Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Scales (with an afterword on Modes)

My piano student figured out on her own how to play a C major scale. We had introduced the concept of thumb-turns in the context of something she was playing, and she took it from there. It showed up in one of her improvisations (complete with the correct right hand fingering, which I did not teach her). I pointed it out to her and told her it was important. We then worked out the left hand fingering; I emphasized that for now scales must be SLOW and steady, thinking about good tone and hand position; we added them to her practice routine, which now (I hope) begins as follows:
Other Stuff
She returned for the next lesson with C major, one octave, hands separately, played slowly and accurately.

So far, so good.
For as long as she is a musician, she will be playing scales. As will I.

But I got away from them for a number of years in midlife. I was bored with them, and focused instead on the pieces I was trying to learn. Insofar as I was doing technical work at all, it was more from the Brahms “Fifty-One Exercises” than anything else.

Then I began to improvise.

Dupré’s course on improvisation begins with the harmonization of the major scale, then minor. I spent a long time with this, in all keys. Scale in the soprano. Scale “en taille” (in the tenor). Scale in the pedals, or the left hand bass. It was a grind, but over the years since then it has proven increasingly worthwhile that I spent the time on this.

After Gerre Hancock published his book on improvisation, I found that he too began with scales, in a considerably freer approach. Unlike Dupré, Hancock encouraged creative harmonization in any style that takes your fancy in the moment.

That finally made it fun to play scales. When I am practicing free (non-hymn-based) improvisation, I often begin with a few scales – harmonized or contrapuntally oriented (or best of all, both), and let them lead me in whatever direction the ensuing music wants to go. Even when the work at hand is preparation to improvise on a specific tune, I might begin with the scale for the keys I hope to use in the improvisation before beginning to “learn the tune” (playing it in unison, and taking it from there).

Much more could be said about scales. I content myself with a final observation:

Play in and with the Modes.

Work with them in the same manner as major/minor: the scale in the soprano, chords harmonizing each note of the scale, up and down, slowly. Later, the scale in an inner voice or the bass. Do it in as many keys as you can. This remains for me a work in progress. If you ask me to knock out a quick harmonized scale in F sharp Mixolydian with subsequent improvisation, the results would likely be less than professional. But I am working on it.

The secret is to think “Where is Do?” In the above case, Mixolydian has the keynote on Sol, so Do is on B. Five sharps. It also helps – a lot – to notice that Mixolydian is Major with a flat seventh degree. So I can think “F sharp major” and play E naturals. All four of the Modes have near neighbors that are helpful in this manner:
Dorian – like natural Minor, with raised sixth degree
Phrygian – like natural Minor, with lowered second degree
Lydian – like Major, with raised fourth degree
Mixolydian – like Major, with lowered seventh degree
A benefit of this sort of work is that one soon gets a feel for the mode. What chords make a good cadence? What chord combinations work well, which ones not so much? What chords work well with specific scale degrees?

And: What is the characteristic ethos of the mode? Mixolydian has a sober dignity to it that I love: Lydian is the most joyful of modes, even more than Major: Dorian is like Minor but with greater strength and a yearning that comes from the raised sixth degree: Phrygian is strange, something all its own. To explain it I commend to you the magnificent Third Tune of Thomas Tallis (the Third Mode being another name for Phrygian), and the Fantasia on this tune by Vaughan Williams.

That brings me to another benefit of work with the modes: you might start sounding like Vaughan Williams. Or Herbert Howells.

I suspect that these composers got their “sound” in part from long exposure to the Modes – for RVW, it was his work with folksongs; for Howells, his work with the Tudor Church Music project. I can imagine them playing around at a piano with these things, finding the characteristic harmonizations and melodic patterns.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

When are you going to direct a Course?

One of our teen choristers asked me this on Sunday. She was not the first; another asked me late in the week at Todd Hall. He was insistent: “You are good. You ought to be doing this stuff.” Yet another asked the same question during our pre-course rehearsals in June.

I would love to have the opportunity. But for a variety of reasons it is not going to happen, and that is fine with me. For one thing, it is more satisfying to participate as a singer. I learned this partly from the year when I was half-of-an-organist, assisting Br. Vincent. But that is selfish; a better reason is that there are better people available, among them our own Kristin Lensch, long-time treble housemaster at the Course and this year the adult housemaster; she most certainly should be directing Courses, and not just this one. The number of people who could do this work well is not large, perhaps in the dozens, but it is sufficient without me.

For another, these days we have some choral experiences right here in the parish that are comparable to what we achieve at the RSCM Course: for example, our evensong in May.

The work that lies ahead for me is the same as it was at the end of last summer: finding a way to bring the skills home from RSCM to the parish choir, and building on them. I do wish we could have a week of intensive daily rehearsals, especially morning rehearsals when everyone is fresh, here at home instead of only at the Course. It would be good to see what we could then accomplish.

But what we have is one rehearsal a week. Thus, a resolution: make the most of the time that we have, and seek to make every rehearsal as good as the RSCM rehearsals at their best.

There was a time when I was more ambitious. I wanted to be organist/choirmaster at a notable parish or cathedral with a strong RSCM program, regular choral evensongs, choral settings of the Mass at Sunday Eucharist. Directing a few RSCM Courses would have been a culmination to that sort of career. Playing some organ recitals here and there would be good, too, and to be known and respected by other organists, part of the Inner Circle, the people that matter. Thankfully, none of these things have come my way, not even close.

What has come instead is that, little by little, we have right here in our little Midwestern parish developed a strong RSCM program, and we will soon begin our nineteenth season of First Sunday Choral Evensongs. And I have learned to play the hymns tolerably well, and even to improvise a little, something I never expected.

