Thinking about Exile

The assertion that being a Christian in contemporary America is more difficult than it once was will garner widely divergent responses from the two poles of our divided society. Some on the Right will claim that there is widespread persecution of professing Christians in our land; on the Left, Christianity is sometimes viewed as a dominant and even oppressive cultural force. Despite isolated incidents that might lend credence to either of these extreme viewpoints, reality—as is often the case, even in our highly fractious cultural moment—lies somewhere in the middle. The fact remains that many of our society’s laws, institutions, and mores reflect a sort of vestigial Christianity, since that faith formed or at least informed the worldviews of so many of our ancestors. It is, in that sense, still a very influential part of our culture. Nevertheless, while churchgoing remains a respectable activity, it no longer provides the cultural cachet that it once did. Ours may not be a moment of widespread persecution, but it is also not one where the message of the Bible enjoys uncritical acceptance. That might actually be good in some ways, but it brings difficulties, as well.

In this environment, the question sometimes asked is “how do we as Christians regain this lost influence?” If the American politics of my entire lifetime offers any indication, the answer is not “organized political action.” The past 40+ years have seen some conservative and Christian electoral and legislative victories, but also many defeats. More tellingly, the cultural momentum has moved steadily in the other direction regardless of which individual or party was in office. This does not mean that politics and government are unimportant or that Christians should not seek to serve therein. We believe that civil government is ordained by God for the good of humanity and is a worthy calling. Nevertheless, even the most faithful public service will not by itself reverse the cultural trends of the better part of a century or more.

So, if the answer is not to be found in government or in politics, where is it to be found? Honestly, I’m not even sure this is the right question. What if instead of asking “how do we regain this lost influence” we begin to ask if we can or even should embark on a deliberate and organized attempt to regain Christianity’s cultural dominance. The Christendom of past centuries was not an unmitigated good, after all, and in any case the New Testament does not lead one to expect true, believing Christians to ever constitute a majority in civil society. The recipients of Paul’s letters received a message that, when it touched on civil matters, seemed focused on how to live faithfully as a minority faith within a pluralistic culture. Perhaps the better question to ask, then, is “what does it look like to live faithfully in this post-Christian age?” Happily, both the Old and New Testaments provide ample guidance in response to this question (which suggests that it is the right question to ask).

Two texts come immediately to mind as I think about this. One is Jeremiah’s admonition to the people of Judah who were exiled to Babylon.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 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. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

The recipients of Jeremiah’s message were no doubt both confused and demoralized. Although the prophets of Yahweh (including Jeremiah) had been warning the people for decades about a coming judgment, their message had been mostly ignored. Moreover, false prophets were encouraging the people to rise against their conquerors and return to their own land. But this people, the descendants of those who had through God’s enabling escaped Egypt and then conquered Canaan centuries before, now found the hand of that same God turned against them. God’s message to them is one of hope, but a tempered hope. There will be a return to the land one day, but in the meantime their calling is not to convert Babylon to the religion of Yahweh, but simply to live as faithful citizens where they are, until such time as God returns them to their own place.

In the New Testament, Paul’s message to Timothy has similar overtones.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 1:1-4)

The vision of faithful Christianity Paul gives here is not that of a mighty and conquering faith wielding great political and societal influence. It is, rather, one of communities of believers living simple, faithful, quiet, and dignified lives. When we pray for our leaders, we do not ask that they would establish Christianity as an official state religion or even a dominant cultural force. We simply ask that they would govern in a wise and righteous manner that allows us to go about our lives as Christians without interference. That includes evangelism and hopefully the spread of our faith to our families, friends, and neighbors, and even to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). But more often it simply involves being good friends, neighbors, workers, and citizens.

Of course, Christians may sometimes find themselves possessing greater than usual amounts of political and social power. Paul did not hesitate to leverage the rights bestowed by his Roman citizenship when doing so would benefit his mission, and both Joseph and Daniel stand out as individuals who offered decades of faithful civil service to pagan governments while never compromising their allegiance to the One True God. But while these exceptional cases offer valuable insight as to how a Christian might live faithfully when in such a position of influence, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. For most of us, the simple instructions of Jeremiah and Paul are much more applicable.

Would it be nice if our society at large still had the widespread Christian influence it once did? Sure, but the Bible does not lead us to expect this or to make it a priority. Faithful Christianity is most often smaller, simpler, more local, and can exist in even the most difficult of circumstances. Pursue a quiet life, serving God and man where you are, and pray for the freedom to continue doing so, all the while looking forward to one day obtaining “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:16)

Posted in Bible, Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, Political Systems, Politics, Practical Christianity, Society, The Future, The Gospel | Comments Off on Thinking about Exile

Right Treatment Requires Right Diagnosis, Part 2

I did not plan initially for this post to become a “two-parter,” but as I have continued to reflect on this topic and to work with students on certain issues, I have decided that an additional perspective is needed. Stated briefly, that perspective is this: part of right diagnosis is determining whether a playing difficulty is caused by physical problems with execution, by problems with concept, or by struggles with the “mind game.” In my personal experience and in working with students, I have discovered that in our society we often assume that playing difficulties must be physical in nature. This is fine when one’s struggle really is with playing technique and execution, but if the problem is mental or conceptual focusing solely on physical causes will only lead to fruitless and unnecessary work. Right treatment requires right diagnosis.

So, what does right diagnosis involve? It certainly involves identifying any deficiencies in physical technique or execution that may be present in order to resolve them. This was the primary thrust of the previous post, particularly how these deficiencies are often related to timing and coordination rather than to strength and flexibility. Removing inefficiencies in one’s technique can aid in effectively dealing with mental/emotional difficulties in performance, as well, since nervousness and anxiety have a way of exaggerating any technical deficits that may be present.

Right diagnosis also involves solving conceptual problems that one may have. This was sort of referred to last time, but only obliquely. I discussed it at greater length in a post some years ago entitled “How it Goes.” In that post, I noted that brass players in particular can fail to realize success when they proceed without a clear mental concept of the sounds they are seeking to produce. While every musician must have such a concept in order to achieve maximum success, this is particularly vital for brass players because on our instruments correct fingerings do not guarantee correct notes. There are multiple available notes for each fingering, so if the player does not “hear” (internally) the desired sounds before playing, no amount of refining technique will guarantee the correct result. The concept must be established first.

Finally, right diagnosis involves determining whether one is encountering difficulties not with technique nor with concept, but with the “mind game.” This was and, honestly, is still an area of particular concern for me, made worse for a number of years because I failed—or refused—to acknowledge the problem. In hindsight, denying and suppressing these problems only worsened them. Practically every musician has had difficulty with performance anxiety at some point. The telltale symptoms are well-known: elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, nausea, excessive sweating, dry mouth, shaking, etc. All of these can be partially mitigated by making sure one’s playing technique is as efficient as possible, but only partially. In extreme cases the symptoms can be more severe, including aches and pains, severe gastrointestinal symptoms, or even panic attacks. Sometimes one even falls into a cycle of becoming anxious about the possibility of becoming anxious, which is a difficult experience, for sure. Working through these more extreme cases can require a multipronged approach that might include medication, counseling or therapy, meditation or reflection, and reading (many musicians appreciate and recommend The Inner Game of Tennis, and I recommended some other reading in a post last year); even smartphone apps like Curable can help in certain circumstances.

The human mind is complex and incompletely understood, and resolving difficulties with the mental and emotional aspects of performance can be especially challenging. But the most important step is the simplest: acknowledging that the problem is there. Many musicians—and people in general—are simply not open to the idea that their physical difficulties might be at least partly due to mental or emotional challenges. They don’t want to admit to being one of “those people.” I certainly didn’t. And yet, if one’s performance problems have a mental or emotional component, the problems will be resolved only when that component is acknowledged and addressed, no matter how much one practices. In fact, simply acknowledging the problem is a major step toward its resolution. Right treatment requires right diagnosis. Good luck!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Contrabass Trombone, Euphonium, John Sarno, Music, Music Education, Online Resources, Pedagogy, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, Worry | Comments Off on Right Treatment Requires Right Diagnosis, Part 2

Right Treatment Requires Right Diagnosis

If I had gone into medicine instead of music, my income would likely be considerably higher than it is.

That statement is obviously true, and it is true for a reason. Not only do physicians train for longer than I did (my time in school was similar to that of an M.D., but I did not have the residency afterward), but most spend more on that training. Even more importantly, physicians risk more in the practice of their profession. While all medical doctors seek the improved health of their patients, success in this endeavor demands not only good intentions but accurate diagnoses combined with effective treatment. The consequences of an incorrect diagnosis and/or misapplied treatment can be catastrophic, and as a result, good physicians not only must carry expensive malpractice insurance, but also the weight of a conscience burdened with questions of life and death on a regular basis. As a musician and music teacher, I never deal with such weighty matters, and that is one reason why I am not compensated like a physician. I consider that a reasonable tradeoff.

There is, however, one key similarity between the work of a physician and the work of a music teacher: the importance of accurate diagnosis. I learned many years ago that error correction in music practice—whether individual or ensemble—consists of a simple three-step process: detect, diagnose, remedy. The player or conductor first hears the problem, then (usually through repeated hearings of a passage) identifies the source and likely cause of that problem, and based on that diagnosis prescribes a solution or remedy. The middle step—the diagnostic step—is the vital one, and when it is poorly executed or omitted altogether the entire process fails. A common scenario in both individual and group practice is the absence of that step, so that the process consists of detection and then immediately proceeding to a remedy, which is some variant of “do it again and hope it’s better.” To be sure, sometimes repetition to gain greater familiarity is the appropriate remedy, but more often some underlying problem must be identified so that it can be effectively corrected.

One version of misdiagnosis I often see in my applied students is the failure to recognize timing problems. These problems are obvious in students who struggle to keep a steady beat or to count rhythms correctly but are harder to rightly identify in students without obvious rhythm or beat problems. With these students, the ill-timing is very slight and manifests itself as minor problems with the breath (feeling of too little air or excessive tension), embouchure (chipped notes), or articulation (delayed or explosive attacks). All of these are essentially problems with coordination, brought about by the poor sense of timing. Without accurately diagnosing these as timing issues, students are left spending hours in the practice room trying to fix their embouchures, tongue correctly, or take better breaths, all to no avail because the underlying timing issue is still there. Fix the timing, and many of these issues will evaporate. If any “actual” breath/embouchure/tonguing problems remain, they can then be addressed.

So how is the timing problem to be solved? The first step is simply to identify it correctly, to understand that the matter to be addressed is timing/coordination, not these other issues that flow out of it. Secondly, work to establish a stronger sense of time, understanding that what I am talking about is “feeling the beat” in an internal, really visceral sense. Metronome use can help, but sometimes drum machine apps are even better, often combined with tapping the toe, marching in place, or otherwise moving to the beat somehow in order to promote this “felt time.” Thirdly, breathe in and out in time, in a single motion that does not stop. Holding the breath between the inhalation and the beginning of the note introduces a hitch into the process that will result in a chipped note, a delayed or explosive attack, or a feeling of tension that makes it seem like one has too little air. In other words, failing to time the breath well leads to one or all of the issues I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Make sure your sense of time is solid, and then breathe and play in coordination with that sense of timing.

The Breathing Book by David Vining

A resource that really helps with this is The Breathing Book by David Vining, which is available in editions for all brass instruments as well as voice and some woodwinds. While Vining discusses the physical process of breathing, much of the book has to do with the timing and coordination of the breath and its effects on other aspects of playing. The positive effects of getting this right extend to all the matters I’ve discussed here.

When I was a young student, I wondered why so many of our music events were referred to as “clinics,” as I had known that to be a medical term. But we music teachers are, at our best, diagnosticians, and so the word appropriately describes what we do to identify and fix students’ problems. Maybe we’re not all that different from physicians after all, but I’m still glad that playing the trombone is rarely a life-or-death affair.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Articulation, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Contrabass Trombone, Embouchure, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, The Breathing Book, Timing, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on Right Treatment Requires Right Diagnosis

“Musicians for Christ” Interview

I am pleased to have been the first interviewee in what will be a series of interviews with Christian musicians on bass trombonist Calvin Audis’s new website. This material might be of interest to readers at The Reforming Trombonist also, and covers topics that have been discussed here periodically over the past eight-and-a-half years. Enjoy!

Posted in Beauty, Bible, Calvin Audis, Career Choices, Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, Interviews, Micah Everett, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Online Resources, Practical Christianity, Teaching Low Brass, The Business of Music, The Gospel, Theology, Truth, Worship | Comments Off on “Musicians for Christ” Interview

On Church Cemeteries

General. Why do I sit here? To escape from the pirates’ clutches, I described myself as an orphan; and, heaven help me, I am no orphan! I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.

Frederic. But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco on your baronial castle is scarcely dry.

General. Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.

This bit of dialog from the 1879 comic operetta The Pirates of Penzance by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) came to mind during a study group discussion at my church earlier this week. The exchange is meant to be humorous, but during our discussion I began to think that Gilbert and Sullivan, through the person of their “very model of a modern major general,” perhaps accidentally hit on something profound. I’ll explain why shortly.

Ephesus Baptist Church Cemetery

The country church where my parents grew up (and where they currently attend) has a feature not uncommon to rural Southern churches in that it has a cemetery on the property. Members of at least three generations of my family are buried there, and though I have not frequently done so I have never found it difficult to visit the various markers there after a Sunday service. Somehow, having the deceased members of a congregation buried on the property has always seemed normal to me, even though until two years ago I had never been part of a church that had this feature (aside from periodic visits to my parents’/grandparents’ church). As a young person, I tended to think it strange that modern urban and suburban churches do not have cemeteries on their properties. As an adult, I have come to think that this not just a quirk of modern urban development, but rather something that is to the impoverishment of church members. I have three primary reasons for this.

1. Cemeteries remind us that we will die. At College Hill Presbyterian Church, the education building and sanctuary are separated by a somewhat lengthy walk past (though not through) the cemetery. The sanctuary dates to the 1840s, and thus both it and the oldest grave markers on the property are rather old by American standards. I have visited or read of other old churches both in Europe and America where the markers are not just near the buildings but are immediately around them or even in them. In modern societies we take great pains to avoid contemplating the transience of this life, but one major purpose of Christian worship and practice is, quite literally, to prepare ourselves to die. Walking by those headstones has a way of forcing us to think about such things.

2. Cemeteries remind us of history generally. Our church property served as a headquarters for the Union Army under Generals Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) and William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) during the Civil War, which probably explains why it survived the war unlike just about every other building in Oxford. Along with members of the church, both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried on the property, as well as a number of slaves. Walking through old cemeteries like this has a way of making one reckon with history, including parts we might prefer to forget.

College Hill Presbyterian Church Cemetery

3. Cemeteries remind us of our history specifically. Visiting the cemetery at Ephesus Baptist Church is like walking through my family history. Looking around, I see not only my family name but those of grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and relations I can’t begin to trace even with the best web-based tools. To my knowledge, I have no family connection to anyone buried at College Hill Presbyterian Church. And yet, by becoming part of this congregation I have established a connection not only to my fellow worshippers there in the present, but in some sense to those generations of Christians who came before, many of whose resting places I walk by a couple of times a week. Those people’s lives no doubt included joys and successes as well as sadness and failures, both material and spiritual. And yet they established and sustained a place of ministry that has endured for nearly two centuries, and, God willing, the faithful ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer will continue there for many years go come. It is helpful, I think, to have such tangible reminders of the past so near at hand.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s general was not a particularly effective soldier, and his fear of dishonoring his “ancestors by purchase” was absurd and at least somewhat misguided. And yet, whether accidentally or on purpose, he reminds us that the history of a place matters, and when we adopt a place or institution as our own its history becomes to some extent ours to remember, learn from, and, where appropriate, honor.

Posted in Cemeteries, Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, Church Cemeteries, Civil War, College Hill Presbyterian Church, Ephesus Baptist Church, History, Salvation, The Future, Theology, Worship | Comments Off on On Church Cemeteries