Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. (1 Timothy 6:6-7)
This weekend I was asked a question that I have heard periodically throughout my career. “So, is Ole Miss a destination for you, or are you planning to move on to bigger things?” In the past I was asked the same thing about the University of Louisiana at Monroe, where I happily taught for seven years. I will admit to always being taken aback by that question. For one thing, I have always thought that the institutions where I have worked and the students and colleagues there deserved better than to be treated as stepping stones. Even years ago at the University of Northern Iowa, where my term-limited teaching position was by nature impermanent, I acted as if the job there would be mine for an extended period and endeavored to build foundations for future growth in case my place there became more long-term. At ULM my position was tenure-track and then tenured, and while I thought it unwise to totally rule out the possibility of another move I intended to stay there permanently. I worked not only to build my position at the university but also to put down roots in the community, roots whose severing was painful when I decided to apply for and ultimately accept my present position at Ole Miss. Here also, and especially after being awarded tenure, I have endeavored to establish permanent roots and foundations in my professional life as well as in church, community, and family activities. Am I willing to predict the future and say that I will certainly retire here? No, but unless some great change in circumstances takes place I expect that to be the case, and will be happy and thankful if it is so. While I have worked to bolster my place in the profession by performing, presenting, and writing (including, in a small way, this blog), I do this to better promote Ole Miss and to build my case for further promotion here, not to position myself to move on to another job some might perceive as better.
Perhaps the rapid trajectory of my early career has led some to wonder why I was so quick to “settle down.” After all, I deliberately worked through three university degrees in eight years (as opposed to the usual nine or ten, or more) in order to get out of school and into the profession (and making money!) as quickly as possible. Maybe that ambition appeared to indicate that I would be a person who would continue to leap from one job to the next up the proverbial ladder until reaching a position that my colleagues would view as a “pinnacle” type of job. I suppose that is the case with many others, but it was never so with me. My professional ambition was always to get through school as quickly as possible, then settle into a university position (big or small) and set about building a career and a life from there.
Why is that the case? Part of it is that my undergraduate training was at a small university with a small music department, and I have a special affection for that type of situation. While the smaller pool of students necessarily means that the course offerings will be fewer and the student ensembles not always as good, there are opportunities for quality instruction and interactions in those smaller, close-knit departments that do not exist in larger ones. As a smaller department within a large research university, the music department at Ole Miss in some ways offers the best of both worlds, and it is rewarding to be here.
Another part of my seeming lack of ambition (or, more accurately, a differently directed ambition) is that I dislike large cities. While large metropolitan areas offer a great many more performing opportunities for a classical-and-sometimes-jazz musician such as me, they also bring higher costs, more crime, and a general unsuitableness for family life. In Lafayette County, Mississippi, my family and I can live quite well on my salary from the university. This would not be the case in a more urban environment where housing in particular is much more expensive but the salary would be similar. A related consideration is that my positions both here and in Monroe placed us within three hours’ drive of both my wife’s parents and mine, a luxury not afforded to many in this business.
Ultimately, though, my desire to quickly establish myself, put down roots, and grow is rooted in my Christian understanding of work and contentment. An unhappy side effect of my rapid ascent into the university teaching profession (remember, I started as a teaching assistant at age 22 and had my first adjunct position at 24) is that while still in very early adulthood I had reached all of my immediate professional goals and in effect asked “is this all there is?” After spending years of intense work effectively “checking off boxes” and “doing all of the right things” I found myself at the end of all of that and looking ahead at years of relative sameness. To a certain extent, that dissatisfaction was relieved only when health challenges threatened to end my playing career and I was jolted into remembering just how blessed I am to do what I do.
Even more important, though, was my settled knowledge even as a very young man that my career could never satisfy, could never be “all there is,” and that I was to find contentment and fulfillment in Christ in the midst of even the best professional circumstances. In the Book of Ecclesiastes we read the reflections of an aged King Solomon, a man who was afforded but largely squandered every worldly advantage. He had political power, unsurpassed wealth, and great wisdom and understanding, yet wasted so much of his life in extravagance, polygamy, idolatry, and rebellion against God. As an old man here he seems regretful and, one hopes, repentant, realizing that the things upon which he bestowed his time, strength, and resources were mere vanity, and that joy and satisfaction ultimately come only in the loving worship and service of God.
Happily, as a music teacher I have no hope of obtaining great wealth or power, and I am perfectly satisfied with having only one wife! Nevertheless, the temptation to seek my greatest fulfillment in my work is always present, either explicitly by essentially making work an idol, or more often implicitly by giving God lip-service while my time, efforts, and thoughts are focused upon work. In some respects, musicians can be more susceptible to this than those in other professions due to our often erratic hours combined with certain social pressures unique to our profession. Music becomes an insatiable god if allowed to do so—after all, one can never practice enough, perform perfectly enough, or gain enough praise from peers and audiences. Instead, a right and healthy perspective is that while music is often rewarding, it must remain only my job, not my raison d’être.
Does all of this mean that I lack professional ambitions? Of course not. I hope to write at least one more book, record another album or two, and continue to perform, lecture, arrange, write, and generally build my national and international profile, but I am content to do all of that while based in my comfortable and reasonably well-paid teaching position in Mississippi. After all, while all of those things are fulfilling they can never provide ultimate satisfaction, and could not even if I were based in the bustling musical environments of Nashville, New York, or Los Angeles, or teaching graduate students in a large music school or conservatory. Ultimate satisfaction comes only in fearing and obeying God, in serving his church and spreading the gospel, in raising my little family in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” and even in pursuing my professional life to the best of my ability not as an end in itself, but as an act of obedience to the God who says to do our work “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”
When my ambitions are thus directed, I can pursue them with great contentment for the next thirty years in Oxford, Mississippi, or anyplace else and in any other endeavor to which I am called. And in that, there is great gain.