Weakness is your friend. Strength is your enemy. Blow air, don’t ‘support’ it. –Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)
Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)
Those who have followed this blog for any length of time (or who simply look at the blurb at the top right of each page) know that my writing and thinking reflects my unusual combination of interests in brass music and Reformed theology. As a professional low brass player and teacher I most often post articles in that realm, and perhaps because I have a small degree of recognized expertise in music those posts are by far the most frequently read and shared. My theological writing is amateurish by comparison, but thinking through those things enough to write on them is edifying to me and hopefully to the few readers of those articles. Given my divergent interests, the rare occasions that I am able to find connections between the two areas and write about them are particularly enjoyable. This week’s brief reflection is one of those posts.
As a young undergraduate student really just learning about the broader musical world beyond high school band I had not been at the university long before I became aware of the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra tubist and brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998). In a recent post I mentioned my resolve to travel to Chicago to take a lesson with him, and my disappointment when the realization of that desire was prevented by his death. The brass community’s interest in Jacobs’s teaching has not diminished in the nearly twenty years since his passing, and my own playing and teaching have been greatly influenced for the better by his teachings, some of which I have learned, forgotten, and relearned several times over the years.
One of my most helpful rediscoveries of a Jacobs concept in the past few months has been the importance of weakness in great brass playing. Many brass players, myself included, tend to work too hard physically when playing. Rather than enhancing tone quality, technical execution, or musical effect, this extra effort is unproductive at best, and at worst can be deleterious to both musical results and the player’s physical well-being. While Jacobs was his generation’s preeminent expert on the physiology of brass playing and was able to correct sometimes serious physical deficiencies in the players he taught, often the problems he encountered were the result of players expending a great deal of physical, muscular effort when all that was needed was the free movement of air from a relaxed body through a relaxed embouchure, all informed by signals from the brain which were primarily musical in nature rather than physical. I wrote at greater length about this a couple of years ago, referencing Jacobs’s teaching in particular. The greatest brass players perform from a position of relative weakness, not strength, and yet produce a vibrant, robust, powerful sound. “Weakness is your friend. Strength is your enemy.”
While the comparison might be a bit of a stretch, I see a similarity between this concept in brass playing and how one enters and then progresses in the Christian life. Man’s impulse is to try to somehow merit favor with God through his own works, a reality reflected in most of the world’s belief systems. Christianity uniquely acknowledges that Man’s fallenness renders him unable to merit God’s favor. Even if one were to resolve from a certain point in his life to serve God diligently and perfectly—and actually succeeded in doing so—he would only be rendering God his due for that period of time without doing anything at all to discharge the sin-debt already incurred. Jesus illustrated the impossibility of “working off” the consequences of one’s sin in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). The figure quoted to the first servant, ten thousand talents, was an extraordinarily large amount of money, something like 150,000 years’ salary for a common laborer. Our Lord was here using a bit of hyperbole (who, after all, would loan a servant that much money, if it even existed?) to demonstrate the impossibility of ever meriting God’s favor by our own efforts. If we are to receive God’s favor and enter his presence in the next life, we must receive forgiveness based upon the merits of another. Happily, the Lord Jesus, through his life, death, burial, and resurrection, has purchased that forgiveness and merited eternal life for all who repent and believe in him.
While acknowledging the scriptural truth that those who receive Christ’s salvation will in turn do good works commensurate with that (James 2), there is a difference between rendering willing and joyful service to the God who has saved us by grace through faith, and striving with great toil to seek to placate an angry God through our own efforts. The brass player who learns to play from a position of weakness finds that the use of “song and wind” (a classic Jacobs concept) finds music making to be a pleasurable, joyful experience rather than a difficult and even painful one. Likewise (and forgive me if the comparison seems a bit tortured) the believer who rests upon Christ to receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life finds willing service to God to be a pleasurable and joyful experience, rather than the difficult, painful—yea, impossible—task of meriting favor with God on his own. “Be still”—cease striving—the psalmist said. Or, as our Lord himself said,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
Indeed, the Apostle Paul found that it was in his weakness that Christ’s strength shined forth.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Rather than heavy and laborious toil, in Christ’s yoke—in his easy and light service—we find strength and rest.