Monday, February 20, 2017

Inspirational Person of the Week: Aila Stammler

I liked Aila from the very beginning—even though the beginning was just a “business” email. I had written to her to ask some questions about her German language course at Friedensau Adventist University, in which I was thinking of enrolling. She responded very promptly with detailed and helpful information, and somehow I could tell just from reading her email that she was a very nice person. I quite enjoyed our “business” correspondence over the next few months and, when I finally arrived in Friedensau in the fall of 2014, I found that she was just as friendly and thoughtful in person. She invited me to her house for dinner when I arrived and personally showed me around the campus, introducing me to people as we went along. She also gave me a package of “goodies” and a card. It said, “Dear Ethan, I can’t tell you how happy I am that you have come to Friedensau.” She hardly knew me, but somehow I knew that she meant it; she radiated genuineness.

There was another German course I had considered, but the chap I emailed for info about it wasn’t as helpful as Aila—so Aila got the student. But she’s not just warm and friendly for PR purposes—it’s just who she is. She regularly goes above and beyond the call of duty to get to know her students on a personal level and to look out for their wellbeing. Aila helped me feel at home in a foreign land. During my time in Friedensau she regularly invited me to her house for dinner, board games, movies, etc. And because she knew I was into music, she took me to concerts in places like Leipzig and Berlin. She also was my biggest cheerleader when I performed music on campus, and even when I performed out of town once, she sent me a message of encouragement.

Aila ia a great teacher. She is always thoroughly prepared for her classes and takes great delight in coming up with new and entertaining ways to teach certain concepts. She’s patient and helpful when students get confused; she fosters an environment in which the students feel comfortable trying out what they’re learning—in which they don’t feel embarrassed about making mistakes. One senses that she takes great joy in her teaching, and it’s contagious. Some people consider language barriers to be annoying and the learning of foreign languages to be a “necessary evil,” but to Aila—who speaks fluent English, German, and French, along with some Italian thrown in for good measure—languages are beautiful and are a unique expression of the cultures to which they belong. She wants her students not only to learn how to communicate in German, but to enjoy doing so—to enjoy its idiosyncrasies, to appreciate the language on an aesthetic level, delighting even in the nuance of how the words sound. As a musician, I appreciated this perspective very much.

When I had questions or needed advice, even about things not pertaining to the German course, Aila was the person I went to. In the spring of 2015, near the end of my time at Friedensau, Aila found out that I was struggling to decide what to do with my life. Going to Friedensau had been a way of trying to postpone that decision, but when the year was almost up, I was not really any closer to a revelation about what the next step should be. If anything, I was farther from it. It didn’t help that I had let my OCD flair up again (something I had struggled with for years). Somehow I started to feel panicky—I had an obsessive, irrational fear of some kind of impending apocalypse, and was at a loss to decide what my next steps should be in a world that seemed to be crumbling around me (people with OCD often deal with existential dread of things beyond their control). Aila didn’t know all of that, but she knew I was in the proverbial valley of decision. “Would you like to talk about it?” she asked. “You’re future is important to me.” She invited me to go on a walk that evening with her and her husband, Wolfgang, and, after listening intently to all of the crazy stuff I had to say, they offered down-to-earth, levelheaded advice. It had a calming effect on me and helped check some of my irrational thoughts. And it just meant a lot that they cared about me.

Aila recently told me that one of her former students called her from America, overjoyed, to say “Guess what! Guess what! I got engaged!” Aila told me that she was surprised and very flattered that her student, thousands of miles away, would think to contact her personally to share the glad tidings. But, to me, that’s not surprising at all; I’m quite sure that Aila’s student contacted her because she knew that Aila would genuinely care. It’s the same reason that I often find myself contacting her, even about trivial things: she always cares. I want to learn to care about people like Aila does.

Daniel Hayes and I with Aila in December, 2016. We were both former students of Aila's and happened to be visiting Friedensau at the same time.


For more about Aila's German course, click here.

This is the third in a series of articles about people who have changed my life for the better. For some background information on what inspired me to write this series, click here.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Inspirational Person of the Week: Sarah Tullock

Sarah Tullock and I performing at First Baptist Church of Chattanooga in 2014
For years I had dreamed of attending Cambridge. I wanted to come as an undergraduate some 8 years ago—I was dying to get away from the “insignificance” of small-town Tennessee and “make it big.” But when I sent my transcripts to Cambridge they let me know in no uncertain terms that I would have zero chance of getting in. My guess is they don’t see too many GED diplomas. So I stayed in Chattanooga. I was disappointed but, in hindsight, I can see that my early rejection at Cambridge was probably providential. During the years that followed in Chattanooga I crossed paths with a lot of people who changed my life in profound ways.

One particularly notable example is a “kindred spirit” I met in 2011 when I was the pianist at Ooltewah United Methodist Church. During my time there the choir director resigned. Conveniently, a young lady at the church had recently moved to the area and was fresh out of grad school with a degree in music education; the church decided to hire her “on a trial basis.” Her name was Sarah Tullock. I unintentionally made her very first rehearsal with the choir quite challenging by completely forgetting to even show up. I was probably somewhere composing away. I felt badly about that and, a few days later, found myself in the choir room waiting on pins and needles for my first meeting with her, trying to formulate a suitable apology.

But I found that there was no cause for nervousness. Sarah carries with her an aura of peace and grace that instantly puts people at ease. She wasn’t on a “trial basis” for long; she won over everyone at the church almost immediately. Had she not been so young, no one would have ever assumed that she was fresh out of school—her wisdom was beyond her years and she already seemed like a seasoned choir director. In the following weeks I was amazed not only at Sarah’s extraordinary musical ability, but at the way she built a sense of camaraderie and community in that church through music. For Sarah, music is about building bridges between people, about making people feel loved and valued, like they are an integral part of something important.

Largely because of her influence, I began to reevaluate my own motivation for making music. I began to realize that I was more self-centered than I had thought—I wanted to play the piano in order to show people how good I was; I wanted people to perform my compositions so I would get recognition; I wanted to go to Cambridge for the prestige associated with it. Sarah unknowingly showed me a better way—that music should be about community; that our motivation for making music should be our love for people of all walks of life.

Sarah is one of the rare souls who seems to be extraordinarily good at everything she tries: teaching, singing, conducting, writing songs, playing piano, playing guitar, writing blogs… you name it. And yet she never shows off. There’s a down-to-earth quality about everything she does that encourages us to embrace our own humanity. I didn’t realize just how much I needed that perspective until I finally achieved my goal and came to Cambridge last fall. What I’ve discovered is that this place doesn’t make me feel nearly as significant as I used to think it would. On the contrary, it’s pretty darn easy to feel like a total failure here in this highly concentrated pool of some of the world’s most brilliant minds. Our own problems seem tremendously magnified in a high-pressure environment like this; we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and then become discouraged when we don’t fulfill them.

In manifold ways Sarah is always trying to remind people like me that we’re just human, and that it’s okay to be human. We need to strive for great things, but we don’t need to beat ourselves up every time we make a mistake. When we do that, it generally indicates that we find our identity in the wrong place—it means we measure our sense of self worth by what we achieve, rather than realizing that our worth in God’s eyes is the same no matter what. One of Sarah’s songs says, “I won’t worship the work of my own hands.” That’s a message that’s deeply needed in Cambridge.

So when I was conducting a choral rehearsal a couple of weeks ago and miserably failed at what I was trying to accomplish and embarrassed myself in front of the whole choir, my reaction was different than it would have been a few years ago. I told myself: Yup, that was really bad, but you’ll live. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and do a better job next week. It’s an awful lot like something Sarah had written to me in an email shortly after I arrived in Cambridge:

“To go away and learn how to be alright in your own skin is a very natural thing in the human experience. It was brave of you to pursue your goal, brave of you to go there when you'd achieved it . . . and now it will be brave of you to stick with it and face whatever comes after.”

I can now say with confidence that, because of Sarah, I am both braver and more willing to forgive myself when I fail. Many, many others can undoubtedly say the same. That’s a tremendous gift, and the world would be a much better place if more of us sought with equal devotion to pass that gift on to those around us—to embrace humanity in all it’s diversity and imperfection. I, for one, am going to try. Thanks for the inspiration, Sarah!


For more about Sarah and her music, click here to visit her website.

This is the second in a series of articles about people who have changed my life for the better. For some background information on what inspired me to write this series, click here.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Inspirational Person of the Week: Gennevieve Brown-Kibble

In the summer of 2009 I was just out of high school and was a self-conscious, awkward music nerd with no social life. I was also a deeply frustrated composer because I couldn’t get anybody to perform my music. With no clear direction for my life and no motivation to start college, I resigned myself to simply trying to find a job. I decided to try to find work as a pianist—largely because I had an aversion to manual labor. One day at the music building at Southern Adventist University I saw a notice hanging on the bulletin board: “Accompanist Needed for University Choirs. If interested contact Gennevieve Brown-Kibble, Director of Choral Activities.” She could scarcely have expected much from the gaunt teenager with wild, greasy hair who showed up at her office door the next day to arrange an audition. But she was very gracious, and she listened to me play.

Apparently she liked what she heard, because she hired me on the spot, even though I wasn’t even a college student. In my mind, I wasn’t much of anything; I felt like a flake. But Dr. Kibble believed in me, and that was a great boost to my self-esteem. The experience I gained working for her was invaluable. I loved seeing her in action. The vast majority of the choir members were not music majors and most had no vocal training, but the collective sound she enabled them to make was absolutely astonishing to me.

