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Scared Cat Drawing by Deborah Henson-ConantThe flight home from Atlanta night-before-last got pretty choppy, and we had one of those pithy pilots who just says, “everyone get to your seats” instead of something comforting like, “Well, folks, we’ll be going through a little band of turbulence as we descend into Boston, so I’d like you to just buckle in and … blah blah blah.”

OK, I’m not always a really calm flyer anyway (though I no longer scream out loud, causing people in the front of the plane to turn around and say, “Whatever you do, please just don’t throw up”). However, I do occassionally ask the person next to me to hold my hand.

Last night was one of those flights, probably more to do with my caffeine intake than the turbulence, though both were on the way-higher-than-average level.

I’d scoped out the situation in advance:

On my right, across the aisle, was a guy who I knew had once been a basketball player,and whose wife – further to my right – was also a basketball player and a jewelry designer. They both looked pretty calm, but they were across the aisle and my general rule is to only request across-the-aisle hand-holding if nobody is sitting next to me (or if, as has happened, the person next to me has already indicated their own anxiety level is way beyond mine – usually via a mime-activity of some sort).

To my left was a young man in a uniform, who was really happy because he was headed home on leave. He hadn’t actually been in battle conditions, but he’d been in training and he looked pretty sturdy.

When the turbulence hit, about an hour out of Boston, I weathered it OK for awhile, but it moved into hand-holding territory.

So … hmmm … a guy who protects people for a living, in a comforting uniform with insignias on it is to my left, and an ex-basketball player and his wife are way across the aisle on my right. It should be a pretty simple choice.

BUT … I have reason to believe (bring in the ominous low musical underscoring) … that the enlisted man has … (big timpani roll) … a cold.

So … I reach across the aisle, startling the ex-basketball player, who, it turns out is not the hand-holding kind, but who assures me there’s a lot of turbulence (which is oddly reassuring).

And we make it safely to the ground.

So someone explain this to me, someone who studies the human psyche: I’m so anxious about this flight that I’ll reach across the aisle to invade a stranger’s personal space — but I will not reach to the guy next to me – a guy whose profession is protecting people – because I think has a cold.

Am I really more afraid of a cold than a plane crash? If I don’t really think the plane is going to crash, why am I responding with such physical anxiety?

Why do I feel afraid of the turbulence but act afraid of the cold?

And while we’re at it, how come the taxi credit-card screens in Boston only allow you the option to give 20%, 25% or 30% tip? Do they know that the quotient of our math skills, multiplied by our laziness … no, never mind, I can’t even figure out how to end that sentence. I’ll just go for the answer about fear.


After years on the fence about Facebook, I realized last week that Facebook is whatever you make it, and I posted two questions that happened to be foremost in my mind that day.

One was about musical notation and the other about the ‘maggot scene’ from “Mutiny on the Bounty.” 

From the flurry of comments, I learned many things about both, including these:

“Toasted they taste like pine nuts (I accidentally discovered once when I didn’t sift flour…)” (Thank you for that one, Mimi)

A recipe for Maggot Crisps, written out in full by Kristine (thank you Kristine)

The lyrics to a 70’s band ‘worm song’ (many thanks, Clem)

Also how singers like to see rhythms notated — at least in one specific situation — which is the subject of this blog.

The specific situation is a passage from “Songs of the Pyre,”  a 5-movement dramatic song-cycle for soprano, harp, piano and cello.

I premiered the song-cycle in NYC back in the ’80’s and it’s been on my “Prepare for Publication” shelf ever since — because given the choice between “Prepare Finished Piece for Publication” or “Write New Exciting Piece,” guess which I choose?

This year I’ve committed to releasing the works on that shelf, and I’ve hired composer-and-copyist Noah Brenner to help. So Noah is taking old hand-written versions, digitizing them and standardizing layouts and notation.

But standards aren’t always clear, and sometimes what makes sense to composers doesn’t read sensibly to performers. Facebook gave us the chance to provide two examples and let performers weigh in.

