[This is an installment in the very-sporadic Monday Music series, which initially dealt with Christian music topics and has more recently included other music. The MM category of posts may be accessed here.]
Never has a more ridiculous stanza been written than this one:
Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies,
But his smile quickly drives it away.
Not a doubt nor a fear, not a sigh nor a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey.
That’s from “Trust and Obey,” otherwise known by its first line, “When We Walk with the Lord.” There are many good thoughts in the song, and I’d sing most of them willingly. But not the above lines. Even if God’s smile drives some shadows away for some people some of the time (a reality I accept), it is patently unhelpful to suggest that there’s no shadow or cloud or doubt or fear that can last while we trust and obey. I know too much about the shadows and clouds to sing such baloney.
Now . . . never has a more appropriate, helpful stanza been written than this one:
The anger of the enemy would have swallowed us alive
Had it not been the Lord who was on our side.
The waters would have engulfed us; we would have surely died
Had it not been the Lord who was on our side,
The above stanzas, being poetic, are probably better interpreted figuratively, and I should be charitable, allowing others to understand it non-literally. Despite the direct reference in the second example to scripture, the first example makes better English poetry. My own introductory expression in each case—”never has a more appropriate/ridiculous stanza been written”—is but poetic hyperbole, too, and I acknowledge that.
Whether we trust and obey, or run and hide, or peek around the corner to see what the next horror or disappointment might be in this life . . . or become overwhelmed by a flood, I affirm what the chorus of the second song proclaims:
Blessed be the Lord, who would not give us up.
– Leonard E. Smith, Jr., “Had it Not Been the Lord”
I’m relieved not to have been subjected to Christmas music yesterday. A couple of weeks’ worth is enough for me. Today, some score study of Dvorak and Carpenter and some fun flugelhorn playing. The musical diet tomorrow will include master Horowitz on the piano.
These recent musical experiences (all but one of them!) have been excellent.
Harriman-Jewell: Randall Goosby
The Harriman-Jewell Series, now in its 55th season and founded by William Jewell College, is a treasure of the Kansas City Arts scene. Each year brings various solo artists (and I do mean artists, not just any performers) and ensembles to two venues in the KC area. Typically included are multiple “Discovery Concerts,” which are sponsored and free to attend.
In one of those, three of us heard a fine young violinist, Randall Goosby, in recital with pianist Jun Cho. Goosby was not only an accomplished performing artist but also was well-spoken. He knew what to say, and how much to say, to the audience in order to enhance the experience. I was introduced to the Debussy Sonata in G Minor—an effervescent, many-colored piece that I will aim to listen to again soon. William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano was a delight, too.
KC Symphony Chamber: Holocaust string music
The KC Symphony provides a limited number of free performances each season. The ones I’ve attended have been sponsored by Lead Bank and have all involved select performers in chamber music (small groups of orchestra members, one on a part; not the entire orchestra).
This program, understated but well-conceived as a tribute to Jewish Holocaust victims, utilized an unaccompanied clarinet in one selection and strings in three others. The performance, complete in about an hour, featured works by relatively unknown composers Schulhoff, Krása and Haas, plus the often-heard Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.
Old Vinyl: Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano
If I told you I’d rather listen to hip-hop than be subjected to this one more time, would you believe me? I’d grabbed this record from a freebie pile a few months ago, thinking it would be a nice novelty. Not so. I mean, I suppose it’s novel, but it’s certainly not nice. It’s hard to imagine the intent behind creating this music. Was it a psychotic or demented mind? Was it a composer desperate for a place in the world, looking for something that no one else would do (or want to hear)?
I was surprised to find that it was actually a player piano used in the recording, and that the composer had a piano-roll-punching machine specially built for his endeavors. In listening to this “music,” one feels as if he is being pecked or poked to death by a non-rhythmic demon. A description of one of the studies is illustrative: ” . . . one tempo being related to another by the proportion of two to the square root of two. Two separate voices moving at this proportion approach coincidence but never exactly meet.” One succinct definition of “music” is “organized sound”; if one reads the description on the back of the album, this material fits that bill, but it would seem to require a savant mind to perceive much organization in most of it.
Not all music elevates the soul or inspires or “gets you going,”; I do believe there is a place for the avant-garde. I’m all for variety, generally speaking, but this is horrible music, with so few redeeming qualities that I thought I would smash the vinyl with some satisfaction. Rather, I’ll probably keep it as a demonstration of what music should not be.
KC Youth Symphony/side-by-side with KC Symphony: Beethoven 7
Conductor Michael Stern led this wonderful evening of musical demonstration, which I attended with my son. Members of the Youth Symphony were on stage with a large number of KC Symphony professionals, and we heard the first two movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. The evening was marked by exhilarating music, expressive conducting, and enjoyable communication between Stern, the musicians, and the audience.
My CD Changer
In my player at this moment are five CDs, as usual. One is my son’s school group repertoire, for his practice. These songs struck me, on first hearing, as a better collection than last year’s. He is very attached to their version of the Irish Blessing, which has become the theme song.
The other discs:
- College friend David Slater’s As Time Goes By
- The University of Houston Wind Ensemble’s Vittorio Giannini collection (Symphony No. 3 is a marvelous work)
- Spyro Gyra (jazz/pop fusion) Got the Magic
In the hopper or recently heard are Swendsen’s symphonies, works by Milhaud, and Adventures in a Perambulator by John Alden Carpenter. Two days ago, I also gave a listen to some of Hall & Oates’s “oldies.” A couple of those songs were fun, but it’ll probably be a couple years before I pull that one out again. As I put near-final touches on this post, I’m listening to Mahler’s Adagietto again, because I was pretty sleepy when I heard it a couple weeks ago with a friend (see item 2 above). It’s glorious.
Wind Band Concerts
Via live video stream, I recently audited portions of the concerts by the Frost School, University of Miami (Rob Carnochan, Conducting) and the Butler School, University of Texas at Austin (Jerry Junkin, Conducting) These wind bands always offer patently excellent performances of high-quality literature. The literature does not always run to my taste, but a little stretching here and there is good for me, and I usually wish I could be there live.
University of Nebraska Wind, Carolyn Barber, Facilitating and Conducting
Speaking of being there live: five hours of driving earlier this month to UNL was worth the effort for this unique experience. I felt musically and intellectually stimulated. You can find Carolyn’s articulate notes here. Her researched thought in the area of flocking behavior as it connects with ensemble ethos is compelling, although I will have to live with it a good deal more before it fully resonates.
Ball State University, Tom Caneva, Conducting
Good video/audio streaming made this livestream concert a particular pleasure. I heard the late composer Michael Colgrass’s voice introducing his iconic work Winds of Nagual, and the quality was so good that it was hard to believe it wasn’t a live voice on a mic in the audio booth. The subject matter of that work is more than a trifle unsettling, but the music is evocative and imaginative.
My syllabus for the orchestra this semester includes the verbiage below. I thought it would be appropriate to share this here—not only for the musicians who read this blog, but perhaps even more for the non-musicians who don’t think as often, or as thoroughly, about hearing health in particular.
Thanks first off to John, my department chair who urged his faculty to consider adding such material to our syllabi. Thanks also to faculty colleagues Ted and Lara, whose wordings I also adapted for my purposes.
Health Recommendations (Hearing and Musculoskeletal)
Hearing health is essential to your ability to enjoy and perform music. Your hearing can be permanently damaged by loud sounds, including music. The danger from Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is constant, but the good news is that NIHL is generally preventable. Avoid overexposure to loud sounds, especially for long periods of time (e.g., limit daily exposure times to sounds through ear-buds at half-volume [94 db] to an hour; 15 minutes at full volume [100 db]. Complementary foam ear plugs for hearing protection in any practice, rehearsal, or performance situation are available from the Orchestra/Band Room. If you monitor the volume of music, limit the time you listen, and take breaks and other precautions, you should be able to protect your hearing for a lifetime of enjoyment.
Playing instruments can also cause or aggravate carpal tunnel syndrome or other muscular/skeletal issues. Take regular breaks, maintain healthy posture, vary the type and intensity of practice, and inform a professional of any problems. For further information on musicians’ health, you are encouraged to read the advisories posted at https://nasm.arts-accredit.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/02/4a_NASM_PAMA-Student_Guide-Standard.pdf.
Speaking personally, I have used high-end, noise-canceling earplugs while performing on horn in a large ensemble. Sometimes, one earplug will do; sometimes, two are needed. I don’t like to have to use them, because it limits my ambient perception, but I’m intent on protecting my hearing. In my experience, the relative need for protection can depend somewhat on front-to-back row spacing, e.g., how far behind me are the trumpets or timpani? Glockenspiel/bells can be damaging, too. It’s not out of place to ask the stage manager or conductor for a chair-position adjustment if the back of your neck is touching the timpanist’s music stand.
Now for the sake of my snippet-snarfing readers who just want the bullet points and don’t have the time to consider even the brief, foregoing paragraphs, here’s the take-away:
- Generally speaking, take breaks (for your muscles and your ears).
- Seriously limit the use of earbuds while listening to any kind of music).
- Use noise-canceling ear protection in extremely loud environments (e.g., in airplanes, during lawn mowing or snow blowing, at rock concerts).
- Turn down the volume when the db level is too high. Common sense is good here, but I’d suggest 90db as a threshold. Although orchestral and wind band music can have peaks at high db levels, the more likely listening damage will come from sustained exposure to popular genres (e.g., country, pop, and rock) that tend to hover at one dynamic level. It’s uncool to like your music¹ so loud that it produces physical pain in someone else when you inflict it on him/her.
¹ I’ll throw this in for free! Stop sharing “your music” with everyone on the streets through open windows or with the top down in your convertible. It’s rude. It doesn’t matter whether it’s rock, country, Christian, classical, or rap. This also relates to physical pain. My upper ribs have rattled, and my ears have been overwhelmed by music from other people’s car speakers.
Chamber music has for quite a while been a strong interest. The first group I remember forming, or helping to form, was the Harding Brass Quintet. One year, we had a euphonium instead of a trombone, and we enjoyed a few performances during a year or two of my later undergraduate years. I remember playing the Ricercar del Primo Tuono and a Gabrieli sonata or canzona. We did fairly well with the classic Sonate die Bankelsangerlieder, too. The players were Glenn, Daphne, me, Ken, and Bob, and then Ken switched from euphonium to tuba, and we had Milton on trombone. Good times. I don’t recall significant chamber experiences before that time, so I suspect it was the HBQ (sponsored by the late, gracious Dr. G.E. Baggett) that started whetting my appetite for one-on-a-part playing.
As a master’s student at the University of Delaware, I formed a quintet that enjoyed, as I remember, only one gig—Easter Sunday at the church where the choral professor was also the music director. This was a good group that included one nursing faculty member and four music students (Jon, Chris, me, Julius, and Al). During roughly the same time, I was co-founder of Quintessence, a woodwind quintet. I don’t remember performing at all with that group, but rehearsing was a pleasant experience.
Later moving to the Heartland, I did not form a group but played with a town-gown orchestra and auditioned for the Kansas City Wind Symphony. Playing principal horn in the KCWS gave me inroads into both the quintet and large-ensemble iterations of the Kansas City Brass Project, and some great music was made. Moving on to Colorado, in my second year as a doctoral student, I formed and conducted the Foundation Brass, a full-size brass ensemble of the most talented players in the entire School of Music. I also co-founded the Grad Brass Quintet.
In New York, I was more creative with an ensemble name, founding the Alle-Catt Brass Quintet—students and faculty members from two colleges. Respectively, we lived in Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties—thus the name. We played all the good stuff, and some of my own arrangements and compositions, too. I’ve kept in touch with a couple of those players but have lost touch with a couple others.
While I was Director of Instrumental Activities at Houghton College, student chamber ensembles were professionally highly significant, not to mention providing salve for the soul and a place to thrive and be encouraged. Scheduling can be a problem in an academic setting, especially given the exceptionally time-intensive music major curriculum. As reported in a faculty communiqué,
[I]nstrumental chamber music is being coached and rehearsed largely between 11:00 and 1:00 on Thursdays, during major ensemble time, during an isolated hour or two, e.g., Friday mornings, and as a matter of course in the studio enterprise.
I have frequently gone on record to sing the praises of chamber music in the collegiate setting. Here are a few words from piece quoted above:
[S]tudents reap tremendous benefits through chamber endeavors of various shapes and sizes, [and] it is worth the effort in order to provide greater breadth of opportunity for musical maturing in terms of such aspects as stylistic matching, intonation awareness, and independence.
- faculty-coached brass quintet
- ad-hoc brass ensemble for one program
- double wind quintet–movements from Mozart serenades
- two woodwind quintets
- string quartets
- student-led vocal chamber group
- flute choir
- flute-oboe duo
- double-reed trio
- clarinet choir
- saxophone quartet
- horn quartet
- percussion ensemble
Here is a sample program. from that very active year.
It has been said that a (high-functioning) string quartet is the most perfect example of positive, interactive human behavior. I would expand that to all good chamber music-making. For the last five years, I have not had the opportunity, drive, or resources to form or work with any small chamber ensembles. I miss this kind of music-making terribly.
Here are some comments on coordination in three areas: conducting of ensembles, PowerPoint slides in worship assemblies, and intersections/stop signs.
Student conductors sometimes have difficulty coordinating the cueing of entrances. Although precise, technical attention is sometimes required, fledgling conductors tend to over-technicalize cueing.
Breathing is an important component of the whole. I have encouraged students who are working on cueing simply to think as a singer or wind instrumentalist¹—breathing as if s/he were singing or playing the same passage. A student will often do better if s/he doesn’t overthink it, rather simply coordinating the gesture with a breath. One ought simply to breathe and move naturally, within the learned musical “habitat.” It seems to me that this more organic approach—mentally placing oneself in the position of the musician(s) being cued, and breathing as though one is making the sound on his/her instrument—helps immeasurably in the process of mastering and coordinating the gesture.
Changing PowerPoint slides
In church assemblies (commonly called “services”), coordination of slide changes with musical phrases is rarely executed well. In one recent church visit, the slide-changing effort was better than most, yet it was clear that no one was coordinating slides with actual singing. A later experience at a different church was more typical—with three or four egregious errors (not changing the slide at all until all the words on the next slide were nearly complete!), and a split-second to a full second late on many other slide changes. The timing does make a difference.
Again, I have found from personal experience that the natural approach works: the person who’s changing the slides should be actually singing or at least mouthing the words. Otherwise, the slide change will typically be too late, causing the singer to miss the first word or two. It can be difficult to sing without a feeling of mild gasping or hiccuping.
Poor driver coordination at stop signs hinders the flow of traffic. A driver who arrives first at a four-way stop-intersection might think he’s being nice by gesturing to another driver to go first. However, a clog can be the result. The second driver doesn’t see the gesture made by the first, so both of them end up waiting, and the hesitation takes everyone’s time. The system works best when everyone coordinates by following the established protocol.²
[If you have 4 more minutes for an earlier, lengthier (more entertaining?) post on driver issues at stop signs, go here. Or just thank me for not adding more anecdotes here, such as one about the driver just yesterday. Ignore the fact that I was dutifully stopped at a stop sign; he had no stop sign at all; and I couldn’t have begun to see any gesture on his part because of sun glare and tinted windows, anyway. Wait. I just added an anecdote, didn’t I?]
~ ~ ~
In the Middle Ages, a musical composition technique came to be known as hoquet (later Anglicized as hocket), meaning “hiccup.”³ That hiccup effect—involving the stopping and starting of different voices—can be entertaining and musically interesting when conceived intentionally. On the other hand, hiccuping at stop signs and during congregational worship music is unintentional, uncoordinated, and largely avoidable.
B. Casey, 1/28 – 4/17/19
² Where I live, the stop sign issue is complicated at certain poorly graded and/or un-repaired intersections. My little sedan will bottom out unless I approach slowly, at an angle. In one case, I have to veer far to the left, using the lane reserved for oncoming traffic, which of course complicates everything further.
³ In that time, metric/rhythmic notation was relatively new, having been apparently absent for a millennium. The lack of focus on rhythm makes the Middle Ages the Dark Ages in my book!
When I was a teenager and young adult, it was common to make fun of the song “Just As I Am.” Perhaps its use seemed gratuitous, or perhaps the song struck us as old . . . or perhaps we just didn’t like it—because we felt pressured to come to Jesus as some older people were coming, just as they were. One might think that this so-called invitation song, written in 1834, would have passed out of style within 50 or 100 years, but not so. (Now, I wonder why.)
Later on, I began to see many invitation/altar call songs more as all-occasion songs (not to be relegated to seemingly thoughtless use after the sermon). I probably shouldn’t shun them altogether because of their habitual, ritualistic use, I thought, so I would choose other assembly times to lead songs like “Almost Persuaded” and “I Bring My Sins to Thee” and “Hear the Sweet Voice.” These could become devotional meditations for all: I hoped every believer would take the messages to heart personally and perpetually. Never should we fall prey to assigning such sentiments only to that other sinner across the aisle who might really need to repent. (We all need to confess and repent and come to Jesus as Savior.)
Last Sunday, I was impressed anew with what is really a timeless quality in the words of “Just As I Am.” It hit me pretty deeply.
Who among us could rightly mock the notion of approaching Jesus to “rid my soul of one dark blot”?
Who has not been “tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt …” or had “fears within and foes without”?
Who, upon realizing personal blindness and the need for “sight, riches healing of the mind,” would not want to recognize the Lamb of God as the one to whom I go, crying out, “All I need in Thee to find!”?
And who would not love the Savior whose “love unknown has broken every barrier down”?
I think I’ve sensed more of why “Just As I Am” is still sung and can still impact hearts. I won’t mock the song anymore. May we all say sincerely, “Now to be Thine alone … O Lamb of God, I come.”
On Sunday, October 4, 2015, my dad shared the following communion meditation in the College Church assembly (Searcy, AR). The words come from various songs and hymns that Dad strung together, and he read this aloud prior to “the Supper.” I post this now, first, to honor the Christ; and second, to remember my dad’s ways and means.
Jesus is all world to me—My life, my joy, my all.
Tell me the story of Jesus.
“Abba Father, Father, If indeed it may,
Let this cup of anguish Pass from Me, I pray;
Yet, if it must be suffered, By Me, Thine only Son,
Abba, Father, Father, Let thy will be done.”
And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble.
Were YOU there when they crucified my Lord?
Upon that cross of Jesus, Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me.
There behold His agony, Suffered on the bitter tree;
See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
We place You on the highest place.
O sacred head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down;
Now scornfully surrounded With thorns Thine only crown;
O make me Thine forever; And, should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never Outlive my love to Thee.
Your only Son no sin to hide, But You have sent Him from your side
To walk upon this guilty sod And to become the Lamb of God.
My sin—O the bliss of this glorious thought—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;
Amazing love! How can it be That You, my God, would die for me?
He could have called 10,000 angels, but He died alone, for you and me.
Soon Thou wilt come again: I shall be happy then, Jesus, my Lord!
Then Thine own face I’ll see; Then I shall like Thee be,
Then evermore with Thee, Jesus, my Lord!
I behold You, my Lord and my King—in You, Jesus, I find ev’ry thing.
And now truly my worship I bring To You and unto You sing.
In beholding the glorious Son, my eyes see the Magnificent One,
And His splendor, as bright as the sun, reveals me: I am undone.
Dad passed from this life on November 28, 2017, and I am of the distinct impression that he is experiencing a richer “communion” now.
When I see my dad’s sleeping body in a picture now, I feel more of an emotional pull than I did during the initial days of heightened activity and responsibility that came immediately after his death.
Although the picture gives me an uncomfortable feeling, I remind myself that it is only his body. My dad’s soul rests, but I take that part of him to be very much alive.
Asleep in Jesus (Margaret Mackay, 1832)
Asleep in Jesus! Blessed sleep,
From which none ever wakes to weep;
A calm and undisturbed repose,
Unbroken by the last of foes.
Asleep in Jesus! Oh, how sweet,
To be for such a slumber meet,
With holy confidence to sing
That death has lost his venomed sting!
A living, undisturbed repose sounds good, doesn’t it? Would you even go with “sweet”? “One Sweetly Solemn Thought” is a rarely used, death-aware song; it has the distinction of being the only hymnal song I’ve ever seen that has a stanza that ends with a dash, strongly connecting it to the next stanza. The first stanza expresses a sweet reality: “today I’m nearer to my home than e’er I’ve been before.” The final two stanzas are below.
One Sweetly Solemn Thought (Phoebe Cary, 1852)
4. Savior, confirm my trust. Complete my faith in Thee,
And let me feel as if I stood close to eternity—
5. Feel as if now my feet were slipping o’er the brink,
For I may now be nearer home, much nearer than I think.
I think I will always be able to quote those words from memory. What a splendid, solemn thought—to be secure in “slipping over the brink” into restful sleep in Jesus.
Finally along these specific lines, I am reposting some commentary and the words to “Still, Still With Thee,” which will probably always be a go-to death-and-new-life song for me.¹
So, what will the first day be like — that first “day” after Jesus’ return? ² What might we imagine in terms of our own presence in that moment of all moments, that event to end all earthly events? How will it be for me? I have no idea, really, but I know, by faith, that my spirit’s awareness of God will eclipse all else.
Still, Still With Thee (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1855)
Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh,
When the bird waketh, and the shadows flee;
Fairer than morning, lovelier than daylight,
Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with Thee.
Alone with Thee, amid the mystic shadows,
The solemn hush of nature newly born;
Alone with Thee in breathless adoration,
In the calm dew and freshness of the morn.
When sinks the soul, subdued by toil, to slumber,
Its closing eye looks up to Thee in prayer;
Sweet the repose beneath the wings o’ershading,
But sweeter still to wake and find Thee there.
So shall it be at last, in that bright morning,
When the soul waketh and life’s shadows flee;
O in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning,
Shall rise the glorious thought, I am with Thee.
Stanzas one and two: The first two stanzas, unified, poetically express the encounter of the eternal in terms of a resplendent, earthly daybreak. All the beauties of the dawning of a new day while in a natural surroundings are, however, eclipsed by the breathless adoration of our stunningly brilliant God.
Stanza three: As death appears imminent, and even potentially in the actual experience of dying, the believing soul casts his eyes in faith toward God. As a foreshadowing of the final rest, for the human who experiences the Lord’s protective peace, a certain rest may come. Yet a humanly experienced peace is neither satisfying nor absolute. The waking—the arising to a consciousness of a Presence like no other—this is the completion.
Stanza four: There is no more lofty, no more finally fulfilling thought than to be with God forever. Come, Lord Jesus, and take Your bride home.
It is happenstance that all three of these poems were written during roughly the same period in American history. Perhaps I have simply not been looking for death-related poetry written more recently. Or perhaps there are other reasons for an uncommonly rich focus on death in the Lord during the middle 1800s.
¹ I learned “Still, Still With Thee” as an arrhythmic chant for male quartet. Unlike “Crossing the Bar,” featured here, I have never come across a better musical match for the “Still” words than the male quartet music.
² Then, days may not exist, as such, but they might not have existed during the creation of the world, either.
From time to time I hear funereal music I wish I had come across during my graduate research. (Although my cumulative list of funeral marches and lament music was marginally impressive, it was anecdotally developed and limited in scope.) Once in a while, I also come across others’ related writings. Below are extracts from an interesting article on mourning practices and singing. This research may deal only directly with practices in the United Kingdom, but it would seem applicable for most Western countries.
I will now discuss funeral music in some detail because it was the one occasion on which mourners in Britain used to be actively involved in musical performance, but — at least among the majority white population — this is now being rapidly replaced by music consumption. Funerals in many Western countries have recently become more personal (Garces-Foley and Holcomb, 2005) and/or secular (Walter, 1997), and in the UK one major way this is achieved is by listening to two or three of the deceased’s favourite CD tracks or to a piece of music that in some way captures the deceased’s personality. This is replacing communal hymn singing. Singing hymns was once the norm, but recent surveys in the city of Hull (Adamson and Holloway, 2012) and at one London crematorium (Parsons, 2012) indicate hymns now being sung at only a quarter of funerals. 9 (orig. 81)
Religious singing together is being steadily replaced by listening to secular (and occasionally religious) CDs, driven by personalisation and secularisation, but also reflecting the general decline of communal singing in England. 9-10 (orig. 81-82)
Singing together was once the main way in which the whole body of mourners participated in the funeral, engaging together in one of the performing arts to perform words of sorrow and hope. According to Davies (but he may possibly here be influenced by being Welsh), “Singing is, fundamentally, a community activity which sets group hopes and power over those of the individual.” (Davies, 1997, p. 58) But with the decline in church attendance and the familiarity with hymns that goes with it, and with the small numbers at many elderly people’s funerals in Britain, many people report finding singing hymns at a funeral to be excruciating, embarrassing and/or tedious (Caswell, 2012).
. . . the CD capturing the essence of the deceased individual becomes the funeral’s emotional powerhouse. . . .
In the months and years after the funeral, recorded music can continue to retain powerful associations with the deceased. I am doubtless not alone in going happily about my business when a track comes on the radio that reduces me to tears, reminding me of someone I care for who has died, years or even decades ago. 10 (orig. 82)
– Tony Walter, “How People Who Are Dying or Mourning Engage with the Arts, ” © Music and Arts in Action/Tony Walter 2012 | ISSN: 1754-7105 | Page 87. http://musicandartsinaction.net/index.php/maia/article/view/dyingmourning
Various cultures and ethnicities will naturally have various traditions and expectations concerning bereavement, funereal engagement, and mourning. At my own father’s memorial, I know there were tears, but no wailing occurred, for instance. Perhaps that is good (we grieved as those with hope), or bad (we were busy and distracted), or indifferent.
There were hymns, however—hymns in the lyrical sense and also a couple in the strictly musical sense. I had kept my vest-pocket copy of this program in sight in my office for a time (see here) in order to remind me of the life and of the death event. On the reverse side appears the program order itself. Here are the titles that feature hymn lyrics (addressed to God in worship/adoration):
God Himself Is With Us *
On Zion’s Glorious Summit *
Jesus, Wonderful Thou Art
I Behold You
Still, Still With Thee
* In both these cases, the initial lyrics are not addressed to God but rather set the stage for direct worship in the latter part of the song: “O Thou Fount of Blessing . . . may I ceaselessly adore Thee” and “Holy, holy, holy Lord! God of hosts, on high adored,” respectively.
There were comments and a prayer of adoration led by three friends of nearly six decades, and the 95-year-old former president of Harding University made comments, as well. Dad’s brother read Psalm 121. Songs were led by Dad’s nephew, a brother-in-law, the son of one of the above-mentioned friends, and me. Recordings were played of my hymn “I Behold You” and my mother’s beautiful song “Silence,” which is about finding God. In all, six songs were sung congregationally, including “It May Be at Morn,” which I recall that Dad introduced to the Cedars congregation in Delaware when I was young. This song is not musically a hymn, and the stanzas are introspective, not directly worshipful. However, in my estimation, the chorus includes one of the top ten expressions of worship in that hymnal: “O Lord Jesus, how long? . . . Christ returneth! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Amen.” This is not the material of mourning. None of this particularly invites sadness, yet there were mixed emotions, remembering my dad as a man who worshipped God with all his heart, and who as a leader encouraged others to do the same for decades.
On the matter of reminiscing through a dead person’s favorite music: my mother recently found the CDs that Dad had chosen to take on their last trip together. I will probably always associate Pavarotti’s famed rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” with Dad. That music brought tears to his eyes many times. He was also very fond of a championship barbershop quartet’s song “I Still Can’t Say Goodbye.” (Here is a YouTube recording of the same rendition.) I suppose one could say this is a song of mourning, but perhaps more, a song of tender memory. It will bring emotion to just about anyone! Dad had asked both my sister and me to play that for him during his hospitalization. Other music Dad chose includes Pachelbel, John Denver, western/pop songs of yesteryear by Sons of the Pioneers, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, which he had loved for more than a half-century. My mom will always associate many of these selections with her husband of nearly 58 years.
The musical theater show A Chorus Line (which I hasten to point out that I’ve never seen) includes the song “I Can Do That.” The song’s lyrics aren’t much to read, and the musical’s subject matter isn’t very worthwhile, either, but the song is rhythmically interesting, and it made for a good intermediary piece in a medley I played in high school band.¹ And the title phrase does tend to stick with you. It sometimes comes to me even at work.
Every few days or so, one of my coworkers will be struggling with a minor technology matter, such as a photocopier or scanner function, or getting the Excel spreadsheet dimensions, margins, and print areas set for optimum output. “I can do that” kind of thing. I could also help with written material. Only in two cases has anyone asked for help with in important memos and letters. I could help a lot more by editing out misappropriated apostrophes in simple plurals or by advising on the use of strangely absent past participles. I can do that. Rarely does anyone ask for proofreading or editing or a writer’s advice, and I really don’t expect them to, because these kinds of things aren’t very important to most people . . . but I have this desire to use capabilities.
I’m apprehensive about this post. This “I can do that” thing can seem childish, and maybe that’s because of the association with Dr. Seuss. It might seem childish to some that I continue to write this instead of holding my “pen.” I might regret this, as I have one other post recently. Please realize that I know it doesn’t sound very good in spots. . . .
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Many moons ago, a special men’s group attempted to recreate Glad’s “And Can It Be?” for a morning church assembly, in conjunction with communion. I had taken dictation on the Glad arrangement, because I can do that, and I got the group of men together to rehearse a couple times. I wanted to offer this special song, using not only my capabilities and those of an old DOS-based notation program, but the abilities of five other men. Here’s a recording from a rehearsal. It’s not great, but it’s not bad for an ad hoc group from a church of 200, right? Go ahead and give it a listen. If you’re into the seasonal observances, it happens to fit in about now.
Sometime after the rendition we gave, a generally capable, articulate man expressed offense at not having been asked to sing. He had not been included. I hadn’t asked him. Directing his objection toward a church elder, he appended (and I have remembered this for about 20 years … who knows why?), “I can do that.” I would have known that he and maybe a couple others had the technical ability to join in, but this guy didn’t fit in to well. Knowing something of his background and orientation to issues, I don’t believe it was so much that he wanted to contribute to the effort; rather, he was opposed to the use of any select group for a musical selection, feeling that all church music should be congregational.² He was saying “I can do that” to assert that he and others should not have been excluded, instead of being content in listening and soaking it in. Also, not insignificantly, although he could probably have sung the correct notes on one of the five men’s parts, his voice was very bright and would not have blended well with the others in his vocal range. (Another bright voice was present in the group, but he was one of two on the lowest bass part, and he did end up cutting through too much, at least in the recording.)
These days, whenever I’m in a church hall and hearing or participating in the musical expressions of worship and edification, I might note what the leaders are doing and think I can do that. It’s not so much that I want to be a part of what’s going on. It’s not that I’m opposed or offended. I can’t explain it, really. It’s more like this:
Oh. I remember doing things like that. I am pretty good at it. People responded when I led. But it took a lot out of me. I don’t have that opportunity anymore. Wonder if I ever will again. Probably not.
Back to the man who commented negatively on our small group’s rendition of “And Can It Be?” I could not and cannot see into his or anyone else’s soul. But I’m persuaded that he would really rather that the song had not been sung. He wasn’t about contributing and helping; he was about opposing the effort. That is not me, though. When I think about being able to do something, it’s usually in a spirit of slightly melancholy musing on whether I could support this or that effort at some point.
And now, moving from work group and corporate church matters to individual musical ones. . . . When I am having a musical experience as a concertgoer or ensemble member, I also might have the thought that I can do that. Or maybe it’s “I can’t do that” sometimes. . . .
I actually can’t sing very well anymore, because (1) I don’t exercise my voice that way, and (2) I’ve only ever had a mediocre voice. But I don’t need the part played for me, because I can hit the notes, and I can often figure out how to help others. I can do that. I can hear when the basses descend to a “fa” instead of a root “sol” in a dominant 11th chord. When most others merely see or hear a major-7th or sharp-9th chord and go, “Oh, that’s a clash,” I can probably hear which voice part is out of tune.
My horn playing and trumpet playing leave much to be desired, and I can’t do what I once could. But I can diagnose problems and rehearse groups. In some cases, I can do that better than anyone nearby. I have a few things I can offer, and I want to help.
Three years ago, I heard an all-state orchestra playing (in a gymnasium, of all places), and I heard a horn playing a little sharp. I thought it sounded like a fourth-line D, so I quietly checked, and I was correct. What I’d heard was an all-too-common evidence that the horn player had not been trained to pull out the first-valve slide on the Bb side of the horn. Pulling it out about an inch would have the tuned the D better. I can diagnose things like this with brass instruments, and sometimes with woodwinds.
Weekly these days, there are ways I could help musicians around me. It might be “note police” error detection, or suggesting that the amp settings aren’t optimum, or, more important, discerning ways to enhance musical effects and arrival points.
(There is a tacit rule of law that governs interactions during rehearsals, and usually it works out just fine, with all the musicians respecting whoever’s in charge at the moment. Others with more technical playing gifts and experiences than I have respected my musical leadership roles, and it’s always much appreciated. I’m generally pretty good at pointing out a thing or two without making another leader look bad, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish I could do more.)
My conducting muscles aren’t getting enough workout, but I’ve had a couple opportunities in the last year, and I know I can still do that. And I can teach, too:
When a conductor neglects breathing with an ensemble (particularly wind players or singers), I would remind her that entrances and style can be affected.
When the tempo increases, a conductor might find himself dividing the beat, and I would suggest to him that this technique will frequently hinder the ensemble.
When the sight line to and from the conductor is compromised, it can almost always be mitigated with a minimum of effort, and I would teach a group of future music educators about that.
When a young conductor gratuitously “dances” on the podium, moving ten extra body parts instead of just the hands and arms, the tendency deserves attention from a teacher. I learned this the hard way, watching myself on video and also being instructed by others. Now, I can do that better than I could, and I can also help others.
In these situations, I often have gestures rising within, and words formed on my lips. Sometimes, I almost lean in to help or say something . . . but it is often inappropriate, so I sit and wonder when or if I could do that. The vast majority of people probably never have thoughts like these, but maybe this strange piece has helped someone to understand a few of us a little better.
¹ Another time, ask me about the rest on beat two after the first verse of “What I Did for Love.” What I did in rehearsal of that medley got me in trouble with my band director.
² Nevermind that preachers do things “solo” or that no complete chorus of everyone made announcements or offered communion meditations. This man capably articulated things during “Sunday school” on a solo basis, too. He could do that, and this or that other person wouldn’t have been the best choice for the teaching role.
Domingo is to Denver
High Church is to Low Church
The song was “Perhaps Love,” and it was sweet and innocent. The singers were none other than operatic tenor Placido Domingo and country-folk star John Denver. Domingo was always my favorite among the “Three Tenors,” and Denver was a favorite of my good friend Helen when she was a teenager. I learned a few of the latter’s songs, such as “Annie’s Song” and “Country Roads.”
These days, I wouldn’t necessarily choose Domingo over Denver, although my training and background might suggest such a preference. In fact, I’m now more attracted to Denver’s stylings (although not to his voice or his self-oriented atheism). The point is that there’s quite a contrast between the two in terms of vocal production. Not all listeners would initially find the contrast as great as I do, but even if the focus is only on vowel sounds, it’s pretty easy to hear if it’s pointed out. It’s not unlike the difference between formal British and twangy southern U.S. accents.
The difference between Domingo and Denver strikes me as analogous to the contrast between a high-church organ prelude or choral anthem (on the one hand) and a folksy “y’all c’mon & praise the Lord, now” that might be heard in a really southern Southern Baptist or Pentecostal group (on the other). Listening to the first 60 or 70 seconds of this recording of “Perhaps Love” will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. The contrast is first heard at about 0:41 (as compared with 0:16).
Ya gotta give credit both to Domingo (for caring enough about music in general to sing with someone that most of his fans would have laughed at) and to Denver (for caring enough about music in general to sing with someone that most of his fans would otherwise never have heard of). The “crossover” can potentially bring new listeners to each “side,” expanding horizons.
I wonder if any churches think like this. Seriously think. Can Lutherans and Presbyterians gain from nondenominational teachings, low-end crossover stylings, and Getty music? Can Baptists and Nazarenes and Church of Christ people be built up by intentional formality, serious scholarship, and Charles Wesley hymns? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.
For more on style in church music: