Why I Volunteer With Hope’s Harvest

Music could take up my entire life if I let it. Time for composing, publishing my scores, practicing, and rehearsing (once the choruses get back to meeting again) could justify my doing nothing else. I could easily get away without seeing anyone but my family and other musicians. I just don’t want to live that way.

I want to be an active member in the larger community, not just the music community.

I had long thought about how I might volunteer in a way that would be suited to me. There is a food pantry near me, within biking distance, and I considered helping there. But volunteering every single week at a regular time is more than I can commit to.

Someone in a group I’m in on Facebook once mentioned “gleaning groups” so I decided to find out if Rhode Island has such a group. I was very excited to find out it does!

In the fall of 2019, I discovered Hope’s Harvest, an organization that connects local farmers and food banks. Farmers will donate extra crop they can’t sell – or even that they grow specifically to donate! – and Hope’s Harvest coordinates teams of volunteers to pick the crop and transport it to the local food banks so this burden is not carried by the farmers. It is a creative way to solve two problems: what to do with produce the farmer can’t sell, and how to get nutritious fresh produce to those who can’t afford it.

I knew right away that working with Hope’s Harvest was something I wanted to do.

In the fall of 2019, the harvest season was just finishing up so I didn’t get out on any gleaning trips then. But in the spring of 2020, I did the brief training and attended my first gleaning trips.

Let me tell you why Hope’s Harvest is a perfect fit for me.

  1. The people are wonderful. The team leaders from Hope’s Harvest are extremely helpful and knowledgeable. They tell you exactly what you need to know to pick properly. No experience is needed. The trip is very well-organized, and the other gleaners are super-friendly. We are able to chat while we work. It’s a great feeling to work with like-minded people.
  2. Most of the harvesting is during the summer. Summer is my down-time. The choruses I accompany follow a school-year schedule, so I don’t have rehearsals during the summer. Most of my students also take fewer lessons during the summer. This all makes me more available to go on gleaning trips.
  3. The way the gleaning trips are organized, I don’t have to commit to the same time and day every week. I don’t even have to let them know if I will be away. I simply don’t sign up for trips I can’t attend. If I can only volunteer once during a harvest season, that’s OK! Hope’s Harvest is grateful for all helpers! I also only sign up for trips that I want to drive to. Hope’s Harvest works with farmers all over Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts. Some of those farms are over an hour away from me! I probably will not go to those. I only sign up for gleaning trips that are within the distance I am willing to drive. In short, my volunteer work is customizable. If I really only wanted to pick kale, I could.
  4. I like the variety. Each gleaning trip focuses on one, maybe two, different crops. I have picked kale, corn, butternut squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes. (I might be forgetting something.) Other trips offered the opportunity to pick tomatoes, peppers, peas, apples, and the list goes on. Also, every farm is different. I am always interested in how the farms are set up, as well as the local scenery around them. One farm was tucked away, hidden within a state park!
  5. I get outside. I love being outdoors, and this is an excuse to get outside. I wouldn’t be as happy volunteering inside. I also get some exercise. Let me tell you, carrying buckets of butternut squash is a workout!
  6. I get to meet the farmers. Occasionally, we even work with the farmers, depending on their schedule. I have even been able to ask a few questions on how to better grow things in my own vegetable garden, and they have been generous with their tips!
  7. Isn’t the name Hope’s Harvest just PERFECT? I will not bother explaining this because it would take a book. I will just say this one thing: what a way to incorporate the motto of Rhode Island!

The last reason I feel so connected to the mission of Hope’s Harvest is more personal and deserves it’s own paragraph.

I was once in a position where I would have benefited from an organization like this. When my husband was in seminary, we had a very difficult time making ends meet. Our children were not yet school-age, so I worked from home as a piano teacher and running a small MLM business. We were new to a very tiny town, and I wasn’t well-connected, so I didn’t have many students. My husband worked full time, but the pay wasn’t great because he needed a job that conformed to his school schedule. Despite both of us working, our little family of four lived beneath the poverty line for five years. It was very hard. Inexpensive food is not healthy food. I know from personal experience how hard it can be for low-income people to afford, and even access, fresh produce. It gives me joy to be able to lend a hand in getting fresh, nutritious, and tasty produce into the hands of those who need it.

This year, when Hope’s Harvest sent out a request for “peer to peer” fundraisers, I immediately accepted the opportunity. I knew that with my blog, a following on my professional Facebook page, and my connections with choruses, I might be able to bring a decent amount of attention to Hope’s Harvest.

Today is “401Gives” day. 401 to go with the Rhode Island area code and also 4/01, the first day of April. 401Gives is an organization that assists other organizations in Rhode Island raise money. The link below is my page for raising money for Hope’s Harvest. I hope you will join me in supporting this worthy organization.

These are some of the ways Hope’s Harvest can use your donation:

⭐️ $25 – 1 tote filled with fresh produce delivered to people in need.⭐️ $65 – 1 week’s worth of gas for gleaning trips with Harvey, the Hope’s Harvest refrigerated truck.⭐️ $125 – 1 week’s worth of food safe bin liners for our fresh produce.⭐️ $500 – 300 lbs of produce from a small, local farmer for hunger relief purposes.

If you are local, I would also love to see you on a gleaning trip this upcoming season!

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I Deserve a Proper Rejection

It happened again. I entered a publisher’s call for scores and didn’t hear back.

I was particularly excited about this call for scores because I thought I sent in appropriate, well-done pieces that fit the request. Unfortunately, I learned that I was not accepted via Facebook, when a composer I know posted that he had a piece chosen for the project. When I read this, I thought, “Oh, have they made their final decisions?” I went to the website to check for an update, but there was none. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and waited another day or so to see if they were catching up on contacting all the composers. After hearing nothing, I emailed and asked if they had finished their process. After that, I finally got an official rejection letter.

This is happening more and more often. I have not heard back directly from at least fifty percent of the contests and calls for scores I have entered in the last year. Some let entrants know at the time of entry to find the results on the website; that’s fine. I know when and where to look. But many just leave us dangling. There’s no answer at all.

I’ve heard the argument that these people are just too busy to get back in touch with everyone who entered. This is simply baloney. I heard back directly from an organization whose call for scores this past summer resulted in seven thousand submissions. If that organization could get back to the composers, so can any organization. Most submissions are done digitally now, and they have all the email addresses. All it takes is some willingness, a little bit of organization, and a blind-copied form letter.

The problem is obviously the willingness.

I have something to say to these groups: it’s your job to get back in touch with composers.

This isn’t the same as job seekers sending an impersonal resume into a large company. This is artists sending a piece of their work to an ensemble or a small publisher (usually.) The relationship is already more personal. That level of intimacy deserves direct contact.

It took me, and the other composers, more effort and time to write our pieces than it will take you to compile all the email addresses and write a form letter. I don’t care if you have hundreds, or even thousands, of pieces to go through. If you have too many and are overwhelmed, then your call for scores was too broad. That’s your problem. You should plan for someone to act as secretary and get the communication done.

