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Accompanying = I Go Along With You

Last month, I interviewed for a position as the accompanist with The Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. (I am happy to say I got the job!) The panel asked me some great questions, and I thought it would be beneficial to write out expanded answers in a series of blog posts.

I first started accompanying when I was around eight years old, when I started playing with my church’s children’s choir and a young violin player at church who was a couple of years older than me. Since then, I have accompanied church choirs, school choruses, community choruses, and vocal and instrumental soloists. I’ve had a long time to think about my answers!

The second question is: What are the three most important skills you have that make you a good accompanist?

I believe all good accompanists should possess these skills. There is not one that is more or less essential, but I will list them in order of ease of explanation.

The first important skill I have is the ability to play every genre of music. I can play classical, jazz (all types, swing and Latin – I know the difference between a Bossa Nova and a Salsa), musical theater, and popular music. I developed this skill by studying both classical and jazz piano, by playing in the jazz band in high school, and by simply playing lots and lots of different kinds of music. I have heard strictly classical pianists accompany a swing tune, and they didn’t swing well. The notes were fine, but it didn’t sound authentic. Being skilled in just one area of music can diminish either the quality of the music or the number of opportunities. I am glad I can play any genre because my work has come in various forms, from classical chamber music to musical theater pits to reading chord charts in a band.  Some pianists are able to make a living specializing in just one genre, but in my work, which is primarily community music-focused, it is essential to have broader experience.

The second important skill is the ability to sight-read. Sight-reading, in a musical sense, is the ability to accurately play a piece of music the first time one looks at it. I tell people that sight-reading is my superpower. Someone can give me a piece of music and I can play it with at least 80% accuracy the first time. Even fairly difficult music. Even under pressure. I have stepped into many musical situations at the last minute when another pianist has been unable to play for one reason or another. Once, I learned the Hindemith flute sonata in two days. Another time, I learned the piano part of a difficult musical theater production in ten days. A few months ago, I sat down right before a performance and played a bass part for the first time. I am constantly learning new music, and it is often not simple. If I wasn’t an excellent sight-reader, accompanying would be a terrible job. It would be very stressful playing in front of a group teaching the notes if I was unsure of them myself. I would have to practice a tremendous amount and watch my hourly wage go down with every minute of work I put in. Accompanying is only for good sight-readers. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.

The third skill is my ability to read the performer (or director.) This is primarily a skill of recognizing non-verbal cues, like how a person breathes or moves, and also being able to find patterns in a person’s approach to a piece of music. Written music, as a whole, is just a guide to how the piece should go. Each performer will approach it slightly differently, which is part of the beauty of live music. No two people will take a breath, hold a fermata, or interpret eighth notes, rallentandos, or crescendos the exact same way. My job as an accompanist is to support the performer/director, so I need to match their interpretations. When working with a director, I try to anticipate what is needed from me, especially during rehearsals before the ensemble’s understanding of the director’s ideas are solidified. This involves listening to what is happening in the ensemble and quickly assessing what I can do from the piano to enhance a section or solve a problem without the director having to stop and tell me what to do to help. As an accompanist, I work with a wide variety of people and ensembles, so I often play with people I have not previously met. The better I am at getting a read on how each person interprets the music, or what a director wants from me, the quicker the music will “gel” and the more efficient rehearsal will be.

Accompanying is not just about playing the piano. Many highly skilled pianists are not great accompanists, and good accompanists are not always cut out to be soloists who could play concertos with orchestras in concert halls. As I mentioned in my previous post, the definition of accompany is “to go along with.” The skills I described above support this idea. The ability to play any genre of music, the ability to sight-read, and the ability to read the non-verbal cues means I can play what, when, and however the soloist/director wants. I just go along with it.

That being said, there are times when I do have to speak up because there is a problem with the music that goes beyond a difference in interpretation. Sometimes, it is a mistake I made that I didn’t notice; it could be that the soloist or director made a mistake; more than occasionally there is an error in the written music that came from the publisher! Either way, “going along with” doesn’t mean that I just accept everything as it comes, without question. Neither does my ability to sight-read mean that I *like* being thrown into situations where I am needed at the last minute. I call it my superpower, and it is. But superheroes are weakened when they use their powers. Likewise, I find sight-reading takes effort and can be exhausting, despite how skilled I am at it.

On a personal note, thinking about these things revealed some things to me about myself and interactions with others. I am, at my core, an accompanist. It’s not just what I do, it’s who I am. It’s why I am suited for this work. If I am starting to stubbornly NOT “go along,” it signals a problem. I also do like being accompanied myself, from time to time, and may get upset if I don’t get a turn.

 

 

Accompanying = It’s Not About Me

Last month, I interviewed for a position as the accompanist with The Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. (I am happy to say I got the job!) The panel asked me some great questions, and I thought it would be beneficial to write out expanded answers in a series of blog posts.

I first started accompanying when I was around eight years old, when I started playing with my church’s children’s choir and a young violin player at church who was a couple of years older than me. Since then, I have accompanied church choirs, school choruses, community choruses, and vocal and instrumental soloists. I’ve had a long time to think about my answers!

The first is: What is your philosophy of accompanying?

In short, I tell people, “My job as an accompanist is to make the soloist (or group or director) look good!”

When I accompany, the audience is really not there to see me. They are there to hear the soloist, or the group. As an accompanist, I am a support, someone who is there to enhance the musical performance, not to bring attention to myself. Of course, there is some music where the piano part is quite intricate and becomes more of an equal part in the piece, but most of the time, the piano provides more structure than decoration. It is my job to know when to bring out my part, and when to fade into the background.

