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

Summer Practice Suggestions for Low Brass Players

At the time of this posting wind, brass, and percussion juries at Ole Miss are half completed, so my students have either already begun or are preparing to begin their summer breaks. Some will be working at various jobs, some will be taking summer classes, but hopefully all will be putting in some useful practice time during these months off. Indeed, a break from the weekly lessons in which practice materials are determined primarily by one’s teacher can provide a great opportunity to review previous materials as well as discover great music that might not show up on a regular weekly assignment list. Here are some suggestions for making the summer as productive as possible for your playing.

  1. Take some planned time off.

This might seem to be an odd suggestion for such an article, and a particularly peculiar choice for listing first. But, taking a break from playing for a week or two (rarely more) can provide a necessary respite both physically and psychologically. I always find myself rejuvenated after such breaks, and eager to get back to work on my instruments. I make this suggestion first because it is vital that such a break be planned in advance, planned in such a way that you will have a week or so to recover fully before any performing obligations, and strictly adhered to. If you just say “I’ll take some time off during the summer” you’ll probably end up taking more time off than is necessary or helpful, and/or doing so in an erratic fashion with a day or two off at various points during the summer, and end up losing a lot of ground before school starts. Plan to take a break at an appropriate time, and otherwise maintain a normal (or close to normal) practice schedule.

  1. Commit to performing a thorough daily routine each day.

The daily routine should be part of a brass player’s normal practicing anyway, but use the summertime to perhaps make this routine more comprehensive (my students might try using my Level 3 routine instead of the Level 2), and/or experiment with routines from other teachers and players—lots of great stuff can be found on the internet these days! Additionally, while hopefully you will be keeping a normal practice schedule except during the aforementioned break, summer vacation has a way of introducing unexpected interruptions, such as a visit from an old friend or parents needing you to help with a home improvement project. Commit to completing your fundamentals work early every day so that you won’t lose much if such circumstances deprive you of the remainder of a day’s practice.

  1. Revisit and further develop old materials.

I have my students purchase several method books, and in most cases each student will rotate through four throughout the course of an academic year. I make a special effort to have students work primarily from materials that will benefit them throughout their playing careers. One truly never gets “too good” to work through materials by Arban, Clarke, Kopprasch, Bordogni, Concone, Blazhevich, Snedecor, Mead, etc. Indeed, my decision whether or not to play along with a student during a lesson is often based on whether or not I think I need extra practice on those materials! Use the summer as a chance to revisit the etudes and solo repertoire you’ve already played, as well as to look ahead to what is coming up in the near future. You might also consider “enhanced” practicing of some materials, as well; Joseph Alessi suggests practicing Bordogni etudes as written, in tenor clef (i.e. up a fifth), down an octave, up an octave, and in tenor clef down two octaves (i.e. down an eleventh). I have used this pattern many times over the past fifteen years and have yet to fully master most of the etudes using it, but the benefits to my playing have been enormous. You can try this and similar patterns with most or all of your assigned practice materials.

  1. Read through materials not normally covered in lessons.

There is an unprecedented selection of great study and performance materials for low brass players these days, and one teacher cannot hope to cover them all during a student’s years of study. Why not use the summer as a chance to read through solos, excerpts, and etudes that you don’t know? Listings of solo repertoire and common band and orchestral excerpts for each low brass instrument can be found in many places on the internet as well as on my website; many of the parts for excerpts can be downloaded for free from IMSLP. Here are a few method books that I don’t always assign in lessons that can be great for summer reading. I will repeat suggestions that are applicable to multiple instruments.

Alto Trombone

Anderson: Complete Method for Alto Trombone
Maxted: Twenty Studies

Tenor Trombone

Bitsch: Fifteen Rhythmical Studies
Blazhevich: Sequences for Trombone
Charlier: 32 Etudes
Edwards: Lip Slurs
Lafosse: Complete Method
Mantia: The Trombone Virtuoso
Maxted: Twenty Studies
Snidero: Jazz Conception

Bass Trombone

Bitsch: Fourteen Rhythmical Studies
Edwards: Lip Slurs
Faulise: The F and D Double-Valve Bass Trombone
Grigoriev: 50 Etudes
Pederson: Advanced Etudes
Snidero: Jazz Conception
Teele: Advanced Embouchure Studies

