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!

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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.

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.”

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.

When Music Wakes You at 4am

Sometimes I can’t sleep for the music swirling in my head. Despite my body happily resting, my mind is a whir, playing and replaying pieces. Not even whole pieces. Segments of pieces. One line. One phrase. Over and over. This commonly happens when I’m in the middle of a musical production. One season, Charlie Brown and Linus just would not leave me alone!

I have heard that some composers dream up new compositions. I usually only dream of compositions already written. If it’s someone else’s piece, I can continue to “sleep”, somehow resting despite the conscious awareness that my mind’s playlist is on repeat. I often have my own pieces churning in my head for days or even weeks after finishing them, my mind still digesting the work. It’s annoying, but I can deal with it.

When I’m in the middle of composing a piece, I relish the fact that my mind works on it while I am sleeping. Sometimes I wake up with solutions to a problem I’ve been trying to solve, or I wake up with ideas for a new direction. In fact, I often look over my work right before bed to give my subconscious something to do. It’s a way of making good use of my natural tendency to overthink.

But this week, I had a different experience. I had recently finished an art song for a virtual Christmas Eve Mass and even turned it in to my performers a few weeks ago. Yet, I woke up at 4am with the intense feeling that it needed fixing. This one I couldn’t shake off. I was too stressed out to fall back asleep and got out of bed. I spent part of that day listening again to my own piece, as well as a couple of other settings of the same text I had used, trying to figure out what about the piece was bugging me, and if it was worth the effort of making any changes. After all, Christmas Eve was one week away (yikes!) Did I really want to inconvenience the performers, who were making a recording (in other words, it involved more time and effort and starting work on the project sooner) on such short notice?

I didn’t act on my feelings that day.

But like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, who ignored the warnings of the first ghost, I was visited again in my sleep by the nagging sensation that I needed to FIX MY PIECE – the dang piano part! Two measures needed a little more movement to push into the following measures, and I needed to make the notation in another measure clearer. Minor changes, but still…

The anxiety of making these last-minute changes spawned more thoughts: My performers are giving me a recording. I’m going to try to sell this score. Don’t I want the recording people will hear to match the changes I know I need to make in the score? What if this is my only shot at a good recording? Time is ticking away. The longer I wait, the more I will inconvenience the performers. But these are minor changes. Surely they won’t mind. But what if they have already recorded? I don’t want to put them out and make them re-record. After all, this is for their church service and I’m getting a copy of the recording for free. I don’t want to be a pest.

Once again I got myself out of bed at 4am, unable to fall back asleep. It took me all day (until about 8PM) to gather up the courage to contact my performers, ask politely if they could possibly accommodate the very minor changes, and send the updated score. At that moment, I was very, very grateful for digital technology! All turned out well, and they agreed to the changes.

Now I know that if I am wakened at 4am by thoughts that plague me about alterations I need to make to a piece that I thought was already finished, I just might have to listen the first time, especially if I already have people lined up to perform the piece. It is not worth waiting, because I will only be haunted again the next night, and perhaps every night, until I obey the spirit.

Resolving this issue has brought great relief, and I slept much better last night. Now I eagerly await the recording. I am very excited to hear my piece performed by real musicians instead of the computerized mock-up. Stay tuned! I will release “Love Came Down at Christmas”, my setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem, as well as more thoughts on the compositional process, on Christmas Day.

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Proprioception, Peripheral Vision, and Playing the Piano

When I was a child, my mother often would often say to me, “Lift up your feet when you walk!” or, “Pay attention! Look where you’re going!” I’ve never had great proprioception. I veered while I walked until I was dating my now-husband and learned to not run him off the sidewalk when we walked together. I am still very clumsy and hit my head while getting into the car, walk into the corners of furniture, bang my hands against the doorknobs while walking down the hall, and spill, drop, and knock things over almost daily. While it is not debilitating, this somewhat diminished sense of my body in space can be an aggravation.

Interestingly, I don’t have this issue at the piano. Perhaps it is because I have spent more time sitting in one spot at the piano than I have in any other singular space? Perhaps it is because piano practice involves more focused attention and detailed training? I’m not sure. But when it comes to the piano, I always know where my fingers are. When sitting in a normal position at the piano, I can find all the octaves of the piano, without looking, based on the feel of the distance between my elbow and my waist and the angle of my arm and shoulder. From there, I can find all the individual notes based on the span between my fingers.

