Friday, November 20, 2015

What Does Musicianship Mean?

During my student days at Southern Adventist University I had the privilege of getting to know Mark Reneau, and adjunct professor of violin. He was familiar with an extraordinary amount of music and took particular delight in seldom-heard and neglected compositions. When on occasion he heard a student practicing something unexpected somewhere in the music building, he would eagerly follow the sound to its source and, poking his head in the door, would enthusiastically inquire if he had heard correctly. “Did I hear Herbert Howells?” he ask me one day with rhetorical glee, having discovered me playing through Howells’ rather obscure anthem “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks” at the piano. As was his custom, he took a moment to chat with me about the wonders of the underappreciated British master before returning to his office. Though I was slightly embarrassed on one occasion when he heard me royally messing up Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, I delighted in such visits from Mr. Reneau. So rarely do we encounter that kind of enthusiasm for music and that level of interest in such a wide variety of styles. How many violinists have even heard of Herbert Howells?

When I mentioned Reneau’s all-encompassing love of music to his next-door neighbor in the music building, choral director Gennevieve Brown-Kibble, she said with much admiration, “He’s not just a violinist; he’s a musician.” Clearly not inclined to throw that term around as carelessly as most of us do, she reserved the same praise for my colleague, Dustin Gold, whose whole-hearted enthusiasm for music had led him into at least four of the University’s ensembles simultaneously, a major in music education with a double concentration in oboe and voice, and the reputation of being an overachiever. In Kibble’s mind, if you had to use one term to classify Dustin, it wouldn’t be oboist, tenor, conductor, teacher, or even “renaissance man”—it would be musician. By contrast, that term is not necessarily so apropos when referring to a pianist who is so obsessed with her instrument that she knows little of the vast world of music outside of its repertory. Love for the piano is not necessarily equal to love for music; the latter love is much deeper, and it is out of its rich soil that the former should ideally grow. In Dustin’s case, the multiple avenues through which he embraced music revealed that his love for it was too great to be confined to only one means of expression—and because of that I believe he was better than he otherwise would have been at all the means of expression he chose.

And that brings us about as close as we are likely to get to a definition of true musicianship, a term that gets thrown around a lot and used pretty loosely, but often without any clearer definition than that of “music” itself. Whether or not we can really define the term satisfactorily, we can at least note what it requires: True musicianship requires you to love music itself more than any particular avenue of getting at it (i.e. an instrument), and to value it more than good looks, charisma, audience approval, fame, or money. That’s a tall order, particularly in a society that places such great importance on all of those accessory things and tends to miss the point entirely. It’s about the music.

Is eclecticism dangerous?
At this point, the question naturally arises: Do you mean that one has to be an eclectic lover of all kinds of music and a player of all kinds of instruments in order to be considered a real musician? Not necessarily. Sometimes one does have to rain oneself in and not try to focus on too many things at once. But eclecticism is, at any rate, often a sign that someone has a transcendent love for music. Consider by way of illustration one of my favorite places on earth, Yosemite National Park. These days the Yosemite Valley is pretty accessible, allowing tourists to drive in with great ease, rent a suite in the luxurious lodge, and generally eat, drink, and be merry in the shadow of the majestic granite spires and waterfalls. This is enough for a lot of people, and they probably go home talking about how much they love Yosemite. But those who actually love it are more like John Muir, the fiery Scottish naturalist who spent his time ecstatically exploring all the wonders he could possibly cram into each day, crawling over virtually ever inch of the place, and not wincing at harsh weather, precipitous heights, avalanches, bears, or whatever dangers came his way. So it is with those who really love music: they find themselves crawling all over the vast wonderland that is music, not content to stay in one place.

