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the organ bench. [k.s. friday]

organ pipes

no one else.  there was literally no one else i knew who took organ lessons.  eight years old and i was the only one.  everyone else i knew took piano lessons.  they went to the new local music store –munro music on larkfield road in east northport – and had lessons in itty studios downstairs and came back upstairs to pick out sheet music from a big wall featuring the latest hits and books of collected artists, written out for various levels of piano-playing ability.  me?  i went to mr. i-never-knew-if-he-even-had-a-first-name sexton’s house (now, think about the torture my peers had with that name) and took organ lessons in the addition adjacent to the garage.  there was no wall of sheet music, were no cool guitars hanging up begging to be purchased, no amplifiers or drums.  just that one organ.  no windy or ode to billie joe or i’m a believer easy piano for me.  it was beautiful dreamer and long, long ago.  and hymns.  lots of hymns.  but i had been asking for lessons since i was five and the little chord organ that was my grandmother’s was moved aside and a ‘real’ organ with two manuals (keyboards) and real pedals and cha-cha button settings was added to the corner of the dining room that was next to the kitchen and the living room.

when i was ten i tearfully played the pipe organ for my brother’s wedding, the processional as my sweet sister-in-law walked down the aisle to my big brother.  yesterday i was talking to john whelan, a master celtic accordionist the exact same age as me, and we talked about the first real gig we did.  his was at 12 and he actually got paid.  mine was this wedding and, for obvious reasons, payment was out of the question.  i got to wear a really pretty peach-colored party dress and white shoulder stole and wept my way through the difficult piece.

after some time, i somehow convinced my parents that they needed both an organ and a piano and they signed me up for piano lessons.  joan ostrander, the very chic music teacher, was my first piano teacher and i adored her.  she pushed me and i adored that too.  i spent long hours practicing on the piano bench with my dog missi sleeping underneath, my dad whistling in the background.

in years to come i studied with the teacher-of-all-teachers alan walker and was convinced that the piano and i were kindred.  i taught more piano lessons on long island (and later florida and even wisconsin) than i can remember, back then driving from one house to another, delighting in each student’s joy playing the piano and progress no matter the pace, hoping to emulate the teaching style of this amazingly kind man.  after lessons we talked life and ham radio and ate open-faced crunchy peanut butter sandwiches.  music is not just about music, you know.

during my undergrad, i studied piano in college with one of the professors but kept bringing in pieces of original music and kept veering off course from assigned large scale pieces, hoping he wouldn’t notice.

as no real surprise, i majored in music composition, the first (?) step toward living as an artist, the first step in a road that leads to here and now.  so much in-between.  the gigging composer music timeline is filled with albums, concerts, performances, cd sales, radio and tv, qvc appearances, barnes & noble and borders, listening wall placement, phone calls, yamaha, traveling, shipping and more shipping, recording labels, carrying boxes, standing in the rain on flatbed trucks playing and singing, driving, driving, driving, press releases, graphic design, writing, recording, supportive family and friends and coworkers and a person named hope hughes.

but that organ.  it has kept on re-appearing.  somehow it is one of the threads that has woven its way through my life.  there aren’t that many of us out here:  people who play the organ, who can finesse a chosen timbre through the pipes and who can actually play lines of bass notes on the pedals.  those lessons from the very beginning somehow set the stage for me to work for three decades already as a minister of music.  conducting choirs and handbells and ukulele bands and worship bands, choosing music for services and performing groups, leading and shaping worship and, yep, playing the organ…it has been a constant.  there are days that i will pull out all the stops and play as loud as the organ pipes will allow.  its bellowing echoes through the sanctuary and i giggle as i think of my ten year old self, sitting on an organ bench in williston park on long island and crying.

what would i have thought if i had known that fifty years later i would still be sitting on an organ bench?

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noodling. [k.s. friday]

the art of noodling

we can never repeat it.  that piece we played together during a quiet moment in the service.  moments where notes suspended, combined with hearts and lingered in the air.  we noodled our way through it and, even just after it was over, we could not speak to how it was shaped or where it went.

it is my absolute joy to work with someone who can join me in this.  jim, our beloved guitarist, is a ready partner.  hand signals of the key, head nod count offs and we are on our way.  sometimes the noodling takes us to a more intense, busy place and sometimes it is the stuff of nirvana, peaceful, thoughtful serenity.  always it is rewarding for both of us; we share a smile when it’s done and know that the ethers now own that piece of music.  never to be repeated.

improvisation is a driving force – we play at least seven pieces of music every service.  with skeletal lead sheets we choose how to perform each one.  sometimes we liken our performance to ‘how it was done on the recording’ and sometimes we have our own agenda, working it into the style or feel we wish it to convey.  but, because we don’t simply read every note on the page (since they aren’t on the page), we know the performance of each piece will also never be repeated.  it is not likely that most realize we are drawing from deep inside, from knowledge or experience, from heart, when we play.  they likely think we are reading music that is all written out.  i don’t suppose it matters what they think as long as we deliver what we intend.  as long as we shape the service emotionally, for that is what the music is all about.

as a composer, my favorite moments, in addition to those sweet moments of harmony when we, with our respective instruments sing and can hear the lining up of the stars, are those moments of noodling.  we have no fear of what’s next.  we have no preconceived notion of where to go.  we just start.  and we follow where the music leads us.  it’s ephemeral.  it starts from the dust and returns to the dust.  and is never to be repeated.

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laugh. [k.s. friday]

creativity is not always a serious thing.  songwriting isn’t always serious.  today we offer you the attempt we made on washington island to record our brilliant and profound song SITTING HERE IN THE SUN.  we understand, with 7 takes, if you can’t bear to watch it all.  and we understand if you are underwhelmed by the song (not to mention the angle of video recording) – when you finally get there.  but right now – at the very beginning of a new year and a new decade – we are thinking maybe the laughter is the most important song of all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

jaunt over to DAVID’S blogsite to see if he added anything esoteric to my meanderings

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guide star. [d.r. thursday]

hotel art

last night we watched cnn’s broadcast movie about linda ronstadt “the sound of my voice”.  a star in every facet.  as we watched , we revisited times of our lives – times when the music we listened to was simpler, less engineered, less auto-tuned, less machinated, less acrobatic.  it was music of melody and harmony, stylistically less thickened by tracks of extraneous stuff.  it was indeed purer.  linda ronstadt, now in her 80s and dealing with the effects of parkinson’s, particularly on her voice, was a powerhouse raised in music, surrounded by music and who, with generosity, graced us all with her music for decades.  her voice goes on.

we are attracted to simpler.  simpler melodies minus the gymnastic riffs and with simpler production, simpler paintings with great depth or color or message.  we are analog; there’s no doubt about it.  and as we watched a john denver christmas in aspen the other day i found myself yearning for that simplicity, john denver’s voice – both his writing voice and singing voice – effortlessly clear.

the common thread of less is more.  it had impact on us, on our art forms.

when d was messing around in the studio recently he painted these very simple elements that often appear in his paintings:  a star, a flower, petals. it’s not natural for him to paint without a figure.  i imagine he was experimenting, paring down.  i would liken that to me recording a song on the ukulele.  it’s not natural for me to record without a piano.  but experimenting is good and paring down is an exercise.  especially in times of mostly-quiet easels and mostly-empty lyric sheets.

linda ronstadt’s story is one of unparalleled success and a great number of layers of experiment, a constant delve into another style of music, always paring it down to dedication to her absolute love of singing.

in the midst of all the layers, all the experimentation, all the paring down, all the silent canvases and hushed keys, we find our guide stars.  and we go on.

read DAVID’S thoughts this D.R. THURSDAY

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©️ 2019 david robinson, kerri sherwood

 

 

 


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rough cuts. [k.s. friday]

you're here songbox 2

rough cuts.  there are lots of them.  recorded on an iRiver or an iPhone so i don’t forget.  scraps of paper with lyrics and chord indications, rhythms jotted above the words, a few melodic notes scribbled in the margins or throughout the page.  songs that haven’t yet been recorded.  songs that may some day be recorded.  songs that will never be recorded.  rough cuts.

before the cantata i prepared for this holiday season i had carefully selected music – all contemporary pieces, all meaningful lyrics that i felt would resonate with those watching, making the experience touch their hearts.  but, as i mentioned in a past post, i’m pretty picky and there was this one song.  after playing around with it with the band, i deleted it from the line-up.  with a spot still to fill in-between narrative, i decided to write a new song to fill the slot.  this is the song i wrote –  YOU’RE HERE – and you can listen to a very rough cut of it recorded on my iPhone played on an out-of-tune church piano if you click here.

it’s been a long while since i recorded an album.  more time has passed than i ever thought possible.  i wonder which songs in my rough cut collection will make it onto the next album.  i wonder if there will be a next album.

in the meanwhile, i’ll keep paper by the piano and have my cellphone ready.  the iRiver is in the drawer, along with the microcassette recorder and a pile of cdr’s.  maybe the presence of at-the-ready songs will eventually tilt the earth and i’ll be back in the studio.  maybe people buying cds will come back into vogue.  maybe i will record on vinyl (again).  maybe it will all be virtual.  more to stream.  (note my tone of voice.)  maybe.

or maybe i’ll just put the piano at full stick, pull up a boom stand, throw on a mic and sing.

listen to the rough cut of YOU’RE HERE by clicking here or on the image just below:

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YOU’RE HERE ©️ 2019 kerri sherwood


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joy. [k.s. friday]

joy songbox

the video from My Girl made me out and out cry.  it was just a little hello, sent from around a firepit in the high mountains after a long day of working.  and it was perfect timing.  to see her face and hear her voice was pure joy.

we walked and walked and walked.  miles from millenium park’s christmas tree and skating rinks, past beautiful ornate displays of lights and simple twinkling white branches.  in a rare opportunity linking my arm through My Boy’s as we strolled, i was filled with joy.  the loudspeaker music and dancing lights of the lincoln park zoo just echoed my delight.

as adults, the holidays carry a different set of qualities than they did as when we were children.  much pressure, oftentimes grief, maybe a slippery slope feeling of never-doing-enough, some disappointment, a measure of jealousy or envy perhaps as others-with-family-all-in-town gather together in big festive celebrations.  for those of us who work on christmas eve and christmas day, there is a yet another added layer.

we walked through the woods yesterday looking for the right branch laying on the ground.  we don’t yet have a christmas tree up.  we have other little trees – i have collected small trees through the years – but no true christmas tree.  each year in these last years, we have chosen that “tree” carefully, always something we found, something re-purposed into a christmas tree, something that had meaning.  there was the christmas-tree-on-a-stick – a christmas-tree-misfit – we cut down on the tree farm, a piece of the tree that fell into our backyard narrowly avoiding the house, a branch that had snapped off of our beloved tree out front, a star suspended over a straight trunk wrapped in lights to tease The Boy.

this year i thought about just going to a lot and purchasing a tree, thinking maybe, in the midst of the ending of a really tough year for many,  that might put me into the holiday spirit.  but i just couldn’t bring myself to do that.  we figured that the answer would become obvious, as it has done in the past years.  and it did. watching My Boy, clearly proud of the decorations of the neighborhoods north-of-downtown, agree with us about how simple, beautiful and truly elegant the white branches were, made up my mind.

last night we put the first coat of white spray paint on the two sets of branches we brought home.  we’ll finish coating them with paint later today and wrap them in white lights.  we’ll gently place silver ornaments as we play christmas music in the background.  i will miss My Girl and My Boy like crazy.  i will yearn for my parents, my brother and sister-in-law and sister and brother-in-law and nieces and nephew and all their families, david’s parents and extended family.  it isn’t the christmas of christmas-past.

but there still is magic.  those moments of joy – when everything else ceases to exist and joy eclipses it all.

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JOY ©️ 2004 kerri sherwood

 

 


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picky. [k.s. friday]

christmas composing

this is at least the 30th christmas.  the 30th one that i was responsible for making sure that other people – in various congregations through the years – feeeeel it.  the 30th one where i have chosen music to reflect the season, the love, the light…and to be certain that it was all accessible to the people listening, to be certain it touched them, to be certain it made them think and celebrate, to be certain it spoke to their faith.

i am pretty picky.  i don’t like kitschy.  i don’t like trite endings.  i don’t like certain chord progressions.  i don’t like when songs, in an inane effort to be interesting, modulate up in key (the kind of modulation where you expect bubbles to be released into the air).   i don’t like certain kinds of lyrics or songs that are preachy.  i don’t like songs that imply elitism in any way, including any kind of religious denominational dominance.

i have reviewed a zillion cantatas through the years.  (a cantata for a church is a combination of narrative and song, telling a story, embracing a theme, usually anywhere from 30-60 minutes in length.  the more traditional cantatas are oftentimes stunningly beautiful but are difficult for volunteer choirs to sing and, frankly, for congregations to sit through.)  many more recent cantatas are like buying a record album…many of the songs are really good but there’s always one or two that are throwaways.  i have revised every cantata i have ever purchased for a choir.  ask any choir director and she/he will tell you that they are revising and improvising on the fly.  if they aren’t, well, i just don’t even know what to say about that.

one year, in particular, back in the late 90’s, i was particularly displeased with the cantata samples i had been sent.  so i sat down one night and started writing my own.  it was the beginning of november and, because we published the actual faxes that went back and forth between me and my producer, you can see that i composed all hours of the day and night and he arranged all hours of the day and night.  i had the choir working on drafts that were printed out in the wee hours of the morning, as we continued arranging and re-arranging.  the pieces pretty much dropped out of the universe to my hands and i loved conducting this cantata THE LIGHT IS HERE! that year and a few more times through the years since, honing the narration and revisiting the language in an attempt to keep it contemporary.  after all, surprisingly, the late 90’s were two decades ago now.

a few nights ago at band practice we were running through the pieces i had selected for this year’s special music schmear (my word instead of ‘cantata’ which is sorely outdated and makes people stay away.)  one song, though well-intended, was just plain wrong.  so i pulled it out.

the next day i reached for paper and a pencil and wrote a new song for that slot.  it’s a solo so at least the choir and the ukulele band don’t have to learn it at this late date (although they are used to having to go-with-the-flow).

in my position as a minister of music, it’s not my job to just play any old thing or direct any old piece, dis-regarding how it speaks to the listener, ignoring whether it is accessible, whether its message is relevant or timely, whether it invites someone in.  instead, it’s my job – as i see it – to open listeners’ minds and hearts, to wrap them in music and lyric that resonates, that challenges, that reassures.

someday i will no longer be a minister of music.  i will sit on a mountaintop or at the edge of a lake or on a riverbed and i will listen to the sounds of this beautiful earth in celebration of every season.  i will not be responsible for making sure others feeeeel it.  i will just sit quietly, all the music i could ever need surrounding me.

in the meanwhile, i will be picky.  it’s a curse.  and i guess a blessing, as they say.  picky.

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