Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Trouvering"



We composers and teachers of composition do well to understand ourselves as trouveres. "Trouvere" is one of the oldest words for "composer" and I think, at its root, it tells us more about what we do than our word "composer."

The newer word "composer" tends to wash over us as simply meaning someone who writes music. We add to that whatever mental images or baggage our individual knowledge of composers brings along with it.

However, the word "composer" actually has layers suggesting one who arranges things into a whole. That already speaks much more of the real composing process. We are almost always assembling and organizing. That's what our creating involves. We never make something from nothing and the most exalted composers in the classical tradition - Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven - never seem to have created so much as a new chord.  Instead, their monumental compositional efforts consisted of profoundly moving, ingenious new applications of what they inherited.

"Trouvering" (my word), on the other hand, addresses something even more fundamental. It references an earlier phase in the compositional process or at least a more basic disposition of those who excel at the discipline of composition. The etymology of "trouvere" involves an Old French word which also means "to find."

To me, this information is very liberating. It is also very grounding. It cuts through all of the romanticizing, all of the agendas and personalities, and all of the hyping accretions that paralyze us when we start down a creative path. Behind their studio doors, composers are trying to find things: arresting sounds, fresh juxtapositions, compelling lines . . . They are all there to be found, and we're looking for them.

Until you realize you are on such a search, the process can be frustrating, to say the least. Imagine a toddler alone on the edge of a great wood. This little one has no concept of path or thicket, clearing or stream, let alone county line or the ocean beyond all of it. The grasp and ability to differentiate are not yet developed enough even to be overwhelmed. Instead, there is a nebulous lost-ness and probably a panic if a trusted hand is not felt soon.

The beginning composer might be good at finding things intuitively or at least at knowing where things are in the immediate setting. Another might have a knack for grasping big shapes but have no sense of how to fill them. Whatever the case, there must always be work for the teacher of composing to do along the lines of trouvering. The student simply hasn't spent the time on these paths that the teacher has. And so the teacher can move the process along for the student by pointing out possible ways forward. Then, the student can respond, "That's what I was looking for." or, "No, that's not quite what I'm hearing on the inside."

As I was looking around for things at the keyboard last night (improvising), I caught myself in that same old unhelpful and unrealistic dialog against which I am constantly campaigning in the lives of others. My fingers found their way over some bi-tonal things that were reminiscent of Prokofiev. "Ah!" I thought, "I could write something using those sorts of sounds." And then I said the following to myself, but I didn't put it into words until now. It was more of a feeling. If I had "languaged" it, I would have immediately realized how stupidly I was short-circuiting my own creative process. "But the music in which the mature Prokofiev uses these materials is so much better than what I can imagine myself making up off-the-cuff that there's really no point for me to even try to compose."

Obviously, I need to remember that I'm a trouvere and a composer. Keeping that perspective allows me to enjoy the processes of seeking, finding, and arranging into a whole.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Articulating Life


If you’re like me, you’re probably leading your life somewhere between the unreality of multi-tasking and the impracticality of single-tasking. Due to cultural demands, we are unable to totally single-task, and we are constantly, often unwittingly, drawn into attempts at multi-tasking that seem to have some bad side effects.

Perhaps we musicians have something to offer this personally challenging scenario and potential step in the evolution of the human race.

In music, as in life, we deal with numerous layers of happenings that are somehow coordinated and contain any amount of details of varying natures and significance. Raising our consciousness of the presence and functions of these elements can greatly enhance our performances.

When doing the discipline of music, we regularly and comfortably handle that range of organizations within a rich overall texture. How do we keep those layers enlivened and purposefully unified? We practice the art of articulation.

In one way of thinking, articulation determines everything in music. Our sense of phrases is created by various articulations, and phrasing is the name of the game if you want to be a clear, elegant, and moving player. So I am hopeful that processing the activities of one’s life through the concept of articulation might provide some wisdom for leading life with clarity and meaning.

///

We like to play and live in long legato phrases. Those phrases and that articulation provide concentration and continuity. I bet they really warm up the brain and soul like extended periods of true single-tasking. My hope for you and for me is that we spend most of our time moving along those strong lines.