Noah made an A-B comparison chart and I  asked singers to weigh in,  choose between two ways of notating the same line – and to tell me which they preferred and why.









And the comments were all illuminating.  The kind of feedback you could normally only get in a classroom.

And the last one, especially, made me realize that this was an excellent tool.

So, I take back all that stuff I said about Facebook (don’t bother looking for it – I mostly said it to my cat).

If you’re already my friend on Facebook and you’re thinking, “But, hey, I don’t remember reading anything about maggots OR music notation!” it’s probably because you are only my friend, but you do not officially “like” me.

I do most of my posting on my “official” fan page, so please join the conversation here – and if you have a recipe for maggot mousse, I’m all eyes.

There’s no way I can fit this into a single blog, so I’ll try to write as many as I can  in the next few days.  First of all …

Yes, it’s true I was on “America’s Got Talent.”  Yes it’s true I was buzzed after about 10 seconds.  And no, I wasn’t trying to lose.

Last March I was invited to go to Seattle to compete on America’s Got Talent.  My first reaction was: “You’ve got to be kidding! No way!”

But then I started re-thinking …

3 Contestants in my game-show musical - Bela (Emily Rostykus), Gabriel (Janelle Nadeau) & Eden (Meg Mann).

I’ve been working on a musical called “In the Wings  (or What the Hell are you doing in the Waiting Room for Heaven??)” It’s about the ultimate game-show: auditions to get into Heaven.  I realized I couldn’t pass up the chance to actually experience a talent show like this first-hand, to meet competitors, to see what it’s really like.  Ego be damned – this was a chance to be in the belly of the beast.  The beast I’m writing a show about!

There were other mitigating factors, like it meant I got to go out to the Seattle area three weeks before my show with the Tacoma Symphony, so I could rehearse with the “HarpBreakers” and do some in-person PR — all of which helped sell out my March 27th show.

But actually competing on “America’s Got Talent” was priceless in terms of first-hand experience – learning about the personalities backstage, what people did to prepare, how people responded to rejection, how some people were so deeply sincere and authentic and others were trying to ‘game’ the experience; the many hours of interviews, the second-guessing about repertoire, the people who really hit their mark, and how some utterly and authentically made the audience fall in love with them – and were still rejected.  There’s no way I could possible get this kind of visceral experience except by being there.

And then there was my own personal journey … but all that is to come.  This was a rich and deep and truly iconic experience.  The rejection?  That was good too — deeply good.  But I’ll write about all that in the next few days now that I finally can.

To listen to a song from the musical, click the play button below.

This song happens at the point of the musical when casting coach, Aubrey, begins to realize she’s spent her life coaching others to win, while she, herself, is still watching from the wings.

And to read the next blog in this series click here.

I’m usually happy that my current phone is a Dumb-Phone, and that all it can do it send and receive phone calls – and I have a FlipCam that I use to capture video.  But on the road last week from Seattle to Eugene, I discovered my FlipCam was on the fritz and my phone … well, it was just a phone.

Here’s how I described the situation to the radio announcer who played a pivotal role:

From: Deborah Henson-Conant
Sent: Monday, March 28, 2011 11:20 PM
To: Christa Wessel / On-air Host & Producer of “Played in Oregon” /
Subject: Bassoon and Plastic Streamer

After a performance with the Tacoma Symphony on Sunday, I drove to Portland, spent the night and headed out early this morning for a masterclass at U of O. I ended up behind a truck carrying plastic-bound crates. The plastic had come loose, was trailing in the air behind the truck, and waving, eddying like crazy.

I was listening to your program. The bassoon piece came on, and suddenly the bassoon and the plastic streamer became one. I swear, each ornament in the music was reflected in that ribbon of plastic. Breathtaking leaps. Trills. Everything. It was one of the most thrilling music-and-dance experiences of my life.

And my flipcam batteries were dead.

Someday I’ll try to re-enact it on stage. It was the performance of a lifetime.

Thank you! I’ll never forget it!

