Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Valuing Play

Despite efforts to the contrary, I occasionally slip into a state of driven-ness. There is so much I want to accomplish, and there are so many steps I can take right now toward those goals. I want to be writing music, I want to provide a high quality of work at my job, I want to play some challenging piano accompaniments well for some high school musicians, I want to be sending my music out to get more performances, I want to continue along my path to mentor, coach, and trainer with More To Life, and I want to be engaged and fully present in my marriage and friendships. Just to list the important things. These are the long-term, continual goals that embody some portion of my passions and involve many little steps between milestones.

I plan when I will take time to play and relax into my weekly schedule, but even that can become driven. How much time do I have left until that lunch appointment? Am I getting enough done? Should I be doing something else with this time? Is it time to go on to the next thing? Crazy. All the "I want to"s slip so easily into "I have to."

So, I've been sick for a few days. It's not the swine flu, but my energy has been way down and a fever has had my head pounding. Instead of tackling the week with my typical m.o., I let my body's aches justify taking it easy. I relaxed. I enjoyed some stillness. And (since I'm not contagious), I've spent a lot more time hanging out with one of my friends than I typically get to. I have done a little bit to keep progressing toward my goals, but I haven't overexerted myself, and I haven't let accomplishing things become high priority. The amazing thing is that I have been able to be honest about what I actually want to do with my time, and I've been doing it. And it's been enough.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Creativity Reigns

We had three bids to repair the wall that the termites had eviscerated. All three of the contractors we called are registered with the Better Business Bureau with no complaints, and we knew people who had used all three of them for one thing or another. We were both pleased and disappointed with their bids. The highest bid was about what we had expected the lowest bid to be, but there was still quite a bit of price differential. We didn't want to go with the lowest bid on price alone. (Well, we did, but we were a little scared to.) At the same time, we didn't want to go with the high bid and assume that the quality of work would be equally high.

Because of the radical price difference, we felt certain that a couple of the contractors were leaving something out, so we started comparing the quotes and asking questions. Two of the companies went into great detail to tell us how much work was actually involved and what problems they expected to encounter along the way. The third seemed to be fairly confident about the whole job. When we brought up the problems the other two had postulated, he proposed a very workable solution for each one that made the problem seem like much less of an ordeal. These issues were not matters of building code or safety, but cosmetics and simplicity.

Two of the contractors were reacting to what they initially saw and what their immediate thoughts were about the situation. They weren't really putting themselves out to find a different way to address the issues; their first impulse about the way to solve the problem was good enough. Maybe that's because they wouldn't be paying for them. The third contractor was a little more savvy. The challenges that would go along with this job had simple solutions, they just required a little creativity and a willingness to think about the possibilities before relegating oneself to a single answer. His attitude assured us that, if unforeseen problems arose, this guy would take a step back and figure out a reasonable way to address them. The other two could spend a lot of time and money trying to make things work the way they thought things had to work.

In the end, we decided to go with the cheapest of the bids we received, but it had little to do with money. We could afford any of the bids, truth be told. The bottom line was that we trusted in a particular contractor's creativity.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Finding My Way into the Music

I was working on a piece of music for a solo instrument. My idea was initially to write it in such a way that a variety of soloists could perform the piece, whether they be vocalists, wind players, or string players. The more I worked on it, the more I found myself being pulled in one direction or another that I would stifle because it wouldn't work well in just any timbre. After setting a few of these limitations, I started to be less interested in the piece. Small wonder. The musical material wanted to grow into something that I wasn't allowing.

Recognizing that I was essentially binding my piece into an unnecessarily rigid shape, I started working from a few inspirational points to create something unique yet related for various colors, not worrying about whether just any instrument would be able to play a particular passage. What has begun to emerge is a set of related pieces that each express similar material in different ways, not only due to a specific timbre, but also because I am allowing the music to become idiomatic for different instruments.

The realization and the resulting freedom and renewed excitement for this piece prepared me for another limitation I was trying to set, this one notational. I wanted to indicate a particular sound, but I was insisting on using traditional notation. I kept trying to figure out the perfect way to write down what I wanted, but I was ignoring a broad range of possibilities. It was a bit paralyzing. Until I took a breath, stepped back from the piece, and became aware that I was doing it again. I was essentially deciding why I couldn't write the piece I really wanted.

What I wound up with notationally is not terribly avant garde. At most it's a bit unorthodox. And it is perfect for what I hear in my head. As I find my way into (and maybe even get a little lost in) the musical material, I am more and more captivated by what I allow myself to hear and write. Why would I keep trying to put limitations on that?

Friday, April 24, 2009


I am learning one of the dangers to stepping up and being fully present. When I am completely on the edge of my growth, I put myself in a bit of a vulnerable position. Just keeping a blog going means my beliefs and insights are subject to scrutiny. Someone can come along at any time and point out a flaw, notice a blind spot, or just criticize to play out their own drama. That possibility could be a really convincing excuse to hide out in the safe area of stagnation and complacency.

But there is something invigorating about being engaged more fully in life, in stretching to 100% of my potential and pushing against that edge. Part of it comes directly from being vulnerable I think. Not just existing in a state of vulnerability, but actually staying on the edge when the flaws get noticed or the criticisms are hurled.

I learned something about the word "vulnerability" from Ann McMaster, who learned it somewhere along her own remarkable journey. Although we often think of a vulnerability as a weakness, in actuality it conveys a position of strength. It means "capable of being wounded." The more I think about it, the more comfortable I am with its connotations: I can be wounded without it crippling me. I do not have to be defensive. I can grow from whatever I see in the mirror of other people's reactions and responses. Being vulnerable means that I am ready and willing to keep growing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Unreal Music

Yesterday, I received a CD and DVD in the mail from Gregory Wiest. On March 29, he included my song cycle Chasms on a concert, and he wanted to let me see and hear it since I couldn't make the trip to Munich. Actually, the original arrangement of the songs were for soprano and piano, but I made an arrangement for tenor, piano, and double bass to send to Mr. Wiest. He had sung a previous set of my songs, Pax Americana: Songs of Protest quite well, and I was curious about what he would do with the Sara Teasdale settings of Chasms.

As I listened to the performance and watched both Gregory and soprano Elaine Ortiz-Arandes (whom he enlisted to sing the songs from Chasms that had more of a female persona), I was aware of a pair of thoughts that kept bubbling up. The first was something like: Wow, that was perfect... just like it was in my head. The second was some variation of: Huh, I didn't expect that... I never thought of it/heard it that way. As a composer, this was a particularly interesting phenomenon. I was being reminded again that "my" music is actually an abstract and unreal article. What gets created and heard is a collaboration of my creative efforts and the interpretation of a group of performers.

As I write this, the Lord of Life Lutheran Church Choir is rehearsing a piece I finished this afternoon. Talk about getting things in just under the wire! Right now, the piece only exists in my imagination. I've notated the sounds I imagine to the best of my ability, and they will have the (hopefully enjoyable) task of translating it into actual sound. And no matter how many times they sing it or how many other choirs perform it, the piece will probably never sound exactly the same twice. More to the point, I doubt anyone will ever hear exactly what I imagine when any of my pieces are performed.

I actually love hearing how performers interpret my music (despite the fact that I am a pretty nervous audience member until about a minute into a piece). Of course, I want a piece to approach the idealized sounds I have in my head, and some performances are closer than others. But the fact that people choose to perform my music in the first place is flattering. When I can tell that they are pushing themselves a little bit and still having fun, it's even more satisfying. I used to think of composing as a rather isolated endeavor, and some phases of the process certainly are. But the more I broaden my understanding of exactly what happens with a piece of music, the more I recognize how relational the whole process is. And I want to write more.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Abundance and Possibility

I had a conversation with my support partner today, and I wanted to share our conclusion. One problem with "I don't have" and "I don't know" is target fixation. It's the same with riding a motorcycle (or skydiving, I'm told). When you concentrate on what you don't want to hit, that is inevitably the thing with which you collide. It's better to fixate on the open, safe space where you actually want to go.

In reality, there is as much potential for things to go wonderfully, but that's not always where I fix my gaze. In reality I live with abundance, but it doesn't always seem that way when unexpected expenses pop up. But obsessing about what I don't have or all of the things that could go wrong will inevitably get me exactly where I don't want to be. I'm willing to try fixing my gaze on abundance and possibility and see where that gets me.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Case for Live Accompaniment

I've been accompanying young musicians for some intermediate school competitions over the last few weeks, playing the same piano parts several times in a day. Some students choose to use a CD accompaniment, perhaps for a variety of reasons. The CD is predictable and consistent. They may have practiced many times over with the recording. The CD doesn't cost them anything additional to show up at the competition.

A live accompanist is an asset, though, as many teachers point out in their letters to parents. A live pianist can follow a student who rushes ahead or holds a note too long. A live accompanist can adjust the balance of the instruments more effectively. And a live accompanist can provide feedback in a rehearsal. But I've been thinking today about what I get out of it.

Sure, I get paid. It's not enough to call it a second job, but it is a little extra to help out with infestation recuperation. In truth, it's not enough money to be worth the effort by itself. What I have concluded is that it is a matter of connection.

Music was initially designed to communicate and to connect people. And we still use it for the same purposes. Alan Merriam's list aside, people value music because of its ability to connect us to one another, to our beliefs, to our history, to nature, even to God. Music connects us to distant times and cultures as well as to the world around us right this moment. And although we can get some of that impact from a recording, live music is exponentially more connecting.

I still believe that musicians should get paid, don't get me wrong. But the real payoff is in the opportunity to connect with one another and to communicate through the music. It's what makes the difference between an accurate performance and a truly beautiful one. It's the part of music that can't be as easily taught in a classroom. That what I get to be a part of. No wonder I get such a kick out of it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Outer Limits

No, not the predictable "Twilight Zone in outer space" TV show. I'm thinking of my personal limits. For the past few months, I've been striving to stretch and reach beyond the artificial limitations I once put on myself. This is fun, challenging, and rewarding. I keep learning that I can accomplish more and have a greater impact when I am living to my fullest and not sticking to the shadows. But I wasn't entirely prepared for life to bring me an experience that reminds me that I still have limits.

I acknowledge that I hold my own pretty well with people. I am often able to connect with people who are choosing to be a bit aggressive about their opinions, or even belligerent in their demeanor. I recognize that what they are expressing is about them, not me, and it's like water off a duck. I do this often enough that I'm used to being able to do so. When someone comes along that is behaving way beyond what I typically encounter, my instant belief is that I can deal with this person the same way I do everyone else... that I can still connect with this person and hold my own ground without much of an emotional cost.

The problem is that I have real limitations about how much toxicity my emotional kidneys can process. My "I can do this," becomes "I should be able to do this," and I wind up persisting in a conversation longer than what is healthy. My mind tells me that if I disengage then I am admitting failure in some weird way. And yet if I allow myself to be negatively impacted by someone else's words or behavior, I have somehow "lost."

But stretching to the fullest extent of my own personal limits doesn't imply that I have no limitations. I may be in the habit of not reaching for the absolute border of my capabilities, but that doesn't mean that I can do anything. I do have limits. I don't have to engage everyone I encounter completely in order to be an engaging person. And I can accept the reality of who some people are without enjoying my experience of their presence. I can even choose not to be around a person whose behavior is consistently toxic. It's one way of caring for myself.

Then it hits me... This is what being at the edge feels like. When I'm pushing against something in life and it's pushing back at me, I learn something about myself, reality, and Truth. When I hide out in the safe zone, far from approaching the edge my personal reach, there's no challenge. I don't get to learn anything. And the edge is where my passion is.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Dave Arneson died last week. Although I don't often see references to Dungeons & Dragons in the mainstream media, almost every time I do, there's a phrase like "popular geek pastime" or "marketed primarily to teenage boys." Sure, some of the commentary comes from people who know little about the game, but it is rarely acknowledged that role-playing games can engage the mind in a uniquely beneficial way.

In a social environment focused on design, story-telling, and cooperation, people exercise both strategy and empathy to do something adults typically do too little of: play. When we let it, a role-playing game can clue us in to some of the dramas we play out in reality. But in a game, we can explore the consequences of those dramas without seriously risking jobs, finances, and relationships. And if we are willing to, we can realize some things that aren't working in our lives because of decisions we make for our imaginary characters.

I didn't know Dave Arneson. I never had a conversation with him. And yet I have a great deal of respect for him. He contributed some of the ideas I value most. He saw the potential for role-playing games to be about more than fighting imaginary foes and killing exotic creatures for pretend treasure. People were important to him. He believed that personality is as important as combat in the game. Maybe that's what can seem so threatening about role-playing games: they have the potential to be more about vulnerable people than impervious heroes. If we aren't careful, we might learn something about ourselves.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What Am I Spreading?

So, I'm learning a lot about termites. In some dark recess of my brain, there is a piece being composed reflecting the swarming intruders. On the surface of my consciousness, though, there is a song by Tom Waits called Army Ants, in which insect and human behavior are compared.

The most common treatment for subterranean termites is a slow-acting nicotine-derived poison that can be transferred from one termite to another. As they crawl along their little tunnels and come into contact with fellow termites, the chemical basically rubs off on other bugs. Eventually, the whole colony can be affected (killed) even though some of the little buggers don't crawl through the deadly chemical directly. From my perspective, with a little luck, the queen will wind up dead on our back doorstep.

I'm also serving on team for the May More To Life Weekend in Houston, and the theme for this weekend is Pay It Forward. The hope there is that there will be a willingness on the part of the participants to offer some portion of their resources of time, abilities, and money back into the organization. I see a great breadth to what this can mean, but I have also become aware that we "pay forward" all kinds of things whether or not we mean to do so.

Just like the innocent little termite spreading poison to every colony-mate with which he comes into contact, we spread things too. We can spread joy, peace, understanding, acceptance, tolerance, kindness, and all sorts of healthy things from our own abundance. But often, when we aren't intentional about what we are doing, we can spread our own poisons: anger, violence, fear, distrust, pessimism, hopelessness, and on and on.

I sincerely hope that the whole colony of termites living close enough to dine on my house pulls down the curtain and goes to join the choir invisible. But I also want to be conscious of what I'm moving through and what I'm spreading around. Unlike the termites, I can make a choice about what I spread.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bubble Bath

As a team member for the upcoming More To Life Weekend, I was recently given an "egg assignment." These were individual, randomly selected ways to be intentional about how they engaged life, others, and themselves in preparation for serving. My egg assignment was to "nurture myself with a bubble bath." Some people considered me to be quite lucky. Well, while I gave it a try, I'm concluding that I'm not a "bubble bath" kind of guy. But more about that in a moment...

My thoughts upon receiving the egg assignment: Why is it lucky for me to get assigned to take a bubble bath? Couldn't a person who wants to take a bubble bath do so without having it assigned to them? I don't think I have ever taken a bubble bath as an adult. I'm willing to give it a try.

So, I knew that we had some sort of paraphernalia around here, fragrant salts and Calgon and what-have-you. So my first intentional step with this was asking for a little assistance in locating it. Joy was of great assistance, and offered impishly gleeful recommendations. I had thought about waiting until after all of the Easter services were over tomorrow, but since the opportunity arose today I went for it.

It was relaxing to be not doing anything for awhile, and I intentionally didn't have anything to read or work on so my mind could take a break too. The warmth of the water and the added salts and bubbles were definitely an out of the ordinary experience, but I think the stillness was actually a bigger part of the experience. It was just a moment out of time. At first.

Then, I started thinking about all of the things that I wanted to accomplish in the next few days: working on a couple of pieces of music, preparing for a weekly role-playing game, potential entries for the blog, making some progress on my personal online networking initiative. And I got critical of myself for not relaxing. "I always seem to be busy with something, and I can't even let myself take a little time to do nothing." Wrestling with my judgment of myself and my "inability to just relax," though, I became aware of something about my busyness that I often overlook.

I actually enjoy a large percentage of how I spend my time now. It is actually nurturing to my mind to be creative, to find ways to connect with people, to be musical. I am energized by the vision and plans I have for my life, and it is fun and exciting to spend time and energy on that journey. So I can kick back and physically relax, but putting restrictions of how active my mind is can be the opposite of nurturing.

So, when I got out of the bubble bath, I was physically relaxed, but my brain was joyfully working away. I was happy to have so many things that engage me and that propel me forward. I found myself grateful that there were too many things to do in a day because they were all things I wanted to do rather than things I had to get accomplished. That hasn't always been the way I've looked at my busyness, and it was a refreshing perspective I'd like to hang on to.

Then, I walked out into a cloud of swarming termites all around our big dining table. Lots of reactivity to that. I could see them completely obscuring the soffits when I looked out the window. The "bug man" is on his way as I type. Good thing I had that relaxing time to gain a little perspective on the big picture of how I nurture myself. If I choose to, I can still create and prepare for the things I really enjoy in life while I'm sweeping up the hundreds of insects that have invaded my space. I mean there's practically a carpet of the things, people. It's kind of disgusting.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Context for Composition

I've been working on a piece of music, and I am frustrated by the same doubts that usually creep in while I'm writing. It's almost like I am two people, one composing and one critiquing over my own shoulder. The composer side is making judgments about the expression of the piece, the nuts and bolts of pitch and duration and intensity, the precision of the notation. I can be fully engrossed in the sound I want from the performers and how best to communicate that with markings on a page.

And yet, the critic side still finds a few brain cells to tap into. And his argument is almost always the same, although he disguises it from time to time for variety. It boils down to: This music isn't intellectual enough. Which, of course, reduces to: You're not a good composer. Actually it's "I'm not a good composer," but putting my critic in the third person seems more natural. In actuality it provides an illusion that an objective outside party is drawing the conclusion.

The argument doesn't even make sense, but it seems to when it comes from my own mind. I blame graduate school. There we listened to famous works of art music that I had never heard performed live, and we dissected the construction of these pieces and how effective and brilliant they were. But they almost never get performed except at music schools, because however brilliant their construction, they aren't appealing pieces of music to most people's ears. I truly enjoy listening to some of these pieces, and I have most of my favorites on CD. But I have to admit that most people I know wouldn't choose to sit down and listen to this "brilliant" music.

In combating the critic, my response to myself is to create context. I do not compose so that a bunch of music students might be able to dissect my work in fifty years. I do not compose to show anyone how smart I am. I do not compose because my job demands that I produce something, regardless of its quality, in order to get tenure. I compose because I have something to communicate, and music provides a graceful and engaging vessel for that communication. Recognizing why I do what I do takes the critic's bite away. He doesn't ever really shut up, he just sounds much less convincing.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Making Things Difficult

On Saturday I accompanied a ton of intermediate school musicians at a local competition event. At their level, the piano parts were not terribly difficult and the judges were mostly there to encourage the students to stick with their musical training. It was fun to work with them, and I made a little money. Over lunch, while sitting with one of the event organizers, I even made a couple of strategic suggestions that may improve their scheduling system in the future. The most flattering part, though, was when one of the teachers pre-booked me for next year's event.

I walked away from that event believing that I was a skilled accompanist, an insightful strategist, and a valued musician. Then I went to work on some of the high school accompaniments I am preparing for a couple of weeks out. These piano parts are a bit more challenging, and I was really struggling with a couple of them. One in particular was marked "Allegro con Vivo," which I was interpreting to mean "faster than you would like." It was a difficult piece of music. Nearly at the limit of my ability.

Then, I rehearsed with the saxophonist Monday morning. I asked him about his tempo, since "Allegro con Vivo" is a rather subjective marking. I was astonished that his speed was nearly half the speed I had been practicing. It still sounded fast, and it still had liveliness. But now it was suddenly an easy piece of music. Of course, I'll still practice it and prepare for this student's performance, but I won't dread it or use it as evidence that my skills aren't enough.

Now I'm wondering what else seems to be at the limit of my ability. What else am I making more difficult than it actually has to be?

Friday, April 3, 2009


Most of the music I write has a message to communicate. Sometimes it's just a guiding principle as I am composing that winds up as a sentence in the program notes. Other times the message of a piece is integral to the audience's experience. Almost always, it is about awareness. I believe that people's lives would be enriched and more connected if they practiced more intentional awareness. My music is clearly influenced by that belief.

Some things we do work against our awareness, however, and I've been thinking about this as various people have been commenting on the national budget. We often respond to governmental programs from a position of compassion. If we want people to have health care, homes, the basic necessities of life, we are comforted by government-funded programs that tend to these needs. If we want businesses to be successful, for people to have jobs, for retirement plans to be adequate, we take comfort in government-funded assistance for corporations and businesses.

We are a compassionate people in theory, and when we see suffering on any level, we want someone to take care of it. Someone. Not us directly, but somebody ought to do something, right? Sure, it's OK if our taxes are used for it, as long as we can be comforted by knowing that it's been addressed. Then we can ignore it and go on with our lives. Or, if we choose, we can get angry about it without being burdened with responsibility.

I wonder if it is the government's job to be compassionate for us. What would we do as individuals if the government stopped all of these compassion-driven efforts? Would we rise to the challenge and become compassionate people in action? I suppose we could keep getting angry that no one was doing anything. Or we could still ignore the problems and pretend that we have no responsibility toward one another. What builds a stronger society, a compassionate government or a compassionate people?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Standing on the Tracks

I have been listening to people. Lots of different people in lots of different situations. In person, on the radio, friends, co-workers, politicians, strangers. And I have been thinking, "When do I sound like that?" Pessimistic. Afraid. Panicky even.

It takes many different forms, but I have been noticing more and more the influence of fear on people around me. It plays out like a natural, automatic response to danger, the whole fight or flight thing. Only the danger isn't real. And even if it is, reacting to it won't make it less dangerous. The more I listen to and watch people being fearful, the more I want to push them off the tracks. At least the ones to whom I have direct access.

But I recognize that pushing them off the tracks isn't necessarily the answer. I want to find a graceful way to point out: You are standing in the direct path of a crazy-train of your own device, and if you are willing to take a few steps, your perspective might grant a fuller picture of reality. The crazy-train might be exciting, but it doesn't go to the destination you really want.

And then I look at my own decisions and thought streams, and I recognize how crafty fear can be. I make intentional choices most of the time, but sometimes I stand right on the tracks. My own crazy-train doesn't smack me or crush me, though. It just scoops me up gently and carries me in the opposite direction of where I most want to go. Am I so afraid of getting what I want?
What can I create from fear that is worth creating? Who can I be when I'm in control of my fear and not the other way around?