But to phrase well, we need to be aware of many aspects of the phrase at hand.
 How long does it last?
How do we need to prepare for it?
What is its shape and how wide is its range?
At what points does it require more energy and at what points less?
What will be the impact after the fact?

Many times, we need to engage with a series of phrases as a more macro-unit. And there are even bigger projects that happen in stages over days or whole periods in our lives.  

Some projects are so big that they need to be laid out like a musical form. We need a schedule or an outline of what is to be achieved and when – a score.

///

While we’re traveling with the overall flow of phrases and groups of phrases - the flow of life - lovely nuances come along that we can express well if we recognize and understand them.

There are the staccato moments: social media posts that give friends a glimpse of how we’re phrasing right then, quick phone calls than lend a bounce for a second, or thank you notes that incisively assert spiritual realities . . .

Then there are accents. Conversations in which we engage with real personal investment are one of my favorite types of emphatic gestures. Such accents are even nicer when they come in a syncopated way like an unexpected talk in the hallway that turns to profound things and gives both participants goose bumps and a new perspective.

///

Maintaining harmonic support is an ongoing concern in a rich texture. It usually doesn’t work to drop the chords suddenly and leave the melody out there alone.

There are lots of background activities that support our phrasing: labor in the practice room, spiritual study, prayer, getting rest and basic nutrition, and all the behind-the-scenes work that gives things a good chance to go well and stay healthy.

And then there are those end-of-the-day activities that don’t need a lot of mental engagement but do require repetition. Musicians save physical drill for the end of the practice day when attention is waning. In life, there are activities like that - physical exercise, for instance – activities that only really benefit us when we return to them regularly.

///

As we mature, we learn to recognize and articulate more and more large-scale organizations. Good mentors help us with this. We become tuned-in to multiple collections of phrases which, along with their harmonic support, make their way to great climaxes before subsiding in staves of diminished activity. Knowledge of these meta-progressions has implications for all the local level details. Those powerful events and major turning points require preparation and great attention over a sustained time so as to arise most profoundly from their contexts.

///

I wonder if it might not even be useful to see the phrases of one’s life, or at least of one’s year, as a work to be composed and then played. It’s bound to be some sort of multi-movement work and there will probably be aspects of sonata to it. How wonderful to settle into singing our lyrical slow movement or to dance our year’s refreshing minuet!

And then there’s return of material - sometimes wonderful, sometimes frustrating - but that’s how we learn.

///

When we are looking to interpret a year or a life, we are seeking to see and inflect the full array and meaning of its passages.

At some points, a leggiero touch is required and the material is communicated in mysterious fragments because those for whom we play are afraid to hear a full loving melody.

Other times, we must move slowly through repeated motives as the tune is hard to learn.

We discern the importance of slurring, of connecting certain moments to others and certain people to others.

We develop ease with tapering and dovetailing as we listen sensitively at transitions, transitions that require gentleness because things are tenuous.

///

In all of this, we are striving to be the best musicians we can be and the best livers of life we can be. To do so, we need to keep asking questions about how what we’re playing relates to the ensemble.

Which parts are most important?
How do the parts relate?
Who has the main melody?
Should it be a solo?
What’s the best balance of our part with the others?

And what needs to crescendo, decrescendo, accelerando, ritenuto?

///

In the context of the whole, our own music means so much more. There are beautiful phrases we want extended, and sometimes they are. But many times a cadence is needed. Along the way, we do well to place a tenuto on special happenings, arriving with great intention and lingering a bit afterwards to feel their full effect. Some of those special happenings turn out to be true structural tones that define us and the shape of our music from the deepest level: graduations, conversions, marriages, births, deaths . . .

Sometimes we modulate, smoothly or not. Sometimes there’s an incursion of a totally unfamiliar type of music. And sometimes we have to suspend all thought for articulation as we struggle to keep up with the rhythms as we’re forced to sight-read through some crisis in our lives. There are even situations in which the stakes are so high and the need for singular focus is so great that we must, for a time, truly perform our lives. Our audience depends on us.

But at the beginning and the end, and at a few resting points in-between, there is the tonic.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Christmas Carols - Audiences

Working on this morning’s post inspired me to sort through these carols in another way.

I find it instructive and edifying to consider who is being addressed by the texts we sing in church. While we might assume that we’re frequently singing to God, a lot of the time, we’re not. That’s part of the tradition. It happens in the Psalms.

And so I have taken the same carols that I sorted earlier by the Gospels from which they draw content and have sorted them according to their audiences. I’ve suggested a further layer of classification by trying to characterize how they are address those audiences.

Many of the exhorting carols contain aspects of proclamation, but if there was any aspect of exhortation, I listed them as exhortation, not proclamation.

It turns out that very few of the carols are addressed to God in worship. I included those that do at the beginning of the list.

A number of the carols address a complex of audiences from verse to verse and several seem to be built around rhetorical addresses to Bethlehem, stars, and nature. On second thought, the addresses to stars and nature are more than rhetorical: the star is guiding and creation is being healed.

Finally, it occurs to me that many of these songs are designed to put us in the scene. They unfold it well and we sometimes sing as the wise men or the shepherds. They are more than a video of the Christmas story. They are experiences in virtual reality.


Prayer to Jesus
As with Gladness Men of Old
Away in a Manger

Exhortation to the faithful and the angels, then greeting and worship to Jesus
O Come, All Ye Faithful

Address to Bethlehem, exhortation to mornings stars, and prayer to Jesus
O Little Town of Bethlehem

Address to the star with the singers being the wise men
Brightest and Best
We Three Kings of Orient Are

Invitation/Exhortation to the Shepherds
Angels We Have Heard on High
Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow

Proclamation
Child in the Manger
How Great Our Joy (the singers are the Shepherds)
Silent Night
Sing We Now of Christmas
There’s a Song in the Air

General Exhortation
Go Tell It in the Mountain
Good Christian Men Rejoice
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
It Came upon the Midnight Clear (specifically to men of strife and those beneath life’s crushing load)
Oh Come, Little Children
Gentle Mary Laid Her Child
The First Nowell
What Child Is This

Exhortation to angels, shepherds, sages, and saints
Angels, from the Realms of Glory

Exhortation to heaven, nature, and every heart
Joy to the World
Hertford United Methodist Church in Hertford, N.C.  

Christmas Carols - Matthew or Luke

During this Christmas season, it has occurred to me that it would be a good devotional exercise to survey the commonly sung Christmas carols in terms of their Gospel content. That is, to take note of which carol is based on which Gospel narrative of the nativity. I’m sure may others have already done this, but I’ve enjoyed doing it for myself.

Sometimes we carry around a mental version of the nativity that is essentially St. Francis’s beautiful manger scene with everyone in attendance (Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, animals, shepherds, wise men, and angels). The cast of characters grows in the yards of neighbors as inflatable polar bears, elves, and dinosaurs join the scene. But that’s a different story.

The gospel writers, however, chose specific details to make their points about Jesus. (Don’t we all?) Their separate versions seem to have been written to stand alone and don’t particularly need to be combined.    

In addition to the fact that my little survey might enhance someone’s biblical literacy (mine, at the very least) I also think it is a valuable exercise for raising awareness of what is actually in these carols. Details of the familiar go by almost completely without notice and it’s possible that many of us had a joyful moment with “Joy to the World” or experienced a serene mood as we sang “Silent Night” without registering the richness of these texts yet again this year.

If you are intrigued by the whole concept, maybe you should undertake such a survey yourself before reading on. Or at least do a quick check of the carols you have in your head with your memory of the Gospels.

As I did my survey, I realized that the categories I thought I would use are not as clear-cut as I expected. That’s pretty much how these sorts of things usually go. For clarity’s sake, though, I’ve still basically sorted the carols as being based on Matthew, Luke, or a combination of the two.

That said, some carols seem to have an overlay of language that might be drawn from John 1. I didn’t try to keep track of that.  

Another potential subcategory would be the carol that is clearly about one Gospel but has some general reference from the other that colors it but doesn’t rise to the level that would make the carol a full-blown combination of the two.  For example, “Brightest and Best” and “As with Gladness Men of Old” both reference the manger (Luke) but they are primarily about the wise men (Matthew).  “O Come Little Children” and “Silent Night” both mention a star (Matthew) but are otherwise firmly rooted in Luke.

Yet another type is the carol that briefly references something from a Gospel but ultimately amounts to a theological discussion using that reference as a starting point. “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” and “Good Christian Men Rejoice” follow this pattern.

Here’s a brief summary of some features that differentiate the Gospel nativity narratives:

Matthew
Angel talks to Joseph
Isaiah reference to Immanuel
Guiding star
Wise men visit where the Christ child lives
Flight into Egypt

Luke
Angel talks to Mary
Angel chorus proclaims the birth
Shepherds visit the baby Jesus who is in the manger

John
Word becomes flesh

And now for my sorting:

Matthew
As with Gladness Men of Old
Brightest and Best
We Three Kings of Orient Are

Luke
Angels We Have Heard on High
Away in a Manger
Child in the Manger
Go Tell It on the Mountain
Good Christian Men Rejoice
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
How Great Our Joy
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
It Came upon the Midnight Clear
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Oh Come, Little Children
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Silent Night

Combination of Matthew and Luke
Angels, from the Realms of Glory
Gentle Mary Laid Her Child
Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
Sing We Now of Christmas
The First Nowell
There’s a Song in the Air
What Child Is This

Other
Joy to the World – Psalm 98

P.S. Those who worship in liturgical churches are probably pretty aware of all this as your services tend to follow one Gospel or the other in a given year.  Those of us who organize and play Christmas concerts might find an impetus for some new creative work in those liturgical traditions and present events based on one Gospel's version or the other.










Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Meaningful Collaborations

Within a week or so this fall, I had the privilege of performing several times with my SEU colleague, Ed Bryant, including appearances on the Midday Series at St. Joseph's, at Lasker Baptist Church, and at Florida Presbyterian Homes. Each of these performances left a very distinctive imprint on my memory due to the collaborative experiences involved.

As I often say to my students, making music is about collaboration - 
collaboration with other performers, 
collaboration with a composer through the music, 
collaboration with a particular instrument, 
collaboration with the room in which you find that instrument, 
and, last but not least, collaboration  with the audience. 

Collaboration requires receptiveness, sensitivity, and acceptance on the part of the collaborative partners, and the collaborative spirit is developed over time. Numerous performances with the same partners over the years deepen your rapport and grow your potential for discovering new possibilities and communicating them.  

We performed at St. Joseph's within a day of the death of their director of music's father-in-law. We could sense the pain of this loss and the funeral was to be held in the same space in the afternoon. As I started to play Mozart's D Minor Fantasy, I could not but feel the body of the work as an expression of grief and its brief coda in the major mode as a little suggestion of hope.

After the Mozart, I played MacDowell's "From Puritan Days" and "Indian Idyl" from New England Idyls. The two make a nice Thanksgiving couple. Perhaps too picturesque for some tastes, but the composer was a Romantic, after all. The "Indian Idyl" has a catchy tune and a haunting middle section that corresponds to a portion of the poem at the top of the piece   ". . . afar through the summer night sigh the wooing flutes' soft strains."

This performance at St. Joseph's also included the premiere of A Thanksgiving Journey, a series of six original settings of short poems I wrote in 1993. (At least they were short by the time I finished editing them in 2014!) They could be love poems or mystical prayers or both. I invite the listener/reader to imagine addressing them to any loved one - a muse, a child, a parent, or even to God. I also like that these poems are expressions of my native northeastern North Carolina. Kathy immediately recognized and appreciated that. I've copied these poems at the bottom of the post for others who might enjoy them.

The midday event concluded with an arrangement of "We Gather Together" which, for me, was emblematic of the significance of the whole event: we were sharing art in the context of the life of a faith community.  What was sung and played was heard as a prelude to the midday Mass, as a processing of grief, and as a pre-funeral meditation. 

Two days later, we presented the annual holiday concert in Lasker, N.C.. Each year, sometime between Thanksgiving and New Year's, I travel to Lasker and play a concert that is always at least a Christmas concert but can include classical works and music for Thanksgiving or New Year's, too. It's one of my favorite things to do. 

This year, Kathy, Mr. Bryant, and I enjoyed a sweet and peaceful twenty-four hours on the road together. As we talked along the journey, I also found myself thinking of all the musical experience accumulated by the three of us, and indeed, by our SEU music faculty at large. 

As always, the members of Lasker Baptist Church took great care of us. A yummy breakfast casserole was waiting for us to pop in the oven. For lunch, we were treated to Eastern N.C. barbeque at Claudine's. And a great pot roast was cooked up for supper. After the concert, we experienced more classic Lasker hospitality at a reception where the fellowship was very fine.


Appropriate to the pilgrimage quality of this performance experience, we planned a program that related to journeys of faith. In addition to some repertoire from the St. Joseph's concert, we included "Amazing Grace" and Liszt's "Dante Sonata." There was also some lighter Christmas fair that continued the theme of travel - "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "I wonder as I Wander," and a quodlibet of "Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella" with "Joy to the World" called "Bring a Torch with Joy."

To me, the most powerful moment of the evening was Mr. Bryant's a cappella rendition of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," a song written in a spiritual vein. 

What made it powerful? 

This collaboration:
A song born out of the bad days of Jim Crow
An African-American performer singing it with deep eloquence
A white audience listening to him with attentiveness
Both performer and audience remembering the struggles that made such sharing possible

It was a moment in which some generations-old wounds might have healed a little. 

***

As we arrived for our concert at the Presbyterian Homes, a resident who had just had a stroke was leaving on an ambulance. 

While performing "I'll Be Home for Christmas," I thought of how many of our audience members could, in a sense, no longer return home. Their parents have been gone for a long, long time and many have lost spouses. In addition, their thoughts no doubt linger, at times, on what they used to have, what they used to do, where they used to be . . . Holiday visits with their children will be good, but I'm sure things will simply never be the same.

And so I felt sadness and longing, and I felt moved to say something about it. I acknowledged my awareness of the amount of loss in the room, the amount of not really being able to go home for Christmas anymore. And, as the song suggests, I wished for them, and for myself, blessed dreams in which we do go home and see the people and places to which we can no longer return in waking life.
 

  

A Thanksgiving Journey

I. The Window
The spacious window,
the quiet city:
alone, we listened.
I heard your heart beat.

II. Over the Road
We sped over the road by the river
as I missed you.
The sun set in rich hues as my heart wept.
I longed for your sweetness in the concealment of the night
under the blue stars.

III. Mittens and Flannel
Mittens and flannel  
long walks in the country
the weathered statues in the garden
the lonely moon vine races to bloom before the frost’s kiss.
The distant hunters’ guns
fire the last salute
as trees drop their leaves
to shroud the summer’s delight.

IV. My Heart Sings a Song
My heart sings a song I feared forgotten!
I’m learning again the joy of the sky!
All this from your dark eyes looking
to a scene I cannot see
and your unexpected smile
in a moment of silence.

V. A Mystery of Peace
A mystery of peace
whispers in this place
and a heartbeat of the world
quickens my soul
with a swift gesture.

VI. My Journey is Ended
My journey is ended for now
and I keep a few wishes from your heart
as I light a candle
on the Thanksgiving table.


Sunday, December 07, 2014

Christmas Around the World

The theme of this year's Southeastern University Department of Music Christmas concerts was "Christmas Around the World." At the beginning of the concert, Dr. William Hackett, our provost, read these scripture passages. My concert-concluding remarks, a sort of benediction, follow.

From Isaiah 42

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice. He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth . . .” This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness. I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness . . . Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it . . . Let the wilderness and its towns raise their voices. Let the settlements . . . rejoice. Let the people . . . sing for joy. Let them shout from the mountaintops. Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim his praise in the islands.

From Matthew 28

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”



Before tonight’s final performance, I would like to share a brief reflection.

First, I want to acknowledge that this concert has been a thoroughly collaborative effort. The focus and the flow of the evening were shaped by the vision of my music faculty colleagues and the hard work of our students. (In case you are wondering, our students are just as special when you get to know them personally in everyday life as they seem when you see them on stage.) But the great ideas of the faculty and the earnest efforts of the students could not have been shared so beautifully without the support of the Department of Student Life, the Department of Communication, Media Services, Facilities Management, and the University’s administration. Since all of those groups worked behind the scenes, I wanted to name and thank them in front of all of you.

Tonight, through music, movement, and images, we have celebrated that the mission of the Christ is good news for the whole world. Because of this theme, I have found myself thinking of a portion of a poem by Phillips Brooks, the author of the hymn-text “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  His poem “Christmas Everywhere” takes us on a mental tour of the globe and reminds us of the universal significance of the birth of Jesus.

He writes:

Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight!
Christmas in lands of the fir-tree and pine,
Christmas in lands of the palm-tree and vine,
Christmas where snow peaks stand solemn and white,
Christmas where cornfields stand sunny and bright . . .
Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight!
For the Christ-child who comes is the Master of all;
No palace too great, no cottage too small.

As we go from this place, I pray that we are renewed in our desire to take the blessings of Christmas out into all those lovely places and the other places because it is also Christmas

where the inmate feels regret
where the emigrant feels afraid
where the elderly feel forgotten
and where the homeless hope for a place to be.

May the Spirit guide us in bringing peace and in making Christmas merry for others.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Pie



Several weeks ago, Deacon Rick Hoover blessed me when we met at the communion rail. He reached out and said "Lord bless these hands and bless this teacher." Those spontaneous words spoken over my person meant a lot to me. I noticed Rick blessing several others as they went forward, as well.

A few days later, Rick had a stroke. It will probably be quite a while before he serves communion again. I dedicate this post to him and invite prayers for his recovery.

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a recital in the same sanctuary where Rick had blessed me. Before the concert, a sweet friend who attends church with us asked me a question which she prefaced with the words "I want to ask you a stupid question." She wondered if I practice.

I appreciated her vision of me and my talent and her theory that practice might not be necessary. But of course, I do practice and really need to. Like most college piano professors, I don't get to practice several hours a day, but you learn to plan your programs differently, choose different repertoire, and employ different strategies to find a way to make it all work hopefully fairly well.

Even with fairly simple-to-play music, practicing is necessary to maintain engagement with what you are doing. There are experiments to try, decisions to be made, and good habits to form.

And when it comes to playing a solo recital, playing piano is very demanding. Much material has be recalled, reproduced, and done so with sensitivity and responsiveness in real time. It's a different mode of functioning that is a bit like being a surgeon. A surgeon who wears a tuxedo and doesn't use anesthesia.

At the end of the concert, the same friend asked an excellent question: "What do think about when you are playing?" I asked the question a lot for many of my undergraduate years. Lately, I've been trying to answer the question a little better for my students who are asking it, too. (My answer to my friend at the recital was that I am constantly imagining what the next few notes will sound like and that keeps me on track.)

There is a blend of things that one needs to have going on in his or her mind to have a successful performance at the piano.

1. On some level, we have to be processing the basic of notes and rhythms. Otherwise, the piece won't get played. Early in the learning process, we think of these a lot, but ideally, they aren't foremost in our minds when we are performing.

2. Next, there are the ideas and behaviors that make the piece really work. These go under the heading of musicianship and they happen on the local level (ex. getting the best inflection of a two -note grouping) and the highest level (ex. finding the tempo that makes the piece dance and sing). By performance time, a much greater percentage of thought ought be on this category than on notes and rhythms.

Getting the right mix of those two, recognizing that what we need changes as we learn a piece, and also knowing the specific blend that fits us best as individual pianists with different ways of processing are all very important. 

3. And then there's technique. I think about it a lot. I'm normally blind to my thinking about it which is why it took me several days to remember that part of brain power goes into it as we are performing. It is, of course, possible to think about it in unhelpful ways even if one's basic technical ideas are good. It can't replace category 2 but it can sneakily try to do so without us realizing what has happened. Nonetheless, one needs enough thinking about technique to be able to express category 2. How much varies from pianist to pianist and from piece to piece. I like to think in terms of adequate technique for expressing the music at hand. Otherwise, one is tempted to chase something other than the music.

These three areas make up a nice pie chart and it's a really useful act of self discovery to divvy up one's playing pie with actual numbers. Perhaps one's numbers are 80% notes, 5% musicality, 15% technique at the early stages of learning a piece. It's helps to know when the balance has shifted or ought to have shifted to something more like 60% notes, 30% musicality, 10% technique . . .

But wait, what about the other stuff that goes through the mind as we play? What about who is present? What about the things people have said and the comparisons between ourselves and other pianists? And what about our various feelings about the experience of performance?

Of course those thoughts will come. Totally eradicating them is not likely to happen, and pursuing that goal will probably not be good for us either. Minimizing them, containing them, and not allowing them to take over - that's a realistic discipline. So assign them a small percentage, maybe 3%, and then picture their little bitty piece of pie.

Then there's a further stage. It's what happens on the actual stage.

4. Performance-think. The pianist needs to respond and adjust to the actual piano used in the performance and the room in which it is being heard. It is at this point that all the musical experimentation in the practice room, all the technical exploration and exercise, and all of the thorough learning of notes and rhythms come into play. As you rehearse in the hall, you discover what will and will not work. You might have to adjust your image of the piece according to what is possible in the new setting. You might have to change your technique to tame the instrument at hand. And as you actually play the performance, you need to be processing each past moment and sensing how to enter each next moment. There's little time or space for thinking notes and technique when you enter that way of being. That's why you need wisdom for when and where to give yourself cues from the other categories. Teachers, friends with good ears, and experience help with that. 

For those who have made it all the way through this post, I would like to share something a little more interesting. Some will find it energizing. Others might find it to be a little strange. If you're still reading, please give me the beneft of the doubt to the end of the post.

Lately, I've been asking another question, a question of my own. It's a question that engages my faith and makes piano playing even more of a pilgrimage for me. I've been asking how Jesus might have played piano if that had been a possibility. For those who were at my recital, that was certainly not it. But I'm trying to move in his direction.

1. First and foremost, I think he would have played lyrically, singingly. He had vocal chords and we know that "when they had sung a hymn, they went out." Plus, his conversation was pastoral in all senses of the word.

2. As a carpenter or stone mason, Jesus the pianist would have been meticulous. If you don't have a good model for attention to detail, spend an afternoon with a carpenter who truly loves his or her craft.

3. As the son of God, he would have had a very different view of power. I think he saw it from the other side and knew its wholesome and proper use as something along the lines of an expression of ultimate tenderness and creativity. Jesus does not seem like one to strive for an effect or to try to impress. In fact, he rebuked the Tempter on that very point.

4. And somehow, his playing, like his living, would have been done with joy and peace, as well as empathy, that connected to his listeners in ways that met their needs for both comfort and challenge.

I think I can work on the first three and pray to be a vessel for a bit of the last. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Love Life


I settle in for a large document editing job first thing in the morning and as I open the document I see that some departmental business is being done via e-mail. I need to chime in with at least my view and maybe to assist in structuring an official way of deliberating. 

And I remember the time management advice I read just yesterday recommending that those who really want to make a contribution in the realm of research (or in my case, creative endeavor) should stay out of administration.

Too late.

I make my way to church at All Saints’ where the liturgy is well-crafted, the music thoughtful, and Father Al’s homilies winsome, as a colleague puts it. It seems to me that my prayers for guidance are sometimes answered in the midst of this gathering of worshippers.

I strongly believe that Jesus calls us to service – an orientation for the good of others, a way of lowliness, an emptying of self, a slave’s lot, perhaps having the goal of not being famous.

If leading is coordinating, directing traffic, building consensus, and developing vision, then I think that is a role one can embrace as an act of service. But if one becomes too enamored with ideas of leading others, it seems to me that things become upended and service is drowned in talk of authority and thoughts of charisma.  Leadership becomes the content of one’s relationships. Service is a much better content.

I took those ideas to worship, and here is what I learned about doing what we do “as unto the Lord.”

1.     The holiness of our everyday work is not so much in what we do but in how we do it. A greater purpose is revealed for one's work when it is undertaken with this knowledge.
2.     Jesus calls us to treat others well regardless of how they behave. That’s a simple concept but we have thousands of ways of confusing ourselves about it.
3.     We are also called to “coax goodness” out of others. (Father Al’s words)
4.     We are to take the initiative in loving.  We will grow spiritually if we resolve to be the first to act in kindness. (Again, Father Al)
5.     Finally, we never finish learning how to love. In fact, each day is an opportunity to seek afresh how to be loving in each of our situations.

With these points in mind, I know better how to write e-mails, how to go to meetings, how to teach classes, how to be a colleague, and how to be a husband, and how to be myself.