When music makes me feel old…

Every so often something grinds me to a stop and makes me consider my age. Music isn’t usually one of those things. Oh, there’s always the knowing look when a particular genre turns up on the truck’s radio and I change stations because I find it jarring. Someone is bound to think, “Old fogies are in control of the radio dial again,” but I assure you I would have switched it just as quickly fifty years ago.

No, what has me thinking about my age today is the number of years music has been impacting my life.

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Even if I discount how readily family gatherings during my childhood ended up around a piano, or with a violin or melodeon, to sing favourite songs, and if I focus only on the years of my own active participation, I’m stunned. Why? Because they really add up, and I’ve never considered myself to be particularly musical.

There were the occasions while the grownups visited, when I closed myself into my grandparents’ dining room and struggled to plunk out one-fingered melodies by ear on their piano. There was also one summer during which my hubby served a prairie mission field, when a parishioner undertook to teach me some elementary piano basics on the out-of-tune church piano. And the year the organist in another congregation patiently took me through the first three Royal Conservatory grades. Ha! I was so self-conscious that no matter how much I practised a piece to perfection in solitude, I could only stumble through it during the next lesson.

So how I ended up years later leading a children’s choir can only be attributed to the sad fact that in our small congregation there was no one else capable or willing to volunteer. I wasn’t capable either, but apparently I was willing to try, and I persevered for several years.

Then, in 1994, seven months after arriving in our present congregation, I faced another plea to help — this time it was to direct the senior choir — and despite retiring four different times, I somehow ended up directing for the better part of the next nineteen years.

From my first exposure to church as a teenager when I was conscripted to join the choir, up to last year when my lack of voice and breath control convinced me it was time to stop, I’ve also sung in church choirs.

My ‘active participation’ in music leadership covers almost six decades! I must be really, really old! What’s more amazing to me, however, is that I still have only a rudimentary ability to read music. I’ve blustered my way through it all without being qualified, although I’ve certainly been opinionated.

For instance, as a choir director I have strong feelings about the purpose of a church choir. Perhaps that’s why I reacted to an article our associate pastor pointed out on Facebook recently. It offered “four functions to explain why the church choir exists” and emphasized that there was a specific order to the priorities:

“As the director of a church choir I use four functions to explain why the church choir exists. Those priorities help determine the programmatic choices that our music ministry makes. The functions are in a specific priority order, but I also believe each function is equally important as they must be present to have a vital music ministry. The four functions are to lead and enliven the congregation’s song, to sing music that the congregation cannot, to serve as a small-group within the church for faith formation, and to sing beautiful and challenging music to glorify God and to edify the congregation.”

My top priority is found nestled in the wording of her last one: to worship and glorify God and to help the congregation do the same.

You don’t want to know how many times I’ve lectured my choirs about this. If asked, they could probably repeat my words from memory: “What we do is never a performance. We’re here to assist the congregation in the worship experience.” I’ve always believed a choir’s sole purpose is to support the ministry, providing musical leadership for the corporate expressions of prayer, petition and praise.

While the author and I may differ on the order of priority, we do agree on other aspects. “A church choir’s job is not just to sing beautifully,” the article continues, “but rather it is to minister to the congregation and to each other in a variety of ways.”

I can’t provide statistics, but I’m pretty sure the majority of church choirs are comprised not of professional-quality singers but of volunteer members, many of whom love to sing but don’t know how to read music. I encouraged anyone who wanted to be involved whether or not they had technical skills. I gave out guidance on a need-to-know basis, keeping it simple for the sake of those who really didn’t care about it (or who might already know it).

4b531eb4f09c12f364035ee7ae323793A quarter rest? Ah, that would be the one that looks like a sideways seagull, dipping its wings for a one-beat rest. That’s it. Period. Some remembered the rest’s name; others remembered the seagull illustration. Either way, they understood the symbol meant not to sing for one beat.

Yes, it’s important to give our best when it comes to worshipping God with our voices, but I believe God honours the heart’s intention, not the voice’s perfection. I didn’t have the expertise to teach all the musical complexities and nuances, or to require them of my choristers. In most cases the music was learned by rote memorization and repetition to the best of our amateur ability, and then sung with joy.

That’s what I remember most about all those years participating in church music teams: that each one of us took joy in the shared musical experience of being part of a unique ministry.

Yes, that and how very many years it’s been! Goodness, I’m old! 🙂

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From the Archives: The Rhythm of Words

This has already been a full week, and now we’re heading into Easter weekend. I hope you’ll forgive me for choosing another post from the archives.

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Breezes dimple across the water and start wild grasses dipping and dancing. There’s a special rhythm nature brings to the seasons.

What do you think of when someone talks about rhythm? The repetitive thudding bass from the convertible that pulls up beside you at a traffic light? Maybe the toe-tapping that accompanies a rousing piece of music by a favourite band?

What about the rhythm of words?

Rhythm in Writing

I came across a fascinating ‘toy’ recently — the Rhythmwriter. Try it out and then come back so we can carry on our conversation.

Go ahead,

click on the link.

I’ll wait.

Isn’t it fun?

No matter the notes you choose, the resulting pulse is like a dancing heartbeat… a vital signs monitor gone berserk. One bar of assorted notes repeats to create a pleasing rhythm. At least, it’s pleasing until the repetition works its way into your head like an earworm and begins to drive you mad.

We need a certain amount of variety, in the rhythm of both music and writing.

“Just as musical notes blend together to create an auditory tapestry, so should your words.  Mix it up, shuffle the deck, alter the rhythm of your words.  Punctuate a paragraph with some staccato sentences.  Layer your language with elaborate harmonies.  Refrain from playing the same refrain over and over.  Use this musical analogy to think about your audience while you write and don’t forget to vary the rhythm of your words.” [Sari Mathes]

In writing, rhythm is achieved by varying the length of sentences and the style of their structure. We want the end result to sound like us — to reflect our literary voice — but at the same time we want the listening experience to be pleasant.

“The aims here are:

  1. to avoid overusing any one sentence structure in a way that becomes a distraction to the reader,
  2. to move gracefully back and forth between the clarity of simple sentences and the richness of complex sentences, and
  3. to evoke the rhythms of your own vocal style, with the same rising and falling of pitch, the same ebb and flow of phrasing between breaths.” [Michael Fleming]

Fleming suggests the best way to establish a natural rhythm is by reading your work aloud. I wonder how many writers do this. Do you? Do you read your manuscripts aloud while in the sanctuary of a closed room, play the words back to yourself via text-to-speech software, or perhaps share them with others at public readings or critique gatherings?

Are you conscious of developing rhythm in your writing? Do you think it’s more important in poetry than in prose?

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From the Archives: The Music of Words

A couple years ago I showed you this incredibly heavy box of music that was sitting in the middle of my kitchen. It represented over a decade of choral music collected by one of our church accompanists. In the same way as I hoard books, she hoards music, and for the same reason – it speaks to her.

She needed to downsize and was returning a portion of her collection. While I sorted through the six hundred-or-so octavos and several music books, I couldn’t ignore other similarities.

Notes build phrases of melody that blend into harmony, creating music that sings in my heart.

Letters become words and sentences, and grow into stories that beguile my imagination.

Both transport me to a new place. The creativity required to produce the best form of both is art, and originates somewhere deep within. When it is well done, it impacts those who listen… and read.

The creativity represented by all this music staggers me. Each song is unique and represents hours, days, months or maybe even years of the composer’s time. More significant is the piece of its creator’s soul that is embedded in the reality of each.

Composing words and music are both forms of writing, totally different, and yet so very much the same.

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If you are a writer, do you find your creativity spills over into other forms of art?

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Graphics by digitalart

 

White… or not

I’ll warn you right now. This is one of those ‘musings and mental meanderings’ that gave rise to the sub-heading of this blog!

With Lent underway and Easter approaching, thoughts of Christmas should be well shelved, tucked away to rest in the basement alongside the bins of lights and decorations. Strange as it may seem, however, the anthem I chose for yesterday’s church service was joyously Christmas-themed: “I Bring You Good News.” (No, the link isn’t to our choir or even our church, but it’s a chance to hear a generic version of the song if you’re interested. I won’t mind if you’re not.) 

Christmas music in Lent. Eyebrow-raising? Maybe. But my rationale was that the good news of the Gospel is appropriate in any season. That, and the chosen scriptures mentioned good news twice, and I suddenly couldn’t think of a better title.

The trouble is, now I have the song stuck in my head. You have to know my quirky brain to understand how the tune in my head led me to notice the patches of vivid white Snowdrops that greeted me as I arrived home from church, which in turn led to conversations with myself as to why the makers of Christmas tree lights can’t seem to agree on what is white.

SnowdropsMatted

It wasn’t so long ago that you could buy a new string of white Christmas lights without giving it a thought. Now, the choices include warm and cool whites, and goodness knows how many others, but the terms don’t seem to mean much when it comes to matching last year’s strings. And don’t get me started on shades of white paint!

I’m contemplating a minor redecorating project, covering a few grey walls with white to brighten the room, but who knew there were a thousand shades of white paint to choose from?

Choices come down to personal preferences. When it comes to Christmas lights, I prefer a crisp clear white, without blue undertones. Ask interior designer Candice Olson what her favourite ‘go to’ white paint is, and you’ll likely hear ‘Benjamin Moore’s Cloud White’…except it isn’t white. It’s one of the many off-whites with a hint of yellow.

