Monday, August 22, 2011

Dry 'bones

An unexpected gift from my sabbatical: I found pleasure in playing the trombone.

People were a little concerned, puzzled, or maybe annoyed that my official sabbatical plans did not explicitly detail musical study during the six months. It was all very well, apparently, that I would be study theology formally, but what about the music? And how well I understood the concern, how deeply I felt the need to grow as a musician.

I found that my "best laid plans" in January had to be modified somewhat, if I was to be the best grad student I could be for the semester. "Dabbling" might be the kindest description of my personal music-making through the semester. So, when classes were done, papers were completed, and finals were taken, I replaced much of that academic time with musical time.

Over the second part of the sabbatical, when we were home, I kept this after-lunch routine: practice the piano, practice the trombone, play around on the recorders, and work toward some competency on the concertina. Oh, and explore - by way of improvising - the melodica, my newest musical instrument, courtesy Christmas 2010.

My piano skills have always been deplorable; barely survival level. I discouraged more than one hopeful piano teacher at Moody Bible Institute. I did, however, manage to complete a performance degree in trombone, at DePaul University, with some distinction. Those recital chops are a remote memory. And I rarely play in public anymore. But something surprising and wonderful happened during the sabbatical: I came to really enjoy the trombone.

I know I should have written, "I came to enjoy the trombone again." But honestly, I'm not sure I ever really truly did enjoy playing the trombone in college. I think I did for a while in the early 1990's when I played with a quintet in Minnesota. But I found myself looking forward to picking up the instrument, playing through old etude books, getting some range back, and increasing my stamina. By the time I came back to work, I was having to cut my practice time shorter than my stamina. What fun!

This business with the trombone has long been a niggling stewardship issue with me. I have a good horn, an excellent education, time and space to practice, and could easily find or make opportunities to play. That I failed the stewardship test was made clear over the past week. I had finagled an opportunity to play in a trombone ensemble in morning services at College Church. Time and again since then, people have remarked, "I had no idea you play trombone." Well, but I've only been here 15 years, and you'd have had to attend just the right services to catch me playing.

I have no idea how often I will be able to play in services, and I can hardly imagine creating other opportunities to play. But still, most weekdays, I am still finding time to pick up the 'bone and keep it fresh. (And yes, I am still plugging away at those deplorable piano exercises, too!) But now it is for the sheer joy of it, the simple pleasure of making music, even if no one else hears or wants to listen to it. And I know that is going to pay big dividends as I return to weekly choir rehearsals and other conducting duties.

Today, I snuck home at lunch time to get in my practice. It's good to have got beyond that "dry 'bones" spell, and to reconnect with what got me into music study, and music ministry, in the first place.

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