Saturday, January 26, 2019


There’s the “postcard” kind of cold that makes you want to hunker under a blanket with a cup of coffee and watch it snow.  There’s the “toughen up” kind of cold that bores into your forehead like an ice-cream headache.  And then there’s the “shrill” cold that whips around corners, tears at your face, and pulls a string of highly colorful vocabulary from your lips before you even realize you’re speaking.  

I’m learning about cold—it’s brittle, diamond-like texture, and it’s clear, clean character.  It’s three weeks into my move to Wisconsin and I’ve been outside every day.  A Wisconsinite told me that the best way to acclimate to the weather was to be in it, so that’s what I’ve done.  Every day.  Several miles a day. Bundled up like Nanook of the North, trudging through snow and ice and frost.  I do this because cold is like a bully, and bullies need to be faced head-on.  I refuse to cower in my house. Cold is what you expect them you move to Wisconsin in January.   The  surprise is that I like it.

There are things I don’t like:  salt on everything (thank goodness for my Swiffer), hat hair, and the turn, on a hill, leading into our underground garage—a driveway so treacherous that despite not having put a scratch on the car, I keep having visions of crashing through the garage door in an uncontrolled skid…

But I like the cold. I like the way it creates instant community and common ground in public places.  I like how it feels to wake up to a day so clear and frigid that everything is diamond-hard and brilliant.  I like how the river steams when the temperatures get into the single digits as it flows through banks of pristine white—a monochrome, architectural world. I like sleeping on cold nights, snuggled under quilts, while the weather presses against the windows.  The Danes call this sort of cosy thing Hygge.  I call it winter in Wisconsin.   

The outside world: snow, sunshine, an adrenaline rush of exercise in cold air.  The inside world: sun warming hardwood floors, a view of the river, hot tea, soft quilts, and music.  I’m working on Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Chester Biscardi’s Companion Piece.  But on this particularly cold day (it was -12* this morning), I warmed my home with Still—a piece of music as loving and generous as my friend Dana Libonati who composed it.  Here it is—an impromptu “performance” on my out-of-tune piano and filmed on my phone—a little slice of Wisconsin Hygge on a frigid day.  

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

On Wisconsin!

Lawrence University Chapel in Appleton, WI

Our condo sold four days after we listed it.  The piano was the first to go, followed a week later by the furniture.  In two days my husband and I will drive across country, in January, with a cat (!) to our new home in Appleton, WI.

“Why Wisconsin?” I’ve been asked by many Portland friends.  

“For the weather,” I reply.  And then, after the laugh dies down, I add “and for family.”

But that’s not the whole story.  Yes, my husband’s family lives in Wisconsin and yes, it’s a big factor in our choice to move, but it’s only part of the reason. Truth is, we’ve been looking to leave Portland for the last two years.  We started with Europe:  London (can’t stay longer than six months), Amsterdam (can’t stay longer than three months), Bordeaux (not a good fit), Dublin (couldn’t sell the condo).  Then we looked at American cities: Austin, Denver, Seattle, Santa Fe (to name a few), but none were the right fit.  I kept saying I wanted a place that felt like Appleton and two months ago I said, “why not just move to Appleton?”

Why Appleton? A myriad of reasons: great music (it’s home to Lawrence University), an airport, close to Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul, as well as Milwaukee, real seasons, cheese, live music in restaurants and bars any night of the week, Brewers/Packers/Badgers—a trifecta of sports greatness...but underneath it all, a sense of community.  This is a place where political parties raise money side by side for a shared cause.  This is a place with a well-educated middle class and a strong work ethic.  This is a place with refreshing humility and open-faced friendliness.  It’s a place where you feel like you’re part of something even when you’re a stranger. 

Will Appleton be a forever home?  Maybe, maybe not.  All I know today is that it’s the next step.  It feels right.  It feels grounded—like sinking your hands into fresh soil—a place to put down roots.  The winters may be brutal, but the people are warm.  My husband is returning home.  I’m returning to a place that might prove to be home:  the heartland.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Make Me Care: Writing About Music

The Rizzo/Wheeler Piano Duo

This blog entry first appeared on “The Cross-Eyed Pianist”

“In the caress of notes, Cassie knew nothing of fire, death, loss, or fear, just love plucked from Bach’s hands, to Eric’s, to her own—spoken in a language too deep for words.”
—excerpt, The Waco Variations

 Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  And while I can’t speak to dancing or architecture, this cliché sums up the problem of using words to describe what is fundamentally an experience, not a concept. Whether listener or performer, we enter into the world of the notes and receive and respond to the music through the lens of personal experience and understanding.  And, because everyone’s experience and taste is different, how does a writer capture in words the sensation of sinking one’s hands into the piano keys, or the eerie magic of “one mind” that occurs when musicians perform together? 