In every instance, my greatest goal is that the group or singer do as well as they possibly can. I try to prevent and minimize their mistakes, and I cover their mistakes whenever possible. I am not saying that I never make mistakes myself, but I make few.  The group or soloist is depending on me to be a reliable rock, a foundation in the piece, always playing something the exact same way every time. When I provide that security, they can perform with more confidence knowing that if something goes wrong, I will be there and catch them.

I have repeatedly told performers, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Don’t worry about making a mistake. If something happens, I know exactly where you are and will follow you no matter what you do. No one will even notice. Just go out there and give it your all.”

How true this is.

One time, I was accompanying a high school senior who was playing the Hindemith flute sonata for an audition. During our rehearsal, everything went just fine, but during the audition, we got off. I am not exactly sure what happened. I can’t say it wasn’t my fault, but I thought she made a rhythmic mistake. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I had two choices: continue playing and make it obvious something was wrong, or stop playing for a moment and begin again in the spot where she was. I did the second, because that was my responsibility as an accompanist. Her mistake or not, I took the blame by acting like I didn’t know where I was, instead of potentially making it look like she got lost or making it sound like she was playing a bunch of wrong notes. I also wanted to prevent any confusion that may have led to her feeling insecure about how the piece was going. It was my job to make her look good, not my job to be right. She won a spot in our state’s honor recital.

There have been times when I have skipped entire measures to match a singer that didn’t come in correctly. I have covered mistakes by directors who have conducted beat patterns wrong. I have created aural cues and signals in the piano part to help groups and soloists to know when to come in or where we are in the music. As an accompanist, I need to know how to get from here to there anywhere in the music, in case of emergencies. Sometimes there is a big harmonic change, and a mistake could be very abrupt, weird, and obvious. I have heavily relied on my training in harmony at times, filling in something that makes reasonable sense in an instant. Most of the audience is none the wiser. However the soloist, group, or director performs it – that’s how the music goes, regardless of what is written on the page.

Besides a commitment to the group or soloist, my greatest commitment as an accompanist is to the director of an ensemble. The director is the one who makes the judgments about pieces to be performed, style, interpretation, and technique. I do whatever I need to do to help the director’s vision come to life. If I am helping to teach notes to singers in a particular style of music, I play it in that style. For example, the eighth notes in jazz are often swung, so if I am teaching the notes in a jazz piece, I play them swung. I model changing dynamics according to the wishes of the conductor so the ensemble can hear what that sounds like.  Occasionally, I might have an idea or be asked for some input. In those instances, I speak with the director privately.  I go according to what the director ultimately decides, because it is not about my ideas.

It is also part of my responsibility as an accompanist to model submission to the director. I have been in ensembles where there has been some negative chit-chat among members, complaining about the director’s decisions. I don’t engage in that. If someone asks me something about it, I say “I just play the notes. I am not involved in making those decisions.” If I do know the director’s reasons, I might explain them. In times when I am asked to fill in and run rehearsals because the director is absent, I teach the music according to the director’s wishes. It’s not my time to put my own polish on it. No matter what, I do not question the director. They have enough to worry about!

The definition of accompany is to “go along with.” That pretty much sums up my work. As an accompanist, I go along with the soloist, the group, or the director. Wherever they go, whatever they do – I’m there with them.

Keep On Keeping On in 2020

It is the start of the New Year and the standard time to make resolutions. A long time ago I decided I didn’t care about new year resolutions. I make them throughout the year. I don’t only reflect on life the week after Christmas. I generally assess how things are going month to month. If I am able, I make adjustments mid-year. Why wait? That doesn’t mean that I spontaneously decide on a goal and immediately start working on it. I do make a plan and aim to start at an optimal time. Sometimes, that is the New Year. Sometimes is the next Monday. Sometimes the start date is unknown, and I have to wait until after a period of extra stress and upheaval is over so that I can reduce the number of obstacles in place that would interfere with establishing a new healthy habit.

But since the New Year is the time when public announcements about resolutions are made, I might as well share what I aim to do and how things are currently going.

First and foremost, I plan to keep on doing what I am doing. More of the same. More performing, more teaching, more composing. More healthy eating, more exercising, more reading. More herbal medicine, more yard work/gardening, more hiking/camping. Everything I’ve been doing, just ramped up a little. I have already identified problems and worked on some strategic planning. Some habits have already been put into practice. Some will be implemented once I am back into routine (looking at as late as January 6!)

Back in early November I made a commitment to myself to compose from 6-8AM (minimum) just about every day. I planned for two days “off” a week – Sundays and Tuesdays – since I have to leave the house so early on those days. Well, I am happy to say I have done it. I have kept that commitment. There have been a few weeks where I took more than two days off because I had an unusual schedule that week. I did take a few days off at one or two points to let my mind rest, either because I wasn’t in a good emotional state or because I had just finished a piece which causes me to go into this sort-of anti-gravity state where I am feeling a little disembodied. I have to wait for that to subside or know what project I am working on next in order to feel grounded enough to compose again. If you have ever finished a novel and then felt like it took days to re-enter reality, you know what I am talking about.

Since the start of November, I finished two pieces. The first was a choral piece which I sent into a competition (I didn’t win.) The second piece was a commission from my own husband who asked for a solo classical guitar piece for a concert he has coming up in early February. Is it really anything to be “commissioned” by your own husband? Yes, indeed it is, but the explanation will have to be reserved for another blog post. I was under a bit of a deadline because I had to make sure I gave him enough time to practice the piece before the performance, and I was very afraid I wouldn’t finish it in time. But I did. I did because I stuck with my commitment.

Through most of December, I got less than six hours of sleep each night. Rehearsals and performances kept me out late. But because I kept my commitment to compose every day, I began and finished a piece in December while maintaining a schedule that included eight concerts, five tech/dress rehearsals, regular rehearsals, hours of practicing a solo piece I had less than two weeks to learn before performing it, an interview/audition, an 8hr round trip to pick up my son from school, a 5hr round trip to the luthier (our son doesn’t have enough experience to drive the finicky van which will stall without the special touch), a 7hr trip to New York on Christmas Day to drop him off for a last-minute trip to China (for real), preparation for an out-of-state visit to see my in-laws, and some time in the kitchen to make specialty foods for Christmas. This habit of composing from 6-8AM obviously works. I will keep doing it.

I do have to tweak things, though. I generally don’t get hungry until 1-1/2 to 2hrs after I wake up. Unfortunately, that wasn’t working too well with my composing schedule. Many times, I could have continued composing beyond 7:30 or 8AM, but my stomach was growling too much. Hunger won, and I headed to the kitchen to make breakfast. I considered eating protein bars for a quick breakfast, but that is just not sustainable for me, both in taste and cost. I dealt with the problem while I considered a solution. While on vacation, I have thought of a potential solution: overnight oats. I *love* oatmeal, and I found a bunch of recipes. This may just be the perfect grab-and-go, already-made, eat-while-I-work breakfast.

One other challenge I have found is trying to fit in both composing and exercising. I no longer want to spend valuable time driving to the gym, but I didn’t want to quit exercising (never a good idea for anyone, really.) So I started preparing ways to exercise at home. I need direction, so I needed videos. I researched and watched many online and found a Youtube channel I like, which is the most similar to what I had been doing in the class I took at the YMCA. I picked up some equipment, and now I am ready to work out at home.

I already structured my day to include more reading and study, and I already implemented that. I already eat pretty well, but I am always trying to figure out how to save time without compromising taste and nutrition (not easy.) If I have one brand new New Year’s goal, it is to keep a food journal so I can prove to the doctor I eat well.

I already began my journey into learning herbal medicine mid-year 2019. I will continue that. I already made efforts to increase my performing and teaching work. I landed a new job as an accompanist for another chorus, and I put out a Facebook ad for private lessons. I will probably do that again. But the point is, I have already worked on my resolutions.

So, Happy New Year! But remember, every day there is an opportunity to start anew.

 

It Meanders Like a River

During the fall of 2017, I realized I was having a problem juggling my commitments. I was teaching, performing, and trying to put aside time for composing. I decided to switch up my schedule so that I could have 2-3 days a week when I had a large stretch of time during which I was not beholden to an outside commitment. I could spend those hours as I saw fit, and that primarily meant spending uninterrupted time composing. I am not one of those people who can switch gears easily, so if I am running around doing other things, I can’t just come home, switch off, and get creative. I need sufficient time to get the juices flowing and clear my head of negative self talk. It is a form of mental exercise.

My decision made a few people very upset with me, but my reasoning, which I made clear, was always because I needed to take care of things that were being neglected. It is a really odd thing to make what looks like time for myself as more important than giving someone else lessons. The lessons look more practical and thus valuable. And it is good to give.

But my commitment to composition is not simply a commitment to my own ideas. It was partly a commitment to my husband to not “waste” the time, money, effort, and support he invested to help me along my journey, especially while I was taking lessons and classes up in Boston and making the 4hr round trip two to four times a week. That’s a lot of gas and mileage. He took on a lot more responsibility at home while I furthered my education. I am exceedingly grateful. Most of all, putting aside the time to compose is a commitment to God. Again, I find it hard to explain how sitting in a back room in isolation arranging pitches can be a divine calling, but for me it is. I cannot give you a reason other than to say that by creating I reflect a portion of who God is as the Ultimate Creator. I hope and pray that my efforts will bring glory to God, but I can’t define or predict that. I can only just humbly put in my best effort. That requires times. A lot of it.

At the start of 2018 when I was implementing these changes, I was working on a specific project: a piece for string orchestra which I titled, “Daughter of the Stars.” (If you want to listen to the piece, see the score, or read the program notes, click here.) As the story unfolds, the significance of this will become clear.

“Daughter of the Stars” has a long and windy history which began in the fall of 2013. When I was studying composition with Dr. Larry Bell up in Boston, he used a composition curriculum which he had written. One of the lessons involved taking a popular melody and using it as the springboard for a short piano piece. I chose the tune, “Shenandoah” because it is my favorite American folk song. Interestingly, after showing Dr. Bell my assignment, he told me I got the melody wrong. I had never checked! I only relied on how I had learned it! That aside, I wasn’t really happy with the piano piece and told him that I imagined it for orchestra. The kernel of the idea I had, which was to fractionate the melody at the beginning, transform the melody into minor in the middle, and bring in the recognizable form at the end, stayed with me. I put the project aside: a hard copy of the piano sketch in my office and a digital copy, which I somehow later lost, in my computer. Good thing I kept the hard copy!

In the fall of 2015, Dr. Bell had me begin working on a piece for orchestra, so I pulled out “Daughter of the Stars.”  I like to read American Indian writings and history, and a profound quote from one book stuck with me: one can never step into the same river twice. Since the tune “Shenandoah” references a river, I wanted to incorporate this idea into my piece. It didn’t go well. Dr. Bell criticized my piece for constantly changing keys. I tried to explain that was the point, but I couldn’t make it quite work. So I put the piece aside again, and worked on something different for orchestra. My heart wasn’t in it.

