Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

“Have you ever gone to a new place or tried a new experience and thought to yourself, ‘I’m never doing that again!’ Tell us about it.”

In the summer of 2000, I was a choir director at a Greek Orthodox church whose chief qualification seems to have been that I was the only member of the choir who could read music, and that I knew most of the music these folks were singing.  And there it might have remained, had I not received in the mail a notification concerning something called the Summer School of Liturgical Music.

When I mention this school to people, visions automatically rise in their minds of old ladies singing, “What a Friend We Have in GEEEE-zus,” off-key.  Well, they have the old-lady part right:  The only person in that choir who was younger than I was my son.  For the rest, though, let me put it this way:  Orthodox services are entirely sung, and the music is supposed to help people understand what Heaven sounds like; when it’s done right, it does sound like Heaven.  You don’t sing off-key, and nobody in the Orthodox world sings cutesy little ditties from the nineteenth century.  I’m breaking out in hives just thinking about it.

And these old ladies were good.  They had sung together since high school, every single Sunday, and they knew this stuff cold.  Which isn’t to say that they could have sung without a director; even though they had known one another for fifty and sixty years, they’d talk non-stop if I let them, and lose their place in the music in nothing flat.  (Or sharp.  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.)  So they needed a director, and what they got was – me.

Always room for improvement, they say, so when I got this brochure in the mail from the Summer School of Liturgical Music, I jumped at the opportunity to learn a bit more about my craft.  Of course…I should have realized that I was in for an entirely different experience when I saw that one side of the brochure was in English and the other in Russian.

SSLM, to give it its abbreviated title, is held for two weeks every summer at a Russian Orthodox Monastery in Upstate New York, about twenty miles north of Cooperstown (home of the Baseball Museum).  The entire course takes three years to complete. and anyone who completes it earns three college credits.  There are courses in Church Music History, Solfege (sight reading), Music Theory, Voice Production, Choral Methods, and Choir Direction – and that’s only the musical portion of the course.  There are also courses in the Structure of Divine Services and Church Slavonic, the Russian equivalent of King James English.  Students who are graduating that year have two weeks to pull together a disparate group of people who have probably never sung together before, and form them into a choir that can perform a piece of music roughly equivalent to something written by Rachmaninoff.

This is what I signed up for.

Nobody who takes this course has any idea of what it’s actually like before that first year.  It’s a little like military basic training must be:  two weeks of being shuffled from class to class, while instructors throw knowledge at you that takes you through a thousand years of Russian Church history, and seventeen hundred years of Orthodox Church music.  You’re in class for eight hours every day, and the classes held at noon and five p.m. always run over, since those instructors take the opportunity to cram a little extra into resistant brains.  At least they don’t scream it at you, the way DIs do.

Here’s the kicker:  Most of the people there have at least some idea of what the music sounds like.  They’ve been singing it in their choirs back home, and they’re just there to refine skills they already have.  Not me.  Greek music and Russian music are like from two different solar systems.  Sometimes I wonder:  If this music is really sung by the angels, as the Orthodox believe, are there Greek angels and Russian angels in Heaven?  What do they sound like when they get together?  Do they get together?  In this world, Greeks wouldn’t be caught dead singing that “Western-sounding Russian music,” and Russians think that Greek music sounds like camel-calling (hat tip to M.T. Riggs, husband of a dear friend of mine).  That’s how different the music is.  I had never heard any of the Russian music, and I was supposed to have whole melodies memorized.  In two weeks.  On top of Church Slavonic, Church Music History, Music Theory, etc., etc., and so forth.

And all the music was in Russian.  Fortunately, I could read Cyrillic (barely – the last time I was exposed to it, I was fifteen).  And I could read music.  In addition, most of the classes were held in English, so I wasn’t completely lost.  Note the operative word, “most” – there’s one instructor who’s a bit sensitive about his English (which is perfectly good), so he insists on teaching in Russian, and relies on the School to provide translators for us Cultural Illiterati.

This is the environment I found myself in, for two weeks.  No escape possible:  My husband had driven me out, and would be back in two weeks to collect me.  Oh, and the housing arrangements were, to say the least, monastic:  Rooms the size of cells, each with two World-War-II-surplus Army cots, whose springs were so shot that boards had been fastened to the bottoms of the beds to provide support for Flopsy-Bunny mattresses.  Three toilets and one shower per floor – and the showers, that first year at least,  lacked even the most rudimentary flow-control valves, so that you’d be peacefully showering, and someone would flush a toilet – anywhere in the building – and you’d get scalded.  Or someone would be showering on the other floor, and you’d freeze because they had diverted the hot water.

There were two bright spots:  The church services, and the food.  This being a monastery, there were church services every day, beginning at 6:00 a.m., and if you happened to be up at that hour, you could walk the mile from the guesthouse to the church, sit or stand in the back, and soak it all in.  Weekday services aren’t as glorious as Sunday services, but there’s something about worshipping at that hour of the day that more than makes up for the sleepy singing emanating from monks who’ve been up since four a.m.

And the food was nothing short of phenomenal.  The School had its own kitchen, staffed by the wife and kids of the School’s Director, and these people cranked it out three times a day in true Russian style – lavishly, prodigally, and on a shoestring.  I don’t know how they did it, but we never went hungry, and there was always plenty of talk and laughter at the table.  They knew what we only dimly perceived:  There was no way we could sustain the frenetic pace set for us by the requirements of the curriculum, without a lavish diet.  Yet I always lost weight during those two weeks.

At the end of the two weeks, that first year, I was cross-eyed and beyond cranky.  Some of the conducting was so slow that I had to breathe between syllables, forget about not breathing for whole phrases.  I took to mouthing the words without making a sound, so it looked like I was singing, but at least I could breathe.  I gritted my teeth, passed all my classes (except Slavonic – I have never yet passed that course), got through the final exam for the graduates, which was a full hour-long concert, and promised myself I’d never set foot in that School again.

Only one problem:  I couldn’t get that music out of my head.

When I got back to my own choir, Greek music really did sound like camel-calling, and I ended up giving up my post as choir director.  I played my taped copy of the final exam over and over and over, just for the pleasure of listening to that music; I found myself thinking, at odd hours of the day, of the peace that surrounded the monastery.  At 6:00 a.m., it was so quiet you could hear the bees buzzing in their hives.  You could hear traffic approaching from half a mile away.  By Easter of the following year, I knew I’d be going back.

Due to the distance between my home and the nearest Russian Orthodox parish – fifty miles – I was unable to attend Russian services every week, so it took me an extra year to complete that course (except for Slavonic).  But in 2003, I finally achieved my goal:  I became a certificated choir director of the Russian Orthodox Church.  And I am so grateful I ignored my initial declaration of, “Never again!”

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“What is your favorite way to recharge when you feel drained of energy?”

There’s a reason this blog is called “Muttonings,” and there’s a reason I post as “Mrs. Mutton.”  It has everything to do with sheep, to wit:  Somewhere around 1977, I suddenly got into knitting in a big way.  Up to then, I had divided my time fairly evenly between knitting and cross stitch, but in 1977, my daughter was two, and the thought of those little fingers and eyes around sharp, pointy objects was too horrific to entertain; so I turned to the less-sharp pointy objects known as knitting needles, and for many years afterwards, knitting was my sole handwork.  In fact, my son, born in 1979, has never known me to do anything else.

In 1982, I became acquainted with the knitting philosophy of Elizabeth Zimmermann.  The woman was an utter genius at combining art, math, and practicality, and her chosen medium was wool.  Not just generic yarn – wool, “from the simple, silly sheep,” as she put it in one of her books.  It was largely due to her influence that I gradually became a Wool Snob, and began accumulating wool yarn to such an extent that my family teased that I was becoming a sheep.  These days I have stuffed sheep, pictures of sheep, sheep calendars, books about sheep…well, as you can see, the thing has taken on a life of its own.

So I am “Mrs. Mutton” (actually, that is the name of one of my stuffed sheep, who began life as “Ms. Mutton” of the famous brokerage firm, E.F. Mutton, until my husband rescued her from a life of Ms.-ery), and the odd pronouncements I mutter to myself have become known, locally, as “muttonings.”  All of which I offer as background to my favorite way of recharging when I am drained of energy.  Which is only partially with knitting.

There actually is something very, very soothing and mindless about repetitive hand motion.  Mind you, there is nothing relaxing about learning to knit; like any other unknown activity, it’s very stressful to learn.  But the rewards of sticking with the effort are completely disproportionate to the effort involved in learning the craft; you can actually knit your way to lower blood pressure.  And while your hands are occupied, and your brain either goes blank or focuses on the intricacies of, say, Aran knitting, other, more convoluted knots are unraveled.  I daresay that many a mental-health issue could be successfully treated by teaching patients to knit.

But as I say, recharging my personal batteries is a two-pronged process.  Knitting – or counted cross-stitch – is one prong, having something to occupy my mind that is completely unrelated to whatever it is that’s sapping my energy.  The other prong is classical music.

