On Music, Life, Faith…

 

It’s springtime and there is music in the air! Lately I’ve been thinking about all that goes into a music performance, specifically that of an orchestra. Of course, there are the musicians who have practiced long hours over many years, purchased expensive instruments, and given up soccer games and chat time and all sorts of life events to attend rehearsals. Indeed, an orchestra requires a conductor, who has studied under the tutelage of other esteemed conductors and passed numerous benchmarks of excellence prior to reaching the podium. This journey has been competitive and demanding.  These are the obvious ingredients of an orchestra—the things we notice when sitting in the audience.

However, music performance requires many behind-the-scene tasks, often unknown to the typical concert-goer. Before each rehearsal and performance, someone must clear the stage of debris and set up chairs. The grand piano and array of percussion instruments must be carefully pushed into place, as well as music stands and microphones. Proper lighting is important so the performers can see their leader and their music.

The list goes on. Backdrops that help direct sound, risers, loud speakers, projectors and screens for special effects, unique devices in the case of live looping……. After the performance all of this must be undone as a courtesy to the next performing group.

Music teachers who attend to the endless details of performance day in our schools deserve a special “shout out” of gratitude. In addition to the above, they teach teamwork and responsibility, explore new compositions, design interesting programs, order and file music, …… AND patiently endure the squawks and squeaks of young learners.

Another lesser-known preparation for performance that occurs behind the scenes is the marking of music. For example, the section leader for the string players normally provides markings in advance of the first rehearsal. This requires skill and time. I just spent forty-five minutes with my coffee and computer, copying tiny symbols from screen to paper, each with an important purpose. Does the bow move upward or downward on this pick-up note? Do we slur four or eight notes together? A typical page of 1st violin music contains as many as twenty-five markings. Is this passage suddenly louder as indicated by the publisher or does the conductor wish to keep the volume at mezzo forte. There is an important pause at the end of bar three. I better pay attention to that. This fast section is best played in the fourth position. Better circle the D #.

Recently, while marking my violin score, I began to think about life. How well prepared am I for the next phase? Have I marked the fast sections and slow in my score, the boisterous and the sublime? Is the fingering written above the notes so that a smooth transition can occur between passages? Are dramatic pauses built into the plan?

Yikes! I am not the least bit prepared if readiness means having every detail in place. In fact, the opposite is true. Spontaneity is a part of my days, and in it I find joy and excitement. Of course, having a plan is important and success is usually related to good organization. However, plans change, other people show up, the music stops and starts again in the middle of the dance. One thing is certain: trust in a loving God makes it possible for me to adapt to the changing rhythms, even sometimes to just take a day at a time. The master plan is not in my hands, to be sure.

So then, how is living life like performing in an orchestra? I can’t imagine an ensemble in which everyone chooses on the spot what dynamic to play, how to finger a passage, or whether or not to extend a note for dramatic effect. This would be chaos. Maybe the analogy is: it’s important in life to set up the stage and anticipate critical landmarks. Beyond that, we simply must trust the conductor.

X Country Memories

I love teachers and especially those who coach sports! Recently I observed and wrote about swim coaches during an especially humid and hot Pennsylvania summer. What follows takes us to a cooler place and time, to the vast open spaces and dusty winding paths carved into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Imagine a sunny day in Ft. Collins with low humidity and a beautiful sky that stretches on forever, except where the mountains rise up abruptly in the West and draw a jagged line against the sea of blue. The altitude is 4,984 feet. High school cross country runners in brightly colored uniforms arrive and walk 1/4 mile or more to the stadium, where at least twelve other groups are staking out their territory and setting up “camp.” Team members help coaches carry coolers packed with fruit and snacks, large water jugs, and assorted equipment included a large tent awning.

The first to arrive plop their backpacks onto the grass and work together to raise up the poles of the canopy. Others talk with the coaches about the course and schedule. Some nap, play cards with friends or quietly stretch. I sit by one of the coolers and smile as the students help themselves. It’s a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere.

Before long, groups of uniforms make their way onto the dry crackling earth of the stadium and gather behind a yellow line. The coaches accompany them to give last minute reminders and encouragement. Teams form circles and sing chants and then line up as they await the ringing shot that sends the entire mass of color and energy bursting down the course like a herd of great creatures.

I cheer for the red and gold team and then slowly meander back to my seat in the shade as the runners disappear into the distance. For the coaches there is no rest, however. They run ahead to the 1-mile marker in order to time their students. Then on to the 2-mile marker for more record-keeping and finally they race to the finish line at the 3.1 mile marker ( 5 k) to welcome their hard-working runners. This seems pretty strenuous to me for adults who get up before dawn to prepare for the day and begin teaching by 7:30 AM.

Now this is the key! Anyone who has ever set foot in a high school classroom knows that total attention and energy are required to effectively implement a lesson and manage a class. Teachers need to respond to the surprises that occur and, most important, they are committed to offering each student special individual care. Most teachers have five classes daily and that translates to as many as one hundred fifty students. As well, they teach various levels and content throughout the day and must prepare materials, write and grade tests, answer emails, attend meetings, administer make-up work, etc. This sounds like a full-time job! Teachers who coach sports move directly from the classroom to the responsibility of supervising students at practice and in competition. I never fully appreciated the extra rigor and energy required to be a teacher-coach—until now.

Back to the throngs of students who are pacing themselves, breathing, and concentrating on strategies while moving along the course…….it’s soon time for me to leave my comfy chair and find the finish line. Some students look like they’re in pain. All are perspiring. Some lurch forward with new energy as they approach the end. Others barely make it across. I cheer for each runner equally as he or she makes it to the finish.

 

………..This all occurred on a Friday after school. I was proud to be there and to secretly applaud my son, one of the coaches. As dusk fell, we returned to his house, engaged in lively chatter about the personal records made that day and the positive team spirit I had witnessed over and over. I learned that the coaches check in with each runner after a competition to ask if goals were met and what new learning has occurred. If a runner has a bad day, encouragement and understanding from the coach are essential. I discovered that it’s not about winning, but rather about character, learning, and growth. Eventually, we discussed dinner and came up with a nice menu of quinoa, spinach salad, and leftover grilled beef. It tasted great, but I shouldn’t have been hungry. After all——-I hadn’t run anywhere.