January 2018

A piece of reading I once encountered describes the experience of daily life as ‘chaos’.

“The artist is comfortable only with going back to the way chaos is first encountered – that is, moment to moment through the senses,” the author stated.

“Then, selecting from that sensual moment-to-moment experience, picking out bits and pieces of it, reshaping it, she recombines it into an object that a reader encounters as if it were experience itself: a record of moment-to-moment sensual experience, an encounter as direct as we have with life itself.

“Only in this way, by shaping and ordering experience into an art object, is the artist able to express her deep intuition of order.”

—Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir

“Chaos” is pretty much how I would describe my everyday experiences.

To maintain my sanity, I need to control that chaos, while taking into account the state of my memory at the same time.

Besides the chaos of incoming experiences, setting up the tasks that I want to perform each day is always a struggle. Even after I jot down each one that I hope to accomplish, I get stuck while breaking larger chunks into smaller pieces that I can manage. Individual portions slide in and out of my mind as I shift my attention from one to the next; other thoughts that surface during the process often knock bits and pieces into disarray – if not out of my memory altogether.

In any other area of my life, each time I add one or two pieces of new information, recent chunks that I’d just placed tend to slide out. I compensate by stopping every few hours (or sooner) to grab some paper and jot down new impressions, placing relevant bits side by side. Then, when I am able, I move to my computer and type up the important pieces, again arranging them adjacent to one another on the screen, so that I could store them into my memory as a single unit.

On any typical day, I spend several hours throughout the course of each evening, consulting my planners and calendars, digging through memories of my recent activities, experiences, and writing projects, then tediously constructing a list of what I hope to accomplish the following day. Not often do I manage to climb into bed before 11 p.m.

Even that does not ensure my success. Controlling my time continues to prove difficult, if not impossible. Hot and dry weather conditions can wipe out all comfort with my eyesight, so that nothing I try to read sticks in my memory. Muscles in various parts of my body become stiff and sore when I remain in the same position for lengthy periods, and I need to get up from my desk and engage in some physical activity. My parents often come up with errands that they need me to run, which couldn’t be put off. My stomach rumbles, and I look up at the clock to see that it’s lunchtime or dinnertime.

Then, when I return to writing, I find all the bits and pieces of my thoughts scattered again. This can happen up to 4-5 times a day. And frustration prevents me from making any sense of my work.

Over the years, I have learned to be flexible & patient with myself. I still often feel discouraged when I lose track of making any progress in my own life.

Then, one recent morning late last year, when I did manage to plan all of my tasks successfully the previous evening:
I climbed out of bed early, got dressed, and reviewed the list of my own tasks that I’d written up and placed next to my pillow.

I walked into the kitchen, enjoying the stillness of the day, sliced some fresh fruit into a bowl, poured some cereal that I’d recently purchased on top of it, and retrieved a carton of milk from the refrigerator. Hearing my mother’s footsteps behind me, I wished her a cheerful “Good morning!”

Unfortunately, she was in no mood to respond in kind. Eyeing the contents of my bowl, she accused, “Eating that junk again! I told you to throw that out! Why won’t you follow my example and eat healthy oatmeal? Do you want to die early?”

I sighed inwardly. Eating a full bowl of oatmeal often had the effect of causing discomfort and bloating in my stomach. I’d previously explained that to Mom, but she had rejected and dismissed my words, just as she was doing now.

Instead, this time I compromised by filling up half a bowl of oatmeal, then proceeded to scoop a small spoonful of my favorite granola – another recent purchase – to sprinkle on top of it.

“That’s not enough oatmeal,” Mom persisted. “And do you know how much sugar they put into that granola?”

“I’m only using a little bit,” I said. “And this brand that I selected already has the least sugar of all of other brands on the supermarket shelf.”

She wasn’t convinced. “You’re ruining the pureness of our oatmeal! Putting that garbage into your body…”

I relented, and put away my granola to get her to stop complaining.

But Mom wasn’t satisfied. “Throw out that bowl of that toxic cereal!” she ordered. Processed foods! Bad for your body! You’re going to ruin your health!”

I didn’t bother to answer this time. I focused on keeping a smile on my face and sat down to start on my breakfast.

But Mom continued heckling me with protests. “Do you remember how much money your doctor’s appointments cost? Each medication that they prescribe also costs money! What about your last blood test? Your cholesterol was higher than mine! That’s because I eat oatmeal and you love eating that junk…”

I did not bother to point out that her that both of our cholesterol levels were well within the normal range; her HDL was simply a bit higher than mine, while her LDL was somewhat lower. Neither did I try to remind her how the much discomfort and bloating the full bowl of oatmeal I’d recently eaten caused during my subsequent hours at work. She had refused to take me seriously then, and would surely do so again now.

I managed to tune her out and finish all of my preferred breakfast. However, simply fending her off had thrown my memories into disarray. I retrieved the written list of tasks I’d planned for the day, but knew instinctively that the writing that I’d planned to tackle right after breakfast would be impossible to concentrate on.

Instead, I packed my gym bag and made my way down to the garage. Walking on the treadmill at the gym, an activity that did not require much thinking in itself, would help my memories to resurface and allow me to organize them while doing something productive.

On my way to the garage with gym bag
Mom griped – tasks she needed my help with – couldn’t bother me days at work
Now gym – more time away
I stopped to help – broken appliance / bills / groceries
Mom also needed groceries
Dad tagged along – wanted me to take him out to lunch – claimed nothing he liked to eat left in fridge
Griped about my choice of restaurant
Grocery shopping – resisted my instincts – wanted foods that suited his tastes, now mine or Mom’s
His habit: shopping in large quantities
I argued: no place to put the food
Mom won’t eat
He deflected; insisted his way
Spent hundreds of dollars each shopping trip – 2-3 cartfuls
Crammed everything into fridge & kitchen cabinets
I had trouble seeing & remembering my own items already inside
Mom refused to eat,
Accused us of wasting money
Reminded us of old uneaten food just tossed out – had grown moldy
Dad blithely deflected; I fumed that no one in family had effect on him
Scolded me for failing to keep Dad under control

Between the two of them – tore apart my short-term memory
I tried to recall my own tasks; recapture enthusiasm
All my energy worn out; unable to recapture clarity of mind

I had to fight off sense of hopelessness – trouble recalling any meaningful purpose in life

[on notepad file]

Withdraw and focus

In my last blog post, I had briefly addressed techniques I’d adopted for working with my short-term memory.

Unfortunately, these techniques are invisible to people around me.  And the closer I allow others to approach, the more they tend to trample over all of them.

Besides the numerous daily errands that I usually run, the start of the year is when my family members and I schedule checkups with our various doctors.  Neither Mom nor Dad drives anymore, and both would rather avoid my brother Jason’s ill temperament. That left me to coordinate all of these appointments around my work schedule and navigate driving directions.

sports car

During his college days, Jason had bought a posh Mercedes SLK sports car with my parents’ money – which he kept in a storage facility and never drove.  (He later told Dad that he was waiting for it to appreciate in value, before selling it as an antique!)  Last year he had it shipped home and parked it in my parking space in the garage.  I learned to squeeze my own car in between it and my Mom’s larger sedan – but, because our garage is situated at a right angle to the street, backing out from this new position can be tricky.  In separate incidents, I’d previously knocked off the covers of both the right and left door mirrors on my car, which I then temporarily re-affixed with clear industrial tape.  Recent rain in our area, however, caused that tape to shrivel up, inciting Dad’s harassment about their ugliness.  I subsequently had trouble locating just the specific new covers needed, without spending hundreds of dollars replacing both mirrors as well.

