A Life in Three Parts

We often think of things in threes. Rock, paper, scissors…primary colors…Father, Son and Holy Spirit…youth, middle age, old age.  I had the good fortune to spend a week at The Chautauqua Institution in western New York this summer, and among the many wonderful speakers I heard, two spoke about a three-part progression in our quest for a life of purpose:

San Francisco chef and food justice activist, Bryant Terry, who is chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora, believes that we must “start with the visceral to ignite the cerebral and end with the political.”  He talked of the smells and sounds of his grandmother’s kitchen as transformational, emotionally connective experiences which inspired his advocacy for food justice to help people gain information about and access to healthy food. His movement from visceral through cerebral to political is inspiring and this YouTube video gives you a glimpse: Urban Organic

That same day I heard a porch talk (Chautauqua is place where books and conversations are continuously savored on one porch or another) by author Sherrie Flick, who brought her own three-part perspective to how we might shape our lives.  She talked about developing our creativity in ways which open us up to feel more empathy for others. Not sympathy, but a heightened ability to listen to others without judging, something which just might push us a step further into a movement of contagious empathy. Those kinds of sweeping cultural shifts which reveal to us our common humanity in places where we might previously have only seen differences.  Gender equality.  LGBT rights. Black Lives Matter. DACA.  Flick’s article on this will appear later this fall in Creative Nonfiction.

There is an oft-quoted mantra for church musicians who take their work seriously which defines a church musician as a pastor, a teacher, and a musician. In that order, so Eric Routley, who wrote about these three roles of the church musician, adamantly insisted. It’s parallel to the three-legged stool Anglican theologian Richard Hooker outlined – scripture, tradition and reason. And others have talked about another three-legged stool – a Sunday morning version in which liturgy, music and preaching share the weight.

As we know, it’s an unsteady seat when one of the legs is longer, and for 35 years of working as a church musician I have tried to keep the three legs of my work equally balanced. I can’t imagine how one exists without the other in fact. I can’t teach if I don’t continue to develop my own musicianship. I can’t lead people musically if I haven’t addressed their pastoral concerns in one way or another, and as a pastor I try to teach (or model) the behaviors and skills that will inform the music – e.g. caring enough about the value of music in liturgy and spiritual growth to rehearse and prepare it properly, all in the name of offering God the very best of ourselves. Of course, let’s be honest, leading choirs can sometimes be a three-ring circus instead of a three-legged stool!

One more three-part lesson to share with you.  I have become devoted to my practice of yoga the past few years and one day the teacher I work with most often used a set of three words several times during class.  The Hindu half of me felt an East meets West moment as she urged us to think of our bodies sinking into the earth while the wind of our breath moved through our bodies and our minds became as open and light-filled as the sky.  Throughout class that day she simply said:

Sky…Earth…Wind

But what I heard was:

Father…Son…Holy Spirit

And sometimes she said:

Mind…Body…Breath

And a three-part prayer formed: May we strive to know the mind of God, as we become the body of Christ and notice more often the moving breath of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Peace.  Namaste.  Amen.

Sonya

 

 

 

Endings

Endings of any kind are by definition beginnings of something else.  We know that from every commencement speech we’ve ever heard, don’t we!  Last week I finished my musings on the 32 parts of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  In a couple of weeks I end a self-described sabbatical by beginning work as the Interim Minister of Music at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish in Bethesda, Maryland.  And these next few weeks bring us toward the end of my favorite season, summer.  Yes, in all its humid glory, August is my favorite month, in part because there are little signs of change in the sounds and light of late August that I love.  Changes that signal an ending.  The kind of ending which promises a beginning.

I’m going to take a brief hiatus from writing Notes for a New Day. I’ll return in mid-September, when I will connect this blog with my work at St. John’s. Meanwhile, should August still hold some promise of quiet for you, seize the opportunity to read a book that you won’t have time for later.  Here are some I’ve read this summer, and I happily recommend any of them to you:

A Gentlemen from Moscow by Amor Towles – An utter delight to read, with elements of mystery and history woven around the story of a man who transforms his life in surprising ways as he finds purpose.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – Because I loved the first book so much, I found his other published novel.  A lesser work, but still beautifully written.

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa – The great conductor’s genius, joy, and curiosity shine through in every exchange he has with author Haruki Murakami.

Resistance by Owen Sheers – However overused, lyrical is the only word I can come up with to describe this beautiful novel, set in Wales.  It moves very slowly at first, but as you get to the middle you realize why. You have been drawn into the very soil of the Welsh mountains, away from what others might call the “real world,” and are as much a part of the landscape as the characters.

