Planning everything

Musicians are usually noted for being free spirits, doing things by the “seat of their pants” and not always planning and organizing well. But, when you take time to plan out things, it makes for smoother, well planned rehearsals, smoother, well planned performances and less frustration overall.

I was reminded of this over the past weekend, being at a handbell festival and a children’s choir festival. At the handbell festival, the clinician, Michael Glasgow, encouraged directors to be teaching their groups what to do with music, specifically dynamics. When you are not prepared for rehearsals, and flying by the seat of your pants, dynamics, or other important musical details get left out. At the children’s festival, I was reminded of how every minute of the time needs to be planned and prepared so that there is no opportunities for boredom or talking to take over.

Both of these and many more items like this I have struggled with over my years in being a director. I have sat down and made a plan, but either didn’t completely lay it out as thoroughly as it needed to be, or just skipped over what I planned out.

You may be a director reading this and saying, “Gee, these are great ideas. I can’t wait to start them in the fall. We’re almost to Easter, and I am trying to cram everything in now!” That would have typically been my response reading a blog post like this. But I am going to challenge myself, and I challenge you, director who is reading this, to sit down and plan out your rehearsal. Sit down with your music, circle dynamics, melodic lines, vowels, consonants, whatever you need to accentuate, and integrate those into your rehearsals.

The blessing for me is that I’m starting on new music with my children’s choir, youth choir and handbell choir. I’ve spent some time planning and preparing, but I know that before our rehearsals I need to spend even more time being as detail oriented as I can. The success of the group depends on the musical ability of your group, yes, but it also depends on how you as the director lead, guide and direct your group. If they don’t play dynamics well, double check that you are teaching them correctly. And then, (the part I really struggle with!) don’t have low expectations! If you have an expectation for a forte sound, don’t stop until you get your forte sound!

You can do it just as much as I can do it. I’ve been directing for 14 years now in many capacities, and I know that I am far from the answers that I need. But that is part of the journey. We all must continue to seek opportunity to improve as directors. For the sake of our groups, for making excellent music, and because it is our role as directors to be the best that we can be!

Perspective Shift

I had the opportunity to take my handbell choir to a festival. It was amazing. But personally, it was exactly what I needed. Here’s why. I got to ring handbells. It refocused me and brought me back to that 5th grade boy who would be trekked early to school because there was an opportunity to play handbells.

As directors, many of us don’t have the opportunity or make time to participate in an ensemble, be it a vocal or instrumental group. We’re consumed with preparing our conducting patterns, preparing for rehearsals, putting out fires, and making the music sound somewhat musical. After this event, I feel so inspired and challenged just because of a little perspective shift.

I’ve found this to be a challenge as a church musician. When it comes to playing the organ, I’m preparing for services, not really investing time in “fun” pieces, taking me back to what drew me in to playing the organ. Same thing with the piano. There are only so many hours in a day, and I can come up with plenty of excuses or reasons, legitimate or not as to why I don’t shift that perspective from time to time. But, when you do, it is worth it, it challenges you and gives you a better and deeper insight!

Selling the song

I caught up on The Voice from Wednesday night and there was a country singer who sang “Working Man Blues” by Merle Haggard. He sang well, but the judges picked up on what I heard as well. It wasn’t believable. The singer tried to sing the song like a “new country” song and it didn’t fit.

When we sing a song, we tell a story. Some songs are much easier to relate to than others, but no matter what, you have to sell the story of the song. That is what takes the notes off of the page and makes them music!

When we sing words and we sing a story, there has to be a believability to what comes out of our mouth. Singing is much more than the notes that come out of our mouth. The story is told on our face, in our eyes, through the expression on our face. No matter whether you are singing a solo or in a choir, sell the meaning of the song! And for goodness sake, if you’re going to sing the blues, try to make it have a little more sadness and weightiness in your singing. That will give you a bit more believability.

Silence

As a musician, I find myself regularly surrounded by music and noise. And that isn’t a bad thing. I do enjoy it, whether it is me making music, children making music, adults making music or if I am listening to music to prepare for a rehearsal, or listening to music for enjoyment. Also, having a nearly 6 year old and 3 year old daughters, I’m surrounded by their music that they listen to and their singing as well.

But there are times when I am struck by the peace and comfort that come from silence. After a long day of music and noise, while my wife and daughters sleep, sitting at the kitchen table, reflecting on the day, the only noise is the bells on the collars of our cats and the pitter patter of their paws. Or whether it is waking up at 5 AM and sitting and enjoying the quiet as well.

I think that sometimes we overnoise and overmusic ourselves. If you go to a grocery store or shopping, you hear music. You go to Starbucks, there is music. To retreat from the world, many people go to…..music. And believe me, as a musician, I think that is fantastic. And most definitely beneficial. But there is something strong, powerful and uncomfortable about silence.

Silence gives us time to ponder, to contemplate and reflect. It gives us time to process our thoughts, to focus and be at peace. When we listen to music, even in the background, we are not as reflective as we could be. We are not as focused as we could be.

So if you’re up for a challenge, try a minute of silence. Try three minutes. Try five or ten minutes. Or more. See what the silence does for you. It’s uncomfortable. It’s quiet. But that’s the point. It gives you a time to process and reflect. Even in music, there are times of silence. Why shouldn’t there be in life?

What’s the best style?

Rock, jazz, country, rap, classical, reggae, blues, instrumental. These are all styles of music that many like or dislike. Nothing inherently is right or wrong with any of these styles of music. They are all music, subject to the rules and tendencies of music and composition. But, each style resonates differently with individuals, based on amount of time spent listening to the music, personal connection to the music and many other factors.

My father is a retired pastor, so I grew up listening to plenty of church music. But, there were other styles of music that we had around the house. I listened to The Kingston Trio, Fats Domino, Andy Williams and other records. We had Alabama, Johnny Cash, George Strait and Randy Travis cassettes. And I regularly watched MTV and listened to Top 40 radio. So what is my favorite style of music to listen to? It depends on my mood.

Music used in worship is similar. Throughout the past 40+ years, there has been an argument whether or not using the organ or a worship band type of style is better or worse. As in how people connect to various styles of music, the music used in worship is going to connect differently for each person. It does not make one better or worse than another, but they are different. To denigrate one style because it is not the style that you are used to or resonates with you best is absolutely uncalled for. One of the great things about God’s creation is that it is so diverse. Look at all of the animals, or plants, or even the variety that is visible in humankind! If there is so much diversity, why can’t and shouldn’t there be diversity in how the creator of that diversity is worshiped?

Personally, I am finding myself leaning toward jazz music again, but also, because I am a father of two young daughters who love music, I am aware of how they are connecting to music. The funny thing is, they are both starting to make up their own songs more often than not. So they are creating their own unique style. And I think that is quite acceptable.

The work and joy of making music

All along my musical journey, I have hated practicing. Hated. Loathed. Detested. I never wanted to practice. Somewhere along the way, I realized that while music is fun to make and can bring joy to yourself and others, it is work.

Whether it is practicing, learning music theory, working at bettering yourself as a songwriter, music composer, or whatever musical task you take on, it will be work. But, if you keep working at it, you will see improvements and growth.

A big part of practicing and that work leads to experience and a comfort level with the music, with the instrument you are playing, and will lead to you being a more confident musician. Last night, I was watching The Voice, and I was struck by 2 girls, one who was 16 and the other was 17. Neither had vocal training, outside of singing in school choirs. Both had unique voices, but neither was selected. Were they less talented than the 28 year old female or 37 year old male that were selected? Maybe, maybe not. But the older singers had sung in other bands and had put in the work. Both of the girls who were not selected were encouraged to put in work and try again.

Practicing never is fun. But, when you are passionate about what you are doing and feel called to do it, you find motivation and justification to put in the time. I know that God has called and made me to make music. I really can’t do anything else. And so, even though I still hate practicing, I know that if I want to be the best musician that I can be, I have to practice.

The name of Jesus

I had the opportunity to have Todd Agnew in concert last night. It was an amazing opportunity, and one of the things that he mentioned in his concert really stuck with me. He was relating a story about sharing songs that he wrote with his wife. After asking her questions about what she specifically liked about the songs she said were her favorite, she said it was because they had the name of Jesus.

Recently, I have come across articles shared that bash “contemporary” worship, and one specifically bashing Chris Tomlin. While there still are songs out there that make you question whether or not they are singing about God, Jesus or their boyfriend/girlfriend, when it comes to worship songs, there has been a growth and a maturity in songwriting since the somewhat simplistic songs written in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The song that Todd sang after sharing it was one of my favorites, “My Jesus”.

Todd is a very gifted songwriter, asking challenging questions, and wrestling with the challenges that we face in our lives. Instead of focusing on the things that we think are lacking or the things that we think are negatives in worship, let us lift up and encourage those who are writing songs that lift up the name of Jesus and ask challenging questions as well as wrestle with the challenges that we face in this world.

Improving

I came across this short little video by Ira Glass, host of This American Life. He talks about books, but I think it can be connected to writing or making music, as well as any creative outlet.

Initially, when you start making music, you don’t have the best sound. If you’re playing an instrument, you are usually not that great in range or tone quality. Or musicianship. And over time, if you fight your way through the desire to quit, through that feeling that you now it isn’t where you want to be, you will get to where you want to be. But it will take work. But, it is quite easy to get discouraged and give up.

The same thing holds true for writing music. I can remember back in music theory classes in college, we had to harmonize a melody. My harmonizations were so boring, so lifeless, and full of parallel octaves and fifths, which is a no-no. But, over time, I kept working at it, learning through hearing, and learning rules and best ways to create music. Am I perfect at it? No, but I keep working at it, and each composition I make, I hear improvements, big or small.

Music is not easy. Creating music or learning music takes work and discipline. But, when you kee at it, you get to this place where you realize that what you are making actually sounds musical. More than that, it sounds good. And that is an amazing feeling to have! So keep working at it! Don’t give up!!