All musicians use some sort of proprioception to play their instruments. The way their hands are shaped, their arms are held, the location of their feet and knees, or the angle of their torsos all affect what note or sound is produced. But piano is still a little different because, unlike many other instruments, there are not multiple options to play at least some of the notes. There is only one Middle C. There is also only one key for playing every single other pitch. All eighty-eight of them. The keyboard is large; any note can be played by any finger, right or left hand, depending on the music. Sometimes I must lean my entire body towards the uppermost part of the keyboard; less often, I must lean my entire body towards the lowermost part of the keyboard.

When I play my saxophone, I can’t look at my fingers and see where to place them. This is true for many instruments. However, while the keyboard is in front of me, that doesn’t mean I get to look at my hands unless I have the piece memorized. Moving my head up and down too much while reading music increases the chances that I will lose my place on the paper. Imagine if you had to keep turning away from a book and then find the exact word you were on when you turn your eyes back. It’s like that, except I’m also moving my hands and fingers at the same time, trying to maintain a continuity of music.

Being able to read a piece of music quickly without looking at one’s hands is a necessary component of sight-reading piano music. My first official piano teacher began teaching me how to do that when I was about six years old. She would put music in front of me to play for the first time, and I was not allowed to look at my hands. She made me rely on sensing the location of the piano keys. I got started very early on with becoming intimately familiar with the the piano keyboard.

My use of proprioception at the piano doesn’t mean I don’t use my eyes. I didn’t really understand how much I actually do “look” at the piano keyboard while I play until the COVID-19 pandemic began and I started to use a mask while playing the piano at church. All of a sudden, I couldn’t see my hands while playing! I thought I didn’t look at them, but it turns out I do – using peripheral vision. I had previously associated peripheral vision with the corners of my eyes, but apparently I use downward peripheral vision as well. Now, that is blocked by a mask. I got around it. Since I was playing familiar hymns that didn’t require a lot of fast movement across the keyboard, I could rely 100% on proprioception.

My new bifocals have caused greater problems. The eye doctor gave me the option of getting two pairs of glasses – one for distance, and one for reading – or bifocals; I opted for the bifocals. I figured I could get used to them without much trouble. For regular reading, they work great. They cause difficulty when reading music at the piano.

I know other musicians who read music with bifocals, but they are not pianists. They can adjust their head or their stand a little bit to accommodate the necessary angle required by the bifocals. I can’t. I must look at the piano music straight-on at eye level. While wearing bifocals, that causes me to look through the distance portion of the lens, which makes the music even smaller, or straight through the line that divides the lens, which makes everything blurry. When I tilt my head back slightly to read the music through the bottom portion of my bifocals, all my peripheral vision of the keyboard is gone. I can’t see any of the keys to the left or right out of the corner of my eyes; I can’t even see the mask!

I can get away with using proprioception alone when playing music that doesn’t require too much movement up and down the keyboard. But, when playing something that is all over the keyboard, I rely heavily on my peripheral vision to anticipate where my fingers will land. Wearing bifocals has forced me to move my head when playing more complicated pieces. Moving my head more has meant I’ve had to find my place in the music when looking back at it – except now I experience wavy lines of music, a second of blurriness from the line dead-center in the lens and a moment of adjusting as I tilt my head up once again. I can take my mask off when I’m practicing, unlike playing at church. But I can’t take off my glasses if I’m going to be able to read the music.

(If you’re a pianist and you need reading glasses, learn from me. Perhaps bifocals will be suitable for most activities, but separate reading glasses for the piano are a must.)

I used to think I relied solely on proprioception when playing the piano, but the changes in my fields of vision over the last few months have made me aware of how much I do depend on my eyes. If I had enough time to learn a piece and was more skilled in memorizing, I might be able to get away with using proprioception alone. However, my work as a collaborative pianist, and the speed at which I need to learn new music, necessitates the use of peripheral vision which enables me to simultaneously look at the music and guide my hands across the keyboard even when I am not looking directly at them, in addition to being able to look at a conductor or other musicians for cues. Proprioception and peripheral vision are both important aspects of playing the piano.

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Is Classical Music Elitist? Part Three

This post is a continuation of “Is Classical Music Elitist?”. To see my introduction and read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.

Part Three

In this post, I am not discussing the appreciation of classical music, but the participation in classical music as a performer.

Classical music, in any culture, is a high art, which sets it apart from other forms of music such as folk music or popular music. Classical music is not the only type of music to be a high art. I would argue that some jazz is, but not all. However, pretty much all classical music would be considered high art.