I also struggled to coordinate my own daily tasks while fitting in the demands of other family members. Mom and our housekeeper burdened me with a never-ending stream of groceries to pick up and errands to run; Dad wanted to tag along and have a meal out either beforehand or afterward, then mess up the clarity of my mind by pressuring me to follow his whims.

The start of each year was also the time when all family members got our annual doctors’ checkups.  While I coordinated all of these appointments around my work schedule, Mom & Dad both tried to dictate times of day I performed various tasks, and, on outings, the timing of each segment of our trips.  I had difficulty guarding my own time for reading, writing, and trips to the library and gym – priorities important to my state of mind, but superfluous to my parents’ mindset.

Meanwhile, some new regulations implemented at work in December caused some supervisors to give me trouble about techniques I’d adapted to accommodate my short-term memory limitations.  Throughout the eight years I’d worked for this company, I’d mostly fended off complaints and dissatisfaction by giving in to others’ demands: trimming my work days from 3-4 days a week down to two, limiting my the tasks I performed while at work, enduring muscular aches and pains when office furniture didn’t fit me; moving to alternate desks within the building when the heater or air conditioning bothered me.  But now I was informed that the law allowed part-time workers such as myself no rest breaks throughout the day.  Even my lunch hour was cut in half.

To save time, I packed all of my lunches to eat at the office, and gobbled them up as quickly as I could.  But it still took closer to 40 minutes for me to finish them.  I was warned that if this continued, that extra time was going to be deducted from my paycheck.

Then, during the work day, whenever I my memory got stuck, I was reprimanded for browsing some non-work-related sites on the Internet, then for reading a few personal emails I’d forwarded to the office from home, and even for flipping through a book that I’d checked out from the library. The law, I was told, did not allow part-time workers any breaks during the work day.

I finally said, “Okay, I don’t know whether you are aware of another law that applies to me: it’s called the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by Congress in 1990.  It requires that all employers provide reasonable accommodations for employees.”

At that point, I was told that no action can be taken until they received verification from my doctor.

At a subsequent appointment, I handed my family doctor a full outline of the points I wanted him to cover in his letter.  He was very supportive, and his righteous indignation on my behalf soothed much of my own sense of wrongness.


But then Dr. Lin was out of the office with the flu for two weeks, while I continued to receive pressure at work.  Next, his promised letter arrived without his signature on it, and was rejected by my supervisor.  At my subsequent phone call, the receptionist wouldn’t let me speak to the doctor, telling me this was now a matter between him and my employer only.

Shortly after, I was driving home from work one afternoon when a big semi-truck on my right moved into my lane without leaving enough room between our vehicles, scratching up both the front and back passenger doors and completely breaking off my right door mirror in the process.  The semi driver failed to stop at all; I followed the vehicle until it turned into a parking lot a few blocks away.  Then he claimed that I was at fault for not seeing that I had his turn signal on.

The driver gave me his personal driver’s license and his phone number, but in my frazzled state of mind, I hadn’t thought to ask for his vehicle registration, nor jot down the license plate of the semi he was driving.  At home, I had to fend off criticism on this omission from both my mom and the insurance agent who took my report over the phone.

Mom wailed in despair that she was already plagued by foot pain and bad eyesight, but trouble just kept coming.  I fended off her waves of negativity by concentrating on scheduling repairs for my car; then ordering, picking up, and delivering parts to the repair shop using Mom’s car.  But I also had trouble cramming all new bits and pieces of information into my memory – and keeping portions of each incident from slipping and sliding in and out of my mind.

This is why my instincts tell me to keep my distance from all people, and to cut short all interactions: because it’s impossible for them to see my memory at work.

The closer I allow others to approach, the more they trample over the processes I’ve developed to accommodate these memory deficiencies.

Thus I resort to MY way of making sense of it all; taking into account how my long-term & short-term memories work:

  • Stay busy, and cut short all interactions by putting distance between myself and others
  • Allow words to surface – use them to pin down all experiences, then identify the causes behind them
  • Organize these points through writing – in order to successfully affix them into long-term memory
  • Effectively restore balance to my state of mind

And finally, follow the advice from one of the many books on writing I’d collected over the years:

“To have a writing life you have to do two things: Withdraw.  Focus.”

–Heather Sellers

Page After Page, p. 66

Trials and frustrations to start 2017

Over the years, I’d made numerous attempts at sustaining a something similar to a blog, even before I’d actually set one up online 3 years ago. I seemed to have more and more trouble staying in touch with friends and acquaintances as I grew older, and thought that a blog would be an ideal way to stay in touch with others. I could then I take more time to piece together some meaning from daily existence.

That was before I realized that recalling and keeping track of recent activities as each day passes is a struggle in itself! The same with keeping track of plans that I intend, but have yet to carry out.

Keeping in mind that I learn best by trial-and-error, I had created a folder on my PC at work some time between 2011 and 2012, simply titled “Work Completed by Date” – breaking down all tasks that various colleagues assigned to me, typing them up in a list, and organizing them by year, month, and date.

That way, when colleagues ask me for some piece of information, explanation, document, etc., I could locate it much more easily.

In July of 2014, I started a similar document at home, which I titled “Daily Info Dump”.
As time progressed, I modified this list by jotting down what I’d managed to accomplish each day in black text, and reminders of tasks I’d yet to do in red. At the end of each day, I would review all of my activities, switch newly completed tasks to black, and leave uncompleted ones in red to come back to for the near future. Tasks that became unnecessary would be left intact, but crossed out (so I could recall them later, if needed).

The next coloring doesn’t show up below, but here are a couple of recent entries:

Daily Info Dump

Thurs. Jan. 12

Worked at U.S. Jaclean
Letter from Dr. Lin forwarded to colleagues at office
Write “Thank you” card to drop off for Dr. Lin some time next week
Pumped gas on the way home, but forgot to buy milk
Prepared for Dr. Yeh’s appt. tomorrow with Mom; unable to locate frame from broken sunglasses to use for new extra eyeglasses! 🙁
Watched on TV: “Great American Baking Show” finals, then “White House History”

Fri. Jan. 13

Appointments with Dr. Yeh (Mom + me) 11 a.m.
Driven to his office by Jason
Lengthy wait + eyes dilated
Did not arrive home for lunch until nearly 4 p.m.
Work on my blog post – plan to post on SUNDAY
Latest draft saved as Word document
http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/7-steps-to-creating-a-flexible-outline-for-any-story saved in READING folder; yet to go over
Catch up on CYLL online course!!


I’d long since been aware of, and frustrated by, the trouble I have organizing my daily tasks and keeping track of passing time. Only recently was I able to pin down that my struggles have to do with the permanent damage my short-term memory.

So I developed another procedure:

After every few minutes of new incoming information – to step away, perform other tasks that don’t require much thinking at all.

(This allows my mind to filter the information, make sense of it, and find the right words to pin it down.)

Then, take time to organize these words into writing before they evaporated from memory.

