I am always moved by stories of pastors with long tenures in small congregations. In a time when “celebrity pastor” is a term that makes sense and so many build careers by moving to increasingly larger churches every 2-3 years, there is something peculiarly beautiful when one hears of a man serving the same congregation for 30, 40, or even 50 years. We’re talking about a person who has faithfully loved, prayed for, preached to, counseled, comforted, admonished, baptized, married, and buried successive generations of the same families, and received the congregation’s continued love and devotion in return. Such stories rarely generate headlines except perhaps locally on the occasion of the minister’s retirement or death, but I am convinced that such faithful men will receive special rewards in heaven.
While the work of a music professor is of far less eternal importance than that of a minister, I am in a lesser yet similar way moved when I hear of the retirement of a colleague who has served the same small school or department for an extended period. While major conservatory and large university programs will necessarily attract a significant portion of the most talented and ambitious students, smaller programs in both state and private institutions still train a large percentage of aspiring music teachers and performers, students who will in turn impact hundreds and thousands of students and concertgoers in schools and communities of every size. Often these students begin their college or university careers with notable deficiencies in one or more areas of music study and execution, yet with hard work under the tutelage of dedicated professors, they are able to remedy those difficulties and build meaningful careers.
To participate in the success of such students is immensely fulfilling, but it is not flashy. It can’t be distilled into brief soundbites nor does it generate a lot of exciting YouTube videos. And yet to see students who really struggled to begin music careers not only find jobs but succeed in teaching or performing yields an enduring satisfaction. Teaching more “naturally talented” students is fun in its own way, of course. The repertoire they are able to perform is more advanced and the problems are smaller and easier to solve. Turning a willing student who doesn’t “get it” into one who does is harder, and maybe that is why it’s in a way more rewarding. The same could be said for taking a studio or program which is not reaching its full potential and slowly but surely turning it into one that is. That work of building and sustaining excellence, one student at a time, is the work of a lifetime.
Both the minister and the professor in my examples—and in neither case am I thinking of a particular person—are engaging in what I sometimes like to call “faithful plodding.” Day by day, one sermon after another, one congregant after another, one student after another, diligently doing the work of teaching, admonishing, correcting, encouraging—of building up individuals in their lives and work. The one deals with infinitely more lasting and important matters than the other, of course, but for both faithfulness in their callings seems to entail mainly quiet, consistent, diligent effort that receives little notice and few accolades, but in the end delivers the desired results. For the one that means simply greater musical achievement, which is wonderful, but for the other it means the salvation of human beings, which is far better.
This is not to say that I do not desire more publicly visible indicators of success. In recent weeks the trombone and tuba-euphonium ensembles under my direction at Ole Miss were both invited to participate in their respective professional organizations’ international conferences, and I am immensely gratified to have seen our programs grow to this extent in the past 6.5 years. God willing, I look forward to more growth, more students, and more success in the coming years, but the work of getting there will be the same slow and steady “faithful plodding” that brought us this far. There’s not a lot of “flash-bang” in this approach, but it works.