Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Music in Children's Ministry

While sitting in the sanctuary of the church this afternoon, I realize that I've not written about training the children in our churches to participate in the musical arts.  We have so little time with the kids each week and we have so many urgent things to teach them that are of eternal significance.  Often, I feel guilty trying to fit in some musical education.

Recently, I came to understand that by training children to read simple rhythms and musical notation, I am actually equipping them to participate in the worship service for years to come.  Traditionally this has been done in the form of a children's choir.  Sadly, that tradition is quickly fading from congregations around the nation.  How are we to teach children the basic elements of music in relation to the church service?

One method that I am currently using is hand bells.  I'm not talking about a huge system that costs a ton of money....even though I do hope to get to that point eventually.  I am using bells produced by Kidsplay at a fairly economical cost.  (As I recall, each 8 note set cost less than $40. Extensions and chromatic add-on kits are available as well to get you out of the key of C major.)  Here's how I'm using the bells.

I have taken a fairly simple song with which the children are familiar and written it out in notation.  Students are given a picture of the note they are looking for and matching the picture on their bell with the notes on the music.  Although I have not yet introduced rhythmic notation, the kids are learning to read from top to bottom, left to right.

Because I need to get this song ready for performance very quickly, I am modifying my approach tonight.  The children have lyric sheets that have dots over the words where they are to play.  It will not teach them more about music, but I am giving them the fun of making music together and allowing them to experience their first performance as an ensemble.  I'll let you know how it goes!

What are you doing in your local congregation to teach your children about music?  I'm always looking for fresh ideas, so please share in the comment section below.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Most Important Critic

As performers, we are constantly subjected to the harsh criticism of others. Some are well-meaning, offering advice meant to improve some aspect of our career. Some criticism is sparked by jealousy and insecurity on the part of the critic. Others are simply mean-spirited comments designed to tear us apart. I have had my fair share of all three categories of criticism recently. It is easy to fall into a state of depression as a result of the comments. After all, the performance that is being reviewed is not some laboratory experiment; it is an extension of me as a person – and intricately linked to my emotions and thoughts.

Finally, I have reached the point where I can say, “Enough is enough!” If you’re not happy with my interpretation of a piece, don’t listen. Don’t like my approach or my level of commitment? Find someone else to work with. You don’t like my teaching philosophy? Find another teacher. The single critic that can have a profound impact on my music is me….all the rest is just noise.

Do I think I have all the answers? Certainly not. As a musician, however, I have to make a decision that I am committed to and then run with it. I continue to listen to the advice of others – those I trust and respect, who have shown themselves to be genuine and courteous, wanting to see me succeed. When the curtain comes down, the one who must be able to defend the choices made is only me.

So, let the criticism come. These are the questions that I’m asking myself. Am I happy? Do I like the message my music is portraying? Am I being true to myself, my goals, and my dreams? As long as I can honestly say “yes” to all of these questions, my inner critic is pleased and I’ll happily follow the road ahead wherever it leads.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Finding Practice Time

I'm still adjusting to the demands of a career in music.  Now that my student days have passed, I find myself juggling responsibilities.  Sometimes it is difficult to fit everything in.  I'm finding it most difficult to schedule practice time.

Practicing is essential to the success of any musician.  Since it only requires one person -- me -- and my instrument, I try to fit it in between other activities such as meetings, classes, and coachings.  Here are a few of the things that I have found to be helpful in my own practicing.

1.  Realize the value of working away from the instrument.  Lots of musical decisions can be made without playing a note, including phrasing, articulation, and dynamics.  Analyze the form of the piece and its harmonic structure.  Study difficult rhythmic patterns.  The more of this advance work that I do away from the piano, the easier the playing itself goes.

2.  Listening is practicing, too.  I have recently realized how valuable reviewing recordings can be.  I am listening to not only professional recordings, but also to studio tracks of my own playing.  These rehearsal recordings are invaluable in revealing rushed passages as well as sections that are not coming across as I imagine in my mind.