From Dr. Kibble I learned how important expectations are: If we think, They’re not trained, so they aren’t capable of much, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But they can do great things, greater than any of them can imagine, if we believe that they can—and if we refuse to settle for anything less. It doesn’t involve any coddling; it just means showing up and getting to work. She’s so efficient in rehearsal that she literally doesn’t leave the singers any time to think, I can’t do this. And, by the end of the rehearsal, they’ve done something amazing. The uncommon vitality of the choral singing they in turn share with the community enriches the lives of all who hear it; it certainly enriched the life of their nerdy accompanist in 2009, and it was because of Dr. Kibble that I became fully sold on the idea of pursuing a career in choral music.

One day I worked up my courage and sheepishly enquired if she would be willing to look at some of my choral compositions, afraid that I would be met with the same lack of interest many others had shown. “I would love to!,” she said, and when I showed her my work she radiated genuine enthusiasm. In the years that followed, I would often drop by her office and play my newest creations for her. Of course, I was always secretly hoping that she would program them, but I also found that I just needed somebody to care about them—and she always did.  In the years that have since gone by, Dr. Kibble has programed more of my compositions than anyone else. I’m immensely grateful to her for believing in me, and for her commitment to using the powerful medium of choral singing as a force for good in the world. 


For more on Gennevieve Brown-Kibble, click here.

This is the first in a series of articles about people who have changed my life for the better. For some background information on what inspired me to write this series, click here.

Inspirational People: A New Project

It’s often said that people aren’t really appreciated until they die. There’s a little something in us that would like to know what might be said at our funeral. Will we be eulogized? What good things will people remember about us when we’re gone? We go through life not fully knowing if, or to what extent, we’re having a positive impact on others. We doubt ourselves—we doubt our own motives and abilities. We’re so intimately acquainted with our own faults that we often find it hard to see anything else, and we therefore find it difficult to imagine that that anyone else sees us differently than we see ourselves. We’re incredibly curious, but also rather terrified at the prospect of finding out how others really perceive us. We expect—and yet dread—a mere conformation of what our negative self image tells us, but we allow ourselves to hope that maybe a little bit of something good shines through and actually gets noticed.

Well, the fact is, a lot more good shines through than most people realize. The problem is that a lot of us spend so much time worrying about what others think of us that it doesn’t occur to us to let others know what we think of them—to let people know what we like about them, how grateful we are for the positive impact they’ve had on our lives, or simply that we love them. It’s sad to go through life not knowing.

Of course, what I’ve written above is not exactly original—Dale Carnegie and plenty of other people have said similar things. We know we ought to express appreciation more often, but we’re just too busy, too forgetful, or simply don’t know how to go about it. I confess that I’ve used all of those excuses before. So I’ve decided to go about it in a more intentional and concrete way: I’m going to write a series of “blurbs” about people who have changed my life for the better. My inspiration for this came from a presentation by composer/conductor David Brunner at the 2015 Tennessee conference of the American Choral Directors Association. The entire presentation was simply about people who had positively impacted his life. He talked about several individuals, their unique gifts, and what special things he gleaned from them that made him a better person.

At first, I must confess that I felt a little nonplussed. We’re here to learn practical information about choral conducting, and here you are giving a sentimental speech about people most of us don’t even know! But by the end of the presentation he had completely won me over. I don’t know that there’s ever an inappropriate time to say good things about others; we can never do it enough. And it’s never more appropriate than in the context of a conference about music. It’s a rare bird who pursues a career in music because his parents forced him or because he’s after money. No, I venture to say we’re all in this because someone inspired us—someone’s music touched us in a profound way. And we’re all in this because we thereafter had an inestimably huge amount of help and guidance along the way from people who cared about us and believed in the crazy “artist life” we’d chosen for ourselves.

At the end of his speech, Dr. Brunner handed out a sheet on which we could write down the names of people who had had a positive impact on our lives. He told us to contact them and let them know how much we appreciated them. Well, I suppose the following series of blurbs is one way I’ve chosen to take Dr. Brunner up on his challenge. And to start off the expressions of appreciation, I’d just like to say that I am immensely grateful for his presentation that day at Tennessee ACDA. And perhaps as you read a little about the people who have impacted me the most, you, too, will think of people you could write about or contact to say “thanks.” In expressing appreciation, we make the world around us a better place. If nothing else, it prevents us from becoming egotists, because it reminds us of how dismally we may have failed without the inspiration and practical help we’ve received along the way.

I’ll be making every effort to post a blurb about someone once a week for the next several weeks.