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A Reluctant Organist

unnamedIf you asked me ten years ago if I would ever consider learning to play the organ I would probably say, “Nope.”  For the last couple months, I have been pondering the idea, and with the help of a fellow choir member and colleague, I found someone who was willing to teach me.  I am schedule to have my firt lesson a week from tomorrow.

How did all this happen?  Well, after our church music director got a job closer to home, the choir scrambled to find someone who could fill in until our pastor could hire a permanent replacement.  After playing a few masses on piano at my church and even playing a mass on Christmas Eve with another parish at Westchester Department of Correction, my interest in playing music at church became even stronger.  There was one problem.  I didn’t know how to play the organ, and the more I thought about it, the more curious I became.  Could I actually learn to play?

Once I began considering the idea of learning to play the organ, my mind began to attack me with negative thoughts.

Are you kidding?  At your age?  You’re too old to learn a second instrument!

As a classically trained musician, I have often heard it said that to be a good musician on any instrument, it is best to start very young.  Most accomplished pianists begin their piano studies between the ages of 3 and 5.  I was 8 years old when I started, and according to classical standards, that is considered to be over the hill unless you happen to be a genius.  In case you are wondering, I am not a genius.

Now here I am at 35 years of age wanting to learn the organ.  Besides learning to play on at least two manuals (keyboards), I would be required to play on a pedal keyboard using my feet.  P.S. I am not the most well-coordinated person.  If you don’t believe me, you should check me out when I am out on the dance floor.  I may enjoy shaking a tail feather, but I don’t know if others enjoy watching me do so.

I took 20 years of piano lessons, and it wasn’t until my mid 20s that I began to play at a pretty reasonable level.  How long would it take me to play at a decent level on the organ?  Would it seriously take me another 20 years?

I haven’t even started lessons yet, and I have already been faced with my fair share of challenges.  I thought finding a teacher would be one of the most difficult parts, but there was something even more challenging: getting access to an organ.  I didn’t get the green light from my own home parish, and once I informed my father about it he quoted Luke 4:24

No prophet is accepted in his hometown.

Finally after many emails and telephone calls, I finally cut a break with another parish in my neighboring town.  The music director there was a huge help, and through him I was able to gain access to the organ in their small chapel.  The chapel has less activity than their main church, so I would less likely be an intrusion on other people.  This chapel is actually closer to where I live than my actual home parish.

I do not know what the outcome of all this will be.  I have been told by a couple people that God is calling me to pursue this and to become a church organist.  So far, I am not feeling like that’s the case.  Now don’t get me wrong, I initially felt it when the idea first popped into my head, but the feeling only lasted for a few minutes.  My own mother was confused by my interest in becoming an organist and said:

I don’t understand why are you doing this.  Holy Rosary doesn’t need an organist.

She failed to see that this was something beyond Holy Rosary.  Besides, I wouldn’t say that I am Holy Rosary’s most popular choice for church musician (although the choir likes me yay!).  To be quite honest, I am the one that fills in when there is absolutely no one else available.  For example, I played piano at a healing mass once because none of the musicians from the folk group were able to attend.  It was summertime and people were away on vacation. Let me just say when I was asked to play, I was pretty excited and gave it my best effort.  Sure, I was the only person left in the pool of choices, but I still got the call!

Last Sunday, we had no organist to play for the 9:30am mass and so with only 15 minutes prior notice, I jumped in, hoped for a miracle and played the mass on piano.  I will add that before I arrived at the church, my mother gave me some of her useful advice:

Don’t interrupt the priest by coming in too early with the Sanctus.

She was referring to the last time I played at mass.  Before all the angels and saints could begin proclaiming God’s glory by saying “holy holy holy,” I had already gotten started.  I am thinking all of Heaven was like “Whoa!  Check out that anticipation on Earth right now!”  Either that or Heaven had a good chuckle.  Whatever it was, I hope, it to some extent, pleasing to the Lord.  Messing up in church is truly a humbling experience.  P.S. There were twice as many holies sung at that particular mass.  There’s your silver lining!

Anyway, my parents happened to be at the impromptu mass that took place this morning.  My mother said:

You did very well.  I didn’t hear any mistakes.

Well, I managed to fool her.  There were plenty of mistakes and thankfully, our Lord was very gracious in helping me cover them up.

As I bring this blog post to a close, I recall a phrase that someone very close to me said a couple weeks ago:

“Go where God leads you.”

Let’s see where He takes me.


Can Music Be a Form of Prayer?

Screenshot 2016-04-27 21.42.01

excerpt of  “In the Beginning” from Images

A year or so ago, I was riding in the car with one of my friends who has the same first name as I do.  I don’t remember the exact sequence of the conversation, but I went from talking about God to talking about one of my music composition projects.  “Gee Jen, ” she said, “I am surprised you don’t write religious music.”

I always wondered that myself.  Honestly, I never wrote anything that would be considered religious.  I never wrote a Mass or anything like that.  Many of the great composers have already written such wonderful works, so I never felt the need to write any sacred music myself.  I was always trying to find my own voice and do something different.  The fact that I had not written or was even considering writing any sacred music seemed quite bizarre to me.  After all, I am active in my church’s music ministry.

The topic of music and God, also came up in a discussion I had with my spiritual director some time ago.  She mentioned how music can be a form of prayer and worship and used King David as an example.  While The Ark of the Covenant was being brought to Jerusalem, he danced before the Lord .

“As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord;”2 Samuel 6:16

“Oh, but I don’t compose religious music,” I told her, “and much of the music I play would be considered secular.”  She had told me that my performance and compositions didn’t have to be of a religious nature to be considered a form of prayer.  It seemed really strange to view my own music as a form of prayer or praise to God.  I have studied music written for The Church, is considered sacred since it was clearly directed to our Lord.  However, when I began to think more about the process of composing and the art of performance being forms of prayer, the more it seemed possible.

God is the source of all creation and I believe all things come from God as well.  For example, I just finished recording a CD of original piano music that will be coming out next month.  If at least one of the compositions would be called “good,” I couldn’t take all the credit.  The closest sacred work that I have composed that is included on the disc is Images, a collection of seven piano pieces inspired by my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Each piece was inspired by either a specific place, moment or feeing during my visit.   It isn’t written for the Mass or anything like that, but I would consider it sacred because it was inspired holy places and spiritual experiences.  It is a trip that transformed me in many ways.  The scriptures came alive and I felt it brought me closer with the Lord.

Screenshot 2016-04-27 21.55.41

excerpt from Revelation

For me, the art of composing and performing is a spiritual collaboration between man and God.  Sometimes the two can be completely in sync with one another where the music just flows freely and effortlessly.  This rarely happens to me, but when it does, the experience is awesome.  An examples of this happened to me in 2011 when I was writing a piece for the North/South Chamber Orchestra called Revelations.  The ideas for this composition seemed to pour out into my head and I simply followed where the music led me.  There seriously had to be strong Divine Intervention for that work.  I called it Revelations because it literally was revealed to me.  Was it revealed to me by God?  I would like to think so!

As for performance, the mind is truly in the present moment and only when the mind is in the present moment can one be in the presence of God.  I can recall many performances in which I felt very well connected with the piano and truly in the moment where I was able to connect with the audience and other musicians who were performing with me.  This is what I love about playing chamber music, there is more of a sense of community, a kind of joining together in group prayer.  In my best performances, all sense of time is lost because I am completely immersed in this heavenly world.

Much of my music comes from my own personal experiences, and even though I have free will, God is still the author of my life since He created me and knows everything about me.  Much of my music is inspired by my two avian companions, Sunny and Nikki, and who created them?  I think our Lord smiled when He imagined those two!  He seems to work His hand in everything.  Man may have built the first piano, but who created man and gave him the ability to imagine such ideas?  Our ability to create comes from the Creator.  After all, we are made in His image.  Therefore, when anyone creates a something that would be considered beautiful, powerful or a masterpiece, it is not simply just a human effort, but a collaboration between God and man.  Where there is collaboration there must be a dialogue of some kind, and when one engages with a dialogue with the Lord, that is called prayer.

As I write this, I recall a gift my mother gave me one Christmas.  I was a pillow that read the following: “Music, a Celebration of the Soul”  I couldn’t agree more, for when the soul is in perfect alignment with God, it truly has a reason to celebrate.

Dancing on the Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee

One of the most memorable experiences I had while visiting Israel was traveling by boat on the Sea of Galilee. On the morning of February 22nd, we left our hotel in Tiberius and went by boat to Ginosar to visit the Mount of the Beatitudes.

The boat ride was not what I expected it to be. I imagined that we would all be sitting in something similar to a row boat, but the boat was a fairly decent size. We were able to walk around on it and at one point we were dancing on it. We all danced to traditional Israeli folk music, and it was a lot of fun. I felt so happy and alive, and I enjoyed learning the Hebrew words to the traditional folk songs. I had always been familiar with the melodies, but never really knew how the words went. There were CDs there for sale, and I purchased the one that featured the folk music.

There is something so wonderful about music and dance. I believe that God expresses Himself through these art forms and that much of the arts are really a conversation between God and us. We speak, He answers, and the dialogue continues. As a musician, I feel fortunate to have this ability. Even if I am not the best of the best, I know the integrity and love is there, and through that, the Lord can work His hand in it.  I attribute my finest works and performances to Him because anything that is good comes from the God.

We are all called to a close relationship with God, and I believe that music is the best way for the Lord and I to communicate and nurture our divine friendship. Music is a language that everyone can understand, and it has the power bring people together. My mother always used to recite a well- known quote. I don’t know who actually said it, but it goes something like this: “Music is the language from heaven, which cannot be spoken in words.” I couldn’t agree more.

Piano Duo Venti Dita Update

Piano Duo Venti Dita

Piano Duo Venti Dita CD

Well this was announced a while back but thought I would also mention it on my blog as well.  There has been a change in Piano Due Venti Dita personnel.  I, Jennifer Castellano, have moved on to pursue other musical interests and therefore am no longer apart of this unique piano team.  

So Piano Duo Venti Dita now welcomes Alison Neely.  I am glad for Marvin and Alison to be working together and I wish them a great partnership.  They both live in Princeton, thus making it easier to rehearse.  Since I am in New York (40 minutes above midtown), a lot of travel was involved when it came to Marvin and I rehearsing and performing in concerts.  Nevertheless, it was a fun three years working with Marvin and as his musical pal and sidekick, I wish him the best in all his future endeavors.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!  I realize I have not written a very long time.  I must confess that I have been pretty lazy about it.  For starters, I wanted to share that back in September, the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss released a CD entitled Hear This! Music from the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss.  This CD features two piano performances by Yours Truly.  I play Brahms’ Klavierstücke Op. 117, No. 2 in A Major and Scribin’s Prelude Op. 67, No. 1.  Both of these performances were recorded live during recitals did in my 20s.

Piano Duo Venti Dita

Also, Child in the Garden: Contemporary Music for Piano 4 Hands, the CD project I did with Marvin, became officially available months before that.  The CD is a collection collection of music from the 20th and 21st centuries.  We recorded works from Italy, Estonia, Latvia and the United States.

Let’s Recap

Sunny and Nikki

Sunny and Nikki

It’s been a while since I written a blog entry.  I am not sure why.  Perhaps my life has not been that interesting lately.  Well, I shouldn’t say that.  I live with two birds remember?  They always keep life interesting and they think my life is interesting because they always want to be involved in whatever it is that I am doing.

Anyway, let’s briefly recap what has happened over the last few months.

My four compositions were premiered on Saturday, November 17th at the New Jersey Music Teachers Association State Conference.  The conference was held at Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ.  It was quite the experience.  After all, it isn’t everyday that you get to hear a live performances of your own music.  These student works include:

  • Peaceful Pause (beginner piano solo)
  • Avian Adventures (intermediate piano solo)
  • Modern Dance (advanced piano solo)
  • Shades of Blue (violin and piano duo)

My music will be performed at the Aram Khachaturian House-Museum in Yerevan, Armenia.  One half of the concert will include music by New York Women Composers, and the other half will include music by Armenian composers.  Works by New York Women Composer include:

  • Joyce Orenstein – Three Pieces for Clarinet
  • Jennifer Castellano – Reverie for Flute Solo
  • Binnette Lipper – Trialogue for Flute, Clarinet, and Bassoon
  • Marilyn Bliss – Murali for Flute Solo
  • Rain Worthington – Duets for a Duo, for Flute and Oboe

I never dreamed that my music would ever be heard outside of the country.  It is pretty wild.

Marvin and I are almost ready to send our CD project off to production.  We got all the licensing done, we have our cover art, and all our CD text is all set.  We are just finishing the design and layout of the inside booklet.  Our CD is titled Child in the Garden: Contemporary Music for Piano 4 Hands, and we expect the CD to become available in early March.

The Competition

my name tag

Last Sunday was the New Jersey Music Teachers Association (NJMTA) Commissioned Composer Competition.  Just to recap, I was selected to be this year’s commissioned composer.  I wrote 4 student works: Peaceful Pause (beginner piano solo), Avian Adventures (intermediate piano solo), Modern Dance (advanced piano solo) and Shades of Blue (intermediate/advanced violin and piano duo).  On Sunday, November 11th, I was a judge for this competition where I heard student performances of my new works.  After hearing these performances, I selected 1st, 2nd, 3rd and honorable mentions for each of the four categories.  The winners in each category will be premiering the works this Saturday at the NJMTA State Conference.

It was quite the experience to serve as a judge.  I was the only judge so I guess you could say that I felt like the weight of the world rested on my shoulders.  Every student I heard played very well and were all winners in my book.  It is not an easy task to pick what you consider to be the best performance of your work.  As a composer, I have a vision of what my work sounds like.  I have the whole piece in my head before ever hearing it performed live.  Everyone fulfilled my expectations, but there was that one person who took the performance beyond what I envisioned it to be and that is how I based my decisions.

After the competition, I went through a period of reflection on what competitions meant to me.  I felt like my whole life has been one never ending competition.  Perhaps everyone’s life can be viewed as an ongoing competition.  My competition began at the age of six years old when I realized that I was unlike my other classmates.  After my first day of Kindergarten, I came home asking my mother why people were making fun of my eyes.  That’s when I learned about my visual impairment and that I was different from all the kids in my grade.

Two years later, I began private lessons in classical piano and was told that I had a very strong musical ear and learned that I have perfect pitch.  However, school was a different story.  My teachers had commented to my parents that it appeared that I was not paying attention in class.  Then, a recent school hearing test showed that my hearing was not normal.  I was finally diagnosed with having hearing loss.  This made sense since I didn’t learn how to speak until I was three and a half years old.  Why did the diagnosis take so long?  I have no idea, but according to my parents, I was a late bloomer at everything, so learning to talk late wasn’t so out of the ordinary.   For example, I didn’t begin to walk independently until I was two years old.  My learning to speak late caused a delay in my social skills.  Because of this, I began Kindergarten at the age of six as opposed to the typical age of five years old.

Making friends was a competition, and I always felt like the least likable person in my class.  I spent years trying to win approval and acceptance of my classmates, trying to show them that I could still be there friend despite our apparent differences.  When you are born with any type of medical condition, life, as you know it, is normal.  As far as I knew, I could see and hear like everyone else.  I knew what colors and sounds were and delighted in the same things as anyone else.  If I weren’t trying to win friends over, I was trying to win the approval and praise of my teachers and professors, which was actually easier then making friends.

When I entered the work force, I began competing for jobs.  This is probably the most difficult competition since prospective employers always go by first impressions.  I realize that everyone goes through this, but for me, I felt that I had to prove twice as much as my competitors.  I not only had to prove that I had the abilities and capabilities to perform the job tasks, but I had to prove that my abilities matched or even went beyond those of a fully sighted and hearing person.  I had to prove that my physical challenges did not interfere with my level of inelegance as a human being.

Like many aspiring musicians, I had competed in music competitions.  In college, I competed in a couple competitions and after I graduated, I competed for a performance appearances in concerts and festivals.  I have never won any of these competitions and at the time it was heartbreaking.  There were a couple ones that if selected, I would have the opportunity to perform in Washing D.C.  It would be a chance to perform with other musicians from all over the world, who had disabilities as well.

Looking back, I remember what was once said to me and my fellow competitors by one of the judges at a college music competition: “There are no losers.”  When I first heard this statement, I immediately thought: “Yeah right, he is just saying that.”  But after standing on the other side and being a judge at Sunday’s competition, I suddenly realized that he was right.  Not winning at a competition does not signify losing.  To truly lose would be to quit.  In my life, I have had many supporters who helped me along the way, but it was the adversity I faced which pushed me to work harder.  As a result I have gone much further than I could ever imagine.  As a child, I felt that I my life was a constant competition in which I showed no signs of ever winning, but my childhood years proved to be the very opposite.  They allowed me to grow into a much stronger and more compassionate human being.

Remember that a loss is only a loss if one allows it to remain so and from a loss can come great gain.  Like a phoenix that rises from the ashes, we all rise again, too.

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