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Posts from — May 2011

Living in mixed meter

First orchestral skills lesson: Counting is King.

For harpists playing in an orchestra, counting is also most of the job. We get our nice moments, but funny how they turn ugly if you’re off by half a beat. I can remember more than a few rehearsals of counting for a couple hours and playing less than 10 measures.

Over time you learn ways to double-check your counting and to recover from those “Oh no, I forgot if I was on the third or fourth group of 20 measures of rest” moments. You mark in good cues and make friends with the nearest stand of violins in case you need to lean over to scan their part. You learn to love a big ritardando and clear downbeat.

But sometimes you can’t depend on the usual miscount-recovery methods. Playing in a changing mixed meter, for example.

In an early orchestral disaster, I didn’t really practice a part because it looked like just a bunch of single eighth notes. In the first rehearsal, I realized that playing single eighth notes isn’t difficult. Placing them correctly in shifting bars of 5 and 7 beats, on the other hand . . .

It was an embarrassing hour of unexpected solos and annoyed stares.

I remember rehearsing a contemporary piece with a particularly thorny mixed-meter passage. None of the players really knew how the thing should sound. But as we were all ending at different times, it was obviously not what we were playing. The conductor’s exasperation was mounting by the measure.

Finally he threw up his hands. “Don’t try to feel it! Don’t listen to each other! Don’t be musical! Just count!” It worked – or, at least, we ended together.

Takeaway: in mixed meter, counting isn’t just king. It’s your lifeline.

It’s you in the practice room, mouthing the beats as you drill along with the metronome; and then it’s you on stage, pretending no one else is there while you count religiously and play your eighth notes.

Waiting for the big downbeat doesn’t work. In fact, conductors often move into a “mini-me” kind of pattern when the counting gets really tough. They know players have to just concentrate and count to make it through, so they make their beats smaller and less obvious until the meter quiets down.

Sometimes life feels like it’s passing by in mixed meter. Maybe it’s a series of difficulties, or an emotional rollercoaster, or simply a time when I don’t sense God’s presence.

There are times in every Christian’s life when God doesn’t provide clear downbeats.

And sometimes my way of dealing with these spells has been to try listening for or feeling God’s presence — to wait for the big downbeat. But simply trying to “feel it” results in bigger trainwrecks and a greater lack of confidence. As in music, if I abandon counting — on truths, on promises, on commands clearly outlined for us in Scripture — I’m in trouble.

My analogy breaks in places. I don’t think that when life gets dicey we’re commanded to lock ourselves in a room and stop listening to people around us. And there’s clear precedent to implore that God to make Himself known when we feel abandoned.

But all the while, I need to count and play — trusting that God is at the helm. At the right time, the clear downbeat will return.


May 31, 2011   No Comments

The business of fiction

“It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.”

-Flannery O’Connor, Mystery & Manners


May 29, 2011   No Comments

Cafe Hopping (5/27)

Weekly roundup of (mostly) arts-related chatter around the web:


May 27, 2011   No Comments

The world didn’t end, so . . .

Sojourn Music is discounting their last three albums for only $5 / each:

  • The Water And The Blood: The Hymns Of Isaac Watts, Volume Two
  • The War/The Mercy Seat (double EP featuring worship leaders Jamie Barnes & Brooks Ritter)
  • Over The Grave: The Hymns Of Isaac Watts, Volume One

All other Sojourn albums are $6 each.

Meanwhile, over at Worship Together, you can download music for 10 free modern hymns. Included on the list is Stuart Townend’s Beautiful Savior, an old favorite I was reminded of this past weekend while visiting City Grace New York, my brother Steve’s church in Greenwich Village:

May 24, 2011   No Comments

Telling secrets

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . . . ”

– Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets


May 22, 2011   No Comments

Cafe Hopping (5/20)



May 20, 2011   No Comments

How do you see music?

One of life’s curiosities is learning how different people see music. Not hear music. See it.

This has become increasingly fascinating to me since starting to teach. Some people come up with elaborate story imagery to explain their pieces; others tend to describe their music using abstract ideas or colors.

Generally I “hear” in terms of emotions or memories. I don’t usually imagine storylines or pictures when hearing or playing music. But curiously, sometimes when I see a piece of artwork or experience certain emotions, I’ll hear music.

I also have kind-of perfect pitch (kind-of because it’s accurate for piano and certain instruments, but less reliable with voices or anything with a wide vibrato), so often I’ll “see” solfege notes (i.e. do, re, mi . . .) in my mind. It’s definitely been helpful for listening quizzes, dictation, and recovering from pedal mistakes, but honestly there are times I’d be happy to turn it off if I could.

I wonder if this is how people with color-sound synesthesia feel. While seeing colors with music seems like a cool condition to have, I can imagine it might get tiresome after awhile . . . say, if you saw fireworks every time a doorbell rang. Anyways, this video is a fascinating look at the experiences of color-sound synesthetes:

Also interesting is the development of software that attempts to create music visualizations. I can only imagine this will become more popular as cross-disciplinary artistic collaborations increase. See, for example:

From co-creator Abstract Birds: Partitura is a custom software to generate realtime graphics aimed at visualising sound. The term “Partitura” (score) implies a connection with music, and this metaphor is the main focus of the project. Partitura aims to create a new system for translating sound into visual forms. Inspired by the studies of artists such as Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oscar Fischinger and Norman McLaren, the images generated by Partitura are based on a precise and coherent system of relationships between various types of geometries.

I’d really like to know: do you “see” music? If so, has how you see music changed over time?


May 18, 2011   1 Comment

Inspiration & Influence: Competitions


This past weekend, my brother Joe won Google Games Seattle with a few of his computer science friends. He scored a new smartphone, but didn’t even bring me back a sticker. Where’s the sibling love?

Anyways, as he was describing the puzzles he and his teammates had to solve, I was thinking about how different his competition was from those in the music world. Figuring out the winners for Google Games was as easy as seeing which team finished solving the puzzles first.

Alas, in the music world, it’s not a matter of who can play their Chopin etude the fastest (well . . . ok . . . maybe sometimes it seems like it is). The person who hits the most correct notes isn’t necessarily the winner.

There’s that whole matter of Personal Interpretations. You never know what the judges might like from one day to another. Have the same panel listen to the same competitors playing the same pieces two days in a row, and they very well might choose a different winner each day. I can understand that, because I am not exactly the same each morning. My general tastes may stay the same, but what moves me today might leave me cold the next.

Then there’s also student-teacher politics, personal repertoire likes and dislikes, and all those other things that make music competitions so messy.

For some, the nonexistence of a perfectly fair way to determine a winner of a music competition is reason enough not to enter any. Furthermore, even winning a major one hardly guarantees a successful career these days.

While I don’t think competitions are necessary for everyone pursuing a musical profession, I do consider competitions among the most memorable and influential experiences in my own artistic development. Among the most important lessons I’ve learned:

Higher standards of excellence

Everyone who enters a competition wants to win (if someone says they don’t, they’re either lying or crazy), and that naturally whets a desire for excellence. Yes, we’re supposed to try our best at everything we do. But what competitions can do is help us realize new levels of “best.” Competition preparation has taught me to listen more carefully, to be tougher on myself, and to find ever more efficient ways of ensuring consistent accuracy.

Mental strength

Competitions push your mental strength at every stage: Planning your preparation. Learning and memorizing the repertoire. Practicing and performing. The actual competition. Even processing and pressing on post-competition — win or lose — takes mental tenacity. Learning to handle the level of concentrated focus a competition requires will benefit you in many areas of life.

Appreciation for new / different music

My philosophy is to only enter competitions if I like most of the required music. But often, especially with bigger competitions, the repertoire list will include works that are unfamiliar or even completely new (i.e. written for the competition). As a result, sometimes you’re forced to live longer with certain pieces than you might normally choose. In some cases this extra time fosters deeper understanding and appreciation for a different style of music.

In other cases . . . well, you’ll always feel like you’re looking for gems in a trash heap; and making the best of that is a whole art in itself!

May 17, 2011   No Comments

Flying in the face of presumptions

airport color

“Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions, and some of the most interesting experiments of which it is capable are hidden in the bosom of common things.”

– Henry James, The Art of Fiction


May 15, 2011   No Comments

John Piper Coffee


Occasionally I like seeing what search terms people use to find this blog. Some make for a good laugh:

  • Typical wow player
  • Orange idea
  • Strict parents
  • Fear of the sponge
  • Mutual magic massage
  • How to tell if you are a nerd
  • Shepherd triplets
  • Beethoven saves Christmas


Yesterday, the Term of the Day was “John Piper Coffee.” I got to wondering what this person was trying to find. A sermon on why God is glorified when we drink coffee? Piper’s recommendations for caffeine intake?

Or maybe this person thinks John Piper has pulled a David Lynch and introduced his own line of joe.

David Lynch Coffee

What if . . .

John Piper Signature Cup
(Click for larger image)

Could be the new drink of choice for the Restless Reformed.

Enjoy your weekend.


May 14, 2011   4 Comments