Lessons Learned Teaching Children’s Sunday School

In August my wife and I will conclude a two-year stint teaching children’s Sunday School classes at Christ Presbyterian Church, first with four and five-year-olds, and then with fifth and sixth-graders. We are stepping aside, at least for now, because the church has a usual policy of having folks teach children on Sunday mornings for no more than two years at a stretch, thus ensuring that people do not lose the opportunity to participate in the adult classes for both learning and fellowship.

Teaching the children has been a big change for me, as ever since I was first engaged as a substitute Sunday School teacher over ten years ago I have taught only adults and college students. However, the work is no less important—in fact, it might be more important—and is not without its unique challenges. Here are a few things I have learned in the past couple of years through this new avenue of service. The first couple of these were things that I had figured out before agreeing to serve in this way, and the rest I discovered during the process.

  1. Children’s Sunday School classes need good teachers.

I first considered teaching a children’s class after reading an article directed toward seminary students who complained that the churches they attended were not “using their gifts.” They lamented not being asked to teach adults, while the children’s department was hurting for teachers. In a similar way, I realized that our (then) new church was probably not going to ask me to teach adults any time soon (I was new and relatively unknown), but the children’s classes always needed teachers. Seeing a place where I could be useful, I chose to do so, and am glad that I did.

  1. Men can and should teach these classes along with their wives.

Sadly, the church is largely viewed in our society as being primarily “for women,” with men taking an ever smaller interest in her activities and worship. There are many reasons for this, but one small way to counter it is for boys to see men taking the Bible seriously and taking the work of teaching the faith to young people seriously. Teaching a class along with your wife also allows students to see a (hopefully) healthy married relationship firsthand for a few minutes each week, as well as providing some unfortunately necessary legal protection (our church does not allow men to work with children alone).

  1. Curriculum selection is important.

I have sometimes had to use Sunday School curricula with which I disagreed on significant points and which occasionally contained outright errors. This increased the amount of time needed to study, as errors, when found, had to be researched and corrected. Happily, the materials from Great Commission Publications that our church uses are sound and reliable, if occasionally corny (as such materials often are).

  1. Repetition is necessary. Very necessary.

About halfway through this school year we discovered that our fifth and sixth grade students had no idea what the sequence of the books of the Bible is, much less even a broad mental timeline of biblical history. Some of the students said that they had to memorize the books of the Bible in the second grade at their Christian school, but the information had clearly been forgotten due to disuse. I understood then why children’s curricula must be somewhat repetitive—that’s the only way to make the information stick! (We now recite the books of the Bible at the beginning of every class.)

  1. Brevity is a virtue.

Today’s adults have limited attention spans, and the children are even worse. While I can teach for a longer period of time with the fifth and sixth-graders than I could with the preschoolers, I am still well aware that economy of words is necessary if I am to hold their attention. Those of us who are prone to ramble must learn to use words efficiently if we are to communicate well with young people!

  1. If one has to go to the bathroom, all have to go to the bathroom.

Even children that “know their place” want to find ways to exercise some degree of control of their situations. Young kids do not have to be potty trained for very long before they learn that a request to go to the bathroom is a surefire way to get out of a situation they don’t like, particularly if they declare that they need to go “real bad.” Moreover, when one has to go, others will quickly follow suit. Teachers must learn to tell the difference between a real and contrived “emergency,” as well as learn the virtue of “one at a time.” Knowing that they won’t be able to bring their friends along has a way of decreasing most kids’ sudden urges.

  1. Older students need to bring and use their Bibles.

One thing that still bothers me about the fifth and sixth graders is that half the class never brings a Bible with them—to church!!! Given the modern day habits of printing passages for study in the Sunday School curriculum materials and the sermon texts in the bulletin, perhaps folks are somewhat justified in believing that bringing a Bible is unnecessary. Nevertheless, students will not learn to find their way around the Scriptures if they do not have a copy to use. Encourage and admonish them to bring Bibles along, and have a few copies in the classroom for those who still don’t bring them. If a student doesn’t have a Bible, give him one!

  1. Make them think, and speak.

Middle school and high school students that come to me for music lessons are often taken aback at first by my frequent use of the Socratic Method when teaching. Apparently they are unaccustomed to teachers asking them to form and express an opinion, which is really quite sad. Still, one of the best ways to get students really thinking about the topic at hand is to ask them questions and wait for them to think and answer. With a little directed questioning, students will figure out the right answers and retain them better than if you simply lecture at them all the time. And remember, this is the Bible; we want them to learn it better! Even the preschoolers can do this in a very limited way, but do be careful. I still remember the time I asked “What’s the first book in the Bible?” After receiving no answer, I said “You know, we’ve been studying it. It begins with the letter ‘G.’” Immediately a child yelled “Jesus!” Well, the “Sunday School answer” is not always right, but at least he tried….

  1. “Lick and stick.”

The activities included with the GCP materials for preschoolers frequently included apparently non-adhesive “stickers,” and we quickly began to wonder if our curriculum publisher had established some sort of back-room deal with the manufacturers of Elmer’s glue sticks. About halfway through our time with that class (and not a few articles of clothing marred by purple glue), we discovered quite by accident that our stickers were of the “lick and stick” variety. Or at least I think they were; maybe the moisture just made them stick to the paper in its own right. In any case, the kids liked saying “lick and stick,” and we liked not dealing with purple glue sticks. Everyone wins!

  1. You might be able to study less than for an adult class, but you will need to pray more.

I used to spend hours each week studying to teach college students and adults, yet have often prepared to teach children the day before or even early on the morning of the class. A person armed with a sound curriculum and a reasonably thorough knowledge of the Bible will be able to teach a children’s class with less study than when preparing to bring deeper material to adults. Nevertheless, no amount of knowledge and skill with the Scriptures or cleverness of delivery will substitute for the Holy Spirit working through one’s teaching to bring the children to faith in Christ. We are dependent upon God to bring forth the harvest. Teachers, pray diligently to that end!

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6)

Posted in Christian Education, Education, Practical Christianity, Theology

Rediscovering and Reapplying the “Conversational Breath”

In last week’s post as well as several others I have freely discussed areas in which I have abandoned previous approaches to playing my instruments and have embraced ideas found in newer publications. While readers might conclude that I have rejected the teachings of my own professors wholesale, that conclusion would be in error. Players who have taken lessons with me and with one of my former teachers still report that I sound like the teacher that they know, and in most areas of my playing and teaching I remain an amalgamation of my own instructors. Indeed much of my playing development these days comes not from learning new information but from rediscovering and sometimes reapplying ideas that have been forgotten. This is certainly true of the topic that I have chosen for today.

Emory Remington (1892-1971)

Emory Remington (1892-1971)

Emory Remington (1892-1971) was the legendary trombone teacher at the Eastman School of Music for nearly fifty years. He practically invented the modern trombone choir, and his teaching on the use of a “balanced daily routine” for fundamental playing work remains the basis of my own approach to the same topic. Indeed, most of the exercises in my own routines are based upon (if not copied directly from) those used by “The Chief.” My trombone teachers at the university level included one of Remington’s students and a student of one of his students, so his teaching had a formative, if indirect, influence on my own work.

Nevertheless, one idea espoused by Remington that I abandoned for a long time was his preference for using a “conversational breath” when playing. He rejected what he called “overbreathing” as used by many players because he believed this led to unnecessary tension when playing. While I agreed that unnecessary tension was to be avoided, I did not agree with the “conversational breath” concept because I believed it left the player with an insufficient amount of air to meet his playing demands, particularly when playing bass trombone and tuba. When incorrectly understood, I still believe this to be the case. Certainly more air than is used in normal speech is needed at least at times when playing, particularly for loud and extended passages in the lower register.

Last week I mentioned that over time I had unintentionally allowed an unhelpful abdominal tension to creep into my playing, a situation that was ultimately resolved through regular use of The Breathing Book. While I have long admonished students that unnecessarily laborious breathing can add tension, and that not every breath needs to be a “full capacity” breath, I had been less successful in applying these ideas to my own playing. The harder I worked, and the bigger breaths I tried to take, the more tense I became. This was a recipe for disaster, and I am thankful both that only a couple of bad performances rather than a wholesale “crashing” of my playing led me to reevaluate this, and that I discovered teachings and materials that helped me to resolve the issues.

