On Making Good Shoes

The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.

For those interested in the Protestant doctrine of vocation, that tasty little nugget allegedly spoken by Martin Luther (1483-1546) seems pithy, appropriate, and worthy of sharing on social media. I have been guilty of doing so myself. Alas, it appears that Luther never actually said it. Still, it is not wholly inconsistent with Luther’s teachings on the idea of Christian vocation, which were encouraging and liberating for believers of his generation and continue to be so today.

The medieval church in which Luther was raised and eventually ordained a priest was one which promoted a two-tiered (well, at least two) vision of Christian vocation and identity. While secular professions, family life, and the other trappings of an ordinary existence were permissible and even good for laymen, to take holy orders and enter the priesthood was to enter upon an entirely higher plane of the Christian life. Ordinary people, no matter how devout, simply weren’t a part of this. As Luther studied the scriptures and began to develop the theology of the nascent Reformation, he came to realize that while the church’s ordained offices are of vital importance, the work of ordinary believers is also honored in scripture, and infused with a dignity of its own. Each of us is to serve God and neighbor through our work, and while Luther did not write the pithy quote above, in a 1522 sermon (quoted here) he did say this about the callings of Christian magistrates and other workers:

The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor….The same is true for the shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.

Referring now to the scriptural basis for this understanding, the Apostle Paul wrote the following to the church at Colossae, after speaking to the particular concerns of several groups of individuals:

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24)

This is clearly a key passage upon which Protestants from Luther forward have built their understanding of vocation. In his famous commentary, Matthew Henry (1662-1714) had the following to say about this passage:

It sanctifies a servant’s work when it is done as unto God—with an eye to his glory and in obedience to his command, and not merely as unto men, or with regard to them only. Observe, We are really doing our duty to God when we are faithful in our duty to men. And, for servants’ encouragement, let them know that a good and faithful servant is never the further from heaven for his being a servant: “Knowing that of the Lord you shall receive the reward of the inheritance, for you serve the Lord Christ,” Col 3:24. Serving your masters according to the command of Christ, you serve Christ, and he will be your paymaster: you will have a glorious reward at last. Though you are now servants, you will receive the inheritance of sons.

Sadly, many evangelicals have lost sight of this wonderful and liberating doctrine, and in some cases seem to have developed their own two-tiered understanding of the Christian life not unlike that of the medieval church. By this understanding, “full-time Christian service” is the greatest possible calling, and the rest of us should as much as possible engage in mission work, evangelism, various kinds of service projects, and in general spend as many hours as possible at the church or in church activities. When one must of necessity be engaged in secular work, opportunities for evangelism must always be sought and taken advantage of when present, even to the detriment of one’s professional duties. Sadly, this attitude has sometimes left non-believers with an understandably poor impression of the Christian’s work ethic.

I am not suggesting that ordinary Christians should not share the gospel, engage in service projects, or participate in mission work of various kinds. These things are necessary and good. However, our ordinary callings are also necessary and good, and performing them to the best of our ability is a Christian duty that glorifies God and serves our neighbor. Time spent doing “church work” is not the only time in which we can faithfully serve God.

Today I participated in a Bible study on my own time before work, and after arriving at the office I practiced, taught, graded, and made instructional videos for a teaching and recruiting project, all without direct reference to Christianity at all. Did these things honor God? To the extent that I did them to the best of my ability and with his glory and the service of my neighbor in view, the scripture answers in the affirmative. It is liberating to know that even my ordinary work as a teacher and musician can be honoring to God, though at the same time it is convicting—if diligent work is honoring to God, then slothful work is dishonoring to him. With such a motivation in view, Christians should always be the very best workers!

And if I get an opportunity to speak to someone about the Bible and the Christ revealed therein, that will be wonderful, of course.

But I’ll do it on my own time.:)

Posted in Christian Worldview, Church, Doctrine of Vocation, Evangelism, Martin Luther, Practical Christianity, Theology

Why I am a Christian

While this blog is dedicated primarily to my teaching and performing work as a brass player, over the nearly four years of writing here I have enjoyed occasionally writing about my views on various aspects and implications of the Christian faith. Today I want to briefly step back and write about something even more fundamental: why I have been and remain a confessing and practicing Christian. The following five headings provide a cursory overview of my thoughts; I have made no attempt to be comprehensive. Strangely enough, I will begin and end with more subjective items and place the more objective ones in the middle. That might seem to weaken the force of my reasoning a bit, but this sequencing is the most honest and the truest to my actual experience and, I’m sure, to the experiences of others.

1. I was raised to be a Christian.

The first reason that I am a Christian is that I was raised as one. That is not a compelling argument for Christianity to the outside observer, but it is an honest observation, as I have never experienced evaluating the Christian faith from a position of ignorance, indifference, or unbelief. My parents brought me to church from infancy, and made efforts to ensure that I knew and understood the scriptures and in time came to own their faith for myself. Adult conversions sometimes happen, of course, and we rejoice at those, but it does seem that God’s ordinary way of building his church is through the faith being passed down from parents to children, and I am thankful that my parents did just that. Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

2. Christianity is grounded in historical events—things that actually happened.

Setting aside for brevity the various arguments about the timing of creation, the age of the earth, and the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, the Bible has proven to give us a very accurate portrayal of historical personages, places, and events in the parts of the world it directly addresses. Archaeologists have found it to be a supremely reliable guide to the locations of the ancient cities and civilizations it describes, and documents from other contemporary cultures normally verify what the Bible says about the peoples and events of that time. Most of all, the Bible tells us about Jesus Christ, a man whose existence and activities are as well established as any other figure in antiquity, if not more so. Rather than having us believe in a myth or fable to help us to “be better people,” our faith ultimately rests upon a person who really existed and events that really happened to him—and which the New Testament’s authors invited their original readers to verify by questioning eyewitnesses. (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8) Christianity stands or falls on whether or not this Jesus really was who he said he was, died for our sins as the Bible says he did, and “rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” Absent any a priori bias against the miraculous, one finds that the Resurrection is one of the best attested events in all of history, and one upon which our standing with God depends. For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

3. Christianity accurately describes and accounts for the conditions of the world and humanity.

The great Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) spoke often of the importance not only of becoming believing Christians but of developing a “Christian worldview.” He said that everyone has a worldview—a lens through which one views all of life—and that Christianity was only one of any number of such views held by individuals in our society. Of course, these offer competing and often contradictory ways of seeing the world, and Schaeffer opined that every worldview will, at its basis, provide answers to the following three questions. The worldview whose answers agree with reality is the one that should be adopted.

  • Where did we come from?
  • What’s wrong with the world?
  • How can it be fixed?

Biblical Christianity answers these questions rather simply. Humanity was created “very good” in the image of God, marred that image through sin and rebellion, and its problems (and those of the entire creation) will be solved only when Christ returns at the eschaton. The last item especially sounds like “pie in the sky” to many readers, I’m sure, but the first two in particular seem to me to correspond to reality better than any competing views. The idea of an originally “very good” humanity that fell from that goodness accounts for humanity as we observe it—as capable of great goodness and with an innate sense that there is an objective “right” and “wrong,” and yet capable of unspeakable evil both to one another and the creation as a whole. Neither the views that everyone is “basically good” or somehow starts out morally neutral account for all of this, nor does a pessimistic view of man as entirely evil. Still, there is evil in the world, not just among people but even in the physical creation itself. What is the solution to those?

4. Christianity provides the only compelling solution to our problems.

Out of all of human history, the twentieth century is particularly marked by spectacularly failed utopian visions in which people attempted to create a perfect society without reference to God. Marxism cast one such vision, yet resulted in the deaths of millions. Nazism had another (though with a veneer of faux-Christianity) and ended similarly. Various lesser movements have been underwhelming at best and comical at worst. Proponents of all of these movements saw rightly that our world and societies are broken, but failed to correctly diagnose the cause—that we have sinned against a Creator-God to whom we are accountable—and to recognize that ultimately our hope must lie outside of ourselves. So what does Christianity offer? A promise that Christ will return one day to restore all things (cf. Revelation 22:12), and that in the meantime his people are to be not fatalistic, but rather faithful stewards, doing good where they can in anticipation of the Master’s return. (cf. Jeremiah 29:7)

This begins not on a societal level but a personal one. Sin infects not only the society but the individual, and the individual must be redeemed. Just like we are powerless to “fix the world” by ourselves, so we are powerless to save ourselves from the consequences of our own sin. Happily, the same Christ that will one day restore all of creation will freely save all who will repent of sin and believe in him. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

5. The Spirit’s internal witness.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…. (Romans 8:16)

I am aware that I am ending with what probably appears to be my weakest point, but once again this is true to experience. In the scriptures we find the promise of a supernatural, internal witness of the Holy Spirit that we are indeed God’s children, and the context there in Romans chapter 8 suggests that this witness is strongest at moments of particular weakness or distress. While I have experienced this in some small measure in my own life, this also explains how persecuted believers in previous generations and in our own in some parts of the world have faced suffering and death not only with patience and resignation but with joy and comfort in the loving Father they would soon meet. Lots of people have died for various causes, but to face suffering and death—and even the smaller trials of everyday life—with perfect joy and peace speaks to the supernatural ministry of the Spirit of God.

Most of the time when I read, think, or write about Christianity, the Bible, and the church I like to focus on some particular point of theology, experience, or practice, and to explore them in more depth than I have here. While I don’t imagine that I have convinced anyone to embrace Christianity with these brief reflections, I hope I’ve provided something to think about. When I open the Bible and begin to read I see people like me and like people I know, with problems, virtues, and sins not unlike the ones I observe in myself and in others around me, despite their being removed from us by twenty centuries or more. Most of all, I see the most plausible explanation for the condition of our world, and the only hope for its redemption. I was raised to revere and to believe the Bible, and to entrust my life to the Christ revealed therein. I hope and pray that everyone reading this will do the same. I can’t imagine a compelling reason to do otherwise.

Posted in Apologetics, Assurance, Bible, Christian Worldview, Doctrine, Fatherhood of God, Francis Schaeffer, Practical Christianity, Salvation, The Future, Theology, Truth

“Provisionally Happy”

This past Saturday we had the spring concert of the trombone ensemble and tuba-euphonium ensemble here at the University of Mississippi. As you might imagine, it was both an enjoyable and stressful event for me. These ensembles depend greatly upon the presence of every player at rehearsals, yet we are at the mercy of the performing schedules of larger ensembles and athletic bands. This semester saw a greater than usual number of interruptions in our rehearsal schedule, and so as the concert date approached I was quite anxious regarding our ability to put together a concert in circumstances that were less than ideal (this also resulted in me being unable to find time to write a blog post last week). As they always do, though, the students came through and did a fine job. After it was over, I used a phrase that has become an increasingly common one for me, telling the students I was “provisionally happy” with their performance. That’s a strange and I’m sure somewhat annoying way to put it, but let me explain briefly today what I mean.

Ours is a time in which people too often seem to expect praise and reward after expending only very limited effort. Mine was the first generation in which everyone received a trophy at the end of a little league season, yet the truly exceptional players were still recognized as such (I was not among them). Likewise in music, everyone received some kind of recognition for effort, but those giving extra effort or demonstrating advanced skills were appropriately rewarded. All of that is still true, of course, yet more and more I see a tendency in many fields of endeavor to give effervescent praise to students or others whose actual accomplishments are mediocre at best. Social media has worsened this trend, or at least has provided an ever-present outlet for it. Every accomplishment, great or small, is publicly celebrated with pictures, testimonials, and “likes.” Please don’t get me wrong—I am very proud of all the accomplishments of all of my students—but this trend troubles me for a couple of reasons.

First among these is a concern for truth. Call me reactionary if you will, but I am of the “old school” which believes that objective, “true truth” (as Francis Schaeffer famously put it) is a thing which exists independently of my thoughts and feelings about it and can be sought out and known. While one’s appraisal of a performance or accomplishment is somewhat subjective, it remains true that not every performance or accomplishment is or can be exceptional. After all, if everything is exceptional then nothing is! While I always want to affirm my students’ progress and achievements (or my child’s, for that matter), I want to avoid doing so through the use of falsely inflated adjectives. Besides, as followers of the One who referred to Himself as “the Truth,” Christians should perhaps be more concerned than anyone with the pursuit and promotion of truthfulness in all things.

Secondly, cultivating inflated opinions of their abilities would do my music students a particular disservice. Ours is a difficult business, with fewer good jobs than great players, particularly in performance. Only the very best players will find themselves able to play music for a living without some other source of income, and in reality only a portion of those great musicians will find themselves thus employed. While jobs in music education are more plentiful, there is still plenty of competition, and audiences and adjudicators are sometimes rather blunt in their assessments. While it is important to recognize and affirm my students’ progress as musicians, to do so with unmitigated praise would do them a disservice, leaving them both professionally and emotionally unprepared to handle the criticism that will surely come their way throughout their careers.

And so, on Saturday I went home “provisionally happy.” My students gave a good concert which was indicative of their growth and improvement over the course of the semester as well as their determination to overcome scheduling difficulties which threatened our ability to produce a good show. At the same time, it was not a perfect concert, and I have already discussed with students particular areas in which future progress is needed. While affirming the accomplishments that were made, truthfulness and candor demand that I also indicate the challenges that still lie before us. To do less would be a denial of the truth, and ultimately a disservice to my students.

As an aside, I suppose ultimately “provisionally happy” is the best we can hope to achieve in this life. After all, even the good things we enjoy in this world remain marred to a greater or lesser extent by the effects of sin upon all of creation. In that sense, I suppose I’ll have to wait until that great Day to be truly satisfied.

And that is as it should be.

Posted in Christian Worldview, Education, Francis Schaeffer, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Performances, Teaching Low Brass, Truth, University of Mississippi

Music: The Last Bastion of Sanity in Public Education?

Two caveats before I begin. First, for full disclosure, my son is presently enrolled in a private, Christian school. My wife and I have chosen this for him because we like the curriculum and overall ethos of his school, though like many parents we reevaluate our educational choices yearly. I do believe in the importance of a good public school system, and do not support voucher programs or the like; parents should be free to choose homeschooling or private schools as they wish and are able, but not at the expense of the public system.

Second, while I do intend to make a serious point regarding education here, my tone is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, particularly regarding my choice of title. Please read my words in that spirit.

Education is in a crisis. At least, that is the message that one gets when reading various reports in the press and on social media. Funds are scarce, teachers are leaving the profession, students are unprepared, parents are unengaged, and the list goes on. Some of these problems are not new; reading the books and periodicals of a generation or two ago reveals some of the same perennial concerns. What is new, or at least has increased tremendously over the past fifteen years or so, is the imposition of successive régimes of objectives, standards, and testing, so much so that school funding and teachers’ livelihoods are largely tied to students’ performance on these tests, many of which yield a faint and distorted picture at best of the learning that goes on in classrooms. Poor student performance on these tests—sometimes reflecting dysfunctional home lives and other social problems rather than teacher incompetence—is laid at the feet of teachers and schools who are powerless to rectify systemic societal dysfunctions which they did not create and of which poor test scores are but one symptom.

The proposed reforms? New sets of standards, more tests, more actual teaching sacrificed for testing, more teachers blamed, more teachers leaving the profession. For teachers in subject areas which are tested in this way it is a stressful time to be an educator.

And then there is music class, where through all of the turmoil in education at least a modicum of sanity has been retained. Here are a couple of reasons why.

1. Music is not subjected to high-stakes testing. While there have been a couple of sets of national standards for music education introduced in the past 20 years along with similar measures in other subjects, music has happily not been subjected to the high-stakes testing régimes that have plagued other subject areas. Instead of sacrificing valuable instructional time for test preparation, music teachers are able to spend time preparing students for upcoming performances and, hopefully, for lifelong music making. In other words, the absence of such testing allows music teachers to actually teach music.

(Well, except while they are called upon to proctor standardized tests in other fields….)

2. Music is largely resistant to faddish educational theories. To some extent, the current obsession with standardized tests reflects a broader fascination with “the latest trends” in education on the part of legislators, school boards, and administrators. One of the buzzwords (or phrases) even in higher education throughout my career thus far has been “student learning outcomes,” with instructors being encouraged to use evaluation measures that can be neatly quantified, measured, analyzed, and demonstrated on a spreadsheet. Standardized tests fill this role nicely, which partially explains their popularity. While music has not entirely escaped the grasp of “outcomes-based education,” its position outside the realm of tested subjects gives it some protection from educational fads. And again, the music teacher’s first thought is to teach students as effectively as possible for the purpose of generating quality performances. To that end, he has a decided interest in doing what works. Will he try new ideas or techniques? Sure, but his approach will evolve slowly and deliberately. Of course, good teachers in any field will similarly favor slow changes given the opportunity, but sometimes new objectives or testing régimes are adopted from “on high” with little forethought, preparation, or input from teachers. The music teacher occupies an enviable position by comparison.

Music’s present immunity from the current obsession with standardized testing doesn’t mean that music teachers don’t receive high-stakes evaluations. Every performance reflects the learning that takes place in the music classroom, and every performance showcases the ability or the incompetency of the teacher. This means that music teachers—and particularly ensemble directors—are constantly being evaluated by real-world measures, and everybody in the audience knows where effective teaching is and is not occurring. For the marching band director, to use a prominent example, “teaching evaluations” occur every Friday night. Consistently good or poor performances tell parents, administrators, and the community more about the quality of a teacher’s work than any test or outcomes criteria can.

In the end, it is not the absence of evaluation but rather its frequency that makes the music classroom such a sane place. The constant need to produce effective student performances has a distinct conserving influence, as ensemble directors in particular are slow to abandon proven methods for “the latest thing.” The freedom from standardized testing also provides a great measure of freedom from prescribed curricula which sometimes prefer the faddish over the tried-and-true. All of this makes the music program a place where quality instruction is sure to occur, in addition to its community outreach functions and its provision of important creative outlets for students.

It just might be the most sane place in the entire school.

Posted in Education, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing

Stop Looking for a Perfect Church!

My maternal grandfather died in 2009 at the age of 90. I wrote a bit about him here several years ago. In my mind he was and is a supreme example of what a Christian man should be: hardworking, gentle, eager to serve, prayerful, well-versed in the scriptures, and active in his church. Concerning that last item, he did something that was perhaps unremarkable at the time he was born but exceedingly rare by the time of his death—he was a lifelong member of a single congregation. Neither my parents nor I can claim something like that. While my folks were by no means “church hoppers” they did move to different congregations a few times, usually for good reasons. My wife and I haven’t had the most stable ecclesiastical existence, either, having moved to different cities and states several times during our marriage in addition to experiencing a sort of “theological upheaval” as we left our Southern Baptist roots to become Reformed Baptists and ultimately Presbyterians. That might lessen my credibility as a writer on this topic, but at least the reader will know at the outset that I am not saying that there is never a good reason to leave one congregation for another.

And there certainly are good reasons that one might leave a particular church to seek membership elsewhere. Moving to a new community is the most obvious example. And if, God forbid, a previously faithful church starts preaching and teaching false doctrine, that is another perfectly legitimate reason to leave, as is a situation where known moral failings among the leaders or members are not properly addressed. Changes of theological understanding are trickier. Having studied our Bibles and come out of it as “five-point” Calvinists, my wife and I determined that the best thing for us would be to move to a church that shared that conviction, and then again when we came to embrace paedobaptism. In retrospect, though, in both of these cases I wish we had figured out a way to make those changes in a more humble and tactful manner. After all, both times we were leaving one Bible-believing church for another because of a change of conviction on a secondary doctrinal matter. Although I think we were right to change congregations in both instances, special care must be taken in such cases “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), as the convictions prompting such moves are small differences between brothers and sisters in Christ, not rifts between believers and unbelievers.

Sadly, these aren’t the kinds of reasons for which people usually leave a congregation for another, or even abandon church attendance altogether. Sometimes it is a personality conflict between a person and the church leadership or among fellow members. Perhaps a new ministry is being conducted in a way with which one does not agree, or is simply “not the way we’ve always done it.” Maybe the liturgy is being changed, or the style of music (believe it or not, even changes in those areas would have to be pretty drastic for me to consider a change of church membership). Maybe the issue is a personal slight—one feels like his service has been adequately recognized, or that he has been passed over for a leadership position for which he felt eminently qualified. And maybe, just maybe, there are instances of perceived or even actual hypocrisy among the membership.

In other words, a person says “There is sin in that church, and I’m not going back!”

To such a person I can only reply “Of course there’s sin in that church, and you contribute to it.” I do the same in my church. A faithful church is not one where perfectly holy people gather to celebrate how holy they are, but one where broken sinners, redeemed by the blood of Christ, gather for instruction, communion, exhortation, encouragement, and, yes, admonition. Consider the following passage from Hebrews 10, often rightly cited as a biblical command to attend church regularly.

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

Christians are commanded here to meet together, but consider also why we are told to gather. To promote love and good works, to encourage each other, to help one another to hold firm to our Christian profession. In the church we partake of those wonderful means of grace which God has given us to help us to hold fast to Christ and to grow in grace and in the knowledge of him. Are there perfect churches to be found in this life? Of course not, but there are plenty where one finds folks who are faithfully striving “more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 34).

To the church member who might be considering leaving one church for another because of some perceived imperfection, please consider your reasons carefully. There are good reasons for leaving a congregation, but these are relatively few. Differences in personal taste don’t qualify, and certainly the feeling of having been somehow slighted does not. Is your church full of sinners? So is every church. Commit to the people with whom you now worship and serve, and strive together to grow in grace and in service.

To the professing Christian who is not a member of a church, imperfections in churches are not a reason to forsake church attendance or membership—we are commanded to gather, and to do so for our good. Tomorrow is Resurrection Sunday, and many churches will be filled with folks who don’t attend regularly. That will be as good a time to start as any. Likewise, if you don’t know Christ, find a Bible-believing church and go. It won’t be perfect, but it will be good, and they will tell you how to find forgiveness of sin and the promise of everlasting life by grace through faith in Him.

Posted in Church, Lord's Day, Practical Christianity, Presbyterianism, Salvation, Theology, Worship

Don’t Just Play the Right Note. Play the Right PITCH!

Spring Break is upon us at Ole Miss and with a mix of activities both work related and (mostly) not, I was unable to write something as planned this past weekend and will not be able to return to blogging until the end of next week. Although posting on a Tuesday evening is not my usual pattern I did want to share some thoughts that I began pondering in earnest after our midterm scale juries last week.

As is the case in most university music departments, the instrumental music faculty at Ole Miss have a uniform regimen of six scale and arpeggio exams, given each semester of applied lessons beginning at the remedial level (if needed) through the first semester of the junior year of the regular music major track. While teachers may elect to require a more robust regimen of scale and arpeggio studies (as I do), these scale juries represent a modest level of achievement for students at each level of study. Scale juries are usually given before only two faculty members (it would be difficult for all of us to be present for each one), and this semester the trumpet teacher and I heard all of the brass players. As is usually the case, we heard a number of near-perfect performances as well as some that were…substantially less than perfect, and everywhere in between.

What struck me this semester more so than usual was the way in which trombonists’ peculiar imperfections manifested themselves compared to those of players of other instruments. When playing a valved brass instrument—or just about any other instrument other than strings—the player very clearly knows the scale or arpeggio being attempted, or he does not. The correct fingers are depressed and the air and embouchure are correctly employed, or they are not. Trombonists, though, can very easily find themselves approximating the correct pitches without always definitively placing each one. Sometimes the errors we hear are typical ones, such as failing to make the needed correction when the F-attachment is used, or cheating fifth positions, or failing to play G4 in a short second position. Those things matter, especially when the questionable note is the third, sixth, or seventh note of the scale—these notes in particular tell us what kind of scale the player is attempting! Other times the problem has to do with “sliding through” the exercises, hoping that we’ll give credit as long as the correct pitch is “in there” someplace. I’ll confess to sometimes allowing more than a little portamento when practicing scale exercises, partly because it’s fun to do so and partly because the continuity of sound indicates continuity of airflow and buzz—which are good things! However, when a satisfactory performance—or a midterm grade—depends on accurate note placement, portamento has to go and precision must be pursued.

In short, it is not enough to play some version of the “right note.” The right pitch must sound for every note. Scales and arpeggios are all about tonal relationships, and when those relationships are off, the pattern is incorrect, even if strictly speaking you “hit the notes” in a very broad sense.

This, of course, has much broader application than scale and arpeggio exercises, and applies to more than trombonists. Music is not an art form in which a minimal standard of accuracy applies. Precise, exacting detail is required in every performance. Sure, some genres allow for more “sliding about” than others, but even then there is always a point when one is “out of bounds.” Last spring I wrote a piece exhorting brass players to treat missed partials as “real” missed notes. Well, missed intonation is the same way. Don’t just play the right note. Play the right pitch!

And now back to your regularly scheduled spring break activities. Where are my fishing poles?

Posted in Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Music Theory, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, University of Mississippi

Benefits of the Weekly Practice Schedule

Every musician knows that regular and diligent practice is necessary for continued improvement, and many strive to practice a certain amount of time each day. While I have a general idea of how much practicing I need to do daily, for fifteen years or more I have planned my practice time primarily in terms of a weekly schedule rather than a daily one, and I encourage my students to do the same. In fact, my applied lessons syllabus expressly calls for students to practice a minimum number of hours per week rather than per day. Here are three reasons why this is helpful.

1. A weekly practice schedule allows you to anticipate days where other obligations will interfere with your regular practice routine, and to plan accordingly. My writing a brief post on this topic today was prompted by a very busy period in our music department. In the past two weeks the wind ensemble, the jazz band, and one of the basketball bands have left campus for two or more days for performing obligations, and next week the other basketball band will be gone. While the students in these groups are playing regularly, their ability to practice is limited while they are on these trips. I’m sure most of the musicians reading this can relate—performance and travel obligations can cause great disruptions in our practice schedules. However, such a disruption should force only an adjustment to the practice routine, not its complete destruction. During the week when a day or two’s practice will be mostly or entirely preempted, simply transfer those days’ planned practicing to the other days. As long as you are getting at least some time for “maintenance” fundamentals work every day there is no reason why you cannot meet your regular practice goals with five or six days of slightly heavier practice to compensate for the days when you will be out-of-pocket.

In other words, I still expect well-prepared lessons after these trips!

2. A weekly practice schedule allows you to compensate for unexpected interruptions in your regular practice routine. This concept operates in very much the same way as the one above, except more sloppily. Sometimes “life happens,” with illness, a family emergency, an unexpected car repair need, or some other sudden calamity disrupting the normal practice schedule. When this happens, the best approach is to simply move the materials from whatever practice time is missed to other days later in the week. This is obviously more challenging than working around an anticipated disruption and it isn’t always possible to completely make up for lost time in these cases, but the attempt should still be made. Again, always try to put in at least some limited fundamentals work on the days where regular practice is impossible. Except in the case of illness, that is—the body needs to recover, and it is best not to blow germs into a would-be incubator like a brass instrument!

3. A weekly practice schedule allows you to incorporate adequate rest periods into your practice routine. During the periods of greatest practice during my student days, my working goal was to practice twenty hours per week. I usually achieved that goal and often exceeded it. All the same, I usually arranged my practice so that I would put in a little over three hours per day Monday-Saturday, and then only an hour or so on Sunday. This allowed me not only to focus most of my time and energy on corporate worship and related activities on Sunday, but also provided a welcome physical and mental respite from the intense demands of the rest of the week. Additionally, placing that one hour strategically during the day allowed for a 24-hour break before or after the Sunday practice session, providing the benefits of taking a day off without the rebuilding that sometimes feels necessary after a day entirely away from the instrument. Although I am not normally able to practice that same amount these days given my teaching and performing schedule, I still find limiting practice time on Sundays to be a good habit.

I’m sure the reader will be able to think of even more reasons why thinking in terms of weekly rather than daily practice can be useful, but these are the ones that have been most important to me. Of course, there are limitations to this—it will not do to try and take five or six days off and then try to cram a week’s necessary practice hours into just a day or two. That would be physically and maybe even psychologically destructive. As a general rule, though, the weekly schedule has helped me to maintain regular practice patterns despite the myriad interruptions that life sometimes brings.

Posted in Christian Education, Daily Routine, Lord's Day, Music, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass