Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Worship Wednesdays - The Musical Fountain of Youth

Last week, my Facebook feed was inundated with cell phone videos from this year's Stamps-Baxter School of Music. If you've been reading this blog since the beginning, you'll know that Stamps-Baxter was very influential on my decision to enter ministry.

I've been watching videos like this, of 80-something-year-old Rosa Nell Powell ripping up the piano:

Thank you, Marian, for this video!

Southern Gospel musicians get a lot of flack - some deserved and some not - but there's one thing they do right: they raise their children with music. I saw it every year at the school. Whole families would come, training their children to sing harmony, write and arrange songs, and play instruments.

We would also get the seniors, folks in their 70's, 80's, and 90's who were still singing and playing.

I remember the first time Earl Scruggs visited the school with Little Roy Lewis. Little Roy and the band were tearing it up, and poor Earl was off on the side of the stage. I kept thinking, "Why are they making him sit there like that? How can they just parade him around like a mascot?" Then, someone helped Earl out to a chair in the middle of the stage, and he started to play. I was gobsmacked! All of a sudden, this man came to life, playing energetically with precision and passion. The crowd went nuts. I was amazed...

At that same school, a man named Harold Lane spent his days sitting in the back of the auditorium. In his prime, Harold was a prominent vocalist and song arranger, influencing a generation of music makers. But now, he seemed weak and distant. Ben Speer asked if I would please ask Mr. Lane to arrange one of my songs, to give him something to do. I felt terrible asking this frail man to do anything. One afternoon, I sought him out and made my request. He asked me to repeat the question. I wondered if I was causing him confusion, so I nervously asked again,

"Would you please arrange my song with harmony?
"Why?" he asked, "Don't you know how to write parts?
"No, sir, " I answered. 
"Well then, sit down and I'll teach you." 

He grabbed a piece of chalk, drew a staff on the board, and turned to face me. Remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz when everything turns from black and white to colour? Well, Mr. Lane had turned to colour - bright, vibrant, ready to share his passion for harmony with me. I met with him every chance I could get. When teaching music, he was a man on fire.

When Gerald and I talk about who we want to be as seniors, we never speak about retiring in the traditional sense. We may change how we do it, but we'll always make music. Stopping just isn't an option.

In our travels, we often meet folks like Earl and Mr. Lane, people who have allowed their passion for music making to carry on throughout their lives. As they age, their bodies and sometimes their minds start to fail them. Eyesight fades, limb grow weak, and yet, the music stays alive. They continue to sing, write, and play. If one skill becomes too difficult, they pick up another:
  • Soloists with weaker voices move to the chorus where other voices will support them. 
  • Double bass players who can't stand learn to play electric bass so they can sit to play. 
  • Guitar players with stiff fingers learn to write lyrics and collaborate with other musicians to create melodies.
It's almost as if the music fills the gaps left by aging. 
It energizes them, and propels them forward into living life it all its vibrancy.

I'm reminded of this verse:

Start children off on the way they should go,
    and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
Proverbs 22:6 NIV

Music classes in schools have been on the chopping block for years, and that battle will continue as long as people are foolish enough to think that music and art are frivolous. Those of us who teach and practice the art of music making know that it's essential to who we are as individuals and as a society.

It's critical that we introduce music to children when they're young, so that they learn early how to make music and how to weave it into their daily lives. But I believe it's also critical to make music as long as we possibly can.

Perhaps, in making music, we can find a fountain of youth. 

Let's continue to make music, to teach music, and to encourage others in the art and practice of music making. Let's find a place where our lifetime pool of skills, talents, emotions, experiences, and passions can strengthen and inspire us to explore and enjoy life for as long as possible.

And maybe, in that place, we can inspire the next generation to sing, play, write, arrange, and create...
And the circle will begin once more...

Worship Wednesdays is a weekly series to encourage and equip worship leaders and songwriters. Bookmark this page & visit us every Wednesday!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Worship Wednesdays - A Visit From My Past Self

Over the past year, Gerald and I have both read "The War of Art" and "Turning Pro" by Steven Pressfield. If you're a musician or artist of any kind, these books need to be required reading, with a pen for taking notes. Pressfield identifies the Artist's greatest enemy as Resistance. Resistance can take many forms, including procrastination, distraction, or negative friends. Once identified, we learn how to overcome Resistance to make our Art.

