Katelyn Holub

blogging about music, art, and creativity


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What Makes a Life Significant?

Lately I’ve been doing some self-reflection. This in-between time, this time after graduate school but before a career, has made me pause and wonder about how I can lead a life that matters. In the coming months, I will have to make important decisions on where I will live and what I will do. During my senior year of college I was required to take a seminar on discerning a vocation, and luckily I saved my anthology of texts.

*Photo Credit: Chris, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Chris, Creative Commons

This week, I pulled out the old anthology and read an essay by William James, a famous American psychologist and brother of the well-known author Henry James. In his essay “What makes a life significant?” James proposes that a significant life is obtainable by anyone, not just reserved for a few heroes every couple of centuries. Anyone, regardless of age, class, or education, can live a significant life.

For James, leading a significant life requires two things: (1) a person must have a conscious ideal that he strives to achieve, and (2) he must activate virtues in an effort to reach his ideals. Such activation of virtues can be thought of as “dirt or scars contracted in the attempt to get [the ideals] realized,” according to James.

In other words, a life’s significance is in the struggle.

I have to admit, this idea is intriguing. Rather than significance having something to do with making a genuine vital difference on a large scale, I think it is much more accurate to say that significance is a way of life.

*Photo Credit: Jiashiang, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Jiashiang, Creative Commons

To have any consequence, to make a difference, to have significance, means being dynamic, not static.

 

It means

Trying

Doing

Failing, but

Not giving up.

 

And where does art fit into the significant life?

Making art can help us and others to persevere through the struggle. Art can serve as a guide, a teacher of important themes or lessons learned during a struggle.

The act of creating art can inspire us to continue through the struggle. It can also serve as inspiration for others who are at certain points in their own lives.

 

What do you think? What makes a life significant?

 


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Song Recommendation 004—“King and Cross” by Ásgeir

Pack your bags because today we are headed to Iceland. Rising Icelandic singer-songwriter Ásgeir has been captivating me this week with his beautiful and soaring melodies, warm voice, and poetic lyrics.

*Photo Credit: Bryan Pocius, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Bryan Pocius, Creative Commons

I especially like “King and Cross,” which is the English translation of his best-selling Icelandic single “Leyndarmál,” and calls for a head bob and toe-tap from the listener. Beginning softly with warm acoustic guitar chords, the song slowly builds into a tight jazzy pop-synth groove as layers of smooth vocals carry the melody forward and electronic percussion set out a tight beat. Juxtaposed with the cool jazz-pop groove of the song is the song’s darker lyrical theme exploring the underlying tension between what things seem like on the surface and what emotions, stories, or secrets lurk underneath.

Go ahead, press play and travel off to Iceland for a few minutes today.   Enjoy!

Visit Ásgeir’s website here.

P.S. For a completely different experience, listen to him singing an Icelandic hymn in a flash choir mob at a train station here.

 


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Getting Past Creativity Roadblocks

I sat at my piano last week in the glow of the afternoon composing the second half of another ragtime tune. I felt like I was fully alive, soaring in the wind. I could see the lives of imaginary characters coming to life under the backdrop of my song, and was completely immersed in my fictional ragtime world. You see, regardless of whether I’m composing, performing, or listening to music, it sweeps me off into another world where I watch a unique story unfold.

Music makes me feel whole. At peace in the world. And last week at the piano, I experienced that unmistakably beautiful feeling again as I worked through a new section of my ragtime piece, putting an end to a season of creativity obstacles and unproductivity.

For a while it felt like my creativity was gone, like maybe I had used up my creativity allotment in life. I would sit down at the piano and try to compose, but nothing would come. I was uninspired. I started doubting myself and my abilities, slowly building up pressure and stress to the point of being frozen by fear.

*Photo Credit: Doug Geisler, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Doug Geisler, Creative Commons

After rediscovering my creativity during last week’s ragtime escape, I’ve been reflecting on my creativity roadblocks, trying to figure out where they originate from and how I can get past them in the future.

Why does a once-enjoyable act of creating art turn into a burden?

Most of my creativity roadblocks can be traced to my tendency to strive for perfection. While perfectionism can be helpful in small doses, too much can quash any artist’s creative endeavors. Even though I don’t compose to make money or to get famous, I still feel the desire to make all my work really good (at least to my ears), so when I don’t think I’m living up to that goal I get frustrated. The frustration just reinforces the roadblock by keeping me from even trying to be creative.

 

*Photo Credit: Kelly Rowland, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Kelly Rowland, Creative Commons

How can we get past our creativity roadblocks?

  • One way is to make ourselves vulnerable as artists. Sometimes we need to grow as an individual before we are ready to create again. There may be certain lessons we need to learn first to better understand our self and our world and to bring us to a state of vulnerability in which we are open to inspiration.
  • Create. Just give it a try. We can do ourselves a big favor too by not worrying about whether we’ll be able to write or paint again. Don’t beat yourself up if everything you create isn’t great or your favorite—that’s setting the stakes too high. Great artists create lots of not-so-good works amidst their really great works (they just usually don’t tell you about the not-so-good works).
  • Be patient as you learn and grow as an artist. Many authors of bestsellers admit they experience creativity roadblocks when they set out to write their next book, fearing it could be a total flop and ruin their career. Growing means change, and so as you grow in your art some of the changes will be not-so-good, but some changes will be great and worth the wait.

Have you ever experienced your own creativity roadblocks? How do you get past them?


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My Miracle Mountain

It’s been a bit of an overwhelming week for me. In the midst of it all I’ve been reminded of what really matters in life. The One who gives meaning to us all and loves us more than we’ll ever know. My thoughts this week have led me to remember something that happened to me a few years ago that has had a profound impact on my life. Something that continues to inspire my creative soul, and I hope it will yours.

*Photo Credit: Deidre Woollard, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Deidre Woollard, Creative Commons

I experienced a miracle on a mountain.  Two women—Opal and Adelaide, left an indelible mark on my soul of what it means to love.  Their kindness and hospitality will never be forgotten, and I hope someday to show that same love and kindness to someone else.

It all began on a hot, humid day in western North Carolina, near the Smoky Mountains.  I was driving up a rural, winding country road trying to find the location of a friend’s wedding that would take place the following day at a stable.  After inputting my destination into my GPS, I followed a series of turns that led me up a mountain, passing a few homes nestled on the side of the wooded mountain.  I had been driving up the mountain for about five minutes at the respectable rate of 25 mph in order to handle the sharp curves when all of a sudden my car broke down and steam came pouring from the hood.

Luckily, I was on a road that had a shoulder I could pull off onto—not!  I had stopped right around a sharp curve with no way to get over or to warn people who might come up around the curve that I was stopped.  Oh well, I thought.  I hadn’t seen any traffic on the road so far, so I figured my chances were pretty good that nobody would be coming around the bend anytime soon, except maybe one of the few residents who lived on this mountain.

Panic started setting in a few minutes later when I realized that I had no idea where I was in order to call for help to come.  It turned out not to be a problem because my cell phone had no reception on the mountain.  Yep.  I was stranded, lost, and had no way of calling for help.  I felt like I was on an episode of 24, except I didn’t feel as cool as Jack Bauer.

After a few moments of panicking, an SUV with an old “John 3:16” bumper sticker rounded the bend behind me and a woman named Opal, asked if I needed help.  It turned out that she lived farther on up the mountain road but knew a neighbor who lived a few yards from where I was.  She took me to the neighbor’s house where an extremely hospitable and kind grandmotherly woman named Adelaide let me come in and use her phone to call for a tow truck.

It took several hours that afternoon to finally get a tow truck, but in those hours I witnessed a generous love poured out on me, a complete stranger, by two women who flipped through three phonebooks and made several calls for me trying to find help.   I can still hear Opal’s voice repeating over the phone, “We got a young lady who’s car broke down over here at Adelaide W——‘s house.  Do you think you could send a wrecker out today?”  I’m sure Opal had plans for her afternoon, but she put them all aside to help me.  Unselfishly.

Adelaide was in the process of making an apple pie when I showed up at her doorstep, but that didn’t matter to her. She welcomed me into her home that afternoon and told me to make myself comfortable on her couch. Waiting for the tow truck, we all talked about our families as if we knew each other well—we actually found out we had an Indiana connection.

*Photo Credit: David Leggett, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: David Leggett, Creative Commons

During this time, I couldn’t help but notice how my feelings of panic and fear melted in the warmth of two strangers’ love.  Both women repeated how they wished they could help me as we sat waiting for the tow truck to arrive.  They didn’t understand how much they had helped me.  Not only did they help me out of my difficult situation, but they helped me realize what it means to share loving-kindness, and to extend extravagant hospitality.

All that they did for a complete stranger.  And I am forever grateful.

 


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Why Does Music Move Us?

Starting in sixth grade, my piano teacher would have me pick out a piece to study and perform at state solo and ensemble contest. One year in high school, I prepared Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune, and it remains one of the most captivating piano works I have ever heard. It is one of those pieces of music that gives me goose bumps. Although it is a common piece for many pianists to study, I could never grow tired of its hauntingly beautiful tonal structure and mood.

*Photo Credit: Robert Couse-Baker, Creative Commons

How is it that music can be so mesmerizing and captivating that it can move us to tears or give us the chills? Why does music move us?

I set out to do a little research this week and found out there are a surprisingly large number of people (from disciplines ranging from neuroscience to psychology) who are studying music perception and cognition. There are several institutes dedicated to studying music and brain science, and there are also many academic conferences addressing the cognitive neuroscience of music. Although advances in technology have brought us helpful research tools like functional MRI (fMRI) imaging of the brain, much about musical processing and cognition remains a mystery.

How exactly do we translate sound into music?

The process by which our brains translate sounds into music is quite complex. Millions of neurons work together to transmit sound vibrations from the inner ear to the auditory portions of the brain. Pitch itself is a mental phenomenon, tied uniquely to the frequency of a particular sound wave.

What brain structures are involved in processing & interpreting music?

After sounds are translated into electrical impulses in the brain, we analyze and interpret what we hear through a series of complex interactions between several different areas of the brain. Not only are the auditory areas of the brain active in processing music, but so too are the emotional and social processing areas.

Research has shown that the stronger the connections between the auditory and emotion/social processing areas, the more likely it is that a person will have physical-emotional responses to music (such as getting goose bumps or teary-eyed). The emotional and social processing areas of the brain are also related to the functional memory areas of the brain, which has led some to suggest that differences in personal preferences of music are attributable to the way a person’s memories process and interpret sound.

In addition to these active areas of the brain, the dopamine reward circuitry is also engaged when listening to music, giving music a pleasurable effect similar to eating food and being in love.

The intricate interactions between the perceptive and cognitive functions of the brain along with the memory and emotion parts of the brain somehow drive us to like or dislike music. Based on our life experiences, memories, and the strength of the neural connections between different areas of our brain, we interpret and respond to music uniquely.

My friends having a jam session in the park.

In the end, I still don’t really know why music moves us. Music does a lot for people—gives pleasure, imparts therapeutic healing, provides a universal form of emotional communication across all cultures, and helps define who we are.

Do any specific instances of listening to or performing music stand out to you as being particularly moving?


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How Grieg Influenced Me & Enriched My Love of Music

Finals have ended, I have now graduated, and this week finds me well rested after many an afternoon’s nap in my backyard garden. It has been so nice to take a break from my busy life and just sit and listen to the birds chirping, watch two muskrats find a snack, and smell the flowers in bloom. In the midst of my unpacking and moving some of my stuff, I ran across an old recording of me playing piano from high school.

Intrigued by my new discovery, I promptly put the cd in my stereo and pressed play. Although the recording isn’t the greatest quality, the warm, folk-dance tune of Grieg’s “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” immediately placed me back in time and reminded me of why I fell in love with music.

I fell in love with music because of its magical ability to conjure up feelings and stories in a way no other medium can.

Some people watch movies or television shows to escape reality, but I listen to music. Music transcends time and space and forces me into the present moment. It comforts, consoles, and energizes me. One of the most influential composers in my life is Edvard Grieg, who taught me about the beauty in simplicity, and the wealth of inspiration that can be found in nature and ancestral traditions.

Grieg’s folk-song inspired nationalist music is one of the key reasons I became interested in Appalachian folk music, which I studied more in depth in college. I love how music can bind generations together and create a sense of familial/regional pride.

Grieg at the Piano, circa 1900.

Grieg at the Piano, circa 1900.

I was originally drawn to Grieg’s music by his lyrical melodies and harmonic uses of open-fifths and fourths {which help create the folk music sound}. Much of Grieg’s folk-music inspiration comes from a volume of Norwegian folk songs that he found in 1868.[1] Although he has been criticized for his tendency to think in two- or four-measure phrases, I think his inspiration from the simple structure of folk songs create poetic, winsome melodies.

“I am sure my music has a taste of codfish in it.” –Edvard Grieg

*Photo Credit: Sean Hayford O'Leary, Creative Commons

Troldhaugen.  *Photo Credit: Sean Hayford O’Leary, Creative Commons

The Story Behind “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen”

One of several lyric piano pieces {Op. 65 No. 6}, it was written in 1896 in honor of Grieg’s 25th wedding anniversary to his wife Nina. A happy, festive tune celebrating a wedding dominates the piece and is interspersed with a softer, reflective melody that conjures up pleasant memories of a marriage. Troldhaugen {meaning Troll’s Hill} is the name of the house Grieg built and lived in with his wife Nina. Nestled in the Norwegian countryside, Troldhaugen provided Grieg and his wife a tranquil summer escape after traveling and performing in Europe. During frequent hikes in the surrounding mountains, Grieg would hear and collect folk tunes which inspired several of his compositions.

 

How did you come to love music? Who were some of the most influential composers in your life?

 

 

[1] Thompson, Wendy, and Max Wade-Matthews, The Encyclopedia of Music: Instruments of the Orchestra and The Great Composers, New York: Hermes House, 2002.


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How to Write Attention-Grabbing Lyrics

I have a confession to make.  It really irritates me the way some people are glued to their smartphones.  Recently, I was eating lunch with a classmate at my externship.  We were sitting across the table from one another and I was trying to make small talk, but instead of carrying on a conversation with me, she just pulled out her iPhone and glued her eyes on it the entire time.  Whether she was texting, surfing the internet, or just staring at her menu screen, she preferred doing that instead of talking to me.  At first I was shocked that someone could be so rude, but unfortunately I’ve discovered these kinds of situations are becoming all too common.  [This funny youtube video by Rhett and Link called “Get Off The Phone” encapsulates this problem well.]

These days, it’s getting harder for real-life relationships and conversations to compete with some people’s digital worlds.  With the growing amount of available information, capturing someone’s attention is an increasingly difficult task. 

*Photo Credit: Janne Hellsten, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Janne Hellsten, Creative Commons

This is especially a challenge for musicians.  We have a limited window of opportunity to connect with an audience before they choose to skip to another song or click off our webpage.  Having great lyrics is one of the key ways songwriters can grab the listener’s attention.

After reflecting on feedback from songwriting contests I recently entered, I’ve come to realize that in order to become a better lyricist I need to become a better storyteller.  Amid all of the things vying for people’s attention, what stands out?  As the Heath brothers pointed out in their bestselling book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” stories do.  (Specifically, ones that are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and/or emotional.)

Lyric writing is just one of many ways we tell stories, and the unique challenge it presents is the need to be concise.  Unlike a novelist who can take a paragraph (or more) to describe a Hobbit’s foot, a lyricist must convey ideas through limited words.  And one of the most important parts in telling a story is capturing the audience’s attention at the beginning.

*Photo Credit: Marc Cornelis, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Marc Cornelis, Creative Commons

How do you write lyrics that capture the audience’s attention?

Here are 3 things I’ve learned:

  • Utilize the first-person point-of-view, which can be easier to follow and will immediately immerse the listener in the head of the character who is singing the song.  “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding is a good example of this technique.  The song starts out: “Sitting in the morning sun, I’ll be sitting when the evening come.  Watching the ships roll in, then I’ll watch ‘em roll away again.”
  • Make a catchy declaration that will be repeated throughout the song as a “hook.”  Use the verses to explain and elaborate on the sentiment.  “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line is a great example of this.  The song starts out declaring, “Baby, you a song—you make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise.”
  • Ask a question as part of the singer’s dialogue to someone else, which propels the reader into the action of what the singer is doing.  “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” by Jim Croce is a nice example of this strategy.  He starts off singing, “Operator, could you help me place this call?  See the number on the matchbook is old and faded.”

 

Do you think it’s getting harder to get people’s attention?  What other ways can you capture the audience’s attention through lyrics?  What techniques do some of your favorite songs use?  


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Song Recommendation 003—“Morning Light” by Jennie Wellsand

In the midst of taking final exams, I’ve found myself listening to “Morning Light” quite a bit. Jennie is a friend from college and now is a worship leader who spends time traveling around the Midwest to different churches and music festivals to share her musical talent with others. She is such a kind person, and a marvelous musician and songwriter.

Jennie Wellsand

Jennie Wellsand, from jenniewellsand.com

“Morning Light” evokes a pleasant, hopeful feel that puts the listener at ease. Subtle influences of folk and rock are carried through in voice and electric guitar and create an honest song about God’s abundant and gracious love. The song lyrics are beautifully poetic, yet simple and relate-able.

“My brokenness aside, I’m a darkened canvas–paint the stars tonight./And no matter how far I run, I can’t escape Your love./Your love is like the morning light, breaking through the deepest night. I hear Your voice calling out like the morning light.”

I love this song because of its message and hopeful, up-beat melody. Even in the midst of darkness and struggles, this song encourages and reminds me of God’s wonderful love for us all.

Visit Jennie Wellsand’s website here.


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Mozart’s Biggest Influence

As a pianist, I’ve always had a fond appreciation for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At my monthly piano recitals growing up, I would gaze in awe at the high school students as their fingers glided over the keys playing Mozart sonatas. Eventually I got to study and play Mozart piano sonatas, and, in college, I got to learn even more about him through an inter-disciplinary Mozart seminar that focused on his life, times, and compositions.

One of my favorite discoveries about Wolfgang was that he had an incredibly musically talented sister, Maria Anna (fondly known as Nannerl), who not only was his favorite playmate as a child, but was one of his biggest musical influences later in life.

So who is Nannerl and what kind of impact did she have on her brother’s musical future?

Maria Anna Mozart (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Maria Anna Mozart (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Nannerl, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sister, had a large effect on her brother’s musical development and output.  Nannerl’s wild imagination and playfulness made the long touring trips around Europe more exciting for Wolfgang.  Although she was five years older than Wolfgang, Nannerl fostered his creativity and imagination by playing pretend with him on their trips in their made-up world called the Kingdom of Back.  This sibling playfulness lasted into Nannerl’s twenties, as she and Wolfgang wrote letters to each other using multiple languages, word plays, and riddles.

In addition to Nannerl fostering an imaginative and funny side of Wolfgang, she served as a skillful musical role model for Wolfgang.  Because Nannerl was a talented musician in her own right, she and Wolfgang were able to make music together, exchange ideas for musical compositions, and share compositions with each other.  Wolfgang recognized his sister’s talent and knowledge, and often included his thoughts on her compositions in his letters to her.  Many times, Wolfgang composed piano solos and duets specifically for Nannerl and sent them in the mail to her.

When Mozart was about 18 years old, for example, he wrote piano sonata in D, K381, which was a duet he composed specifically for his sister to play with him.  It is noted for being “punctuated with wit and cheeky humor,” and reveals some of that playfulness the two of them shared.  See Jane Glover’s book “Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music.”

Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1780-1781.  (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Nannerl & Wolfgang sit at the piano. Their mother, Anna Maria, is pictured in the portrait on the wall because she had passed away by the time this portrait was made. Their father, Leopold, stands on the right. Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1780-1781. (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Nannerl’s story reminds me of the importance of developing and feeding a big imagination, which can serve as inspiration for future artistic creations.  Her influence on her brother’s life as a composer also shows how valuable it can be for artists to have friends and/or family with whom they can share parts of the creative process.

How are the people around you influencing or impacting your creative process?


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Live With Your Heart on Your Sleeve

I used to live more freely. With my heart on my sleeve, I was all into life. As a young girl, I was passionate that I could change the world for the better. I could make a difference. But those feelings were slowly eroded away by incidents of pain. Over time, my confidence that good could prevail wavered and I built up walls to hide my heart from the pain of this world. Is this the way life should be? Should we go from being children full of hope and passion to being cynical adults turning our eyes from the seemingly hopeless cause that is our world?

*Photo Credit: ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser, Creative Commons

I think the answer is no. It’s easy to let the world jade us into thinking we don’t matter and can’t make a dent in lessening the amount of darkness out there, but we must not let our heart slip away from us.

“Remember that kid with the quivering lip

Whose heart was on his sleeve like a first aid kit

Where are you now? Where are you now?” –“Slipping Away” by Switchfoot

This week, I’ve come to realize the beauty and truth in living with your heart on your sleeve. Yes, living this way is dangerous. It makes you vulnerable to experiencing pain. But it also fuels us to respond to those who are hurting and make that positive difference in the world we think we can’t make. There’s power behind true passion and emotional feeling—enough power to change history for the better.

*Photo Credit: Jenn Durfey, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Jenn Durfey, Creative Commons

And how does this relate to musicians and artists? As Seth Godin recently discussed on a podcast of The Portfolio Life with Jeff Goins, “art is born out of frustration.” Great artists live their emotions (rather than block them out) and let their feelings and tensions drive their creative process. By living with and responding to our hearts on our sleeves, we artists can positively impact the world by shining light on truths for the world to experience. How do you live with hope and passion for a better world? What drives your creative process?