Euphonium

Arnold: Masterworks for Trumpet
Brahms: Twelve Etudes
Charlier: 32 Etudes
Clarke: Technical Studies
Mantia: The Trombone Virtuoso
Schroeder: 170 Foundation Studies for Violoncello
Tyrell: 40 Progressive Studies

Tuba

Bobo: Mastering the Tuba
Clarke: Technical Studies
Friedland: Building Walking Bass Lines
Grigoriev: 50 Etudes
Sheridan: Style Studies
Teele: Advanced Embouchure Studies
Tyrell: 40 Advanced Studies

  1. Begin Preparation for Recitals and Auditions.

If you have a junior or senior recital coming up, and especially if you are preparing for graduate school or even professional auditions, the summer is a great time to get a head start on the process. If you have not yet chosen repertoire, start reading through standard works that interest you, and listen to recordings to get new repertoire ideas. Send your teacher an email and ask for suggestions—he or she will be thrilled that you are thinking ahead! Professional auditions almost always have prescribed solo and excerpt lists, as do many graduate schools; look up the lists from schools that interest you as well as recent auditions to provide a starting point for your reading and practice.


The summer “break” should be both restful and productive, and the respite from weekly lesson assignments can be a great opportunity to explore exciting new techniques and materials. Happy practicing!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Auditions, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, Low Brass Resources, Method Books, Music, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Changing my Tune Regarding “Sino-Tuben”

When I was a student, and even well into my professional career, it was considered axiomatic that musical instruments manufactured in China were of low quality, made of inferior materials, suffered from limited availability of compatible repair parts, and were simply to be avoided by all serious musicians. I refused to allow such instruments to remain in my studio for very long when they showed up, and would still refuse an inferior instrument just as vigorously today. Such instruments are still easily found on eBay and even at your local big-box store, and it remains a reliable rule of thumb that if a “deal” on a new instrument seems too good to be true, it is.

Still, one can no longer paint with so broad a brush when considering instruments manufactured in China, as well as India and perhaps elsewhere in the developing world. We have already seen marked improvement in the instruments produced by a well-known Taiwanese maker in the past decade, and today collaborations between Western designers and manufacturers in mainland China are yielding instruments of acceptable quality, and in some cases rather high quality, with good customer service and availability of repair parts when needed. Examples include companies like Big Mouth Brass, Wessex Tubas, and John Packer’s collaborations with Chinese factories and designs by British makers Rath and Sterling. One can no longer responsibly refuse to consider such instruments without giving them a fair hearing, especially as prices for new instruments from American, European, and Japanese manufacturers are out of reach for many students. In my area of specialization, while many trombones from Western and Japanese manufacturers are relatively affordable, few students can afford to pay the high price tags for new euphoniums and tubas, which can run well in excess of $10,000. When a Chinese maker is offering an instrument of similar or perhaps just slightly lower quality for 30% of the price (or less), students would be foolish not to consider that instrument. One of my students recently purchased a new JP-Rath alto trombone; it, too, is of remarkably high quality. Given that for many students (particularly in a poorer state such as the one in which I live and teach) economic necessity dictates that instruments be purchased inexpensively or not at all, I find myself increasingly encouraging students to consider these instruments alongside the used instruments from more well-known makers that I always recommend.

I have changed my position on this not without at least a bit of sadness. After all, one of the reasons that instruments produced in the West cost more than those from the developing world is the vastly lower wages and benefits received by workers in those countries. By purchasing these instruments we can’t help but drive one more nail into the coffin of American manufacturing, a huge problem for our nation well beyond the musical instrument industry. And yet, like most American consumers, I purchase electronics, clothing, and other consumer goods with little consideration given to the country of origin. Is purchasing a musical instrument any different, assuming, again, that the instruments being considered are of acceptable quality? If I am willing to purchase an iPhone made in a factory filled with low-wage workers should I not consider a euphonium from a similar factory as long as the quality is sufficient? Would it not be hypocritical to not do so?

