From the blog

Digging for Heaven 

It seems like the people who have the most heavenly stories are the one who've dug deepest into the earth. 

Corrie ten Boom lived a war, provided a hiding place, survived a concentration camp, and forgave. 

Gladys Aylward boarded a train to go through Europe to China. When it stopped at the edge of a warzone in Russia, she started walking. Both the regularity of her ordinary service to the Chinese and the spectacularity of events that arose from it qualify her story. 

Similarly, the most creative people are the ones getting their hands dirty with real stuff. The early Disney animators didn't get their inspiration from watching cartoons (there weren't any!). They had been boys in the early 20th century, and, I wager, that gave them the imaginative kindling they needed to animate their cleverness. Much more recently, Garrett Taylor tells one reason he was hired as an artist for Pixar: "To my amazement, the man that chose me for the position said he particularly liked that I had a knowledge of carpentry, and could see that understanding in my portfolio." Carpentry had been his back-up job and the only thing on his resume - but it was this physical craft that made his illustration rise above that of others. 

This all reminds me of that writing advice to live first, write next. Douglas Wilson ("love him or hate him") writes in Wordsmithy, "Live an actual life out there, a full life, the kind that will generate a surplus of stories.... Picture your writing corpus as the mouth of a great river, and all the life you have experienced as the various tributaries that feed the river." 

And, indeed, modest though they be, the projects that appear here at Vandalia River were inspired by real, regular life. This weekend is the anniversary weekend of releasing Heaven and Earth: Scripture Songs for the Old and New. These songs came about because I had kids; I was going to church with kids; I was living life with folks in church; and I was reading Scripture. I was living life, and life gave me something to write about. 

On Sep. 20 - next Friday - another bit of music will be released that was borne out of non-musical living. This track inspired the whole Battlescapes album I've been working on. Jacob runs. He runs because he likes it, but he really runs because he loves his son, and it's one of the few things they can do together. We know this town, this park, and this community all the better for his running pursuit. One day, as a service to my daughter's cross country team, he took video of a trail route on Schoolhouse Ridge, a series of fields that are part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. He set an early draft of a piece I was creating to the video.

Years later, remembering that video and that piece, I realized it needed to be finished and named "Schoolhouse Ridge." And it needed to be accompanied by other pieces commemorating places linked to our home and story. 

Schoolhouse Ridge. Murphy Farm. Lower Town. The Heights. Virginius Island. The Confluence. I look forward to unfolding what these places mean to me in music. 

 If you haven't yet, pre-save "Schoolhouse Ridge" on Spotify. 

If you like the style of these piano pieces so far, let me know if you'd be interested in a Battlescapes CD. If I get enough pre-orders, I'll be able to print a small batch.

Singing Belongs to You - and Some News 

This summer a little dream came true. 

A handful of acquaintances got together in someone's house and learned an a cappella song together. We were college girls, working mothers, empty nesters, and due this fall (well, one of us). Some of us could read music; others not so much. Some of us were known to be gifted vocalists; others were not known to be so (and in my case, was certainly not). We got together once a month three times - the first time to figure out our parts and suggest songs to learn; the other times to come together and sing what we practiced. We couldn't all show up every time, but when we did, we were smiling.

To learn our parts, we had a notated arrangement as well as the parts recorded singly for those who didn't read music. I recorded the tracks and shared them on Soundcloud, but for a lot of arrangements you should be able to buy pre-recorded tracks. 

This was a way to be together and bring music home. This was a way to use the voices we all had regardless of gifting. We didn't produce any record-worthy performances, of course. But that's not why we sing. 

We just might do this again.


And Some News!

A few weeks ago I sat down during an evening storm and played a piece from the forthcoming Battlescapes set. It's called "Schoolhouse Ridge" and is named for a series of fields nearby that saw action during the Civil War. Schoolhouse Ridge is preserved today as part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

And "Schoolhouse Ridge" has been preserved in studio. It's coming out as a single on Sep. 20! 

If you like it, you can now pre-save the piece on Spotify. 

"Lower Town" Goes Public  

"Lower Town" is now out where you can get it!

"Lower Town" is an instrumental piano piece named for the most visited part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park: a cluster of old buildings, ruins, shops, and residences hugged by the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Visitors who approach it from either Maryland or Virginia are impressed by the sight of this point of land, with its spires and stoneworks, descending into the confluence of two great channels.


This piece captures the energy and pleasantness I felt when first meeting Harpers Ferry, while pausing at points just like I paused to reflect on the somber aspects of this war town's history.


Choose your link of choice to listen. If you like it, please share. 





Consumer Report 


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. 



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." 


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."



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.


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


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):

Becoming Vandalia River 

The Vandalia Room began as an umbrella for a number of pursuits: original music, audiobooks, and a blog. "Vandalia" refers both to home - it was once a contender as the official name of West Virginia - and the woman who bought the piano that is now in my living room.

Since beginning this platform, I've recognized that much home recording is an inefficient use of my time. There won't be more audiobooks anytime soon; and instead of testing and re-testing mic set-ups and mixing techniques I'll focus on writing - and finishing - music to record. New music will be shared under Vandalia River. Why? There are already a couple like-minded groups that use "room" in their name. I like "river" in part because it evokes a sense of natural flow. The creative output of Vandalia River flows from a domestic life. I'm not out to reach some new echelon of brilliant art. My vision is to capture the art that can be distilled from whatever life already is. I guess, in a sense, all creators do just that. But the music teacher in me wants to beat this drum so onlookers can be inspired to produce art in their own way, even if modest. This is why I write about house concerts and classical composers and recipes and how music speaks to us in our circumstances.

So pardon the dust as the site and social get reworked. Vandalia River is now on Instagram, by the way. R. Hall, as a former social media exile, still has some catching up to do, but follow along @vandaliariver!

P.S. How do you listen to music? Pandora? YouTube? Downloads? Getting ready to record some instrumental piano music, and I want to put it where you can get it. Let me know by e-mailing post @

Pachelbel Rises from Grave and Claims Royalties; Bankrupts ASCAP/BMI for Canon in D 

Furthermore, Beethoven's PRO has sent an elite selection of bouncers to his grave, according to people familiar with the matter. "They're very concerned about 'Ode to Joy' and 'Fur Elise,'" sources said.

Hahaha, I know that's not how it works. In case you feel left out of this half-developed joke, let's start over.

When an artist writes and publishes a song today, he is owed money when the song is performed - such as on the radio, television, at a venue, etc. If he has a publisher for his song other than himself, the publisher is owed 50% and the songwriter is owed 50% for the use of the composition. Lots of songwriters self-publish and can therefore get 100%. Where does the money come from in the first place? The fees those venues pay for the right to broadcast. (So a songwriter wouldn't get performance royalties from, say, a house concert.) To collect what is owed, the songwriter should register with a performing rights organization (PRO). ASCAP and BMI are the best known PROs in the United States. You might have seen those initials in the copyright footnote of a lyric slide at church.

So this post's headline is a joke about composers who aren't around anymore to profit from their runaway hits. But, according to a music distributor, "There is no set rate for performance royalties – they vary quarter-by-quarter depending on variable factors, such as the total amount of license fees collected by the Performing Rights Organization." So even if Pachelbel did a Lazarus and overcame public domain law and showed he'd been registered with a PRO the whole bankruptcy imminent.

Let me continue to guide you, however, into the labyrinth of how recording artists and songwriters get paid. Be warned, we might never emerge. (Please e-mail corrections if you spot errors.) I wanted to move backwards from the song - "When a song is downloaded on iTunes, X gets Y% and T might get V%." If such an analysis is possible, I don't have the time to make it.

[UPDATE: Songtrust has a very clear guide to a lot of this here - check it out.]

So let's put it this way. The songwriter and publisher should get revenue for the composition everywhere, whether streamed, downloaded, played on the radio, licensed to TV, sold on CD, or covered by somebody else. If a songwriter is his own publisher, boo-yah. Whoever owns the recording ("master rights") gets royalties whenever the recording is streamed, bought, or aired. For many big names, that's the record label. Indie artists generally own their own recordings, so they get to keep this share, too. What about the featured performing artist who didn't write or publish the song? He or she gets a cut of streaming license fees and download revenue. There's also a distinction made between interactive platforms (e.g., Spotify) and non-interactive platforms (e.g, regular Pandora).

To collect all these sources of revenue, artists, songwriters, publishers, and labels often use music distributors (such as CD Baby or Distrokid); PROs (ASCAP/BMI); and SoundExchange for Internet radio, depending on their role in the music making process and agreements with other parties. So if you write, perform, and record your own music by yourself, you're due a whopping percentage for your work. Then again, if you write, perform, and record your own music by yourself, it's possible no one knows about you.

Other sources of revenue include licensing to film, TV, and churches. The film-and-TV strategy is known as sync licensing. "The experts" say it can be very rewarding for even obscure artists, but it requires quality, research, and hustle. CCLI partners with songwriters, labels, and publishers to give churches a simpler and legal way to use songs in their worship services. This is why you might have seen a CCLI # on your church lyric slides. By the way, has your conscience ever troubled you about watching unofficial YouTube videos with other artists' songs? Actually, music distributors and YouTube (and Facebook, and Instagram, etc.) have a way of attaching a digital fingerprint to the song so that anywhere it is played on those platforms the rights holders get credit.

Of course, there are all sorts of other ways artists can profit from their music. They can sell CDs at creative prices and work out their own performance opportunities. Because the direct retail connection to their music has been lost, more and more artists are embracing a micro-patronage model in which fans are supporting them with voluntary payments for merchandise, shows, Kickstarter campaigns, or just because they love their work so much. See JJ Heller's breakdown of one of her songs here.

For further information:

All your music revenue sources (and how to collect the money) - CD Baby DIY Musician Blog

How to Get All Your Music Royalties - Ari's Take (may contain foul language)

The TRUTH About Music Licensing with Michael Elsner - Rick Barker podcast