The Many Words for Love

How do you explain the different ways you love? In Greek there are four separate words to express love. However, there is no word in Greek for our base love of toys, gadgets, french fries, and television, or of philosophy, physics, mathematics, art, literature, theatre, and music. For the months I was contract teaching I feasted my brain and body on metaphorical candy. It was my way of bribing myself to persevere through sleepless nights of arduous work. However, that era has terminated and opened up to a new year and time of reflection.

I have now committed myself to taking music exams at some point in the future, but that won’t be an easy task either. I need music as much as I need oxygen, but I do not experience a primal need to create music in the same way as I do to write or do research in physics. When I suggested studying music as a college major when I was in high school, my mother asked me what part of music I like the best. Jokester as I am, I said listening to it, though it is a half truth. This is due to my complicated relationship with the piano and my voice. Some of my earliest and most treasured memories are of sitting next to my mother at the age of three while she taught me to read music and play facile pieces on her spinet, a gift given to her out of love by my father on their anniversary. These memories form a gift from my mother to me and a foundation for my experience with making music, but not unlike an old house foundation, later became cracked and crumbled to some extent.

Musical education in the US was not standardized when I was a child as it is in Canada. Many colleges and universities did not require an entrance audition. I don’t know if this has changed. This is a mixed blessing, as it means that a musical education is accessible to anyone, and not just those who can afford music lessons as children or who have the support of their family to study music before college. It also means that many colleges and universities produce music major graduates whose education might be faulty. In Canada, as I understand it, there are conservatories with international reputations that guide some of the musical education, and students must pass certain exams in order to qualify to teach. The teachers adhere to a curriculum which guides the musical education.

My experience as a child was that the teachers found to teach me were lacking. One I had before the age of twelve or so even stated she had nothing left to teach me, though I knew nothing of rubato, pedaling, finger pedaling, or really any technique at all. What is even more astonishing is that I had never even played so much as a C major scale with her as my teacher! Already a temperamental child, I became frustrated with the limited instruction, even with a teacher who chatted with me for five of my precious thirty minutes in my lesson, and eventually quit. I took piano lessons off and on until I was about eleven or twelve and again when I was fourteen. That last year I was so at odds with the teacher my parents foisted on me that my mother stated memorably that she didn’t care if I ever touched a piano again. I remember, like most children who play an instrument, her continual pecking from the kitchen while I practiced about wrong notes and my bad ear. When I picked up the piano again later in life, I learned my mother was happy to hear of my renewed music making.

As a senior in high school, I did find an experienced teacher myself through our local community college. I paid for the lessons myself out of a practically nonexistent savings account but could not afford the lessons in addition to becoming again frustrated when we spent an entire lesson trying to time the length of a pause between two notes in Fuer Elise. In that month I did learn the famous Beethoven solo from scratch by memory which provided me much comfort on the Wellesley College Steinways that populated each dormitory and practice rooms. I wrote a film in French for my French class in which my friends and I acted that documented my struggle between music and science.

I briefly studied piano in my later twenties, but my perfectionism and anxiety curtailed the effort in less than three months. However, it was in my thirties that my relationship started to mend. I was matched with a maternal and patient instructor at the McGill Conservatory in Montreal. I began to learn to pluck the keys to play staccato, to create a singing tone, and yes, to play scales. My husband, Andrew, has also been extremely supportive of my music making. My supporters are the architects who build new musical memories in my mind. My foundation is still cracked, as I have not yet made playing piano or singing part of my daily routine like brushing my teeth, as my kind teacher in Montreal recommended. However, perhaps this is what my first goal should be.

We are always growing up. George Smoot, the physics Nobel laureate, told me upon learning about my childhood fascination with the universe that I never grew up. I used to think he was right, but now I disagree. Perhaps my childlike mind needed to grow up and pass through the trials it has, needed to find new connections, teachers, support, and patience, before I could be ready for this moment to truly love the piano without abandoning it. I do love the process of playing piano; it is almost an incomparable experience for me, though I suffer from inertial issues with starting. I have overcome much before this though, so I am confident I can conquer this small impediment as well. My piano I love deeply and wholly. Music is a companion that does not abandon me.

So what is the word for the love between a mere human and the divine in music or between the music student and her teacher?

Did you ever have a teacher who made a difference?

Have you ever had that teacher who made a difference? My first teacher who made a difference in my life was my first professor at Wellesley College. He was a faculty assigned to my dorm, Munger, to advise science students. Before that point, my intent was to follow my parents’ wishes and study international law as a career. But when this professor said, “I am an astronomer,” those words transformed my world. I thought, wow, you can actually get paid to do astronomy. Astronomers exist in real life and not just on my favorite public TV show The Astronomers (I actually spent the evening of my senior prom watching a re-run of the episode about Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking rather than attending the party; I think I had more fun). I remember when this professor told me in class he thought I could be an astrophysics major; that support, it transformed everything for me. This professor supported me throughout my Wellesley education and even during hard times in graduate school. I was also lucky to have graduate supervisors at UCLA and McGill who believed I could do string theory and string cosmology, while I doubted, as well. Having a teacher believe in you and support you influences you in magnitudes that the teacher might never know, like a massive object making ripples in space time far from the object; the ripples of support and belief travel far in space and time. I aspired to become this kind of teacher.

My piano teacher in Montreal exemplifies another teacher who believed in me. After four and half years of studying with her, I began to trust my musical abilities. She was enthusiastic and positive, always believing that I had something to give musically. She emphasized giving to the piano and giving back through music. She believed I could play Beethoven’s Pathetique and a Bach concerto which we worked on occasionally and a difficult Chopin nocturne which I completed. When someone believes in you, the faith forms a nugget of a reserve of strength. You carry it in your mind and heart with you throughout your life. Sometimes you might stray and forget the message, but it lies dormant, ready to flower again like the plants we left for winter break, once watered again.

I have discovered two other teachers, voice teachers, in Winnipeg who epitomize caring, inspiring teachers. I count myself lucky to have encountered such individuals in my life. I told my voice teacher last year (who has since retired as a voice teacher to move on to another career) that it was my dream to take a voice exam. I have a neurological condition which causes involuntary muscle contractions and tension to various degrees of severity. It affects my face and arms which causes me difficulty with singing, especially in tune. Before this condition started, I suffered difficulty with singing in tune anyway. I have a light soprano voice which has twice in the last two years fooled people talking to me on the phone to think I was a child (once someone thought I was Andrew’s daughter!). Despite this, my high school choir director assigned me to sing as an alto so that I wouldn’t be heard because of my tuning issues. Another voice teacher in the last three years told me I had a tuning disability.

But this voice teacher believed in me despite my physical limitations. I practiced little throughout the year due to other commitments (a demanding postdoctoral job and a novel I wrote). However, we made some progress, and by the deadline to sign up for the exam, she strongly encouraged me to register (she later worried she bullied me into registering). My postdoc had ended, a draft of the novel was completed, and I spent the next few months singing more. My only aim with the exam was to show up to the exam. To take it. In the end I passed with honors which took me weeks to truly own and believe.

I have since moved on to a new teacher. Recently I emailed her and informed her I was thinking of quitting. Since I first started taking voice I often have considered discontinuing for various reasons, not the least of which that my limitations frustrate me and that I feel overwhelmed by all of my projects. The first thing she told me when I saw her is that perfection in music is impossible. The theme of my novel centered on the impossibility of perfection and valuing other qualities such as friendship, connections, and showing up more. Yet somehow I had forgotten this lesson in my quest to play my Mozart Sonata in C major perfectly. With piano, my goal for the Grade 8 exam was to pass with flying colors, not just to show up and do my best. She later told me we don’t know what sounds my voice is capable of producing and that even Renee Fleming had considered quitting. She told me singers often question this, and that voice has helped her other students with their other instruments. I realized I have much to learn from this remarkable woman. Every year I tell my voice teachers I am considering discontinuing. These last two teachers were the only ones who supported my perseverance with discovering my voice. We all have a voice. But it takes someone special to teach us to develop it and use it constructively.

I have been feeling overwhelmed with all my projects, which seems ironic since I no longer have a job demanding my attention during all my waking hours. My voice teacher suggested I understand my limitations and my capabilities. She suggested I live my life within my limitations. As the Greeks are renowned for saying as someone has reminded me frequently, “Know thyself.” This inspired a new, gentler plan, for myself in living. I need to slough the work till death ethic instilled in me by my childhood and adopt a gentler approach to life. The teachers who are true teachers do not just teach their discipline, but they teach you how to live. I am still considering ceasing to study voice because of other priorities, but my decision will not be based on my inability to achieve perfection in singing but rather based on limitations in time. Through singing I think I have discovered some courage to take up space and use my voice, but we can sing through our writing, through physics or mathematics, and through other musical instruments.

We all have a voice and the self knowledge to be the captain of our ships. Have you found your voice? Are you your own captain?