Wednesday, December 23, 2009


You never know what you'll find when you decide to finally download the last four months of photos from your camera to your computer.

Our friends Dustin and Erica got married in October. Here's a fun picture of Nathan with Dustin - these two grew up together in Erie and then ended up at the same college.

After the (utterly fantastic) wedding reception, we spontaneously decided to stay in NJ for the night rather than driving home, and then go to NYC (my first time in the city) the next morning.

Our friend Marissa came with us:

It was a Sunday morning, so naturally, we wanted to go to church. We decided on "Smokey Mary's," and we enjoyed their service very much!

After church we wandered around to see the sights. Marissa has been to NYC lots of times, so she was a great tour guide.

Marissa is the dramatic soprano with a taste for Broadway flair:

I'm the straight-laced one with a violin strapped on my back. (I had played at the wedding the day before, so I had my violin with me. Yay backpack straps that make carrying that thing around all day a lot easier!)

New York City, you're so exciting.

Poor Marissa probably hadn't counted on the fact that Nathan and I are kind of ecclesiophiles (I may have made up this word), and we really love going to churches. So after lunch and some sight-seeing, we dragged her along to Evensong at St. Thomas church on Fifth Ave. It was glorious. Nathan took this picture because he loves pipe organs:

Marissa was a good sport about our unique choices in things to do in NYC.

What an enjoyable trip!

Being spontaneous is fun.

December Dreaming

Nathan, his brother Andrew, our friend Lisa, and I drove out to Erie, PA over the weekend to take part in a wonderful Christmas concert at my father-in-law's church. We had a great time visiting Nathan's family, but unfortunately we all picked up a bit of a cold bug to varying degrees, and started feeling under the weather as we were driving back to MA on Monday night. I'm particularly annoyed at this turn of events, because I had almost made it to February without getting sick, which would have marked a full year since becoming a vegetarian and given me all sorts of additional health-based veggie propaganda to add to my arsenal. Oh well.

Last night I went to bed with a sore throat and a stuffy head, only to have the night made worse by a vivid and lengthy dream of myself giving a violin lesson to my absolute worst student. The dream was all too real, and I seemed to hear clearly the wrong notes, missed accidentals, and poor bow control that are so characteristic of this student's lessons. I dreamed about teaching my worst student while I'm on vacation. As if being sick right before Christmas weren't bad enough.

Dude, dream gods, don't hit a girl while she's down.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Stand for Christmas"

Have you heard about Focus on the Family's "Stand for Christmas" campaign? Their website boldly proclaims,

"We're asking YOU to decide which retailers are "Christmas-friendly." They want your patronage and your gift-shopping dollars, but do they openly recognize Christmas?"

The site allows users to leave comments on individual retailers, as well as ratings on a given store's degree of "Christmas-friendliness." These comments frequently use the word "offensive" to describe users' feelings upon being wished "Happy Holidays."

Here are a few charming comments left regarding American Eagle:

Comment Date: Dec 9 2009 4:34 PM
Rating: Christmas-Offensive
Comment: With a name like "American Eagle," one would think the company owners would be more AMERICAN-FRIENDLY. ...

(Wait, so Christmas is an American holiday? Silly me, this whole time I thought it originated in Bethlehem!)

Comment Date: Dec 8 2009 9:47 PM
Rating: Christmas-Offensive
Comment: ...No mention of Christmas. I don't shop there anymore.

(You're offended by not having Christmas mentioned? Honey, it would be offensive if they cursed the name of Jesus, but how can you be offended by someone not wishing you a "Merry Christmas"?)

Comment Date: Dec 14 2009 9:54 AM
Rating: Christmas-Offensive
Comment: Shopping in there this Christmas season was like shopping there any time of year....

(Some people are never happy. I bet this same person frequently complains about the over-commercialization of Christmas.)

Here are some comments about Old Navy:

Comment Date: Dec 14 2009 10:32 AM
Rating: Christmas-Offensive
Comment: I shopped both the Old Navy website and catalog for my family of 5 and presents for my 6 nieces and nephews. I found the blatant lack of Christmas to be completely offensive. I will actually not only NOT shop at Old Navy this season, but will not do so in the future as well.

(All it takes is a lack of overt Christmas-y-ness to offend you?)

Comment Date: Dec 11 2009 3:03 PM
Rating: Christmas-Offensive
Comment: The "do-what-you-wannaka" ad was very offensive...

(Seriously? You're offended by a reference to Hanukkah? I could see how a Jewish person might find the seemingly flippant reference offensive, but you seem to be offended simply because it was an inclusive ad campaign!)

Comment Date: Dec 9 2009 4:02 PM
Rating: Christmas-Offensive
Comment: [Clerk]told me that they are told to say Happy Holidays...I will find a Christmas friendly store

("Happy Holidays" is such an unfriendly phrase.)

Comment Date: Dec 7 2009 11:01 AM
Rating: Christmas-Offensive
Comment: ...lack of Christmas spirit (i.e. advertising). I will be spending my Christmas dollars with your competitors. Merry Christmas!

(Of course, we all love being manipulated by faith-based advertising campaigns.)

Comment Date: Nov 30 2009 9:15 AM
Rating: Christmas-Offensive
Comment: Without the birth of Jesus Christ, there would be no "holiday." It's CHRISTMAS. So, MERRY CHRISTMAS

(Actually, I'm pretty sure it wasn't the baby Jesus who kept the oil lamp burning in the temple for eight days...)

Had enough of those crazy comments yet? I think I have.

Why are so many Christians intolerant towards the idea of wishing someone "Happy Holidays"? What's so wrong with being inclusive in how we celebrate the season? (And since when do we want the birth of a Savior to be some marketing ploy, anyway? Christians are always complaining about the commercialization of Christmas!)

Let's look at the facts. Sure, many people celebrate Kwanzaa, but I think it's fair to venture that the primary two holidays we're talking about when we wish someone "Happy Holidays" are Christmas (whether of the Jesus variety or the Santa variety) and Hanukkah. Do we really want to be intolerant of our Jewish brothers' and sisters' right to celebrate an important event in the history of Israel? Jesus was Jewish, and Paul tells us that as Christians we are "grafted" into that faith. It is our spiritual heritage. When we consider that, why aren't more Christians celebrating alongside Jews as they remember the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem and commemorate how God kept the oil lamp burning for eight days? This is not an "anti-Christian" holiday, and we shouldn't be offended by those who celebrate it, nor should we be offended by an inclusive clerk wishing us a "Happy holiday season." Hanukkah is a celebration that is pre-Christian in nature, but whether or not you believe that Judaism found its fullness in Christ as the Messiah, you should be able to sincerely wish your Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah.

I have several Jewish violin students, and each year they complement my beautiful Christmas tree, give me Christmas gifts, and wish me a "Merry Christmas" this time of year. It would be unbelievably rude of me to not extend the same graciousness to their traditions and beliefs, and I'm glad I can sincerely and joyfully wish them a "Happy Hanukkah!" I enjoy hearing how they celebrate and love seeing their excitement when they talk about lighting the candles on their menorahs. Can you imagine if I insisted on wishing them a "Merry Christmas," simply because that's the holiday I'm celebrating this time of year? Yes, I may believe that Advent and Christmas are a time of celebrating the coming of the Messiah, but forcing it down peoples' throats isn't the best approach I can think of to celebrate this season.

When clerks wish you "Happy Holidays" this time of year, they're simply acknowledging that they don't know you personally and can't be sure of which holiday (or holidays!) you and your family choose to celebrate. But whatever you're celebrating, be it Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or even winter solstice, they hope it's a happy one.

I'm okay with that, Focus on the Family. If you merely want Christmas to be included in how retailers acknowledge the season, then perhaps you should recognize that phrases like "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings" are already inclusive and respectful of Christmas. (And the majority of America is celebrating Christmas, so you're not exactly left out of any festivities this time of year.) And if you insist that everyone acknowledge or celebrate your holiday specifically, then perhaps you're the ones giving offense - not the well-meaning people wishing you "Happy Holidays."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Marylou Speaker Churchill

I've been meaning to write a few words about Marylou Speaker Churchill ever since I found out about her death on November 11, the day after she passed away. I didn't know Mrs. Churchill well, but I studied with her for three weeks at a summer festival several years ago, and she was the kind of person who left an impression, no matter how briefly you knew her.

She was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 30 years, and principal second for 23 of those years.

I have a spiral bound collection of music she gave me that summer, with a yellow cover bearing the title "Basics, Opus 2" and her name at the bottom. The title and her name are printed, but the rest of the front cover is covered in words, too - her own writing. A few phrases stand out to me each time I look at this little booklet, but especially the words written across the top of the page: "Start with JOY!" You didn't have to know Mrs. Churchill long, or very well at all, to realize that that was how she approached not just the violin, but all of life - with joy.

Inside the front cover are about 15 pages of exercises excerpted from various violin methods - Schradieck, Korguoff, Dounis, Yost, Galamian, and a little Simon Fischer. There's also a page of charts covering frequencies, ratios, cents, decimals, etc. for complete chromatic scales in Pythagorean, Just, Mean-tone, and Equal-tempered systems of intonation. (It's quite complex and gives me a headache just to look at that page.) Every page in the book, every exercise, is the sort of thing that can kick your butt whether you're mediocre or excellent (actually, I don't know anything about being excellent, but I can imagine).

There's an excerpt from a presentation she gave to young musicians once that seems to sum up her personality and beliefs well - her deep faith, her personal conviction in all that she did, and her vibrant love of music and of people:

"It appears that the greatest concern of the young musician seeking an orchestral position is the belief in stage-fright or nerves. Assuming proper preparation and a good attitude (I have nothing to lose, I don't have the job so I can't lose it), the manifestation of a loss of control is simply fear; fear of not doing as well as you can. There is a law of this universe which is so simple and so powerful and it literally wipes this fear out of your being, and it is this... "perfect love casts out fear." If you are actively engaged in loving your instrument, loving the music, loving the audience, loving the committee, loving your enemies, then there is simply no room for fear of any kind, and you will find yourself playing better than you expected. To love is to live, and breathe, and sing, and play. Love then."

The New England Conservatory, where Mrs. Churchill taught, has a nice tribute to her life and work on their website, which you can read here.

Midway through that yellow-covered collection of music is the last movement from Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." This movement, "Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus," or "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus," is only for violin and piano, and she included it in a book otherwise consisting of exercises as an opportunity to focus on tone, bow distribution, vibrato, phrasing... well, there are endless things to think about with this piece. But I think she also just loved the piece and wanted to share her copy of the music with her students. [Edit to add: you can read Michael's musings on an impromptu collaboration with Mrs. Churchill on this very piece at his blog.]

At the top of the Messiaen, penciled in just below the title are two words written in large cursive: "all love."

You can listen to a recording of Mrs. Churchill playing this movement with pianist Veronica Jochum here. It's an incredibly moving performance that vividly demonstrates that love - of music, of people, of life - that she spoke about.