I know it is hard to say no. I know you feel bad to have to tell someone you don’t want to use their work. Get over it.

The composers have the courage to send you the workings of their inner minds and have opened themselves up for scrutiny. That is a very vulnerable position. Most of us are ready to brace for the rejections that come; we know it is part of our job. Decide to have the same courage to say no; it is simply part of your job.

Most of the time, my entry is potentially contributing to you making or saving money (by not having to buy or rent scores and parts), even if I don’t pay an entry fee. If I do pay an entry fee, I assume my money is helping to cover the cost of perusing all the scores, and I do so willingly. But I expect that my entry fee will also cover the cost of someone doing the work of getting back to me about the results. When my work is considered for inclusion in a publication that will help make money for the publisher, you bet that I am expecting a professional rejection.

I had several emails back and forth over the summer with one particular ensemble only to find out at the very end over Facebook that my piece was not one of the ones chosen for performance. That stung. It would have been proper for me to receive a personal email, especially when the size of the group of finalists I was in was only ten. That communicated to me that they just couldn’t find it within themselves to contact me personally that they weren’t going to use my piece. I also had several emails with the publisher I mentioned in the first paragraph. After I asked about the results, the rejection letter “encouraged” me to send in a piece to the next call for scores.

No, no thank you.

You’ve communicated to me that my effort and work is not worth the respect of a proper rejection. You’ve shown that you are not willing to do the hard work of saying no, of communicating personally (even as a form letter) to the composers who contributed to your project. I deserve a rejection and a thank you.

I’ve been told as a composer to enter everything I can because it puts my work in front of more people. The ensembles and publishers “get to know me” through my entries. The reverse is also true. I get to know the ensembles and publishers in the way they communicate – or don’t – with me. The lack of a proper rejection leaves a very sour taste in my mouth.

Perhaps other composers will continue to send in scores to ensembles and publishers who treat them this way, but not me. You will have at least one less submission to your next call for scores. Maybe that will make your work easier. But, if other composers share my mindset, you may find it harder and harder to get your project off the ground.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

The Necessity of Hardship

My high school AP Calculus teacher was a great teacher and a very nice person. She even had my small class over for dinner at the end of the year to celebrate all the hard work we did together. But, when it came to tests, she was a bit of a sadist. You see, she didn’t give us the regular tests in the math book. She thought they were too easy because they only tested what we had been taught. She preferred to make up her own tests which required us to make inferences from what we learned and apply them to problems we weren’t so familiar with. She also graded us on a bell curve. We weren’t just trying to beat the test; we were forced into a competition against each other. I thought she was crazy. A nice crazy lady, but nuts all the same.

But I understood why she pushed us so hard.

The truth is, we don’t know what we can do until we are pushed to our limits. If we don’t reach beyond our comfort zones, we don’t know our capacity. Competitive athletes know this very well. They are always trying to beat their scores, run faster, or lift more. Records are broken, and figure skaters and gymnasts are always showing us moves that no one has ever been able to do before. They don’t say, “it can’t be done.” They ask themselves, “Can I do it?” And then they try. Again and again.

But it’s hard. And it’s painful.

Life often brings us hardships we don’t choose. They are also painful, often exceedingly so. But, even though we might not like those trials, they do show us what we are made of. That’s important information. We might learn we are stronger than we think; we might learn that our faith is not on a solid foundation; we might find we have reached our limit and need help.

Sought out or not, hardship gives us an assessment of our abilities which is necessary for making adjustments. Do we push harder or slow down? Do we keep going or take a break? (Sometimes this assessment comes from someone else speaking into our life.)

In my composing, I’ve had to create my own hardships. I don’t have many demands on my compositional output in the form of commissions or requirements for professional output like a professor might. I could easily mosey along committing to composing most days, but maybe not pushing myself and putting in as much time or writing as much material as I could. The question is: what can I do? I can only find out by testing my limits.

I am trying to find the edge of failure. I don’t want to fail, but there’s a risk.

Can I do it? I don’t know. Let me try.

Right now, I am pushing myself to write faster. I induce hardship on myself as a composer by creating deadlines for myself. Sometimes these come in the form of competitions I want to enter; sometimes they are arbitrary. These are not hard deadlines because they are self-imposed, and not meeting them only results in some disappointment. Yet, the accountability is very useful and tells me how fast I can work. I will need this information later on when I do start getting more commissions. I need an idea of how long it will take me to write a piece of a certain length for a certain sized ensemble so that I can meet a deadline when it counts. It will also help me to know how much time to allot to commissions and estimate how many I can commit to within a certain time period.

Just about two weeks ago I decided I wanted to write a piece for saxophone and marimba. I had been encouraged to play more (in life, not necessarily in music and composition), and I decided to look at competitions and calls for scores that I thought were just plain fun. Unfortunately, this particular call for scores had a deadline of March 7, which meant I had two weeks to get a piece completed, from start to finish. I had just bought a new notation and publishing software, Dorico, and this would be the first piece I would complete using this program. I had to get acquainted with it fast! I also had never written for marimba before. So, new instrument, new software, two weeks. Go!

(I don’t think pushing myself to work super hard to get a fun piece finished under a tight deadline was what was meant by encouraging me to “play”, but it is what it is.)

Coming from Finale, the notation software I was previously using, the learning curve using Dorico is pretty steep. While everything I needed is extremely easy to access on-screen, if I didn’t hit the key commands in the correct order, chaos ensued. At one point, for user errors unknown to me, I lost the entire first movement, albeit a very short one. That day, I just about cried and gave up. But, thankfully, I had printed out a draft and was able to salvage it. I woke up the next day feeling more hopeful and determined to try. I completed the piece on time, formatted correctly and all, and submitted it.

While I did accomplish what I set out to do, I think I have reached my current limit. I did nothing but compose this week. The house didn’t get cleaned. I barely got meals prepared. Voicemails were left unanswered. I talked to no one outside my family except for an online class, a previously-scheduled board meeting I couldn’t miss, and two piano lessons. I skipped weekly meetings I normally attend. I didn’t sleep well and I ended the week with some heartburn and a headache. My body literally hurt from not moving enough. This level of work might be OK for a stretch of a week or two, but it is not sustainable.

That said, my self-induced hardship reaped benefits. Diving into the deep end forced me to learn to use Dorico much faster than I thought I could. I also learned some about my work habits and how much time I can expect to productively compose each day. There are more calls for scores and competitions I want to enter, so I am better able to plan out my time for entering them. The process of composing always teaches me something, in the way I think about the timbre of the instruments or the interaction of the lines of music. I will bring those insights with me into the next project.

One of my composer friends, Frank Felice, teaches at Butler University where they periodically do a 24-hour concert. Each composer gets teamed up with an ensemble and spends about eighteen hours composing a piece. The ensembles rehearse the pieces for about two hours, then put on a concert. The thought of that absolutely boggles my mind. I cannot imagine writing a piece in just eighteen hours! But maybe, with enough practice and pushing my limits, I’ll get there.

