St. Herod’s Episcopal Church

 

(Originally posted December 29, 2011)

Liturgical calendars remind us that today we are to celebrate the life of Thomas Becket, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who argued with King Henry II over issues of authority, with fatal consequences.

Issues of authority…power versus authority…these are themes that color nearly every news story and touch our lives in various ways. Christians  recently re-acknowledged the authority of a tiny babe born in Bethlehem a couple of thousand years ago. And legend, if not history, has King Herod quite fearful of the authority being placed in that newborn, seeing it as a threat to his own power and ordering the deaths of all boys under the age of two. What kind of authority did he expect that show of power to confer upon him? How to make a distinction between authority and power?  Is it simply the difference between what is bestowed and what is taken?

A good sermon usually turns at some point and takes the listener (or reader) to a place they might not have expected.  I am now artlessly making such a turn because I wanted to share again a TED (“Technology, Entertainment, Design”) Talk I came across several years ago. TED Talks, as you probably know, are forums for cross-related ideas on many topics. This particular mini-seminar is by an Italian conductor, Itay Talgam, who gives presentations to businesses around the world that “explore the magical relationship between conductor, musician and audience to achieve inspiring new insights into leadership, management, and teamwork.”  He is, in fact, exploring themes of power versus authority.

Near the end of Talgam’s 20-minute presentation (which had me laughing out loud several times, by the way), he talks about the confluence of creativity at any given moment during a concert between the architect of the hall, the conductor, the musicians and the audience. It wasn’t a difficult stretch for me to imagine that same kind of confluence happening during a worship service – the church building itself, liturgical leaders and the congregation all contributing some part to the experience. Somewhere around the 6:45 mark Talgam relates a funny story about musicians asking a renowned conductor to resign, telling him “you’re using us like instruments, not as partners.”

No surprise that there is so often more potential for fruitfulness in collaborative efforts. Who knows, there might have been a Saint Herod’s Episcopal Church somewhere in the world had that ancient king worked with the authority given to Jesus rather than being threatened by it.

Whether you have an interest in issues around power versus authority, in qualities of effective leadership, or simply enjoy music and observing the conductor’s craft I hope you will find 20 minutes to watch this highly entertaining TED talk. If you don’t have the time, let me leave you with one last thought, taken from something Talgam says about Leonard Bernstein near the end of his talk – “you can see the music on his face.”

As we cross paths with people throughout this coming new year, what will be seen on our faces?  Faith?  Joy?  Hope?  Kindness?  An invitation to explore any of those things together?  I suspect authority will be conferred upon you if so.

TED Talk-Itay Talgram

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

Gather

If there is one image that sums up Christmas for many people it is the crèche. The scene at the manger that is being set up in churches and homes and communities around the world. At its heart, of course, is the baby lying in a manger, helpless and adored by all those gathered around, and it is this gathering which is such a powerful part of the story being told by the crèche. Shepherds in the field, angels hovering nearby, kings on their way from distant lands, and even the animals in a humble shed are gathering around this baby.

Something happens when people gather. It’s hard to measure, but science tells us about all kinds of health benefits associated with participating in a community which gathers around shared interests. There are potential downsides, I realize. Group-think and mob-rule have dangerous consequences, but when communities are welcoming and loving, the potential for good is unlimited. I remember hearing a story years ago about the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The people had left the rubble of their impoverished homes and gathered together to sing. Singing to create community when they had nothing else.

No one has spoken more eloquently or worked more elegantly to create community around the human voice than composer, arranger and conductor Alice Parker, who celebrates her 91st birthday tomorrow on December 16. She was interviewed by Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being in an episode titled Singing is the Most Companionable of Arts which aired recently. In it she describes the human voice in choral singing as our best tool for discovering what emotions lay beneath the surface, for overcoming the differences among us in the kind of face-to-face way that is required to build understanding, and as a means of balancing intuition with the rationality that is overly glorified by our society.

But Parker says it so much better and listening to this interview is an hour well spent:

Alice Parker interview-“On Being”

I think there is a reason that choral singing is the predominant form of music-making at this time of year. Parker talks about the incredible space that exists, when we sing about our faith, between our human story and those things we cannot understand. Singing together gives us another way of gathering around the baby. Even the angels sang that night.

Sonya

  *   *   *   *   *

Where I’ll be:

November 27-January 1– organist/choir director at Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, Maryland, while their Music Director is recuperating. (www.christchurchrockville.org)

December 14, 7:30 p.m. – concert with Zemer Chai, The Mansion at Strathmore. (http://www.zemerchai.org/upcoming-performances-cr3j)

December 13, 15, 16 – World Bank/IMF Chorus concerts, Magnificats by John Rutter and Johann Pachelbel for choir and orchestra. 1:00 p.m. (www.wbimfchorus.org/news)

December 17, 10:00 – Washington National Cathedral, Bethlehem Prayer Service, simulcast (https://cathedral.org/event/bethlehem-prayer-service)

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Morning and Mourning

(first published December 9, 2010)

The liturgical season of Advent, which began this past Sunday, beautifully mirrors the natural world around us. Plants and animals close in on themselves for a time of hibernation that is ultimately the sustenance needed for renewed vigor. In a similar way Christians are asked to quiet their minds and prepare for Christ’s coming. Images of dark and light abound in the readings and music, just as the light of day is most precious in its contrast to night’s darkness. The duality of Advent is represented as well in the comfort we are encouraged to feel when we hear about a Savior’s birth, contrasting with the discomfort of the prophets’ words. Comfort, comfort…you brood of vipers!

Like the Chinese philosophical concept of yin and yang, the contrary messages of Advent are interdependent.  The anticipation we have for the coming of Christ in the flesh, a baby in a manger, is paired with the coming of Christ at the end of time.  What do we have here, a beginning or an ending? Both?

There is an African-American spiritual that inadvertently reflects two possible mind-sets for this time of year. Taking its inspiration from the Gospel of Matthew 24:29-31*, My Lord, what a morning is sometimes written as My Lord, what a mourning. Slavery’s oral tradition obscures the song’s original meaning, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine that those who first gave voice to spirituals were closer to mourning.

Light and dark. Comforting words and admonitions. The joy of welcoming an infant Savior and the fear of being unprepared for God’s expectations of us. Morning and mourning. Each part of these pairings has something to teach us, but ultimately light, joy, comfort and morning will win, if we so choose.

Peace, Sonya

*Matthew: 24-31 (NRVS)

Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from on end of heaven to the other.

* * * * *

Where I’ll be:

November 27-January 1– organist/choir director at Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, Maryland, while their Music Director is recuperating. (www.christchurchrockville.org)

December 14, 7:30 p.m. – concert with Zemer Chai, The Mansion at Strathmore. (http://www.zemerchai.org/upcoming-performances-cr3j)

December 13, 15, 16 – World Bank/IMF Chorus concerts, Magnificats by John Rutter and Johann Pachelbel for choir and orchestra. 1:00 p.m. (www.wbimfchorus.org/news)

December 17, 10:00 – Washington National Cathedral, Bethlehem Prayer Service, simulcast (https://cathedral.org/event/bethlehem-prayer-service)

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

 

Improvise

My plan for this week was to record one of Francis Poulenc’s Improvisations for piano, and write about the study of improvisation’s effects on the brain. There was quite a splash a few years ago around this topic, and indeed there is a TED talk and several articles available online that describe the effect on certain parts of the brain when someone is musically improvising. All kinds of music can involve improvisation, including jazz, of course, as well as the world’s folk traditions. Some of the most involved improvisations are created by organists, where that instrument’s vast array of tonal possibilities are thrown into the mix.

As you must realize, musical improvisation involves the use of musical building blocks in spontaneous ways, and those building blocks of scales, chord progressions, rhythms and melodic lines are practiced by a musician for years, to the point that they become second nature. These building blocks are then called up as needed during the process of improvising, as skill is transformed into art.

It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to realize that we all improvise on a daily basis. Every verbal exchange is an improvised reaction to someone or something and we use the building blocks of vocabulary and grammar and tone to improvise our comments and conversations.  Some are better than others at being able to speak “off the cuff,” but there is no doubt that practicing builds skill, and in some, even art.

______________________

My plan for this week was also to avoid writing about anything connected to the recent Presidential election, but I simply can’t sweep that under the carpet. In the last few days I have twice been brought to tears by fallout from this election. A friend from Delaware visiting me over the weekend told me about his friends, an older gay couple who have lived in a wealthy Wilmington suburb for years. They came home this past week to a note on their door. “Dear Homos…” it began, and from there became even more hateful, with threats of what a Trump presidency means for all of the LGBTQ community.

In another incident, a woman working at the church where I have been playing this fall shared something with the staff. Her son works at Towson University in Maryland and was walking with three other young African-Americans when they were accosted and taunted by a group of young white men with the words “Hey n…go back to Africa.”  His cooler head kept violence at bay, but what those tormenters didn’t know is that this woman’s son had emigrated from Africa with his parents in 2008, and he is an African-American in the most literal sense.  He and his family were thrilled to have voted for the first time in their new country just last week, and this incident shook them up in ways that are heartbreaking to think about.

The perpetrators of those incidents were improvising, using the building blocks that came most naturally to them I guess – hate, fear, divisiveness, cruelty, ignorance.  We’ve read and heard about many of these kinds of anecdotes recently, but these particular incidents were just two degrees of separation from me, which seems so very close.

I heard another story from a different staff member at this same church.  She was shopping a few days ago in a part of Washington, D.C. that I would have thought to be the epicenter of liberal elitism, in a high-end grocery store near Washington National Cathedral. A group behind a young Muslim woman wearing a headscarf quietly repeated, “go back to where you came from.” The person telling this story said she went over and stood next to the Muslim woman, putting herself in between the ugliness and its intended victim. Without saying anything, she improvised her own response, and it spoke plainly of solidarity.

We have a choice of building blocks with which to improvise, just as musicians can decide what harmonies and rhythms to use in their improvisations. Mean-spiritedness or an acceptance of differences? Ignorance or a desire to understand? Walls or reconciliation? The cowardice of hate or the courage to love?

No one just sits down and starts improvising on an instrument without practicing the various elements of music’s language. In the same way, we all need to practice the building blocks of civil discourse right now, because we don’t know when we’ll be called upon to improvise a response to incivility.

I did make a recording of Poulenc’s lovely little Improvisation No. 7 after all, because music will always be the right response to any situation. (Poulenc, Improvisation No. 7)

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

Where I’ll be:

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical. (www.chevychasepc.org)

November 27-January 1– organist/choir director at Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, Maryland, while their Music Director is recuperating. (www.christchurchrockville.org)

December 14, 7:30 p.m. – concert with Zemer Chai, The Mansion at Strathmore. (http://www.zemerchai.org/upcoming-performances-cr3j)

December 12, 15, 16 – World Bank/IMF Chorus concerts, Magnificats by John Rutter and Johann Pachelbel for choir and orchestra. 1:00 p.m.  (www.wbimfchorus.org/news)

December 17, 10:00 – Washington National Cathedral, Bethlehem Prayer Service, simulcast (https://cathedral.org/event/bethlehem-prayer-service)

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

 

 

 

Carya

What began as an idea somewhere on the spectrum of “cute”, has become something much more meaningful to me.  I needed to come up with the name for a group of singers that a colleague and I are taking to sing at two cathedrals in England next summer.  Putting our names together – Carleen and Sonya – was the idea that kept coming back to me, and with my colleague’s permission, our little ensemble became The Carya Ensemble.

It seemed a good idea, though, to check that word out first with the source of all knowledge, Google.  Carya, I learned, is a botanical genus which includes hickory and pecan trees.  A particular characteristic of this genus is resiliency, and  I liked the idea of aligning myself with a concept I admire so much in plants and people alike.  I was surprised to learn that, though the word “resilient” dates back to the 17th century, it wasn’t used as a description for a desirable human characteristic until the 1970’s.  There are words like grit and determination that were perhaps used before, but something more is implied with resiliency. It suggests, in ways the other words don’t, a molding of thought and actions to fit circumstances out of our control.

Where does a person’s ability to be resilient come from?  In part, I believe, it is a skill we acquire when we have enough empathy to learn from all the small and big ways that the people around us show courage in their daily lives.  It develops in those who have enough faith to believe that “all shall be well” and the patience to wait out the “long arc of moral justice.” Perhaps most important of all, resilience abounds in those who are able to remember with some frequency to practice gratitude.

Carya has become something of a mantra for me.  I hear it in my mind’s ear and find comfort in the sound. I wish I could turn it into a greeting …or a blessing. “Carya,” I might say next time I see you. May you be resilient.

I chronicled my own journey on the road to resiliency in an article published in the November edition of The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians which you can read here: JAAM article

Carya!

Sonya

Time

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.

From the 15th chapter of I Corinthians and used by Handel in his Messiah, these are words that often echo through my brain and which have inspired a couple of different postings. Unlike music, which is ruled by timely precision – rhythms, meters, tempi – and unlike the world we live in where timing can be everything and time usually feels like a scarce and valuable commodity, these words imply a less concrete, more expansive sense of time.

Perhaps, like me, you have been sitting on Metro, waiting for the single track to become available so your train can move, when you hear the operator assuring passengers that we will be moving momentarily.  “In a moment” – a phrase of breathtaking elasticity.  The train conductor’s vague sense of time brought to my mind’s ear the words above from Messiah, sung of course by a rich baritone voice.

A humbling moment for me was in sixth grade when our creative writing teacher, an amazing woman named Frances Sandmel, asked our class to write about time.  I was stumped, completely and utterly drawing a blank.  My more clever classmates came up with wonderful ideas that Mrs. Sandmel then cobbled into a poem which we read as a class at a very 70’s kind of happening, with musicians from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, in a garden at the William Howard Taft Museum. The essential idea of her creation was that time equals change.  My young classmates wrote about time as mold growing on bread and the instant between a soldier standing and falling to the ground after being shot (our world included a war in Vietnam on television every evening after all).  Of time as a baby becoming a grandmother.

In other words, time is a twinkling of an eye and also a moment, because change happens at the speed of light as often as it does over an expanse. We talk about time standing still, and time flying.  We experience time in slow motion and yet decades of our lives seem to go by in a flash.

I believe that God exists simultaneously in the past, present and future, and that we would do well to find ways of doing the same. Would that we could live with a deeper knowledge of our connections to the past, while having the energy to satisfy our present needs and desires, and at the same time fly on the wings of our hopes for the future.  Seeing time this way just might take some of the edge off of our worries about not having enough of it and allay our concerns when time isn’t moving fast enough for those things we care most about, whether personal matters or on issues of justice and social change.  Those times when we need help to remember that the arc of the moral universe is indeed long… but only in human terms.

No surprise that Bach provides some useful wisdom about time in his Cantata No. 106, Gottes Zeit ist der allerbest Zeit – God’s time is the best of all times.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

Where I’ll be:

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical. http://www.chevychasepc.org

November 6 – 4:00, playing for John Rutter’s Requiem with the choir of All Saints Episcopal Church, Chevy Chase.

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.

 

HOW DO YOU GET TO CARNEGIE HALL?

I met a renowned musician last week and we shared a laugh – one of those incredulous laughs that mask the fact that you actually want to cry – when he told me that he was asked by someone he was working for at the time why he had to practice so much. Hadn’t he already learned how to play his instrument? I had the same question asked of me several years ago by someone who really should have known better and I didn’t have a good comeback then, though I’ve thought of a thousand since. Should a professional athlete forgo practice and just show up for the games? Should a lawyer read up on new laws and court decisions or just wing it? Same for a doctor? And shouldn’t we all just be able to sit quietly in a comfortable seated position for extended prayer or meditation at any given moment?

There’s a reason we use the word “practice” for musicians and athletes, medical and legal professionals, and even yogis. Anything we want to do better requires us to practice, and these pursuits are lifelong commitments for many of us.

To practice something which we want to have as part of our lives was an idea brought to my mind again this week during a Rosh Hashanah service for which I was playing (I practiced quite a lot for it, by the way). The Rabbi talked about a practice he wanted to incorporate more fully into his life – that of thanking someone for the blessing of allowing him to perform a mitzvah, a word which can mean an act of kindness. He wants to make it a habit to thank those who allow him to be helpful.  Habits don’t become an integral part of our lives without practice.

Does anyone remember the bumper sticker that was quite popular in the late 1980’s which read: Practice random kindness and commit senseless acts of beauty?

These things don’t happen without practice. The practice of lifelong commitment to being and doing better.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

Where I’ll be:

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical. http://www.chevychasepc.org

Also in October, I will be playing for the High Holy Days (a first for me) for the Bethesda Jewish Congregation.

November 6 – 4:00, playing for John Rutter’s Requiem with the choir of All Saints Episcopal Church, Chevy Chase.

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.