I spent my second Saturday morning here in Venezuela washing my garments by hand. I was missing a few helpful tools, such as a washboard and a drainage plug, but I quickly found a small plastic bag that had previously held apples I’d purchased from a local market to lay over the drain and got to work right away.
I began with thin shirts that I’d packed specifically for ease of washing. The sensation of kneading fabric in cool water, coupled with the experience of seeing dirt fill the sink was surprisingly satisfying. I drained the sink, re-filled it, continued to knead, and watched the water swirl around, clearer already.
Drain again. Rinse. Repeat.
Five cycles later, I was satisfied only the water ran completely clear, and I could see the stitching of the fabric, and my reflection on the water.
My socks came next. Rinse, knead, drain, repeat; rinse, knead, drain, repeat. I discovered in the wringing and drying process that a group of 4 to 6 socks wrings out more water than a single sock. Water from each sock may be temporarily transferred to others, but as a whole, the process is more efficient for each sock involved.
My jacket came next: a thin cotton hoodie that has significantly more fabric than any other item of clothing that I washed that day. It took at least 8 rinses (and even then I wasn’t satisfied with the clarity of the water), and I had to wring it multiple times in multiple sections, by folding left sleeve over the hood and wringing those together, then wringing the body with the right sleeve, then pairing the right and left sleeve–and still, the water just bled onto itself, very little dripping back into the sink. The more I tried to dry each section individually, the more tired I became. So, ultimately, I left the jacket to drip dry by itself, and wore a slightly damp coat in the bus the following day as I rode from Barquisimeto, Lara to Valle de la Pascua, Guárico. That was okay with me, and I learned to give my jacket a few additional days to air dry the next time I washed it.
It’s been years since I have done my laundry by hand. When I use a washer and dryer, I have no real sense of the process, no appreciation for which articles take longer to wash and dry, no sense of how clean or how dirty anything really is. I just tend to throw it all in under the broad category “needs washing,” and it tends to come out under the broad category “generally clean.” By hand, however, it became clearer and clearer to me that a reason to continue washing garments by hand is to express gratitude for the covering these garments provide for me, to undergo a process that grows out of care: not just for my own cleanliness, but for the vivacity and longevity of that which protects and cares for me.
This has not been my relationship to the musical process, per se, but the beauty, intimacy, and simplicity of this experience sent my mind reeling for several hours after finishing my laundry. As I continued rinsing clothing, striving for clarity of water, my imagination brought me back hours of string sectionals in which I and a group of students refused to move on from a single string exercise, practicing and practicing with new creativity and vigor each ‘cycle,’ living and teaching each other the experience of real, gritty striving. As I dried my socks, I dreamed up new ways of balancing individual coaching in group settings–inspired by ideas and experiences from classes I’d already observed and taught–and other ways of working with each instrument section within the full orchestra, a la the drying of the jacket. Brain whirring, I starred even harder into my socks, wrung my jacket even more tightly, as if willing my clothing to instill still more ideas for the next class.
Sidebar: When I taught in Santa Rosa, a beautiful núcleo situated in and around the town square, I taught a string class with about 30 first violinists and violists at mixed levels, who were working on the opening of the 2nd movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. (Think, JAWS!) Surprised by this unusual combination, I asked a string teacher what the rationale was for putting these two sections together for this particular rehearsal. Was it because of the dialogue between those two voices? Was it because these students were at more similar a technical level than students in, say, the second violin or cello section? The teacher gave me a quizzical look as I asked the question, then laughed and said, “No, Stephanie; it’s because we knew you are a violinist and violist, so we wanted to give those students the opportunity to work with you together.” A simple yet beautiful example for me of stretching something ‘fixed’ in new ways. The challenge created provides and opportunity to design new exercises and new ways of teaching and learning.
This trip has been filled with gifts, and though I was not expecting that the experience of hand-washing some fabric to be included in those gifts, it filled me with a sense of spiritual calmness that some get from gardening, trying to fix a broken radio or a fussy car part, perfecting a certain hit or kick, or working through a musical passage to perfection. The pattern here might be physicality + repetition + the taste of possibility and reachable achievement + a clear beginning, middle, and end. There are more, I am sure. The intimacy of focusing on ‘minutiae’ as a means of changing our lives–and by extension, the lives of those around us, our students, our teachers, our friends, our neighborhoods, our world–cannot be understated here. Hand position, the curvature of a pinky, the insistence from both student and teacher that you can never give up on that little finger–
–no matter how sore it becomes, or no matter how hard it feels to break that habit–
–is another layer of the reason that I am here, right now, savoring in the discoveries and blessings of clear water.