Chesapeake by James Michener – A book can only sit on your bookshelf for so long, staring reprovingly at you, and this became the summer it demanded to be read.  It’s huge in every sense of the word, but the book that I thought was about a beautiful aspect of Maryland is actually about racism and the lingering effects of slavery on American society, and I happened to finish it the day of violent confrontation around those same topics in Charlottesville.

And a few books will travel with me for some serious porch sitting in western New York this week:

The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton – They had me with the book jacket description of a family’s “sprawling apple orchard.”  I have a particular fascination with apples and how they’re grown.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – Well, because I just need to read everything by this author.

Happy endings.  We’ll begin something new in September.

Peace,
Sonya

 

 

Wisdom

When we get to the end of something, anything, it’s natural to look back and wonder what could have been different, what should have been different.  Maybe those feelings are labeled as regrets, or maybe they’re simply insights into what has been.

So many regrets, hmmm, insights! I wish I was a better pianist, and I wish I could have more fully accessed and conveyed all that I feel about this music. Maybe I should have explored other ideas, such as serenity, courage, trust, light…

Complexity makes this music interesting, but it is the simplicity of its symmetry and repeated harmonic progression that bring people to it again and again, I think. Coming home to the final Aria, the innocence we first heard in the opening Aria becomes something else – perhaps evoking nostalgia, or weariness, or contentment.  We can’t return home, whether after a lifetime or after these 30 explorations, and have it be the same after all we’ve been through. The wisdom of old age surely knows that as it recasts any regrets into insights, and wistfulness into contentment.

I was inspired several years ago to write for another blog about the Goldberg Variations after reading an article by pianist Jeremy Denk. I quoted him in 2012 and again now because he summarizes so beautifully my own thoughts:

The [Goldberg Variations] is a lesson in many things, but primarily in wonder; the way that the tragic variations fuse seamlessly into the breathlessly comic, the way that simple scales become energy, joy, enthusiasm, the celebration of the most fundamental elements of music…[and at the end there is] a sense of completeness of everything that has come before, the rightness, and…the radiance of experience.  It gives you that rare thing in human existence: a sense that, at the end of something, it has all been worthwhile.”

That’s the message of hope that Bach is speaking to me.  It has all been worthwhile. How is wisdom gained? I would say that it is achieved by celebrating the most fundamental elements of life; cultivating patterns of healthy relationships, kindness, generosity, and by opening our hearts to God’s plan for us.

Peace,
Sonya

NPR’s “Goldberg Week” 
Read more by Jeremy Denk


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.

Irreverence

What emerges from all that chaotic experimentation of the previous Variation? Irreverence! Not what anyone would have expected from the dourly-depicted J.S. Bach, devout Lutheran and Cantor of Leipzig. What a refreshing insight we are given here, one which humanizes his monumentalism.

Four part harmony, jocular in tone, this variation is a spirited chorale-like ending akin to those found in his cantatas. Described as a quodlibet – “what you please” – the music has suggestions of two old folk songs, Ich bin so lang night be dir guest (“I have been so long away from you”) and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben (” Cabbage and beets have driven me away”). 

Goldberg Variations, 30 (Irreverence)

BUT, as you can hear, I completely failed with this one. I had wanted to capture some sense of a slightly drunken, mildly bawdy gathering of Bachs in 17th century Germany.  Beer steins raised, laughter, and hearty folk songs. Listening to what I recorded eight months ago now, I find that I was in a sedate frame of mind that didn’t serve what I was hearing in my mind’s ear very well. I will certainly go back and re-record this one day soon when I’m feeling less polite.

Next week, the opening Aria returns and brings us full circle from Innocence to Wisdom. Alpha to Omega. The journey will end where it began, but not before a bit of irreverential fun that reminds us not to take ourselves or life’s complications too seriously.

Peace,
Sonya

Read more: National Public Radio-Bach’s Enduring Enigma


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.

 

Creativity

Creativity is messy. Its path is littered with the failures and incoherence of experimentation. Though our creative efforts can lead to something beautiful or useful on occasion, acting on those creative impulses is about the effort more than the result, don’t you think? This particular variation, building on the freneticism of the previous one, has a lot going on.  It seems like Bach might be exploring an incoherent stage of his creative process.  What will emerge from all this experimentation in the final variation?

Goldberg Variations, 29 (Creativity)

A few years ago I saw and wrote about a documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction,” about pianist Seymour Bernstein and directed by actor Ethan Hawke. Bernstein doles out wisdom in heaping spoonfuls in this film, and his wisdom goes from how the two-note slurs in a Beethoven Sonata can be played more beautifully to the purpose of being creative. He talks about learning to integrate his creative self into his daily life, a simple life that is extraordinarily focused on simply being kind and caring enough to want to bring out the best in his music and in people he meets. Music is really only a vehicle for living his creative life. That vehicle could just as easily have been nursing or engineering or parenting.

Bernstein tries to dispel the idea that art only comes from great suffering. He makes the case for practice – the detailed hard work of really focusing, with great care, on the preparation of something – being the thing that informs one’s art. While I do believe something very special can happen “in the moment,” a magical moment doesn’t often happen without preparation. The preparation might be as hard as thousands of hours of practice, or as simple as being open-minded enough to act on a untested idea. In fact, creativity seems to call upon so many of the things I’ve been writing about for the past 30 weeks – persistence, openness, playfulness, listening, curiosity, fearlessness, resiliency, perspective…

Creativity is about more than having imaginative ideas…it’s about the work of bringing those ideas to life in a process that uses both sides of our brain. Our creative impulses originate internally, but with plenty of external help coming from conversations and opportunities of time and place. It requires a level of rebelliousness, but the rebellion born of an appreciation for tradition, and a discipline which emerges from passion.

There’s also the element of chance. The film about Seymour Bernstein came about because the 88 year old pianist happened to get seated next to Ethan Hawke at a dinner party, where the two discussed their fears – Bernstein’s stage fright that had led him to give up concertizing 37 years earlier, and Hawke’s fear that his life as an actor is meaningless.  From those fears came a life devoted to teaching and believing in the power of creativity, and this brilliant film.

Thinking of practice as art was a revelation to me. One of the young, extraordinarily talented students in the film talks about learning to really listen to people, because he has learned to listen so carefully to the music he is practicing. We are all creating our lives each day, ideally practicing the details that make us kinder, more compassionate, and ultimately, more whole.

Peace,
Sonya


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.

 

 

Resilience

I wrote last fall about the name of a group, The Carya Ensemble, that I was forming with a colleague to sing in the U.K. this summer – singing this very week, in fact, for services at Lichfield and St. David’s cathedrals. Carya, I had learned, is a botanical genus which includes hickory and pecan trees, and a particular characteristic of this grouping of plant life is resiliency.  To be resilient implies, as it does for trees, a flexibility to adapt to our environment and the ability of our wounds to heal in ways that build on the strength of scar tissue.

Goldberg Variations, 28 (Resilience)

The trills in this variation are relentless, providing an inner energy that fuels sparks of detached eighth notes. Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk, in his NPR musings on The Goldberg Variations, uses words like “zany” and “manic” to describe this music, and conjures up the image of Mickey Mouse’s endless supply of brooms in Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section. Chaos ensues, but Mickey survives, resilient as always.

I don’t recommend manic behavior as a survival technique, but there’s something to the idea that, as with those trills, we should just keep moving – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Getting unstuck from unhealthy behaviors, grudges, toxic “friends” or dulling places in our lives seems like a good first step on the path towards resilience.

Peace,
Sonya


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.

 

 

Playfulness

Goldberg Variations, 27 (Playfulness)

Buoyancy is the word that first came to mind for this variation, but that’s not a word I could easily use in the context of these posts. Though the music itself made me feel buoyant as I played it, that’s hardly a personal quality to develop. “Buoyant” is a term usually associated with science and Archimedes, as swimming, jumping on a trampoline, or seeing astronauts in space reminds us.

Even scientifically then, buoyancy implies a lightness of being and a sense of playfulness. The word’s second meaning now comes into better focus – that quality of buoyancy which describes someone as cheerful and optimistic.

Musically, Variation 27 is a game of Follow the Leader.  Bach composed it as a canon at the ninth, one note more than an octave, which almost has one part saying, “follow me,” and the other responding, “I can go even higher than you!” It’s all in good fun, having temporarily escaped from the serious bass line’s weight.

When we are playful, we are lighter.  We’ve let go of routine and effort and a need to win.  If we have to win, we aren’t really being playful, are we? Moments of playfulness keep us from taking ourselves, or anything else, too seriously. We are briefly unmoored from responsibility, importance, from a need to control. We risk making a fool of ourselves, of course, but in taking a risk like that we might just find ourselves floating away from those people and problems that threaten to drown us.

Peace,
Sonya


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.