Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Best Christmas Music Out There

If all the Christmas music you listen to is from your local radio station, then you have been missing out on some of the best Christmas music that is out there! Honestly, you can only hear "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" so many times before your head explodes.

Here's a guide to some of my favorite Christmas albums:

Mannheim Steamroller Christmas

This was the first - and arguably the best - Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album, and there's not much on it that I don't like. The first track, "Deck the Halls" can be heard everywhere, but "Good King Wenceslas" is a joyful track that gets toes tapping, and this version of "Silent Night" is the best one not sung inside a church. Did you know that this album is now 30 years old?

Pentatonix That's Christmas to Me and PTXmas

That's Christmas to Me is brand-new this year, and I love listening to it. My students love it, too - especially songs like "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" and their gospel version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." They have a couple of non-Christmas songs including the Decemberists' "White Winter Hymnal" and a mashup of "Don't Worry Be Happy" with "Winter Wonderland."

I like this one over their first Christmas album, PTXmas, but that first one has a few stellar tracks including "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Little Drummer Boy," the latter of which I could listen to on a loop!

Amy Grant Home for Christmas

This is a childhood favorite of mine, and it starts strong and finishes strong. This is where you'll hear the original version of "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" and undoubtedly the best. It truly isn't Christmas until I hear "Emmanuel, God with Us" and the incredible "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

Doug Hammer Noel

There is a lot of Christmas piano albums out there, but I love this one based on one song: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." It's such a different take on the carol and it fits so well. I also enjoy listening to "Do You Hear What I Hear" (even though I'm not a big fan of the song itself) and "When Christmas Comes to Town."

Andrew Peterson Behold the Lamb of God

This album chronicles the coming of Jesus as a baby. It's a mix of instrumental and vocal tracks that starts back in the Old Testament and and connects it with the new. Some of my favorite vocal tracks are "It Came to Pass" and "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks," and I love the instrumental tracks for "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "The Holly and the Ivy."

Canadian Brass A Canadian Brass Christmas

Another childhood favorite with some amazing brass players from up north. This has the only version of "Ding Dong! Merrily on High" I ever want to listen to, and has a few other Christmas carols that you won't hear on the radio, like "Sussex Carol," "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella," and "Here We Come A-Wassailing." They throw in some comedy, too, in the songs "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman." Well, you know what happens when Frosty gets hot.

The Muppets Christmas Carol soundtrack

This movie was released in 1992 and the music has stuck with me after all these years. I absolutely love this movie, and I absolutely love the songs. From "Scrooge" to "One More Sleep 'till Christmas" and "It Feels Like Christmas" there aren't many recycled Christmas carols here. It's all original, and it's all very fresh.

Michael W. Smith Christmas

This album is now 25 years old, but I only discovered it a few years back. From start to finish, this album is my favorite Christmas album. It has a few familiar carols like "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "Gloria" ("Angels We Have Heard on High"), but has other fantastic original pieces like "All is Well" and "Lux Venit." The arrangements are so full thanks to the full choirs and orchestra behind him.

Have any recommendations for Christmas albums? Please comment below!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Fine Day to Ski

Last Saturday I decided to take a trip into the mountains and go skiing in Breckenridge - a ski location that I am familiar with thanks to my trips there last season. My goal for this one-day adventure was to see if I remembered anything from my lessons eight months ago, and also find out if I could go on my own.

My cousins weren't planning on coming to Breckenridge till the following weekend, and I had a free morning with good weather. I had spent the week researching good places to park, the best slopes to try, and how long it would take to get there. Thanks to my advanced planning, my day went off without a hitch!

Breckenridge's parking lots are $12 on the weekends, but they have a free satellite lot outside of town and free shuttle service to the free gondola that will take you up to the base of Peak 8. There's a lot of "free" in that sentence, so I had to take advantage of that.

I woke up at 5 a.m. and was on the road by 5:45. There hadn't been much precipitation in Colorado for a few weeks, so the roads were dry and traffic was minimal. I always find it creepy to drive through the mountains at night, but the sky lightened quickly as I took I-70 west.

I was concerned that maybe the free lot was small and would fill up early, but I didn't need to worry. The lot was huge, and I was the fourth car there. I had planned on getting to town about 7:30. The shuttles and gondola started at 8, and the ski lifts opened at 9. Because I got there early, I had plenty of time to get bundled up, make sure I had everything I needed (skis, poles, sunscreen, chocolate, phone, keys, etc.) before a few other cars showed up. The first bus that pulled up had me in it!

The group of us were dropped off right at the gondola entrance, and while there was a really long line to purchase lift tickets, I already had that taken care of. Thanks to my summertime visit with my parents, I knew exactly where the gondola would drop me off.

I took the gondola up with a nice couple from Lakewood, but had also formerly been in the Midwest. They planned on catching the Dew Tour, a contest for snowboard and freeski athletes, which I planned to do, as well. I had done my research on that, too, and knew the first competition started at 9.

The base of Peak 8 has a lodge and several ski lifts. I got to the area around 8:50, and there were a few people milling around. Only Rip's Ride was allowing people to get on, since that was the one that would take people to the competitions. I decided that I would watch the women's snowboard superpipe final before I did the slopes.

Rip's Ride lets spectators off near the end of the superpipe, but then we had to climb up to get to the lower portion. I left my skis and took my poles, and I'm glad I had those to help me get up! Those ski boots are really heavy.

The area was not crowded at all, so I placed myself right behind the athlete's guest section and had an unobstructed view, since there weren't any people in that guest section! It was pretty interesting watching the Dew Tour cameras that were livestreaming the competition and the NBC cameras that were recording it to show later.

I didn't have to wait long to see my first familiar face. Hannah Teter won the gold medal in the 2006 Olympics and went down first. Unfortunately, neither run that she did resulted in much, but it was awesome to see her up close.

Chloe Kim isn't someone that has won an Olympic medal...yet. She's only 14 years old! But she was stellar and deserved her second place finish. It was clear that NBC knows she's the next "big thing" because of how much time she had to spend in front of the camera and how many interviews she gave after the competition!

My excitement was for someone that I've known from the Olympics since 2002 - Kelly Clark. She won the gold medal back in Salt Lake City and is still dominating. She won the competition and did it convincingly, laying down a 1080 and not wiping out.

When NBC reaired the competition in the afternoon, my parents watched and caught me on television behind Chloe Kim. It was neat having them see me all the way back in Michigan!

The men's competition was about 1 1/2 hours after the women's competition, and I saw them warm up, but I decided to hit the slopes instead of waiting. While the women's group had athletes that I have been familiar with for 12 years, the men's group was full of athletes that I'd only known for the past year. I didn't have the excitement to see those guys than I did the girls.

I retrieved my skis and put my skills to the test on a pretty small hill called Dyersville. And whadya know? I still felt good! What a relief. Since I was on my own, there was always that fear that I'd fall over and not be able to get up. But when I did fall (twice total - I'll admit it) I was able to get myself up!

I did another run down Dyersville, and then decided to try to get over to Peak 9, with which I am more familiar with. So I took the brand-new 6-person Colorado SuperChair, which I saw being constructed over the summer. It is fast! I was impressed with the speed and how fast it got me up Peak 8.

There are lots of signs on the slopes, and directions pointing skiers all over the place, including Peak 9. I followed those directions down Springmeier, Four O'Clock, Crosscut, and Sawmill, but I made a mistake when I saw directions for Snowflake. I remembered Snowflake and it sounded familiar, so I decided to turn in there. My mistake. It took me down to the Snowflake chair and all the way back up to the top of Peak 8! If I'd stayed on Sawmill I would have made it to Peak 9. Oh well. I went down Springmeier again and stopped at the lodge for some water - I needed to stay hydrated!

The base of Peak 8 was super crowded since it was lunchtime, and I knew I wanted to get out of there since the lift queues were going to be very crowded from now on. But I'd had so much fun that I decided to fit in one more run. I decided to do Springmeier one more time. At times Springmeier is a green (easy) hill, but other times it's a blue (medium). I didn't feel horrible going down those blue areas, which made me pretty happy.

After one final run, I called it a day. It was incredibly easy to get back to the gondola, hop on a shuttle, and get back to my car. Like I wrote earlier, my advanced planning helped me have the most successful ski trip I could have had!

Even better, I now have confidence going skiing without my family along. While they do their black runs, I can feel good doing something that feels more comfortable to me. Although I might not have the best posture going down a hill, I enjoy every minute of it!

Friday, December 12, 2014

How to Leave the Stress Behind

I didn't have a good day today.

It wasn't like anything serious took place.

It was just very stressful. Lots going on. It seemed like not much went the way I planned it. Some things I might not have handled as well as I could have.

So how do I get rid of the stress? Some ways work for some and some ways work for others. Here are mine:

Work out

It might seem like that would be the last think I want to do after a stressful day. But working out - whether it's taking a walk or doing a light routine - is a great remedy. I did a light workout today and felt much better.

Computer time

This may mean paying bills, downloading podcasts, syncing my iPod, or catching up on television. On stressful days I love it when there's big entertainment news, like Star Wars names being revealed, because that means there's lots of reactions and lots of ways to get my mind off of stress.

Cat cuddles

It's no surprise that cats help with stress. It is really amazing how pets can sense when their owner is stressed out or in a sad mood. They follow them everywhere and never let them leave their sight. So a good cuddle is never too far away.

Piano performance

To put all the emotions of the day on a piece that requires forte and piano can soothe a seething soul. Although I'm an organist first, I find that tickling the ivories can be more of a de-stresser than organ. Organ usually frustrates me way more than piano!

Write something

You are actually witnessing the product of my de-stressing right now! This article - and other like it - are making me think of the clever ways I could type out a sentence (like that "soothe a seething soul" sentence in the last paragraph) instead of the cruddy thing that happened. Someday I gotta get back to that novel. Then I'd be stress-free!

Get away

It doesn't really matter where I go - I just gotta get out of work! It's hard thing for me to do sometimes since I almost spend more time at work (which is also my church) than at home. But a trip to the library, or Target, or out of the city entirely makes me focus on the drive and not on the stress.


This is probably the most important one that I do. It is amazing how I can put a prayer out to God, and He can effortlessly make things seem better than before. I've done that many times, and marvel as He does His work. I wish I remembered to do it more often.

So what do you do? Any helpful tips that you have for anyone? Feel free to share below! And remember - nothing is as stressful as you make it out to be.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Peter Pan Live: A Review

There were so many times tonight when I was watching Peter Pan Live on NBC that I was suddenly transported back to my living room in Michigan watching a VHS copy of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. And when I was reminded of those times, I reluctantly decided that the old version was better.

Yes, the NBC version had some improvements. The scenery was amazing - especially the complete nursery set. Having Nana actually be a real dog was great - he did an amazing job! (Too bad they couldn't've had a trained crocodile, too.)

The dancing was amazing pretty much the whole way through. The kid who played Michael was having a ball hanging out with those Lost Boys - even though he had to wear footie pajamas. My cast MVPs are all the pirates, Lost Boys, and Indians, for sure.

But there were a few clunkers.

The choice to use a computer animated Tinkerbell was a bad idea. The animation looked like old '90s CGI rather than an innovative prop. Is it so hard to use a light?

Allison Williams tried her best, but there were points where I thought, "Man, Mary Martin really brought out the youthfulness and playfulness in this part!" Williams seemed a bit too proper to play a boy, and that can be said about her singing, too. In "I Gotta Crow," Martin always had such glee - especially when singing "Nat-ur-al-leeee!" Williams tried, but just didn't hit the mark. Oddly enough, I think her voice was too low! She did improve a bit during the show.

Christopher Walken seemed to try a British accent at the beginning, and didn't even try singing. Even his last word in the tango was so soft the mic couldn't pick it up. But was he milking it for all it's worth? Yes.

Sometimes the soundtrack (it wasn't live instrumentation) was too loud to hear what the actors were saying - that happened in "I'm Flying" and "Tender Shepherd" - one of the best parts of "Tender Shepherd" is the round between Wendy, John, Michael, and Mrs. Darling. Due to sound issues, you couldn't hear the round!

But let's put the comparisons aside. Was this a good musical to introduce to your kids? Absolutely! The scenery was colorful, and there was always something going on. Everything was incredibly attractive to kiddos watching - even if the show went to 11pm.

If the point was to introduce children to the fun of musical theater and remind us older folk about the fun we had with this show in our youth, it did its job. After all, my sister texted me halfway in, saying, "There needs to be an old school Campbell's soup commercial right about now," since our VHS had commercials like that! Ah, nostalgia. A good thing for this time of year. Well done, Peter Pan Live.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Christmas Music Zone

It's now December, which means it's safe to listen to Christmas music everywhere you go and not get the stink eye. I know that many of you have your favorites, but there's always room for more fantastic Christmas music in your repertoire - especially if you don't want to hear "Blue Christmas" for the tenth time today.

"Deck the Halls" Mannheim Steamroller

When I start listening to Christmas music, this selection from Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas album is usually one of the first things I queue up.

The reason I love it: It reminds me of decorating the Christmas tree when I was a kid, as well as my siblings and I having pantomime concerts featuring this music.

"Glory to God" Glad

This is not a familiar Christmas carol. Instead, it's derived from the angels' words in Luke 2.

The reason I love it: This is one that I as a musician love to dissect, and break down each part that is sung. I loved it so much, I actually wrote out the parts in college and had a group sing it!

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" Doug Hammer

A new addition to my Christmas favorites, I bought the sheet music to this one. It might take me a while to conquer.

The reason I love it: Of all the festive carols, this one usually ranks near the end of my rankings. However, this take on "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is simple and soft - a treatment that this piece usually doesn't have.

"Gloria" Michael W. Smith

Even though this piece was released 25 years ago, I didn't hear it until college. Even though I'm only showing the final piece here, the whole album should be listened to from start to finish to really get the most out of it.

The reason I love it: While the carol is timeless, the arrangement of this piece has a lot of '80s vibes to it. I especially love the - what would you call it? - synth harpsichord at the beginning!

"Ding! Dong! Merrily on High" Canadian Brass

If you have lived all your years in the dark about the amazement of the Canadian Brass, then I really need to educate you. A fan of any sort of brass instrument should pick this one up.

The reason I love it: The piece builds up, with the beautiful chords and full sound hitting ears brilliantly.

"First Snow" Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Some people are obsessed with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra...and I am not one of them. They have a few good songs, but there's only one song that I love to bits, and that's this one.

The reason I love it: TSO thinks that they need to add aggressive vocals to a lot of their songs, which they don't need to do. This one is purely instrumental - with a rock/orchestral kick - that really keeps it fresh.

Oh, and I chose to use a house decorated and tuned with the song because that's so much fun!

"Carol of the Bells" David Foster

This might be one that you heard on the radio but never knew who did it. Well, David Foster is a popular Canadian music producer and arranger and has worked with Earth, Wind, and Fire, Kenny Loggins, and Chicago. And it seems like any time I hear a song he arranged, I go, "That's fantastic!"

The reason I love it: I tire easily of all the different "Carol of the Bells" iterations that are out there, but this one adds a B melody along with a fantastic ending that starts at 2:08.

I hope maybe you've found some new music to add to your Christmas playlist! Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!