I guess it’s time to take a break now and clean the house.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

The Practice of Empathy

Recently, I came across a claim that listening to music can help people develop empathy. Wow. If true, that gives music a tremendous amount of power to impact lives and society. More and more, we are learning that emotional intelligence is just as important, if not more so, as hard skills in the workplace. In these days of so much division, listening to music may help heal relationships. Can listening to music really do this?

If you read my post, “Is Music Your Job or Your Passion?”, you know that I went through a period when I asked myself about the usefulness of music. In college, I was told that I was selfish for being a musician. I believe many artists have felt that the world communicates to them that their pursuit of beauty and transcendental meaning is frivolous. Artists argue back, “but the arts make us more human!” I agree, but until recently that defense has not been easy to prove. In the last decade, many psychological studies have shown that music, and the arts in general, can help develop empathy. (I will leave you to do your own research; many articles need to be read to get a good picture, and I cannot link to them all.)

I immediately wondered what it was about listening to music that developed empathy? Did listening to any kind of music help? Did the music need to contain lyrics? After reading a few articles and abstracts, one including a study of children listening to music from another culture, I began to make connections. (I am not a psychologist; these are just my own personal musings on what I read.)

Casually listening to music isn’t enough to develop empathy. This is why I have titled my post, “The Practice of Empathy.” Developing empathy takes and practice, and we can help ourselves grow in this area by being purposeful about it. Music, and the other arts, can help us along this path.

If you listen to a piece of music and tune it out after ten seconds, you haven’t listened. You have dismissed it. If you read a chapter of a book or a paragraph of an essay and then toss it aside, you haven’t given the author a chance to speak. If you pass by a painting or sculpture without really looking, you have already decided that artist has nothing to say. It is not possible to listen to, read or view everything. It takes intention to make the time to take in art with an open heart. Not to like it, necessarily, but to hear or see what the artist is trying to say, to make an attempt at understanding.

I don’t like the definition of the word empathy, the ability to feel what another feels. Let’s just be honest. It is not possible for anyone to fully understand what things are like for another person. We are all unique individuals with unique experiences and unique responses. It’s like looking at the sky. We all agree that the sky is blue. But I cannot get inside your head and use your eyes and your brain and see the shade you see, compared to the shade I see. We all may see something different! When you tell me that the sky is a beautiful blue today, I can agree only because I, too, am familiar with a blue sky.

So it is with empathy. We cannot feel what another feels. But what we can do is listen without interruption, hear another person’s perspective, appreciate what we are told, and take it in without judgment. We can come alongside and treat another with dignity. We can give others a place where their voices will be heard and believe their stories. We can have compassion. We can learn and imagine what we might feel if we faced the same situations.

Giving someone pat answers is not empathy. Trying to solve someone’s problems for them is not empathy. Telling someone their problems aren’t that bad or that they are overthinking is not empathy. Telling someone they see the world wrongly is not empathy. Dismissing someone is not empathy.

If I could change the definition a bit, empathy is letting someone speak.

This is why music, and art in general, helps people develop empathy. Whenever we intentionally take in art, we are letting the artist speak. We are practicing giving another our undivided attention. We are submitting ourselves to the artist’s perspective for a while.

Of course, it’s easier to do this when we are familiar with the artist, the genre, or the culture. However, we gain much more from getting out of our comfort zones and taking in that which we don’t know and even that which makes us uncomfortable. We practice letting the other speak about things that we don’t understand; we allow ourselves to sit in confusion. We learn to say “I don’t understand” rather than “this is junk” or “this person is an idiot.” Perhaps upon reflection and processing what we’ve taken in, understanding will come. Even if it continues to evade us, it doesn’t matter. Either way, we have practiced empathy; we have opened ourselves to what the other person has to say. In so doing, we may begin to identify with how they think and feel.

This is what artists do. Their works call, even demand, “Listen to me! Read me! View me! Hear what I have to say!” Art is not a selfish frivolity. It provides an opportunity to practice and develop that which makes us human, that which is the oil lubricating relationships and society. It helps us to grow in empathy.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

The Problem with Hymnals

Several days ago, I came across a post entitled, “The Hymnal” on the blog, “The Church Curmudgeon” (from now on, TCC.) This post is a response to that post. I would have commented (perhaps more briefly) if TCC did not reserve comments only for paying subscribers. You may find my post interesting even if you are not a church-goer; I promise you won’t find anything offensive here unless you are a person who believes hymnals are superior to contemporary worship songs.

I’ve been singing hymns since I was old enough to sing; I’ve been playing from a hymnal since the age of six. I’ve been a church musician since the age of eight, when I began occasionally accompanying the children’s choir and a young violinist during special music portions of our Sunday morning church service. From seventh to twelfth grade, I substituted when the regular church pianist was out. In college, I was the church pianist. At my current church, I am the music director. I can follow the hymnals exactly, but I can also read lead sheets. I incorporate well-known and not-so-well-known hymns into my classical-style piano meditations, and I also write contemporary worship songs.

For over twenty years now, I have been hearing debates about hymnals vs. contemporary worship songs, usually presented as lyrics on a screen up front in the church’s sanctuary (or auditorium – the label given depends on the church.) Frankly, these are not “debates.” They are complaints–complaints from people who love hymnals too much, who argue why hymnals are better than contemporary worship songs. The arguments are always the same, and the recent post from TCC is no different. I am writing this post because I am tired of hearing “hymnals are better” and, since I have a blog. I have a place to speak my mind.

I am not anti-hymnal at all. Each week, I make sure to incorporate at least two hymns into the songs we sing during the worship service. Most of the time, these hymns come from the hymnal our church uses, so those who are inclined can open up and read the notes and lyrics from the page. Hymnals have a place, but that place is limited. Relying on hymnals alone and communicating that using hymnals is somehow “the right way” (according to TCC) is actually damaging to the church.

Most of TCCs arguments against using contemporary worship songs portrayed on screens instead of hymns contained in hymnals where one can follow along with the notes is really an issue of how new songs are taught, rather than the music itself. Granted, a newcomer may not know the songs. But, neither does a newcomer know the names of the people at the church. Should we all then wear name tags every Sunday? It takes time to get acclimated to any group and the way they do things.

When I introduce a new song, I usually sing through the first verse so everyone can hear the tune and get a sense of how it goes. Then I repeat the first verse and everyone joins in. Sometimes it takes a couple of verses for people to catch on. That’s the way it is. I make a point to do a new song at least two weeks in a row to help cement the tune in singer’s minds. There are ways to make learning new songs easier that do not require the notes being available in a hymnal. (Besides, not all churches have hymnals that contain the notes. Many “songbooks” in pews contain only the lyrics.) If a church is doing all new songs every week, that’s an issue of leadership, not hymnals.

TCC’s best argument for hymnals is that singers can read the notes and follow along with their parts to sing in harmony. However, this requires several assumptions to be in place: First, the singer can read music or at least knows that notes going up the staff ascend in pitch and notes going down the staff descend in pitch; Second, the singer is able to separate out the vocal lines; Third, the singer can hold a tune to be able to sing the harmony without the help of the person in the pew or chair next to them; Fourth, the accompanist is playing the harmony in the hymnal as written. (Cue the argument to not use instruments at all.)

Most hymnals are written in block chords where the noteheads of two voices in each staff are linked with one stem. Music is not easy to read as it is, because the notes move around, unlike words that remain on the same line. Prior instruction is needed to help a person to know whether they should be looking at the top or bottom note of that shared stem. It is not easy for the untrained eye to trace the movement in one of those voices from one chord to another. Additionally, just because someone can recognize that a pitch goes up or down does not mean they know how much it moves. Seeing the notes does not ensure the right harmony is sung. I’ve heard many an “alto” who does not have that skill make up harmonies. This makes it harder for the people around them to sing the actual melody. Shape note hymnals separate the voices into individual lines of music, which makes more sense for TCC’s argument, but they only contain one or two verses under those notes before listing the rest of the verses elsewhere on the page. The singers better memorize their parts real quick!

As a an accompanist for a few community choral groups, I work with about two hundred fifty amateur singers, people who go out of their way to sing in rehearsal each week, preparing for a concert. They sing more than the average church goer who does not belong to a choral group. They receive instruction on how to sing; yet, many cannot read music. Many cannot figure out the harmonies on their own. They need me to plunk out the notes for their part, and they memorize them by rote. Some learn the part quickly; it takes others several weeks of rehearsal before they know it confidently. Many rely on the stronger singers in their section. And this is in a choral group that rehearses the same songs week after week. Did you know that many larger churches with choral groups hire section leaders for these reasons?

Even if a church uses only “37” of the hymns in a hymnbook on a regular basis, at that rate it would take years for the average churchgoer to get confident singing a harmony. TCC’s concern about newcomers is unfounded.

A few years ago, I attended a conference during which we sang a few hymns. The fabulous organist, who I truly enjoyed hearing play, decided to use some unusual chords during a couple of verses of the hymn. I had been singing along on the alto part, but when the organist interjected new chords, the alto part became impossible to sing. Not only was it difficult to find the right note, but the “right” note was now “wrong”, creating a dissonance against the harmonies in the organ.

If we are going to discuss singing in harmony, I feel the need to also address the physical act of singing. Most who use a hymnal are holding it close to the chest, elbows next to the body, like they are reading a book. This turns the head downward, kinking the neck (and wind pipe) a little, and is completely opposite to how singers should sing, hindering the communal aspects of singing which is part of the point in church worship. The hymnal should be held out, away from the body, slightly lower than eye level so the neck and head can are held erect, allowing the voice project. Anything less causes the voice to be swallowed up in the book rather than allowing it to ring above, combining with the other voices in the room. Proper singing can be done while holding a hymnal, but it takes training and reminding. Even the community choruses need to be reminded how to hold the music.

Hymnals scream privilege. They are expensive. They are heavy. They take up a tremendous amount of space. Let’s consider the church that needs to do things the “right way” according to TCC. That church must have a permanent building or have members that store or own the hymnals, bringing them to church each week. That church must have a good budget to ensure that all those who want to read the music have access to one. That church must be in a place where books will not be damaged by too much humidity. Can you see how “the right way” might exclude a tiny village church in Africa? In many places around the world, a hymnal (never mind a Bible!) is a precious, rare item. The only person who has one (if they have a complete one at all) is the leader. Even the ancient Israelites did not each hold their own copy of the Psalms. Everyone learned by, you guessed it: listening.

Here’s the thing about worship: what is the RIGHT way must be duplicatible by all believers in all places at all times. This is why Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that worship wasn’t about which mountain people go to, but that his followers will worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Every additional requirement that someone says is necessary to do things “the right way” excludes those who cannot follow that protocol.

I considered ordering new hymnals for my church because I don’t like the one I inherited when I came to the church thirteen years ago. A “new” hymnal is a minimum of $14. I put “new” in quotes because most hymnals have not been updated since 1997, if not before, some not since the 1960s. (There are a few newer hymnals that have updated language to be more gender-inclusive, but honestly the new words often butcher the melody or rhythm of the hymn.) So, for almost twenty-five years there has not been a quality new hymnal on the market.

Think about that. Twenty-five years.

Hymnals are not open to new music. They codify worship. Individual churches are not at liberty to choose new songs outside the hymnal unless they resort to using screens on the wall or paper inserts in bulletins to present lyrics with no sheet music (reproducing sheet music without a license is illegal, by the way.) The hymns in hymnals are chosen by publishing companies.

Many years ago, I read a biography of Fanny Crosby, who wrote many of my favorite hymns. I learned that even in the 1800s, hymnal publishing was a business. The publishing companies were interested in what would sell, and one of the concerns at the time was that it would be a gaffe to include too many hymns written by the same people. To avoid this, some lyricists and composers, Fanny Crosby included, were given pseudonyms. Fanny Crosby wrote many more of the hymns in the hymnals than you or I know!

When music is codified in hymnals that are not updated for decades, what does that say to Christian musicians now? They are not given a place to be part of the worship of the church. Again, they are excluded. Additionally, the “newer” songs in the contemporary style included in those decades-old hymnals sound terrible. This is because hymnals use a chorale style. In contrast, the contemporary style is based on a single melody, and perhaps a simple harmony, but it is not chorale style. Chorale-style music follows specific voice leading and compositional techniques and requires a simpler rhythmic pattern. The contemporary style does not take these into consideration because it is not needed. Turning these contemporary songs into chorales simply does not work; they sound clunky.

TCC argues that new worship songs are worthless because they only last for a season and are thus like “vapor.” I found this complaint rather curious. So what if a new song doesn’t last? Where is the requirement in Scripture that our songs must last? The Psalms encourage us to sing new songs unto the LORD (there are too many verses to reference!) But even more, the Scriptures tell us that our prayers are like incense (Revelation 5:8.) How much more “vapor-like” can we get? Yes, smoke is different from vapor since it comes from burning, not boiling. But, they both waft and dissipate quickly. Are our prayers worthless because they are vapor-like? Why must our songs be more long-lasting than our prayers? Is TCC saying that the only legitimate music (and art in general) is that which is permanent? What lasts and what is burned up will be made known in the last day, and some songs which have fallen into obscurity will be found to have eternal value through the souls they impacted.

(Besides, there’s a simple way to keep contemporary worship songs around a bit longer: print out the sheet music and keep it in a binder or file cabinet.)

I wonder about our blogs, which are “mere projections.” I highly doubt they are getting printed out for posterity. I wonder how people would react if TCC took the same view on written material that he does on music. We have the Scofield study Bible, everyone. There’s no need for any more Bible studies to be written! Magazines don’t last. We don’t need your blog posts that are only read for a short time. Only books matter – and they must be printed, not digital. Do it the right way!

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

Is Music Your Job or Your Passion?

