Great Books: C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963)

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963)

Though he lacked formal training as a theologian and did not claim that title for himself, Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) is rightly remembered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest Christian writers. His works on theology—or, perhaps more properly, Christian philosophy—such as The Abolition of Man (1943) and Mere Christianity (1952) brought deep thinking about God, man, and man’s relationship to God and to one another to a level accessible to the lay reader. Lewis’s use of a conversational style in such works reminds me a bit of the way in which the great American Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) wrote in his works for lay readers, and with similar effect. Men and women not formally trained in theology were brought to a place where they, too, could begin to ponder their faith and its implications on a deeper level. This was a great benefit to the church as a whole.

Despite his great benefit, Lewis must be read with some care, as his views on certain areas of theology were not entirely orthodox. By training and profession Lewis was a professor of medieval literature, and this training is brought to bear particularly upon the last volume of the trilogy of novels I am presently considering. The Space Trilogy, written in the 1930s and 1940s, is an important and refreshing contribution to a genre in which Christians have not generally excelled (at least not in a manner which expressly reflects a Christian worldview): science fiction. These three novels are not allegorical in the way that The Chronicles of Narnia series (1950-1956) is, but important Christian themes are at the forefront throughout, particularly that of the cosmic battle between good and evil which Scripture tells us is always taking place around us, and even in us and through us. Although less well-known than Narnia, in my opinion the Space Trilogy is more important, as instead of allegorizing individual conversion and Christian living we see a fictitious expression of that epic struggle between the Seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.

In the first novel, Out of the Silent Planet (1938), we meet Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge philologist and the protagonist of the entire trilogy, who is kidnapped and taken to Mars by Edward Weston and Dick Devine, who believe that they must provide a human sacrifice to the inhabitants of Mars (or Malacandra, as the inhabitants of that world call it) in order to gain access to the planet and its natural resources. Ransom overhears his captors discussing this during the journey, and escapes not long after their arrival. He encounters three sentient species on Malacandra: hrossa, séroni, and pfiftriggi, each with differing physical characteristics and cultures, but with one important similarity: Malacandra has never experienced a Fall; the world and its inhabitants are entirely free from sin. Upon speaking with the Oyarsa, or angel, ruling over this planet, Ransom learns that there is regular communication between the angels of the different planets of the solar system with one exception: Thulcandra, or as we call it, Earth. The angel of that world is “bent,” a reference to Satan’s rebellion and his later leading man into sin, as well. Oyarsa is fascinated by Christ’s saving work on that world, something “into which angels long to look.” When Weston and Devine are captured, Ransom hardly recognizes them at first; after spending time with the sinless inhabitants of Malacandra, those sinful men even look distorted to Ransom’s eyes. After Ransom makes clear to Malacandra’s inhabitants that Weston and Devine’s plans are in no way benevolent or righteous, they are banished from that world. Ransom is given the option to remain, but opts to return to Earth with a promise of Oyarsa’s protection during the journey.

Perelandra (1943), known to us as Venus, is in an entirely different state of development, with sentient life having just been created there in the form of one male-female pair. Oyarsa sends Ransom there with a mission to prevent that pair from falling into sin. He arrives to find a fascinating topography: the world consists of floating islands which are constantly in motion save for one mountain, which remains fixed. The two sentient inhabitants of that world (Perelandra’s “Adam and Eve”) have but one directive from God: they are not to sleep on the Fixed Land (that world’s “forbidden fruit”). Shortly after Ransom’s arrival, Weston arrives in a spaceship, and after nearly or actually dying is obviously and dramatically possessed by the Devil himself, who sets about trying to tempt the woman into disobeying the prohibition of sleeping on the Fixed Land. Ransom knows that he must intervene, and fights with Satan/Weston even into the depths of Perelandra. He emerges victorious and raises a marker to memorialize Weston, who despite being a thoroughly ungodly individual was a man of tremendous scientific achievement. Having succeeded in preventing Perelandra’s Fall, he remains for some time to recuperate, though the wound from a bite on his heel never heals. He is then returned to Earth using the same type of miraculous conveyance that transported him to Venus.

That Hideous Strength (1945) is quite a departure from the other books. It takes place entirely on Earth and even in Britain, but the same cosmic forces that are at work in the other novels are here as well. As the novel opens the action is centered around Bracton College in the University of Edgestow, where Mark Studdock is a senior fellow in sociology. An organization called the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) is trying to convince the college to sell a portion of land to the organization. Interestingly, this land is said to be the final resting place of Merlin (from the Arthurian legends). Lord Feverstone, a N.I.C.E. insider, acts as if he is befriending Studdock and even offers him a position at N.I.C.E. Feverstone is later revealed to be the same Dick Devine from Out of the Silent Planet, just as we are beginning to understand just how devious this man and his organization are.

