Thursday, December 22, 2016

An end-of-the-year letter to my fellow Americans

Dear fellow Americans,

Someone recently asked me: “Since you’ve spent a lot of time abroad in both Germany and the UK, with which nationality do you identify?” Funny—there was a time in which I’d have been glad to consider myself British, or indeed German, or any number of other things. I grew up out in the country in Tennessee and thought that was so boring and uncultured. I desperately wanted to get out and experience the world—to go live somewhere “important.” Several years ago my family hosted an exchange student from Germany. She said she wanted to come to America to experience our culture and our way of life. I thought, Why on earth would you want to do that? How could this incredibly boring, redneck place possibly have any appeal for someone from Europe?

Well, the earth has made a few trips around the sun since then, and I finally made it out of “backwoods” Tennessee. I ended up studying in Germany and subsequently in England, where I’m presently pursuing a master’s degree at my dream school: The University of Cambridge—aka “somewhere important.” But now that I’ve seen “bigger and better places,” there’s a yearning in me to return to insignificance of small-town America. My experience abroad has been a journey of self-discovery in that sense. Getting out of my own country helped me to see it differently, and to realize how big a part of my identity America really is. So to the person who asked me which nationality I identify with, my answer was “American.” It’s what I am. Spending time overseas has only served to make me more sure of that answer.

I realize now that I allowed myself to be lead astray by the ever-growing crowd that thinks “the grass is always greener…” In recent years it’s become trendy to talk about how bad America is compared to other places. Social media is full of videos, memes, articles, etc. that try to illustrate just that. America is backward, or so we are told. This election season has compounded the problem, creating huge internal strife that has made many Americans feel ashamed of their own nationality. People are burning flags and refusing to stand for the national anthem, and tensions between races, religions, and political parties abound. Upset by all of this and deeply dissatisfied with the results of the election, more Americans than ever—whether half-joking or serious—are talking about moving to Canada.

Then there was the whole Standing Rock issue. During Thanksgiving week this year, lots of people posted on social media in an effort to guilt-trip their fellow Americans for even celebrating the holiday—as if to imply that, because of what was going on at Standing Rock (and America’s whole history of mistreating Indians), we should feel embarrassed and guilty about celebrating Thanksgiving. (That said, I frankly doubt that any of the people posting those sorts of things didn’t celebrate).

Granted, our country does have a lot of problems, and that’s discouraging. But what’s almost more discouraging is how quick so many people are to write America off. I’m not a big Ted Cruz fan, but at the RNC this year he said something that speaks to this issue: “America is more than just a land mass between two oceans. America is an idea, a simple yet powerful idea: freedom matters.” We must resist the temptation to discount this simply because of who said it. This is not politics—it’s truth. America is an idea. That realization should be a game changer. I submit to you that that idea transcends all of the dogma, all of the violence, racism, hatred, bigotry, greed, and bureaucracy that has claimed its name over the years. The notion that America is somehow inherently evil or that, in Donald Trump’s words, “the American dream is dead,” is founded on the fundamentally flawed premise that America is not above the misdeeds of those who claim her name. It’s the same false premise that blames Jesus for the hypocrisy of his supposed followers, or indeed that blames all Muslims for the actions of extremists.

So when I say that I’m proud to be an American, that doesn’t mean I’m proud of the mistreatment of Indians. If I fly an American flag, it doesn’t mean I’m a racist. When I stand for the national anthem, it doesn’t mean I’m an islamophobe. Granted, to burn a flag or refuse to stand for the anthem is anybody’s right—because freedom matters in America, but to do so is to suggest that the harm wrought by the Donald Trumps of our nation somehow sets at naught the legacy of America’s greatest war heroes, humanitarians, and civil rights activists.

For every Donald Trump there is a Martin Luther King, Jr.—and it’s the legacy of the latter that we trample on when we act embarrassed about our nationality or dishonor our nation’s symbols. Dr. King understood this notion that “America is an idea” long before Sen. Cruz came along and said it in his speech because it sounded nice. If anybody had reason to write America off, it was MLK—but he didn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact. In his most famous speech, he said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” He made no apologies for that. He was not embarrassed to consider himself an American, because he understood that America wasn’t the real problem—America was the solution. The problem was that the people in power refused to live up to America’s ideals. 

Dear reader, I submit to you that that’s more or less the same problem we have now. And we have two choices: write America off or work to save her. If we have any respect for Dr. King and the countless great Americans who have gone before, we’ll choose the latter.

Ethan McGrath
December 22, 2016
Nahe, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Setting Music Free

Early in my musical development I became intensely enamored with the music of Frederic Chopin. Though virtually all of his music was beyond my skill level, I attempted with great vehemence to play just about any Chopin work I could lay my 12-year-old hands on. The polish virtuoso quickly became my hero. Not surprisingly, I also encountered the music of Chopin’s colleague, Franz Liszt, around the same time. I loved Liszt’s music too, but something I read about him bothered me a little: Liszt was said to be “the greatest pianist in the world.” That agitated me because it meant that Liszt was greater than Chopin, my hero.

As was my custom when puzzled about any of the litany of musical information I was cramming into my brain at every opportunity, I took my concerns to lay at the feet of my piano teacher, J. Bruce Ashton. An eloquent, distinguished university professor nearing the end of a long and fruitful career in music, Dr. Ashton always seemed to have the answers, and I, at the beginning of my life’s musical journey, was in awe of his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge and wisdom. So I told him what I had read about Liszt being “the greatest” and asked if that necessarily meant he was better than Chopin. Having braced myself for a mere confirmation of what I’d read, I got an answer I wasn’t expecting—from the Apostle Paul, no less:


“We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise (II Corinthians 2:12).

Dr. Ashton went on to explain that he did not, in fact, consider Liszt to be better than Chopin. He conceded that Chopin was of slight build and rather ill for most of his life, and that perhaps Liszt could therefore play louder. But, as far as Dr. Ashton was concerned, “louder” does not equal “better,” and both pianists were extraordinary in their own right and had their own unique merits.

And thus I learned two incredibly valuable life lessons: 1) You can’t just blindly believe everything you read, regardless of how reputable the source of information or commonplace the ideology, and 2) it’s folly to try to compare apples with oranges. Of course, I was young and na├»ve, and didn’t realize that these are extremely basic principles that most people regard as very obvious. The question is, if they’re so basic, why do we forget them so easily? Dr. Ashton taught me in a very memorable way how important these “obvious” points are when it comes to the arts especially. That’s because so little about art is concrete; artists deal primarily with questions of aesthetic and emotion—and not primarily of math and science. There’s so much subjective opinion involved for that reason. It’s virtually impossible to escape biases based on our own personal preferences.

That’s what Dr. Ashton helped me to see for the first time all those years ago, and that’s why, for me, a red flag goes up whenever I hear someone using superlatives or talking about absolutes when it comes to the arts. I consciously avoid words and phrases like “greatest,” “best,” “most beautiful,” “most difficult,” etc. To say that Liszt is better than Chopin is tantamount to insisting that vanilla is better than chocolate. It’s not fact; no matter how many letters are behind the name of the person saying it, it’s nothing more than opinion.

This is why competitions in the arts are for the most part a rather silly exercise. Though it is possible, to some extent, to measure technical skill (i.e. Suzie plays scales more cleanly than Joey), to measure the heart and soul of the matter—the so-called musicality—is another thing entirely. Yes, some people certainly have more “heart and soul” in their work than others, and that’s often readily recognizable. But what if, for example, a Salvador Dali and a Pablo Picasso showed up at the local art contest? Who’s to say that the surrealism of the former is inherently better the cubism of the latter? Or what if a Vladimir Horowitz and an Artur Rubinstein were somehow reincarnated and entered one of today’s major piano competitions? There’s more than one way to effectively perform the same piano piece, and who’s to say which is inherently better? And what of, for example, concerto competitions open to players of all instruments? You might wind up with a pianist playing Mozart competing against a flutist playing Khachaturian. It’s as preposterous as sending your school’s football team to play against the competing school’s basketball team.

On a deeper level, the main problem with competition is that its principles are not in harmony with the underlying principles and chief purpose of music, as I see it. In our society music is often a force that divides us. This isn’t just because of all of the competition in the music industry, but also simply because it’s easy to be so emotional about the kind of music that we think is best, and it becomes a hill we deem worthy to die on. Even churches sometimes become divided because of disagreements about the kind of music that should be used in their services. But I believe that music, if its powers are harnessed and used for good, can bring us together and promote peace in the world in profound ways. It can build a sense of community, of belonging, of feeling like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.

But the excessive emphasis on competition and big egos in the music industry promote the opposite ideals and often prevent music from fulfilling its potential. We’re told we’ve got to push our way to the top and learn to “toot our own horn” or else we won’t get anywhere. So many aspiring musicians spend their lives trying to prove that they are “better” than their peers, and I too have fallen sway to this mentality at times. But when we think this way we miss the boat entirely. Even if we become “successful” as a result of this “survival-of-the-fittest” system, we won’t really be successful because we will have built a career on ideals that are contrary to what music is all about. And perhaps we’ll regret that some day when we’re old and we look back on a life spent pushing others out of the way.

Let me try to illustrate all of this in another way. I love nature and like to think that the time I spend exploring its wonders has a big impact on what I do as an artist. I’ve even written an essay, with the rather unlikely title of “The Composer on the Infinite Cereal Aisle,” that explores the concept of nature as inspiration for music. It recently occurred to me that nature also provides some interesting food for thought on the issue of comparing things in the arts.

In the summer of 2014 I was out backpacking in the Rockies with some friends from my home state of Tennessee. We set up camp at a sublime spot: a small, crystal-clear lake nestled high among the jagged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range in southeastern Colorado. We all felt a kind of ecstasy up there, the scene being even more glorious than we had dreamed. But, unfortunately, one of my companions chose to express her ecstasy in a way that slightly diminished mine: “We just don’t have anything like this in Tennessee,” she said. “I mean, people say that the mountains in Tennessee are just as pretty in their own way, but that’s just bologna! This is so much better.” Though I had heard people say similar things before, I was particularly nonplussed that someone would view such an awe-inspiring scene as a reason to dis another beautiful place. I’ll be the first to say that the Rockies are glorious, but I’ll never understand why some people feel that the Rockies should be praised on the basis of how much “better” they are than the Appalachians.

The Appalachian Mountains have a special place in my heart. I grew up in their shadow and I feel like those “smoky,” blue hills are somehow a part of me. I feel like I belong when I’m in those mountains; there’s this sense that they are “my” mountains. So when people say things like, “Out west they have real mountains,” I don’t get it, because the eastern mountains sure feel real to me. On the whole, they offer a quieter, more reserved beauty than their rugged western counterparts; does that inherently make them of lesser value or somehow not “real”?

Perhaps this hits close to home for me because of the analogy I see in it. I tend to write small-scale, quiet, meditative music. I happen to be a quiet, reserved person. Does that mean my music is not legitimate or that it’s inherently lesser than that of composers who are inclined toward grandiosity? In some people’s minds, the answer would seem to be “yes.” After all, there are a lot of composers out there making a whole lot more money than I do, and the majority of them are not writing music that resembles mine. But I keep writing in my own way because I believe that the world needs to learn to appreciate a quieter, unassuming aesthetic. Bigger, grander, louder, longer—none of these are synonyms for “better.” We need to learn to appreciate the infinite shades of beauty in the world. Will certain shades appeal to certain individuals more than others? Sure, but we must be ever vigilant in fighting the notion that that which appeals to us—or to the largest group of people—is inherently the best.

Simply put, in the arts and in nature there is no “best.” I would simply ask anyone who disagrees to prove me wrong. Prove that Liszt is better than Chopin. Prove that the Rockies are better than the Appalachians. Prove that apples are better than oranges and that vanilla is better than chocolate. It’s just not possible. It never has been and it never will be. And that’s beautiful. When we learn to appreciate beauty in whatever form it takes, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn to recognize and appreciate the unique, individual beauty in every person we meet—no matter how unlike us they may be.

So let’s set art free—let’s set music free—to do what it does best. Let’s break the arbitrary chains of bias and competitiveness that our society has fastened upon it—chains that threaten to keep it from fulfilling its inestimable potential to promote peace in the world. It’s not an easy task, but it’s ever so worth it. If we spend our lives pursuing that goal, rather than the goal of trying to be “better” than others, we’ll really have something to be proud of when we’re old: We’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that we made music for the right reasons.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Big Picture: How Music Can Remind Us of the Most Important Things in Life

Originally delivered as a short talk at the East Ridge Seventh-day Adventist Church on July 31, 2015.

During my junior year at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, my piano teacher, Sin-Hsing Tsai, announced that the great pianist Walter Hautzig would present a masterclass in the area, in which a handful of us would be chosen to participate. I was lucky enough to be selected. Since the selection of students had been based on the repertoire we’d submitted, I had no choice but to play the very difficult fourth Scherzo of Chopin, the title of which I had optimistically submitted with the vain hope that I could learn it in time. My anxiety began to increase as my first encounter with the 92-year-old Austrian legend drew nigh. I was not ready, but the show must go on. As luck would have it, I was slated to play last on the program. Hautzig, the strait-talking Peabody Conservatory Emeritus, was not one to butter up students who played badly, and as the masterclass went on it became clear that he was not going to be impressed if I played as sloppily as I expected to.

Finally it was my turn… and yes, I played every bit as sloppily as I expected to—and more. The ten-minute Scherzo seemed to go on for hours and I began to feel as though I would never get out of it alive. When, finally, the last bumbles had been made, the last notes finished sounding, and the smoke cleared, I sat sheepishly on the piano bench, feeling rather like a wet cat. After what seemed like eons (but was probably only seconds), it was Hautzig’s Austrian accent that broke the silence: “I have just one piece of advice for you: Don’t change a single note.” My teacher, Dr. Tsai, was in tears as Hautzig proceeded to rave for several minutes about how incredible my performance was and to predict what a phenomenal career I would have as a pianist. All the while I sat dazed at the piano bench, not sure if I was hearing correctly. Is he talking about ME? If so, which one of us is crazy?  I thought I’d done a lousy job, but now I was the star of the show.

Almost like the prodigal son upon returning home in embarrassment at his failures, I felt I was being honored far beyond what I deserved. After all, Hautzig seemed to be completely ignoring my obvious mistakes, as if they hadn’t happened: “Don’t change a single note.” It’s also a bit like the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, in which the “sheep” are surprised that God thinks they are anything special, almost as if they thought, “You’ve got the wrong sheep.” To this day I still don’t know exactly what happened on that mysterious evening, when I was thinking something along the lines of “Let my shame go where it doth deserve”[1] (in this case, back to the practice room). The only thing I can figure is that he saw something that I didn’t see: the big picture. Where I saw nothing but a wreckage of wrong notes, sloppy scales and arpeggios, blurry pedaling, and the angry face of Frederic Chopin rolling over in his grave, Hautzig saw music—and behind it he perceived a heart that loved it beyond the fingers’ ability to adequately express that love. Beyond this, he also saw potential for what I could become. That has inspired me to try to do the same for others.

Never before had I realized just how important the big picture is and how it effects almost every aspect of life. When we don’t see the big picture, it’s very easy to be judgmental, either of ourselves or of others. When I hear a musician making a mistake on something that’s relatively easy and start to think, O brother, what’s wrong with him? it behooves me to look back on my experience with Hautzig, and also on a few experiences I’ve had collaborating with other musicians. For example, during my years as a student accompanist I played piano for a talented singer who once had a “train wreck” on stage, even though she had practiced very thoroughly and everything had gone perfectly well in rehearsal. On the day of the springtime concert her pollen allergies began to flair up, but she decided to go ahead with the performance, underestimating the effect the allergies would have on her voice. I couldn’t help but think, If only the audience knew how well she can sing this music! And I have to wonder, would I have been so sympathetic had I been in the audience, not knowing the whole story? Probably not.

Of course, this principle applies to situations in everyday life as well. For example, there are people who look in the mirror in the morning and see nothing but moles, pimples, and worry lines, while the rest of us see them as nothing short of beautiful. They don’t see the big picture that we see; they are too zoomed in on insignificant details. Or when we see someone else who looks really rough to us, we don’t know what they are going through, and therefore don’t see the big picture that they see. Jesus, however, always sees the big picture, and that’s why he picked disciples who seemed to have so many issues. He saw past all of the surface stuff. Similarly, in 1 Samuel 16 we read of a simple, unassuming shepherd that God chose to be the King of Israel, even though all of his older brothers seemed more qualified for the job. Nobody else wanted to believe that David had the potential, but God knew, because he saw the big picture that nobody else could see. In the very next chapter, we see in plain colors how right God’s choice was: The brothers find themselves on the front lines of battle, and David is the only one willing to take on the giant. Perhaps his brothers then began to see just a bit more of the big picture. We are told that “the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Zooming out evening further, let’s consider another musical analogy. A composer who memorably illustrates the importance of the big picture is Gustav Mahler, who fashioned some of the most colossal musical structures ever conceived of. Especially near and dear to me is his Symphony 2, a one-and-a-half-hour-long work, characteristically scored for a gargantuan orchestra, chorus, and soloists. The text deals with deep, existential crises, finally culminating with the hope of life beyond the grave. Because of the Symphony’s glorious ending, some record companies have seen fit to excerpt the last three minutes of the work on “best of” collections of classical music. That has always bothered me, somehow. Yes, the ending of the Mahler 2 constitutes three of the most transcendent minutes in music history, but skipping the hour and 27 minutes of struggle leading up to it has always seemed to me a bit like cheating—like the character “Ignorance” in The Pilgrim’s Progress, taking a shortcut to the pearly gates and expecting to be allowed in. No, it’s only after the gut-wrenching struggle that the triumph of Mahler’s 2nd is fully grasped.

And what of the Symphony’s final chord, a fortissimo E-flat major that lasts an entire 30 seconds all by itself? I’ve heard people complain about how ridiculous it is. Indeed, in the context of a three-minute work, it would be pretty silly, but what if we zoom out and look at the whole hour and 30 minutes? Then it becomes clear how essential that ending chord is in balancing the enormous musical monolith. And, going back to our existential crisis, once we finally get to the end of the turmoil, we need the sense of solidarity and the idea of eternity captured in that closing chord. It’s a reaching for the infinite—it seems like it’s never going to end— and it’s only in the larger context of the complete work, as Mahler attended us to hear it, that that makes sense: After all our wandering, we are home to stay… forever. That’s what the Symphony is all about.

And this brings us to the most important point: We don’t see the big picture that God sees, and that’s why existential crises are very real in all of our lives. That’s why the Mahler 2 is so moving. That’s why age-old questions like “Why is there is so much pain, suffering, and death in the world?” never go away. We can’t fully answer them, try as we might. Sometimes we just have to let it go and accept that we don’t fully understand because we can’t see the big picture yet, and trust that someday everything will be made clear. The Apostle Paul, in the famous “love” chapter in 1 Corinthians, wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). God, by contrast, sees and knows everything already: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3).  In Isaiah 55:9 God himself says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This is not God’s way of looking down at us and saying “na-na na-boo-boo,” but rather a means of bringing us a measure of peace—as if to say, “If you don’t understand what in the world is going on, here’s why.” Jesus said simply, “Do not be afraid; only believe” (Mark 5:38).

In short, the trick is to try and see the big picture whenever we can—and to remember that it exists even when we can’t see it. At least one thing is sure: We are each a part of something that is much bigger than our everyday existence—something that ultimately will explain all of the confusion around us. Both Mahler’s Symphony and The Pilgrim’s Progress remind us that, if we don’t give up, the hardest struggles of this life will lead us to the gates of eternity. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.


[1] A quotation from George Herbert’s poem, “Love bade me welcome.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Crayon Scribbles

The following was originally a short talk delivered at Cohutta Seventh-day Adventist Church in June, 2014, in conjunction with a piano program I presented there.


          Back in my boarding school days, two staff children, ages 2 and 4, took a particular liking to me and, as a sign of their affection, frequently gifted me with very sloppy pictures they had drawn—often just some scribbles made with a crayon on the back of the church bulletin during a long sermon. Yet I always loved receiving these and was loathe to throw them away. Looking back on that now, I ask myself why. Why would you want to save some crayon scribbles, especially considering that the child who did the scribbling probably forgot all about it five minutes after she bequeathed it to you?

Though I did not fully realize it at the time, the gift of those crayon scribbles was meaningful to me because it was unique; you could search the whole world over and never find another paper with identical scribblings. But, more than this, the gift was special because, not only was it given specifically to me, it was created specially for me.

That was a profound realization. You know, I’ve struggled with self-doubt at times—I’ve doubted that my music is a worthwhile contribution to the world. I’ve thought that perhaps I should have chosen a different career path; perhaps I should’ve chosen to become an evangelist or a doctor or something that would allow me to touch people’s lives in a way that I could immediately see—rather than having to go out on stage to play the piano thinking, Well, I hope this is a blessing to someone… whatever that means.

And yet, my mind goes back to the boarding school and the little redheads whose drawings made me feel so special. You know, music is not so different. Every time I perform a concert, the attendees hear a program of music that no one else will ever hear in exactly the same way. Even if I tried to replicate it exactly, I could not. Every performance is unique; it is impossible to play the same composition twice in exactly the same way. Most musicians don’t even try to make it the same. Our performances differ depending on many factors—such as how we’re feeling, the experiences we’ve had since we last performed, the weather, the mood in the room, what we had for dinner, and who we’re playing for. Therefore, music is as unique a gift as the church bulletin with crayon scribbles. Even if I were to play something as “concrete” as a Mozart Sonata for one person on Tuesday and another person on Wednesday, they each will have received something unique—that Mozart Sonata will never be heard exactly that way again. Performances are like snowflakes.

Dr. Julie Penner, the professor of voice at Southern Adventist University, has organized a small group of students to sing for elderly and sick people who aren’t able to get out. I had the privilege of singing in her group during my years at Southern. We were all full time college students with conflicting schedules, so mutual rehearsal time was limited. Our performances were therefore less than perfect. And, yet, it was rare that we sang for an individual who was not moved to tears. Again, I’ve asked myself why. The somewhat snobby music major I was at the time was taken aback that anybody could be so intensely moved by something so imperfect.

I’ve since come to the realization that it was not the “quality” of what we presented to them that moved them. No, it was the uniqueness of the gift.  On some level, the people we sang for knew they were receiving something that no one else would receive in precisely the same form. And they knew that, on that day, in that moment, we sang just for them. On top of that, they knew there was not anything they had done to merit receipt of the gift—imperfect though it be. Their need, their loneliness were what motivated us.

And perhaps the realization, even if only subconscious, that it’s impossible to assign a monetary value to the gift of music is also meaningful. Sure, sometimes we have to pay to get into a concert. It helps cover the expenses of making and sharing music.  But it’s impossible to pay for the music itself. What would, for example, a Beethoven Symphony be worth? $100? $1,000? $1,000,000? $100,000,000? No. It’s priceless. It’s painfully wrong to even think of trying to put a price tag on it. The most meaningful things in life are the things whose worth can’t be measured.

So to return to the question I tend to ask myself on sleepless nights: Is music worthwhile? Yes—if for no other reason than that the uniqueness of the gift of music can remind us of another unique gift, whose worth can also by no means be measured: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Though all who accept it receive it, this gift is also unique to each one of us, because we are all unique individuals. We each have our own special needs, failings, and sins we need blotted out. God’s gift covers our unique faults and empowers us to share our unique gifts with the world.

Will we still play wrong notes? Yes, but, to the ears of God, we play perfectly; to the ears of the feeble and ailing people we visited, my colleagues and I sang perfectly; and to a confused, doubtful, and troubled high school student, some scribbles on the back of a church bulletin were perfect art.