I write this evening in the middle of what has been fairly satisfying weekend professionally. My students gave a fine performance of the national anthem at the Ole Miss Baseball game versus Mississippi State, and I have played one of two scheduled performances with Tom Walker’s Gospel Train Big Band, a touring group for which I normally serve as lead trombonist when they come through Mississippi. Yesterday’s experience with that group has in part prompted my choice of topic for today, as I was called upon to perform improvised solos with the band on several occasions and not only did so competently but also did so with practically no anxiety about the process. This was not always the case for me. While I studied jazz improvisation to some degree as an undergraduate student, I never became particularly comfortable or successful in the endeavor, and as a graduate student and young professional mostly set that training aside. I gave myself and others the (partially true) excuse that I was investing the energies that I might have spent working on improvisation on learning to play multiple instruments, but a truer statement would have been that I didn’t think I was very good at improvisation and wasn’t sure how to get better. I still played jazz gigs periodically, often laughing off solo opportunities by saying that “I improvise well enough to keep getting hired as a lead player” (since the second trombonist is the chair more often called upon to solo).
As I’ve written or alluded to several times over the years in this space, my career since beginning university studies 20 years ago has been characterized by rapidly increasing success, followed by a short plateau and steady decline, then a crisis brought about by that decline combined with health issues, and then over the past seven years or so a steady rebuilding. (I have written more detailed reflections on all of this here.) In most respects I play better now than I ever have, and am thankful for even the negative experiences that in God’s providence have led me to this point. In retrospect, I see that the decline in my abilities came about largely because I had unconsciously decided that I was “good enough,” and failed to realize until it was almost too late that what I thought was “treading water” was really a slow but steady loss of skill. Understanding now that my abilities as a musician will always be either increasing or decreasing, I am always seeking more refinement, better techniques, and new skills. Taking up tuba as an additional doubling instrument for performance (in addition to teaching, which I was already doing) is a manifestation of this, as is this newfound interest in becoming a better jazz musician. While I don’t presently aspire to become a great jazz player (at some point one realizes that he cannot be the master of everything), I am happy to have become a more serviceable one, and look forward to further developing these skills. I have learned that I must continue to grow as a musician if I wish to remain a skilled (and employable) one.
If you will indulge me in a bit of theological reflection in this vein, there is a comparison to be made here to the Christian life, to how one is to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Just as continued growth is necessary for maintaining one’s skill and vitality as a musician, so continued growth is necessary as one continues through life as a Christian. Our Lord used no small number of agricultural metaphors to convey spiritual truths, one of the most poignant being that of the vine and the branches. Speaking to his disciples just before his crucifixion, Jesus said “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The Lord tells us that our vitality as “branches” comes from the life-giving, growth-producing nourishment of the Vine, and just one verse later he warns that “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Think also of the Parable of the Sower as recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8, and which was recently addressed during the Sunday School hour at Christ Presbyterian Church. Here we have four groups of people represented as scattered seed. The first group demonstrates no spiritual life at all, and the last grows and produces a tremendous crop, but the middle two groups are the ones that are to me the most frightening, as these seeds do spring up and show some signs of life but as they are scorched or choked they wither and die. Jesus said frankly later in Matthew that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). The first hints of nascent spiritual life are not enough; one must diligently seek to grow to maturity and produce much fruit.
There is more to being a great musician than studying hard, practicing hard, and establishing a professional career. Growth in understanding and skill is necessary in order to maintain that career at the highest level, or else one will find that his skills slowly decline and with them his career. Similarly—though with infinitely higher stakes—there is more to being a Christian than a simple affirmation of the facts about Christ or even the initial signs of spiritual life. The true Christian is marked by growth, endurance, increase. He diligently uses the means of grace (Word, sacraments, and prayer) in order to become more like his Lord and Savior, and as the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) puts it, he diligently seeks to “more and more die unto sin and live unto righteousness.” Jesus never offers hope for those who fail to do this, except that they truly come to him in repentance and faith before it is too late.
So, fellow musician—and more importantly, fellow Christian—will you have growth or death?