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Looking For My Song

 

I used to write songs. This was a long time ago. I bought a Casio keyboard with my leaf-raking money when I was eleven or twelve, and tried to remember my years of piano lessons to pick out a melody. But I never felt like I could catch the song I was looking for.

I feel like being a musician, for me, is as impossible as being a dog. I don’t have the right internal organs to get there, no matter how much I might want to. I don’t have the right brain, the right ears, and the right fingers. I’m just not that person and I feel the loss acutely. Cricket and Butterfly have their own unique songs. They have particular patterns and rhythms and pitches that really get their message across, but I feel muted. I can write and speak my story, but I can’t sing it, and that leaves something essential unexpressed.

Cricket likes the sound of her own voice and uses it very specifically to express different emotions and needs. She rasps and squeaks, and cries and screams, she barks from her gut and shrills through her nose. She is a diva. She sings variations of the same song, using the same instrument, all day long.

Cricket, mid-Aria.

Cricket, mid-Aria.

Butterfly listens very closely when we’re outside. She collects sounds: like an airplane flying overhead, leaves rustling, a garbage truck rolling down the hill, geese chattering to each other, birds whooshing through the trees. I wonder if she’s looking for her song too, and sampling all of these sounds to see what resonates for her.

Butterfly, listening.

Butterfly, listening.

In college, in one of my early attempts at jumping around the curriculum, I took a class in music composition. I’d taken voice lessons and piano and felt like there was a whole segment of the musical world that I was missing, huge parts of the language that I could not understand. I did well in the class, because it was basically math with musical notes, but I felt like I was being starved for the real stuff, the “aha” stuff, because I couldn’t connect the math to the music. Maybe if I’d tried to stick it out and become a music major I’d have eventually found what I was missing, but most schools require proficiency in a musical instrument and a willingness to perform and I didn’t have either one.

I have a cousin who plays the cello professionally. She plays a regular cello and a baroque cello (don’t ask me what makes them different). She has spent her whole life becoming the cello and limiting the space between her body and the music until the music really does come through her and the cello at once. She inspired me, and I spent a year and a half trying to teach myself how to play the guitar, but I couldn’t make my fingers tolerate the work. My knuckles kept clicking and jamming, because, as one doctor told me forever ago, my ligaments are too loose to hold my bones together. And you would not believe how painful it is to press your soft fingertips against heavy guitar strings.

The most electric experience I’ve ever had with music is when ice skaters have been able to skate as if the music is coming through their bodies, Michelle Kwan could do this, and Kurt Browning and Torvill and Dean. I remember watching Julie Kent at American Ballet Theater, just watching her arms as if the music was living in her body and she was setting it free.

Julie Kent

Julie Kent

Michelle Kwan

Michelle Kwan

Music just seems so forlorn and naked without visual accompaniment. I feel lost, like I’m swimming in too-deep water, when I listen to music sometimes, as if the ground has fallen out from under me. I feel like I will be trapped in an emotional state I can’t identify, can’t tolerate, and can’t get out of. How is the music doing this?

Music is one of the most powerful things I know, and I feel this great need to create it, and control it, and I can’t do either one. I can just sample it, like Butterfly, and pick a sound from here and there to add to my collection. I think this might be enough, for now.

The girls are thinking about it.

The girls are thinking about it.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

91 responses »

  1. Rachel, I can only say that you write like a music virtuoso plays her instrument. Bravo!!!

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  2. Love this reflection, thank you. Is writing not enough? I guess it is not as.. concrete as playing an instrument or as direct as singing, but isn’t writing another form of song?

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  3. Once again you are too hard on yourself and your expectations are way to high. You sing beautifully through your writing and have a gift that I envy. Be thankful for all your gifts and don’t focus on ones you might be missing. You are special 🙂

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  4. You’re an artist at heart…

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  5. I think I have had various songs through different stages of my life. At the moment it seems to be Caledonia probably because I have been reflecting on this past year. I agree with what has been said, your writing is your song and I should like to sing such a song as well as you can.

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  6. I agree with what everyone above has said. You write like no one else, Rachel. I am not a writer. I love (love!) to read your posts, yet I sit at the computer and……nothing. Let Cricket belt her little heart out (that picture is so adorable!). Allow Butterfly to soak it all in (she is so astute!) and then tell us about. That is music to my ears.

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  7. I grieve for the human race as pour senses are so dulled!

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  8. Given how you write, it’s a safe bet the lyricism for you to create and guide your music is there somewhere!

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  9. Hi Rachel,
    I can relate to every word you wrote and have overcome it. I don’t know if you have read my posts about learning the violin but I have certainly written a poem about my struggle to find the nightingale when all I can hear is a screeching cockatoo. Everybody knows how unforgiving a violin can be. I suggest you get hold of a book called: “Nurtured By Love” by Suzuki. He managed to teach children with severe disabiities to play the violin well but it took a lot of perseverance and commitment. In “The Outliers”, they say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a concert violinist. That takes 28 years at an hour a day I think. My maths isn’t great.
    There is a lot of maths in music and alot of patterns and repetition.
    If you really want to learn an instrument, then you would need to book into lessons for at least two years and commit to at least 30 minutes of practice a day. I can almost guarantee that it will work but you’ll still be something of a beginner. After 3 years of learning the violin and I didn’t practice as much last year due to my health, I am starting on second grade and can play some Beatles music, a few Bach Minuets. It is still hard work and I haven’t started to learn vibrato. I say my strength is in writing about playing the violin and I definitely feel that playing the violin has extended me a lot in all sorts of ways, which could never be quantified.
    Despite saying all of that, in the end there are only so many hours in the day. I have decided to focus on writing and photography but am continuing on the violin and trying not to get jealous when others in our ensemble overtake me when they are putting in the hours and don’t have the limitations posed b my health and disability.
    There’s some food for thought.
    xx Rowena

    Reply
  10. Reblogged this on beyondtheflow and commented:
    I know so many adults who would like to learn an instrument and so many kids who stubbornly refuse to practice…even when they profess to love their instrument. This post writes about this so well and connects up with much of my writing about learning the violin xx Rowena

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  11. Beautifully expressed! I love music! My attempts with piano, cello and guitar have frustrated me. I think listening to the sound of music created by a gifted cellist is as close as one can get to heaven on earth. I admire the talent and dedication of musicians.

    You have a pair of the cutest dogs on the planet!

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  12. Reblogged this on Evgenia and commented:
    That is so cute real ballerina!

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  13. I hear music in the easy flow of your eloquent prose. That is your song Rachel

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  14. One of my greatest regrets, too. My mother was a contralto with the Torquay choral society as well as a consummate pianist. I could neither sing a note nor play one. And I so love music, being absorbed in it or by it, floating on that peculiar floss of melody, that I feel a jealous envy of those who have the gift. Honey, whilst very fond of the sound of her own voice, is as tuneless as I, though I did catch her having a little howl once…

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  15. Oh I can definitely understand the pain of soft skin on guitar strings. I’ve been teaching myself doing daily practice and have had to take a few days off due to blisters on my fingers :/

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  16. I too would love to be musically talented. I’m absolutely not and yet I have a sister who is a brilliant violinist. She couldn’t control her stage fright and so never plays. A sadly wasted talent.

    You are fortunate to be a talented writer. That’s something worth celebrating. 🙂

    Meanwhile, your dogs are so cute!!

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  17. If you love music, and listen to it… listen to what you really love, over and over again… the way a musician practices his music over and again… it could be that the music will become a part of you to such an extent, that you’ll find a response growing within you. And your own personal song will find it’s way out. If that’s what you truly want… I wouldn’t give up. I’d keep on trying. And if the guitar strings are hard on your fingers, it could be that the piano keys will be more friendly… or a keyboard… The instrument is only important to the degree that you find a way for it to be an extension of yourself. Don’t give up.

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  18. I know what you mean about music. I haven’t played now for over eighteen months, but actually don’t miss it at the moment. I grew into my music, then my music became an inner part of me. Although I didn’t lose my natural gift, it waned so much that I felt a part of me was missing. Two of my own compositions (never written down) always sent Hubby and the dog to sleep!

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    • I wrote a song for my nephew once, when he was a baby, and he would just stare at me and touch my lips while I sang. I’m not sure the song itself reached him, but he was fascinated by the way the sound came out.

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  19. woof such beauty with your words and grace I bet you are a great momwithoutpaws

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  20. I have always been a music fan. Years ago I started going round a mate’s in the early hours (mis-spent youth!) because he had several guitars and had taught himself out of books which he told me to try. We spent about a year and half doing this.and he was right about the learning, don’t turn the page until you can do what it’s told you! He is the kind of guy who never gives up through sheer bloody mindedness and we found his playing style came across like this. Pretty forced, like the music just had to come out no matter what because he said so, as if he was saying ‘”I will bloody do this!”. I got into the feel (only learned several chords though, which I learned to play in various orders) and would attempt to feel the strings rather than force the issue. I think this means it is our individualism that comes through the music. I injured my hand (tendons) which stopped me practicing. Not picked guitar up since (1998/99) but as my son has been playing for a number of years now I may just go & look for another 2nd hand strummer! Reading this makes me think synchronicity, fingers crossed…

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  21. I understand your frustration! ‘ve always loved music and long to play the piano better than I do. Sometimes I get flashes where I feel ‘one with the music’ but the next second play a wrong note and lose it (usually losing my temper in the process!) I often hear a song on the radio and think ‘I wish I’d written that!’ Several years ago I was in a band and wrote some songs, but I lost the lyrics and now I can’t remember them properly.
    The local dogs have choir practice at the same time every night. I’m not sure who the leader is, but every evening at about dinnertime Millie goes outside to add her voice to the chorus. Pearl just stands next to her and listens – I don’t think she’s musical, either.

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  22. your post is like a song and I wish I had some talent too, it was my greatest wish once to play an instrument… sadly my piano teacher hit the nail on the head: tune deaf like a piece of firewood (that was mean, but she was right… sigh…)

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  23. You’ve found your song…. It is writing! Well done.

