March 3, 2016 by Jean
March is my month of intense commitment to, as one acquaintance put it, “Botany and Beethoven.” Both these activities are especially time-consuming on Thursdays, but each also demands another hour or more of my time every day.
A little after noon on Thursdays, I fill my travel mug with tea and pack a sandwich. By 12:15, I am in the car and on the road for the 30-minute drive to my Master Gardener class. The Master Gardener Volunteer program exists throughout the United States and is run in most states by the state university cooperative extension service. Master Gardener volunteers in Maine complete a 14-week college-level horticulture course and 40 hours of work in approved volunteer projects in order to be certified. Once you are certified as a volunteer, you have access to advanced training courses and must complete at least 20 hours per year of approved volunteer work to maintain your active certification. The program is organized by counties in Maine. The class I am in serves Androscoggin (where I live) and Sagadahoc counties. However, a number of the participants are from neighboring counties that are not offering a certification course this year. (The two women I sat with at our first class last week are traveling an hour each way from Boothbay Harbor, in Lincoln County.)
Because Maine has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension focuses it’s Master Gardener course on growing vegetables and fruits. My gardening has always focused on ornamentals, so the course will involve a lot of new learning for me. A pre-test at the first class was a humbling experience, but it’s reassuring to realize that I will know the answers to most/all of those questions by week 14. The homework to prepare for each class is provided online, with links to a series of University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletins, short videos, other University of Maine resources, fact sheets from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and additional optional resources. I am downloading most of these resources in PDF format and saving them in a Master Gardener folder on my computer. I’m finding that I need to spend about 1-2 hours per day on the homework to get through it all in the week before class. The reward is how much I have learned after only one week of class and homework.
When I get out of my Master Gardener class at 4:00 p.m., the “botany” part of my Thursday is over. I drive the half hour home and have about 90 minutes to make and eat dinner and get organized for the “Beethoven” part, the Thursday evening rehearsal of the Maine Music Society Chorale. I joined the Chorale in late January and came in to week 3 of intensive rehearsals for an early April concert of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. This is very difficult chorale music, so I am feeling a bit as though I’m competing in the Olympics after decades away from my sport! The first couple of weeks were tough, and I struggled with feeling as though I would never master this music. By now, though, I am starting to understand much of it, and I can even sing snatches of melody in the shower. Getting to this point, however, has required spending 1-2 hours per day practicing on my own.
This is not an unusual level of commitment. As with the Master Gardener course, there are a number of chorale members from outside the local area who travel considerable distances (more than an hour each way, which is nothing to sneeze at in a Maine winter!) for rehearsals. We are clearly expected to learn music on our own outside of rehearsal, and there are online resources to help us do so. At my most discouraged point, another member of the chorale saved me by recommending the CyberBass website, where you can listen to an instrumental version of the music with your own part (in my case, alto) highlighted, can open up a virtual piano to plunk out the notes for particularly challenging sections, and can slow the music down as you try to learn it. This last has been especially important for one section of the Missa solemnis “Credo” that has been giving everyone fits. It’s a complicated fugue sung at a lightening fast tempo. Being able to learn it at 60% of the normal tempo and then gradually increase the speed as I practice has made what seemed like an impossible task doable.
If you’ve been counting, you realize that I’ve committed a big chunk of my time to botany and Beethoven. I spend about 7 hours on Thursdays, including my 3-hour class, 2-hour rehearsal, and travel to each of these and then 2-4 hours per day on the other days of the week on some combination of the two. Sometimes combining these two intense commitments feels like an insane thing to do, but the insanity is temporary and is more than offset by the pleasure both give me. In one month, we will be done rehearsing Beethoven and on to the easier melodies of Billy Joel and Elton John. Six weeks after that, I will be finishing the take-home exam for my Master Gardener course. But botany and music will continue to enrich my life long after these intense commitments are done.