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

My Music Charity Picks for 2019

Introduction

I’m a real believer in charitable contributions as a contemplative act done in the privacy of my own home. I don’t like being asked to donate where I shop. I really get irked when asked if I’d like to round up my purchase or give a buck at the checkout counter. It has nothing to do with the cause; it’s just that I don’t like to have to make a decision to support someone else’s cause on the spot. I decided a long time ago that I’d rather concentrate my giving where I have a strong affiliation. That’s how I came to choose my music charity picks for 2019.

This year, I chose four music charities. I do give elsewhere, but as a musician, I naturally feel more strongly about this area of giving. I publish these each year in case you’re like me and want to have some ideas about organizations that make a difference in music. The two local groups are too small to be ranked by Charity Navigator, so the links provided are directly to the group’s Website. I believe them to be well-run and trustworthy enough that I’ve decided to contribute. The other two groups have the highest four-star rating from Charity Navigator, which is my go-to Website when researching any charity. The links are to their Website in those cases.

My Picks – Local

Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra (APO) – This group performs chamber and symphonic music in the Bentonville community. Plus, it provides musical training to youth through its youth orchestra, APYO. The APYO is composed of 4 string and 2 wind ensembles, allowing it to offer programs to a wide age-range of school-aged children. I have a biased interest in APO, since they hired me to collaborate with cellist Allison Eldridge earlier this year. Plus, I have three piano students who participate in APYO.

Even if I didn’t have that personal affiliation, I would be eager to support them since they embody the total package of performance and education that every modern orchestra should encompass. We need to keep classical music relevant for future generations, and we can’t do that without providing opportunities for our youth like this. For someone who loves classical music, this choice is a no brainer!

Opera in the Ozarks (OIO) – This organization provides the perfect vocal complement to APO! OIO has been giving back to Northwest Arkansas since 1950! Based in Eureka Springs, OIO, and its parent organization, the Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony, presents summer opera during June and July using a pool of 50 talented young singers in an apprentice program. It offers three full-length operas in a rotation, and even offers residents of NW Arkansas a discount for attending on opening night.

My Picks – National

The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation – Founded by the composer of the film score for the 1990s movie, this Los Angeles-based charity provides musical instruments to under-funded public school programs.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) – MPR is a local NPR affiliate in its home state, but that’s not why I support them. It’s a hugely important national producer of music content benefiting radio listeners throughout the U.S. I’m most grateful that they continue to support Pipedreams, a long-running weekly program broadcasting organ music from around the world. They also produce a smattering of wider-interest music programming, such as Performance Today and Live from Here, the successor to Prairie Home Companion. They also produce many special Christmas/New Year programs for many local NPR affiliates. My favorites are the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Cambridge and the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert.

A Curious Omission

I don’t want to start an anti-charity list, but I feel I must speak out. It might seem to be a very odd choice to include a public radio station in Minnesota, but not list our local one here in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I like our local NPR station for its news and comedy programming, but I can’t include it in my music charity picks for 2019.

Back in 2010, when I arrived in NW Arkansas, the local NPR station had a nice balance of news programming and classical music. Over the years, that has drastically changed. Performance Today, Live from Here, and Pipedreams were removed. More recently, locally-produced classical programming was eliminated. What’s left? Just a ton of canned programming, including nine hours most evenings of Through the Night with Peter Van de Graaff.

Just this month, the station snuffed out one remaining point of light: The live Metropolitan Opera weekly broadcasts on their FM signal. They are now available only via streaming. That’s okay if you’re at home, and intentionally want to listen. However, if I’m in my car, I’m out of luck. Same thing for any motorist driving through our area on I-49. Whether you like opera or just support good music classical programming in general, you’re not going to find it on the FM dial in NW Arkansas, except in the overnight hours.

Posted 2019-12-09

My Music Charity Picks for 2018

Introduction

Giving Tuesday is a real thing, as evidenced by my inbox today. There are so many emails and pleas for my money. I’m not against giving, but I do find it annoying when charities spam me multiple times per day. Worse, I really hate when they call asking for very specific amounts to be pledged during that very same phone call. In the end, I unsubscribe or ask to be added to their Do Not Call list. I prefer to make my annual charitable donations from a quiet place, giving to groups that speak to my best self, based on what I have to give. Lately, it hasn’t been much.

This year, I chose three music charities for contributions. It just worked out that about the only thing binding them is their common mission of music. The local charity is the smallest, too small to be ranked by Charity Navigator. The other two have top 4-star ratings from Charity Navigator; I’ve provided a link to Charity Navigator for those larger organizations if interested. Each organization has a different target audience. Each uses its resources in the best possible way to help those it chooses to serve.

My Picks

Opera in the Ozarks – I believe that giving should start at home, and this pick has been giving back to its community annually since 1950! Based in Eureka Springs, Opera in the Ozarks, and its parent organization, the Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony, presents summer opera during June and July using a pool of 50 talented young singers in an apprentice program. It offers three full-length operas in a rotation, and even offers residents of NW Arkansas a discount for attending on opening night.

The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation – Founded by the composer of the film score for the 1990s movie, this Los Angeles-based charity provides musical instruments to under-funded public school programs.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) – MPR is a local NPR affiliate in its home state, but it’s also an important national producer of music content benefitting radio listeners throughout the U.S. I’m most grateful that they continue to support Pipedreams, a long-running weekly program broadcasting organ music from around the world. They also produce a smattering of classical music shows, such as Performance Today, and they also produce many special Christmas/New Year programs that are picked up by many local NPR affiliates. My favorites are the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Cambridge and the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert.

Outside of classical music, they also present Live from Here, which used to be called Prairie Home Companion. The new host, brilliant mandolinist Chris Thile, has completely revamped the show and it presents a smattering of uniquely American music styles. MPR is even busy outside of music, with shows such as Marketplace, which presents financial news frequently spliced into NPR news programming.

Posted 2018-11-28

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

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

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).

altar with 3 crosses in front of organ case
Ash Wednesday at First Methodist of Bella Vista
Last Updated 2020-05-10 | Originally Posted 2018-03-26