Do You Remember Me?

remember-meA man came up to me at the Greenville, South Carolina, Great Homeschool Convention, asking this dreaded question. Actually, he said it more delicately . . . something like, “You probably won’t remember me.”

The fact is, thirty years have passed since I last saw him graduating from SMU with a Masters degree in Music Theory. He had taken a Mozart Opera seminar from me, as well as Music Bibliography—one of those graduate courses designed to take undergraduates and turn them into professional researchers.

I did not recognize him, sorry to say. But the minute he said his name, I was flooded with memories. Oddly enough, I remember students first by recalling their handwriting. Somehow, handwriting stays vivid in my mind. It transfers both identity and intellectual substance in such a way that I can almost see myself mulling over their long-ago tests and quizzes. (Of course, with public schools discarding the critical skill of handwriting, will future generations develop a written identity at all?)

Simultaneously to recalling handwriting, I recall the kind of work a student did, particularly if it was excellent. And his was. After that, I try to remember who was in class with them, as well as important things such as what they performed on their senior recitals.

It’s all great fun. But the greatest pleasure comes from looking at a grown former student and connecting the excellent work done back then with the wonderful things he or she now pursues. These accomplishments may not be in music, or even within the arts. Students take paths that were unimaginable when they sat trapped in desks in a music-history classroom.

This long-ago student certainly has done marvelous things. He happily agreed that I could give his name: Dr Roger O’Neel, now a Professor of Worship at Cedarville University. After completing his Masters in Music Theory (as well as a Masters in Conducting), he earned his Ph.D. in Theory at the University of Texas. Then he worked in many capacities, including in church ministry. A professor now, he’s also raising a big family and, at that conference, was representing Cedarville University (Ohio) as a speaker and a college recruiter.

The following day, I sat in on his absolutely beautiful talk entitled Shepherding Your Child’s Heart. It was based on a clear and (for me) novel reading of the 23rd Psalm. I may not have immediately recognized Roger’s face, but I certainly knew this Roger whose logical, insightful, and persuasive rhetoric illuminated the room.

Much of my life has been devoted to students—college students for decades and, now, high-schoolers who are struggling to take the next step. What these “kids” don’t know (and I didn’t either) is that life will take you on completely unforeseen journeys. These journeys don’t stop when you graduate college, or even when you start your first job. They don’t stop when you marry or your kids grow up, either. If the desire for learning and the receptivity to new experiences stay strong, then the journey will continue to transform you throughout your life.

I began by writing that Roger asked me a dreaded question. It’s also a most blessed question. It’s scary only for those first seconds as one wracks one’s brain trying to figure it out. After that, it’s one of the greatest of all questions. It opens a window through which light pours, filling one’s heart with joy.

Teaching the Arts Classically

art-classically-2Parents and tutors who meticulously research their Latin curricula, devise brilliant reading programs, and accumulate terrific materials for math and science may still find themselves floundering when it comes to teaching the Fine Arts.

For reasons that include a lack of confidence and gaps in their own background, many tell me they find teaching the appreciation and history of art, music, architecture, dance, and theater to be a daunting path.

We will address this problem in our Spring conference Teaching the Arts Classically: an Exploration of Beauty, which will convene Saturday, May 13, 2017, right here in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Working together with other speakers, including Dr. Matthew Post of the University of Dallas, we’ll be digging into the rationale, pedagogy, and aesthetics of a classical approach to the Fine Arts.

I’ll begin the day with a plenary address (A Classical Approach to Artistic Literacy) that raises the alarm of artistic illiteracy in our culture. Then we’ll have break-out sessions devoted to architecture, poetry, art history, and the moral connection between beauty and art. After a lively lunch, which will be provided, the afternoon will begin with a musical performance, followed by a workshop on sacred music, and conclude with a panel discussion

We’d love to have you join us for the day. Click here to learn more about the program, speakers, and early-bird registration. Tell your friends, post to your lists, and let’s build an on-going community of educators and lovers of learning who understand that the Fine Arts are not an elective, not a frill, but a cherished treasure of our Western Culture.

Music for Gaming

minecraftEach week brings its challenges, right? Last week, mine was preparing a pre-concert talk I would give for the March 7 Dallas Wind’s Video Games in Concert.

I probably needn’t state that I’m not a “gamer.” Long ago, I dropped a quarter into a Pac-Man arcade. I scored poorly but do remember thinking the “music” was cute.

“Cute,” actually, was a specific stage in video-game music. Think of the now-classic tunes of Super Mario Bros. But now, cute has evolved into lush, lyrical, dynamic music created for an explosive, high-dollar gaming industry. This industry provides lucrative avenues for composers who, otherwise, would be staring at the walls, wishing they had a way to have their music performed.

Case in point. In the early 1990s a marvelous composition student in our SMU program named Guy Whitmore surprised me by moving out to Oregon and joining a start-up company that developed video games. I remember cocking my head and saying, “Huh?”

To this day I cherish the memory of his master’s recital which was staged in different areas of our cavernous Fine Arts’ building: off we tramped jollily through hallways and down staircases, leaving behind one exciting piece in search of another. I presumed he’d be heading off to a doctoral program.

“Video games? Why? What will happen to your career as a composer?”

Well, I wouldn’t ask that question today. His explanations back then foreshadowed what now is patently obvious: gaming music is where the action is today for composers. Writing music for video games involves developing new skills—new compositional strategies—because the musical themes, harmonies, and forms are intertwined with the game’s strategies and outcomes.

Such burgeoning new techniques tempt one to say, “Move over, old-style composition methods.” Except the old-style compositional skills are still needed. Video-game music thrives on the most basic of musical components such as counterpoint, theme and variation, and harmonic sequencing. Increasingly lush instrumentation (both digital and acoustic) soars above contrasting sections based on the most traditional rhythms like the waltz and the march.

Now I express my concern about what I call the “digital dulling” of our children in talks I give around the country. People may finally be waking up to the destructive, addictive power of video exposure in children. Shockingly young children spend vast stretches of time hypnotically engrossed in graphically vivid and, far too often, horrifically violent scenaria.

Yet, while playing these games, they are simultaneously hearing music that could serve as a ballet score in the 19th century. Music where the action shifts between robust waltzes and heroic marches. Music where heroes are characterized by melodies played by bassoon and English horn, piccolos and violas. (Yes, orchestras and wind ensembles are increasingly employed in the world of gaming music.)

Could there be hope here? Kids acknowledge being drawn to the games in part because of the lush, descriptive music. This attraction could lead them to sample other, equally lush Western classical repertoire. Perhaps the bridge from Devil May Cry 4 to Scheherezade will be easier to cross than the exploding bridges that their digital heroes race across.

Chatting with folks after my talk, one parent’s comment struck me. “Maybe I need to stop telling my son to ‘turn that music down’ when he’s playing these games.” I tend to agree. And I’d also encourage parents of teens who will be gaming to explore the new directions being created by the industry: games that employ cutting-edge visual technologies, but non-violent content. Also, encourage the movement towards game sound tracks (CDs, downloads) where the focus lies entirely on the music. You may be surprised how much it will remind you of the music from films in the Golden Era of Hollywood—music created by a previous generation of extraordinary composers who brought their talents to an entirely new medium.

Image: Minecraft, Morgan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Classical Arts/Music: The Magalog

magalogWhen I first heard the word magalog, my eyes rolled! I didn’t like the sound of the word. Yet, it’s a perfect word to describe a lot of publications these days that combine the functions of magazine and catalogue. And now we’ve just published our first one!

We’re calling it Classical Arts/Music and our first issue begins with an article called “Where to Start” that guides newcomers through our courses. After that there are essays about Beethoven and his legacy, the connection between Science and the Arts at the court of French King Louis XIV, and an introduction to Russian culture: the magical Russian Waterways. Of course, we’re including a listing and description of our course materials and books.

The modern world of cyber-technologies allows one to do amazing things (like sit at home and buy a car on-line, or possibly even a house!). Or design a publication while working in the middle of the Caribbean Sea (that’s where we laid out this first edition a few weeks back while I was speaking on a ship). We hope you’ll enjoy the on-line version below. If you’re with us at conferences, stop by to visit with us and pick up Classical Arts/Music printed on real paper.

Of course we’d love to hear about features you’d like to us to include in our next edition. The possibilities are exciting for us. Most of all, we want the material to be useful and inspiring for you—our readers, our schools, and families of students.

One more thing: on the back cover we announced a new publication (in three volumes) that’s forthcoming. It’s a project so many of you encouraged us to tackle. For a while, it sat on the back burner, but we’ve moved it now to the front of the line and are steaming away!

Steaming away? Sounds like nautical talk from the 19th century, doesn’t it? Maybe in the next issue of Classical Arts/Music I can write an article on a topic I sometimes present while lecturing on the ships: “Music for Pirates.” (I’m not joking.) Meanwhile, let us know what you think of our new . . . okay, I’ll say it: magalog.

View the magalog here.

An Island Reminds Me

atollThere’s a stark volcanic rock outside of my balcony. It juts up from the water as the lone point of profile across an endless horizon of Caribbean sea. We’re anchored in St. John’s Bay. Behind us lies Gustavia, a luxury port in St. Barts. People don’t bargain in the markets here. It’s not that kind of place.

Foreboding in the early morning light, this island of rock has mesmerized me for some reason, although I’ve seen plenty of similar structures since I began to work on ships as a Smithsonian speaker. It is so bold, so proud.

Despite its dissimilar profile, it reminds me of the mysterious island in Arnold Böcklin’s series of paintings known as Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead). In each of the five versions, created between 1880 and 1886, Böcklin made slight variations, including reconfiguring the shape of the rocks. A figure clad all in white appears in each, accompanying a coffin to the isle. She is regarded variously in the different interpretations, but usually as a symbol of death, or as the deceased seeking repose on the island. Any masterpiece of art invites such speculations.


Arnold Böcklin, Die Toteninsel III

Sergei Rachmaninov certainly speculated on Böcklin’s paintings. He was intrigued enough to compose one of his most gripping tone poems using the same title. Luminously beautiful in its opening, the orchestra introduces a rolling figure of five beats that hypnotizes the ear. Contrasting sections shape the piece into a cleanly symmetrical musical form, echoing the spacing of the stark rock towers and verdant crevice on Böcklin’s isle.

Isle of the Dead (whether paintings or composition) reminds us how an artist’s creativity casts a wide net, encompassing everything imaginable from topography at sea to ambiguous symbols. Art does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it created, or intended to be received, in a vacuum.

So as the morning continued, I found myself wondering if my peak in St. John’s Bay would be impressive enough to evoke such a luscious piece of music or masterful painting? Perhaps. A bevy of fishing boats clustered around it all day. The catch has to be good there. Initially it seemed not a single tree grew on the rocks, but as the dawn gave way to morning sky, I saw pines speckling the craggy surface. Their needles glowed with iridescent green. If I could swim there, would I find tropical flowers tucked into the clefts of the cliffs? What creatures might live on such an outcrop in the middle of the sea? Did birds prefer my peak to nesting sites on the shore?

As I speculated, somehow this massive rock jolted my memory back to fourth grade, when I first learned the basic vocabulary of geography from Mrs. Clark. You’d have to search hard for a teacher like Mrs. Clark today. Prim, with a ruffled collar peeking out from her proper dark suits, she simultaneously intimidated and embraced each of us. A child simply succeeded in Mrs. Clark’s class. The force of her talent as a teacher somehow scooted each of us into the path of progress.

I doubt Mrs. Clark ever saw even a fraction of the places she taught to us. Ordinary people didn’t travel back in those days. Instead, she probably worried herself every night as to whether her tireless efforts would make a difference in her pupils’ lives. She probably did not worry whether she would be remembered by us kindly in the future. Her purpose was to educate, not impress her persona upon us.

Such a teacher leaves a miniature presence on nearly every child. Decades later, that teacher’s voice will return, whispering, “Yes, see, that’s what I was talking about.” So, to all of those Mrs. Clarks laboring with an individual child or a room filled children, you will not necessarily see the fruit of your labors at the end of your year. But seeds do get planted. They may sprout like hibiscus in verdant climes when that fidgeting child gradually finds his footing in the world. Or they may jut dramatically out of the sea, joining hands with an adult’s understanding of far vaster knowledge.

An Evening with Wendell Berry


Author Wendell Berry doesn’t leave his Kentucky farm often, but this past weekend he agreed to be our honored guest at the Classical Consortium Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Amid the gilded cornices and sumptuous chandeliers in the historic Seelbach Hotel, […] Read more.

Playing with Elvis


Earlier today we were about to cross the Mississippi River at Memphis, en route from Texas to a conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Crossing the Mississippi is a big deal in our family. We do the countdown every time: “12 more […] Read more.

Wish I’d Saved that Piano (Sigh)


Yesterday I phoned one of the hotels where I’ll be speaking in 2017. The name and location isn’t important, because this could happen at any hotel or conference center. I asked whether a piano would be available for me to use […] Read more.

Truth or Nothing


In our day, talking about “Truth” will raise some eyebrows. Particularly in academic circles, the trend has been to deny that there’s such a thing as truth universal to all men. That view has gained a wide acceptance in our […] Read more.

Tribute to the Red Army Choir


It was just after 2 a.m. when I saw the news flash. A Russian military plane leaving Sochi had crashed into the Black Sea en route to Syria. Like many of you, I was still awake at this wee hour. […] Read more.