3.  Small practice segments are perfectly acceptable!  It's much easier to find 20 minutes throughout the day to practice than to set aside 2 hours for uninterrupted practice.  The shorter sessions are also healthier!  My body has a chance to recover, my mind analyzes my playing, and my energy is renewed.  I find that several short sessions scattered throughout the day are much more productive than one long rehearsal that drains all my energy.

4.  Schedule it!  Whether I write it down or just plan it out in my head, I have a tentative schedule daily.  While including other tasks, make sure to fit in time for practice.  if I know where it's coming in the day, I find myself looking forward to it and fight to protect its appointment from being stolen by other activities.

I am certain that there are other tricks you have found to insure practicing fits into your busy life.  I'd like to hear from you -- so share your experience in the comment section below.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Keeping Students Motivated

Teachers spend many hours preparing lesson plans and assessing student learning and understanding.  Sadly, all of this planning is worthless if we are unable to motivate our students.  Whether we are considering private lessons or a traditional classroom setting, the dilemma is the same.  Here are a few things I have found to be helpful in motivating students in their musical studies.

First, establish how the study of music is beneficial in other areas.  A piano student may rebel against learning music theory until they realize that it will also pay dividends in their math classes.  Recently, a student had a complete attitude change when she saw the effect her music appreciation class was having on her understanding of world history.   All students can see the value of having a leg up on their colleagues in other classes, so play up these advantages.

Diversity is the spice of life, so look for opportunities to mix things up.  My piano students enjoy stepping away from the instrument to watch a video occasionally.  In history classes, I look for as many scandalous anecdotes about composers as I can find!  The naughtier, the better -- students relax and the person leaps off the page and into their memory.

Keep it fun!  Disguising learning into some form of entertainment is invaluable.  Make your students laugh; never let them predict exactly what's coming next.  Even when they are working hard, the possibility of silliness and fun keeps them coming back for more.

Praise success -- and demand even more!  I am quick to celebrate the accomplishments of my students, but I am never satisfied.  There will always be more to learn, more to explore, and more to achieve.  Learning is a lifelong pursuit, not something we achieve at the end of the semester.

Often my students ask me to lower my standards.  It's not going to happen.  My job as an educator is to help them see all they can achieve and give them the necessary tools to do what they are capable of.  That's why my piano students are constantly learning new music and why my exams are notoriously difficult.

Am I able to motivate all students?  No, there are those who are not interested in learning.  They are merely pursuing a diploma -- a piece of paper that has little significance when separated from true intellectual achievement.  Those students who are pursuing an authentic learning experience find my classes challenging and demanding -- but ultimately a truly rewarding experience.  Those are the students who motivate me to continue motivating new students year after year!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Music and Worship - Part III

I am still thrilling from the beautiful worship time that I participated in on Sunday morning in my local fellowship.  It is so thrilling to know that our praise has reached Heaven and that God has taken pleasure in our worship and honors us with His presence in such a special way.

In the final installment in this series on music and worship, I want to focus on the idea that music can often precede great victory.  Clearly music is often our response to victories won as songs of celebration and rejoicing fill our mouths.  What I have found in my own life is that as I worship in the midst of my struggles is when I prepare myself to receive the overcoming deliverance God desires to give.

This revelation first came to me many years ago as I studied the story of Jehoshaphat found in II Chronicles 20.  The Moabites and Ammonites were coming against the people of God.  Jehoshaphat and his army did not know what they were going to do.  After receiving direction from the Lord, the King appointed singers to march in advance of Israel's army.  They were to "sing to the Lord and to praise Him for the splendor of His holiness as they went out at the head of the army."  (II Chronicles 20:21)  As the worshippers began to sing, God began to fight on their behalf!  Notice the description the writer provides of the victory:  "When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert and looked toward the vast army, they saw only dead bodies lying on the ground; no one had escaped."  (II Chronicles 20:24)  That's what I call TOTAL victory!

I think the implications are clear.  When we worship and place God in His rightful position in our lives, we allow Him to move in our circumstances and act on our behalf!  Israel could have gone forward to face the battle on their own, but victory would have been doubtful.  Rather, they offered their praise and God came on the scene.  Isn't it comforting to realize that things and people are transformed in the presence of a Holy God? 

Need some things to change?  Invite God to come on the scene by praising Him for who He is!  After all, "He inhabits the praise" of His people (Psalm 22:3).

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Beginning of a New Era

On Saturday evening, I attended the opening concert of the 2010-2011 season of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.  This evening was made additionally more exciting given that it also marked the beginning of Maestro Mei-Ann Chen's tenure as music director.  Given my personal feelings about the city of Memphis in general, I was pleasantly surprised to leave the concert with an optimistic view of the future of classical music in Memphis.

The program featured staples of the Russian repertoire:  Shostakovich's Festive Overture, Op. 96; the well-known First Piano Concerto of Tchaikovsky; and the Scheherazade Symphonic Suite, Op. 35, by Rimsky-Korsakov.  The music programmed was a fitting opening for what appears to be an exciting and well-rounded season of literature for the Symphony.  Dr. Chen appears to be confident in the ability of our players, made evident by the demanding repertoire scheduled.  In her introductory remarks, Chen stated that it was her goal to see MSO become the finest orchestra in the region during her tenure;  based upon the musical sensitivity and excellent sounds she elicited from her players on Saturday, I believe she is just the woman for the job.

The entire program was glorious, but the Rimsky-Korsakov simply took my breath away.  I especially enjoyed the exquisite solo passages played by Concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore as well as those from Jennifer Rhodes, principal bassoon, and Scott Moore, principal trumpet.  The commitment to musical excellence demonstrated by these three players in these incredibly demanding passages renewed my hope and faith in our Memphis Symphony.

Rarely will one attend a performance where they enjoy everything.  Saturday evening's concert was no exception.  While I applaud MSO's commitment to developing young musicians, I hope that my ears are never again assaulted by the overpowering sounds of a high school marching band playing in the aisles of the Cannon Center.  Don't misunderstand -- the sound was quite good and I would have appreciated it in a setting designed for such loud decibels.  In the current setting, however, the playing was physically painful.  Based upon the body language of others in the hall, I am not alone in this opinion.  Many audience members -- both in the balconies and on the main floor -- and members of the orchestra could be seen with their hands covering their ears in a vain attempt to muffle the sound.  There must be a compromise;  as a patron, I want to be supportive of the arts in our area schools, but not at the detriment of my hearing.

As far as the Orchestra itself, my only complaint was with the woodwind section.  Throughout the evening, I felt as though some members of the section were struggling to play at the new level that Ms. Chen is introducing.  I realize that we all have performances when we are simply not at our best.  In keeping with that maxim, I will reserve my judgment until I listen further to their performances in the future.  I am certain of this one thing -- Mei-Ann Chen is a gifted woman with a clear goal in mind for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.  She will bring the best out of all of her musicians, but I have a feeling she will not hesitate to make personnel changes as she deems necessary.

I am looking forward to hearing about the next concert on October 16-17, 2010.  I am thrilled that my dear friend and fellow Pepperdine alumnus, Jessica Rivera, will be the featured soloist on the Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915.  On the other hand, I am upset that I will miss the performance due to another engagement that weekend on the left coast.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Continued Adventures in Teaching Note Reading

Tuesday was another fun-filled afternoon of piano lessons in my studio.  Recently, I have noticed two students that have struggled with note reading, so I decided to use some note-reading worksheets to see if I can determine the root cause.

The younger student is constantly second-guessing her playing and making mistakes.  Her understanding of rhythm, however, is developing nicely.  When given the treble clef worksheet, she would pause occasionally to check notes -- especially as they moved into the upper range of the staff where we have not yet done much playing.  I didn't find this alarming.  As I checked her work, I found that she was consistently correct in her responses.  Now I'm completely puzzled.

The thought occured to me that I need to ask her to play the individual measures from the worksheet.  The student played the correct letter names, but almost always in the wrong register of the instrument.  There's the problem:  there is a missed connection between the geography of the written score and that of the keyboard.  I loved the sparkle in her eyes as we together figured out what the problem was and I assured her that it can be fixed.