Meanwhile, Jane Studdock, Mark’s wife, is having terrible nightmares which are gradually revealed to be revelations of the devious activities inside N.I.C.E. She is rightly suspicious and does not like Mark’s increasing involvement with the organization, and their marriage begins to deteriorate. After seeking counsel from a friend, Jane encounters a group headed by Ransom, who by now is strangely youthful in appearance thanks to his rejuvenation on Perelandra yet has a depth and gravity that shows his true age and wisdom. He is in communication with the Oyéresu of the different planets and is later revealed to be the heir of the Pendragon line. This shows Lewis’s background as a medievalist, and also is important for later events in the novel.

N.I.C.E. is a powerful expression of the type of scientific technocracy which denies God, Christ, and in a real sense even humanity in order to gain greater control over man, nature, and society. At its deepest levels, N.I.C.E. is downright Satanic, and the reader understands that Lewis believed much of modernity to be Antichristian in the biblical sense. One of the organization’s objectives is to find and revive Merlin, hence its interest in that piece of land at Bracton College. Merlin is revived, but is not captured by N.I.C.E. Instead, he is revealed to have been a Christian, and joins with Ransom and his group to overthrow the institute’s plans. Humorously, the officials at N.I.C.E. encounter a tramp who they believe to be Merlin; the tramp plays along in order to keep being well-fed. Merlin eventually does come to N.I.C.E., empowered by the Oyéresu, and engineers through miraculous means the overthrow of that Satanic organization, which is then further destroyed by earthquakes which also kill Feverstone/Devine.

Mark Studdock gradually came to understand that N.I.C.E. was evil, and finally resisted and rejected it. Aided by Merlin, he is guided to the place where Jane has stayed with Ransom and his company, and finds a bridal chamber where the now Christian couple consummates their restored marriage. Ransom, meanwhile, prepares to return to Perelandra.

These brief summaries I have provided only scratch the surface, of course, but I hope they will whet your appetite to read this wonderful series of novels. Again, there is no allegory here, and That Hideous Strength does get a bit weird, but Lewis’s expression of that great battle between God and Satan though three exciting works of science fiction is truly ingenious, and difficult to put down. Those who object to the idea of life on Mars or Venus should remember that these novels were written before the age of space exploration which revealed the actual conditions on those worlds, and in any case the novels are fiction and should be enjoyed as such. Highly recommended.

I’ll be taking the month of December off from blogging in order to focus on some other projects and to simply enjoy some rest. God willing, I will return to writing in early to mid-January.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, C.S. Lewis, Practical Christianity, Theology, Uncategorized


Today’s post is a rare mid-week offering, though it is mostly the material that I had originally planned to share on November 6 or 7. I wasn’t able to get the videos from my November 2 recital British Invasion! up in time for that, but perhaps that turned out for the best as the delay has allowed me to include additional recordings from the University of Mississippi Low Brass Ensembles concert on November 14 and the University of Mississippi Wind Ensemble concert on November 19, both of which included trombone solo pieces which I performed. As with all live performances, there are a few occasional blemishes. A sticky valve in one place, one miscounted rest (to my shame—I had become a bit distracted), and the occasional “bobbles” and “cacks” that are an unfortunate part of performing challenging literature on brass instruments. I have a very young trombone ensemble this year with lots of new students; I am pleased with their work thus far though they still have some growing to do. I am looking forward to seeing them do bigger and greater things as they mature.

Anyway, enough “throwing myself under the bus.” These were good performances. I enjoyed playing them, and I hope you will enjoy watching and listening.

Gordon Jacob (1895-1984): Trombone Concerto, Movement I (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Gordon Jacob (1895-1984): Trombone Concerto, Movement II (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Gordon Jacob (1895-1984): Trombone Concerto, Movement III (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Ray Steadman-Allen (1922-2014): The Eternal Quest (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926): Euphonium Concerto, Movement I (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926): Euphonium Concerto, Movement II (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926): Euphonium Concerto, Movement III (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Philip Sparke (b. 1951): Aubade (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Peter Graham (b. 1958): Brillante (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)
*Includes a special and very appropriate change of attire. :)

James Kazik (b. 1974): Sanctuary (with University of Mississippi Trombone Ensemble; David Cuevas, conductor)

Arthur Pryor (1870-1942): Fantastic Polka (with University of Mississippi Wind Ensemble; David Willson, conductor)

Posted in Uncategorized, Performances, Euphonium, Tenor Trombone, Trombone Ensembles

The Rule of Rules in Music

Music is usually thought of as an emotive art form. People participate in music individually, communally, or in performance to communicate ideas, to express feelings, and even to experience an emotional release of some kind. Skilled performers are able to evoke desired feelings from even the most passive of listeners. It is right to think of music in this way, if a bit simplistic.

