Friday, September 9, 2016

Notes on "Light Comes, Even in Darkness" - a new choral piece by Becky Archibald

The opening 20 bars were conceived while riding a stationary bike in my basement…

When it comes to lyrics, I like to step away from my piano sometimes and sing into my tape recorder to help capture my gut reaction, especially when it comes to rhythm. Glenna Heath, who commissioned the piece, had sent me some suggestions of favorite verses in Psalms that I was considering, so I went downstairs to do something that sort of distracted me from trying too hard to be musical and allowed me to just react. We had discussed Taize music, how it repeated, sometimes in round, and could slowly build by adding each line of voices. When I thought about words that I would want to repeat in song, “Light comes, even in darkness” resonated with me as something I needed to tell myself OFTEN.

As I meditated on these words, I thought about all of the good things that happen in darkness – seeds growing in earth, cocoons, the womb. I thought about how darkness to light is not instant, it is often a very slow, gradual process. I wanted the opening to convey this by repetition of just the word “light,” even before repeating the phrase “light comes.” I used word painting when it was fitting, such as the ascending notes at the beginning on “light comes” and the falling notes at ms. 77 on the phrase “in the dark…”

For the “New every morning” section, I distinctly remember writing the accompaniment pattern and chords at ms. 30, and then wondering how to treat it lyrically and melodically. I have had much more success having words first and then music, so it was a big challenge to try it the opposite way. Thankfully, the prayer of the Thanksgiving in the Methodist Hymnal came to me as being a possible fit. I like that the notes on “new every morning” are gradual and step-wise and the chords on the words “stir up in us” are more dissonant.

More word painting – notice that the chord of ms. 57 is darker sounding (even in darkness) than the one at ms. 65 (every morning.) Also, some of the “big moments” of the piece are on the word “light” and, just for the Joyful Sound choir, on the word “joy!”

The final section at ms. 91 is another mix of darkness and light. Although the key is D minor, if you listen closely to the harmonies in the piano and voices, each chord is a major chord. I wanted this section to sound celebratory and to have another opportunity to build toward a high point. The women sing first, the men join on the repeat, and the third time, each voice is lifted higher “simply” by swapping parts. And just when you thought I was done with this “growth” concept, I give it a go one more time using a variation of the “new every morning” motive but with an ascending scale. And for the last word - I wanted it to be about newness rather than darkness. I wanted the basses to end on a high note, not resolving to the D but singing something that felt more like it is left up in the air.

Here is the world premiere, by the Joyful Sound choir, directed by Charles Manning, at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The piece was commissioned for the choir's 20th anniversary.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Miracle on 57th Street

If I could have written what I was feeling in the moment on Sunday, May 7, 2006 at 2:00 p.m. on stage at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, it would have been “miraculously calm, relaxed, warm, happy and good.” It could only have been a miracle that brought me to that place, because the night before I was suffering from a severe head cold, runny nose, chills, sore throat, aching sinuses—you name it, I felt it.

I ended my evening early, filled up on Nyquil, Ibuprofen, and Cold-eze, and prepared for a good night’s sleep. But sleep did not come. Every hour, I looked at the clock and saw that another hour had passed. I wasn’t alert with worry about the day ahead of me, I was just miserable and couldn’t rest. I finally dozed off at 7:30 a.m., but woke up 45 minutes later because I was thirsty and starving. Alan, Delaney and I left Taylor sleeping and walked in the cold to the nearest diner. I went back alone to take a long, hot bath, and then it was show time. I dressed in my warmest clothes, packed my long black dress, shoes, programs, and everything else I needed for the concert, and stubbornly walked 10 blocks to get to Carnegie Hall.

Mom met me outside their hotel (just across the street from CH) and we headed for the stage door entrance. Celia, the assistant for the afternoon, led me to my dressing room (very nice and clean, with comfy chairs and a Steinway upright in the corner) and said she’d be back to let me on stage to warm up. Alan, his mom, and the kids arrived shortly after, and there was a mad rush to get everything in place—programs, Will Call tickets, CDs in reception area. I changed, put some extra makeup on for Henry (my hairdresser, whose advice to me was, “when you think you have enough makeup on, put on a little extra, just for me”) and came out on stage. I only had time to stretch my fingers a little, and then it was time for photos. While I was strutting and posing, I saw Jill, my sister-in-law, and did a double take. What is she doing here? And then more friends, Jackie, Mary Jane and Diedre. I got so choked up. They had been planning this surprise for months.

People were already starting to take their seats (it was well after 1:30) so I went back to the dressing room to wait. More makeup. Check hair. Go to the bathroom again. Wipe nose again. Check makeup again.

The stage manager, Dennis, set a music stand behind the piano for hiding a box of Kleenex in case I sneezed during the concert. The last thing I wanted was to play not so well and have people say, “well, she wasn’t at her best, but she was sick. I’m sure she was stressed out.”

Celia gave me the 5 minute call. 1:55 p.m. I didn’t feel sick. My nose wasn’t running. I wasn’t hot or cold—I felt just right. So many people said they would be thinking of me and pulling for me at this time, but I didn’t know the effect it would have on me. I reminded myself to let the words I chose for each piece put me in the right mood. (For “From Mozart to Me” it was “elegant”; for “Softly Spoken”—intense; “Rocktober”—rebellious.) And then it was time to go on.

I saw friends and family in the audience, and was so happy that they came. I saw strangers, which was a good thing. I looked for the seat that the reviewer I had been corresponding with (my Guffman) would have sat in. But it was empty. I smiled, bowed, sat and played.

It wasn’t a fog, but it did go by fast. I played 9 numbers, separated by stories about the music. The sound and the piano were such a relief to me. Rather than fighting and compensating for bad sounds, I could relax in the great sound that the piano made, and the wonderful acoustics. I could play so quietly and still be heard. I could play thunderously and it was still warm. Then it was 2:50 and time for intermission.

Whisked back on stage at 3:00, I finished out the program, playing eight more songs, and just feeling great. I played some pieces better than I had ever played them before. When it was time for “Adieu,” I was genuinely sad that it was over. I’m not ready to stop! I went off stage, and when I went back on, the audience was standing and applauding. I played “Searching” for an encore, and then it was over.

It wasn’t until we were on our way to Little Italy for dinner that the cold symptoms reappeared. I couldn’t taste my wonderful dinner very well, but my satisfaction in the performance left me full and warm.

By the way, my dad (who rarely misses a concert) said it was the best he had ever heard me play.

--Becky Archibald
(written May 10, 2006)

Thursday, May 5, 2016

I’ll Have What She’s Having

A few months ago, the parent of a former student asked if I could see her daughter (who was now a college freshman) over the summer. “She really misses you,” said the mom. “She’s had a bad experience with her piano teacher at school. Her teacher won’t allow her to put any expression into the music until she has mastered all the notes.”

Being a person interested in world peace, I restrained myself from driving several hours, hunting down that professor and choking her. I had worked so hard with this beautiful young girl, who came to me when she was maybe 15, to help her learn how to interpret and feel and express herself. It was wonderful watching her evolve from the passive (“tell me what to do”) to someone who brought her own ideas to the piano bench.

When “Kaitlin” stopped by for her first summer lesson, she played a Chopin Waltz she had been working on at school. There are a few rules I impose on myself as a teacher: 1) Never interrupt a student’s first performance at the lesson, and 2) Always say something positive after the performance. So after listening, I held back from mentioning that I felt she played the piece as if she could care less about it. And instead, asked her what she would like to improve on. She said she wanted to understand how to interpret the very beginning.

So now was the time to remember Rule #3: Avoid answering questions – allow the students to find the answers themselves. I held back from sharing what I was thinking and asked her, if the music was in a movie, what would be happening in the scene? What do you picture?

“A bright yellow kitchen, like from back in the 50’s.”

This was not at all the answer I would have given. The beginning is full of angst and loneliness and is in a minor key. Again, I held back and kept probing. At what point does the scene change? When is it different from bright yellow?

She didn’t really know. So we moved on to the next section. I asked her to play the melody, and asked her to describe the mood.

“Very bright and happy and sparkling.”

Is this different than the first theme? Which one is the brightest, Theme 1 or Theme 2? She said, “Theme 2.”

I offered, “Would you consider saving the bright kitchen for Theme 2 and come up with another picture for the Theme 1?”

That, as they say, struck a chord with her. And then an idea came to me that was so exciting it gave me chills. This time, I couldn’t hold myself back. “What if the beginning is a memory of the bright yellow kitchen, a memory of how lively and happy things used to be in that room?”

I think one reason this excited me so much is that the idea came out of our collaboration. At first, I didn’t see a bright yellow kitchen at all. But Kaitlin did, so I listened to her and worked with her to understand what she meant. When the “memory of the kitchen” idea hit me, it gave me chills because it made me realize she was right. The beginning has this interesting mix of sadness and brightness which I hadn’t noticed, and both need to be brought out in order to fully interpret the piece.

From there, Kaitlin was much more able to make choices about interpretation. Should I use pedal, she asked? I said something like, “Keep seeing the scene. Do you see it as misty and dreamy? If so, see if the pedal helps. Keep adjusting until you get what you want.” She found that light pedaling on beat 1 and fluttering throughout the measure was helping her achieve the appropriate sound.

Perhaps my rule #4 as a teacher is: Remind yourself to keep discovering. I had to allow myself to not know all the answers. I had to wait for the student to find things on her own. I’ve learned to be ok with that, especially after experiencing the rewards that patience can bring.

The middle-school-aged student that followed Kaitlin arrived early, so she watched the last 10 minutes of the lesson. When it was her turn, Annie said, “I want to play what she’s playing.” I look forward to hearing how both girls interpret the piece in their own way.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Extravagance – Art, Clothing, Music?

I wasn’t expecting to be moved by a hat made in Africa topped with a 4-ft long crocodile carved entirely out of wood, I was just trying to extend our stay at the IMA since it was frigidly cold and Delaney needed more exercise…

At first, I was thinking, how could anyone wear something so cumbersome? Why would they spend so much time shaping and carving, making the crocodile look so true to life? I moved on to the ornate bowls made of brass and wood, and rings with 2-inch-long pointy stones that you wouldn’t want to see on the finger of someone’s hand you were about to shake. And then I came upon the pièce de résistance – a mask/headpiece/hat with probably a dozen hand-carved figures atop, each being around 8 inches long and highly detailed. I was astounded and confused…why would anyone make this or wear it?

Our next stop was Contemporary Design, featuring sleek chairs and couches, sleeker bowls and vases. After a few steps in this space, I had a greater appreciation for the exhibit we had just left. The glare from the shiny, sparse objects was hurting my eyes and even making me angry. We got outta there quickly, found a bench in the sun and sat for a while to process what had just happened. There was something about the extravagance of the African art that affected me in a surprising way. A bowl, a ring, a spoon, a comb – not just functional but things someone spent time with, worked over, infused with spirit and life.

When I was in my 40’s, my go to outfit was a simple black t-shirt and khakis, and if I needed to dress up, I wore a black dress. But my friends in their 50’s were wearing colorful, flowery clothes and carrying ornate purses. They made me smile, I thought it worked for them, it just wasn’t for me. I do see a transition, though, now that I’m…catching up a little...

On Facebook, the thing to do lately is to post an old photo on Thursdays. As I was rummaging through pictures, I noticed a pattern in my CD covers over the years. They have gone from black to color, from shy to bolder. My 1st cover was in b & w, wearing a black dress, my arm artfully covering my body, with one bare foot exposed. The next was a step up, sepia-toned (but wearing black and covering myself, my hands clasped together.) The 3rd shows half of my face, the rest of me hiding in a closet, and in the 4th I’m halfway hidden in a fireplace. CD #5 you can see all of me, but it’s a caricature. My newest one, released last year, is the boldest ever – my arms are free, I’m fully extended like a dancer, I’m jumping in the air, I’m smiling, there are flowers and color everywhere (and I’m in France!) (Interesting, I had just turned 50 when we did the shoot.)

I’m wondering how these realizations about extravagance can play into my music. How can I enhance this? What bold steps do I need to take? What are some ridiculously extravagant musical projects I could undertake?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Notes on “Dos Para Dos,” suite for Violin and Piano, by Becky Archibald

I. Melaza en Enero (Molasses in January)
Melaza en Enero is, well, slow, sultry, sweet and syrupy (but in a good way.) Looking back through the piece, I am surprised at the complexity on paper of something that (to me) goes down so smooth. The opening 32 bars (constructed from four 8-bar phrases of varying chord progressions in various keys) have more of a melodic plan while the next section (starting with solo piano and utilizing the same chord progressions) is based on improvisation. This piece is another stop along the way of my search for freedom through jazz.

II. con jamón (with ham)
It started with a memory of something embarrassing that happened to me during a jam session in an 800-year-old castle in France…
It was 3 a.m., the usual time the group of international jazz students came together to jam, and my first time to participate. I didn’t know the protocol – it seemed like everyone was just playing randomly. When there was a pause, someone said to me, “Start me a groove.” New to jazz, I didn’t know what he meant, so I started improvising, looking for something cool and groovy. He gave me a disappointed, almost angry look and said, “No, start me a groove!” This was not the kind of environment for a “lesson,” there was not a place to step aside and have him teach me. I just kept trying and failing. Finally, I was saved by a guitarist who “started the groove” properly.

There is much more to tell but it needs to be kept a surprise!

Ascending, the violin/piano duo who commissioned these pieces, asked for something funny, so first I worked on funny, then racked my brain for a title. Towards the end, as I was writing a suggestion to “Ham it up!” in the score, I thought, hmmmm, this just might work…)

Watch for a youtube video soon of their January 9 premiere in NY!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


I wrote this a couple of months ago when I was feeling sorry for myself about who knows what, and decided to see if I could switch my thinking by writing about how lucky I am...

I am thankful for the piano that sits in my living room. Almost every piece of music I have written was at that thing. Over the past 20 years, so many kids (and adults) have touched it and made their own music.

It is the best toy in the world. It represents opportunity. It invites me to play and explore. It represents past, present and future. Songs can be coaxed out of it that remind us of our past, and worlds that have never been created before can be found by sitting and dreaming and pushing the keys.

I often want to “upgrade” to something bigger, blacker, brighter and shinier. But parting with it might be a little scary. What if I can’t write as well on something new?

I am thankful that I continue to be drawn, magnetized to this big plaything. And just when I think all the ideas are already thought of, a new one comes to me, just because I took time out of my day to play.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Just Listen

I write stories to remind myself of moments when I did the right thing as a teacher, so (hopefully) I won’t blow it the next time.

Working with a 9-year-old at his piano lesson, I flipped through his book to find the next song to learn, while he poked around at the keys, letting his fingers land wherever they wanted. Playing two notes in each hand, he hit upon a very cool chord and began playing an interesting and complex rhythm, trading off between his hands. He kept it up for quite a while, with me still turning pages and thinking about what I should “teach” him. When I found a good song, I asked if he would like to hear me play it. I noticed that as I played, he wasn’t really listening. (Wow, that's never happened before!!) He was busy tapping his legs with the same rhythm he discovered earlier (obviously because he didn’t want to forget it.) Luckily, I stopped what I was doing, and had him play his idea again. "Can you teach it to me?" I asked. It was quite difficult for being basically a two-measure pattern, but he patiently stayed with me, breaking it down so I would understand it better.

When I finally had it down, I suggested he record himself playing, so that he could play along and come up with a melody over the rhythm. To demonstrate, I got him going on his rhythm again and I improvised with him, high on the keyboard. This went on pretty much until the end of the lesson – we were having so much fun. When his fingers finally tuckered out, I thanked him for teaching me his pattern, and said, “We made music today.” And he agreed.