Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

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To Travel: A Sonnet

I was a stranger here yet better known
Away from all I thought myself to be—
Away from all routines that made me, me,
I found myself in being severed grown.

Away from all the people I loved best
I found myself in newer company—
I found my soul in this older country
Away from where in strivings I would rest.

I came in laughter ready to enjoy
Yet leave a somewhat sadder, wiser heart—
Yet leave more whole for being torn apart,
I return dyed a deeper shade of joy.

Away I went to see the world’s wide wealth,
I return now, a world within myself.

On Departing

My feet pounding the pavement to the beat
Of poetry that laid the cobbled street,
I feel a shaking sense of bittersweet
For a face I only once did meet

And wind that sings its fingers through my hair
Will not again its subtle secrets share,
Nor will the trees and flowers for me bear
The fruits I’ve come to love with reckless care.

The rhymes that seem to flow from displaced heart
I fear will be stopped-up when I depart.

-Cambridge, July 19, 2018

After a Discussion of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” – a poetic reflection

A stillness falls and dimly-lit,
A bell tolls distantly,
As in this life we numbly sit
For what we cannot see.

The words of grief we hear afresh,
A melody its gloss,
As we seek out our souls ‘neath flesh
Remembered in deep loss.

This room is filled with love-lost ghosts
Of our most private pasts.
We speak but not what we feel most
And calm, though longing lasts.

A heavy hope here drags us high
That “good must come from pain!”
But leave us yet to wonder “Why?”
And slow, revive again.

Still we eat and still we drink,
Though bland without our friend.
Yet passing through, as in a cloud,
We find life in our End.

A Poem Passed-By

That moment gone was but a spot of time
Yet still I yearn towards its eternity,
To find it past yet feel it presently
For such moments are best realized in rhyme.

But somehow this one fails to really be
As full in feeling as it was before;
In that one moment, not a second more,
I find its spirit transcends poetry.

Oft the poet makes his meaning more
And gives a life to what is dead and dust,
Ascribing value, love where there was lust,
In all his writings, common turned to lore.

But this sweet minute cannot come again
And adding meaning’s mass would wear it thin.

A Poem to the Church of St. Edward King and Martyr

The words that lie written beneath our feet,
Titles of saints, these graves in graven stones,
The echoes of reformers’ gracious tones
Which once and still all sinners here would meet.

And still these words evoke fascination
Of both pilgrim and poet’s seeking hearts,
Quickening with the spirit each their arts,
Knowledge grown into Imagination.

And as the lighted panes of color sink,
The sun behind their beauty surely must
Rise as the divine out of the dust,
Drawing all to come and deeply drink.

Great voyages were here put out to sea
And brought by mercy’s gift more safely back,
Lifted, purged and saved by utter wreck
Foretold in written art-turned-prophecy.

Come feel the place preparéd by the Word,
Too vast, too true for human reason’s reach.
Though past, the sermons said yet seem to preach;
Freeing the soul to pray and thus be cured.

-Cambridge, July 2nd, 2018

Little Elegy

Walking through Cambridge, inspiration is difficult to avoid. My apologies to those on the sidewalk who had to go around me as I stopped to give this poor bird a proper elegy.

“His eye is on the sparrow,” so ’tis sung
But ‘neath some foot or wheel its feathers flung-
Poor claws curled up in pain all that remain
Of this, the least of these, abandoned-slain.

The serpent struck, his head then doomed to crush,
Yet somehow just this little life- this thrush-
Drops down, his sun-stripe yellow turned to grey,
And he who flew now falls into decay.

Though sorrowful surrender stills his wings,
Another takes his tune and still he sings.

*(Poetic disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of AABBCC… but this the rhyme scheme that happened and it somehow seems fitting.)