Sharing a Mission

Ordinarily certain moments stand out in a busy conference: a warm conversation, a quick reunion with a student, or funny story shared by a colleague.


At the convention with Tanya Charlton and Martin Cothran

But in this year’s Great Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati, every moment seemed to stand out! This conference rivals anything in the country. The long list of simultaneous sessions is impressive, and yet the rooms are filled with eager listeners. The attendees are fired up and full of questions. Our booth stays abuzz from the opening “bell” on Thursday evening until the last moments of the Saturday schedule. I love it.

But, as we careen through the night on our way back home to Texas, one moment did stand out, now that I think of it. Actually it’s a person. I won’t say too much to identify her except that she once again renewed her annual Circle of Scholars membership even though, I suspect, her kids may be just about grown up. She was one of our earliest customers, maybe even all the way back to that first year when we came to Cincinnati in 2010. There we stood in our long-since abandoned pop-up booth, sporting only a brochure for our signature course Discovering Music—not yet finished. We struggled to find the right words to proclaim our mission which, to be honest, we hadn’t quite identified!

The people who stopped by either already loved the arts or were curious enough to see what these newcomers had in that brochure. Some even bought the course, or, more accurately, the promise of a course that would be ready later in the year. They were bold, don’t you think?

Step by step we’ve added courses, created online curricula, filmed (and filmed and filmed), written books, and yes, found our mission. I like to say we Teach History Through the Lens of the Arts. And our battle cry goes like this.

Our Western cultural heritage is not an elective. It’s a treasure!

These past days in Cincinnati, greeting, chatting with, and embracing the flow of students, families, and tutors who use our materials, I just shook my head in wonder. How simply beautiful that we could have shared music, art, architecture, dance, theater, poetry, and literature with so many people. How grand it is that they took the leap with us, and found themselves on solid, and inspiring, ground. And how inspiring it is when we hear them say, “What’s new this year? We want more.”

That’s partly the magic of the arts. We do want more. We hear a terrific piece and we want to hear another one. We go to a marvelous play and we come out thinking: “I’ve got to go to the theater again soon.” And when we walk through a gallery of unfamiliar paintings only to have one of them reach across the room and pull us towards it to gaze in fascination or wonder, we know that we have joined with viewers past, present, and future in encountering the power of art.

Community always matters, and this community of people seeking learning, treasuring education, and working every day against great odds to instill wisdom and virtue in their children matters. They share our mission, and sharing their journey has been one my life’s greatest privileges.

And so, to you, most lovely woman who yet again came to my talks and watched me fumble with my iPad as I rang up your renewed annual membership, may I express my gratitude? Thank you for jumping into the race with us and cheering us on. I’ll do everything possible to have new courses and interesting publications for you next year, that’s for sure. But I’ll never forget that you and others trusted us when all we had was a brochure and a dream.

Friday Performance Pick – 120

John Mackey, Asphalt Cocktail

Have you ever thought of giving a musical composition to someone as a present? John Mackey’s 2009 Asphalt Cocktail came about in just such a way. An admirer of the Michigan State University Wind Ensemble and its conductor Dr. Kevin Sedatole asked composer John Mackey to write a new piece as a gift. In fact, commissioning compositions this way accounts for the creation of a lot of music throughout history.


Professor Carol, Evgenii Fuk, and John Mackey

But getting a commission to write music and finding the ideas needed are two different things. You may not know the name John Mackey, but he is one of today’s most gifted and successful composers. His following in what we sometime call the “band world” is enormous: he’s like a super-star. Wind ensembles around the world eagerly await his newest pieces.

Mackey’s compositions are infused with an edgy energy, but filled with rich harmonies and soaring melodies. They can also be explosive, bubbling over with electrical energy, complex rhythms, and a fascinating array of percussive colors.

Mackey is conscientious about his titles. He says that titles need to be like invitations to a party. They should tell the listener something about the music to follow. So with great assistance from his wife, who suggests many of his titles, he likes to employ vivid titles such as Frozen Cathedral (a stunning musical depiction of Denali/Mt. McKinley), High Wire (portraying the daring play of acrobats on a tightrope), and Sheltering Sky (rich harmonies, shimmering instrumental colors and folk-like melodies evoking the majesty of the sky).

But what is an Asphalt Cocktail? The phrase itself can mean different things, but primarily it’s used to describe a bad “wipe-out” while skateboarding. Mackey in fact was working in New York City, which put him in the mood to write a highly energetic piece. A fellow composer suggested the phrase as a possible title for his own composition! Mackey, captivated by the idea, asked to take it on and the friend assented.

The resulting piece reflects some of the most dazzling aspects of Mackey’s style. Watch these young performers as they grapple, seemingly effortlessly, with the complex changes in meter and rhythmic intricacy. Split-second accuracy is required in every part. There’s no rest for the players in a piece like this. Playing this piece probably does feel a bit like careening down a hill on a skateboard that’s about to crash.

It’s energizing to experience a new work like Asphalt Jungle. No matter how astonishing the beloved compositions from the past, music was never meant to remain a revered antique. Before recording technology, historical pieces did not have the staying power they do now. Very few popular pieces kept their popularity. New compositions were needed constantly.

Today the situation is all but reversed and composers have a difficult time breaking through the system to bring their works to today’s audiences—except in the world of wind ensembles, where there is almost a thirst for the newest, most exciting pieces. So, enjoy this performance and the young players who bring their skills to Asphalt Jungle.

And if you get interested in Mackey’s music, search out the titles listed above. Also, you might enjoy reading about a Kickstarter campaign that The Dallas Winds has just launched regarding their upcoming recording of many of Mackey’s most popular works. The Dallas Winds even will be live-streaming a good deal of the recording process to people who get involved in the campaign.

Can you imagine what composers of two hundred years ago would have thought about all of this? My guess it that, after their initial shock, they’d be ready to jump right into the excitement.

Prepare To Teach the Fine Arts

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents  tell me they don’t know how to teach Fine Arts. Yes, teaching any subject can be intimidating. But many people never received any meaningful exposure to the Fine Arts in their own education.

I hear the same thing from teachers who do exceptional work in their chosen field, but suddenly find that they have been given a  new responsibility of teaching art appreciation.

What are reasonable goals for a Fine Arts course? Where do you find the materials? How do the Fine Arts fit within the overall curricula?

These are just some of the questions that we will be answering in our symposium “Teaching the Arts Classically” on Saturday, May 13 in Plano, Texas. We have a great line-up of speakers for this event. We also present a workshop in sacred music, an exhibit of the works of Russia artist Evgeny Fuk, and a panel discussion where we take on your questions.

Don’t miss these presentations:

carol-camuzaggo-sm Keynote: A Classical Approach to Artistic Literacy
Dr. Carol Reynolds
 matt-post Dr. Matthew Post, Graduate Director of Humanities and Classical Education, University of Dallas
FrG-229x300 Poetry and Meaning: Theories and Strategies
Fr. Garrin Dickinson, Rector, Church of the Holy Nativity
Jenny headshot-crop Vitruvius and Beauty: Lessons from an Ancient Architect
Jenny Dickinson, Architect/Classical Educator

Click here for more information and registration.

Friday Performance Pick – 119

Pergolesi, Stabat Mater

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

I’m posting this week’s Friday Performance Pick a day early. Our weekly digest goes out on Thursday and, since the selection this week relates directly to Good Friday, we decided to adjust the timing.

weydenMany composers have set the text of the 13th-century hymn Stabat mater. The setting by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) has a remarkable sequence of dissonances that captures Mary’s anguish. The two vocal lines rise together, each moving in turn one step higher than the other. The dissonance of the voices sounding notes just one step apart resolves briefly only to resume a step higher. It’s hard to imagine a more effective musical portrayal of the scene, all within the conventions of Baroque counterpoint.

Pergolesi, as his dates indicate, had a very short life, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 26. He had significant success as an opera composer, particularly in the new comic opera style of opera buffa. His Stabat mater is his best known sacred work and became the most frequently printed composition of the 18th century.

The entire work has twelve movements. The featured video contains only the first.

Painting: Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross (detail) (c. 1435)

Friday Performance Pick – 118

Elgar, Lux Aeterna

elgarYou may recognize this piece as “Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It is also often performed as a stand-alone work.

Writing in The New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians about the Enigma Variations, Diana McVeagh says:

“Nimrod,” the Adagio core of the work, drops with serious, intimate effect from a single sustained G to the key of E-flat. “Nimrod” is among Elgar’s most impassioned utterances, a great-hearted melody, the 7ths built by characteristic sequences into a magnificent long crescendo, the climax diffusing gently to end in humility.

That’s a pretty good description of why this particular variation has gained such popularity. Its chorale style makes it possible to arrange for many different ensembles, and you can find quite a variety of arrangements on YouTube. The arrangement featured here is by John Cameron for eight-voice vocal ensemble. While a chorale style would normally lend itself well to voices, the melodic line in this work is characterized by wide leaps (the 7ths described above) and rather difficult to sing. The greater difficulty, however, lies in blending the voices and maintaining control over the emotional arch of the work. The British ensemble Voces8 manages to do all of those things very well. I have been listening to a number of recordings by this group of singers, and I suspect I will be featuring them again before long.

The text Lux Aeterna comes from the Communion antiphon in the Requiem Mass (the liturgy for the dead).

Lux æterna luceat eis, Domine,
cum sanctis tuis in æternum,
quia pius es.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis;
cum Sanctis tuis in æternum,
quia pius es.
May everlasting light shine upon them, O Lord,
with your Saints forever,
for you are kind.
Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,
and may everlasting light shine upon them;
with your Saints forever,
for you are merciful.

The Perils of Multi-Tasking


Let’s talk about something that may signal the end of civilization. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that serious, but it’s close. Multi-tasking. If you are young, you may be always multi-tasking and consider it so normal that you don’t even […] Read more.

The Gifts of Travel


Quite rightly, people say, “It’s incredible what you see and do on your travels.” Especially since beginning to work as a Smithsonian speaker, it has been precisely that: incredible. The panoply of cities and countries I tour, plus the unfathomable […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 116


Bach, Fugue in G Major, BWV 577 (“Gigue”) Since we all celebrated Bach’s birthday this week, I thought we should feature something festive by Bach. What, you missed his birthday? Pity, but it happens. A few years ago I went […] Read more.

Do You Remember Me?


A 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 […] Read more.