I started playing the trombone at age eleven. As any parent of a first year band student can attest, those first sounds could be described by many different adjectives. “Beautiful” or “musical” are probably not high on the list of options, however. For weeks, the goal was merely to become familiar with the instrument – to hold it correctly and to obtain a decent tone. Consequently, my mother lovingly informed me that I was to complete my daily mandatory practice before she arrived home from work.
Over the years, I spent hours in practice rooms, playing scales (major, minor, and modal), arpeggios, and the like. I learned to play these in all twelve keys, so that they became second nature to me. I would spend hours working on articulation exercises, lip flexibilities, and all the other skills necessary to play a trombone well. Yet, even with that investment of time, I cannot remember ever standing on a stage and playing any of these for an audience.
As a musician, the goal is not to play scales and exercises. The goal is to play music. The intent is to play these scales and do these exercises so many times that you internalize them and develop “muscle memory.” The aim is being able to play them without thinking so that you can focus all your attention on making beautiful music in the moment – listening and interacting with your fellow musicians, communicating with an audience, and creating something transcendent and awe-inspiring.
The next step in a musician’s development can be described as one of imitation. After these basic technical skills become thoroughly ingrained, one looks for a master to imitate. This may be frowned upon by some obsessed with novelty. The philosopher Aristotle, however, described the creative power of imitation in art. Aristotle argued that we learn from childhood through imitation, which is a fundamental aspect of being human. Therefore, imitation becomes a means to understand art by immersing oneself in it.
The final stage of development, however, is in creating new ideas – composing or improvising music of your own. Improvisation requires that a musician bring to the stage all the tools at their disposal – technical skill on their instrument, a trained ear, muscle memory, knowledge of music theory (melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.), and an ability to communicate with an audience. Improvising well means putting all these pieces together to create something original in the moment that speaks to and touches an audience in its beauty.
Maybe this says something to us about how to live a spiritually fulfilling life as well. In his book, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, Samuel Wells articulates what it might mean to “improvise” a truly Christian way of life. He writes:
“Ethics cannot be simply about rehearsing and repeating the same script and story over and over again, albeit on a fresh stage with new players…The Bible is not so much a script that the church learns and performs as it is a training school that shapes the habits and practices of a community…Improvisation means a community formed in the right habits trusting itself to embody its traditions in new and often challenging circumstances.”
The goal of the spiritual life is not to merely imitate the life of Jesus or to mimic the Bible in a slavish manner. The goal is to be so shaped by the story of scripture and the spiritual practices of our faith that we can “improvise” faithful ways of living together that address the challenges and opportunities of each new day. As we are shaped by the love, compassion, forgiveness, grace, and mercy of God, we find ourselves acting in love, compassion, forgiveness, grace, and mercy.
In this way, traditional spiritual disciplines become the “scales and exercises” of learning to live in harmony with God. As we develop habits of worship, prayer, scripture study, meditation, confession, silence, stewardship, simplicity, fasting, celebration, etc., we are shaped by them in ways that we don’t always perceive. They become the “holy habits” that help us attune our hearts to the movement of God. They are not the focus of our spiritual life, but the means to a dynamic and vibrant experience of the Divine.
As we approach the beginning of a new year, many of us will make numerous resolutions. We will commit to eat better, to exercise more, and to lose a few pounds. Some will commit to read the Bible more faithfully and to come to church with more regularity. These are not bad, but I hope that you remember that they aren’t really the ultimate goal. My prayer is that, as you hit the practice room faithfully, the scales of prayer, the arpeggios of study, and the exercises of love become second nature. My prayer is that you may be able to focus on the true goal – that of adding your verse to the Divine song of creation and dancing in harmony with the Divine melody of God.