My ideas for the piece laid latent for a while, during all of 2016 and most of 2017. Then towards the end of 2017 I learned about a competition involving the Illinois Music Educator’s Association All-State String Orchestra. For some reason, the mention of string orchestra caused my ideas to suddenly make sense, and I could hear them working.

This is what I had to put aside time to do. I said NO to lessons on certain days so I could say YES to this project, specifically. The competition deadline was mid-March 2017. I didn’t win. I met all the criteria and thought that using an American folk song would be in my favor in an educational setting, but a friend of mine who is a professional cellist and string teacher said it was probably too difficult.

I wasn’t sure what would become of my piece. I wrote it for a high school group. It was hard, but not THAT hard. Would a professional group even be interested in playing it? Was I going to just have a great piece that just “middled”, not fitting into any group’s criteria?

But I believed my piece was a good one, and like usual I submitted it to more calls for scores.  I do so because I follow a rule I learned while running a small multi-level-marketing business: don’t decide for someone else. I would submit my pieces and let other people tell me “no” rather than deciding for them beforehand they are not interested. I can’t say that is easy because I get a lot of rejections. A LOT. In fact, I just got another email notice while writing this that another group is not interested in playing my piece. I can’t even remember which piece I submitted. Funny.

It turned out in my favor that my piece did not win in Illinois. Winning would have put constraints on the performance of my piece for a total of about two years from when I submitted it. Looking back, that could have been disastrous. This is why.

I gathered up the gumption to send the piece in to the North-South Consonance call for scores in summer 2018. To my elated surprise, they accepted it and programmed it for March 17, 2019. I was able to get a non-sanctioned recording which I have shared privately and used for my own purposes but cannot share publicly because I don’t have a contract with the performers for that. However, any good recording is important because I often need them to enter other competitions!

Within a week after the North-South performance, I learned about an opportunity to be considered for inclusion in Ablaze Record’s Orchestral Masters volume 7. The application was due in April! I figured “What’s the worst that can happen? They say no?” I’m kind-of getting used to this. So I sent in the score and recording. It was accepted! It was an amazing deal because, while I had to pay for the recording, they do all the legwork of getting it done, do all the CD inserts and marketing, etc. and I still own the full rights to my piece and the recording. It was an expensive project, but there was no way I’d be able to do this completely on my own, so my husband and I agreed to take the plunge. The CD release is anticipated for Spring 2020.

Immediately after that, I saw that the deadline for The American Prize orchestral composition division was coming up in May. To my surprise, there was now a Pops subdivision for orchestra composition! I had not seen that before. I can’t remember if it was brand new this year or 2018, but it doesn’t matter. It meant I had something to submit. One of the requirements is that the piece had to have been “read” or performed live, and without the North-South Consonance performance, I would not have met that requirement. But since my piece had been performed, I could send it in! It was an outrageously long shot, but again I thought “What is the worst that can happen?”

Time went by. Since May 2019 I have entered at least twenty calls for scores, sending in various of my pieces to different groups and hearing no after no after no. The excitement from the spring wore off, and the wondering if I would get picked for anything again and if the investment I made in the recording would be worth it started seeping into my mind. I continued to work at my composition, but I became more and more discouraged as I heard “no’s” while our old cars broke down. I began to look into other ways of “getting out there” and generally just trying harder. Work more. Try harder. Wait for the “break.”

I got some more piano work, picked up a couple of students, and landed a position as an accompanist for another community chorus – all wonderful things. But my composition seemed to be stagnant. I wrote a blog post about my discouragement here.

Then yesterday I got news that I was selected as a semi-finalist in The American Prize orchestral pops division in composition for my piece, “Daughter of the Stars”! Even though the final results are still months away, I feel like I have already won! This is something that can go permanently on my CV and will give greater value to my recording. The organization claims that those in the know in music follow the competition results and doing well often leads to a lot of performances. I hope that is the case for me!

I have learned a lesson about persevering when it feels like not many really care what I do. The persistence, not giving up on an idea, saying “no” to others in order to set aside time for creative work…it has been validated. There is a saying that the road to success is not a straight line. No, it meanders like a river, and no step into it is ever the same.

 

 

 

God Values ALL the Arts

I’ve been in a serious funk this week. It hit hard as yet another indirect rejection letter  from yet another competition/call-for-scores came the same day I learned some bad news about some students’ auditions (they hadn’t been studying with me long, but I was hopeful) and the same day I learned that an opportunity I thought I was going to have to play my original piano piece at an upcoming Christmas concert was NOT going to happen. Meanwhile, I was already dealing with the overwhelm of being peopled-out from a busy-yet-fun Thanksgiving weekend full of family and long drives to New York in thunderstorms, snow, and traffic. I wasn’t in a good place.

It’s been building up, though. I’ve sent in scores to fifteen-plus calls-for-scores and competitions since the beginning of July. I had one positive response (so far.) I am still anxiously (ANXIOUSLY) awaiting results from most, and I’ve had a few rejections. The impersonal ones that start with “Dear Composer” or “Dear All”. As soon as you read the first two words, you know the result. If I was chosen, I would have received a personal email addressing me by name. Unfortunately, the one positive result was a bit of a surprise – both good and bad. First, I found out just two days before the October conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers that my string quartet piece, White Apples, was going to be performed. I was so excited because the first and only time it had been performed, to that point, it was not executed well, to say the least. I was looking forward to hearing a performance that accurately reflected my ideas! Alas, forty-five minutes before the concert began I learned that only half of it was being performed. Though the group played the first two movements well, the second movement ends with a thunk and the piece really needs movements three and four to make sense. Oh, well.

