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Hearing the Music

Many years ago, I accidentally wrote a piece of music for orchestra. I'd only ever written for piano before and when I told my brother I'd love to write a new piece for his wedding, I assumed it would be the same.  But I started struggling with how to get the piano to produce what I was hearing and I took what I had to my parents' house. Mom has been a piano teacher for over 50 years and she played the violin and cello (and one random year, the trombone) in high school as well. Dad went to college (the first time) on a piano scholarship and, back in the day, played the tenor sax in a Dixie band called John Banana and his Moldy Bunch.

They listened as proud parents, but also as skilled musicians and when I looked up, their faces both held a hint of reluctance behind wry smiles.  "What? What aren't you telling me? What's wrong with this piece?"

They exchanged one of those glances only long-married couples know how to give and then my mom spoke. "It's really nice, Beth. But, um, we think this song is actually supposed to be orchestrated."

Shoot. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. The piano just couldn't produce all the tones and countermelodies I was hearing. But I didn't know how to orchestrate. Except for one painful year of violin in fifth grade, I'd never even played another instrument. I didn't know how high a flute could play or the lowest string on a cello. I didn't know anything about all the specialty markings used in notation for all the various instruments I might want to include.

I know how to learn, though, so I got started right away. It took most of the next six months to write and score the piece. I worked at my piano during nap time and after my toddlers were in bed. I jumped up from the dinner table to catch a scrap of melody floating by. I engraved all the individual parts and compiled them into one conductor's score. And somewhere along the way I learned how low a cello can go.

Then I started making phone calls. First to all the instrumentalists I knew and then to their musician friends. I promised them soup and bread and a fun evening and sent out parts by email. I rounded up a conductor and a good microphone and practiced the piano parts myself, though I'd written something just on the edge of my own abilities. 

The day arrived and I showed up to a room of musicians, warming up and woodshedding musical phrases I'd written. The conductor raised his baton for silence...and we began.

After all those months of work, of singing the parts faintly in my head, of pounding out notes and trying to internally translate the bright sounds of the piano to the sweetness of french horn, I was finally hearing the music! 

The notes and dynamic markings I'd put on the page made sense to the players and they played. They took my ideas and translated them back from black and white into color. They heard my heart and made it sing.

We ran through the piece once or twice and then took a quick and dirty, one-off recording. We used it as part of the prelude for my brother's wedding and I'm certain almost no one noticed or thought twice about the music floating out of the speakers.  But I will never forget the feeling when it worked and the song I'd heard and written down was read and played. 

This week, I sent off my poetry manuscript to a few friends and fellow writers and artists who have kindly agreed to read and, if they like, endorse the work. As the first few responses began to return from my generous welcoming committee, I found myself with the very same feeling. "IT WORKED!" 

Themes I'd tucked tenderly into place, threads I'd woven throughout were noticed and named. The encouraging words like, "stunning" and "well done" will get pulled out on future days of self-doubt, but today, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude that others can read the notes and hear the music too. I can't wait to share it all with you, to hear how your unique instrument responds to the ideas I've put on paper. For today, though, you just get a hint from one who said, "Her work sings like a bird."

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