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THE VIEW FROM THE BACK ROW


This article, 1982 by Douglas Yeo, appeared in Christianity Today, Volume 27, No. 2, January 21, 1983.


Hector Berlioz, the nineteenth-century French composer known for his definitive Treatise on Instrumentation, wrote of the trombone: "It possesses a nobility and grandeur to the highest degree; it has all the serious and powerful tones of sublime musical poetry, from religious, calm and imposing accents to savage, orgiastic outbursts. . . . The trombones can chant like a choir of priests, threaten, utter gloomy sighs, a mournful lament or a bright hymn of glory; they can break forth into awe-inspiring cries and awaken the dead or doom the living with their fearful voices."

Berlioz knew what he was talking about. Just ask anyone who has heard Verdi's Requiem, or Brahms' Fourth Symphony, or Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. When I began playing the trombone in the fourth grade, I knew there was something special about it. But now, as a professional, I realize that the best thing about playing the trombone has nothing to do with the actual music I play. Rather, it is the fact that in the orchestra, the trombones sit in the back row.

Except for the conductor, no one in the orchestra has a better view of the action than the trombone section. From my seat, I see every instrument, hear every note, feel every vibration. The lush tones of the strings, the delicate sounds of the woodwinds, the striking harmonies of the brass - are all reflected back to me. And when the conductor gives the trombones a cue, he reaches over the orchestra, inviting, cajoling, even asking us to join in the music making. I am convinced it is the best seat in the house!

But along with that seat comes a heightened awareness of everything and everyone else that is around me, and I have, through much prayer, practice and patience, been shown that there is a lot more to making music than meets the ear.

When a Christian makes music, he is not merely participating in the scientific phenomenon of vibrating columns of air to produce what we know as music. Music making is an intense spiritual experience, a celebration of creation, an act of love. And when the audience responds with a thunderous ovation, it is not the members of the orchestra, or Beethoven, or Wagner, or Copland they are applauding, but, whether they know it or not, it is the living God. It is God alone who bestows on composers the mysterious gift of composition, and on performers that unspeakable gift of interpretation.

An orchestra offering a Haydn symphony is praising God no less than a choir singing gospel choruses. Every note speaks of the great Creator, the first source of all this world knows. In that respect, there is neither sacred nor secular, for, as all music comes from Him, so it represents Him to us in all of His varied forms. That an ensemble of mere humans striking, blowing, stroking, and plucking objects of wood, metal, and plastic can produce sounds so glorious that they caused Tolstoy to write, "Music is the shorthand of emotion," is truly a miracle.

The responsibility of the professional musician to perform well is great. But for the Christian musician, that burden weighs even heavier. Just as Martin Luther fainted from the sheer awe of the presence of Christ when he served his first Communion, so the Christian musician stands, overwhelmed at the great creative force that is God. The conductor alone does not need to be satisfied, for there is a far greater Authority to answer to.

In the Baltimore Symphony, I sit next to a former college classmate and a devoted Christian performer, second trombonist Eric Carlson. The communion of our minds when we play is very special. Unlike our non- Christian colleagues, we feel the music on a different level, a deeper dimension. The music transcends notes and paper, technical skill and quality of sound, to become our offering, out gift, our "thank you" to the One who made and makes all things. We become a part of this creative process and shout, "I AM THAT I AM THAT I AM" in a new voice. Our whole beings strain to praise, to put forth our best. And when it all "clicks," when mind and soul and spirit and music all meet, we get a glimpse of the Garden of Eden; we experience an instant of heaven. And we pray that those on the "other side" - the audience - will be moved by the re-creative process in which we have participated.

When people ask me why I make music, I reply that I make it as an offering to God. It came from Him, and I return it to Him. It is a continual cycle of giving, sharing, offering, worship and sacrifice that is one of the joys of my life. I praise Him for the talent He has given me, and for the privilege of witnessing to the majesty of His name in a way that touches so many.

From my seat in the back row, I can truly see it all. I can feel it all. And it inspires me, awes me, and sometimes frightens me. But how wonderful it is that all of us, performers and listeners alike, can join together in kinship with the psalmist and say, "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!" What a privilege. What a responsibility. What a joy!


An update from Douglas Yeo

Since I wrote this article in 1982, I moved from the Baltimore Symphony to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Eric Carlson, my friend and colleague with whom I went to school at Wheaton College moved to the Philadelphia Orchestra. From 1985, when I moved to Boston, until his retirement in 2001, I had the privilege of again sitting next to a Christian colleague, tubist Chester Schmitz and now, since 2003, sit next to another Christian, Boston Symphony tubist Mike Roylance.


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