Interview with a music student
Tom Chevis, co-ordinator of the UCCF Music Network, caught up with clarinettist Emily Kerski from the USA, who was involved in the Network during 2015/16.
Emily, tell us a bit more about yourself.
I’m an American clarinetist, originally from Colorado. I began my formal musical training at Colorado State University and then had the wonderful opportunity to spend my third BMus year at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where I became involved with the Christian Union and the UCCF Music Network.
How did you come to know Christ for yourself, and how has you faith impacted your life since?
I grew up in the church and had an intellectual knowledge of God and His teachings early on. I accepted Christ as my Savior from a young age, but didn’t own my faith for myself until I came to university. At that time, I started to really investigate the claims of Christ and the truths in the Bible and found that if I was really living according to these words and if I really believed they were true, it would make a radical difference on the way I lived.
During my college years I was blessed to be part of a church family who exemplified Biblical community and started learning what it means to genuinely live out the Gospel in every area of life.
Mostly in the past year, I’m understanding more and more how living according to Jesus’ teachings and under his Lordship really does lead to freedom. No matter what happens, we can have this unshakable joy in Christ because of who He is and what He has done. That’s secure. Everything else is uncertain but I can hold on to that. He came to give abundant life; so often we are deceived into thinking that our passions and ambitions and other things of this world - living for ourselves - will give us freedom and contentment, but true life comes through knowing Jesus and living for Him.
The more I experience life, the more I realize how much I fall short of God’s standard. However, it’s amazing that God not only requires perfection but also provides it through the sacrifice of His Son – I am so grateful for this! I am seeking to follow Jesus with everything I have. My life is no longer my own, it all belongs to Him.
Describe the role that music plays in your life.
I decided to pursue a career in music because I simply couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I love connecting with people through music – collaboration is my greatest passion. Music allows us to meet and interact and relate to people like no other art form, especially in chamber and large ensemble performance – my favorite activities – because you must work together to create. In an ensemble, we rely on each other completely. Everyone’s best contribution is vital in creating a unified and beautiful whole. I think the kind of teamwork that is required in music is a wonderful illustration for broader society in many ways, even the way the body of Christ involves every member’s unique talents and gifts and uses them to benefit the whole.
Being a part of and contributing to something beyond myself, whether sitting in an orchestra or working with my quartet, is a joyous and profound thing! I’m involved in a wide variety of projects and styles of music, and I particularly enjoy contemporary music. To play the music of our own time, figure out new techniques on the instrument, and work with young composers to create something that has never before been heard is quite exciting!
What difficulties have you found in being a Christian and a classical musician?
I had found music can be an incredibly self-seeking field. We constantly work to improve ourselves, often for our own sake – striving to be the best we can simply to be the best, often without regard for everyone around. We spend an incredible amount of time alone in practice and are also often very booked with rehearsals and preparations for concerts, making it difficult to make time to meet with others or even acknowledge them as we drive blindsided toward our personal goals. Moreover, it’s tricky to have real relationships with other musicians as we are all quite busy; it takes real effort and commitment to build a friendship with one’s fellow musicians, and you had to be ready to dedicate yourself to that.
These aspects of the classical musician’s life run contrary to our calling as Christians – to serve and glorify God before all others and to love others as ourselves. It is so easy to be swept up in the selfish musician culture, to run after your own goals no matter the cost to your relationship with God and with others. It’s expected that you would care about yourself more than anyone else because that appears to be the way to success in this industry. Living counter-culturally as a Christian musician can be challenging in many ways but certainly in regard to this very question of success – we may not appear to the world as successful if we choose to invest in our small groups instead of taking a gig, for example, or when we prioritize spending time with other Christians or meeting new people instead of more practice time – but in reality, we are investing in the things that last. Worldly success and recognition are so prized for musicians, but we must remember that these things are passing away. Furthermore, we are called to something higher! A greater purpose than anything we might achieve through our musicianship alone! Therefore, we must stand out as musicians who do not look at ourselves and our accomplishments, but fix our eyes on Jesus and focus outside ourselves to impact those around us.
I think we do have a unique privilege as musicians in that we had a vast mission field within our sphere of influence every day. Because music is often a collaborative art, we interact with many non-believers on a daily basis and, although we often think no one is listening to our message when we live out the Gospel, they are watching.
What has helped you most in resolving these issues?
I think the biggest help for me in working through these issues has been meeting with fellow Christian musicians. Being a part of the Christian Union at the Royal Academy of Music allowed me to meet and befriend Christian musicians who walked alongside me as we all explored the struggles of being a Christian musician and resolved them together. Before this time, I didn’t have any Christian friends who were musicians, and I was tremendously enriched and strengthened by having colleagues with the same beliefs and goals to live for Christ as I do. I learn so much from watching the example my Christian musician friends are for me, and even more –discussing with them what it means to be a Christian musician in this world. Building friendships with these people has made the greatest difference in my walk as a Christian and musician!
The UCCF Music Network was a wonderful resource. The seminars and discussions with the leadership and my peers were foundational to my continued journey as a Christian musician and being a part of the Network offered the opportunity to dig in to some key topics and issues facing music students today.
How did the teaching received in the UCCF Music Network at Word Alive 2015 impact your view of the Lord?
I gained such a deeper understanding of what Jesus has done for us and how that affects the way we live, including how we live out our faith as musicians. I saw more fully how empty music and anything of this world is without it pointing to something greater, the Lord Jesus Christ – Creator of music and all things! It was also very helpful to consider how musicians can hold music as an idol; there were definitely necessary convictions and corrections to my walk as a Christian. It’s so easy for me to slip into pursuing music as the most important thing in my life and the teaching I received helped me think about diligence and discernment in this area. The talk about contentment in Christ provided much needed and appreciated wisdom as well – music, although it is our passion, will not satisfy us ultimately, nor bring the amazing freedom and salvation that our Lord gives!
How did the teaching received in the UCCF Music Network at Word Alive 2015 impact your view of music?
It was so beneficial to finally explore how music was designed and intended by God, and to see the role of musicians in the Christian worldview. I was honestly surprised by the incredible relevance with which scripture speaks into the debates of our time – for example, the importance of music to society. This encouraged me to rightfully dive into the Word as the source of the answers I seek and see my career through its lens. This was absolutely a transformative moment for my faith and for my musical career in light of my faith – it was amazing during the seminars to grow alongside other musicians as we learned so much more about God's design for music and how we should live as musicians. It was perfectly timely advice and I especially appreciated the case studies, interviews with a successful professional Christian musician, practical notes from a pastor's perspective on musicians in church, and teaching on the Creator versus the Created – encouraging us to turn away from idolizing music and consider the ultimate Creator of music.
How did the teaching received in the UCCF Music Network at Word Alive 2015 impact your view of you as a musician?
I really appreciated the impact groups and time we had to discuss outside the main seminar talks and grapple with the issues in our own musical experiences, encouraging each other in specific practical ways and areas of being a Christian music student. I received invaluable wisdom on issues I'd been seeking answers to for some time and came away with a much clearer understanding of my role as a musician in the much bigger story of God's kingdom. As I’ve said, it was just so helpful to have time to really take our eyes off of ourselves and our musical goals and refocus, seeing how our lives as Christian musicians fit into a bigger plan and purpose.
What would you recommend to a Christian student of music who had just arrived at university?
It sounds simple, but I would say the best thing is to spend time with fellow Christian musicians! I would encourage you to intentionally seek out and build relationships with Christian musicians through the Christian Union, your church, and certainly the UCCF Music Network. I found it especially helpful to spend time with Christian music students who were a bit older than me, perhaps postgrads or other students you look up to – they were amazing guides and could offer so much advice on the first years of uni based on their own experience, both in terms of music study but also about their walks with God. These people will be great resources and sounding boards for you as you work through issues facing you as a Christian musician wanting to reflect the Gospel. We were not meant to do this alone - we definitely need the mutual support, prayer, and encouragement of each other in our journeys as Christian musicians seeking to live counter-culturally and for God’s Glory.
What might the future hold for you Emily?
I seek to continue on this wild, wonderful musical path to which the Lord has called me, continuing to seek God’s will, to love and serve others in the places I am led through my passion for music, and become more Christ-like through His strength and grace. I am hoping in the next few years to hone my musicianship and pedagogy through a postgraduate degree and eventually become a university clarinet professor. I hope too to be more involved in church music leadership and so to help people worship our amazing God!