In the meantime, two of our very old vehicles broke down in two weeks costing us $2,000 in repair. Our old van will not make it through the next inspection and one of the cars just worked on is so old it needs a new clutch. We are holding off as long as we can, but a good amount of car repair and replacement still awaits. And so do the college tuition bills for our kids.

Some days I really wonder if I should be spending hours in my tiny cramped hole-in-the-wall music room/office composing. I have made a grand total of…$47.50 so far, ever, with my composing. Let’s not talk about how much I have spent.

So, honestly, I am pretty discouraged.  I finally lost it. The day I got that last “Dear Composer” email, I crumpled and cried for two days. I complained about not being able to play my piece for that church and get some credit for my efforts, and was gently reminded by a Christian composer I know that my work is for God’s glory and not my own. He is so right. But I am so discouraged. I tried explaining my discouragement on Facebook. It is hard for me to watch my visual artist friends and my writer friends get a lot of support, while I get very little feedback. I was reminded by someone else who, right again, reminded me that Facebook is a visual platform and I should know better than to expect people to pay attention to anything non-visual.

That may be correct, but I don’t think it is right. The truth is that all artists need support.

It is awfully hard to create art and expose your mind, heart, and soul and constantly face rejection and receive almost zero monetary reward for your creative work. I know I am not the only person who sometimes runs low on self-motivation, energy, confidence, and emotional resources. In fact, I would say that being creative can deplete them faster than other things. Plus, I am a pastor’s wife, which also takes a lot from those stores. So, sometimes – maybe a lot of times – I need some refill in the form of people telling me that what I do – what I CREATE – matters to them. Mostly I feel like I am wanted for what I can do – teach or play, and if I can’t do it someone else will replace me.

My art is ME. No one else can write the music I write, so no one can take my place. It is that which seems unappreciated. It hurts. It doesn’t hurt when groups reject me, although it can drain the positive feelings tank. It hurts when friends don’t seem to want to give encouragement or show they care. It hurts when I show pieces to musical friends and they don’t have anything to say. It hurts when I send a book of worship songs to a pastor I know personally and get no response. It hurts when Soundcloud tells me I one hundred thirty people “pressed play” (online I cannot know if anyone actually listens) but I only got two comments. It hurts when almost sixty people “pressed play” on a Youtube video of my piece, but the stats tell me that people quit listening halfway through. It makes me wonder if I put on a concert of my work if anyone would take the time out to come, if they can’t even listen to a five-minute piece.

Yet pictures get liked. I was told that maybe I should make a music video to go with my composition. I guess to many people, music just isn’t enough by itself. My work is deemed not as valuable as something that can be seen.

I am thankful those are not God’s thoughts. In fact, sound was the first thing created. God SAID “let there be light.” His voice began the reverberation of the universe that continues to this day. Before there was light and color and form there was sound. An entire book of the Bible, Psalms, is a book of songs, though all that remains is the text not the tunes. We know some were for choral groups. Others were accompanied by string instruments. Many Psalms encourage the use of percussion instruments and flutes. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul encouraged Christians to sing spiritual songs and hymns to one another.

I am not diminishing the role of other art. In the Old Testament, visual arts and textiles were very important in the making of the items for the Tabernacle, and the Bible contains detailed description of architecture. Additionally, dancing is mentioned several times as a natural response of joy. The poetry of the Psalms, and the fact that the Bible even exists at all testifies to the immense value of the written word.

I know Facebook, other social media, and the internet as a whole is a very “visually-oriented” space. In fact, the entire world is primarily visual. We can look around our houses and take snapshots with our eyes in a split second. Music requires us to stop, sit and experience it in the passage of time. Listening requires a level of commitment beyond a quick glance. That’s the way it is. But if God values music, maybe that tells us that we should stop and listen, too. We should give as much attention to the work of musical artists as we do to those who do visual or written art, despite that it is presented on a visually-oriented platform like life.

I Admit I Overthink, but That’s OK

I have been accused of overthinking many times. I admit, I do overthink. I’ve given it a lot of thought, though, and I’m OK with it. These days, it even seems necessary.

Take, for example, my need for a new blender. Earlier this year, the blade for the blender I had for about a decade broke, and I could not find a replacement blade that fit the blender. It was too outdated. My mother-in-law offered to get me a new blender for Christmas and told me to let her know which one I wanted. I spent over an hour looking at blenders online to decide *which one* I wanted. (Yes, I am one of those women who actually loves receiving appliances as gifts. Very practical, useful, makes my life easier, and can facilitate creativity in the kitchen…)

It’s not so simple. Yes, blenders blend…but what will *I* put in the blender to blend? There lies the problem. How powerful do I need it to be? Am I just making smoothies, or will I make peanut butter? Did you know that some blenders now come with a heating element so you can make smooth soups from start to finish IN the blender? That is really neat! But there’s a catch! The pitcher is smaller than the other version I’m looking at. Hmmm. Can it make enough soup for a whole meal with leftovers? I like leftovers…it reduces the number of times I have to cook (see, practical.) Plus,  the other blender has an option to switch out the big pitcher for a single-serving one, which occasionally comes in handy – a feature the one with the heater does not have. However, the one with the switch-out option only comes with a plastic pitcher, which is not ideal.  Other brands in the same price range have glass pitchers, but the blades are only at the bottom of the pitcher. Experience tells me they clog up, need a lot of fussing, and would not be able to make peanut butter.  This one here has two extra 16oz single-serve cups. One slightly more powerful has four extra single-serve ups, but they are all different sizes. What size single serve cup do I need? I don’t want all these useless sizes taking up room in my cupboard. Is the extra power worth another $75 dollars? Which one do I choose? I *have to* overthink. I *must* overthink in order to get the right one the first time. Someone else can waste their time and money buying a second or third  blender when the first isn’t quite right. Or they can grumble and complain when the item doesn’t do what they want it to. I will put my time and effort in upfront, overthinking about all the questions.

I’ve been consciously overthinking for as long as I can remember. When I was in first grade, I used my overthinking for an assignment in art class and got in trouble for it. We had to make a picture of an apple tree, and I put some of my apples on the ground. The art teacher was upset with me for not “following directions.” (Strange, but true.) Well, my overthinking mind told me that some of the apples dropped. When I was thirteen, my mother used to take me and my sister to get an ice cream cone at Baskin Robbins before my piano lesson some weeks. Let me tell you, it was VERY HARD to choose from 31 flavors! Sometimes it took me fifteen minutes to decide. I distinctly remember that one of the important factors was that certain flavors made me more thirsty than others, and I wasn’t going to have access to water until my lesson was over.

I overthink in composition, too. How can I not? Every single chord comes with a zillion options. Which note should be lowest in pitch? Which note is highest? How many times should I double each note (depending on the size of the group, of course.) Which instrument should play which note? Where those notes are located in each instrument’s range drastically changes the effect! Which combination creates the effect I am hearing in my head? How many pitches are there anyway? How do I want to move into and out of each pitch in every location?  Multiply those questions by the number of notes in a piece.

I don’t really know how other composer do their work. I suspect everyone’s approach is unique. When I was taking lessons, my teacher once commented that I didn’t seem too used to editing my work. I wasn’t sure what he meant because I edit all the time. I just edit at a different stage in the process. When I’m ready to present something to someone, it’s pretty much done. If I made mistakes, most likely it was because I didn’t know better. Occasionally, it might be that I got fed up with my project, became impatient, was running out of time. and did a half-assed job.  (Though that is an embarrassing truth, I am sure that I am not alone in the artistic world. All you authors who write amazing novels until the last 50 pages, I’m looking at you.)

Overthinking slows me down some, though as I am increasingly familiar with materials and options and their impacts, I will be able to move through the checklists more quickly. I try to remind myself that I can go back and fix my work later. Sometimes I set challenges for myself, like writing for the next 15 minutes without stopping or erasing anything. I have to train myself not to overthink *too* much. (If that isn’t an oxymoron…) But the truth is that overthinking usually gets me results that make me happy, so instead of trying to be like someone else I’m going to use my overthinking to my advantage. I mulled it over. It’s a good choice.

 

 

A Pianist’s Perspective on Why a Real Bass is Better

The other day, I was asked to be a last-minute substitute in a musical theater production of All Shook Up. I laughed when asked if I could handle the job because all I needed to do was play the bass part on a keyboard. That meant I was reading just one note at a time for most of the show (there was only one double-stop I needed to play.) Since I am an excellent sight-reader, reading one note at a time is ridiculously easy. I could almost do it with my eyes closed (that’s a joke.) I did find it odd that there was no bass player. Why use a keyboard instead of a real bass? But the show was in full-swing; opening night had gone by, and it was not my place to ask questions, so I took the job.

The part was not difficult, note- or rhythm-wise. I got just about every note and rhythm correct. However, I was surprised at how tired my left hand became. The notes were easy, but the part was not idiomatic to the piano. I have never really played a bass part on a keyboard, though I play piano-y things in the bass section of a piano all the time. The two are quite different. The real bass part required me to play too many fast repeated notes. Some keyboards and pianos literally cannot keep up with fast repeated notes due to the time it takes for the key to bounce back up to be played again – something that is not an obstacle on a real bass. I also had to turn my hand in strange ways and make uncomfortable jumps which were not as smooth as they needed to be for the music. This put a greater strain on my hand than would usually be felt playing a left hand part written for the piano.

My son is a bassist, and I have played a little bit on his bass. Additionally I have some, though limited, experience playing other string instruments. I understand how the strings work and the general location of notes on the strings. As I played through the show, I thought to myself, “This surely would have been much easier for a bassist to play than it is for me.” Again, the part wasn’t hard – it just was a bit uncomfortable.

I never did ask why they didn’t use a bassist. Perhaps since many of the pit members were students at the school, they didn’t have one to ask and got a pianist to fill in the part instead. The keyboard and stand with my seat and the amplifier took up more space than an electric bass and amp set-up would have. The sound quality of the keyboard didn’t compare to the real thing. I was glad to get the job and have the opportunity to show off my ninja sight-reading skills, but in truth the part would have been better on bass.

 

Not a Silent Night

Most people would probably associate the word “meditation” with something quiet, subdued, and useful for relaxation. Music for such meditations would likely be rather repetitive, without a whole lot of motion or energy. My piece for solo piano, “Meditation No. 2: The Invisible, Now Revealed” is certainly not that.

Why do I call my piece a “Meditation” if it is not quiet and subdued? It has to do with how I am using the word “meditation.” Most people probably associate meditation with the idea of bringing the body to stillness and emptying the mind, but this is not biblical mediation. Biblical meditation is active – it is a deep and focused contemplation of Scripture. Imagine chewing your food for a very long time to get every last bit of flavor and juice from each morsel. This is biblical meditation: Scripture is the food and contemplation the chewing. In my solo piano meditations, I aim to express some of the ideas born from that contemplation.

In 2018, I purposed to write a Piano Meditation for Christmas. Each year my church has a Christmas Eve Collage Concert. We’re a small church and don’t have a large choir, so instead of something big like a cantata, we do a few smaller pieces along with other solos, duets, and trios performed by various members of the church. We have a variety of singers and instrumentalists that participate, and I wanted to add an original solo piano piece to the concert. Since it was for the Christmas Eve service, I chose to base it on a segment of Scripture about the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, chapter two.

In chapter two of Luke, starting in verse eight, the shepherds on the hillsides outside Bethlehem are suddenly confronted one night with a large number of angels in the sky making a birth announcement about a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, one who is the Messiah, the Christ. As the narrative continues, the shepherds leave the sheep, run into town and find the baby. Verse nineteen says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

This is not a silent night.

Perhaps it began quietly. I live in a rural town. Nothing much happens at night. It’s pretty dark, too, especially if it is cloudy and the stars are hidden. I can imagine what it might have been like for the shepherds on a hillside, the sheep sleeping nearby. I’m sure their night started off pretty uneventfully. They probably had a fire going to keep away predators. Perhaps they were taking shifts staying awake and resting. The sudden appearance of a host of angels was a major shock. A dark sky, perhaps with some twinkling stars, was suddenly riven with a host of angels shouting, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those on whom his favor rests.” A host is not a small number. It is an army. A huge number of angels filled the sky.

Imagine hearing this. Imagine seeing this. This is not a tap-on-the-shoulder-can-I-get-your-attention-please. This is not subtle. This is not quiet. And so my piano meditation is not quiet. Or, at least it doesn’t stay quiet.

The beginning of the piece is mysterious and perhaps a little spooky. I chose some very low notes, strong dissonances and slow movement to depict what it might have been like to be in the countryside at night in the chilly air on the lookout for predators. I incorporated “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”, an ancient chant often found harmonized in the Christmas section of church hymnals, into this first section. It is my favorite “Christmas” melody, and I thought it fit well with my ideas for the quiet and contemplative beginning.  But suddenly, like the angels’ appearance, a sforzando of high notes pierces the music. The music becomes more forceful with a steadier beat, running fast notes, and louder dynamics. Throughout the middle section, I used the melody from “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” another ancient plainsong chant, as the cantus firmus, found at times in both the high and low voice. The other voice dips and rises and swirls around it, as I imagined the frenzy of a host of angels appearing in the sky.  The use of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is slightly ironic, since it is normally sung very slowly and reverently and admonishes mortal flesh to be silent. Yet, I have made it very loud and frenetic. According to the hymn, who is to keep silent? Mortal flesh. I imagine that night on the hillside, the shepherds were indeed very quiet, stunned into silence. But the angels are not mortal, and they were not silent. Eventually, the music transitions back to the first idea, once again quieter and more contemplative, but different and punctuated with questions: what does this all mean? Like Mary, I ponder these things in my heart, and I hope listeners will as well.

The title comes from the book of Colossians chapter one, verse fifteen which describes Jesus as the “image of the invisible God.” Jesus made God known. God became flesh and lived among us. The invisible has been revealed.

Listen to the piece below. If you are interested in purchasing the score, it can be found here.
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How Did You Like the Piano?

As we were leaving one of the “outreach” concerts the chorus does at area nursing homes and assisted living centers, one of the men asked me how I liked the piano. I understand why he asked this. At these concerts I am often playing on an inexpensive portable keyboard (with weighted keys, to be fair.) But this facility had a baby grand, and he assumed I was excited about it. On one hand, I was. Playing on a baby grand usually is preferable to playing on a electric keyboard. But, nonetheless, I struggled to answer his question. I ultimately said, “it was fine.”

Yes, just fine. Was it more in tune than a digital instrument? No. Did it feel better? Sort of. The action was a little fast and loud. The sound was tinny. (It’s debatable whether the sound was better than a keyboard.) The bench was more comfortable than the usual folding chair or high stool. The pedals stayed in place, and I didn’t have to use my feet to fish for a pedal that was sliding away on the floor. Overall, it was fine.

How did I like the piano? I really didn’t. That’s the truth. I usually don’t like any of the pianos I play upon. It’s just that I have no choice. When I play a so-so piano, I often say “I’ve played worse.” And I have. I’ve played pianos with broken pedals and pianos where 5 of the white keys in the middle two octaves of the piano (the section played most frequently) are not working. I’ve played digital pianos with broken speakers. I’ve played horribly out of tune pianos. I’ve played uprights with subpar action, and my fingers were moving faster than the keys could respond.  All these were actual performance settings. No, they weren’t concert hall settings. They might have been churches, schools, nursing homes, or some other community center. But it was a performance, nonetheless.

I don’t even really like my own piano. It is what I could afford. It is a rebuilt pre-1930s (not exactly sure of the year) Vose piano that was given to me. In many ways, it is wonderful. Given its age and the fact that the soundboard is cracked and repaired, it sounds amazing. But there is a limit to what it can do, and it’s not ideal for many things I want to do, like record. It will never sound like a concert grand, even if I put the money into some more technical repair and adjustment. The truth is that when I have the money to put aside for such projects, it would be better for me to buy a better piano.

