Artistic – Worshipful – Accessible

These three words describe the Shaw Music catalog: Artistic – Worshipful – Accessible. Here’s what they mean to me…

I work hard to make sure my music is Artistic. I’ve studied counterpoint, harmony, and form extensively, and those years of study shape how I write. But I want my music to be more than merely “correct” in an academic sense. I want it to be compelling, to offer a unique perspective on a familiar tune, to make the listener want to listen even more closely, to bring smiles to the performers’ faces (or, at times, tears to their eyes).

By God’s grace, my music is Worshipful. This word can mean many things, of course. But I hope my music, ultimately, directs peoples’ attention to God, not to the performer(s) or the composer. And I hope my music, in some way, points to the shared salvation experience of God’s people. When my music enhances or deepens the song of God’s people, I know it is worshipful.

I am glad my music is Accessible. My music is not necessarily easy, nor is it simplistic. Where there are challenging passages that require additional practice, I want them to be rewarding. Where there are simple passages, I want them to be strikingly beautiful. The harmonies and rhythms I employ might stretch the listeners’ sensibilities, but I never want listeners to lose interest in or feel overwhelmed by what they’re hearing.

—Timothy Shaw

Pursue Excellence, Not Perfection

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business. (Michael J. Fox)

The snare of perfectionism

Musicians of all ages and skill-levels often face stressful situations: lessons, auditions, performances, deadlines, studio sessions, etc. Coupled with this, musicians tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves. While these circumstances can bring out the best in us—musically, and even personally—they can quickly become debilitating if our expectations are unrealistic.

I have encountered fledgling and seasoned musicians alike who have an internal voice reminding them of their inability to measure up to “perfect” musical standards. And that internal voice is frequently influenced by (often well-intentioned) external forces: the director who places unreasonable demands on an ensemble, the teacher who assigns repertoire far beyond the student’s reach, or the parents who admonish their child to be careful not to make mistakes in an upcoming recital. But if, as Michael J. Fox asserts, only God is perfect, how can perfectionist musicians begin pursuing the more attainable goal of excellence?

A personal story

My own journey toward the pursuit of excellence took place in college. I remember my private piano teacher remarking about a colleague, herself a pianist, “She makes the most beautiful mistakes.” I was dumbfounded by the notion that mistakes could be beautiful, especially after thinking for years that playing all the notes correctly is a performer’s ultimate achievement. The next time I attended one of her performances, I understood what my teacher meant: her ability to recover seamlessly from mistakes was almost breathtaking.

Sometime later, I turned pages for my teacher as he performed a work with orchestra, and I was astounded by how many bass notes in the score he did not play during a particularly difficult passage. After the performance, audience members raved about his riveting performance, and he graciously accepted their well-deserved compliments. When the crowd had dispersed, he nonchalantly told me, “I’ll have to keep working on that one passage.”

A couple years later, I had one of the most important piano performances of my life. When it was over, I recounted to my teacher the mistakes I had made. He responded, “Yes, you missed some notes, and some of the phrasing was off. But think instead of the many thousands of notes you played correctly. And, what is more, you made beautiful music tonight.” My understanding of music had broadened to something greater than markings on a page. Without any loss of musical integrity, I was set free to pursue excellence rather than perfection.

The rewards of pursuing musical excellence

Put simply, those who pursue excellence make better musicians than those who pursue perfection. Freed from the burden of focusing on not making mistakes, they are able to perform joyfully and reach compelling emotional depths. They also make better students, and the world’s best musicians have always been lifelong learners. Musicians who pursue excellence are not threatened by constructive criticism. They understand mistakes are inevitable, and they learn from their mistakes. These musicians learn from rejection, too; they are not devastated by it. They find value in who they are, not in what they do or how they perform.

What can you do?

Choose repertoire you enjoy. Young children just beginning to learn an instrument will always benefit from a thoughtful teacher who finds appealing, engaging music for them to learn. Older musicians must frequently perform music of someone else’s choosing, but they can always find something to enjoy about music they might not like: a fanciful chord progression, an unexpected melodic gesture, or an unusually effective articulation.

Give yourself enough time to prepare well. When faced with a deadline, make sure you can devote enough time to produce something musically excellent. Of course, this will vary depending on your schedule, the musical project, and other life factors. Being well-prepared is one of the best ways to ensure you are calm and centered enough to deliver a musically satisfying product.

Accept the fact that you are not perfect. You will never have a perfect musical performance or write a perfect piece of music. But, you can do your best. You can take pleasure in achieving something you once thought impossible. And, you can strive to become a more excellent musician.

© 2018 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

Piano/Organ Repertoire for Advent/Christmas

It’s never too early for musicians to begin thinking about the holiday season. Read my latest article on Prelude Music PlannerChristmas in July: Piano/Organ Repertoire for Advent/Christmas. This includes suggestions of 10 different collections, as well as links to free downloads of some classical pieces (through IMSLP).

Piano Music for Wedding Ceremonies

Playing for any weddings this summer? Need some new piano music to enliven your repertoire? Read my latest article on Prelude Music Planner: Piano Music for Wedding Ceremonies. This includes suggestions of 25 sacred and classical pieces, with links to free downloads of the classical pieces (through IMSLP).

Some of My Favorite Choral Music

Do you have a favorite piece of music? Do you have a favorite composer? I have been asked these questions so many times, and it is always hard for me to come up with an answer. Maybe it’s because the genre is usually unspecified in the question. Maybe it’s because I like to reserve the right to change my mind. Mostly, though, I think it’s because it’s so hard for me to choose just one favorite piece of music. Without commenting on why these are my favorites—maybe I will write separate posts about that later—here is a list (with YouTube clips for you to enjoy) of my top ten choral favorites presented in alphabetical order. I’m focusing on this genre, because I write a lot of choral music. In some ways these pieces are always with me, circling in the back of my mind, when I write my own choral music, so they represent some of my key musical influences.

“Alleluia,” by Ralph Manuel (1987)

“Beati Quorum Via,” from Three Latin Motets, by Charles Villiers Stanford (1905)

“Cantique de Jean Racine” (Op. 11), by Gabriel Fauré (1864-65)

“Geistliches Lied,” Op. 30, by Johannes Brahms (1856)

“Gloria,” from Vespers, Op. 37, by Sergei Rachmaninov (1915)

“Nunc Dimittis,” by Arvo Pärt (2001)

“Only in Sleep,” by Ēriks Ešenvalds (2010)

“Sicut Cervus” (Psalm 42), G. Palestrina (1584)

“The Last Words of David,” by Randall Thompson (1949)

“Zadok the Priest,” Coronation Anthem no. 1, HWV 258, by G. F. Handel (1727)

How to Re-harmonize Hymns

Have you ever wanted to learn how to re-harmonize hymns, to accompany congregational singing? My latest blog post on Prelude Music Planner provides a 5-step process on how to do this. Check it out here, and be sure to download the free re-harmonization of the hymn “Gethsemane” (link at bottom of post).

Two- and Three-Part Choir Music

Choosing repertoire for church choirs is one of the most difficult, time-consuming tasks of all choir directors, whether they direct larger or smaller choirs. There are some unique challenges facing those who direct smaller choirs, though. To support you in your work, I have written a blog post on the topic (with 25 anthem suggestions) on Prelude Music Planner. Check it out here.

Choral Arranging in 10 Steps

Prelude Music PlannerHave you exhausted your budget for new music but find yourself in need of a few more pieces to round out the upcoming choral season? Have you been unable to find a choral setting of a hymn you love? Have you always been curious about how the creative process works? Read my blog post on Prelude Music Planner to follow a ten-step process that could help you to create your own music: click here.