Wednesday, 24 December 2014


For a special holiday treat, I brought home a big box of Fruit Loops for the kids.  (Oh, who am I kidding.  Also for me.)  This morning as Benjamin ate and pondered his bowl of rainbow delight, he asked me:

"Where do they get Fruit Loops?"
"From the store." I replied.
"I mean, how do they get them?"
"You mean how do they make Fruit Loops?"
"Yes.  Do they catch a parrot?"
"Because of the picture of the bird on the box?" I ask, suppressing a smile.
"No.  Because they are made of many colours, just like a parrot.  Do they catch a parrot and cut it open and cut it up and make Fruit Loops?"

Monday, 22 December 2014

The musical breaking point

I love music.  I love hearing it, making it, being a part of it. Christmastime is a particularly busy time for me as a musician.  There are always recitals and concerts and cantatas and programs to write, lead, play, and participate in.  For as long as I can remember I have been asked to share my musical abilities at this time of year.

This past Sunday was no different.  Our Sunday church Christmas program was coming together a little last minute, and I was asked if I would contribute in a few ways.  I had two choir songs for which I was the pianist, and then I offered to play the violin in a piano/violin/vocal number.  This is actually a scaled back involvement for me, as I'm usually writing and coordinating, as well as playing.  But we have an unusual amount of extraordinary musical talent in our congregation, which not only eases the load but also creates beautiful opportunities to work with other musicians.

8:45 am, Sunday morning, I got a phone call.  Our organist was ill and wouldn't be able to play.  Would I mind?  No, I offered, of course not.  The Christmas hymns are familiar enough I can jump in.  Oh, and there is also a group number, a song the young women (ages 12-18) are singing, and would I accompany them also?  I tensed a little; I had not heard the song and had no idea what I was getting myself into.  But I know how often these girls practice, and to not sing would be heartbreaking.  I agreed, with more than a little trepidation.  I had choir practice at 9am, but if we ended at 9:45 and I excused myself from the prelude choir, I could run through the song once because tuning up the violin and getting all my music in order...

Then choir ran long.  Right smack up to 10am when the service was ready to start.  And since I was now on the organ for the congregation hymns, I couldn't slip out during the announcements and church business to get ready.  I scanned the music, played a couple passages and prayed I had the right feel and tempo of the piece.  Then I apologized to the Bishop as I slipped out to get my instruments and music, promising to return soon and hoping that would ease the panic look in his eyes.

Go time.

I usually find my groove in these kinds of presentations, moving between songs, taking a moment to reorient myself to the next performance and then jumping in.  But I have discovered that I have a limit, and 7 out of 9 numbers was it.  Every time I sat down in front of a piece of music, I felt my head spinning, unsure of the key, the time, the notes.  My finger memory failed.  The organ sound was getting lost in the crowd, I was standing holding my violin and still thinking about the piano.

The young women ascended to the choir seats.  My sight reading number.  I started in, maybe a little fast, but the girls' voices blended in nicely.  Not bad.  Thank goodness sight reading is my forte, and very few people would notice my lack of technical precision.

A congregation song was announced, which would start with the first verse on flute.  I sat at the organ, my friend at the piano, the flutist behind me.  Am I playing?  The piano?  For a few drawn out seconds I realized we had never talked about how this piece would go.  I was filling in for the organist and had no idea what the plan had been.  It seemed the flutist nodded to me, so I started.  She started.  Then after a line the pianist came in.  And there we were, on the stand, in front of 200 people, music improvisation.  I've heard it was beautiful, but in my muddled frame of mind it was slightly terrifying.

In the end, people seemed to love it, but as a musician I was frazzled.  I have never considered that there is a limit to the number of pieces I can perform; I've never hit it before.  But Sunday, I finally did. It was an interesting and unique musical experience.  If faced with it again, of course I would jump in to help a friend in need.  But at least I will be aware of my own limitations and try to take an extra minute here and there in the program to reorient myself more fully.  A little performance fermata.

Sunday, 14 December 2014


On the family cat:

"I was just having a little talk with Cleo (our cat). We even put our hands together for a bit. I was thinking about how she's been separated from her family for twelve years now, so that she can be with us, and how that is a little sad for her."


On music:

"I want to do something that makes other people happy, so I'm thinking of starting a band.  I think I should play drums, because I can always find the beat of any song.  Then maybe I'll ask Evelyn or Charlotte to play piano, Benjamin to sing, and Mom to play electric guitar.

"I already auditioned Ben.  I had him sing "O Canada" since he knows that song well.  I listened to each line, and then when he got to the end I asked him to do the last bit again, but really try to belt out the last note, but without oversinging it.  That's the real key to a good singer.

"After I auditioned everyone, I would get everyone together and ask each person to play a little bit on their instrument.  I would listen to each person's style, and whatever is the centre core, that would be our sound.

"We would have to practice a lot, and then we could put on a concert.  I'm thinking that for the first few concerts we would charge a dollar a person, which would mean we each get 25 cents from every ticket.  I think we could get about 75 people out to our first concert.  Then when we are more popular, because these people tell others about us, we could up our price to $4 a ticket so we each make $1 per ticket.

"Do you have to buy a stadium or rent one?  Once we are big enough, we could rent out a place to play, like one of the big churches in town.  And we might have to play two or three nights in a row if there were lots of people who wanted to see us.

"Once we were big enough then we could record an album.  But only once we know there are enough people who want to buy it so we can make the money back that we have to pay to the recording people.

"You know what is the best about this?  It's work, but it also is something I love.  Not everyone gets to do something they love for work.  I get to make money, be happy, and make others happy.  That's a pretty good life."

Friday, 12 December 2014

The violin

I think I have found the answer to why I have yearned for the violin all these years.  Every since I can recall, I wanted to learn to play the violin.  From when I first came to music through the piano, then to clarinet (because we already owned one) to the guitar (because it was my father's) to the flute (because a friend had one to loan me), music emerged from me in new and different ways.

The piano was an extension of my own extremities.  I pounded the keys like a percussion instrument, and then caressed a gentle song from its strings.  I learned expression, to feel and move over its length.

The clarinet brought me to the group, joined my solo voice with others to hear what it was to evoke  single chord that echoed above us.  Harmony like that can only be achieved with different voices drawn together to a magnetic centre, clinging to each other in perfect unison.

The guitar touched my imagination as I sat on the deck in sunset glow and murmured a poem while pulling out some humble chords.  It was tactile in a new way and altered the very beat of my heart to pulse in time with the rhythm.

The flute was beauty.  I found melody and song, sweet tones and wistful tunes.  It was a feature, something to stand out and above, to call out to the heart and gladden.

But when I pulled the bow down the strings of my violin, I pulled something out of my soul.  The timbre of the vibration was an echo of my own voice.  A happy tune was happy only because I fed it with my own happiness.  A mournful song was stoked with my own heartache.  34 years of living, 34 years of life, and each note on the violin reached deep within me to pull out an emotion I have grown in my own heart.

I can hardly tear myself from this near-to-living thing, because with it in my hands I am living a hundred lives.  I am almost timid to touch it, knowing the depth of an artist's emotions and the danger of subjecting myself to so much in so short a time.  To play one song, then the next, to ride a joyous high and then descend to darkness, to rise and fall within minutes of each other, I am fearful of the drug of music.  And yet I cannot pull away from this supernatural language any more than I could cease to communicate in my native tongue.

Monday, 1 December 2014

A History of God

CBC Radio steered me toward British author Karen Armstrong, and subsequently toward a documentary based on her book "A History of God."  It has been illuminating, especially in light of my last blog entry.  As Armstrong traces the history, unfolding and evolving human understanding of God, I was astonished that this phenomenon is even possible.  Because, in fact, an understanding of God is a personal one.  Faith cannot be passed from one person to the next, one generation to the next.  Faith can only be attained on an individual level, and as such always starts from zero.

I am intrigued by Armstrong's idea of Monotheism, rather than Christianity or Judaism or Islam.  The notion that any monotheistic faith, and even many of the polytheistic faiths that assert a high god, or god of gods, come from one original truth of a Supreme being.  Each religion asserts doctrine, but is that doctrine really just a collection of current understanding, based on history, culture, and experience? Are we confusing doctrine with what is actually ritual?  Even tracing the evolution of God through the bible, we can see how different generations related to God differently, worshiped differently, and therefore understood differently.

James and I had a conversation about a recent movie that explored a "fifth dimension."  I asserted that to even discuss the idea was useless, because it involved the absence of time.  The human mind is bound by time, and cannot contemplate existence not bound by its parameters.  Even our discussions on the absence of time (paradoxically) dissect it in relation to it (by saying "the absence of time" you are using time in its very definition.)  Every method James started to use to try and convey the concept of a dimension without time had some start, some end, some movement from A to B, one thought following another, the mind focussing on one thing then the next: all of these implying existing chronologically.  And so the conversation was shut down.  There was no way a time-bound mind could truly understand what it is to exist without time.

In the same way, I see that for a finite mind to understand the infinite is futile.  We have constructed ways to relate to God only in relation to our finite experience: as the one who created us, as the one who gives us instruction for life, as the one who inspires us to good.  But these again are simply ways to relate to God, not to explain or understand him.  Everything God has given us, through word or revelation, is a small attempt to give enlightenment (or appeasement) to humanity, a temporary morsel to get us through to the eternities.

"We are reaching for the future
We are reaching for the past
And no matter what we have we reach for more
We are desperate to discover
What is just beyond our grasp
But maybe that's what heaven is for."

- Hilary Weeks