose the quiet. When I rely upon them too much to understand or see or hear, take a breath, open my heart and use different eyes and ears.

I feel better already.