Saturday, August 15, 2015

Slither Forth!

As some readers might know, I have spent several years developing a faith-integrating class piano curriculum based on the stories of St. Columba. Like many callings and creative projects, this "pilgrim of practice" found me, not the other way around.

Blooms in a bog on Iona's Dun I

A number of friends associated with Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and Grace Baptist Church (also located in Richmond, VA) shared their exposure to the renewal associated with the island of Iona where the Irish saint founded his monastery. Then, Kathy traveled to Iona, and as she traveled, I read about Scotland and was intrigued by the story of Columba and the monster of Ness. A few years passed during which I occasionally thought of writing a piano piece about the story. To commemorate the bicentennial of Liszt's birth, I finally wrote that solo piano "Columban Legend." Around that time, our adoptive son came to live with us. He had an interest in books and video games rooted in mythology and magic. I thought reading the stories of a saint like Columba might be a good faith-based connection point with him, so I ordered a copy of Adomnan's biography to share excerpts from time to time.  

One thing led to another and I started writing lots of little piano pieces. Last summer, Kathy and I traveled to a conference on Iona and that was a life-shaping experience. On that trip, I discovered the fun fact that the Robertson family has a historic association with Columba's community. This was a neat finding as my maternal grandmother was a Robertson.

With all this Columba-oriented engagement in my life, it stuck me that I have become involved in an informal Columban priesthood of sorts. I find myself interpreting my own Christian experience, and sometimes providing counsel, through my version of a Columban lens.

Image of Columba in the refectory at Iona Abbey
The Appeal of Columba
For those who aren't familiar with Columba, I offer the following brief explanation of my own interest.

There is a great deal in the life of Columba to intrigue a musician. He was a singer of penetrating sweetness and experienced something like glossolalic chanting on at least one occasion. He was also a composer and a compelling advocate for the class of bards when its very existence was at stake.

I am amazed by the number stories about Columba and I find that their details have potential for speaking to my own situations in a metaphorical fashion.

My Tradition
As a Baptist, my entrance into the Christian Faith was through an experience of being "born again." Jesus and Nicodemus had a discussion about that term in John 3. In the Baptist tradition, it has come to mean a moment of personal surrender through which Christ becomes both one's savior and lord. Something supernatural is believed to happen at this time, something that makes one's life new in the here and now.

From time to time, I long for a fresh deepening of this newness, and during a recent contemplative prayer gathering, that yearning returned. I found myself considering the little and big bits of obsessiveness and depressiveness and cynicism and sarcasm . . . in my life. I also thought on my experiences of wholesomeness and healing, beauty and peace. The result was that I wanted somehow to wallow before, but far below, God, and to slough off those essentially lifeless things, finally to rise up as a newer, better, truer me. I consider these desires, these impulses toward some spiritual movement, a blessing.

Slither Forth!
Snake-like forms on St. Martin's Cross

And then I found myself thinking of snakes.

Of course there's the serpent of Genesis who tempted us to estrangement from God, and there's the serpent lifted up in the wilderness for the healing of a wandering nation (also mentioned in John 3).

St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland,
or so it is said. For his part,
Columba blessed the snakes of Iona,
rendering them harmless.

It is my understanding that there is a Celtic tradition that views snakes in a positive light, as symbols of rebirth, in fact. What more vivid image could there be for the throwing off of the old self than that of a snake shedding its skin?

The snake must move forward to bring this about. And once the process is begun, there is really no way of going back.

While effort is required of the snake to complete this moulting, it does not happen at the whim of the snake. It happens when the time is right. It happens when that old self can be left behind.

The snake discovers and reveals its new self through many movements ranging from full-body convulsions to the tiny actions of individual scales.

The snake travels on, belly to the ground registering the gritty grains of sand. Its eyes straining to make out forms through the thick blades of grass, it knows best by listening, by feeling the vibrations of its world.

Occasionally it lifts itself or climbs for vision and sustenance.

And so
we too
slither forth.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In the Field

I have just returned from the last trip of the summer and now I'm looking forward to the 2015-2016 academic year. For the first time, I am blogging from my cottage in our music village.

For those who might not know, this “music village” is the temporary home of Southeastern’s department of music. We expect to be camping out here for the next twelve months while new facilities are being built. Our little neighborhood consists of 18 cottages that house practice rooms, offices, and storage plus three music-specific modular units – a music office and computer music lab, a percussion studio, and a keyboard lab.

Back to the summer’s trips - they were excellent and involved a Christian summer music festival exploring the significance of diversity in Christian theology, a trip to New York with Kathy’s girls choir, and a great church music conference in New Orleans followed by a wedding deep in Cajun country. These journeys reminded me of the great big world that’s out there. They also challenged, inspired, energized, and focused me in new ways. That said, I believe the transformation that needs to happen within me will occur over the course of many days and weeks of hard work here in Cottage 16.

At the end of the school year, we moved from our old buildings (which no longer exist) to temporary structures in the field on the north end of campus. The process required that we look at every single item that had come to find a comfy, if crowded, home in the old facilities, and determine which things should be carried into the field with us. A number of things were left behind as they no longer served a purpose or were proving to be unnecessary weights as we moved forward. Now that we are in the village, there is more sorting to do.

Just as the physical move provided an occasion for this great house cleaning, I think our move into the village also provides an opportunity for each of us to undertake a more important spiritual inventory.

There are many good things we need to take into the village with us, but it is also an ideal time to consider what things we would like to leave behind. We might even find some treasures in this field that will enrich our lives together when we move into our new home next year.

I encourage everyone who will be spending time in the village to invite the Spirit to shine light on the things that might be good to leave behind. A list of several that have occurred to me might help with other folks' self-evaluations.

Lack of discipline in worship or prayer

Unwillingness to be shaped by the Spirit

The tendency to feed anxieties

Expectations built on old relationships

Attitudes that contribute to cliquishness and sarcasm

To some extent, the daily life of our department has been drawn out into the light of day because our village is now in this field. Most of our nearest neighbors have never lived this close to our community before. The logistics of the move and the rearrangement of where we are on campus have resulted in lots of folks meeting and interacting who had only heard of each other before.

I am hoping that more good things can come from this dynamic in the year ahead.  

I am imagining the worshipful sounds of hard work emanating from our village and lifting up those around us. I am dreaming that the activity of our neighborhood will convey not so much a sense of talents or giftedness but qualities of sweetness and listening. I am praying that we will become aware of the presence of God as we move through our narrow streets.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015


I've blogged before about the role Glencairn Gardens played in the formation of my aesthetics.

In June, I revisited this lovely spot and now I'm blogging what was the stream of consciousness at that time.

Stereo fountains and green-screened trails

solitary benches for pondering and prayer

hidden lawns where youngsters cuddle

and bridges for meetings real and imagined


A coming-of-age place

a garden for grown-ups, too -

strong willows and sunlit cypresses
where thrushes stir at midday

rich growth on rugged ground

plus color wheels and sundials
for the children we now raise

Carolina senses springing up

and stately re-restatements of timeless themes

A place for resting

and the flags under which we live

An aging veteran watches a hawk make circles
while a little ballerina echoes her mother's movements
posing for a picture they'll always have

Here are feelings of ancient places by the water

massive stones

unseen snakes

turtles cruising in bubbly streams

and untamed flora framing a creek-bed

I return to shady camellia paths

and see old borders open onto new vistas


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Broadway Classroom

Another highlight of our New York trip (It was pretty much all highlights!) was the group's Broadway Classroom experience. Members of the girls choir, parents, and chaperones all participated in an excellent crash course in Broadway performance culture presented by Brent Frederick, a very active music director-pianist-conductor, and Scott Mikita, a swing from the current Phantom cast. They led us through a portion of the number "Masquerade," ably teaching the music, the diction, the choreography, and holding a little mock audition. This was all really fun and I highly recommend it to other groups of musicians going to New York.

In case you're wondering, a swing is a performer with the capability and flexibility to perform various roles in a production depending upon who is ill on any given occasion. In Mr. Mikita's situation, this involves being prepared with music, text, choreography, and acting for the majority of the major male roles in Phantom eight times a week, and sometimes portions of multiple roles during the same performance. That's very, very impressive.

