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.

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 One

I have been very happy to see articles about classical music show up recently in publications that appeal to more readers than the small subculture of arts aficionados. A couple of months ago, I responded to news reports about the controversy regarding music theory and analysis covered by news outlets such as the Dallas Observer, National Review, and NPR. (See “Is Music Theory Racist?”) In this series of posts, I am responding to articles I have seen show up in such diverse publications as Slate, Vox, and The Bulwark which make the claim that classical music is, or is not, elitist. (Links are to articles relevant to this discussion.)

I want to point out that all the links above are to opinion pieces. And, likewise, what I present below is my personal opinion, based on my first-hand experience. However, I believe that my personal experience provides a unique perspective. Unlike many classical musicians, I am not purely trained in classical music. My training spans classical, jazz, and musical theater, and my professional work does not primarily involve other classical musicians; I mainly work in a community setting, with music-loving amateurs. My perspective comes from both my education and my work.

In short, my answer to the question, “Is classical music elitist?” is: yes and no. Elitism has to do with restricting access to certain people. Classical music is not inherently elitist, but the culture surrounding it has been. Does it have to be? Absolutely not!

Part 1

I’ve been playing the piano since I was three years old, which now brings me to over forty years of playing. Until I was thirteen, I had a strictly classical training; at that point, I got sick of it and switched over to jazz. At the point that I “quit” classical piano, I was playing advanced high-school/early college-level Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, as well as some of the more challenging Chopin waltzes. The first time I played a classical piano solo written by a woman was, oh, about two weeks ago.

I’ve been working on an educational project about musical form, for which I’ve been selecting some public-domain piano pieces to prepare and perform. The upcoming video is on the minuet and trio/scherzo and trio form. As I began to prepare this project, I pulled my handy collections of piano sonatas off the shelf, leafed through and found a few pieces. I quickly chose something by Haydn and something by Beethoven. As I prepared them, I began to feel that these two pieces were not enough. I needed something newer. As I began to seriously look for something unfamiliar to me, I hoped to be able to find a suitable piece written by a woman or a person of color. It also had to be in the public domain!

That’s hard to find, and part of the reason is that website searches are not set up for such criteria. Of course, I made use of the International Music Score Library Project. However, while I could search “Minuet” and “Scherzo” for solo piano, all I got for search results was a list of pieces with the last names of the composers. The listings did not include the composer’s date of birth, gender, or race. It would take me a very long time to research each composer in the list to find out that information! The best I could do was scan the list and see if there was any last name I recognized as belonging to a female. I found a piece: a Minuet by Cecile Chaminade. I was lucky I knew who she was, and that was only because I have attended a performance of her flute concertino. Otherwise, her name would also have been unknown to me.

When I printed out the piece and started practicing it, I started asking myself why I hadn’t been introduced to this piece earlier in my life. Why, as a young, relatively accomplished pianist – a female pianist at that – was I not introduced to the piano works of female composers? This piece by Chaminade is no more or less challenging or interesting than the Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin I was learning at age thirteen! It’s a super fun piece! (See this link for a description of the unfair criticism she faced as a female composer.) How much more motivation would I have had to continue in classical piano studies if I had had access to this work?

The author of the opinion piece in The Bulwark claims that classical music is not elitist because anyone, regardless of background, can be moved by classical music. Listening to and appreciating classical music does not require a certain education or cultural sensitivity. I do believe that is true; I think anyone with an open mind can appreciate classical music. But elitism is not about the music itself; it is about access. And access to classical music, and within the realm of classical music, has been cut-off to certain groups for quite some time, intentionally or not.

In high school, when I chose pieces to prepare for the state Solo-Ensemble Competition, I looked through the big, blue New York State School Music Association book of graded repertoire, listed according to instrumentation and difficulty. When I turned to the piano section, I came across the same standard last names: Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, even Gershwin. To my knowledge, no female composer was listed there. Back in those days, before the internet, it wasn’t easy to search uncommon names. The local library didn’t have it’s own copy of the New Grove Dictionary of Music.

Do musical girls need role models of female composers? Do students of color need role models of composers of color? That’s a resounding YES!

The fact that female composers (as well as composers of color) have been historically left out of the educational repertoire IS elitist. Those lists communicate who is, and is not, considered part of the club of legitimate composers. These things are beginning to change, thankfully, as more of the committees who design these repertoire lists actively attempt to include minority composers. But people like me, who grew up before this was considered important, have to work extra hard to intensively search for such material.

Let’s change things.

Let’s publish more music written by female composers and composers of color (I’m assigning myself a project here.) Let’s increase the amount of information provided about composers in searches (are you listening, IMSLP?) Let’s add more pieces composed by females and persons of color in the repertoire lists (and, yes, include the first names so we have a better idea of gender and race!) Let’s start appreciating the different qualities these unique perspectives bring to classical music. All these things increase the flow and accessibility of classical music, from composer to performer to audience.

Has classical music been elitist? YES. Does it have to be? NO!

(By the way, as I was creating the links for this post, the capitals I put on Cecile Chaminade’s name were automatically undone and when leaving out the capitals for Mozart and Beethoven, they were automatically put in!)

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