In light of these new discoveries, and particularly after hearing the term used for the first time in a long while in a couple of lectures earlier this year, I have been giving the “conversational breath” a second thought. I find myself more and more wondering if I misunderstood all along what Remington was after. Perhaps he meant a conversational breath not in volume, but in quality. What if one could learn to take in the amount of air needed for a passage, however large that amount might be, with the same feeling of ease and relaxation that one has in casual conversation? If so, while it would be inaccurate to view the newer teachings of David Vining in The Breathing Book as a fleshing out and application of Remington’s idea, rightly understood perhaps the two concepts could live together. One would then learn from Vining how to properly use the breathing apparatus, and then when playing focus largely on maintaining the relaxing breathing of a casual conversation when playing.

I suspect that I am reinterpreting Remington too much to remain absolutely true to his original concept, as the big breaths I often use, particularly when playing loudly on the bass trombone, can hardly be described as “conversational.” Still, I can’t help but think that the concept of a “conversational breath in quality but not in volume” might be a way to take this idea and successfully apply it to modern playing demands, promoting a relaxed, “conversational” feel even in the most intense playing situations.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Emory Remington, Euphonium, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Great Books: The Breathing Book by David Vining

The past eight years have in some ways been difficult ones for me. The onset of neck and jaw pain came in 2007, to which was added back pain after a car accident in 2008. I finally received a final diagnosis of the causes (both injury related and congenital) and chronic nature of these pain issues in 2010, and have been learning to “live with it” ever since. While none of these issues were caused by my brass playing, they have sometimes had a negative effect on it, one about which I have written and spoken freely on this blog and elsewhere in the past. Most importantly—and indeed most beneficially—these issues have forced me to continually seek and eliminate inefficiencies in the way I approach my instruments. As a younger man I was able to play incorrectly in some respects with little negative effect; I no longer have that luxury. When I use the body well, I have no pain when playing. When I use the body poorly, I often do. To put it more crudely, “When I do it right, it don’t hurt.”

One area of inefficiency I have slowly been addressing over the past several years is that of breathing. The vast majority of my teachers were, either implicitly or explicitly, advocates of the “breathe low” approach to breathing when playing. The idea here is that the primary movement when inhaling should take place in the abdomen, as the diaphragm flattens and displaces the internal organs and such, and the lungs somehow expand downward. Movement in the upper chest (where the lungs actually are!) is generally discouraged, a practice that probably began as an overreaction to the error of moving too much in the shoulders. While I rarely heard the idea of a firm or tense abdomen promoted, the “breathe low” approach tends to lead to that result, or at least it did with me. While this had little negative effect upon me in my pre-injury days, in recent years the extra tension in my abdomen exacerbated the effects of certain structural imbalances that, for better or worse, I have to deal with.

Enter David Vining, whose What Every Trombonist Needs to Know About the Body I have reviewed here before and whose publishing company, Mountain Peak Music, recently released my own book on low brass doubling. After experiencing a nearly career-ending battle with Focal Task-Specific Dystonia of the embouchure, Vining researched and developed his own treatment plan, rebuilt his playing and career, and subsequently began a renewed teaching focus, helping both students and professionals how to recognize, eliminate, and avoid the kinds of habits which lead to challenges like dystonia. As a result of Vining’s book and several lectures and master classes of his that I have attended, I began to retool my teaching and playing regarding the use of the body in several respects, including breathing. I abandoned the “breathe low” mantra in my teaching after learning that the lungs do, in fact, expand in all directions simultaneously rather than “from the bottom up” as is often taught (there is movement in the abdomen, just not exclusively so), but eliminating the habits of breathing that way and of introducing excessive abdominal tension into the mix in my own playing took much longer, and in fact is an ongoing process.

The Breathing Book by David Vining

The Breathing Book by David Vining

Realizing that my own breathing was still not matching in practice the ideals I espoused verbally, I purchased a copy of The Breathing Book last summer. In just 32 pages alternating text and playing exercises applying the text, Vining walks the player step by step through understanding how the body works and then applying this knowledge to actual playing. Breathing is the main focus of the book, but its instructions necessarily touch every aspect of one’s physical approach to the instrument. The entire book can be completed in a little over an hour; less if the text is not thoroughly read (though it should be, at least the first few times). My practice over the past several months has been to replace my regular daily routine with this book once weekly or sometimes every other week, and I have begun recommending that my students do the same.

I cannot overstate how useful this book has been for my playing. While I encountered very little information that was completely new to me, the systematic presentation and application of the ideas introduced here have made it incredibly useful. Perhaps most importantly, through regular use of this book and application of its ideas to all playing, I have eliminated several areas of unnecessary tension, including in the abdomen. This has yielded expected benefits in tone quality and phrasing; an unexpected benefit has been a reduced susceptibility to the effects of performance anxiety. Nervousness often leads to an increase in muscle tension and other inefficiencies that are already there; in the absence of such tension, the effects of “nerves” are largely eliminated.

In a conversation we had at a conference several months ago, David mentioned to me that he hoped one day The Breathing Book (which has editions for all brass instruments as well as the oboe) would be rendered unnecessary because the correct approach to breathing would be known to practically all teachers, performers, and students. While I wish that this will someday be the case, I’m sure that books like this will always be needed. Even with the best and most physiologically accurate instruction, the tendency of diligent players to make things harder than they are will always lead to various kinds of incorrect approaches to breathing and other fundamental issues that will need to be addressed. Happily, the brass community now has this book and others like it to help players get back to the right place when inefficiencies creep into their playing.

This really is a great book. Order your copy today!

Posted in Books, Breathing, Doubling, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass

A Brass Professor’s Perspective on Drum and Bugle Corps

I first learned about Drum Corps International in 1993, when I was in the ninth grade. The DCI World Championships were in Jackson, Mississippi, that year, just a few miles from my hometown, so I really had no choice but for my ignorance of the activity to be eliminated. I became an avid fan, purchased recordings, attended shows within driving distance, and watched the yearly broadcasts on PBS for a few years, before my expanding musical horizons in college pushed drum corps to the side.

Like many university brass teachers, today I have mixed feelings about drum and bugle corps. In fact, this was the topic of a heated discussion on the Trombone Pedagogy group on Facebook a few weeks ago. While I was already considering writing a blog post on the topic, that discussion prompted me to finally organize my thoughts and get them into writing. Today I am going to offer two positive observations of the drum and bugle corps activity and two negative ones, and then conclude with what I tell students who are considering participating.

Positive Observation #1: Sound Playing Fundamentals

While marching bands are often associated with the development of poor fundamental playing habits, any association of the same with drum corps is usually unfair, at least for the better organizations. The top drum and bugle corps bring in well-qualified and often world-class brass players to coach their horn lines. Despite the inherent risks associated with marching and playing, this instruction is usually a boon to students’ playing development. Besides, how else are you going to get your students to play long tones and lip slurs for an hour or two each day all summer?

Positive Observation #2: Exposure to Great Literature

I have been known to criticize high school and college marching band directors who program highbrow music for their field shows that will not appeal to the usual football crowd. While there is an equal and opposite danger of “dumbing down” the musical content of programs too much, I think it is important that athletic bands consider their primary audiences when choosing repertoire. Drum and bugle corps, on the other hand, are musicians and cater to musicians, so there is a great opportunity here to expose students and audiences to great works arranged for the drum and bugle corps. Indeed, the first times I heard Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta by Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and the Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) were in arrangements for drum and bugle corps. These performances were simply the “gateway drugs” which led me to explore and discover these works for myself in their original versions. I do not wish to overstate the musical value of DCI, but it can serve as a valuable means of exposure to great music, while maintaining a certain entertainment value and artistic quality in its own right.

Negative Observation #1: Fundamental Playing Problems

This observation might seem strange paired with the first one, as I began by praising the sound fundamental instruction received by students in the top organizations affiliated with DCI. Nevertheless, the quality of instruction does vary, and students with peculiar needs or long-term problems to correct might suffer setbacks in the midst of instruction geared more toward the needs of an ensemble than to the needs of the individual player. Additionally, and as was discussed in the aforementioned Trombone Pedagogy discussion, brass instructors in some organizations (and not just in DCI) have a potentially dangerous practice of insisting that all the players in each section play the same mouthpiece, ostensibly for the purpose of promoting a uniform section sound. Not only is this a poor way to reach the desired goal, as players whose facial structures are not compatible with the selected mouthpiece will not produce a good sound, but also it can promote the development of negative playing habits in players who try to “force-fit” their embouchures into the prescribed mouthpiece. Mouthpiece selection is a very individual thing, as the rim size must fit the player’s embouchure while the cup and backbore matches the instrument being played. A mismatch in either respect will lead to a poor sound and possible negative repercussions for the individual player.

Negative Observation #2: Attitude Problems

A second negative observation has to do with the attitudes of certain students after marching drum corps. I have witnessed on more than one occasion cases where students returning to their universities from a summer of competitive marching develop arrogant, condescending, and dismissive attitudes toward their schools’ marching bands and even in some cases the directors. These students too easily forget that while DCI is a competitive organization focused increasingly on higher artistic values, college marching bands exist primarily to entertain the football crowd, and the emphasis is on size, variety, and excitement, not on the perfection of a single ten-minute program for judges, connoisseurs, and fans. These differences in objectives necessitate an approach that is not necessarily “lesser,” but merely “different.” Judging college marching bands by drum corps standards is not a valid comparison, and thinking less of the bands and their directors is both immature and disrespectful. And don’t forget, those seeking careers as school band directors will need their college band directors’ recommendations when the time for a job search comes around. Don’t alienate them!

So, in light of these considerations, do I still encourage interested students to participate in drum and bugle corps? In most cases, yes, provided that they are generally good players without serious fundamental issues, and avoid organizations that look like they will be guilty of the offenses mentioned in my first negative observation. The overwhelming majority of my students are aspiring school band directors, and some drum corps experience will generally serve them well, as long as they don’t develop the aforementioned attitude problems. With performance majors I would be more cautious, only because they will need to focus on other things and might be served better by different summer opportunities. Happily, I have never had a student that has had a bad experience with DCI, and I’ve even begun to enjoy watching it again. A little.

Posted in Drum Corps International, Mouthpieces, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass

Why I Don’t Have a “Church Job”

I am a weirdo, and everyone that knows me at all knows that to be the case. I am a conservative Christian who happily (well, usually) works as an academic musician, moving in professional worlds where few of my colleagues and students share my views on a number of topics. In my “church life” among conservative evangelicals, few of my fellow congregants seem to understand what exactly it is that I do for a living or why such a position exists (“Music? So you work with the band. No? Then…???”), though I’ll grant that my current church is better about this than most I have attended in the past. Moreover, on Sundays I am content to teach a children’s Sunday School class and sit in the congregation, rarely gracing the ears of my own congregation or of others with the sounds of my trombone. I generally eschew any musical focus in my service to the church beyond Sunday services, preferring not to be pigeonholed as a “music guy” when I do have something to offer in other areas, or at least I hope I do.

The question is, why am I content to do this? After all, I have served in the past as a song leader and choir director on a substitute basis, and am fairly good at it. Perhaps I could find a church someplace that would hire me to do this part-time, providing some needed supplemental income for my family. Or if not, maybe I could get a regular gig playing the trombone somewhere on Sunday mornings.

Maybe those sound like good ideas, but it is highly unlikely that I would do either of those things. Here are a few reasons why.

  1. I don’t have time to do it well.

My wife has been employed for the past year as a “part-time” elementary music teacher at the school our son attends. While this has been a good situation for our family, she is hardly paid for the hours she spends outside of the classroom preparing and practicing in order to do the best job possible (hence the quotation marks around “part-time”). And yet, she shares my opinion that the Scripture’s demand for excellence in all things (Colossians 3:23-24) must determine how much effort we put into a task, not the clock, and doing music well is a time-consuming enterprise. I barely have enough time to complete all of my professional demands as it is, and I doubt I could take on a music staff position at even a small church without slacking off on my main job or doing the church job poorly.

  1. I think it is important that I stand in the congregation and sing. Loudly.

One of the more lamentable aspects of modern church life is that men rarely sing vigorously. In some respects, it is hard to blame them, given that the saccharine, effeminate ditties that too often pass for worship music these days lack the robust vigor of the songs of past generations of Christians. In any case, Scripture demands that we sing in worship, and do so with vigor—even a casual reading of the Psalms will demonstrate this. I believe I have a duty to sing and to sing loudly, both because the Scripture demands it and also to provide an example for my five-year-old son, just as my dad did for me.

  1. My work with the Gideons would be compromised.

I have been a member of The Gideons International for nearly ten years now, though after becoming parents my wife and I have not been able to maintain anywhere near the level of involvement we had when we were childless. Still, one area in which I am still able to serve regularly is by delivering reports to churches on the association’s Bible distribution work and raising funds for more copies of the Scriptures. If I were to accept a church job somewhere my ability to do this would be restricted, if not eliminated.