These books have been, and continue to be, transformational for us this year. Transitioning from staff worship leaders to full-time touring artists has been rife with challenges. How do we book enough dates? How do we balance finances? Do we hire people or do everything in-house? How do we balance creative and business time? Can we afford to record? Can we afford not to?

I was searching for an old blog post this week, when I randomly read my post from Saturday, August 13, 2005. On this day, I had recently returned from my life-changing trip to Nashville. For two weeks, I had been drilled by skilled teachers in performance, songwriting, and music theory. I had said "Yes" to God's calling to transform my life from Performer to Gospel Singer (not even quite knowing what that meant...) But now I was back at home, where the distractions of life and planning a wedding were swimming around me. Resistance was ready to meet me at the front door, waiting to steer me off the path of my new "Yes"...

"I am now in the phases of 'real work'. I no longer have the school's schedule or Allison Durham Speer or Daryl Williams to push and inspire me. This is the tough part of achieving your dreams. The infamous follow-through. Self-discipline. Taking the things I learned, and applying them. Building on them. Keeping the momentum..."

I find it so perfect that I found this post this week. Just a few days ago, we again returned from Nashville. Over the past few weeks, we've been working closely with session players and our engineer to record the tracks for our next Infinitely More CD. Yesterday, we were so tired - physically, mentally, spiritually. The temptation was to simply collapse for the rest of the summer. After all, people do take it easy in the summer. Facebook is full of holiday updates, beach sunsets, and patio party selfies.

Without warning, Resistance was in full swing, like a silent monster gliding through the house, throwing glittering, sun-soaked temptations into every room to distract us ....

But this music, this CD, is our Dream, and there's work to do. We have vocals to record, cover photos to take, graphics to design, and funds to raise. There are hours and hours of rehearsal and creative planning in the next few weeks. We have concerts and worship services to plan and perform, and a 5-province East Coast Tour to book.

As I felt the battle of Resistance surging around me, I read this paragraph written by my 2005 Self:

"With a good gospel song, I can change (someone's) life. And that's what I've always aimed for as an artist. To shake people up. To bring them out of the ordinary. For them to leave my performance with questions, new thoughts, new considerations."

The power to change someone's life. Well, that's still the path I'm on. The post continued:

"I know that God has affected my life in amazing ways in the last few years. I can't wow people with my Biblical insights. That's just not my strength. What I can say is this: I was in the darkest place imaginable. My life took a turn that I thought I would not survive. I can't explain it, but this force we call God brought me through it. I can't explain it, but I know that this God loves me, cares for my everyday thoughts and actions, and stays faithful to me in good and bad. And I know that when I gave my art, my career, and my life to Him for His controlling, that my art, my career, and my life changed in ways I could never "ask or imagine"*. I can't explain it, but I can tell you that I know all these things to be true. And if you have any doubts, try it. Just give your life over to God, and see what will happen. It's truly amazing."

Wow. There's nothing like remembering the first moments the Dream was born...

So in the new few weeks, when I'm overwhelmed, when I'm stressed, when Resistance is trying to convince me that a TV marathon is really the way to go, I'm going to remember these paragraphs. I'm going to remember that the Dream has changed and grown over the past years, but the goal has not.

I still want our music to bring people out of the ordinary, 
For I've met the Extraordinary. 
He changed my life, 
He can change yours, 
And I can't think of a better reason to sing...

*When I wrote this post in 2005, Gerald and I were on separate music career paths. We had no inkling that we would ever become a duo, and we certainly had no idea that we would name ourselves Infinitely More, the same verse containing the phrase "ask or imagine." Until yesterday. I hadn't even looked at this post since I first wrote it in 2005. Don't tell me God isn't in the details!

Worship Wednesdays is a weekly series to encourage and equip worship leaders and songwriters. Bookmark this page & visit us every Wednesday!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Nashville - The Drive Home

On Wednesday morning, we started to head north again, making the long trek home.

We couldn't resist the chance to visit Memphis one more time, so we stopped for a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The history of Memphis soul music was traced from its humble beginnings in a local garbage to the record label that brought us Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and The Staple Singers. The original building had been destroyed, but the museum used original gear and historic photographs to faithfully recreate the studio. The museum also helps fund a music academy and charter school for young students. We loved the exhibits and took lots of photos, which will probably come tomorrow...

For today, we're exhausted. After leaving Memphis, we stayed in Nashville for the night, followed by two more long days in the car. In total, we clocked almost 24 hours of highway driving this week! Thankfully, the weather and the border crossing were both easy, but today, we're feeling the fatigue.

We collapsed last night, surrounded by the comforts of home and an abundance of puppy love. We feel blessed and grateful for the events of the past few weeks - safe travels, amazing recording sessions, decadent meals, and beautiful visits with friends.

In just a few days, we'll be back in the studio, recording vocals for our songs. 
The journey continues, but first, we rest...

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Nashville - Day 17

Little Rock continues to treat us well, with great meals, beautiful shopping, and lovely cafe visits. 
But the best part has been the music and the company.

Tonight, Tara was leading worship for a youth service, so we visited to attend rehearsal and hear her lead worship. It was awesome to see such a vibrant youth program, with teens involved in missions, outreach, and worship. There's also something powerful about having your friends lead you in worship. I always imagine a trust between worship leader and congregation, and when you know that leader well, it makes the process even more powerful and intimate.

Our spontaneous performances continued tonight as we spent the evening playing our new CD tracks for Tara and Kyle. In the past week, we've sung our songs in a car, a music store, a hotel room, and now a living room. It's been a whole new feeling to sing them along with the tracks. Tara and Kyle haven't heard us sing live for a long time, and even though this wasn't a 'concert setting,' it was still awesome to get their reaction to the songs, and to our performances. Like seeing Tara sing earlier in the evening, we can all see growth in each other's musical abilities, and there's so much encouragement in that.

Tomorrow, we start the long drive home but for tonight, 
we are so thankful we made this side trip! 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Nashville - Day 16

If you haven't seen it already, I spent some time today documenting yesterday's visit to the National Civil Rights Museum. You can read the post HERE and see photos HERE.

Hello, Little Rock! As I shared yesterday, we've taken a little 'side trip' to spend time with our awesome friends, Tara and Kyle. This is our first visit to Arkansas, and so far the weather has been a suffocating heat, followed by wicked thunderstorms. Rethinking the winter gloves we brought as a gift for Tara...

The Big Dam Bridge. No, I'm not making that up...

One of our favourite things to do when we visit a place is check out its music stores. When we walked into Little Rock Frets, we were underwhelmed with what we saw. Mostly a repair shop, the store had a small selection of guitars, only two of which were acoustic. But owner and staff member were friendly, and we soon got into a conversation and told them about Infinitely More. They asked if we'd sing one of our songs. When we said "Sure," they said, "Then we want to play too." They grabbed a guitar and bass. Gerald started to play our Christmas song, "Tonight, Everywhere is Bethlehem." Within the first few beats, we had a small band formed with our impromptu performance. It was such a special moment, and a reminder that the most unassuming places can create special memories.

In the evening, Tara had worship band rehearsal, so I visited the church with her. It's a huge church, with an elegant, circular sanctuary. It was such a pleasure to simply sit in the pews and observe another band at work.

Tonight, we feasted on catfish and frog legs - well, I might have been the only one ordering frog legs - told stories, and laughed louder than any other table in the restaurant. As you know, I'm a planner, and our plan was to leave tomorrow, but after some cajoling and shifting of schedules, we've decided to stay one more night. It's so rare for the four of us to actually spend time together - these are the moments in life when you just need to say "Yes"...

Monday, July 07, 2014

Nashville - Day 15 - The National Civil Rights Museum

Today, we left Nashville for a little side trip before heading home. 
Hello, Memphis! 

We had the chance to visit Memphis a few times when we lived here, but a few sights escaped our view, one of which was the Civil Rights Museum. After a divine feast of ribs at Corky's BBQ, and potentially dangerous visit to a guitar store that had just lost its lease ($7000 guitar for a mere $4000 anyone?), we headed over to the museum.

The National Civil Rights Museum is a site specific experience. The founders of the museum purchased the original Lorraine Hotel - site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination - and the boarding house from which the fatal bullet was shot. Around these historic locations, the museum was built to showcase the history of the civil rights movement in America.

 The Lorraine Hotel and the National Civil Rights Museum.

Your first exhibit is a circular room showing the history of slavery, including a statue demonstrating the actual-sized space in which slaves would be forced to travel on the ships. (I was reminded of the powerful novel, The Book of Negroes.) From there, you enter a movie theatre with a short film explaining the major stages of the movement to overcome slavery and legal oppression. The film ends with the message that we're all moving forward in this journey, with the sounds of footsteps and an image of silhouetted people marching across the screen. Suddenly, a door slides open in the screen, and the audience is invited to join the march as we move into the larger part of the museum.

What follows is room after room of exhibits, showcasing both the horrors and triumphs of humanity. Larger stories like the Freedom Riders, integrating schools, and students sit-ins are showcased. But smaller, lesser known stories about individuals and their part of the story are also shared.

The museum is full of life-sized statues, showing scenes like Rosa Parks on the bus, and the Memphis Sanitation Strike. Coming face to face with these silvery, ghostlike forms brings history into reality.

Words like 'disturbing', 'overwhelming', and 'inspiring' are pale descriptions of the experience. In moments, my stomach turned and my eyes welled up at the intense and bizarre cruelty. Turn the corner, and I'd be reading a story of intense bravery, and the waves of hope that act generated in the rest of society.

The most powerful parts of the visit were Room 306, and the boarding house. Using police photographs, the museum has recreated both rooms to show how they would have looked on that day. In each space, we read a timeline of events, to make the experience present and palpable. We read how Dr. King was laughing and joking on the afternoon of his assassination. We see ashtrays full of cigarettes, a neat hotel room, a messy boarding house. The one detail that wasn't there on that day is the flower wreath hanging on the balcony rail, marking the fatal spot.

The museum was crowded today. People of all races and ages moved through the halls, reading the stories and staring at the photos. As we walked through, I wondered how the different groups were processing the experience. As a Canadian, this isn't my history, but as a human being, this is my history. As we've traveled throughout the South, we've often visited places where you can feel a racial tension. Sometimes it's said aloud, but oftentimes it's simply felt, perhaps in the way that people make eye contact, or even more disturbingly, in the way that they won't. I wondered if we might feel that in the museum, but we didn't. Folks moved through the crowded spaces with a sense of reverence and gentleness. Children laughed and played with the statues. People gave each other space to take photos. 'Please', 'thank you', and 'excuse me' were said often.

It's hard to put into words how we felt after we left the final exhibits. We spent a full 3 hours there, and we could have spent much more time. It's already spurned hours of conversation, and I have a feeling we'll be talking about it for a while yet.

From Memphis, we hit the road again and headed to Little Rock, Arkansas! After a bit of schedule juggling, we realized we could take a few days and visit our friends Tara and Kyle. Feeling blessed and tired tonight.

Between Gerald and I, we took over a hundred photos today. I've sorted through the highlights and created a photo album HERE. One final thought on the day...

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; 
only light can do that. 
Hate cannot drive out hate; 
only love can do that."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Nashville - Day 14

Apparently, the new tourist trend in Nashville is to visit town looking for characters of the hit show, "Nashville." Well, today, we hit the trend when we saw Charles Esten - aka Deacon Claybourne! We weren't able to speak to him, but we definitely had our geeky do-you-see-who-I'm-seeing moment.

It was so lovely to attend Redeemer again this morning, to be with this wonderful congregation and see even more friends. When we came to the 'prayers of the people' section of the service, there's a place where people can add their personal petitions, either silently or aloud. As people lifted their prayers this morning, I had a flashback to 5 years ago, when we attended Redeemer on the first Sunday following our accident. When we came to this point in the service, I lifted my prayer, "I'm thankful I'm alive, and I'm thankful Gerald is alive." As this memory swept over me, I was reminded of that deep, visceral feeling of gratitude to simply be alive. We say it all the time, "We should just be thankful we're alive and healthy," but it never rings true until we walk the edge of death. This morning, I silently lifted that prayer again. I added prayers of thanksgiving for our family and our Redeemer congregation that supported us in that time, and I gave thanks for where we are today.

After the service, Jenna and our new friend, Heather, joined us for a classic treat: Sunday homestyle chicken at Cracker Barrel! The ability to see friends more than once on this trip has been an enormous blessing. We've been able to get past the 'catching up' conversations and move onto actually just hanging out and creating new memories.

Jenna was anxious to hear our recording, so after lunch we all sat in her car to listen to the CD. There are no vocals yet, so Jenna and Heather sat in the front, while Gerald and I sang the vocals from the back seat. To sing the songs to the new tracks in that intimate setting was incredibly moving. Seeing Jenna and Heather's reactions gave us new inspiration in the power of the songs, and the importance of creating a beautiful CD. We've also decided that "car concerts" should become the next big thing...

Tomorrow, the adventure continues with a visit to Memphis!