Student #2 presented a slightly more difficult situation.  This student is the same teen that I wrote about last week.  We worked on a bass clef worksheet.  I sat and watched as she tried to figure out the notes by using rudimentary memory aids for each of the lines and spaces.  Although ultimately accurate for the most part, I must admit that it was a painful process to observe in a student who has studied music for over two years.  When we went to the keyboard, we began to dialogue about how she approaches reading a piece.  Her  answer was that she is looking at the distance and direction the notes are moving and making an educated guess at the correct note.  Her instincts are quite good, but her lack of reading skills and regular practice do not allow her musical ear to be the helpful tool that it can be.

With my beginning student, I think I have a clear plan of attack now that I have some insight into the underlying problem.  My teen student is a different story.  I'm trying to brainstorm how to teach this concept that was never a difficulty for me personally and not something I have encountered in another student before.  Since she performs excellently in math and science, I am considering approaching the problem by intensifying the theory study during our weekly lessons, but I'm not sure that approach won't compound the problem rather than resolve it.  I certainly have a lot to ponder this week.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Music and Worship - Part II

Last week, I began writing a series of posts focusing on the role music plays in the spiritual life of the believer.  We began by looking at music's ability to calm the human spirit.  Let's continue this week by looking at what causes the calming influence:  music connects man with the Divine.

Throughout history, music has played an integral role in the worship practices of all cultures and religions.  In Daniel 3, we read that the Babylonians used musical instruments to signal the beginning of worship to Nebuchadnezzar's statue.  Ancient hieroglyphics suggest that music played a vital role in Egyptian religious rites honoring their many gods.  In Greece, a roofed concert hall, the Odeion, was built on the slope of the sacred acropolis site.

While these cultures all agreed upon the importance of music in connecting man to the Divine, we will now focus exclusively on music connecting the Christian to God.  The process I am describing is one that many believers study throughout their lives.  What a worthy pursuit -- studying how to worship God effectively through music.  I pray that I will be a lifelong student of His worship!  Instruments can be used in the worship of God in a very special way, but for the present discussion I want to focus on singing since it is a form of music making that is available to all people.

Take a look through the book of Psalms and you will repeatedly encounter the phrase "Sing to the Lord!"  While there are instructions to "play skillfully" (see Psalm 33:3), we are also told to "Make a joyful noise unto God" (Psalm 66:1).  That leaves us without excuse and essentially tells us that regardless of our skill level -- or the quality of our voice -- we are to SING!  Take a look with me at a few of the things singing does for our spirit.

Psalm 66:2 instructs us to "Sing the glory of His name; make His praise glorious!"  Let me be abundantly clear here;  singing is NOT the only act of worship in which we can participate.  However, I DO think it is held in high esteem by the Heavenly Father.  Think about it...angels sang their celebratory praise song at the announcement of Christ's birth and they continue to sing praises around Heaven's throne!  We as believers join our voices to the Heavenly chorus as we sing praises to the One who alone is worthy of our highest praise!

The New Testament provides some additional insight into the role of singing.  While Ephesians 5:19 shares the evangelistic power of music, I have been drawn to I Corinthians 14:15 recently.  In this verse, the Apostle Paul writes, ". . .I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind."  In the context of the chapter, Paul is speaking about the orderly use of the gift of tongues in the church.   I think we can examine this single phrase out of context and discover a priceless gem of truth.  Singing is identified as both a spiritual act and a mental act.  It is possible to go through the physical motions of singing without engaging the spirit man;  the opposite, however, is not true.  Singing becomes an act of worship when our mind and spirit come in agreement and recognition of His absolute Lordship.  When we finally reach this point, we are fully submitted to His will, enabling Him to transform us as He wills.  It is then that we begin to experience the final role of music in the life of the believer -- that it often precedes major victories!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Stanley Drucker with the Eroica Ensemble

On Saturday evening, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing clarinetist Stanley Drucker perform with the Eroica Ensemble under the baton of Michael Gilbert.  Drucker's reputation as an exquisite musician with wonderful technique was obviously well-founded.  While the music presented was a bit banal in my opinion, the performance as a whole was excellent.  To improve future performances, some attention should be given to the running of the front of house.

The program opened with Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492.  This delightful piece served as a fitting precursor to the centerpiece of the evening, Drucker's performance of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, also by Mozart.  Drucker's athletic arpeggios and scales were dazzling, but most enjoyable was his attention to the long lyrical lines of the piece.  This was especially evident in the slow middle movement.

Following intermission, Drucker returned to the stage with Weber's Concertino in E-flat Major, Op. 26.  This through-composed work again displayed many of the same characteristics appreciated in the Mozart, only this time on a smaller scale.  To close the evening's concert, the Eroica Ensemble played Haydn's "London" Symphony, No. 104 in D Major.

A few questions remain in my mind.  One is a question of technique;  the other addresses the issue of programming.  Throughout the performances of both the Weber and Mozart Concerto, Mr. Drucker would flail his left hand into the air at the end of extended passages.  When I first noticed it, I assumed it was a communicative device.  As I continued to listen and observe, it became evident that the orchestra continued at each occurrence of the flailing hand without ritardando or accelerando, so it did not appear to be necessary.  As I pondered the technical demands of the clarinet -- given my admittedly limited knowledge of the topic -- I could find no plausible technical reason for the movement.  In fact, I tend to believe that the extraneous movement may have generated issues that would have been eliminated by maintaining a more stable posture.  The only possible explanation I can arrive at is that the flourishes were included to provide visual stimulation for the audience.  I found the dramatic inclusions to detract from the music rather than heightening its intensity.

The question of programming is more philosophical.  Understand that I genuinely like each piece on the program individually.  On Saturday, however, I found myself quite bored by the time the Haydn came around, given the evening's total devotion to music of the Classical era.  I admit that this was my first experience with the Eroica, so I may be missing something about their programming practices and philosophies.  Personally, I found it incredibly difficult to focus on the concert as a whole -- and Mr. Drucker's playing in particular -- given that everything on program was similar in form and harmonic structure.  I don't discount that there are valid reasons for arranging a program in this manner, it is just not my personal preference.

Now to the issue of the house staff.  I realize that the evening's ushers were probably volunteers given Eroica's status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation.  With this in mind, I commend the staff for their warmth and overall welcoming demeanor.  Because of the excellent music coming from the orchestra, I do think there can be some improvements made that will result in a more pleasing experience for everyone.  What I noticed is that two ladies in clicking high heels proceeded to cross behind patrons six times by my count during the middle movement of the Mozart Concerto.  At no time were they approached by a member of the house staff.  I understand that it is not the responsibility of the ushers to instruct obviously oblivious audience members in the finer points of concert etiquette, but I would think it acceptable to request late-comers wait until an acceptable time to locate a seat, especially given the extremely live acoustics of First Congregational Church.

I truly hope that this posting does not convey that I did not enjoy the Eroica concert.  On the contrary, I thought the evening was magnificent and commend Eroica for their contribution to the Memphis music scene.  As a performer, I take notice of many things when attending a concert.  Raising questions does not imply that other wonderful aspects of the evening went unnoticed.  The comments strictly are a representation of the issues on my mind as I left the recital hall on Saturday evening. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

American Art Song Recital

Last evening, I had the good pleasure of attending a recital presented by Diane Reich, soprano, and Scott Holden, piano, at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. The evening of American Art songs featured works by Amy Beach, Samuel Barber, Henry Mollicone, John Pickett, and Lori Laitman. It was nice to revisit some old friends while being introduced to some wonderful pieces with which I was not familiar.
Art song has always held a special place in my heart because it was where I first began my work as a collaborative artist and remained my specialty throughout my studies. In the past few years, my focus has shifted to instrumental chamber works and I am growing to enjoy that work more and more. Last night's recital was a refreshing bath of sound as Reich's luxurious sounds and impeccable diction washed over my ears and soul. It became evident to me while sitting in last night's audience that it has been far too long since I have collaborated with a singer in recital. That is something that must be rectified soon. I am planning a program with a dear friend for Spring, 2011 in New Mexico, but I truly hope I can find an interested singer in the Memphis area to perform with prior to that engagement.
For this musician, the highlight of the recital was the set of sacred songs composed by Samuel Barber. In addition to his familiar works "Crucifixion" and "A Slumber Song for the Madonna," I was introduced to two other Barber songs that I plan to add to my repertoire soon. "The Praises of God" was quite charming despite its unusual style. "The Monk and His Cat" stole my heart! The American jazz idiom heard in the piano is superbly scored while allowing the cat's wanderings up and down the keyboard to provide interjections of humor without disrupting the music's flow. I suppose it's just another example of Barber's mastery of the vocal form.
The last half of the program featured compositions by living American composers. While all three sets had notable qualities, the works of Henry Mollicone were most interesting to me. I am currently unfamiliar with the composer's work, but anticipate investigating his oeuvre in more detail in the near future. The excellence of the performance of these works can probably be attributed to the fact that Dr. Reich has completed extensive research on the composer's vocal music, making her a leading authority in the field. The first works of Henry Mollicone that I encountered were "The Frost Pane"; "If You Were Coming in Fall"; "I Never Saw a Moor"; and "May's Love." Not only were the vocal lines creative and interesting, but the piano was given exquisite melodies that were an outstanding compliment to the works as a whole.
Now I find myself realizing just how much I miss working with singers on a regular basis in their weekly lessons. The passion for the work went far beyond the people with whom I collaborated or the income earned; the aspect that brought me the most joy was regular interaction with the wonderful literature written for voice and piano. Regardless of what else I may play, my heart will always long to return to my first love of the collaborative piano literature.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Understanding Classical Music – The Mass

In most survey courses of Western music, the earliest music studied is Gregorian Chant. These single-voiced compositions were the official music of the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages and were grouped according to the season of the year that they would be sung. Chants were the basic elements of the musical portion of the mass – the church service.
When discussing the elements of the mass, the chants fall into one of two categories: the Mass Ordinary and the Mass Proper. The Mass Ordinary were those chants that consistently appeared daily as part of the mass, regardless of the church holiday that was being celebrated. Five chants made up the Mass Ordinary: Kyrie ("God have mercy"); Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world"); Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy"); Gloria ("Glory to God in the highest"); and Credo ("Apostle's Creed"). Other chants that appeared in the mass varied daily and were determined by the Church calendar. These daily changing portions of the mass comprised the Mass Proper.
It was Guillaume de Machaut who first raised the standard of the Mass as a musical form. Machaut's Notre Dame Mass was the first polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary. In other words, Machaut composed music for all five sections of the Mass Ordinary to be sung by multiple voices of equal importance (polyphony). This first significant Mass setting, like most of the others composed during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, were written for a cappella voices.
What began with Machaut became a long standing tradition in Classical music. Many of the greatest composers of Western Music such as Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms would add their compositions to the opus of Mass settings. Over the centuries, the Mass became more complex, growing from its relatively simple a cappella beginnings to include the full power and grandeur of the symphony orchestra accompanying massive choirs.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Music and Worship – Part I

Music communicates. This fact is rarely questioned. Music speaks to the heart, emotion, and intellect of mankind in a way that words alone cannot parallel. I think the power of music is most greatly seen in the realm of the spiritual. I feel obliged to pause briefly and clearly state for all my readers that this post will be the first in a series that will explore music from the perspective of a music minister and a Christian. If you are looking for theory or analysis of Classical music, come back tomorrow when I return to that topic. I ask you to bear with me for the next few Tuesdays as I devote some attention to the power of music and its role in our spiritual lives.
Let me share with you briefly what gave birth to this line of thought. Earlier today, I shared a CD recording of some hymn arrangements that I made a few years ago (Great is Thy Faithfulness: Hymns for the Heart of Worship c. 2005). I played well on the album – if I do say so – but more importantly, I felt as though that recording captured a very special time of worship in my personal life. After hearing the recording, the friend commented that he was greatly moved. He stated that the music reminded him of something that he had lost [my interpretation of his words] – something he had experienced years earlier in a small group gathering of Christian believers. As I reflected on his comments, I began to think about my personal experiences with music as they related to my walk of faith. I came to immediately recognize three facts about music's role in spiritual matters. There may be more that I may explore later, but for the next three weeks, I want to examine one of them each Tuesday. Consider these statements:
  • Music calms the spirit of man.
  • Music connects man with the Divine.
  • Music often precedes and/or accompanies great victories.
As I think of music's calming effects, my mind immediately races to the story of David playing his harp for a troubled King Saul. The Old Testament book of I Samuel tells that Saul was plagued by an evil spirit (I Samuel 16:14), but that the spirit would leave Saul when David would play skillfully upon his instrument.
Many find that music has a calming, soothing influence upon their minds. They identify music as a means that leads to relaxation. I think that there was more going on than just the plucking of harp strings calming the King's nerves. Rather, I hold that the young David not only played skillfully in the King's presence, but also with the anointing of God's Spirit. In my personal experience, not every skilled musician can speak to the deepest part of my soul with their music. I appreciate their talent and applaud their effort, but there is something lacking. However, when I hear a performance that is offered as a sacrifice of worship – regardless of the style of music being played – I often find myself summoned into the presence of the Most High God. That is where I begin to experience restoration, forgiveness, healing, and peace that I cannot find anywhere else. Do I think the music itself possesses the power? No, but I do believe it is an invaluable tool to take us to the Source of all power. That role of music will be examined next week.
Do I think my friend entered the presence of God while listening to my music today? I don't know for sure, but I suspect that he might have – even if he didn't totally recognize it as such. What I do know is that music can quiet our mind and spirit in such a way that we are finally able to clearly hear the voice of God speaking into our lives.
Tonight, my prayer for you is that in the midst of your personal chaos, music will transport you into the presence of a Holy God and that you will hear Him singing over you His perfect song of love.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Preparing to Attend Your First Concert

As a follow up to yesterday's post, let me offer three practical pieces of advice that I find most helpful when preparing to attend a concert.

Prepare to fight the enemies! For most new concert goers, there are two common enemies that will attempt to make our adventure a bit uncomfortable: drowsiness and a nagging cough. With a bit of advance preparation, we can combat these villains of the concert hall. The lovely music you will hear can often be a sleep-inducer, especially after a long day at the office or in the classroom. Here are a few suggestions to help counter the inclination to sleep. Carry a small pad and pen to the concert with you and make a few notes throughout the performance. The note-taking process will help keep your mind alert and focused. It is also helpful to allow enough time to enjoy a caffeinated drink prior to the concert. Obviously this is not the optimal time to enjoy a Big Gulp, but a moderate-sized beverage can be helpful.

Coughing plagues audiences around the world, so come prepared to moisten your throat if necessary. If it's cold and flu season, having a few medicated cough drops in an easily accessible pocket is a great option. Otherwise, carry along a few peppermint disks. While it may be briefly irritating to those around you as you open the wrapper, it is much more desirable to the alternative of unending coughs during the performance. In the event that you find that the cough drop will not alleviate the problem, excuse yourself quickly to the lobby for some water. Although you will not be allowed to return to the auditorium until the end of the piece, most concert halls broadcast the performance to the lobby.

Purchase the best ticket available that is within your budget. Tickets to live performances can be quite costly. Most venues offer inexpensive seats beginning at $15 or $20 in price. The sound quality in these seats is perfectly fine; they will serve as an acceptable introduction to the world of concerts. However, if your budget allows, purchase tickets that are closer to the stage. By moving forward, you become a part of the energy of the concert, experiencing the event to its fullest. While searching for the best seat, keep your personal budget in mind. Nothing will insure a bad experience more than worrying about the amount of money you spent on the evening's ticket.

Know the program in advance. Most symphony orchestra websites are easy to find on the internet. With a little effort, you can discover exactly what is to be played on the evening's program that you will attend. Make note of the composers and titles of works. If possible, find recordings of the pieces that will be performed; search both the internet as well as your local library. Listen to some of the music that you will hear, but do not feel as though you must learn it. The goal is to acquaint your ear with some of the sounds. When we hear passages that we recognize, our minds are put at ease and we are able to simply enjoy the music and the experience. Familiarity breeds comfort and that is what we are hoping to obtain!

Now you have some tools in your arsenal to insure that your first visit to the concert hall is a great one! Above all, keep the primary purpose you are attending the program at the fore of your mind and simply enjoy the music!