And thus, I don’t like it, but here I am. I still think that the higher end Western manufacturers have an edge over those in the developing world when it comes to producing top-quality instruments. My S.E. Shires trombones, for example, are made with quality, artistry, and adaptability not achievable by assembly-line workers overseas. But not every student can afford an instrument from a boutique manufacturer, nor does every student even need one. I hope that in the future the world economic system can find some equilibrium where wages and costs no longer prevent American students from purchasing American instruments (or those made in other countries paying similar wages and benefits). But given the choice between having an instrument and not having one (or having to take on additional debt to buy one, also an undesirable choice), I’m going to tell my students to consider these instruments. I will do so with confidence that they will be able to find affordable and quality instruments that will serve them well for many years, though not without more than a bit of sadness that the “flat world” has brought us to this.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Economics, Euphonium, Musical Instrument Manufacturers, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

This Week’s Faculty Recital Series Performance at Ole Miss

As always seems to happen in November and April (the two busiest months in many university music departments), my ability to keep up a regular schedule of posting to the blog has been compromised because of other responsibilities. After today’s post I hope to write something every weekend in May and June, take a break during July and the first week in August, and then return on August 14 or 15 with a report on the Alessi Seminar, which will take place in early August.

Today’s post shares the primary reason for my delinquency in blogging over the past couple of weeks: preparing for this past Monday’s Faculty Recital Series performance at the University of Mississippi. This concert, entitled “Music for Low Brass by Young Composers,” featured works for alto trombone, tenor trombone, bass trombone, and euphonium by composers born after 1970. My collaborator for this concert and all of my solo performances thus far at Ole Miss was Professor Stacy Rodgers, who is both an incredibly talented pianist and in every way a pleasant person with whom to work. He makes me sound better!

While I will likely choose only the best of these videos for more long-term inclusion on my faculty website at the university, here I am presenting the recital in its entirety. The performance was very well received and I was satisfied with it, though there are the occasional blemishes that always occur in performances of live music. The alto trombone piece Mythos II: War of the Wood was especially difficult and somewhat out of character for me, since I tend to be more conservative in my programming choices. However, the challenges for me as a performer generally and as an alto trombonist particularly were very healthy. I know the instrument a lot better now than when I started working on this piece. The newer electronic accompaniment for Pearls, which in its original version is accompanied by piano, makes the piece more interesting, in my opinion.

Anyway, I hope you will enjoy these performances.

Frank Gulino (b. 1987): Southeastern Rhapsody


Nathan Daughtrey
(b. 1975): Coming Home


Roland Szentpáli
(b. 1977): Pearls—I. “Ducati SPS 916”


Roland Szentpáli
(b. 1977): Pearls—II. “My One and Only Love”


Roland Szentpáli
(b. 1977): Pearls—III. “Susi”


David Herring
(b. 1970): Mythos II: War of the Wood—I. “Forest of Enchantment and Delight”


David Herring
(b. 1970): Mythos II: War of the Wood—II. “The Gremlins”


David Herring
(b. 1970): Mythos II: War of the Wood—III. “Sprites”


David Herring
(b. 1970): Mythos II: War of the Wood—IV. “Battle Amongst the Oaks and Elms”


Steven Verhelst
(b. 1981): Concertino

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, David Herring, Euphonium, Frank Gulino, Micah Everett, Nathan Daughtrey, Performance Videos, Performances, Roland Szentpali, Steven Verhelst, Tenor Trombone

The Teacher as Fellow Traveler

I was young when I first started teaching college-level applied lessons. Really young. I had a teaching assistantship and eight students at age 22, an adjunct faculty position at 24, a non-tenure track instructor position at 25, and my first tenure track position at 26. Was this by design? Yes and no. I went straight from college into graduate school, continuing through my doctorate, because I had the financial aid to pay for it all. I emerged with three degrees and zero student debt. As I neared completion of my doctoral coursework I applied and auditioned for both playing jobs and teaching jobs, and a big part of me thought—and still thinks—that some time out there “in the real world” performing full time would have given me some valuable experience and even additional credibility, though I hoped all the while to end up in a university position not unlike the ones I have held for over ten years now. As it turned out, that the people with playing positions didn’t offer me work and the people with teaching positions did. The rest, as they say, is history.

I have to admit, though, that despite repeated success on the academic job market and mostly glowing teaching evaluations, I had quite a bit of insecurity in those early years. Not insecurity regarding what I knew—I really did know what I was doing, even though we all improve with additional experience—but insecurity with the idea that I didn’t know everything about brass playing and teaching. Looking at myself in retrospect, I see a fear of having visiting artists work with my students because they might have a technique or idea or piece of music of which I was unaware. There was also a fear of trying new methods, ideas, and techniques, because finding a better way would force me to admit that I had been playing or teaching in a way that was not ideal on some topic. I felt as if I needed to have already “arrived” (at age 25!), and if I hadn’t then I had little business teaching. Sounds crazy, but that’s where I was in the recesses of my pea-brain.

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)

So what happened? Well, life happened. I developed problems with my neck, jaw, and back. None of this was caused by brass playing but forced some adjustments in the way that I approach my instruments. Along with these problems came some of the worst performance anxiety I’ve ever experienced. These physical and psychological issues still creep up from time to time, but for the most part they are under control, and in some respects I play better today than I ever have. I can sound good even when I don’t feel good, and the reflections of Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) on playing well despite physical challenges have been reassuring to me.

Thus it was that in my late twenties and early thirties I went from thinking that I had arrived (or at least that I needed to have arrived) to having to do some substantial retooling of my approaches to brass playing and teaching. I got a good bit worse before I got better again. And do you know what? I am a better teacher for having experienced this. Why? Because I have realized the fallacy of thinking that one ever “arrives.” There are always new ideas, new repertoire, and new techniques to be tried. There are always physical difficulties to be overcome as a result of aging, illness, injury, incorrect techniques, or some combination of these factors. There are always students who will present new pedagogical challenges. And besides all of this, there is the little axiom that certainly holds true in the music business: if you aren’t getting better you’re getting worse. There is no such thing as “arriving;” there is only growing or dying.

Gandalf

Ehhh…not so much.

These days, instead of trying to present myself as some sort of wizened old sage of low brass (at age 35!), I instead emphasize to students that I am simply a fellow traveler with them on the path to great musicianship. I’m simply farther along than they are, and am more than willing to share my past and current challenges with them whenever I think this will further their progress. Gone are the insecurities that plagued my younger self; instead I am more transparent and even vulnerable in how I present myself as a player and teacher, and I think I am more effective for being so, particularly with students encountering significant difficulties in their playing. Being a good teacher requires that I do whatever will best enable my students to succeed, even when that means jettisoning my own ego or false sense of “having arrived.” Those things weren’t helpful, anyway.

As I’ve considered these ideas in recent months I have found myself drawn to a statement spoken by the Twelfth Doctor in the finale of the most recent season of Doctor Who. Throughout that season The Doctor experienced something of an existential crisis, wondering whether he was a “good man” or a “bad man,” knowing that he always tried to do the right thing but sometimes failed, and sometimes his choices were between “bad” and “worse” outcomes without the possibility of a genuine “good.” In this episode, having encountered the latest incarnation of his arch-nemesis The Master (now “Missy”) and trying to figure out how he can defeat his enemy’s latest evil scheme, he joyfully concludes

"Doctor Idiot"“I am not a good man! And I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. I’m definitely not a president. And no, I’m not an officer. You know what I am? I… am… an idiot. With a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning.”

There is much freedom to be found in not trying to present oneself as the greatest musician ever or as some sort of hero of the trombone. I’ll be content to be “an idiot. With a trombone and a euphonium, passing through my students’ lives, helping them out, and still learning myself.”

And when I see some former or even current student pass me on that path to great musicianship, I’ll gladly and without any insecurity give him or her a high-five and all the encouragement I can.

Posted in Career Choices, Doctor Who, Education, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Teaching Low Brass

On Being “Crazy-Normal”

Several weeks ago our church held its annual Bible Conference. Before you get too excited and think that this is a big event hosted by a big church, be assured that this is not the case. Our church is not very large (fewer than 300 members, I think, though visiting students and families can sometimes swell Sunday morning attendance to 500-ish). Furthermore, though the term “Bible Conference” conjures an image of large numbers of visitors from the surrounding area, ours is basically a Saturday and Sunday where our own members gather more frequently to hear extra preaching and teaching from guest speakers. It is still a delight for us.

This year’s primary speaker was Dr. John Leonard, a former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and pastor of Cresheim Valley Church (PCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This year’s conference theme was on evangelism, and Dr. Leonard was an appropriate speaker, given his experience as a missionary, church planter, and author of Get Real: Sharing Your Everyday Faith Every Day. This evening I would like to share an idea from one of his talks that I found particularly helpful. While I fear that the passing of several weeks might have made my memory of his talk a bit fuzzy, I hope I am at least conveying the gist of it correctly.

Throughout his presentation (and, one assumes, in his own practice of evangelism), Dr. Leonard showed little patience for methods of sharing the gospel which are forced, overbearing, or otherwise contrived. These make even well-meaning Christians seem disingenuous and can cause both participants in such an exchange to be very uncomfortable indeed. He also did not believe that Christian movements which make their adherents seem unnecessarily strange to outsiders to be particularly helpful. The gospel message is already foolish and offensive to non-Christians (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18); there is no need to make it even more so by an off-putting demeanor or an unduly aggressive approach.

To explain his point, Dr. Leonard had us draw a chart on which the vertical axis showed two extremes of “sane” and “crazy,” and the horizontal axis two extremes of “normal” and “strange” (or something like that). For the purposes of this discussion, these terms can be defined as follows:

“Sane:” Having opinions and viewpoints (in other words, a worldview) that more or less tracks with that of the wider secular society.

“Crazy:” Having a worldview so shaped by the Christian faith that one’s opinions and viewpoints often seem, well, crazy, to those that don’t share that faith.

“Normal:” Having a demeanor, language, dress, habits, interests, etc. which are common to people in the society in which one lives, regardless of faith commitment (or lack thereof).

“Strange:” Having a demeanor, language, dress, habits, interests, etc. which are unusual in the society in which one lives, often deliberately so.

The chart illustrating these pairs of extremes looks something like this:

Chart

In this scheme, the “Sane-Normal” person is your average person living in secular society with ideas and interests common to that society, and with either no faith commitment or at most a loosely-held religious affiliation or concept of spirituality which has little effect upon one’s life and thought. The “Sane-Strange” person has those same basic ideas and interests, but has certain modes of dress or other lifestyle quirks which might strike others as unusual. (Think of, in different decades, hippies, punk-rock, grunge, etc.) The “Crazy-Strange” person holds to a more or less orthodox Christian spirituality, but with certain lifestyle traits which are off-putting to others. The Amish are an extreme example; less extreme examples might include conservative communities which seem to want to recapture lifestyles and mores of previous generations, such as one might find in many (though certainly not all) homeschooling communities. Vision Forum was, before the tragic downfall of its founder, an organization that offered books, products, and conferences promoting something of what I’m talking about here. (Full disclosure: I thought Vision Forum offered a number of useful products which I gladly purchased without fully buying into its viewpoint on certain matters.)

In contrast to these, Dr. Leonard advised that Christians should seek to be “Crazy-Normal.” We are right to cultivate a rigorous, thoroughly biblical worldview, one which permeates our thinking and affects everything we do to a greater or lesser extent. The ideas which emanate from such a worldview will very likely seem crazy to those who do not share it. And yet at the same time, we are not to seek to escape our present context. Christians raised in any society will share any number of interests, habits, and mannerisms that are common to people in that society regardless of religion. Rather than eschew these, we should enjoy the good things we find in this world, pursue healthy relationships with our neighbors, and seek the well-being of the societies in which we find ourselves. (Think of Jeremiah’s words to the soon-to-be-exiled people of Judah: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” [29:7]) While our “crazy” Christian worldview will sometimes limit our ability to fully participate in some aspects of the wider society, there is nothing wrong with cultivating interests and activities which we share with those outside the faith so long as these do not somehow violate the teaching of Holy Scripture.

This way of approaching the Christian’s life in the world is quite liberating. It frees the serious believer from thinking that he must completely eschew all the trappings of earthly society in order to be a good Christian, and yet tempers that freedom with the understanding that our first allegiance is to God and to the Scripture in which He reveals Himself to us. This will inevitably lead to points of disagreement and even conflict with our unbelieving neighbors, and that is okay, so long as the conflict indeed arises because of genuine offense at the faith, not because of Christians behaving in an offensive manner toward others. (cf. 1 Peter 4:14-16)

So what does all of this have to do with evangelism? Only this: if we cultivate a lifestyle that is winsome and genuinely welcoming to others, one in which the light of Christ is always evident and yet is never forced or overbearing or made to seem unnecessarily weird, then opportunities to share the gospel might just present themselves through the relationships we build. We should certainly pray for opportunity and willingness to be used to that end,  while ensuring that our conduct as Christians does not deter our friends, neighbors, and loved ones from coming to Christ by faith.

Posted in Christian Worldview, Evangelism, Practical Christianity