Diversity is a wonderful thing, as are choices. That’s true in books, too. When it comes to writing and reading, there is a profusion of titles among many different genres — something for everyone. At one time it was simple to identify a genre, but now many authors are crossing genres with their writing. Old genre lists are no longer indisputable. I could use a good basic description of each one to simplify identifying exactly where my stories fit in.

Ah, but this isn’t the time to be worrying about that. I have paint chips to peruse. As for the colour, maybe I’ll grab a handful of Snowdrops on my way to the paint store and see if it’s possible to match them. Hmm, that might not be a bad way to choose replacement Christmas lights, too.

Do you have a favourite shade of white (white anything)? How on earth do you describe it?

(Sorry, but I warned you at the start this would be a mind meandering post. There’s no stopping my brain when it chooses a tangent to explore.)

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Hemmed In

I wonder if there are days in your life when you feel hemmed in … pressured on all sides … maybe overwhelmed by decisions, demands or expectations.

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Prior to taking the above photo, I thought of that while I stared out over the crowded marina. A bit of claustrophobia kicked in, just thinking of being on the deck of one of these boats, of needing to ease out from the wharf and maneuver carefully down a narrow corridor to get beyond the breakwater without disturbing the vessels around me. I’m not a very patient person when that edge of panic starts to close in. I need my space! Now!

A few of my writer friends have mentioned the pressure of deadlines lately, of trying to fit their writing into impossible schedules around unavoidable commitments. I don’t have that kind of problem, but I understand the anxiety and the ‘I need to escape’ feeling it creates.

I had a moment like that yesterday, when faced with a task that unsettled me. Suddenly assorted words from Sunday’s service popped into my mind [placed there, no doubt, by God, although I don’t think I gave Him credit at the time]:

“Be still and know that I am God.”
“My soul finds rest in God.”
“Come to Me.”

In the briefest moment of a fragmented prayer He led me to a quiet place. Then I was able to carry on.

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In the car I tuned the radio to a favourite Christian music station, and what was the first thing I heard? This song, new to me until Sunday when it had moved me to tears:

COME TO ME

In the quiet, Lord, I come;
Been invited by Your Son.
In the stillness I can hear
Jesus calling me near.

Come to me all you weary and worn,
Come all you heavy hearted.
My beloved child,
Come away for awhile,
And you shall find rest for your soul.

Those refreshing gentle words
Feel like water for my thirst.
With a whisper in my ear
Jesus bids me draw near.

[Rory Noland]

God’s quite remarkable about things like that. Sometimes He meets needs before I even know I have them. Have you ever had that experience?

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“My help and glory are in God
    —granite-strength and safe-harbor-God…”

Psalm 62:7 [Msg]

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Piano whispers from an unknown history

Ghost-like memories of piano playing — years of scales, discords and sweet harmony from ivory keys — are hidden somewhere in the history of this old Chickering Victorian Square Grand Piano. No longer are visitors encouraged to play a tune on it. With its wires strung horizontally from left to right, rather than from front to back, its soft, subdued tones (listen) would be unlike what is produced by today’s pianos. But this one sits unused, silently overseeing the comings and goings of patrons in the lobby of a unique log building in BC’s south Cariboo.

Chickering Piano Keys-1

Jonas Chickering was the first piano builder in the United States, established in 1823. The Chickering brothers were known for building some of the finest pianos in history. This piano bears the Chickering name in gold lettering, but not in a style of text born by any other Chickering antique pianos that my research has unearthed, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity.

Chickering piano-1

(Click photo for larger view)

At one time a faded sign on it proclaimed, “circa 1883”, (or maybe it was 1853) but the sign has been gone for a while. Square grands existed from 1823 until the end of the 1880s. They began to lose favour when uprights became more popular, and were pretty well obsolete by 1900.

In the mid-1800s this one probably would have sold for between $800-$1200, the cost of a small house. One restoration site I visited offered fully restored Chickering square grands at prices from $30,000 to $50,000. I can’t afford one. Drat!

This particular piano sits against a wall, surrounded and topped by an accumulation of other collectibles from assorted eras. I wish I could rescue it! I’m not a great pianist or even a collector of antiques, but I want to clear everything off it, gently dust the keys and lower its lid against further insult.

I want to hear my daughters play it, or perhaps our church pianist — someone who understands all the emotion a piano can express and would appreciate its uniqueness and its place in musical history.

But I left it untouched… left with only photographs, and a longing to know its story.

Do you own a piano or another musical instrument? If it could talk, what story would it tell of its time in your household?

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“Praise the LORD!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his excellent greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath
praise the LORD!

Praise the LORD!” 

[Psalm 150:1-6]

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