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I was asked much earlier in my career if I’d ever taught a continuing education class for church, or whether I’d consider doing so. Up to that point, I’d never done it, but I was open to the idea. The possibility has since then intrigued me, but until recently I hadn’t put together a plan. Now that a date is on the calendar, October 16th, it’s becoming real. I’m teaching a class in sacred music at church!
The course is based upon the book Te Deum: The Church and Music by Paul Westermeyer. I became familiar with Dr. Westermeyer through his work with the American Guild of Organists, and was impressed that an ordained Lutheran pastor would spend so much time associating with organists! He has spent his career steeped in teaching both seminarians and church musicians, so this book has an interdisciplinary approach.
I warn that the text has a scholarly bent, which is probably no surprise given the scope of the topic. For those who wish to take this journey with me, there will be quite a lot of reading involved, though I’ll parcel it off to make it manageable. As a reward, you will receive musical samples from each period to illuminate the weekly readings.
As the title of my post hints, the first five weeks will be covering just a portion of the history of sacred music. A continuation of this class will continue the exploration, beginning at the Reformation and continuing through modern times. In this session, we’ll cover music in Old and New Testament times, the First Centuries, and Before and After Charlemagne. I realize that this period may not be glamorous to some, but hopefully you’ll join me anyway. For those who are curious about what exactly is covered in later on – yes, there is a section on the Wesleys! Even a Lutheran like Westermeyer knows it’s best not to omit John and Charles!
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?
When I start typing on my keyboard, I often wonder whether there is an audience for what I’m about to say. Even though I only write when I feel passionate about a topic, I don’t know if anyone will read my blog post or Web page. If someone reads it, will it be helpful or even better, influential? In one case, the answer is a resounding yes! One piano parent listened!
She was seeking to upgrade her child’s piano. My student had long ago outgrown the 61-key Yamaha keyboard that was her practice instrument. If you read my Web page on choosing the right piano, you’ll know that I was never a fan of this instrument in the first place. I’ve also gone on the record with a blog post making the argument for an acoustic piano. I admit there are a lot of positives about choosing an electronic keyboard, until you realize that even the best keyboard isn’t going to sound as good as even a mediocre piano.
After considering a range of instruments, the piano parent decided to go with something inexpensive; she bought an older American-made spinet. It was delivered just a month before the auditions for a music festival in which several of my students participate. This was the third festival in which I had prepared my student. Each previous time there was barely enough practice to be ready. The results were always okay but not great. This time, my student ranked as first alternate, or second place, for her level! Even though she didn’t go to the finals, she made a major accomplishment. Along the way, she surprised everyone, including me!
Yes, a decent piano can make the difference. In this case, it was one costing $700. My student started practicing independently, without badgering from her parents. She practiced the changes we discussed at lessons. Her approach to the piano became more confident in a way that I didn’t see before. A couple of months past that event, she continues to play well, and has completed her method books and is ready to move on to the next level. While there is no guarantee that a new(er) piano will do the trick, having a decent instrument is one of the keys to success. And, I’ll always be thankful that one piano parent listened!
I received very different kind of feedback after performing a new piece in my repertoire, the Chopin Scherzo No. 2: “I am glad that you learned that for yourself and that you shaered it with us!” It’s not the typical response following a performance. I knew that the comment was well intended, coming from one of my favorite people at First Methodist of Bella Vista. Still, it took a while to sink in what that actually meant.
While my reasons for wanting to learn new repertoire on the piano and organ are multi-faceted, it’s clear that they are all related to my goal to become better at both. I encourage my students to set and achieve goals, in a way that’s appropriate for their age. If I find a child is shirking responsibility, I try to address his responsibility in the process. One of the many benefits of piano lessons is becoming responsible for one’s work. The piano is just the tool that allows that to happen.
Performance is the natural culmination of music study. If you’ve taken the time to learn a piece, you should share it with others. Recitals and music festivals are the formal way to do this, but there should be other ways too. Performing for family, church, school, or a retirement community are equally valid. Live performance gives you feedback that you can’t get in any other way. Plus, it helps focus and refine your work, since there is a fixed date on the calendar that will make you accountable!
Learning and performing go hand in hand for me. I couldn’t imagine learning and then not performing. I have had some students, particularly adults, who have no interest whatsoever in public performance. That’s okay too. What doesn’t work well is performing without learning. Yes, I have performed more times than I’d like to admit without being sufficiently prepared. Building an audience is difficult, and it’s important to do your best. I’m grateful to have the chance to learn new pieces, polish old ones, and share them with my audiences and inspire a new generation of musicians.
I got the chance to do quite a bit of reading during time off from work, especially following Christmas Eve, which included two services and a very difficult organ recital in between those broadcast via Facebook Live. Without looking for it, I stumbled upon an opinion piece in the New York Times titled I’ll Never Be Rachmaninoff. It was written by an adult piano student who returned to the piano following a long absence. Her goal was clear; but what is your goal?
It’s not the first time I’ve written a post based on the recreational benefits of piano study, but I think it always comes across better in the first person. Jennifer Weiner tells the story of finding teachers, and how study positively affected her life and daughter as well. Ms. Weiner was a very competitive person in youth and in life, so the last thing she needed was to resume piano study with the hopes of becoming great. Her goal was to be good, not great, and she describes her journey towards just that. Thus, the title of her article is particularly compelling.
I try to remember to ask my students about their goals and to regularly check in with them that lessons are meeting them. Often, especially with younger students, the goal is pretty general, just to play better, and the means to get there isn’t specific. For other students, particularly teens and adults, there are more specific goals in mind. It might be to reach higher levels in classical study, to play pop songs, or to play Christmas carols for their family.
One of my adult students had that last goal. She just reported back that it went well. For this particular student, the focus was short-term, to play a series of Christmas carols well enough for a sing-along. She enjoyed it enough and received enough positive feedback that she’s considering more study, though not right away. That’s great!
Whatever your goal is in piano study, I hope to help guide you there. Whether your goal is to be good or great, I think Sergei would approve!
I’m often asked by piano parents for recommendations on buying a piano. It’s a loaded question. I often have to ask several follow-up questions before giving an answer that will satisfy what they are really asking. In ideal terms, I’m thinking about the instrument that would best serve the student now and several years into the future. In practical terms, the parent is often looking for a bargain and something that will work now. It’s sometimes even difficult to get a parent to consider an acoustic instrument, even when money isn’t the primary constraint. How can I possibly make more of a dent, to get someone to try to think differently? Listen to the piano.
Since I perform quite a bit, I play a variety of instruments. Most of them are acoustic instruments, but there are occasions when they are electronic. There are those grin and bear moments, like when I played for a birthday party earlier this year with a borrowed 61-key electronic keyboard, damper pedal not included. Not all electronic experiences are like that. I often get to play some really good keyboards, such as a Yamaha Clavinova. Although there are other companies that make legitimate keyboards, I really like this model just because I’m most familiar with it.
However, I can’t say that I’ve ever played a keyboard without feeling compromised. I’m not talking from a purist or snobbish viewpoint. Listen to the piano. How does it sound? To me, there’s only way to produce the sound that a piano should have, and that’s with a hammer hitting a string. Sound sampling has greatly improved during my lifetime to where electronic instruments merit their place. They just aren’t real!
I was scrolling through Instagram posts one morning, and came across a pianist whom I know only through social media. She often posts students playing her old American-made grand piano that has a sound that could only come from that instrument. Between the moving parts of hammers and strings and the fixed ones like the iron and wood, each piano has a story to tell. Listen to the piano. I’m still amazed that my tiny Knabe spinet, so old that it has ivory key covers, speaks so beautifully. All spinets have the compromise of a drop action, but they can still sing and inspire.
Listen to the piano. That’s how I’m going to start when next asked this question. Perhaps my advice will go unheeded. But maybe that will cause some piano parents to pause to listen. And who knows? That might make all the difference!
Update: My former Knabe spinet is now in the home of a new piano student, as a result of the purchase of a Yamaha U1 48-inch upright.
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?
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