Write what you know.  It’s another accurate cliché.  As a lifelong pianist, I know music.  I know the experience of making music, and of listening deeply to others.  As a writer, I know my character, Cassie, and how she falls in love to Bach and allows herself to grieve through the music of Rachmaninoff and Liszt.  I write the common ground between what I know, what Cassie knows, and the human truths that connect all of this to music. 

Show, don’t tell.  A writer’s cliché.  If I tell the reader that Cassie and her boyfriend Eric, had a good performance of a Bach double concerto, it’s dull boring.  Showing makes it tactile.  It makes it real.  It makes it matter.

“In the second movement, Cassie stopped being aware of any reality beyond the music.  The competition, the judges, her hair, her dress—none of it existed.  The notes defined her universe.  And as she and Eric passed the sensuous lines back and forth, she dissolved into them.  She was the piano, and the piano was her.  She was Eric, Eric was her.  And Bach was what held everything together.  There were no mental pictures and no stories.  Just the music, and Eric, and the piano, which seemed to grow out of her fingertips.”
—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Make me care, I used to tell my piano students.  Don’t just press the notes.  No matter how beautifully you phrase a line, if you don’t have anything interesting to say, you’re just speaking phonetic music.  Writing requires the same because readers deserve entry into all aspects of the moment, not just a description.  In both art forms, if the notes or the words don’t communicate something beyond themselves, everything comes out flat and lifeless.  

Another quote: the visible is the invisible written down.  As musicians and writers, we use what’s concrete  (notes, words) to point to intangibles: love, joy, loss, hope, and a myriad of other human emotions. It’s an internal landscape we all share, and because of this common ground, music—and writing about music—is about bringing the listener or reader into a new world through our shared emotional doorways.  We don’t need to know why a piece of music moves us to tears, or how a paragraph conjures up an entire world.  We experience it. We feel Cassie’s struggle with an unfamiliar piano and we know her belief that somehow she can communicate with her deceased parents through the notes of Liszt’s Sposalizio.

“Taking a deep breath, she put her hands on the keys, closed her eyes a second, and then played the opening lines.  The muted upper register hampered her attempt to get a bell-like tone in her first right-hand arpeggio section.  She tried to play through it, thinking of each note as being wrapped in thick velvet.  Perhaps the clarity was there, at the center of all that velvet? What the piano took away from the upper register it gave back in the middle; when Cassie started what she always thought of as the prayer-like section—the one where she sensed she needed to breathe the notes rather than just play them—the velvet tone gave the notes a warmth she had never before been able to achieve on any other piano.  The sounds matched the one she had been hearing in her mind, and the magic of reality matching the ideal was so strong that she could feel the hair on her arms bristling.  Normal life fell away, and for those breathless moments she sensed that the notes were getting through and that somehow, someone was on the other side, hearing all the love and loss she poured into each pitch.”
—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Writing about music is, ultimately, writing about humanity because that’s where power of the best music and literature resides.  The form—the architecture—only points to the bedrock truths we all share.  We love, we grieve, we celebrate, we mourn, and we seek (and sometimes find) meaning in the most unexpected places.  

Monday, November 19, 2018

"Author, Author" podcast with Ed Goldberg of

Over the years I've had a long relationship with AllClassical radio, a Portland, Oregon station that is broadcast locally and streamed globally.  In addition to providing me with my morning soundtrack, they've been extraordinarily supportive of my performing--both by playing tracks from my CDs occasionally, and featuring me on two of their popular Thursdays@Three live performance programs.

The station's support continued when I wrote my novel, The Waco Variations when announcer and author Ed Goldberg read my book and invited me to be part of his long-running "Author, Author" podcast series.  We met at AllClassical's studio where we discovered that we had shared interests in baseball, writing, and the music of Bach, among other things.  His insightful questions (and my nervous answers!) can be found here:

No artist succeeds without help from others.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to AllClassical for what they do to champion classical music and musicians in a world that says this music is no longer relevant.

Monday, November 12, 2018

An International Review of 'The Waco Variations'

‘The Waco Variations’ – a novel by Rhonda Rizzo

A review by Frances Wilson (aka "The Cross-Eyed Pianist") 

On April 20, 1993, sixteen-year-old Cassie watches her world burn to the ground. A week later—far from Waco, TX and the Branch Davidean fire that claimed her family, friends, savior, and the only life she had ever known—Cassie enters a new life—a strange new ‘normal’ life after being ripped from a cult and forced to function in routine society with little knowledge of how to navigate reality.
Cassie has just two goals: to play the piano and to learn how to be normal. Her love of music, especially the music of J.S Bach, is her only thread to a past she buries under her “normal” façade, the thread that holds her together where therapy and religion fail. But Cassie’s habit of using music to hide from her emotions fails her and she must grieve the truth about losing her family and her world in the Waco fire and begin to let time, and Bach, heal her. And only through Bach’s music can she dare to feel the loss of her parents.
When US authorities raided cult-leader David Khoresh’s compound in February 1993, it led to 10 deaths and a 51-day standoff that ended when a fire killed more than 70 men, women, and children. Those who survived Waco were forced to confront the dark things Khoresh did: narcissistic and abusive, he was deeply controlling yet charismatic and personable.
This well-crafted and sensitively-written novel by American pianist Rhonda Rizzo does not shy away from presenting Khoresh and his cult in unsentimental terms, but rather than offer long descriptions, small disturbing details are slipped into the narrative in the form of flashbacks by Cassie, the protagonist, as she tries to come to terms what has happened to her and her family, and comprehend her parents’ life choices. The complex story of Cassie’s struggle to process the trauma of Waco and resulting PTSD, and the extraordinarily closed world of a religious cult, is told in unsentimental, vividly realistic terms, and Rhonda Rizzo’s own musical background brings an authenticity and authority to the descriptions of the music, including the experience of studying and performing music, the hot house, competitive atmosphere of music college, and the special pleasures (and difficulties) of playing with other musicians.
This is as much a coming-of-age novel as a book about recovery and renewal, and Cassie’s naive, tentative entry into a normal teenage girl’s life of fashion, boys and alcohol is presented in bold, believable terms: her relationships are not always straightforward and her attempts to fit in, despite her unusual background, are familiar to anyone who has felt like an outsider.
In one of those serendipitous encounters which sometimes happen via my blog, the author contacted me out of the blue to ask if I would review her book. I’m so glad I agreed, as I found The Waco Variations a real page-turner, and, ultimately, a wonderful celebration of the restorative powers of music. The novel offers a universal message – that music has the power to touch our souls, to heal and calm, and so much more…..

Friday, November 2, 2018

"Meet the Artist" Interview With Frances Wilson (aka "The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Full confession:  it took me several months to get my nerve up to contact the author of one of my favorite music blogs, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and ask her if she'd be willing to read and review my novel, The Waco Variations.  Pianist, writer, concert reviewer, blogger, and music lover Frances Wilson's blog is followed by over 8500 people and as such is one of the top-rated classical music sites in the world.  Well, Wilson couldn't have been more gracious.  Thanks to my other favorite piano blog, Piano Addict, she'd already heard of my book and was eager to read it.

Wilson's "Meet the Artist" interview series is a popular element of The Cross-Eyed Pianist.  As my resume is much more less illustrious than many of the pianists she features, I was surprised and thrilled when she asked me to be part of this series.  Her questions and my answers can be found here:

And while you're on her site, peruse her writing, read other interviews, and (especially if you're a pianist), follow the blog.  I have for several years; it never fails to inform and inspire.

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Musical Soirée with Widney Moore, Pianist

Long ago, before concert hall and YouTube performances, piano music was presented much the same way that it is in this video:  at home and for friends.  There's an intimacy and communication that more formal performances can't duplicate, and sometimes (as in the case of this performance), you get lucky and the magic is captured on film.

This short performance features Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's Für Alina  and Spiegel im Spiegel, along with two short Debussy selections.  Für Alina, dedicated to a friend's daughter, was written as a consolation for Alina's mother when Alina left home to live in England with her father.  Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in a mirror) was originally written for piano and violin, although it has been arranged for many other instruments as well.  Both pieces reflect Pärt's unique composition style known as "Holy Minimalism" or "Mystic Minimalism," and both require the pianist to settle into stillness, accept the beauty in simplicity, and play the space around the notes more than the notes themselves. When performing them (or listening to them), there's a sense of time both standing still and expanding simultaneously.  I suppose that could be one of the reasons why the music of Pärt is so frequently requested as deathbed music.

The pianist Widney Moore had a long career as a gallery owner and an award-winning textile artist. Later in life, after reading Noah Adams' book Piano Lessons, she decided to learn to play the piano.  Each year she prepares a program to take to Sonata--the Vermont piano camp for adults that Adams made famous in his book--and she plays the pieces for Portland friends before she leaves.  And while she would never describe herself as a professional pianist, she's a true musician who plays with tenderness, beauty, and peace. When she was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer last November, we feared she'd not live to play another program.  Yet, miraculously, here she is, playing better than she ever has--playing with the simplicity and clarity and gratitude that only a life well lived can bring to music.

While I watched Widney play this program last month, I was struck by the power of Pärt's and Debussy's music in the hands of a pianist who has lived the depth of every note. This simplicity, this calm acceptance--this is the "holy grail" we all seek in our playing: true purity of heart.