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.

Friday Performance Pick – 115

Nestico, Songs of Erin and The Boys of Wexford

shamrock-irelandSince St. Patrick’s Day falls on Friday this year, it seems appropriate to hear some Irish music. Of course, Nestico doesn’t sound like an Irish name, but never mind that, it’s a name you should know.

Sammy Nestico (b. 1924) arranged the Irish tunes in the featured video for the United States Marine Band. He served as the arranger for the Marine Band and also for the U.S. Air Force jazz ensemble, the “Airmen of Note.” Prior to his military service, Sammy played trombone in the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, and Gene Krupa. After his military service, he went on to become one of the most sought-after composers and arrangers in Hollywood, working with more big-name entertainers than we could mention here.

I call him Sammy because Professor Carol and I spent some time visiting Sammy at his home awhile back and recording an half-hour interview with him. We traded stories over lunch and generally had a great time. It’s easy to see how Sammy’s energy and generosity have made him an outstanding educator and mentor to young musicians.

But why did he make this arrangement of The Boys of Wexford? Because as the arranger of the band known as “The President’s Own,” he did at the request of John F. Kennedy after Kennedy’s visit to his ancestral home in 1963. Sammy tells the story beginning at about the 18:00 mark:

As they say, watch the whole thing. You’ll find it a half hour very well spent hearing Sammy’s tales of working in the music business from the Big Band Era to today.

And, of course, listen to the arrangement in this video of The Marine’s Band tribute to Sammy Nestico.

Image: Shamrock Royal Badge of Ireland: Sodacan (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Friday Performance Pick – 114

Schubert, Arpeggione Sonata

arpeggioneWhat is an arpeggione, you ask? Pictured here, it seems to be a cross between a guitar and a cello. Hence its other name: “guitar violoncello.” It has six strings tuned like a guitar (in fourths rather than fifths). So it was well-suited to playing arpeggios, just as a guitar is well-suited to playing chords.

But the instrument had a very short period of popularity after its invention in 1823. The repertoire for the instrument includes a single piece by a top-tier composer: this sonata by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

While most people care very little about the arpeggione, people still care very much about Schubert’s sonata. The work was not published, however, until 1871—long after the instrument had faded from the scene. Today the work is performed on either viola or cello, although many transcriptions have been made for other instruments.

It’s hard not to repeat that Schubert was a great melodist. After repeating that statement, I’m tempted to repeat an explanation of how Schubert’s harmonies make those melodies work. The melodies themselves often seem deceptively simple. That tends to be an asset for a melody. And Schubert presents his melodies with rich chromatic harmonies that also seem to flow effortlessly. But you really can’t listen to this sonata without taking note of those things.

The Heifetz International Music Institute is a summer program for young musicians at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia. You might want to learn a little more about it.

Image: Florian Monheim (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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)

Friday Performance Pick – 113


Sor, Variations on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 9 Fernando Sor (1778-1839) was called “the Beethoven of the Guitar” by French composer François-Joseph Fétis. I’m not sure what Fétis meant by that. Sor was a contemporary of Beethoven who wrote in […] Read more.

Captivated by Pushkin


A young lady came up to me during last week’s Great Homeschool Convention in Fort Worth, Texas. A high-schooler, she is taking our Imperial Russia course and had recently passed the milestone unit on Pushkin. Aglow, she told me how […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 112


Gounod, Marche funèbre d’une marionnette Those of a certain age will remember it as the theme music to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. From 1956 to 1965 (the show was expanded in 1962 to become The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), the popular show presented […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 111


Sousa, The Washington Post March I was a band guy (“geeks” hadn’t been invented yet). After doing all the usual band stuff throughout high school and into my college years, I found myself in an Army band for three years. […] Read more.