When God shuts the door

I’ve been procrastinating about finishing this blog post for over a year now. Why the delay? Partly, it is the strange irony of a church song/worship leader who can no longer sing, who is also the author of a blog about church music and grace. Shouldn’t God just be giving more grace, and healing, so that I continue in this role which has been so much a part of my identity for 26 years?

My reluctance is also partly down to the enormity of the struggle in my head; having to explain it to you means I have to think about it, and try to reason with it, and accept it to some degree.

Let me fill in some of the background.

Since the end of 2015, I have been struggling with the effects of a hiatus hernia (where the top of your stomach bulges up through your diaphragm, at the place where stomach meets the end of oesophagus, and this allows acid to flow upward. Gruesome isn’t it?). The result is reflux, oesophagitis and coughing, particularly when singing – or when playing any number of wind instruments, which is something I’ve also done for almost four decades. The medication I take for this situation is reasonably effective, but not when I have to sing or project my voice. So, for the last year, I’ve contributed to church music only from behind the keyboard.

Few people know the enormous sense of loss I feel not being able to stand out the front and do what I can (do well, apparently) to lead people in enthusiastic praise of our great God. Worse still, I can’t even sing as part of the congregation, unless I want to pay for it with a tight throat, cough and stinging tongue for the rest of the day. My participation is thus reduced to lip syncing and whispers.

Now I know that some people would be quite content with this amount of involvement in congregational singing. For them, my loss would seem pretty minor. Not so for me.

And there’s more.

Moving beyond what I was originally going to describe (in that difficult blog post I’d been avoiding), I now must share another loss: the end of high school teaching.

About five weeks ago, I realised that my throat/hernia could no longer cope with the demands of the classroom. Despite six weeks symptom-free in the Christmas school holidays, I came back to Term 1 and things soon got pretty bad, brought on by full days of enthusiastic English teaching. With worsening symptoms, I made the difficult decision to leave at the end of term.

Today is the last day of term. Tough day, made more difficult by the flood emergency in Brisbane which kept students away from school for two days. I didn’t really get to say goodbye.

But I will cherish the moment with my Year 12 students a few weeks ago. When I told them of my impending departure their reaction was priceless: they stood around me in a circle, holding hands, and prayed through tears for healing and blessings for my future.

As you may imagine, I now feel like I’m in the middle of a ‘Job’ experience (you know, the guy from the Old Testament who lost everything, as a test in a spiritual battle). I feel like much of who I am is being stripped away, taken away, and I’m wondering what is left. Sure, I have a degree in journalism, so I still have a useful skill to offer. But is this really God’s perfect plan for me? Is it some test I have to endure? Is this punishment? And what is left of me when all that is gone? What happens now that the teaching and the music fades away?

I could easily choose to give in to despair at this point. In some moments, that is exactly how I feel. I’m sad for lost relationships with students, and lost opportunities to challenge them and bring out their best writing. I also grieve the many good friendships I had at work, friendships which will never quite be the same again. A Christian school is such a unique community, and across three different schools I’ve seen such a consistent witness to the grace of God which transforms lives. I’ve been blessed to see the power of Christ working in people from such diverse backgrounds, yet with a common outcome – we become more like Christ.

As I reflect on all this, I must choose my attitude, and in Christ’s strength fight the despair, and focus on the fact that our sovereign God does all things for a reason. In fact, as things are stripped away (that I have relied on to validate my existence) I more clearly see that only one thing of value remains –  Jesus Christ, Lord of my life, Ruler of my heart. He gives and takes away. Blessed be His Name!

For whatever reason, God has shut the door on this season of my life. But no matter what happens, my continuing purpose is to give him praise. Please pray for me that I will do just that. 

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” (John Piper)

Blessings, 

Ros.

(I wrote this on March 31, but I accidentally have an older publishing date. It’s just one of those enigmatic things about the internet!)

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Why you should keep practising your instrument 

I found this set of eight helpful suggestions for finding time to enjoy practising your instrument. I’m sure we could all use the encouragement to keep learning skills and enjoying the gifts we have developed.

healthy habits

1. Sight read often 

Believe it or not, sight reading can be fun. Not convinced? Dig out your old grade books from two or three grades back and try playing through a few of the pieces you didn’t learn at the time. Not only is this good sight reading practice, it’s a good way to reacquaint yourself with your instrument if you’ve taken some time off over summer. PLUS you’ll learn new repertoire that you might enjoy AND you’ll give yourself a confidence boost by sight reading music you once thought was impossible.

 

2. Don’t separate theory from repertoire

 Time’s up! Another lesson or practice session has come to an end and, alas, there was no time for theory. Don’t sweat it! Make musical theory a part of your everyday practice and lessons. Stop playing briefly and analyse one passage of your sonata. Grab your smartphone and check that you know all the definitions for the Italian terms in your piece. Play on and ask yourself ‘what key am I in? What relationship is this key to the original key?’

 

Spend a lot of time online? (Answer: ‘Yes!’) Sacrifice just 10 minutes of precious internet browsing time to do a lesson or a test from an online theory course once a week. You’ll be a theory guru in no time. 

 

3. Compose 

We all have memories of that time we were playing around on our instrument, came up with a brilliant riff, never wrote it down and learned the true meaning of regret. Are you the next Brahms? Maybe not. Do you have great ideas that other people might like to hear? Absolutely. Keep a pencil and a manuscript or manglescript pad with you while you practice.

 

Ideas don’t often strike out of the blue like a bolt of lightning (especially in this drought-ridden country!) – so write them down if they do! Then you can spend some time working them into something more substantial through ongoing exploration and experimentation. Working on your own musical ideas can also be a great way of really engaging with the sound that you are making, sparking musical ideas for your other repertoire.

 

Insightful Clara Schumann says, ‘There is nothing greater than the joy of composing something oneself and then listening to it.’ 

 

4. Record yourself 

A recording device may be one of the most effective practice tools and most students just aren’t using one regularly. There is no need for fancy gear, microphones or studio set-up; recording is for personal use only! Your smartphone, tablet, laptop or handheld digital recorder will work just fine.

 

Recording yourself puts you in the teacher’s or examiner’s chair, helping you to listen critically to your own playing. How would you rate your pitch, articulation, phrasing, tone quality and overall performance? Make a conscious change to your performance, record and evaluate again. As musicians, there is often a significant disconnect between what we feel we are creating and what we actually produce on our instruments.  Recording is an important reality check and benchmark and the best tool for students who are eager to see practice results first-hand – even if it is a little scary at first!

 

5. Master the short-and-focused practice session

berstein

You don’t have to wait for a two-hour window to appear in your schedule in order to sit down with your instrument or work on your voice. Long practice sessions can be great for building stamina, but sometimes more can be achieved with multiple short sessions in which you set out to achieve one particular goal. Keep track of your goals and your targeted practice in your practice diary.

 

Clever Leonard Bernstein says, ‘To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.’ 

 

6. Listen to great recordings 

“Have students listen to fine performances of the pieces, even before you begin teaching it” advised Glenn Riddle to teachers at last week’s Piano Series 17workshop in Melbourne. Between concerts, recitals, studies and everything else life throws at us, most of us don’t spend enough time just listening for the sake of listening. 

 

Listening to music is not only an inherently pleasurable experience, it is also an incredibly beneficial exercise for the brain. A recent study from UC Berkeleyfound that listening to familiar and unfamiliar music ‘increased interaction between the nucleus accumbens and higher, cortical structures of the brain involved in pattern recognition, musical memory, and emotional processing.’ That certainly sounds convincing!

 

Listening to repertoire before or as you learn a piece can help to inspire you, give you ideas for your own phrasing and interpretation and allow you to see the piece from another performer’s perspective. Grab a recording of your exam repertoire from iTunes or Spotify, plug in your earphones and talk a walk outside. You never know what details you might hear!

 

7. Go to concerts 

Seeing a live classical music performance is insanely exciting… the nerves, the spectacle, the variety, the triumph! So why do we so often save concert-going for ‘special occasions’ or one-off experiences? It is easy to think of concerts as expensive ventures or special-occasion experiences, but this is not necessarily the case!

 

Google your local university music department and attend one of their (usually free) lunchtime concerts. Most professional concerts also offer discounted student tickets or last-minute ‘student rush’ tickets. Even better, have a soirée-of-sorts with your musical friends. Get an opportunity to practice performing in front of others, support your friends and be introduced to a lot of great music!

 

8. Have fun!

john cage

Remember that all of your hard work is really aimed at making it easier to get your instrument or voice to do what you want it to do. From time to time, play around with the sounds you can make – beautiful sounds, ugly sounds, funny sounds and sad sounds! Get up close and personal with your instrument (or voice) and experiment away. If you’re not enjoying playing or singing at the moment, maybe you just need to reacquaint yourself with the joy of making sound. Learning music is challenging but should also be fun and rewarding. 

 

 

Happy John Cage says, ‘Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.’ 

 

Upgrade your practice with these simple tips.

 

 

 

http://www.ameb.edu.au/8-simple-music-hacks

Is your Smart phone making you dumb?

driving texting dangerousSmart phone technology has brought many radical social changes in the last decade or so. People are doing things (without a second thought) that were once considered really stupid or anti-social. Who would have thought we humans would try operating a motor vehicle while staring at a three-inch screen? Or walking on a train platform doing the same? Imagine sitting with a group of friends and gazing intently at the palm your hand, offering them no conversation or eye contact! Perhaps you have already observed some of these odd and addictive tendencies in the people around you – and most frighteningly, in yourself!

A columnist in our local paper just confessed to being a phonoholic. “My phone has become the 207th bone in my body. I think I would feel barely upright without it. . . Such a feeling has been named nomophonophobia – the fear of being without your mobile phone.” (J. Fynes-Clinton, Sept 26, 2013)

Smartphones don’t discriminate in taking prisoners! It is not only those selfie-taking tween addicts who are at risk of losing all their ‘smarts’ to their smart phone. In fact, our “selfie-obsessed” Prime Minister posted his latest shaving cut via Instagram just weeks before the election (he lost). So, before we all lose our common sense to our smart phones, let’s ‘hang up’ on excessive smart phone use. Here are 10 things you should know about your awesome smart phone (before you find yourself cast in the sequel of Dumb and Dumber To):

1. Smart phones don’t make you smarter and won’t make you happy.
Yep, they sure are sleek, complex and nifty little gadgets that do cool things. They can connect you to a web of ‘friends’, music, video, games and the latest social news – but they may detract from your wisdom, intelligence and satisfaction level. You can become so reliant on mobile google that you give up thinking or remembering anything! Smart phones may make you look cool, acceptable and impress your friends, but there are more important things in life, which can bring greater and lasting joy.

2. People are better than Smart phones.galaxy-s4-life-companion
Have we forgotten this?  People are unique and complex individuals. They have more potential to surprise, entertain and inspire you than anything you’ll flick by on the small screen. Living, three-dimensional, high resolution people make far better company. No matter what Samsung may tell you, your smart phone is not a ‘life companion’. People are way smarter and worth investing in. Try paying close attention to their faces, eyes and body language – and see what happens. Don’t become so dependent on that small screen that you lose touch with real people and relationships.

3. They make you forget basic good manners and conversation skills.
Smart phones make us think it is acceptable to silently stare at a little screen in the presence of another human being, especially when everyone else is doing it! (Actually, everyone else has to do it so they don’t feel ignored!) We even think it’s fine to do so when someone is actually speaking to us. Hello!?

4. They tempt you to build your self-esteem on how many people like your social media updates.
How easy to become addicted to that sort of affirmation when it is at your fingertips? Do you really need to know that people like your latest meal or cup of coffee? Smart phones encourage us to binge on social media. Turning off those distracting phone notifications may allow you to engage fully with people in the moment.

attention-while-walking5. You look pretty silly when your phone is constantly in hand.
And you’ll looking sillier if you injure yourself while walking and typing. In New Jersey, police began (May 2012) issuing $85 citations for careless walking, and the Utah Transit Authority made distracted walking around trains punishable by a $50 fine. Signage is also being used widely to reduce pedestrian accidents caused by texting. Try putting the thing in your bag or pocket, or in another room. And by the way, smart phones and toilets don’t mix well for many reasons!


6. They tempt us to be a stupid driver who texts or updates Facebook while driving.
How easy would it be to stop the car to attend to that important text message? Facebook also can wait! If you must recharge your phone in the front of the car, shut it in the glove box or put it out of reach so you won’t be easily tempted. (Besides that, it is pretty stupid not to avoid a fine for being on your phone while driving, if you can.)

7. Smart phone technology addiction can actually rewire your brain, to be less smart!
In “The Brain that Changes Itself” (2008) author Norman Doidge says that our dependence on this technology can rewire our brains to the extent that it becomes difficult to concentrate on a complex conversation or listen to a lecture. “Electronic media are so effective at altering the nervous system because that both work in similar ways. . . Both involve the instantaneous transmission of electronic signals to make linkages. Because our nervous system is plastic*, it can take advantage of this compatibility and merge with the electronic media, making a single, larger system. . . Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull, and his nerves outside his skin” (p.311). At the very least, excessive smart phone use discourages us from tackling problems, conversations, a novel or the philosophical writings of great thinkers. Why? Because these things do not involve the instantaneous gratification of electronic media.
(‘Plastic’ means it can change and adapt.)

8. Your eyes can suffer.
Those muscles for distance vision will become weak if you are staring at a small screen constantly, keeping your eyes operating at the same focal length all the time. Researchers have actually recorded an increase in myopia (short-sightedness). Read more here.

9. Sleep can become elusive.electronic-light-sleep
The glow of the smart phone screen prevents our bodies releasing seratonin, which helps us fall and stay asleep. Your brain needs sleep to be smart – so again the smart phone doesn’t make you smart. No smart phones in your bed/bedroom may be a smart policy in your home (and mine). Read more here

10. Excessive self-absorption will not make the world a better place.
The idea of showing a random act of kindness or service to someone else can become so far-removed from our thought patterns if we are no longer observing the people around us. Blinkers are for horses, not for people – people who have the power to impact those around them for good. If you want to see more good, more love, more thoughtfulness in the world, take off those smart phone blinkers and live again!

(Check out this post about a guy who is going to divorce his iphone: http://www.oddcrunch.com/why-you-should-get-a-divorce/0)

You may also enjoy:

Why music makes our brains sing                                         Music – food for the soul & brain
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