Music is not enough: a strange tale of three musicians

Twenty-one years ago, despite my having strong support from the Head of Keyboard and the Head of Woodwind, Brass and Percussion, I was rejected by the Director of Music for entry into the sixth form (this is two years before university here in the UK) at Chetham’s School of Music. The name of the man who rejected me? Michael Brewer – currently serving a custodial sentence for the sexual abuse of some of his former pupils and stripped of his OBE.

Imagine: I would have been one of his former pupils; one of his protegés. And my heart goes out to all the many excellent musicians who really and honestly thought that he was a good guy; those who were given opportunities to grow and develop and fulfil their potential as musicians under his guidance – and especially at Chets. As it is, Michael Brewer is only a part of my story in the sense that his belief that I was not good enough to be with the other pupils that were going into his sixth-form that year meant that I ended up going to another school that I might not ever have considered – and my life has been so much better because I went there instead. My development as a musician would have been very different if he had said ‘yes’ – exponentially more focussed – but God has called me to do more than just be a great musician. But at the same time, He has also called me to be the best musician that I can be.Which adds to the strangeness of this tale.

~

In 1998, I took my very first trip to New York City for the sole purpose of spending time checking out the jazz scene. And I had the privilege of meeting a great number of my heroes in the music. One of them was the great piano player Kenny Kirkland – and I had no idea that four months later the ‘Doctone’ would be dead. It was not an overdose. It was not suicide. It was a complex physiological breakdown with heart failure at the centre. And this breakdown was due to the fact that he was a serious drug user – one who had refused medical attention despite the earnest entreaties of those closest to him in the music.

When he died, I went into mourning. And the hardest truth for me to accept was this: the music was not enough. The music was not enough. Despite having the level of artistry that feeds both heart and mind, he still needed dope, and did not see that he could ever be free.

~

Fifteen years later, the third musician of this strange tale took her own life after testifying against Michael Brewer. Her name: Frances Andrade, and she was by all accounts an amazing violin player. Raw and untutored, Brewer said ‘yes’ to her and his decision was vindicated. But it was not enough for him to be a teacher and mentor. He saw something in this girl that pushed buttons within him, and despite being married – and she being below age – and vulnerable in many ways due to the difficulties of her own earlier childhood – he followed his lust-fuelled sexual gratification and took the most precious gift a girl has – her feminine innocence – and gave her a tawdry substitute for affirmation and love.

For Michael Brewer, music was also not enough.

But for Frances Andrade, despite becoming a wife and mother of four children, and doing wonderful things as a violinist, playing amazing music with amazing musicians, the scars that were caused by the abuse inflicted upon her by Michael Brewer were just too much. But one of the worst things about her sad story (as far as I am concerned) is this: although she took her life two years ago, an investigation has shown that (yet again) the mental health services failed someone vulnerable and that her suicide was eminently preventable.

But as more and more people learn more and more about the healing propensities of music, the question can now be asked: surely, there would have been something therapeutic about being involved in such an amazingly emotive  – and spiritual – activity such as music?

Frances Andrade is dead – 35 years after she entered Chets thanks to Michael Brewer. She was two years short of her 50th birthday and now a family has lost its wife and mother.

Music was not enough to tame the savage passions of Frances’ abuser.

Music was not enough to heal and sustain Frances herself. It was not enough to keep her emotionally – and mentally. It was not enough to overcome the horrors of what she experienced. In my case, I was a 15-year-old who was not as advanced as pupils of that same age at Chets, and Michael Brewer said ‘no.’ For Frances, she was a 13-year-old who was not as advanced as pupils of that same age at Chets. Michael Brewer said ‘yes.’

Frances Andrade may well have been exponentially more talented than myself. I’m not getting into that. But I can only wonder – if Michael Brewer had said ‘no’ might she still have been alive today? Her gift for music opened a door for her. Michael Brewer – faced with the same type of decision that he had to make for me – gave her the gift of entering a music institution which recognised her talent and let her shine. But he took something essential away from her, and all those years later, even as she faced him in court, even if she embellished some aspects of how this abuse took place, the fact is that walking into Chets may have been the worst thing that ever happened to her. Without Chets, she may never have learned the Sibelius Violin Concerto or Ravel’s Tzigane. She may never have known that she could have been that good. But she may still have been alive.

Music was not enough to keep Kenny Kirkland away from drugs. It was not enough to live for. He refused to get help. Death came as a release. Whatever was in him, he was at his best playing the music. Only then was he free. But that ‘freedom’ was not enough.