So just how eclectic should one be? Isn’t there the danger of becoming a jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none? It’s a point well taken, but I’ve never been afraid of that danger anymore than Muir seemed to be afraid of the much greater dangers that faced him during his explorations. Naturally, one does not have to spread oneself so thin that one fails to achieve mastery in any area, but we forget that the idea of, for example, a violinist who makes a career out of doing nothing but violin concerts and recordings is actually “the new kid on the block.” Think about some of the greatest names in the history of western music. We know them today primarily as composers, but they were far more: J. S. Bach was a harpsichordist, organist, violist, conductor, teacher… the list goes on and on. And he was good at all of it. Mozart, the prodigy of prodigies, was a superlative pianist and violinist. Piano virtuoso, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and conductor were among the many hats one Ludwig van Beethoven wore at various times throughout his life. Even Franz Liszt—whose larger-than-life reputation as the “greatest pianist in the world” endures still today, nearly 130 years after his death—wasn’t just a pianist, but also an avid composer and teacher. And he wrote far more than just virtuosic piano music: in his later years he turned to orchestral writing, earning the title “father of the symphonic poem,” and also wrote, among other things, choral works for church use. We could go on all day, talking about the “eclecticism” of the great composers. It didn’t hurt them one bit. On the contrary, I suspect it was part of what made them great.

The Five Essential Areas of Musical Competency
There is no magical number of instruments one should learn or musical styles one should know. But I suggest that all musicians be competent in the following, which I have dubbed the Five Essential Areas of Musical Competency: 1) Listening, 2) Singing, 3) Playing an Instrument, 4) Composing, and 5) Conducting. We should all be great listeners, first and foremost, and should choose at least one of the remaining four areas as an area of focus. But why is this order important? Because it is the order in which music ideally and most naturally comes into our lives, as we shall see as we discuss each of the Five Areas individually:

1. Listening
An acquaintance of mine, upon seeing my German bible, asked if I was fluent in the language. I responded that I could speak it well enough to get by in everyday conversation. “I wish I had the gift of tongues,” he said, impressed. “I have the gift of ears,” he continued, as if to imply, Wow, you can speak? That’s great! I can only listen. But I had to think, what if the latter “gift” is greater than the former? You cannot, in fact, learn to speak a language effectively if you don’t first know how to listen. This is the big problem with the majority of the language learning methods out there: they ignore the central importance of the ear, and attempt to teach the language primarily by sight. So we pour over language textbooks, reading about how sentences are constructed and attempting to cram vast lists of vocabulary into our heads. And then we wonder why we can’t speak the language conversationally. Both language and music are not principally about what’s seen, but about what’s heard, and it is utter folly to think we can learn to be proficient at either if we consider reading to be more important than listening. Even the Germans were amazed at how quickly I learned their language during the 8 months that I spent there in 2014-2015. How did I do it? Not by pouring over textbooks or memorizing lists. In fact, even though I was in a German course, I rarely did any of the homework. Instead I got out “on the street,” so to speak, and listened intently to the native speakers interacting with one another in their “natural habitat.” And, when possible, I tried to imitate and respond to what I heard—to take part in the conversation.[1]

On another occasion I met two ladies, both pianists, at a church gig in north Georgia. One of them said admiringly of the other, “She plays with her eyes; I just play with my ears,” as if, again, to downplay the latter. This mentality is common. Those who can’t “read music” often revere those who can. But in many cases it should be the other way around, because those who play by ear are often keen listeners, while those who are page-oriented are often not. My theory is that the folks who are steeped purely in page learning tend to become the snooty, longhaired, boring academics that typify what many people think “classical” music is. I say this because I used to be one of those snoots, bound to the page of notes, thinking it sinful to stray from its mathematical exactitude, and looking down on the “unwashed masses” that had the audacity to make music without it. It was chiefly the extraordinarily expressive playing of Vladimir Horowitz that opened my then-teenaged mind and freed me from the bondage of the page.

The very phrase “read music” betrays how sight-oriented we tend to be, even when dealing with aural phenomena. A page of musical notation is not in and of itself music. Music, again, exists in the world of sound—what I like to call “The unknown region,” into which many do not dare to enter without the security of a visual guide. If you will pardon the visual illustration, this is like traveling to a place as beautiful as Switzerland and being afraid to look at anything but the map. You might as well have stayed home. The map gives you only a very incredibly vague idea of the beauty that is out there to be found in the real world. It should serve only to help you find it—nothing more. In music, an intuitive ear has to take you the rest of the way. “My belief is that a page of music conveys about 5 percent of the information needed to perform it,” writes Alice Parker.[2] Musical notation is important, but it is a means to an end—not the end in itself.

