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!!