  1. I am a convinced, conservative Presbyterian.

American Christians too often choose a church to attend not based on doctrinal considerations but upon the presence of youth and children’s programs, the quality of the facilities, the charisma of the pastor, and, yes, the music used in worship. Musicians, particularly those seeking employment as staff musicians or music directors, are sometimes even more willing to conform (at least outwardly) to the doctrinal statements of whatever church is willing to hire them regardless of their personal convictions. For my part, I am a convinced Presbyterian, a position to which I came with not a little study and introspection, as I have written in the past. Given the small number of conservative Presbyterian congregations within driving distance, my choices for a music staff position, even if I were offered one, would be limited.

  1. I don’t play the guitar!

My tongue is planted in my cheek as I write this one, but only a little. Whether I like it or not, modern worship music has become dominated by bands led by guitarists, not singers, and certainly not trombonists. This is lamentable primarily because worship in the New Testament era should be Word-based, perhaps supported by instruments (though this isn’t absolutely necessary), and characterized primarily by congregational singing (Colossians 3:16). Too often the “song service” has become a short concert in which the congregation might or might not participate. This really is too bad, though to discuss it here would distract from my main point. In any case, I am not qualified to lead music in such a context.

So, there are my reasons. Would I consider a paid music position in my present church (in the unlikely event that one was created) or another of similar convictions within a reasonable driving distance? Possibly, though for the other reasons listed above I still might ultimately decline. As much as I would love some extra income, there are far more important considerations when choosing a place of worship.

Posted in Career Choices, Music and Theology, Music and Worship

Infant Baptism?!

In the early days of writing this blog I discussed how, having been a lifelong Southern Baptist, I came embrace both Calvinism and Presbyterianism. I always planned to write in more detail about how I came to embrace infant baptism, which was for several years the main sticking point which kept me in the Baptist church even though I agreed with the Presbyterians in other respects. I have delayed writing about this partly because I feared it would be a time-consuming topic, and partly because with so many able defenses of paedobaptism having been written, I am manifestly unqualified to add another. Because of this, my approach today will be to list in order several considerations that led me to ultimately change my position (in other words, a “personal testimony” of sorts), and then recommend books for further reading on both sides of the issue.

  1. The Bible commands baptism, but actually says very little about it.

I only landed on this first point after quite a bit of study. While Baptists often believe (as I did) that their position is the one most clearly espoused by the New Testament, an honest examination of the biblical data shows that we are actually told remarkably little about the rite. We read that Christ commanded it and that people received it, but we are told practically nothing about mode (dipping, sprinkling, or pouring), or about the possible inclusion of subjects beyond the converts themselves. The reports of household baptisms in Acts 16 and 1 Corinthians 1 point to the possible inclusion of even those who had not yet personally believed the Gospel when the heads of their households were baptized.

The Baptist will naturally gravitate toward the reports of the baptism of converts, as these are the most clearly attested in the New Testament. However, the household baptisms prevent this from being an “open and shut case.”

  1. Early church history seems to favor the Baptist position in some respects, but it is not a “slam dunk” case.

Similarly, early Christianity was largely a missionary faith, so it should be unsurprising that baptism of converts—and that only after an extended period of catechesis in many cases—predominates in the early records. Still, infant baptism is implied if not always directly attested remarkably early, a fact which, along with the New Testament reports of household baptisms, should at least give pause to Baptists.

  1. Both Baptist and Presbyterian theologians have written good books advancing good arguments for their positions.

When I was first examining this issue and devouring books on the subject I had quite a bit of difficulty. Whenever I would read a book by a Presbyterian on the subject, I would be struck by the logical consistency of his arguments. And yet, when I would read a book by a Baptist, I would be similarly struck by the consistency of his arguments. It seemed like both positions had able defenders who loved the Lord and His Word and were able to handle that Word and the historical data very well. Yet both positions couldn’t be right. I struggled with this for some time until I finally understood that…

  1. Presuppositions matter!

From my earliest encounters with Baptist vs Presbyterian arguments over baptism I would hear or read Baptists accuse Presbyterians of building their argument for paedobaptism upon God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17. Because there is no baptism in Genesis 17, I thought this was absurd and wondered how the Presbyterians could possibly defend against this charge. It was some time later when I discovered that they did not try to defend against it at all; instead they embraced it and proudly declared that they did begin their argument in Genesis 17, drawing a comparison between circumcision and baptism as the initiatory rites of the church in different periods of her history (cf. Colossians 2). In time I came to understand that the Presbyterian understanding of the church and of God’s covenantal dealings with mankind assumed a continuity of God’s dealing with us throughout human history, one which saw God entering into covenant relationships with believers and their children from the very beginning. Indeed, rather than the Presbyterians needing to answer an apparent absurdity, I increasingly began to see that it was the Baptists who needed to explain their beginning a theology of baptism and the church in Matthew rather than in Genesis, and the increasingly (to me) absurd position that our unchangeable (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17) God would deal with people in one way during one period of history, and then deal with them in an entirely different way during another period of history.

I came to see that weighing good Baptist arguments against good Presbyterian arguments was a fruitless enterprise. The matter would have to be decided at a deeper level: whose presuppositions were right? Was it right to build a theology of baptism and the church beginning in Matthew and reading both forward and backward, or to begin with Genesis and trace God’s covenantal dealings with His people throughout history until the fullest revelation in the Person of Jesus Christ? I could not help but believe the latter.

  1. The practical angle: is baptism an initiatory rite, or a testimonial one?

A final, more practical consideration was to ask how baptism functions in the life of the believer and that of the church. In the Southern Baptist context, baptism is seen as the new believer giving personal testimony to his own faith in Christ. Because of this, a valid baptism is said to occur only when the person receiving it actually believes. If after falling into some sin or merely after introspection a baptized person comes to believe himself to have not been truly converted when he received baptism, he is admonished to submit to the ordinance again, to be “truly baptized.” I will confess to having done this myself, something I now believe to have been in error. After all, neither the Scriptures nor the early church give any testimony to a person receiving “rebaptism.” It simply isn’t there, and thus this practice is highly suspect.

As I studied baptism, I came to understand that Presbyterians—and, I believe, the Scriptures—present baptism not as a rite of the believer’s personal testimony, but of initiation into the covenant community. Indeed, Jesus commanded the apostles to make disciples by baptizing and teaching them (in that order, Matthew 28:18-20). I began to ask myself “what is a disciple?” and “are all disciples converts?” The answer to the first question is one that is being taught, being subjected to the teaching and discipline of a certain teacher or a certain faith. Are children being raised in Christian homes “disciples” by that definition? They are, indeed. The answer to the second must be “no.” Do we not read in John 6 that some of Jesus’ “disciples” recoiled at His harder teachings and “no longer walked with him” (v. 66)? If one who is truly converted cannot become “unsaved,” then these “disciples” were evidently not “converts.” We baptize professing believers and their children, all disciples, and all the while praying that each one will be truly converted, repenting of sin and confessing personal faith in the Lord Jesus.

On a personal note, I must say that this understanding of baptism has been rather freeing. When I believed baptism was my “personal testimony of having been saved,” I was always tortured by the thought that perhaps I hadn’t “really” believed at the time and needed to be baptized yet again. Indeed, every time I came to a fuller understanding of the Scriptures and of my own sin such thoughts would come. Others might conclude from the Southern Baptist understanding that baptism after the initial experience of conversion is the culmination of the Christian journey, rather than the beginning. Seeing baptism as the initiation into the Christian life allows one to embrace the biblical understanding that we keep growing in grace and knowledge of Christ throughout our lives. We keep learning, keep repenting, keep believing. We are called to self-examination (2 Corinthians 13:5), but the standards the Bible presents (in Galatians 5:22-23, the entire book of 1 John, and elsewhere) are not of “looking back” to see if we truly believed when we were baptized, but rather to examine our lives in the present to see if we are “bear[ing] fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). By viewing baptism not as my own testimony but as God bringing me into His church through this means of grace, I am free to strive after godliness now without worrying about whether I “did it right” in the past.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not qualified to mount an extended theological defense of the Presbyterian position or a refutation of the Baptist one. The foregoing thoughts are thus mostly of a personal nature. I will conclude this post, though, by listing several books which I found helpful when considering these matters. This list is by no means comprehensive, and does not even list all of the books that I own or have read on the subject. As you will see, there are thoughtful and erudite scholars on both sides of the issue.