However, this process is far from perfect. Even during the process of “stepping away”, bits and pieces of thoughts become mixed up, or disintegrate altogether. The ones that I manage to retain still tend to slip and slide within my mind; various details frequently get lost, to give me trouble making sense of the whole picture that they fit into.

Jotting reminders down on paper only works up to a point.  Unless I take time to immediately figure out the right places to store and file them away, papers pile up so that I get all of the information on them mixed up.  While typing them up on my PC, other thoughts interrupt and disturb my recollections.  Such interruptions coming from family members and phone calls, distractions from weather conditions — all can wreak havoc on my memory storage process.

Then, RETRIEVING the appropriate memories at the right times involves constant preparation: going over all the recent information I’d put into words, figuring out how they fit into past contexts already in my memory, and finding ways to link together relevant portions so that they will surface when needed.

All of this takes time and effort.

Hence these tracking documents I’ve created – otherwise, I would never be able to recall what I’d accomplished and what I’ve yet to do!

Even then, finding meaning in my daily existence involves another process that I continue to experiment with.



My plan for 2017 is to take my daily record-keeping one step further by producing a blog post (such as this one) twice a month: draw meaning from weekly experiences by pairing them with past insights.

As soon as my alarm went off at 6 a.m. on January 1st of this year, I immediately got out of bed, showered, dressed, and headed to the living room with ample time, I thought, to watch the start of the Rose Parade broadcast on TV.

But Mom was already up, and spewed her usual contempt. “You fool! Today is Sunday. Don’t you remember? The Rose Parade has been moved to tomorrow!”
I gave myself a proverbial kick in the pants. I’d only reminded myself of this circumstance several times throughout the past week. But still… Did Mom have to be so condescending on the first day of a new year?

So I refrained from making any response. Instead, I busied myself tidying my bedroom and doing a fresh batch of laundry, while speaking to no one, so that words could surface within my mind.

A few hours later, I came upon the possible cause behind Mom’s mood. My brother Jason, who hadn’t stepped foot in the house for a couple of days, had flown out of town again without a mention to anyone in the family. Dad stood peering at the kitchen calendar, on which Jason had circled several dates and written:

“Dec. 29 ~ Jan. 4: San Francisco to visit friend”

Then came their loud complaints (approximately translated from Chinese):

What kind of son was this? He lived at home free of charge, but balked at helping out when his own parents needed assistance. He ate all of his meals out – God knows what he’s filling his stomach with. When he needed money, we had generously provided it without hesitation. All we hoped for was a little respect, and consideration, from him. Instead, he continues to betray us…

In all of my interactions, my first instinct is to take whatever action necessary to dispel this kind of negativity, and replace it with approval. Over the years, however, such actions have only encouraged numerous people to trample over me!

So this time, I firmly reminded myself:

I need my memory to work, first.

And to do that: I have to withdraw. Gain distance from others. Identify CAUSES behind the effects. Form words to pin them down. And make sense of how these causes and effects work together.

In other words, create a narrative, and liken it to the FICTION that’s familiar to my long-term memory.

Then, channel everything into writing.

After a good night’s sleep, I rose early once again on Jan. 2nd with my full optimism. Before heading into the living room to catch the Rose parade on TV, I strolled into Mom’s bedroom to wish her a cheerful “Happy Birthday”.

Mom immediately snapped at me for even mentioning it, and continued to be grumpy the rest of the day. As she did with every birthday, she insisted that we tell no one, and that there be no celebration whatsoever.

While I was inclined to follow her wishes (it was her birthday, after all), Dad wouldn’t listen. A few hours later, after Mom had retreated to her bedroom, Dad pestered me to drive him out for lunch, then bring home a cake (which I knew that Mom wouldn’t touch).

Dad and I dined at a Marie Callendar’s restaurant not too far from home. There, I managed to convince him to forgo a regular cake (all of whose icing Mom would no doubt scrape off and discard) and try bringing home a pie, instead. We had a good meal and I selected my favorite custard pie – whose flavor, not too sweet, I hoped Mom just might find agreeable.


It was fortunate that I kept my caution intact.  Mom refused to even touch the pie.  She further chewed out both Dad and me for wasting money on something so fattening and unhealthy.

I focused on tuning out both her words and her attitude as I placed the pie into our refrigerator.

Keeping in mind the calories, I enjoyed a very thin slice that pie for dessert after dinner that evening, while Dad helped himself to a big chunk.

When I checked again before going to bed that night, half of the pie was gone – gobbled up by Dad while the rest of us weren’t looking.  The following morning, the rest of the pie had disappeared – even before I had a chance convince Mom to sample it!

Although I wanted to grind my teeth in frustration, and yell accusations at Dad, this situation did not surprise me in the least. In my family – it’s the female members who possess any self-control, while the male members are utterly lacking!

Rather than risk another spike in my frustration level, I immediately decided to do the smarter thing — and channel all of this into my writing.

Starting anew in 2016

Happy 2016!

My first resolution for this New Year is to start this blog anew.

When I’d initially begun this project two years ago, I had planned to post new profound insights and updates from my own life here, to share with friends (which I’d previously done in the form of lengthy letters soon after graduating from college).  Unlike Facebook, which accommodated only a few lines per post, I’d imagined that a blog would allow me to go into much more detail.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how long it would take for me to prepare each post.  Month after month would go by before I satisfied with a meaningful chunk of information that constituted a “post”.  In the meantime, the previous news that I’d shared very likely grew cold in my readers’ minds, and I had trouble figuring out how much to remind them of where I’d left off.  And also, how to sustain their interest over time.

My new insight: Blog posts are designed to be short and frequent – not unlike Facebook posts, but with some more room to accommodate details.

Hence my new plan: twice a month or so, I shall attempt to post new information here on what’s going on in my life, or whatever else has caught my attention.


My first week of 2016 began with a simple event that brought me much joy, as do nearly all events associated with the LMU Choruses – a group very dear to my heart ever since I’d first joined it over twenty years ago.

In February of 2015, all of us singers held a big event on campus – a French Cabaret show paired with a silent auction – to raise funds for our Summer 2015 concert tour to Paris and Normandy.  At that auction, I had donated a “Student Writing Support” package, offering unlimited guidance on writing assignments for a semester.

My friend Ann, also a longtime LMU choir member, won the highest bid for her son Nicolas (an eighth-grader at the time).  I then helped guide him on writing his very first research paper – the topic of which was something very familiar to me – Chinese food.

So, when I discovered that a very nice Asian buffet restaurant had opened its doors in the city of Torrance, close to my home, I invited both Ann and Nicolas down to sample some authentic Chinese cuisine with me.  And since Dr. Breden, our LMU choir conductor, also lived nearby, I invited her to join us.



We had a wonderful time, and joy continued to keep my spirits high throughout the following day (Monday, Jan. 4) back at work.

Monday night, though, I awoke in the dark feeling unbearably hot.  Come Tuesday morning, severe muscle aches developed along my neck and shoulders, and just looking at the hot bowl of noodle soup my family’s housekeeper had prepared for lunch caused a nauseating sensation.  It went away after I slept for a few hours, but was back on Wednesday morning.  I discovered that I was burning a low fever, and feared I might’ve caught the flu.

flu image

Not the flu, a couple of friends informed me after I’d posted my condition on Facebook, but something I’d never heard of – Norovirus:

Norovirus is a very contagious virus. You can get norovirus from an infected person,
contaminated food or water,or by touching contaminated surfaces.
The virus causes your stomach or intestines
or both to get inflamed (acute gastroenteritis).
This leads you to have stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea and to throw up.
Anyone can be infected with norovirus and get sick.
Also, you can have norovirus illness many times in your life.
Norovirus illness can be serious, especially for young children and older adults…


The best way to beat this virus, I’m told, is to drink a lot of fluids and get plenty of rest.  So I took a number of naps each day throughout the rest of this week, and did not attempt to resist my body’s weariness.  (It was very fortunate to have happy memories of lunch with people from my choir to keep depression at bay!)

As you can see, my New Year did not start off on the best footing.  This hateful virus derailed my first two New Year’s resolutions: to shed some weight by working out at the gym at least once a week, and to diligently work on my writing every day.

But I shall NOT allow this setback to spoil any more of my new year!  I’ve since replaced resolutions #1 and #2 with the following:

  1. TAKE CARE OF MY BODY!!!  Remember that illness and discomfort will throw any other plans and activities into disarray.
  1. Break down my writing projects into short chunks, and share them often. This should help me stay in touch with others and better motivate to make further progress.

This post is the first product of resolution #2.  Please help me keep it going my posting your comments here.  (Your encouragement does wonders!)

Working with my Memory – Part 2

During my first week as a college student at Loyola Marymount University back in 1992, one professor opened his class by calling out:

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
“Ah, isn’t that a lovely sentiment?” he continued, then paused to let his words sink in.
“But what about ‘out of sight, out of mind?’”


The speaker above was  Professor Shanahan, and his class was titled “Philosophy of Human Nature” — part of ‘core curriculum’ of classes required by all freshmen whose majors fell under the broad College of Liberal Arts.
This professor was no doubt trying to point out very different ways of approaching any single situation.
I remembered it very well because of how the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” described the state of my short-term memory – the part of my brain that had sustained permanent damage from my surgery in 1988.

On a previous blog post, I’d started to describe how I store new information into my long-term memory.

Here, I address dealing with the much more complicated portion of my working mind: my short-term memory, along with how I compensate for its permanent damages.

“Short-term memory, also known as primary or active memory, is the information we are currently aware of, or thinking about.

In Freudian psychology, this memory would be referred to as the conscious mind.

Most of the information kept in short-term memory will be stored for approximately 20 to 30 seconds, but it can easily be less than that if rehearsal or active maintenance of the information is prevented.”

— www.psychology.about.com

Has someone ever spewed at you a stream of words in a language that’s completely foreign to your ears?

How many syllables did you catch?

Can you repeat what you’ve heard five seconds later?

Five minutes later?

What about five days later?

That’s your short-term memory at work, when you don’t have a context in your long-term memory into which you can make sense of, and store, this new information right away.

After undergoing brain surgery at age 14, my short-term memory capacity was whittled down to not 20-30, but 3-5 seconds – at best. This not just involves foreign languages, but all new incoming information. All the time.

Furthermore, if two, three, or four distinct pieces of new information arrive in rapid succession, I’d count myself lucky to capture just one or two of them. Hence: “Out of sight, out of mind” suitably describes my short-term memory.

While many of our short-term memories are quickly forgotten, attending to this information allows it to continue on the next stage: long-term memory.

— www.psychology.about.com

memory 1Hence the compensation techniques that I need to constantly practice:

a. find some way to make sense of incoming bits of information by constantly forming words in my mind to describe them, and grouping similar pieces together before they disappear

b. after each short span of time (within minutes):
capture these words in writing, so that I can view them visually, and review them when needed

c. take time to organize and link worthwhile bits of this information into a structure that’s already inside my long-term memory.

It helps for me to be aware of what I can count on inside this long-term memory:
* the structure of fiction, where causes and effects are always balanced out — formed by my voracious reading of novels throughout my childhood
* the gathering new information through the written word
* the structure of classical music, through many years of playing the piano and the violin

Now, two insights gathered immediately after college, during the late 1990s:

1. The graduate coursework that I’d taken toward obtaining a teaching credential presented the idea of TOP DOWN vs. BOTTOM UP ways of learning:
The first concept focuses on providing students with an overall concept or idea, immersing them in the big picture, before working down to the finer details of that concept or idea. A “bottom-up” approach, on the other hand, presents small chunks within a topic, piecing them together, then builds up to the larger picture.

So if you wanted to teach the English language to someone who is first learning it, a “top-down” approach would be to place him or her into an environment where only English is used to communicate. After he or she becomes a bit familiar with his surroundings, then introduce the elements of grammar, mechanics, usage, and the like.


In contrast, a bottom-up approach would start by presenting a student with key vocabulary words and phrases, building up to sentences and paragraphs. Some rules of grammar, usage, and verb agreement will be worked in along the way, eventually arriving at how the language works overall.

If you were teaching fundamentals of music to a class, a top-down approach would have students listen to sample pieces to familiarize them with major compositions, before presenting the genres the fall into (symphonies, concertos, sonatas, etc.) and details within how they were put together (notes, intervals, tempos, types of chords, rhythmic meters…)

A bottom-up approach would start with elements such as scales, key signatures & key relationships, notes & rhythms, then building melodic lines, harmonies, chords and chord progressions, etc., before fitting everything together to present major works of music.

TODAY, to make my memory work:

Individual elements simply do not stay in my short-term memory; I must first locate a context within my long-term memory to hold new information right away.

Two contexts already secure inside my long-term memory are the two examples I’d just given – both of which were very familiar to me as a child:

THE WRITTEN FORM OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, the structure of FICTION in particular, in which causes & effects could be clearly traced

CLASSICAL MUSIC from piano and violin lessons, workshops, evaluations, performances, etc.

Ever since, I am able to retain information that fall under these two categories without much effort – even after my brain surgery had inflicted its damages.

2. To receive all other information successfully:


In other words, I need to to anticipate as accurately as possible, before each interaction / undertaking / new experience takes place, what to expect.
Otherwise, everything becomes a mess in my mind, and I retain nothing.

Then I rehearse words to describe the possible topics I may want to express, and any responses that may come in handy.  In my mind, I try out these words, expand them into phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. I brainstorm likely scenarios that I may encounter, come up with more words, and place them into a coherent order – much as if I were writing scenes for a story.  Only after this preparation can I be fairly confident in making a fair impression on others.

Immediately after each new experience, I take time to reorganize everything into writing – and in the process find words to describe what just took place, unearth the causes behind each part of the experience, balance them with their effects, and place these words and sentences into a coherent order.

All of this to liken the new experience to the structure of fiction inside my long-term memory.

Only then can I accurately retain the incident, at the same time keeping any associated emotions under control .

So: the next time you see me silently distancing myself from others while they chatter away, you’ll know what’s going on inside my mind. The same if you see me taking a long, solitary walk in the neighborhood.  Or putting together a meal in the kitchen by myself, then doing the dishes while family members watch TV or talk on the phone.

Quiet times such as these play an essential part of my ability to function.  So does keeping all personal interactions brief.

Organize 1

When I feel the urge to express something important, I condense that information into a few relevant pieces, recording a few words to describe each on paper or on the computer.  I wait a while as new insights, often in bits & pieces, surface.  On paper, I experiment with putting them into a coherent order – with all of the previous reading & writing experiences from my long-term memory to draw upon.  (At this point, consulting a thesaurus and the Internet becomes helpful to locate the words and phrases that convey my desired impressions most effectively.)

Then I leave behind what I’d written for a short time, returning to review and tinker with it multiple times.  (Each time I will notice something new that I hadn’t caught before.)  This process also serves to drive the new words I’d constructed into my long-term memory.  Only when I am fairly satisfied do I send it out for others to view.

As you may have already inferred from what I’d described above, interacting directly with other people is NOT something I can draw from my long-term memory to rely on.  The closer I allow others to approach, the more havoc they tend to wreak on this entire compensation process that I’ve developed. I will further explore the experiences in this last category, along with how music works with my short- and long-term memories, in my next post.

Quarter Notes Late Spring 2015

Quarter Notes 

An informal newsletter of the LMU Choruses

 Late Spring 2015

50 Years of Choral Excellence

Fifty years ago, the Choruses of the recently-established, co-educational Loyola Marymount University assembled to begin a glorious tradition.  For all of us singers, the Spring Chorale has marked the culmination of hard work throughout each academic year of vocal training, performing on our campus, and touring both nationwide and abroad.  To celebrate this Golden Jubilee, the present members of the LMU Choruses are preparing an exceptional Spring Chorale to perform on Friday evening, May 1st.   Please be sure to join us!
50th Annual Spring Chorale

8:00 p.m. Friday, May 1, 2015
LMU Sacred Heart Chapel

          Front Nave      $20 Regular

                                               $18 Students or

                                                  Senior Citizens

                Middle &          $18 Regular

                              Rear Nave       $15 Students or Senior Citizens

For more information, or to reserve tickets, please contact:

Cleo Huang               (310) 619-1639

Dr. Mary Breden     (310) 338-5154

LMU ticket office       www.lmucfa.com

Program Details

Consort Singers1   Women’s Chorus2 Concert Choir3 Combined Choirs4

During the first half of our concert, we will share with audiences a selection of our favorite short works, which we plan to perform on a concert tour in France this June.

Opening and closing this portion of the evening, respectively, will be two joyous selections conveying unrestrained praise of God.  Sing Unto the Lord4 was arranged by Bob Burroughs, a composer and arranger of church music from the American Southeast.  With text taken from Psalm 96, it will be performed a capella.  In contrast, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ O Clap Your Hands4 takes on a more proper, British manner of expressing joy.  Organ accom-paniment will add to its festive ambience.

In between, compare and contrast the Salve Regina1 of Alfred Desenclos with the Ubi Caritas 4and Tota pulcra es2of Maurice Duruflé, both 20th century French composers. Desenclos was a self-described “romantic”, whose sacred music belongs to the tradition begun by Saint-Saëns and continued by Fauré, while Duruflé’s works link Roman Catholic liturgy with his formal training as an organist.

Three secular works celebrating the power of music follow: compare Handel’s baroque setting of Music, Spread thy Voice Around4 with the verses of You are the Music2, composed by Joan Szymko (b. 1957), a composer from the Pacific Northwest.  The romantic style of If Music Be the Food of Love3, set to music by Minnesota choral conductor and composer David Dickau (b. 1953), is yet another contrast.

Next, compare the ambience of Sometimes I Feel1, a Negro spiritual with a contralto solo, with the familiar folk song Oh Shenandoah1,3, performed with all male voices.

Another selection from the folk song idiom, Unclouded Day4, combines a gospel tune, traditional bluegrass stylings, counterpoint and fugue, all to conclude in “a roof-raising eight-part chord on the phrase in the city that is made of gold”.

Salvation is Created4, sung entirely in Russian and supported by the dark, rich tones of the male voices, sets yet another stark contrast.

A professional orchestra will join us to perform the second half of the concert.  We will offer two more appealing short works: French composer Gabriel Fauré’s familiar Cantique de Jean Racine4 – accompanied by strings and harp, and Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s The Ground4 , based on the chorale of his Sunrise Mass– accompanied by strings and piano.

Finally, sit back and enjoy the world premiere of Paul Gibson’s Te Deum4, celebrating our 50th year of performing this annual gala concert. The entire work draws largely from Gregorian chant, a specialty of our founder Paul Salamunovich.

Gibson himself experienced his first liturgical music – Latin hymns and chants – in the local parish church of the small village of Chitray, France, near the base at Châteauroux where his father had worked for the U.S. Air Force.  Years later back in the U.S., he developed a fascination for Medieval and Renaissance music as a student at Mount St. Mary’s College, coming under the influence of Salamunovich while he sang both in that school’s choir, and later in the L.A. Master Chorale.

Although we singers struggled with learning the intricate Latin texts within this new work of seven movements, its musical style is indeed very familiar to us.  I include, below, a brief description of each movement and an English translation of its text:

  1. Te Deum laudamus (God, we praise you)

This first movement begins quietly, as if in awe of God while singing His praises.  However, each subsequent verse grows bolder, until reaching the line ‘Lord, God of hosts’.  Then the music broadens, and all parts come together in unison – as if rising from obscurity into a brilliant world crowned by God’s glory.

We praise you, O God, we acknowledge you to be the Lord

  All the earth praises you, the everlasting Father.

  To you, all angels, to you the Heavens and all the Powers,

  To you, Cherubim and Seraphim – with unceasing voice proclaim:

  Holy, holy, holy

Lord god of hosts

  Full are the heavens and the earth with the majesty of your glory.

To you, all angels, to you the Heavens are all the Powers,

To you, Cherubim and Seraphim, with unceasing voice proclaim:

Full are the heavens and the earth of the majesty of your glory! 

  1. Te gloriosus (You, the Glorious)

Each of the first four lines below are initially proclaimed by the sopranos, then echoed by the rest of the choir in homophony (the same rhythms, but with different notes), finally broadening majestically to join in unison upon reaching the final lines of text.

You the glorious chorus of the Apostles (praise).

You the praiseworthy number of Prophets (praise).

You the white-robed army of Martyrs, praise.

You throughout the whole world are acknowledged by the Holy Church 

Father of immense majesty, who is to be worshipped,

 your true and only Son;

Also the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

Movement 3: Tu Rex Gloriae (performed by the Women’s chorus)

The texture of this movement has been kept simple and pure to match the virtue and dignity of Christ’s mission here on Earth.

You are the King of Glory, O Christ.

You are the everlasting Son of the Father.

You, when you took upon yourself to deliver man,

did not abhor the Virgin’s womb.

You, by overcoming the sting of death,

opened to all believers the Kingdom of Heaven.

You, at the right hand, in the glory of the Father.

Movement 4: Judex Crederis

This movement showcases the orchestra, with singers offering support and commentary in the background through a technique called a mensuration canon, popular in Renaissance music.  Like a regular canon, the leading musical phrase is imitated later by subsequent voices – but, in this case, at different speeds.  The tenors will intone each segment of the melody in quarter notes, while the other voices support them with the same melody in whole notes:

Our Judge, we believe that you will come to be.

You, therefore we ask: help your servants,

whom, through your precious blood, you have redeemed.

Eternally make us with the saints

in glory to be outnumbered.

