The Joy of Music

One of the greatest joys in life is music.  Regular readers will know that I love musicplaying it, writing it, singing it, arranging it, analyzing it, launching it into space, etc.  As an art form, I believe music is uniquely suited to communicating ideas and beauty across time, space, and cultures.  It can be intensely nationalistic, yet still universal.

We’re back to distance learning today after a positive case of The Virus, and since it’s the day before Thanksgiving Break—historically the biggest blow-off day of the school year—my administration decided to play it safe and declare today a distance learning day.  As such, I took the assignment derived from The Story of 100 Great Composers and ported it to my high school music classes.  Those classes will share about their composers today.

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TBT: The Joy of Hymnals

It being October, I tend to focus on the spookiness of the season.  I love Halloween, ghost stories, and scary movies, but it’s important not to get too bogged down in the chills.

So as I was going through posts from October 2019, I stumbled upon one of my old favorites:  “The Joy of Hymnals.”  My small church roped me into playing piano for Sunday morning services maybe two years ago, and it quickly rekindled an old love of hymns and hymnals.

Hymnals are my favorite items to find in old second-hand shops and antique stores (the latter of which often selling them at an egregious markup).  It’s fun to see which hymns do—and, more importantly, don’t—show up in any given hymnal.  I particularly like slender volumes, the kind that were meant for carrying from service to service or camp meeting to camp meeting, and which tend to possess hymns from the canon, if such a thing exists, of hymnody.

I even recorded and released a very lo-fi EP, The Lo-Fi Hymnal, which consists of crude recordings of my Sunday morning playing.  That short collection also includes a PDF version of today’s TBT feature.

Here is “The Joy of Hymnals“:

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Lazy Sunday LXXXVI: Education, Part II

The school year is roaring on, and we’re already coming up on the end of our first quarter (an unusually truncated first quarter, as we’ll only have been in school seven weeks by this Friday, plus two days).  I’ve been writing a bit more about education lately, as is common during the school year.  In The Age of The Virus, it makes for slightly more interesting writing than the usual complaints about overstuffed classrooms and understuffed paychecks.

I also haven’t featured education since “Lazy Sunday XXIV: Education,” so it seemed like a good time to revisit the topic that consumes most of my daily life.  Here are some recent posts on that all-consuming topic:

  • Progress Report: Teaching in The Age of The Virus” – I wrote this post just a few weeks ago, when interim/progress reports were coming out at my school.  It was a good opportunity, after nearly a month of teaching, to reflect on the additional challenges and burdens of teaching live to students face-to-face and online simultaneously, and of recording (often with buggy apps) for international students to watch later.  The workload has since taken on a more familiar pattern and rhythm, but those first few weeks consumed huge amounts of time and energy.
  • Teaching in The Age of The Virus: Live Remote Learning Rehearsal Day” – I wrote this post just two days ago, and it was a bit of an update on my “Progress Report.”  This post reviewed our “Live Remote Learning Rehearsal Day,” in which all students stayed home and livestreamed classes via Google Meet, while teachers taught from their respective classrooms.  I was surprised by how challenging it was to maintain the rapport of a classroom setting while having students sitting at home.  Very odd.
  • SubscribeStar Saturday: Making Music, Part II” – When I wrote this post yesterday, I had forgotten I’d written another SubscribeStar Saturday post of the same name in May!  That was bound to happen eventually, so I hastily added the “Part II” to this one.  Yesterday’s post was a bit of a counterpoint to the frustration and pessimism of Friday’s review of the live remote rehearsal day:  it was a celebration of music education, and the joy of watching student-musicians forming bands, writing lyrics, singing songs, and all that.  Indeed, it’s a reminder why teachers teach—and why music teachers have it the best, even if they work hard.

That’s it for another Lazy Sunday.  Here’s hoping you enjoyed a restful weekend.  It’s finally October, and the weather in South Carolina has been sublime:  warm enough to enjoy a walk in the afternoon, but cold enough to kill most of the bugs.

Happy Sunday!

—TPP

Other Lazy Sunday Installments:

fatness

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SubscribeStar Saturday: Making Music, Part II

Today’s post is a SubscribeStar Saturday exclusive.  To read the full post, subscribe to my SubscribeStar page for $1 a month or more.  For a full rundown of everything your subscription gets, click here.

This school year I began transitioning from teaching a blend of history and music classes towards focusing almost entirely on music.  While I still teach a couple of sections of American History, my teaching duties these days consist primarily music classes.

One of the real joys of teaching music—besides the fact that it’s just plain fun—is to see students inspired to create their own music.  I have been blessed over the years to witness the musical development of many students, and to hear some of their creations.

During our remote learning rehearsal day earlier this week, I pulled out some old concert footage to show my HS Music Ensemble class, a course that is entirely performance based.  That class does not port well to a fully online format, especially to a livestreamed one, as latency is so intense that it makes ensemble performance impossible.  Indeed, if that class goes to a fully online format, we’ll have to focus more on solo work and and music theory, which is what we did during distance learning earlier in the spring.

In watching that old concert footage, I was reminded of some wonderful moments in my school’s unorthodox music program’s history.  It also reminded me of the power of teaching music to inspire the creation of new works.

To hear my own musical works, visit https://tjcookmusic.bandcamp.com/ or www.tjcookmusic.com.

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Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”

This year, I’m teaching a new Pre-AP Music Appreciation course at my school.  The goal of the course is to teach students the language of music, as well as the different instruments, along with a broad survey of Western music from the Middle Ages to the present.  For the first week, we discussed dynamic contrast, tone color/timbre, and began going through the instruments typically found in the orchestra.  We’ve also listened to some excellent music, including a particularly dramatic performance of Franz Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig.”

After we covered the different orchestral instruments, we listened to Benjamin Britten‘s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” performed by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under the direction of Jukka Pekka SarasteBritten’s piece takes a theme from seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell, an important Baroque composer with a distinctly English sound.  Britten has the entire orchestra play the Purcell theme, then each section takes a turn.  Then each instrument in the orchestra—including auxiliary percussion pieces like the triangle—take solo or soli sections, starting with the piccolos and flutes.

It’s a charming bit of modern classical music, and this performance is a particularly good one.  The camera crew makes sure to highlight each section of the orchestra and each group of instruments as they perform (the oboes are particularly fun, as one oboist looks like his head is about to burst from concentration).  I remember Ben Shapiro recommending the piece to a listener who wanted to introduce his young children to symphonic music, and stating that his own young daughter loved it.

After thirteen (!) variations on Purcell’s theme, Britten introduces a lively new theme, starting with a jaunty, acrobatic piccolo solo, and then slowly building back in the woodwinds, strings, brasses, and percussion in turn.  The whole thing swells to a mighty crescendo, with a powerful, full orchestra finale.  When I played it for my Pre-AP Music Appreciation students Friday morning, a few of them were awe-struck.  We finished listening in the closing minutes of class, and one student left saying, “This is my favorite class”—always satisfying to hear as a teacher.

Of course, who couldn’t love a class that involves listening to and talking about great music?  As our primary resource, I’m using Roger Kamien’s Music: An Appreciation, the eighth brief edition.  We’re also using YouTube heavily to locate quality recordings of music, such as the WDR Cologne Symphony recording featured in this post.

I’m hoping to sit my niece and nephews down soon to listen to Britten’s piece, as I think they’ll enjoy all the instruments.  It might be a tad long to hold their attention, but it can easily be enjoyed in small chunks.  My niece is particularly musically inclined, and I think will have fun seeing and hearing the different orchestral pieces in turn.

After all, if we’re trying to save Western Civilization, that means learning to appreciate some our highest cultural creations—and sharing that love with the next generation.

My Musical Philosophy in Song: “Delilah”

On Sunday (my first day back playing piano in church!—everyone else was in their cars listening over a short-range broadcast)—I posted a video to my Facebook artist page of Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson singing Tom Jones’s 1968 classic “Delilah”:

I’ve received a handful queries about my statement that “this video sums up my entire musical philosophy.”  Naturally, there’s a bit of cheek in that statement.  My short answer is similar to the jazz musician’s (Louis Armstrong? Dizzy Gillespie?) when a lady asked him how to swing:  “if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”  The video should speak for itself:

But I began digging into this video a bit more.  What is this bizarre game show?  When was it aired?  How did Bruce Dickinson end up singing “Delilah”?  It reminds me another video that “sums up my entire musical philosophy”—Jack Black’s appearance on American Idol singing Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”:

Fortunately, there are some scant details out there.  The show was Last Chance Lotter with Patrick Kielty, an Irish game show that ran for ten episodes in 1997.  The gimmick was that the show took losers from other game shows, gave them a lottery ticket, and anyone who had a ticket worth ten pounds or more could compete in the main game.  Some of the money won would go into a pot for one random audience member to win.

I haven’t quite worked out how the musical numbers figured in, but the musical guest would essentially sing a song to add even more cash to the pot by spinning a wheel (that was transparently rigged—the audience knew the wheel was controlled, from what I can gather).  That’s why Bruce Dickinson was on the show, and his performance of “Delilah” is one of the most spectacular musical renditions I’ve ever heard:  mariachi horns, bouncing bassists, leopard-print suits, and Dickinson’s soaring vocals.

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Reflections on Distance Learning, Day One

The first day of distance learning is officially in the books.  I promise that this topic will not be the only one I write about for the next two weeks, but I am going to give updates periodically.

Being the first day, it was certainly the busiest.  Yesterday students came to school in the morning to collect whatever materials they may need for the next two week, and teachers spent the day buzzing away at recorded lectures, digital lesson plans, etc., so we’d be ready to hit the ground running at eight o’clock this morning.

A great deal of teaching is staying one or two days ahead of the students, especially when you’re first starting out.  I had a bit of that sensation—the first-year teacher drowning under a Herculean load of preps—yesterday and today, but where I’ve been lecturing on US History and Government for so long, I can riff almost effortlessly with just a few cues from my well-worn lecture slides.

Prepping for Music, ironically, has been the most difficult.  We’re using Google Meet to livestream and record lessons, which makes it pretty easy to record audio while also sharing slides with students.  With my two Music classes, though, I had to get a little creative.

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Lazy Sunday XLVIII: Culture

A paradox of blogging is that the more I write, the more difficult (at least some weeks) it is to think up a good theme for Lazy Sunday.  Part of the problem is that the earliest editions often featured very broad categories; thus, the proliferation of “Part II” posts throughout.

Of course, that’s probably a problem for me, the writer.  You’re just looking to scan through a list of hyperlinks while enjoying your pre-church coffee (or—given my tardiness posting of late—your post-church nap).  Such is the nature of the relationship between creator and consumer—thirty minutes put into crafting a blog post equates to about thirty seconds of skimming.  But it’s worth it to have your eyeballs (eww…) for those thirty seconds!

On that note, I’m dedicating this week’s Lazy Sunday to matters of culture.  In compiling this short list of recent pieces, I came to realize that I way overuse the “culture” tag on my blog posts.  In my defense, I do so because I see most issues as cultural (or, even more deeply, theological and philosophical), rather than merely political or economical, in nature.  The major political battles we’re fighting in the West today are, at heart, about culture.

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Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

It’s been an artistically fulfilling weekend.  First there was the play (I’m sure readers are tired of reading about it) in which I performed.  After three successful performances, my girlfriend and I took in the South Carolina Philharmonic‘s Sunday matinee performance of their popular Beethoven and Blue Jeans concert.  Classical music is even more enjoyable when you get to wear jeans.

The SC Philharmonic’s energetic conductor, Morihiko Nakahara (a show in himself), didn’t pull any punches with this year’s B&BJ program.  It was, essentially, “Beethoven’s Greatest Hits,” as I remarked to my girlfriend.  Morihiko always tosses in one piece of weird modern classical music, but after enduring young composer Jessie Montgomery‘s 2016 tone poem “Records from a Vanishing City,” it was straight into the classics:  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, the so-called Pastoral, rounded out the first half of the concert.  Then it was into the thundering “DUHN DUHN DUHN DUUUUUUH, DUHN DUHN DUHN DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUH” of the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor after the break.

Everyone loves the Fifth Symphony, with its iconic opening theme (the first in symphonic music to make a rhythmic idea the theme, not a melodic one).  But for my money, the bucolic beauty of the Sixth takes the cake.

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