While we're considering what these gentlemen do for a living, I would encourage music students to take a look at Mr. Frederick's resume. I'm sure you'll notice the variety of musical work he has done from regional theater to a cruise ship show to Broadway. Also, notice his degree - music education! This should be enlightening to those who are concerned about what job their degree might lead to. This should also wake up some who are in a confused sleep and are dreaming that music ed people pursue their degrees because they can't make it in a more performance-based part of the music world. Lastly, be sure to read through the list of skills he shares to make himself more marketable. I've copied it below. These amount to keyboard skills, aural theory, and technology studies - the things you often wonder when you'll ever need them. I just happened to notice these this morning and thought I should point them out.

• Sight-reading, including audition accompanying for NYC casting directors and for Broadway shows.
• Transcribing by ear.
• Tech guru: Expert proficiency in Finale and Sibelius; synthesizer programming; digital audio workstations including Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Logic, and Ableton Live; orchestral mockups
  Now for what I've been wanting to share.

Mr. Frederick and Mr. Mikita presented a superb session that showed how all the fundamentals of creative work - the musical disciplines you learn in school - are the exact things you apply everyday in the professional world of music performance. Personally, it was affirming to hear the same messages I heard from my teachers - messages that I try to convey to my students - being promulgated by these artists in their part of the culture.

What are those messages?

1. Arts are multi-layered and the performing arts require that performers engage with the layers.

You learn notes, technique, diction, musicality, choreography, etc., and then, keep adding more and more layers to make the end result an awesome expression, something out of the ordinary.

2. Subtext, subtext, subtext.

You need to apply all the aspects of all those layers with reason. Whether you're playing notes or moving across the stage, there has to be something going through your mind, something stirring your emotions. Otherwise, the audience gets no charge. Singers do it. Choreographers do it . . . It's how you make your motivation a part of the work.

3. The audience gets it.

The audience doesn't have time to deconstruct and evaluate each and every little move. Hopefully, you've saturated everything with ideas through years of focus and months of rehearsal. That sustained effort, that care for the work, comes through, at the very least, on the subconscious level. That might work better for the experience of art, anyway.

4. Conductors and directors want to see that you can take direction.

Hopefully your brilliance will show up and show through at your audition, but if you can't be responsive to the ones with the vision for the show, that won't matter much. The more malleable you are, and the less room has to be made for your personality, the better. So, as Mr. Mikita put it, "Be game and it'll be fun."

5. Education that is both specific and well-rounded is key.

During the question and answer time at the end of our session, Mr. Mikita was asked about what a young person with an interest in a career in theater should be doing now. His answer? Do as much theater as you can. Live life - theater isn't about theater; it's about the world outside the theater. And go to college.

Finally, I would add that these two successful genetlemen were balanced, poised, and readily able to engage with their students and fellow human beings in a normal, healthy, positive way: not the warped stereotype of artists that's often promoted but the reality of disciplined professionals, whatever their field.

Thank you, sirs, for modelling musicianship, professionalism, good teaching, humility, and humanity for my young friends and me!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Jazz at Lincoln Center

While in New York, Kathy and I visited one of America’s great art music temples – Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Sitting atop several floors of the Shops at Columbus Circle, the entrance to the venue is a lively place with a bit of the ambiance of a grand cinema. The occasion was the conclusion of a season exploring “how jazz has both integrated and influenced the rich musical traditions of the Caribbean and North, South, and Central America.” The performance was a tribute to Latin Jazz greats, Tito Puente and Machito, coordinated by bassist Carlos Henriquez.

At first blush, one saw that the three percussionists basically functioned as one organism, the saxophones sounded like a rank of organ pipes, and the persistent presence and miraculous nuance of the cowbell made it the soprano soloist of the group. Soon the trumpets started playing masterful improvisations.

As the evening went on, I started to recognize the many layers that made the experience so good. In  addition to all of the above, the instruments were simply played very, very well. Each musician's sound was rich, warm, brilliant, and distinctive. When combined, the instruments of the ensemble were also a marvel of sonority, blend, and coordination. Undergirding it all, professionalism was a given.

Then there was the excitement, imagination, and genius inspiration of the music itself - tremendous diversity joyfully combined in close-knit communities all across the stage. The mission statement of Jazz at Lincoln Center puts it like this:

We believe Jazz is a metaphor for Democracy. Because jazz is improvisational, it celebrates personal freedom and encourages individual expression. Because jazz is swinging, it dedicates that freedom to finding and maintaining common ground with others. Because jazz is rooted in the blues, it inspires us to face adversity with persistent optimism.