Even if I have a beautiful piano at home, though, it will not solve the problem that everywhere I go I have to contend with an instrument that just doesn’t sound or work great and is something I would never *choose* to use. I simply don’t have a choice. I have had a handful of opportunities to play on a Steinway concert grand, and I loved those. I also have the chance to play every fall and spring on a good Yamaha grand at the chorus concerts. Normally, I am at the mercy of playing what is put before me.

I understand that people with large instruments like harps, double bass, tubas, and various percussion have difficulty transporting their instruments. At least they get to. If I were to take my favorite piano with me, it would cost almost a thousand dollars or more, depending on the distance, and several hours preparing the piano for a move, loading it into a suitable moving truck and setting up and tuning it once it has arrived at its destination. According to Charles Rosen, in his book, Piano Notes, concert pianists visit a piano showroom in the city where they will perform and pick out a piano to use on stage. That piano is brought to the concert hall and adjusted to their liking. The pianist will have a few days to practice on that piano to get used to it.

I have no such luck in my work in community music. I get what I get, and I have almost no time to adjust. I’d like all my string-playing readers to imagine being handed an instrument that has a slipping tuning peg or being forced to perform with a new-to-you bow that maybe doesn’t tighten correctly. Or, for my woodwind and brass playing readers, a new-to-you mouthpiece that you must try out for the first time five minutes before a performance. How about a sticky key or valve, or a funky out-of-tune note in an unusual place? Or, for my percussion playing friends, being forced to play with the wrong mallets or a broken stick. This isn’t like playing a student model instrument. This is like playing something that has been stashed away in the attic for the last thirty years.

Being introduced to a piano in a new location goes something like this: “Here is the piano. It’s a ‘little’ out of tune, but it plays. Well, all except the F# key. But you’re playing in Db you said, right? No sharps in that – you should be fine.”

Making Time for Inspiration

Everyone who has seriously tried to do original creative work of any kind has certainly heard a version of Picasso’s quote, “Inspiration shows up, but it must find you working.” In other words, books and pieces of art don’t come about by just sitting there waiting for the world to glow strangely and the angels to sing, handing you a feather pen to take dictation. Creative work is WORK. Sometimes that work is not very productive, and sometimes it flows so well it seems the muses are real beings that guide your hand. Either way, one has to be at work, purposefully trying to make something, regardless of whether that day’s work seems to succeed or fail.

The problem for me has been “finding” that time to work. I put that in quotations because it is really about MAKING time to work. But what is the right time to work? My composition doesn’t bring me any money. If I tie work to income, I do plenty of that already, teaching and accompanying. It can take a long time to complete a composition project. If I tie the idea of work to getting things done, I have plenty of that to do, too.  Any number of chores are always calling to me, trying to convince me that whatever-it-is is the highest priority on the to-do list. It’s practical, you know, to do something that is objectively completed, for the time being at least.

Relationships are valuable, too. Should I talk to my mom or my sister? Should I have a coffee date with my husband? Should I spend the evening playing a game with my daughter? Should I go see my son’s concert three hours away? Should I chat with my best friend late on a Friday night? Should I help someone move? Or should I compose?

It is easy to fill up the day with important things: things that are real, immediate, and practical. Everything is important, and that is the problem. Which do I let go of in order to make time to compose? I find it even trickier because I essentially work second-shift. Most of my teaching is done in the after school hours, and most of my accompanying is done in the evenings.  While most people rest after work in the evenings, my only downtime is before I go to work.

Add into the mix the fact that my husband is a pastor. There is a slight rhythm to the week, but no day from one to the next is the same. A few weeks ago I suddenly had a funeral to attend. Attend is not the right word. I was there from setting up for the service to cleaning up after the collation, and it took up most of a Wednesday. I was glad to be of service, but it is things like this that make it very difficult to schedule a set time to compose. WHEN should I compose? I need to make that time because it will not be found, hidden among the ever-pressing needs of the day.

I had the privilege to attend the 2019 National Conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers this past weekend.  Amidst several concerts of wonderful new music written by my colleagues, and including a piece of my own, we had the privilege of attending several workshops. One particular workshop that spoke to me especially was the one on “Finding Your Voice,” presented by my friend Glenn Pickett. He spoke about the need to be at work composing, and through doing the work your voice will come out. As he spoke, he mentioned that he writes from 5-7AM each morning because he knows that once the day begins with his teaching responsibilities at the university he will not be able to do any more work. He did not intend it, but that statement was the little kick-in-the-pants I needed. If he can set aside time to write from 5-7 in the morning, I can write from 6-8. Everyday except Sunday, I have uninterrupted time during those hours. On most days, I can work until 9AM before needing to start taking care of my other responsibilities. On a special day, I could possibly even work until 10 if my stomach doesn’t growl too much for breakfast.

The feedback I received from my colleagues, most of whom are professors with PhDs in composition, greatly encouraged me to do more: compose more, take more risks. The weekend confirmed for me that I must commit to making composition a high priority. So this morning, I got up at 5:30AM and made myself coffee. I got to work and composed until 8:30. Already, I have found benefits from doing so. I have no guilt. No nagging voices in the back of my mind are hounding me asking, “Do you really think you ought to be doing this right now? Are you choosing the best use of your time?” I didn’t have to worry about finding time to do my composition because I already did. This gave me permission to do all the other things I have done with my day. I also discovered that while I’ve been puttering around doing chores or even sitting here typing this blog the back of my mind has been processing what I worked on early this morning, expanding the effort I put in. I will be back at it again bright and early tomorrow.