Article written by Dr. Rick Townsend
Next year will mark 50 years since my freshman year at Alma College, a small liberal arts college in mid-Michigan. Music majoring in those days was similar in many ways to what it is like today. Typical course requirements included six semesters of theory & aural skills, four semesters of music history, weekly private lessons and repertoire classes every semester for both trumpet and piano, with Junior and Senior recitals for all majors. And then there were the performing groups and education courses. I’ve heard it said that trying to reform or revise college curriculum requirements is much like moving graveyards, and this is especially true in music.
My background is a bit different from that of other professors at MBU, having never attended a Christian school at any level – kindergarten through doctoral studies. What I did have was a good fundamental church for my entire life. My parents were often my Sunday School teachers, and my two older sisters made sure that every transgression received its swift reward.
I chose Alma College for its academic reputation. The music program content was much like that of Maranatha – although presented from a secular and modernist point of view. Most members of the choir, band, and orchestra were non-majors, but the groups were very strong. Much of the more challenging literature that I have chosen for the band throughout my 21 years at Maranatha was music that we toured at Alma. In fact, I modeled the MBU band and percussion ensemble tours after our tours at Alma.
I always loved the listening tests in my music history classes – from undergrad through my doctoral program. When I arrived at Alma straight off the farm, and declared that I was ready to major in music, my knowledge of orchestral and solo repertoire was limited to the few transcriptions that I had played during my ten years of childhood piano lessons. So the constant, extensive listening exams through the years were life changing for me.
My favorite exams were a) one test in which we had to identify all seven Beethoven symphonies and two piano concerti, b) a test that included all of the Bach Brandenburg concerti and the Vivaldi Seasons, and c) a doctoral exam that included 60, 20th-century works of varying styles from that of Varése and Stravinski to the very unique sounds of Stockhausen and Ligeti. The baroque music filled my mind and heart with richness and beauty. Beethoven taught me to be resourceful with musical ideas and to appreciate God’s gifts to us, whomever He chooses to bless with musical gifts. The 20th-century pieces opened up great new worlds of expressiveness that I had not experienced personally, while the many hours I spent trying to decide if what we were listening to was “really music” challenged and prepared me to think deeply about eternal musical truths.
My biggest lessons came as God tested and built my personal faith in, and walk with, Christ in a very dark place. Alma’s theology department was modernist, so I had many discussions with non-believing theology students, agnostics, and atheists. I also worked with a campus Inter-Varsity group helping to design and plan weekly Bible studies in a private home off-campus. We became a “port in the storm” for many students – sometimes as many as 100 each week.
I learned not only how to survive and defend against constant attacks on my personal faith and practice, but also, that I must trust fully in God’s sovereign plan. It was not merely an arbitrary decision to attend Alma all those years ago. As I look back, I can see how God uniquely prepared me for the various areas of service that he assigned through the years as I served in and sought to influence the secular music and education community that he called me into.
And not incidentally, God not only led me in many wonderful ways, but He also provided me with a perfect helpmate in Linda, my wife for 43 precious years. Linda was a year behind me at Alma, and I will be eternally grateful that He brought us together in such a special way in such a unique place.
Trust God’s sovereign will. He “is at work in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” Philippians 2:13