"Here in America people think that music must bring only pleasure, must entertain. That, of course, is not so, especially if you are a professional. Music also brings suffering and a sense of your own insignificance. It's not always comfortable to be one-on-one with it. That's why it's more pleasant to listen to music in a concert along with an audience."

-from "Balanchine's Tchaikovsky"

Music Education

We live in a world where people live as if 2 +2 = 5, yet a math teacher would never teach such a thing. However, many music teachers seem fine with letting the brokenness of a culture into their classroom as if it is a good thing. Truth has left music more than it has any other subject. We do not need poor quality pieces in the music classroom. It hinders progress from understanding the true beauty of music. Teachers are using "pop" music and justifying it by saying it holds an audience's attention or it hooks their students. But If you use it to get students interested in music or interested in playing an instrument, you'll have to continue to use it to keep them in the program. Instead, shouldn't we teach them how to struggle through not always connecting with something instantly? Shouldn't we teach them how to find the wonderful layers that great music has? That is what will lead to a deeper love. To quote Stravinsky: 

"The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead."

Culture is like soil, in that it has layers and layers of death. The problem is that it is shallow, not deep soil. When a beautiful seed, such as "classical" music falls on it, it can take no root. Not teaching students how to listen to true music is like dropping seeds that will never stand a chance of growing into anything great. First, we must till the soil and prepare them for how to love great and beautiful things. It starts in the music classroom.  


People are hungry for substance, yet they don’t know it because they are filled with so much entertainment. We live in an entertainment culture that seeks comfort and surface level consumption.  So many experiences capture our attention, but they lack enduring substance. In other words, these experiences leave us unchanged.

In a recent trumpet lesson, I played a video of Leonard Bernstein conducting a piece I wanted the student to hear.  My student commented on how much she was enjoying watching him conduct.  I told her about his Young People’s Concerts and the lectures he gave to help people grasp the substance in classical music.  It then dawned on me how much I miss having this kind of man in today’s world.  It seems that even if a program like this were broadcast today, most would still choose reality TV shows, or other entertainment that lacks integrity.  Even audiences that attend concerts expect to be entertained.  This saddens me greatly! I have even been a part of conversations that center around how composers can better grab the attention of the audience and appeal to this type of an attitude.  I think conversations like this go in the wrong direction.  Perhaps instead of finding ways to give in to this entertainment-seeking attitude, we should take a stand and simply focus on providing the best music and the most musical performances possible. Entertainment allows people to escape how bored and stressed they are for an hour and then return to their lives no better than before they entered the music hall. However, well-done performances of quality music can feed hungry souls and bring reality into people’s lives. This must be our main focus.

The entertainment-seeking attitude should not be encouraged and I believe it shows love to take a stand on this issue.  Why? Well, it goes back to my first sentence.  People desire substance. People desire an experience that not only stays with them, but also changes them. It is a deep desire and is one that may only be discovered when the entertainment is stripped away.

I desire greatly for our culture to change in this area. If you feel the same, take heart that you are not alone.

I write music to feed hungry souls, not to entertain people on the way to their grave.

"Why, it has often occurred to me to ask myself, do I so frequently choose death, transience, and the grave as subjects for my paintings? One must submit oneself many times to death in order some day to attain life everlasting."

-Caspar David Friedrich

Performances This Week

There will be two performances this week, including a world premiere!

My piece, Through Wind and Whispers, will have it's premiere in Europe at Bath Spa University under the direction of Jeff Boehm on Wednesday. Wish I could be there!

Davis Middle School will premiere my piece, On A Hill Far Away, this Thursday at their 8th grade concert.  This piece was written in honor of the band director's mother who past away last year.  I've gotten to work with the students each week in preparation for the concert and it has been a joy.  I must say, my favorite pieces are the ones with a dedication written on the top of the page. 

Enjoying the longing and tension

“Learning to hear passing dissonances in counterpoint, for instance, made me more attentive to (and thus in greater control of) subtle dissonances arising in other areas of experience. (the most conspicuous example is writing.) More generally, the ‘inner dancing’ involved in listening naturally suggests ‘moving well’ in life. Similarly, the organic development of a theme evident in symphonic music, or the culmination of a tension toward climax in a jazz solo, are images of motional possibilities that are akin to configurations that arise in practical life…The symphonic development of a theme brings to mind the possibility that I can take a longer view of my relationship to any particular project, that perhaps I am making progress even when my particular hours of effort seem ungratifying. Or when a project is moving comfortably forward, music of admirable complexity can suggest the possibility of organization on multiple, often subtle levels”

-Kathleen Marie Higgins, The Music of Our Lives

Through Wind and Whispers

My dissertation, Through Wind and Whispers, is scheduled for a performance at Michigan State University on March 17th.  My former students sent a picture from the day of the first rehearsal for the piece. I can't express how excited I am to hear the performance!

A little background about the birth of this piece...

I often think of dissonance and chromaticism as a metaphor for the brokenness in this life.  Chromaticism in music can be used to move into a center pitch or it can be used to move away from a center pitch.  I liken this to suffering and spirituality.  Suffering can serve good purposes as it drives us and keeps us on the path to God.  It can teach us to place our ultimate hope on the only One who is stable and everlasting.  Chromaticism and dissonance threaten to take us away from the center pitch, just as evil and suffering threaten to take us away from our ultimate good. However, dissonance can also serve the purpose of strengthening our sense of a center pitch, just as God can use suffering to give us more of His presence.

Consonance and dissonance are not equal opposites, but opposition still exists in terms of stability.  I believe we can think of them as opposites since they have different characteristics, however I do not consider them equal and independent forces just as I do not believe good and evil are equal forces. It is a paradox.  The interesting characteristic about dissonance is its ability to strengthen the sense of a home pitch if it is used in a certain way.  This is most clearly displayed in our common-practice period, or in the classical style, when consonance and dissonance are interwoven.  In this style, there is a constant sense of tension and release as the harmony leaves tonic and then returns.

In the 20th century, music with no tonal center is born.  With this music, chromaticism threatens to take away tonality as it moves away from a central pitch in a way that declares tonic as non-existent.  There is no longer a hierarchy of chords, therefore dissonance no longer has a tension and release function. 

In my dissertation I try to embody these two aspects of harmony in two separate themes: one that has a strong melodic profile with a harmony that represents light (consonance) and one that lacks a distinct melodic profile with a harmony that represents darkness (dissonance).  Throughout the work I mold these two together to reveal a transformed theme. Which theme does the transforming? The one with the stronger foundation. The one with a clear center pitch breaks in like light into darkness and fills the darker theme with this light. Just as opening a door to a dark room chases the darkness out as light floods into the room.  These themes are not equally opposing themes, therefore there is not a true battle occurring between them other than the battle of birthing pains of transformation and redemption. 

Overall, the piece is a metaphor for sanctification, the story of going in and out of darkness to light. As the piece progresses the theme of light, which I call the “melody of grace”, shines on areas where the dark theme is at odds with it.  Through this process, the dark theme is transformed into something new, beautiful and free.