Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Musical Matter of Trust… and Kansas

I have the unbelievable pleasure of getting to play with the classic rock band KANSAS this weekend.

Talk about a direct opening.

As an orchestra, we’ve been working our fingers to the bone (in my case, quite literally – callouses the size of Tic-Tacs) to prepare for this concert. Some of the music is quite complex and chock-full of runs and strange rhythms and, for us basses, long pauses.  There’s a good chance we won’t even have a full house, but the band will be here, we’ll be ready to play, and the people attending are in for what I believe will be a great show.

I’m stoked. I’ve interviewed Styx face-to-face with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, I’ve met the drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd, I’ve been a tour bus away from Alice Cooper. Now, I have the opportunity to rock out on my bass and be a part of a classic rock experience. Pure thrill. I’m even missing my family clambake, an event I have attended loyally since my conception. It’s true, rock CAN come between family. But it’s an experience I may only get once, and I’m loving it.

Yesterday during a long rehearsal, I was waiting for my cue in “Point of Know Return” and our conductor (who hopefully will read this at some point) made a comment about the guest conductor who works with the band. He’ll be the one conducting us on the night of the show. We’ve never played with him before and tomorrow will be our first interactions. My mind wandered to the times in high school when we had the chance to play with a guest conductor, and I felt a pang of discomfort. For anyone who has ever been a part of an ensemble or small group or organization, you know the slight unease when facing a new leader. Even if the position is temporary, there’s a new face and a new way of thinking and a new movement in the room. You’re expected to act and play the same way with someone you have perhaps never met. You may never see them again.

For me, this experience ends up feeling very unsettling. It’s not a lack of confidence in my own abilities, or in the abilities of the guest or my fellow musicians. I know the incoming conductor has years of experience with a plethora of groups and venues, and I know that we know the music relatively well. The issue lies in that I don’t know this man – I have never been under his direction, I don’t know his technique or body language or cues or style. I have the same problem with graduate students. Someone new steps onto the podium, and I can play the right notes with enthusiasm, but they lack… heart and trust.

With a conductor I know, one who I’ve played under for almost four years and who welcomed me to Houghton, I trust his judgement in the music. I know that if I look up and wait for direction, I’ll receive it. I know the gestures and facial expressions to guide me through the tone of the piece. I can anticipate what he’ll ask for based on our performance or lack of confidence… or over confidence, as we basses sometimes experience with solid bass lines :). Eye contact doesn’t just mean I’m watching – it’s a momentary bond to show my anticipation in the music, my attention, my need for affirmation, and my devotion to the work and to the one in charge. Staring at my music, I show I’m insecure. I’m stuck, pinned to a pale page. But when I look up, I show confidence, I show interaction and I show respect that I’m a part of the music being made and I need to be led. When he messes up, we all graciously accept the mistake, knowing he works with our many mistakes every rehearsal. Musicians and their conductor have a relationship that, in the context of the rehearsal hall, enhances and changes. It becomes a one-on-one conversation with a whole crowd of people, and we make something extraordinary.

Imagine a web: strands connect to anchor points and reach to bridge gaps and balance the weight of the host. But each strand must connect to the center of the web, or it can’t be held up. Each reverberation that travels through a single strand of silk can be felt throughout the net. If the spider simply pulled a selection of threads and attached them to points but then never formed a center, there would be no web. There would only be a network of disconnected threads, each blowing in the breeze and catching nothing. In instrumental terms, you would have many musicians making a sound with no connection. We may make similar sounds or even be relatively in tune with one another, but a conductor provides the center, to feel the vibrations and test out the strength and help fix the weak portions. The movements are felt by everyone, but the conductor is the one who  directs and instructs. We trust him, and the one we don’t trust we can’t possibly play our best for.

All of these connects to a sort-of devotional and personal growth practice I’ve gotten into recently. During my internship this summer, my boss and I would start the day by looking at character qualities from the Virtues Project to focus our day. It helped to have a focus, both for our work and ourselves. By looking at those qualities every day, we also had places where we could continue to assess our characters and grow. After I finished my time in the office, I purchased my own set of Virtues Project Reflection cards. I have already started going through them, focusing on two qualities per week for a year. I try to practice and nurture those qualities one at a time. I hope to write more on that soon.

Thus far this year, I have found many that fit in perfectly with this theme of trust – Honesty, Loyalty, Gratitude, Self-Discipline, Zeal, Unity, Contentment, Wisdom. All of these qualities have a place in the musical world, especially one that requires cooperation of many parts and, of course, a leader. The goal for these uncertain places lacking trust is to learn to trust in order to inject ourselves fully into the situation at hand. Strive to be a part by making your trust a part of the process. For the sake of others and yourself, learn to trust in quick and uneasy times. Don’t trust blindly, but trust when you know that you must. When the  stranger reaches out his hand from a safe place as you quiver and tremble on the unstable precipice, be willing to take that leap when he says “You’re going to have to trust me.”

Doesn’t our Heavenly Father do the same all the time? He lets us make our own path and wander up to the edge of the cliff and step one foot off, then catches us and looks us in the eye and asks us, “Are you ready to trust me now?”

Even in the making of music, from the classical to classic rock,  we need to be willing to let a new person step in, hold out a hand and say “trust me.”

We can then, however, look forward to the time when normalcy in restored and we have comfort in familiarity and practiced trust once again. Well done, good and faithful bassist.

Tomorrow, I will try to play my best – to glorify God, to please my conductor,  and to support my fellow musicians in a time that is sure to rock.
We’re going to fight fire with fire and hold on at the point of know return, right before we head to the other side of the wall.

Carry on, my wayward son.

Trust me,
it’s going to be a fantastic time.

Live On – September 11 and Afterwards

At ten years old, I was no stranger to grief. Having experienced the death of several beloved pets, one grandparent and elderly friends and neighbors, I had known the baffling uncertainty of why God would take these people, these things away. I had known the trailing of hot, unbidden tears on my cheeks. I had known the stale waft of funeral flowers masking the smell of reheated coffee and death. I had known the somber shaking of hands and hugs and waiting in line to gaze on the face of someone who would never again gaze back.

So, at the death of my great-grandfather in 2000, I was now familiar to the rituals of funerals and death. I understood mortality and for the first time in a few years, I was part of the family of the deceased.

But I’m not writing about all that.

No, the part of that time that I remember the clearest was during the funeral, in between visitation and a memorial time. The kids (primarily my fourteen year-old sister, cousin and I) were all shown to a small side room with a TV and games and toys. We were given time to watch a movie and let the adults have some time with each other. My sister and I began giggling at the absurdity of E.T and some private joke we had just concocted. As we laughed and joked and began to lighten the atmosphere of our little space, my cousin whipped around dramatically and snarled at us, “How can you be laughing? You’re not supposed to laugh. Great Grandpa’s dead! That’s wrong!”

She continued to bury herself in a shade of brooding sorrow and anger at our apparent impertinence and breaking of code. We both were a bit taken aback, but brushed off her outburst, marking it as a part of her tendency to be over dramatic. My sister and I were sad, and we had payed our respects and cried and mourned. But we also knew that life went on, that factors would affect our attitudes and emotional states and that, in the end, we were children and it was permissible for us to find some joy.

America, do not get trapped in the pitfall of perpetual grief.

I am often worried when long-standing anniversaries of pain come up on the calendar. I do what I know to be right and good – I pray for those involved, I reflect on the events, I take time to thank God for His provision and care. But I also worry for those who lock themselves in dark rooms and refuse to smile and self-flagellate with solitude and blackness.

For the ten-year anniversary of September 11, I did not initially feel any connection to the day and the events. I know people who were directly involved in the attacks, particularly George Sleigh who was on the 91st floor of the North Tower. His story is unbelievable, and could only be told today thanks to an Almighty God. During the events, I was old enough and smart enough to understand some of what was going on and understand the gravity of the situation, and to feel fear. I have every reason to feel a very close, personal connection with the events. Then why do I not feel the same grief?

Because in that time, I felt God. In that time, I felt joy.

I remember walking into my sixth-grade classroom after lunch and finding most of my peers missing, gone home.  Teachers tried to explain what was happening, and classroom TVs were all tuned to the news, the towers smoking and burning over CNN. I was one of few who stayed the entire school day. No one demanded I be terrified, no one made me cry. That evening, my family gathered on my parent’s bed and Mom and Dad did their best to tell us what was going on. They didn’t cower in fear, they didn’t act like anything was different. For them, it wasn’t different. Before the distaster, they trusted God to take care of us and protect us no matter where we were or what we did. After the planes crashed and our country was personally attacked by our enemies, my parents were aware of the increased danger. They knew that this event changed our country and our safety. But they never stopped trusting God with our health and safety. Instead of mourning, we prayed, remembered, helped others, and kept going.

This entry today isn’t about my great-grandfather, and it’s not about death. It’s about the people who have gotten stuck, wallowing in the darkness of September 11. Don’t forget the sacrifices and remember the grief. Remember the ones who are lost, and pray for the people who either lost loved ones or struggle with the fact they survived. But don’t dwell on it. Don’t lock yourself away and mourn again. If we forget to keep living and having light amidst the dark, the darkness will always win.

Even in the shadow of death and sorrow, a smile and laughter can be had without guilt. Better to lighten the heart with a thought than to risk getting caught in misery again.

A clumsy finish to what began as a whole piece, but in the lateness of the day and the distance of my heart, that’s really all I want to say.

When the terrorist attacks on September 11 happened, America changed. Policies, ideals, beliefs all changed. But that change all feels like such a distance memory, doesn’t it? We adapt so well to change but sometimes we refuse to acknowledge how versatile we are. Mind you, I don’t want to seem like I’m downplaying what happened on that day. I know people are still hurting and may never quite heal. But all I know how to do is keep living as I have been, and keep praying for our leaders and our friends and our neighbors and the strangers. I get up in the morning, I put my pants on one leg at a time, I make coffee and I write a poem about the spotted apple on my kitchen table.

Is it wrong of me to feel like I was detached from September 11? Is it wrong of me to spend the day enjoying my time with others than in mourning and remembrance? I don’t believe so. If we panic and cower in fear and refuse to leave the house or get on a plane, our enemies have won a small victory. If we live like trapped animals, we live a cursed existence.

May we never forget ten years ago, America. May we never forget to keep living.

Hear George’s Story in his own words, courtesy of Parkside Church:

Note from the Author – I know we disconnected a bit there at the end, but getting back into the swing is harder than it looks. I’ll be posting again on Wednesday with either a piece of poetry (ah, rare treat) or another entry on the first weeks of school. Stay tuned and good night!