Wonder and Song

Expectations – that is the first audible word on this bit from a video made at the World Science Festival in 2009, which I’ve shared with readers several times in the past.  It’s a video which continues to amaze me. As you’ll see,  the brain manages our expectations in all kinds of surprising ways:

Bobby McFerrin-World Science Festival

Clearly Bobby McFerrin is a gifted teacher, a supremely talented musician, and a creative thinker on all fronts.  The pentatonic scale that he is teaching to this audience (of scientists presumably, rather than musicians) is a universal building block for folk music around the world.  The music we would likely consider most comfortable to sing is often based on a pentatonic scale – that is, a series of intervals equivalent to the five black notes on the piano.  For instance, you could play Amazing grace, how sweet the sound or Sometimes I feel like a motherless child almost entirely on only the piano’s black keys.

I would never have guessed that McFerrin could so easily manage expectations and lead the audience members to unknowingly sing a pentatonic melody.  To see the brain process a musical concept like this right in front of my eyes was fascinating and I am awed by the continuing revelations through scientific study of how wonderfully we are made.  So wonderfully, in fact, that our brains seem to be hard-wired for music, thanks be to God!

This all came to mind this past Sunday when someone commented on an anthem setting sung that morning of the hymn What wondrous love is this, out of that marvelous early American resource of religious song, The Sacred Harp. We talked about the strength of that tune, and the rootedness of music which emerges from any folk tradition, and I was reminded of McFerrin’s dance through the pentatonic scale.

If you play the piano even a little, you can begin the tune on A-flat and play the whole of What wondrous love on the black notes (with one exception…your ear will tell you what to do). The sound is not exactly minor, but it’s certainly not a major key either. The tune expresses the expansive, open quality we often associate with American music, with its plain rhythms and its call to be harmonized with open fifths which refuse to anchor the listener in either sadness or happiness, but simply in strength. The text incorporates three simple expressions of faith – wonder, song and the timelessness of God’s love.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to lay aside his crown for my soul.
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme I will sing.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be,
and through eternity I’ll sing on.

Expectations, at heart, are simply strong beliefs, and in that spirit my expectations include a willingness to live into the belief that God has lovingly designed us for wonder and song.



Timid, haughty, withdrawn, aloof, arrogant…those are some of the words people use to describe introverts. Our celebrity culture looks with some suspicion on that quality of being which finds energy in solitary pursuits. It doesn’t mean introverts fear social occasions, but there can be a sense of acting a part when faced with the small talk and jostling for attention prized by an extroverted society. Certainly, it seems like a mistake to confuse shyness (and its associated anxiety) with introversion. I say this with some authority because I identify as an introvert, and the Meyers-Briggs test I took several years ago agrees. Many of us introverts grew up thinking that something was wrong because the stuff of daily interactions seemed to be harder for us than our extroverted friends.  We thought we were socially deficient, rather than simply socially different.  Of course, my much older and wiser self knows that it’s always a mistake to compare my inner self to your outer self.

Popular psychology and TED Talks have some good things to say about introverts these days.  Reflective, non-reactive, observant…those are some of the positive attributes studies confer on introverts. They are people who crave authentic interactions and not ones built on networking and party banter. They are eager to dive into philosophical discussions, and though not very quick to share opinions,  you can be certain that there is a constant inner-dialogue going on that is weighing the voices of past experiences with current knowledge, emotions and intuition.

But in reality, most of us are probably ambiverts – a convenient balance between extroversion and introversion that allows us to behave in ways we find comfortable, depending on our individual reaction to a particular set of circumstances.  Living on the edges of behavior can be exciting or cautious to an extreme, but finding comfort in the middle just might be something to value more, especially in this world of loudly voiced opinions and shrilly proclaimed fake news and unconsidered  reactions.

Goldberg Variation 2 – Introverted



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I’ve lived with Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” for a long time now. More than half my lifetime. 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 gifted to me on January 5, 2016.




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


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