The Christian and Sci-Fi

I’ve enjoyed taking the past few weeks off from blogging, but I am hoping to be back to writing on my weekly schedule for most of the summer, since I don’t have any large commitments that would preclude my doing so. One way that I’ve spent the added free time that accompanies the end of school is taking in some television shows and movies. My wife and I are big Doctor Who fans, and I have loved Star Trek since middle school. A favorite pastime recently has been catching up on the Trek series that I missed when college and the busyness of early working life kept me from watching much television at all. (It didn’t help that my wife really can’t stomach Star Trek, except perhaps the newer movies.)

tricorderScience fiction is more than just escapism for nerds, though. This post was prompted by a story I read just recently about a competition to make a working device that mimics the functions (if not the appearance) of the “tricorders” used by medical personnel on Star Trek to diagnose a variety of medical conditions. The winning device, “DxtER,” by an organization called Final Frontier Medical Devices, is now moving to the testing phase with further research and development in cooperation with the FDA. One hopes that devices like this one could one day soon be used in homes to provide initial diagnosis of a variety of medical conditions, perhaps enabling the early identification of looming issues as well as the avoidance of unnecessary and expensive emergency room trips. All inspired by a little device on a fictional program.

This isn’t the first time that Star Trek has inspired new inventions, of course. One needs only to look at the similarity between the communicators on the original Trek series and certain models of cellular telephones, or the resemblance between TNG datapads and tablet computers, or even the development of directed energy weapons by the military to see the positive benefits that sci-fi inspires in the real world. These real-world influences are not limited to gadgetry, either. These programs also communicate, with varying degrees of explicitness, their own particular worldviews. Stories casting a future vision for our world and our societies (as opposed to those set in fictional worlds or historical periods) can greatly influence their audiences’ thinking about what a desirable future looks like and how it should be achieved. In almost all cases, these worldviews are humanistic and relativistic, or in some other sense not Christian. This doesn’t mean that Christian viewers cannot enjoy such programs, of course, but they must do so with a certain critical eye toward the worldviews communicated.

This leads me to wonder, what if authors and screenwriters with real Christian commitments started making serious forays into the sci-fi genre? What if, in addition to theorizing wonderful inventions that might make our lives better, authors portrayed a future society built upon Christian principles rather than secular ones? These stories need not be expressly evangelistic (actually, one of the worst things about “Christian” films and literature is that they try too hard in this way) and certainly shouldn’t be apocalyptic (I’m an amillennialist). Simply approaching the writing process with an underlying Christian commitment could potentially produce great contributions to the cultural conversation as society envisions the both the technology and mores upon which our future will be built.

So, are there models for this kind of writing? Yes, and I occasionally hear book and movie reviews about literature of this kind, but my favorite is C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. While not set in the future (the timeframe was contemporaneous to Lewis), these stories mix space travel, aliens, and even mythology while depicting the cosmic struggle between good and evil and criticizing the excesses of the secular ideologies which were pervasive in Lewis’s day and ours. Christians hoping to enter into this genre and contribute—as Christians—to the envisioning process that sci-fi engenders would do well to start with reading Lewis.

And until they do, I’ll just go back to watching Voyager. (Yeah, I know, but it’s still new to me….)

Posted in C.S. Lewis, Christian Worldview, Doctor Who, Practical Christianity, Science Fiction, Society, Star Trek, Tablet Computers, The Future, Theology

“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Improving Smartphone Recording Quality

Recording practice sessions and lessons is an important tool for identifying and correcting execution errors and thus improving performance, and on the whole the ubiquitous presence of smartphones capable of making audio and/or video recordings has been a boon to students’ abilities to practice in this way. However, musicians generally have been unimpressed by the sound quality produced using the microphones installed on these devices and have continued to rely on dedicated recording equipment in order to realize a reasonable quality of sound reproduction. While memory limitations on most smartphones necessitate that “real” recording equipment be retained for recording longer sessions or events, the items I’m highlighting today can facilitate the recording of shorter portions of a piece or exercise using a smartphone or other handheld device but with the sound quality provided by external powered microphones. Provided that your microphones are handy and already set up (such as in a teaching studio or dedicated practice space) this enables the taking of quick recordings with the only setup required being the plugging of a single cord into the phone’s headphone/microphone jack. In lessons I’ve even been able to make the recordings using students’ phones, eliminating the extra steps of recording on my camera or sound recorder, transferring files to my computer, uploading to Dropbox, and emailing to students. The only disappointment thus far has been with students who have the iPhone 7, the absence of a headphone/microphone jack making the use of these microphones impossible without added adapters.

Saramonid SmartRig+The device I’ve used primarily for recording practice sessions and lessons in my studio at the university is the Saramonic SmartRig+. With two XLR inputs and two TRS inputs, one could theoretically bring sound from as many as four microphones into a smartphone or other recording device. So far I have been using only a pair of Røde NT5 condenser mics which are mounted to one wall in my studio. It has dials for adjusting sound levels and balance so with a bit of experimentation one can arrive at a desirable quality of sound. Since its only real function is providing phantom power to the mics and transferring sound to a recording device the SmartRig+ requires very little power to operate, which is supplied by a single 9-volt battery. My only complaint about the device so far is that in my hands the construction feels a bit flimsy; the housing is entirely made of plastic. But, so far it has done the job I have assigned to it exceedingly well.

Rode SC4A simpler, more portable, and much less expensive option is a small adapter cable which transfers the sound from the TRS cable found on many microphones to a TRRS plug as required by the input on most smartphones. I am using a Røde SC4 for this purpose. At only 3 inches it doesn’t provide much length, so if your microphone cable is short you might need an extension cable of some kind, but it does facilitate the transfer of sound as needed. This adapter cable obviously provides no power, so the microphone used will need to have an internal power supply. I am using a Sony ECM-MS907, a very fine older mic which has good sound quality and is powered by a single AA battery which always seems to last forever. The sound produced from this setup is somewhat inferior to that achieved by the NT5’s in my office, but in the absence of all of that equipment this gets the job done admirably.

Again, memory limitations on most smartphones will dictate that one have dedicated recording equipment, high-capacity SD cards, etc. for recording concerts, entire lessons, and other longer engagements. But, for capturing short clips to assist in practicing and teaching, these setups are simple, inexpensive, can be used quickly and easily, and are a vast improvement over the poor sound quality usually captured on smartphones.

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Accessories, Instructional Technology, Music, Pedagogy, Practicing, Smartphones, Teaching Low Brass

“The Sabbath was Made for Man….”

Today I had the happy privilege of attending worship at Christ Presbyterian Church with my family. We enjoyed an engaging Sunday School hour, good singing, prayers, and a fine sermon. The rest of the day was spent playing games together, reading (both Scripture and other edifying material), praying and singing together, napping, and a bit of practicing for all of us (“works of necessity and mercy,” and all that…). Before worship I attended a prayer meeting with members of The Gideons International, who were preparing to go and speak in various churches in Lafayette County. I was on “standby” of sorts, needing to be prepared to speak in case an assigned speaker was unable to fulfill his duties but without an assignment of my own. I was very thankful to be released to go on to my own church with my family. Why? Because this was my first opportunity to do so since March 26, and I have very keenly felt both the absence from regular worship and the neglect of necessary rest. On half of those missed Sundays I was engaged in church-related work of some kind, but I still find it difficult to worship well when I am working on some level, much less find needed rest. This is one reason I have never sought regular employment as a church musician, something about which I have written here.

I have written in this space in the past (see here and here) about my views of the Sabbath, which depart somewhat from the full rigor demanded by the Westminster Standards and are my only substantive exception to those standards. Westminster demands that the first day of the week be observed with a rigor comparable to that with which the seventh day was observed by the Jews in the Mosaic administration, and certain New Testament passages lead me to believe that this is no longer demanded. (See this book for a more thorough treatment of this position.) If I might be so bold to say so, I suspect that if our confessional documents were being formulated in a largely secular society such as ours they would not include such a rigorous sabbatarianism, given that in such societies it is difficult to find gainful employment which always includes time off for worship and rest on the first day of the week. While I am not convinced that a full-bodied sabbatarianism is demanded by the New Testament, I am convinced that working to provide for oneself and one’s family is most certainly demanded (provided that no infirmity exists).

Nevertheless, I am thankful that Sundays away from church are the exception rather than the rule for me, because while I am a “leaky sabbatarian” at best, these past few weeks have reminded me that the one-day-in-seven pattern that God established for us leads to the greatest health physically, spiritually, and even emotionally and intellectually. We may live in a society that demands constant work, constant commerce, constant engagement, but our bodies are not made for this, and our souls need time to “Be still and know that I am God….” While I don’t believe that working on Sundays is necessarily sinful, I do think it wise for Christians to actively seek to arrange the circumstances of their work in such a way that minimizes–and where possible, eliminates–working on the Lord’s Day.

In the passage referenced in the title Jesus reminded the Pharisees that God had given his people the Sabbath for their good. Looking at my calendar going forward, I see no Sunday engagements for quite a while. I shall count this a great blessing, indeed.

Posted in Bible, Christian Sabbath, Christian Worldview, Church, Confessionalism, D.A. Carson, Doctrine, Lord's Day, Practical Christianity, Presbyterianism, Society, The Gideons International, Theology, Worship

The Daily Routine: Our “This is a Football” Speech

Vince Lombardi (1913-1970) was one of the most successful football coaches in the history of the National Football League, leading the Green Bay Packers to an extended period of dominance in the 1960s. Today the trophy awarded to the winner of the Super Bowl is named in his honor. A firm believer in the importance of playing fundamentals in building successful football teams, Lombardi famously began each year’s training camp by holding up a ball and saying “Gentlemen, this is a football,” followed by a review of the very basic elements of the game. His teams were composed of some of the most accomplished and successful athletes in the world and some no doubt though this approach to be unnecessarily pedantic, but they couldn’t argue with his results. Lombardi demanded excellence and pursued it methodically, beginning with building the foundations needed for successful competition.

Over the years I’ve come to realize more and more that the elements necessary for success in sports are very similar to those required for progress and success in music. In trying to teach my seven-year-old son just a bit about how to throw a football, shoot a basketball, or catch a baseball (and, trust me, I know only a bit about these things) I can see that his successes are tied directly to correct fundamental execution and his most marked failures come when he becomes so enamored with trick plays and lucky shots that he has seen on television or online clips that he ignores the basics and tries to do something spectacular. This is no different than most young boys, of course, and I was certainly no better at his age (in fact, I was considerably worse), but thirty added years of life experience and at least some success in the music business have provided me with some additional perspective on what is happening when he succeeds or fails in his sporting endeavors. He is slowly learning to focus his efforts on correct basic execution, and his skills are improving as a result.

In music I see very similar tendencies with my students. Even since high school I have been both a proponent and a practitioner of the daily routine as a means of reviewing and extending fundamental playing skills each day. Over the years I have noticed that diligence in this area has been tied to my greatest successes as a brass player, and negligence has led to failure. I constantly seek to impress the importance of this upon my students, but they usually require some convincing before they learn to develop their fundamental playing skills before tackling the most challenging repertoire. Despite my efforts, most have to learn this lesson “the hard way,” as I sometimes have.

Why is the daily routine so important? Part of it is because of the need to warm-up, to gently exercise the muscles and tissues used in playing, though this can be accomplished without the use of a repetitive and systematic routine. I think even more important is the mental aspect. The daily routine provides an opportunity to systematically review how to play the instrument, beginning with the most basic elements and moving to more advanced concepts. In essence, during the daily routine I teach myself all over again how to play the trombone correctly and fend off the development of unproductive habits.

In that sense, the daily routine is our version of the “this is a football” speech, given to ourselves each day. It worked for Lombardi and the Packers, and it works for us brass players, as well.

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, Vince Lombardi

Encouraging or Demanding? … Yes!

This weekend I returned to my graduate alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, for the first time since completing my doctoral degree in 2005. The occasion was the 20th annual North Carolina Trombone Festival, for which I was the featured guest artist. I gave a recital on Friday evening, and then today performed one piece on a group faculty recital, conducted one of the trombone choirs, and gave lectures in the morning and afternoon. It was a busy but enjoyable and successful time, and after working extra hard for the past few weeks to prepare for this event in addition to my regular teaching and performing duties I am looking forward to, God willing, a calmer schedule for the remaining weeks of the spring semester.

Being here for the past few days has also reminded me of why I chose to come to UNCG, why it was such a blessing for me to be here, and the ways in which I seek to emulate my trombone teacher here, Dr. Randy Kohlenberg. Interestingly enough, UNCG was not on my short list when I first began considering graduate programs; I had never even heard of the school or its trombone teacher prior to my senior year in college. After I found that one of my top choices did not have a graduate assistantship available my teacher at Delta State University, Dr. Ed Bahr, suggested that I consider UNCG, where a doctoral school classmate of his was teaching. I sent a prescreening tape and later performed a live audition, and while I was here for that visit I observed Dr. Kohlenberg’s outstanding teaching. After that day I was hooked, and was very thankful when UNCG offered me a teaching assistantship and tuition waiver. I completed my master’s degree in only three semesters and they offered to continue funding my schooling for a doctoral degree; I never considered going elsewhere.

What had me so hooked on UNCG and Dr. Kohlenberg’s teaching? This: He was both tremendously demanding and unfailingly kind and encouraging. When I observed his teaching during that first visit I saw Dr. Kohlenberg work with students of varying ability levels, always pushing them to achieve more, admonishing them when lack of preparation was to blame for poor results, yet doing this without resorting to personal insults, mockery (except in an obviously kindly, joking way), or other negative behaviors. As his student then and now today years later in observing him with his current students I have seen and experienced this man demanding absolute perfection—on several occasions he spent an entire lesson with me on just a few bars of music—but at the same time treating every student with gentleness, kindness, and respect. The result is excellent playing on the part of his students both current and former, and even this weekend I know that I played better because of his encouraging words and actions toward me.

The music business is a tough one. The demands for quality are high, the employment opportunities far fewer than the number of qualified applicants, and the temptations great for musicians and music teachers to be either negative and self-serving in the midst of their demands or otherwise overly permissive and resigned to mediocrity. I’m therefore thankful to have had a teacher who so ably demonstrated how to be kind and encouraging while simultaneously demanding ever higher levels of skill and achievement. I hope and pray that I am such a teacher to my students, and am going home even more determined and inspired to strive to that end.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Education, Higher Education, Micah Everett, Music, Music Education, North Carolina Trombone Festival, Pedagogy, Performing, Randy Kohlenberg, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Growth or Death?

I write this evening in the middle of what has been fairly satisfying weekend professionally. My students gave a fine performance of the national anthem at the Ole Miss Baseball game versus Mississippi State, and I have played one of two scheduled performances with Tom Walker’s Gospel Train Big Band, a touring group for which I normally serve as lead trombonist when they come through Mississippi. Yesterday’s experience with that group has in part prompted my choice of topic for today, as I was called upon to perform improvised solos with the band on several occasions and not only did so competently but also did so with practically no anxiety about the process. This was not always the case for me. While I studied jazz improvisation to some degree as an undergraduate student, I never became particularly comfortable or successful in the endeavor, and as a graduate student and young professional mostly set that training aside. I gave myself and others the (partially true) excuse that I was investing the energies that I might have spent working on improvisation on learning to play multiple instruments, but a truer statement would have been that I didn’t think I was very good at improvisation and wasn’t sure how to get better. I still played jazz gigs periodically, often laughing off solo opportunities by saying that “I improvise well enough to keep getting hired as a lead player” (since the second trombonist is the chair more often called upon to solo).

As I’ve written or alluded to several times over the years in this space, my career since beginning university studies 20 years ago has been characterized by rapidly increasing success, followed by a short plateau and steady decline, then a crisis brought about by that decline combined with health issues, and then over the past seven years or so a steady rebuilding. (I have written more detailed reflections on all of this here.) In most respects I play better now than I ever have, and am thankful for even the negative experiences that in God’s providence have led me to this point. In retrospect, I see that the decline in my abilities came about largely because I had unconsciously decided that I was “good enough,” and failed to realize until it was almost too late that what I thought was “treading water” was really a slow but steady loss of skill. Understanding now that my abilities as a musician will always be either increasing or decreasing, I am always seeking more refinement, better techniques, and new skills. Taking up tuba as an additional doubling instrument for performance (in addition to teaching, which I was already doing) is a manifestation of this, as is this newfound interest in becoming a better jazz musician. While I don’t presently aspire to become a great jazz player (at some point one realizes that he cannot be the master of everything), I am happy to have become a more serviceable one, and look forward to further developing these skills. I have learned that I must continue to grow as a musician if I wish to remain a skilled (and employable) one.

If you will indulge me in a bit of theological reflection in this vein, there is a comparison to be made here to the Christian life, to how one is to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Just as continued growth is necessary for maintaining one’s skill and vitality as a musician, so continued growth is necessary as one continues through life as a Christian. Our Lord used no small number of agricultural metaphors to convey spiritual truths, one of the most poignant being that of the vine and the branches. Speaking to his disciples just before his crucifixion, Jesus said “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The Lord tells us that our vitality as “branches” comes from the life-giving, growth-producing nourishment of the Vine, and just one verse later he warns that “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Think also of the Parable of the Sower as recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8, and which was recently addressed during the Sunday School hour at Christ Presbyterian Church. Here we have four groups of people represented as scattered seed. The first group demonstrates no spiritual life at all, and the last grows and produces a tremendous crop, but the middle two groups are the ones that are to me the most frightening, as these seeds do spring up and show some signs of life but as they are scorched or choked they wither and die. Jesus said frankly later in Matthew that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). The first hints of nascent spiritual life are not enough; one must diligently seek to grow to maturity and produce much fruit.

There is more to being a great musician than studying hard, practicing hard, and establishing a professional career. Growth in understanding and skill is necessary in order to maintain that career at the highest level, or else one will find that his skills slowly decline and with them his career. Similarly—though with infinitely higher stakes—there is more to being a Christian than a simple affirmation of the facts about Christ or even the initial signs of spiritual life. The true Christian is marked by growth, endurance, increase. He diligently uses the means of grace (Word, sacraments, and prayer) in order to become more like his Lord and Savior, and as the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) puts it, he diligently seeks to “more and more die unto sin and live unto righteousness.” Jesus never offers hope for those who fail to do this, except that they truly come to him in repentance and faith before it is too late.

So, fellow musician—and more importantly, fellow Christian—will you have growth or death?

 

Posted in Christian Worldview, Micah Everett, Music, Music and Theology, Performing, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Providence, Salvation, Teaching Low Brass, Theology, Trombone, Tuba

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