The three choristers who asked me about directing a Course have given me a gift: their esteem. It means the world to me that some of them think sufficiently well of my work as a choral director to say such things. With God’s help, I must live up to it, and be the director they think I am.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

God's a-gonna build up Zion's walls

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)

Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22; see also I Peter 2:5)

Great day! Great day, the righteous marching,
Great day! God’s a-gonna build up Zion’s walls.
(spiritual, which we sang in an arrangement by Warren Martin)
Thirty years ago, I thought the repertoire was the most important aspect of the RSCM Courses, and it was. I thought that the skills I learned from the music directors were important, and they are; I was granted a solid background at the Choir College for which I am grateful, but the Courses have taught me much more. But it took me many years to learn what is most important and best about the RSCM Courses: the people.

It was a delight to chat with the other adults over breakfasts and dinners and suppers in the dining hall; to take an evening “field trip” to a local ice cream shoppe; to talk at length with two of my best friends in a manner that doesn’t happen in our normal routines; to share in a three-hour Lebanese dinner with “a few” (twenty-six, that is) parents and choristers after Sunday Mass.

It was a joy to see Mario again, whom I first met when he was a young tenor at the Course, his voice newly changed. He is now in college and attending this week as an adult participant, and it was good to stand by him in the tenor section for part of the week as we did so many years ago. I did not think our paths would cross again.

It was good to sing under Michael Messina, and to be reminded that we first met long ago at one of the Charlotte RSCM courses for boys, where he was organist and I was there with choristers. I had forgotten this, as I had forgotten that it was that week when I first encountered the Short Service of Orlando Gibbons. It has been important to me ever since, possibly my favorite setting of the Evening Canticles.

It was a joy to accompany my student HMB in the talent show, the two of us playing the beginning and ending of “Rejoice in the Lamb,” a project of her devising after last summer’s Course.

It was a very great joy to see Mike and Tom and Bryn do the real work of the course – looking after the young people as proctors. I remember all three of them from their childhood, and it fills my heart with joy to see them all grown up and strong and intelligent and creative and full of integrity.

It was a joy to look to the right and see the front row of trebles in the Decani, many of them from our choir at home, and all of them singing with full commitment and delight. Or right in front of me in the Cantoris, two of our teen girls, grown into intelligent choral musicians of whom any choir would be proud. Or the young choirmen among whom I stood, six of them from our parish either now or when they were younger.

For the greatest joy is singing with these people, young and old. Parry’s “I was glad”. The Sicut cervus of Palestrina, one of the great choral masterpieces of all time. Anthems with connections to two of my teachers long ago at the Choir College.

I wish it could ever be so. One of the teen boys asked me “Why can’t we do this all year?” He is right to ask, but it is not simple.
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life… (BCP p. 489)
Somewhere in St. John of the Cross, we are admonished to flee from the temptation to cling to anything in this life. As soon as we clutch a moment in our arms and say “I want this to last forever,” it turns to ashes.

One of our trebles has moved to another state far to the east, and the Course was our last farewell to her and her family. It was hard, and will remain hard. One of the long-time adults was absent for reasons that are not clear to me, and I wonder when I will see her again. One of the former proctors is now a deacon and in a faraway place; he has missed two Courses in a row and again, I wonder when I will see him again. Soon enough, it will be me that is absent.

Reflecting on these things, the passage from Ephesians came to mind. How is it that we are “fitly framed together,” and what does that mean?

There are many ways, including the Holy Sacraments and Prayer. Another, and among the most powerful, is singing together. The more we do this, the stronger the bond. I hear and see it not just in the Courses, but in our choirs at home, and the Sacred Harp group that meets in our choir room, and the Skipperlings and the Family Folk Machine.

As in an earthly building, some of the most important ties for the architecture of the whole are those that, once formed, leap across the miles or the decades. No act of friendship, no song sung or played together, is in vain. The Spirit is at work in them, patiently knitting us into a whole that, until its completion, is known only to God. "I go to prepare a place for you," He says. He prepares the place by preparing us, for we are that place. Every song, every conversation between friends, every field trip for ice cream – each builds or strengthens a tie. If you will, these things are the connective tissue the binds the Body of Christ into one, the mortar and connecting rods and flying buttresses that join us into “an holy temple… an habitation of God through the Spirit.”

And so through all the length of days
thy goodness faileth never:
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
within thy house for ever.
(Henry W. Baker, from “The King of love my Shepherd is”)
We sang well. There were many moments through the week that were especially fine: the first time in rehearsal when we really got rolling on “I was glad,” any time we sang the Sicut cervus, the moment when “Great Day” finally clicked.

More than any of these: “The King of love my shepherd is.” The opening hymn for the Mass, our director called early in the week for a “descant competition” for its tune St. Columba. Any chorister or adult who wished could compose a descant for the hymn. Only two took him up on it, both of them from our parish: Jean and Caleigh. We sang both descants, with Jean’s on the second stanza and Caleigh’s at the end. They fit their respective texts perfectly, the one calm and beautiful, the other more adventurous. When it came time for the hymn in the liturgy, I was quite undone: the organ, the large acoustic, the trebles’ strong clear line soaring into the space, all bound up in my affection for these two musicians. “Cling not to these things!” I remind myself. Music more than any other art lives in the moment, eluding every effort to bind it. But it lives in the Mind of God forever.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Book of Ways

I have been listening to Keith Jarrett’s “Book of Ways” (1989), played on the clavichord. Ninety minutes or so of it, in nineteen improvised tracks. I commend it to anyone who plays the clavichord.

The LP album is obscure and out of print, so far as I know never reissued on CD. Used copies show up on eBay, often at high prices, or you can do as I did and listen on YouTube: here is the track list.

When I built my clavichord from a kit, I was not ready for it, and it was in any event a second choice: I wanted a harpsichord, but could not afford it. I quickly found the clavichord unsuitable for practicing, not even for Bach (J. S., that is, for with the clavichord C. P. E. Bach is almost as important a name as his father). The short keys forced early fingering, of which (at the time, between undergraduate work as a pianist and organ studies later at the Choir College) I knew nothing. The music rack, such as it is – a tiny lip at the base of the lid, across the instrument from the player – was a little too distant to read easily and unwieldy to write fingerings without taking the score from the rack. So I did my practicing on my upright piano, and soon enough at the church where I was beginning to be an organist, digging through John Stainer’s organ method and the Orgelbüchlein, which taught me as it has taught almost every organist for generations.

When I set up the clavichord in my office at my current church, it quickly became a table, piled with many hundreds of octavos – five large filing boxes left to me by my predecessor upon his retirement. Dealing with them took well over a decade, the pile diminishing bit by bit as I had opportunity – and it was never a high priority. Theoretically, I could move them to the floor and play the clavichord, then put them back, but that was enough resistance to guarantee that I didn’t.

What I had not realized was that the clavichord was never as adequate for repertoire as its sister the harpsichord, or the organ and pianoforte. Instead, the clavichord exists for improvisation – of which, like early fingering, I had not the slightest clue back in the days when the instrument was new.

I wish I had known that forty years ago. I wish I had let the instrument teach me.

Nowadays my first music of the day is improvisation on the clavichord. Sometimes it is work-related: playing around with tunes that are in the coming Sunday’s services. Sometimes it is no more than harmonizing scales or simple bass-line patterns. More often by far it is simply playing whatever comes into my head and letting it develop into a little piece.

These little improvisations from Mr. Jarrett are a model to which I aspire. One gets the impression that they developed for him in a similar manner to mine, though surely they went through the sieve of repeated takes, or the playing of many more pieces than the nineteen that made it onto the LP.

I will not try to describe them in detail: this reviewer did much better. It is not clear at first what he is talking about with his numbered list, one to nineteen: these are his attempts at description for each of the tracks. For example:
7. It tickles the feet of our childhood, making us laugh in ways we have since denied.

11. It is a love letter, a heart unfolded into the map of another heart. A dewy pasture that remembers lovelier days when the torturous end of an age was not upon us.
The clavichord can do such things. The organ, for all its differing gifts, cannot. The piano? Maybe, but in a different, more outgoing way.

Be warned: another reviewer (Richard Ginell, quoted in Wikipedia s.v. “Book of Ways”) described it thus: “Sometimes this music is charming; a lot of the time, it gets wearisome.”

I agree that playing the album straight through is not the best way to listen. Better to take one track at a time, perhaps playing it several times if you like it. Better still, then see if it might be a springboard for your own improvisation.
What then does the organ do best?

It sings.

It sings in ways that none of the stringed keyboards can match. And not just one melody: two, three, four, even five and six melodies at a time. Trio sonatas. Fugues. Counterpoint of all kinds.

Most of all, congregational hymns and songs. Alone, alongside the people, in commentary/dialogue with them (e.g., Paul Manz's organ stanzas between congregational stanzas).

But that is for another essay.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

"Old times there are not forgotten..."

In memory of those who fell in battle on this day: July 3, 1863 (reprinted from October 2011)

It's all now you see.... For every southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and ... yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time. [William Faulkner, from “Intruder in the Dust”]

When I was a lad, I often visited the graveyard near home, especially the lichen-covered stone marker set flat in the ground in one corner at the highest point of the yard. In worn letters, it recorded the names of the Confederate home-guard militia soldiers who died on that hilltop, defending their home town in 1862. (There is now a fine modern monument, erected a few years ago by the Sons of the Confederacy. I left some flowers on it the last time I was there.) It was just a skirmish, not worthy of being called a battle, and the handful of boys and old men who fought there were not even soldiers of the regular Army. Their opponents in blue were indeed “real” soldiers, a nineteen-year-old future president (McKinley) among them. Despite opposition they could not hope to overcome, the militia men of the community fought as best they could and did their duty as they understood it. I doubt that slavery, or states' rights, or any of the other reasons given in history books for the war, figured in their minds that spring day.

Our county, at that time so sparsely populated and remote that it was considered a “wilderness,” sent eleven companies of men into the Army of Northern Virginia. I have stood on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg and read the names of these eleven companies where they waited through the artillery bombardment that July morning. I have stood, and wept, beside the statue of General Lee astride Traveller looking across that field, much as he was that day in 1863 as the shattered army streamed back past him, defeated.

One of my friends, an African-American musician serving a historic church in the South, related his victory in getting the Confederate Flag removed from his church. He threatened them with a lawsuit because, he said, the Flag constituted harassment, creating a threatening and unwelcoming workplace. I did not even try to explain; I could not, not in terms that he would understand. Even my wife, who knows me better than anyone, does not understand. Her take: “The war is over. You lost. Get over it.”

I will never get over it.

The legacy of the Confederate States of America is a mixed bag. Yes, slavery was part of it. The racism of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan that followed the war must be counted as part of it. In this, the CSA was no better, and in my opinion no worse, than the USA, or any other nation of the earth. For every nation and people of the earth, history and culture amount to a mixed bag, with shameful deeds alongside moments of glory; men and women who would be better forgotten, and those whose names should live forever.

A certain indescribable freedom was lost when Old Dixie went down. I have felt the evanescent spirit of it lingering among gatherings of my older relatives, and in conversation with neighbors and co-workers “back home,” especially the more backward and uneducated among them. I have tasted it in the moonshine at my uncle's funeral, and in my mother's corn bread and beans, made just the way her mother, and her mother's mother, made it. Some of it can be heard in the old “hillbilly” songs, and to a lesser degree in the bluegrass and country music that descended from them, or in the “shape-note” singing that has survived mostly in the Old South.

The victory by the North was a victory for Yankee capitalism, for centralized government, for the “robber barons” that would follow the war, for the tenement and factory over the hardscrabble hill and delta farms of the South. It was, as well, the emancipation of a people who should never have been enslaved. It was when the United States became a nation. Shelby Foote noted in his three-volume study of the War that before 1860, people would say “the United States are . . . .” After 1865, it became “the United States is . . . .” We are no longer a collection of states, but one nation, and I am glad of it.

I came to better appreciate the men who fought to save the Union by reading Walt Whitman, and from a courthouse monument in northern New York. The men from that little town and the countryside around it were among the men who were behind that stone wall across the field from my people on that July afternoon. One can read it there on the monument, where the names of battles were engraved. Almost from beginning to end, these men of the Army of the Potomac were badly led, driven off battlefield after battlefield, or sent to their deaths in ill-conceived assaults that should never have been attempted. One can read of those horrors graven on the monument in names such as “Fredericksburg... Chancellorsville... Cold Harbor....” Yet, they persevered, and almost in spite of their commanders, won the war.

And above all, there was Abraham Lincoln.

But my heart will always be in the South. I will always revere Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, A. P. Hill, Dick Ewell, “Allegheny” Johnson, Albert Sidney Johnston, Patrick Cleburne, Bedford Forrest, William Lamb, Raphael Semmes, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, and many others who were faithful in their duties to home and country. I will try to live up to their example. But it is not only leaders such as these, the ones whose names are in the histories, whose example I emulate....

In the South, there was no money for monuments after the War. Confederate monuments are almost always smaller than those in the towns across the North. The one in the county next over from where I grew up is smaller even than most. It can be found behind an old church on the edge of the little town that is the county seat, and dates from about 1910, when the people of the county finally scraped up enough money to hire a local stonecarver to make it. It is a boy, a teenager, in slouch hat and ragged clothes, barefoot, musket in hand. He looks across the field to the hills that he doubtless loved, and perhaps never saw again after he marched off to the war. I will try, as well, to live up to his example, and the example of those home-guard militiamen buried on the hill near my home, stubbornly persevering in duty and love of country even in defeat.

Inscribed on the monument is just one sentence, a quote from Lee: "There is a true glory and a true honor: the glory of duty done -- the honor of integrity of principle."
Northern politicians will not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South, and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources, and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans. I foresee that our country will pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, for our national sins....

The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope. - Robert E. Lee
In my recent travels (June 2018) I visited the Confederate memorial in the town of my boyhood, said prayers, and left some flowers. It remains well-tended in a time when such things have fallen into disrepute among many.

Here is a photograph of the monument in a neighboring county described above, the barefoot teenager looking across the green fields to the hills. The photo is from this website:

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Guard my first springs of thought and will

Lord, I my vows to thee renew;
disperse my sins as morning dew;
guard my first springs of thought and will,
and with thyself my spirit fill.
(Thomas Ken, “Awake my soul, and with the sun” [Hymnal 1982 number 11])
Beginnings are important. I continue to work at making my mornings habitual and automatic, for I know how weak I am. There are many days where the thing I want is to go back to bed for a couple more hours. Or stop at one of the three purveyors of donuts along my drive to the church. If I pass that gauntlet, there is the restaurant/coffee shop/grocery less than a block from the church with the most scrumptious pastries. I dare not set foot in that place before noon, except when accompanied by the Brotherhood for our Saturday breakfast once a month. There is strength in numbers.

Or, safely arrived at my office, I want to sit down at the computer and watch YouTube videos and spend all morning eating and drinking tea. Or reading blogs. Or writing for this blog. I hope that the Music Box has been helpful to some people, but many of the best essays in here were written at times when I should have been doing other things, most especially practicing. There is a reason why few people have successfully combined the vocations of Writer and Musician. [Footnote: There have been some: Robert Schumann and Camille Saint-Saens come to mind, also Virgil Thomson. But not many.]

Much of the above is Resistance, for these things are not what I really want, once I get underneath what St. Paul calls the “flesh,” the appetites that are common to us all, both man and beast. My true desire is to be a good and faithful servant, applying himself to “all such good works as [He hath] prepared for us to walk in” (BCP p. 339, the traditional Post-Communion Prayer) in hopes that I might in some small way be of encouragement to others and a witness to the Resurrection. And that involves getting my lazy old carcass onto the organ bench, the piano bench too.

But it also involves e-mail. And office work. And “Getting Things Done” (see Afterword). And none of it is going to amount to anything without the Officium, the Daily Office and the sanctification of the day with prayer and psalmody and Holy Scripture.

There have been long stretches of time when I have heeded what seems to be the majority advice to do the important thing first, and to do your creative work first while you are fresh. For a while I was improvising at the Steinway up in the church before Matins, back when it was a supposedly public service of worship at a fixed hour. Those were some of the happiest times of my life, upstairs in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament with the first light of dawn shining through the church windows, and I made a lot of progress in my playing in those sessions.

But I found that when I did that, I ended up spending most of the day practicing. That is fine for a short while, but soon enough the office work piled into such a backlog that I would then spend many days doing only that, and no practicing at all.

It is not simply majority advice to practice every day; it is universally acknowledged fact. The reason I added the pianist Nathan Carterette’s picture to my “door,” right beside JSB whom he so loves (and plays so well) is a comment he made to my young student HMB about practicing every day. I think his minimum is three hours. And I have a baseball commemorating Cal Ripken, Jr. for the same reason. Show up every day, do the work at a professional level. As recently as the first quarter of this year I was not doing that. I was mired in office work, some weeks hardly practicing at all, and thoroughly discouraged with my playing. [Footnote: Yes, practice every day – except one. “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Even from the sheerly practical level of best results, I find it necessary to have that full day, twenty-four hours of it, with not a note of music. In the long run, I play better when I do this. I find the truth of it most of all at times such as Holy Week – or this week, with the chamber music festival and the ordination of a friend – when I violate this Commandment and work every day. And in fact I normally have two days off, one which I seek to observe as a Sabbath and the other as a day of reminder that I am not just an Organist, but also a Husband, with duties at home and many errands and tasks therewith.]