Despite the importance of emotion in music, the best musicians do not allow their inner emotional states to dictate the quality or emotive content of a performance. The uninitiated reader might be surprised or even dismayed to find out that the communication of happiness, sadness, anger, and any other feeling whether intense or subdued can and usually is programmed by the performer, who uses various musical devices to create desired types of musical expression—and stir up certain reactions in the listener—regardless of his or her emotional state during the performance. The need for this ability in vocal and dramatic music is obvious—otherwise how can one hope to perform a happy role like that of Papageno after receiving news of a loved one’s serious illness, or how could a joyful newlywed sing a stereotypical country song with the requisite lament? Even when performing absolute music, expressive devices must be planned to some extent or another, lest the performer fail to communicate any feeling to the listener except that of his or her own performance anxiety. In an important sense, every musician—even the instrumentalist—must to some degree become an actor.

While this practice of “programming expression” might sound complicated, it usually isn’t. In most cases, following a few simple rules will enable instrumentalists to find the appropriate expressive devices for a given piece. My students are quite accustomed to hearing directives such as these:

  • Emphasize longer notes over shorter ones, and allow series of shorter notes to lead to and from longer ones.
  • Crescendo slightly during the first half of the phrase, and diminuendo slightly in the second half.
  • Push the tempo ahead slightly in the first half of the phrase, and pull back slightly in the second half.
  • Overdo all of the above devices in the practice room, as the presence of one’s instructor, accompanist, or audience will usually have a moderating effect.
  • Plan to take breaths in the places where the music “breathes” or pauses, not simply where one feels like breathing.

Honestly, following the above five rules and observing all of the written expressive markings will go a long way toward creating the optimal expressive effect for just about any piece. Similarly, execution (especially tuning) can be boiled down to a few easily-remembered rules:

  • Major thirds must be lowered, minor thirds raised, and perfect fifths raised. (Other chord tones have rules governing their needed adjustments as well, but these three are the most vital to know.)
  • Brass players must learn the overtone series charts for their instruments, and the tuning tendencies of each partial. The fifth (must be raised), sixth (must be lowered), and seventh (must be raised very much; unusable on brass instruments except trombone) are perhaps the most important to know well.
  • The above two sets of tuning rules will in some cases either compound, thus increasing the needed adjustment, or negate one another, eliminating the need for any tuning adjustments.
  • Tuning rules should be applied both harmonically in ensembles, and melodically within one’s own playing.
  • When playing with piano the perfect intonation that is theoretically possible when playing in other types of ensembles cannot be achieved, due to the compromises inherent in piano tuning. Besides, given that the brass player can adjust pitch during performance and the pianist can’t, the responsibility for matching the piano rests with the brass player, even if this requires negating other tuning rules.
  • With regard to articulation, to achieve a given type of attack the tongue stroke will be softer in the lower register and harder in the upper register. (I recognize that the latter suggestion is contrary to “received wisdom,” but I have often found it to be the case.)
  • The most important element of good legato tonguing or slurring is the maintenance of constant airflow—and thus constant buzz—through the duration of the passage.

These rules for expression and execution are starting to sound like quite a bit to remember, and this isn’t even a comprehensive list! In practice, though, remembering this is not all that difficult, and ultimately saves a lot of effort wasted through trial-and-error methods of figuring out how to execute a passage or improve its emotive effect. Still, as helpful as these rules are they must always bow to what I am calling here “The Rule of Rules in Music” or just “The Ultimate Rule.” Here it is:

If it sounds good, it is good.

The advantage of having “usually-applicable” rules for effecting expressive devices or technical execution is that much of the guesswork is removed from musical interpretation and performance. However, sometimes the rules don’t work, and students are often stumped in these cases. Perhaps two or more of these rules conflict with each other, or maybe a particular piece contains unusual compositional devices or requires extended techniques. Perhaps doing the thing that usually works simply sounds bad in a certain piece. In these cases, the regularly-applied rules must be modified or discarded and the “Rule of Rules” applied. Experiment until you find an approach that yields a desirable sound. If you are a student, trust that your teacher will give you some guidance, but be willing to experiment between lessons and see if a departure from the usual approach leads to a better result. A good teacher will appreciate your willingness to think, experiment, and search for creative solutions to expressive or technical difficulties, even when some correction is needed.

