Tag Archives: amen!

ash wednesday

Ash Wednesday. My favorite holy day from a time before I can remember (and that’s saying something), due in no small part to this passage, which I later learned is from the Sermon on the Mount. It made a huge impression on me from the very first, and continues to be my favorite passage to this day. I will leave it here; you can do what you like with it. (Do not attempt to engage me in a religious discussion. I will not respond. You must meet me in person and buy me coffee before I will take the bait.)

Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18. NIV

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in Heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

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crash into jesus

Even though I have an iPod, whenever I arrive in a new city my first order of business is to find a good variety radio station. Or better yet, a 90s station. I mean, we’ve met; you know me and 90s music. The best one I ever found was in Tallahassee. It broadcast out of Albany, GA, and I could only get it in my car, but man was it heaven. GenX Albany. Played all 90s, all the time. Until they killed it and turned it into a Top 40 station.

So now that I’m in Cincinnati, I’ve found three acceptable stations – two variety and one rock. One of the variety stations is clearly superior to the other two (read: plays more Hootie and La Bouche), but it broadcasts out of Norwood, and as far as I can tell, unless you’re physically in Norwood the station is pretty weak. Unfortunately, the other (much stronger) station on that frequency is a Contemporary Christian station. Sometimes it’s a battle – how much cheesy Jesus love do I want to put up with while trying to get my Deep Blue Something fix?

And then, something amazing happened. I tuned in to find the Norwood station and the Jesus station locked horns in a stalemate that left them essentially alternating phrases. The best part: it was some cheesy Jesus song versus DMB’s “Crash.” That’s right, the song about voyeurism. This, to the best of my artist’s rendering, is how it went:

“Touch our lips just so I know… you’re my salvation, you’re my redeemer… Hike up your skirt a little more and show… your mercy and grace are all that I need, and…  I watch you there through the window and I stare at you wearing not a thing… Jesus, you’re my everything… the king of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal… touched me and now I’m free.”

I nearly drove off the road from laughing so hard – it could not have happened with better songs. I don’t know that I will ever again be fortunate enough to hear something like this. Eric Cartman would be proud.

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it’s (adjective) because it’s true

Today I rehearsed with six singers. Some for only the second time the entire semester. I played in studio for a seventh. I also rehearsed with a violinist.

Tomorrow I take my car for an oil change/tire rotation, rehearse with a cellist, and play juries for six of those vocalists, two of whom I’m betting won’t pass. The two who met with me for only the second time today.

Saturday I play a violin dress rehearsal for a jury Monday, do laundry, play the seventh vocal jury, and perform in a cello recital.

(Do you notice who’s missing from this list? Singer D! She met with her teachers and they decided she wasn’t jurying after all. Hallelujah!)

Sunday morning I play a “cantata” at church. I use the term very loosely. The music isn’t hard, but it’s hard work. Like digging a ditch. I like to think of it as “digging a ditch for Jesus,” because that makes me hate the lousy arrangements a little less.

Sunday afternoon I’m going to the beach with my best friend.

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pianists are people too

If ever evidence be offered or an explanation required, let it be this:

I spent the day in Monticello, like I do every Sunday. I left my place at 9:30 and arrived at 10:30 for the 11:00 service. I briefly rehearsed with the creepy guy who will not stop hovering me, I played the service, I had lunch with the choir director and his family, and at 2:00 I returned to church to practice.

So as to avoid burnout, I alternated between the Dahl sax concerto and the Shostakovich cello sonata. I was in the middle of a Dahl session when the door behind me opened. I had been warned, two of the choir ladies were coming to arrange Easter flowers. Being polite, I turned around to say hello. I apparently caught the last one off-guard, since she exclaimed when she saw me as she was coming through the door, “Oh! I thought it was a small child at the piano!” I turned back around and resumed practicing. I understand many people don’t like “modern” music, but they should probably realize that comparing what they hear to a small child’s attempt at imitation might not be the most tactful.

I became annoyed at Dahl, and possibly also the chatter bubbling behind me, so I switched back to Shostakovich and dove in headfirst, hoping to drown out the distractions. During a pause in which I successfully didn’t curse, the same woman asked me, “What are you playing!?” It was equally question and statement. She had this most fascinating half-exasperated tone that belied complete irritation with what she was hearing, mixed equally with curiosity and an attempt at politeness.

I took a breath and answered, “It’s the Shostakovich cello sonata.”
“Just-a-what?”
“Shostakovich. The sonata was written in 1934. I have to perform it Friday.”
“Friday, oh my.”

I threw in the year on the assumption it was written after she was born. Either way, she left me alone after that.

Ten minutes later I encountered her outside, sitting with her flower-arranging partner, the one who had previously identified Beethoven as “some of that modern music.” They were discussing piano, and pianists – so-and-so’s daughter, who can play any hymn without even the book in front of her, isn’t that just amazing! I attempted to offer some of the more interesting conventions of pianism, but each time they edged me out of the conversation.

I played a 4:30 rehearsal of terrible and terribly bastardized music, I played the 6:00 service. I was tired, still had to drive 40 minutes home, eat, practice, and rest up for another long day beginning at 9am. Unfortunately, before I could accomplish any of that, I had to play an extra rehearsal at 7:00, after service, on trio music arranged by a non-musician with no concept of “key.”

As it ended, the trio’s leader scheduled upcoming rehearsals; apparently they will all be after Wednesday rehearsals or Sunday services. He concluded it was a great idea:

Leader: That’ll work out just fine then.
Choir Director: Well, you’ll have to wait until after [other group] rehearses after Wednesday’s choir rehearsal, since they’re having one at 8pm.
Leader: Yeah, but [our third trio member] is already in that, so she’ll already be here. So I’m the only one that will have to stay!
Me: … [awkward silence]
Leader: And Liz of course! (tries to pinch my cheeks) Is that okay with you?
Me: I’ll have to play it by ear each week, it depends on my schedule, whether anyone needs a late rehearsal or not.
Leader: Well, yeah, you’ll just clear your schedule and it’ll be fine.

Yes, I will be sure to clear my professional recital rehearsals so I can stay until 8:30pm on a Wednesday night for an unpaid extra church rehearsal.

Pianists are people too.

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my ridiculous yesterday

Yesterday was the kind of day where nothing went right, but nothing went quite wrong either. Observe.

I got up early so I could go to Walgreens and pick up a prescription before I headed to church. As I’m gathering all my belongings, I realize I need a new Nalgene. Because mine is probably 5 years old and is starting to smell like old plastic, which no amount of washing can fix. So, leaving that home. I get to Walgreens and don’t have any refills left. (Dear Pharmacist: Thank you for giving me a 3-day emergency supply.) I also pick up a 1-L Aquafina.

So then I head to the Bagelheads. I grab a bagel for breakfast, a coffee (or something) for the day, a salad and a pistachio muffin for lunch. I get it into my car; the bag carrying everything smells like red onions. Damn. That’s gonna make the choir room smell great. I’m making the 45-minute drive to church, eating my bagel, and find one side of the bagel didn’t get cut through. It’s still attached. Makes for a mess.

I get to church. I play through the one piece of actual sheet music we’re doing. I take it to the real piano in the Sanctuary and realize the page-turns are impossible, since the music won’t actually stay open. I come back, grab another copy, and re-work the page turns. Creepy red-headed dude has come in and started hovering. He has zero social skills and just hovers me. Constantly. I ignore him.

I sit down at the piano and work through the new page turns. I feel something on my arm. I figure it’s one of my shirt-loops (that help it hold its shape on the hanger) come unhidden. It happens sometimes. I look over at my arm. It’s my bra strap. Not like it fell down and needs to be tightened – the strap came unhooked from the band (ladies, if you’ve ever worn a convertible bra, you know what I’m talking about.) How in all creation did that happen? Well, nothing for it but to fix it. I hide it best I can, head to the bathroom. I figure all five people present have seen, but really there’s nothing I can do. No biggie, it happens. I come out of the bathroom, all fixed, resume my place at the piano, and Creepy Redhead looks at me and smirks. (Dear Creepy Hovering Redhead: Go to hell.)

Service at 11 is uneventful, and goes somewhat long. On the way back to the choir room I discover (what I later found to be) a giant black caterpillar – about 3″ long and as big around as my thumb. Fuzzy, like a Woolly Bear. Kind of cool. Everyone leaves, I stay to practice. I discover I am getting a migraine. I get out my red-onion salad. I am reminded that red onions, and the smell of them, makes my migraines worse. Oh well. I also discover the salad is full of black olives. Not my favorite things ever. But I’m eating it – not only did I pay for it, I won’t get to eat anything else until about 9pm. I head outside with my salad. This lasts a grand total of 2 minutes due to bees and other stinging insects. I go back into the choir room and let the red-onion aroma run free. I down half my coffee in an attempt to alleviate the migraine. I wander back outside and check out the caterpillar. I come back in to practice.

I head into the main hall (Sanctuary) and set up shop. I metronome from 1pm to 4pm, finish the coffee, the muffin, and most of the water. I manage to keep the migraine at a dull roar. I wander back into the choir room at 4:10 and find a rehearsal already in progress, that I’m supposed to be leading. I wonder why nobody came to find me. One guy says he was banging on the door, but didn’t I hear him?

Another rehearsal at 4:30, mostly me teaching the altos their parts on absolutely awful Christmas music. 5:30, wander back into the Sanctuary and set up for the 6pm service. I let the “organist” play the preludes today, as I don’t want to deal with it, or her. During the sermon I head up to the balcony and tally the preacher’s recurring words with the choir director’s wife (Preacher said “bottomless pit” 20 times). (Dear Preacher: You’re a lousy public speaker. Find more words and a less megaphone voice.)

Service ends, go home. Get back into town. I’m at the corner of Blair Stone, facing north, turning left onto Miccosukee. I’ve got my windows partway down, and I’m playing “You Can Call Me Al” pretty loudly. A car of people about my age pulls up next to me. The guy driving starts pointing upwards, like he’s pointing to the light on the left. Or maybe the sky. I have no idea. I never figured it out. He never said anything. (Dear Pointing Dude: What?)

I get to Seventh. I’m waiting to make a right-on-red onto Monroe. I feel a jolt from behind. I just got rear-ended. SONOFABITCH. I look in my mirror. Obviously I can’t see anything because dude’s in my trunk. I pull into the gas station on the corner. (Dear Self: Thank you for going from shock to anger to reasonable within three seconds. I appreciate that.) Thankfully, Dude pulled in after me. I took a breath, got out of the car. He gets out of his pickup, and the first thing he says is “Are you okay?” That was nice. We determined that I am okay and my car is okay. No damage, no scratches, nothing. He said he was driving barefoot and his foot slipped off the brake and he drifted into me. What do you say to that? (Dear Dude Who Rear-Ended Me: Thank you for pulling in after me, and I do appreciate your courtesy. However, if you’re gonna keep driving barefoot, I suggest pressing harder on the brake. Perhaps literally standing on it.)

I get home. I immediately take out my contacts, change into pajamas and make some leftover lamb tagine. I check my emails. I find one that says, essentially, “Can we rehearse my most ridiculous pieces tomorrow?” Still on the adrenaline rush from being rear-ended, I freak out a little bit. I stop tasting my dinner (a real pity, because it’s delicious). I send an email saying how-about-later-this-week-instead. I change back into real clothes and realize the migraine is gone, but I’m a little dizzy. I refill my water bottle, grab my music, and go practice for a few hours.

I come home, beyond exhausted. I need to make granola. Because if I don’t have breakfast, I will have to add about 30 minutes onto my commute to get a bagel. I pull together a batch of granola, stick it in the oven. It’s not getting crunchy. Why isn’t it getting crunchy. I added too much honey. I can do this in my sleep, what the hell? The consistency is more of a granola bar now. I quit. I went to bed.

So that was yesterday. How do I have the time to write this now?

I’m nursing a mug of tea. Because sometime yesterday, between the 6pm service and making granola, I developed a cold.

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not buying it

During this evening’s sermon, somehow the preacher turned to the question, “How could God let 9/11 happen?” and I, always curious to hear this answer, tuned in. Being Baptists, believing that God is all-knowing, all-seeing, all-loving, and most importantly omnipotent, how was he going to answer this?

“Think of it this way. You’re in Tallahassee, and it’s crime-riddled. So you beef up the police force. Gradually crime starts to go down, down, down, until this year everyone goes, hey, crime’s the lowest it’s been in years! Let’s just fire the police force! We don’t need them anymore. Next day, you get robbed, and you’re wondering where the police are?!”

I wasn’t comfortable with the implications of this as a religious standpoint, but I let it slide because I could see it from a defense standpoint. Security gets lax, we get attacked. He continued. And for integrity, I’m only quoting exactly what I remember:

“But God knew about this before it happened, before there was even day and light! God did this to bring us to Him! And if even one was brought to Him in this disaster, it was worth it!”

Fuming, I didn’t listen to a word he said after that. Why… why? Why would God do that? If, as they say, there is a standing ovation in heaven each time a sinner is saved, what about the others who had the potential to be saved? Let’s say x were saved. Let’s say that a bunch were already going to heaven. What about all the rest who weren’t saved? who weren’t Christians? Why were their chances for salvation cut short at the expense of x? Why did three thousand innocent people have to die so that a handful could be saved? Not buying it.

Let’s go back to Sodom and Gomorrah. God said that He would spare the city if even ten were found worthy, and let the rest, sinners, live. Why would He then decide that several thousand be killed to save a few? several hundred be killed to save several hundred? a few be killed to save several thousand? Even the Old Testament God – known for His justice and righteousness – was more merciful than this. Not buying it.

But more than that, I find fault with even the basic premise of this argument. If God knows what is going to happen ahead of time, does that not negate the concept of free will? That which God gave us to differentiate from all His other creatures? And if we have no free will, and this is by definition God’s – not our – doing, where is God’s Mercy in this instance? If he loved us, His children, so much that He sent His only Son to die for our sins, why would He kill three thousand to save a few? That doesn’t sound like Mercy to me. Unless those who were not saved were all Messiahs who willingly died for our sins, it sounds completely contradictory. Not buying it.

And what if God could have stopped it, but didn’t? What point that would serve, I don’t want to know. But from my perspective, it flies in the face of both omnipotence and Mercy.

And this is why I have a major issue with God as a personified being. Either he’s merciful or he’s not. Either we have free will or we don’t. Either we did it, or God did. Either Merciful God causes all things, or humans are left to their own devices. And as I refuse to believe that a Merciful God would kill 2,996 people – for any reason – I must believe that it was a result of free will. Not of God. Because if God were an omnipotent He, and not the all-encompassing but not separate “he” of creation, this wouldn’t have happened.

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suspension

My guide then led me to the lowest level. Though by sight it appeared much less torturous than the previous levels, the air was thick with extreme unrelenting anguish. We were in a brightly lit hall housing rows of tables as far as the eye could see. Every few meters along each table sat a man or woman, hunched over what seemed to be stacks of paper and pencils. Along each row walked a man in a powdered wig. It was eerily quiet – indeed, the proctors’ footfalls were the only thing to be heard – but occasionally the silence was broken by a wail or a moan. Among the seated could be seen a man gnashing his teeth and rending his hair.

Instinctively inching closer to my guide, I said, “Herr Bach, what is this awful place?”

“Ah, my child, you have now reached the lowest level of Musicians’ Hell. This is Suspension, reserved for only the greatest crimes against music.”

I turned away from the hall and looked up at him as he nodded to one of the proctors. “But sir,” I said, “I don’t understand. What did they do?”

Looking into the hall, he sighed. “They are guilty of writing bad liturgical music.” The proctor gave him a sideways glance, but said nothing. He looked back at me and said, “They are writers of what you call ‘Worship Songs’.”

A shudder went through my body and I slid even closer.

“These composers, for lack of a better term, are guilty of the most blatant disregard for good music. They have cast aside artistic integrity and solid craft in the name of ‘accessibility,’ of producing great quantities of music at great speed, and caring nothing for the quality of what they produce. Their individual crimes are numerous, but the sum of these crimes is nothing compared to the whole.”

“Sir?” I asked, not daring to finish the question as a wail split the silence.

“These writers are perhaps best known for their abuse of the modulation. For lack of ability to write anything musically captivating, or even interesting, they modulate, and almost always upward. It is not unheard of that a piece should end a perfect fifth higher than it began, simply from modulating toward the heavens. Contrary to their beliefs, these modulations did not actually get them to heaven,” he said with a grin. “Furthermore, they believe it interesting to begin a new unrelated key in the middle of the previous one, with no preparation whatsoever. It is not interesting, it is jarring and painful. There are pieces documented having upwards of twenty-one modulations.”

I shook my head in disbelief.

“But that is not all!” he continued. “Far from it. The sin that pains me most is their ludicrous syncopations. One rhythmic side-step to make things interesting is all well and good, even desired! But these people write insanity. Not a single note on a beat. The music falls over its own feet! It cannot stand up, much less dance. And they expect people to play and sing this nonsense – particularly untrained musicians! An abomination.”

He drew several breaths, looking at the floor, and gathered his composure. “Voice leading,” he said quietly. “They have no regard for voice leading.”

“But sir, aren’t the rules not rules, but conventions?” I asked.

“Yes, conventions that make it better for the singer! Hence the name: voice-leading. These parts are anything but easy to sing. Why should anyone be required to jump from a B-flat to an E at a final cadence? That is, quite simply, a crime. But besides that, their reliance on parallel fifths alone could earn them a place here. Parallel fifths, in and of themselves, are not necessarily terrible. But when a string of seven of them, being the bass of seven parallel major chords, comprises the entire phrase…” he trailed off. He needn’t say more.

I interjected. “Sir, B-flat to E? A tri-tone? At a cadence? Surely…”

“I assure you my child. It has happened. One time is too many, but it has happened far more than once. Why? Because these ‘composers’ have a complete disregard for harmony. Their love of unresolved suspensions is despicable beyond language.” He passed his hand over his brow. “They believe that so long as a section (never a whole piece!) begins and ends in the same key, they have the freedom to wander whither they will without consequence. It does not sound interesting – it sounds what it is! Aimless wandering! My child, the tri-tone at the cadence results from the favoring of the lowered seventh in major modes. Some unnameable cluster of notes including the B-flat comes just before the final blaze of C major, and the poor tenor must negotiate this leap because the ridiculous composer didn’t think.”

“Sir, that’s awful!” I said as I looked out over the masses. Still hunched over, still scribbling, gnawing on pencils, erasing furiously.

“Yes. It is. But so are the accompaniments they write for their vocal music.” He looked aside in disgust. “Many of them have a pre-recorded CD, so no instrumentalists are needed. These CDs, I assure you, are some of the most awful things produced. The CDs with live accompaniment are of some poor garage band or pick-up orchestra playing along to a click track. Every single one has a drum set, and rules of orchestration never enter the equation. Let us not mention the MIDI CDs. In the event that a piece comes with an actual instrumental part, it will be banal, awkward, or both. None of these composers understood that there was else a pianist could do besides arpeggios, octaves, and full chords.

“And the annoying tempi! There is no difference between a dotted quarter at sixty ‘steadily,’ or an eighty-four quarter ‘worshipfully,’ or a one-oh-six quarter ‘joyfully.’ They should all be obliterated and marked ‘Moderato: droll’ so as to not delude anyone into thinking they warrant energy or excitement.”

A proctor stopped at a man in the third row from us, bent over his work. The proctor pointed to a place on his paper; the man wept. He reached for a new piece of paper; the proctor moved on.

“And the thing you will perhaps find most disturbing, my child, is their bastardization of existing pieces. All that I have said before, all these terrible things, are applied to pieces already in the canon. I hope you never have to hear the worst that was done to the Star-Spangled Banner, or any number of hymns, or – I am sorry – the beloved theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the so-called ‘Ode to Joy.’ These people change keys, rhythms, meters, harmonies and texts absolutely recklessly, without any regard for the original composers’ intentions, completely changing the meaning of the piece.”

Bach looked out over bowed heads with a mixture of loathing and pity. I swallowed the lump rising in my throat. “Sir, what could possibly be fitting punishment for so great a crime?”

He turned back to me with a glint in his eye.

“Species counterpoint.”

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