Don’t leave music to the pros

You know the scene from Anchorman, where a reluctant Ron Burgundy improvises a killer jazz flute solo much to the surprise of his date? Well, that happened to me.

I was at a party with my boyfriend, Steve, ron_burgundy_flutewho used to play flute in high school. Months of cajoling had not elicited a single toot from him, but at this party — after a few drinks — he began jamming with my friend’s band. Right before my eyes, my unassuming date turned into a jazz flute virtuoso, and he didn’t stop ‘till the neighbors shut the party down.

Though Steve has yet to repeat that performance, I suspect that many of us have an inner Ron Burgundy that’s just itching to take the stage. In fact, some 50 percent of children in the U.S. take music lessons, but fewer than 8 percent continue to play our instruments as adults — and that number is on the decline. So chances are, you sweated through years of piano lessons, played clarinet in marching band or sang in a choir. But at some point, you packed up your instrument, never to play it again.

That’s unfortunate on a personal level and just about tragic on a national scale. After all, study after study shows that music lessons makes kids smarter — that’s why you schlep Timmy to piano lessons week after week. But did you know that playing a musical instrument is good for adults, too? Recent studies have shown that playing an instrument reduces stress, prevents hearing loss and may even stave off Alzheimer’s disease.

So why have so many of us left out instruments to gather dust in the closet? I blame technology — why bother playing violin when you can just put on some Joshua Bell? — and the fact that we often focus kids on playing sheet music rather than discovering their own muse. Most of us lack the drive and talent to become professional musicians, and it can feel pointless to persevere when we reach a technical plateau or simply decide to put our energy into other pursuits. But what many people don’t realize is that you don’t have to be great, or even good, to have fun with music and tap into it’s many benefits.

I would know. After college, I put away my violin, only occasionally taking it out to see how far I could get through an old recital piece. But then something happened that changed my life. A cute guy overheard me practicing and asked if I would like to play with his bluegrass band, just for fun.

“Can you play fiddle?” he asked.

“Of course,” I said.

I was lying. While violin and fiddle are the same instrument, fiddlers play by ear. Without a scrap of sheet music in front of them, they can invent a slew of funky, fast notes that somehow mesh perfectly with the rest of the song. In two decades of playing violin, I’d never strayed from the explicit directions of Bach or some other major composer, and I doubted I could. But for the cute guitarist, I’d give it a try.

I followed him to band practice, where I played along very, very softly. Most of the time, I sucked. But occasionally, I played a few notes that sounded OK, maybe even good. I had no idea where these little fragments of songs were coming from, but who cared — I was making up music! It was a crazy, exhilarating feeling — like waking up one morning and realizing you can fly. Well, maybe not fly, but at least hover a few feet above the ground for a moment or two.

If you have ever played an instrument at any point in your life, you have got to try this. You don’t have to follow a cute guy to band practice. You don’t even have to go out in public. Just get that clarinet out from under your bed, put on your favorite song and play along. Or, even better, search for backing tracks on YouTube and just mess around — play little tunes, scales, or even the same note for measures at a time. You will be amazed at what magically flows out of your fingertips.

This works because, as children, we all absorbed basic rules about music, even if you never had a single lesson. That’s not to say we can all improvise with the panache of Ron Burgundy, but remember, the goal is to play, not to quit your day job. Get a few friends together and have a hoedown, a blues jam, or make up your own genre as you go. If your neighbors complain, just explain to them the many health benefits of playing a musical instrument, or say that you’re trying to be a good example for your kids. The real reason behind your cacophony (or symphony) can be our little secret: Music is just too much fun to leave to the professionals.

My Summer Staycation: Exploring D.C. and reminiscing about Florida

I’ve been unemployed for three days, and I’ve already lost track of what day of the week it is. Yesterday, I chatted at length with a vendor at a farmer’s market. By the time I bought my banana bread, we had dissected central Florida’s changing political landscape, traded tips for growing tomatoes and chosen western Massachusetts as a good place to retire. This morning, I moseyed to my garden, where I spent as much time playing with pill bugsThis is what my boat looked like, except the fish was upside-down as I did weeding. I also bought an iced tea using exact change, digging in my bag for a nickel I knew I had somewhere.

This expansive sense of time reminds me of summer vacations, when I spent entire days in my backyard trying to get the golden retrievers to wrestle, or joining them in an increasingly muddy baby pool.

