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“If stranded on a desert island, and could only bring one music album with you, which would it be? What is it about this music that never gets old for you?”

OK, we must really be scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Yesterday’s topic was so off the wall, I didn’t even bother posting in response to it (aside from which, I had appointments up the wazoo).  But this one just leaves me shaking my head:

One music album.  On a desert island.  What is it about desert island that I’m missing?  Wait…it’s coming to me…could it be…electricity?!

Or am I just being too prosaic?!  I mean, what good is an album without something to play it on?!  Solar batteries, maybe?  It’s the only way this topic works.

And why do you need an album, anyway?  Are you so brain-dead that you can’t even make your own music?  ‘Cause that’s what I’d do.  If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d want enough water to keep my throat from getting dried out so I could sing to my heart’s content.  And I’d need food to keep up my strength, of course — singing is a workout, if you do it right.

All this assumes I would even put myself in a position to be on a desert island in the first place.  Not me, sister.  Day-to-day living is enough of an adventure, thankyouverymuch.  I don’t need Assistance.

Come on, WordPress — get real!

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“Describe the wackiest but most useful advice you’ve ever received.”

That’s a tough one.  I don’t seem to be the kind of person who invites wacky advice.  I can’t say that all the advice I ever received was useful, and some of it was downright lousy, but I can’t think of a single piece of advice that was both wacky and useful.

Wait a minute:  Yes, I can.  High-school Glee Club.  We had a music instructor from Czechoslovakia (for you young folks, that was back in the days when the country of Slovakia was paired with the eastern German principalities of Bohemia and Moravia, both of which now make up the Czech Republic, and they called the whole mess Czechoslovakia).  Professor Rybka was a classically-trained musician who had been forced to flee his country when the Nazis annexed it, and he eked out a living by giving private voice lessons to talented singers, in addition to being on the payroll of the Catholic girls’ school I attended.  I sincerely hope he had other sources of income, since I can’t imagine he made much off casting his pearls before all us little piglets.

He was full of wacky advice.  Those vocal warm-ups:  “Mi-a-lo-la, mi-a-lo-la, LA-a-a-a-a-a-a-a” (on a descending scale).  “BrrrEEEEd!” he would command (he meant, Breathe.  Like we were all walking dead or something, which, considering the average mental state of the average teenager, isn’t too far off).  “SmILE!” he’d say, and broaden his own mouth in what was supposed to be an expression of musical bliss, and this was how we were supposed to sing, as if we were enjoying every second.  And the wackiest of all, “Oooooooooopen your mooooooooooooouuuuuth.”

Have you ever really opened your mouth to sing?!  I mean, wide open, like you were at the dentist?  Let me tell you, nothing feels more ridiculous, especially if your definition of singing involves the hottest rock ‘n’ roll band.  You don’t hold it in a perfect oval, either, like those pictures we all see on Christmas cards of angelic choirboys.  You literally “open wide,” just like at the dentist, and you feel like a complete idiot.

Well, I made it through high school, and Glee Club, for all its absurdities, was definitely the highlight.  I was relieved to be delivered of Professor’s injunctions, but I knew I would miss Glee Club, all the same.  Then I realized something:  I was grown up (at age 18), and could join the church choir.

So I did.  And what did I hear?  “Smile!  Breathe!  Open your mouth!”  And yes, all the same ridiculous warm-ups we had done in high school.  The thing was, this was New York City, so every rinky-dink choir out there was directed by someone who had been graduated from college with a degree in music, and full training in choral singing; so no matter where I went, if I was in a choir, that was what I was hearing.  Professor was on to something.

Fast-forward fifteen or so years.  My husband and I were on vacation in Upstate New York with our two kids, and had decided to track down a church on Sunday.  As we stood there, we heard a chanter, a woman with absolutely the loveliest, purest voice I have ever heard in my life.  “Oh, I wish I could sing like that,” I thought, and then it hit me:  You know all the tricks.  You know what you’re supposed to do to get that sound, so do it.  Bit by bit, week after week, I worked on my voice until I had a sound that approximated that exquisite, crystalline voice that I had heard one Sunday in church on vacation.

That was thirty years ago.  People still tell me what a wonderful voice I have — not just people who hear me in church, but professionals, too.  The best compliment I ever got was from a Russian opera singer who, like Professor, gave voice lessons:  “I wish I could have you for six months,” he beamed.  “You have such a young voice.”

Since my teen years, singing has been my life, my worship.  And whenever I Oooooooooooooopen my moooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuth to do it, I think of Professor Rybka and his wacky advice.

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Can…not…resist…Must…do…Resistance…Is…Futile…

5 things I was doing five years ago:

Trying to get used to the idea that my son had moved away from home
Working on an analoy cover for church
Trying to get used to the idea that I was actually a grandmother
Anticipating a new daughter-in-law (the less said about that, the better)
Having my kitchen redone, which was not nearly as bad as it should have been, mostly because my contractor hooked up the stove and sink every night so we could use them — I hope God has a special place in heaven for him

5 things on my to do list:
Talk to my priest about Jordanville (he was out of town last week)
Cross stitch (always, always)
Update diary
Pay parking ticket    😦
Find laminate flooring at Lowe’s for my porch

5 things I would do with a million dollars:

Pay off the home-equity loan that we used to have our front porch redone
Establish a perpetual trust fund for my church
Buy a vacation home in Germany so I could park dh there while I visit Russia
Hire a full-time maid
Install a floor to ceiling bookcase in the living room…and in each bedroom…and in the basement…and then I’d open the Gonic branch of the Rochester Public Library.  Heck, we have enough books to do it, anyway.

5 places I have lived:
New York, New York (well, Queens, actually, but it is part of NY)
Moerfelden-Walldorf, Germany

Morgantown, WV (ye gods and little fishes)
Greater Boston, MA

Gonic, NH

5 things I want to be doing in 5 years:

Being alive would be nice (I’m at the point where I read the obits every morning to make sure I’m not in there)
Still stitching
Teaching Typicon to members of my parish
Being part of a start-up Russian parish in Seacoast NH
Enjoying my finally tidy house, which at this moment is alive and well in Fantasyland

Thanks, Mimi!

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As of tomorrow evening, I will have been back a week from my annual effort to polish my meager musical talents.  This year, I was especially eager to focus on a slightly different aspect of Orthodox worship:  the Church Slavonic language that was especially formulated for worshipping God, in the Slavic tradition.  As the instructor of that course pointed out, the beauty of using a liturgical language like Slavonic is that there are no curse words in Slavonic (other than the curses in the Psalms, presumably), so it is completely suited to addressing God and talking about Him.

Well, I took the third-year course and didn’t pass it, which isn’t too discouraging, considering that I took four swipes at the first-year course before I passed that.  The “trouble” with these courses is that they are designed to address the needs of someone who reads this language on a weekly basis, and needs to be familiar with the grammar of what he’s looking at so that he knows how to read it.  That isn’t my situation at all; I just want to have passed the course, and to be able to read/sing the funeral service, should we ever have another Russian funeral in our parish.

However, the beauty of Jordanville is that there are always extra snippets that come my way.  Last year, there were fewer than usual, and so this year, the balance was restored; it felt as if I was running smack into grace every time I turned around.

There was the young woman (32 years old) who was literally dying of cancer, who had just begun her second round of chemotherapy.  So, doesn’t chemo cure cancer?  Not always, and in her case, definitely not — at this point — she has peritoneal cancer, which so far is always fatal, and this is her second bout with it.  She told me that had it not been for the intercessions of St. John of San Francisco, she should have been dead three years ago.  And she talked about all the blessings that had come her way because of her disease. Can you picture talking about cancer in terms of a blessing?! I would feel as if I were betraying a confidence if I mentioned them here, so I won’t, but the peace on her face, and the smiles she had for everyone, were more than remarkable; they were like a benediction from God Himself.  This is a girl completely aware of, and completely in acceptance of, her limited time on earth.

Then there was the bonus class — no extra credit, just extra proficiency — in reading Church Slavonic aloud.  This was the course I really wanted, and the monk who taught it was very aware of my goals.  Nevertheless, we would get sidetracked from actual reading into actual theology, and at one point, he mentioned that one Christmas, he and his brothers stopped in to visit the man who had been choir director of their parish, to say goodbye to him:  He was dying of cancer.  When they got to his house, the man’s wife said, “Don’t mention anything about cancer or dying to him; you know, Christmas and all that.”  So these guys get in to see their former choir director, and the first thing they say is, “You’re not looking so bad, considering what’s going on.”  “And the man started crying,” said the monk.  “He was so grateful to be able to talk to somebody about what it was like to be dying.  Christmas and all the festivities and all the carols and all that stuff had no reality for him.  What was real was facing his own imminent meeting with his God.”

OK, I don’t need to go into how I feel about all of this.  If you don’t know by now, you haven’t been reading my blog for very long.  So when I got home, I e-mailed this monk to ask him:  What’s better, to use any means to prolong life, or to accept that it’s at an end and prepare for death?  And he answered, God bless him, exactly as I had hoped he would:  That we do need to take care of our life in the ordinary way, not take ridiculous risks, eat healthy, and all that stuff, but that when serious disease like cancer strikes, we need to decide what we want:  Do we want more time for repentance, or are we able to come to grips with our mortality and go from there?  Phew, what a relief that somebody can grasp the real question and answer it!!

The young woman, by the way, is married (no children — thank God for small blessings).  Her husband is a deacon, preparing to spend the rest of his life as a monk.  What was so remarkable about this couple is that this obviously not the life they had planned for; but they are able to accept it as God’s very clear laying out of their path, and are planning the rest of their lives with this direction in mind.  Phenomenal blessings, this trip!  More in my next post.

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The Concert

One of my all-time favorites — and today, an answer to prayer.

*****

When the house lights dimmed and the concert was about to begin, the mother returned to her seat and discovered that her child was missing.  Suddenly, the curtains parted and spotlights focused on the impressive Steinway on stage.  To her horror, the mother saw her little boy sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

At that moment, the great piano master made his entrance, quickly moved to the piano, and whispered in the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit…keep playing.”  Then, leaning over, Ignatz Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part.  Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child, and he added a running obbligato.  Together, the old master and the young novice transformed what could have been a frightening situation into a wonderfully creative experience.  The audience was so mesmerized that they couldn’t recall what else the great master played–only the classic “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Perhaps that’s the way it is with God.  What we can accomplish on our own is hardly noteworthy.  We try our best, but the results aren’t always graceful, flowing music.  However, with the hand of the Master, our life’s work can truly be beautiful.

The next time you set out to accomplish great feats, listen carefully…you may hear the voice of The Master, whispering in your ear, “Don’t quit.  Keep playing.”

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I have been awake since midnight, and up since 2:30.  It’s now 4:12 am.  I am convinced that the blogosphere was invented by little old ladies with insomnia, and it got hijacked by everyone else.    😉

Jordanville.  It was strange this year.  I do think that the sense of strangeness stemmed from the loss of Metropolitan Laurus, of blessed memory, earlier this year.  People seem so lost without him around, and really, he was part of the integral history of the monastery.  He came there as a very young monk, and lived there for fifty years.  I feel sorriest for Father Florus, who I believe was tonsured with him on the same day — he must be feeling bereft of his “spiritual twin.”  But everyone else there seemed rudderless, too.

The Summer School had its fewest number of students since it began, what, 17 years ago?  I think it’s 17 years.  There were only thirteen first-year students — in contrast, my first year at Jordanville (2000), there were forty.  Four second-year students, and three third-year students (one year, there was only one third-year student, so that’s not entirely unprecedented, but still).  This was also the very first year that saw more male students than female students, and the first year that we had a plethora of tenors — so much so that there turned out to be just two sopranos, and that wasn’t enough to sustain a four-part mixed choir.  So they reshuffled everything, and created a “male” choir, with two tenor parts, a baritone, and a bass part.  The altos took the first tenor part, the tenors the second tenor, and the basses divided up into bari and bass.  The third-year students had to hurry up and find new pieces that they could conduct for the final exam; since they had had all year to research and prepare their original pieces, this was really hard on them, but they did it, and all were graduated (and probably should have received extra recognition!).  I was one of the two sopranos, and since losing my voice altogether seven years ago, I really don’t have a low voice left; so I ended up not singing at all.

Then there were the Candidates.  Not those candidates.  Apparently there’s a correspondence course, or something like it, for men who want to become priests; I forget what it’s called, but these guys are called priest-candidates, and I think it was Metropolitan Laurus who said that they had to attend one session of the Summer School in order to be considered for ordination.  At that one session, they cram in all three years of Typicon (the order of church services) and all three years of Church Slavonic, all taught by the same instructor, who teaches at warp speed.  All of these guys were highly offended that they had to (gasp) sing, in addition to their More Exalted Pastoral Studies, and actually managed to worm their way out of the singing (which I personally think was a mistake — a priest who can’t sing is a genuine liability to a parish).  After which, two of them spent the rest of their time pissing and moaning about having to learn Church Slavonic, like the entire universe should just get its head out of its, well you know, and learn English.  One of the guys, who had been a Protestant pastor in a previous life, spent the first week proselytizing to the Ignorant Russian Orthodox about their own faith (!!!), and the other spent the second week wondering why he had ever left Catholicism for Orthodoxy.  I really hope that the ordination of these two goes on indefinite hold.  The third guy was from the Ukraine, and of the three, he was the only one I thought had any real chance at being an actual priest.

The highlight of the trip, for me, was running into a monk I haven’t seen for three years — two years when I wasn’t at the School, and last year he was in Greece — and when I went to say Hello to him, I began, “I don’t know if you remember me” (he only sees me once a year), and he replied, “Of course I remember you, where’ve you been?”  Since this particular monk is Archimandrite George Schaeffer, soon to be Bishop Whatever Name They Give Him, I was simply delighted.  If you don’t know Father George — he is one of the most peaceful characters I have ever met, almost a wellspring of peace.  Great sense of humor, convert from Catholicism, and I understand, from one of the other monks, that in his younger years he had quite a temper, so he obviously knows something about spiritual warfare.  He will be a huge gain to the episcopacy, and a huge loss to those of us who have come to rely on his spiritual counsel.  I hope you will pray for him, and for the other Bishop candidate, Fr. John Shaw, as well as the newly elevated Bishop John Berzins, whom I met as a monk a few years ago, and who has a wicked sense of humor!  All of these men are being asked to shoulder an awful responsibility; it’s the first time I realized what a terrible responsibility a Bishopric is, mostly because I personally know two of the men being elevated, and I know how seriously they will take their duties.

All in all, it was a strange visit.  There were other strange occurrences that I won’t go into, but this was the first year I was actually glad to be on my way home, and maybe that was because this is the first year that I wasn’t either dealing with some kind of Situation at my home parish, or feeling like a Wandering Jew with no real parish home.  But I was glad to be back.

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Boy, it has been awhile since I last posted.

Tomorrow I leave for Jordanville, NY, which many of you who read this know is the site of the Summer School of Liturgical Music.  I get some interesting reactions when I tell people I’m attending a school for choir directors; I guess the “heathen-jellies” (evangelicals) have so brainwashed the American populace that people hear “choir” and start thinking in terms of lugubrious sopranos warbling “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

And I’m sitting here wondering why I am doing this to myself — a surprise, since I always speak so glowingly of this course, and I do love it, once I’m there.  But at the moment, all I can think of is how much I hate travel, whether or not I’ll remember everything I’ll need to sustain two weeks away from home, the drive, the traffic…  And at the moment, that ghastly guesthouse.  I do realize that since it’s the guesthouse for a monastery, it isn’t meant to be the lap of luxury.  And I do realize that most guests stay there for a maximum of three days, so a little spartan living isn’t beyond the limits of what we consider civilized living — I mean, the toilets are indoors, after all.

But — two showers for up to 45 people?!  That’s one per floor, and since there are three floors (the attic having been converted to guest rooms), the folks on the third floor have to catch as catch can for a shower.  Each floor boasts five toilets, two for women, two for men, and one in the same room as the shower — but there are eight rooms per floor, and each room sleeps two people, if you are traveling with a companion.  And last year, the guesthouse managers had “reserved” two rooms for company they were expecting from Europe, something they aren’t supposed to do — so music-school attendees did have to double up on sleeping arrangements, for the first time since I’ve been attending.

And there are the bugs.  The place is out in the country, literally in the middle of nowhere (Route 167 isn’t exactly Route 66), so the creepy-crawlies have to be expected, and none of them are “city bugs” (read roaches) — they just exist in the wild, and occasionally in the house, too.  You deal with them.  I don’t.  I hate bugs.

I have to keep reminding myself that once I’m there, I will love the pure fresh air, the slowed-down pace of life, the daily Liturgy at the cathedral, seeing all my old friends, and most of all, singing for two weeks straight.  I will enhance my knowledge of Russian Orthodox Church music, always a good thing.  I will exercise my brain with Church Slavonic (a major workout!).  And hopefully, I will garner enough spiritual strength in the Russian tradition to see me through another year of Byzantine liturgies, which, by the time you add in the quarter-tones characteristic of Byzantine music, is pretty taxing on the ears.

Time to finish packing.  But I do hate travel.

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A Couple of Links

Now, since the real Memorial Day isn’t till Friday, here are a couple of links to honor the members of our Armed Forces. It annoys me mightily that I can’t find the Marine Hymn sung, but there it is — if anyone knows of a youtube video where it’s sung reverently, please let me know, and I’ll update this post.

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I hope I don’t wear out “Father Count’s” welcome on this blog, but last night’s experience was a first for me, and I told him I was going to plaster it all over the internet. (He grinned and said, “Uh-oh.”)

Last night, our parish choir was singing the Hymn of Kassiane. Now, this choir consists of six or seven old bats, including yours truly — 3-4 sopranos, 3 altos, and one bass, normally, plus a woman who is trying to figure out the tenor part, having spent the past couple of years trying to sing alto, which turned out to be too high for her range. The Kassiane arrangement by Nicholas Roubanis is not the easiest piece of music on the face of this earth, and when I taught it to the same choir, umpty-scrunch years ago, it took us eight weeks to learn five pages. So last night, we were a bit “trepidatious,” if that’s a word (spell check says it isn’t), hoping we could pull this thing off with just one bass, who hadn’t been able to attend rehearsals for the past month.

Father’s down on the altar, doing his thing along with the retired priest of the parish. Father Count would do a section, Father A. would do another section, and they would alternate like that. Then the choir director tells us to stand up — it’s getting to be time for our choral offering — and suddenly there’s a familiar voice behind me: “Good evening!”

That son-of-a-gun had de-vested in the sacristy, slipped out a side door, down an outside corridor (so no one would see him leaving), and sneaked up to the choir loft!! And we had the benefit of his wonderful bass voice for this piece! The relief was palpable.

Afterwards, one of the ladies, who had been a great fan of the departed priest, nodded and said (of Father Count), “He’s a good egg.” High praise indeed. I have never seen a priest do this before, and when I thanked him, later, he said that he used to do this all the time in his old parish, where he was an assistant priest — he’d sit in at the organ if the organist needed to slip out, or provide a tenor or bass for a difficult piece.

My jaw is still hanging open. If this priest leaves us, I don’t think the parish will ever recover. I know I won’t.

A post scriptum: Thank you to everyone who has offered prayers and good wishes for the next round of horror. I hope it won’t be, but experience suggests otherwise, and I feel I would be foolish to expect anything but the worst. Thanks, too, for putting up with my negativity on the subject.

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Since “making a joyful noise unto the Lord” is usually the excuse given for truly dreadful church music, I’ve changed it to “making a holy noise.”  If you’re going to “sing unto the Lord,” it had better be holy.  Beautiful is even better.  Cacophony is OUT.

This post is occasioned by Fearless Leader’s comments over on the “Yum” post.  She was telling me about the time she and her husband told a Greek choir director that he needed to get rid of his organ — heresy to Greek choir directors — and that the parish should get rid of the pews (ditto, to the parish at large), and I left my own comment, to the effect that I have regular go-arounds with various Greek priests on the subject of choral music.

Some crackpot over at the Greek seminary has brainwashed an entire generation of priests into seriously believing that choral music is Bad, Bad, Bad, and that the Only Authentic Form of Greek Music is unison, with an ison.   And that this is what they should be encouraging in their own parishes, because it Encourages the Congregation to Sing.  Uh-huh.  I’d love to get my hands on this particular crackpot.

Because — well — I’ve been told I have a beautiful voice.  Whether or not I do, is entirely a matter of  opinion, though I do know that I love to sing, and we’ll leave it to God, Who sees hearts, as to how beautiful the music actually is.   The thing is — a number of years ago now, I had nodes on my vocal cords, and the only way to get rid of them was to stop singing.  When my voice recovered, somewhat, I found that I could only sing in the really high ranges of the scale — singing near alto really bothered my voice.  Now, around this time, we started attending a church with a choir whose sopranos sang more in the tenor range (!) — and the whole choir sang in unison.  That priest had been influenced by this crackpot at the seminary.  That priest, who married my daughter and her husband, also knew that I could sing, and was not too happy that I wasn’t singing along.

Then, one Holy Thursday, Father had two men leading the singing (Greek choirs don’t show up for daytime events, apparently).  And neither of them knew the special music.  And I, having been a choir director, did.  So I started singing it, and was promptly invited to “come over to the kliros and help them out.”  Afterwards, one of the men said, “We gotta get you into the choir.”  I told him why I couldn’t sing in the choir.  Next thing I knew, I was encouraged to Come and Sing in the Choir Anyway.  To make a ridiculously long story shorter, the only way I could handle singing in that choir was to sing the alto part an octave higher!  But it worked for me, and as a result, that choir started singing — duh — chorally.

Now that I’m back in the parish where I started, there’s a woman who keeps showing up for chant class who truly sounds as if she can’t carry a tune in a bucket.  But she keeps showing up.  Finally I had her sing by herself, and guess what — she has a fine voice.  It’s just that, well, she’s a tenor.  Now that she knows that, she sings an octave lower than the rest of us, and she does just fine.

So DON’T tell me that unison singing is the way to go, because I will hammer you over the head with my wide experiences of people who “can’t carry a tune in a bucket” (including my own son, whose bass is a true Russian octavist, but who can’t sing rock ‘n’ roll to save his life), but who, if they could only sing chorally, could produce a truly holy — and joyful — noise unto the Lord.

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