In Search of Cozumel

We left our hotel in Portland at 4:00 a.m. We stood in line to check our bags for almost an hour. Then we combatted Disneyland-like lines snaking around the TSA checkpoint. That put us at our gate at 5:35 a.m. Our flight was supposed to leave at 5:45. No time for breakfast. I thanked God for the coffee I gulped down at 3:45 a.m.

The captain introduced himself and began to speak.

“Folks, we can’t take off for a while. We were all set to push back from the gate, then we got a message that thunderstorms were grounding planes at DFW. I always tell my kids, if you want love, ask your mother. If you want truth, ask me. I’m gonna give you the truth. And the truth is, we’re going to be sitting here for awhile, at least an hour. So relax. I’m going to come around and greet any veterans we have on board. Thank you for your service. Be sure to raise your hands so I can find you.”

We got our breakfast snack  boxes, once we were airborne, for free due to the delay. So the flight that should have been about 6 hours turned into 8, as we couldn’t land right away.

“It’s your captain again. Turns out it’s still storming, and planes got backed up. And now there’s a dog on the runway. Can you see the police cars down below? You can’t make this stuff up.”

The groundings at DFW pushed our flight to Cozumel out later, too. Originally, we had a 45-minute layover. It stretched into over an  hour.

“We can get some lunch,” Jonathon said, checking the status on his phone.

My stomach rumbled for joy.

We got off the plane at 12:30 p.m. Our new flight time was 1:09. We stopped at McDonald’s to get some real food. We stood off to the side, waiting to pick it up.

The airport’s announcing system crackled to life. “Flight 1256 to Cozumel out of Gate D21, last call.”

Gulp.

We dropped our McDonald’s beeper and ran to gate D21. Okay, true confession: subconsciously, I’d always wanted to do that. You see it in old movies. People start running to the gate to make a flight, or to stop someone from taking off and taking your heart with them.

Yeah. Real life isn’t quite so romantic.

“Where is Gate D21?” Jonathon asked. We were both panting a bit.

Leave it to DFW to start numbering backwards once the D gates diverged. It was another quarter mile down. I started to feel the strain of sprinting in sandals. We reached the gate just behind a family of four. We tumbled into our seats. I looked at my watch. It was 12:48. Why so early?

“Well, the gate clock said 1:05,” Jonathon said.

Mystery solved. Somebody needs to synchronize their watches.

So, no lunch. At our cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, Jonathon gnoshed pretzels and cookie cracker thingies. I ate more nuts and berries. Glad of the book Mom got me, I kept distracted. This time I had the window seat. I looked out over the ocean. Fantastical cloud shapes greeted me. Some resembled castles. Some looked like gigantic turtles, casting shadows on the ocean below. Rainbows appeared and disappeared. Some even chased the plane for a while.

We landed in Cozumel and deplaned out the back, onto the tarmac. A wave of humidity broke over us. I immediately felt 10 lbs. heavier. We headed to customs and filled out our forms. We filled out another form to pick up our bags. Then, we located the shuttle to our hotel. After 13 hours of travelling, we made it!

We collapsed in our room. The a/c didn’t work, but we gave it a chance. We cleaned up and looked for a place to eat. Cozumel is on Central Standard Time in the summer. It was already 7 p.m. by then. We strolled down the block, trying to move as little as possible to avoid sweating. Aha! The Hard Rock Café. Something familiar.

A couple of Hispanic kids, clad in matching black T-shirts and holding musical instruments, lurked in the doorway. One boy held a flute I thought, Oh, field trip. I thought nothing of it as we entered the restaurant.

There was an empty table in the cool room. But no chairs.

“You want chairs?” the host asked.

Why yes. We’re funny like that.

He ran upstairs to get them. We thought we might sit up there instead. Upstairs, another wall of heat hit us. It was open air, and half full. Locals sat, chatting and eating. Bon Jovi pulsed through the speakers. I could see the sky darkening. Why not sit up here, on the roof? We picked a spot away from the band. Yes, a junior high band had a concert later that evening. What are the odds? A couple of kids noodled on their instruments. The drummer and bass player laid down some nice grooves. Generally, junior high bands make our teeth grind. Squeals and squawks abound. It’s a painful experience.

“Hey, the drummer is really good,” I said to Jonathon as the boy pounded on the set, warming up. “Let’s stick around and hear them.”

We ate our (very expensive) but delicious meal as the sun sank into the sea. Birds flitted in the trees around us. Stars came out, one by one. Finally, the band seated itself. Almost every wind instrument family made up their number – flutes, clarinets, French horn, saxes. The trombones numbered 6, two of which were girls. The announcer gave their program in Spanish. I recognized Abba, “All About that Bass”, The Beatles, Coldplay, and some others.

Right from the downbeat, they rocked. We were astounded. None of the kids were older than 15. No tentativeness there, they hit the licks right on for “Dancing Queen” and “Michele”, despite some uninspired arrangements. To quote Jonathon: the drummer sat in the pocket and watched the director like a hawk. The trombones were in tune and together. Hard to stay in tune when it’s 80 degrees and 80 percent humidity. They were tight. To quote me: they even had nuance. You don’t get nuance in younger bands. They generally don’t have it in them.

They didn’t play to an appreciative audience, for the most part. Families videotaped their darlings and clapped. Others, bent on downing their burgers, offered polite applause at appropriate intervals. But for us, it was amazing. Such a gift to listen to kids from another country tear up songs, and have a great time doing it. They loved playing, and it showed.

I thought about what it takes to play well with others. You have to have good communication and time together. You also need a good director. Those kids had played together for a good amount of time, and it showed. They anticipated each other’s moves and worked as a team. Performing music is listening, it’s give and take, it’s doing solos and backing up.

Sometimes you need more concentrated time with the person you’re spending the rest of your life with so you can stay on the same page. You relearn the nuanced notes of things spoken and unspoken. Marriage, like music, constantly evolves as it goes on, because the players are never the same two days in a row. What sounds harmonious today might be cacophony tomorrow. We fine tune as we go.

Jonathon and I sauntered back to our hotel  in the velvet evening, glad to have arrived and thankful for the international language of music. It crosses all borders.

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Acapella: A Moment in Time

Back in the early 90s, those of us in my crowd (read:  Christian music geeks) got into acapella music. What is acapella music?  Glad you asked. It’s music without instrumental accompaniment. In other words, it’s a true solo. And, it’s also a real word, despite over-active WordPress spellcheck trying to correct it to “scapula”.

Pursuing my degree as a flutist, I didn’t encounter many of these kinds of pieces. There’s this one. Notice the “Syrinx for solo flute” nomenclature.

This particular performance employs a lot of rubato, which is:  the temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace. In Italian, it’s literally “stolen time”. Blame it on Chopin.

Yes, I played this piece. How could I not? The repertoire of pure solo flute pieces is pretty slim. Norm, my instructor, couldn’t wait for someone besides him to play it. Anyway, it’s only 2 pages long. I’d take that over a 10-page concerto any day. Now you want to know if I waved my instrument all over the place like this guy, looking like I choreographed some freaky stationary interpretive dance? Did I employ this much rubato (playing with the song’s tempo, literally “stolen time”)? Nope to both. I didn’t really enjoy the showmanship. I was about the music. Period.

But back to acapella. Acapella Vocal Band came out with an album. The ability of the human voice to create all sorts of sounds fascinated us. Some other, more skilled groups included these guys:

Oh, and can’t forget these gentlemen:

The interest in this particular trend in music dropped off somewhere in the later 90s. The black gospel influence surged in popularity. Next, rap took center stage. Then, electronica. The music my son enjoys usually has no vocals. Enter dubstep and trap music. Machines take center stage. I find entirely too predictable, myself. But I’m not 16, either. Warning:  I did not listen to all 35 minutes. Might be profanity in the mix.

Cultural tastes in music change over time. Recently, acapella has reinvented itself. It got back in the spotlight again. It’s been highlighted on TV shows like “The Sing-Off” and others. We have a current favorite group:

I’m constantly amazed at the gift of music and the variations it takes. The ability to inspire and create beauty using only the human voice especially continues to astonish. Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

P.S. Here’s one more, a current favorite of Zac’s: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joy Behind Bars

suite italienne

Last night, we attended a violin/viola concert held at a local church.  The soloist hails from Chicago, a man in his early 40s with white hair.  He only played one song I recognized.  As he played, I watched and listened with intensity.  I remember performing and all the hours of work that went into perfecting a piece.  He used sheet music, something a lot of professionals don’t use.

The tiny nave of the church could only hold about 100 people, tops.  And it was 97 degrees.  A couple of lackluster fans spun in the background.  Two stained-glass windows tilted open to let in a cross-breeze.  Though the sun had moved behind the hills more than an hour before, the air hung warm around us.

The soloist started out by tuning.  He played an A in three different octaves.  The pianist, a fine musician in her own right, plucked out the right octave for each.  You have to tune to the stable instrument.  Violins, and most portable instruments, flow in and out of tune easily.

He started playing.  He showed a certain tentativeness in the first selection.  I can only imagine he could tell his stringed friend would be screechy on the high notes.  The warmer the room, the sharper notes tend to get. He played on.  He put more gusto into playing and went after the high cadenza passages. The Dvorak “Romance in F Minor” felt quite poignant.

However, he kept pausing, sometimes even between movements of a piece, in order to tune. His mouth a grim line, he bowed an A.  He mopped his brow.  He picked up the song again.

I thought about how many hours – decades, really – he’d invested in practicing.  His bio said he picked up the violin at age 3.  So…30+ years of playing.  Hours a day.  Before school, after school, weekends, nights.

I could see some notes made him grimace.  The high cadenza passages of the “Concertpiece” by Enescu had him cringing.  He stopped and tuned again before the next song.  His eyes widened on Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne” during the Tarantella movement.  Stravinsky built pieces on dissonance and syncopation, throwing the song’s steady beat off in order to challenge the player and the listener.  The violinist wiped his brow again. He allowed himself the tiniest smile at the rich, melodic passage created by the pairing of him and his wooden friend.

I remembered my own years of performing flute concert pieces.  I evaluated every note that came out of the silver tube.  I cringed at the wrong notes, the bad pitches, the sometimes disconnect between me and the accompanist.  I held my mouth in the same grim line while playing. I smiled – not much, because you can’t get a sound out of a flute with all your teeth hanging out – when something gorgeous came out.

Bars make up the partitions of music.  Rhythms and sections and phrases and notes, with bar lines as measure divisions.  Musicians live behind bars, bound to practice and practice, perform and practice some more.  The music can become a prison of sorts.  You put time, sweat, effort and passion into a song.  You play it and you measure yourself by it.  In the world of professional musicians, you’re only as good as your last performance.  Professional performers serve a life sentence, if they choose to accept it.

At the end of the performance, the crowd roared.  We stood to our feet, clapping until the pair came out and put on an encore.  The violinist grinned, his heart on his face, bowing to the audience.   Life behind bars can be pretty good.  You can find your song there.

Ever Be

I can’t get this song out of my head.  It’s like Bethel Church’s latest earworm.  Here’s video of them performing, and while it’s filmed in a picturesque setting, it comes across as voyeuristic to me.  Bethel has a reputation for showing people deep in worship, which feels like like peeping at someone showering in my opinion. Too personal, people.  Some things shouldn’t be up for public consumption. It always makes me cringe a little. Besides, controlling sound in an open environment like a mountaintop is impossible.  You’re hearing a studio mix, pumped out and lip synced with a breathtaking backdrop.  Too cynical?  Nah.  I’m married to a sound guy.  He points these things out to me.

So…pull up another one of their videos, and take a gander.  What do you see?  The beautiful people.  The young, thin, and hip swaying to the music, singing along.  Something’s off. Taking a mental roll call, who’s missing?  Oh yeah, the senior saints.  Where are the wise ones? And, living in America, where are the fat people?  Surely they have fat people in Redding.  Where are the scarred, the ugly, the mismatched? Is anointing  and the favor of God attached to attractiveness?

I understand that film is a visual medium.  I get it.  The whole video endeavor strives to color-coordinate the cast, from worship leaders, drummers, bassists, etc., to the audience.  But what do these videos say?  They put out a false message.  God loves you, no matter your size or age.  He doesn’t have a velvet rope you can only cross if you’re 5’5″ and 110 lbs. or some other low BMI.

Jesus came for the broken.  When you get to the end of yourself, tired of trying to live life under your own steam, that’s when you can call on Him and He will meet you.  Yes, he beautifies the meek with salvation (Psalm 149:4).  He rebuilds us and remakes us into who we were always meant to be.  But we don’t come to him with it all together.  The “together” people have no need of God.

Please understand that Bethel has an amazing worship center; I’m not knocking their hearts at all.  They put out great, anointed songs.  We use several of them in our regular rotation of worship sets.  But don’t be misled by the advertising.  Jesus is for you, no matter where you are in your life.  Yes, let His praise “ever be on our lips”. But our worship, through music and daily actions, belong to God alone.

Desire Fulfilled

I can finally share the news.  Jonathon is the new artistic director for the Anna’s Bay Chorale!

There is so much background here.  Years ago, before Ruby was born, Jonathon taught public school choir.  We lived in a couple of small towns in Oregon – Reedsport and Creswell, to be exact.  He taught choir at the junior high and high schools in both places.  We lasted two years at each location.  Then…budget cuts.  And it got to be time to move on.  We moved back to Portland.  He subbed for a year, then got a teaching gig at a middle school in Vancouver.  It was the plum assignment:  a district with a music budget (finally!) and a cultured community.

Except…he wasn’t happy.  He found teaching kids to be less than enjoyable.  He has nothing against kids, mind you, but he discovered he’d rather teach adults.  Fast forward a couple of years and with a complete change of career, he’s teaching adults software. He loved it.

He has led choirs at our church for special songs at Easter and Christmas.  The voices gathered for those were for holidays only.  Nothing permanent, though he did a great job.  He felt like he’d moved on, left this part of himself behind. He felt okay about it and didn’t regret doing a new thing. Our lives have seasons, after all.  Maybe this one had passed completely.

And yet…

Jonathon joined Anna’s Bay just this past year, as a way to do something musical that was fun and challenging.  Little did he know he would end up getting tapped as the next director as the former one retired.  He is excited and little nervous.  It seems that God is restoring something that ended on a rather painful note; he got pushed out of his job in Vancouver and heard things from that job that killed his spirit.  Jonathon does a great job conducting.  He helps people express the music and encourages them towards their best sound.  He is passionate about musical excellence.  He knows what it sounds like and how to motivate others to pursue it. Now, he gets to work on beautiful music with people who desire to share it.

Sometimes, God pulls a sneaky move on us that blesses our socks off, something we never thought could happen.  You are amazing, God.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life. – Proverbs 13:12

In Defense of Performance

Today’s guest blogger is my husband, Jonathon. He addresses the concern about worship vs. performance in the church service. Enjoy!

I have seen a lot of articles on Facebook and elsewhere lately that try to parse the difference between ‘performance’ and ‘worship’. They state that the Christmas and Easter services should be much like their normal weekly counterparts in an attempt to avoid a sense of performance and focus all energies on worshiping Christ. They seem to pit the ‘production value’ of lights, sound systems, video production and multiple practices against ‘true worship’. They tend to advocate for us modern-day Christians to eschew the performance (or entertainment) and get back to true worship of the living God.
This past Easter weekend (2015), I spent 8 straight days volunteering at my church to set up for the Easter Production. I took 3 days off of work to cover it.
  • Ash Wednesday I drove to the closest major city to pick up rented sound gear.
  • Maundy Thursday I set up the rental gear in the sanctuary, as well as re-configured all the audio gear and instruments to make a space for the acting happening on stage….and picking up props…and building the back curtains…and typing and printing a 14 page cue list for multiple sound, light and video techs…and a 3 hour night rehearsal…and 30 minutes for dinner.
  • Good Friday was a day of rest….2 hours finishing set-up and a 3 hour night rehearsal.
  • Saturday I took another 2 hours fixing things and making the final prep for Easter Sunday.
  • Sunday call time was 7:30 a.m. and 2 performances (9 and 10:30), ending around 1 p.m.
  • Monday I returned all the rented gear back to the major city.
  • Tuesday saw me breaking down and reconfiguring the instruments on the stage.
  • Wednesday I cleaned the stage, reconfiguring the lights back to the regular services setting.
Eight days and 50+ hours of work for an Easter performance…and I loved every minute of it!
I believe every minute of work that I put into the production was part of my worship to my God. I want to be excellent in all the He gives me to do. I use my hands to honor Him. I use my feet to honor Him. I use my voice to honor Him. I will use every talent and ability available to me (and some I have not yet developed) in worship to the One who is worth of the best I have to bring.
So…excuse me for being a little defensive and cranky when I read that performance has no part in ‘true’ (or ‘pure’, as one article put it) worship to our God. I simply cannot disagree more. I thought it high time someone stood up for ‘performance’ in church.
I have a college degree in Music and am a classically trained vocalist. I attended both secular and Christian colleges to obtain my music degree, and at both types of universities, the music department was part of the college of fine and performing arts. Note that second descriptor: “performing” arts. Music is an art form that must be performed. Assuming the articles I disagree with mean the music portion of the service when they talk about worship (which is not a true association, but that’s another blog), then there’s no way that the music part of the service can be devoid of ‘performance’ unless your entire service is devoid of music. Singing “Heart of Worship” acapella is still music, and therefore ‘performance’, no matter how poorly sung.
I was a vocal major in college, so after I learned the notes and the correct pronunciation of the language (which is only the beginning of good music, not the end), I focused on performance techniques, such as:
  • Vocal inflection
  • Body Movement for emphasis
  • Facial expression for connection to audience
  • Vowel Modification for clear diction in extreme registers
  • Diction/articulation – for understandable words
  • Resonance – to carry the pitch further
  • Vowel Placement – for tone changes based on the song type
All of these aptitudes make for a better experience for the attentive audience and an easier and better performance for the artist. These performance techniques make high songs more manageable, difficult lyrical passages easier, fast-paced songs more understandable and a host of other benefits – but these are all techniques I learned to help in the ‘performance’.
In addition to my musical studies, I was blessed to study acting, psychology, education and marketing. I finished with a PhD in Education (in case you were wondering), but through my studies of other arts and sciences, I have learned more performance techniques, including:
  • Color theory in psychology and marketing (affecting mood of music/worship and extending the feeling of the song)
  • Lighting techniques (to guide attention of the audience/congregation)
  • Set building and set design techniques
  • Drama production and direction techniques (including a stint as a drama teacher)
  • Sound reinforcement techniques for live production…and many more
All of these count as performance techniques. I’m told to put all of this away so that I can get back to ‘true worship’, as if Jesus doesn’t want me to use what I’ve gleaned over the years in an effort to ‘only worship Him’. He gives us gifts and abilities. Using them to His glory is worship. Hiding them is the opposite of worship (see Matthew 25:14-30).
Some would say that the lights, multiple practices and scripted cues would lead to focus on worshiping ourselves and our abilities instead of God. I  concede that it can. In that concession, though, I would ask for a concession from you, dear reader. I would ask you to concede that having no lights and no ‘performance’ can just as easily lead to an attitude of ‘look at me worshiping the right way’…and then what?
See…the trouble has never been the talents, but the heart. It’s not ‘performance’ but what/whom you are performing for. Judging the heart by the ‘performance’ is just as evil as performing for our own glory, isn’t it? We are constantly told not to judge people by their outward appearance but that God looks at the heart. Yet we see one ‘high production’ number and think that everyone involved must be in it for themselves.
We should run away from performance that puts the focus on the performers. However, an intimate, acoustic set that worships its own simplicity should be shunned as well. Both could be equally effective in leading people to worship Jesus ‘in spirit and in truth’, but both could be equally damaging to a congregation when the focus is wrong.
So…how about we stop this fighting and complaining about the church shying away from performance and get back to ‘true’ or ‘pure’ worship? How about we discover what God wants from us and what our congregation needs from us worship leaders, and do it? Let’s serve our congregations, our pastors and our God the way they need us to. Stop telling us we’re doing it wrong because we utilize the different gifts our body has. Stop giving performance a bad rap.
I have always said that when I get to Heaven, I can’t wait for the wedding feast of the Lamb. I don’t want a place at the table though, I want to be the entertainment. That’s gonna be a party like we have never seen before, and I am gonna put on a show! He deserves nothing less.
Dr. Jonathon Isham

Me and the Music

In grade school, I sang in the choir.  It was for special occasions only, concerts and the like.  It was fun.  My mom sang, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. 

In 6th grade, now living with Dad, I tried out for band.  I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor it.  What I discovered as I progressed is that learning the notes and rhythms got me promoted in my section.  I learned by practicing, building up from 15 minutes to a half hour to an hour a night.  I learned dynamics.  I learned time signatures and key signatures.  I learned to sightread pretty well.  I grasped what I thought was music.

Enter college.  With my slight scholarship, I majored in flute performance.  My audition tape (yes, tape) garnered me $500.  I picked this song, way too ambitious for a seventeen-year-old with intermittent lessons and ultimately proved rather flimsy and flashy as an audition piece.  Our high school band teacher played a record of it (!) and I fell in love with it. I ate, drank and slept it for several weeks.

Let’s just agree that my student model flute and I didn’t do it justice. Did I mention I had no accompanist?  But the gorgeous cadenza!  Sigh. Probably the music department at Bethany thought, Well, she’s got chutzpah, as a flubbed my way through all the 32nd-note runs.

What I discovered as I pursued the degree is that it was all too easy to hide behind the title “the flute player”.  Nobody else trod the path alongside me; I had uniqueness going for me. I was okay with that for awhile, then I wanted something more.  I mastered the notes but the expression, other than louds and softs, eluded me. I guess you could’ve called me wooden.

It became easier to just be “the flute player” rather than Susan. Hiding like this provides protection and safety. Even now, I’d rather be the backup singer.  The mom.  The grant compliance coordinator.  Those are roles well-defined, with handles that stick out. I can grasp them with one hand, eyes closed.  The thinking involved has to do with getting the job done, not who I am. 

Like studying beautiful music, I had to learn to emote, give out from inside me, in order to truly make music.  I had to let down my guard and feel. I’m finding now that I need to be who God made me.  Again, this involves vulnerability. The louds and softs of Susan sometimes elude me, but I’m catching on.  I don’t get to be what I do.  I’m privileged to be allowed to do many things in several arenas. But the doing flows from who I am:  God’s child.

Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.'” – John 7:38