External Celebration

This article first appeared in my Curious Squirrel Newsletter in May 2020.

Introduction

Although I could be confused about what day it is upon waking even in normal times, I’m pretty aware of what day of the week it is in general. Like everyone else, my driving schedule has little to do with work; it revolves more around grocery shopping and picking up my bread order for our local artisan boulangère. Perhaps I’m lucky that my workdays are similar to before: online instead of in-person piano lessons on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Plus, working at the church on Wednesday; yes, complying with social distancing including a maximum of four people in our fairly large sanctuary!

What Week Is It?

That last part is the weird part. Wednesday afternoon would be our choir rehearsal, and I’d typically practice into the evening after eating a communal dinner. Now, my Wednesday work revolves around recording the next Sunday’s service: starting with our two or three hymns, accompanying a soloist for the offertory, concluded by playing a prelude and postlude. Sure, there’s still the practice, but practice for the next recording. I feel like I’m playing a part in a movie. While others have lost connection to the day of the week, I’ve lost connection to week of the year. I didn’t feel much during the second half of Lent or Holy Week, and I don’t feel much now during the Easter season.

External Celebration

Sure, I’m probably partly to blame, because in full confession I haven’t kept up my daily Bible reading and prayer. That inward discipleship, as much as it would be good for me, isn’t what my soul is craving. It’s external celebration. It’s shouting Hosannah on Palm Sunday, and The Lord Is Risen on Easter Sunday. It’s hearing my music director’s bad puns at choir rehearsal, and one of those occasional long reminiscences. It’s sitting at a communal dinner in Becker Hall and hearing a bit of gossip from church folks that I wouldn’t have expected!


“Inward discipleship…isn’t what my soul is craving. It’s external celebration.”


What Do You Miss?

Church has always been a big part of my life. Since age 15, it’s been about job and worship together, except during college and for a brief time when I first arrived in Arkansas. Perhaps the church isn’t big in your life, but you have some other place of celebration that you miss. It could be your workplace, choir rehearsal, or a particular eating spot where you meet your friends once a week. What is the one celebratory thing that you truly miss about your weekly routine? I’d be glad to publish them in the next newsletter, either credited or anonymously!

If you liked this article, perhaps you’d also like to subscribe to the monthly Curious Squirrel Newsletter? It’s published on or just after the first of the month, and there’s no spam on the side!

Luncheon Photo First Methodist of Bella Vista – Dec 2019
Posted 2020-05-05

Music of Worship at Westminster Abbey

Dr. Zehring reminisces about his doctoral research in London in the early 1980s.

After arriving in London, I spent eight hours a day for six straight days in a small windowless room in the bowels of the old British Library, in self-imposed isolation, sifting through 300-500-year-old books – church registers, music manuscripts, Royal warrants, anything – looking for mention of Richard Minshall, Robert Devereaux, any evidence at all that I could use to connect either one of them with the other.

After all that time, I felt I really needed a break from the writer’s cramp and eyestrain I was having, so one afternoon I thought it’d be a good idea to come out into the light and visit Westminster Abbey. Annette and I arrived just as they were about to begin their daily evensong service.

Understand that in addition to being a major tourist attraction, the Abbey continues its daily functions as a working church. When there’s a service, the vergers shoo away the tourists from the chancel and altar areas, rope it off and seat those who wish to worship in the choir stalls. Then they proceed with the service while the non-worshipers continue their tours throughout the Abbey staying outside the roped-off enclosure. So there we were, sitting as close to the director of the Westminster Abbey choir as we are to each other in our choir loft on a Sunday morning.

When the organ prelude began, there was a sudden hush in all the babble of voices and a cessation of the popping of photo flashes from the crowds that filled the outer aisles and the nave of the Abbey. This hush continued as the choir processed singing the first hymn. Once the spoken portion of the service began – the scriptures and the prayers – the hubbub resumed and continued until the choir sang the Psalms and the anthem. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the extraneous noise of the crowds outside the chancel/altar area subsided until the anthem was over, then it ramped up again. It went on through the homily and only stopped when the recessional hymn was being sung and throughout the organ postlude. I remember saying to Annette, “That tells you something about the power of music in worship.”

The point I want to make is that whether we realize it or not, what we do as musicians in worship has a profound effect on people. Whether it’s in Westminster Abbey or the First United Methodist Church of Bella Vista, Arkansas, the music of worship has the capacity to transport people beyond the limits and confines of the ordinary and the routine and, while the music lasts, causes them to become focused on something greater than themselves, something richer and deeper than they can experience in any other circumstance.


“Music of worship has the capacity to transport people beyond the limits and confines of the ordinary and the routine.”


It also alters our perspectives as musicians. Idly humming a tuneless melody can subconsciously lighten the burden of an everyday chore, singing along with an earworm that gets stuck in our minds, working out a tricky passage in choir practice – going over it again and again – until it’s right or providing musical inspiration for our congregation as we sing our responses and anthems on a Sunday morning; it all works to lift our spirits, strengthen our faith and give glory to God. And if I might paraphrase the last word of a verse from a well-known hymn: “What a privilege to carry everything to God in song.”

I hope you’re all staying safe and happy; practicing social distancing, heeding the advice of the medical professionals and that you will, of course, keep on singing.

Dr. Lawrence (Larry) Zehring is the Music Director at First United Methodist Church of Bella Vista, Arkansas.

Photo by Σπάρτακος. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Posted 2020-04-23

Brighten the Corner Where You Are

The third of July just wasn’t my day.  I was having trouble getting the things done that I planned. My tendency is to try to do to much right before leaving for a vacation, even one lasting just a couple of days. I needed to complete the list that included doing the dishes, house cleaning, laundry, and mailing a birthday present to a friend in France. The latter involved a software and customer service nightmare that took an hour of time and didn’t get my package posted. Bottom line: I ran out of time to salvage driving to Kansas City to see the Royals play and enjoy a fireworks show at Kauffman Stadium afterward.

As I took a few minutes to decompress after realizing I couldn’t do everything, the lyrics of the century-old hymn Brighten the Corner Where You Are popped into my head.  This is one of those hymns that has long since disappeared from modern hymnals, but still has staying power. I like this upbeat recording by the Statesmen Quartet. The lyrics for the first verse are below.

Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do,
Do not wait to shed your light afar;
To the many duties ever near you now be true,
Brighten the corner where you are.

Ina Duley Ogdon, Author

I did depart for Kansas City the next day, and enjoyed the remainder of the vacation I planned. Although I’m sorry I missed the game, I’m not sorry that I took the time to brighten my own corner. Plus, I found a post office on July 5th so I could brighten the corner of my friend. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some hymns on time management?

Posted 2019-07-11

Piano Teaching Philosophy

Introduction

I get asked this question occasionally, so I felt I should write a formal response. The caveat is that there’s only so much from reading someone’s thoughts or even having a conversation. When you’re near the end of your interview process, I strongly suggest getting into the nuts and bolts by scheduling a trial lesson. Both teacher and student should be comfortable before beginning what could be years of cooperative learning.

Piano Teaching Philosophy

I believe that art and music are important to the education and enrichment of the lives of children and adults alike.

Piano lessons are expensive, so they should be undertaken with a commitment to get the most out of them, for the time that they’re pursued.

Learning to play the piano should be fun, though it’s not easy. Proper technique, good rhythm, and sight-reading are necessary through all stages of learning. Music theory and ear training are also important to round out all of the concepts learned at the keyboard.

Each student has his/her own needs, and I accommodate those as part of the learning process. Some pursue piano just for recreation and enjoyment, others like the rush that comes with scoring high at a music festival. Lesson plans are tailored to the student’s goals and ability.

The process is as important as the final result. Learning how to break down a new piece of music and put it back together, and then doing it all over again, is what inspires me. Humility comes from realizing that there never will be a perfect performance. There is always an opportunity to learn something new from a great composer!

Last Updated 2020-02-16 | Originally Posted 2018-05-29

Give Yourself Permission To Suck

It’s said that perfectionists never get anything done. Despite that somewhat true saying, the expectation is often that we shoot for perfection. There are even expressions for those who don’t, like “close enough for government work or jazz.” Fortunately, there are enough folks who see that lie for what it is. As Sierra Teller Ornelas suggests in this article (h/t Kara Cutruzzula), give yourself permission to suck!

I remember trying this on for size as a freshman at New England Conservatory of Music. I took a class in violin, which was offered primarily as an introductory class for music education majors. For me, a performance major, it was just for fun. I learned first hand why it’s virtually impossible to learn violin, with any proficiency, as an adult: we know how bad we sound! Learning to draw the bow in a pleasing way takes months for everyone, whether child or adult. Fortunately, children don’t know (or care) how bad they sound, until they sound good. Henry, a double-bassist down the hall in my dorm, reminded me in case I wasn’t sure. He demanded that I go down to the basement practice cells because I was that bad!

That doesn’t mean we should purposely do badly. What it does mean is that you can’t possibly do something extremely well, without lots of experience doing it badly at first. As a professional musician, I know that my first performance of any new piece, despite thorough practice, will always be the worst performance. Hopefully, my worst performance will still be good enough to be perfectly acceptable, maybe even better! Ms. Ornelas explains this in her work as a television writer and producer:

You’re taught this insane work ethic, so if it’s not perfect, it’s garbage. And the way you actually create art is by making garbage first, and then getting better and better. And so giving yourself permission to suck is such a hard thing to do.

Legendary salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said basically the same thing decades ago: “Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly…until you can do it well.” And I’m sure plenty of sages have said similar things. As Ms. Ornelas said, “Make mistakes in front of as many people as you can.”

Posted on 2018-05-21

Want to Be Rich?

Do you really want to be rich? What does that even mean?

To the author of this New York Times article, Jessica Knoll, it’s clear we are talking dollars, not cents! (h/t Kara Cutruzzula) It’s not often that a writer has this much self-confidence, coming out swinging about money as though she were an investment banker on Wall Street!

Though I don’t measure my artistic success purely in terms of dollars, I do like that she explains how she wants to attain her goals through a multi-stream income. Instead of just getting paid for writing a book, she wants to make royalties from selling her book. Plus, she is pursuing getting that book optioned to a television or movie studio, and even to get paid again for adapting it to a screenplay.

Success, for me, is synonymous with making money. I want to write books, but I really want to sell books. I want advances that make my husband gasp and fat royalty checks twice a year. I want movie studios to pay me for option rights.

I’m very intrigued by this author and will study her career. Though the article is deadly serious, there are twinklings of humor to be found. I like where she pokes fun at a male author who errantly thought he sold in the most foreign territories as a first-time novelist.

What are your thoughts about measuring artistic success solely on capitalism?

Posted on 2018-05-15

One Thank-You Note

One thank-you note. What made it special? It was the only one!

I recently agreed to take on a block of accompanying for juries at the University of Arkansas. Fourteen to be exact. For each student, there were two half-hour rehearsals, plus playing for the jury itself, about 8 to 10 minutes long. The pay was decent, and really there was no need for a special thank you other than the check I will eventually receive. However, one student S took the time to handwrite the thank-you note below. The stationery on which it was written was accordion folded with each of the letters from the words “thank you” represented.

I wish I could say I practiced the art of saying thank you, whether in written or email form, as often as I should. Cheers to S! She has this part of life down pat!

thank you note
A Special Thank You Note

Posted 2018-05-12

How to Respond

Are you ever at a loss for how to respond to a situation that has happened in your life? One of the most influential books I read, while I was a twenty-something, was The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. It isn’t a career advice book per se, but it has wonderful insights into how to be the best you can be in your work and personal life.

From time to time, I think back to quotes from that book to help me in a particular situation. They tend not to be the actual Seven Habits, as wonderful as they are, but nuggets of wisdom that are sprinkled throughout. I sometimes share the advice, whether or not it was welcome! Years ago, when I received a lame excuse from one of my high school choral scholars at St. Tim’s Episcopal Church, I would say “use your resourcefulness and initiative (R & I).”

Although that’s my favorite quote, that’s not what I was looking for in this situation. I luckily found the exact quote I needed through a Google search: “When we pick up one end of the stick, we pick up the other.” In this particular case, I was at the far end of the stick, on the receiving end of someone else’s decision. It helped me to realize that I was in control of my reaction and that I could choose my own response. It is liberating to know that you have that freedom.

If you have never read this book, or realize it’s time to re-read it, please do so. And use your R & I to get it for free:

  • It may be on your bookshelf already.
  • Borrow it from your public library.
  • Do you have Amazon Prime? You can borrow one Kindle book per month. That’s something I just discovered!
Posted 2018-04-16

Real Job

It was a typical Sunday morning for me. At around 7:45 a.m., I rushed out of the choir room, having concluded playing for a short choral warm up. Before I got a chance to go into the sanctuary, climb the stairs to the chancel, and approach the organ bench, where I would put on my organ shoes, choir robe, and organize my music, I got stopped in the hallway. It started innocently enough. A person with whom I’ve chatted on occasion jokingly said, “you showed up today.” I playfully retorted, “well I don’t get paid if I don’t show up.” I thought that was it, but then she continued by saying, “I’m sure you have a real job.” Ouch!

Those were the words – a real job. Not: “a day job.” Not: “you must do something else during the week.” Not: “I’m sure we don’t pay you enough that this is the only thing you do.” All of these would have been totally innocuous and I wouldn’t have questioned it further.

So what does that mean? A real job? When I was thinking about careers as a teenager, I didn’t envision what exactly I would do with music, despite getting my first paying church job as a 15-year-old at a country Methodist church, and picking up another one when I was 17 at the Reformed church down the street. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these two churches would eventually merge, and I was in on ground zero of it all!

While I was in music school, I was solely focused on piano. Sure, I got asked to substitute for a church service here or there, or play for a wedding or a memorial service. However, it wasn’t until a Baroque trumpeter, then just a fellow student at Purchase College, wisely said the following: “I predict that you will make more money on the organ than you will ever make playing the piano.” Though that wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to hear, I had a sense he might be right.

I luckily found a really accomplished organist, whose main job was theory professor, who offered to give me lessons for free. Though I had previously known how to turn on the blower and operate the drawknobs or stop tabs on a console, I wasn’t an organist. I played at the organ! While many pianists compete to find pianos on which to practice at music school, I had the pick of several amazing pipe organs in the music building and across the street in the performing arts center. I could practice just by arranging to get a key or making a phone call.

Perhaps you have never seen an organ console. Below is the one I play each week. As a bonus, I took a picture of the organ itself, which correctly termed, is the thing that makes the noise, versus the console, which just instructs the organ what noises to make. While this console is pretty basic compared to many more elaborate ones, there are relatively few people who know how to play one, including most pianists who are either too cool or scared (or both) to do so. While I’d admit that my dashboard is nowhere near as complicated as on larger instruments, it is still somewhat intimidating. Does this help to qualify playing the organ as a real job?

Although there is no minimum degree organists must have, you will find that many accomplished ones have a Master of Music (M.M.) degree like I do. Others typically have a Bachelor of Music (B.M.) degree, though there are some overachievers, like the music director at First UMC of Bella Vista, Larry Zehring, who has a Ph.D. in Music. That’s a fairly rare degree among musicians, since most who call themselves doctor earn the less academically rigorous and more performance-based Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) degree. I wonder how many people realize that church musicians are typically just as educated as clergy, who to be ordained have to obtain the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree, in addition to jumping through a set of hoops decided by denomination. Is that enough education to qualify one for a real job?

To be fair, there are very few people who work just one job in music, including those fortunate enough to land full-time church work or a college professorship, both of which typically come with full benefits. My job is just a part-time one, roughly 12-15 hours per week, without any of those benefits, and unfortunately without a cost of living increase in the past six years. Many churches are struggling, including the one where I work. I get that in some ways I’m lucky to still be paid to be there. However, while I’m at church, either on the organ bench practicing or playing for a service, or on the piano bench playing for the choir or preparing one of my Piano Postludes, I never think about whether what I’m doing is real or not.

It was close to noon on that same Sunday morning in which I spent a lot of time reflecting on what this person said. I was playing the final hymn of the late service, and it happened to be the tune AURELIA, composed by Samuel Sebastian Wesley. You probably know it by the words The Church is One Foundation. Samuel Sebastian Wesley is one of my favorite 19th-century choral composers. He descended from a line of composers, including his father Samuel, coined the English Mozart, and his grandfather, the hymn writer Charles, who is the brother to the founder of Methodism, John. I found comfort in being a part of this history in my playing, even if I was the only one who sensed the significance. That was real to me!

I’m currently a fellow in a program called Artist INC, being held at the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale. This is the second year that the program has been offered locally, after being founded a number of years ago in Kansas City, and running in quite a few cities scattered throughout the middle of the country. After just two sessions, with six left to go, I’ve already heard many other artists speak of their struggles. There are all kinds of struggles, but a quite common theme is lack of respect of our chosen profession.

Although the majority of participants in the program are visual artists, we all struggle to make a living through our work, and to convey to those around us that what we do is a real job. But this is no pity party. We come to learn. We need to become better engaged within our artistic circles. That can sometimes be more difficult than addressing our patrons, clients, and fans. A central focus is to look inward, to take some of the same skills we’ve used at becoming disciplined in our art and becoming disciplined in other aspects of our career.

Perhaps Sunday morning’s comment came at the right time. If nothing else, I have a great story to share with my fellows at our next session!

organ console
Organ Console at First UMC of Bella Vista

organ
Organ at First UMC of Bella Vista

Posted 2018-04-10

Energy Giving or Energy Draining?

I read this really inspiring advice from a Kara Cutruzzula, a blogger and freelance writer who publishes a simple thought each day via her newsletter. I’ve subscribed for a couple of weeks so far, and so far I’m really impressed. Kara addresses life as either energy giving or energy draining, though she uses a different word for draining!

Before you do anything today, ask yourself:

Is this about to be an energy-giving activity or an energy-sucking activity?

Applies to everything!

Pay attention to what—and who—is sucking the life out of you, and suddenly you’ll have so much more to give.

I thought about this in terms of my own life, and it really gave me a new perspective. One of my worst energy drains is found in open loops. When last checked, I had 104 items that were due today listed in my to do app. Many of these are either “waiting on someone else” to get back to me, or are those tiny errands that need to get done, but aren’t of utmost important. Somehow, grocery shopping gets done, but sending damaged items back to Amazon doesn’t!

I’d have to say that “waiting on someone else” is most frustrating, because it’s not always clear how or if I can close these loops. These can be things like:

  • Trying to convert a prospective piano student into an actual one. Lots of flakiness happens between the moment that you make an appointment to meet, either for an interview or first lesson, and the actual date/time it’s supposed to occur.
  • An idea that you’re gung-ho to try but you haven’t gotten a firm commitment from the decision maker required to make it happen.
  • Getting paid promptly for a gig or service that I’ve performed. It doesn’t seem to matter the amount or even how well I performed the task.

There are pretty much just three things to do: 1) follow up, 2) wait, or 3) drop it. I don’t have any great answers here, except that I have found that following up on a pre-set timetable seems to work best. There’s no need to worry during “wait” if I know that the next follow up will happen next week or next month. I’ve found that dropping things is healthy, since nothing in life is truly final, except life itself!

What are your energy giving and energy draining activities? How do you cope?

Posted 2018-04-02