~

I didn’t go to Chets. I didn’t get that musical education that I craved. And even after all these years, I have certain musical weaknesses that would not exist if I had been able to build a more solid foundation in terms of music education when I was still of school age. These days, I conduct the very music that Michael Brewer never thought I would, and for a long time I thought that I would give up jazz forever. As a result, I still have some unfulfilled business as a jazz pianist. I listen to Kenny Kirkland and realise how much work there is to do. If I live another decade, I will have lived longer than he did. But while he could never be a role model for young musicians as a wider human being, his essential faithfulness to his craft remains a rebuke to many of us jazz musicians.

I don’t have the baggage of Class A drug addictions. I don’t have the baggage of having had a patron and mentor who turned out to be such a terrible human being. But I know that not all of those who have been good to me have done right by other people in their lives. I have made many mistakes in my own life. God knows. Musicians know. People know. But for all the problems, there has been so much positivity and so much joy. And yes – success too, if not in ways that everyone would understand.

~

The most important lesson I have learned is that the music is not enough. BUT – the greatness of the God who has saved me from each of the fates that have befallen the three musicians in this story now means that I must leave no stone unturned to become the best musician that I can be – in the context of being the best version of me that I can be. That is the greatest ‘thank you’ present that I can give to God, and that He gets to be part of making it happen is even more special.

God will do that for you too – if you will let Him…

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Bach can change your life…

Five years ago, I made a bucket list of works I wanted to have conducted – in five years. I can only say that I had no idea what it would cost me to realise those musical ambitions – and if I had, I’m not sure I’d have kept that dream alive.

But this week, with my completion of my first-ever Bach passion now ticked off – despite a smogasbord of challenges that some of you could never believe – the fulfilment that I am now experiencing is hard to describe in words. But I’m not writing a happy-go-lucky post to say how wonderful it is to achieve goals and dreams.

I’m saying that it is only after you have completed what you set out to do that you truly discover if this was what you were supposed to be doing. And as an increasingly popular modern saying has it: we can spend our lives climbing a ladder only to discover that we put it up against the wrong wall.

Wrong wall? Or wrong ladder? The intrinsic semantic specificities of that analogical framework are not our concern; I’m sure the point is made. For me, Bach has become something of a father figure as I look to grow who I am and how I want to work as a musician. Unlike his predecessor, Kuhnau, who was incredibly erudite and well-educated on a scary number of levels, Bach had an excellent formal education up to his late teens – but nothing beyond that. Having enjoyed more academic opportunities than many people – and being part of an ethnic minority community where ‘education’ is a passport to the promised land – what I call ‘Middle England’ (to be precise, I am referring to middle-class Anglo-Europeans) – I can see how all of that is supposed to work, but for my entire life I have looked at how people from all sorts of minority communities have used the letters after their names to demand status, and I am more appalled at this than I can say.

It gets worse – because this ‘worship of letters’ is all over the church. We should know better, but…

How does this relate to Bach? Well, he never really fit easily and comfortably into any of the places in which he found himself, and that astonishing period from 1723 to 1730 will remain an enigma forever as far as I am concerned. Kuhnau made an outstanding contribution to musical life in Leipzig and was a darling of the establishment for the rest of his life. But Bach was far, far too much for the ecclesiastical authorities, and despite the fact that his goal was nothing more than to write a ‘well-appointed church music’ – I am now going to make my own assessment of the reality – Bach’s music pointed to a God who was and is far bigger than the sanitised deity that archetypal liturgy had gotten used to. And those two monumental passions that remain will challenge conductors, soloists, chorus members and instrumental players for a very, very long time as yet.

Preparing to conduct the St John Passion has been the most formative experience of my conducting career to date. And it has changed the way that I think and work. It has forced me to confront the areas of my musicianship in which I am not as disciplined as I need to be if I’m going to work at the level for which I am striving. It has shown me that whatever I think I can bring to music and to early sacred music as an interpreter, I will receive more than I give if I am willing to accept that and be genuinely humble about it. It has shown me that my desire to make a difference inside the church walls is well and good, but the church is not about to become a more open and safe place for honest spirituality that is actually biblical – which means that the pursuit of truth in music will have to take place outside its walls. Bach is better loved, better understood, and better served by musicians who have no interest in confessional Christian faith, and I have one word for that:

SCARY.

It means that as a church (and this in the broadest sense of the word) we still don’t get it after all these years. I literally came apart at the seams trying to fight for better musical standards in my own church, and not understanding why God couldn’t just make it happen. But after conducting St John, I understood why God has let that door close.

The story of how this performance came off the ground is itself entirely epic. If it had not been for my best friend and project co-conspirator, it would never have made it. That person understood what this was better than my own parents who – 48 hours later – are beginning to realise just why I have refused to accept the standard and the attitude of church music-makers. My mother has believed for a long time that I have set my expectations too high, but the truth is more devastating – they weren’t high enough! And only in raising them have I now discovered more about who I am and how I am going to work.

This is not an end. This is now the beginning. And every single challenge, obstacle, doubter, hater, critic – and more – is something for which I want to publicly give thanks for. I have not become who I am because my life worked. I have become who I am because my life did not work and has not worked in more ways than most people can ever and will ever know. Sure, Bach had it worse than I did. He was orphaned by 10, lost his first wife, and buried ten of his twenty children. I’ve only lost my sister – but bereavement is bereavement and we don’t trivialise by reducing emotions to numbers.

My Evangelist was very, very unwell on the day of the concert, but by God’s grace he made it almost to the end. But his being indisposed at that point meant that I had to decide how we were going to end, and so I seized my vocal score (which I’d kept to hand on my stand just in case – previous experience) and read the final recitative – and the emotions I felt as I read those words were the most profound experience I’ve ever had onstage in a public concert. In that moment I was determined to become a better person. A more faithful Christian. A more exacting and disciplined musician.

Bach has changed my life. And now, I want to conduct (and hopefully record) as much of his sacred music as I can. But I’m more than a classical musician. I’ve always wanted to write a contemporary passion setting of my own but I knew I wanted to wait until I’d conducted one by J.S. Bach. And now that I have, I am inspired in ways I did not think possible.

But the only people from my own church who were present were my parents. And that’s okay. They now get it more than before, but the truth is that other people believed in me as a conductor and I had to somehow choose to leave doubt, fear and ignorance behind to press on with this journey of becoming a conductor. Last night I popped into a church to see if they were having a Bible study or something. Thought I might say hello to a few folks. But there was a choir practice taking place, and I just listened to it from a position where I could not be seen. 20 minutes later, the exact same verse had been rehearsed several times and was no better than when I had arrived. In the past, I’d have thought about trying to assist – particularly as I know the folks involved. But I left, knowing that having been very badly burned in my own church community with regards to music ministry, I cannot help these people anymore. I want to help – but they want the kind of help that takes no real regard for musical truth, and so it will never sound better. It will never be musical. After all the years of trying to inspire a higher standard of music-making, I know that what I did with this Bach performance eclispsed almost everything that I have ever managed to achieve with church people. And that’s one reason why Bach stopped writing sacred music – God was not less glorified in a second book of Preludes and Fugues, but only musicians can ever really understand how that works…

The greatest joy is ALWAYS as a consequence of the greatest sacrifice. This St John Passion project cost me – but it was worth it. It has been worth it. Oh, how it has been worth it. I hereby thank God, and everyone who played a part in helping this to come to fruition. And now, time for the next level…

As JSB himself would have said: Soli Deo Gloria!

So God loves sin…

Warning: this is not a blog post for those who are unable to read in straight lines and think rigorously…and also, if you are not familiar with ‘satire’ then this may be an injudicious use of your time…

~

The $64,000,000 question remains: what exactly, pray tell, is the gospel?

Is it what about people who sing/play ‘gospel music’ say it’s about? In words and music?

Is the gospel all about love? Because if so, then surely the idea of God is not necessary for love…is it? I can love my partner or spouse, or my cat, or my car, or ice-cream…

Oh….riiight, with you now. You’re saying that basically, God sent Jesus to die on the cross so that we can basically keep going as we are. We don’t have to change – other than go to church, pick up a Bible off Amazon and dust it occasionally, and be seen carrying Christian books from obvious authors every so often – be they Joyce Meyer or E.G. White…okay, scratch Joyce Meyer if you’re Adventist, because only Adventists speak the truth, right? Best get rid of those C.S. Lewis books and make sure that your KJV is prominent when you come to church!

Pentecostals, as you were. Evangelicals, you got problems. John Stott and John Piper are (were) literally as far away as east and west from each other on certain things, so you guys have decisions to make as well… Anglicans…okay, every type of belief is possible, so we have nothing new for you. And RCs – some of you cannot in all good conscience take communion with the rest of us, but your work with the neediest in our world remains mind-boggling.

[If you’re not in that list (e.g. Dutch Reformed), then you just definitely keep as you were…]

So, what’s the gospel again??

Kiki Sheard has the answer for you…and the redoutable Trey McLaughlin is here to sing a version of it for you ‘with a little help from his friends:’

Okay!

Try this for size again:

You think I’m everything when I think I’m nothing
When I hate myself you still love me
Love me and…

Wowee!

Wouldn’t you love to be loved by someone who thought that you were everything?! That could be true for those who think they’re nothing and those who don’t think they’re nothing – they think that they’re something but they’d love to be loved by someone who thinks that they would be everything.

With respect to my sisters, these lyrics have all the hallmarks of a woman’s voice. Men want to pursue without limitations. Women want to be desired at all costs. [And yes, those are deliberate over-generalisations to make the point.] So in this song, Kiki Sheard has not told us that God loves us DESPITE our flaws. She’s telling the gospel: God loves our flaws! He loves the bits of us which actually don’t work!

Now, there are ‘flaws’ and ‘flaws.’ If an individual possesses a characteristic that is particularly idiosyncratic, this could be deeply irritating to some people. But it could also be endearing to another. [Where’s Jeremy Clarkson when you need him??] However, sometimes what one person sees as a flaw is not actually a flaw in the first place. Don’t miss that. But ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and a really serious problem could become a deadly problem – like the father who thought that it was good parenting and good bonding to do class A drugs with his daughter, who later died from a bad reaction to something she took at his hand, compounded by the fact that he delayed taking her to the hospital…

All right, enough fooling around the mulberry bushes. Kierra Sheard is WRONG and this song is a recipe for spiritual ruin.

If God loved our flaws, the Cross would not have been necessary. Jesus died for more than our sins as we commit them through abuse of volition (free will). Jesus died for all the wrong and broken things in this world. He died for the adults who cannot seem to give up crack cocaine because they were born addicted thanks to the choices of their parents and who are more biologically wired to that than many of us could ever begin to comprehend.

He died for people who struggle with sexual temptation LONG after making a full surrender to Christ – because the issues of abuse and trauma in their lives have left wounds that are deeper than language.

He died for those who self-harm because they cannot forgive certain people for certain things. And I don’t even mean being abused.

Gospel musicians: we have a duty to preach in song. This song is not a sermon. It is a fantasy. The gifts of music and language have been utilised to create a new God – re-fabricated in human form according to one love-starved human being. Why do I say that? Because those who are fortunate enough to be truly loved KNOW that they are loved DESPITE their flaws. Only those who still don’t know what that kind of love is like can sustain a secular fantasy such as this one – made worse by the fact that it is dressed up as a manifestation of Christian faith affirmation!!!

Secular people might be absolutely disgusted at this idea of God, and they would be quite right.

Here’s a better reference point for the gospel. It comes from Micah 6:

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? [KJV]

If God loved our flaws the way this song says He does, He could not and would not be the God as revealed in the pages of Scripture.

Talent is NOT where it’s at…

….but you’ll have to keep reading in order to find out how that sentence ends!

~

This is my first blog post of 2015 – on any site. My mother has been a cancer patient and the last several months have been entirely epic. But I am delighted to be able to announce that she did decide to take chemotherapy and that the evidence suggests that it is working. Many prayers and sentiments of goodwill have been offered by a great many people, and I want to acknowledge that here on what is the most well-read of my blogs. THANK YOU, everyone, and God bless you all.

~

Now, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the fact that it was four years ago this month – February 2011 – that I ‘picked up my pen’ and began to write in earnest here on this blog.

When I learned about blogging about ten years ago, I was excited about trying to build a community of my own here at the theomusicology blog. I dreamed of the kinds of interaction that seemed to happening all over the place.

So it was in fact August 2008 when this blog actually came into existence, and I had the idea that God wanted to do something different in my life and something with this writing business. But quite what, I didn’t know. But I was SURE that building a little community around these most emotive subjects was part of it.

Some readers of this blog know the story: I wrote a number of blog posts, invited LOTS of people and sat back and waited for people to engage. And…only a tiny handful did. I got upset, confused, and then decided that if people were not going to interact with this blog in the ways that I had seen them doing elsewhere, then perhaps I had gotten the wrong idea. Perhaps my deranged ego had gotten in the way and I’d failed to hear God properly. Either way, I decided that it was not working and gave up writing.

Now, I have written about quite a number of life-changing ‘gear changes’ that I have experienced here on this blog. I have referred to things that have had to go ‘on the altar of sacrifice.’ One of the things that I always believed was that once you had identified your calling, things would just fall into place. I was well used to archetypal Christian clichés such as “all His biddings are enablings” and so if things didn’t work really easily, then God could not have wanted it.

Lies.

Weak, under-powered theology and wholly inadequate Bible reading will get you to conclusions like that.