I hate the term high art. It implies that a high art is higher, and thus superior to, another form of art. I don’t agree with this sentiment. I believe all types of art are very valuable, and they all have their place in a culture.

However, the descriptor “high” is not used for only art. In mathematics, for example, higher mathematics are “of more advanced content than ordinary arithmetic and algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and beginning calculus” according to Merriam-Webster (italics are mine.) While we might call these “lower” mathematics ordinary, that doesn’t make them less important at all! In fact, most of us use arithmetic, basic algebra, and basic geometry on a regular basis, if not daily! I personally occasionally use Algebra II concepts, though not formulas, in my approach to musical composition, and my basic understanding of Calculus certainly helps when I am reading up on pitch temperament and the overtone series.

Ordinary math is common to most people. Higher math is reserved for specialists. The same is true for classical music. Folk and popular music are, by definition, common. Classical music is reserved for specialists. It is not common.

One could say it is “elitist” because it is out of reach and inaccessible to many. Following this argument, many things are “elitist.” Working for NASA is elitist. Medical school is elitist. Becoming a full-time professor is elitist. These things are not open to everyone.

That’s not a problem.

Most people I know hate math and do not complain that they don’t pursue higher math. Most people I know do not wish they had gone to medical school and put in the grueling hours demanded of interns. They know the effort and money it takes and said “not for me.” It takes a tremendous amount of time, effort and money to complete a PhD, then endure the hoop-jumping required for gaining tenure, to become a full-time professor. Many quit along the way.

Playing classical music professionally is elitist. And it should be.

The competition is fierce, and the music is artistically and technically extremely demanding. Classical music, at least in the Western tradition, demands surgical precision. Those who pass auditions and make it into professional ensembles have paid their dues, in years of diligent practice and thousands of dollars invested in training and instruments, and are worth every penny they make, and more. The more the number of professional ensembles is reduced, the more intense the competition, the more elitist the field becomes.

One cannot become a classical musician simply by listening to a recording and copying what is heard, outside of the very rare prodigy. A teacher is necessary. A teacher will correct posture, hand positions, pitch, technique, and so on. A teacher will explain and demonstrate musical interpretation. A teacher will guide students to appropriate opportunities for musical growth outside of lessons.

The access to quality teachers is where the problem of elitism in classical music resides.

Schools don’t prevent students from ever working for NASA or from becoming doctors or professors by cutting academic studies in elementary and middle school. Yet, while public schools are required to provide instruction in academic disciplines without extra expense on the part of students, music programs in many districts are cut, even in comparatively well-to-do suburban towns! Even in the districts where musical instruction is provided, beginning students who wish to learn to play an instrument must provide their own instruments. Later, as students advance, they will require study with private teachers who specialize in an instrument if they are to continue to progress. This automatically reserves musical instruction for those who can afford it. It is not simply an issue of talent or desire. I would argue that most people have innate musical ability that has never been tapped into and developed. Sometimes that is due to a lack of interest, but for many that is due to a lack of opportunities stemming from a lack of resources.

It’s not wrong for the professional field of classical music to be elitist. It is wrong to make the study of classical music elitist from the start.

A great number of classical musicians – those who I know personally or who I have read about – know they are privileged. They have either come from families that have had the resources to provide the training and materials they needed to achieve high levels of performance; or, they have been blessed with generous benefactors who have, directly or indirectly, assisted them through inexpensive or free lessons, purchasing or loaning quality instruments, providing scholarships to schools or music festivals, and so forth. Many classical musicians also seek to find ways to help younger musicians through these financial hurdles. Some have started foundations; some provide free or reduced-cost lessons themselves; some volunteer with educational programs for underprivileged students. I, myself, have taken action to provide low-cost instruction to many students.

My own children would not have had a quality music education themselves without programs like these. As much as I could teach them piano and theory, they needed specialists for their instruments. They both benefited from financial aid and scholarships, and for three years my son participated in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which was absolutely free, run only on donations. They were both loaned equipment and given quality instruments.

I will tell you a fact: it is not classical musicians who are keeping classical music elitist.

Rather, it’s the people who put up with eliminating music programs from the public school budget. It’s the people who say that studying music is not as valuable as studying math. It’s the people who say “studying music is not for me or my children; it is for the elites.” It’s the people who do not invest in the arts themselves, by attending classical music concerts or supporting musicians, ensembles, or organizations through donations. They are the ones who have decided that classical music should be reserved only for the elites.

I think it safe to assume that most classical musicians would prefer for classical music to be less elite. We would all like to have more ensembles, more performances, and a larger audience. We would all like to have more students and more support from the public. We would like more people to participate.

We can’t change the music; classical music is demanding and difficult, and those who perform it professional are, indeed, elite musicians. But we can change the culture surrounding classical music education. We just can’t do it alone.

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Is Classical Music Elitist? Part Two

This post is a continuation of “Is Classical Music Elitist?”. To see my introduction and read Part 1, click here.

Part Two

Let’s talk about names.

One of the recent controversies to hit the news regarding classical music is in regard to how we name composers in concert programs and wherever else classical composers are discussed. In this article in Slate, Chris White, an assistant professor of Music Theory at UMass Amherst, makes the claim that leaving out the first names of well-known composers while providing the full names of lesser-known composers is racist and sexist, and thus elitist. Daniel Lelchuck, Assistant Principal Cellist in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and host of the Talking Beats podcast, says “insisting on full names for everyone seem a little pretentious, annoying, tedious, and dare I say . . . elitist?” You can read his comments in The Bulwark here and in Quillete here.

As I said in my previous post regarding the elitism associated with classical music, I do not believe the music itself is elitist. However, I do think the culture surrounding classical music has been. On this particular point regarding composers’ names, I’m going to have to agree with Chris White. In concert programs, reviews, and other public discussions of discussions, full names should be used for all composers. However, I do not come to this conclusion for the same reasons.

I don’t believe that incorporating first names is an issue of racism or sexism towards lesser-known composers. While all the “big name” composers of the past were, as far as I know, white men, using their surnames alone does not preclude other composers from being part of the program. Yes, many lesser-known composers now performed are women or persons of color, but those “full names” listed on the program do also sometimes belong to white men. The issue of full-naming is not one of racism or sexism.

However, I believe it is one of elitism. When we provide only the surname of well-known composers, we are indirectly communicating that these composers are the “pillars” of classical music. They are the ones that deserve the most attention. They are big, they are powerful, they are the models to be emulated and provide the framework on which everything else is hung. All other composers are “lesser” – not just lesser-known, but lesser quality, lesser value, an afterthought. (This is further communicated when the work of the “big names”, so big as to only need a last name, takes up most of a concert program.)

Using only the surname of some composers makes classical music appear elitist to the general public. As I said before, my work brings me mostly into contact with music-loving amateurs who participate in community music. Some of them are classical-music aficionados, but many are not. My parents, who obviously raised a classically-trained musician, may know the first names of Beethoven and Mozart* (and that’s a stretch.) They certainly don’t know the first names of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bartok*, or a host of other composers who may have only a surname provided in a concert program. I know people who love to sing who likely do not even know that the sole name provided is a surname!

What does providing only a surname for the “well-known” composers communicate to the general public? Does it communicate that only people who already know these names belong at the concert? Elitist. Does it communicate that if audience members do not know all these names already that they are uncouth, uncultured ignoramuses? Elitist.

I’ve experienced “elitism” from the other end of the spectrum. In elementary school, I was “quizzed” everyday by my classmates who teased me for not being able to name more than one or two popular bands or hit songs of the time. They let me know I was weird and didn’t belong. I am still not up-to-date with popular music. Sure, I know a few famous names, but my knowledge has a limit.

Elitism is about being in an exclusive club. Too often, classical music concerts require that audience members already have a baseline level of knowledge in order to attend and get the most out of a concert. Even program notes are often obnoxiously heady.

In a day when knowledge and appreciation of classical music is waning and audience size is diminishing, it behooves performance ensembles, and anyone who writes or speaks about classical music, to make the connection to the music and the composers who wrote it easier for audience members, especially those who are new to classical music. No, the music itself is not elitist. It can move anyone. But, yes, the culture surrounding it has been elitist. It’s time that classical music was more accessible to more people. I find it very sad that the Filipino hotel worker Daniel Lelchuk mentions in his article had never previously had the opportunity to hear classical music. Could that be because of the elitist culture surrounding it?

Starting with using full names for every composer is an easy first step. Frankly, there is no good reason not to take this step. Dates and country of origin should also be given for every composer in the program notes. I understand that some performance ensembles are already doing these things – and kudos to them if they are.

There is one danger, however. In providing full names, dates, and country of origin for every composer in a program, the audience will quickly catch on that, in concert after concert, especially for orchestral music, 75% or more of each program is music written by long-dead, European, white males. The audience may tire of this and start demanding something else.

*Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang (how he is commonly known) Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn (as opposed to Fanny, his sister, who must be given a full name), Johannes Brahms, Bela Bartok

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