Somehow there must be a balance. For now, it seems to work this way for me on a typical weekday:

- The morning at home (feed the cats and myself, do other things necessary to get out the door).
- Drive to church
- Physical practice
- Matins, with the Great Litany on Wednesdays and Fridays
- Improvise at the Clavichord.
As I recently wrote, the clavichord was my life preserver through the bad times this winter, on many days the only playing that I did.

- Set an Alarm for practicing so I don’t get stuck in the following
- Turn on the computers.
- Tea Ceremony (some of my friends, or anyone who visits my office at certain hours, know what I mean)
- During this, clear the decks. Process any handwritten notes from overnight about things to do, get the physical and e-mail IN boxes to zero. (see footnote, shortly)
- Go upstairs and practice the organ for at least one hour, again setting an alarm to make me stop at that point.

The addition of the Alarm before booting the computers has proven to be the key. That way, I commit to practicing, even if I have not succeeded in clearing the decks when it rings. And I can convince myself to leave the office with the thought “Just one hour. I can come back to this stuff then,” and many days I do precisely that.

[Footnote: Clearing the IN boxes does not at all mean doing everything that is there. I had to learn this from the “Getting Things Done” method. But you take every item, every e-mail, and process it. If it can be properly dealt with in less than two or three minutes, do it immediately. If it prompts a longer TBD, get it on the TBD list or into the “Action” folder of the e-mail. If appropriate, put it in the “Wait for” folder. If it is the “camel’s nose under the edge of the tent” and is going to become a full-fledged Project, start a folder for it. Eventually you deal with the Action items and TBDs, and if the Tea Ceremony has enough time before the practice alarm, I can make some progress on these things. But not until the main IN boxes are completely clear.]

From then on, the day is more fluid. On good days, there is more practicing, possibly a lot more. On other days, the rest of it is consumed with other work.

But the above plan of action is not perfect. Today I arrived several hours late, having been at the church well into the previous two evenings with the festival rehearsals. I chose to get a full seven hours of sleep instead of pressing on as I have in past years during the chamber music week. At the church, I managed only Matins and Litany, then it was nearly time for the television people to arrive to set up their equipment for the concerts, so I skipped the clavichord and office work, and went straight upstairs. While I waited for them, I improvised on the Steinway, mostly on the chant Veni Creator Spiritus, with thoughts of the impending ordination service and improvising a prelude on an organ I have never played. They were late, so I got about 45 minutes of work on the tune, and it was a delight, from the initial work with the unison tune in several keys to the places where that led. I so wish that I could start every day in this manner. But I cannot; I have tried that and it does not work, not for me.

I hope that the bit of improvisatory work was productive as well, for I do indeed have the improvisation ahead. Veni Creator Spiritus scares me, especially having played part of the Duruflé setting on Whitsunday. There is no way I can approach what he did with the tune, or what JSB did with its variant Komm, heiliger Geist. There is nothing else to say after what these (and other) composers did with it.

And yet… I find the Great Tunes, of which Veni Creator is one, to be the easiest on which to improvise. Nettleton. Ein feste Burg. Wondrous Love. New Britain. Old Hundredth. Hyfrydol. The Third Tune (Tallis). Once you get started, the ideas flow more easily than they do with some of the lesser tunes. In working with such tunes over what is now several years of regular improvisation, I have come to greater understanding of why the jazzmen and women keep playing the Old Standards. You can return to such tunes and still find something new to say; they are inexhaustible.


Afterword: I several times above mentioned “Getting Things Done” (“GTD” for short) thinking that I had written of it in the Music Box. I find that I haven’t, except for this which was written before I encountered the book of that name by David Allen. Since reading the book about a year and a half ago, it has considerably improved my workflow. I keep two of Mr. Allen’s charts on my Door, one Xeroxed from his book and the other considerably adapted to reflect my vocation and purposes. Here is his website. There are also many YouTube videos about aspects of GTD, some better than others.

The book is readily available in most libraries – the one near the church had I think seven copies when I checked one out to read it. He has followed up with sequels, including most recently an adaptation of GTD for teenagers. I have not read it [for one thing, it is still pre-release, not yet published], but I commend it to my readers who are in that stage of life. I wish I had known of these principles in high school and college.

Yet another Afterword (June 23) I would be a hypocrite were I to omit mention of this day's work, or rather the undisciplined lack thereof. Being weary from too many days in a row, it was too easy to sit in my office in front of the computer, not setting an alarm to go upstairs and practice, and after I had done plenty of that, more-or-less working (online reading of the journal "The American Organist" as I ate a leisurely second breakfast with tea) I found a link to this:
Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" - a visit to West Virginia

And not just West Virginia: McDowell County in the southern part of the state, a place that I love. My recent vacation did not take me to McDowell County, but I did spend time in some of the neighboring counties of Southwest Virginia, places like Coeburn, Norton, and Big Stone Gap. We still own land in another part of southern West Virginia, but I do not see how we could ever go back there to live. I have been away too long; I have become entirely foreign to that culture and my wife has never been part of it.

I should have been working; I should have watched it later. But I am glad that I took the hour to see this sympathetic portrait of the people and culture of the coalfields. I commend it to you.

I had never heard of Mr. Bourdain until he died a few weeks ago. My ignorance of him is my loss; his untimely death by suicide is a loss for all of us. May he rest in peace.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Back to the BCP

I stayed with the Roman Catholic breviary for about three weeks.
The deciding factors for my return to the Book of Common Prayer Daily Office are three:
- Continuous reading of Scripture, including the Gospels as well as Old Testament and Epistles
- Continuous reading of the Psalmody, including the untidy bits
- The "Rite One" traditional language, and the Authorized/King James Biblical texts

There was a point to Cranmer's reform of the Offices, and not just the benefit of putting them into the vernacular. In the Anglican forms, I think that one gets a better overall formation in Scripture than one would get from the Roman Catholic version, simply by the repeated reading of whole books of the Bible over the years, and reading them from an actual Bible, not broken up into little bits and disconnected from the rest of the Story. There is not enough continuity in the Roman Offices to get a sense of any of the Scriptural books as a whole. And (as I said in the previous posting) no Gospels, beyond disconnected single verses in the Hours other than the Office of Readings. That could all be corrected by additional study outside of the Hours, but I can see that I would not make the time to do that.

And I am an old dog; I do not easily learn new tricks. Better for me to stay with what has brought me thus far.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Liturgy of the Hours: another approach

I have been praying the Daily Office according to the use of the Episcopal Church for most of my adult life. Daily Matins in the Rite One traditional language is part of what made me an Episcopalian, when I was in a congregation where weekday Matins was significant, with eight or ten people gathered every morning. And I hardly need mention Choral Evensong, which is pretty much the rest of what made me an Episcopalian.

It may thus be surprising that I am trying something different. As of this past Monday, the day after Whitsunday, I have moved to the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. An experiment, one might say.

Some years ago, I was with my sister at a thrift store in suburban Maryland. There on the shelf was a complete four-volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours, eighty cents per volume. As I learned, it had been in the care (I almost wrote “belonged,” but such things do not “belong” to anyone) of Alfonso Sanchez, S.J. – a Jesuit. From the looks of these volumes, he did not mess around; they are thoroughly well used. As they should be: Roman Catholic clergy and religious are bound by solemn vow to the observance of the Hours. But not laymen; that was left for the genius of Cranmer, who envisioned a church where everyone from peasant to queen would daily gather for Matins and Evensong in their parish churches and chapels. It has not turned out that way, unfortunately.

Once before I dipped my toe into these volumes for a week while on vacation, hastening back to the familiar Comfortable Words of the BCP when I returned home. But now that I am no longer responsible for leading public Matins in the church (excepting Sundays), the door is open for me to try this at greater length. So, on Monday, off I went: Volume III, Ordinary Time weeks 1 through 17.

Some preliminary observations:
- The rhythm of the day is different, heavily front-loaded (if one does the Office of Readings back to back with Morning Prayer, which I gather is common). Not so much in the evening; there is Evening Prayer, but it is much more lightweight than Anglican Evensong. One could place the Office of Readings there, I suppose; it can happen at any point of the day or night.
- The language is thoroughly pedestrian: ICEL texts for the liturgy, New American Bible for the scriptures, the Grail Psalter. It is a far cry from the BCP Rite One, but would probably flow naturally enough for someone inured to BCP’s Rite Two. The level of non-inclusivity for language about humankind is striking for someone who has been in a different environment for years, but these volumes date from the 1970’s, before that became a significant issue in most places. The ones I have may indeed be obsolete; I do not know if these texts were revised when they renewed (and greatly improved) the Mass translation a few years ago.
- There is a lot of Psalmody. Three psalms (or parts of longer psalms) at each office, including the Little Offices during the day. Overall, there is a four-week cycle which (at least in Ordinary Time) carries on independently of the cycle of Sundays and weekdays. Excepting on feasts and saints’ days, of which more below. I have not looked, but my suspicion is that some of the psalms show up more than once in the four weeks, otherwise it would feel more equal in weight to the Cranmerian system of reading it all through beginning to end every month, which system I have followed all these years. [Edited to add: There are a good many Canticles added to the mix, some of them familiar to Episcopalians from Rite Two Matins, many others in similar vein from Old and New Testaments. There may be enough of these to add 30% or 40% to the Psalter, and account for why the amount of psalmody feels like more than the BCP. It is definitely a lot more than the psalmody appointed in the BCP's Daily Office Lectionary, a six week cycle based on similar principles as the Roman Catholic approach, aiming to place psalms where they best fit in the rhythms of the day and week]
- But they leave out some of the juicy parts. I was shocked to learn some years ago that the Benedictines (and presumably others) omit the verses about your dogs drinking the blood of your enemies and the happiness of those who bash infants against the stones. And so they do; we had Psalm 69 this week – much of it, that is; not all.
- And there is not much Scripture. For all of the Hours excepting the Office of Readings, there is one little snippet, one or two verses in the manner of what we have in BCP Compline. Fine for meditation, but not much meat to it.
- In the Office of Readings, there are two lessons of more proper length, similar in size to the BCP Daily Office lessons. But no Gospels! Best I can tell in Volume III, not once in these seventeen weeks, other than little snippets in the other Hours. The norm is a lesson from the Old Testament or Epistles followed by a reading from the Church Fathers, generally relating to the Scriptural lesson just read or (on saints’ days) to the commemoration. I hope that I am mistaken about the absence of the Gospels. I am nervous from stepping so far away from Holy Scripture, which has brought me thus far in conversion of life.

And that brings me to what may be the most significant point for my ongoing use of these books: it presumes a context that does not exist for me, of daily attendance at Mass, which is where they are assuming you will hear the Gospel. It presumes that one will more properly feed upon Holy Scripture outside of the Hours, for example in Lectio Divina at some point during the day. I could do this, and must if I continue this path. But the thorough reading of pretty much all of the Old and New Testaments in a two year cycle, with the Gospels more often than that, is one of the treasures of the Anglican/Episcopal approach, seen all the more clearly by comparison to the Roman Catholic method.

In a similar vein, there are no Creeds, and no confession in the Liturgy of the Hours. Again, it presumes that you will have the Credo at Mass (at least on Sundays and major feasts) – and the Catholics have their own way of dealing with Confession, which for a religious or clergy, is indeed Confession with capital “C.” Not a general confession said by all together in the liturgy.

After two or three days I began to find my way through the services well enough. Then came the first exception: the memorial of the Venerable Bede, Priest and Doctor, May 25. The saints’ days are in a different part of the book, with their own texts, and much flipping of pages. Part of the propers come from the Common of Doctors of the Church (page 1763 and following) or the Common of Holy Men, Religious (page 1858 and following). Or for what they call “memorials” and we call “lesser feasts” one can go ahead with parts of the normal daily texts. But not all. I sat down at home for Morning Prayer that day, a Friday – when I had overslept; it was already nearly sunrise when I did this, and I needed to get on the road to the church and my duties – and I almost threw up my hands and quit. It was complex, and took much longer to find the right things, I was in a hurry, and not very recollected spiritually.

Whatever form is followed, the Officium is like that sometimes.

But the second reading at the Office of Readings (once I got to it) was a wonderful letter on the death of Saint Bede, by Cuthbert, which made my day. Oh how I want to be someone like that!

One gains appreciation for what Cranmer meant in his preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (our BCP, page 866) where he wrote that in the medieval Office “… that to turn the book only, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.” I said an “Amen” to that on Friday. The Daily Office in the Anglican/Episcopal manner can be prayed by any layman who can read even a little: I remember a young gentleman back on the island where I first encountered these things who could indeed barely read; his schooling had ended with the third grade. But he could puzzle out the scriptures in the Authorized Version and the liturgical texts in the Rite One language well enough to read lessons at Matins and sometimes serve as Officiant, and he found it worth his while to do so. It is a person like him that Archbishop Cranmer had in mind as the foundation of the Anglican Church. In the Roman Catholic form, one must be considerably more determined, ready to pore over the rubrics and flip lots of pages, or receive good instruction, or best of all, the modelling of one’s elders in the religious house where one is discovering this manner of prayer. To be fair, the normal garden-variety Ferial Day is not that hard to follow in the Roman books – but there are a lot of saints’ days.

One last surprise: the hymnody. Large amounts of it: a hymn at each of the Hours. I am a little disappointed that the great corpus of Latin office hymnody is largely absent (excepting Night Prayer, where several of the greatest office hymns are given in Latin as well as English), but on the whole the selections were well chosen, with good representation of then-modern authors such as Fred Pratt Green and Fred Kaan. It surprises me how “Protestant” the hymnody is; there is little difference from what one would find in a Presbyterian or Methodist hymnal of the period. For example, the hymn for Morning Prayer on the memorial of Saint Bede was "For all the saints" (page 1864) by the Anglican bishop W. W. How, tune Sine Nomine by the English agnostic R. Vaughan Williams. But for the Latin office hymns, our Hymnal 1982 is a better source.

While it is convenient to have the hymn text right there with the office, I worry about having the selections fixed in place for who knows how long. Have they revised these since the 1970’s? For one thing, there has been a lot of excellent Roman Catholic work since then which should have a place here, to say nothing of hymnody from other sources – world music, for example, entirely absent from these pages. Again, that was barely on the radar in the 1970’s.

But one week does not give me the right to pass judgment; I submit my reflections with humility, knowing that much would become clear only with continued use. I hope to stay with it through the summer and perhaps through all of Ordinary Time, but not beyond that unless I have a change of heart. It is instructive, and is helping me to a better understanding of my own tradition.

[Edited 6/17/18 to add: I didn't make it even one month; back to the BCP for me, though with an increased understanding of the Daily Office in both its Roman and Anglican forms. More on this in the next posting.]

Monday, May 7, 2018

Give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb

Last night (May 6, the Sixth Sunday of Easter) was our final choral evensong of the season. As is our custom, it was sung by the combined youth and adult choirs. Because most of the youth choir was at last summer's RSCM Course, we were so bold as to attempt some music that would otherwise be more than we could handle, for we had sung it at the Course.

I could write of the Howells "Collegium Regale" Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and what a privilege it was to conduct this. I hope that I will never forget the delicate shimmering beauty of the opening, at first just the youth choir trebles and altos with the adult women joining a bit later. Or the four young choirmen singing the tenor lead that begins the Nunc Dimittis. Or the magnificence of the "Glory be to the Father...", which was profoundly moving.

I could write of how fine it was to be Organist for the Britten "Rejoice in the Lamb," the anthem for this evensong, and of my high regard for my friend Jean who directed this and played for the Howells, plus a significant prelude, and urged me to prepare a careful plan for the warmup rehearsal, timed to the minute for each item that we needed, and in the event, essential.

I could write of the Smith Responses, and our teen chorister Charles who was superb as Officiant. And I could write of my friend Nora, who was Preacher for the evening. And the David Hogan "O gracious Light," and the closing hymn, "The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended," with the descant by John Scott (may he rest in peace) that we sang at last summer's Course. This proved the perfect ending to the service and was, again, profoundly moving for me and probably others.

But of all these things, what impressed me the most was the Psalmody, the three Psalms appointed for the Sixth Evening. I had thought we would need considerable rehearsal, because the two choirs do not routinely sing psalmody together, nor do they rehearse together. Nor was it a small group; with the combined choirs, we numbered about twenty-five. With psalmody, small is often best, for the ensemble is easier to achieve. And familiarity with one another's singing is essential. For best results, the group should sing Psalms together every day. Or several times a day, as the brothers and sisters of Religion do in the monastaries and convents.

We were arranged in divided choir, the adults on Cantoris, the youth on Decani. I reminded them to watch one another across the middle, and most of all to listen. We launched into Psalm 32: "Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven..." After a couple of verses, I quit playing. Then I walked to the back of the church, my arms folded so that I would not try to direct them.

They were flawless. Well, not quite; psalmody is never flawless. But they were extremely good. And they did not need me, or any direction, or even accompaniment. They could have gone right through the full set, which they did later in the service (Psalms 32, 33, and 34), but it was clear that for rehearsal, all that was needed was a couple of verses of each to remind them of the chants.

If there is one thing of which I am proud with these choristers, it is this: they have learned to sing the Psalms. David Willcocks used to say that the psalmody was what made a choir like the one he directed at King's what it was (and is). The psalms require sensitivity to diction, pacing, and most of all attentive ensemble with the other singers. I can attest on our more humble scale that much of what progress has been made during my tenure has been the result of the psalmody, both the Anglican Chant of evensong and the plainsong that is our staple for the morning Eucharists.

Getting through all of this music in good order was an accomplishment for our parish choir, young and old. But last night, I was numb to it, immediately carried off by concerns for the traditional end-of-season pizza supper (which went well), and some administrative concerns that appeared via e-mail, and by the Sunday evening routine of bulletin-making. The best I could say at that point was that I was glad it was done. But today is better; I can see what a Good Thing last night was, both in sum for all of the choir and individually for many of the choristers - and probably in many ways which I will never know, for them and for others. For a while longer, it remains my privilege and vocation to work with them and perhaps make a bit of difference. For this I offer my thanks to the One who calls us and whom we praise in song.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Simplifying Anthem Accompaniments

There are (at least) two types of keyboard accompaniments for choral music:

1) Accompaniment written for organ or piano. Some of these may require quite a lot of practice, but normally one plays the notes that are written, within the limitations of the instrument at hand.
2) Accompaniment originally for orchestra, with a keyboard reduction in the choral score. Most often, one does not play all of the notes.

The overriding principle for keyboard reductions:
“When in doubt, leave it out.”

Our goal is to produce a reasonable approximation of the orchestral score, sufficient to support the choir in its singing and to present the musical work to the listeners. Most keyboard reductions have far more material than is needed for this. To play everything that is printed would require massive technical skill and practice time.

So, leave things out. Lots of things. Reduce the “reduction” until it matches your capabilities and the time available to learn it. Get it down to something that you will be able to play fluently.

An example, from “Qui sedes” by Michael Haydn, in the fine edition by David Stein (Th. Presser 312-41692)

The choir is floating along with “Alleluias,” hardly a care in the world. The orchestra is bouncing along with an active bass line and lots of string figuration. In particular, lots of repeated sixteenth notes – easy on violin, not so much on organ. Add to that considerable leaping around – again, easy on violin, not so much on organ.

As you can see, I have scribbled over my copy until it is barely legible. I have left the bass line fairly intact (in the pedals), though there would be places to simplify it further, such as measure 65, where I was tempted to cross out the final three eighth notes. It is the upper staff where the chopping happens – I have crossed out at least one of the four sixteenth notes in every group of repeated notes, sometimes two of the four (leaving eighth notes in effect). I have chopped out lots of the inner parts, so that I can divide the remaining upper line (probably first violin originally) between the hands. And that got it to where I could play it, with sufficient practice. As printed, no way. Not even close.

[Unrelated tip: in measure 64, pedal line, after the third beat, I wrote in “PN”. That stands for “Pivot Note,” and tells me to shift my feet and legs to a different part of the pedalboard. I learned this decades ago from Carl Weinrich, formerly organist at Princeton University, who described this in The Diapason. I commend it to you. You might also notice that I have written in all of the fingering and pedalings. I commend this to you as well.]

Another example: a notorious passage from Handel’s Messiah (“For unto us a child is born”), in the Watkins Shaw edition:

At rehearsal letter G, the first and second violins are playing merrily along in parallel thirds. Fine for them; not impossible at the keyboard, but well beyond what I can do. I have not crossed out so many notes here as in the Haydn because it would have been illegible, but you can see what I have done from the fingering – for each group of four sixteenth notes, play the two-note sonority for the first and third notes, and a single note for the second and fourth. Just like that, it becomes playable. The other changes on this page are hopefully more subtle – chop out repeated notes (e.g., right hand, in the measure before G), cross out some notes from the middle parts and assign others to the left hand (top system second bar), strategically assign some of the bass line to the left hand instead of the pedal (two before G).

I have even added some notes, finding it necessary to fill in some of the chords in the left hand (top system last measure, and at G).

There was a time when such shameless hacking away at the careful work of editors (and there are none better than Watkins Shaw! Compare this with the old T. Tertius Noble edition for a lesson in making a fine keyboard reduction) burdened me with guilt. “You worthless lazy incompetent slug! You can’t even play a simple accompaniment. Surely everyone else zips through this stuff with ease. They probably sight-read it.”

Well, many days I do consider myself to be worthless, lazy, and incompetent. But somehow I have to get through this thing with the choir if we are going to sing it. And I have to chop away at it to get it to where that is possible. Either that or hire an orchestra.

That thought is why I am writing this essay, with examples. Trust me: “everyone else” does not zip through this stuff. The best I can tell, the sort of work I have described is normal. So I no longer permit myself to wallow in guilt. Neither should you. Do what you have to do to make the accompaniments playable. By you. In the practice time that you have. If you are one of the rare people who can rip off eight bars of sixteenth notes in parallel thirds in your right hand, go for it, and I tip my hat to you. If a page like either of the examples I have given causes you to shudder with dread, sharpen your pencil, sit down at the keyboard, and see what you can do.

When in doubt, leave it out.

[Afterword: There is a third kind of accompaniment – reading from open score, making it all fit at the piano or organ on the fly as you go. It is said that Franz Liszt could take a brand-new score by the likes of Wagner or Bruckner – in manuscript, not nicely printed like what we normally face – sit down at the piano, and sight-read it at tempo.

I can only bow my head in wonder, praising the God who put musicians like that on this earth.
Soli Deo Gloria.]