Sunday, December 23, 2012

Strings are the thing

Flourish by Brad Cook on 500px
For me, Christmas music has been made by hearing or singing in concert accompanied by brass instruments.  There's just something about singing "Joy to the World" or "O Come All Ye Faithful" with trumpets, French horns, trombones, and timpani.  I look forward to the sounds of brass instruments every year, ushering in Christmas with a full forte of sound.
This year, I have not heard any brass. No performance with which I participated nor concert that I attended had any brass accompaniment.  This year, it has all been about strings. Our Christmas Sunday morning service of carols was full of beautiful familiar carols, (ones I am used to singing with brass accompaniment,) wonderfully arranged for strings.  The fullness of the sound was, in turn, both lyric and percussive, rich and deep, and brought all the 'Christmas sound' I could ever hope.  I watched as these talented musicians bowed and plucked, feeling the music with their entire selves, eyebrows raised, moving in time, playing the expressions, filling the room with their sounds.  I sang, too, matching their expressiveness to my own, finding Christmas in every carol.
I'm a bit surprised at myself that I didn't feel my Christmas musical experiences lacking by not hearing brass instruments. I am finding, however, that sometimes it is not how the music comes to us, big brass horns, strings sweet and strong, or voices harmonious and true, it is simply that the music does come. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Time Out for a Jazz King

I was saddened last week to hear of the passing of jazz great, Dave Brubeck.  I'm not going to share his biography here; it's extensive and found all over the Internet.  Google him, and you'll get more that a million hits, including his own website,

I got to see him in concert 10 years ago.  He came to Emory in Atlanta to do a workshop with students there, and gave two evening performances; one with the students singing and playing, and the next night, it was just him with his jazz quartet.  The quartet concert was the one I attended.  I was amazed at this man's artistry and pure joy of music.  He was 81 or 82 at the time, and was assisted to his seat at the piano.  That was the last time during the evening that I though about his age.  As soon as his fingers hit the keys, his face lit up, his hands moved with speed and accuracy, and the pure thrill of music poured out of him.  It washed over those of us listening, and we were caught up in his joy. 

I didn't know much about jazz music until I met my husband. I mean, I knew the term, but it wasn't something I experienced with any knowledge or thought.  My dear man, who grew up in Mississippi and did midnight runs to New Orleans to soak up music in the clubs, began teaching me about his favorite jazz musicians.  Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Modern Jazz Quartet, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McCrae, Duke Ellington, Gilberto, Jobim, and Dave Brubeck all became part of my genre definition.  The first time I heard the album Time Out, I was swept away by its sound, style, and for me, magic. I guess I have become a West Coast Jazz kind of girl. The Brubeck sound was definitely a huge contributor to that distinct style. 

Perhaps the most recognizable piece associated with Brubeck (actually written by alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet) is "Take Five."  The lilting, lifting, soaring sax and unusual 5/4 time signature captures imagination.  It is one of the reasons Time Out went platinum, the first ever jazz genre album to do so.  However, much as I love all of Time Out, I have another favorite Brubeck piece.  Many don't know that he composed choral sacred music.  His jazz modern Catholic Mass "To Hope" is interesting, but may not be for everyone.  Within this Mass, he composed a simple mezzo soprano solo that has been tugging at me ever since I heard it on Marian McPharland's radio show interview with Brubeck several years ago.  "The Desert and the Parched Land" is a direct quote from one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Isaiah 35: "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak. Say to those that are frightened: Fear not, be strong, here is your God."  To me, the simplicity of the accompaniment, the beautiful lifting to the final 'here is your God" moves me in ways I can't explain.  I can, and have, listen to it over and over again.  Maybe someday I'll get to perform it.  It will take effort to do without becoming overwhelmed.

So, thank you, Dave, for your talent, innovation, insight, spirit, and pure joy of music.  We will listen, remember, and be thankful while our toes tap, fingers drum, and heads bob to your cool jazz.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Moved by the Music

Yesterday the choir with which I sing performed its annual Christmas concert.  The concert has traditionally been scheduled for the first Sunday of December, which fell a bit early this year.  The concert was a wonderful time of singing some glorious arrangements of favorite carols, sharing some not so familiar beautiful carols, and having fun with some unusual songs and special arrangements.  At one point during the concert, the audience was invited to stand and participate in a sing-a-long of a few much loved secular Christmas songs.  This year, I missed one rehearsal prior to the performance, and apparently, that was when the sing along pieces were discussed.  No one was given a musical score, just lyrics on a paper to be tucked into the music folder.  So, I grabbed mine at the last minute, and honestly, didn't look at it very closely.  During the concert, when it came time, I slid the lyric sheet out of the folder pocket, and prepared to sing along.  The first song was "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas."  I love this song; it's one of my favorites.  As we sang, and I looked out over the sea of smiling faces singing with me, I got very emotional.  Tears came, not that I was sad really, but overwhelmed. It took me well into "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to compose myself.  I felt a bit silly, but the emotion sticks with me even now.
I'm not sure why I was suddenly struck by that one song.  Granted, I grew up in the North and have memories of many white Christmas' there.  Now that I live in the South, I miss the winter experience during the holidays.  I mean, it was 72 degrees outside at concert time.  So maybe it was thinking of my folks and Christmas' past.  Then there were all those people standing and participating with such joy, hugging and singing with their children, spouses, families, and friends.  It's a precious feeling, celebrating with people you love.  So, I did think about my folks, 1,000 miles away, and my husband, who couldn't be there that afternoon, and about how much music they have given to me.  It was probably a combination of these and other things that ran through my mind.
I find it interesting how effective music is in evoking emotional and physical responses.  Sometimes, we don't even realize that it's happening.  I have my 'go to' music when I want to be energized, comforted, encouraged, relaxed, or motivated.  There's my blue funk music, my distraction music, my 'sing at the top of your lungs' music, my 'car trip' music, and my 'gosh, that's georgous' music. But I am amazed by the times when music catches me off guard, and simply revel in the experience of it. I wonder when I will get to feel it again.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Spirit Lifted

It's been way too long since I've been here.  Once again, I think of things to write all the time, but haven't taken the time to sit down and put fingers to the keyboard.  I only have myself to blame. 

It has been a weird year.  I sang a lot up until May.  We had a fabulous season finale concert that just blew me away.  Then there was a very long summer of not many musical commitments at all.  I was laid off from my job late in the summer.  Suddenly, I again was struggling with how to define myself.  Those feelings of poor self worth, sadness, frustration, and yes, loneliness bubbled back to the surface.  Music became my lifeline.  Right as my job ended, rehearsals started. I battled with myself about going to rehearsals.  Not because I didn't want to sing, I did.  I would allow myself to get wrapped up by the bad feelings and frustrating experiences of the day.  But then I would pick up my music bag, point the car in the direction of the rehearsal space, and my spirits would begin to lift.  As I began making music with my fellow choristers, I was refreshed and encouraged.  I'm sure there is science to explain all about why that happens; very brainy technical science about endorphins and physical expression and such.  All I know is, singing has gotten me through some difficult days, and on this eve of Thanksgiving, I am eternally grateful for it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

For the love of Music

At a time of the year when thoughts of many turn to love, I am in the final days of rehearsing for upcoming performances. It's exciting and exhausting, frustrating and exhilarating all at once.  I mean, when I get in the car to make the long drive to rehearsal for the third time in a week, I almost have to force myself to make the trip.  Why am I doing this?  I say to myself all the way there.  Then I arrive, the music making begins, and I am caught up in it again.  It's so difficult to explain.  There are always things that need to be worked on, fixed, adjusted, refined.  But there are also those moments that mesh, gel, or find just the right expression that keep me wanting to do it again.

As choralists, we are always reaching for our best performance,  If we ever think we've reached it, we set the bar higher, knowing that the music has more to give us, and we have to discover it.  Why do we do it?  It's love, of course.  Music fascinates and stirs us, emotional creatures that we are.  We go back to it again and again, relying on our experiences with it as well as searching for new ways to express it.  That's the love of the music; the relationship we develop with it, the pieces of ourselves we pour into it, the joy we gain from it, and the memories we create with it.
To life, to love, to music…

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Music's Silence

I am becoming addicted to Pintrest.  I can sit for hours and look at all the wonderful things other people have found on the Internet.  This image grabbed my attention and I was fascinated.  I know there is a popular song out there with this title, but that's not what came to mind.  Last summer, the pastor at my church suggested an experiment.  We were to sit in silence for a full sixty seconds.  No music, no one else talking, no reading the hymn book or bulletin, just listen to silence.  When the time had passed, the remainder of the conversation was about how uncomfortable that made us feel.  How many of us felt a strong urge to fill the silence with something "valuable." How panicked some of us felt for "wasting time."  We all smiled a bit painfully.  Are our lives ever really silent?  How many of us can't even fall asleep without some sound machine running?

As choralists, we catch ourselves rushing the rests.  So anxious to get to the next note.  I have to laugh at myself sometimes when I glance down at a instrumentalists' score and see, in some cases, measures upon measures of rests.  How do they do that?  Are you making music if you are counting rests for half a movement?  What about that big rest right before the last dramatic cord of a piece?  How hard is it to allow the director complete control of that happening, balancing ourselves between being ready to sing and not jumping in and having an unintended solo? 

For me, there is another side to music's silence. Several years ago, I re auditioned for a chorus I had sung with for years and was not invited to return. No reason, no real communication, just thank you and so long. I felt silenced. I lost my confidence and wondered if choral music would ever welcome my voice again. It was a feeling of abandonment and grief. I struggled to define myself without it. There was a period of silence for me. Happily, I did find my way again, a stronger and wise person for allowing the silence to heal me, refresh me, teach me. Silence once again gave way to the music.

So you try it.  That's right.  Just sit there for sixty seconds.  Don't talk, don't read, turn off whatever is making noise, and listen for silence.  Do you hear it?  Can you find the calm?  Is there music in it?  Enjoy the silence.  The music is all the sweeter for it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Inspiration Found

Steinway exhibit at Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, AZ
Several weeks ago, my husband and I took our Fall vacation.  With work scheduling conflicts and deadlines that kept changing, even getting ready for vacation was fairly stressful.  Everything finally straightened itself out and off we went.  This year, we chose Arizona.  We love the west, and, as Greg had spent some time in Phoenix for work, he wanted to go back for leisure.  It was a nice trip, and we were able to do everything we had hoped and planned for. 

While I was planning for the trip, I researched things to do in Phoenix.  We only had 2 days there before our other plans took us north, so I wanted to fit in the best and most unique things that the city had to offer.  I found information about a new museum that had only been open for 18 months or so.  The Musical Instrument Museum offered an experience of sight and sound and I told my husband this was a MUST visit for our list. 

Our visit to MIM was an experience I'll not soon forget.  First, it's a big, gorgeous building that draws you in.  The staff was friendly and welcoming. And then we began to wander through the exhibits, drinking in the music with our eyes and ears.  You see, upon arrival at the museum, visitors are given a headset.  The exhibits are fitted with wireless transmitters, so you hear the sounds of the instrument you are looking at.  There are so many instruments on display from so many countries!  I was almost overwhelmed with so much to see.  The photo above is of my favorite exhibit; a Steinway piano, deconstructed, hung from the ceiling.  It was so amazing to stand in front of it and feel a new perspective of the instrument wash over me. 

I was struck by a thought as I went from room to room, seeing exhibits from Africa to Asia to Europe to North America, and so many countries along the way.  How did all of these places with all of these different peoples, who never met or knew of each other, bring music to being?  I could hear differences in how sounds were used and interpreted from place to place.  But I could also see that every place had instruments similar in design.  There was always a flute or whistle or reed type mouth blown instrument, from the wooden nose flute of one African country to the intricate metal flutes of Europe, to the pipes and horns of Israel. (Yes, I saw and heard a real ram horn, and was immediately transported to Jericho!)  There was always a stringed instrument, from the lovely mother-of-pearl inlaid lutes of the Middle East, to the seed-pod single stringed instruments of Africa, to the modern Gibson guitar of the US.  There was always a drum, from the djembe to the steel drums of the Islands, to the huge square drum used in the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China signed by the gentleman that played it that day.  How did we all find these tools; instruments that expressed our thoughts, our feelings, shared our celebrations, our sorrows, and gave voice to our devotion of the Divine?   How did we know that making these sounds, combining them with each other and with our own voices would lift us to another plane of humanity? 
This experience put my ideas of music and instruments to a whole other place.  I will not look at or hear another instrument in the same way again.  I am amazed and awed at the glorious gift that is music. It is in our blood, in our beings, in our souls, and will not be silenced.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Singing with the Girls

All through school, I participated in anything where I could sing.   I did parent teacher nights at school, church services, conferences, weddings, or just about any other opportunity I could to sing.  Some of my fondest memories stem from high school when I sang in a girl’s quartet.

The four of us were selected specifically to sing one song for an annual competition.  We already knew each other and were friends, (it was a very small private school) but this went beyond the usual day- to- day high school interaction.  We had lots of special rehearsals, and we sang that one piece together for every occasion that school year.  To this day, I can still sing my part in my sleep!  We learned about each other’s voices, what made us sound good, how to support each other musically, and when we needed a rest.  This ‘togetherness’ spilled over into other parts of our lives.  I remember being on a bus, probably going on a field trip, learning the words to a popular tune of the day.  Once we had the melody down, we started adding harmonies, riffing off each other’s improvisations, and we sang that song all the way home.  I can still feel the excitement when one of us added a cool note, or when a harmony hit just right.   By the end of the ride, everyone else on the bus was probably really tired of that song, but we were having such a great time, we wanted to keep singing.

The four of us did a lot of things together that year.  We shopped for our competition dresses together, took a Saturday trip to Vermont together, worried about boys together, and yes, we took first place in the annual competition together.  Our reward from the school was we took a 2 day trip to Boston with our teacher.  The highlight of the trip was touring the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides”.  As mentioned, we did attend a private school, and even on this trip, we all wore our school uniforms, so we attracted a bit of attention.  I remember the sailors asking us why we were dressed alike, and we replied with school and we were a girl’s quartet.  That intrigued them so they asked us to sing right there on the ship. We sang our competition song for our tour guide sailors.  We were on the bottom deck, so our voices rose up and echoed throughout the ship.  By the time we finished singing, sailors from every part of the ship had heard us and came rushing down to see what was going on.  It was such a thrill to see their faces as we sang on the historic old ship.  Our song that we had sung together all year seemed selected just for them.

“From every stormy wind that blows,
From every swelling tide of woes,
There is a calm, a sure retreat—
'Tis found beneath the mercy seat.

There is a place where Jesus sheds
The oil of gladness on our heads,
A place than all besides more sweet—
It is the blood-bought mercy seat.

  There is a scene where spirits blend,

 Where friend holds fellowship with friend;
  Though sundered far, by faith they meet
  Around one common mercy seat.”

Although we don’t see each other much anymore, these girls and I stay in touch through the social media outlets available these days.  Music continues to be a big part of our lives and we are blessed to be able to share it.  The songs that we sang together still come to me at times, making me smile with joy at the memories,  and inspire me to keep singing.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Genre Effect

If you have been a part of a choral group for any length of time, you have probably seen a parade of choral pieces pass through your performance folder, as I have.  Some might be familiar, others new and interesting, but not all of them are going to be to our musical taste, in our vocal wheelhouse, or even what we like listening to. For example, I find it difficult to sing pieces that require an English boy choir sound; straight tone, clear, and light.  I find them beautiful, but it is an effort to keep the vibrato in check and to lighten up enough to blend with the lighter voices that carry these kind of pieces. I don't care for country music, either. I find the harmonies predictable, vowels horribly executed, and each song sounds pretty much like the previous one. 

Recently, the community chorus with which I have been singing prepared an American music themed concert.  Not entirely patriotic, but music that is readily associated with America and American culture.  One in particular was definitely not to my liking.  It was an old mountain song, arranged in the style of a country hoe-down.  It even had clapping, stomping, and "hee-haw's" written into the score. Theatrical, to say the least. With my theatre background, I should have played it up happily, but I probably didn't give it my best.  Funny thing is, after each performance, that was one of the pieces most mentioned by the audience members as something they really enjoyed hearing.

On the same concert, the chorus did another piece that none of the choristers liked upon the first read through.  It was unpredictable, didn't seem to have a melody, and the harmonies were strange.  Even the accompaniment didn't seem to have much in common with the choral parts.  It was a real struggle to learn, and the piece took a while to come to terms with.  But with the work came an understanding of it, a feel for it, and we began to enjoy it. The piece became one of our favorites of the season, and was probably the best piece of the concert series.

So, what to do when the director presents us with a selection that isn't to our liking or taste?  Gasp in horror?  Whisper to your choral neighbor how much you despise this particular genre/composer/style?  Sigh, and decide to 'soldier through it', plodding as you go?  Sadly, one of these is probably our first reaction.  However, I've been discovering that perhaps we should be looking for the gem we can appreciate in every piece we perform.  It may be something quite small; a turn of phrase, the one pleasing chord, the simplicity of unison, or notes sung clearly and true.  Whatever it is, embrace it gladly, and let that one thing carry your joy of singing throughout the piece.  It will amaze and surprise you. You may never find the piece to your liking overall, but rejoice in knowing you have given your very best, and the music is all the better for it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Instrument Within

I hate to admit it, but my mother was right.  When I was in middle school, she tried to give me piano lessons.  You would think that, being an elementary school teacher, the task would have been simple for her.  But I was stubborn and lazy, didn't want to practice, and was right in the middle of the 'everything your parents say is stupid' phase.  So, I never learned to play the piano, or any other instrument for that matter.  Once she realized that I wasn't taking to her lessons as expected, she told me I would regret it one day, and she was so right.  Sigh. Now I love instrumentalists and their talent and dedication, but I'm a bit envious, too.  That shiny brass of a trumpet or the gleaming wood of a viola attracts my senses, and the wonderful sounds they can produce melts my heart like nothing else.

As singers and choralists, we have an instrument.  Not a thing we pick up and blow, pluck, or strike.  It's carried within our bodies, undefined as a visual shape, the voice we produce through the physical beings we are. We study it, rehearse it, test it, stretch it, and provide for it's every need to the best of our ability.  We use the whole of our senses to control it, improve it, free it, and search for that balance that will share it's best features to the listening world.

Sadly, one of the hardest things we suffer is we personalize it.  Not that we shouldn't, mind you; the voice is the most intimate of instruments, literally a part of us.  But how do we separate ourselves as a person from the instrument we carry within?  How do we take direction, correction, critical instruction without assuming these things as affronts against ourselves as a person?

I am slowly learning several things, perhaps the hard way, about this very process.  I am sure that I will never fully be able to make the separation, but there are some things to remember and take to heart.  Remember, the director has goals and expectations for their choir.  Listen to what the director is asking for with a discerning ear.  A critique of your section is not a diatribe on you.  Know your role within the group, and you will understand how to respond pleasingly.  Know your limitations and keep within your strengths.  I don't mean don't stretch yourself and try new techniques as directed, but if you are a high boy soprano, and the director is asking for a deeper darker sound, there is only so much you can do without being uncomfortable or causing harm.  Back off in those spots; there are others that can do that work.  And they can't do what you can.  That is the beauty of putting all of these glorious vocal instruments together. It's building an orchestra without the hardware.  Every instrument has it's place, shines out at times, and supports at others.  Revel in it, learn from it, keep playing that instrument and sing!