Mostly, though, summer reminds me of puttering around Tampa Bay on my sailboat. I was not a very good sailor. My brother was much better, winning little regattas in a boat that, for all the world, looked like an old-fashioned wooden bathtub. I had a better boat, a Sunfish that was roughly the size and shape of a large surfboard, but I never won any races.

Despite my boat’s modest size, I’d occasionally crowd up to seven friends onto the deck for little adventures into the bay. Without much forward motion, it was hard to steer, and we’d often drift into docks or get snarled in the anchor lines of yachts. When I scraped against pricy vessels with names like “Arbitrage,” I’d make my friends jump off the boat and tread water while I disentangled the sail.

My sail was a faded rainbow with an upside-down fish, so we called the boat The Dead Guppy.

When not loaded down by friends, I liked to go as fast as possible. I’d turn my boat until it This is what Saul's boat looked likewas at a right-angle to the wind – the fastest direction you can go — lean back, and balance on the tiniest sliver of hull. At regattas, I was often the fastest boat on the water, but I wasn’t necessarily sailing toward the finish line.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that on my first day of my between-jobs summer break, I wandered down to the waterfront in Southwest D.C. A crowd of teens in Tevas stood on a dock learning sailing terms that they probably forgot already. But the rest of it – the feel of rough rope against salt-chapped hands, the glint of sunlight on the water, the creak your boom makes before it takes a swing at your head — they’ll remember forever.

Mermaids for grandma

My grandma is an artist – most recently she’s been doing little mixed media collages, but she’s also been known to paint, throw pots, play cello* and dance. So, when she landed in a hospital with a broken leg the other week, I decided to make her an artsy “get well” card.

My artistic talents are limited to music, and I’m not particularly talented in that realm either.mermaid What’s really good about performing arts is that mistakes quickly disappear, assuming you aren’t recorded and your audience has short memories — which is why I prefer to play in venues where drinking is encouraged.

Visual arts, however, have a tendency to stick around and invite scrutiny. At age 6, I painted a pretty decent horse face, and my family was so proud they had it matted and framed. I never admitted that I made the horse face by tracing around my shoe.**

The horse hung on my grandma’s wall for decades, looking out with sad eyes, silently judging me for letting my family believe I could draw.

That said, I draw a pretty decent mermaid and ballerina. This is a skill I have been honing since age 10, when I didn’t have any friends so I had to draw glamorous imaginary ones who also happened to have perfect bodies and clear skin. These drawing skills stagnated when, in middle school, I found another weirdo to befriend.paper making

I briefly considered sending my grandma a mermaid or a ballerina, but she already has plenty, so I decided to fall back on a skill I learned in summer camp: paper making. This is where you blend up some old paper, and then make new, lumpier paper out of the pulp. You can also toss in flower petals and glitter. (Or you can just buy some nice handmade paper online.)

My paper wasn’t anything special, but I rather liked my final product – a card for my grandma and one for my artsy friend Rachel.


*She’s pretty bad at cello, but it’s rad she tried to pick it up at age 60 or so.

**Don’t be impressed with my ingenuity. I’m pretty sure that was the art teacher’s idea.

Who else wants a gap year?

Did you spend a year travelling aimlessly before or after college? Me either! But apparently that is something that many European kids do as a matter of course. Imagine it, a mass of college-age kids couch surfing their way around the world. In addition to being an alarming vector for sexually transmitted infections*, gap years may actually improve students’ academic motivation, according to a 2010 study.Gap-Year-Tristram-Bates-300x300

After years of intense schooling and high-stakes tests, a gap year probably gives kids a chance to catch their breath. Plus, if done right, it could help young adults take the reigns of their own lives. So many of us barrel through college without thinking about where we are going. Then we feel baffled and betrayed when our pile of good marks leaves us  without a clear career path.

Perhaps gap years help prevent the panic and existential crisis that so often accompanies college graduation.**

Of course, that’s only if you do them right. I suspect a key part of a gap year is their open-ended, unstructured nature. It’s a great luxury but also a terrifying responsibility to decide what you’re going to do with vast, empty amounts of time. To decide how to meaningfully fill the hours of the day. Signing up for gap-year programs sidesteps that crucial developmental experience, and could prevent you from having the epiphany that your life is your own.

On the other hand, even if you enroll in a reputable program, you’re still taking a step off of the traditional path and toward a potentially life-changing experience, as Mike Hower documents in his blog about a post-college gap year in Columbia.

I never had the balls to do a gap-year, myself. And thank goodness for that — the job market in 2001 ended up being much better than in the following years. (Did you know that kids who graduate in a bad economy end up in lower-rung, lower-wage jobs forever? Poor things!)

However, I am about to embark on a gap week. Two weeks, actually, of gloriously free time before I start my awesome new job.

Brunch with friends, playing ukulele, trying to get my cats to walk on a leash – these are all fine activities. But I want to do something more than have one very long weekend. I want to meet people and see places I usually pass over. For me, that could just mean staying up past 10 p.m., so invite me to your punk rock house concert and I will actually come, I swear!

Other ideas I’ve had include:

  • People-watching in Meridian Hill park.
  • Tagging along with someone who has an outdoorsy job, like a grad student who is tagging toads in in the Anacostia.
  • Visiting my friends who are stay-at-home moms.
  • Volunteering somewhere?

What would you do if you had two weeks off to explore DC?

*Public health dissertation idea.

**Educational psychology dissertation idea. You’re welcome.

How to make boring work fun

I spent my childhood avoiding yard work — and I was damn good at it. In three decades, I have never once pushed a lawnmower. Somehow my little brother got stuck mowing the lawn, and I remember feeling a little guilty as Saul, six years younger than me, cut the grass out in the hot Florida sun.Gardening

Inside, by the air-conditioner, my job was pairing socks. I’d sit in front of the TV, turn on Knight Rider, and pretend each sock was a child, separated at birth from its twin brother or sister. When I reunited them, they sang and danced with joy. Sometimes, I reunited quadruplets. My parents never asked why they ended up with four like socks balled together, or why the whole process took longer than it took David Hasselhoff to solve his mystery of the week.

I also told stories to make math homework more interesting. When “borrowing” in subtraction, I’d explain why “3” was so short on cash and why his neighbor felt compelled to help. (I’d leave a problem unfinished if Mr. 3 was being irresponsible and needed to experience the consequences of his spendthrift ways.)  

Sometimes, I was a mosquito abortionist. When shelling peas, I’d split the peapod so that the two halves of the shell became the wings, and the stem became a curled up proboscis. My efforts to humanely reduce Florida’s mosquito population resulted in a lifelong distaste for peas. Who wants to eat mosquito fetuses?

I may be a bit weirder than average, but I think most people use their imagination to make drudgery more fun. For instance, when my best friend Sybil is faced with a repetitive task at work, she competes with an evil twin, who is working hard at an office across town. Sybil also choreographs dance routines and sings while doing housework, just like Mary Poppins.

As for yard work, I no longer avoid it. In fact, I spent almost three years on a waiting list for my local community garden. So far, my favorite thing to do is weed. Last week I pulled out a clump of clovers, letting loose a landslide of roly-polies.  I also get deep, gut-level satisfaction when I yank at a piece of devil’s grass and disinter a foot or more of its roots. Gotcha, sucker!

What tricks of the imagination do you have for making dull work more fun?

Why the new economy favors those who ate paste in elementary school

Do you remember eating crayons? That was the first line of my good friend Joanne’s graduation speech*. She was valedictorian in a high school where a small group of fiercely competitive students piled up straight A’s, athletic honors and volunteer hours in the quest to get into top-tier colleges. Joanne had emerged at the top of the pile, and then didralph something rather subversive. She asked us all to remember how, as children, we weren’t satisfied with using crayons as art supplies. We also wanted to know what they tasted like, how well they fit in our noses, and whether they could draw on surfaces other than paper, such as walls and other children.

Back then, we all had an unquenchable desire to learn about the world, to explore and to play. But somewhere along the line, the intrinsic fun of learning got replaced by grades and acceptance letters from Brown, Joanne observed. She concluded by asking us, her classmates, to reconnect with the visceral joy of learning now that we finally had those acceptance letters in hand.

I found Joanne’s speech really inspiring, but I soon discovered just how difficult it is to shake the habit of working for a grade (or accolades, or a good annual review.) However, that exactly what we all must do to succeed in today’s economy, according to a New York Times OpEd.** In that article, Thomas L. Friedman argues that the days of slotting well-trained workers into pre-existing jobs are over. Today’s college grad must be able to see opportunities and create niches for themselves. There’s no point in drilling students on information they can Google – rather we need to teach them to think creatively, collaborate and communicate, he says.

A step in the right direction would be to make high schools a bit more like pre-schools – places where students explore their own interests and where portfolios replace report cards. (At least that’s my gloss on the argument made by Tony Wagner, EdD, in the same column and in his new book is “Creating Innovators.”)

I’m no expert on economics or education, but this argument definitely fits with my own experience. For me, college graduation was much more stressful than high school graduation. As I listened to Joanne’s speech, I knew what lay ahead for me: more classes, more grades, more of the same, essentially. But what do you do when there are no more grades? When there isn’t a clear next step for your life? At my college graduation, I felt very anxious and extremely unprepared to make my own goals and find my own way.

I feel like I have found my way since – in large part to an excellent boss*** who took me out for Thai and asked me what it is I want to do, exactly, and then let me work part time while I pursued my dream of being a writer. I can’t help but wonder if, in today’s economy, it’s naive to think that everyone can be so lucky. But I’m glad that experts like Wagner and Friedman think that’s exactly where we are heading.

*This was back in 1997, and Joanne says she doesn’t remember anything about the speech. But I am pretty sure I didn’t make it up. Any PHS alum recall Joanne’s speech? I also remember our class president (Katie ?) talked about how we had endured several catastrophes, including asbestos raining down upon us and an overturned gas truck causing a school-wide evacuation, and salutatorian Alice Powell read a poem very, very quietly.

** Thanks to my friend Lance, for sending it to me.

***Thanks Cheryl!

Could Where’s Waldo replace the SAT?

Did you enjoy playing Where’s Waldo as a kid? I hated those books. I never could find that damn little guy. My cousin Ethan, on the other hand, easily spotted Waldo and then got bonus points for finding Waldo’s girlfriend Wilma and then locating his other girlfriend, Wenda, who, according to Wikipedia, is Wilma’s twin sister. (Waldo, that’s not cool!)

Irrespective of Waldo’s polyamory, a new paper from the American Journal of Play says that people like Ethan — who can pick apart scenes and scan for particular features — are known as “field independent” thinkers. They areimages also the weirdos of the playground, preferring to explore on their own rather than socialize or play structured sports or games. And, according to the study, they do better in school that the rest of us.

That’s not to say that Field Independent thinking is preferable to Field Dependent thinking, the authors note. FD people such as myself are better at sports like soccer, where the situation is always in flux, while FI people excel in situations where the external rules stay stable, such as track and field. We FD thinkers are also more sensitive to social situations and more attuned to others’ needs.

So, call Ethan with your complicated biochemistry questions, but call me when you need help figuring out your wedding seating.

That said, I hope Project Play can help me experiment with a little more Field Independence. However, I am having limited success. I’m learning to play ukulele, but I am driven by a goal: to build a repertoire for leading singalongs at the beach. A more Ethan approach might entail just messing around and seeing what kinds of different sounds I can get out of the instrument, or making up new strumming patterns. I wonder what I can do to turn off my inner task-master, who makes some tasks harder to complete.

I suppose a first step is to play some Where’s Waldo on the Web.

What’s your play personality?

In high school, you were known for

Which game do you like best?

As a kid, if you went missing, you were probably:

Which TV show do you like best?

An ideal weekend might entail

Which vacation sounds most fun to you?

Your pet peeve: People who

People sometimes describe you as:

Which career would you enjoy the most?

This test was inspired by the typology described by Dr. Stuart Brown.

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Am I a failure at play?

The last day of ice skating at Canal Park, there was blood on the ice. Surprisingly, it wasn’t mine. Some kid ran over another kid’s fingers. Several blue-jacketed people worked for a half-hour to scrape off the blood and resurface the ice, closing down half the rink. So I skated around and around the bottom loop of the figure-eight, thinking about how, justJennaSadie a few months ago, that kind of accident would have scared me off the ice.

I took up ice skating as a Project Play experiment in January, despite the fact that I have:

  • Weak ankles
  • Poor balance
  • An intense hatred of cold weather

It would at least make for a good story. I was a little surprised when it actually turned out to be fun. At first, my feet hurt like crazy, and a single circuit around the rink left me breathless. But I went every day (the key to learning a new skill, according to language researcher Gary Marcus), and soon I was able to skate and chat casually with friends at the same time. Now, I can skate backward (slowly), do crossovers and balance on a single foot for more than a yard. Perhaps you’ll see me at Sochi.

In one sense, this experiment has been a wild success. I learned to skate and made peace with winter. But as an exercise in play, it’s been a total failure.

After the first few weeks of experimentation and skating just for the joy of it, I returned to my usual goal-driven ways. I remember one evening where I had a great time skating in interlocking circles in the middle of the rink . I would subtly shift my weight from one foot to the other, and feel exhilerated with the resulting tight turns. No one was watching, so I didn’t worry about looking silly.

But more typically, I had a specific goal before stepping onto the ice  — to practice gliding, stopping, skating backward, etc. It probably didn’t help that I signed myself up for lessons, and I was determined to get an “A”. OK, maybe there were no letter grades, but I did notice a checklist of skills on our teacher’s clipboard. I was sort of disappointed when there was no final test.

Clearly, I got off track at some point. As Bernie DeKoven notes, the more purposeful our play, the less playful we become. 

What should I do differently next year? I think the public nature of the rink was a problem. I know I looked pretty silly and unstable (perhaps in both senses) when I was playing and experimenting. As an adult, it’s tough to play in public.

Having a a playmate would have helped. Unfortunatly, Steve quickly discovered that he hates ice skating. He has size 15 feet, which are also flat and narrow and they hurt for days after every skate excursion. But when I was able to get other friends out on the ice, playing came more naturally. Jenna and I, for instance, did some very spastic ice dancing one night.

Next winter, I am going to have to persuade someone who is shameless and fun to get a season pass.

Crazy aunts vs. moms

My best friend in the under-5 category came over last night. Tired from work, I was glad when the first game Emma* wanted to play involved me lying in bed while she fetched my friend and his cute kidsnacks from the fridge. The bed, you see, was our boat, and the snacks were our supplies for a long ocean voyage.

Then, I came up with an even better game for us to play, whereby I sat in my apartment building’s hot tub and stacked Styrofoam cups for Emma to knock over.

Clearly, I am a pretty lazy babysitter. But while I expended minimal energy playing with Emma, I was still beat by the time her dad picked her up. I went to sleep immediately and didn’t wake up for a solid ten hours. Parents of young children must be constantly exhausted. You people probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive.

Sleep deprivation is just one of the reasons that, while I enjoy kids, I don’t want to have any of my own. But more to the point, I just don’t want them. I have friends who, at a gut level, crave babies. They just know. They see cute babies and want to steal them right out of their parents arms. When I see cute babies, I just want to make faces at them. I especially enjoy looking cross-eyed at kids behind their parents’ backs, and then looking innocent and normal when their parents turn around.

In any case, my baby instincts are a little off. Once, at the Central Park Zoo, I saw two women carrying a baby in a stroller down some steps. The baby began to slip through the stroller, her soft head heading toward marble. I leaped into action, lunging to catch the stroller cushion. My brother yelled, “Sadie! The baby!” “Oh, right!” I said, changing course and catching the baby, while the cushion landed on the dirty ground.

My crazy aunt instincts, in contrast, are perfect. When Emma wanted to scoop cat litter for fun, I provided helpful information about which poos belonged to which cat.** When she wanted to make an igloo out of my boyfriend’s laundry pile, I added couch cushions for structural integrity. Basically, I’m game for anything. My main objective is to have fun and offer unconditional love. I’ll leave it to Emma’s parents to teach her manners, morals, good citizenship and all those other boring things.

By providing a dedicated play space where regular life rules don’t apply, we crazy aunts (and fun grandmas) remind kids that there is a world of possibilities beyond their parents’ expectations. I bet that gay kids come out to their crazy aunts first. And I know from my own experience that crazy aunts are the best people to tell about your crushes or go to for advice on topics that might give your parents heart attacks. (For more on the role of aunts, check out this interesting post by Fiona Hurley on Savvy Auntie about Jane Austin.)

All of the crazy aunts in my life also happen to be great parents, so I know the two roles aren’t mutually exclusive. However, I think I’ll leave the parenting to people who must actually be insane.

Seriously. You people must be exhausted all the time.

*Name changed, obviously.

**Note to Emma’s parents: Afterward, we washed out hands very thoroughly.