Listening is number 1 of the Five Areas because we do this from day 1 of our lives; it is chronologically the first and most fundamental, without which none of the others can even exist. We are born with our ears “wide open,” eagerly taking in all the sounds around us as clues that help our little brains figure out what the world is and how we are supposed to function in it. In Germany I relived a microcosm of that experience, and I found myself listening a lot more intently than I tend to in the “comfort” of English-speaking environs. We would do well to never completely lose this “newborn” approach to listening. For example, imagine sitting down to listen to a Brahms Symphony; can you first throw away the detritus of preconceived and pre-learned notions and prejudices about things like what a symphony is “supposed” to be like or how Brahms is “expected” to write? Can you pretend you are newly born just before the first notes begin to sound and imagine yourself embarking afresh on the great journey of life in a whole new, unexplored world? What are your primordial responses to what you hear? What catches your ear? What makes you think, Wow, I wonder how… Once you’ve grown familiar with and fond of these musical surroundings you may find yourself wanting to imitate, respond to what you’ve heard. I like to think that’s called inspiration. It’s at this point you should awaken yourself from your “newborn” trance and head for the practice room. Listening to great music has always made me want to play great music, or write great music, and imitate or reflect in some way what I’ve heard. Our fear of unoriginality is too great, and we mustn’t let it continually douse the fires of inspiration. As cliché as it has come to be, “there is nothing new under the sun”[3] is true. Embrace it. It is after all Solomon who is credited as having said that.

This kind of inspiration must to some extent stem from a very basic instinct. Children, too, want to respond to the sounds they hear, much like I wanted to take part in German conversations, and they listen with unbiased wonder as they try to imitate the sounds around them. Can you imagine a baby listening to her mother singing a lullaby and thinking, Oh, such terrible diction…  Ew, she was flat there… Ugh, that’s not how that tune is supposed to go! No, these are very adult responses that betray biases deeply ingrained into us by our musical training. These biases can be major stumbling blocks when it comes to listening, and it would behoove us to eliminate them. That’s not to say it’s wrong to listen with an “educated ear,” but we should make sure that our education doesn’t exclude us from the most basic joys of music available to the untrained ear. How silly it is to spend years of your life and thousands of dollars to build your own personal stumbling block! But that’s exactly what happens if we aren’t very careful.

We should beware of how much stock we put into notions of “right” or “wrong” in music. Folk music, such as the lullaby our “educated baby” was criticizing above, is an example of what suffers the most from these arbitrary, academic ideas. It was conceived completely outside of them and therefore resents being judged by them. Ralph Vaughan Williams, a great lover of folksong, wrote the following in the preface to his 1906 English Hymnal, which was among the first hymnals to include folk material: “Now the expression ‘musically correct’ has no meaning; the only ‘correct’ music is that which is beautiful and noble
.”[4] Frame that and hang it on your wall.

2. Singing
Along with speaking, this is our most natural and primordial response to the sounds we hear. “Children who are sung to sing back, echoing, varying, playing.”[5] It is one of the great tragedies of our time that singing is often discouraged—sometimes indirectly, sometimes directly—by, again, the biased notion that there is a “right” way of singing and that only people gifted with “good voices” should sing. Why have we been so willing to accept these preposterous ideas? If singing is indeed as primordial as I say it is, let’s think of the very beginning of mankind’s existence: primordial soup… Just kidding. I mean Adam and Eve in the Garden. Do you suppose they were afraid to sing? Probably not, considering that they weren’t even embarrassed about being nude (insert laughter here). Oh, but the world was perfect, so of course they sounded good! Yes, perhaps, but I can confidently say there wasn’t anyone there to teach them how to sing opera. The bible tells us that God himself “will rejoice over you with singing.”[6] Somehow I don’t picture God as a Wotan-like figure, “rejoicing over you” with Wagnerian vocal techniques. Furthermore, the bible extols us over and over again to sing. Take for example Isaiah 42:10-11:
Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof. Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar doth inhabit: let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains.
Note the all-inclusive nature of this. Nobody is left out. “Sing unto the Lord, all ye that have good voices and proper vocal technique” is to be found nowhere in scripture.

