Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Sometimes I'm struck with how similar the method of studying the Bible is to studying music.

Take, for example, the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas: if you're unfamiliar with them, they're nothing but a collection of enormous, overwhelming works for plain old solo violin, and they tend to sound similar. Even simple sounding. If you're a violinist and you're trying to play them, some movements are not technically terribly difficult to play (well, excluding all the fugues and the Chaccone, of course), but it doesn't take long to realize that if you actually want to play them in tune, they aren't as easy as they look. What I've found about the Bach unaccompanied works is that the more you dig into them, the more you realize is actually in there and how very challenging they are. Soon you find that it's a lifetime work.

The Bible is the same way. You can look at it on a shallow level and think you've pretty much got the hang of it. But the deeper you study it, the deeper you realize it is.

This led me to think about the technique of studying the Bible, something I've been wondering about and working on for a long time. It occurred to me that, since I teach the violin all day every day, perhaps there's something I can learn from learning an instrument like the violin.

The first thing I teach beginning violinists is technique. I don't hand them a violin and say, "Here's a concerto, figure it out and go play it." The first two or three months are spent practicing holding the violin and bow over and over and playing games to develop coordination, ear training, and general comfort with the instrument before the bow is even placed on the string to make a sound. The next step is "patterning," where the child's teacher and parent actually move the bow on the string for him, so the student can gradually develop the feeling of what it's like to move the bow, and what it should sound like. Eventually, after weeks of daily practice (often with tears), the student gets a turn once in a while to copy Mom's pattern. Then, after more time of developing the technique, the student is able to play one simple rhythm pattern--but play it much more beautifully than a student who has never been through this process could play the Mendelssohn concerto.

With the Suzuki method, while all of this technique is being developed physically, the student is constantly listening to the CD of the music he or she will be playing to internalize it in the same way language is listened to and internalized for every child. By the time the student is ready to play, he or she will know the music so well that it's a natural progression to just play the tune that's already in his or her head.

When the student gets advanced enough to play a longer piece, great care needs to be taken to encourage him to avoid playing through the entire piece once at top speed, then saying, "There, I did it, now I can stop practicing." We can all guess how much the student would improve from that type of practice! Yet it's so unnatural for a student to go slower, take a 4-6 note "nugget" to practice, and play it over and over and over to really understand it and make it so easy that it's impossible to play incorrectly. Parents and teachers are absolutely necessary for directing a young student to do this. When each difficulty is mastered, then the student can successfully play through the entire piece as beautifully as the recording she has been listening to. 

Sometimes in my Bible study I find myself doing the same thing as my Book 1 students studying the Bach minuets (yes, the same composer who wrote the enormous unaccompanied works). I read through, halfway thinking about what I'll eat for breakfast and what today's jogging route will be, and say "I've read it, I'm done." It would be so much better if I used the following method while studying:

1. Listen, or read, over and over. Really know how it goes.
2. Find a smaller passage to dig into--not the whole book at once.
3. Ask: What is the challenge in this passage? What questions can be answered?
4. What small "nugget" of information can I find to answer the question?
5. Am I willing to study that nugget and do whatever it takes to internalize it--to make it so easy that it's impossible to think incorrectly? How can I apply it to my life?
6. Now, going back over the larger passage and connecting it with other passages, how can I fit it into the bigger picture to make the whole thing hang together in a coherent way?

For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.  (Heb. 5:12-14). Well, we're getting there.