Presbyterian/Reformed Authors

Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism by J.V. Fesko

Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Children by Daniel Hyde

Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries by Joachim Jeremias

The Origins of Infant Baptism: A Further Study in Reply to Kurt Aland by Joachim Jeremias

Christian Baptism by John Murray

Baptistic Authors

From Paedobaptism to Credobaptism by W. Gary Crampton

Christian Baptism by Adoniram Judson

The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism vs Paedobaptism by Fred Malone

Should Babies be Baptized? by T.E. Watson

What Has Infant Baptism Done to Baptism: An Enquiry at the End of Christendom by David F. Wright

Posted in Baptism, Calvinism, Practical Christianity, Presbyterianism, Theology

Great Books: Understanding the Mouthpiece by John and Phyllis Stork

I was a music education major as an undergraduate student, and for most of my undergraduate career was aiming toward a career as a school band director. I probably practiced a little more than most music education majors I knew and was certainly more interested in covering a wide array of solo and chamber repertoire, but I didn’t consider myself “good enough” to pursue graduate studies in performance or a career in playing or applied teaching. The change of career goals during my junior year that placed me on my present path precipitated a massive increase in the amount of time I spent practicing, as I felt a very real need to “catch up.” Again, not because I was not diligent in practicing by “music ed standards,” but because the amount of practice required for a chance at a performance career is much greater.

Because my focus was education rather than performance, I gave little thought to mouthpiece choice during my early college years, thinking that a change would be an unnecessary distraction. I played tenor trombone for most of that time on a Schilke 51B, which in hindsight was much too small, a mouthpiece designed especially for principal trombone playing but nowadays used by some as an alto trombone mouthpiece! To his credit, my teacher was not an “equipment junkie” and was slow to blame problems on mouthpieces or other equipment issues (a trait I share). But, as I began working in earnest to further develop my playing in preparation for a performance career I became convinced that a darker sound was necessary and that a mouthpiece change was in order.

My first step was to change to a Schilke 51. This was logical, as this mouthpiece had a fuller and deeper cup than my previous one but the change in cup diameter was negligible. Additionally, it was close to the 51D I was already using on euphonium, so this change offered a great improvement in sound with little difference felt on the face. Still, I was dissatisfied, particularly with my high register development. While I was developing an ample high register, my facility and the fullness of my sound in that part of the range were not progressing as I thought they should. Additionally, my low range was neither as large nor as responsive as I thought it ought to be. Everything I knew about mouthpieces up to that point said that upper register problems would indicate the need to move to a smaller mouthpiece, but I didn’t want the compromise in sound or the further loss of tone quality that this would bring.

<i>Understanding the Mouthpiece</i> by John and Phyllis Stork

Understanding the Mouthpiece by John and Phyllis Stork

Providentially, in the fall of my senior year one of my roommates purchased a copy of Understanding the Mouthpiece by John and Phyllis Stork. This little book is only 21 pages in length, yet in that short span contains a wealth of knowledge about what might be accomplished by changes in certain mouthpiece dimensions. About halfway through I encountered a section which essentially described the problems I was having (except the upper register issues, other than indirectly), and identified these as being associated with an inner diameter that was too small. I was placing the mouthpiece rim largely or entirely on the red part of my lips, and not allowing the freedom of movement that my larger and fleshier lips required.

After this, I began several months of experimentation with larger and larger mouthpieces, and eventually was able to arrange for a lesson with Doug Elliott, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on embouchure types and mouthpiece selection for low brass players. During our phone consultation he was skeptical that my ideas on what mouthpiece might be good for me were correct, but to his surprise after watching me play he agreed that a wider than usual diameter was right for me, and sold me the mouthpiece that I still use on the large-bore tenor trombone. I have occasionally considered trying other mouthpieces in the 14 years since that lesson, but I have never considered moving to a smaller diameter. My unconventional setup, basically a Bach 2G rim with a 4G cup and backbore, works well for me, and I use that same rim with appropriately larger or smaller cups and backbores on alto trombone, small-bore tenor trombone, and euphonium. My bass trombone mouthpiece is more “normal.”

Discovering the book Understanding the Mouthpiece was a boon to my understanding of how equipment affects brass playing, and particularly to my own development as a trombonist. I use the ideas learned there on a regular basis when working with students, and recommend that every brass player and teacher consider purchasing a copy.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Book Reviews, Books, Doug Elliott, Euphonium, John and Phyllis Stork, Mouthpieces, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba