Play Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Not Like……Darth Maul

Those who know me even a little bit know that my family and I are Star Wars fans. We are so not because we think the stories are great literature much less present a philosophical system that is compatible with our own Christian worldview, but simply because the universe George Lucas (b. 1944) and his successors have created provides a fun bit of hugely imaginative escapism. We not only enjoy the movies but also a few of the novels, and especially the animated series The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels. My writing here has to do with Episode 20 of Season 3 of the latter series, which aired tonight and is entitled “Twin Suns.”

The events of this episode take place approximately 16-17 years after the events of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and thus 2-3 years prior to the events of the original Star Wars film, Episode IV: A New Hope. Here we find Darth Maul, who during The Clone Wars series had been found to have improbably survived being cut in half during his duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and has spent the past 30 years planning and occasionally exercising some vengeance upon Kenobi for his shattered life. Through some clever psychological manipulation of Jedi Padawan Ezra Bridger Maul has discovered that Kenobi is living in exile someplace on the desert planet of Tatooine, and at the end of the episode at last finds and confronts Kenobi, seeking a fight to the death.

twin-suns-08_f1bea50fKenobi, here cleverly portrayed for the first time in an animated version more like his elderly self as first played by Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000), is reluctant to fight but resigns himself to doing so once Maul begins to divine Kenobi’s purpose on Tatooine as Luke Skywalker’s guardian. The two aged warriors draw their weapons and study each other for an extended period, evidently not only planning their own attack strategies but also seeking to anticipate one another’s moves. Kenobi begins with an attack posture like that used by his younger self in the Star Wars prequels, but soon settles into the simpler, more economical style of Guinness’s swordplay. In the end, this economy wins the day, as after parrying just twice Kenobi with a simple gesture both severs Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber and mortally wounds his opponent in the chest. Both before and after the encounter Kenobi seems to regard Maul more with pity than anything else, as he has been used and discarded by the Emperor just like the Jedi Order, the Republic, and the former peace which prevailed in the galaxy.

Kenobi vs. Grievous

At this point, you’re wondering “What on earth does all of this have to do with brass playing?” In a blog post several years ago I used a somewhat tortured description of the duel between Kenobi and General Grievous in Episode III to illustrate something about brass playing, namely that just as the more economical actions of Kenobi won the day over the busier activity of Grievous, so greater efficiency in brass playing yields better results than lots of extraneous effort. This new duel between Kenobi and Maul makes that point even more dramatically. In brass playing—and evidently in lightsaber dueling—efficient, economical actions always win the day.

Now back to practicing…and seeking to “practice what I preach!”

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Education, Euphonium, Music, Performing, Practicing, Star Wars, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Appreciation of Beauty is Natural; Ignoring it is Learned

Today I’ve been coming down after a busy but enjoyable few days at the American Trombone Workshop (preparing for the trip is one reason I missed blogging last week), and haven’t been particularly productive. While scrolling through my Facebook feed I came across what was certainly a bit of “click-bait” but indulged in it anyway. In the video a little girl puts a bit of money into the hat of a bass-playing street musician, and over the next few minutes a flash-mob assembles, performing an abridgement of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (i.e. the “Ode to Joy”). The performance was of good quality, especially considering the venue and circumstances, but not particularly remarkable. What struck me about the video was the reactions of the children in the area, who happily danced, conducted, and generally reveled in the beauty of the moment. One is reminded of the experiment of a decade ago when world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell played for an hour or so in a Washington, D.C., Metro station. Few adults took notice despite the exquisite playing of masterpieces of the repertoire, but “every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.” The children recognized that something special was taking place, but the adults wore blinders.

That our children have an innate sense of beauty should be unsurprising. After all, the God who made us has revealed himself both in Scripture and in Creation to be a God who values beauty for its own sake, so human beings made in his image could be expected to do the same. And yet, the American way—and this ethos has crept into other cultures as well—has typically been to prize utility over beauty, with the creation and enjoyment of the beautiful for its own sake without any quantifiable economic or social benefit being seen as a waste. The same attitude has crept into the church, where millions of dollars are spent on facilities and programs but the idea of raising artistic standards by, say, training and compensating musicians is sometimes viewed with suspicion, to say nothing of offering rudimentary musical instruction to congregations so that the quality of singing improves. And, sadly enough, sometimes even our own arts institutions have contributed to a loss of this simple, childlike love of beauty—ask yourself, what would happen if a parent allowed his child to joyfully dance and conduct along with Beethoven at an actual orchestra concert?

