Category Archives: piano

brains

For most of my life I’ve felt relatively happy and well-adjusted—this despite a few run of the mill traumas and dysfunctions. Some of my beloved friends and close relatives, some with genius IQs and crazy good artistic abilities, have not always faired so well mentally. They struggle with addiction and various mental illnesses, i.e. depression, anxiety, a bit too much paranoia, et al. They are all wonderful and funny and great to be around and to talk to, except when they are not. They have brains they all contend with daily. I love them. They are wonderful people. The best people. Though, being around them, I’ve often wondered how I got so lucky to feel pretty good most of the time. Well, here’s the answer: I don’t.

This is a surprise to me because it’s a fairly recent discovery.  I’ve had a few dark periods in my adult life, but they were situational and could be measured in months. I was always able to improve with simple things like exercise and time. What I’m realizing, though, is that my sanity may have been a direct result of keeping my brain very very very busy. Basically, I’ve noticed that if I’m not keeping busy by practicing yoga, falling in love, playing the piano, or earning a PhD, my brain gets bored and tries to take itself to crazy town.

When I completed my PhD, I thought I was done with school forever. Now, I’m not so sure. After ten years of school, I wanted to develop other aspects of myself besides just my intellect. These days I have to practice piano, I practice yoga, I make art, and I volunteer with work that (sometimes) seems meaningful for my mental health. (Though several times in the past year I’ve been tempted to stop the volunteer thing.) Meaninglessness in everything is one of the tricks my brain plays on me, and so finding meaning in life is crucial to my happiness. Basically, I have to work at keeping this brain of mine happy. I love my brain, but I’m learning I have to give it what it needs or else it will punish me.

my (new to me) piano

my (new to me) piano

What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus

I heard rave reviews about What Happened, Miss Simone? at Sundance this year, but I didn’t get to see it at the time. As luck would have it, KRCL and the SLC Library brought it back for a free screening in Salt Lake. The producer, Amy Hobby, took questions from KRCL’s Eugenie Hero Jaffe. So, that was fun!

But, the film. The film. Nina Simone wasn’t on my radar until maybe five or six years ago, when someone posted a video of her performance of “I’ve Got Life” on Facebook. I watched it many times and got a few of her cds and now it’s a part of my life. I sing her songs with some frequency.

The film creates an arc and fall for her life, which was certainly messier and less clear in the living. She was dedicated to the piano at a young age. This dedication ran parallel to extreme oppression, where any wrong move could lead to abuse or even death by lynching. No wonder a small child would cling to something, anything—perfection. She was poised to be the first black concert pianist. She ended up paying the bills by performing in night clubs. One thing lead to another, and she became the preeminent jazz and blues singer of her era and beyond.

As the civil rights movement picked up, so too did her purpose. Her songs became more political. Her artistic passion and creativity flourished like never before, but her music was banned by many stations and venues that did not want to be political. The film outlines her tumultuous relationship with her husband, her relationship with her daughter. The film also reveals her struggle with bipolar disorder, which she dealt with at a time when very little was known about it (even less so than now).

I’m sure she was successful because most people feel the same way, but I really relate to Nina Simone. It’s not just that I’m practicing piano these days. There’s something about watching the slow steady rage building in her throughout this film that seems so very human, and so very understandable. When you have the luxury of not feeling rage, it can seem silly to outsiders. Once it begins to build within you, expressing it in any sort of effective way is nearly impossible.

The rage happens when you begin to feel less free. Like when suddenly, in very real ways, you are losing legal control over what happens to your body, and others lose control over what happens to their bodies, when you feel limited in your ability to move around in the world. Of course we limit our freedoms in various ways, which takes a lifetime to work through, but when others do the harm, that is hard to bear.

The rage happens when you are cracked open by love and that makes you capable of much deeper intensity than ever before. It’s all very thrilling and terrifying, and some people call it bipolar, and some people call it art, and they are not the same, but there is a shared relationship to control, creating, being, and doing things…differently.

Simone works, and works hard, to translate her rage into something useful, into art, into commentary relevant to the time period. She does this beautifully. Like good theory, the music and lyrics sometimes seem deceivingly simple, but build and grow in their complexity until you are moved to something completely new.

Leaving the film, I felt renewed. What might I do with my own moods, my own passions? How might I better express myself creatively? How might I create? I have some ideas. I do.

Whiplash by Damien Chazelle

I enjoyed watching Whiplash over the weekend. This is a movie that will take you up to the edge and over the waterfall, if you know what I mean. While I enjoyed watching it more than I enjoyed Birdman, I think Birdman will have the edge during awards season. Here’s why: Whiplash takes a close look at just a few ideas, whereas (despite my criticisms of the film) Birdman takes a nuanced look at a lot of ideas and characters.

Still, Whiplash is a joy to watch. Some say the movie is about teaching method, but I think the movie is about the music, talent, and art overcoming the process. And, this is evidenced in the way the film ends–paying homage to the music. The audience loses sight of the drama and the personal dynamics as the final performance plays out. And I loved that.

I also really loved the relationship that Miles Teller’s character Andrew had with his father Paul Reiser. It was a minor aspect of the movie, but this was a highlight of the film for me. If the film had followed a more predictable narrative, the relationship between father and son would’ve been strained. The father would have either pushed the son too hard, or would have disapproved of the son’s pursuits all together. Instead, the film portrays a gentle, loving, and supportive relationship between father and son, and it results in a tenderness that I would love to see more of between two men on screen.

There are a few really predictable aspects of the film, the most noteworthy being that Andrew very predictably sabotages his personal relationships for the sake of his success.

There are a few uncharacteristic scenes as well. The character Andrew is a strong combination of deeply insecure, appearing to second guess himself at every turn, coupled with brief explosions of self-assuredness that are usually at the expense of this peers.

There is an amusing scene where Andrew is having dinner with his father and extended family. It is clear that the family does not really understand or value what Andrew is doing, and Andrew broods silently before schooling them all. It’s amusing, but isn’t really indicative of the character throughout the rest of the film.

Overall, I think the film might’ve been more powerful if Andrew was more aggressive, funny, fast-talking, and confident throughout the film, and only the teacher, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, was able to destroy that confidence. Anyway, it would’ve given Fletcher’s character more convincing power throughout.

Despite all that, I enjoyed the film, the music, watching the process. The whole thing inspired me to practice piano. Maybe that’s all.