In February 2011, after a period of fasting and prayer, I was sure that I had the mission statement for my life, and now things were gong to fall into place…right? Some of them did, but it is time to raise the stakes more publicly about the fact that the sheer range and depth of traumas in my life sent me into depression. Now, how does a lifelong Christian who has just received a huge answer from God then fall into depression? That’s not something for which there is any sort of quick answer and I will not trivialise that story by attempting to answer that question here. But integrity to this blog post demands that I tell you what I have, and as such, 2011 now ranks with 2001 as the two worst years of my entire adult life. Those were the two years where I came closest to abandoning my faith – and this is not exaggerated rhetoric, I assure you. It is why when I re-examined the precise reasons for the precise nature of my religious beliefs, I had to find something deeper and more enduring than almost everything that I had been taught in standard church attendance. It’s why I am increasingly committed to both philosophy and theology. It’s why I read six Bible translations as I prepare to study Biblical languages for myself. And it is also why I write for a readership that is wider than the church.

It is exactly why I write in the first place.

I wrote a LOT of words in 2011, and perhaps most of them will never be read publicly, because they were for my devotional journal. But a lot of them were on this blog, and some posts were about far more than just ‘theomusicology-related’ issues. What I found was that as I stopped worrying about getting feedback and interaction and just concentrated on writing, people began to seek me out off the blog and tell me that they were reading and that I should continue writing. And a great number were people who do not share the fundamental religious presuppositions that govern the writing on this blog, but they offered real encouragement.

~

Now, some people who are unfamiliar with the posts on this blog will be wondering how a brother has gotten to 800+ words and still not yet made his point. Sorry, it’s not that kind of blog – please keep reading!

~

So back to four years ago. I’m writing away and I am sure that God has given me a talent for words as well as music. I want to use both as well as I can. But I am STILL labouring under a phenomenal misapprehension, and to help you get how this works, I need to take you to Ephesians 3:

7-8 This is my life work: helping people understand and respond to this Message. It came as a sheer gift to me, a real surprise, God handling all the details. When it came to presenting the Message to people who had no background in God’s way, I was the least qualified of any of the available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities (The Message).

Some people who have known me for a long time – not just my ‘friends’ by any means – did their best to encourage me to not play as many instruments as I once did. What some knew better than others was that I was desperate to identify the instrument for which I was most naturally suited. In hindsight, I was literally obsessed with the idea of finding the instrument that was a perfect fit. This was where being particularly skilled in certain types of analysis has become a weakness as well as a strength.

I rejected the piano because my technique was not ever as naturally fluid as that of other piano players who were undoubtedly less musical. That was my first instrument, but that was not the one as far as I was concerned. [And if it had not been for certain amazing events, I’d STILL be thinking that today – more long stories…]

I rejected the clarinet because I didn’t have the kind of emotional connection to it that I deemed (in my ignorance and folly) was necessary. When I realised that this was false, I was so far behind technically that I decided I’d never catch up and despite massive encouragement from numerous gifted players, I lost faith in my ability to offer something great with this instrument.

The story of my love affair with the saxophone is complex and requires its own post. Suffice it to say that my original reasons for taking it up were pragmatic – and then I fell in love, totally and completely. Problem: of all the instruments I have ever wanted to excel at, on no other instrument has so much practice led to so little improvement. No other instrument has ever caused me so much grief and pain – and if I had to re-run the last twenty years, I would NEVER have taken up this instrument.

And as for the double bass…I never had the faith or the courage to really go for it, despite having a level of natural musicianship on this instrument that was pretty rare. I was good enough to be able to play sometimes, but never consistently good enough to be the kind of asset that professionals need with them on-stage.

Those are the four which many people know about. But there were other instruments and other (ultimately vain and futile) attempts to find the instrument on which I would make my name. I was convinced that God would never call anyone to something for which they had no natural abilities, and terrified that I wouldn’t find my destiny. And my desire to be a world-class musician and a Christian witness meant that this was only going to work when I found the instrument that was my destiny. I figured that God had provided the talent and my job was to find it. Ten years ago I even prayed over a period of weeks and asked God to show me how best I should spend my time and what I should give up musically. I got no answer and there was a reason. But that particular story is too big for this post.

~

The home straight started when I sat in the office of a professor of composition at a UK university who discerned that I had a real facility for language and ideas, but that somehow I wanted to find something deeper. He then expressed his belief that writing music was in fact harder than writing words.

Until he reads this post, he may not know the true effect these words have had on me spiritually. But from that moment I began to let go of the idea that God is only interested in using us in the capacities which would seemingly be determined by our ‘natural’ skillsets. Don’t get me wrong: I knew that God uses people to do things which they didn’t think they could do. I never thought that I had anything to ‘offer God.’ But I did think that I had to be at my best – which to me meant the highest level of skill I could obtain – for God to use me in amazing ways. And I so badly wanted to do something seriously good for God.

I didn’t know it – I couldn’t know it – but I had fallen into the trap of a type of perfectionism (religious and psychological) and this type of perfectionism is in fact tantamount to self-abuse of the highest order. It is no wonder that in certain ways my mind and my emotions came apart at the seams!

~

Now, I have been putting these pieces together for some time, but as I am now less than a month away from conducting my very first Bach passion – St John – I see that the incredibly difficult journey to become a conductor of classical music (which I have posted about here) was all about being moved away from my ‘natural strengths’ as a gospel choral director and being taken to a place outside my comfort zone and ‘natural’ talent space PRECISELY so that I would be less predisposed to defaulting back to my ‘natural’ talents and forgetting God! This piece has changed my life, but this would never have happened if I’d remained in the area of my ‘talents.’ And so when – in the early hours of this morning – I came across this text in my devotional, I realised that it was time to ‘take up my pen’ and write this post – firstly as a devotional activity in and of itself, and secondly as an action of ministry in which I reach out and share with whosoever will.

Paul was enormously gifted, but his calling was about something more than his ‘natural abilities.’ Today, I am publicly putting my desire to be outstandingly gifted on the altar of sacrifice, because what I also hope to do for God has – in the final analysis – NOTHING to do with my natural abilities, and as I consider the years spent searching for the wrong ‘Holy Grail’ I very much hope and pray that whoever you are and whatever you believe, that you could take a moment to think about whether you may also have placed more strain on yourself by focusing on what you can ‘do’ as a person with talents (we all have something) and less on who you can ‘be’ as a person. Talent is totally NOT where it’s at – because each one of us is worth far more than our skills and abilities and God did NOT die for our sins just so that we could pay Him back by being amazingly gifted.

Talents are wonderful, but to be a good human being is worth more than what the world calls ‘talent.’

A new vision for the rest of my life in music

Last week, a huge door closed. [see this post for more details.]

And in the days that have passed which have served as the (entirely necessary) processing time, it has become very clear that this is indeed the way forward. It is not that I will never once work with members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the UK on anything musical from henceforth. I never said that and it could not be further from the truth. However, the standard of music making – and indeed, musical praise – in which I am involved cannot drop below a certain level and there is no way in which I will continue to be spiritually and emotionally blackmailed into facilitating levels of musical praise where the actual music-making is totally and inexcusably sub-standard.

If the musical praise is in fact genuinely musical, there is always a chance that the actual truth about God can be told. But it is impossible for an act of music ministry to be musically substandard and still be spiritual. Somehow, our church (and we are not alone) have now almost made a new spiritual gift (a type of ‘virtue’ for those who don’t know) out of what I will now call ‘anti-musicality’ and this is something that I will resist forcibly for as long as I have breath.

It has not been easy to express these things, as one has no real desire to talk about all the things that do not work in one’s church. But I have been trying to gloss over these failings for nearly twenty years, and that in and of itself has been damaging. The truth really does matter – even when it hurts – but better honest pain than dishonest coherence – because it is precisely this ‘dishonest coherence’ that is hurting our evangelistic witness as a church. I love my church and I am serious about people becoming part of our community. I do not believe because I get what I want. I do not believe because I am loved and respected. I believe because my own intellectual and spiritual convictions have led me to the conclusion that the teachings of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church are true. And all these sorts of ‘ecclesial’ problems are not going to be a good enough reason to leave for a church community (or any other) in which music is respected more honestly and taken much more seriously.

While in other Christian churches music can at times be much, much better, I have been involved in interdenominational musical activities for twenty years. I have been shocked to find that even in the matter of a gospel choir, secular people are often more keen to sing this music to a really high standard than church-goers of all stripes. So for those who think that I have the right religion but the wrong denomination, I do have news: I see all types of sacred music – from Palestrina to liturgical jazz to contemporary gospel music – being sung and played to a consistently higher standard by secular people than by Christians of all denominations – be they evangelical Anglican to ragingly intense Pentecostal as well as Roman Catholic. Seventh-Day Adventists have a huge amount of work to do, but we’re not alone on this one, folks.

I want to place on record my gratitude to those UK Adventist music ministers who have been willing to work with me to a real musical standard as well as a spiritual standard. It is not a big number, and each one of you has something to do for God in this world. Those of you who are still working with me, we’re only just getting started.

I also want to place on record my thanks all those who are not of my faith, but who have been part of my activities in sacred music-making for the entirety of my career to date – whatever the reasons for your saying ‘yes,’ it has been really important that we respect music as something bigger than all of us and that we have found – and continue to find – a place of true common ground in the process of making music together as honestly as possible.

In the last two months, I have spent a great deal of time with a certain book called The Path by Laurie Beth Jones. I would like to wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone and everyone. It has enabled certain pieces of my life to now begin falling into place with shattering force as I now continue to take the necessary difficult decisions to ensure that the reason for which I came into being actually does get fulfilled in my life. It is for both my benefit and others who would like to understand why I am as ferociously driven as I am that I now publish the following two statements.

What I thought was my mission statement for life and ministry came at the end of a period of fasting and prayer in early 2011. But now in July 2014, thanks to Ms Jones, I now have a much deeper  mission statement. With the help of other thinkers and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I can see that what I have now found with the help of Laurie Beth is in fact a vision statement. And she has also taught me that I also need a goal – which in turn written down.

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Personal Vision Statement:

My vision is to understand, promote and inspire true worship to a holy God.

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Personal Mission Statement:

My mission is to share Christian faith and the (Seventh-Day) Adventist message to the highest standard of my ability using both words and music.

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For the rest of 2014 I will be working out how the ‘goal’ side of this will work in real life and how I can express it clearly, simply and accurately in my first language of English. The practical applications of both my vision and mission need to be carefully tracked so that my decisions are all congruent with both vision and mission. But those huge decisions of the last week are all a consequence of recognising and accepting the two statements that you have just read, and realising that my goals have to be reconsidered in order to ensure that I stay on track with who I am, how I have been designed and who God Himself has called me to be.

May God be with you as you work out these things for your own life and ministry in Jesus’ Name.

A recent devotional for a gospel choir

It is amazing when the Holy Spirit works in ways and at times you really don’t expect.

For those of us who lead choirs that comprise entirely of members with their own Christian faith, every rehearsal should be an opportunity to affirm individual and collective faith. Sometimes the ‘devotional bit’ is nothing more than a cliché. On other occasions, it can be a way to really bring the members of the group onto the same page with regard to who they are and why they do what they do.

If you are a choral director and genuinely serious about mission, then devotional work is part of the story. Working in ministry alongside music means that there are always things to hand when it comes time to take a devotional with a choir or group. But on Sunday gone I did something different, and the effect of it tells me that I am supposed to spend that kind of time planning the devotional part of the rehearsal along with the musical and technical stuff! So as some of these choir members have asked me to email what we did with them, I realised that it could maybe help others – hence this blog post.

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Because I had eight people, I had eight ‘elements’ – but that is an arbitrary number. However, the intensity of discussion means that however many are in your choir, I’d not suggest you have more than eight.

The ‘elements’ in this instance are pieces of paper which were placed in a receptacle, from which the members picked one each. I conspicuously paired four quotations with four Bible passages, but the idea of mixing them up was to jut let the ideas float out and then pull the strands together.

The four quotations:

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men [and women], for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible” (T.E. Lawrence).

If you can eat anything you want to, what’s the fun in eating anything you want to?” (Tom Hanks).

The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

About the only thing which comes to us without effort is old age” (Gloria Pitzer).

The four Bible passages:

  • Deuteronomy 6:20-25
  • Proverbs 20:4 (multiple versions is an excellent idea)
  • 1 Corinthians 6:12-15
  • Joel 2:28

See if you can match them up yourself…

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You may wonder why this level of thought is necessary for the purposes of preparing to sing praises to and about God. Surely the musical stuff is more important? I mean, that’s what the listeners are actually going to hear, right?

I’d say that if that’s where you’re at, then you may never have experienced what it means to perform music with more than knowledge of the ‘right notes and rhythms.’ That is only the beginning. We then have to ask what the music actually means and that’s not a game for lightweights when it comes to the gospel message. If all we offer is the sound of the music – because that’s all we have – then that’s all we’ll get. But if we offer more than that – because we really actually thought about what we wanted to say and how the music was going to facilitate the process of saying it – then that is what the listeners will receive!

Amazing, isn’t it? We think that music performance is what we do, but too many of us never realise that music practice is like Christian faith in one big way: who we (actually) are is what people see and remember most.

 

A response to Christian Berdahl; #1 – Syncopation (Part Three)

Okay, okay, so before you say anything, I am holding my hands up and apologising for the stupendous length of time that has elapsed since our last conversation…

Theomusicologist!!!!

Okay, I really want to know if there is a specific reason why you disappeared on our conversation – is there?

What a good question…yes, there is, as it happens. Great, I’m listening! Okay it’s like this: have you seen how many people in my church – the Seventh-Day Adventist Church – conduct their debates on music? Er…yes, I can’t say I’m unaware. You’ve got loads of people in your church who have their opinions and they are all experts. Every last one. University professors. Grammy Award winners. No-one is telling them ANYTHING. As it happens, we’ve got the same thing going on in my church too!

What a world, huh?! Say that again, brother! But look, get to the point, will you?! Okay okay, sorry! So this is it: I kind of went through a stage where I really questioned the very point of this whole public conversation. I enjoy talking with you as you know, but I was not sure that there was any point in continuing on this particular subject. And a big part of the reason why is that I reached a level of total frustration with people in my church. It seems as if the overwhelming majority of people in my sphere of existence who really and truly have an issue with syncopation are members of my church. This does not mean that there are no other people from other denominations who have issues with syncopation – but not to the same extent that appears to be the case in my church due to certain very high-profile speakers who have spoken out against it. Sure, with Christian Berdahl being a particularly obvious example right now… Uh-huh. But for so many other people, how it could be the case that we spend this long talking about syncopation is just crazy. And as many people will not even manage to stay in the conversation with us long enough to really get why this whole anti-syncopation thing is a very big problem, I had felt that if – by and large – the only people who need persuading on this matter are SDAs whose views are already fixed, then I can write that off as a complete waste of time. But as it is, I can see that I need to see this one through with you and anyone else who makes it with us. People have been encouraging – and the levels of sincerity and ignorance are just the kind of thing that get us ministry-types going – so I’m back!

Okay, thanks for sharing that. I’m glad, because I am genuinely interested in your views on this subject; as you say, it’s about more than just this one issue.

Absolutely. And I fear that this will be a shorter conversational installment, but there is a very important thing that I knew I needed to share with you asap. Sounds serious! It is. It really is.

You know that it is a sore spot with me that much of my thought-life has been better shared with non-Adventists than Adventists. But you also know that I’m not about to leave my church. Christian Berdahl’s specific statements have brought out the fire-breathing dragon in me, and I can see that this very systematic way that I have been looking to take apart his whole thesis on this has been pretty heavy-handed.

Hmm. I’ve not thought that – but it is true that I have gotten used to you over more years than we both care to think about. I know you. I know your style. We can joke about it, even. But as I think about it, sure, some of our mutual friends still find you intimidating, even when you say nothing and smile and just be really friendly. They sense that you’re holding back. We’ve managed to get along from the get-go and that’s ’cause we were both committed to that. Um, you mean present tense, yeah? Duh. Obviously that is STILL the case, or we’d not be having this conversation, you crazy, over-analysing gimp! Okay, okay, sorry! Accepted. So as I was saying before someone interrupted me…seriously now, has someone been talking to you about all this and how it comes across?

This is why we’re friends…yes indeed. Okay Theomusicologist. Well, I do make allowances for you that I don’t make for everybody. I see what you’re saying. And I know a bit about where you are coming from. Christian Berdahl may have made some huge academic howitzers but he is still a member of your church and you are not partisan in these matters – you work on the principle, regardless of the affiliations of the person in your gunsights (to use one of your expressions!) That’s one reason why I respect you as I do. But you now think that by slating him in this way it does not help the cause of your church?

Couldn’t put it better myself. I’ve basically laid into his statement and the thinking around it like he is a serious bad guy. I have to hold my hands up and say that as a ministry practitioner, I think I would rather have taken a kinder approach to pointing out the errors in his thought. I’ve been very sincere and very focussed and tried to spread it all out and not just bash him hard. But I believe that I can be gentler in this critique, and I want for my whole approach to just be a bit gentler when we pick this up next. I’m beginning to realise that my forensic critique of all manner of things makes the process of being around me more intense than may be ideal (at times!).

Theomusicologist, I am with you all the way. I’ve watched you grow over the years from the firebrand-in-your-face intellectual combatant who has verbally beaten up anyone in your way to a guy who wants to do good for God in whom you believe with the gifts He has given you. I know you. Not everyone knows you. And yeah, I am glad I’m not you, because the more I learn and grow, the more I see how big ministry is – for all of us. You’ve got a tough, tough job, but we serve an amazing God. He’s got you and He’s got this. Okay, so you’ll let me know when next, okay?

Deal. And thank you.

What are friends for? I’ll see you later. Get some sleep!