Monday, April 30, 2018

A Bit of Music Dorkery

It's been a while since I dorked out on musicy things.  I'm probably going to do that today.  But first... is awesome.  It allows us to do amazing things (for example, with a single click I could have used virtual thesaurus to choose better words instead of "awesome" and "amazing").  In the fourteen or so years I've been serving in full-time music ministry, technological improvement has completely changed what I am able to do in ministry.  That may seem odd for a director of music in a traditional church where we still use a pipe organ, piano, and choir.  But those aren't what has changed.

Fourteen years ago, desktop publishing was just coming into its own.  Software was clumsy except at the very high end, and most of us didn't have computers capable of running that software (or the know-how, for that matter).  And even if we came up with a really stunning piece of publicity, it took a congressional act to get it printed in color.  A veto-proof majority if it was full color!

Communication has seen a similar revolution.  Actually it's seen a number of them.  There were phone and print media.  There was email.  Then there was Facebook.  Then there was texting.  Another post for another time, perhaps, is that through all that transition, a simple, hand-written note has not lost its power.  I have a whole theory about that I'll lay on you later.

And the internet.  Mostly a novelty at first, it's now a full-blown tool.  I don't have to burn CD's for rehearsal purposes anymore (though sometimes I still do).  Now I can just send out youtube links.  There are all kinds of handy tools available to help teach parts (like cyberbass) so the choir can spend quality time learning their music without having to have someone banging the notes on a piano.  It's not just about communication (though it's helpful for that too).  I have a postively insane amount of knowledge and power underneath my fingertips at any given moment.  Need to research texts?  Tunes?  Put together a program?  Help is a click away.  When did Mozart die?  How old was he?  Wasn't his father a pretty good musician too?  Google knows.

Eric Whitacre has done this amazing thing (even more amazing than his hair, which is...spectacular).  It's called a virtual choir, and he's done it something like five times now.  Here's one of them:  The way this works is that people submit videos of themselves singing a single part, and the audio and video from each part is joined together.  I thought this was the coolest thing I'd ever seen the first time I saw it.  They've gotten more sophisticated every time.  He's done something like five of them now.  Here's the fifth:  This technique allows for massive choirs that would otherwise be logistically impossible.  Thousands of singers from all over the world massed in a single effort.  Remarkable.  And not all that long ago, impossible.

And then there are the one-person choirs.  These are folks who record themselves singing all the parts and then layer those recordings on top of each other.  Here's one that's fairly rudimentary:  These get a bit more fancy too.  I really like this one, for example:  To be fair, that guy also has amazing hair, and I do love Loch Lomond.  This is kindof the opposite of the Whitacre.  Instead of bringing thousands of people from all over the world together, it allows a single person to become a thousand.  Remarkable.  And again, not all that long ago, impossible.  That they both have nice hair can't be coincidence.

That's not all the amazing things technology is allowing in music, of course.  Not even a scratch on the surface.  But these two are particularly interesting to me as a choral musician because they are, at heart, choral ventures.

The way I go about ministry on a day-to-day basis is so vastly different than it was.  And yet, on Wednesday night at 7:30, I stand in front of the choir, and we do something that people have been doing for centuries...or more.  We raise our voices together.  We find something that is all too often lost in the virtual noise.  We find something that technology, try as it might, cannot replicate--or even imitate very well.  There's something magical about standing together, breathing the same air in the same moment, and losing ourselves in each other's voices.  For a moment we truly become a whole--a whole that is made up of us and some other something I have yet to put a finger on.

It's like the difference between watching a something on TV or experiencing it live.  No--I guess it's exactly that difference.  I've listened to so many recordings of the Brahms Requiem, but there is nothing on earth like standing in the middle of the collective wash of a hundred singers proclaiming with one voice that all flesh is like the grass.  WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!!!!!!!!

And so, as cool as they are, I find the virtual choir and the one-person choir fundamentally lacking.  Don't get me wrong.  I sometimes like to listen to them, and I marvel at what all these electrons have enabled.  They just don't hit me in the same way that my choirs do every time I stand in front of them.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

80's movies probably shouldn't determine how we live in the world.

I'm digging in the archives here.  It was third grade.  My elementary school was starting a basketball team for the parochial league in Little Rock.  All of us who were interested gathered in they (carpeted) gym.  We all figured on being the next Michael Jordan or Larry Bird.  Together we would be the Cathedral School Saints, and we would be unstoppable.

Image result for shack
And this was the only "Shack(q)" we knew.
Coach Faulkner (for whom I would later scoop ice cream at his Baskin Robbins store) walked us and our parents through the details of the season, and then he opened it up for questions.  There was one question I really needed answered.

"Coach, what will you be wearing to the games?"


"What will you be wearing to the games.  On TV they usually wear a suit...I'm just wondering what you plan to wear."

With that kind of laser focus on the important things, you can imagine how well we played.  In my elementary basketball career, our team had a perfect record two out of three years.  We lost every game those years.  The third year we won exactly one game, and we won it because the other team had a scheduling snafu and didn't show up.  So we didn't even play that game we won, and it's probably better that we because if we had played, even with no oponents on the floor, we might have lost.  What I'm saying is we weren't very good.  Bless our hearts. 

Based on my current, exceedingly athletic physique, it might surprise you to learn I was without a doubt he worst player on the team.  Everyone knew it.  I knew it.  I played the league minimum time in each game and not a second more.  In my final season I earned the nickname "Pockets" because during practice one day I got tired of playing offense, so I just camped out on the defensive end of the court while the rest of the team went down to the other end, trusting that the ball would come back my way eventually.  I just stuck my hands in my pockets and waited on the inevitable.  Coach, for whatever reason, was not thrilled with my performance at that moment.

I was so bad.  But I didn't give up on it.  I played again at my new school in junior high (still a parochial league, so there was still no tryout).  After about a year of that, though, I hung up my basketball shoes for good.

I've often wondered what I was thinking.  Not about playing.  That was worth a shot, I guess, even if it wasn't meant to be.  I've wondered why I felt like I needed to know what Coach was going to wear to the games.  What did that even matter?  In retrospect, I think it's because I didn't actually care anything at all about the game of basketball.  What I cared about was my own image of what playing basketball would be.  Basically, I had written a script in my mind, and at that moment I was concerned about the costuming.  It seemed a good time to ask.

Psychologists call this a "mental picture album."  The idea is that as we go through life, we create in our minds mental pictures of our experiences that in turn shape how we exist in the world.  It's a lot more complex than that, and I don't really know enough about it to offer a primer.  What I do know is that we get out of whack when the world around us doesn't match up with our mental picture of what it should be.

Image result for hoosiers
So if my coaches didn't look like this,
I was totally lost, because this was
the only basketball I knew.
Go Huskers.
The realization that my understanding of what basketball should be (that is, my mental picture of basketball) came from a movie  has really messed with me (even if that movie did star Gene Hackman).  I started thinking about other movies and how they have shaped my mental pictures.  My concept of what brotherhood is supposed to be came from Red Dawn.  I always wanted to have that close bond with my brother but never really did.  He is 4 1/2 years older.  This sort of movie/real life connection that exists in my head is the reason I can't walk through a parking deck without hearing the theme song from a 70's buddy cop show where somebody's about to get run down by a burnt orange land yacht.

Image result for burnt orange land yacht
The driver is wearing flannel plaid.
Don't judge.  We all experience this sort of dialogue with our entertainment.  Why do you think war movies are so popular?  It's not because we want to storm the beaches ourselves.  It's because we crave the kinds of relationships that storming beaches grows.  Or romantic comedies, where we can montage the hard work of relationships and fast forward to ther resolution on a bridge in Paris.  Like it or not, we learn what it means to be friends and enemies and parents and children and and and from the pictures formed by our real experiences combined with the experiences we've absorbed from our entertainment (which includes TV, movies, books, video games, advertisements, and more).

That scares me.

What scares me even more is that just as our lives are shaped by our entertainment, our entertainment choices are shaped by our lives.  Is it possible that super hero movies are so popular right now because on some level we all feel like we need a hero?  Or is it possible that fantasy is popular because on some level we all feel like we need an escape from the world as it is right now?  If only we could travel back in time...a long time ago, in a galaxy far away...

We can become so encapsulated by our symbolic world of mental pictures that we lose touch with reality and disengage from the world around us.  It's happening on social media, and I wonder if it makes up the bulk of the sizable wedge that is creating the cultural divide we are experiencing all over the world (not just in our own country).

It reminds me of this episode in Star Trek where these two worlds had been at a peculiar war for a long time.  It was peculiar because instead of fighting battles, they would simulate attacks, and for each simulated attack the worlds would actually kill the requisite number of victims.  Until the crew of the Enterprise was "killed" in an attack and they managed to escape.  That disruption of the virtual war with real consequences led to a real re-engagement between the two worlds rather than a simulated one...and an end to the war.

I wonder if it might do us some good to put our mental photo albums down for a minute and consider the reality around us.  Forget for a moment what things should be and engage each other about what they we might like to change them...and what steps we can take to bring those changes about.

Image result for hoosiers picket fence
Probably run the picket fence.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

If it were a snake...

There used to be a radio station (I think maybe it was B98.5) that had this fun game where you'd call in and go to your junk drawer.  They'd ask for several random items, and if you had them in your drawer, you'd win.  I mean, you'd often lose your pride, but you'd win some prize.  I wondered for a while how they verified that the items were actually in the drawer, and then I realized it really didn't matter all that much.  The fun was in the phone exchange.

Image result for junk drawer
1000 points if you can find Waldo.
1000 more points if you ever found Waldo in a book.
Lose 1000 points if you're too young to know Waldo, whippersnapper.
I was never really amazed at what people would claim was in their junk drawer.  I was more amazed that they could find it.  I'll open up our junk drawer at home and start looking for something I know beyond doubt is in there, and I won't be able to find it.  You know who can find it?  Lisa.  It's like she has xray vision or something.  She always says, "John, you have to move things around."  But I did move things around!  "Well I don't know what to tell you.  If you had moved things around you would have seen the spare helicopter blade.  It was right there."

Image result for eye exam
My eye doctor has yet to pinpoint the issue.
I'm not the only one this happens to.  Admit it; it's happened to you.  1000 points to the person with the best "it was right in front of my face" story in the comments, either on the blog or on FB.  In fact, it happens so often that there's a cliche for it.  "If it were a snake, it would have bit me."  It's like we're blind to something entirely.  And then, when someone points it out to us, we can't figure out how we missed it in the first place.  Usually we feel pretty dumb about the whole thing too.  At least I do.

Image result for copperhead snake
I'm afraid of snakes.
We can really struggle to explain the obvious things we don't see.  Back in about my first week of driving, I had a car accident.  There was a traffic light out.  Not flashing, just...out.  Ordinarily such a signal should be treated as a 4-way stop, but I forgot all about that, proceeded through the intersection, and caught the right rear bumper of a little silver Nissan.

The cop asked us what happened, made a few notes, and sent the other driver on her way.  Then he handed me my ticket and said, "Why didn't you stop?"  "Well, officer, the light was out."  "Yes, but didn't you see the stop sign?!"  I hadn't seen it at all until he said that.  But then I saw it.  And it was oversized.  Like twice the normal size of a stop sign.  I'm not even making this up.  "No, honestly I didn't see it."  "Well, hopefully you'll pay closer attention next time.  Make sure you show up for your court date."  I still couldn't tell you why I didn't see it.  Sure, I was looking at the light that wasn't working.  But criminy, that was a big stop sign.

Image result for big stop sign
Well why didn't you say so?!
Sometimes maybe we just don't want to see something.  I mean, that's not the case with the stop sign.  Believe me I would rather have seen it.  But what if not seeing that thing would help you out?  This has to be the case for nearly the entire population of children, who somehow don't see that their parents basically make their lives on planet earth possible when they are complaining about having to take the dog out.

Image result for walk the dog
Seriously, I mashed your peas.  Get out there.
Regardless of why we miss something, there often comes a point when we see it.  Once we've seen it, we can't unsee it.  Whatever it is, it...well, it is.  And we have to figure out how to deal with it.  There's a great scene in Legend of Bagger Vance where Junuh sees his ball move and has to call a penalty on himself.  This moment is how we see growth in Junuh's character.  Everyone, including his oponents, pleads with Junuh not to call a stroke on himself.  He easily could ignore that slight motion and improve his chances of winning, and the Junuh from earlier in the movie would have done just that.

He called the penalty on himself.  He saw the original position of the ball.  He saw its new position.  He couldn't unsee either one.  And he dealt with it.

Well, I've seen something.  I'm not sure how I missed it before.  And I'm not sure what opened my eyes to it either.  Maybe it was Charlottesville.  Maybe it was the 2016 election and the hate that bubbled up during it (and since).  I'm not even sure exactly when I saw it.  But I can't unsee it now.  It's everywhere.

It's racism.  And sexism.  And discrimination on a wide variety of traits.  I see plainly how my gender and my color and my sexual orientation have given me an advantage, mostly because I see now so clearly how the very same factors disadvantage others.

Sure, nobody who has privilege wants to admit it.  We'd rather believe we earned everything we have through our own blood and sweat and tears.  Privilege doesn't mean you never worked for what you have.  Privilege means someone else who works just as hard as you should have access to the same things you do.  And admitting we are privileged...will ultimately mean losing some of what we have.  It has to.  It's not about feeling bad or guilty.  It's about seeing the uneven field.  And it's about taking some action to even it.

Last time I wrote about this, I wasn't sure what to do about it.  Honestly I'm still not.  But I can't unsee it.  So there are a few things I'm going to do.

1. Don't contribute to the uneven field.  When I make decisions, I will consciously consider the ways in which discrimination may play a role in the decision and avoid it.

2. Let other people know when they are contributing to the uneven field.  When I see someone discriminating unfairly, I will not be silent.  Not to be mean or because I'm better than they are...because they most likely are like I was--they just don't see it.

3. Don't tell or laugh at "politically incorrect jokes."  Let's be real.  "Politically incorrect" is a politically correct way of saying "offensive" or "racist."  These jokes aren't funny.  What makes me a sad is that I realize now they never were.

4. Raise children who are sensitive to discrimination.  I will make sure they learn history.  I will open their eyes to the hate when they are old enough to understand.  I will teach them the value of life and love and the cost of hate.  I will help them see their privilege, and encourage them to seek to level the field in their own way.  I will lead them by example.

5. Don't count the cost.  For those of us with privilege, leveling the field will feel like we are losing something.  It may feel unfair.  I will remember that it is not it has been for those without privilege.

There may be more.  There has to be.  But this is a start.

How did I miss this before?  How did I not see it?  If it were a snake...well, if it were a snake it probably would have left me alone unless it felt threatened by me, in which case it would have acted out of self-defense.