Why Music is Comforting On Your Worst Days: 2 Musicians Perspectives

Why Music is Comforting On Your Worst Days: 2 Musicians Perspectives

Creative Musings on the intersection of music and sorrow
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Music and emotion are tightly interwoven. It’s my pleasure to collaborate with Eric Pazdziora, a doctoral student in music who among many other things has put arranged a lovely collection called Hymns and Lamentations for piano. He also volunteered this poignant narrative about his experiences teaching music theory after a tragedy on the news. Following Eric's piece, I wrote a poem about performing music and emotions. Thanks so much Eric!

Our fellow musicians, let us know what you think in the comments below.

***

"And Maybe That's Part of the Meaning of Life" by Eric Pazdziora

We have to think about it like this.

It’s the morning after a horrible event in the news, again. A shooting or a bombing or a hate crime, something depressing and violent and political like that. It’s left everyone a bit numb.

I’m teaching the students in my music theory classroom. Everyone seems to be feeling a bit somber, again. I never know exactly what to say, because who ever does know exactly what to say. I don’t want to preach in the classroom, but I also don’t want to say nothing. Times like these, the right words are hard to find.

Today’s lesson, I see on the syllabus, is about harmony. So we’re looking at a chorale by J. S. Bach. “Jesu, Meine Freude,” or maybe “O Haput Voll Blut und Wunden.” It doesn’t quite matter, you can get the same lesson from any of them.

It’s a simple piece of music, as these things go, a short hymn for four voices. The tune isn’t even Bach’s own; as choirmaster he harmonized church songs of his day for his Lutheran congregation. The chorale is little more than a string of chords, each combining to form rhythms and phrases and cadences and dissonances and all those technical tricks of the trade that every musician envies Bach for using so effortlessly.

I copy it out on the chalkboard first, in silence because nobody feels like saying anything much. We look at the text, translating roughly from the German: “O head, full of blood and wounds.” “Ah, how long, how long has my heart suffered and mourned?” Words about the suffering and death of Christ, about times when faith is hard to find, about sorrow and longing and mourning. How would a great composer like Bach approach the task of setting words like these? What does music have to say about them?

There’s something about music that seems to speak directly to people’s deepest thoughts and feelings. I’ve tried to—not find answers, really, but start articulating the right questions—through some of my compositions like Hymns and Lamentations and Canticles for the Holy Innocents. The words of hymns and sacred texts often portray our reaching out to God, though sadly they’re often presented with a certain superficiality, an unwillingness to confront the emotional reality of suffering. But when they’re coupled with music that truly illuminates their meaning—pieces like Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms—the results can touch us more deeply than we may even understand.

The technical elements in music, anyone with a bit of skill can analyze easily enough. My first-year students begin to spot a minor triad here, an inversion there, and at the end of the phrase, is that a deceptive cadence? Oh look, he’s changed from minor to the relative major and back again. Maybe that’s something.

Then we sing it. Suddenly it starts to become a bit more clear. It’s music now, not just lines on a page, and like any piece of art it can becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Everyone is singing one of the voice parts. Bach is using voice leading to make each voice part its own melody, and the melodies combine to form the chords. The chords we were analyzing before are made up of these separate lines sounding at the same time. The horizontal voice parts combine to make vertical chords. Or it could be instruments; it works the same way for any type or style of music. That’s what I wanted them to see in the Bach chorale.

And then suddenly, inevitably, I know exactly what I need to say about what happened. It was there all along in the music, whether or not we knew the right words to describe it.

I gesture to the notes on the chalkboard and I say it.

“So are these individual voice parts, or are they individual chords?

“Yes.

“Each voice part is doing its own thing, but at every moment it comes together with the others to make something that harmonizes together.

“And maybe that’s part of the meaning of life.”

We have to think about it like this.

***

When they needed it most by Lydia Solodiuk

Somebody needs this music today.
But the organist doesn't know who
so they play onward
and let the music fill the Gothic arches
and reverberate through the walls.
They can't see the congregation
their console acting as bulwark,
but in the front pew an man with a walker weeps
and the nursing mother in the narthex is comforted.








Somebody needs this music today.
But the piano teacher doesn't know who
so he teaches along
and lets the music fill the worn carpet
and reverberates into the yoga studio next door.
He can't see the student's eyes,
her bangs acting as bulwark,
but in her heart she now wants to be a music major
and the frazzled yoga teacher next door is at peace.








Somebody needs this music today.
But the choir director doesn't know who
so she conducts onward
and lets the handbell ringing fill the small hall
and reverberates through the metal folding chairs.
She can't see the audience,
her position acting as bulwark
but now a couple shyly holds hands
and a child gazes at the choir in wonder.








Somebody needs this music today
But the grandson doesn't know who
so he opens his hymnal and walks over
and lets his singing fill the sickroom
and reverberates through the bay window.
He can't see his dying relative's face
his hymnal acting a bulwark
but now anguished moans have quieted
and a hospice aide prepares meds as he hums.







Somebody needs this music today
But the neighbor doesn't know who
so he blares country music crusing along
and lets his radio fill the Saturday afternoon
and reverberates through the air.
He can't see the second-story window
his tinted windows acting as bulwark
but now scattered lyrics have convinced mom to call a babysitter
and go out dancing like the old days.







The lyricist, artist and recording studio never met that lady,
but their song made an afternoon beautiful.
That chorale arrangement in that hymnal was 400 years old,
but it coated grief in harmony.
That handbell piece was a last minute choice,
but it wrapped up that concert like a present.
That piano sonata was written for the Viennese court
but it still entertained and enraptured a humbler audience.
That organ piece filled a liturgical function
but it also filled people's hearts

on a day when they needed it most.

Somebody needs this music today.












Cover Image Credit: Public Domain

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Why High School Musicals Should Be As Respected As Sports Programs Are

The arts are important, too.
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When I was in middle school and high school, I felt like I lived for the musicals that my school orchestrated.

For those of you who don't know, a musical is an onstage performance wherein actors take on roles that involve singing, and often dancing, to progress the plot of the story. While it may sound a little bit nerdy to get up in front of an audience to perform in this manner, this is something you cannot knock until you try it.

For some reason, though, many public schools have de-funded arts programs that would allow these musicals to occur, while increasing the funding for sports teams. There are a few things that are being forgotten when sports are valued more than musical programs in high schools.

Much like athletic hobbies, an actor must try-out, or audition, to participate in a musical. Those best suited for each role will be cast, and those who would not fit well are not given a part. While this may sound similar to trying out for say, basketball, it is an apples to oranges comparison.

At a basketball try-out, those who have the most experience doing a lay-up or shooting a foul shot will be more likely to succeed, no questions asked. However, for an audition, it is common to have to learn a piece of choreography upon walking in, and a potential cast member will be required to sing a selected piece with only a few days of preparation.

There are many more variables involved with an audition that makes it that much more nerve-racking.

The cast of a school musical will often rehearse for several months to perfect their roles, with only several nights of performance at the end. Many sports practice for three or four days between each of their respective competitions. While this may seem to make sports more grueling, this is not always the case.

Musicals have very little pay-off for a large amount of effort, while athletic activities have more frequent displays of their efforts.

Athletes are not encouraged to but are allowed to make mistakes. This is simply not allowed for someone in a musical, because certain lines or entrances may be integral to the plot.

Sometimes, because of all the quick changes and the sweat from big dance numbers, the stage makeup just starts to smear. Despite this, an actor must smile through it all. This is the part of musicals that no sport has: introspection.

An actor must think about how he or she would respond in a given situation, be it saddening, maddening, frightening, or delightful. There is no sport that requires the knowledge of human emotion, and there is especially no sport that requires an athlete to mimic such emotion. This type of emotional exercise helps with communications and relationships.

Sports are great, don't get me wrong. I loved playing volleyball, basketball, track, and swimming, but there were no experiences quite like those from a musical. Sports challenge the body with slight amounts of tactic, while musicals require much physical and mental endurance.

The next time you hear someone say that it's “just a musical," just remember that musicals deserve as much respect as sports, since they are just as, if not more demanding.

Cover Image Credit: Cincinnati Arts

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10 Shows To Watch If You're Sick Of 'The Office'

You can only watch it so many times...

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"The Office" is a great show, and is super easy to binge watch over and over again! But if you're like me and you're looking for something new to binge, why not give some of these a try? These comedies (or unintentional comedies) are a great way to branch out and watch something new.

1. "New Girl"

A show about a group of friends living in an apartment in a big city? Sound familiar? But seriously, this show is original and fresh, and Nick Miller is an icon.

2. "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"

Ya'll have been sleeping on this show. It's a musical comedy about a girl that follows her ex boyfriend across the country. I thought it sounded horrible so I put it off for WAY too long, but then I realized how incredible the cast, music, writing, and just EVERYTHING. It really brings important issues to light, and I can't say too much without spoiling it. Rachel Bloom (the creator of the show) is a woman ahead of her time.

3. "Jane the Virgin"

I know... another CW show. But both are so incredible! Jane The Virgin is a tongue-in-cheek comedy and parody of telenovelas. It has so many twists and turns, but somehow you find yourself laughing with the family.

4. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been in popular news lately since its cancellation by Fox and sequential pickup by NBC. It's an amazing show about cops in, you guessed it, Brooklyn. Created by the amazing Michael Schur, it's a safe bet that if you loved "The Office" you'll also love his series "Brooklyn Nine-Nine".

5. "The Good Place"

Another series created by the talented Micael Schur, it's safe to say you've probably already heard about this fantasy-comedy series. With a wonderful cast and writing that will keep you on your toes, the show is another safe bet.

6. "Fresh Off The Boat"

Seriously, I don't know why more people don't watch this show. "Fresh Off The Boat" focuses on an Asian family living in Orlando in the mid 90s. Randall Parks plays a character who is the polar opposite of his character in "The Interview" (Yeah, remember that horrifying movie?) and Constance Wu is wonderful as always.

7. "Full House"

Why not go back to the basics? If you're looking for a nostalgic comedy, go back all the way to the early days of Full House. If you're a '98-'00 baby like me, you probably grew up watching the Tanner family on Nick at Night. The entire series is available on Hulu, so if all else fails just watch Uncle Jesse and Rebecca fall in love again or Michelle fall off a horse and somehow lose her memory.

8. "Secret Life of the American Teenager"

Okay, this show is not a comedy, but I have never laughed so hard in my life. It's off Netflix but it's still on Hulu, so you can watch this masterpiece there. Watch the terrible acting and nonsense plot twists drive this show into the ground. Somehow everyone in this school dates each other? And also has a baby? You just have to watch. It might be my favorite show of all time.

9. "Scrubs"

Another old show that is worth watching. If you ignore the last season, Scrubs is a worthwhile medical comedy about doctors in both their personal and medical life. JD and Turk's relationship is one to be jealous of, and one hilarious to watch. Emotional at times, this medical drama is superior to any medical drama that's out now.

10. "Superstore"

I was resistant to watch this one at first, because it looked cheesy. But once I started watching I loved it! The show is a workplace comedy, one you're sure to love if you can relate to working in retail. If you liked the Office, you'll like Superstore!

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