September 4, 2018

Comfort Zone

It was a Saturday afternoon in April of 2013. My phone buzzed. A text message from an unknown number. I glanced at the preview and put the phone back down. I was practicing, uninterested in interruptions. I didn’t recall giving out my number to anyone. Who sent you? My fingers fell back on the keys.

I finally got to a good stopping point, when I, somewhat annoyed, decided to properly unlock my phone to read the message in its entirety. I paused. Someone was asking me to play for their church service tomorrow. I paused again. Me? On the keyboard, by myself? Me? Oh, Lord. I’m not ready. It was true that I was currently playing for a church on Saturday, and I was available on Sunday, but they must’ve texted the wrong person. I was the backup to the backup keyboard player. My absence from service could certainly go unnoticed. It was I who had once played during service with the keyboard volume off. The extreme of fake it ’til you make it. Surely, they must have texted the wrong person.

Playing the piano
Playing at the Berean SDA church in South Bend, IN. Photograph by ScroleVision Photography.

Yet, secretly, this was the moment I was waiting for. It was the reason I was currently practicing. I wanted to be called up to the majors. Timidly, I responded, inquiring about the songs that they would be singing, and other parts of service which required musical accompaniment. There were songs I had never heard of, including an arrangement of a welcome song the church had written. Too much texting. I called. She hummed. I nervously shivered inside. I hung up. I opened Spotify. Searched. Listened. Was I really going to do this? Tomorrow? You only get one chance at first impressions. What if I am terrible? I’ll be blacklisted. The pressure. The stress. I call back… and say, “yes.”

I am reminded of this story as I prepare to teach my first, First Year Seminar (FYS) course on Music and the Black Church. Middlebury explains the First Year Seminar in the following manner: 

“The First Year Seminar is Middlebury’s gateway to education in the liberal arts, using intensive engagement between professors and students to facilitate the transition from high school to college. All first-year students take a seminar in their first semester… These courses allow students to participate actively in their own learning and to begin to acquire the writing and speaking skills necessary for independent, intellectual achievement throughout college and beyond.”

Over the past few years, the computer science department at Middlebury has been given a reprieve from teaching in the FYS program due to the booming enrollment in computer science across the country; however, when word spread that a faculty member in the computer science department would need to a FYS seminar, I was somewhat intrigued at the possibility and opportunity. Why? Well, there was a rumor (a true rumor, indeed), that faculty could teach anything they wanted in their FYS course. Anything?! Anything (pending approval of the Educational Affairs Committee). I floated around a few ideas to current students, faculty, and staff, and at the end, I was convinced to do something I was passionate about: Black church music.

You see, after that initial fear of playing the piano for that unknown church singing songs I never heard before, they actually asked me to come back. And again. And again, until we said our goodbyes as I transitioned to Vermont, four years later. I had grown up in church, listened to gospel, hymns, spirituals, and anthems, but it wasn’t until I started playing regularly that it became a part of me. I now missed it. I longed for it. I yearned for it. What would fill this void? Yes, of course, my seminar.

enthusiasm doesn’t equal expertise.

I quickly learned that enthusiasm doesn’t equal expertise. As I began checking out books at the Davis Library, I realized I had so much to learn about the music of the Black church. I started exploring the origins of the songs we sing today. The pain, trials, and tribulations from which Negro Spirituals were written. The roles of hymns in the Civil Rights Movement. The portrayal of gospel music in popular culture. It was overwhelming, yet invigorating. Here I was, preparing to teach something out of my wheelhouse and out of my comfort zone.

As I finalize the material for this course, plan lectures, guest speakers and musicians, I’ve decided each class will start with a song. Unfortunately, I only have 26 class periods and there are hundreds of thousands to choose from. So today, I’ll squeeze in an extra one from a popular gospel music artist, Marvin Sapp. It simply says,

“I’m coming out of my comfort zone
Some of the places in my life that’s comfortable
God is challenging me
Trust and believe
For to go where I’ve not gone
I must do what I’ve not done”

from Marvin Sapp’s Comfort Zone. Written by Daniel Moore / Ted Winn Marvin

I’m going where I’ve not gone, doing things I’ve not done. You should, too.

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Jason Grant

Jason Grant is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Middlebury College. His research areas include computer vision and biometrics. Outside of the office you can find him at the gym, on a mountain or in the woods with his dog, or playing the piano.

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