One of my favorite scripture passages is Isaiah 54, which begins thus: “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud…” Note that it does not say “Sing, O barren opera singer.” Interestingly, a childless woman would have been looked down on and even stigmatized in Israel in those days.[7] But as far as God is concerned, it doesn’t matter who you are—you can sing. God doesn’t regard our society’s silly ideas about who should sing and who shouldn’t any more than he regarded the Jews’ superstitious notion that a barren woman was cursed. The voice is the only instrument that God created, and the book of Genesis tells us that God, surveying his new creation, “saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” So believe, and sing. The abuses of mankind have marred creation, but it’s still good. Arvo Pärt considers the human voice “the most perfect instrument of all.”[8] He’s right.

The trained instrumentalist is by no means immune to the inhibitions of “not having a good voice” or vocal training. Many instrumentalists do not sing at all because they, more than anyone else, have generally been immersed in the notion that it takes years of rigorous training and hours in the practice room everyday to render oneself worthy to perform. Alice Parker has a different perspective: “What do we need to make music? Breath and voice, confidence, something to sing about. Not a book, reading, voice lessons, theory, or poetry—not even an audience or co-singer. It’s as if song is built into our subconscious beings, and all we need is to open our ears and mouths and join in.”[9]

Those that have no vocal training often just don’t sing. But this is backward. The voice is the first instrument, and in singing, whether or not we’re trained in it as such, we become aware of how immensely the sound of the human voice and the natural inflections of language have influenced an entire world of musical sound—and that absolutely includes instrumental music. He who sings plays his instrument better. That doesn’t mean we all have to become Placido Domingos or Christa Ludwigs. Find a choir to join, sing along in church, sing while washing dishes or mowing the lawn, sing in the shower, sing in line at the grocery store. The nice thing about singing is that we can do it just about anywhere.

Of course, this goes back, as most everything does, to Area 1: Listening. We need to listen to good singing—this includes the great “classical” singers, certainly, but also folksingers and, when possible, common people, singing the simple, unpretentious songs that have been handed down to them. Mark Reneau once told me, “All instrumentalists should be marinated in vocal music.”

3. Playing and Instrument
We’ve discussed why players should sing, but why should singers play? I’ve spent a great deal of my life working as an accompanist for singers. I’ve also played chamber and orchestral music with other instrumentalists and thus have a foot in both camps, so to speak. Indeed, they are two distinct camps, with a great gulf of misunderstanding affixed between them. The differences between the two are noteworthy. For example, singers generally can’t count as well as instrumentalists, thus getting lost easier, and they tend to depend more heavily on the accompanist. If I had a dime for every time I, as an accompanist, have saved singers from great embarrassment, I’d probably be rich. They skip beats—or whole measures—and don’t realize it (either that or they add time that isn’t supposed to be there). Instrumentalists almost never do this. Should the accompanist happen to mess up, a singer is way more likely to be thrown off by it than is an instrumentalist. Beyond this, instrumentalists generally sight-read far more proficiently than singers, who often rely heavily on rote learning (and on good accompanists).

The most significant difference is that instrumentalists generally listen better—they have a better grasp of what the other performers in the group are playing and how their individual parts fit into the whole. This requires careful listening since instrumentalists, with the exception of keyboardists in some cases, don’t play from the full score—they only receive their individual parts. In other words, the 1st flutist in the orchestra gets the 1st flute part and nothing else. That forces them to listen—their job may depend on it. Singers, on the other hand, generally do get the score, or at least a piano reduction of it in cases where there are many instruments. How ironic it is, then, that they tend to have less of a grasp on what’s going on. Perhaps because they can see in the score everything that’s happening, they neglect to actually listen to everything that’s happening. We so easily forget that music is not so much about what’s seen, but about what’s heard, and if we are not really listening, we are missing the music.

Beyond purely musical differences, there is among instrumentalists considerably less of the “diva” mentality that says “I’m number 1; I’m the queen and you guys are here to make me look good.” A lot of singers who aren’t even very skilled have this attitude; they think they are better than they really are. A colleague of mine once commented that it would prove disastrous if choirs used a “caste” system like orchestras do, in which, for example, the 1st oboist is regarded as being “better” than the 2nd oboist and the concertmaster is looked on with much greater esteem than the poor vassal at the back of the 2nd violin section. But instrumentalists are generally not bothered by this. I suppose, if they were honest, they might admit that their pride is a little hurt now and then, but it is what it is. They accept it move on. But, oh, how apocalyptic it would prove to be if we openly arranged or numbered singers in a choir in order from “best” to “worst.” The ecstasy of the top divas would go through the roof, and those on the bottom would go away sorrowing, vowing never to sing again—either that or plotting some kind of revenge or mutiny.

It should therefore come as no surprise that most lay people tend to refer to singers simply as “singers” while they refer to instrumentalists as “musicians.” They’re not thinking it through; it’s just what they say. A lot of singers are offended by this, and some of them justly so. But to many a singer I would enjoy saying: “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it!” However, at this point I need to insert the disclaimer that everything I just said is quite a generalization and by no means applies to each individual. But there are, at any rate, a lot of lessons a singer can learn from instrumentalists, and the best way for him to do that is to become one of them. Of course, this goes the other way too, as already noted. That’s not to say that singers have to become instrumental virtuosi and vice versa, but some amount of proficiency in one another’s territory will be of great benefit to all parties involved. It will help bridge the gap of misunderstanding between the two camps, thus beginning a transformation that, with any luck, will ultimately merge the “singer camp” and the “instrumentalist camp” into a single “musician camp.”

4. Composing
Here’s another “camp”—an enigmatic one, filled with crazy old longhaired dudes. A bit like a haunted house, most people are afraid to venture therein. Others, viewing the discipline on a more exalted plane, consider themselves, mere mortals, as completely unworthy if not altogether incapable of even trying it, imagining they will bring down the wrath of an angry-faced deity, looking curiously a lot like Beethoven, ensconced somewhere in the clouds of “musical paradise.” This is, of course, all bologna. Composers are people—they eat and sleep, watch TV, drink coffee, wear jeans, visit the restroom, etc. Just people. Even Beethoven was just a person, and I don’t think he would be happy to find out that some people are afraid to try composing for fear of not measuring up to his standard. Had everyone succumbed to that fear, Beethoven probably would have been the last composer on planet earth.

But why is this one of the Five Essential Areas of Musical Competency? Does everybody really need to compose? Reginald Smith Brindle offers this perspective in his book, Musical Composition:
Student performers can benefit particularly from composition. They are often the most reluctant to become involved in it, since they need to spend so much time in instrumental practice, but they will never play music really superbly, in spite of all their technique, without inside experience; with it, they will be able to recreate the music just as the composer himself conceived it. A performer should be able to compose well enough to know what is behind the notes, what must be stressed and what subdued, what should be made to sing out and what should be almost concealed, like the scaffolds behind a stage set. For musical notation is still a very imperfect medium of communication. It may give us a lot of information… or very little more than the notes and their place in time, but it can never give us more than a hint of the emotive message which is the composer’s real intention, and which is what the music is all about. A performer who has composed will divine this message more clearly than one who has not.[10]
Brindle goes on to discuss composition as a primer for improvisation—a great skill for any performer to have in the bag. Think back on the “eclectic” composers we talked about earlier: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt—all of them were superb improvisers. That’s all but a lost art today, one that composing can help us regain. After all, what is improvisation but, in Brindle’s words, “spontaneous composition”?[11]

For those who don’t know where to start, here are my two cents on learning to compose. I don’t consider myself to be a great composer, but I can share some simple things I’ve learned by trial and error. My first compositions were terrible, admittedly, but I didn’t know that, and I kept writing. That’s really the big “secret” to composing—and probably just about everything in life. You’ve just got to do it. If you go into it with an open mind, taking note of what works and what doesn’t work along the way, you learn fast. The biggest way to aid the process is back in Area 1: Listening. Listen to music of the great composers often, with the score in front of you when possible, taking note all along the way of what the composer wrote on the page to achieve the sounds you hear. I really believe I have learned more from doing that than from anything else.

Another big component to learning how to compose effective music is to get as many performances as you possibly can. The best place to start may be among your friends. Write music for your friends to play or sing; people love the novelty of having music composed specifically for them. When they play or sing it, you will learn much. Take note of the things that work and don’t work; ask your friends for advice on what works well for their instruments. They’ll be flattered that you care enough to ask them, and they often have good advice to offer. This does much to promote mutual understanding between composers and performers, and helps to eliminate the silly stereotypes floating around out there.

5. Conducting
This one might be a little bit more universally agreed upon than number 4, if for no other reason than that we all have to take a couple of conducting courses to get out of college with a music degree. But courses in conducting don’t make you a good conductor, though they can help. Conducting is a great gage of musicianship, even in the case of the complete novice shaking in terror at the podium, or the occasional “freak” you see walking down the street, conducting the tune that’s stuck in his head (that’s me). Even if it’s somebody who’s never received conducting instruction in his life, you can tell by his gestures when he tries to conduct whether or not there is music deep in his soul. Music in the soul inevitably flows out in the gesture, whether or not the student knows anything about ictus or beat patterns or melding or any of that.

But the majority of the students I’ve seen trying to conduct have zero music in their gestures. These people go through their college conducting courses and learn beat patterns, how to show crescendo and decrescendo, how to give cues, how to conducting compound vs. simple time, how to subdivide, etc., ad infinitum. Indeed, they emerge in one piece on the other side of it all, maybe even with an A in the coarse—but with not an ounce of music flowing in their gestures. My friend Gennevieve Kibble says that’s something you just can’t teach. They have to feel it. If they don’t feel it, maybe there’s not music deep in their souls, and if there’s not music in their souls, they probably never had the transcendent love for it that we spoke of earlier, but merely a superficial fondness, or a desire for recognition and esteem. The trouble is, these people often get hired as music teachers on account of their good-looking resumes—which they are able to build courtesy of universities that are willing to take their money and not tell them the hard, cold truth about what it takes to be musician. Then the cycle gets repeated. A good resume means nothing if you don’t really make music, if you don’t know how to get beyond the math of the page, if your “technique” is more of a hindrance than a help—if you can’t see the forest for the trees.

And that brings us full circle. To be a good conductor you’ve simply got to be a great musician, and that’s why this one is the last of the Five Areas. That doesn’t mean it’s the pinnacle, it merely means that all the other Areas generally have to come first. Conducting is a synthesis of so many different aspects of musicianship. When I was studying choral arranging with Roland Carter in college, he once joked, “I love conducting. It makes me feel like I’m phenomenal!” To be a good conductor, you’ve got to know what it’s like to play in an orchestra, and/or sing in a choir. You have to put yourself in their shoes to know what their needs are and know how you can make your conducting clear for them. The same is true of the conductor-composer relationship. The conductor, like the instrumentalist and vocalist, also has to put himself in the composer’s shoes, and he bears the responsibility of representing the composer’s intentions as accurately as possible—first to the musicians he conducts, and then, through them, to the audience. This is why Erich Leinsdorf said the conductor is The Composer’s Advocate. Here are a couple memorable lines from his book by that title: “Unless a Wagner is on the podium, serious music lovers do not attend concerts to learn the conductor’s notion of how Beethoven should have written music. They go to hear the music he did write performed the way he conceived it…”[12]

Leinsdorf’s words here have a bit of an “ouch” effect to them. This is because many conductors, on account of the omniscient perspective they have to possess, often start to feel a bit more “phenomenal” than they should, and when this happens the wishes of the conductor tend to push the wishes of the composer into second place. It’s a danger all musicians face, but the temptation to become egotistical is particularly great for conductors. After all, the conductor is the top dog, the head honcho, the maestro, right? Funny thing, though: if music, as I suggested earlier, is about what’s heard and not what’s seen, the conductor is, in fact, the only person on stage that is not literally making music, as such. He is merely facilitating the music that other people are making, and is thus there primarily to serve a logistical function. I know there may be some conductors that are incensed at this, but why do you suppose it is that small ensembles don’t generally bother to hire a conductor? Simply because they don’t need one—it’s not logistically necessary for them. Some conductors should therefore eat a slice of humble pie and realize that their primary function isn’t to be the star of the show. The primary function of the conductor is to inspire and unify a large group of opinionated individuals, and to turn them effectively into one dynamic musical force, intent on a single purpose. Granted, that’s no small trick.

The Overarching Purpose of Music-Making
The question is, what purpose is that exactly? To perform the music well? Yes, but to what end? To accurately represent the composer’s intentions? Yes, but again, with what purpose? Art for art’s sake! No. Art for money’s sake? Nope, try again. To get a good response from the audience? That in itself is not it either, but it’s beginning to move in the right direction. You see, music is a gift. Relatively few folks are really in music for the money; if you want to earn a lot of money there are other careers that will bring you much more money for much less work. And as noble as “art for art’s sake” or other such slogans sound, they really miss the point. Art does not exist outside of the individuals that create it, and those individuals are a part of a larger society and a part of the human race. Thus I submit to you that art exists not unto itself but unto people—art for humanity’s sake. In making music we give a priceless gift to our audience—whether our audience is thousands of people at Carnegie Hall or just one person on her deathbed at the hospital—and that should be our overarching purpose, our collective goal as musicians. When the audience responds favorably it merely lets us know that we are accomplishing that goal.

Now, if you’re a Christian, you may be thinking, But isn’t it all about bringing glory to God? Yes, it is. But what does that mean in practical terms? In his parable of “the sheep and the goats” Jesus famously said, in reference to feeding the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and visiting the imprisoned, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”[13] Thus the best way I can think of to glorify God with music is simply to share it as a gift to the world. Bach’s famous “S.D.G.” inscription is therefore as if to say, “This is a gift for you.” Those of us you have been touched buy such gifts want to share them with others. And, perhaps, when Jesus returns, he’ll say to you: “Inasmuch as you sang so beautifully that it brought tears to eyes of the folks at the nursing home, you sang for Me.” And maybe that’s what your called to do. Maybe that’s even more important than Carnegie Hall. “If I can stop one heart from breaking,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “I shall not live in vain.”[14]

I spoke earlier of a transcendent love for music. In fact, that’s what this whole, long essay has been about. But, in truth, I’ve waited to the very end to tell you that the word “love” is a bit of a misnomer in that context, much as it is when you say “I love my slippers” or “I love pizza.” The word is so overused today that it has all but lost it’s meaning. So, we must ask ourselves, what can we legitimately love? Well, we can love people. And when we love people, our “transcendent love of music” is an extension of that love. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, to say I love music is to say I love humanity—and I love God. “Music is an act of love,”[15] said Leonard Bernstein once; and the apostle Paul tells us that “love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked…”[16] It’s as true today as it was 2000 years ago, and if this were more universally understood, our discipline would be far less fraught with egotism and jealousy. When we love people, that love will flow through our music making and we will be no longer just be pianists and singers and composers and kazooists and conductors and…and… and…

We’ll be musicians.

[1] My thinking on this subject has been greatly influenced by the work of Dr. Paul Pimsleur and the “Pimsleur Approach” to learning languages. It’s a method of learning a language “by ear,” as it were, which I highly recommend.
[2] Alice Parker, The Anatomy of Melody: Exploring the Single Line of Song (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc.), xxi.
[3] Ecclesiastes 1:9
[4] Ralph Vaughan Williams, The English Hymnal (London: Oxford University Press, 1906), xi.
[5] Alice Parker, The Anatomy of Melody, 13.
[6] Zephaniah 3:17.
[7] See for example the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 1.
[8] Arvo Pärt, liner notes for De Profundis, Harmonia Mundi 907182, 1996.
[9] Alice Parker, The Anatomy of Melody, 13.
[10] Reginald Smith Brindle, Musical Composition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 2.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Erich Leinsdorf, The Composer’s Advocate (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 62.
[13] Matthew 25:40
[14] Emily Dickinson, “If I can stop one heart from breaking,” in Emily Dickinson: Collected Poems (New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing, Inc., 1993), 6.
[15] Leonard Bernstein, “Music Will Save My Life” interview, March 19, 1971.
[16] 1 Corinthians 13:4-5.

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Week with Alice Parker

With Alice in her studio
Dear Reader,

As I write this, I am sitting in my bed in an old rustic cabin at Singing Brook Farm. The farm is aptly named, not only because of the soothing sounds of the brook flowing by just outside my window; the dear lady who owns this farm, Alice Parker, lives a life overflowing with song. Like the brook that gently courses through her parcel of these serene hills in western Massachusetts, it helps bring life and energy to everything around it. Four colleagues and I have experienced that first hand over the past five days, and now we don’t want to leave.

Earlier today, Alice (as she insists on being called in spite of my feelings of unworthiness) was talking to us about “reentry”—how to mentally prepare ourselves to go back into the “real world.” Here, we are largely sheltered from its chaos. In fact, Alice said that the world could be falling apart at its seams even as we speak, and we wouldn’t know a thing about it. We are out in the middle of nowhere, with no cell service, very limited internet access, no TV, no radio. But we have song, and we have each other. This, here and now, she said, is the most important thing we could be doing. We are preparing to bring the joy of song to a world that desperately needs it. I know that because I needed it; I didn’t realize just how much until I came here again.

So just what have we been doing, while the world may or may not have been falling apart at the seams? We’ve been singing a great deal. We’ve been sharing ideas and stories, learning about one another’s craft. We’ve talked about the frustrations inherent in what we do, but also its great rewards. We’ve also eaten lots, cooked together, and probably gained weight. We’ve certainly laughed a lot. And we’ve peppered poor Alice with an almost relentless barrage of questions about almost everything imaginable. I commented to one of my colleagues that Alice is a perpetual fountain of profundity. That fountain never seems to run dry. And she’s almost 90 years old.

It’s inspiring, albeit a little embarrassing, that a 90-year-old seems to have more energy than I do. It must have a lot to do with her optimism and the joy she finds in simple things—the company of friends, a good meal, the bear that ran past the window and distracted us all during class, a folksong sung from the heart. By contrast, I was kind of depressed when I arrived here last Sunday afternoon. Things had not been going well; I was weighed down with deep regrets about the past and great uncertainty and doubts about the future—What should I do? Where should I go? Is the world falling apart? My own personal cloud seemed to be following me around and preventing me from seeing the beauty around me. It was through that cloud that Alice reached as her hand came in the open car window and warmly clasped mine. “Ethan! how lovely to see you again,” she said with grandmotherly sweetness and a radiant smile that makes her appear 20 years younger. Somehow, it felt a bit like coming home.

"Alice's Cabin," so named because her father built for her when she was a child. This is where the composition fellows stayed this year.
Well, dear reader, I heartily thank you for indulging my stories. For now, I suppose I should get some sleep. It’s after 11:00pm. I’d like to entertain the silly fancy that by sleeping in this cabin, where Alice used to sleep as a child and where she later worked on choral arrangements with Robert Shaw, I’ll inhale some of the creativity that is hopefully floating in the air (or is that moth balls I’m smelling?). We’ll see how it goes…

Deep peace to you,


October 1, 2015
Singing Brook Farm
Hawley, Massachusetts

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

First Composition of 2015

Hey everybody! Sorry I have not posted anything for a while. Lately I've been absorbed in finishing my first half-decent large-scale work: a "requiem" of sorts for chorus and orchestra, entitled That they may rest. It features a selection of some of my favorite scripture passages. I am pleased to announce that, as of today at around 2:30am, the work is complete.... except for the orchestration, but that's the easy part... NOT!

I'm also pleased to announce that some good friends of mine back home at Southern Adventist University have agreed to be "guinea pigs" and put together a performance of the work this semester. Dr. Julie Penner teaches a class designed to give students experience in the process of rehearsing and performing extended works, and I am grateful that she has decided to incorporate my composition into the curriculum this semester. Stay tuned for a performance date.

In the photo below you can see the makeshift composition studio (practice room) in which I've been working.

Thank you all for your support!


Ethan McGrath
January 14, 2015
Friedensau, Germany