Five Simple Ways to Lift Your Spirits

This weekend we returned to Standard Time—or, as I like to call it, Darkness Savings Time. This is usually a week where I can feel kind of meh, but I have made efforts to get on an earlier schedule, which helps, not to mention a daily dose of Vitamin D. I have some other simple actions that I often take to get myself out of a funk. I thought I’d share them with you. It’s good to keep a list like this handy, so that when the doldrums come you’re not sitting around waiting for the flash of inspiration that never comes. So, here are five simple things you can do to pull yourself out of a funk.

1. Get a hair cut, or shave.  I don’t shave every day; instead, I keep my beard and the hair on my head at about the same length. Believe it or not, I use clippers without any guard. Sometimes I let this go a little too long, and then on a day when I’m feeling run down, I look in the mirror and notice that I look like a wooly mammoth, which is unbecoming of anyone professing to belong to the human race. I get out my clippers, my jaw line becomes discernible once again, and usually I’m in a better mood. Total time investment: maybe ten minutes.

Those who are recently shorn often look and feel younger, thinner, and more vigorous than their bushy counterparts. What’s more, I find it to be a better solution than dressing up, which can be uncomfortable. No matter how skinny I get, there is always a point on my hip bones where the trousers and the belt start to dig in, so taking care of my hair—one of the remaining unhappy elements of the human body that evolution has yet to take care of—is often a better solution to get me feeling better about myself again.

2. Clean your house.  I came home from work yesterday, took one look at the clutter that I allowed to build up over the past few weeks, and heaved a sigh of disgust. Sometimes life gets crazy and our homes become, more or less, a kind of pit stop. We throw things here and there until the clutter mounts up to poetic proportions. This makes our living spaces unlivable, so that when we are there we don’t have the hideaway from the rest of the world that we need. As with any overwhelming task, it helps to break it down. Focus on one area that you really need to use with a sense of peace. Need to get some reading or writing done? Concentrate on your den or office. Wish you could cook a big meal for friends? Focus on the kitchen and dining room.

I actually have a studio apartment, which changes the game completely, but makes the matter much more crucial. There is no such thing as picking up a mess and simply moving it to another room—one of my favorite techniques of yore. My problem du jour is the clothing pile from Hell.  Of course, instead of addressing this yesterday, I took a nap. I needed it. And no one sees my apartment anyway. But when it is clean, I actually get a sense of comfort from being there.

3. Take a long walk. I was tempted to make running an option here, since, as I have discussed before, its benefits are manifold, but walks have their own specific up-sides. I am thinking, in particular, of their ability to reveal heretofore unseen corners of the world to the observer.  The Fall is a really good time for this. Take the opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasures that nature offers, like John Adams did in the last episode of the HBO series about him. Yesterday I was walking along Pine St. in Philadelphia when I found a tree whose leaves had turned to colors of yellow and red so that it looked like the whole thing was ablaze. Against the evergreen shutters of the nearest house, it was a gorgeous site. I should have taken a picture.

These are the kinds of things you see on a walk that you often don’t see on the drive home from work, either because you’re tired or you have to pee or whatever. I have discovered new restaurants this way, too. One important thing: Walk slow. This is not exercise; it is not a task. It is leisure, and that’s ok. Not every important thing in life has to do with making money or taking care of your family. Your own self is important too. So, leave the house, and don’t tell anyone where you’re going.

4. Call an old friend. Forget social media. Pick up the telephone, or get on Skype, and listen to the sound of an old friend’s voice. Tell him your problems, your plans, your fears, your frustrations.  We only have so many true friends in life, and these days we tend to be spread out all over the place. There are people that I don’t speak to for months or years at a time, but when we get going again, it’s like we never missed a beat. Those kinds of friendships are great, and necessary.

It’s easy to get distracted by the people around us, but often these are not our friends but rather people who want something from us and are massaging us in an effort to get it. It’s good to be nice to acquaintances, but it’s important to know that they are not our friends. Stick to your most reliable five friends, and don’t be afraid to call them when you need to. If they are good friends, they will tell you when you are full of crap, when you are lying to yourself, when you aren’t being realistic, and when you are not giving yourself enough credit.

I remember getting ready for a recital a few years ago and complaining to a friend that it wasn’t going well, that I had no business playing in public, that I should do something else for a living, etc. With each finished beer my autobiographical commentary got worse. Then the recital came. He pulled me aside afterwards and said, “Now listen, everything you said was absolutely untrue.” I needed to hear this, and coming from someone who studied with one of the world’s best percussionists, it was encouraging. I needed to hear that. Stay in touch with these people, because chances are that many people in your immediate vicinity are mere operators.

5. Sing. Music in general is beneficial, even just listening to it. Better than simply listening is actively listening, and better than actively listening is actively making. When I was a kid, I would play the piano for hours after coming home from the windowless prison block that was labelled an intermediate school. Singing in particular is most beneficial because it forces your body to use more oxygen, which gets your brain fired up. I have dragged myself to my voice lesson, thinking that I was too busy, tired, sick—whatever—to go through with this. But on those days I usually leave completely refreshed.

You could sing anything, really—maybe a song by Johnny Cash or Ray Charles. I actually recommend art songs, and before you think this is too snotty for you, hear me (or read me) out. Many of these songs have melodies that anyone can identify with, along with texts that are as sagacious as the Psalms and not half as gory. They speak mainly of love and death—which is to say, of life. Many of them are translated into English. I’ll bet you can find many of them at Look for recordings on YouTube.  I recommend music by Faure, Schubert, Brahms, and Grieg, just for starters. There’s a lot out there.

So you’re not a real singer? Good! Remember the words of H.L. Mencken: Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Excellence certainly has its place, but so does recreation. And you just might surprise yourself. You might be better than you realize.  Just don’t try Liebestod the first week.

Well, there you have it, a little arsenal of weapons with which to fight the principalities and powers of gloomdom. More tools to use in the discipline of rejoicing. All the best to you.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

Sometime in the early 1940’s, Bela Bartok emigrated to the United States.  He was broke, and, what is worse, sick.  Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned him to write  a piece, which he composed while lying sick.  The result was his concerto for orchestra, a magnificent piece human ingenuity.  In it is all the angst and hope that one would think a suffering man might have.  Sometimes the worst circumstances in life produce the most amazing and surprising things.  That’s comforting when times are tough.  When times are good, it’s a frightening thought.

Here’s the first movement:

The arts and the public sector

A while back, Aristotle introduced some discussion here about the relationship of the arts to the government–or you might say the relationship of the arts to the government’s money, which is another way of saying the relationship between the arts and the money that the government steals from your back pocket.

I am a musician and have been for my entire life.    I also happen to be opposed to any ties between the artistic world and the government.  Most of my colleagues would disagree with me, and in strong fashion, but there seems to be a number of considerations to which most have not given due reflection.

The foremost aspect of government sponsorship of anything at all is that money equals ownership, and ownership equals decision-making power.  This is not to say that the government, if it were to give money to the local opera house, would own either the building or the operation.  However, in deciding to give or not to give money to a particular endeavor, the State is determining which art is worthy of support and which is not.   They are being the artistic critic.

On what bases are such decisions made?  Art is fundamentally a folk phenomenon (folk in the real sense of that word…..not the hippie sense); it grows organically in the culture.  How can a bureaucracy be the arbiter of such a process?

It is frightening to me that some clown on the public payroll should get to decide which exhibit shows up at the art gallery and which does not.  In this way, the very real potential exists that society’s tastes can be shaped and molded by the art kommisars.  It all smacks of being so……Soviet.

“Ah, but surely as a musician you know that the tastes of the hoi polloi cannot be trusted, for modern man is artistically illiterate.”

Very true, particularly in the realm of music.

Let us consider one aspect of this artistic illiteracy.  (For now, we shall leave aside illiteracy in language which is no less a problem….)  I have friends who are music teachers in various states in the Northeast section of the United States.  Many of them have related to me the drastic cuts which arts education has suffered from W’s No Child Left Behind Act.  Schools, in a mad dash to make sure their students pass unconstitutional federally-mandated standardized tests, are leaving aside everything except reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  One is tempted to say that even these last three are studied only nominally.

As music education is cut, musical illiteracy will increase, and this will create an ever-growing inability amongst the hoi polloi to be artistically discriminating.  This will leave great art to languish, unnoticed, while the dunderheads who immerse crucifixes in jars of piss will be lauded as heroes.  (I am not as concerned about the “offensiveness” of such projects as you might think.  For me the stupidity is quite enough.)

Now this viscious circle seems quite convenient doesn’t it?  The State pulls the plug on arts education….but wait!  Lo!  It comes in as our Savior and rescues the artistic projects it deems to be worthy.  Oh thank you, arts kommisar, for saving me from a world devoid of beauty!  What would I do if it weren’t for you?  (end sarcasm here)

All of this seems to me to be a perfect argument to get the State out of all of this—funding for the arts, and even for arts education and education in general.  Let the smart people and the self-motivated in society create a milieu in which things of beauty can be studied with the deliberation they deserve.

Think I’m dreaming up the impossible?  Read up on monasteries.

Inspiration and Perspiration

I’ve had occasion lately to think about the gift (and the problem) of inspiration.  As a musician, this is central to my life.

One of my middle school art teachers once said that the artist needs to be inspired before he perspires, that one cannot set about an artistic task without a driving force behind it.  I have been of two minds on this issue, but the more of life I get through, the more I think that he was right.  All the self-motivation in the world cannot make up for any lack of inspiration, and the lifeless, or even trite, results of forced artistic work bear this out.

The bigger problem, however, is what to do when one finds himself in the midst of a dry spell.  As a professional musician, I don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, sorry, not feeling inspired today.  Maybe sometime later?  I usually peak around midnight or 2am.”  That’s not feasible, obviously, and the artist, particularly live performers such as musicians, actors, and dancers, need to find ways of dealing with this.  Failure to do so leads to burnout, and burnout can be fatal to the artistic career, and at astoundingly young ages, at that.

To be sure, anyone who’s thought through this will have their own ways of dealing with the problem of inspiration.  Only recently, I found a way of looking at this situation which has the advantage being re-energizing without being contrived.  It is this:  whatever composition one is studying, take the time just to imagine what sort of inspirational experience and/or state of being was required for the composer to come up with such a thing.  Forget compositional technique or theoretical prowess.  Rather, focus on the question of what the driving force behind a given piece of art is.

I must say that this has transformed the way I look at music.  (I should also say that this exercise only works with great music.  Throw away anything that is not spectacular, for it has nothing to say.)  Take, for instance, what Bach did in his Fugue in D Major, BWV 532.  There is in this piece an almost Beethovenian refusal to bring it all to a conclusion, as one joyous exclamation supercedes another.  Without much reflection such repetitiveness can perhaps become annoying, until one asks the question:  What possessed Bach to do this?  We don’t need to know the exact answer to this question, really, but we can surmise to our benefit that, whatever inspired such shouts of exultation must surely have been a grand and glorious thing, and sometimes that is all it takes to renew the artistic soul.

Here’s a recording of the Bach, played by Felix Hell.  (Note, the filmer is a different Michael Lawrence!)

“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

For your edification: Bach’s un-Advent Cantata

Everyone thinks this is for Advent.  It’s actually for one of the last Sundays of the church year which precede Advent.  “Wachet auf” means, “wake up.”  It’s great music to jump start the morning.

Have you ever heard anything this beautiful before?

I have just recently picked up James R. Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason, an account of the meeting in 1747 between Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer who ever lived, and the Prussian emporer Frederick “the Great.”  It is a fascinating read, aside from the author’s occasional silly attempts to appeal to bourgeois dolts.

Somewhere along the way, the Actus tragicus, an early work of Bach’s, is mentioned, and I hadn’t recalled ever hearing it before.  So I looked it up on YouTube.  It is unspeakably beautiful.  Here ya go:

Glenn Gould plays Brahms

One of my favorite musicians plays one of my favorite composers.  The Glenn Gould year is just winding down, and what better way to mark it than with the golden autumnal works of Johannes Brahms?