Tag Archives: Music

Music & Previews of Coming Attractions


Bells ring in Chapel of Mercy–two members of MMU Hand Bell Ensemble.

Tonight was a combination event that had all kinds of interesting ingredients, like a fusion restaurant.

This is “Mercy & Mission Week” at Mount Mercy University, and events this week are meant to remind us of and tie us with our heritage as an institution founded by the Sisters of Mercy. And tonight there was a “Poems, Promises, Music & Immigrant Stories” event in the Chapel of Mercy which was both a Mercy Week event and listed as part of our Fall Faculty Series.

It was an interesting show. Music was provided by the MMU Hand Bell Ensemble—which was nice to hear, although it’s too bad I’ve had to give up my participation in that crew. Miss you ringers, you sounded great!

There was also Jonny Lipford, who plays and teaches the music of various wooden native-style flutes. Several of them were two-in-one or three-in-one instruments—meaning flutes with more than one body—which means he harmonized with himself and sounded like a flute group.

The local choir Ingenzi, made up of Africans from various countries performing in their native languages, was pretty amazing—and harmonizing—too. They had some trouble finding the Chapel of Mercy, and thus ended up being the final act, but it was quite a final act.


Members of Ingenzi, above and below.


And Father Tony Adawu, our MMU resident priest, spontaneously became part of the music, singing an African song and showing us a dance that goes with it.


Fr. Tony and audience dance.

I liked the music, but two speakers really stood out to me. Immigrant stories were shared by Gabriel Hernandez Acosta, a senior who is in his final semester, and Dr. Ayman Amer, our economics professor.

Dr. Amer told several compelling anecdotes—how his neighbors in Cedar Rapids acted instinctively to ensure his family was safe in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, how a wealthy business person in New York City—which he always had seen as the least friendly place on Earth—helped him the first day he was in the U.S., and also of his seeing snow for the first time that day.


Dr. Ayman Amer shares a few stories of coming to America from Egypt.

Snow! That story touched me personally. Dr. Amer described it as looking magical that first day in January in New York City. His story took me back to when I was a boy and our family moved from California to Iowa. Snow, if you had only seen it on TV, was indeed a magical and strange thing to actually see falling from the sky for the first time. (We moved in August, so it was a few months before I saw snow—but it still made quite an impression on me.)

Anyway, I think the whole night was most highlighted by Gabriel Hernandez Acosta, who told of his illegal journey to the U.S. as a 6-year-old. His story was well-told. It went well with the art he displayed, and both he and Dr. Amer are scheduled to speak again later as part of our fall series.


Gabriel Hernandez Acosta–speaker and also events staff for tonight’s presentation.

Hernandez Acosta will be a key speaker at the Oct. 15 “Our Immigrant Stories: Coming to Cedar Rapids and Mount Mercy,” a special community day that will feature multiple presentations. He will be a highlight of one of the highlights of our whole series, and hearing him tonight, he’s fully capable of pulling that off.

image-of-logo-colorDr. Amer will speak Nov. 15 on “The Dollars and Sense of It: What Immigration Does to our Economy.” He will also, as part of that presentation, share part of his personal story. And by the preview tonight, he has quite a few personal anecdotes to share.

About 70 people attended the concert tonight—a good turnout. I hope you were there—but if not, come to hear two of tonight’s speakers on Oct. 15 and Nov. 15. And check out all of the other events in our Fall Faculty Series.

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Making Music in the Dark


Clarinet player, with the help of a cell phone buddy, gets ready to play.

The Boss sang about dancing in the dark, but he ever said anything about ringing in the dark.

Friday, May 6—the MMU Handbell Ensemble begins it’s “M&M Scholars” concert at Meth Wick retirement home in Cedar Rapids.

I felt lucky to be there—I only go to Meth Wick once a year, which means I don’t have much of a memory of where it is. I printed off a Google map before leaving campus, but sadly, the map only really shows the shape of the route—since I didn’t print it large enough to show street names, that left a lot of guesswork up to me.

Still, I rode my bike across the Five-in-One Bridge (not a place I would usually ride, but fortunately in early afternoon traffic was very light), turned right, and guessed about what street to turn left on.

It was a lucky guess. I ended up at an unfamiliar school, with a hill looming behind it. There were buildings on the hill, and I thought to myself “that looks like to could be Meth Wick.” It was.

And so I thought the big adventure of the concert was over.

We didn’t have a warm-up time, so when 2 p.m. came, we just rang. And I did ring on most songs, although the arrangement we have of “Ode to Joy” gives me fits of panic, and I haven’t made it through that song yet.

Anyway, the first four or so songs went by, and then it was solo time. First our flute player played a nice tune, accompanied by our director on piano—Carolyn accompanied all of our solos, which makes me rethink the meaning of the word “solo,” but there you have it.

Anyway, David stood up and began to ring “It’s a Small World.” It’s a very familiar tune that some consider an earworm, and maybe the universe was sending us a message.

Because right in the middle of the song, the lights suddenly went out.

Though plunged into instant darkness, David proved he knew his part well because he just kept right on playing.


Remember “That Think You Do?” “Darkness falls ….” Playing like Mr. Downtown.

The darkness was not total-there were no windows in the meeting room we were in, but the doors had panes of glass and opened onto a foyer with many windows.

We waited a bit after David was done, wondering if the show would go on. Then, although the light was dim, the next soloist opined that she could probably see well enough to play.

Cell phones were pulled out for the soloists and Carolyn, and clarinet and piano made pretty music.

By the end of that final solo, nursing home staff were bringing in rather bright camping lanterns. The bell ensemble spent a few minutes arranging, and then we were ready, too.

We were ringing, not exactly in the dark, but closer to it than we usually ring.

And we ended up with a much better story than the “I thought I was lost but I was mistaken” biker story.

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Your Thursday Morning Earworm Courtesty of MMU

It may look like a Barbarian or possibly a Viking warrior in the chapel, but it’s just David, a member of the MMU Handbell Ensemble, providing you, for free, with your morning earworm. You’re welcome:

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I Can Almost Play Just One Song


Detail of piano in our basement. It dates from about 1973 or so. My kids very briefly took lessons using this piano, and now it’s my practice piano.

Music update: I started piano lessons in March, studying with Mount Mercy’s own Tony Nickle.

How is it going? Well, I know very little about music, so for the first month I was pretty much just learning notes. Can’t say I can read them instantly—I probably need to go online and practice more—but I can figure them out.

Ebony and ivory together.

Ebony and ivory together.

Next came learning where the notes are on the piano keyboard. Tony said that would be easier than learning the notes on the musical staffs, and I guess he’s right.

Finally, I started practicing playing. I’ve played a total of three tunes so far, rather badly and slowly. The first two didn’t really sound like music to me, but Tony assured me I was making progress. Now, on tune number three, while it’s getting to be a bit of an earworm by now (I’ve been on it for about a month), it does at least sound a bit like music to my ears. I’ll post a sample. You’ll be underwhelmed. Trust me, it’s progress.

Frankly, I’m not displeased at all. It took me a long time to learn just G and A in the bass clef for my bell choir, so the slow pace of learning—while not what I would like—is not a surprise. And I don’t have hours to practice. I thought I would practice more when summer came, but so far summer has been passing in a busy haze.

Still, I can read music, a bit. I understand the notes, a little. I can’t read fast enough to play well, I hesitate a lot, but I’m learning something new.

And my mother’s piano, which was purchased in the early 1970s when we lived in the rental house on Kindler Avenue, and which was damaged in a move and also went through the fire in the Third Street house, is making music again. Sort of.

Give me time.

I don’t have any ambitions in taking piano lessons, other than self enrichment. My wife suggested I do it because she thought it would help me in the bell ensemble, and I suppose she’s right.

So far so good. I don’t exactly have the music in me yet, but I’m trying.

On the topic of music, here is a highlights video of the MMU bell choir at the hooding ceremony in May. I had to run up to the camera, start it, and run back to my place, and sadly no one was there to pan, so you don’t even see the full choir. For me, I enjoy the video because I don’t actually hear what we sound like when I’m playing—my own bells are too loud and drown out the tune.

I think we sound nice. Much better than a very novice student piano player, wouldn’t you agree?

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Dim Memories From The ‘Erie Canal’ Era

You know what?

I’ve got an old mule, and as fate would have it, her name is Sal. She’s a good old worker, and a good old pal.

Besides that disjointed snatch of lyrics, I think the 1890s hit “Daisy Bell,” about the bicycle built for two, comes close to being the total of my elementary school musical background.

I didn’t do band or sing in the choir in my youthful academic days, and I only took up my first musical instrument (the G and A handbells in the bass clef) very recently, as in, I was already north of 50. But, I’ve been exchanging some e-mails with the piano teacher at MMU. As I noted in my blog earlier, I plan to start piano lessons this year. Well, it looks like it will happen.

The tentative launch date is early March–I could begin in February, but with a new semester and the ICMA convention, I just though maybe March would work better.

In the latest of his e-mails to me, Tony the piano guy asked, in a sort of off-hand, too casual, “God I hope so” way, whether I could read notes in both the treble and bass clefs.

I like the way he phrased the question, as if it would be a given that, of course, I could read oe_to_fne or the other.

That would be “no.” And “no.” I read four notes in the bass clef only: the high G, high A, G flat, A sharp. And I get easily confused about the flats and sharps (or tears and spiders, as I like to think of them) and want to dope slap the genius who decided flats and sharps aren’t confusing enough for aging musical novices: “Lets give each of thosegbdfe notes two names. Bwa Ha Ha Ha!”

Anyway, I honestly answered back that I only read two notes. He hasn’t responded to that piece of cheery news. But some ancient memory from the Erie Canal era bubbled to the surface, and I came face to face with FACE. And was a good enough boy to recall that Every Good Boy Does Fine. In other words, I recall mnemonic devices learned, for some reason, in elementary school music class. FACEface, read from down to up, are the space notes in the treble clef. EGBDF—Every Good Boy Does Fine—are the notes on the lines, bottom to top.

Recalling that ancient bit of lore, that merry musical mnemonic trick from 4th grade, doesn’t mean that I read music, but at least I have a starting point to jiggle my neurons in the treble region. The irony is that the only musical notes I truly do read now are upper G and A in the bass zone.

There, in the bass, the notes are AECG for spaces and GBDFA for lines.aceg

What do I try as a mnemonic to recall the bass clef notes? “An Egg Creates Gas?” “All Elephants Cry Gaily?” “Asphalt Extracts Concrete Governments?” What about the lines? “Gall Bladders Dogbdfan’t Fart Aromas?” “Good Bouncers Do Fight Anytime?” “Great Buddies Deny Feverish Antiquity?”

Help me out, blog pals. If you, unlike me, went beyond Erie Canal in your musical education, how did you remember what all those quick dots on the bass lines and spaces mean? March will be coming soon, and I have a sneakig_to_ang suspicion that learning the notes might be an early part of this whole piano thingy.


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Music Made By Human Hands

hand1 hand2 hand3 hand4

When I was a little discouraged after a recent handbell workshop, my sister posted wrote that I should stay in the handbell choir because “music is good for the soul.” I’m sure she’s right and I’m pretty certain to keep ringing.

Anyway, the MMU spring concert was Wednesday night. The handbell ensemble got to perform two songs, the choir sang, the band played and there were a number of solo performances.

I enjoyed myself. As I sat there listening to others perform, I was also thinking about hands.

Singers used their voices and many of the instruments were powered by human breath, but kept in time with a conductor’s hands. The piano was in frequent use, a percussion instrument that is played hands down. I rang bells and chimes in my hands.

I don’t totally understand music—in fact, to be honest, it’s an area of human endeavor where I am woefully undereducated. But music is like language. Although it exists in nature, in the songs of whales or birds, it is still a singularly human activity—with our hands we’ve made it an interesting non-verbal way of communication, which somehow makes it fascinating for a language guy.

The dexterity of hands, their rhythmic timing, the sounds they make—they filled the Chapel of Mercy with beautiful noise Wednesday night. Granted, voices were engaged too. But for some reason I was caught up in the hands.

I don’t know why. It’s, a music thing, I suppose. Which to me makes it part of a delicious mystery. Is that part of the reason why it’s good for my soul?

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A Look At Me Playing Handbells

This video made me smile, and I needed that.

I attended a handbell workshop on Saturday, and it was a bit rough. A large group of more than 50 ringers were rehearsing four selections for a late afternoon concert, and it didn’t go well for me.

There were too many eighth notes, odd tempos and bell changes for me to keep up with. I quickly got lost in every song. The gentleman to my right kindly offered to share music in a vain attempt to keep me on tempo, but the songs were too challenging for me, and even with his help, I pretty much just stood there, listening to others play, feeling, if truth be told, pretty miserable.

It made me reconsider whether I even want to continue playing hand bells. Probably not the result that MMU had it mind when Campus Ministry sponsored me for the workshop.

Well, today I felt a bit better. I decided I could cut down to one rehearsal a week, and see if that lowered my stress. And I recalled that the most challenging song we’ve played this year we already played at the Holocaust Memorial, and I don’t have to deal with it again for now.

Also, the video helped me feel a bit better today. Will I continue to ring in the future? Right now, I’m honestly not sure. This was supposed to be my easier semester, compared with fall, but what with one thing and another I feel totally swamped right now.

Again, little of the stress has to do with the bell choir, but I have to figure out where to cut stress where I can. I was thrilled to have Amanda and her family come visit for a few weeks, but evening and weekend grading time was truncated during that visit, and this weekend I spent all day Saturday at a workshop, then ended up with family commitments all day Sunday. It’s coming on to Sunday evening and the new school week is ready to dawn, and I don’t have enough hours in the day.

Come to think of it—I guess that’s probably exactly how my students feel.

Anyway, I decided that quitting the bell choir in the wake of one discourating workshop would be a bit unfair to the group. So I will cut down to one practice a week and see where that leads. And the video is nice. I may feel totally clumsy in the music world, but with enough practice I can play a little.


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