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To Be Worthy of The Work

Benjamin Britten wrote A Hymn to the Virgin in 1930 when he was just 16 years old and convalescing from an illness at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, England. The masterful simplicity of the work belies the inexperience of a young composer, but its genius has sung through the decades.  I chose to share the recording above because of its simplicity - there’s no fuss, just the music.  I am lucky enough to sing in the semi-chorus of this piece this week at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, a day traditionally full of Marian devotion.  The anonymous text is taken from the Oxford Book of English Verse and is a mixture of Latin and English, with the Latin phrases completing the English ones.  The effect is truly otherworldly.  At our last rehearsal, I had the pleasure of standing next to an outstanding singer whose voice, like many well-trained singers, seemed to emanate from his entire body.  The soprano part I sing is rather low, which is not the strongest part of my range.  And let’s just say I have a hard time “emanating” below A on the treble staff without a fair amount of vibrato which, in this context, wouldn’t be appropriate.  I thought about different vocalizations I could use to help fortify my lower register and began pondering whether or not I could do the piece justice - whether if as a “second-hand” singer I was worthy of the performance.  This thought reminded me of a dream I had a few weeks ago.

Picture it: I was at a job interview and for some reason, Leonard Bernstein was with me.  His presence isn’t too much of a surprise, as I played Chichester Psalms earlier in the season.  Everyone present was dressed “appropriately” in suits and such, but I was wearing a tattered t-shirt and dirty shorts.  I was sure Bernstein would give me hell for being underdressed, but he didn't. I was also completely unprepared for the interview - I didn’t even know why I was there.  I was hoping to play off of whatever Bernstein said.  He completely ignored the fact that I was clueless and we went on with it.

I woke up and thought to myself, “That surely wouldn't have happened in real life.”  Leonard Bernstein had standards that were absolutely stratospheric in scope.  I’ll never forget watching a video of Jose Carreras getting crucified for missing notes and entrances during a recording session for West Side Story. There was no way I would show up for anything with someone like Bernstein or anyone else without being prepared. So what was this all about??  I posted it on Facebook, as I thought it might get some amusing interpretations.  One in particular really struck me: “You don't feel like you are ready or worthy for the work ahead, but a deeper part of you knows that you are!” 

“You don’t feel like you are ready or worthy for the work”…now that’s something to ponder.  The Work - what is The Work?  Is it the music?  Is it the performance itself?  Is it the art?  Is it the liturgy?  Is it the faith behind it?  Is it about me or about the people I’m doing it to/for/because of? 

It is, of course, all of these things in their own, unique combinations and singularities.  It doesn’t matter whether the music is sacred or secular, sung or played.  It doesn’t whether it is played in a cathedral or sung in a corner of a coffee house.  There is something sacred, something spiritual about the music itself.  The combination of pitches in conjunction with the timbre of the instrument in connection with the tempo and flow of the phrase married to the subtle nuance and expression chosen by the performer…all these things matter.  The attention to balance and voicing, the knowledge of the composers intent coupled with the musical culture of their time and our attention to and interpretation of it…these things matter, too.  There is so much to manage and so much riding on how well you manage it.

When we perform at any given venue, some institution has raised hard-earned money to host us in the hopes that people will be attracted to their space and be moved or inspired enough to come back.  No one wants a one-time only audience.  Presenters want and need return customers to survive.  What we provide as performers is not only a representation of ourselves as artists and the music we embody, but a reflection of the host - whoever that may be.  This idea usually invites that idea that we need to entertain the assembled people as if they are ravenous creatures scratching at the edge of the stage for any morsel of food.  And perhaps they are.  But we can’t just throw chocolate chip cookies at them and say, “Enjoy the sweetness!” knowing that they will be hungry again in an hour.  Whether we like it or not, we are in the business of feeding human spirits.  Someone out there is overjoyed to be there.  Someone out there actually hates organ music but came because a friend begged them.  Someone out there is looking for a good time.  Someone out there needs an escape from the world.  Someone out there is following along with a score (egads!) looking to learn something new.  Someone out there really needs to be fed. Without something meaty to carry them on their journey (or beany, if you prefer), they’ll starve and the opportunity of the meal will be wasted.  That meal we provide - The Art - is our responsibility to pass on to the future.

The same responsibility falls on us as church musicians.  The music we choose for congregations to sing and worship to and through is not just sustenance for that one service.  It is prayer, praise, penance, soothing balm, fiery inspiration, education, faithful remembrance, and the presence of God or your Creator and a host of other things that must 1) serve those in attendance, 2) be sustainable for worshippers in the future, and 3) connect with traditions and cultures of the past.  The fact that a hymn introduced to a congregation may follow even one person through their childhood, adolescent rites of passages, maturation into adults, confrontation with mortality, and everything in between is daunting and something that we have to take incredibly seriously.  It’s not enough to provide something that gets them in the door, or makes them excited to be there, or makes them feel happy, or moves them so much that they cry.  The text and the music must be sturdy enough to cover the eventualities of life and beyond and the theology the tradition demands.  If we are responsible for helping to feed someone’s faith, every ingredient of that meal had better be carefully chosen.  That wholesome, juicy steak dinner (or bean pie) not only has to be attractive and smell delicious - it has to last a lifetime and bear a life along with it. 

I had another dream about a week after the Bernstein one.  I was in what was supposed to be a playground, but it looked like a castle made of reddish, jagged stones with giant openings for windows, but without glass.  Outside I could see bright sunshine and puffy clouds floating by.  Each room of the castle had a floor of sand, and most of the rooms had to be entered by traversing some deadly-looking slide made out of clumps of sharp stones stuck together.  “This is insane,” I thought.  “This is the most dangerous looking playground I’ve ever seen.”  To enter into the first room, I had to “slide down” a slope of rock that was barely wide enough for an adult body.  No freaking way.  “There was a time when you would try stuff like this,” my Dream-Self thought.  But I really didn’t want to do it.  It looked like it would take way too much energy and concentration, and my body was tired.  “You’re getting soft.  Pretty soon you’re going to be nothing.”  Did I mention that my Dream-Self is brutal?  I decide to try this Death Slide thing because hey, this is just a dream and the ground underneath is sand and I want to recapture all that courage I had when I was young and fearless.  But I’m sooooo tired.  I get on the slide and before I can even move, some seal-like creature with sticky paws grabs on to me and won’t let go (“Shake off dull sloth” - ha!).  Those sticky, ugly, gray paws are hanging on like crazy glue and start pulling me off the slide.  I’m going falling off and it’s really far down…

I wake up.  Exasperation takes hold - not only because the dream was bizarre, but because it was unfinished and I know exactly what it means.  I’m afraid to fail.  Forget being worthy - I’m not ready.  Or I’m just afraid. I don’t know which is worse.  I am left to ponder these things, but I also remember something else Dream-Self said just before waking up: “Yes, you’re going to fall off.  But it’s just sand, dummy, and it’s just a dream.  You’ll survive, and life will go on.  So get on with it.  We have to get out of here.  There’s more.”

Am I worthy of The Work?  I don’t know.  Some days more than others, perhaps.  Am I ready for The Work?  Same answer.  Is The Work worthy of doing?  You bet your beans.  And besides, my Dream-Self said that there is “more” - who can pass up that invitation?

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Practicing in Public - A Conversation

Several years ago, I was practicing on a Saturday afternoon in preparation for the live performance you hear above.  I was using slow tempi and alternate rhythms to relearn what one of my graduate school friends called the “washing machine section,” which happens about 3 minutes into the recording. 

What are alternate rhythms, you may ask?  Musicians often practice a piece using different rhythms than written in the score in order to hear the music in a different way and get a different physical experience of the piece.  For me, it can be essential to the learning or re-learning process because it helps me to look at a certain section from many different angles.  It also tests my familiarity with the fabric of the music both aurally and physically.

So off I went, starting and restarting, playing crunchy harmonies over and over again, beginning in the middle of phrases, playing pieces and parts out of order, assuming I was the only person in the church that could hear this mess.  After a while, I looked up and saw an elderly member of the church who, I realized, had arrived for his yearly remembrance of the death of his wife.  Every year on this anniversary, he would flip through picture albums and reminisce in the quiet, soft light that filtered through the church windows.  Once I realized who he was and why he was there, I decided to take a break - who wants to listen to slow-practice Messiaen while remembering a loved one?  As I was leaving the nave, he looked up at me with watery eyes and voice and said, “That was beautiful, Nicole.  Really beautiful.”  No, it wasn’t.  It was painful, painstaking noise-making to anyone but me, or so I thought.  What a sweet man.

These situations are unavoidable for organists, as we are rarely afforded the privilege of privacy.  Unless you are slogging it out in a tiny practice room at some college, most of the instruments you play are in VERY public places - churches, concert halls, civic auditoriums - just name any spot where a stranger is bound to walk through at any moment, sometimes holding up a phone to record your every note.  Oh boy.  In music school, we become accustomed to and comforted by the fact that the practice room is our private sanctuary where we are free to fail, flail, and throw chunks of music up against the wall.  It is also a place where we strive, excel, dream, and dare to risk everything we have for that “perfect” phrase (I hate using that word in the context of music, but we DO think it).  And when that rare moment of “perfection” appears, there is always the fear that we may never duplicate the process.  These are very private, very personal moments between a musician and their instrument.  These are intimate sharings and vulnerable bearings of the soul that, on first exposure, we are loath to share with anyone.  But we spend our lives practicing in public, allowing the sexton or the student or the minister to inspect the first draft of an artistic product even before we ourselves have had the chance to reflect on it.  Every brushed note, every missed position shift, every errant pedal combination is on display for the world to hear.  Need I say how incredibly nerve wracking this can be? 

Over the years I have realized that practicing in public is symbolic of life as a musician.  As a teacher, I know that the students are always watching.  They listen to what we say and how we say it.  They watch how we play and how we move.  They note how we work with the instrument, and how we fight with it.  They mostly watch us succeed because we rarely allow them to see anything else, but there are times when they do see us fail.  They can’t always recognize the failure, but they can sense when something has gone awry.  As a performing organist, it is to be expected that your practice sessions will be public and, quite often, noisy.  The church will need to be vacuumed, or the altar guild needs to set up for Sunday, or a repairman needs to bang a hammer somewhere in the nave…the list goes on.  At some point, you simply have to make your peace with the fact that your work-product is constantly on display right along with those vulnerable parts of yourself you need to expose in order to learn something new. 

I love music - teaching it, performing it, and talking about the art of teaching and living as a musician.  I group teaching and living together because I truly believe they are branches of the same tree.  Like performing, teaching is a creative process that can be different every day if we allow it to unfold naturally through the student.  There is a unique relationship between the student, their instrument, and the music and an equally unique relationship between the student and teacher.  This relationship also exits between a performer and audience, but in a more removed, anonymous way which, if you stop to think about it, is a whole lot riskier.  Would you rather bare your soul to a stranger or someone you know fairly well?  I suppose we may all answer that question differently but the element of risk remains the same.  For me, this is where the excitement and challenge lies. 

I am fortunate to enjoy a rather diverse career as a musician. I travel a fair amount for performances, I am an active church musician, and I teach the next generation of organists and musicians.  I consider all of these things a huge privilege and a great responsibility in their own, unique way.  In the midst of all this, stuff happens and a lot of it is fairly interesting.  Somehow, the experiences seem more vivid - more real - when shared.  When I tell these stories someone usually says, “Nicole, you should write a book.”  I don’t yet have the discipline for that so I thought I would begin this little conversation with you.  Now and then, I hope to share a few thoughts and experiences with you - feel free to share something back.  It’s how we learn, after all.

I make a point to tell my students that I’m always listening. And I am. I often swing by practice rooms and listen outside the door for a few moments to hear what’s really going on in there. Most of the time I hear good things, but not all the time. And let’s face it - we all waste time in our practice on occasion, as we do in life. But it doesn’t change the fact that as musicians - as artists - we are required to “practice in public.” We must be willing to expose ourselves and what we believe in order to communicate with the listener. My undergraduate Form and Analysis teacher once said in class, “music is the search for Truth,” and he was absolutely right. “Truth” is a different thing for all of us - for some it is more emotional, for some more spiritual, and for some more intellectual. How we define our own Truth is how we define ourselves and our lives, and this is what we communicate to the listeners through our music-making. I look forward to sharing our Truths together.

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