Friday, September 3, 2010

First Concert Primer

Have you ever thought you would like to attend a classical music concert but felt you lacked some secret knowledge necessary to fully appreciate the experience? For most people, what they are actually feeling is fear – fear of the unknown and fear of behaving inappropriately in an unfamiliar setting. I want to give you some basic information that will equip you to confidently attend a classical concert and make the experience more enjoyable.

Plan to be seated 15 minutes prior to the start of the performance. Attending a concert is not like going to the movies; previews for upcoming presentations won't appear before the start of the evening's show. If you arrive late, you will not be permitted to find your seat until there is a break in the concert. In many scenarios, this will mean that you will miss the first piece in its entirety.

Arriving early affords you many benefits. First, you are able to take notice of all the visual stimulation in the concert hall before the performance begins. Since musical performances require the audience to depend heavily upon their sense of hearing, previously unnoticed visual images can become a distraction during the performance. The second benefit of arriving early is that you will be able to read the program notes included in the recital's program. These notes are intended to provide you with biographical information about the artists as well as the composers whose works you will hear. Occasionally you will find historical background about the pieces performed as well. Don't feel pressured to remember everything the notes contain and don't feel inept if you don't understand everything you read. Understanding music is a life-long pursuit. The good news is that you don't have to necessarily UNDERSTAND it to ENJOY it.

Turn off your electronics. Nothing is more embarrassing or more frustrating than trying to find a ringing cell phone that is competing with the musical strains coming from the stage. That noisy phone will insure that you get nasty glares from the other audience members sitting near you. The best practice is to turn it off since the transmitted waves can interfere with the auditorium's sound system; if you MUST have it on, make sure that it is on silent.

Dress comfortably. Many times we see images of women wearing extravagant gowns and men in tuxedos going to the opera. While there are formal occasions in the musical world when such attire is appropriate, they are not the norm. Simply dress comfortably for the event – considering both fashion and physical comfort. In nearly every social situation, it is just as uncomfortable to be over-dressed as it is to be under-dressed. In American society, most audience members find that business casual attire is appropriate for their concert experience.

Physical comfort is also an important consideration. Temperature can often be difficult to predict. Performance halls may be considerably cooler than other public areas or you may find that the close proximity with other audience members results in a greater level of warmth than you expected. Dressing in layers – such as jackets or sweaters – is a great way to insure you are prepared for whatever temperature you encounter.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

When a Student Hits a Proverbial Wall

Piano lessons are up and running again and I am having so much fun!  Students are excited about learning and about the new additions to our studio.  Perhaps I should qualify that statement....everyone is excited about piano except one of my students.  Let me paint the picture for you and share my dilemma with you.

This young lady is in 7th grade and has studied piano with several teachers already.  She first transferred into my studio last fall.  At her first lesson, I learned that she has been stuck in level 1 of her method book for several years.  The problem?  She simply cannot read bass clef!  I have played games with her, assigned pieces that are exclusively in the bass clef, and even tried becoming the harsh teacher that I despised as a child to find what would motivate her.  So far, nothing has worked.

As she returned to lessons this fall, I was told that she has now also enrolled in voice lessons with an overpriced, under-talented theater director (strictly my opinion of the teacher) and is now taking up French horn in the school band.  Her opinion of her own talent is supported by her parents' numerous accolades.  Sadly, her talent does not support such high praise.

Now I'm stuck trying to figure out how to proceed?  At this point in her piano development, learning how to read bass clef is essential.  When I pull her away from the instrument, she has the tools to figure out the note names, but it is definitely a struggle.  When she searches for the notes at the keyboard, a short 8-measure piece takes nearly the entire 30-minute lesson to plow through.

Clearly, she is not practicing.  I know that's the best solution to learning to read....just do it!  In the light that I have already spoken with her parent about the situation and they do not seem to object to essentially wasting their money on lessons that are at a stand still, what is my next step?  I don't mind taking the money (obviously), but even the most patient teacher in the world can only deal with the same issue for so long before going absolutely insane! 

As an act of desperation, I finally moved her through the rest of book 1 and now we are working on the review material found in the next level of the method.  At this point, I don't know who is beating their head against a brick wall -- her or me!  I'm looking forward to your hearing your comments, experiences, and suggestions.