Now, am I arguing for the abolition of the mores governing concert etiquette, or for an expansion of publicly funded arts programs, or for bigger and more professionalized music in the churches? No. I have written frequently in opposition to the latter (music should be of good quality but not overshadow preaching), I view the question of public arts funding as a state or local matter rather than a federal one, and I think that some decorum in concerts is helpful and necessary. Nevertheless, I think it is appropriate for us to examine ourselves as individuals and as a society and ask what we are doing that by the time we reach adulthood snuffs out the appreciation for beauty that our children seem to have innately. More importantly, we should ask what we can do to recover it. This is not only good for us subjectively; it is a divine command!

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

 

Posted in Beauty, Christian Worldview, Education, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Performance Videos, Performing, Practical Christianity, Society

“…in Godliness with Contentment”

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. (1 Timothy 6:6-7)

This weekend I was asked a question that I have heard periodically throughout my career. “So, is Ole Miss a destination for you, or are you planning to move on to bigger things?” In the past I was asked the same thing about the University of Louisiana at Monroe, where I happily taught for seven years. I will admit to always being taken aback by that question. For one thing, I have always thought that the institutions where I have worked and the students and colleagues there deserved better than to be treated as stepping stones. Even years ago at the University of Northern Iowa, where my term-limited teaching position was by nature impermanent, I acted as if the job there would be mine for an extended period and endeavored to build foundations for future growth in case my place there became more long-term. At ULM my position was tenure-track and then tenured, and while I thought it unwise to totally rule out the possibility of another move I intended to stay there permanently. I worked not only to build my position at the university but also to put down roots in the community, roots whose severing was painful when I decided to apply for and ultimately accept my present position at Ole Miss. Here also, and especially after being awarded tenure, I have endeavored to establish permanent roots and foundations in my professional life as well as in church, community, and family activities. Am I willing to predict the future and say that I will certainly retire here? No, but unless some great change in circumstances takes place I expect that to be the case, and will be happy and thankful if it is so. While I have worked to bolster my place in the profession by performing, presenting, and writing (including, in a small way, this blog), I do this to better promote Ole Miss and to build my case for further promotion here, not to position myself to move on to another job some might perceive as better.

Perhaps the rapid trajectory of my early career has led some to wonder why I was so quick to “settle down.” After all, I deliberately worked through three university degrees in eight years (as opposed to the usual nine or ten, or more) in order to get out of school and into the profession (and making money!) as quickly as possible. Maybe that ambition appeared to indicate that I would be a person who would continue to leap from one job to the next up the proverbial ladder until reaching a position that my colleagues would view as a “pinnacle” type of job. I suppose that is the case with many others, but it was never so with me. My professional ambition was always to get through school as quickly as possible, then settle into a university position (big or small) and set about building a career and a life from there.

Why is that the case? Part of it is that my undergraduate training was at a small university with a small music department, and I have a special affection for that type of situation. While the smaller pool of students necessarily means that the course offerings will be fewer and the student ensembles not always as good, there are opportunities for quality instruction and interactions in those smaller, close-knit departments that do not exist in larger ones. As a smaller department within a large research university, the music department at Ole Miss in some ways offers the best of both worlds, and it is rewarding to be here.

Another part of my seeming lack of ambition (or, more accurately, a differently directed ambition) is that I dislike large cities. While large metropolitan areas offer a great many more performing opportunities for a classical-and-sometimes-jazz musician such as me, they also bring higher costs, more crime, and a general unsuitableness for family life. In Lafayette County, Mississippi, my family and I can live quite well on my salary from the university. This would not be the case in a more urban environment where housing in particular is much more expensive but the salary would be similar. A related consideration is that my positions both here and in Monroe placed us within three hours’ drive of both my wife’s parents and mine, a luxury not afforded to many in this business.

Ultimately, though, my desire to quickly establish myself, put down roots, and grow is rooted in my Christian understanding of work and contentment. An unhappy side effect of my rapid ascent into the university teaching profession (remember, I started as a teaching assistant at age 22 and had my first adjunct position at 24) is that while still in very early adulthood I had reached all of my immediate professional goals and in effect asked “is this all there is?” After spending years of intense work effectively “checking off boxes” and “doing all of the right things” I found myself at the end of all of that and looking ahead at years of relative sameness. To a certain extent, that dissatisfaction was relieved only when health challenges threatened to end my playing career and I was jolted into remembering just how blessed I am to do what I do.

Even more important, though, was my settled knowledge even as a very young man that my career could never satisfy, could never be “all there is,” and that I was to find contentment and fulfillment in Christ in the midst of even the best professional circumstances. In the Book of Ecclesiastes we read the reflections of an aged King Solomon, a man who was afforded but largely squandered every worldly advantage. He had political power, unsurpassed wealth, and great wisdom and understanding, yet wasted so much of his life in extravagance, polygamy, idolatry, and rebellion against God. As an old man here he seems regretful and, one hopes, repentant, realizing that the things upon which he bestowed his time, strength, and resources were mere vanity, and that joy and satisfaction ultimately come only in the loving worship and service of God.

Happily, as a music teacher I have no hope of obtaining great wealth or power, and I am perfectly satisfied with having only one wife! Nevertheless, the temptation to seek my greatest fulfillment in my work is always present, either explicitly by essentially making work an idol, or more often implicitly by giving God lip-service while my time, efforts, and thoughts are focused upon work. In some respects, musicians can be more susceptible to this than those in other professions due to our often erratic hours combined with certain social pressures unique to our profession. Music becomes an insatiable god if allowed to do so—after all, one can never practice enough, perform perfectly enough, or gain enough praise from peers and audiences. Instead, a right and healthy perspective is that while music is often rewarding, it must remain only my job, not my raison d’être.

Does all of this mean that I lack professional ambitions? Of course not. I hope to write at least one more book, record another album or two, and continue to perform, lecture, arrange, write, and generally build my national and international profile, but I am content to do all of that while based in my comfortable and reasonably well-paid teaching position in Mississippi. After all, while all of those things are fulfilling they can never provide ultimate satisfaction, and could not even if I were based in the bustling musical environments of Nashville, New York, or Los Angeles, or teaching graduate students in a large music school or conservatory. Ultimate satisfaction comes only in fearing and obeying God, in serving his church and spreading the gospel, in raising my little family in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” and even in pursuing my professional life to the best of my ability not as an end in itself, but as an act of obedience to the God who says to do our work “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

When my ambitions are thus directed, I can pursue them with great contentment for the next thirty years in Oxford, Mississippi, or anyplace else and in any other endeavor to which I am called. And in that, there is great gain.

 

Posted in Bible, Christian Worldview, Church, Doctrine, Doctrine of Vocation, Education, Higher Education, Micah Everett, Music, Music and Theology, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, The Future, Theology, University of Mississippi

Do Your Homework!

As is the case with just about any good job, my teaching position is usually rewarding, most often enjoyable, and generally enviable. After all, lots of fine musicians go through years of training and education in hopes of landing a university professorship like mine only to find that the number of qualified candidates is much larger than the number of available full-time jobs. Indeed, to some extent I deliberately sought a position where I would infrequently work with music performance majors and have little expectation of recruiting them, as I could not in good conscience prepare dozens of students for jobs that do not exist. Most of my students pursue jobs as school band directors and succeed in finding such positions immediately upon graduation.

Having a part in training the next generation of music educators is for the most part quite gratifying, though a common frustration is when students who are not training for performance careers neglect the daily practice that I require for their weekly lessons. At least three years of individual instruction on a major instrument is required for all music degrees (more for music performance), for reasons that should be obvious. To put it briefly, how can a music teacher who has never demonstrated a reasonably high level of musicianship expect to teach others to do so? While we don’t expect every music teacher to attain the level of artistry expected for performing careers, successful music teachers at least learn during their university training to go into the practice room, work out solutions to problems, and devise pleasing interpretations of their assigned pieces. These skills are not dissimilar to those that they will one day use when rehearsing their ensembles from the podium. I regularly emphasize this in lessons with music education students and they usually agree, though they don’t always translate that agreement into action.

The area in which lack of practice most commonly manifests itself is in the neglect of daily and systematic playing fundamentals work. I shared my thoughts regarding such practice in detail on this blog several years ago and will not repeat myself—see here and here for those posts. Even students who can be relied upon to practice assigned etudes, solo repertoire, and excerpts with some diligence frequently neglect the work that they are assigned in these areas. This is to their detriment, as daily and systematic (these concepts are key) fundamentals practice ultimately reduces the amount of time needed to learn new works. In other words, neglecting fundamentals to practice “real music” ultimately doesn’t save time at all. More time is needed to learn those works, and without the benefit of developing a broader skillset that readily transfers to music studied and performed in the future. This is not to say that fundamentals practice is always, well, fun—it often is not. But, playing music well is fun, and fundamentals practice is a key to getting there.

And yet, amazingly, even after I explain all the reasons why daily practice of both fundamentals and repertoire is beneficial for both playing and teaching, some students neglect this week after week. Few try to get by with no practice, but many do less than expected. (A corresponding number do not receive grades of “A” in their weekly lessons.) Strangely enough, these same students would not dream of neglecting homework in other courses, but seem to expect few or no consequences when their assigned practice is neglected. To those folks, perhaps all that is left is the basest of all motivators: “If you don’t practice you won’t pass my class.” Poor encouragement to be sure, but it’s there.

office-space-quotes15The flip side is happier. “If you practice, you’ll not only pass my class, but you’ll also be a better musician, play in better ensembles, enjoy playing more, and ultimately by becoming a better musician will be a better music teacher.”

My dear students, don’t your future students deserve to have their teacher be the best musician he or she can be?

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

“The Great Equalizer”

The present sociopolitical milieu on many college and university campuses seems to present an unwelcoming environment for conservatives, whether of the religious, social, or economic varieties. News headlines speak of violent protests followed by disinvitations of conservative speakers from campus venues, and articles bemoaning the shutting out of ideas contrary to liberal orthodoxies can readily be found in print and online. Happily, the “horror stories” that garner so much attention are the exceptions rather than the rule. While the worldview of the sociopolitical Left is certainly ascendant in academia and has been for several decades, faculty and students coming from the Right are usually treated politely, even when their ideas are not always readily welcomed.

The ability of conservatives to function and thrive as academics seems to depend upon the area of inquiry. Business and economics are often described as being more welcoming to conservative or libertarian ideas, while in the social sciences a Leftist perspective seems predominant. The arts are, in my experience at least, largely populated by social and political liberals, yet I have been able to thrive while working among colleagues and students who hold positions far to my left, and even to develop friendly working relationships with them–generally speaking I have always genuinely liked the people with whom I have worked, regardless of whatever differences we might have on various issues. To a certain extent my ability to do this is the result of simple collegiality. I know how to treat people as I want to be treated and accept that interjecting politics and religion into every conversation is not a way to be well-liked, especially when one’s views on such things differ significantly from those of the people by whom one is surrounded. And, as I am so fond of telling students, “I see and hear things that offend me every single day, but I am able to deal with it quietly because I am a grownup.”

Being polite and having a thick skin is not all that is needed to be successful, but it goes a long way. More importantly, as a professor in applied music, my positions on any number of issues of the day simply are not often relevant to my teaching, writing, or performing, and interjecting them would be extraneous and unhelpful. What matters most is whether or not I can play well, perform successfully, contribute to my field through writing, editing, and speaking, and teach students effectively. My opinions regarding pieces of legislation, political candidates, or even matters of current social and political conversation matter very little as long as I can make great music and teach others to do the same. This doesn’t mean that I am secretive about my political, social, and religious leanings–this blog is evidence enough of that–but ideas not relevant to teaching and performing on low brass instruments have never been part of my curriculum.

Even more importantly, in teaching I am fond of calling the trombone (or the euphonium, or the tuba) “The Great Equalizer.” What does that mean? It means that when a student walks into my studio for a lesson my assessment of that student’s performance in no way takes into account that person’s race, ethnicity, gender, social class, income level, religion, or any number of other categories with which people self-identify or are classified by others. The only thing that matters is whether or not that student plays better in the present lesson than in the previous one; whether or not instructions were followed, effective practice strategies were employed, and diligent work took place between meetings. Every student who does those things and produces beautiful sounds receives high marks, and every student who fails to do those things receives low marks. All are treated equally.

Like most professors, I love teaching but am ambivalent at best toward grading, especially in applied music when there is necessarily a subjective element in every assessment. While I can’t promise to always grade perfectly, I can and do promise to always grade apolitically. The Great Equalizer makes this possible, and I am glad that it does.

Posted in Higher Education, Music, Political Systems, Politics, Society, Teaching Low Brass

Service, Yes. “Customer Service,” No.

A favorite expression of mine over the past several years has been that “music is a service profession.” I first introduced this idea in seed form in a very early post on this blog, and it is part of the philosophy that lies beneath nearly all of my performing and teaching. Rejecting the idea of the musician as an aloof, elevated “artist” who cannot be bothered with the needs of desires of his audience, I have instead deliberately endeavored to construct a career centered upon the edification of my students and listeners. This doesn’t mean that I only choose performance repertoire for which audiences ask, much less allow students to drive curriculum and assignments. It does mean that I choose to perform music that is accessible and understandable, and explain to the audience in advance those pieces which are more difficult to absorb. I normally reject outright those works whose composers seemed to be pursuing the shock value of the “purposefully ugly.” Likewise with students, I do not always choose performance and study materials that they like or enjoy after a superficial first hearing or reading, but rather those pieces which will most develop their technical skills and cognitive understanding. My ability to do this depends upon a certain hierarchy in the teacher-student relationship.

Throughout my career in higher education a “customer service” mentality has pervaded the operations of many recruitment, student activities, athletic, and other offices. This approach treats students as their families as “paying customers” deserving of the type of deference given to customers and clients in a sales situation, including a willingness to acquiesce at times to the demands of young “consumers.” There is much to commend this way of doing things in certain areas of university life, especially given the large increases in tuition and fees over the past 40 years and an apparent focus upon selling a particular “college experience” that has accompanied these increases. When multiple thousands of dollars are at stake, a small amount catering to prospective students seems reasonable.

However, when this same mentality extends to the relationships between students and faculty there is a problem. Taken to a logical extreme, application of the the customer service approach to academic relationships results in the kind of entitlement that insists “I paid my tuition and came to class. Now give me my ‘A.’” The dysfunction here is obvious, with the college degree ultimately reduced to an empty credential that indicates only tuition paid and meetings (presumably) attended rather than any real competency. Faculty these days already fight a tendency toward grade inflation. Pursuing “customer service” in the classroom can make grades entirely meaningless.

Students and faculty must understand that the teacher-student relationship is necessarily hierarchical, and must be so in order for the academic endeavor to function correctly (and likewise the relationships between professors and their various administrative reports). The professor must be free to determine the desired ends of each course, to prescribe the materials and assignments that will best achieve those ends, and to apply the evaluation procedures that will most accurately reflect student progress and achievement. Good faculty members serve students by clearly delineating these objectives, materials, and measures in course syllabi, by honestly and fairly evaluating student work, and by providing assistance, advising, and recommendations as needed. Students have a right to expect that their teachers will remain current in their fields, prepare diligently for class meetings, answer questions thoroughly, and generally treat all students fairly.

Students may be “paying customers,” but they are paying for access to faculty expertise and university resources, not the mere possession of a credential after a certain period of time, much less guaranteed high grades regardless of effort or competency. Upon entering a university course the student agrees to submit to the requirements of a particular academic discipline and its associated hierarchy of professors, administrators, and even professional associations and accrediting bodies. The faculty must serve the students, but only within the context of academic and professional discipline. When this proper model of service is allowed to devolve into “customer service,” the erosion of academic credibility is sure to follow.

Posted in Economics, Education, Higher Education, Professional Organizations, Teaching Low Brass

Let Us Not Orphan Ourselves

As a professional musician and a Christian with at least a small amount of formal theological training, I am more than a little interested in the musical practices of the church, both within and beyond corporate worship. In a previous church I was asked to teach a short Sunday School series on music in worship, which was originally slated to last four weeks but wound up being expanded to six. (I later turned that material into a series of posts on this blog, see here, here, and here.) In my present church my direct musical involvement is, by my own choice, fairly limited, though I have assisted with formatting music for printing in the bulletin and have sometimes had a small amount of input with regard to selecting songs for corporate worship. As is the case in many churches, those discussions frequently involve choosing between those songs labeled “traditional” and “contemporary,” though both of those categories include multiple genres and are so generalized as to be almost unhelpful.

Happily, our congregation has eschewed both the rock concert atmosphere of some modern worship and the high church approach built around the organ and classical repertoire. Instead, the instrumentation and style are better described as folksy, an approach that facilitates congregational singing in multiple styles without the accompaniment becoming overwhelming or mind-numbingly commercial in tone. Except for a desire for more percussion from some quarters (we infrequently use a djembe or similar instrument but never drumset), the instrumentation used in corporate worship is rarely a point of controversy in the congregation. However, the choice of music is sometimes mildly so, with a decided preference for more contemporary melodies among younger congregants (and some not so young), and a similar love for traditional melodies among older folks. In both cases the texts selected are almost always doctrinally sound; even the contemporary tunes we use are usually resettings of older texts. Thus whatever the choice of tunes the most important aspect of congregational song, the communication of sound doctrine, is maintained. For that I am most thankful.

I share all of this not to air our church’s dirty laundry but to establish some context for my remarks. Besides, I am certain that the scenario I have described is very common, replicated in many conservative evangelical and Protestant churches in North America. While as a classical musician I have particular love for older music, I can understand the desire for contextualization which is often the motivation for a push for newer tunes. In the century and more since the development of commercial recordings our society has become one that almost entirely lacks communal song. Beyond the walls of the church we don’t sing together; we listen to “canned” music almost constantly, the presence of live performers being a rare treat. Whereas families once sang together for entertainment and fellowship, now they watch the television. Taverns that would once have been filled with the songs of joyful men at the end of the workday now play recorded music or the commentary from athletic events showing on the television. Professions where singing together while working was once common have been replaced with automation or, where still present, have the constant drone of the radio or television present. This loss of communal song is to our cultural impoverishment, but it is the situation in which we find ourselves.

41igkjf0sllIn a society, then, where the act of singing together is already strange and uncomfortable, to sing the songs of past generations seems positively foreign, and the use of melodies which are somewhat similar to those heard (but rarely sung) in other contexts provides some familiarity and comfort. As T. David Gordon wrote in his 2010 book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, “We are surrounded by nearly ubiquitous pop music—so much so that nothing else really registers in our consciousness as music. If it is not accompanied by a guitar, if it is not accompanied by the predictable melodies and rhythms of pop culture, it just doesn’t seem like music.” (p.14) Gordon wrote these words in introducing his argument for restoring the place of traditional worship music, but the same words in a different context could be used to support a case for using contemporary tunes.

Though I have more than a little sympathy for Gordon’s point of view, I find myself unable to dismiss the desire—even the need—for contemporary musical expressions of the faith. To my trained ears even the traditional hymns that I love so much do not belong to some sort of timeless “church music” style, but each is easily placed in a particular historical context, and occasionally even in particular national, social, and ecclesiastical contexts. It is appropriate that modern writers find ways to express eternal truths in the musical styles of our own time and that we use the best of their works in corporate worship.

At the same time, though, we must avoid the conceit—which is bound up in the warp and woof of modern Western culture but foreign to Scripture—that everything new is by virtue of its newness better than everything old. There are some great new hymns, and some downright terrible ones. There were terrible old hymns, but the old songs that have remained in our hymnals have survived the intense vetting that only the passing of decades and centuries can provide. As I am so fond of reminding folks, Charles Wesley (1707-1788) wrote over 6,000 hymns, yet far fewer than 100 of them appear in modern hymnals. Why? Because only a small portion of them turned out to be enduringly great. Likewise, a precious few of our contemporary songs will endure through the generations, but most will fade into history. We should keep this in mind before we jettison several centuries’ worth of collected musical expressions of faith in favor of that which will soon pass away.

Even more importantly, let us learn to take joy in singing the same songs that Christians of decades and centuries past sang. When we sing the old songs we not only praise our God and instruct one another in the truths of our faith, but we also affirm our connection with those who came before us, those who are with us members of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” spoken of in the Nicene Creed, those with whom we will one day join in singing around the throne of God forever. Singing older melodies that are unfamiliar to us can sometimes be challenging, but the challenge is worthwhile.

Christians, ours is an old faith, and we are bound together with both our forebears and, God willing, our descendants in the service of our common Lord. Let us not orphan ourselves—let us not cut ourselves off from our forefathers by dismissing their songs and their texts as dated. Rather, let us use that which is best of both the past and present to praise His name and edify His church.

Posted in Church, Doctrine, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Practical Christianity, T. David Gordon, Theology, Worship