Education is also a core value of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the evening's performers were unabashed advocates for the continuation of their tradition. History was alive and onstage with them as they expressed the importance of doing our generation's duty of appreciating and handing on this heritage. That duty involves not just hearing, loving, and sharing the music, but also supporting the infrastructure necessary to keep it going - publications of scholarship, outreach programs, and the hall itself. A decade into its existence, it's already time to update the fantastic facility in which these fine musicians perform. 

Twelve plus hours after the concert, I was still feeling its rhythms. But on the night of, the audience's well developed patina of concert etiquette seemed to inhibit a visceral response to the stirring elements of this music rooted in ancient religions. A little dancing broke out at the end, but only after considerable cajoling from the stage.

Reflecting on the specialness of that evening and of the performers who made it possible, I realized more fully that charisma is not a way one acts but is an entrancing and involving thing that sometimes sneaks in unnoticed when one is very truly doing.


Monday, June 08, 2015

Morning Has Broken

Quite some time has passed since my last bit of blogging. Most of that time has been spent in activities concluding the school year. I believe things at school, at the Lasker Summer Music Festival, and with my life in general are in an interim period as we prepare for the dawning of a new era. Thus, it seems appropriate to blog today about experiences with the hymn known to many of us as "Morning Has Broken."

The tune name is BUNESSAN which is also the name of a little town on the Ross of Mull, a peninsula on the Scottish island of Mull. Kathy and I passed through the town on our way to Iona about this time last summer. Here's a picture I took somewhere around Bunessan.

As I recently shared with a friend, it seems to me that a lot of old tunes such as this one reflect the contour of the landscapes in which they came into being. The rapid but lyrical and airy rises and falls of BUNESSAN seem to fit well with the mountain vistas and sea scenes that one can view from the town.

We don't know exactly where the tune comes from, and the actual reason it is known as BUNESSAN is that it was first published with a text by Mary MacDonald (1789-1872), poet, Baptist, and wife to a crofter who lived and created her work near Bunessan. Here is the rich first verse of her famous text:

Child in the manger,
infant of Mary;
outcast and stranger,
Lord of all;
Child who inherits
all our transgressions,
all our demerits
on Him fall.

Many wonderful texts have since been paired with this great tune. Taking time to sing through the page scans on the page for BUNESSAN can be a heart-warming devotional activity. In addition to the well-known "Morning Has Broken," you will also find a lovely wedding hymn, a powerful Trinitarian text by John Bell, and a version of St. Patrick's Breastplate.

Finally, I would like to share my own version which is what prompted all my thinking this weekend about BUNESSAN. 

During this summer's Lasker Summer Music Festival, I presented a recital and a talk exploring the goodness of diversity. The recital was a tour of works not included on the usual classical piano itinerary which consists mostly of German and Austrian journeys with occasional side-trips through France, Spain, and Russia. I've copied the program at the end of this post for the curious reader.

The second half of the recital was framed by works that reference the diversity of creation, not just the diversity of nations. (The first half was framed by works that reference various Americas that exist within the nation we call the United States.)

I wrote my arrangement of "Morning Has Broken" for an SEU student who, at the time, was a church music major. She has since gone on to be a missionary in Tanzania. BUNESSAN was a meaningful tune to her and her mother. In addition, she was studying the first prelude in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and was good at major scales. You can hear those influences in the arrangement. In addition, each section of the arrangement expresses a key phrase from one of the verses -

 "Blackbird has spoken like the first bird."

"Sweet the rain's new fall . . . like the first dewfall"
"Mine is the sunlight!"

The photos posted with the performance are from Pentecost morning in Lasker. It was on this visit to Lasker that I realized that, similar to Iona, Lasker is a "home for music pilgrims."

Lasker Summer Music Festival 2015
Lasker Baptist Church
July 22, 2015      7:30 P.M.
Charles Hulin, piano
Kathy Hulin, horn           Greg Parker, baritone

Jefferson’s March                                                       Alexander Reinagle
Rapsodia Negra                                                               Ernesto Lecuona
Live, Laugh, Love                                                               Charles Hulin
Allqamari Kanki!                                                                Quechua Song
Tango Finale                                                                      Astor Piazzolla
Ghost Dance of the Zuñis                                                    Carlos Troyer
Morning Has Broken                                                    Arr. Charles Hulin
Gamelan                                                                      Leopold Godowsky
The Law and the Prophets                                            Han song, adapted
Adventures of an African Boy                                     Margaret Goldston
         Along the Zambesi River  
         Meeting a Chimpanzee
         Dancing with a Friend      
         A Rest under the Baobob Tree
         A Stroll through Waving Elephant Grass     
         Racing with a Giraffe
         A Tribal Ceremony
Graceful Ghost Rag                                                           William Bolcom
All Creatures of Our God and King                            Arr. Richard Walters

Saturday, April 18, 2015


Last night, I was surprised by an answer to a question I wasn't asking.

The question is related to questions I ask, but I don't think I've ever really considered it before.

Here it is:

Why was time created?

The answer was a profound one, one I found a little reductive
(perhaps because I was being too literal)
and kind of jarring.

I normally think of time as a mystery.
What is it? I don't know.
But we seem to be passing through it,
or maybe it's more like we're caught in it.

Plus, it's so very important to the experience of music.
Really, it's important to the experience of anything,
at least for those of us who live on planets.

It seems we need to measure it, to mark it off in manageable segments.

Here's the answer to the question, compliments of Thomas Keating.

Time was created so that we might learn to wait.
In waiting, we develop a more right relationship to God through faith alone.

On some level, I like this,
and I don't mean to reject the deeply rooted ideas of a teacher of Keating's stature.

But in spite of its profundity and truth,
and even its pointing to mystery,
it feels a little mechanistic to me.

Of course I've taken his statement out of context - a context I don't know a lot about - and I readily acknowledge that what he says here actually makes sense to me. I'm also glad he raised the question for me as I think it will become an abiding aspect of my discourse with others.

If I were to attempt to answer the question, I would begin like this:

It's hard to imagine not existing in time. As a creature who lives in time, I don't know how to picture life that does not consist of moment after moment. We hear of walking the streets of gold in eternity, and that sounds like an experience of time to me, only it doesn't end. Worlds end, and we end in this world, but does time end?

This whole time thing seems to have been there from the beginning. "Beginning" seems to be a time thing, as well. On the first day, God created darkness and light, the first day. That's a marking of time. And a beautiful one, at that. Our place in space provides just the right time periods of light and dark for life to come into being. Also, for Being to come to life.

Day 2 of creation couldn't be a thing without Day 1 when days became a thing. These days allowed for God to work in a way that we creatures of time could consider. And we learn in the second creation narrative that God labored over us. We were not spoken or thought into existence in less than a moment. We were crafted with care from the dust and breathed into so that we might have life and engage through time.

Why time?
For many, many reasons and things beyond reasons.
We grow in time. And that is beautiful.
We can move about over the course of time. And that too, is beautiful.
Relationships develop through time. Beautiful.
New life comes to pass with time. Beautiful.
In time, we can continue to praise.
We can fill this mysterious substance with the beauty of worship.

Time allows for the vibration of a string,
for the existence of a tone,
for sensing the trajectory of a phrase and feeling its fulfillment,
for an impulse to become a dance,
and for a mood to become poetry.

And sometimes, we wait. Yes, waiting can let us know that we are not in charge, that one who is superior to us is doing the scheduling. But there is so much in my waiting that I don't believe is from God, and coercive manipulation through time doesn't seem quite like Jesus to me.

In reality, it seems more likely that God is doing the waiting.

The Ancient of Days - what a tremendous and unfathomable character!
One who creates all but is willing to wait for me, to put me somehow in the driver's seat.
What a relinquishment of control and willingness to be vulnerable!
What freedom granted!

And what pain that One must endure.

I know from my own waiting that the ones who make me wait are not always trying to assert power. Often, they are oblivious to good desires for their lives. What is needed in these situations is not a response to my schedule or authority but fresh priorities, new vision, a reorientation.

What is God waiting on from me?

I believe it must somehow be the same but much better - a wonderful ongoing rebirth.
I think God must desire a simple turning and returning within me to notice and accept God's wise desires for good, God's great willingness to love.

Why was time created?

I like this answer from Henri Nouwen:

"God loved you before you were born, and God will love you after you die. In Scripture God says, 'I have loved you with an everlasting love.' This is a very fundamental truth of your identity. This is who you are whether you feel it or not. You belong to God from eternity to eternity. Life is just a little opportunity for you during a few years to say, 'I love you, too.' "