Monthly archives "March 2016"

TAO April 2016–Spring Gardening

At last, it’s spring, my favorite time of the year. I love everything about it. Easter is behind us. The days are getting longer. Things are warming up. It’s gardening season, and I’ve been planning all winter. Are you a gardener? If you aren’t, you are missing one the great things in life. Digging in the soil, enriching it with fertilizer, planting the bulbs and seeds that will soon blossom into gorgeous flowers, all bring us closer to the glory of God’s creation. This year, I am replacing several underperforming roses with new, vibrant ones. Yes, spring gardening is the best, and I can hardly wait to get started.
After my day’s work, I love to take walks along the paths that meander under the canopy of trees, sit by the charming little stream, cross the little foot bridge that leads up the rise where I can rest for a while. The view of the valley beyond is my favorite place to dream. My dream garden has now expanded to five acres with a gardener to help me keep up with it. There is no end to what the two of us can accomplish. He does most of the work. No, he does all the work. On a corner lot. In the middle of the city. While I am working. At church. No five acres, either.
Most of us are much too busy for all-consuming hobbies. Maybe we can get to them later. But we must dream anyway. After all, we are artists, and music is our dream. The bench we dream on is not at the top of any hill—it’s in the sanctuary. The view from there is mostly old bulletins and piles of music. We have work to do. It’s how we work that counts. There is never enough time to learn the notes, much less to drift off into a dream. What if we can combine the two for a better product?
We come to our music rehearsals from many different places: offices, traffic snarls, and people problems, to name a few. I don’t have to tell you that it takes a while to get into the right frame of mind for music making. A few scales, and we’re off to the first piece. I invite you to stop right there. Before the first note, ask yourself one simple question: “What is this piece about?” Your inner gardener wants you to dig a little deeper. Let the music score be your guide to discovering possibilities that might not be immediately apparent. Invite the notes on the page to reveal the reason they are there. Let your exploration draw you into the meaning of the music itself.
Score study is one of the keys to musical insight. It is a tool for engaging with the music. It can save you time on the pathway to better performances. Score study is the fertilizer of music. Forgive me.
Last month we looked at ideas for fingering. Let’s look at rhythm today. Our first music teachers taught us to write in the counts and to count aloud. Sometimes, that’s all we have to do. So, don’t be lazy. “Just do it,” as they say. This will get you a long way toward rhythmically accurate performance. But, there is more to music than mechanical perfection. Music imitates life. Life is motion. Music wants to create a sense of forward motion, and rhythm is the engine. The question we must ask is how best to make the music move. You might like to consider your old friends in the articulation world. Who doesn’t have an old piece with your teacher’s markings in it? Dig one up and marvel at the forest of staccatos, accents, and tenutos (-) they left behind. How did they ever know what to tell you? Much of music is instinctive. To perform music well, it is important that to understand the reasons for their markings. So, it’s your turn to ponder the mysteries of note grouping, which is the diction of the organ. One friend to help us along the way is James. M. Thurmond’s Note Grouping: A Method for Achieving Expression and Style in Musical Performance (Meredith Music Publications, 1991). Thurmond’s little volume is a short course in practical music making. He demonstrates how to organize two- and three-note motifs into larger units that will clarify sound for the listener. While it sounds complex, the ideas are so simply presented, that a few pages from this book have life-changing potential for anyone who picks it up.
Coming from the same stream as Note Grouping, but moving in the opposite direction, is The Rhythmic Structure of Music (University of Chicago Press, 1963). The granddaddies of rhythmic wisdom, Leonard Meyer and Grosvenor Cooper, show us how the workings of rhythm are interrelated layers that build on top of each other. Simple patterns are repeated and varied. They are organized in regularly occurring groups. These phrases are organized in larger sections that contribute to the dynamic progress of the music as it moves toward its conclusion. Meyer and Cooper offer us a way of thinking visually about the physicality of music-the rhythm. Their method invites us to think more deeply about our craft.
To dig a little deeper is opening ourselves to think about music differently. What is the overall form of the piece? How does each phrase help build or hold back the progress of the sound as it moves to the finish line? Let the answers to these questions emerge from the music itself. As you gain more insight, mark the score. If you are shy about marking up your expensive music, make a study score. You don’t have to do a complete study of every piece. There is so much you can gain from even the first steps into the world of score study. Thinking with a pencil is one way of building your capacity to communicate better the beauty you find in front of you.
There is no end to the depth and richness these materials contain. But I don’t want to bury you with them. We have to remember that bulbs once buried in darkness send up tentative green shoots and then burst into bloom. I want your spring gardening to be as joyous for you as it is for me. Make some tentative steps toward score study. Let yourself be drawn into the exploration, and expect something beautiful to bud. Remember, we are not really the gardeners. We are the flowers in the garden. Let yourself bloom into glorious sound—sound that radiates the Love that planted us there. Fleurs-en-chamade, anyone?