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.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Lo and behold, it's June! Actually, nearly July. I've found one moment, late at night, to blog a bit  between our trip to Scotland and Ireland and the Lasker Festival.

A fantastic musical point of our journey overseas was worshiping at Christ Church in Dublin on Trinity Sunday. The key musical insight was that medieval high tech (a Gothic acoustic and a fine choir) is as good or better than any modern sound system. In fact, to hear the springing to life of such vibrant sounds while watching mere humans make them, was nothing less that miraculous - a true experience of "transcendence in the space," as the priest put it.

On returning home, I made a little music with an experienced musical friend. My friend threw me a curve ball. Really, I think the music threw my friend a curve ball.

While music can help us remember words, words can lead us astray while making music. In this case, starting into the wrong set of words led my friend into a similar, but not identical, musical phrase that was supposed to have occurred later in the music, requiring that I jump forward and make a cut in the performance.

I've often been pretty lucky with these sorts of things. Many times, my eyes have, by instinct or coincidence, jumped to the right spot on the score. Not this time. In fact, this time I took a gamble. I put my money on my singer friend catching the mistake and getting back on track with the right phrase. That's not what my friend did, so I needed to jump ahead, and my eyes couldn't find the right spot quickly enough for me not to sound lost.

The moral of the story? These things happen. Also, I would be wise to mark phrases that begin similarly with an easy-to-see, colorful bracket so I'll be prepared for such goings-on.

One more thing I'll remember from this June: at the invitation of another friend, we went on this lovely tour of the Lake Mirror civic center here in Lakeland. It was well-researched, charmingly presented, and covered politics, wildlife, history, and a bit of music. Here's a beautiful scene across the lake that I captured on film as we neared the end of the tour.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

From the Composer's Hermitage

Recent conversations with composing students and colleagues have refreshed my awareness of the composing process. I believe I've written similar things before on this blog, and that just goes to show how true to my experience these things are.

1. Composing is a discipline, just like practicing or performing. You don't really know and understand about it until you are regularly working at it. Also, the dynamics of the process can be forgotten rather quickly during a hiatus from daily composing work.

2. Thinking you're writing for posterity or comparing you work with the great music you already know while you're trying to write it is a fast track to writer's block.

3. Sometimes, you need to write a lot of a thing to get it out of your system and move on to some stuff you might think is better.

4. Instead of trying to compete with Beethoven's finished works in one's sketches (!) think of your work as student work or experimentation. Explore lots of ways of generating material to keep from getting locked up: set a text, improvise, choose an existing model for some aspect of your work . . .

5. What you really need is a very clear assignment. Sometimes, you get stuck because the assignment you have given yourself isn't detailed enough.

6. And there is that stage in composing during which you feel like you're just spinning your wheels. This might happen with every work you write. There are minutes, hours, days, etc., when it seems like you've wasted your time, that nothing of worth has come out. For someone who isn't regularly involved in the discipline, this can be very discouraging.

How should you deal with this wheel-spinning time?
A. Know it's normal.
B. Have composer friends who can let you know it's normal.
C. Be a trouvere. That's an old word for "composer" that comes from the same root as the modern French verb for "to find." The point is that composing is a search in sonic and spiritual realms which usually involves some wandering and some groping about.
D. Know that those tedious times might be more than just a hassle to endure. They appear to be necessary for actual productivity. As John Cage put it, "the way to get ideas is to do something boring. For instance, composing in such a way that the process of composing is boring induces ideas. They fly into one's head like birds." 

7. Think like even more of a genius than you are. Notice, for example that Beethoven edited his pretty rudimentary materials into greatness. You, too, should try editing. Also, particularly important for developing well-rounded complete works is  thinking like Mozart, Hindemith, or Britten: have a vision of the whole. Carry it with you away from your usual composing station. Develop the habit of recognizing and moving along the continuum between your big ideas and actual notes on the page.

8. Pay attention to the engineers of other structures. They are your company, too. For example, 2000 years ago, Vitruvius declared three facets of architectural expression - "commodity, firmness, and delight." These aspects are indispensables of the composer's construction work,too. You must take into account your work's use. You need to apply excellent craft. And your basic impulse is probably to create something with aesthetic appeal. In terms of use, knowing who you are writing for is a big part of the clear assignment. Beyond that, when the current use and cultural context have become things of the past, the quality of craftsmanship will still be apparent. And we all want to touch and move the audience.

9. There's a wonderful moment when you have passed through the basic discovery of materials, the tedium, and the conceiving of the overall structure. In that moment, you finally see the big picture and have filled in enough details to know how the rest of the work is to be composed. And you know how to do it! That's the climax. From there on in, it's smooth sailing. After you have a few pieces under your belt, you actually develop an appetite for the work that gets you to that vantage point. I think it's then that you realize you really are a composer.

10. Finally, a word on inspiration. Some of the greatest composers have prayed for it. I have, at times, too. That prayer is a challenge and involves a bit of trepidation. It requires trusting that God will provide something through the process and suggests that you would dare try to intermingle your conscious human efforts with some mysterious mission above your own. Doing the work of composing as a follow-up to that prayer is a blessing that can build your faith.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Summer 2014

It has been three months since I've blogged. I'm happy to be getting back to it.

During those three months, my time has been filled with learning the ropes of coordinating aspects of our department from adjuncts to budgets to concerts to dates to educational materials to . . . okay, I'll stop there. Teaching and performing have continued, but time to reflect and express what has been coming out of those activities has been non-existent. I hope to catch up on those things during the summer months.

Summer has begun with several fun Florida wildlife encounters -
crossing paths with a rat snake while hiking with Brian Blume,
passing rather closely to a roadside alligator while driving with Wesly Hulin,
and noticing my first young little blue heron while walking with Kathy Hulin at Lake Hollingsworth.
(The photo above is an egret we saw in the same location back in January.)

Summer has also begun with some diverse music making this very morning at All Saints' Episcopal here in Lakeland -
improvising some pre-service meditative music following the ringing of the great bell,
a hymn arrangement with one of our young saxophonists,
a gospel anthem with our youth choir,
and some lovely music by Stefan Waligur sung by the children during communion.

Each of these works I was privileged to play functioned differently and drew me into a different mode of musicality and experience. The gospel piece, for example, took me to a place of joy with the rhythms and waves of its structure and its spiritually encouraging text.

The varied workings of pieces of music often get lost in the shuffle as we seek to instill a musicality that almost seems to have an existence independent of the details of specific works. (An interesting question to ask one's self, musicians, would be: What works have shaped my musicality?)

Phrase endings taper. Melodies are clearly projected. The flow goes over the bar-line. These are all good habits, but they are mere shadings, as I believe Stravinsky stated. To be experienced as significant human moments, works of music require engagement and expression at the level of their essence. Their specific structure and feeling need to prevail.

I find myself thinking of the first movement of Schubert's Sonata No. 16 in A Minor, Op. 42, D. 850 which I am currently exploring with a very good student of mine. This work by one of the very greatest writers of tunes is far from a simple expression of tunefulness. That generalized musicality I described a bit of above might be adequate for a series of well-behaved charming phrases. But this is not that. This is a churning, heaving structure. It is a drama unfolding through tones and silences. To play it well, to play it truly, I think one must sense something of the strangeness of Schubert's material, his obsessiveness with it, and the process he creates out of it.

We piano teachers sometimes wax poetic with images of the woods and bears and references to "The Telltale Heart," etc. This isn't because the music is particularly about these things but because that way of talking tunes us into the tone and process of works like these that require us to recognize and be in the drama as we share them.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014


Ugh. I'm preparing to say "goodbye" to my 41st year in a few days.

Actually, I'm okay with it. 39 upset me. 40 was a calmer version of 39. And I think 41 has been a summing up of the last 20 years for me.

In these final days of 41, three events seem to have closed out that epoch in my life meaningfully.

1. a solo recital on the SEU series consisting of works from my auditions for D.M.A. programs that I have played several times since, as well as compositions by myself and my friend James M. Gurthie from our Chowan days
2. a final day in the recording studio with my colleague Shudong Braahmes on our Massenet chanson project
3. accompanying a couple of anthems on the South McKeel school music program including "Sahaytah" by Ben Allaway which was a lovely experience of sharing in a work about peace and community with a choir of children before a very large audience

I think I'm sensing that, over these last 20 years  (plus the 21 before that) I've gathered a little experience. This state of having a little experience under my belt is not so much about learning concepts - I think I've known these concepts for a while - but more about being able to apply them more than before.

What are these concepts?

  • Concentration is the name of the game in performance, recording, and maybe in living, too. In making music, one concentrates on the sounds and how they unfold. You have to discipline your thinking and develop the ability not to be distracted by internal chatter that's not relevant to the sounds themselves. At the same time, you need not to get confused by concentrating on concentrating!
  • The honest emotion of the moment when we come face to face with the music is the appropriate emotion. In performance, we sometimes fool ourselves into acting like we're feeling all sorts of things in the mistaken notion that we will have a compelling performance that way. It's the music that moves the listener and perhaps the performer's earnestness, not our manufactured histrionics.
  • When working with other musicians, truly knowing the tempo gives a lot of peace. In classical music, we often feel that what happens within the time-span of the musical work is what matters, but being with the tempo in advance together is an important staring point that can set up a better relationship with your collaborator and the music.
  • Our perceptions in the moment of music-making are often inaccurate. Our high level of focus within very specific parameters and our expectations can confuse us about what we're actually hearing. Recording and playback prove this. I sometimes hear intonation problems and lack of rhythmic coordination during performance that are not even there on the recording! Performing and listening are very different experiences. Trusted listeners can provide useful feedback we wouldn't have otherwise.
  • Stress usually doesn't help you perform better and it's mostly about stuff that doesn't matter anyway!
  • The experience of beauty and of health, including healthy relationships, are not just important for our development and refreshment as artists. When you take a walk by the lake or a trip to the art gallery, or have a good conversation with a friend, it doesn't just speak to your artistry. It ministers to your soul.
  • Things take time. This is true of getting a recording just right and evidently it's true of getting my bad moods to clear out!
I think that's what I know and am applying a little more frequently.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Recital Prep

The new year has brought with it new responsibilities, new experiences, and new interests. Today, I'm a week away from my annual solo recital on the Southeastern University series and am contemplating my preparation.

In recent days, I have enjoyed hearing works such as Schumann's Aufschwung take on a wonderful dimension when played in studio class in the large space of Bush Chapel. I often find that the true potential of a work isn't really revealed until it is heard in a concert space. I've also been very pleased by my students and their independent preparation of works learned over the Christmas break. Thank you, Dr. Kaplinsky, for trying that idea with your studio back in 1992.

Also on my mind these days is The King's Speech which I finally got around to seeing. I was moved by this story of determination and I thought about how little determination I put into things. I want to put determination into the arts and into peace in the here and now.

Last week, we had the pleasure of hearing the same young musician play both Tchaikowsky's Rococo Variations and Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto. Between the two works was Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, a veritable concerto for orchestra that expresses Rachmaninoff's faith with numerous references to his earlier works. This technique of "life motifs" reminded me of the rich symbolic syntax of Shostakovich's symphonies.

A few days after that, we attended the memorial concert for Florida Southern College's Robert MacDonald, a gentleman who was a great force in the shaping of Lakeland's arts life. His students admirably played works by Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Gershwin to a packed house. Family members also performed with flare and poise as they celebrated and grieved. Testimonies indicated the life-changing compassion and selfless giving of the man.

And now, I turn to my own work.

Someone recently asked me if there was a theme for my upcoming recital. My answer was "things I can play . . .given the amount of practicing I am doing."While I haven't been doing as much solo playing as I used to, I am hoping that I can achieve ease and successful communication in performing through good quality thinking as I prepare.

Really, from back in the summer, I was aiming to make this program a return to more serious pianism for me. I have been pursuing practicing, when I've had time, with that in mind. Through that, I have been learning that piano-playing answers really come through practicing.

My plan in this last week is to approach the recital as a sharing of great texts. These works, pieces by Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, are wonderfully textured fabrics, and when shared with listeners, somehow, out of the forms, the flow, and the phrasing, a semblance of life springs. It is my role to know these great texts better and better, to ponder and convey the discoveries of their composers. The performance really is a recitation of patterns and possibilities as envisioned by these geniuses.

In addition to those great traditional works, I'll also be sharing a little essay of my own in musical landscape writing. My three Chowan Etudes were really more etudes for the composer than the performer, while the concluding work of the recital is definitely an etude for the performer. My friend, James M. Guthrie, has written a superb work combining a Brahmsian sensibility with octatonic pitch organization and the occasional ancient-sounding cadence. Of all the new pieces I've played, this one strikes me as exciting and unique enough to become part of the standard repertoire if  a few other pianists would start playing it.

As I think back over the repertoire I just mentioned, there might be a more satisfying theme in the idea of the vortex. From Bach through Guthrie, these pieces typify the swirling movement and organization of our world, external and internal. Maybe feeling that in the music can help us all to embrace such a dynamic in our lives. Myself in particular!