Friday, January 29, 2016

for organists -- Changing the culture at your church (part two)

So what's it like being an organist? That's probably a question few people even think to ask. And the answer is, it's different. How different? Consider this illustration.

The congregation is singing a hymn. Everybody in the building who is able is standing.

The organist is sitting.

Everybody is singing,

The organist is playing an instrument.

Most of the people are bunched up together facing the same direction.

The organist is off in a corner somewhere, unseen. (note: in our church, the organ is on the opposite side of the chancel from the choir so I don't even sit with them) Sometimes the organist has a balcony all to themselves, or a chancel area, or is off to the side someplace.

The people, if they know the hymn and are willing, are making a fairly healthy noise between all of them.

The organist could drown the entire congregation with the touch of a button.

And that's just during a hymn! The organist is certainly a specialized position, like a goal keeper in soccer (futbol!). He or she may even be wearing a unique uniform to make the distinction evident (I ditched my robe years ago because it made it really hard to get around and nobody complained).

These are all relatively small distinction, really. But if an extraterrestrial were suddenly to be dropped into a church service, these might be the first signs that the organist was unusual. The reality is that these difference continue into the daily life and functions of the organist in ways that aren't so visually obvious.

At my church, everyone has offices down at the south end of the building. But the sanctuary, where I spend most of my time, is at the other end of the building! I soon learned that if I didn't take a walk down to the south end of the building every day during a practice break, my colleagues would never see me! And I would probably not learn a lot of what was going on in the church because it was often done via face to face meetings in the hallway, or just by walking into someone's office to have a chat.

I also have a desk, but am not at it very much, unlike the rest of the staff (except the custodians). My hours are somewhat similar, but only because I like to prepare during the daylight hours. My rehearsals and services are on evenings and weekends. There is some overlap with the rest of our dedicated staff on that one--not everyone works 9 to 5 weekdays, or does so exclusively. But organists can have schedules that virtually preclude face to face meetings with their colleagues. We'll have to discuss ways to overcome that, because the consequences of this kind of built-in invisibility are not generally good.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

There's always room for one more

At our New Year's Eve concert this year, we had a guest violinist.

I don't remember whether the director had told me she was coming or not. She may have hinted at it--I could have forgotten. I just didn't recall realizing she was coming ahead of time. But it didn't matter anyway.

People who have worked with me long enough realize that it isn't necessary to clear everything with me ahead of time. I can just roll with it. We met at the dress rehearsal, and,with a minor adjustment on my part, we were off.

I was looking at a poor man's version of a full score. It was written on just two staves, and the piano notes were the usual size. Mashed in and around those notes were many smaller, cue-sized notes, with occasional indications that they were for the flute, the oboe, the violin, and the guitar, none of which would be playing with us.

At rehearsals, I would often try to grab as many parts as I could to fill out the sound of the accompaniment, when I wasn't busy helping the singers. But I wasn't tied to all the notes, and so it was a simple matter to simply leave out all of the cue notes that were specifically for the violin. In several instances, the oboe was playing in harmony with the violin, so we had many charming passages in thirds.

Soon we decided that Rachel should also cover the oboe and flute parts whenever she could, which left a little more room for vagueness, but I decided to watch her bow to see whether she was about to play various passages, and soon had it pretty much figured out. The effect was lovely.

This seems like an accompanimental skill, but I thought it would be useful as we start to talk about improvisation, simply because many people approach the subject with a background in playing notes on a page. All the notes, and nothing but the notes. I suggest to improvisation students that they begin to break down that dictatorial relationship between the written notes and themselves.

For example, if you are a church organist learning to improvise, you could try playing only the outer voices of a hymn. Or just the tenor and soprano. Or just the downbeats. Or every other beat. These are also useful tools for a choral accompanist, but one of the ways we can learn to improvise is not to ignore, but to use written music for guidelines, suggestions, and of course, source material, just as we read, and then we share what we've read in conversation.

When I play a hymn in church, I often play some combination between the notes on the page and notes I have created myself. One can learn to add to a written score a variety of improvised passages. Or, you can take some of the written notes away. This last seems like it would be easier, but until the relationship of I see, therefore I play is made more fluid, it might not be so easy.

Imagine a world where you didn't have to play everything on the page! What a release!

Monday, January 25, 2016

OK, but when is this thing gonna be over?

Last time on "Flashy French Organ Toccatas" we met three of the flashiest, loudest, most aurally attractive pieces your ears will ever have the pleasure to meet. And they're modest, too!

Actually, modest is the one thing they are not. They don't steal subtly on the ear; they claim their ground right away. All is a rush of activity and exuberance right from the start, and at the finish, too.

In between?

This is where many a classical music listener gets lost. Novelty wears off after a while. In which case, it helps to have some sense of the "plot" of a piece of music, its structure. What's supposed to happen? What do I want to happen? Getting the key to that will unlock several secrets and make even the longest piece interesting. Or, at the very least, keep you from looking at your watch every few minutes.

Although, in this case, that's less likely to happen. One of the things that must make these toccatas so appealing to the average listener is that they are pretty easy to follow. That's because they often take the most basic shape. They get louder, they reach a climax, they conclude.

By the way, they don't rise to a crescendo. You may have heard that expression a great deal, but it is really a lot of nonsense. A crescendo means GETTING louder, not BEING louder. it is a process, not a goal. You don't rise to a rise.

In the middle of posting the blog last time I discovered that I had left out one very important Flashy French Organ Toccata. This is something I played in concert last fall. It is the shortest of the toccatas, and was one of two pieces its composer, Eugene Gigout, was asked to play at every appearance. He always obliged. You can listen to the entire toccata if you like--it's only three minutes. It does something that tends to make piece popular--it gets louder throughout. Unlike the other toccatas, which began loud, this one begins in a whisper, and then begins its crescendo.

Gigout: Toccata

Like the others, it consists of a continuous flurry of notes. The reason it is over so quickly is because it has all the formal complexity of a musical tapeworm. There is one simple tick-tock idea right at the beginning (hear it?) which lasts about 20 seconds. Then it is repeated. This time, the pedals add a long ominous note to the bass, while the hands play the same music as before. At this point, (:42) the harmonies change more quickly because some motion has been introduced into the piece. When the pedals come back a few seconds later (:52), they alternate long notes, wrapping around the dominant note of the old order; then they choose one very low note (1:00) and sit on it while the harmony settles in to prepare to its return to the beginning. The music grows louder, and when we start the whole journey over again, (1:11) the pedals have taken over the melody that used to be on top. This entire process (stasis, movement, setup) repeats, and then does so a third time (2:12); we hear it on full organ (this time our composer has filled in that opening tick-tock interval, still in the pedals,  with the note between which makes it sound more melodic). Finally we settle in on the home note in the key of b minor (drummed again and again in the pedals at 2:29) and one final move takes us to the thrilling conclusion. When a composer stops on a dime like that, after non-stop motion the entire piece, you know it's nearly over.

And that's it!

While the paragraph above may make your eyes glaze over--it may even seem like excessive analysis for such a short piece--I've managed to describe virtually everything of any importance that happens in the entire run of the piece! I don't plan to do that with its close cousin, the Widor Toccata, a piece which is twice as long, though in some respects no more complex.

I do hope you'll notice, however, that there are several things the two pieces have in common. Although the Widor begins loudly, it gets quiet in the middle, and then gradually builds again to its conclusion. Also, its beginning is very similar to the Gigout. It too begins with the hands alone for about 45 seconds, and then repeats the same block of music, but this time with booming octaves in the pedals (just like the Gigout). Although the Widor is much more harmonically complex than the Gigout (rather than repeating the same interval again and again and staying in the same key the entire time, Mr. Widor goes on a long, twisting harmonic journey, changing keys and modes frequently), it still returns to its beginning for a louder, grander run at the same material. This time the pedal octaves sound together, rather than apart. And again, at the end, the motion stops, and in the pause (which Widor changed to a sounding high F in later editions--one of several occasions on which he changed his mind about pieces he'd already written) we prepare for the final triumphant chords.

Widor's piece is much loved, and previously in this space I speculated about why. I assumed some of it had to do with the exuberance, the major key, the loud volume, the constant activity, and the fact that there is really only one idea in the entire piece which simply changes harmonically again and again, which requires little adjustment from the brain. However, his can also make the piece seem rather long. A large scale softening (it takes what, a full minute of decrescendo to reach the quietest point in the piece?) and then an equally long, if not longer, crescendo, can require some patience on the part of the listener, who must appreciate how the piece unfolds, slowly becoming something, rather than being, at every moment, full of interest and activity. It asks us to wait a little. In some ways, while it is one of the structurally simplest of the toccatas, it may make more demands (and unlike the Gigout, it runs the risk of being long enough for the scarcity of material to matter). It does not offer any contrast (except dynamically) to give our ears some relief from the same idea presented over and over.

That contrast, which will be the subject of the next installment, can be a welcome relief: but it holds its own challenges for the ears.

Friday, January 22, 2016

for organists -- Changing the culture at your church (part one)

In visiting "the cave of the organists" recently, which is my pet name for an internet forum where organists gather to discuss organ music and church playing--and to complain about their current employment situations--it stuck me that we ought to discuss in this space some of the things that cause friction between organists and their congregations, with the possible end of being able to do something positive about them. Keep in mind that while the present series will be written from the point of view of an organist relating to his or her congregation that some of the changes to be made might be in the behavior or skills of the organist themselves; this might in the long run be easier than trying to convince others of the need for a change, though that will certainly form a large part of our programme as well.

If you are not an organist, and you have no idea why some of us are unhappy, as we go along I'll provide you with some (discreet) examples from the organ playing community. I hope you don't mind having yours eyes opened.

In a relationship in which one of the partners has a complaint, the first stage is entirely one-sided. That is, the party who is the complainee is completely unaware that the complainer is unhappy. The second stage, once the unease has been brought to the attention of the first party, consists of denial and justification: namely, the person or persons causing the unhappiness telling the other person that they shouldn't feel that way at all and that it is all their fault anyhow, etc. Large social movements also follow this pattern. If an organist brings some of their complaints to your attention, it would be of great help if you might show yourself superior to a majority of your fellow human beings and skip step two, considering whether these claims might be legitimate, or at least that the feelings behind them are real--in other words, take them seriously. That is what this blog is for.

Church organists usually have some or all of these various complaints:

---nobody listens to the prelude or postlude
---they are in musical disagreement with their pastor or congregation regarding their selections
---they are paid badly
---they are not informed about items that affect their jobs or the worship service with enough time to plan accordingly
---they are often complained about by the congregation and/or the pastor

Basically, these items all reduce to being treated poorly or ignored. This shouldn't sound like anything bizarre. Everyone wants to feel valued and, extrovert or not, at least feel like people are noticing their efforts. At the same time, of course, the church may feel that the organist is not performing up to expectations, which will complicate things somewhat, since we may have a two-way grievance. I'm going to mainly address the ones that the organist has about their situation until we get to the last one; however, organists will note that many of the others might involve changes of behavior on their parts also.

I want also to state that there is no magic formula here. I will be writing from my own experiences, some of which have been successful, either because of my own behavior or my own dumb luck. But I am aware that situations can differ greatly, so that what follows will be mainly several observations about the most common sticking points and some suggestions for what might be done in the several situations.

The woods are filled with unfortunate situations between organists and congregations. Actually, there are probably many amicable situations that we simply don't here about, and perhaps shouldn't exaggerate the unhappiness out there; as in most areas in life one tends to here about the conflicts. But in the United States, the American Guild of Organists is often called to arbitrate disputes between organists and their employers, or, as I've mentioned, the disgruntled organists go online with their fellows to commiserate about a situation they feel only their colleagues would be able to understand.

Let those who are not organists give such sympathy a try as well.

(next week: what's it like being an organist, anyhow?)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Improvisation -- You can do it!

The first thing to note about improvisation is that every one of you reading this blog already knows how.

I thought I'd bring this up because a number of people seem to think that the idea of improvising is completely beyond them, which is funny, because you already do it.

Do too.

Yes you do.

If you are having a conversation with your monitor or phone right now you are illustrating exactly what I mean. If we couldn't improvise we couldn't talk to each other.

Let's think about that for a minute.

You meet a friend for lunch. You don't know what your friend will say, but you are able to respond in a way that makes sense, and causes your friend to continue conversing with you. Back and forth. What magic is this?

It's very simple. You know a lot of words. You know what they mean by themselves. You know how to put them together in an order that will make sense. You are able to pronounce them correctly, place hundreds of them together in a line, and get that line to have some sort of overall meaning. And you don't have to think very hard about it; it just flows naturally.

You are a genius! OMG!

(And that is the very same reaction many people give when they find out a musician is improvising)

So what's the difference? Well, you are improvising in English, or whatever language or languages you happen to know and communicate in. You know those languages inside out and you can comfortably manipulate their constituent parts creatively at will. It must be wonderful. (or it should be)

In music, on the other hand, some of you don't think you can get off the ground.

Well, we've established that you know how the act of making it up as you go works, and if we consider the matter further we'll see that that is, in fact, the way most of you relate to language most of the time. After all, we can

listen / react
write or

and the odds are that we do it in that order--that most of our engagement with language comes from speaking and listening (and then returning the volley) in conversation. Then, far less, comes our email and texting, letter writing and other compositional effusions. Then, if there is any time, we might read something.

But for many musicians, grown up on a steady diet of piano lessons, we read the notes on the page first and last. We don't write anything ourselves or have any idea to do it. And we definitely don't just play stuff we made up out of our own heads and on the spot like that. No way.

Which is to say, when we deal with music, we turn that order upside down. Or rather, change the listen / react to a passive receive, and completely eliminate the other two.

listen / react

Odd, isn't it?

It's a completely different relationship--or lack thereof. Because when you read something in English or some other language, you have some sense of how it was created. You yourself might conceivably have put it there. Maybe you couldn't have written or said it as well, but you could at least competently paraphrase.

But not in music.

So what's the problem? Is it that you don't really understand the language of music very well? Or that you've never tried to speak it? Or both.

We'll pull on that string next week.

Monday, January 18, 2016

At the top of the chute

"And they're all lining up for the start of the spring semester....they'll be running into gale force's really a beautiful day out there!"

It's always a good idea to have a strong opening. That's what each of today's panelists would tell me if they were still here to do it, and if they'd debase themselves by coming on this blog to being with. They are all very gifted French composers--were very gifted, anyhow. And they all knew how to lead with some arresting musical ideas.

This is something I could use right about now. The start of the "long semester" can be a bit daunting. While the fall semester seems short and intense, and usually involves cramming in a concert or two before the Christmas season, which runs from about Nov. 20 to the 1st of January, and includes every organization I work for putting on most of their shows for the year, the spring semester is less packed, though it seems to go on twice as long and largely takes places in the cold and dark of January and February and sometimes March. When it's not dark it's overcast.

I could use a new start, the sense of a fresh new beginning. That's where these consultants come in.

Why, we might inquire, do a series on flashy French organ toccatas in the middle of January?

Well, why not?

And then it hit me: maybe I need a little bit of a pick up. Maybe you do, too. So we'll let these fellows dazzle us with the loud and the flashy for a little bit, and by the end, we'll really know something about the institution of the French organ toccata.

Today we're really just interested in the opening. I'm going to post the entire recording of each one because it's just easier, but you can listen to the opening minute or so of each one and get the idea.

Notice how they all open: loud, fast, and with a continuous sense of momentum. Now, the idea here, to be blunt, is display. Organists know that if they pull one of these out of their hats the congregation will be impressed. Probably a little too much--most of the time these aren't as hard as they sound. But there is a sense of joy in the proceedings as well, is there not? And not simply in how fast the organist's fingers can go, I hope.

Let's sample a few. Here's one you might not have heard of unless you are an organist, but I'll bet it becomes one of your favorites:

Dubois: Toccata

That one goes on for seven minutes, but remember, don't spoil the ending. Just listen to the first minute. We'll get back to it.

That's a cheerful little guy, isn't it?  How about something a bit different?

Guilmant: allegro assai

Points for your bloggist for noticing that, despite having a different name (namely a tempo marking) that it is, in fact, a toccata. No need trying to hide it, Alexander!

Alright, you probably have detected that these two pieces, being from the standard organ literature, are not that well known to the guy on the street (as is pretty much the fate of all the organ literature). There are a few pieces that have managed to transcend the boundaries of the organ loft, however. Surely you know this one. It's an Easter tradition at my church:

Widor: Toccata

Both the Guilmant and the Widor, by the way, happen to be the final movements of larger works. A grand sendoff.

While we're doing famous, how about the other toccata you've all heard of? Particularly, the opening (and remember, just the opening! No getting distracted and listening to the whole thing!)

Bach: Toccata and Fugue in d minor

OK. We've got a bit of a problem here. It's pretty obvious that this one doesn't even begin to sound like the others, and that's because it is an entirely different animal. Sure, it's got the same name as the others (toccata) but it's not similar at all; it has no more in common with the others than a water buffalo and a zebra.

So a quick definition before we go on. Toccata is from the Italian toccare, meaning to touch, and it involves digital display. The KIND of digital display however, may be rather different. The 19th century French had a very different idea of what that meant than the 18th century Germans, which means that yes, there are two kinds of toccatas, and that they are not very similar.

Sorry, Bach, but you get voted off our island. Besides, you're not French. But you can come back for our series on 18th century German Toccatas.

Now we've heard from three flashy 19th century french toccatas, and one that wasn't. (by the way, some folks like to call the piece I play at Easter the Widor Toccata and Fugue. It isn't. It's just a toccata. It doesn't have a fugue in it.)

What do they all have in common?

They are loud. And fast.
They maintain constant rhythm.
They would be hard to sing. If there is a melody, it is either buried in the midst of a lot of other notes or it comes in later in the pedals (like the Widor).
The fast, active part is pretty much the only thing going on (ie., no counterpoint or separate melodies going on at the same time)--except for a light, sprightly accompaniment.
They make the organ sound really terrific.

One more thing--They were all written by Frenchmen working at churches in Paris in the late 19th century. Charles-Marie Widor was organist at St. Sulpice from 1870 to 1933 (64 years!), Theodore Dubois was organist at La Madeleine (our lady) from 1877 to 1896, and Alexander Guilmant was organist at La Trinite from 1871 to 1901. Imagine all of those great organ toccatas pouring forth from all of those churches at the same time in the same city!


Then again, perhaps it is a good thing that they normally keep the church doors closed.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Harvest

I've been sick this week--for the third time since November. It's not a lot of fun, particularly coming right on the heels of the Christmas season, which for me is the busiest time of the year, and usually leaves me looking forward to January. And then I get sick again.

I was looking forward to getting back to several projects, but that would have involved expending energy I don't have. So instead I'll have to wait. That beautiful piano piece I was going to play this Sunday--not happening. Those organ pieces I wanted to record--too bad.

Sometimes I'll get lucky and no one will actually notice the slackening production. No, it's not luck. It's planning ahead. If you've done enough work far enough ahead, you can make your deadlines even when illness cuts down on your preparation time up to the last minute. Some concerts of mine have succeeded that way. You can't assume you'll have all the time you'll need or that it will come when you need it. So I've developed a plan that sounds downright Wesleyan:

do all the work you can whenever you can for as long as you can however you can.

(John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said "Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.")

There is a real upside to this. It is like establishing a bank account. Whenever time permits, you work harder than necessary, learning music that you don't have to, making recordings you can post for your internet audience now and at a later date, writing blogs for later--then when illness or busyness come along you can with a withdrawal from the account. Since I work entirely as a musician my schedule is consistently inconsistent. There are periods of a few days here and there, and a few seasons here and there, in which it is all I can do to get through and then sleep for a few days afterward. And then those times I have all to myself, to plan, to explore, to prepare. I've learned to use those well.

Unfortunately, this last reverse came right after Christmas was over (my last concert of the season being New Year's Eve--two and a half hours of being continually on stage accompanying a choir or a singer, and entertaining the audience at the theater organ). I've learned to prepare all of MY music for the entire Christmas season--that includes Epiphany Sunday (last week) in the summer so that I am guaranteed to make it all the way to the end of the marathon season. But I can never seem to get the following Sunday ready in time. It's the 27th mile that is the doozy.

So I'll have to improvise this week at church. I can do that, fortunately. You plan, and you prepare, and then you learn how to succeed without doing either. A musician's life.

But while I was convalescing I got a chance to do something else, which was to put some recordings in order. I made them last summer, intending to post them later this spring. I did that because in a few months our lives are going to be turned upside down for a few months and I wanted to be able to have something to share with you during that period, even if I'm away from the instrument for a while. So some seeds that were planted several months ago are coming to fruition. It got me excited about the upcoming semester and all the music and blog topics I'm going to share with you.

I'm not going to spoil the really good ones. But since I got to the end of a fairly large project I was working on last summer, I'll give you one recording to whet your appetite. It's the final Gloria verse from Francois Couperin's "Mass for the Parishes." I'll blog about it later. For now, just listen. It's short. And energetic. Just like I'm not right now. Isn't that a bizarre, out of body experience? To lie around, exhausted and sick, and listen to yourself when you were bristling with all kinds of energy, waiting to share it with the future.

Which happens to be now.

Couperin: Gloria, verse 9

I'm going to take a week off the blog now to finish recovering and to start the next semester strong. Topics to come include a series on "flashy French organ toccatas" "Improvisation is for everybody" and "Changing the culture at your church" as it relates to the role and acceptance of the organist. See you back here on Monday, January 18!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Ghosts of Christmases past, 2015 edition

I was in the middle of wrapping my wife's Christmas present, A T-shirt.

Don't judge me until I show it to you. It was pretty cool. A custom made shirt designed to look like one of those shirts rock bands make to advertise their tours. She's been interviewing for a medical residency next year, visiting 16 programs this fall and winter, and she's not quite finished, but the dates are (hopefully) locked in. So I visited a place out in Urbana called Project Te and they gave it a whirl.

Actually, the woman I talked to sounded so "stoked" about the idea that when she called her boss to get permission to do a run of just one shirt (they usually supply whole groups of people with the shirts they make) that I heard her say on the phone "we've got to do this one!"

 Anyhow, after the part where we discussed the coolness of T-shirt canons (with which she was unfamiliar), and I met their musical macaw (or whatever it was) that bopped to rock music--you had to see it--now where was I?

Oh, yes. Wrapping my wife's present. Stuff all over the floor. And I hear a car door slam in the drive way. I look out just long enough to see a blue car.

Crap! She's home! She said she was doing errands and wouldn't be back for two hours!!!!!

Flurry of activity, flinging things in drawers, hiding the paper, hiding the box--where to hide the box? No time! ARGGHH!

Ok. Got it. We're cool. Now out to meet Kristen at the door.

It turned out not to be her after all. Different make of car, even. Hadn't noticed in all my panic.

In fact, it was Steve's daughter and her husband. With a tree!

At this point in the nice feature article I'm obviously not writing, I would back up to tell you a bit about Steve, our retired pastor friend who was recently diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. We had just paid him a visit a day earlier, and during the conversation mentioned that we weren't doing a Christmas tree this year because Kristen was off on the most complicated part of her "tour" in the first half of December; it had rained the one day we might have had time to get the tree before she left for two weeks, then I had gotten sick, and just didn't feel like trying to make the trip to the tree farm and do it all myself, being busy and sick at the same time, and, well, we were just going to do without this year. We must have sounded a little depressed about it, although I hope we didn't lay it on too thick, I mean, Christmas comes anyway....

This apparently bothered Steve, who happens to live right next to the tree farm (which his family previously owned), and he sent his daughter and son-in-law to pick a tree and deliver it all the way across town (25 minutes?) in their blue minivan. Which is where the story picks up.

I was shocked and surprised, and still getting over my rush of adrenaline at trying to hide my present when I met them. We put the tree up in the corner where seven of its predecessors had spent the month of December. They had even brought lights (I think we mentioned humorously that we couldn't even get ours to work anymore)! It was all I could do to stammer my thanks.

After the duo left I decided to make another try at wrapping the present. But I only got as far as the desire when another car pulled into the driveway. It was my wife this time, still home early. I met her at the door, ushered her into the living room, and had a good time smiling and snapping pictures while she kept wondering what was with me and failing to notice that we had a tree in the corner. (She did notice a note on the table from Steve and stopped to read it--this was what first broke the news.)

(notice how many pictures I got off before she even saw the tree!)

(I wish I'd gotten the picture to take while she was doubled over laughing)

Christmas, of course, is not about the trees and the lights. We've all seen enough Christmas specials to know that. But somehow, with my wife finally home from her interviews, the traditional Christmas music skipping on the traditional Christmas CD player, and the lights and the ornaments coming out of their boxes--it did finally feel like Christmas. The concert craziness of the season had subsided for me, and, just days before Christmas (the 22nd, I think), we could both relax and enjoy a holiday ritual and a real Christmas moment.

And, since trees in our house usually last about a month before becoming a pile of needles, we can leave it up through much of January this year, which might help my mood going into the Narnian part of the year ("always winter and never Christmas!").

I recently wrote about the Christmas of 2010, which I think currently holds its place as my all-time favorite. There were several contributing reasons for that, but the main one had to do with a gift I was able to give my father, and his joy in receiving it. Christmas of 2015 is now a serious challenger for that crown, but for the opposite reason, for a gift I received. We are told that it is better to give than to receive, but I've been the blessed recipient of much appreciation and support over my years here in Champaign (including a recent Christmas bonus given to the choir director and I by members of our church choir) and I can tell that receiving can be a real joy as well, especially when you know the gift is an expression of love.

I hope that Steve also received joy knowing what a wonderful Christmas gift he gave us. As I write this the tree is still in the corner, grinning its Yuletide grin, one candy cane still affixed to its nether regions (apparently we didn't pass out ALL of them at the airport while traveling). I've done a lot of looking back at Christmases this year, but as more of them accumulate in the rear view mirror, it is good to know that the ones in the present still mean something, and will continue to mean something. And may your Christmases, too, dear reader, never stop coming.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2015 in pictures

Ringing in the new year at the Virginia Theater

See, I told you it was a death-defying drop from the lift into the pit!

Rocking out February at The Cowboy Monkey with "Timezone"
March came in like a Leviathon

Now we all know how the butterfly gets there every Easter, right pastor Brad?

This classical piano home recital in April featured an impromptu sing-along

In rehearsal for May's choral festival concert With Dr. Jessop

Once the bishop reassigned pastor Brad, I was left to wonder who was going to try to destroy my coats. Miss you, buddy.

June was also the month to say goodbye to my car (a '97).

And our cat, Erasmus

photobombed by a T-rex at the Field Museum in Chicago (July)

Conducting the Summer Ensemble after Norm got sick this year.  I'll miss these guys, too.

celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary in August

Climbing the bell tower at Altgeld Hall. I survived, obviously.

The ghostly page turn at the end of October's "Scary Organ Recital"

Seriously. I don't know these guys. I do not know these people.

The Central Illinois Children's Chorus rehearsing for their annual December Concert with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Ghosts of Christmases Past, part three

My favorite Christmas occurred in 2010.

It snowed that year, unlike the two most recent, which were overcast, rainy and cold. When I say snow, I mean scenes like the following:

Our house looked lovely, of course, and there had to be at least a foot in the parking lot at church, which did not make the staff happy because attendance would surely be down.

I was already safe at church by the time the snow got going, however, so, hunkered down in the sanctuary, I watched the flakes congregate out the window. It was wonderful.

The snow was not what made it a great Christmas, however.

My wife was away in Germany all year, researching for her Doctoral Dissertation, which was a major bummer. Thinking that I wouldn't even bother decorating for Christmas, I was disabused of that notion when three friends from the east (Urbana) turned up at my door. In the morning one of them helped me get a tree from the local tree farm. We spent the afternoon putting up all the usual decorations.

Including some fun ones. That angel would certainly have made the shepherds "sore afraid," don't you think?

Then my parents decided to reverse the old "return to the place of your birth for Christmas" theme and came west to Champaign (more visitors from the East). This set up a very nice Christmas morning.

My father grew up in a little Austrian village before emigrating to the U.S. at the age of 12. Said village was about 30 miles from Salzburg, a little town in the hills with about 100 houses and a church in the middle. When I went to visit Kristen in Germany in November, we traveled across Austria, including spending an afternoon in his hometown. I had been there in 1993, but this was a new adventure. We took a train to the nearest depot, and a bus filled with schoolchildren to the tiny town. When we got off, by ourselves, we were met with the smell of cow dung, the sight of the fire station my grandmother helped build, and, having no idea where to go, stopped off at the municipal building to ask directions. They had an item for purchase. It was--I'm not making this up--a 300 page hardbound book including everything that had ever happened in this little town. It even had a picture of a school play performed during the 40s. My 2nd grade father starred in it as "Rumpelstiltzken" and was sitting in the front row of the cast picture.

This was a thrill. And it made an instant Christmas gift. When on Christmas morning, my father opened the package, it had a note in the front to turn to page 302. When he did so...

I captured the moment with my camera. He threw his head back and roared with delight. This has to be the best gift I have ever managed to give to another human being. Which is really what makes it the coolest Christmas ever. I still get misty thinking about it.

Dad later went on to communicate by email with the mayor, and got another copy of the book for his sister. We were afraid she already knew about it from previous travels to Austria (without my dad) but it was new to everybody. What an awesome find.

And my wife, who was also having Christmas by herself, hiked out with some friends to a cave and saw some incredible snow formations.

That was a year.

That was also a pretty shrimpy tree