Monday, July 21, 2014


It was the summer between 9th and 10th grade, and I was sitting in orchestra rehearsal midway through the month-long summer music academy at Pensacola Christian College. I’d been playing violin for a few years, but this was the first time I was in the world of soundproof practice rooms, sectionals, and several hours of practice a day. It was challenging, but I loved it.

We were working on Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italian (A 15 ½ minute song! Talk about serious musicianship!), and the trombones were in trouble. There’s a part in the song where they have a tricky rhythm. Triplet 1, rest, triplet 1. If you sang it it would go something like “di-di-di-da {pause} di-di-di-da.” It starts at the end of the measure too, which is typically harder for young musicians because you have to count the rests before jumping into your notes.

It’s a critical rhythm at that point in the song, because it sets the tone and tempo for that section, and everyone else’s part layers on top of it.

And the trombones just couldn’t get it.

After trying everything in the book, from one method of counting to another, playing super slow, and trying over and over again to get it right, it still just wasn’t happening. In fact, I think it was getting worse. Because by this point, the poor trombones aren’t just frustrated and mentally tired, they’re also embarrassed because the rest of the orchestra is there just waiting and witnessing their struggle.

Then our conductor said something I’ll never forget. He was a short, Einstein-haired, big-nosed, elderly sort of guy. But he was diminutive in appearance only until he picked up a baton. Then he transformed to have this quiet assurance that brooked no contradiction. If he said it, that’s the way it was. He was picky, but he was right. And what made him special was he was able to communicate all of that with a sense of humor. 

Anyway, he rapped his baton on his stand and said, “You need to sniff.”

Everyone looked at him like he was a bit crazy. But our incredulity didn’t faze him in the slightest, “You need to sniff. Di-di-di-da {sniff} di-di-di-da. Beethoven would sniff. You need to sniff. Try it.”

Memory is a funny thing. I know it’s a Tchaikovsky piece, but I swear our conductor said Beethoven would sniff. Maybe he was meeting us halfway, knowing Beethoven would stand out in our minds.

So we did. First he just had the trombones do it, singing the rhythm out in time.
Di-di-di-da {sniff} di-di-di-da. Their sniffs were a little tentative so he had everyone join in. Di-di-di-da {sniff} di-di-di-da. After a few repetitions (and more than a few giggles), we got over the craziness of the whole idea and really committed to the sniff. And once we did, that tricky rhythm came together like magic.

It was amazing, and I’ll never forget it.

That’s what I think scripture means when it says Jesus spoke with authority. The phrase “with authority” was a known term in the rabbinical teaching structure. It basically meant that people recognized Jesus had enough insight to look at a familiar thing in a fresh way. But a little more than that because anyone can have a crazy opinion, but if you spoke “with authority” then people actually respected your point of view.

When I read, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching—and with authority!” (Mark 1:27) I imagine the crowd feeling the same sense of wonder we did in the orchestra. After all, who in their right mind would tell a trombone section to sniff? You won’t find that anywhere in an exercise book. But he did, and “Beethoven would sniff” changed everything for us that summer. It took a tricky rhythm and made it attainable. Frustration gave way to comprehension and we went on to play the piece with confidence and unity. And I think that’s just what Jesus does with God’s law. Time after time, he offers a new insight that suddenly makes the convoluted very simple.

If you want to take a listen, the infamous rhythm is at 0:52. I dare you not to sniff. But make sure you mean it if you do.

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