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The Magazine: Practicing

The Magazine: Practicing

by Audrey Scanlan

As I sit down to write this, I’ve just finished a half hour of scratching out the Courante movement of Bach’s Suite No.1 in G Major for unaccompanied ‘cello.

There are seven movements in this suite. This is the second movement that I’ve tackled and something tells me that it will be a long spring as I work to learn the remaining five. To be truthful, it’s not particularly difficult; the Key of G Major has just one sharp and most of the rhythmic patterns in this work are predictable and consistent. The notes make sense- it is a “tune-full” work- and, because it is Bach, it makes perfect musical-mathematical sense. It all comes out harmonically even in the end. That’s why I love it.

When I was a little girl, I took piano lessons for a time. My teacher’s sing-songy mantra, “practice makes perfect,” still rings in my ears today.

When I was in college I tried, in my freshman year, to take harpsichord lessons. My teacher was so patient with me (he became- and remains, today- a good friend) but I never practiced. Ever. I was too busy diving into the exciting pace of college life- and studies and parties and beer. At the end of that first year my teacher and I agreed that I should step away from the harpsichord.

There is a right way to practice music that I find very difficult. It involves getting right into the middle of the tricky parts and working through them again and again and again. There are neurological reasons that make this the most effective way to study a piece and to improve in good time. But I find it so hard to do. I want to play the whole piece through, again and again and savor the good parts. I want to hear the musical shape of the piece and find that sweet resolution at the end. But that’s not the way to improve. To improve- to master a piece- is to go right to the heart of the problem and work it through, training the eye and hand and ear to hit the right notes in the right sequence and to bring to life the music in the way that Bach intended for it to sound. When one practices in the most effective manner, the easy parts sit there, on the page, patiently waiting for their turn, while the sticky parts get voiced over and over again until they lose their stickiness and become as smooth as silk.

I’ve been studying and praying a lot lately on the idea of discipleship. I’m really interested in focusing on what it means to be a follower of Jesus and how that informs our daily lives- and our lives as they are formed in community. How would someone know that I am a Christian if I didn’t tell them? What actions of mine reflect the teachings of Jesus? What practices do I have that support my Christian life?

A lot of the time, being a follower of Jesus calls us right into the sticky parts of life.

Like the impossible sixteenth note run in measures 31-33 of the Courante where my fingers just don’t want to move fast enough, there are parts of my life in which Jesus is calling me to spend time- and it’s uncomfortable. I like to avoid these places or gloss over them. And, yet, to be a follower of Jesus means that we cannot shy away from these difficult places- but, instead, to dwell in them. To work – as our teacher, Jesus did- to lift up the lowly, to free the prisoner, to welcome the outcast and to embrace the sinner and to call for justice, repentance and peace. There are plenty of places- in our society, in my little town, in my family, even in my own soul- where this holy work needs to be done. And, if we come on board, Jesus expects us to do it. He tells us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

So- what’s the point?

On the bottom line, I play ‘cello because I place a value on beauty- as created in music- and I want to be an active participant in contributing to and creating beauty.

I follow Jesus because I believe in truth and justice and inclusion and peace and love. And Jesus is, for me, the best model for showing us how to reach those ends. Jesus’ divinity and the Hope that we have gained through the glory of the resurrection is another reason that I’ve signed on as a Christian- (who could live without Hope?)- and the closer walk with God- the source of life and light- as effected through  God-made-man is still another reason… but the work that Jesus calls us to do- even in the sticky places- is one of the best reasons that I choose to follow him.

I will – someday- get that ‘cello suite to sound like I want it to. It won’t be perfect, but it will be pleasing, I hope. I will continue to work on the sticky places, labor to make them smooth and, in the end, add a drop of beauty to this sorry world.

I’ll follow Jesus, too, and continue to speak the truth, in love; seek the compassionate way; and open my arms wide, celebrating inclusion.

How are you following Jesus? What are your sticky life places? And how are you called to make them smooth?

Here’s a link to a youtube video of the Courante as played by the great Rostropovich.


The Rev. Audrey Scanlan bishop-elect of Central Pennsylvania, and has been serving as the Canon for Mission Collaboration and Congregational Life in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut where she works to develop Communities of Practice; assist congregations in all parts of their common life; support ecumenical, interfaith and civic partnerships and  encourage missional experiments.   Audrey is a 10-year avid, amateur ‘cellist who is trying to live into her teacher’s comment that the ‘cello is a “life time” instrument. 


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Audrey Scanlan


thanks for your response to my article.
I look forward to a day when my ‘cello practicing feels like sitting in front of a warm fire with a skein of yarn. The whole effort, actually, the whole enterprise is more akin to that; the idea of ‘cello playing is that fireplace-rocking chair- cat in the lap feeling. And the reality is that unless I work through the knots with some focus… they remain knots. And we all know that a ball of knotted yarn doesn’t lend itself to graceful knitting.
Metaphors aside, I find my ‘cello practice and the time that I spend in front of my kitchen stove to be deeply spiritual and places in which I encounter the Holy One again and again. It is a blessing, indeed. Thanks for your insight. Audrey

Diane Meredith Belcher

correction: “…as a professional musician”

Diane Meredith Belcher

Dear Bishop-Elect,

First of all, *Congratulations!*

Second of all, as professional musician I am absolutely cringing at the analogy. (This gets better — read on.)

Over the years I have polished and refined the art of practicing. It is absolutely the opposite of “right practice” when we perceive tricky passages as problems to be drudgingly gone through over and over, and certain sections as ‘impossible’. I know that my practicing, and that of my students who follow me, has been transformed because of faith and right perspective. It’s more like settling in a chair in front of the fireplace with a mug of hot tea and a skein of yarn, rolling it into a ball and gently working out the knots.

I thought to myself, how I wish I could communicate that to you, and have a lesson with you. I wished I could have you rewrite the article with the analogy changed, and suddenly it hit me: I currently approach my spiritual life, and much of my everyday life, the way you speak of musical practice.

Holy crap! (I mean that literally.) What miracles might happen if I transformed the perception of my difficulties into a realization that this is a place to sit with God, and that all shall be well in the patient and gentle working out of knots. What a gift then we have in the things of life that present challenges to us.

Thank you for posting, and provoking these thoughts. All blessings in your ministry!


What a beautifully written and insightful piece. Thank you!


What a beautifully written and insightful piece. Thank you!

Ann Fontaine

Maureen: please sign your last name too next time you comment. Thanks, editor.

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