A Word of Thanks to a Former Teacher

piano keysI have had many teachers throughout my life, but the one who looms largest in my mind is my first piano teacher, a quiet, elegant woman who lives simply and is, like many artists, frequently misunderstood (some might even say “eccentric”). Like countless people around the world, I began piano lessons as an eight-year-old child. This makes me extremely ordinary. But, in my memory at least, my teacher was anything but ordinary. Today, after years in the music profession, I look back on my lessons with her and feel nostalgic. And so, in this month of thanksgiving, I want to express my thanks to her by highlighting those qualities that made her effective as a teacher, qualities worthy of emulation. (I do so without mentioning her by name, since she has always been one who eschews the limelight.)

Her love of music was contagious. When I began lessons, I had an interest in music, but music was not my passion. She changed everything. She appreciated music more deeply than most, and she spoke about music with an understanding few possess. She enjoyed French music in particular, and her performances of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and Debussy’s Clair de lune at annual recitals are permanent fixtures in my memory. Every time she played the piano, people were mesmerized by her exquisite artistry. Making music meant more than playing the right notes and rhythms—it meant understanding and internalizing the piece until it became your own. She loved to write and arrange music, too, and she found pleasure in its performance. I always marvel when her chord voicings and favored harmonic progressions appear in my own music, and I am grateful for her influence.

Her teaching seemed effortless. Music is difficult to learn. The grammar and syntax of music is complicated; practicing is done in isolation; and, the more advanced one becomes, the more effort it takes to reach the next level. Teaching music is equally difficult. She was a naturally gifted pedagogue. In lessons, despite all my mistakes, she was always calm. She understood each one of her students and adjusted her teaching to meet their particular needs. Long before individualized instruction was in vogue among professional educators, she taught that way. Every time I thought something was impossible, she would say, “Just do.” She knew this no nonsense admonition was exactly what I needed to hear. She was always prepared, never hurried, always composed. During recitals she would sit in the front row, ready to rescue students from those inevitable memory lapses. She was always patient and kind.

She modeled grace and humility. In the five years I studied with her (1985-1990), weekly half-hour lessons cost an unbelievably low three dollars—the price never went up! She lived in a humble house, dressed practically, and taught many children who took lessons only because their parents insisted. After I finished playing in one of her annual recitals, she whispered to my mother, “The student has surpassed the teacher.” Many would find it difficult to make such a statement. When I found a new teacher, she attended my recitals. She even took piano lessons with my new teacher. She was a lifelong learner, eager to develop and grow, always striving for more. She never concertized publicly, and her beautiful pieces have never been published. No one in the music industry knows her name. But, I do. And I owe her a debt of gratitude for graciously sharing with me her profound love of music.

© 2015 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

Why Christians Sing Communally

church singing 14th cIn an article that appeared online in The Atlantic (March 28, 2012), Karen Loew notes the only time most Americans sing communally is during a baseball game’s seventh-inning stretch when the crowd stands and sings “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” (Red Sox fans, of course, have the added privilege of singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” during games at Fenway Park.) People sang together in the past, but communal singing has virtually disappeared from today’s society. Americans do not sing together in public, yet when they go to church they are expected to join in the singing of hymns, responses, and other songs. What a peculiar, old-fashioned thing to do! While Loew acknowledges certain types of music-making continue to thrive in America (“Folks sing in religious settings as much as ever”), it is worth considering: exactly why do Christians engage in the counter-cultural practice of group singing during their worship services?

First, scripture directs Christians to sing. The opening verses of Psalm 100 are familiar to many: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” (Ps. 100:1-2). Have you ever heard a churchgoer rightly claim these verses as his or her excuse for poor vocal technique? “The noise I make may not be pretty, but at least it’s joyful!” In Psalm 33:3 the psalmist tells the righteous to sing “a new song” to the Lord, and in Psalm 150:6 “everything that has breath” is instructed to praise the Lord with music. The Apostle Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). Christians strive to live according to biblical precepts, so they sing together in worship because scripture tells them to do so.

Second, the people of God have always responded to God’s redemptive acts by singing songs of thanksgiving and praise to God. Their modus operandi—or, if you like, part of their DNA—is to praise God for who God is (attributes) and what God has done (actions). After the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea, a miraculous picture of God’s saving power, Moses and Miriam led the people in this song: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation” (Ex. 15:1-2a). When faced with the unexpected working of God in her life, Mary responded with a song of praise, recounting God’s goodness and faithfulness (Lk. 1:46-55). Paul and Silas, trusting in God’s provision in spite of their present reality, sang together while imprisoned (Acts 16:25-40). And, even now, saints around the throne of God sing this eternal song: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). Today’s Christians follow the example of saints from the past, lifting their voices in harmony to the God who has delivered them from the bondage of sin and death.

Third, singing reflects Jesus’ character. Only days before his death, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. And he did so in a way that forever changed the meaning of that supper: he said “this is my body…this is my blood” (Mk. 14:22-25). As part of the ritual, he and his disciples recited the Hallel, which quotes the Israelites’ song from Exodus 15 (see Ps. 118:14). Again, he reframed an important aspect of that holy day; in effect, Jesus was saying, “I have become your salvation.” Then, they sang a hymn together (Matt. 26:30). And, Jesus has not stopped singing. The “founder of salvation” now sings with his brothers and sisters—God’s children in glory—about the unsurpassed grace of God: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Heb. 2:12).

Christians sing communally, not simply because scripture tells them they should, though for some this may be reason enough. Christians sing, too, because they share an experience of deliverance. This is captured succinctly in the title of Robert Lowry’s hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” which aptly describes Christians’ worship-filled response to God’s saving work in their lives. What is more, the God of Christianity is a God who delights in singing over the redeemed: “he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph. 3:17). When Christians sing in worship, their voices become part of God’s ongoing love song—what an awe-inspiring thought!

© 2015 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

One Dozen MORE Anthems for Small(er) Church Choirs

Need even more ideas for musical selections that are quite effective with smaller ensembles? Consider adding some of these well-written pieces to your choir’s repertoire either this year or in the future. (For the previous list, click here.)

  1. Prepare the Royal Highway (Unison/2-part, keyboard) | arr. H. Hopson, MorningStar
  2. We Praise You, Jesus, at Your Birth (SAB, piano) | T. Shaw, Concordia
  3. God Be Merciful unto Us (Unison, organ) | D. Pinkham, E.C. Schirmer (recording)
  4. Psalm 117 (2-part mixed, keyboard) | T. Shaw, Concordia
  5. Bow Down Your Ear (Unison, piano) | A. Miller, Augsburg Fortress
  6. Who at My Door Is Standing? (2-part mixed, keyboard) | arr. K. Lee Scott, Hinshaw
  7. Ah, Holy Jesus (SA, cello) | arr. C. Jennings, Augsburg Fortress
  8. Deep Were His Wounds (SAB, piano) | T. Shaw, MorningStar
  9. The Risen Christ (SAB, keyboard) | arr. T. Fettke, Alfred
  10. Lord, Listen to Your Children (SAB or 2-part mixed, piano) | arr. J. Schrader, Hope
  11. Praise the Lord, God’s Glories Show (SAB, conga drums) | D. Schelat, Oxford
  12. The Lord Bless You and Keep You (SAB, keyboard) | J. Rutter, Hinshaw

© 2015 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

One Dozen Anthems for Small(er) Church Choirs

Finding music that is accessible to small(er) church choirs is always a challenge, and it seems every choir director must work with a smaller choir at least one week out of the year. Here is a list of one dozen well-written anthems, spanning the church year, that work well with ensembles of any size! Consider adding some of these to your choir’s library. (Clicking on a title will open the anthem’s page on JW Pepper.)

  1. Stir up Your Power, O Lord, and Come (SAB, organ) | C. Schalk, MorningStar
  2. Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus (SATB, keyboard) | T. Shaw, Augsburg Fortress
  3. Only a Baby Came (2-part, keyboard) | N. Sleeth, Hinshaw
  4. Jubilate Deo (Unison or SA, organ, opt. percussion) | D. Wood, Augsburg Fortress
  5. Lord Jesus, Think on Me (SATB, keyboard) | J. Althouse, Hope
  6. Create in Me a Clean Heart (SAB, organ) | C.F. Mueller, G. Schirmer
  7. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (SATB, piano) | F. Mallory, Genevox
  8. I Will Sing of My Redeemer (2-part, piano) | T. Shaw, Fred Bock
  9. Now Is Christ Risen from the Dead (2-part, keyboard) F. Frahm, Augsburg Fortress
  10. Jesus, My All, to Heaven Is Gone (2-part, piano, oboe) | H. Helvey, Beckenhorst
  11. Gracious Spirit, Dwell with Me (2-part, keyboard) | K. Lee Scott, Augsburg Fortress
  12. All My Hope on God Is Founded (Unison with descant, organ) | H. Howells, arr. J. Rutter, Collegium

© 2015 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.