poetry: /ˈpəʊɪtrɪ/

Middle-school-me absolutely dreaded the poetry section of my grammar textbook. To this day, hearing the words “Iambic Pentameter” makes me cringe a little bit inside. As a clueless pre-teen I had no interest in poetry, and studying meter and rhyme and heroic couplets did nothing to make me enjoy it more. As I grew older I slowly began to appreciate poetry more, and understand what made poetry good other than “The words at the end of the lines rhyme.”All that to say, I was looking through some of my old writings recently and found a poem I had written. I think it is one of the few, if not the only, decent poem I ever wrote. And I still don’t know what Iambic Pentameter is. Please excuse the use of the word effervescent, I realize that it makes minimal sense in the context, but that is how I wrote, so I will keep it like that.

Revel in my in ability and humility,

Never doubt because of my disability,

But in God’s power and purpose find tranquility,

Anything I do is Him filling me

When I choose to abdicate,

I don’t have to extrapolate

When I say my heart God will restore,

Because I’ve seen it done before

I’m not here to chase my dreams

Those ephemeral, effervescent, shifting beams,

But I was made to chase your dreams

Let your spirit guide me, daring

What is Musical Dictation?

Most people, even most musicians who have not had formal musical education at the college or university level, do not know what musical dictation is. But for those who do know what it is and have to do it, it is often the bane of their musical existence. Musical dictation is the skill of hearing something and being able to write it down just as played. Dictation can be separated into three categories: harmonic dictation, melodic dictation, and rhythmic dictation.

Harmonic dictation is the ability to hear a chord and know which degree of the scale it is built on and which inversion, if any, it is voiced in. Harmonic dictation is often easier for musicians who play instruments that play chords, such as pianos.

Melodic dictation is the ability to hear a single melodic line and write it down just as heard. Melodic dictation is usually easier than harmonic dictation.

Rhythmic dictation is the ability to hear and write down rhythms instead of notes. Depending on the musician, this might be much harder or much easier than harmonic or melodic dictation.

There are several reasons why dictation is such a hard part of musicianship. One is that most musicians do nothing to develop their critical listening ear before entering a class where they are required to do dictation. Another reason is that even people with good ears can get confused with dictation, and having no way to concretely know if they are right in their dictation-taking, not be very confident in their dictation skills. But like most things in music, dictation skills are difficult and sometimes monotonous to develop, but in the end are essential and worthwhile assets to one’s musical skills.

Harp Ensemble

Last weekend while I was visiting the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin, I attended a performance of the harp ensemble. The ensemble was made up of four harpists, three students and one professor. As there was no printed program, the professor gave a verbal introduction to the three pieces that they were going to play. All three pieces were written by Rolando Alfredo Ortiz, who immigrated from Paraguay to California about thirty years ago. The professor described the performance as a “trip to South America”.

The first piece was dedicated to the composer’s daughter. The opening measures of this first song destroyed my presupposition of what “harp music” sounds like. I have usually associated harps only with the twinkly, magic sound effect they are often used for, and expected something angelic or shiny-sounding. This song, as well as the rest of the performance, was much less twinkly than I initially expected.

The second song was a Uruguay dance form-it was whimsical, conjuring up images of rainforests and South American natives. At times the harps almost sounded like guitars, and at other times they emitted sounds that reminded me of an electric keyboard. I was surprised by the versatility and range of different sounds of the harp.

The last song was a Colombian dance form, and in addition to playing the strings, the ensemble added percussion to the piece by one of the harpists knocking on the wood of her harp. Of all the pieces, this one sounded the most distinctly like a Latin American dance.

This harp ensemble performance effectively destroyed all my assumptions of what a harp should sound like.

Your Own Beautiful

Someone, somewhere, at some point said, “Don’t try to be another person’s kind of beautiful.” In a world where everything is a competition and most people are constantly comparing themselves to others, this is an easily forgotten or ignored aphorism. We seem to instinctively think as if there was an objective scale for everything, and you’re are either above someone else on it or below them. But the simple saying, “Don’t try to be another person’s kind of beautiful”, gently points out that there isn’t one objective scale to measure beauty, so comparing yourself to someone else, or desiring to look/act/talk/think/be like someone else because they seem to be better than you doesn’t actually make any sense. What you are and what they are is different, and as such cannot ultimately be compared to one another.

All this metaphysical blather stemmed from a conversation I had with my younger cousin earlier. She has just started to take voice lessons, and she asked me to help her. I told her most people have a lot more of a voice and a range than they think, but are not brave enough to get passed the fear of making a mistake to find the expanse of their voice. I told her that the most important thing is to get comfortable with your own voice, comfortable with singing in front of people, and then be okay with it when it’s not perfect, and be okay when you mess up in front of people. Not trying to be someone else’s kind of beautiful also applies to singing. If you only compare your voice to the voices of other people and try to emulate their voices you’ll never be able to develop your own beauty. As I told her these things I found that I was also talking to myself. Accept that your voice (or your anything else) is your own, and allow it to be beautiful instead of trying to shape it into a cheap forgery of someone’s else.

Chapter Two

Here’s another long post. This is the second chapter of the book I wrote, For Two.

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The cavernous great hall smelled of smoke and roasted meat, resounding with the sounds of half-drunk laughter and raucous shouts. The long wooden dining tables were filled with the occupants of the castle: knights, noblemen and ladies. At the far end of the hall was a dais where sat Lord Amsbury himself, along with the more important occupants of the castle. Amsbury was graying at the temples, and past the prime of his life, but still strong and fit, if putting on a little weight on his midsection. He had worked his way up through the ranks of infantry, becoming a knight and eventually becoming a very powerful commander who found victory in many campaigns before becoming the lord of his own province. His fighting prowess had been as infamous among his men as his proclivity to cruelness. He now sat at the head of the hall on a cushioned and elaborately carved chair, tearing into a hunk of meat, paying no heed to the grease that smeared onto his clean-shaven face and hairy arms.

There were five other people who sat with Amsbury at the head table. The first was Carenen, Amsbury’s captain of the castle guard. He was in charge of the thirty castle guards, but that was not why he sat on the dais with the others. It was mostly due to his close confidence with Amsbury.

The second was Olfelia, the plump Lady of the castle. She was not the wife of Amsbury, or involved with him in any such way, but merely the woman who played the role of Matron of the castle. Her liberal application of rouge made her perpetually look as if she had imbibed a little too much wine, and her large lower lip gave her a pouty appearance. She spent most of her days ordering around the working women of the castle, wheezing from her own weight as she bustled to and fro amongst the workers, ordering and correcting them in tasks. To say that she put on airs would be putting it lightly, but Amsbury tolerated her, since she generally kept to her own business of managing the women of the castle.

The third was the young Lady Sienna. She was the niece of Amsbury; her mother, Amsbury’s sister, was said to have died in childbirth, and her father had perished in battle soon after. Lady Sienna’s beauty and figure were popular topics of conversation among the knights, who liked to compare her to all the other maidens in the castle and debate which one’s features were more pleasing. Very rarely did a knight try to argue that another woman was truly more beautiful than she. Many knights had asked to carry her token in tournaments and battles, but few had received such a token. Those who did were completely enamored with her, and heartbroken when she ultimately rejected their advances. At nineteen she was the perfect age to be wed, and many nobles and knights desired her hand.

Fourth at the head table was Mernov. Mernov was a knight of the highest position, and had earned his place at the head table through many feats of valor. Young, strong, and in the prime of his life, many people considered him to be the obvious heir to Amsbury’s seat of power after Amsbury was gone. As the highest ranking knight in the castle, Mernov often led patrols along the province’s border, and any time complaints of bandits or marauders appeared he was generally the one to lead the elimination of such lowlifes. Unlike anyone else at the castle, Mernov would often visit Donsburr, the village near the castle. He would devote his time to speaking with people, spending the evening in the tavern with the farmers and travelers. Sometimes he brought food from the castle for the occasional farmer or tradesman who was having a difficult time feeding his family.

Fifth at the head table besides his lordship was Tiurne, an elderly man who was both in charge of the training of the guards and knights as well as being in charge of the general affairs of the castle. He was considered a rather harsh man, keeping everyone in line with a steely gaze and harsh voice, but the deep wrinkles in his face betrayed the innumerable smiles that had graced his face as a younger man.

Amsbury wiped the grease from is face. “Carenen, has the herald returned from delivering his message?” he asked. The herald had been sent out near midday and Amsbury was eager to hear about the man he would be competing with.

Carenen, who sat directly to Amsbury’s right, leaned in to reply. “Yes, my lord. The man who was selected is named Jean Levison, he is a farmer who lives with his wife and-“

“Never mind all that,” Amsbury grunted impatiently, grabbing at a loaf of bread and grabbing a knife to cut it with. “Tell me what he’s like.”

“Of course my lord,” Carenen replied, knowing exactly what he meant. “A man in the prime of his life. He is quite tall, perhaps a couple inches taller than Mernov, and very well muscled from a full life of farm work. Not built like a blacksmith, slimmer and less muscle mass, but all his muscles are toned. He’s never seen battle, never been trained in weaponry or war at all.” Carenen smirked. “The closest he has ever gotten to combat is cutting down a tree. ”

Amsbury grunted contentedly through a mouthful of bread. Despite the fact that Jean had been described as tall and in superior physical condition, as well as being in the prime of his life, Amsbury was not in the least bit worried about that. Amsbury was confident that his own extensive experience with combat gave him a great advantage regardless of his opponent’s physical condition, if he had no experience in fighting. Even then, Amsbury would not be unduly worried if his opponent did have experience in fighting, because he did indeed rig the competition.

In the fifteen years of his Competition of Arms, only twice had it not been rigged; the first year of the competition, when Amsbury was a younger and more athletic man, he had had no doubts about his victory. But that ended in near disaster when his opponent revealed himself to be a traveling mercenary who had secretly taken the place of the farmer who was supposed to fight. The mercenary, who had hid his prowess in battle until the day of the competition, had almost defeated Amsbury. Only by blind luck did Amsbury triumph, and from that day on he had rigged the competition.

Amsbury rose, pushing back his seat and raising his goblet. His strong voice rose above the general hubbub as he called out, “A toast! A toast to the sixteenth year of our Competition of Arms!” The clamor of the diners muted as he continued. “Once again, I, your illustrious lord, benefactor of this province, will battle a man in single combat, for the good of us all! A toast, to the brave man who is to face me in this mortal combat, and a toast to I myself!” There was a cheer and a general raising of glasses.

A knight somewhere near the middle of the tables, shouted out, his courage bolstered by the wine he had liberally consumed. “And may the best man win!”

A wave of snickering and tittering rustled through the diners at this statement, but all of those there who were mindful of their own well being tried hard to suppress their laughter. Everyone in the castle knew it was a rigged competition, and the knight’s words had obviously been a jab at this.

Amsbury had not seen which man had presumed to shout such a statement. So instead of directing some action towards the man who had made the statement, he instead addressed the whole assembly. He set his goblet on the table and spread his hands out wide.

“What man of you,” he began, his voice booming out in the hall, with a dangerous undertone of menace that had not been in his previous speech, “what man of you can claim the conquering of nations? What man of you can claim to have received honors from a king? What man among you can claim to have brought prosperity to a region, beyond any that had ever been know in this region before? What man of you”-his voice grew noticeably louder and more intense-“can claim to protect the hundreds, even thousands, of people under your rule from marauders, bandits, and foreign powers every day? And what man can deny that it is necessary for a man in power to display his power, lest those who follow him attempt to rise up against him, thus forfeiting the safety they had under him? What man among you can claim a pure heart?”- his voice rose to a crescendo-“Is there any knight here who can say that, in the midst of battle he has no felt a heat in his heart for the death of his enemy, felt the protection of his own life, that sin of selfishness, pervade him, so that to kill his enemy is sweet? No man can truthfully say that has kept himself from all the evil of this world. But each man would say that he does what he can and must to combat that evil.” Amsbury’s voice took on a charitable tone. “And that is all that I am doing here. A battlefield is where a man sees his own heart most plainly, and I am merely bringing that battlefield into our lives, to remind us of who we are, to protect each of us, as is my duty, from the wickedness that seeks to devour our humble lives. No man can say that I am against those who I rule. No man can say that I am not just. A fair trials of arms, that is all I ask of you. A fair fight, the pitting of two men against each other. We cannot rid this world of evil, but I, as all of you, must play our part, and that is all I seek to do.”

The hushed crowd stared in silence at Amsbury as he finished his speech. Amsbury strode out of the hall towards his own chambers, followed closely by Carenen. It was not unusual for Amsbury to burst out into impromptu speech, but this one had been particularly fiery. After a few moments of silence after Amsbury’s departure, a man spoke up weakly.

“What is the life of one man? Amsbury has prospered each and every one of us here.” The speaker looked around, seeing if there was anyone who wanted to challenge his assertion. Few men would look him in the eye, and none looked as if they wanted to contradict him. “So, I say we just let Amsbury do as he likes, all he’s ever done for us is good, in my opinion, and we should just get on with our lives. God knows what’s right.”

There were a few mumbled grunts of agreement from the assembly. No one dared challenge Amsbury’s violent custom outright. Most would rather just watch it in silence.

At the head table Mernov stood up, catching people’s attention. “Indeed, God knows what is right. And surely it is the duty of every man to obey him who is of greater authority than he. And if we are the lesser men, what are we to do but follow his commands?” Mernov surveyed the group of nobles, knights, and ladies before him and then exited the hall, his face blank. He was soon followed by both of the ladies at the head table and Tiurne. The babble in the hall slowly grew back to its preview volume, and Lord Amsbury’s impassioned speech was soon forgotten by all but a few.

Pop Rant

Despite (and because of) pop music’s prevalence, there are plenty of people who will go on a “Pop Rant” at the slightest provocation. The content of these rants generally include how deplorable pop music is due its repetitiveness, the general lack of meaning in lyrics, as well as how uncreative and over-produced the music is. While all of these expressions of distaste have their merits, they have been re-hashed so many times that they have, for the most part, stopped being meaningful. Obviously, no one cares about this enough to actually stop listening to the boring, meaningless, uncreative, over-produced and Horribly Catchy pop music. So although criticism of pop music seems to be effectively meaningless, let me add one more complaint, one that is perhaps less cliched, to the Pop Rant. I don’t expect it to change anyone’s listening habits, but perhaps it will make someone think a little more when they listen to pop music.

Contrary to the rage against pop’s empty lyrics, I would like to instead rant about how, when pop songs do have meaning, how horrible and even conflicting the ideas which the songs express are. For example, Ed Sheeran’s two most recent singles, when considered together, make no sense and make him look like a jerk or a manipulative music-industry tool instead of a musician who is truly expressing himself through his music. What the first song basically says is, “I had sex with a random girl in a hotel, so yeah, that happened. It was pretty cool I guess.” His next single pledges his life-long love to his one-and-only, declaring “I’ll be loving you still when we’re seventy.” I think the discrepancy is clear. I’m pretty sure he’s not talking about the girl he met in the hotel when he says he’ll love her until seventy. Taken together, these songs don’t just cast doubts on his personal character, but also on his integrity as a musician.

Another example of a pop song with a message which turns out to be horrible is Maroon Five’s song Animals. Once you get past the devilish catchiness of the song and realize that every single line is sexual innuendo, it doesn’t take much to realize that essentially what the leader singer is saying is, “I’m a slave to my own sexuality. Holla.” My only question is, “Why are you proud of that?”

Perhaps it’s better for pop lyrics to not say anything at all if all they can manage to convey otherwise are ideas that are either false or potentially detrimental.

Ensemble:

En·sem·ble (änˈsämbəl/). Noun. a group of musicians, actors, or dancers who perform together.” By definition, an ensemble is a group that performs together, and usually it is assumed that most or all or the members of the ensemble are no more distinguished than any other member. In a musical, to be part of the ‘ensemble’ is often synonymous with ‘background character’. To be assigned to the ensemble is like a death sentence to an aspiring performer who wants to distinguish themselves as an actor, singer, or dancer. The ensemble is not where most people want to end up.

But as many people know, ensembles are important, and can in fact accomplish things which a solo performer would never be able to do. An example of an ensemble that does something that a soloist could not is the a cappella group Pentatonix (I am sure there are better examples I could use, but this is the one that has affected me the most). Pentatonix would mostly be labelled as a pop group, but technically they are an ensemble. They do not have a specific “frontman”, or someone who is considerably more famous than the rest of the group. I chose Pentatonix as an example of why an ensemble can be so great because the five-member group creates affects and feelings from their arrangements that could never be achieved by a single singer. To go even further, I argue that if one of them was the frontman of the group, if they were organized more like a band and less like an ensemble, it would draw attention away from their music. Any time the frontman sang, the attention would be solely on him; but when there is no person as a focal point, the music is able to speak for itself, creating a choral effect where every note plays its part and no single part is blown out of proportion, diminishing the effect of the other parts and the effect of the music as a whole. If you want to know what I mean when I say this, go listen to practically any song by Pentatonix, and you’ll see what I am talking about.

Most performers have a natural tendency to desire attention and recognition on stage. This can be a good thing. A soloist can captivate an audience in a brilliant and unique way. But something every performer should learn is to move out of the spotlight. You are not the art; you are a vessel of the art. If you are not careful, you can get in the way of what you are trying to express. An ensemble is not a lesser plane of existence for a performer. Be okay with performing without being the center of attention; sometimes, that makes the performance come alive in a way it never could otherwise.