I started out as a music major in college, but after my sophomore year I became so frustrated with the department I was in that my two choices were either to switch schools or change my major. It was an emotionally difficult time, and I had a lot of existential stress about music that centered around two main questions: Am I doing music because I love it, or because it is the only thing I am good at? Is music valuable?

I wanted to take time off from school to get my head together, but in doing that I would have lost my Mom and Dad scholarship, so I had to make a decision amidst a lot of tears and pressure. I did seek out advice: some of it was good but uninformed and unhelpful; some of it was downright bad. I wish I had sought out more.

I believe the first question is something every serious musician asks themselves. Why do we pursue music? It is an essential question. Music is extremely demanding. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort, years of study, and financial investment in lessons, instruments, and equipment. During my high school years, I had spent more time on musical pursuits than anything else I did. I practiced more than I worked at my part time job, more than I did homework for all other classes combined, and more than I socialized with friends. Over the course of a year, I spent more time in rehearsals and performances than at any church or youth-group related event. Music was my life.

When I got to college, that continued. But when I got frustrated and felt like I hit a wall with the department, the motivation to continue suddenly dropped out from beneath me. Why was I doing this? On the trajectory of pursuing music, I had pretty much left everything else behind. I wondered why. I had been an honors student in high school and could have chosen other paths. Why didn’t I? Was music just easier for me, or did I really love it more than any other pursuit? Was I fulfilling my potential “just” being a musician?

Was music even worth the pursuit? Anyone who cares about others wants to make a difference and do something that benefits the world at large. Can music help one fulfill this purpose? During my time of questioning, I was told by a spiritual leader that being a musician was selfish and that I should do something that actually helps people instead of being stuck in a practice room all day. To her, music wasn’t valuable at all. I felt that she was voicing what so many other people thought, that ultimately my work in music was considered worthless, and her words were what ultimately convinced me to switch my major.

I have regretted that decision ever since.

I can’t say that I didn’t use my degree in elementary education. Many parts of it have been useful. However, I believe that we use whatever learning we have. I have also used parts of my college classes in botany and even geology. Go figure.

Within a semester of leaving my music degree, I began to miss it tremendously. The first question got answered: Do I love music? Absolutely. I couldn’t live without it. I continued to practice and learn about music despite no longer being a music major. The motivation to do so came from within, not from the requirements of a teacher, a class, or a degree program. Am I capable of other things? Yes. Music didn’t make me dumb, and it didn’t turn me into a one-trick pony. With hard work and determination, I could do almost anything I wanted to. Later on I came to understand the value of music more in it’s impact on developing skills in learning and self-discipline, on the workings of the brain, and how much it can create community, lift people up, and bring beauty to a dark world.

What matters most is where I want to invest my time and effort.

I’ve always had a lot of hobbies. As an adult, I’ve spent a great deal of time gardening, making bread, making cheese, and doing various crafts. I like reading up on all sorts of topics. There are many things that interest me. But the interest only goes so far. When I’m out in the garden, I like it just enough to grow food for my family and sometimes share it with friends. But I don’t like it enough to fight the weeds and bugs sufficiently, not enough to put in the real effort of making a living at it. I like baking bread. Could I be a baker for a living? No. I don’t like baking bread enough to get up before dark to turn on the ovens. Not enough to invest in a food preparers license or rent a commercial kitchen. Insert just about any hobby I have, and the answer is the same. I like it, but not enough.

Music is not a hobby for me. It is a passion. It is the only thing I have found, thus far, that I love enough to devote the energy it takes to work at a professional level, for the public. I can involve myself in music-related activities from morning to night and not get bored: practicing, composing, reading a biography or theory book, researching techniques or history, teaching, listening, performing. It doesn’t get old.

For about fifteen years after college, I didn’t know if I would ever work professionally in music. If I had completed a full bachelors of music in my undergrad years, it would have been much easier for me to continue my education in music. But the fact that I didn’t, combined with getting married, raising and homeschooling young children, and moving halfway across the country so my husband could attend seminary, meant that my only motivation for increasing my musical abilities were internal. I had no prospects for work. I had no prospects for performance outside of volunteering at church (although I did set up a casual solo recital once.) I had a few piano students, but not many, in my tiny, rural town. I continued to practice and learn new pieces, almost every day. I wrote pieces. They weren’t very good as I had no training in composition, but I made attempts. I continued to grow as a musician because I loved music.

This season of pandemic has caused the motivation to drop out for many musicians. This morning, I read Zach Finkelsteins’ post at Middle Class Artist, “We are Not OK“, in which he said, “I came to realize over the course of the pandemic how much my discipline and dedication to the craft required something to work towards, a tangible goal. Practice for its own sake, without the opportunity for shared human connection with my fellow musicians, without the electric thrill of a live performance, feels hollow, a facsimile of my old life.”

I understand those feelings. They were the feelings I felt for a decade and a half when I didn’t know if I would ever truly work as a musician. When the bottom drops out, we have to ask ourselves serious questions. Why are we doing this? Is our motivation for being musicians external or internal? Do we really love it enough to keep going when the external rewards are non-existent?

My personal opinion is that if music is not done for love, it’s not worth it. I have known musicians who, pre-pandemic, were working professionally and making decent money, yet counting the days until they retired. I always wondered why they bothered. Music is just too hard. If all you’re after is a good income, do something else. There is easier work.

The pandemic will make it clear for many musicians whether they’re in it for love or money. For some, time off from rehearsals, performances, and even practicing will make their heart ache, like it did for me. Others will realize they don’t miss it, and somewhere along the way the love died. Those that find they love music will continue in it. They may need a day job to cover living expenses, but the music won’t die. They will carve out time to practice or compose. They will keep up their musical growth and fitness and be ready when things pick up again. Those that discovered music was just a job may find they would rather be in a new line of work.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

Expect the Haters

I recently had the opportunity to attend an online entrepreneurial music business workshop. Several presenters gave ideas and suggestions on all aspects of building one’s personal brand, networking, marketing, creating content like podcasts, and finding new students. It was all very helpful. But one session in particular stood out: Jeremy Todd, in his session on “Building a Business Mindset,” said straight out: “Expect the haters.”

Wow. That phrase shocked me: EXPECT the haters. In other words, getting push-back or a lack of encouragement, even from people you love – family or friends – is inevitable.

This is something I wish I had known years ago.

Learning new things as an adult is hard. When we’re young, learning new stuff is a way of life, for everyone. When we’re in school, our classmates are also learning, even if it’s not at the same rate. Based on my own experience, I would argue that most kids do not know how much they have to learn. They don’t yet have an end-goal in sight. Failure may sting, but it’s not particularly risky. We might get a bad grade or embarrass ourselves, but we’re not going to lose our house. However, as adult learners, we have a different perspective. We’re more aware of how far behind we are as beginners and how fast we need to catch up if we’re trying to establish a career. We’re more aware of our personal limitations; we’re more aware of who is already successful; we’re more aware of the cost of learning, in terms of money, time, and effort. It’s stressful.

