Monday, December 9, 2019

It's Still a Happy Time...

This year it is a tiny 3-foot real tree (some sort of pine) for me. The time has come and gone when I had incredible big trees that reached to the top of a tall ceiling. Now it is a tiny, tiny tree for me, but I'm happy to have it just the same. It brings me joy. There are no lights on the tree. It was so tiny, I could see disaster on the horizon with the added weight of lights. The tiny tree with no lights is appropriate, too, as Christmas has lost a bit of the "shine" of Christmases past.  It just isn't the same. But I keep on going through the motions...because I must. It really is necessary in order to reclaim remnants of joy along the way.

I was reminded of the joy of "Christmas Changes" in my life as I decorated this tiny tree (found it at Kroger for $20, but it works). While I was decorating, I was "opened" to a profound idea for me during the holidays. I have a second cousin who was a female glass-blower about ten years ago. Bill and I purchased several of her artistic products, and I love them. They remind me of her, but they are also a unique art pursued by only a few. One of the ornaments slid out of my hand, hit the floor, and broke into millions of pieces. I was so sad, as this cousin started her family and is no longer in the glass-blowing profession. Thankfully, I have other decorations she has made. So...I went to find a broom...get the big pieces and the tiny shards of glass on a piece of cardboard...but as I looked at the broken glass, something hit me. Even in the brokenness, there was a brilliance to all of those tiny, tiny pieces. They were really beautiful. Even though I couldn't begin to put the ornament back together again, everything that had gone together to create the beauty of a Christmas ornament was still there, bringing beauty in brokenness. That was a lesson to me. The beauty I had once found in life has been transformed into "something else." My choices now are to find beauty in memories, to support all of those for whom this season is delightful, and to do my best to find joy in memories and  "things" that have brought me joy for many years.

Things like these little guys...

Music brings me joy. Writing music brings me joy. I focus on the beauty of the music within...the music I seek to bring forth every day of my life.

Music has helped in my emotional healing through listening, creating, focusing my mind, and helping me sing again. The sounds and silences were wonderful in the healing process. I don't think I ever knew how to appreciate silence around me until it was needed for recovery. The music did not beg to be written. It was a gentle all-knowing nudge that introduced itself to me when I was ready to receive it.

So...the basic idea: Find happy "things" with happy memories, (places and people who were present during the darkness) and new places and people who have become a part of your journey...walking through this holiday season as friends and loved ones who care.

Look for the beauty. Look for the joy. Look for the "shine" in the brokenness, and sing!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Carowinds...the breath, the tone, the phrase

Marc Setzer, Me, Bob Holquist

I really enjoyed myself this past weekend. I had the privilege of listening and adjudicating several choirs at the Carowinds Festival of Music in Charlotte, North Carolina. There were several very good choirs, and I enjoyed hearing all the wonderful things going on in choral classrooms in North and South Carolina.  The adjudicating team was Dr. Robert Holquist, Professor Marc Setzer, and me. I thoroughly enjoyed working with my two colleagues, and when we began discussing generalities, I realized that we all said pretty much the same things in different ways.

I generally have mixed emotions as I adjudicate choirs. I believe that encouragement is needed in our educational system for students and teachers. I want to be constructive when I adjudicate, so that choirs can make some improvements in the future. There is a standard, and integrity demands that the standard be upheld. However, if I might suggest one thing to a choir or its director that will make a difference in their performance, I try to find that "thing" that might be most beneficial to the group as a whole.

I am reminded of a couple of things, however. I think I said the same things all day long...not because it was all I knew to say...I said the things because I heard so many of the same issues from all the choirs. They were the same things I have always heard from Solo/Ensemble performers and Festival choirs. Do any of you other choral directors have that issue? I am reminded that choirs so often have the same challenges year-to-year-to-year...choir-to-choir-to-choir...and I find that my colleagues and I often say very similar things to develop improvement. We just say things in our own ways. The good thing is that sincere interest in improvement is our goal, and we try to convey that to the choirs and directors.

In my opinion, there were three concerns regarding techniques that were consistent across the board for most choirs:

1) The breath - Our bodies are our vocal instruments. We cannot even get started until there is breath to set the entire mechanism in motion. do we do this? Well, the first thing is to teach students how to breathe. Yes...that wonderful diaphragm session. In the midst of becoming familiar with this glorious muscle, we must teach students how to use it in the process of singing. That is, singers should support the sound. What should students do to support a musical tone? There are many ways to teach this vocal technique (one for every vocal instructor, I think), and I've found that it basically comes down to however the teacher might have been taught. Funny, huh? There really isn't too much that makes sense about support, but something in the body must be done so that there is some control to the amount of air that comes rushing out of the lungs. We might not be able to "see" the support happening, but we certainly know when it is not present. 

2) The tone - The good news is that once you get the breath in good working order, the issues with tone will likely be resolved as well. Without the appropriate breath support, the tone may become thin, "throaty," or "chesty." What is a good tone? Well, it is a supported tone. So...this issue is interwoven with "the breath," and the chances are...once you "fix" one, you "fix" both. That's good news!! I almost order to get a good tone, try opening the mouth, dropping the jaw, and creating space so that the sound can resonate like the body of a guitar and its strings.

3) The phrase - Once you get a substantial breath that produces a good tone in the singing voice, it's time to sing! It is important to sing phrases musically. So...what does that mean? I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you of several considerations for singing a phrase musically. First, the phrase must begin a bit softer than its apex, grow, reach the apex, then taper off. What determines the apex? Well, sometimes it is the highest note of the phrase. Sometimes it is the longest duration. Sometimes it is the most important syllable of the spoken phrase. Sometimes it is a combination of all of those. Underneath the overall arc of the phrase is the fact that sometimes (depending on the style) each note should have the same movement as the phrase. Every note should begin, grow so that the loudest portion of the note is the middle of the note, then it should taper off (I learned this from singing with Robert Shaw). All within an 8th note?? Yes...all within an 8th note. You can hear this happening! Try it with a nice, legato piece of music. You will hear it! Yes...this is a mental thing, but it truly makes a difference in the musical direction of phrases. it!

As I write all of these things, I am reminded that I am the perennial student. Learning never stops...even at my (ahem) "age." We are always looking for "the next thing" to finally "realize" in the profession of music. I love adjudicating. I love to trying to help students to sing better and feel better about their performance on the concert stage. The only bad thing? I will never get to hear if anything I or my colleagues said that made a difference in how choirs perform on Monday morning. I would love to hear that. I want to hear that something I said in some way made a student sound better in choir.

So...because I truly am interested...come back to Carowinds next year! Maybe I'll be there again! The roller coaster! The screams! The choirs! Are you kidding me? There is no way you could get me on that roller coaster...

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Kentucky Castle

The Kentucky Castle

One of my favorite places to visit is The Kentucky Castle. It is a landmark visible to all on the infamous Versailles Road near my home. I have not met a soul in almost 20 years of Kentucky living who is unfamiliar with this unique structure. Most would not know of its storied past. Long story short: a man built the castle for his wife, and before its completion, things "did not work out." Then...the castle began a journey of owner to owner to owner, etc. You get the idea. However, The Kentucky Castle is now thriving. It is a favorite place for brunches, dinners, parties, meetings, and weekend get-aways.

The Castle is now a restaurant and hotel, filled with the unique delights of rooftop vistas, beautiful decor, a bar, and a gift shop. Oh...and did I mention an organic garden? Yes! The new owners of this landmark facility participate in organic gardening and host a community farmer's market during the summer. Kentucky is finally making wonderful use of The Castle on Versailles Road!!

  Organic Garden


One of the surprises of a recent visit was that two of the cutest goats were there to roam around the organic garden. Yes, the restaurant has plans for those two little cuties for the future, but I was so thrilled to see "small creatures" entertained on the castle grounds.

Castle Goats

You might think that such a place would only be a dinner spot, but no ma'am! There is a wonderful brunch every day, and the food is totally delicious. My cousin Catherine Bryant from Henry County (New Castle), Kentucky, joined me for our last get-together before my move to Texas. Sooo fun! It is a great place to take your special guests from out-of-town. Everyone is so kind, and The Kentucky Castle is "on the ball" with making sure reservations are correct and confirmed. 

Earlene and Catherine

Am I whetting your apetite for a Kentucky Castle experience? I hope so!! Please do not worry about wearing your marvelous evening attire for a visit into royalty. Leave your tiara at home (actually, you can purchase one in their gift shop, if you choose). Business casual attire is just fine, and the staff is always ready to make your experience delightful.

If you just want to rest, contemplate the universe, and walk the grounds, the gardens and lawns are extraordinary for a stroll. I hope you will choose to visit this wonderful place away from all that is "the norm." Just step back into medieval times, and take a few minutes to see the result of someone's creative image of royalty befitting a loved one. There is one thing we know for sure: This entire experience is truly "working out" for many of us who take a few moments to step back into history, and find an enjoyable experience...of royal dimensions.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Tenacity works somehow!

We had an interesting week here on the horse farm. It is foaling season, and lots of babies have come into the world this year. I think we are about "half-way" into the total number to appear this season, and lots of "moms" are in the fields, looking a bit uncomfortable.

So...I was returning from errands the other day, and received a call from the farm manager, asking if I wanted to see a foaling. "It never gets old"...the quote from a friend who is a retired OB-GYN. The celebration of life is great in so many contexts, and the foaling process on a horse farm is no exception.

Charlie McKinlay is a marvelous farm manager who knows horses better than anyone. I love going to Keeneland Race Track to see the thoroughbred run when Charlie is in the house. He knows the business. He knows what everyone is saying about each horse. No matter how dirty, tough, and frustrating I know this business must be, everyone sees the beauty in bringing a new little one into the world. Baby thoroughbreds are just precious...

I was reminded that moms are the same everywhere...totally delighted with their young. They protect them from all dangers, and they begin to teach them immediately. Every now and then, you see the mom as she develops a relationship with this beautiful tiny creature. They are just now meeting, after months in the womb, and they are so  sweet to watch.

We stood around for a while...waiting for the big moment...the moment when the little foal stands (usually around 40 minutes). This is where it got really painful for me. The little colt tried and tried to stand, and fell to the ground over and over again. I was encouraging the foal, but I knew it took an incredible amount of energy to get on his feet. The farm manager actually at one point went to the foal to put his legs in front, giving him the technique for success. Of course, he didn't necessarily "listen." Ahem......

After many tries, tumbles, and failed attempts, the little one did it! He stood! Then with those wobbly, never-been-tested long legs, he began to walk straight for the danger zone of the landscaping borders with rather large rocks. Catastrophic for a "new walker." To the barn ya go, baby!!

It only takes a day or so for these new little foals to begin running and testing out those little skinny thoroughbred legs...and they work!! They might appear awkward, but they do work! Success!!

 I really began to ponder the transfers into my life as I was watching this little one (you gotta have something to do for 40 minutes while you wait!). I thought about writing music. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have looked at this screen, wondering how in the world I was going to begin a piece. Then...I also have sat looking with the "not a clue" face as to how I might develop a piece. Another complex part of writing for me concerns how I get to the new key (modulation can be difficult). And to end a piece? As you can see, the entire process is a challenge for me. It takes me forever to find the right answer to the concerns, stumbling around for minutes, hours, and days sometimes. It is a real struggle at times. Is it worth it? Yes! Is it expected? No, but given the path that my music writing has taken over time, I suppose it should be expected. Why might this be? I am not at all certain, but I can say that for me, the concern is that everything I write be the best it can be. Of course, I am my own worst critic, but the journey is totally interesting, and it keeps me engaged with goals for self-improvement and success.

It seems that thinking and transfer can be used in most professions. We work, struggle, and try to "get it right" every time. It doesn't happen, of course, but that doesn't lessen the sincerity of the journey to the goal through time. We know where we're headed, and try our best to arrive.

Take a look at the "products" of your life. What do you have to show for those struggles and attempts. It might be positive experiences, trips, applause, recognitions, changed lives in those we have influenced, etc.

I am currently completing the orchestration for an arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, and it would be difficult to number the times where "not a clue" was the basic response of my mind...but...after consultation with another choral director, trial and error in maximum doses, and straight out tenacity, I somehow got beyond the "not a clue" syndrome. So...I began to ponder the number of products I've had where this same type of challenging process has occurred. I realized that every octavo I have ever written represents overcoming some type of musical struggle...possibly many struggles...not those that are life-threatening, just decisions that had to be made at a musical crossroads. I actually went back and counted the number of publications where success was accomplished in the eyes of an editor or (as with my company now) own eyes. I want you to know that at this point, I am grateful for (and celebrate) all 506 publications. Why? Tenacity led to the completion of a questionable task where music "happened" from beginning to end, and most of the time, I had no idea how it was ever going to come together. Did some octavos "fall by the wayside?" Yes! They were not all good ideas. Editors decided for me on numerous occasions, and I decided "no" for myself on numerous occasions. That's called "trashing a file" in my daily writing process. However, for all of those challenges, I say a heartfelt "thank you," because they all contribute to growth...and... I...can...stand!! Woo hoo!!

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Be Thou My Vision - "Celtic" style

South Main Baptist Church - Houston, Texas

As a writer of choral music, there are a few times in my life when I've had such a great experience in writing a piece, I just did not want it to "leave." Somehow I tend to "build a relationship" with the piece, and it sort of becomes like family to me. I get to know it, put time and effort into understanding it, and do my best to bring out the best in it. So...I guess you might say that I "befriend" the entire effort. I think about every little component of the piece for days, months, or sometimes...years.

Sometimes there is a quiet confidence that the timing is right and Spirit is leading. Sixteen years ago, I attended a concert by a very fine bluegrass band. My husband had been asked to deliver the homecoming sermon at his alma mater, and as a complimentary gift, we had been given tickets to hear this wonderful concert. The audience response at the end of the concert was amazing, and there were multiple encores. For the final encore, one of the band members went to the microphone, and a very simple accompaniment began. The singer stood and sang a beautiful, simple arrangement of "Be Thou My Vision."  The style was "Celtic," and it just sounded too good to be anything but of Celtic origin. The melody belonged with the sound of Celtic instruments. So...I did a little research. Sure enough, the tune is dated back to the 6th or 7th Century, and the original text was Old Gaelic. For sixteen years afterward, I did not arrange the hymn, but remembered the beauty of the moment. I really could not come up with anything that I felt competent to set as an arrangement, so it was not time. I have learned to "wait for the moment" in this business.

On a trip to Houston in December, 2018, I had lunch with several of the ministers of South Main Baptist Church, a wonderful congregation where my husband served as Senior Pastor for almost 17 years. I asked the group if there were any special hymns that they might want arranged for their congregation, and Dr. Steve Wells, Senior Pastor, immediately said, "Be Thou My Vision." I began to tell them about my experience 16 years ago, and just sort of left the idea at the table. 

In January (or so), I awoke one morning, and because I had just completed a project, I knew it was time to begin another. On this particular morning, I had an urgency to arrange Be Thou My Vision. I began listening to Celtic music, about which I knew very little, but thankfully, I know a little more now. I researched the hymn and looked at the notation for instruments that are generally considered appropriate for Celtic ensembles. I listened and researched for a day or so, and then I took a deep breath. Onward...

I looked at the text of this Irish beautiful. Funny...the Old Gaelic translation is nothing like the familiar text of today. Hmm....this hymn has evolved over time, becoming more poetic and beautiful with the lyrics of Eleanor Hull (1912).

The next step was called, "See what you can do, Earlene." I just started "playing" at the keyboard, with various combinations of instruments to see which ones I liked the best. I put these instruments together for an entire verse of Be Thou My Vision. It sounded pretty cool to me. I liked it. Then I sent an mp3 file to Dr. Carey Cannon, Minister of Music at South Main. He liked it. We talked through a plan for the arrangement. What do we want to say? How can we say it? When will it be effective in the church schedule? Where will this journey take us? Can we get home again? Do we have the forces to bring about the product?

South Main is filled with musical talent. It is almost an "if you need it, we have it" type of congregation. I really wanted to use members of the church in this arrangement, so I wrote parts specifically for the musicians I had seen in worship videos.
Most of my musical issues with arrangements are solved by "thinking about them," but with this arrangement and the instruments, there was so much to think about! Strings enjoy playing in "sharp keys." Keyboardists do not like playing in "sharp keys." The range of the melody for Be Thou My Vision is an 8va + a fourth. In order to have congregational participation, the melody did not need to be too high or too low. Then....if I have a modulation, where does it go? When does it happen? Is it necessary?

I finally began the arrangement in the Key of F (considering the Soprano range). I had an outstanding guitarist (Brad Jernberg), and barre chords were no problem. Carey assured me that the woodwind part was covered. As I wrote the arrangement, I preferred simplicity, with simplicity growing to a glorious "High King of Heaven" verse. We gradually added instruments in the introduction, and we gradually added the voices once the singing began. Imitation was used in the second verse, and then I needed to do something dramatic as we headed into "High King of Heaven." I decided to modulate, but the modulation was "eating my lunch." I could not go to a higher key (the melody would go to a high G), so I selected the Key of E. I was just going to go down a half step. Simple? Not so much. I had not thought the fact that I was in the Key of F, and I needed to get to the Dominant 7th of  the Key of E.....that's a B7 chord. The only problem is that B natural is a tritone from F!! Eeck!!! I worked with it for several days until my head was pounding. Carey suggested the Key of D for the last verse after the modulation. The congregation would be a bit "low," but the truth is that the lowest note of the melody did not last too long, and it moved quickly to other singable notes. I decided to use the Soprano and Tenors in a high territura so that the key would appear to be higher. That was my strategy.

One awful thing happened in the modulation. Steve Wells had a horrible freeway accident on his way to work, and his prognosis was questionable for a while. At that point, the entire piece became a prayer for Steve's healing. Greg Funderburk (another minister from South Main) and Carey had gone to the ambulance to assist, and Steve told Greg to have a sermon ready for Sunday. That statement really "took me back" a couple of years. I had also been in an ambulance with a preacher, they are constantly thinking about "the next sermon!" Unreal!!

My late husband's goal after a cancer diagnosis was that he always wanted to get back in the pulpit. That was "it" for him, up until a week or so before he died. Bill wanted his "September lungs" back. As my friend Bill Treadwell had told me before I married Bill Turner, "Being married to a minister is 'different,' because that man belongs to God." Although I had issue with that statement being exclusive, I found out that the statement was absolutely true. The pulpit is home for a minister. That space is holy. It is the place where ministers are given the distinct, awesome privilege of speaking to a group of people every week for 30 minutes (or so) who (for the most part) actually listen, seeking to hear something that will shape their lives in some way. The ministry is a lifestyle, not just a profession. And...God is the one who calls ministers into this unusual lifestyle.

I was reacquainted with all of these memories, and I went back and changed much of the arrangement (Be Thou My Vision) to be a constant prayer for the healing of my friend Steve. He's getting better day by day, for which I am grateful, and this anthem was performed on March 3, 2019 at South Main for "Pledge Sunday," a special service devoted to the collection of commited financial pledges for the coming year. It is the way a ministry team can calculate the amount of funding allotted to various programs for God's work at home and abroad.

I am really not sure exactly how Spirit "works." I just know that Spirit is alive and willing in the world, and sometimes I am given the distinct honor of being involved in some way. For that privilege, I say a humble "thank you." It was an honor to write this arrangement...even with all of its challenges. Please listen to the electronic version of "Be Thou My Vision," or go to South Main's Media Page for March 3, 2019 (choral performance); 22:15 minute mark. Enjoy!!