Tag Archives: playing music with others



The month of July is my favorite month.  My birthday is in July, it has always been the month that was totally free from school work, and I love the summer.  This year was no exception.  It was, and continues to be, a time of wonderful gifts.

One of the best gifts was having my children and grandchild visit.  They have finally seen where I live, and now they have a better understanding of why I love this “quirky little mountain town” as my daughter called it.  She sees the peace here, she sees my happiness, she sees the lovely people we are friends with.  My other daughter suffered from allergies, so was not outdoors as much, but she too could enjoy the beauty and peace that we have.  She also loves our dogs (the border collie in particular, as she imprinted on Winona when she was a puppy), as well as the wonderful studio/house they were able to stay in while they were here, providing some privacy, plenty of space, and kitchen facilities for convenience.  That the visit went well, even with not too many activities, meant a lot to me.  They were here for my birthday, we went to breakfast and saw “Happy Birthday Susan” on the board at the restaurant, and my request for my favorite cinnamon rolls had been honored.    My grandson Zeke convinced us to go and visit the graveyard, which turned out to be a wonderful place, very quiet, beautiful view, interesting items left around the graves, interesting names.  He also talked us into stopping at the rock shop, which turned out to be an amazing collection of unique things.  He picked out a beautiful crystal right away, my daughter got a ring, and I drooled over the smithsonite.  Zeke built a cactus garden with Sarita, met and was extremely polite to our friends, went to the library for books on Egypt, and got a cowboy shirt and hat in the nearby town.  Everyone decided that it was a good visit, and they said that they wanted to come back.  My heart is happy.  I was exhausted by the end of the visit, but wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

The other meaningful visit was with old friends from Pennsylvania, who drove extra miles to be with us for part of a day and a night on their way to Colorado.  We were able to feel comfortable with each other immediately and had no trouble talking constantly until tiredness overtook us, even though it had been many years since we’d seen each other.  I feel so lucky to know these wonderful people, and that they really appreciated this new life style I have.

The music I play with friends and with Sarita is another gift.  We had a lot of performances at the end of June and early July, so by the time we played for Old Timer’s Reunion, I was getting tired.  But we played with microphones and a sound system guy who was terrific, we had a good, supportive audience (friends, family, and a few other musicians), and it was a great experience.  We have taken a performance break until later in August, but we have been practicing, working on new songs, and having a lot of fun.  Laughter and singing are great healers.  I have never had so much joy doing music with others, and I will always remember this.  As part of the gifts of music, my old friend who really inspired me to play fiddle and mandolin 44 years ago  (my sister’s ex boyfriend) sent me a mandolin just before my birthday.  I had made some comments to him on Facebook about possibly wanting a new one, he listened, and sent me one of his.  Wow, I couldn’t (and still can’t) believe it.  It plays differently from my other one, and is wonderful.  That is truly a long time friend.

I got beautiful gifts for my birthday — a ticket to visit my parents in Michigan from Mom and Dad, a necklace and earring set from good friends who purchased them at Old Timer’s, 2 beautiful ceramic bowls from the Ann Arbor Art Fair from my youngest, a beautiful and incredible kimono style sweater made by a local friend, and a coloring book, where every page is a work of art, along with my favorite prismacolor pencils from my oldest daughter.  Another friend is knitting me a lace shawl made from soft, lovely turquoise alpaca yarn that I had purchased.  I realized that the yarn is too small for my eyes, and I can’t knit with it, and she said she’d make the shawl I wanted and give it to me.  Once again, Wow!  There are a lot of loving people in my life.

Speaking of which, I have gotten spontaneous hugs from one of our utility people, from one of our barn builders, from a fellow doll collector I just met, from the people who are selling us the alpacas, and in the form of a lovely card from my close neighbor.  Each of those make me feel very lucky to live here.

The next big gift to come is our alpacas.  We plan on getting them  in a week.  We’ve gotten their hay, all the supplies we need, now just have to finish a bit of fencing and setting things up.  Oh yes, and we’re getting two kittens to keep them company (and take care of mice) in the barn.   Sarita has decided these peaceful animals are part of my treatment plan,  along with my dogs,  who already give me amazing love and companionship.   With my beautiful, hardworking, loyal and wise wife, I couldn’t ask for better company.   So whatever happens in September (pet scan, bone biopsy, starting on chemo), I have a very lovely life here at home to keep me centered. And gifts that seem to keep coming.



Sometimes I feel like a delicate flower.  Sometimes I feel like tough survivor.  Sometimes I’m not sure, because the old patterns and skills have changed since the cancer.   Sometimes that throws me for a loop, and I have a meltdown.

This morning I was working on learning a fiddle part that was surprisingly hard, because the song it goes with is fairly simple and slow and very lovely.  But yesterday I had to listen to it on the CD, pause it, write the music out using the piano, listen, pause, write, etc.  Then I had to transpose it to the key our music group plays it in.  Then I found out that I transposed it to the wrong key, and basically had to memorize it in a different key in which I had to change octaves midway through so that I could play it (in tune) on my fiddle.  And there is one tricky part with timing that really confused me.  So I slept all night with the song in my head, or at least the half of the song that I could remember, and I woke up to practice it before I went to play with our group.  But I couldn’t quite get it.  In the old days, Susan Alexander could have worked it out simply by listening to it a couple of times.  But my ear is not as good as it used to be, and I have not really played the fiddle for 5 years, and am extremely rusty.  In other words, I don’t really know this Susan that exists right now, the one that had cancer and couldn’t hold an instrument because of my back, the one who doesn’t learn things as well by ear, the one who gets confused by timing, the one who takes a long time to figure things out, the one who can’t play for very long at a time because I have to lie down and rest my back.  I want to be able to do what I used to do just as easily as I used to do it.  I’ve finally found a venue for playing music without a lot of stress, yet I can’t even play up to my own standards.  Knowing that I am the only one who is holding myself to such rigid standards is not even helpful.  I’m frustrated.  So this morning I had a meltdown.

Luckily, I have an incredibly patient and kind partner, who has a really good ear. She helped me yesterday a lot in figuring out this particular fiddle break.  Then she practiced with me a lot, accompanying me on her banjo.  Yesterday I kept it together.  But today, when I just felt frustrated and started judging myself,  I took it out on her, as well as myself, and just raved and reacted rather foolishly.  She stuck with me, as she always does, thank goodness.  I have realized once again in the area of playing music that I am now confronting, that I am not the same as I used to be, and I’m going to have to get comfortable with that.  I have been able to adjust (after cancer) in my exercise, in my preferred posture, in my cooking and my eating, in my limitations physically, in the number of things I can handle in one day, in almost everything else.  But playing instruments with others, trying to learn something that someone else plays on a CD, this area is a new one for me since cancer.  It has to do with physical things, my arthritic fingers, my slow and clumsy picking, the difficulty of finding a comfortable position to play in, but it also has to do with my brain — catching more subtle things in the music and then translating them from my brain to my fingers.  My brain isn’t the same as it used to be, whether that’s age, chemo, being out of practice, whatever.  That’s scary, and makes me feel bad as well as worried and confused.  Who am I?

I’m determined to work on this by practicing more, by listening more, trying to build up some of those brain cells again.  And I will, but I also know that I may as well accept this different Susan and maybe even embrace her.  After all, I’m in the best place to do that.  The environment is friendly, the music group is casual, the performances are mostly background, and very low key, the audiences are positive.  Really, all works out the way it’s supposed to work out.  I couldn’t be more happy in my life, and in fact, haven’t been more happy in the rememberable past.

After the meltdown I was able to acknowledge that there are changes inside me in this particular area of my life.  Now I will do what I can or what I want to make some improvements, and accept the rest.   Although it made for a crummy start to the day, the good thing about a meltdown is that afterwards, I can move on with better self awareness, and perhaps even peace.

After the Hiatus and Sunday Afternoon (song)

Music has come in and out of my life for the whole of it.  When I was a baby, my dad sang me old folk songs and ballads from the compilations of Carl Sandburg and Alan Lomax.  In second grade I started piano for a total of about 4 years, and in third grade my class put on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” and I learned every single song by heart, and still remember most of them.  When I was in sixth grade I quit the piano and took up the violin with a few other sixth graders in my very very small school.  My music teacher, Mr. Parrish, followed me into junior high, and then into high school, and I continued to be in the orchestra for many years.  I never practiced outside of class, but could sight read well enough (and probably was one of Mr. Parrish’s favorites since I’d known him so long), so I was always seated within the first 5 chairs of the first violins. In junior high and high school I also learned the guitar and played music with a girlfriend (Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan, and whatever else attracted us) .  I started writing music in Australia, and putting the poetry of Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, and others to music.   In college I decided to play music with my sister’s boyfriend, and he encouraged me to play fiddle with his mandolin, so I taught myself that.  From then on, I played music whenever and wherever there was a reason to play, which meant I could be in a jag of writing songs because I’d just fallen in love, or because there were others around me who enjoyed playing  and/or singing folk music.  I played and sang at the nature centers, preschool and schools I worked at, and then I’d take a break for a long time.  Sometimes my breaks were very long, and even though I continued to play for kids, it was not for myself.  But I almost always knew I would come back to it sooner or later  for my own personal enjoyment, because that’s who I am.

When I moved to California, I almost despaired of ever finding anyone to play music with again.  Although my kids’ other mom and I played together for a while, when we split up, I couldn’t seem to find a place where I was comfortable.  People didn’t sit around and sing together after potlucks the way they did in Pennsylvania. I went to a women’s music camp a couple of times, and that was sort of fun, but when I tried getting together with the locals to continue on, I didn’t really enjoy myself.  So I stopped again for a long time.  Until I met Sarita, and she was interested in playing some of the songs from my incredible and vast collection.  And then you know what happened after that — we fell in love, and I started writing songs like crazy again, including the split-up song when she thought she could live without me.  We actually played together so much that we had a  feature at the Freight and Salvage  open mic night in Berkeley, and played little performances for friends called “House Concerts.”

Cancer kind of stopped me in my tracks with regard to music.  I couldn’t hold the instruments comfortably, and I was in survival mode.  Only when I had to increase the air I could hold in my lungs to pass a test so that I could have the bone marrow transplant, did we decide that playing harmonica might help me, and I played along with Sarita and the guitar as much as I could.  During the whole transplant ordeal, I managed to write one song, my cancer song called, “The Cancer Song/It’s All About Love”.  Otherwise, all quiet on the music front.

Two years later came the Songwriting Course from Coursera, and I decided to give it a go again.  It was followed by the Introduction to Guitar course, which made me pick up the beautiful little Martin that we’d gotten when I could not hold the larger but exquisite Gibson that Sarita had bought for me when we were first together.  And once again I was on my way, having learned to put my songs on Garage Band, and subsequently on Soundcloud so that I wouldn’t forget how they went, and so that I could share them with my family and friends.  (I had already forgotten many of the tunes of songs I’d written many years ago, frustrating, but since they weren’t the greatest songs, not too too frustrating!)

Then we came to spend this summer at our future home in New Mexico, and my time and energy and mindspace really got me writing, just about one song a week.  My goal is to try something new with each song, and I have succeeded in doing that.  Sometimes it’s just repeating a line, or holding a word over several notes, or using two chords only, or writing songs for particular people.  In my most recent song, I’ve used only seventh chords, in fact I’ve used all the sevenths that I know, just because I never hardly play them, and I wanted to experiment.  Well, I found a rhythm I liked, found 3 different progressions that suited me, and finally put words to them, very fast words actually.  Quite different from the ballads and tunes I’ve previously written.  Fun, really fun.  I could play this song a million times (as I could and do every song I write when it’s just completed).  It’s called “The Seventh Song/All for Money” and I’ll add it on the blog when I get it recorded.

But just as good as all this, is that we also have found some people to play with in this wonderful, incredible place.  Casual, let’s each introduce a song, there may be more fiddles than guitars who cares, we are doing this for fun people.  I can play in my self- taught ways, I can make mistakes, I can play by ear or I can read the music if there is some and I don’t know the song, I can hum in harmony (or not) if I don’t know the words, and strum my guitar with my fingers (and not the uncomfortable pick),  I can even introduce one of my favorite old timey songs or one of the songs I have written and the guys are willing to listen and try it.  I can pick up the fiddle after 3 1/2 years and still play acceptably well and best of all, we have been invited back!   For over 20 years I’ve lived in California, and not found this, and yet here in this small village (where I am obviously supposed to live), we find it with so much ease.

Well, yet another reason to go back to CA and continue writing, seek out and bring my incredible song collection (in about 4 big plastic tubs), and get back to playing my fiddle and mandolin (as well as continuing to learn barre chords on the guitar).    Oh yes, and maybe even buy a new piano that I could bring here more easily than the one I have in California.  Just think, I may get to keep music for myself and for enjoying with others, without ever having to sing or play for kids again –except maybe the grandchild.  Heaven.

Here’s a song about playing music and all our instruments with Sarita when we were falling in love.