Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Practice What You Preach

Walk the walk.

Don’t just “do as I say, not as I do”.

Actions speak louder than words.

Yes, yes. Heard them all, many times over.

Well … yesterday I kinda banged into all those, all at once.

Nothing earth-shattering or life-changing; no danger involved. But I heard my own voice echoing in my head, and every so often it’s not just an echo chamber!


For the past few years, in the midst of the Advent season, my church choir has put up what I’ve come to call a “large work”. As has been chronicled hereabouts, we’ve done battle with things like Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”, cantatas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Dietrich Buxtehude and Dave Brubeck … and a couple of “large works” by my church-giggin’ colleague, Kevin Murphy.

None of these works were “baby music”. We would get our hands on these things months ahead of time, wrestle with the notes and rhythms and texts and all that, and then on the third Sunday morning in Advent, we would present our best possible rendition of the works. Usually the various movements would be interwoven into the morning’s order of worship. A couple of times, though, we would launch into Movement No. 1, and go all the way to Movement Ultimo; a non-stop flight. (Then we’d sit down heavily.)

For some years now, having done score study on a decent number of Large Works, I’ve wondered what sorts of creative ideas I might put into play, were I to attempt to write my own Large Work. A daunting question – the more of these you get involved with, the more obvious it is that [1] so many of the good ideas are already taken, and more are taken with every new Large Work that appears; and [2] since we try to choose the higher-quality Large Works, wherever we can, to think of writing something that will measure up to those rather lofty standards seems anywhere from daunting to hubristic. Umm… so you want to write something that won’t seem like a major letdown after The Vivaldi? By all means, feller, give it a go.

And [3] almost no matter who you are and how much training you’ve had in musical activities … you always wish you’d taken more of the appropriate courses. Well, I wish that, anyway.

So I’m not really sure what it was that caused me to pull the trigger and talk out loud about it, at the beginning of this year’s summer vacation. But I did. Dangerous to talk out loud about it: someone might actually think you’re serious and take you up on the idea. And once you do, and they do … you’ve created for yourself a Deadline.


Two George Bernard Shaw quotes spring to mind at this point …

Do you think that the things people make fools of themselves about are any less real and true than the things they behave sensibly about? They are more true: they are the only things that are true.”

and, by contrast …

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so sure of themselves, and wiser people are full of doubts.”


Deep breath, and Step One! Find a text to set. Because I don’t consider myself a good enough poet to create an Advent / Christmas-story text that’s much good. Musically, I can fake it – I’ve written a couple of children’s theater scores that have struck listeners as entertaining and accessible – but, blog postings aside, I don’t know that I can get poetically profound enough, especially where a theological grasp will be helpful. Yes, I wrote the lyrics to those musical shows; but the lyrics were about chickens and reality TV and mad scientists and intentional Leonard Bernstein references. In short, silliness, not Scripture.

After some excursions through the wilds of the Internet, I found that I’d harvested an awful lot of poetry by two writers in particular: Christina Georgina Rossetti, and Madeleine L’Engle. The first name was familiar: “In the Bleak Midwinter” was one of Ms. Rossetti’s Greatest Hits, and our choir only sings that carol as a prayer response every single Advent season! Meanwhile, Ms. L’Engle’s name struck me as one that I ought to be able to identify – it seemed very familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Well, that’s what the Google is for: she turns out to be merely the author of “A Wrinkle in Time”, a children’s book that 99 out of 100 American children will read some time before the sixth grade. (I, clearly, am that one kid.)

So, poetry possibilities nearby, I set myself in front of a piano and started to noodle. And that’s when I realized a couple of things:

First, and less significantly: when I go and arrange music, the hard part – composition – has already been done by someone else. My analogy is furniture-moving: I can park a couch here and a table here and a chair here and ensure that the place looks nice and everyone can see the TV when they come in and sit down … but I didn’t build the furniture.

As I noodled, the Second Thing became clear: when you’re building furniture, there are rules and guidelines and helpful suggestions that will keep you from having your chair’s legs stick out every which way.

Many of these rules and guidelines and suggestions, in some muted (hopefully not watered-down) form, I had used on my seventh-grade general music students this past semester.

I had spent most of the spring reminding those two groups of middle-schoolers (some of whom were learning where “C” was on the keyboard for the first time, and some of whom had been doing this band thing for a long while) about things like sequences and motifs and melodic motion and antecedent/consequent phrases. And their final project instructions were: find a poem, either from the pile of poetry I’ve dropped on you or you can go find a poem that you like better, as long as it’s school-appropriate, and set it to music.

Long story short, we were able to deal with issues of melody and rhythm, and a bit of form, and didn’t have as much time to spend on harmonies and chords and progressions and such. So my expectations were not cosmically high. But if those kids put a little thought into the endeavor, they came up with melodies that at least had the same number of notes as syllables, and for the most part the strong syllables landed on strong parts of the measure, and occasionally there was definite motif usage … and in a couple of cases, there were some decidedly inspired and creative solutions.

All right, smart guy, said the voice in my head, as I realized that all the piano noodling in the world wouldn’t be productive if the noodling didn’t have something to do with the text I was trying to set … what grade are YOU going to get on this assignment?


We’ll see.


July 9, 2013 - Posted by | arranging, arts, choir, education, music, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Ah, shucks; I turned to the last page in the novel and I know the end. Ya gonna get an A! Now you can write it.

    Comment by Kristin | July 9, 2013 | Reply

  2. […] If you like, you may return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, or at least yester-month, here. […]

    Pingback by Practice What You Preach, Part II « Editorial License | August 24, 2013 | Reply

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