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  24. Really deep. I wish I could play all the instruments! But, I guess that doesn’t really go with this post. Lol.

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  25. Music in your soul indeed, but it may come out of you in your writing.. reading aloud even to yourself, or spend time listening to audiobooks.. maybe the rhythms of the English language sing to you, and your musical soul is tuned in 🙂 .. enjoy our writing and blog… – DrWeb

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  26. Music is so very powerful. I know because I am a musician, I write songs, and I can’t imagine a world without music. What I would say to you, as a musician and songwriter, is that music is in the ear of beholder and the heart of the composer. Start with a picture of Cricket or Butterfly and hum a simple melody that comes from your heart invoked by the image. your One line of 7 or 8 notes. Your eyes will connect with your heart and your ears. Start there – the rest will come in time.

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  27. Beautiful piece! I always feel so close to Cricket and Butterfly, and also to you after reading your work. As a professionally trained musician with all the spark but none of the drive to perform, I look at your situation from the other side–I hear the music of myself everywhere in the world, and I give it back through non-musical endeavors. Perhaps spending some couch time with Carl Sagan and the original Cosmos might help you echo-locate your singular soul melody. Also, check out a book called The Singing Neanderthals, which is about human evolution, musicality and language.

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  28. Sweet Rachel you may not play music to your liking but you sure can put words down in a professional and beautiful way. You are a writer without any doubt. I so love music and would love to have been a singer. I have an electric keyboard…tried to teach myself to play but my luck was much like yours. I did learn to play one song but in a very simple way, not like I hoped to. 🙂 Loved the way your described Crickets singing. I really enjoy ice skating and the way the skaters body flows with the music. I really enjoyed this post. Hugs

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  29. I totally agree with you. I also agree as “Burns the Fire” wrote that writing is another form of song. You express yourself well through this medium and I can tell that you enjoy it. It comes through you -the music and the message!

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  30. As always, a great post 🙂

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  31. Some dogs are really quite musical. I used to have three that sat around the piano while I played. One of them – the Border Collie cross — would howl at certain noises such as the phone ringing. Her sounds were almost music. It’s a fascinating topic. 🙂
    I tweeted it, of course.

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  32. I didn’t know you were a skating fan! Kwan, Browning… amazing. Daisuke Takahashi, Yuzuru Hanru and Patrick Chan are men of this era who move like Kwan & Browning… as if the music speaks through them and their feet are wearing ballet slippers instead of heavy skates. I love letting the music speak through me when I’m on the ice but its nowhere near as pretty as it was when I was younger. Enjoying music as you do is just another way of being musical, degree or not 🙂

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    • I am a skating junkie! There used to be so many great professional skating shows on TV, but that era ended too soon. I had on ice seats one year at a Stars on Ice show. I was inches away from Paul Wylie!

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      • Fantastic! There are still some “B” tours overseas like the ones I did in Japan. Small fairgrounds are usually the deal but you are correct that we’ve lost SO many American ones. The skaters were personalities (Kurt, Scott, G&G, Torvill & Dean, Boitano) and we all wanted to watch more and more of their skating. Sad to have lost that. Your on-ice seats must have been awesome!

  33. Great writing, Rachel! believe me, if you had continued playing the guitar, your fingertips would’ve soon been hard as stone. Mine were, but are soft now again as I play too little, a few times a year only. Loved Cricket doing her aria!

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  34. I love music but I cannot write songs, play an instrument or carry a tune. Jack can howl in key, his howls travel up the musical keys, he serenades us every once in awhile and it is beautiful. 🙂 You are so talented in so many ways and I learn about a different expression of your talents with each post. 🙂

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  35. Hi Rachel
    Thank you for liking Laugh Out Dead. As you are the only one, I have taken the liberty of sending you the full monty in PDF.
    Perhaps you can put in a kind word for it when I publish it around Easter.

    Best wishes
    Rupert

    Reply
  36. i like that lovely dogs and your inspring making smile blog! its melissa nice to meet you and xoxoxo

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  37. Lovely post, as always, Rachel. And I saw that you were Freshly Pressed. So richly deserved. Congratulations. Peace, John

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  38. i too wish I could sing or some musical talent. I am actually trying to teach myself the keyboard. I wish I would have taken a music course in college. But my plan was a strict get out of college on four years plan. Nothing more and nothing less. So anything extra would have prolonged that. Me being a firm believer in God that I am believe that if I continue to work at it I will be gifted that talent. I just have to keep working at it and not give up

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  39. You have an amazing talent. Everyone is an artist in some way. For you, it’s through writing. That is your instrument, and you will forever play and use it. You are truly living through your music. Love your posts!

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  40. Sounds great Rachel …Thanks for sharing my friend 🙂

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  41. WoW, you’re so talented! In awe :))

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  42. difference between a baroque and a non-baroque cello: the one that’s not baroque doesn’t need to be fixed.

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  43. I used to play the piano as a child and tried to learn the guitar as an adult because. I thought it would be great to play an instrument I could carry around but it was difficult and painful. I gave it up. As nice as it would have been to master it, there were other things I could do with my time. I enjoy your insighs and your dogs.

    Reply

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