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.