Wednesday, January 27, 2010


This term, for 8 weeks, I am teaching a general education course to liberal arts (not music) students at Wheaton College. Three days a week I get to step into a classroom with about 40 students, and introduce them to music through an historical and chronological survery of western art music. My goal in the course is to help the students articulate their perception of music (all music they hear) in objective terms, not necessarily technical terms. To understand the main elements of music, how to hear them, how to understand the ways they interrelate and are perceived. And how to tell others more about music than "that's boring" or "it's so cool!"

And it's a good exercise for me, as well. To think about these things in ways that I often take for granted helps me also better prepare for my weekly choir rehearsal. To go back and listen to music that is no longer part of my daily diet, is a treat. We are now in the Baroque era, which is about where most of my listening begins. So to have spent time, in preparation and in class, with earlier music was a lot of fun, and refreshing.

The text I'm using highlights a few composers from each historical era. Rightly so, even if that is limiting and a bit misleading. In the Baroque, it is Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach - the big boys. How fun to introduce the names, the music, the stories.

Of course, the class is mixed. There are students there who have played piano for 14 years, and came up through choirs and orchestras. And there are students who have never seen a printed piece of music. Some are of course there only because it is a requirement, and mine is the time it fits in their schedules. They have my sympathy - I also had the gen ed hurdle to clear as an undergraduate. So I try to make it interesting for a widely disparate crowd, and that too has some bearing on my work as a planner of public worship.

I wouldn't (I can't) take on a course like this on a regular basis. But it has some merit for re-orienting in my "day job." And it is a lot of fun. Today I get to play Vivaldi and Bach for the class, walk them through the Contrapunctus I from "Art of the Fugue," and ask the question, "what does music mean?" If it fails to enrich the students' lives, it will mine, and my work.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Marathon

This morning, a kindly intentioned staff colleague asked me if preparations for Easter begin this week. Hello? I just got in from a week's vacation following the hurricane that is December! Can someone cut me some slack here?

But, of course, yes we will begin some preparation for Easter, this week. It's what we do ...

Forget, for the moment, if I can, that we also have our rather significant annual missions festival in February. And it is no one else's fault but mine own that I will be teaching a general education music appreciation course for 8 weeks, beginning next week. No one needs to remind me that we do these things to ourselves.

In the normal course of music ministry, we run 2 marathons each year: from fall kickoff to Christmas, and from January to Easter. About 16 weeks of "training" and a short season of long-distance exertion. The weekly rehearsals and services are like the training schedule: routine workouts, regular efforts, the occasional extra workout, the lengthening long run. And then, race day (or race week, or race month, depending on the season). And when the event is done, one goes back to "normal;" there are those weekly workouts and regular efforts.

I'm a cyclist, myself, so until recently I've only heard about this training schedule. (Cycling has its own analog, but fewer people relate to it.) But this year, though I am no runner, the Easter marathon is smack in the center of an actual running marathon for which I am now in training. My first. Could be my only. (I'm a cyclist, myself.) Regardless, it could hardly be less conveniently placed in my life schedule. But there it is, and I put it there. I mention it today just because the nature of the coming season - we are always on to "the next thing" - was unintentionally forced on me this morning.

And it reminds me of the comment I heard long ago, about church choir members. They, it was said, are the marathon runners in our music ministries. They put in the long hours, week after week, and when it comes time race time, there they are. I have since celebrated them for it. Now, for the first time, I'm going to get an up-close and personal look at what that metaphor is really about!