Thursday, February 11, 2021

James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938)

 

James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938)

I love February. One of my favorite components of this very special month is that it is also Black History Month. There is so much to be known about the extraordinary lives and achievements of many  African American citizens in this country...accomplishments that have been "kept under wraps" for generations. During this month, we seem to "peel back" the "ignored" element that has prevented  celebrations of our American tapestry for decades. Finally, we can all say, "WOW!" 

James Weldon Johnson (writer, poet, novelist, professor at NYU [1934] and Fisk University [1931-1938]), activist, lawyer, diplomat) was one of the extraordinary African Americans who has finally gained respect and recognition in our current society, due primarily to his artistic efforts (poetry, writing). He was born in Jacksonville, Florida to a Bahamian mother and African American father. His mother was a musician and a public school educator who taught James and his brother John Rosamond Johnson. 

James Weldon Johnson enrolled at 16 years of age in Clark College (Atlanta) that eventually became Clark Atlanta University. In 1891, he taught descendants of slaves in rural Georgia, and the experience opened his eyes to the plight of the African American citizen in some sections of the United States.

In 1897, he was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since the Reconstruction era, and one judge was none-too-happy about it, walking out of the examination. Such an insult to a man's achievement and dignity!

As a writer, he penned "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the poem that was eventually set to music by his brother who studied at New England Conservatory. The poem was written to honor educator Booker T. Washington, and the first recitation of this now famous poem occurred in Jacksonville in 1900, with 500 school children speaking it in unison to celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1906, James Weldon Johnson became a school principal in Jacksonville, where he was paid less than half the salary of his white colleagues. One major contribution during his principalship was that of adding 9th and 10th grades to the school where he was assigned.

Not long after his experience as a principal ended, both he and his brother moved to New York City, where they worked as song writers. In 1910, he met and married Grace Nail, and the duo worked together as screenwriters.

In 1920, he became a civil rights activist and the first African American chosen as Executive Secretary of the NAACP, where he served for 10 years.

In 1930, Johnson was awarded the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University, and he held the chair until his death in 1938 in an auto accident.

James Weldon Johnson Home - Fisk University


Because of James Weldon Johnson's gifts of creativity and scholarship, we have been blessed to have many of his artistic works among us, inspiring all races to be better humans. He has given us lofty ideals that are our greatest hopes for our futures. We are grateful to James Weldon Johnson for "Lift Every Voice and Sing," "God's Trombones," and another poem that will receive special focus in my next blog entry..."The Gift to Sing."




I love James Weldon Johnson's work, and I love that he found music to be essential to his "soul health."  He found it helpful to have music in his life..as do I...and particularly so these days, as we navigate a society where many health considerations have required that our musical activities be limited. "The Gift to Sing" is a firm reality these days, and many have spent countless hours trying to develop some way that choral music may continue in our lives. We continue on, as we try to find the very best ways to embrace the arts as healthy components of a well-rounded society, knowing that the art of choral singing might possibly be forever changed. 

Yet, through it all, James Weldon Johnson gives us hope. If he could sing through all the inequities of his life, certainly we can hang on as we navigate Covid-19 and Post Covid-19 waters. See? I'm already hopeful...looking beyond the flood. Enjoy today! Sing!

Sunday, January 17, 2021

It's been a "busy" pandemic!

 

THE SCHOOL CROP

Whew! I wondered if I would make it through a few weeks of the current pandemic, and it seems almost unbelievable that we have all been at this for almost a year! Wow! In all my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined the altering of a lifestyle that has been mine for decades. We have truly realized the depths of our stamina, strength, inner resolve, patience, anger threshold, resilience, values, and the list could go on...and on...and on. In short, we have gotten to know ourselves!!

I think I said this in an earlier post, but if not, the recall is worth it to me. My grandmother had three sons in World War II stationed in the Philippines, Germany, and Peru. She never knew if they were dead or alive...no television, FaceTime, email, Facebook, few telephones, etc. She would get an occasional letter from her sons weeks after they were written, but otherwise...nothing. My grandmother made it through that time in her life and her family's life. It must have been excruciating, but she made it through, and...I never once heard her complain

I really thought "meaningful work" was on my side, and so I did the only thing I knew to do...I continued writing music. I have found out that whining is totally unacceptable. EVERYONE IS GOING THROUGH THE SAME STUFF!! The greatest generation showed us how to manage adversity without whining. I truly believe I became acquainted with the fact that I could honor my heritage by not whining. Of course, with the COVID vaccine "in the vicinity," though not received personally, it still makes it a little easier to be hopeful. 

Amazingly, I found that this period of time in my life was quite a "productive product-producing pandemic." How do you like that alliteration? There was still music to write, hope to be shared, questions to be asked, values to examine, wisdom to be collected, and feelings to be channeled. In short, life continued.

I'm a small business, and you might wonder if I experienced negative business results. Well, no one was singing for a while, and then most people began to sing the good-ole'-standbys, so yes...my small business did indeed take a hit, as did other small businesses. You might wonder if I received governmental assistance. No, I didn't...for this reason: the people who were being assisted were those who could no longer do their jobs, and I could still write music. Yes, I spoke with the higher-ups, and that is what they said. So...I suppose I could have stopped writing music and then applied for some such benefit, but I could still do my job! Music-writing goes to the very core of me, and I really cannot "do life" happily without writing music. I can't stop, good people...I just can't stop! 

THE SACRED CROP

I have tried to be creative as far as the places where I might go for creative ideas. Yes....you heard me. I've been forced to rely on some creative ways to research and create a creative product (another short alliteration)...prayers spoken in worship, websites that promote new public domain materials, examining realistic possibilities of old hymns of my childhood (see if you still agree with the theology that made so much sense 50 years ago!), etc. In short, I've had to creatively maintain my sanity. When I can't "organize sounds" any longer, I head to the jigsaw puzzle or a crossword, organizing in silence. All the while, finding the right note for the right word that moves me in "just the right way."

I wouldn't want to go through 2020 again for any reason under the great big yellow sun, but the truth is that I do have hope for 2021. I have hope that there will be a better tomorrow, and as we get ready to celebrate Martin Luther King Day tomorrow, I am setting the beautiful words of James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)...The Gift to Sing.

Sometimes the mist overhangs my path,

And blackening clouds about me cling;

But, oh, I have a magic way

To turn the gloom to cheerful day - 

I softly sing.

I'm not sure I could have gotten through this past year without the gift of song. I sang it, I created it, and I comforted myself with it. Thankfully, others comforted me, too. Cameron Cody, Music Director at Chapelwood Methodist Church here in Houston ministered to to me in a huge way. He and all his folks at Cameron Cody Music had webcasts several times a week of old gospel-style music that reached into my heart to heal the frustrations. The music was that of my childhood, and it took me back to my roots and formation as a musician and a human being. The old hymns, and old faith, and old theology molded me into a person who could handle a pandemic! That is really significant.

May 2021 be the year of healing and health for you and yours. May this country be healed to continue its path in wisdom, love, acceptance, and kindness. May we all find the place of healing in our souls as we "softly sing."

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Personent Hodie - TTB

Earlene discusses Personent Hodie
 

I loved working on the 14th Century Carol, Personent Hodie, for TTB Voices. When an arranger writes for TTB voices, we are generally thinking "Middle School," though many adult choirs could sing this piece effectively as well. Why? Accessibility...and because the primary concern of most middle school choral directors is holiday music for TTB. 

There was an initial problem with accessibility in creating the piece for TTB. The range of the entire melody was not accessible to all TTB middle school voices, so I passed it around to different sections, according to accessibility. In the "refrain," all of the voices come together, using lots of unisons and duets. In other words, the arrangement is indeed accessible to middle school.

As you know, Personent Hodie is a carol from the medieval period, which generally means that accompanying instruments like hand drum, recorder, and finger cymbals also come along with it. Every arrangement I heard used these instruments, it seemed. I could have written out a part or ostinato for these instruments as well, but I wanted my arrangement to be different. For once, I wanted you and your students to choose improvisation! I did not give my students opportunities to improvise as I taught middle school and high school. I regret that fact. Actually, I was better at providing improvisational opportunities when I taught in elementary school! I was an Orff instructor, and many of the performance possibilities with Orff involved improvisation. When I "moved up" (I LOVED elementary school...I didn't want to move), I found myself more rigid and less likely to let students sing anything in choral music that was not on the page. So....now is your chance to allow students to improvise a bit, using the medieval instrument effects provided by a recorder, hand drum, and finger cymbals.

At first glance, Personent Hodie appears to be in the key of e-minor, but wait...there is a constant C#. The key is actually in Dorian Mode, and more specifically, this piece is in E-Dorian (E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E). Have students sing through this mode a few times to get the sound of Dorian "in the ear."

Now the recorder: I have written this arrangement with open block chords at the beginning. I think it would be great to allow a recorder player to improvise in E-Dorian with all sorts of fun scalar patterns for Verse 1. Because the piano becomes more active in the subsequent verses, the recorder might play some imitative five note patterns in Dorian Mode. Another option: The more active the piano gets, the recorder might want to play longer notes....whole and half notes, etc. Your choice. I just want students to have fun performing this piece with their own improvisation. You are actually creating your own performance. 

Have fun with this arrangement! Is it right? Yes, it's right! It's your performance product, and during these days of the "unconventional," you can create your own "norm." Enjoy!!!

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving...a new perspective

 

Life in 2020

Leave it to 2020 to provide a bit of needed perspective. In all my years, I have never experienced such a totally crazy period of life! We were asked to do things that I never thought I would experience (mask wearing...until now, I have just kept them on hand because of my allergies to dust and mold), and the idea of small businesses going under in just a couple of weeks was never in my mind for the most brief of moments. 

I had never thought about small and large restaurants being in jeopardy for any reason other than the taste of the food or the quality of service. Never once in my life was I concerned about businesses going under because it was too dangerous to go in and sit down for a meal. WOW! The word "unprecedented" has been used so much that I hope never to hear it again. These are not "the times" that I ever wanted to experience. I never thought about these types of possibilities. Now? Been there...done that...don't wanna do this again!

I had never thought about the fact that I could go for months without seeing the faces of friends. My husband had used "Zoom" in his online teaching at the seminary, but I had no idea it would become the only means by which I could "go to church" for months and months. The idea of technology became one of the most treasured necessities in staying connected to others via all sorts of creative means: birthday chats, lunches, brunches, Bible study, Holy Week services, soon-to-be Advent services, major holidays, etc. In short, a whole new world has been structured because of technology that has been around for decades, but we never explored its use until now. Yet, we long for face-to-face connection. Technology is the grand alternative....but not the preference.

I had never thought about the fact that "office people" who were housed in the city might never need to go to the office again. Our cities are still not really busy these days, and no one seems to be interested in fighting the traffic again....or driving/walking in the rain to meetings....life has truly changed...possibly forever.

"All of the above" has affected our perspective. Like it or not, we are looking at things differently these days, trying to get a grasp on knowing our needs and coming up with some type of technology to "make it happen." In our struggle to "find a way," we really come up with some good stuff.

Take a look at the photo above. Have you ever seen such a mess? Everything became frustrating when I could no longer find even one piece that had possibility. Then it occurred to me: "What if I change my perspective...my way of looking at this puzzle?" So...I moved to a different chair, and looked at the puzzle from a different angle. Guess what? I've done that at least a dozen times, and I have always found the correct piece of puzzle to add to the whole. 

Are you kidding me? What a lesson for 2020! Get up....find a different angle....reach for the possibilities...and know that somewhere in the "mess" is a tiny little bit of life that will work. Life is short, when we really think about it. There is very little "gusto" these days. However, for the moment, a new perspective might be the one delight of joy in all of our life-process. Our "bars" are a bit low these days.

So....from the perspective of health, creativity, stability, loving memories of holidays past, and incredible hope for the future....I would like to wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving!!! Find the beauty and joy in the midst of chaos.


HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!







Friday, October 30, 2020

The Day is Almost Here!


This is such a strange time in our personal and political lives. Of all the issues I thought we might have in the past four years, a pandemic was not one of those. It was one of those things, when mentioned, I sort of always passed off, saying, "Oh, we don't need to worry about that. We'll be fine." I wasn't even entirely sure what it meant, and the "meaning" was something I could not envision. I never dreaded a pandemic. These situations have always been remedied. Well, that's just how short-sighted I was in understanding how global effects of disease might "come home to roost." We're still "stuck in the yuck." And, yes...I'm tired of it, too.

As far as politics might go, I don't think I've ever seen such paranoia, fear, mistrust, corruption, uncertainty, anger, frustration, unkind and scary behavior, etc. The effect of all of this on friendships has been an interesting phenomenon. People have seen their social media "Friends List" shorten by half, and in the quest for tolerance, we find that we have very little tolerance for differing political views. We have heard our friends provide such labels and "un-American," and worse. So...in short, I'm ready for "it" to be over and done with. Lots of "it"s. This period in history has been exhausting.


So...we will soon get to exercise our personal indictment on "how things are going." That is our privilege as an organized democracy, and I must say, I am totally delighted to know that so many are participating in the process. It is heartening beyond words. That has been the best part to me...to see the length to which regular people like me will say through their actions, "I'm important. I'm a member of this democracy. My opinion counts. If you want to see me in action, watch me stand for TWELVE HOURS in this line to tell the whole world EXACTLY how I feel about things going on in government! You cannot silence me, though you may try. You cannot intimidate me, because some of my family members gave their lives to give me this privilege. And....you will NOT prevent me from voting!"

That's who we are, folks! We are STRONG, and we will not be bullied into believing that we do not matter. We are seeing "attitude" from so many, simply by standing in line. THAT is the most effective form of silent protest. 

I am proud of this country. The numbers of people voting are amazing. Not all of the people standing in the lines will vote for the candidate I support, but please remember, the joy of this process is in the right to stand. That right was secured many years ago. I am grateful beyond words, and no matter what might happen, I have seen a marvelous demonstration of caring from the American people. I have not heard the dialogue of 2016. I have heard support of values that have been in hearts for decades. We are Americans. This is what we do.

I am an American...and these days...I'm a proud American.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

God of Mercy, Lead Us Home

 

God of Mercy, Lead Us Home

It is always great to be able to hear my work performed, but recently that pleasant occurrence had new sounds and considerations. It is interesting to hear one's work when all singers are wearing masks (COVID). The only ones not affected by this new wrinkle were the wonderful cellist Christopher French and equally wonderful pianist Yuri McCoy. Otherwise, "new ears" are required when hearing a familiar melody produced vocally with masks.

The masks...the miracle devices that are the only components that allow us to have a musical life to compare somewhat with our lives of yesteryear. And...it's okay. My ears are adjusting, and captions help too. We just need to help the singers a bit by providing the text.

When you watch and listen to the above video of the performance of "God of Mercy," keep a few things in mind.This piece was crafted from a prayer offered by Greg Funderburk on the evening of Maundy Thursday of 2020's Holy Week. Think about the context of the "Service of Shadows" when it really occurred with Jesus and the disciples. Jesus was saying things the disciples did not understand. He began washing their feet, and talked about his impending death. He talked about some of them, too, and it was quite clear that whatever he wanted them to "get" was not being absorbed. A mother approached him with an interesting request. His time with the disciples was coming to an end, and I'm sure he was in a place of disappointment and fear. They just didn't get it.

All of the above thoughts were going through my mind as I wrote this arrangement. Now....make the transfers. Since our new COVID-19 lives began, we have experienced life as never before. We had no idea what this virus might be, how it spread, how to avoid it, how to treat those who contracted it, how it behaved after-the-fact, how long the incubation period might be, how long the immunity time might be following illness (still unknown), etc. We were confused. We had little information. We didn't understand what little information we had. We were scared. Parents were frustrated with their children, as they were now their children's teachers. Parents love their children, and husbands love their wives. It's sort of "For better....for worse....but NOT FOR LUNCH!" I saw Moms cry on Zoom because they didn't know how to teach their children. I saw friends grieving, because they missed their lives as they knew them. One realization for me: If we pour ourselves into church or school and it is taken away, we do not know what to do with ourselves. We are required to participate in major adjustments. We grieve and then some. Do you see the parallels between the disciples on Maundy Thursday and ourselves in the initial stages of COVID?

Greg's words in "God of Mercy, Lead Us Home" suggest all of the aforementioned uncertainties and frustrations. You will hear those emotions in the context of the arrangement. 

I created a video that might provide possible insights for you as you prepare for choral performance.

Insights from Earlene Rentz

Complimentary High/Medium/Low Solo Voice editions are a gift from Earlene Rentz Online Publications, LLC with purchase.

Here is a Low Solo Voice performance earlier this year. Hopefully, you will find numerous ways to include this octavo in your worship experiences, as the days seem to be more frustrating as we continue in uncertainty. God of mercy, lead us home. Lead us back to the place where we find comfort and familiarity in our lives. Return us to your grace.




Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Velvet Shoes - Text by Elinor Wylie

 


The popular poem Velvet Shoes by Elinor Wylie inspires yet another creative choral setting describing a quiet winter's walk through the snow. With "velvet" steps, we are surrounded by the white lace of snow on trees, shrubs, and other gifts of nature.

This setting is available for 3-Part MixedSSASAB2-Part, and Unison. Imitation and easy harmonies are used, emphasizing "We will walk through the white snow." 

•Solo versions of this composition (with accompaniment) are complimentary with purchase (High, Medium, Low). 

•Complimentary Rehearsal Preparation Sheets also come with purchase. 

•As always, purchase the Octavo file of your choice (PDF), then make as many copies as you choose for your choir.

In the following video, Earlene Rentz discusses her setting of "Velvet Shoes," with insight into its performance:

Velvet Shoes - Insights


Visit Earlene Rentz Online Publications to see the latest choral octavos published for your choir: SchoolSacredHoliday


Hang in there during these tough COVID days! I'm cheering you on!!