Movement 5: Salvum fac Populum

The light, buoyant musical lines of this movement are paired with rhythmic precision and numerous syllables of Latin text:

Save your people, O Lord, and bless your heritage.

And rule them, and lift them up forever.

Day after day we bless you;

And we worship your name forever for all ages.

Movement 6: Dignare, Domine

This slow and prayerful movement keeps its texture simple and ends with a soprano solo on its last line, to be handled by the Women’s Chorus:

Vouchsafe, O Lord, this day, without sin

Have mercy on us.

Let your mercy, O Lord, be upon us

since we have placed our trust in you.

In You, O Lord, I have trusted,

May I not be confounded, forever.

Movement 7: Alleluia, Amen

This final movement begins with sense of mystery and obscurity – almost creating the feel of being underwater, before rising out of it through a series of rhythmic “Alleluias”.  Each subsequent line in the piece is interspersed by a new set of the words “Alleluia, Amen”, paired with new and distinct tones and rhythms.

You, O God, we praise.

Amen, Alleluia.


Holy, Holy, Holy

Lord God of hosts.

You, the eternal Father,

You, the King of glory, O Christ

And the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

In you, O Lord, I have trusted,

May I not be confounded, forever.

The entire work closes with a final series of jubilant “alleluias”.

Immediately following this Spring Chorale, please join us at a special reception to meet the composer of this work in person and enjoy some light refreshments.  Simply walk across the Sunken Gardens in front of the chapel to the auditorium inside St. Robert’s Hall on campus.

Quarter Notes Early Spring 2015 issue

Quarter Notes

An informal newsletter of the LMU Choruses
Early Spring 2015

Upon returning to campus for rehearsals this Spring semester, the LMU Choruses immediately busied ourselves getting ready for two colossal undertakings: the celebration of the 50th annual Spring Chorale in May, followed closely by our third European concert tour in June, this time to France.

Although this France tour will replace our regular mid-semester travels to Northern California, we have plenty of activities to keep us busy. For the concert program that we will perform overseas, we are bringing back a number of our most appealing short works – along with a variety of other pieces we have not encountered before. Their musical styles encompass the Russian tradition centered upon the deep, rich tones of male voices; an American gospel piece sung in an 8-part a capella arrangement; the works of French composers Gabriel Faurè and Maurice Duruflè, and everything in between. Current rehearsals are focused on refining and shaping the nuances within these pieces. We will present a pre-tour concert in Santa Monica immediately before our departure to France. Please mark your calendars and plan to join us!


Spring & Summer Events 2015

Sat. 2/14 – Sun.2/15

Vive la France!
Musical Review & Silent Auction
LMU Murphy Hall

Fri. 5/1

50th Annual Spring Chorale
LMU Sacred Heart Chapel

Fri. 6/19

Pre-Tour Concert
St. Monica’s Church
Santa Monica

Sun. 6/21 – Tues. 6/30

France Festival Tour
Paris, Versailles, Rouen, Caen


Our more immediate concern, however, involves raising funds to help pay for this concert tour. Multiple bake sales and “all-you-can-eat” fundraising dinners on campus have been scheduled throughout the semester. Although these earnings don’t seem like much by themselves, they can become significant when accumulated.

Our biggest fundraising event, Vive la France!, will take place over Valentine’s Day weekend, Feb. 14-15. An informal concert of individual student performances will take place on both days, with a silent auction held during the Saturday event. We had initially planned a French Cabaret theme for the concert, but have since opened up the program to all types of performances. It will be general venue for choir members to each display their individual talents. At this time, auditions are still in progress, and all members of the choruses are busy collecting donated prizes to auction off at the Saturday event. More details are forthcoming as they develop. Please contact me if you are interested, either with donation ideas, or in attending the event itself on our campus.

And don’t forget about our 50th annual Spring Chorale on May 1st! We will premiere a brand new work written especially for this occasion. Paul Gibson, its composer, was a graduate of Mt. St. Mary’s College who had also worked closely with Paul Salamunovich. His new work should embody the same musical approach that has become a hallmark of the LMU Choruses.
Once we receive this score (or portions of it as it is being composed), this composer will likely adjust and refine it throughout our subsequent rehearsals, according to what works best for our venue and our current combination of singers. In the future, when the piece is published and distributed to the rest of the world, it will not only bear the name of our choruses, but also bits and pieces of our distinctive musical character and style.

Eiffel tower
Please save all of these dates, join us at our Spring performances, and help make our fast-approaching France tour a reality!

To order tickets, or more information, please contact:

Cleo Huang
Quarter Notes editor
(310) 619-1639

Dr. Mary Breden
LMU Director of Choral Activities
(310) 338-5154

Working with my Memory – Part 1

As I’d alluded to in a previous blog post, my sensitivity to criticism and negativity was what had caused me to immerse myself in the world of fiction early in my life. In this world, negative people and events were still present; however, I could always count on the major problems to be resolved, and their causes and effects to be clearly traced through written words – a format that I could count on to make sense.

Then, in my early teens, major surgery inflicted permanent damage on my short-term memory. I recently came across these examples in a library book I’d checked out:

1. Short-term memory:

  • “the active, working, need-it-to-function-on-a-constant-basis” kind of memory, i.e.:
  • who just called on the phone a moment ago
  • where you put your keys when you came in the front door

2. Recent memory:

  • What you had for lunch yesterday
  • what you watched on TV last night

3. Long-term / Remote memory:

  • the name of your first grade teacher
  • incidents from your childhood

human brain - memory picture

On a constant basis in my life today, I need to deal with categories 1 and 2 above by immediately finding ways to link incoming pieces of information to what I have securely stored inside category 3, formed before my short-term memory was damaged.

So what’s inside my long-term memory?

As a child, my sensitivity prevented me from ever feeling at ease interacting with others around me. In school, I’d preferred to hide from my peers rather than fend off their constant taunting and snide remarks.

Instead, I spent my free time inside libraries, immersing myself in novels written for children. I used my imagination to put myself within the settings of these stories, and made up fictional interactions with their characters. I would even use to create new problems we would encounter, which I would use my own talents to help them resolve. I would earn the respect and admiration of these fictional friends of mine, which then eased the ordeals inflicted by real people in my life.

Securely lodged within my long-term memory:
• Gathering information through the written word, in the English language
• All details involved with the written word that are overlooked in speech: grammar, vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, syntax (sentence structure & phrasing)
• Making sense of life through fiction: having cause and effect to balance the positive and negative aspects

But I couldn’t escape being around other people altogether . I actually enjoyed being placed in settings among my peers,  performing the same kind of activities that we were all assigned. Those activities that stirred my interest and made me feel alive had a definite structure that I could easily understand and follow – allowing me to measure my own progress by observing how others around me performed the same tasks. They included workshops and enrichment classes for kids (PC learning; math, science, and vocabulary building); lessons in sporting activities (swimming and diving, gymnastics, tennis); and, of course, classical music (private instrumental lessons, workshops, recitals, auxiliary lessons in music theory).

So I could add the following to I have within my long-term memory:

• Performing tasks that others assigned to me
• Having a structure to follow that had already been defined
• Engaging in the same activities as others around me; giving me a point of reference
• Many aspects related to classical music

This is why, even today, I feel comfortable with gathering and imparting information through printed and written words. Why I am drawn to the school environment, to taking classes on topics that stimulate my interests wherever I can find them. And, this is why I continue to find joy singing with the LMU Choruses.

Let me add something else trained into my long-term memory: an Asian upbringing based upon the teachings of ancient philosopher Confucius:

• Wisdom lay in the elders of one’s family and society
• Obeying one’s parents is the duty of sons and daughters
• Obeying authority figures is the duty of common citizens


Now note the structures that have NOT been firmly lodged within my long-term memory; skills that I’d never mastered as a child:

• Communicating and negotiating directly with others through speech
• Organizing a coherent series of daily tasks for myself to perform
• Organizing a coherent series of tasks for others to perform
• Keeping track of the tasks just mentioned above
• Maintaining my orientation and sense of direction in unfamiliar settings

So whenever I encounter anything that falls into this last category above, and I have trouble determining how to proceed, following the opinions and guidance of others seems so much easier. However well-intentioned this guidance is, though, it rarely takes all of my circumstances into account.  Blindly following orders had landed me in some very painful situations in the past.

Today, to counter that tendency, I hoard every free moment I have by myself, in order to put all that I experience into words. I then rearrange those words within my mind, placing each portion into narrative order, and building sentences and paragraphs to describe them. Next, I come up with more words to identify and describe cause and effect. Only after transforming each experience to closely match the fiction that is familiar to me can I successfully attach the entire experience into my long-term memory, while keeping any emotions that arise under control.

All in order to give my memory a fighting chance to retain and process this new material.
Even with all of these efforts, I still make plenty of mistakes. And when others express their frustration, or disparage my ability to succeed in the future (the latter of which my parents seem to specialize in), I must find ways to channel all of that negativity into something productive and meaningful, which also fits into a framework within my long-term memory.

Between the years 2001 and 2003, when depression had caused my mother to hide from all activity and interactions with others, I’d channeled my own helplessness into a novel for middle grade readers. In subsequent years I submitted it to various writing contests, to publishers of these books, and then to literary agents. I attended local classes and writer’s conferences to obtain more insight into the publishing process, and to improve my own writing skills. But after receiving numerous rejections and little or no interest, I’d shifted my attention to other forms of writing, temporarily placing the publication of this novel on the back burner. I would instead concentrate on building this blog, continuing my Quarter Notes newsletter for the LMU Choruses, and drafting manuals and web content at my day job.

Then I spotted a free “Dear Lucky Agent” contest online, asking for the first 150-200 words of any unpublished middle-grade novel:  http://tinyurl.com/pwbds3q.

I shrugged. Why not? I’m not getting my hopes up, for my chances for winning and landing an agent are still slim to none. But this could perhaps be the first step in getting me back on track with my fiction writing, which feels the most comfortable to my instincts.


The LMU Choruses and Paul Salamunovich

Singing with the LMU Choruses has never lost its powerful appeal, even after my long 22 years of participation.  Second only to singing our glorious music are the opportunities to travel and share this music with new audiences.  Annual Spring concert tours with this group have brought me much joy ever since my first tour back in 1993, during my freshman year of college. For someone who has a hard time approaching others and forming new relationships, these tours have helped me grow more comfortable with my fellow singers, and form new relationships with audience members and host families alike.

All of it through the sharing of music.  There’s nothing quite like the trust and confidence that virtual strangers are willing to extend to each of us, after hearing us perform together!  The insights that I gain in new circumstances and talking to new people also help me sort through other aspects of my life, and put them into perspective.

This year’s concert tour to Northern California was shorter than usual, but more meaningful in more ways than one – for me personally, as well as for our choir in general. We caught a late morning flight out of LAX on Friday, April 4th, arriving in San Jose just after noon.  I immediately called the Nguyens, a Vietnamese couple who had hosted me in their home on past tours.  By the time our tour bus pulled into our hotel in Santa Clara, they were already waiting for me in the parking lot.  We caught up with each other over lunch in a restaurant across the street. Later that afternoon, my fellow singers and I travelled to St. Andrew’s Church in nearby Saratoga, where we held a brief rehearsal.

A buffet-style dinner was provided for us at that site by the parents of one of our singers, whose family had close associations with that church.  We performed an especially poignant concert that evening, trying out our difficult Spring Chorale repertoire with piano accompaniment. Going by the comments that we later received, our audience members were as touched by this music – and our performance of it – as we were.

Cleo with Lien family

Sitting in the front row that evening were my cousin Chia-Yen and his entire family of six: his parents, his wife, and his two young sons.  It was the first time they’d heard me in performance, and known about my involvement in such a wonderful group. At the end of our concert, my cousin’s sons Max and Mason each presented me with a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers.  I then joined them at their home in nearby Cupertino for some rest and conversation. I felt pampered when my cousin’s wife Lifen packed a large Tupperware container of fresh fruit for me to take back to my hotel room.

The following morning, since we were departing at 7:30 for the city of Brentwood (an hour’s bus ride away), I rose at 5 a.m. to shower and pack my belongings – only to discover, to my dismay, that the hotel didn’t start serving breakfast until 7:00.  (That container of fresh fruit that I’d stored inside my room’s mini-fridge sure came in handy!)  We traveled to Brentwood, then held a short rehearsal with the Children’s Choir at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, whose conductor is a fairly recent alumnus of our choirs at LMU.  Among our audience members that afternoon at our joint concert were lots of enthusiastic parents.  We trimmed our own concert program to allow time for the children to perform their own pieces. Childrens Choir

It was a big success.  I believe we succeeded in leaving a positive impression of our university on the students and their parents alike.  Perhaps they will keep LMU in mind when the time comes for these children to attend college! Later that afternoon, we all boarded our bus again, heading to the San Francisco pier for a free evening.   I joined our conductor, accompanist, and three other choir alumni in strolling a few blocks outside of Pier 39 (where we were dropped off) to have dinner at a waterfront seafood restaurant called Castagñola’s.

Castanolas 2

Castanolas 1

My plate of fresh spinach salad topped with bay shrimp was delicious, and my companions that evening, delightful.

Shrimp salad


As we strolled around the waterfront after dinner, passing (among other shops and cafes) a Ghirardelli’s Chocolate Factory, I reflected how much more comfortable I felt among companions older than I – whose more relaxed walking, dining, and conversational pace all suited my own more closely than that of younger college students.


We rose early again on Sunday morning to board our flight back to Los Angeles and conclude this brief but very enjoyable tour.  This particular outing was also much more meaningful than most of our other tours, due to the announcement that our conductor had made on its first morning: that our beloved founder and Dr. Breden’s predecessor, Paul Salamunvich, and passed away after a long illness.

We had first begun planning this tribute to Paul when we heard the news last September that he was hospitalized upon falling severely ill.  Even before he was diagnosed with having contracted the West Nile virus, we began our plans to dedicate this Spring Chorale to honor him, and hoping he would recover well enough to hear it.  We then built our program accordingly, including pieces that utilized Gregorian Chant, Paul’s area of expertise.

