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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

Where Music Notation Fails

Have you ever faced a situation where music notation fails to convey the essence of the music? I routinely find this when dotted rhythms and syncopations enter the curriculum I use to teach piano students. Of course, preparatory activity like tapping, clapping, and singing the tune can be especially helpful. After all, any pre-school kid can sing London Bridge Is Falling Down. If I can convince an eight- or nine-year-old to sing, the teaching becomes much easier. Syncopations, especially those that cross the bar line, are another matter!

YouTube to the rescue! I always remind my students that the music came first and that the notation is just a necessary shorthand. Here is a short list of videos of innovative music that requires more complicated notation and time signatures.

La Bamba – Sing and clap where the words are just “La La Bamba”

America – Tap foot on the beat and clap off beat

Take Five – Feel and clap the innovative five beats per measure

Posted 2018-04-30

Disinclined to Activity

Do you ever feel disinclined to activity? In what parts of your life? In case you haven’t caught on, I’m asking about where you are lazy! It’s really impossible to do everything, so it’s actually quite natural to focus intensely on the most important things. Then, you find a way to get the necessary things done. The rest, well, it gets done…or not!

I noticed a certain degree of laziness when it comes to pursuing the business side of music. I work hard to get my church work done, teach my students, and do well at whatever gigs I accept. However, I don’t have a good game plan when it comes to marketing myself.

I am participating in an artist development program called Artist INC. Our marketing instructor mentioned that we need to spend between 20% and 40% of our total work time in marketing ourselves. Based on this simple calculation, if I spend four hours on my art, I should spend at least one additional hour marketing it. Though that sounds excessive, I know it’s not based on everything else I’ve read.

Perhaps the most jolting aspect of the Artist INC experience is that most artists don’t have a true home base. Even the part-time church job I have gives me some stability that others don’t have. Granted, I don’t have the financial security of those few musicians who land full-time work in church music, orchestras, or university professorships. Even though some of these folks may not be doing their dream work full-time, they can always do their soul-nourishing work on the side!

Meanwhile, independent artists have to hustle for every opportunity. I recently noticed a vacant storefront where a photographer had placed several samples. This photographer probably worked hard to build a relationship with the property agent so that when the opportunity knocked, he got the call! Although it’s romantic to think of the artist sequestered in his studio, diligently painting all day, and having adoring fans, that’s not the reality for most of my friends. Sure, they spend lots of time in their work. However, they also carefully cultivate relationships outside of the studio in a myriad of marketing activities. It takes a lot of time, and some things work, and some things don’t.
You have to refine the process. What do you stop, start, continue? It’s exhausting just thinking about it!

So there is my call to action. I need to start with purpose cultivating relationships that can lead to recitals, teaching, and even one-time gigs. I will update this post or write a new one when I have some progress to report!

Posted 2018-04-23

ASMTA Regional State Festival 2018

I participated in the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association (ASMTA) regional state festival for the first time this spring. I’ve now lived through a full-year cycle of teaching which included the Northwest Arkansas Music Teachers Association (NAMTA) Sonatina Festival last fall. This event was held on Saturday, April 14th, in the music building at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. From the moment I arrived, some minutes before 8 a.m., the halls were filled with kids and their parents. My four students were scheduled later in the day, and I managed to see all of them at some point during the day.

However, the experiences were extremely different. The Sonatina Festival is solely a performance-based event, with none of the theory, technique, sight reading, and ear training that are a key part of the state event. However, the regional state festival is very worthwhile to the students who participate. But it is not for the recreational piano student. There is a lot of work required to prepare a memorized program in addition to doing the musicianship and theory work that is tested separately.

The good news is that all my kids played well. All of them scored in the superior range. In fact, one of my students did well enough to be considered as an alternate to go to the state finals! As for the other testing, there were mixed results. Two of the kids did pretty well, one did okay, and another, well, missed the boat as the expression goes.

Due to the nature of the festival, where each student tests and plays at different times, I wasn’t able to get a group photo. However, below is a picture of their ribbons, placed on top of a blank certificate. I am grateful to the committee who lost a lot of sleep doing the advanced planning. Many of my fellow NAMTA teachers donated their entire Saturday to run the festival. As always, they were very generous sharing their teaching insights with me. Finally, thanks to the parents and kids without whom there would be no point to any of this!

ASMTA Certificate and Ribbons
ASMTA Certificate and Ribbons
Posted 2018-04-17

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

Maundy Thursday Taizé

Did any of you do anything exciting or new during Lent? I did! I participated in a Maundy Thursday Taizé service, my first full-length Taizé style service ever, complete with supporting choir and soloists. If you have never worshipped in this style, try it! I’m sure we fell short in many ways compared to what is done in Taizé, the tiny town found in the Burgundy region of France. But I also think we got a lot of things right. We even had one point in the final chance where we had choir members singing in French and English simultaneously! Multilingual singing is a common occurrence among the pilgrims who flock to France from countries around the world.

I must give credit to several people: Rev. Les Oliver at Central UMC in Rogers provided me with Taizé scores and an icon for an earlier service that served as a trial run. Rev. Jeanne Williams at First UMC Bella Vista had the vision to do this, along with great ideas on how to execute it. When you are in sync with your clergy, great things can happen! Below are some pictures of the service, shared by Amy O. Fulton, and a link to the service on YouTube, posted by church Webmaster Sarah Charlsen.

The entire service is available on YouTube. I apologize that the songs were inadequately miked. There is silence near the end of the service. Although it’s an important part of the actual experience, you may wish to skip it.

Maundy Thursday Taizé worked for us. Have you experienced Taizé? Would you be interested in trying this in your church?

The church is covered by OneLicense #727609-A and CCLI License #2918235. All rights reserved.

Silence During Taizé
Silence During Taizé
The Taizé Altar
The Taizé Altar
Posted 2018-04-11

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

Jesus Christ Superstar

As a long-time fan of Broadway musicals – my mom started taking me to NYC when I was just 14 – I was thrilled to see the Easter evening production of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC. To be fair, this is really more an opera than a musical, since there is no dialogue. For me, musicals were the gateway drug that led to my love of opera as a late teenager.

I have never liked hard rock, but that’s not a problem for me in this score. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a great lyricist, making sure that the thematic material doesn’t get lost in a sea of sound. That’s especially important in a musical style with off the charts decibels! As for the telling of the story, some may not care for Webber’s spin on the characters, which is decidedly more subjective than told in the Bible passages from which they derive. That subjective basis, however, forms how each character is defined by the choices of melody, harmony, and word painting. Richard Wagner would have to tip his hat. However, without equally good musicians to bring these qualities out all would be lost. That includes the amazing rock orchestra, playing in the multi-level cubes and strolling on stage.

I didn’t have a problem with the mish-mosh of voice casting that I read lambasted in other reviews. I found it really fun to see a cast of mostly non-Broadway singers acting in these roles. It’s not such a stretch since film versions of musicals often feature film stars over stage actors. I found the minimalist sets to be quite conducive to the on-stage action. That allowed a poignancy on those few dramatic moments, like the dangling ladder symbolizing Judas’s hanging and the opening and closing of the walls in the image of a cross after the crucifixion.

Some fault the musical for not including the resurrection, ending just after the crucifixion. I think Webber made the right decision to end the story where the dramatic tension peaks, instead of insisting on telling what Christians would consider a complete story. People aren’t going to be swayed in their faith by a Broadway show — but they might be challenged by it. I personally struggled with the depiction of Pilate as too harsh and Judas as too lenient. Either way, it made me feel that I could have been either of those two characters and am not sure if I would have made better choices.

In any event, thank goodness there was a choice on TV other than Ben-Hur this Easter. I hope that the success of this production means the possibility for more live musical theater, performed just as it was done in front of an audience instead of on a sterile soundstage!

Posted 2018-04-09

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

Organ Music for Lent and Easter

As you might imagine, there is an abundance of wonderful organ music for Lent and Easter. It would be pretty easy for me not to learn any new music for the season, and just recycle what I already have. But that doesn’t serve my goal to learn a lot of new music while I’m still young enough to do so. Plus, there are entire composers whose music I’ve avoided due to the difficulty or strangeness of it. Now is the time to build a few of these pieces into my repertoire.

Certainly, one composer whom I’ve avoided is César Franck. His music is not the most difficult to learn, but his works are long, have lots of tricky sections, and require lots of registration changes to be effective. There are other composers like Edwin Lemare, Marcel Dupré and Jean Langlais who seem to delight in how many notes they can throw on a page. With them, there are no easy pieces, even ones marked at slow or moderate tempos.

I’ve learned to choose only a couple of difficult new pieces a season, so I can do them well. The Pastorale and Prière of Franck are two of these. For everything else, I look at lists from prior years and choose a variety of pieces and difficulties to make sure that I don’t spend too many nights toiling away at the console.

So, as the pensiveness of Lent breaks into the jubilation of Easter, the keys may change from minor to major, but the work continues! In order to document my work, I’m recording and posting some of these recordings to my own Website. However, they are just for my monthly newsletter subscribers. It’s free and easy to subscribe (please do) and unsubscribe (but I hope you don’t).

Posted 2018-03-26