Venturing out on a new project or working to turn a dream into reality as an adult is even harder. It’s one thing to make the effort to learn a new skill. It’s quite another to take that skill and make it public, whether through a new business, an invention, or a piece of art. What if it fails? The adult life is one full of responsibilities to other people. It could be a family dependent on you to provide food; it could be the bank or a landlord expecting payment. There’s not a lot of room for risk and failure.

It is easier to play it safe.

(This is not a criticism of those who choose not to go on career or creative adventures. I do not think everyone is given an entrepreneurial spirit.)

What happens sometimes is those who want to play it safe may criticize those who start new things. They become the “haters”: those who outright discourage you from trying, tell you it won’t work, demonstrate disinterest, don’t show support, and refuse to lend aid or make an investment, however small. Jeremy Todd says you will get even more push-back from those who are close to you, but it makes sense. He likes to think it comes from a place of love: these people are afraid for you. They don’t want to see you fail. Or, he says, it might come from a place of feeling inferior: their feelings are hurt because they don’t have the talent, inspiration, or motivation to do what you’re doing.

Earlier this week, I read “Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity” by Hugh MacLeod which, incidentally, is probably the best book I have read thus far on creativity, though I am obligated to give a warning about the language. MacLeod takes a very practical look at working and living as a creative individual, which makes this book stand apart from other, also favorite, excellent, but more philosophical books such as “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield, “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert, or “Walking on Water” by Madeleine L’Engle.

In “Ignore Everybody…”, MacLeod has a different take on “haters.” He says, “Good ideas alter the power balance in relationships. That is why good ideas are always initially resisted.” Wow. It’s not that other people want to control you. They just want things to stay the same – the way they know and expect, an attempt to retain a sense of internal comfort.

This really does help me understand why I should not take things too personally. I have never expected everyone to appreciate my music, but it is enlightening to understand now that some of the worst push-back can come from the people who are the closest. That connection may be precisely why some are so uncomfortable with my new ventures.

I have always liked sharing, and that includes discoveries I make along the way. I admit it is disappointing when those I care about want to stay back rather than join me in the adventure. But at least I now know, despite how it is communicated, that is not a rejection of me but a reflection of where they’re at.

As Hugh MacLeod says, “There’ll be a time in the beginning when you have to press on, alone, without one tenth of the support you probably need. This is normal. This is to be expected.”

Maybe, someday, the haters will change their minds.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

Music is Much More Than Performance

Making music with a group of like-minded individuals with one purpose before a responsive audience sharing their pleasure at hearing it is a thrilling experience. Audience members and musicians alike look forward to that moment of connection. But to consider music only as a type of performance leaves it vulnerable to becoming a superfluous form of entertainment. Yes, music is a performing art. But it is much more than that.

Due to the pandemic, I have not given a live performance in over a year, and I am certainly not the only musician in this situation. Performances may be cancelled, ensembles may not rehearse, and audiences may not gather. But music remains.

The end result of music is not simply a performance. While performance is a wonderful celebration of hard work and brings enjoyment to both the musicians and the audience, it is only a byproduct. Music is not just an art; it is a discipline. What music produces is a growth in character and thinking. For that reason, it is valuable regardless of whether or not rehearsals, performances, or audiences exist. I decided to take this time away from performing to consider other ways music has impacted me as a person.

I have been a musician all my life. I was brought to church, hearing the organ and choir each week, from before I can remember. My Mom sang songs with me and my sister, and my Dad began teaching me the piano when I was three. I have studied music ever since. In this post, I will list the various things that I believe music has contributed to my growth as a person. A few caveats: I am not saying I am fully formed in each of these areas, I can’t guarantee that all musicians develop these traits, and music is not the only discipline that can help develop these traits. However, I do believe the study of music is important because it does encourage the development of these traits – and perhaps more so than in any other singular discipline. (These are in no particular order.)

Patience. Sit around and wait. And wait quietly. Wait for the lesson of the student before you to be over. Wait while the director rehearses another section of the ensemble. Wait your turn for an audition. Wait while other musicians you are traveling with pack up their instruments. Wait for late audience members to get seated before the curtain rises. Waiting in lobbies before appointments or in line at a store or restaurant is nothing compared to the waiting I have done as a musician.

Perseverance. There is hard work. Then there is hard work that takes months or years of effort before seeing any significant results. Learning music is this second kind. I tell my beginning students and their parents to expect it to take at least three years of lessons before playing music really starts to become fun. The enjoyment to frustration ratio is very low at the beginning as students spent more time deciphering notes than playing a piece fluently, and the beginning pieces are often boring. However, being an advanced player doesn’t eliminate frustration. Endless hours of practice are needed to perfect difficult sections of music, when the ability to understand the music exceeds the ability to execute it. As a composer, I must persevere when I spend a good amount of time writing garbage and have to throw it out and try again. We must persevere when our feelings tell us we’re no good and should give up.

Humility. When one sign up to study music, one agrees to being told every week about the need to improve. There’s no such thing as having “arrived.” The most famous soloists still work at improving their craft. Some of those famous people are the most humble because 1) they are aware of their own shortcomings, 2) they know how hard every musician must work, and 3) they know the lucky breaks they’ve received that other musicians who worked just as hard didn’t get. A musician who does not practice humility is a musician who is not practicing. Humble musicians improve.

Multi-tasking, but also focusing. I know, the recent thinking is that multi-tasking is less efficient than not multi-tasking. I just happen to disagree. I do many things at once because I’ve learned to. In ensembles, one reads and/or watches the director, listens, and plays/sings all at the same time. One cannot play music well without multi-tasking. On the other hand, musicians must hyper-focus. Independent practicing and zooming in on even a single beat, to make sure that every detail is exactly right, requires intense focus. Advanced musicians can spend a long time in a room alone with their instruments (or notation tools if they are a composer) and do nothing but work. It’s not uncommon for me to practice for two hours straight at the piano before taking a break. I have to remind myself to drink water and use the bathroom. How do musicians simultaneously focus on their parts and multi-task by listening to the rest of the ensemble during a performance? It is a mystery! But this is how musicians’ minds work.

Intentional listening. Listening to one’s self – for the right notes, rhythms, phrasing, tone, dynamics; listening to others – to match rhythms, phrasing, tone, dynamics, as well as to balance and fit the parts together correctly. In improvisational settings, a musician also listens for the holes in the music and then fills them. The musician is listening to learn and thus respond appropriately. This is not casual listening.

Self-evaluation. Beginning musicians must be corrected by their teachers, and the rate of learning is dependent on how often they have lessons and how much correction they need. As musicians improve, they take on more self-evaluation and can recognize and correct more of their mistakes themselves. This requires a commitment to self-criticism. While it is important not to become unhealthily obsessed with perfection, a good musician avoids lazily accepting mediocrity.

Interpretation. Music is a large category with many genres and styles. Each genre or style requires it’s own technique to be played properly. In order to do this, the musician must understand how to play it. I have heard many classical musicians attempt to play jazz music; it sounds awkward and stilted. I have heard jazzers try to play classical music; it’s sloppy and unrefined. That’s not to say NO classical players can correctly play jazz, or that NO jazzers can play classical music well; some can. But it takes a lot of effort to learn the setting and approaches of these different types of music. Even within the larger category of classical music, there are different approaches: one plays the work of Joseph Haydn far differently than the work of Claude Debussy. Under the jazz heading, Big Band music is far different from Bebop. No matter what kind of music one is playing, the mature musician has learned how to make the musical decisions which bring the music to life in a way that accurately portrays the time and place it came from, whether old or new, whether from one’s own culture or another. It is impossible to learn all the different styles and genres, though I personally think it is important to learn as many as possible. Music also provides the opportunity to develop cultural appreciation as one learns about the historical and stylistic development of various musics.

Fine Motor Skills and/or coordination. These skills will vary depending on the instrument. Piano requires both fine motor skills and coordination, as pianists use all the fingers in various combinations and usually use both hands together. Drummers playing set must coordinate both hands and both feet! String players must coordinate their fingers on the fingerboard with bowing, strumming, or plucking with the other hand. Wind players must coordinate the movement of their lips and tongue with their fingers. And so forth.

Pattern Recognition. Music is all about patterns. There are patterns within pieces that help to create a sense of continuity. There are also patterns, like rhythms for example, that transcend individual pieces and help musicians quickly learn something new. Not only do musicians recognize patterns, but they also notice the minute changes to a pattern.

Attention to Detail. The level of detail musicians must pay attention to is astounding. Simultaneously, they have a sense of how their tongues are held in their mouths or how their fingers are touching their instruments, the manner they are sitting or standing, the way they breathe, the proper start, pitch, length, and finish of a note, how loud or soft they must play. Some of these details can change from one split-second to another! Musicians develop an internal sense of how long a second is and then are able to divide that into smaller units. It is not uncommon for musicians to play at speeds where notes last for 1/10 of a second or perhaps even faster!

Planning ahead/preparedness. One cannot cram learning music. That’s not to say people don’t try. But there is a limit to how quickly one can train the muscles to play the proper notes in the proper time in the proper way. Each person is different in how long it takes to learn music, but an insufficient amount of preparation will become obvious during performance. (Caveat: not all mistakes are due to a lack of preparation.) Musicians must plan ahead to make sure that they learn the music. They have to set aside enough practice time, and they also must plan out how they spend their practice time. Which sections of the piece are most difficult and need more work? Directors of ensembles preparing for a concert must consider how much time is needed during rehearsals to master each piece. If this is not planned out well, the audience will know which pieces got more attention than others. Musicians also must plan their months and even years in advance, making sure all performances and rehearsals are marked on the calendar. Musicians can’t just show up to gigs and immediately start playing. They must lug their gear around and set up. They have to give their instruments time to acclimate to the performance space. They have to give themselves time to get their heads together. Musicians must prepare for the possibility of some things going wrong. When I was playing saxophone and clarinet a lot, I always brought an extra reed up on stage with me. A few times, I have switched reeds during a concert because the one I had cracked. Guitar players carry extra strings. Musicians also must plan ahead for regular instrument upkeep and repair and have a plan in place if their primary instrument must unexpectedly be in the shop at the same time as a performance.

Self-direction. Learning music is like learning to read. Once one is proficient, the world is opened up. There is nothing except the level of effort one wants to exert that limits a musician from branching out. New pieces, new styles of music, new instruments, new projects, new techniques. No one is going to call up musicians and tell them it’s time to practice or experiment with something different. All of that is the prerogative of the musician. They have learned to be self-directed and can do whatever they wish if they decide to use that skill.

Did I miss any? What else would you add to this list? I would love your input!

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

Farm to Table, Studio to Earbud

Music is a lot like farming.

Before you think I’m crazy, hear me out.

I know a lot of musicians, and I know quite a few farmers. Not surprisingly (to me), there is a connection between the two. Musicians, at least most of the ones I know, are extremely interested in the natural world. Obviously, so are farmers. A lot of farmers are amateur musicians. (Admittedly, most musicians are not farmers and perhaps not even gardeners, but Giuseppi Verdi famously had a career in both fields simultaneously.) However, a love for the natural world is not the only thing that connects farmers and musicians.

This past summer while on a volunteer harvesting session at a local farm with Hope’s Harvest, I got talking with the other harvesters, one of whom was also a musician. She quipped, “Farmers and musicians are both dreamers.”

Yes, farmers and musicians are both dreamers. It is this that connects them.

It’s not just the hope of the dream coming to fruition. It’s not just the love for the people they serve, those who eat their food or listen to their music. It is also about the enormous amount of effort, time and money they put into their livelihood, the frustrations of the variability of income due to the season or other events outside their control, and the willingness to scrape by and create diverse avenues of income to piece together a living. It’s also about the shared experience of the average consumer having no accurate concept of what it takes to get food onto their plate or music into their ears.

The American consumer is subsidized in ways that most do not understand. Most simply pick up food at the grocery store without much thought to how it got there. They don’t see the billions of dollars the government gives to agribusiness to insure farmers and keep costs low at the grocery store. They don’t see the depression farmers face. They don’t see that many farmers save money by selling their produce and then buying canned veggies at the store instead of eating what they grew themselves. Most customers have only heard of the big-ag companies; they don’t know the first name of the small-time farmer living in the next town over.

Likewise, most music lovers do not understand that their listening habits are subsidized. Instead of being underwritten by the government, the costs are kept low for them through advertising. They can listen to the radio or stream music on the internet for “free.” They’ve heard of the music stars that get famous; they know the big record labels. But they don’t know the names of local bands or members of the local orchestra.

Most people do not realize how extremely expensive it is for both farmers and musicians to make a go at it. Farmers spend a tremendous amount of money on land, equipment and supplies, often going into an extreme amount of debt. They have to buy seeds and animals on “spec”, hoping that a good season will reward them with enough income to at least break even on expenses, excluding the cost of their own sweat. Musicians, too, must invest in instruments and travel. Some even mortgage their instruments because they cost so much! Independent musicians put up thousands of dollars of their own money to create albums to sell, hoping they will sell enough to break even on expenses, excluding the cost of their own time.

Farmers and musicians who work with the big companies have their hands tied in many ways. They are contracted to grow this or write/perform that. Ultimately, they do not own their own product; the big companies do. They farmers and musicians actually growing or creating the product earn pennies on the dollar for each sale.

The independent farmer and musician have control over their fields and their music, but they also take on all the risk themselves. As smaller operations, they can be more flexible, but costs are much higher. They are not required to conform to larger market expectations but can create a niche customer base, offering unique products and a direct relationship to their customers and audience.

As a consumer, you have a choice. You can stick to the familiar marketplace, or you can seek out the independent producers. It’s the difference between shopping at a big box store or frequenting your local mom-and-pop shop. When you support an independent farmer or musician, you are supporting a small business and contributing to your local economy. Plus, you will have the benefits of knowing your farmer or musician personally and access to food and music you can’t get anywhere else.

I encourage you to go small and go local!

The professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, “Daughter of the Stars” has just been released on Ablaze Record’s Orchestral Masters Volume 7. I partnered with Ablaze in this project. I paid for and own the recording, while they took care of production, the album cover and other things. They have permission to use the piece on the album; we split the profit from sales. I am a small business; so is Ablaze. By purchasing this recording, you support two small businesses for the cost of just $1. You can find the recording here:

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

Love Came Down at Christmas

Music is something beyond rhythm and pitch. It is beyond any written notation, no matter the style – or even if it is written at all! The notes, the chords, even the instrumentation are just a medium, an avenue for communicating the message which is transcendent. We must listen beyond, much like we must read between the lines of a poem. Like the notes in music, the words of a poem are only a vessel for the message. Well-placed syllables and vowel sounds, the use of alliteration and onomatopoeia, and various other poetic devices are not the meaning in themselves. They only direct the reader to the meaning.

Back in September and October, I was in quite a slump and did not compose at all. One day in early November, I was contacted by a woman I only knew through Facebook, a friend of a friend, asking if I had any pieces suitable for Advent or Christmas. She was looking for something new to sing for her church’s Christmas Eve service, instead of rehashing the same old standards. At that point I didn’t have such a piece, so I decided to write one for her. I did not want any money for it because I was writing this for my own benefit. It wasn’t just about the wisdom of having such a piece in my portfolio; it was also about my need to get back to composing regularly after about two months of stagnation. The encouragement of being told my work was desired was enough reward and something I needed more than payment at that time. (She and her fellow performers were also willing to give me a copy of their recording, which is very helpful.)

I asked if she had a text in mind.

Finding the right text is the most difficult, and most important, part of writing a vocal piece. I am very picky about the text. The flow of the words, whether syllables are more open or closed, the rhythm of each line, and the pattern of rhyme (if there is one) all contribute to whether or not I will take on the challenge of setting a text.

She suggested “Love Came Down at Christmas” by Christina Rossetti:

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

I’ve got to be honest that, while I enjoy much of Christina Rossetti’s work, this poem is not one of my favorites. The mouthfeel just doesn’t work for me. The changes in the shape of the syllables from line to line seem abrupt and rather square. I don’t like square; I like round. The syllables are short, the words are short, the lines are short, the stanzas are short, and the entire poem is just three stanzas! It takes about twenty seconds to recite the poem out loud, with pauses. It’s impossible to stretch it out further by reading each word slowly. Try it! It sounds silly. It also seems to me to be “unfinished.” I get to the end of the poem and feel a bit like I was left hanging. Is that it? I would not normally have chosen this text myself, but since I did not have the emotional energy to go find one I liked, I accepted the challenge.

One piece of compositional advice I have heard is that a good estimate for the amount of time it will take to set the text in music is about three times the length of reciting the poem. For this poem, that would be about one minute. Adding in accompaniment, I knew I could stretch it out to about one and a half minutes, but this still was not sufficient. I knew immediately I was going to have to do something to change up this text.

When I first began working on the piece, I was unhappy with the sound of it. I was writing for a church service and using a very popular poem, so I wanted to keep the music relatively approachable for the average listener. Yet, I wanted it to be more like a classical-style art song than a popular-style common in much of Contemporary Christian worship music. My piece was heading in the direction I didn’t want.

As I discussed the issue I was having with my twenty-year-old daughter, she encouraged me to try and figure out what the poem was really about. In a “Duh!” moment, I realized I had skipped some very important steps before beginning to write the music. Normally, I jot down words that capture the feelings and ideas that I hope to communicate through the music. I do this for all pieces, vocal or instrumental. But this time, I had forgotten to take the time to do this. I had forgotten to read between the lines of Christina Rossetti’s poem. The words were just a frame. What was she really communicating? So, I went back and spent more time with the poem and wrote down some thoughts.

There’s a difference between setting text and setting context.

I am reminded of the words of one of my English teachers admonishing my class of young writers: “show, don’t tell.” That’s my job as a composer: show, don’t tell. Simply setting text without trying to capture the substance behind the words is simply “telling” or “reciting.” I need to use musical devices to help bring listeners on a journey to encounter the transcendent meaning for themselves.

Christina Rossetti’s works are in public domain; I do not need to get permission to make changes. So I did. Musically, I stretched out the words and made the single-syllable word “love” last an entire measure in some places. I repeated words and parts of phrases. I rearranged the lines of the first stanza so I could make the musical ideas more cohesive.I made the first stanza into it’s own musical section. I combined stanzas two and three into one section because the third stanza answers the question that ends the second stanza, and in my mind, there was interior rhythmic consistency that brought them together. I then repeated the first stanza/section again to address the unfinished feeling I got from reading the poem and to reiterate the answer to the question of “why?” inherent in the second and third stanzas. All in all, I made this short, pithy poem last four-and-a-half minutes.

Earlier this week, I made the mistake of listening to other settings of this text. I did so in response to a strong sense that I needed to modify my own piece slightly, which I wrote about in “When Music Wakes You at 4am.” I came away feeling insecure. I complained to my husband that my setting, comparatively, seemed to come out of left field. “It’s just so different. All these other settings are so pretty and in major and mine is in minor and, well, it’s just so angsty.” He responded, “Of course it’s angsty. It’s 2020. Times are tough, and you’re a product of your time. The angst of these days is going to show up in your work.” Each artist interacts with their sources differently due to different personalities and experiences. My own self, mingled with the uneasiness of 2020, influenced how I interacted with the meaning in the poem and combined to create the meaning in the piece.

The idea of a poem or a piece of music being only the container for a message relates very much to the Christmas story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh. The body was the container – one that we, as humans, can recognize and interact with, much like how poets use words that we understand or composers use notes we can hear and comprehend. But Jesus was much more than an ordinary person; he was God, incarnate. The acts he did in the body – the way he lived, taught, performed miracles, died, and rose again – all those things point to something much greater: the message that mankind can be at peace in relationship with God and each other, the message that Love came down at Christmas. In becoming a person, Jesus didn’t just communicate God’s love for the world; he also experienced life from a human perspective and became familiar with our suffering. During this topsy-turvy year full of illness, death, unrest, injustice, distress, chaos, and uncertainty all around us, the Incarnation takes on even more significance, at least for me.

So, I present my setting of “Love Came Down at Christmas”, by Christina Rossetti, written during November 2020 and premiered by Michelle Marinelli Prindle, soprano, Dan Prindle, cello, and David Kidwell, piano. In these times, they needed to make a recording for their church’s virtual Christmas Eve service, and they chose to do so by recording individually and then making a video. This creates challenges that don’t exist in a live situation where everyone is performing together in one place! The piece and the recording, both, are a reflection of our time. I am grateful for their beautiful performance, hard work, and willingness to perform this piece. I hope you enjoy it and that it contributes to a deeper understanding of the words “Love Came Down at Christmas.”

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.