About

Life makes art.

Vandalia River is the creative outlet of R. Hall, a pianist, songwriter, and music teacher in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The vision of Vandalia River is to reap the art of ordinary life by creating music to distill the beauty of every day living - and encourage others to do the same.

You'll find here original music and a weekly blog with thoughts on music, music education, and the Christian life. Many interests, few specialties - but one deep channel of faith runs through them all.

Coming August 30: "Lower Town"

"Lower Town" is named for the most visited part of Harpers Ferry National Park, where a cluster of old buildings and stone ruins meets the shores of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. This instrumental piano piece is written in a familiar American style and evokes the energy and pleasantness of first meeting this pretty war town. 

It will be available almost anywhere you listen to music. Follow Vandalia River on Spotify and it will appear on your Release Radar.

Or join the mailing list (scroll down) to get reminded when it's released.

Instrumental Piano

Pensée No. 1

Vandalia River

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Pensée No. 1

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Pensée No. 1 is a brief instrumental piano piece with an ounce of pretty and a dash of suspense. Available on most streaming and retail platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon.

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Lyrical Songs

Heaven and Earth: Scripture Songs for the Old and New

R. Hall, featuring Kellan Gash

Acoustic, catchy, and mostly not annoying: these songs are the home-grown product of a church Scripture memory program. After a long process of writing and refining, vocalist Kellan Gash and sound engineer Derryck Birt helped R. Hall bring the album to the next level.

​Now these songs are a gift to you. Listen, use, and share without compulsion to pay. A PDF of chord sheets is included in the album download.

Also available on many streaming platforms, including Spotify and YouTube!

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If you like what you hear, I'd love to send you news and blog updates.

From the blog

Consumer Report 

Music 

This collection of mostly acoustic, guitar-driven songs is really nice in the morning. It is gentle yet cheery, and the lyrics look up and out rather than in and down. 

 

Josh Garrels won me over with his new album Chrysaline. Atmospheric, sincere, worshipful, sophisticated. 

 

Last week I recommended the Classics for Kids podcast. Well, I didn't want to listen to the episodes on John Philip Sousa. A victim of his own success, he wrote military marches that are almost cliché now. But I did listen, and somehow the smartness of his music shot through to me freshly. 

 

Books 

Working with Winston by Cita Stelzer profiles several of the personal secretaries who worked for Winston Churchill. Before, during, and after the war they worked their tails off according to his very particular and all-encompassing methods. They had plenty of pluck and intelligence, demonstrated by their Operation Desperate "war memo" commissioning persons to "command Special Mission to U.S.A. for the purpose of exploring the rich resources, believed to exist in the West, of certain vital commodities. These are:-- (i) Silk Stockings (ii) Chocolate (iii) Cosmetics." 

Movies 

A few personal favorites, chosen for relative obscurity: 

A Canterbury Tale 

Babette's Feast   

Temple Grandin   

The Secret World of Arrietty

Microcosmos (nature documentary. make sure squeamish family members are present for the kissing snails scene.)

Four Ways to Bring Music Home 

I aspire to bring more live music back into the home. Strategically this means bringing music to our kids. Here are four ways that has happened in the Hall house.

1. Singing

Singing belongs to you. Some people are knock-out singers, but everybody is meant to sing. I hear about homeschooling penny pinchers who can easily get music literature, history, and theory in their house but, unless the parents are musicians, can't afford actual music lessons. Well, singing makes you an instant practitioner of music. Certainly there's proper technique to it that's not intuitive - but go ahead. Start with the songs you know and like. Start when your kids are young so they don't learn to become embarrassed. Maybe learn some rounds to sing in the car, such as "Scotland's Burning."

Speaking of Scotland, these guys are cool.

But they're not singing a round. Here's another one.

This summer a few of my friends got together to form a casual summer a cappella group. We were lucky a trained vocalist could help us find our parts. We learned a two-part arrangement of "Down to the River to Pray," practicing on our own and coming together in a mom's house with kids milling about to bring it all together. It was fun, and we're hungry to tackle something for Christmas now. GENE PUERLING CHRISTMAS ARRANGEMENTS, WHERE ARE YOU?

2. Classics for Kids Podcast

Each episode in this podcast is six minutes long, winsomely narrated by Naomi Lewin at WGUC in Cincinnati. Naomi introduces names, places, musical forms, biographical anecdotes, and humorous facts, all interspersed with samples from the composers' well known works. Though meant for kids, it's a serious introduction to music literature that will inform everyone. Subscribe!

3. The Piano Safari method

Many piano methods for young children emphasize how to read piano music. Piano Safari focuses on how to play the piano. Not at all neglecting, however, to lay a foundation for reading. By the end of the series kids are reading the grand staff, improvising, playing chords and scales, understanding some chord relationships, and playing folk and classical pieces with deliberate technique. A good teacher can convey these things no matter the method, but Piano Safari brings it all together. The website is a pedagogical hub of resources for teaching concepts as well as supplements for students sticking with a different method.

4. Routine

Routine is magic. If each day has a routine with music practice tucked in the same place, practice happens. For the resident student in this house, piano practice is the last school subject before free play. No reminder needed. And, a little bit of practice every day goes much farther than a lot every now and then. I never cease to wonder at the miracle of incrementalism. No matter how tangled the notes look or how awkward the fingering feels at first, the minuscule gains each day seem suddenly to resolve in a creditable performance.

This carries over to creative work, too. A little bit of regular time devoted to writing music yields results. As I saw songwriter Jon Guerra put it, "Regularity is the mother of spontaneity."

#BringMusicHome

Battlescapes 

The weather was good, we had the time, and my dad liked cycling, so in 2003 we took an excursion from our lodging place in northern Virginia to "thehistoricaltownofHarpersFerry." Unfortunately I was usually rather passive on these excursions, but, as we turned left on Route 340 and approached West Virginia, I was moved despite myself by the view of the Shenandoah River through the trees. It was a wide, shallow, rocky expanse of dappled white-and-gunmetal. We did what most first-time visitors do: walk about the old town, stand on the riverbanks, take pictures. We even carried our bikes down the spiraling staircase to try the C&O canal towpath. Or did we give up when we saw the stairs?

Still, Harpers Ferry never became special to me until Jacob took me there in 2006 and sat us down on a stone ruin atop the river. To my astonishment, he proposed. Then our giddy selves hiked up past Jefferson Rock and sat down with our backs to the setting sun and our faces toward the confluence of the rivers between the heights. Below our feet was a descending hill of gravestones. I can't think of a better thing to do than consider a graveyard after you've pledged your life to someone. We sat, cried, smiled, and wondered what legacy we would have by the time we had our own stones.

We didn't then think we would one day live in Harpers Ferry, but this November will mark our sixth year here. The place is now linked to the themes and events of our lives. But, just like our lives, it's fraught with memories of conflict. John Brown's would-be insurrection was here. The town changed hands at least seven times between North and South during the Civil War. We've dug up heavy white lead bullets from our own backyard.

Every day, literally and figuratively, we see battlescapes. So much beauty, so much battle, neither ever completely safe from the other.

Last Saturday, we spent several hours at a studio tracking six piano pieces commemorating Harpers Ferry. This collection is called Battlescapes, and I can't wait to share it. Quite soon, I will announce the release of a single from this little album. I wish I could give you hard dates, but there's a bit of back-end prep to do first. Rest assured the site and social will be updated when there's more to tell.

Thanks for following this journey.

What We Want Is a Christian Poet 

Brett McCracken at the Gospel Coalition shared a playlist of "Quality Christian Music." He writes, "Often accused of being derivative, sugarcoated, and samey-sounding, 'Christian music' as a genre has become such a liability that many musicians understandably avoid the label like the plague. Is some of Christian music’s poor reputation deserved? Certainly. But the case against Christian music can be simplistic and overstated. The truth is there is a lot of artistically interesting, quality Christian music being made today—it’s just not always easy to find."

I appreciate Brett's optimism and taking the time to highlight newer artists. I must say, I often hear the complaint he describes and am never satisfied with it. For one thing, our pond is too small. The discussion of "good Christian music" tends to stay within the pop music genre (that includes pop, most rock, folk, and country here). It's like arguing between vintages of the same wine (and let's not get snobby toward folks who like the cheaper years.) Christians are free to expand their horizons to all genres - and to all times available to us. We can learn to enjoy oratorios, choral hymns, loads of instrumental music, and so on and so forth.

Having said all that, I do think there is a valid reason we still desire quality pop Christian music. It's not just that we want good Christian music - we want a good Christian poet. 

Modern poetry is a thing apart from song, but there's always been a connection between the two. The poet is ancient. The Greeks had several. Homer opens the Odyssey, "Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story." The Hebrews had poets, most notably David. An Old English poet gives us Beowulf, in which a Scandinavian poet (scop) sings for clansmen about past victories and tragedies - to celebrate as well as warn the hearers in the hall.

We want our own poets to put our life experience in words. We want it in song so there is vent to the emotions of existence. We want it in our language so we can know it is true for us. We want the music to be familiar so it can feel relatable. 

Think of the most legendary singers and songwriters of the last forty years (Bob Dylan for one?) - they were entertainers to different degrees, but they wore a poet's mantle, too. Christians long to interface their experience of life with God's truth. Christians have sincerely experienced, in different degrees, revelation that brings warning, hope, reasons, and purposes to our lives. So there is a unique call for a Christian poet to bring all this together in song and word. 

I think this is why Andrew Peterson, Sara Groves, and Rich Mullins - to name a few - are well loved. Skillful, yes. But also sincere, eloquent, and believing. Their lyrics assure you that they too see the world with open eyes, but they've seen the Lord, too, and they reach up for him. For the Christian poet - just as it was for David the psalmist - the continuum of art is able to encompass expression of mere experience as well as overt worship of the Lord. (Brett's playlist, by the way, has artists that tend toward the latter emphasis.)

There will always be a desire for new "quality Christian artists," because there will always be new people and new experiences that call for a twist on familiar styles. There will always be a demand for sincere Christian poets to strum our mortal cords.

Let's sing and tell the Story.

Thanks to my dad for sharing the TGC article.

Surprise 

A few weeks ago there were no plans to distribute "Pensée No. 1." 

Surprise! 

Plans have changed. 

It's now on Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube, Spotify, and a number of other platforms. This means you can now follow Vandalia River on Spotify, too. 

Hear on Spotify. 

Get on Apple Music/iTunes. 

Hear on Amazon. 

YouTube (please note, this video is not under Vandalia River's YouTube page, so if you subscribe you won't be subscribing to me):