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


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.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Loss Faith

My parents' headstone

As Kathy and I reach our 17th wedding anniversary, I find myself thinking of the pains and losses we have suffered over the years. Some of those things seem like they could have really thrown us for a loop but I don't think any of them have.

Lately I have found myself hearing from more and more atheists, agnostics, and believers who struggle with the question "How can a good God let such bad things happen?" And I agree with all these folks that events from Liberia to Gaza to Ukraine to China to our own border with Mexico do and should weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of anyone who is paying attention. These things challenge all of our unexamined ideas about how the world works.

In response to of all this, I'm writing this post as some sort of confession and explanation of my own faith, and I write it in a spirit of hope that it will be useful to fellow strugglers.

I don't see the logic in scolding anyone for not believing. Often, I think "believing" is really just feeling like you believe. And sometimes, your feeler gets tired.

I also don't see the point in lying to others, to God, or to ourselves about what we are feeling. That lying might just be coming between us and a more real relationship with the divine.

I think faith is much more than intellectual ascent to a few propositions. As others have said, most notably Jesus, faith is a way of life and love, a consuming action of one’s whole being.

Light has been shed for me in the midst of the shadows of losses. It has fallen particularly on words from I Kings 19.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

The thing that has become illuminated in this passage for me is the fact that God was not in those things. We talk about God's omnipresence and we like to sing that the "whole world is in his hands" but this passage is indicating that God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. 

I am comforted by this biblical truth: God was not in those things. 

From what I've learned, it is likely that the writer was making it clear that the Lord being referenced here is someone other and beyond the nature deities being worshiped at the time. A concept of God's transcendence is being articulated in this passage.

The transcendent God, one that is beyond our realm, one that is, in fact, outside the realm of realms or any other category, is the God that starts to make sense to me. It is the God who is convincing because of being beyond our grasp, whose essence is irrelevant to grasps.     

But the passage also suggests that the presence of God and the whisper of God are not inaccessible to our experience.  Using the words of the Iona liturgy, I think there is a wooing going on here. There is  stillness, smallness, and silence, as well as some sense of movement in which God's presence might be found. 

Where does this wooing happen? Maybe at the mouth of the cave of the heart.

And where is that presence passing by? I’ve encountered it in worship and in the testimony of others. 

And it is passing. It's alive and not to be pinned down. It can't be locked into our brains or into a formula or into some sense of proof. It requires that we respond in moments and learn to dance with it. It appears to desire an ongoing relationship, not to become an object for us merely to observe or possess. 

In the rituals of worship, we engage the narratives of scripture which are testimonies of those who have encountered that presence. Like us, those many writers witness to inexplicable good and bad breaking through in the breadth of their experience. Also like us, they sometimes dismiss the good that streams into the senses and fixate on that which is not so satisfying.

In spite of the way that some ideas about scientific method have undermined a sense of faith for many, I find that experience itself points me in the direction of God or at least in the direction of needing some way for accounting for phenomena that seem to be from beyond our realm. 

Following one loss, I had a moment in which it seemed that it was time to express anger and maybe even to lose faith. In those moments of rage a bit of my father’s experience returned to me asserting that God is there regardless of what I might feel at any point in time.

Here's my father’s retelling of that experience from his early manhood. I’ve excerpted it from an autobiographical chapter he wrote in an unpublished book on ministry.

Yet another indelible memory from those years that helped shape the future of my life is one that also witnesses to the 
goodness . . .
grace  . . .
and glory
of the God Who has a plan for every life. 

My father within a year or two of this occurrence
One bleak, cold Sunday afternoon in November after playing basketball with my boyhood friends I was walking home. At that time there were two routes by which I could reach home: one by way of the woods and the other by way of the streets. On this afternoon I had chosen to go through the woods. Dusk was completing its transformation into darkness as I came to an open field and began to run as I was eager to get home. As on several earlier occasions, there was something very strange going on that I could not understand. It seemed that I was not alone; that someone was with me. Suddenly, I heard deep in my innermost being a voice urgently, persistently saying, “Change your direction as you are desperately needed along the other route.” Without any hesitation I obeyed the urging. I remember that I felt as though a strange and mysterious power was upon me, that something dreadful had already happened or was going to happen. Soon I found out why I was directed to take the other route home, for as I started across the bridge spanning the railroad tracks I thought I saw an object huddled against the tracks. The first impulse was to continue on my way and count this object as some kind of joke being played, but the Voice restrained me and I went down the hill to the tracks to find a body with blood around the base of the skull. It was the body of a boy who lived just behind our family. He had been walking down the railroad and was hitting the butt of his rifle on the track, thus discharging the shell that entered the base of his skull. I thought about my saving his life for months, even years thereafter and would one day see it as God acquainting me again with death and weaving into the fabric of my life its reality and certainty. 

If we know enough people and our conversations are open and wide-ranging, we find that there are moments of knowledge like this that go beyond a conventional understanding of data gathered by the senses. There are also spontaneous healings of body and soul. And there are visions being had that have a depth, personality, and meaning that exceed the workings of any troubled individual's twisted grey matter.

When we add up all of that stuff, and as we keep adding more to it, we need an explanation, an epistemology, that aspires to do those things justice. And of course there is already a great range of explanations that have been espoused by generations and generations of people whose experiences and wisdom we might be tempted not to give much credence.

Of those explanations, I find the Christian concept of a God whose essence is transcendent, but who also lovingly becomes one of us, to be most compelling. The message that God is beyond us but also loves us seems to me like a good basis for being. It has energy and complexity that satisfy and activate. I can live with it and live by it. While a god worthy of the name needs to be other in essence, Jesus backed up his promise to be with us always by undergoing the sorrows of our existence. And spiritual stories from credible sources like the one from my father reveal the reality of a Spirit that still communicates that message.

In the midst of good and bad experiences, there is a presence. Nothing less than that adequately describes what happens in the fullness of human experience. The Bible is a record and an interpretation of that presence. In it, we see that God woos us. Sometimes that wooing comes in the midst of tumult where it needs to sound more like an intense stage whisper. “Life and death hang in the balance is says. "Respond for your action is of the greatest import,” it implores.  

The Bible provides access to a rich tradition of struggle and of experiencing that presence. Its pages contain no denial of the bad that happens. Instead, its words remain relevant because the people who spoke and wrote them were remembering the name of the Lord in peace and in trouble. Their consistent witness is that God delivers us through things, not necessarily from things. It proclaims that, in spite of the winds, earthquakes, and fires, God is present.

To conclude, I share an ancient blessing from Psalm 20. I think it’s good for sitting at a graveside, or waiting outside an operating room, or for those sad and empty moments that sneak up on us in the midst of our daily work.

May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
    may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary
    and grant you support from Zion.

Postscript for pianists:

For those who might play piano, I’d like to share a recent work or outline for a work. The idea for this and several other pieces came to me as an inspiration while we traveled back to Lakeland after this summer’s Lasker Summer Music Festival. When the time is right and musical ideas start flowing – when the mechanics of inspiration kick in – my faith in the presence that passes by is strengthened further.

This work is the beginning of Pilgrimage of Practice IV which is a postlude to the piano curriculum I’ve been writing the last couple of years.  The entire series is based on stories of the life of the 6th century Irish saint, Columba. Volume IV introduces piano students to various practices of 20th and 21st century music. This piece explores indeterminacy as well as a bit of silence.

I encourage you to play it for yourself. Lately, I’ve been playing it daily and finding it to be a religious experience.

The Hermit’s Hollow
Like the prophets,
Columba went to a secluded place to commune with God.

wind, earthquake, and fire . . .

Beginning in the bass register,
Play a chromatic cluster, an octatonic upheaval, and a treble tremolo.

still small voice . . .

Quietly play a series of seven pitches, each one followed by a silence.
Attend to each pitch until it is inaudible.
share each silence with your listeners.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Teaching and Compassion

speaking to a big, somewhat unfamiliar crowd at the beginning of the semester
thinking of the few members of that crowd who will not appear to know the basic procedures that have been published and discussed
one's own education in a pressurized environment
an edgy affect from the speaker (me)

Today was the first day of our Departmental Recital, a weekly meeting involving most of our music majors. In this first meeting, I explain a few policies and (this snuck up on me today) I was a little fussy and sarcastic doing so.

That might be okay, but there were many in my audience who did not deserve such an approach. Plus, some might have enjoyed it mostly because I was laying down the law about their neighbors' behavior.

Some music colleagues might be reading this and thinking I'm being over-scrupulous or I'm just too nice in being concerned about this. While I appreciate those thoughts about me if anyone is actually having them, I think they are also an indication of the fact that sarcasm, upbraiding speech, etc. are so ingrained in many of us by our culture that we rarely stop to question whether they might ought to be out of bounds.

When I stand before that group of students, I am, no doubt, standing before a few fellow human beings who have been told they are more trouble than they are worth. And I stand before some others who were led to believe that some abuse they experienced was their own fault. What they need is acceptance, connection, a recognition that there is goodness in them and that I'm glad they are here - not browbeating.

And so I turn to the summary of the gospel - love God and love others - and I think of those who have carried that banner through my life. I hear the words and remember the spirits of pastors who knew that was what it's all about. And I see colleagues marching around the campus with that flag lifted high.

These thoughts bring me to a new discipline, a new focus I might undertake as this year unfolds.

So often, the mean and defensive attitudes and the cutting quips that accompany them sneak up on me and I find that my living is not matching my beliefs. Maybe at the tolling of each hour, before circumstances have set the tone, I should pause and lift that great banner of caritas before I move into the next hour's span.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

In Defense of Spence

At their "best," institutional practice rooms tend to be pretty sterile. A quick Google search of practice room images will prove this. To be fair, the large rooms with numerous instruments and a bit more color are probably recording studios, not practice rooms. And that one guy looking at the New York skyline is in the Juilliard dorm, not a practice room. The images of medium-lengthed hallways, which some photographer mistakenly thought would become fun by having students poke their heads out of the doors, show the immediate environment of practice rooms. (By the way, I've been that photographer.) And the small, neutral-colored rooms with no windows but maybe a mirror and a piano - those are practice rooms. Aesthetically speaking, spartan. For all their sound-proofing, not so musical.

Many college-aged musicians have tender spirits. Their artistic temperaments can make them very sensitive to their physical environments. Their hearts and psyches are open and that which seems merely drab to another can be downright oppressive to these young people who are feeling so much and are still learning a lot about managing their very being. What they're going through is a normal stage of development. It's something along the lines of negotiating being in the world but not of the world.

In addition to those issues related to the physical environment that can cloud the innocent eye, there are all sorts of things lurking in practice rooms waiting to catch us all off-guard and alone:
  • doubts about our talent 
  • self-esteem issues that we brought from home or from our first teachers
  • the concern that performance practice is something everyone else knows but we can't quite figure out how to really know it for ourselves                                                                                
  • the infinite longing for the ultimate answer to technical questions
  • the great unknown of the future which often feels more like a tightrope walk off a cliff than a broad plain rising to majestic peaks  

I think all of the above are possible and likely happenings in most any practice room. On the campus where I work, we have practice rooms in an old nursing home which became a dorm which became practice rooms. An interesting story, I think, but in the highly landscaped, new-construction world of Florida, it's unusual. If you transplanted our building to a setting shaped by a culture that puts great stock in making use of existing structures, it wouldn't be unusual at all. And while I was initially picturing Scotland when I wrote that last sentence, downtown Richmond or Savannah would do just fine. For that matter, even in our local culture, the re-purposing of an old warehouse as a church would most likely be thought of as something awesome.

Nonetheless, it seems that interpretation is sometimes needed to help us appreciate the real beauty of the spaces in which we live and work, the goodness that is deeply woven into their fabrics. And so I share the following paragraphs which I wrote on Facebook this morning as several students discussed their return to campus for the new school year.

As rooms go, even the finest practice rooms rarely have a lot of nice things said about them. In general, I think practice rooms rank somewhere around hospital rooms on the great continuum of rooms.

My point is that the primary issue with any practice room is psychological, not physical, in that we shut ourselves up in them alone for hours at a time to do the disciplined work of really changing ourselves. It's hard to be excited about that day in and day out because it frequently involves coming face to face with the things in ourselves we'd rather not be aware of.

Our practice rooms have character and a history. In addition to the normal hard work mentioned above, they have housed prayer meetings, intense emotional support from peers, and creative moments when students have learned by being goofy. Caring faculty have sought out students in those rooms when a jury went badly or a question wasn't answered well or when a tragedy had turned a student's world upside down. Perfectly soundproof, no. But in Spence, you know that music is not made in a vacuum. Indeed, community is just beyond the door. One is not as alone in such a practice room. It is a real human environment like where a family lives. And yes, it was a nursing home. When you sit quietly before your instrument, you might just more deeply sense the relationship of your music making to the big picture. Your path is not just about the perfection of counting and control of sound. In your very room, questions of old age were asked such as: "Why am I still here on this earth?" And, we hope more often than not, daughter or little grandson appeared at the door to give an answer with their presence. Or a pastor fulfilled the ministry of showing up at the bedside of a demented one when no one else was there to see. And loved ones gathered as their resident moved on to another world. In that very hallway, they started to process their grief and sought the beginnings of a way forward.

I also can't imagine that as dorm rooms or practice rooms, marriage proposals haven't happened there. Plus, half the rooms have a lovely view of the lake. I become inspired when I see the various water birds drifting in for a landing - light, legato, Spirit-like.

Which brings me to what I think my real point must be. What has happened there makes it hallowed ground. When you go to a shrine, it might have some holes in it. It might be a little dingy. It might make you think of another time. It shows signs of the use of many pilgrims. And in its worn-ness, it has great potential for connecting you to others and to the Spirit that has woven beauty into daily life there. So I'm going to think of it as sacred ground, because it is.

P.S. It won't be there forever.

P.P.S. Blair, sorry for hijacking your nice post.  

Here's a picture of the way I plan to see it - a bit like a cathedral beside the lake.