It is the beginning of a hectic weekend, so I leave you today with a quick video. See you on Monday!
(Text, more or less):
It has been about ten years since I gave a recital.
When I gave recitals in college and grad school, I:
- Practiced three to four hours a day
- Had my own dedicated practice room, with no internet connection
- Practiced first thing in the morning before class.
- Practiced after class until ensemble time.
- Practiced in the afternoon until more ensemble time.
- Practiced after dinner.
- Practiced in hallways where best friends would often be doing the same thing across the way, motivating each other.
Oh right. And I had no kids.
It is a very different experience to give a recital these days.
What practice I have had has been “accompanied” by:
- A plastic snake
- Lego cupcakes
- The Penguin and Joker under my feet
- And a water flute.
Among other things.
But although everything is a little—okay, a lot–less polished and a little more haphazard, I am not complaining. After all, when I was preparing recitals in college and grad school, I:
- Weighed ten pounds more than I do now.
- Was in a constant battle with tendinitis and carpal tunnel
- Didn’t know what I was really going to do with this degree I was earning. If anything.
- Was sleeping on a dormitory bed whose legs were so uneven that I had to stick books under them to even it out
- in apartments with walls so thin, the alarm clock next door woke me up every morning…
- …or, in apartments made of cinderblock without insulation, next to a major intersection
- Had no car
- Had never been published.
It’s a give and take. Whatever you gain as life goes on comes at the price of something else, and what you lose usually opens the door to new possibilities, too. So I’m satisfied to be standing here today to share this music with you.
Friday morning, I flew into church at 7:59 a.m. for 8:00 holy day Mass, trailing a widely-spaced gaggle of little ones–the last one wailing. With Christian out of town, I was single parenting, and it was also the last field trip day of the summer, with speech therapy thrown in for good measure. We’d left for church with the van packed for the day but no cell phone, because I couldn’t find it.
Did I mention I was the pianist for that Mass?
There is a certain poetic symmetry in this. After all, for every action in the universe, there is an equal and opposite reaction, right? The feast of the Assumption in 2004, while I was on retreat with Jeanne Cotter, was one of those transcendent moments that stays with a person.
The tenth anniversary of that transcendent moment?
Long, loud toddler wails filled the church as I strode up the aisle, retrieved the keys to the music closet, and got out the microphones, trying not to meet the eyes of any of the parishioners. I got the mics set up in less than a minute, by which time three of my children were sitting quietly at the end of the first row of the music area, and the last–the wailing one–was coming up the aisle with a friend from our choir. I announced “Immaculate Mary,” and off we went. By now, however, Michael had escalated to that catch-breath crying. You know, the kind that is beyond all self-control.
And he was sitting underneath the hanging microphones. The ones you can’t turn off.
Mid-phrase, I waved at Michael to come over to me, thinking he’d hug my leg until I finished the opening hymn. No, no. This child began climbing. In the middle of verse 2 I had to break off the left hand to haul him up, because otherwise I was going to derail altogether.
Luckily, he calmed down once he was on my lap. I didn’t even try to stand up until the Gospel.
Father started his homily by introducing the topic: Mary, motherhood, the importance of the mother-child bond.
“Look at Kate, this morning!” he said, sweeping a hand in my direction. “Her child followed her around the church, crying for his mother. You cannot keep a child away from his mother. The mother, she is so important.”
Never once have I envisioned myself being invoked as a homiletic example. And if I had to choose a time to focus on me, this would not have been it.
But Father was right. It was a very apt illustration. And everyone laughed.
Michael spent most of Mass on my lap at the piano. Once he settled down, it got steadily harder to play. He reached for the keys. He pulled the hair on my arm. He wiggled his bottom down my legs, then grabbed my arms and used them to haul himself back up. Have you ever tried to play the piano–think “type,” it’s the same idea–with a child pulling on your arm? I found a lot of wrong notes in the piano that morning.
Finally I had to banish him. My friend took him onto her lap. By this time–mid-Eucharistic Prayer–he tolerated it. “But he wouldn’t look at me,” she said.
By the grace of God, even epic pastoral musician fail moments can make way for moments of grace and transcendence. When it was all over, Father met us in the prayer garden outside church. This priest, from the Ivory Coast, spent a semester here when I was full-time liturgy director, and he’s been coming back to the States almost every summer for over a decade to cover our pastor’s vacation. We had him over for dinner this summer, and he blessed our family. It was more than a hand motion; I could feel the blessing descend. I have never felt that before, but I felt it that day in my kitchen.
I felt it again in the prayer garden outside our church, as he blessed each of my children in turn and we said goodbye for at least a year. And I was grateful for the reminder that ceremony and solemnity are not, in the end, as important as the love that underlies them.
My second collection of pieces for flute and piano is now available from GIA Publications. In our house it is known as “The Stanley book” because the opening piece, “Stanislaus,” is inspired by a character in stories we used to (and occasionally still do) tell the kids at bedtime.
Also newly available is a Gospel arrangement of Stuart Hine’s How Great Thou Art, available as part of World Library Publications’ WLP Choral Series:
Let’s start with a story about this boy: Alex loves to rewrite songs. And oh lordy, sometimes it’s hard for an occasional songwriter to listen to it! Last night in the car, he decided to rewrite Rudolph with shades of the Lego movie: “Big Mr. Buz-niss MA-AN, had a bi-ig crane ro-BOT!”
“ALEX!” I shrieked. “Stop! Stop! Stop! I can’t take it anymore! You have to put the STRONG syllables on the STRONG beats!”
Dead silence. Then: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Christian roared with laughter. “Alex, I’m sorry, you have a mother who’s a spaz about music and words, and she’s freaking out!”
Deep breaths, Kate. Deep breaths.
Mommy Alex told me I can’t change my Batman plane back!
Legos are meant to make NEW things, not keep the old ones!
But I want my LEEEEEGO plane!
But E. made this!
But it’s myyyyyyyyyy Batman plane!
At lunchtime yesterday, Alex sighed with vast contentment. “I love summer.”
Me, running around doing the short-order cook thing: “Uh, okay, why’s that?”
“Because I lllllllooooooove spending time with my family.”
Last weekend as the choir circled up I had one of those moments when you really process things you see every day. In this case, Julianna’s size. I know she’s tiny, but looking at her on Sunday I realized just how small. She and Nicholas have always been mistaken for twins, but now Nicholas is bigger. Julianna is still marginally taller but Nicholas outweighs her by almost ten pounds. And she’s so much smaller than other kids her age.
Julianna’s view of the world is so streamlined, so simple and apparently un-nuanced, that sometimes I’m startled when she shows understanding of something her brothers don’t get at all. For instance: she knows when it’s Wednesday. She asks me every single Wednesday can we go to church? She doesn’t ask it any other day. Only Wednesdays.
Now, if you ask the boys what day of the week it is they’ll look at you blankly. Julianna, however, knows Wednesday means either “church school” (religious ed class) or choir practice, and those are highlights for her. And somehow, she knows when it’s Wednesday.
There’s much more going on in that little brain than it appears…but perhaps she processes things differently and that’s why we don’t recognize how much is going on.
A few snippets of my week at NPM convention. First: I spent hours trying to figure out the route to drive in to downtown St. Louis, and where the best/safest/cheapest place to park would be. When I got there Monday morning, the garage I chose was closed for renovation. Sigh. So I ended up parking on a surface lot across the street. And every day the same youngish man was on duty to come over and collect my $5 for the day. (Yeah, it was a good lot.) He was so nice, and I couldn’t help thinking how nice it was to build relationships, however fleeting, with people.
Wednesday evening I played flute for a concert of music written by women composers, sponsored by WLP. The seven of us who were performing arrived at the Shrine of St. Joseph, site of one of the miracles for St. Peter Claver’s canonization, shortly after 5p.m.. It was a gorgeous day for July, and the man who let us in opened the huge church doors to let the cool breeze air out the building.
Almost immediately three little African American boys, kids who live in the neighborhood, I presume, appeared on the church steps, obviously not sure if they were allowed to come inside. The man went to greet them, invited them in, and for the entire hour that we were practicing, he was shepherding them from one part of the church to the next, explaining the imagery and the statues and who knows what else. I was too busy preparing for the concert to get emotional, but I’ve thought of that several times a day ever since. That memory will remain one of the highlights of a wonderful week.
The Shrine of St. Joseph was a really lovely space to play flute. My first test note went reverberating around the high ceilings for most of a second before it faded. But it’s not as big and live as the Cathedral in St. Louis. Last summer, Christian and I went to Mass there, and the sheer reverb in that space clarified something for me about musical styles.
It makes perfect sense that the history of sacred music in Europe developed as it did; the music was created for the spaces where it was to be used: ethereal chant; soaring, exquisite motets, stirring organ-accompanied hymnody. That music is uniquely suited to those spaces, and I really question whether guitar/pop-influenced music could be used successfully there.
But it also made it clear to me the flaw in the argument that nothing other than chant, motets, and organ-accompanied hymnody is appropriate for worship. That music developed as a practical matter, not because there is something inherently more holy about it. More reasons to appreciate the greatness of the Holy Spirit, who inSpires people to write music of all styles to nourish the people of God in the many and varied places they gather.
I spent last week at a conference for church musicians. I want to blog about it this morning, but so far I have spent ten minutes sitting in front of the computer grasping for what to say. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I can think of lots of things to say, but I can’t find the thread that ties them together. Some experiences have to be unpacked slowly over a long period of time.
It was a wonderful week, spent with wonderful people, making wonderful music and gleaning inspiration and insight. At the end of the week, Msgr. Ray East urged us to think of the encounter with Christ we had had this week, and share it with others.
Well, here goes.
The last few years, I’ve spent most of my time and energy being Mommy and freelance magazine/fiction writer. But there’s always a little part of me that tugs on my sleeve, reminding me that I’m a musician, and begging me to carve out some time for writing music. I spent this week away from my children, focusing on being a liturgical musician and composer. I got to be part of several great musical events, singing and playing flute with really terrific people. I got to spend a week focused on writing music and texts for worship with people whose work I admire tremendously.
I had deep conversations with old friends and made new friends I can talk to as if we’ve always known each other. Being a morning person at a conference that didn’t get started until hours after I’m accustomed to rising, I had time in the mornings to spend a few minutes being still in the presence of God in the adoration room.
And at length, I realized the obvious: that writing sacred music grows out of one’s spiritual life. If your spiritual life consists of clinging to the rock face and just barely hanging on amid the crazies, well, you’re not exactly in a position to bear prodigious amounts of fruit, are you?
For years, I’ve clung to the idea that you do what you can, and a great deal of a mother-of-littles’ prayer time consists of prayer by service. You know: doing dishes and brushing teeth and folding laundry equals my spiritual work.
I still think that’s valid, but my soul is longing for more. I don’t have the solution worked out yet, but I know I’m going to have to make time for contemplation. I’ve been trying for the last several months, but it’s scattered and haphazard. Now it’s time to get real.
You’re all busy people. Feed me. How do you find time for silence and stillness to nurture your relationship with Jesus in the midst of the crazies?
Wednesday night, we took the kids to a symphony concert. This one was about visual art inspired by music. At “family concerts” they also let the kids come up and take turns conducting for a few bars. The kids had a lot of fun.
(no idea who the little girl with Nicholas is, hence the blacked-out face. Can’t ask permission.)
It’s been a high-powered few weeks, and I am tired. So very tired. I go to bed when I should and I lie awake, trying not to retreat to the couch, because Nicholas already thinks the couch is Mommy’s regular bed, and because Christian tells me forlornly how much he misses my presence when I’m not there. Earlier this week, I’d just drifted off when a storm ripped across the state and Michael sat bolt upright in bed, screaming, while the sky beyond the blackout shades resembled a dance club with a strobe light on maximum.
I don’t sleep while my children are in bed with me. I merely lie there and try not to get wound up until the storm passes and I can move them back to their rooms. That night, I winced in anticipation of Nicholas and Julianna waking up, but they didn’t. I thanked God for a day at the lake, because those two were so shot, they slept through the storm. Otherwise it would have been triple the fun.
On Wednesday night I decided to capitulate and take a Benadryl to help me sleep. And not to set my alarm in the morning. It’s a sacrifice I don’t take lightly, because that early morning hour is a big chunk of my productive time on any given day, but I knew I needed it. Christian got up and went running. When he came back at 6:20, I was still in bed. He came over to me. “Are you okay?” he asked with deep concern. “Why, because I’m still in bed?” I said groggily. “Well…yes!”
Later, I went to swim lessons and realized I had forgotten to bring my Things To Do. Basically I never go anywhere without Things To Do. This block of time, beside the pool, I had intended to devote to singing through music for a concert next week. Instead I ended up…gasp!…simply sitting there and watching my children’s lesson for half an hour. And some of the tightness in my chest went away.
And then we had choir practice, only for reasons too complex to explain in a post with the word “quick” in the title, I was not leading but instead watching everyone’s kids while they rehearsed. It was a lovely evening, and I took them onto the school playground. Eight kids, to be exact. One good-hearted uncle along to help, thank God, or that trek to the bathroom-and-water-break would have been quite an adventure–but the point is, again, no Things To Do. Because with eight kids to watch, you’re pretty much committed to doing nothing but, well, counting to eight repeatedly. But it was surprisingly relaxing.
I’ve been practicing lately–regular flute practice! what a concept!–and it feels good. I have scheduled a recital for this fall (locals: September 21!), but somehow that has not been as high a motivator as I had hoped. Next week’s performances, however, did the trick. I’ve been practicing just about daily to get my chops in shape, and man, it feels good. But it is not like it was in college and grad school. My practice sessions are accompanied by little boys taking toy cymbals and crashing them together right beside me. I can barely hear myself think, let alone play. I have to do most of performance analysis by how it feels. :) I never thought I would reach the day when it was a simple joy to clean my own flute. Something I do at a tiptoe, hoping to sneak out of the basement before the boys realize I’m done playing and start fighting over who gets to push the stick and cheesecloth through the flute.
On a serious note: I’ve been reading the book Generation Me lately, bit by bit. Every so often something electrifies me. Like this:
“A 200 study of almost 20000 teens found that those who watch TV with a lot of sexual content are twice as likely to engage in intercourse as those who watch less. ‘The impact of television viewing is so large that even a moderate shift in the sexual content of adolescent TV watching could have a substantial effect on their sexual behavior,’ said Rebecca Collins, the study’s lead author. Watching sexually explicit TV led to teens having sex two to three years earlier, with media-savvy 13-year-olds acting the same as more sheltered 15- or 16-year-olds. Another study found that young black women who watch many rap music videos are more likely to have multiple sex partners and to acquire a sexually transmitted disease.” (p. 170-171)