“If it sounds good, it is good.” Whatever formulas musicians might devise to improve the technical or emotive aspects or performance, these must ultimately give way to the “Rule of Rules.” Too simplistic? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it stands as a partial but legitimate application of a nearly two-millennia-old directive, one which holds particular importance for Christian musicians like myself but might be at least appreciated by others:

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)

We as musicians are in the business of creating beautiful sounds, sounds which stir listeners’ emotions, engage their minds, and in the best music even point in a small way to the beauty, order, goodness, and excellence of the Creator. And yet we too often become so tangled in minutia that we obsess over rules and forget the most important things. Beautiful sounds. Edify the listener. Glorify God.

“If it sounds good, it is good.”

Posted in Pedagogy, Performing, Teaching Low Brass

The Old Man at the Music Store was Right!


Joseph Jean-Baptiste Laurent Arban (1825-1889)

Although this habit seemed mundane to me at the time, one of the greatest boons to my musical development as a teenager was driving to the nearby music stores and looking through the available sheet music. Back then Mississippi was still granting drivers licenses to fifteen-year-olds, so I would have begun this particular habit sometime during or just before my sophomore year in high school, and I continued it on a fairly regular basis until leaving for college, and resumed when I was at home for winter and summer breaks. Wright Music Company (which no longer exists) on Highway 80 in Jackson had by far the best collection of advanced materials for low brass among the local stores—I still have the copies of the Hindemith Sonata and Creston Fantasy that I purchased after thumbing through the file drawer of trombone solos and finding them there. Both pieces were far beyond me then but in subsequent years I performed both from those same copies I bought from Mr. Wright. Mississippi Music had a respectable selection of sheet music back then in the old store on Robinson Road, and Ball Music in Pearl (also no longer in business) always kept a few things in stock, particularly method books.

Arban Book

My preferred trombone/euphonium edition of the Arban book.

One particular visit to Ball Music in either 1993 or 1994 remains a very powerful memory over twenty years later. Although I can’t remember exactly when it occurred, I remember what I bought, what Mr. Ball said to me, and what I was thinking at the time. In hindsight, I also realize how foolish I was, and how right Mr. Ball was. My teacher, Debra Johnson, had sent me to Mr. Ball to purchase my first Arban book. Jean-Baptiste Arban (1825-1889) was the cornet professor at the Paris Conservatory during the mid-nineteenth century, and first published his famous Complete Method for that instrument in 1864. This hefty volume is a treasure trove of study materials, definitely favoring the “technical” aspects of playing over the “musical” ones but still having some useful material for studying phrasing. It has appeared in numerous editions for trumpet/cornet, trombone/baritone/euphonium, and tuba over the past 150 years, and despite some rather dated ideas in Arban’s original instructions the exercises themselves are held in high regard by brass players and teachers throughout the world.

“Teenager Micah” didn’t know any of that, though. I had been told by my teacher to get this book (and warned that it was large and somewhat expensive), and so I set about getting a copy. When I walked in and asked Mr. Ball about the book he walked over to the display where the book was, handed me a copy, and said to me “Young man, you will use this book for the rest of your life.” I have to admit that my first thought when he said that was “Yeah, right, old man. I’m gonna pass this one off just like I did all of the other books I’ve been assigned so far.” I was a teenager, after all, and “knew everything.” I was a polite teenager, though, and had been taught to show respect to adults, so I didn’t voice that thought aloud. I thanked Mr. Ball, paid for the book, and went home to practice using my ill-fated folding music stand, which did not long survive having that massive tome placed on it.

In my defense, my experience with method books to that point was limited to the old First Division Band Method, the Rubank Elementary Method, the two volumes of Gerald Bordner’s Practical Studies for Trombone, and exercises we played during band rehearsals. With all of these I would simply pass off materials and move ahead. Repeating exercises was rare, and seemed unnecessary. I simply didn’t have a category for etudes and studies that would yield benefits from repeated study over many years. I soon would, though, as Mr. Ball’s words to me have repeatedly proven to be profoundly correct since that evening in his little store. Not only has repeated practice of the materials as written (in the trombone version) been helpful, but Arban’s studies were a big part of helping me to first develop my doubling chops on euphonium, then bass trombone (mostly by playing the scale studies down one or more octaves), and now tuba. When I was preparing to record my bass trombone album a couple of years ago I spent hours playing Arban exercises down one and two octaves, both to strengthen my low register and to build stamina in my left arm for holding up that heavy and awkwardly-balanced instrument during long recording sessions. While I vary the amount of playing along with students that I do during their weekly lessons, my students both present and past will tell you that I rarely leave my instrument on its stand when Arban is on the agenda for that lesson. I almost always play along, both to provide an example for the student and simply because I will benefit from another trip through those exercises.

These days few brick-and-mortar music stores keep substantial amounts of sheet music in stock. To be sure, the online dealers have both better selection and better pricing than most local businesses could ever hope to match, and the efficiency and convenience of a quick online catalog search to find and purchase a desired item is wonderful. Still, there’s something about thumbing through file cabinets in the corner of a store and discovering major works for one’s instrument that my students today will never know in the way that I did, and that is a loss worth mourning.

And so is the loss of wise words spoken from an experienced music store owner to an ignorant kid who has no idea what a great treasure he has just acquired.

Posted in Jean-Baptiste Arban, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Repertoire, Teaching Low Brass

Distraction: A Problem for Musicians, A Problem for Christians, and Probably a Problem for Everyone Else, Too

While I use most weeks’ posts to write about some aspect of brass playing, teaching, or musicianship, at the end of each month I turn to writing regarding my avocational interest in Christian theology. Given the exponentially greater traffic that my low brass-related writings receive compared to my theological ones, writing on theological topics is evidently an indulgence that I undertake for my own pleasure in thinking and writing about such things rather than something that reaches others on a grand scale (and I am okay with this). My favorite posts to write, though, are the rare ones where I address some area where my vocational and avocational interests intersect. Often this manifests itself in writing about music in the church, or how Christian musicians should conduct themselves personally and professionally. Today’s post will be different, though, in that I will be discussing not a point of intersection of music and theology so much as a common problem shared by musicians and by Christians (including but not limited to Christian musicians), and certainly others as well.

Ours is an age in which incessant connectivity and constant communication are not only possible, but expected. Rare is the day that I receive fewer than twenty emails (including weekends), and while not all of these require a response some do, and each message carries with it a tacit expectation that the response come as close to instantaneously as possible. Add social media and text messaging to the mix, and these technologies that are ostensibly intended to improve our productivity soon remove the potential for getting any work done. The constant beeping, buzzing, and dinging of notifications—as well as the mental energy expended waiting for an expected reply, acknowledgement, or “like”—easily diminish or eliminate one’s ability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time. Needless to say, this is to our impoverishment as human beings.

For musicians, this loss of focus causes wasted time at best, and debilitation at worst. I spend a great deal of effort in my own practice and in working with my students on learning to focus on the desired result rather than the processes used to get there. Musicians often have a terrible habit of thinking too much about the intricate details of physical execution involved in creating their art and thinking too little about how the music they are playing “goes.” When we focus on product instead of process, the musical result is more pleasing, and the physical execution is more effortless and more precise. This does not mean, of course, that there is never a place in the teaching studio or practice room for analysis and reflection on physical processes, but it does mean that in the end musicians must direct their energies toward making beautiful music, with the body’s involvement in producing the music being a means to that end, not an end in itself.

When the ability to concentrate is compromised, the musician’s ability to effectively practice or perform in this way is lessened. For example, a few days ago I was practicing for a recital I have scheduled for next week. This particular practice session occurred in the middle of one of my busier teaching days. The clock was quickly ticking toward my next teaching engagement, and my email and social media notifications were coming in at an almost constant pace. Unsurprisingly, I made a number of errors in that practice session that would have been absent or minimized if I had simply been focused upon that task at hand. While turning off my computer and phone would have eliminated some of the distraction, this is not always possible for one reason or another, and in any case wondering “what I’m missing” would create a distraction all its own, as would anticipation of the rehearsal coming in the next hour. Until I learn to quieten my mind, turning off the machines would be of limited utility.

Something similar can occur in performance. While in performance situations “unplugging” for a bit and ignoring the various notifications is easier than when teaching or practicing, new distractions can present themselves. For some, the pressure of live performance can lead to once again overthinking the physical aspect of music making at the expense of thinking about results. Or perhaps wondering what the audience is thinking at a given moment can cause similar distraction. The result is the same in all cases; missed notes, uncoordinated physical movements, and inefficiency in both preparation and execution. These problems will persist until one learns to focus on the musical task at hand when playing or singing, to think about “how it goes.”

If lack of concentration is deleterious to musicianship, it is exponentially more harmful to Christian devotion. In the first Psalm the man is called blessed who meditates constantly upon the law of the LORD. While the word “meditate” often conjures in modern imaginations the kind of mind-emptying activity characteristic of some forms of Eastern religion, the meditation enjoined upon the Christian is one not of mental emptying but of mental focusing. We are to ponder—deeply—the Word of God, reading the Scriptures and thinking of who God is and particularly what he has done for us in Christ. This is a discipline about which our forefathers, perhaps especially the Puritans, wrote often, but one which is often lost upon modern Christians.

Think about it, fellow Christian. How often do you sit down to read Scripture or to pray, and yet have difficulty quietening your mind enough to focus upon what you are reading, or to pray in any coherent sense at all? The same barrage of interruptions that plagues the musician is present here, too, only the activity being interrupted is infinitely more important. Instead of coming before the God of the universe the way a supplicant should address a benevolent but still all-powerful sovereign, we come to God with incoherent babbling that we would never use to communicate even to our fellow human beings. The Puritans understood the reality of distraction in prayer as well, but instead of accepting it they exhorted their readers to struggle and persevere in prayer and Scripture reading past any initial period of distraction until adequate focus was achieved. Sadly, in our hectic modern lives even the most earnest Christians set aside too little time to pray at all, much less to persist and strive in prayer until a more meaningful and focused devotion is achieved.

While these are the two areas of my life where I most often experience the negative effects of distraction, there are others as well. I find it harder to sit and read a book for an extended period of time. This can be attributed in small part to my problems with back and neck pain but I usually find my mind wandering well before any pain sets in. Listening to sermons, having meaningful conversations, and even listening to great music are harder for me to do beyond a superficial level than they were before electronic distractions became so ubiquitous. Surely I’m not the only one who has found that the constant flood of information and stimulation has led not to greater productivity and engagement, except on the most superficial level. Thinking, working, and interacting on a deeper level has nearly become impossible.

So what’s the solution? Sadly, I don’t have one, so I suppose my writing today is little better than a rant or screed that fails to meet my own standard for blogging—that I want to write things that are genuinely edifying to others. While turning off the phone and computer seem like a simple solution, until our workplaces and social circles stop demanding constant connectivity implementing that solution will not be possible. In any case, I hope it will be helpful to at least openly discuss the problem. Musicians, our constant connection to gadgets and gizmos—to say nothing of the various wanderings of our own minds independent of technology—leaves us less able to engage with our art with the level of precision or expression that great music demands. We need to be able to quieten our minds and souls in order to bring the required devotion to our art, both for the glory of God and for the edification of ourselves and others. That quiet and rest—for musicians and for every other human being—is ultimately found in the Lord Jesus Christ, who invites us in Matthew 11 to come to him and find rest. And yet here also we must learn to put away the cares and distractions of our hectic modern lives in order to meditate upon Christ and upon his Word. I won’t pretend to have mastered this, but I know that I must try, both for the sake of my work and for the betterment of my soul.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Posted in Christian Worldview, Music and Theology, Performing, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Prayer, Reading and Study, Teaching Low Brass

Coping with (Potential) Disaster: Reflections on an Unlikely Biblical Story

I am a natural worrier. As a Christian and more specifically as a Calvinist I know that God declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), that he works everything together for my good and for his glory (Romans 8:28), and that moreover I am commanded not to worry but to pray regarding my concerns (Philippians 4:6-7). But I still worry, and thus often need to add repentance for that worry to my prayers.

Nevertheless, as I have grown in age, in faith, and hopefully in wisdom I have increasingly found that while I worry about difficulties that I see possibly forthcoming, I am beginning to cope a bit better with those difficulties when they occur. Perhaps if I could redirect my tendency to worry into a posture of concerned yet believing and hopeful prayer I would be better off. An interesting though unhappy example of this very thing is found in the twelfth chapter of 2 Samuel.

Prior to this passage David had sinned by sleeping with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his faithful soldiers. When she informed David that she was pregnant, David attempted to cover his sin by recalling Uriah (Bathsheba’s husband) from the front in the hopes that he would sleep with his wife while he was home, and the sin would be thus covered. When Uriah refused to return to his house and to his bed while his fellow soldiers were still in the field, David arranged to have Uriah killed. He then married Bathsheba.

In the chapter I am presently considering David is confronted by the prophet Nathan, after which he confesses his sin. We read of this in short form here in 2 Samuel 12, and a longer prayer of confession from David in Psalm 51. Still, Nathan tells David that because of his sin God will strike down the child that is born to Bathsheba, in addition to bringing longer-term dysfunction into his household. The child becomes sick soon thereafter, and David spends the next week in fasting and prayer for the boy, who dies after seven days. David’s servants are afraid to tell him of the child’s death, evidently fearing that the self-humiliation in which the king has engaged during the child’s sickness might turn to self-harm after his death. To their surprise, though, after learning of his son’s death David rises, washes himself, and asks for food. When asked about his behavior, David replies “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22-23)

Thankfully, few of us will face a personal disaster as calamitous as the death of a child, and in the present absence of prophets like Nathan none of us will be able to trace that disaster to a particular sin. Still, there are a few lessons for dealing with traumatic events of various kinds that can be drawn from David’s behavior here, which I’d like to discuss briefly.

  1. When he sees the disaster coming, David acknowledges and repents of his sin.

Again, David’s being told that the death of his son would occur and would occur because of a particular sin is unique to his situation, and we should not presume to be able to assign certain potential or actual tragedies as the result of certain sins. However, we do know from Scripture that whatever evil exists in the world does so because of sin. As we see danger possibly approaching repentance of all known sin is an appropriate action, even a prerequisite to asking God to prevent disaster from occurring. If God does not prevent it, repentance is still appropriate as we ask him to deliver us from or enable us to cope with whatever evils happen to us in this life.

  1. When there is still time, David appeals to God’s mercy.

From the time that his child fell sick until his death, David humbled himself and prayed earnestly for the child’s deliverance. While God had already pronounced sentence, David knew from God’s prior dealings with the people of Israel that God sometimes relents from a declared judgment when the people (corporately or through a representative) humble themselves and pray. In a similar (though not identical) manner, when we see some personal disaster looming on the horizon it is right for us to humble ourselves and pray for God to deliver us from it. The history of God’s dealing with his people recorded in Scripture—and even that recalled in our own lives—tells us that God can and often does deliver his people.

  1. When the disaster occurs, David moves on with life, trusting in God’s goodness despite his horrible experience.

After the child died, David worshiped God, comforted his wife, and moved on with his life, still facing the other earthly consequences of his sin. While he no doubt continued to sorrow over the loss of his son, after the promised judgment occurred he ceased praying for its prevention and instead trusted in God’s continued love, forgiveness, kindness, and favor in the face of this disaster. Likewise, when whatever potential disaster we see coming actually takes place despite our prayers of repentance and pleas for deliverance, the appropriate response is to continue to trust in God, and move on. This is not to say that we will not still have sorrow—the Bible never demands that Christians be always “happy”—but we are with God’s help to continue our lives in  the face of whatever evils have befallen us, trusting that all things will work together for our good and his glory, just as he has promised.

Bad stuff happens, and will continue to do so until Christ’s return. Until then, when we see evil coming we should repent of known sin and implore God to prevent the tragedy from occurring. Then, whether he prevents it or not, faithfully rest in the promise of his continued love, care, and provision for us. Despite the heinousness of his sin that brought about his terrible circumstances, David gives us an example of how to do just that.

Posted in Practical Christianity, Prayer, Theology

On Demanding Excellence in Music: Brief Reflections on Two Teachers

Most music students—actually, probably most students in every field, but my experience is limited—will deliver excellence only when it is demanded of them. I don’t think it is stretching the meaning of Scripture too far to say that this is a result of the Fall. According to Genesis, work itself did not enter the world because of sin, but unproductive work did, whether or not man is immediately responsible for the lack of productivity in a particular instance. Moreover, if God said to do everything “heartily,” then to give any lesser effort is necessarily sin.

I actually don’t intend for this post to be peculiarly Christian in its orientation, but since that is the worldview with which I approach every subject, it undergirds my thinking here as well. Suffice it to say that if sin is a universal human condition as the Bible says it is, and if slothfulness is a part of that sinful condition, then our tendency as human beings is to be lazy, to give less than maximum effort. Precious few individuals seem to be blessed with the ability to find motivation from within to overcome this innate tendency toward sloth. In music those most gifted in this way tend to become the leading professionals, as I’m sure is true in other fields. Good teachers recognize these individuals early, and basically funnel increasingly complex assignments to those students while focusing their energies upon the bulk of their students, the “middle 85% or so” who are capable of achieving great things musically, but must be motivated from without to do so, to overcome the tendency toward sloth. My own behaviors as a teacher in the past couple of weeks have led me to reflect on a couple of teachers who demonstrated to me how to do this.

Quartet Singing

What’s the matter? You can’t imagine me with that much dark hair, without a beard, in a group randomly singing to our teacher on a New York City sidewalk?
I had dark hair and no beard in 1996. It was cool back then.

The first is Donna McCommon, who was the choral director at Pearl High School when I was a student there. While I had started band in the sixth grade, I did not participate in the choir program until I was a junior in high school. The year before I had discovered that I had “perfect” pitch (or, rather, discovered that others could not identify or produce pitches on demand as I could—that’s a long story itself). This quickly came to the attention of Mrs. McCommon, who insisted (actually, demanded…or maybe threatened) that I join the choir the next year. While I have never been a particularly good solo singer, because of my sense of pitch I was quickly able to win positions in the more selective chamber group and barbershop quartet at the school, and even received a small scholarship to continue singing in college. It was a good experience for me.

One thing I noticed very quickly about Mrs. McCommon’s teaching is that she expected her more advanced students to do a lot of independent work. Students in the chamber singers worked mostly on singing madrigals during the regular rehearsal time during the school day, but were also expected to sing in the large mixed choir and the appropriate men’s or women’s chorus. Those pieces received relatively little work during the chamber singers’ class time; we were given those pieces and simply expected to learn them. Quartet rehearsals were almost exclusively outside of the school day, often late at night at one of our homes. All of this was very different from my experience with band, where we received all of the music for performance well in advance and all performance pieces were regularly rehearsed. While we did some solo and chamber music and had a jazz band that only met once weekly, I don’t recall ever receiving a piece of music in the band program with the instruction to basically “go learn this.”

While I was initially put off by this aspect of the choral program, in the intervening twenty years I have come to appreciate it more and more. As I work with my students at the university level and try to get them—individually and collectively—to strive for greater and greater levels of excellence, my ability to micromanage every aspect of their musical development lessens. This level of independence should be expected when working with college music majors, most of whom will become teachers themselves in very short order, but my tendency is always toward trying to retain too much control—and to shoulder too much responsibility. Mrs. McCommon taught me that if you demand high levels of achievement and independence from students, they will deliver, a truth confirmed by my own experience. If you ask little, you will get it. If you demand much, you will get that. So, demand much.

My band director at Delta State University was Ken Lewis. Mr. Lewis had been a very successful Mississippi high school band director, and his experience in that realm gave him keen insights which his students have found very useful. Many of my fellow students from DSU are now successful band directors themselves, and even as an applied music teacher I find myself borrowing and reapplying a number of concepts from Mr. Lewis’s classes on how to run a successful band program.

Conway Twitty

Still dead….

Mr. Lewis liked to cultivate something of a country boy/tough guy image on the podium—imagine if for some reason The Highwaymen brought on a fifth member who was a band director. There might have been a very tiny bit of “shtick” in that self-presentation, but Mr. Lewis really was and is a country boy, and I say that with no disrespect intended. In fact, I admired then and now his ability to create homespun sayings to effectively communicate advanced musical concepts to Mississippi students. Some of these I’ve stolen—students who think the saying “Don’t sound like Conway Twitty—he’s dead!” originated with me are greatly mistaken, even though I used it enough at one point to inspire a couple of students to purchase a Conway Twitty record for me at a garage sale. That record is now framed and hanging in my office, so I rarely use the saying anymore—I just point at the record to make my point.

Often when working with us and demanding ever greater levels of perfection on a piece of music Mr. Lewis would declare that “I’ll be satisfied when I’m six feet under!” Imagine Johnny Cash saying that sentence and you’ll get a hint as to the delivery. In reality, what he was giving us was a “tough guy” way of saying “‘Good enough’ doesn’t exist, and I’m going to keep on demanding greater and greater music making until the end.” In my own career I’ve realized that this attitude is necessary for continued achievement. I can think back to a couple of times when, for whatever reason, I became satisfied with my level of playing or teaching and began to lower my intensity a bit. Declines in my skills predictably followed. You really are getting better or getting worse as a musician at all times, and being somehow “perpetually unsatisfied” is necessary for continued growth. Likewise, I continually admonish students to keep demanding better and better playing of themselves. Most will tell you that they rarely hear an unqualified “good job” from me in lessons!

Successful music teachers always demand more and better work from their students, and don’t consider “good enough” to be an achievable goal. Those are lessons I learned not from the low brass players and teachers I usually discuss on this blog, but from my high school choir director and college band director. I am thankful for them and for their influence on my life and work.

Posted in Music, Music Education, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass