Celebris January 2023 Concert Program

We’re excited to present to you this program of new music! Our ensemble has been hard at work on this repertoire, and we think you will enjoy it. This weekend (Jan 27 & 28), you have TWO opportunities to come hear us. The first concert will be at Bethany Reformed Church in Kalamazoo (7:30 pm) on Friday. The second concert will be at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Allegan (6 pm) on Saturday. This concert will feature the Plainwell High School Choirs, who will also be participating in a masterclass with us earlier in the afternoon! Members of the community will also be able to join us for the last two numbers.


Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany

You That Wont to My Pipes Sound (Thomas Morley)

Salvation Has Come to Us (Jane Kozhevnikova)

Christmastime (Joel Snyder & Jane Kozhevnikova)


(This will be either the following collection on Friday or Plainwell Chorale’s performance on Saturday.)

The Lights and Shadows of Your Eyes: 

A Collection of Poems by James Weldon Johnson (Joel Snyder & Jane Kozhevnikova)

1–The Glory of the Day Was in Her Face

2–Voluptas (I)

3–The Awakening

4–Sonnet from the Spanish of Plácido

5–Beauty That Is Never Old


New Years

Esto Les Digo (Kinley Lange)

By and By (Brian Field—Runner Up, Celebris Composition Competition 2022)

Light the Darkness (Joel Snyder & Jane Kozhevnikova)

Hold Fast (Joel Snyder & Jane Kozhevnikova)


Valentine’s Day

You Are Loved (Joel Snyder & Rebekah Marvin)

Beloved, Let Us Love (Jane Kozhevnikova)

3 Reasons Why I Love “Mary Did You Know”

Every Christmas, I hear and sing a wide gamut of wonderful music, and I love it. It means a lot to me. It warms my heart. I’ve even written a few Christmas songs!

Everyone will have songs that they love and ones that they don’t. That’s expected, because everyone’s tastes are different. Even I have Christmas songs that I avoid. That one about the hippopotamus comes to mind. What an earworm!

However, one that I think gets unjustly maligned is Mark Lowry’s Mary Did You Know. For whatever reason people feel the need to post hate about it every year. Of all the Christmas songs that you could take time out of your life to hate, why this one? I don’t get it. In fact, I actually really like this song. Here are three reasons why:

# 1 The melody is solid.

By this point in my life I’ve written many songs. I’ve come to the conclusion that writing melodies is pretty difficult. The melody needs to be catchy, consistent with the mood of the text, and have direction. This song does all of these things. You can remember the song after you hear it. The melody itself is this hauntingly beautiful, which fits the text about Jesus coming to earth and dying on the cross as heaven’s perfect lamb. The song moves consistently toward an emotional crescendo. I find that quite fulfilling.

# 2 The song is well-crafted.

Some songs fall into the pit of either being too repetitive, too long, too short, etc. This song is the perfect length for its text. The form (outline) of the song is Stanza 1, Stanza 2, Bridge, Stanza 3, Coda (AABA). That is a wonderfully concise and focused form, and it has been time-tested and listener-approved for centuries. The repeated music gives you something to hold onto while the new material keeps things fresh.

# 3 The words are well-written.

This is the point where I think people get upset. “Mary did know,” they cry! I’ll deal with this particular criticism in a bit, but first I want to point out a few things. 1) This song is poetry. Of all genres we shouldn’t take it too literally. We should cut the writer a little slack, a little artistic leeway. 2) His method of using questions is a simple yet powerful rhetorical devise to highlight aspects of the nativity and life of Christ. 3) His rhymes are good. They work with one another, aren’t cheesy, and aren’t expected. They have unity and variety.

Now, let’s look at the “Mary-did-know!” issue. Here was Mark Lowry’s thought process:

AG: Who’s idea was the song? Where did the idea for it originate from…the inspiration?

Mark Lowry: Well, my Pastor asked me to write the Christmas program for our church, called The Living Christmas Tree, and I wrote some monologue to go in between the songs. I started thinking and wondering if Mary realized the power, authority and majesty that she cradled in her arms that first Christmas. I wondered if she realized those little hands were the same hands that scooped out oceans and formed rivers. I just tried to put into words the unfathomable. I started thinking of the questions I would have for her if I were to sit down & have coffee with Mary. You know, “What was it like raising God?” “What did you know?” “What didn’t you know?”

This song is written from the standpoint of an earnest questioner, not a mansplainer. He was overwhelmed with the idea of the incarnation. Also, I don’t think she would have known that Jesus would walk on water, calm the storm with His hand, or the full extent of the miracles that He would do. The overly simplistic meme, “She did know!” is factually incorrect. Some of the things she knew, some of them she didn’t. But that’s not ultimately the point of the song.

Anyway, those are my two cents (ten cents with inflation).

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Why Do We Need Timeless Wisdom?

In Marvel’s 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, there’s a scene where Captain America talks to SHIELD’s Agent Coulson. They’re just chit-chatting when the conversation starts getting serious. Captain America asks about the suit they made for him.

“Aren’t the stars and stripes a little old-fashioned?” he asks.

Agent Coulson ponders for a moment, and then responds, “With everything that’s happening, and the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.”

It was this conversation that was rattling around inside my mind as we prepared for my Celebris Ensemble’s 2nd Annual Composition Competition. For each competition season, we like to have a theme for the song entries. These are general themes, and they have to be broad enough for a broad range of composers to apply, but narrow enough that it will actually fit. It’s pretty tricky. Last year, we chose Hope and Resilience. This year, the theme is Timeless Wisdom.

What is Timeless Wisdom, anyway?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines wisdom as “the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments.” Timeless Wisdom, then, is the collected wisdom of the ages. Truths that transcend particular times and places. Truths we sometimes take for granted, but shouldn’t. Truths that can lead us as we live through the messy ups and downs of our lives.

What’s so important about Timeless Wisdom, and why do we need it right now?

I work at a hospital in the Kalamazoo area. Much of my job deals with helping suicidal patients. Over the past few years, we have had a massive influx of these sorts of patients. These poor folks are unmoored from hope and tossed about on the roiling seas of uncertainty.

It is precisely during these times that we need a little old-fashioned. We need perennial wisdom. We need truths that stand the test of time, truths that we can rely on.

What do songs about these kinds of timeless truths look like? It could be a song about being honest with yourself and others. It could be a song about loving others even when it hurts. It could be a song about knowing the right word or the kind word and when to say it. It could be a song about holding on and keeping on through hard times. It could be a song extolling the virtues of forgiving others or that it is more blessed to give than to receive. These are songs about universal truths that can guide us through the twists and turns of our lives. They can provide us comfort, especially during these times of economic stagnation and inflation as well as the political instability both here and abroad.

We’re excited to see the pieces that composer will send in. Last year, we were given so many great songs. With the talent out there, we’re confident that the submissions will be just as good. So please, send it in. This is a message that is desperately needed right now.

Excerpt from The Giftless Chronicles Short Story

As part of my offer for my short story, I thought I’d post a short excerpt from the first chapter today! If you want the full thing, sign up for my email list. I’ll be emailing the rest of it on June 24th.

Chapter 1

“I hate Cincinnati,” Mark Durham muttered to himself as a bullet whizzed over his head. If he’d had hair, the bullet would have split it. He arose from a prone position and rubbed the still-intact dark skin of his scalp appreciatively. Ahead of him, the sound of gunshots punctuated the night.

He stepped around a tree and nearly tripped over a groaning cop, a man a few years younger than Mark was himself. Long gashes had been ripped along the man’s chest and abdomen, and a massive bruise was forming along the side of his head. Mark breathed a sigh of relief when his examination revealed no bite marks. The man would have enough problems in the next few months without having to fight lycanthropy.

“What’s your name?” Mark asked.

“Quentin…” the young cop rasped.

“I’ve called the police,” Mark told him. “They’ll be here soon. Just hold on.”

Mark turned toward the old house from where the bullet had been fired. The house sat just above the Ohio River. Rotten wood siding barely covered the walls and its mold-covered roof was caving in. Judging from the commotion inside, Sam Franklin was already in there, and he was probably in a lot of trouble. Mark couldn’t count the number of times he’d saved Sam from wandering into an ambush. The man had an uncanny ability to miss the small but vitally important details, like walking into a trap.

Mark charged toward the door.

Celebris Concert Program May 2022

It’s so good to post another one of these. We are doing a wonderful concert featuring a lot of new works and some old favorites as well! Join us this Saturday at Bethany Reformed Church in Kalamazoo (7 pm). We’ll even have some community members join us for a few of the songs. It’s gonna be awesome!

Seasons of Life & Love

Sing We and Chaunt It (Robert Lucas Pearsall)
April Is in My Mistress’ Face (Thomas Morley)
And So It Goes (arr. Bob Chilcott)
Dirait-on (Morten Lauridsen)

Seasons of Work

Golow an Tewlder (Joel Snyder & Jane Kozhevnikova)
Reap with Joy (Joel Snyder & Jane Kozhevnikova)
Let My Country Awake (Jessie Leov—Runner Up, Celebris Composition Competition 2021)

Seasons of Heartache & Healing

The Voice of God (Joel Snyder & Jane Kozhevnikova)
You Are Loved (Joel Snyder & Rebekah Marvin)
Beloved, Let Us Love (Jane Kozhevnikova)

Seasons of Hope

The Gift to Sing (Jane Kozhevnikova)
In the Morning (Amy Gordon—Winner, Celebris Composition Competition 2021)
The Lord Bless You and Keep You (Joel Snyder & Jane Kozhevnikova)

Why I’m Raising Funds for Mental Health

Last week, I announced that West Michigan Homeschool Fine Arts Choirs and I were raising funds for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. This wonderful organization has helped countless people over the years, and we’re excited to be partnering with them.

The question is, why? Why are we doing this now? There are other needs in the world. For instance, people are fighting and dying in Ukraine, and they need help. Shouldn’t we focus on them? For the record, I have donated to help folks in Ukraine as well. I don’t believe helping people is an either/or proposition.

The reason I chose Pine Rest is that we work in the same industry, and that industry is straining under a terrible weight. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide has risen by 35% since 1999. It is the second highest cause of death for people aged 10-34. Among adults, 1 in 15 experienced both a substance abuse problem and mental illness in 2020.

These aren’t just numbers. While working at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, I’ve seen these issues first-hand. Let me tell you that it’s heartbreaking. It’s mindboggling to me how many adults have come in who are addicted to substances, how many teenagers who have attempted suicide and are engaged in self-harm, and how many people who are homeless and despondent. The malaise of our society is reaching epidemic proportions.

These aren’t problems our society can or should sweep under the rug. We desperately need your help. One way that you can do this is to support Pine Rest. My hospital sends many of our patients to this fine organization. Help us finance their Patient Assistance Fund. Any little bit will help. When you do, write WMHFA Choirs into the comments so that they know that we sent you!

The Honor of Humility

Over the past few weeks, I have posted on different virtues that we, as a society, have lost. We already covered wisdom and courage. Today, I will touch on a virtue that is in short supply and is quite hard to to get. This is the virtue of humility. The danger, of course, is to fall into the catch-22 of humility, which is that if you say that you are humble, then oftentimes you ain’t. So, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I will say that I am in the same boat that the rest of you are. Cursed pride is always snaking its way into my heart like it is in yours. And (same as you) I have to combat it by inculcating the virtue of humility.

What do I even mean by humility, anyway? When we think of humility, we sometimes think of a person who browbeats themselves. “Humble” flagellants flog themselves over how bad they are. Everything they do is bad, and they aren’t good enough for anything. I would submit to you that this isn’t humility. This is self-humiliation.

A good definition of humility is found on Wikipedia. Humility is defined “as a low self-regard[and sense of unworthiness. In a religious context humility can mean a recognition of self in relation to a deity (i.e. God) or deities, and subsequent submission to said deity as a member of that religion. Outside of a religious context, humility is defined as being “unselved”, a liberation from consciousness of self, a form of temperance that is neither having pride (or haughtiness) nor indulging in self-deprecation.”

In the above definition you will find a word popping up over and over again. This is the word “self.” Unfortunately, our postmodern age is obsessed with the self. Pride is merely an outgrowth of this. Humans are the measure of all of things. All reality falls in obeisance to the self. We speak our truth and live our truth. The sad thing is that doing this can cause unspeakable pain and suffering.

An interesting, if extreme, illustration recently appeared in a Marvel show called WandaVision. In it, the series protagonist Wanda has the ability to bend reality to her will, and she creates a world based on sitcoms that she used to watch as a child. Ironically, when Wanda does this she causes all of the people around her to suffer. Their minds are trapped while their bodies are forced to playact in her own twisted fantasy. Wanda is the actual villain of the series, the one who does the most harm, and it is all because she wants to live her own truth, serve herself, and take away her own pain.

A good way to look at humility is given by the Apostle Paul: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom. 12:3). We have a tendency to either have an overinflated view of ourselves or an underinflated view of ourselves. But true humility enables us to accurately see ourselves, pimples and dimples. True lowliness of mind helps us to “esteem other better than ourselves” and “not only [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).

So what does a failure in humility look like? This is where I might get into trouble because I’m going to point to both our past president and our current president. Everyone from both sides are free to fire at me, I suppose, though I’d be happy to meet with folks and chat over a cup of coffee. President Trump proudly thought that he needed to air his thoughts on everything on social media. How many times did we hear that something of his was “the best, maybe ever?” On the other side, President Biden has shown an inability to admit that he is wrong, particularly in regards to foreign policy. Many if not most people would say that the Afghanistan exit was botched, and it resulted in an avoidable catastrophe. But the sin of pride is not limited to the political class. The intellectual can take undo pride in his intellect, and he can look down on others and their opinions because they haven’t studied like he has. The worker can believe that her work makes her better than others and that she deserves the most recognition above all her peers. Attractive people can sometimes glory in the attention that they receive.

I will close with a quote from C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. This is found at the very end of chapter 8, entitled The Great Sin.

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.

The Cost of Courage

Last week on the blog, I began a series on forgotten virtues. These are virtues that our society and culture has downplayed or ignored over the past few decades. In order for our culture to escape the empty and decadent morass in which we find ourselves, these virtues should be reintroduced, reinvigorated, and re-inculcated. Last week, we discussed wisdom, a virtue sorely lacking these days.

This week, I’m going to talk about the next one on my list. I never expected it to be so timely in regards to the war in Ukraine. We are seeing examples of this virtue on a daily basis. This is the virtue of courage.

The Definition of Courage

What is courage? Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the ability to control your fear in dangerous or difficult situations.” This is a very simple definition. I actually like Wikipedia’s better:

“Courage (also called bravery or valor) is the choice and willingness to confront agonypaindangeruncertainty, or intimidation. Valor is courage or bravery, especially in battle.

Physical courage is bravery in the face of physical pain, hardship, even death, or threat of death; while moral courage is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shamescandal, discouragement, or personal loss.”

The Loss of Courage

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the West thought it no longer had an existential enemy. It consequently pampered itself and exalted the ideas of self-centered postmodernity and sensitivity. Safety and security of the self became virtues. However, an obsessive focus on safety and security cannot and will not help someone endure. On the contrary, it weakens the soul and the mind through fear.

I saw this to my great dismay when I returned to higher academia a few years ago. During my first master’s program in the late 2000s, intellectual courage was still a virtue. People had the mental courage to engage with your ideas, even (especially?) if they disagreed with them. During my second master’s program, things had radically changed. The desire for students to be safe and secure ironically did not create an atmosphere of safety and security. It instead fomented an atmosphere of fear. People self-censored so as not to be destroyed. Groupthink rampaged across the campus. The ideal of intellectual freedom was sacrificed on the altar of emotional security.

The Heart of Courage

Of necessity, courage must be shown in the face of loss, and the truly courageous person must face down a personal loss. It is not courageous to be willing to lose something you don’t care about; it is courageous to be willing to lose something you cherish in service to a higher ideal. In the case of the Ukrainians, it means facing the possible loss of personal life, home, and freedom for the ideal of their homeland’s liberty. For the rest of us it might mean taking a risk, standing up for your beliefs, living a life of faith in a faithless culture, etc. While these are lesser risks, these are costs of courage, ones that need to be paid in order to ensure a strong and thriving culture.

The Virtue of Fortitude

Unfortunately, we wish to live lives of luxury. We love comfort and ease, and any ideal or virtue that threatens them is not worth it. We like our houses, our gardens, and our bank accounts brimming with funds. But real life is difficult and hostile, and it requires us to make brave choices. It requires us to prepare ourselves for possible loss. This preparation for patience and perseverance is part and parcel of the related virtue of fortitude. And until we reawaken the virtues of courage and fortitude, I fear things will get much worse in the future.

The Forgotten Virtues: Wisdom

Over the past few months I’ve been pondering the idea of new year’s resolutions. This got me to thinking about what virtues should be worked on this year, and then to what virtues we have forgotten. Every society exalts certain virtues and minimizes others. Some praise individualism while others praise taking care of the community. Some place a high premium on punctuality while others desire a more laid-back view of time. There are also some virtues that go in and out of favor. It is incumbent upon us to talk about virtues that have become old-fashioned instead of being the evergreen virtues they ought to be.

Pursue Wisdom

The first virtue I want to discuss is Wisdom. You don’t hear of wisdom being discussed much nowadays. It requires much effort: mental, spiritual, and physical. Mental—wise people think a great deal before they act; spiritual—wise people pray and ensure their hearts are in the right place; physical—wise people put their decisions into action.


But what is Wisdom? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments.” Let’s parse this a bit: 1) This is an “ability,” something to be developed. One must work at it. 2) One must allow “knowledge and experience” to inform decision-making. So often, people refuse to grow from their knowledge and experience. Instead, they make the same mistakes over and over and over again. I tell my music students to “never make old mistakes; only make new ones.” 3) The “decisions and judgments” need to be “good” ones. People often use their knowledge and experience to wound and destroy. Such choices are not wise but rather foolish and harmful.

How to Get Wisdom

Wisdom must be developed from the inside-out. The first aspect of wisdom is discernment. A person of discernment is one who can tell the true nature of a situation or person. We all know people like this. They seem to intuitively know when someone is fibbing or something is hinky. Discernment is especially important in this day and age. It seems like there is mis- and dis-information coming from all ends of the political and religious spectrums, so developing discernment is a must. This is where old Uncle Aristotle and his rules of logic come into play.

The second aspect of Wisdom is assessment. Wise people determine what truths and principles are important and applicable in a certain situation. This requires and openness (humility, another forgotten virtue) to realizing that you might have missed a truth or principle. “In the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” (Prov. 11:14). I recently had a tricky situation present itself, and it was only through talking to several people that I made a wise choice.

The third aspect of Wisdom is action. It is not enough to know what to do. You must also do it. So many times, people will know what the right course of action is, and they are held back because of fear or other concerns. This is foolish and will only exacerbate things.

The Human Problem in Wisdom

One last thing before we go. Wise people must factor in the human element in situations. They should understand that they live in a fallen world with people who do both good and bad things. They understand that people can be complicated and do/say things for any number of reasons. They recognize that people fail. They hold to the principle of loving them anyway.

What does this mean? 1) You should avoid assuming intentions, either good or bad. There are times where you can guess them, but they must be deduced from people’s past actions and statements. Failure in this area will bite you on the backside. 2) You (yes, you!) are failure-prone human being who does good and bad things. Take this into account. It will give you grace and humility in dealing with others and wariness in dealing with yourself.

There is definitely more that I could say concerning Wisdom, but I think I will leave it here for now. Have a great week!

Life Update January 2022

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Celebris Ensemble at our Jan 29 Choral Residency

Today is the first free day that I’ve had in quite a while, so I thought I’d do a quick life update for you all. The Lord has been good, and I’ve kept busy with various and sundry projects and challenges. All of these reflect my passion for creation. I’ve been thankful that creativity for me requires a lot of alone time. The pandemic has definitely made things difficult in getting together. So, without further ado, here is my life update!

The Giftless Chronicles

I hate having projects hang over my head for long periods of time. They are swords of Damocles, reminders of the promises and responsibilities that I have made. With that said, writing my young adult urban fantasy series has been an enjoyable sword of Damocles. I started writing in the fall of 2014, and I have now finished the first draft of my last book. All told, I will have completed about 223k words broken up over 3 novels, 2 novellas, and 1 short story. I hope to start publishing my last few stories in April and finish by the end of May!

Historical Novel

I got to the point with my urban fantasy series where I wanted to write something completely different. Enter my adult historical novel. It’s a 64k word action-spy-thriller with a dollop of romance. It takes place in England in 1815 just after the War of 1812. The characters were a blast to write. Since no one is waiting on this book to see what happens, I’m using this book to search for an agent. If I can’t find one in a reasonable amount of time, I’ll self-publish!

Well, that about concludes my writing stuff. Next up is my music. We’ll start with my Musical as that is both writing and music.

Ruth: The Musical

At the beginning of the pandemic, I approached Jane Kozhevnikova about writing a musical on the book of Ruth from the Bible. Strangely, she said yes, and the rest is history. I cranked out some song melodies and lyrics and then sent them to her. She worked her compositional magic on them, and they became some beautiful, moving songs. I wrote a script as well!

The cool thing is that we received a grant from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo in order to make a demo recording of the songs. We could pay artists to make our music! We recorded a couple weeks ago. Now we need to listen through all of the takes and decide which ones we want to get cleaned up. Then it’s on to a search for a production company.

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Celebris Ensemble

Celebris took a hiatus for the fall of this year, but we returned with our first ever choral residency. A residency is basically a masterclass. We hosted it this last weekend (Jan. 29) with the West Michigan Homeschool Fine Arts. The students were very attentive, and it was heartwarming to see them grow as singers. This was a very rewarding experience, and definitely something we will be looking into over the next few years. As a teacher, I have always been passionate about training budding musicians.

The next project with this ensemble is our concert in May. For this concert, we will also be doing another brand-new thing: we announced our first-ever composer competition this last fall. Our composer-in-residence, Jane Kozhevnikova, had been pushing for this for about year before I gave the thumbs up. I’m very glad that I did. I love the collaborative process between composer and performer, and giving nascent composers some opportunities is a wonderful way to do this. Many composers sent in pieces, and it was cool to see their passion for the choral art. We will announce the winner on Feb. 12, and perform the song on the May concert.

That’s pretty much it for now. I’m keeping busy and pushing forward. I have many more things going on, but I wanted to keep this short! Thanks for partnering with me on this journey called life. I couldn’t do this without your support.