Back in the fall semester of 1992, I’d stepped into my very first rehearsal with the LMU Choruses as a not-quite 18-year-old college freshman.  I had known nothing about the LMU choral tradition, only that its new conductor, Dr. Mary Breden, had just taken over the its reins. She made it abundantly clear, from the very beginning, that we had a tremendous reputation to live up to, created and passed down by Paul Salamunovich, who had departed the previous year to take over the L.A. Master Chorale.  (I’d never heard of that institution, but I had heard of the L.A. Philharmonic.  Assuming that the Chorale was that orchestra’s equivalent, I was suitably impressed.) Paul had founded the entire LMU Choral Program, and built it into its present institution.

“Anyone here who cannot achieve the expectations we demand here will be promptly asked to leave,” Dr. Breden further declared.  “Believe me, there are plenty of others eagerly waiting to replace you.” She then picked at every little mistake that we made, criticized every vocal tone produced that she didn’t like, and fiercely growled her dissatisfaction at anyone whose attention wandered away from our music during subsequent rehearsals that semester.

After she yelled at us at one point, I must’ve had a frightened expression on my face, for the alto sitting next to me – a senior named Michelle Means – leaned over and muttered, “Ha! She’s nice, compared to Paul.  When he doesn’t like something, he would single you out and yell insults directly into your face!”  She demonstrated by screwing her face into a scowl and jabbing an index finger into the air before her.

Hey, you!” she growled.  She proceeded to move her lips in an animated manner, as if firing off a stream of abusive words.

Walking back to my dorm room after rehearsal later that night, I thanked my lucky stars that I’d arrived at LMU only after Paul had departed!

However, these impressions were soon replaced by new ones.  Later that semester, I joined the Consort Singers to perform at an event during our university’s Alumni Reunion Weekend.  As LMU’s most distinguished alumnus, Paul would be in attendance.  We planned to surprise him by asking him to come up to the stage and conduct our final work, titled America – a moving arrangement of all three verses from My Country ‘tis of Thee.

An unsuspecting Paul Salamunovich sat among the audience members at that particular event, wearing a casual shirt in a wild Hawaiian print.  After we finished singing the rest of our pieces, Dr. Breden made her planned announcement, calling Paul down to the stage area.

His eyes widened, his expression freezing in place for a few moments in surprise.  He slowly lowered his head to look down at his attire.  When he raised it again, that expression shifted to one of disbelief, as if saying, You’ve got to be kidding me!

A flurry of giggles erupted from my fellow singers on the risers behind me. Paul then squared his shoulders and made his way down to the stage, where we were standing.  Below his wildly colorful shirt, he had on a pair of khaki shorts, and flip-flops on his feet instead of shoes.

My smile of amusement turned into a wide grin.  I had to fight the urge to run up and give him a big hug!

Our performance of the America nonetheless brought all of our audience members to their feet.

In subsequent years, Paul became increasingly human to me in bits and pieces through the stories Dr. Breden related throughout our rehearsals: incidents that his choirs encountered at festivals and subsequent reactions from audience members; his wife Dottie bustling backstage to manage the women’s makeup and concert attire; the tradition he began of singing “Silent Night” in tribute to his daughter Nannette after she died. Paul himself would attend all of our major concerts at LMU whenever he was free.

I also had various opportunities to sing under his direction: he worked with us whenever we held joint concerts, here at LMU, with the St. Charles Choir that Paul continued to conduct.  He took over one of our regular rehearsals when Dr. Breden was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. And, of course, more than 100 LMU chorus alumni joined us when we traveled to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1997.  At one point during that outing, we surprised him again by singing to him “The Lord Bless You and Keep You”, a short hymn we would bestow to special audiences during our concert tours.  Even though he had conducted that particular piece numerous times himself, Paul was literally moved to tears – for he had never before been its recipient.

Paul Salamunovich

I never did work up the courage to approach Paul and give him my hug.  Instead, I kept him in mind when I created a choir conductor character while writing my children’s novel.  I mixed together my memories of him with all that I’d learned throughout my own years with the LMU Choruses.

While I continue to seek the right conditions for publishing that novel, Paul is always close to my thoughts whenever I sing at LMU. Please join us at our upcoming Spring Chorale concert, taking place on the LMU campus Friday, May 2nd, 2014, where we will pay special tribute to Paul.

Feel free to contact me for more information.

Handling negativity: my secret weapon

I have always been very sensitive to negativity.

As a child, I tried to avoid all of its forms – criticism, taunting, words of dissatisfaction, or even any red marks on my homework assignments – by channeling all of my efforts into pleasing everyone around me. And whenever I couldn’t manage that, I kept my distance by hiding.

In between, I buried myself in novels written for children. Within the stories I read, I could count on conflicts to be resolved in satisfying way, on life make in sense.

Today, I still read plenty of fiction to help me cope with the negativity I encounter in my daily life.

However, I now have an even more powerful weapon to draw upon:

I simply attend a rehearsal with the LMU Choruses.

Last month, we plunged into two particularly difficult works, from composers Morten Lauridsen and Maurice Durufle, respectively. Both were full of intricate melodic lines, with constantly shifting rhythmic meters combined with unfamiliar Latin text. Numerous portions of their musical phrasing needed to be delicately handled. The Lauridsen work, in particular, contained many leaping intervals among all voice parts that made little sense when we first learned the parts.

The first few rehearsals of the semester, in which we initially read through these entire works were nothing short of overwhelming. I constantly lost my place, confused the current rhythmic meters, had trouble pinpointing the correct pitches at the end of leaping intervals, and generally had trouble keeping up.

Most of our January rehearsals were focused solely on taking individual vocal lines apart, apart, drilling their complex notes and rhythms. Without putting in any actual words yet, we plodded through a new section within each movement at every rehearsal. They all made little sense to me, and I had driven home afterward feeling as if no progress was made, and that we had simply wasted our time.

Finally, in early February, we began reassembling all of our voice parts and fitting them with piano accompaniment and singing through entire movements. Now that our individual vocal lines and rhythms were more familiar, fitting these lines together with those from other voices, hearing how we fitted into the context of the overall works – the effect was nothing short of magical.

While we still a good portion of the music yet to learn, could now start refining our vocal tones, coordinating them with musical phrasing and dynamics, shaping the pronunciations of vowels and consonants, and working on the balance between the lower and higher voices. Many dissonant chord clusters, particularly in the Lauridsen work – a trademark technique of its composer, are emphasized, even caressed, before they are resolved.

Taking a physical part in this transformation – from chaos to sense and order – wielded its usual powerful effect on me. At the end of these recent February rehearsals, I drove home with a buoyancy in my spirits – for they served as a forceful reminder:  My daily experiences in life may also seem full of difficulty, not making any sense. But, as in what I’d experienced while singing through our individual voice parts during rehearsal, I could now see that I had not yet achieved the larger picture surrounding them.

I was also reminded not to shy away from conflicts – whether they came in the form of impossible situations or difficult people.  Instead, just as we brought dissonances within our choral works out into the open, shaped them, and dropped them back into the context of the whole, I also needed to take apart individual pieces of each situation, focus on the aspects that I have some control over, and continue experimenting with adjustments that work for me.

When I then combine my situation with my surrounding circumstances, which are also changing, I need to then trust that my own understanding will deepen. And circumstances will also work themselves out, one way or another – the way our music always does through our many choir rehearsals.

For more details on the activities of the LMU Choruses, please take a look at the latest issue of my Quarter Notes newsletter. If you would like to be added to my mailing list, please let me know how to reach you through the “Contact Me” link at the top of this page.