Deborah Henson-Conant /

The worst part was having to deal with my frustration that I couldn’t catch this incredible performance and share it. I finally gave myself a good talking to: “Look,” I said, “your batteries were dead. That’s the way it was. You’ll never get that video, so you’re going to have to figure out another way to recreate the experience.”

“Aaaggh!  But it was so perfect!  The roadway, the sounds from the car, the bassoon on the radio, the incredible plastic streamer!!!!  It’s gone forever!  This incredible piece of art!!! I’m the only one who saw it! Aaaaagh!!”

That’s when I hit on the idea for a Bassoon-and-Streamer piece, a re-enactment of the roadway reverie. I can see it all now! Hand percussion and gentle pizzicato for the rain, wet finger on drumhead for the squeak of the windshield wipers, low rumbles from the basses and deep bass bissbigliando from orchestral harp for the roadway noises.  The bassoon begins, in Baroque style, as I wave a streamer of white silk … aaahhhh…. we’d almost get it!  Close enough.

So the next time I play with the Tacoma Symphony, expect that to show up on the program!

By the way, the piece was Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in Bb Major, the bassoonist was Klaus Thunemann, the host Christa Wessel of, the highway was Route 5, my rental car was from Enterprise and the truck with the plastic-covered boxes was a medium-sized white Toyota.*

Bassoon Concerto /

The fateful Bassoon Concerto

*OK, I made that part up.  I’m a girl**, of course I have no idea what kind of truck it was.

**Don’t take that amiss.  It doesn’t really have anything to do with my gender.  I’m just using that as a convenient excuse.

My Dog Emery & Me

Emery, the Rock-Hound, and Me

My dog and I lived in a small cabin on Tomales bay when I was 18. By “on” I mean the house was on stilts and the water sloshed underneath the house.  When I went to school every day, he’d stay home,  dig up rocks from the beach and carry them home.  He was a rock hound.  He’d bring them inside the screen door and collect them on the tiny mudroom floor.

Every few days, when the pile of rocks was so big I couldn’t get to the front door without falling, I’d pick them up and throw them back on the beach.  It usually took 5 or 6 trips.

He’d spend the next few days collecting them again.  And then I’d throw them back onto the beach.  And so on. It’s just what we did, part of maintaining our relationship.

I think about him a lot when I straighten my house and my studio. I notice that things just seem to collect in ‘the wrong places’ — tea mugs end up on the porch, in the bathroom, on shelves; eye glasses end up in boxes and backpacks and sometimes inside tea mugs.

Yeah, I could maybe become one of those people (if there really are any people like this) who actually put things back where they belong (now that I think of it, I did meet someone like that once), but there’s something beautiful about the still-life of  things in the wrong places.  It tells a story.  Someone was there, they did something, maybe something important to them, maybe just a moment of leisure, or preoccupation, or whimsy — or a moment interrupted — and this is the imprint.

There’s something touching about erasing that imprint. A slow sweep through the house, gathering the rocks and throwing them back on the beach.

But for a long time I resented it. I felt like the fact that things don’t stay clean was personal, a way life has of thwarting me.  Maintenance can seem so unimportant compared to project work, where you create something new – including a new, impressive mess.  But it’s taken me a long time to embrace the beauty of maintenance – at least as a concept

Houses don’t stay clean.  Inboxes don’t stay empty.  Maintenance isn’t work that ever gets ‘done.’  It’s periodic, like breathing.  You do it, and then you do it again. And in its perfect sense, it’s a chance to touch the imprint of what just happened, to reconnect and catch its faint scent before it’s gone.

So the challenge for me isn’t how to get it “done” or even how to get better at cleaning up after myself in the first place.  The challenge is to reconnect, to re-engage with this human touchpoint.   At least … that’s how I’m looking at it today.  Rocks in the mudroom, a beach where they belong — and finding a way to love those five slow trips across the porch at twilight to throw them back where my dog can discover them again tomorrow and return them to the place they don’t belong.

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