I’m not talking about the Bombast, or the Searching-for-the-Lost-Chord kind of cacophony that has become associated with classical music.  That stuff has its place (I guess), once you’ve become accustomed to the very different tempo of classical music, so much slower and more thought-infused than what currently occupies most space on the airwaves.  But if you want to relax, or if you’re really new to classical music, you want Baroque – Vivaldi, say, or Handel.  Or Bach, who wrote the music that is the title of this post, Sheep May Safely Graze.  Bach’s music covers every range of emotions, from utterly sublime to rollicking fun to just plain funny (his Coffee Cantata begins with a father grumping, “Ain’t it a fact that our kids give us a hundred thousand different kinds of heartburn,” or the eighteenth-century Germanic equivalent thereof).  And Vivaldi is such easy listening that a friend of ours once joked that “Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 425 times,” there being 425 works listed in the “Ryom Listing,” the most commonly used catalogue of Vivaldi’s compositions.

Knitting to the Oldies.  Works every time.

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This has not been an easy week for me.  In another post, I mentioned that we are having some major renovations done to our house, both badly needed:  a new roof (think of the sound of nails being pounded overhead, all day long), and a new bathroom, which will be lovely when finished, but is most disconcerting just at present:  Where do we keep our toothbrushes? where did we put the toothpaste? where’s the shaving tackle? where’s that box of Unmentionable Personal-Care Products?  You get the idea.  Not to mention that during the day, the toilet is disconnected so that the contractor can work on the walls.  My hairdresser wanted to know if we were getting a whirlpool tub, and I had to say no, we aren’t; we’re pretty minimalist people.  But the concern with this project was that the caulking kept pulling away from the old tub, and we were concerned that there was water damage to the walls; so we really needed to have the whole  room redone.  Thankfully, no water damage, and the new bathtub has a raised lip that precludes the necessity of caulking.  A clever solution to a common problem; wish we’d known about it years ago.

And on top of all this chaos – our favorite radio station has signed off the air.  As of 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, WBACH has disconnected its Southern Maine transmitter; its frequency was sold at a bankruptcy auction to a group that has replaced classical programming with yet more rock ‘n’ roll, as if, you know, the cultural scene of southern Maine is going to fall apart if we don’t have one more venue for angry screaming.  All is not quite lost, as we can still access programming on our computer (and thank goodness for that – I can still remember the emptiness when New York’s WNCN went off the air the first time, in 1974), but our computer is in the office, and the office is nowhere near the living room.  We’re looking into getting a wireless router (or something along those lines) that will allow us to pick up the signal off the computer.

In light of the events of this past week – I refer, of course, to Libya – these concerns seem almost insultingly trivial.  And there are people out there, people whom I love and care about deeply, who are suffering real tragedies and crises, so if your reaction is, “You’re in mourning over a classical-music station?!  Get real!” that’s understandable.  But I’m not sure the two are entirely unconnected.

Just this past week, I wrote about classical music under the topic of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, and I noted that classical music’s reputation began to take a hit when “searching-for-the-lost-chord” compositions came into vogue.  Thinking about it further, I’m not entirely sure that that’s the actual cause; on another level, I think it might (also) have something to do with an American trait that suspects anything Intellectual.  When I was growing up – and certainly when my parents were growing up – classical music was firmly associated with the College Crowd.  In those years, college was only for the wealthy, or for people who were going into High Finance; they came out of college smoking pipes, if male, or wearing twinsets and pearls, if female, voting Republican and listening to classical music.  Then came the 1960s, and since then, the College Crowd seems to wear denim and eschew bathing and vote Democrat.  Listening to classical music is still associated with Rich People, and as any student with loans up the wazoo can tell you, college students are by and large not Rich.  (Nor are they educated to the standards formerly set by colleges, but that’s another story.)

A college education used to include mandatory music-appreciation courses, and the music on offer was exclusively classical.  That’s no longer the case – even where music appreciation is offered (as an elective), the music studied is only marginally classical – so lovers of classical music continue to dwindle.  And so does intellectual life, the life of the mind – dare I say, the life of the soul?  My point, if there is one, is that people who like classical music not only are suspected of being slightly weird, but have always been suspected of being – well, not like the rest of mankind, anyway.  Do they even know what hard work is?  (Only someone who has never tried to master a musical instrument can ask this question with a straight face.)  What kind of a brain actually likes that stuff?!  What does any of it have to do with Real Life, you know, that place where people get their fingernails filthy with embedded grime and their hands are cracked and bleeding from hard work?

I first encountered the term “philistine” when WNCN went off the air and was replaced by a rock station.  It seems to be a term describing anti-intellectualism, a dumbing-down of the prevalent culture to some level of lowest-common-denominator, a lack of appreciation for making the effort to become more than one step above Animal.  Think about that, an animal’s purely visceral reaction to what goes on around it.  Eat or be eaten.

Then think of the images out of Libya.

Then ask yourself what was refined about anything you saw in the news.

Then tell me that the loss of a classical-music radio station – of one more level of refinement – of being human – of being more than Animal – is trivial.

This week, the Philistines triumphed.

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Do you think there is a collective definition of beauty, or is it always in the eye of the beholder?”

With the release of the latest film version of Anna Karenina, I’m reminded of Tolstoy’s opening line:  “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I think the opposite is true of Beauty; Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but there is definitely a collective definition of ugliness.

I’ve been a lover of classical music for a long time now, since my teenage years, in fact, and over and over, one reaction has always puzzled me:  the people who ask me, “Do you really like that stuff?”  It took me a long time to figure out that there apparently really are people who actually don’t like “that stuff,” but who pretend they do in order to look Educated or Smarter Than Thou, or something along those lines.  As I grow older, and have consequently more exposure to a wider variety of classical music, I sometimes find myself wondering if these “anti-snobs” really understand just how much they themselves love classical music.  The theme from the unforgettable Somewhere in Time?  Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (eighteenth variation, which was also, many, many years ago, used in a coffee commercial).  People loved that wildly romantic movie, and also loved the theme music that brought two lovers together across time – but tell them it’s classical music, and they think you’re nuts.  How can something so beautiful be classical music?!

And I think I know where that attitude comes from.  At the beginning of the 20th century, classical music took a turn into the purely theoretical.  “Composers” began writing music based purely on mathematical formulas, with no regard for aesthetics, since, you know, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and all that.  The result is stuff so bizarre that not even genuine lovers of classical music can stand it; the cognoscenti profess to love it because it’s so Interesting and Avant Garde and Forward-Looking, but they don’t seem to respond to it (as the rest of us do) on a visceral level.  If they did, they might end up calling it what my husband and I do, “searching for the Lost Chord music.”

Then there’s art, or, if you will, Art.  Most of the modern stuff looks like what my kids were doing in nursery school, a few dabs of primary colors on a sheet of paper…oh.  Maybe it’s canvas that makes it Art.  Or – wait – you stick a crucifix in a glass of urine, call it something offensive to every Christian on the planet, and that’s what makes it art?!  Meanwhile, I know people who can’t stand the sight of the ubiquitous Thomas Kinkade paintings, so beloved by so many people; but neither do they have any admiration for primary daubs on a canvas, or an exhibit whose only purpose is to shock and outrage.

In all these instances, Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder; after all, it was the musicologist George Grove (compiler of Grove’s Dictionary of Classical Music) who dismissed Rachmaninoff as “monotonous in texture…consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes,” whose popularity was “not likely to last” (source:  Wikipedia entry on Rachmaninoff).  Meanwhile, Rachmaninoff’s popularity only continues to grow, as a new generation comes to appreciate his lyricism and aesthetic unity (no fewer than three of his works have become popular songs!).

But is there a similar collective unity in the definition of Beauty?  I think that you can best judge Beauty by the universality of its appeal.  People may like or dislike Rachmaninoff or Thomas Kinkade, Arnold Schoenberg or Robert Mapplethorpe.  But I don’t know anyone who, faced with an exquisite sunrise or sunset, doesn’t catch his breath and stand and stare in awe.  The rest of it is mankind’s attempt to produce, or reproduce, the truly Beautiful,  those sunrises and sunsets, or majestic mountains, or luscious waterfalls.

The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, in his novel The Idiot, “the world will be saved by beauty.”  It’s quoted a lot.  But to understand the full depth of Dostoyevsky’s statement, it helps to understand his background as a Russian Orthodox Christian, and his understanding of the essence of Beauty as being nothing less than God Himself.  In that context, Dostoyevsky reaffirms that the world will be saved by God, the Source of all beauty.  And what responds in each of us to Beauty is as unique as God Himself – and as collective as a congregation’s worship of God.

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Some time ago, my husband and I came to the realization that we needed to undertake two fairly extensive home-improvement projects as soon as possible:  We needed a new roof, and we needed to have our bathroom professionally overhauled – periodic re-caulking around the bathtub was getting out of hand.  The roofing job began last week; the bathroom retro-fit is taking place as I type, and it’s already apparent on both fronts that it was TIME TO GET THEM DONE.  The roof would not have lasted out this winter, and the wiring that we found when the walls were ripped out of the bathroom – well, let’s just say that building codes were very different sixty years ago.

What it all amounts to is that our regular schedule is, shall we say, “discombobulated,” as we try to stay out of the way of the roofers, plumbers, plasterers, and electricians.  In short – I stay on the porch with my cross stitch, and my husband stays in the office, online.  It’s been wonderful for my gigantic cross-stitch project; not so wonderful for catching up with e-mails, or blogging.

So I will blog as I can, and in the meantime, here’s today’s prompt from NaBloPoMo:  “Which sense is more important to you: vision or hearing?:

Oh, boy, I can hear my aunt laughing snidely from the other side of the grave.  We had this “conversation,” if you can call debate a conversation, when I was a teenager, and rashly asserted that if I had to choose, I’d choose hearing over sight.  Everybody in the family jumped down my throat on that one, most emphatically my mother’s sister, the family doyenne – if Aunt Mary didn’t approve of something, or didn’t like something, or stopped buying something or started buying something, whatever it was became gospel.  In-laws could find themselves frozen out in the cold for all eternity, with one dismissive glance from this particular aunt.

This is what I thoughtlessly challenged with my assertion on the subject of the importance of being able to hear.  Here’s the thing, though:  I’m a musician.  Not a professional musician, just someone who has always related to her world in terms of sound (and it’s this particular aunt who told me that I could sing before I could talk, incidentally).  I was in my fifties before I realized that not everybody can produce a melody with complete accuracy.  I cook, believe it or not, based on the sound of the cooking; I know when something has come to a boil, when it’s time to add more water, on the basis of the sounds emanating from the stove.  And my timer (another device based on sound) is my best friend.

I am also aware that blind people have a sharper sense of hearing that allows them to “see” with their ears, so my assertion wasn’t as off the wall as it sounds.  Nevertheless, my aunt never let me forget it; so help me Hannah, she was reminding me of that discussion two weeks before she died.  And I meekly reversed my assertion:  “Yes, Aunt Mary, you were right, seeing is more important than hearing.”  For most people, anyway.  What the heck, she was old, and she needed to be right.

Thing is – sight has become more important to me as I’ve grown older.  Not more important than hearing, but at least as important, as I’ve had to make my way around a part of the world that is absolutely auto-dependent.  How can you do anything if you can’t drive, and how can you drive if you can’t see?  That’s my current dilemma.  And there’s another aspect that I could never in a million years have foreseen when I was a teenager:  I “hear” with my eyes, too.  That is – I can sight-read music, look at it and know what all those little dots on those little lines mean in terms of reproducing a  sound with my throat.  I can look at a piece of music and, never having heard the melody before, sing right along with my choir without missing a beat.  I could even sing in harmony, if I still had the vocal range I had fifteen years ago.

So I take care of my eyes.  Go for regular vision checkups, wear those glasses that change color in sunlight, try to remember to take vitamins that enhance vision (I’m terrible at taking Pills regularly).  I cherish my ability to read, to work at the computer, to run my errands by car (bicycle would be even better, if New Hampshire ever gets on board with the notion of bike lanes).

But it all goes better with Bach.

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By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and we wept when we remembered Sion.

Upon the willows in the midst thereof did we hang our instruments.

For there, they that had taken us captive asked us for words of song.

And they that had led us away asked us for a hymn, saying:  Sing us one of the songs of Sion.

But how shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?

–Psalm 136, LXX/137, Masoretic

In liturgical churches, today is one of the preparatory Sundays of Lent.  For most of those with which readers will be familiar, Ash Wednesday is this coming Wednesday; some traditions, such as Catholic and some Lutherans, will have ashes rubbed on their foreheads while the priest or minister says, “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  In my own tradition, Eastern Orthodox, it’s a little different.  We won’t begin “Great Lent,” as we call it to distinguish it from other fasting periods, for another two weeks.  But we do have three Sundays of preparation for Lent, and today is the second of those three.  Russian Orthodox churches will have sung the Psalm above during Matins.

It’s one of my favorites because it describes pretty much my whole life:  singing, in a strange land.  I’ve been singing for over sixty years now, first as a tot and then as a child who just loved music.  My first “formal” setting for singing was the Glee Club of the high school I attended, and after that, I sang in a variety of church choirs (and two secular choirs, when living in Germany).  And always…feeling like a stranger, literally or figuratively.

Singing in Greek, when I attended Greek Orthodox churches:  It doesn’t get much more foreign than that.  The words, the alphabet, the music itself, are so very foreign to the Western ear!  Greek music uses quarter tones – if yout ry to sing do, re, mi while “sliding” up the scale, you will hit a variety of pitches in between do and re, between re and mi, and so on.  Those are not only quarter tones, but also micro-tones.  I’m told there are about sixteen of them.  Greek music doesn’t use them all, but I’m sure it’s not for want of trying.

Singing in German, when living in Germany:  I didn’t speak German before I moved there.  Don’t have any German blood in my veins.  But, married to someone whose mother is German and who spoke German, it was a given that we were going to experience the full culture to the best of our ability, and in retrospect, it was a good decision.  The richness of German musical tradition does have to be experienced to be fully appreciated.  There is, of course, the classical-music aspect, but there are also folk songs that are simply charming in the way they touch on every aspect of daily life.  We know too little in the United States about the folk-music traditions of our European ancestors, and we are the poorer for it.

Singing in a Catholic choir should never have felt foreign.  I grew up in the Catholic tradition.  But it was the pre-Vatican-II tradition, with Masses by the classical composers, Palestrina, Mozart, Fauré, among many, many others.  By the time I was out of high school and singing in choirs, though, all of that was passé, and we were singing music best described as “liturgical folk songs.”  Not that they were real folk songs.  They were songs composed in what their composers fondly imagined to be folk style.  For a lover of classical music like me, this was sheer torture, and I think I never felt more like a stranger than when I was trying to make Catholic choirs work for me.

Even the Glee Club:  High school is either the best time of your life, or the worst.  For me it was the absolute worst.  The nuns were different from the Dominicans I had grown up with; the girls were from all over the Diocese, all from different parish cultures; the subject matter was of absolutely no interest whatsoever.  (It was an Academic curriculum.  In grade school, I had been encouraged to pursue an Academic curriculum.  In retrospect, I should have gone to a commercial school and taken a Business curriculum, but there’s no way to know that when you’re thirteen.)  The only thing high school had going for it was Glee Club – and I didn’t even pass the audition the first time I sang for it. (I’m sure the sprained ankle didn’t help.)  The second time was the charm, and for the last two years of high school, Glee Club was the highlight of the week.

I learned so much about proper singing in Glee Club:  How to open your mouth wide, how to make a sound chamber out of it, how to pronounce words so that they could be understood by an audience – singing diction feels ridiculous, but if you sing the way you speak, you swallow half the sound – correct posture to open up the lungs, breathing from the diaphragm to increase your breath capacity, things that were reiterated in every subsequent choir I sang with.  My overall high-school education was worth very little; Glee Club taught me everything I’ve ever really used in life.  But it was probably the strangest of all the strange lands I’ve sung in.

The Psalm “By the waters of Babylon” is, at its root, a song of exiles, a song written for people who are in a place utterly foreign to them, with strange customs and a strange language, and a way of life so strange that the people who have been taken captive can’t even sing when requested to do so by their captors.  I wonder how many of us feel that way at different times in our lives, looking around and saying, “I absolutely do not belong here, and I have no idea how to get where I do belong.”  I’ve felt that way for most of my life.

Except when I’m in a Russian Orthodox church.  Many Russian churches do use English in their Liturgies, but many others still use Church Slavonic (best described as “Church Russian”).  If you’re in a parish that uses Church Slavonic, the music will be written in the Russian language, an alphabet derived from Greek.  It will not in any way resemble Byzantine chant, but it’s also different from the music common to Western churches, even from the classical music that used to be such a common experience in the Catholic Church.  It’s…mystical.  It makes you think, “This must be what heaven sounds like.”

And when I sing it – I’m no longer in a strange land.  I’m home.

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What follows is lifted entirely from the blog of an Orthodox Priest (Orthodox Church in America.  And that’s Capital O, as in “Russian Orthodox,” or “Greek Orthodox”).  Father Stephen Freeman has, by now, over a thousand followers of his blog, Glory to God for All Things.  He writes about God, about theology, and about God’s presence in daily life, in a manner completely comprehensible; yet he manages never to “talk down” to his audience.  What he wrote here struck me so particularly that I asked for permission to repost it here.

Beginning The Song of God, by Father Stephen Freeman:

Man is a musical composition, a wonderfully written hymn to powerful creative activity. – St. Gregory of Nyssa (PG 44, 441 B)

In St. Gregory’s thought,  man is not only a singer, but a song. We are not only song, but the song of God. Indeed within one theme of the fathers, all of creation is the song of God, spoken (or sung) into existence. “Let there be light,” is more than the voice of command: it is the uttering of a phrase that sets the universe as fugue. God sings. All of creation sings. The song of praise that arises from creation is offered to God, the Author of all things. It is also the sound of the creation itself, a revelation of the truth of its being. Music is not entertainment: rightly sung, it is the very heart of creation.

The angels within Isaiah’s vision (chapter 6) call to one another in the song, “Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O Lord God of Hosts….” The song of one calls forth the song of the other. Worship is the offering of our whole being, calling forth the song of all creation in union with the song which God Himself sings.

To understand oneself as the song of God, a phrase within His hymn of creation, affirms both our uniqueness as well as our union with the whole. Our prayer, our worship, our lives, are an offering of the song that God Himself has breathed.

Our habits of thought provide ways in which we conceive ourselves. It strikes me as worth noting that our modern concept of human existence has minimized the role of music. Music is something that we do, an industry by which we make money. It is an instrument for the glorification of egos. Music is distorted.

At the same time our culture has made music into a vast financial industry, people have themselves become less musical. The ability to play an instrument (other than air-guitar) has declined deeply. Music programs within schools are considered too expensive to fund. The number of young persons with no formal training or experience in music continues to rise. People rarely sing together (a once universal custom prior to modernity) except in the most structured environments. “Folk” music (the peoples’ music) is rapidly disappearing (these things are perhaps more true of America than Europe).

I would never predict a disappearance of music – for human beings are a song and the song will not disappear. But to live in a manner that is alienated from ourselves as the song of God is to live with an existential emptiness. If man is a singer, then he must sing – and he must sing to God.

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On Tuesday, responding to a NaNoBloMo prompt, I wrote about my eighth-grade teacher.  Which is what you get for being too literal:  Like most people (I hope – I’d hate to think I was that dense), I was thinking in terms of schoolteachers.  In fact, there were two teachers who made the single biggest impact on my life:  One was my German teacher, about whom I blogged last November, and one was the poor soul who made his living casting the pearls of music before the neighborhood piglets.

I had wanted piano lessons ever since watching Liberace’s television show in the 1950s.  Of course I had no idea of the effort involved in learning piano, but just to be able to make those sounds…!  But with Dad earning $35 a week and our family growing by leaps and bounds, that was never a possibility.  At some point, however, my aunt got wind of a man who taught accordion in people’s houses; I guess he was teaching the son of one of her neighbors.  She got accordion lessons for her son, and then, I suspect, paid for lessons for me, as well, since there was no way my mother could have carved lessons out of her budget.

Now, accordion-playing wasn’t as nerdy back then as it sounds now.  For one thing, this was New York City, the Land of a Thousand Ethnicities.  Many of them were Eastern European, and the accordion was enshrined as the instrument of choice for polka music.  (It was pretty nifty for klezmer music, too.)  Then there were the Italians in the neighborhood, who simply adored hearing Italian music on the accordion, including, bizarre as it sounds, opera arias.  I guess they were desperate for a little culture.

So every Tuesday for three years, John Livio came to our house and taught accordion.  From him I learned to read music, the functions of G-clefs and bass clefs, harmony, musical structure, fingering – all the basics of  instrumental music for a keyboard instrument, not a few of which stood me in good stead in high school when trying out for Glee Club.  I practiced for an hour each day, frustrated because I just didn’t seem to be achieving the fluency of professional players; I had no idea, and no one told me, of the hours and hours the pros put into it.  That kind of time would never have been available to me, anyway, with six kids running around a four-room house.  And I had my regular studies to contend with, which, let’s face it, were incredibly boring compared with music.

But the lessons were contingent upon my maintaining good grades, and I probably convinced my teachers that I was far brainier than I actually was, because I was such a Good Student.  Amazing, the price you’ll pay for what’s valuable to you.

The lessons came to an abrupt end the day he announced he was going to teach me “Flight of the Bumblebee” – I took one look at all those hemi-demi-semiquavers and said, “I don’t think so,” or whatever the 1959 equivalent was.  I had a week to get used to the idea, and over that week I thought I might like to give it a shot.  I’m sure he would have been pleased to hear that, except…he never showed up.  Maybe he was sick, we thought, but he was MIA the next week, too, and the week after that.

I kept up the accordion, anyway – I did enjoy making music on it – went on to high school and Glee Club, then, in adulthood, to church-choir singing.  Over the decades I developed my voice by listening to good singers and paying attention to the various choir directors I had.  Eventually I directed the choir in my own parish church, then went on to obtain a certificate in choir direction.  When I got that certificate, I took it in to my dad’s sitting room, where he was watching television, and thanked him for shelling out for the accordion lessons, since I don’t actually don’t know if it was my aunt who paid for them.  He looked surprised, delighted, and not a little confused; I don’t think he got what the certificate was about.  But I thought he should have the satisfaction of knowing that the music lessons he was so opposed to hadn’t been in vain.  The one I should have thanked, I was never able to, so here it is:  Thank you, John Livio, for the lessons you taught.  Both musical and otherwise.

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“Name one thing you wish you could go back and change about your education.”

Only one?

Considering how my life has unfolded, the biggest change I’d make is that I’d have gone to college right out of high school.  Back then — and I didn’t know this at the time — it didn’t matter what your degree was in, the main thing was that you had a college degree.  You could go anywhere with that magic piece of paper that had Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Sciences on it.  Knowing that, I’d have chosen to go for Music; but back then, I thought you had to know what you wanted to do in life, and that college was supposed to be tied to what you did for the rest of your life.  And a career in music was the equivalent of a Bachelor’s in English nowadays:  I would have expected to spend my life singing, “You want fries with that?”

And yet, music is what I have spent my life doing, whether playing piano (badly — not enough lessons) or singing, or, for two exasperating and wonderful years, directing a choir.  If I had realized any of that, I would have let nothing stop me.  Particularly exasperating is that, having been brainwashed by the Cost of a College Education (even 50 years ago, it wasn’t cheap), I thought, what was the point in trying?  My family could never afford it.  It wasn’t until long after I was married that someone told me that the City University System of New York was absolutely free, if you went to the college of your own borough.  In my case, that would have been Queens College.

And, in light of that piece of information, I can’t help wishing that I had gone to a public, rather than a parochial, school.  We got a fantastic grounding in the English language — its mechanics, as well as putting together a coherent composition (not that you could judge by this post!) — but not in much else.  Again, I was an adult before I realized the importance of the Iroquois Nation in New York State history; what we learned, this being Catholic school, was, “The Iroquois were the bad guys because they sided with the English, who were Protestant, and the Hurons were the good guys because they sided with the French, who were Catholic.”  I hasten to add that the Hurons were up in Canada…  And this had what to do with New York State history???!  Our math and science education was also minimal, and the Arts were non-existent.

So yes, there is a very great deal I wish I could have changed about my education.  That said — it was still a better education than what my kids got, described by my daughter as “eleven years of brainwashing, followed by one year of real education.”  Both my kids took three years of Latin (and no foreign languages), and learned in three years what I learned in one.  (And I took three years of French, besides.)  Neither learned very much at all about European history.  In fact, I used to love it when my son would get suspended from school for fighting; we’d watch public television together and talk about what we’d seen.  One program focused on an island in the Netherlands where cars are banned altogether!

Foreign cultures, foreign ways:  Now that’s a real education (from the Latin “e”, “out of,” and “duc”, the root of the verb “to lead” — as in, “leading one out of one’s own experiences, and into a wider world).

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Question:  What would your profession be if you didn’t need money?

My first reaction was, That’s easy:  I’d be a professional  musician, of the classical variety.  I love classical music, have done since I was twelve or so, and would have loved to study it.  But with seven people living in four rooms, there wasn’t a lot of room to spare for a piano, and Catholic schools weren’t teaching flute or violin or recorder or any of the nifty stuff that public-school kids get to learn; they were afraid that musical accomplishment would lead us into the Sin of Pride.

So I did what I could.  I joined my high-school glee club and learned choral singing.  Then, upon graduation, I did what any other girl of my class did:  I went out to work to help support the family.  Took my secretarial skills and built a fairly successful career for myself, one at which I turned out to be rather good and which I have always greatly enjoyed.

But if I hadn’t had the threat of Earning a Living hanging over my head, definitely, I would have gone to college to learn real music.  I don’t say I would have had a career in it, but my life would have been infinitely richer.

Or maybe not; it might be that the adversity of my circumstances have given me a much deeper appreciation for music, overall, than I would otherwise have had.  I think it’s for sure that I would not have gone so deeply into the riches of Orthodox Church music, if I had been a professional musician.

The other field I would have liked to explore is nowadays called “textile art.”  I’d love to be able to design my own cross stitch, put together lines and colors in the kind of fantasy that real designers of cross stitch do.  A quick look at my Lust List will show you what I mean.  As it is, having devoted 30 years to the practical skill of knitting, I’m just now learning how painters get those spectacular color and light effects in their art – learning it through fine-art cross stitch.

So there you are, fine-art cross stitch and music.  Professional dilettante, that would be me, if I hadn’t had to earn a living.  So it’s just as well that i did.    😉

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