Monday, July 18, 2011

Second verse, same as the first

     Every year, I teach recorder to fifth graders. We start with just one note--and yet there's so much for them to think about in order to have that one note sound properly. The air has to be slow, warm air---the kind you might use to fog up a window on a chilly morning. The fingers have to be placed just so---in order that not even one tiny portion of the appropriate hole is left uncovered. And that's just the tip of the iceberg--there's intonation, posture, embouchure, breath, and the list goes on. After that one note is secure--there are more notes to add--this creates a new layer of complexity in that the kids have to remember which combination of fingers produces which note---and they have to consider--how does each note correspond to those weird symbols on the staff. Learning to read music can be like learning to read a whole other language. And so it's not entirely surprising that I receive the same initial response, year after year, when the students receive their first page-length piece of music. I hear the same murmurs every time --"But this is so long..." And I can see that they're overwhelmed. Who wouldn't be? It's like assigning a native-English speaker who's barely holding their own with a Spanish-English phrase book in hand to translate a 100 page book from Spanish to English. Maybe they can do it with the aid of the handy phrase book---but it's going to take FOREVER. Yeah, and fifth graders aren't big on the whole patience thing. But here's the cool thing about music. It is chock full of repetition. We look at that huge piece of music with the kids---and ask--which parts are the same---where does the music change---can you find the pattern? And suddenly, the panic in the room dissolves. It becomes evident that once you've learned a couple of phrases---and figured out how they're mixed, matched, and arranged---playing the whole song is not nearly as daunting as you might have first imagined. And I try to tell the kids---most good music has repetition. Think about what you listen to on the radio---you might hear a new song for the first time---but within that same song you'll hear the chorus more than once---and by the third time you hear it---you're likely singing along.

     Leonard Bernstein talked about repetition in music in his Concerts for Young People. He said---and I'm paraphrasing since I'm too lazy to look up the quotes---that all music must undergo development. And development means change---growth. You can't just play one phrase, one musical thought, and call it a serious piece of music. Musical ideas need to be developed. They need to grow up. That first phrase is just a seed---and it has a long way to go before it grows into a fully blossomed idea. And he said that the simplest form of development, I think he even called it the most babyish form of development----is repetition. He contrasts development by repetition with development in other fashions by presenting his audience with the metaphor of an argument. I'm giving in now and feel compelled to look up the following quote:

"If you're a real brainy type, you'll develop your argument with variations and with changes. Let's say you wanted to prove, for example, that Canada is a tropical country. Well, that's a hard one. You would try to prove that somebody found tropical flowers growing in Saskatchewan, let's say. Or then you would argue that on a certain day last winter the sun was hotter in the Canadian Rockies than it was in Miami Beach, etc., etc., whatever. You'd find arguments. But if you're more babyish and simple-minded, you would just say it over and over again: Canada is a tropical country, Canada is a tropical country, Canada is a tropical country, until you had just convinced the person you're arguing with by beating him over the head. That's what popular songs do; they develop by beating you over the head with their argument."

    Bernstein probably had it right that in music, repetition is the babyish way to develop an idea. In music--you can take a phrase and turn it completely inside out in some pretty sophisticated, varied fashions: by manipulating a phrase's speed, dynamics, intervals, key, tone quality, even bits of its basic construction etc. In comparison---repetition could definitely be considered overly simplistic. But then, I say--don't knock it just yet.

     Life is full of repetition--and patterns. Sometimes it's infuriating, isn't it? Why must we be perpetually hit over the head with the same set of annoying circumstances? For example, there's always going to be that one person in our lives who completely grates on our last nerve. And even if that one particular person somehow miraculously exits our lives---there's another person with that same set of personality traits who's just been waiting in the wings to swoop in and take their place. I did a Beth Moore study with my mom once---I remember Beth saying that God uses some people (the ones who really annoy us beyond belief) to work like sandpaper, abrasively polishing away our own rough edges. I remember sketching the picture of a particularly irritating student being shot out of a canon in the margin of my study booklet---but that doesn't mean I didn't catch the point there, right?

     And patterns aren't always positive---there are patterns of abuse, neglect, and victimization--- heartbreaking cycles that seem inevitable and unstoppable after they have run on their own steam from generation to generation.

     Repetition---we know it's there---and yet, isn't there a part of us that says---Ok I've been hit with this same set of circumstances more than once now---so surely it's not going to happen again. It's the idea that lightening doesn't strike the same spot twice.

     Stu and I recently ran into another adoption possibility. And I think we both felt like---Ok--we've had the rug pulled out from under us twice now---surely this time will be different. Even though this situation was not really even comparable to the others---we never met the birthmom--she never officially chose us---it was just a possibility. Part of me still wanted to cling to the idea of "Well, third time's the charm." This time---it will be different. But things prove more often to be similar rather than distinct in relation to prior events. And the conclusion was par for the course. Repetition.

    If repetition is development---what is God trying to beat us over the head with? What am I supposed to learn from this? Or am I supposed to be changed by this? Do we get caught in cycles of repetition because we expect our circumstances to change---or the people around us to change---when the truth of the matter is---we are the ones who have to change---to grow--to develop. And is repetition so grating (when it involves negative or undesirable patterns) because we sense its babyishness---and because we wish that we could handle the next step of development: a new pattern or a transposition of the old one rather than endless repetitions. How many times can you stand to hear "I'm Henry the Eighth I Am?" Second verse, same as the first.

     There is a deeply embedded need in my heart to close the gap between my sinful self and a holy and perfect God. (I would argue that such a need exists within all of us, whether we recognize it as such or not, but that's another post.) Jesus does close this gap for me---by taking my sin upon himself and offering himself as a sacrifice in my place-- so that through pure grace alone, I am permitted to have a relationship with God. However--I don't think that relationship ever finishes developing---at least not in this lifetime. Walter Trobisch says:"Christ accepts us as we are, but when He accepts us---we cannot remain as we are." Our faith has to grow up. Luckily---our faith isn't left unnourished; we aren't expected to develop our faith without the aid of God. Think of the man in Mark 9:24 who said: "Help me overcome my unbelief." Jesus didn't rebuke him---or refuse him---He helped the man. I wonder if God develops our faith, our relationship with Him through repetition before transposition---because it is necessary---because it is the only way we'll get something through our thick skulls.

     I can look back to the time when Stu and I were struggling with the pain of infertility. Different medicines, different procedures, different doctors---all yielding the same results over and over again. But I've said before---and Stu has agreed with me---I wouldn't trade that time. It taught me who my husband really is---and who we are together, as a couple. And that repetition of the same outcome---over and over again---led to a transformation of our hearts that could not have occurred without that repetition. My fifth graders couldn't play a five-note piece of music before they had endlessly repeated patterns of one note, two notes, and so on in logical succession---and my heart couldn't be changed until it had been bombarded over and over again with the same set of circumstances. In a way---I think my heart had to be broken---before it could become like a seed again, waiting to grow---this time, hopefully in the right direction.

    And I wonder---what does that mean for us now? Repeatedly being told "No, not this time," as we approach each potential adoption. I think it means we have to change again---not so that we can manipulate God into giving us what we want---but rather that we can learn who God really is---and what it means to be His children, completely dependent on Him for providence. 

     At the heart of all repetition---there is the potential for change.  Sometimes, when the repetition presents itself in the form of a bad habit---- the change is difficult, painful even.  And the longer we cling to a bad habit, the harder it is to break it.  And the only way we can break the habit is to replace it with another habit, hopefully a good one.  Because there's really no such thing as empty space in any aspect of our lives----all space is eventually filled with something, good or bad.  And that process of replacing bad habits with good habits---or the other way around---is change---brought forth by repetition.

     And then sometimes the circumstances around us repeat ---the things over which we have no control----they sing the same song over and over again.  And we wonder why.  I think that in these cases---something really interesting can happen.  Because, paradoxically, as everything around us stays exactly the same----we find that we are the ones who must change.

     Bernstein was right. Repetition is the simplest, most babyish way to develop. However, maybe that's not always a bad thing. When we take into consideration God's command that we must become like children in order to come into His presence----maybe the fact that we need repetition to learn in the same manner as a child needs repetition to learn---maybe it's a good thing---a hopeful thing. Because patterns will arise in our lives---some similar--some disparate----but within each new song---a chorus repeats. And the third time we hear it---we're likely just starting to sing along.