5 Life-changing Habits

1.  Follow a Master

Misty’s Juilliard horn professor, Jerome Ashby

Musicians know that in order to get to the top of our game we need a master teacher to show us the way. Every week we subject ourselves to their critiques and wisdom.  We deliberately become imitators of our teachers; breathing where they breath and sounding like they sound.

Two weeks ago, my husband came with me to hear one of my students play in a recital.  He looked at me while she played and whispered incredulously, “I hear you in her!”

Paul said multiple times in the scriptures, “Be followers of me, even as I follow Christ.”  Here, he uses the Greek “mimeomai” or “mimetes” which means “to mimic” or “imitate”. How much quicker would we grow spiritually if we became imitators of Godly men and women who know far more than us?  What would our lives look like even a year from now if we began to spend time weekly letting these everyday teachers pour into our lives?

2.  Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off and Do it Fast! 


The hardest moment in a musical performance is the instant right after you really mess up.  Sports psychologists know that athletes experience this same challenge.  In those moments just following that huge flub that EVERYONE heard, your mental dialogue can be pretty destructive. Your mind will say things like, “Just give up, you’ve already wrecked it, and what’s the use in continuing?”  Great musicians know that the best thing they can do in that moment is immediately FORGET what just happened by focusing all the attention on what is coming next.  As we hone in on the present and focus our energy on that next phrase, we find ourselves creating the music we were meant to make.

The brilliant writer Paul said it this way, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  That means when we aren’t perfect, we deliberately chose to forget and press forward.  It means we don’t give ourselves the luxury of stopping  for that ever-familiar and prolonged personal flogging that we are so adept at giving ourselves.  There’s no time for that.  We are in the middle of things.  Instead, we press on.

3.  Work in Small Increments

Hand Holding The Key To Success

It’s a lie that all great musicians practice 6 hours a day.  ‘But wait’, you say!  ‘We’ve all heard of the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a task for a total of around 10,000 hours.’

So if we aren’t practicing all day, how do we get there?

Allow me to put it this way.  Small chunks of time invested daily or every other day over a lifetime add up to great things.  In the life of a musician, we find ourselves practicing during commercials, warming up on our car-rides to the gig, and interspersing musical calisthenics between other necessities like folding laundry and cooking dinner.  It’s not glamorous, but it gets the job done.

In Galatians, the Bible says, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”  There are times when we just don’t feel like praying or  spending that time meditating on The Word and if anyone were to look at our crazy schedules, they would agree with us that we don’t have the time.   If we commit to doing it anyway, by finding and utilizing those in-between moments to their fullest effect, there are promises attached to our hard work.  Just take it in small increments, like great musicians do and see how the time adds up to something life changing.

4.  Have a Routine

 RoutineGreat musicians don’t practice long, we practice smart.  We carefully develop daily routines and stick to them religiously.  These routines keep the muscles agile, the reflexes honed, and the small motor skills necessary for high performance at-the-ready.  My routine lasts about 45 minutes a day.  It takes me from high to low, from loud to soft, from fast to slow and so on.  It is built to be demanding.   If I do it daily, I know that no matter what music is put in front of me and no matter what demands are placed on me this week, I can meet them.

The Bible says it this way, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…” We’ve all heard this verse taught before, but the whole point of this is to do the work prior to the challenging moment.  Wouldn’t this be better than finding ourselves in a mess and then rushing around trying to fashion a solution out of a toothpick and a piece of twine like MacGyver?  So what would a thorough daily routine look like in your spiritual walk?  What muscles need to be flexed everyday in order to meet the challenges that will inevitably come your way?

5.     Find Your Tribe


Music is an innately social endeavor.  When you make music together you challenge each other, encourage each other, laugh together, and struggle together.  When one person is having a hard day, the other musicians rally around and play even more fervently.  Let me tell you that after years of being a musician, there is something about making music together that is far more magical, far more interesting, and far more satisfying than doing it alone.  Great musicians make it a point to surround themselves with others and make opportunities to play together.  And musicians who quit often do because they don’t enjoy doing it alone and they haven’t found others to play with.

The Bible says it this way:  “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!”  We need spiritual friends so we can make of this life something artful, something beautiful, something profound.  We musicians often have to seek those other players out, so if you don’t have these spiritual peers in your life, go looking for them!  I guarantee you will find that companionship ups your game and enhances your enjoyment of the journey.

2013 Copyright by Misty Tolle

All rights reserved


Fanfare for a Common Woman

fan·fare  (fanfâr)    A spectacular public display

I once wrote a lesson on the musical masterpiece ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, by Aaron Copland for a curriculum guide published by the New York Philharmonic.  If you’ve never heard it, take a moment to listen to it here.  In the lesson, students learn that composers are often inspired by things in the world around them.

For example, Britten’s ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra‘ was inspired by a movie project to educate children about the orchestra. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 was inspired by nature.  Ravel’s Bolero was inspired by Spanish dance.

Fanfare for the Common Man is a majestic piece inspired by common, everyday heroes.  I don’t know about you, but I find these kinds of heroes far more interesting than the comic book kind.

In the following paragraphs allow me to introduce you to an incredibly humble heroine who never won an award or received any accolades.  This is my Fanfare (though a verbal one) for a common woman.


Myrtle and Carlie Horn

Her little brown hands had sunspots from decades spent hunched over the earth tending her garden.  Fresh cucumbers, carrots, and speckled eggs collected from the chicken coop littered her kitchen counter.  She knew how to get two crops of green beans in during one summer and spent a mere $7 a week on groceries.  She didn’t have much, so she gave away the vegetables that she canned to her friends.  Her cooking was laden with unhealthy amounts of lard and salt, but it was worth every caloric bite.  People said she could accurately predict the sex of your baby by how you were carrying it and as far as I know she was only wrong one time.  (That’s how I ended up with the name Misty- thanks a lot Grandma!)  Anytime my granddad drove her anywhere she was pressed right up next to him in the car, even after being married for 60 years.  Quilting was a part of her daily routine, even though her joints ached.  Evening hours were often spent sewing patches of fabric from dresses her daughters wore as children into heirlooms to pass down to us.   She loved her nine kids boundlessly and was especially protective of her boys.  Her girls had been raised to be like her and because of it she never seemed to worry as much about them.

Towards the end of her life, my uncle and aunt moved in with her to help with her care.  One night, my cousin heard her praying while he was there visiting.  “God, I’m not going to be here much longer and I don’t want any of my family to be lost.  I am a little senile and I can’t even remember all their names. Oh Lord,” she wept, “have mercy on their souls!”  And then one-by-one she cried out each name.  “On my son Tim- have mercy Lord.  On my granddaughter Misty- have mercy Lord.  On my great-granddaughter Kayla- have mercy Lord.”  And on and on she went.  And when she would stumble and forget a name she would beg the Lord to have mercy on the people she forgot.  These prayers seemed to be heaved from deep inside her and the passion behind them was heart wrenching.  My cousin left the house and went out on the car port where his mom was sitting.  “Grandma sounds so sad,” he said.  “I hate to hear her pray like that.”

“She prays like that every night,” said his mother.

My little grandmother passed away unexpectedly early that summer.  She was perfectly healthy one day and took a bad fall the next.  Her living will insisted that we allow her to die peacefully at home, so we spent those last few days gathered around her hospital bed in the living room.  As we sang hymns about going home she tried to raise her hands up in the air to worship.  She didn’t have strength to keep them up, so we held them up for her.

Occasionally in those final days she would have flashes of absolute lucidity.  One of those moments happened with my Aunt Irene who was in desperate need of a life-saving kidney transplant. My little grandma looked up at her oldest daughter from her bed and said, “Once I get there I’m just gonna have to ask God to bring someone home in an accident that is a perfect match for you so you can get your kidney.”  We all chuckled at the cheeky comment, thrilled at this burst of energy and coherence.

She passed that night amid prayers and gentle singing, quietly surrounded by her five daughters.  Her last words were, “Jesus, help me cross over.”  At the service, her pastor summed up her life like this,  “This is a woman who talked with God.”

As I sat there reflecting on this legacy of prayer I couldn’t help but wonder about what will happen when her generation dies out entirely?  We are covered by their prayers, but unless someone takes up the mantle for our children and our children’s children crying, “Lord, have mercy,” where will they be?  The burden that she felt for our family was as real to her as any physical need. Do we feel the burden for our loved ones as deeply? Do we cry out their names with such fervor?

And there is evidence that my little grandma had the ear of God and all of these prayers were not in vain.  A few short weeks after her passing, that perfect kidney came to my Aunt in exactly the way she had predicted.

Myrtle Horn.  She was an uncommon woman indeed.  In James 4:10 the Bible says it this way:  “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.”  She may not have earned any accolades here, but we could almost hear the applause of heaven as this quiet, simple, praying woman crossed over.  May we all leave such a lasting legacy.

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2013 Copyright by Misty Tolle

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Today we are Going to Fail

My first horn teacher was named Dr. John Little.  He was a vibrant professor who radiated love for music.  Thinking of him reminds me of a great saying about teaching a friend of mine named Eric Booth coined: “80% of what you teach is who you are.”

Dr. Little was enamored with the horn and it was contagious.  His teaching studio was filled with brightly colored tacky music paraphernalia including a poster of an upside-down  French horn filled with scoops of ice-cream. Every time I walked down the stairs to the basement of Berea College’s music building for my lesson he was practicing, and every time I left he was practicing some more.   He seemed to simply love to play.

One of his favorite mantras was, “Today we are going to fail.”  I remember the first time he said that to us my dad (who sat in on my lessons) looked at him curiously.  Weren’t we paying him to help me NOT fail?

He explained, “Each time we are together we are going to push you to do something that you’ve never achieved before.  Whether it’s playing higher or lower than you’ve ever played or softer and louder than you think possible.   Whatever it is, this is a safe space in which failure must take place in order for us to succeed.”

So with this in mind, he would push me weekly to play higher and higher and when I would fall off that top note as I squeezed it out with all my might he would applaud and smile and celebrate.  Celebrate failing?  That’s exactly what he did.

What a concept!  Failure is necessary to success?  Failure is a part of the process?  Failure is to be expected, even anticipated?

In Jeremiah 8:4 the Lord says it this way:

 “…..when you stumble and fall, you get back up, and if you take a wrong road, you turn around and go back.”

He didn’t say IF we stumble and fall, he said WHEN.  So why is that such a foreign concept to us?  There is nothing in the Bible that says that once we turn towards God we are recreated into infallible creatures.   I think sometimes when we falter it makes us question everything, as if this salvation thing isn’t real because if it were we would simply and suddenly fail less.

Great hikers know that in order to scale the mountain there are times- sometimes long stretches of time- when one is traveling down rather than up as the trail winds it’s way through the passable terrain. As they scale downwards, it must feel like their target gets farther and farther out of reach, but that is not the case at all.  These ups and downs are an absolutely necessary part of the journey to the summit.

Dr. Little intuitively knew that failure was inextricably linked to success and spent our lessons teaching me to GROW from my failures rather than allow them to be debilitating experiences that ground my confidence into dust.

So what’s the life lesson here?  Let’s spend less time punishing ourselves, beating ourselves up, and belittling ourselves for life’s inevitable moments of failure.  Instead let’s take a lesson from a great teacher who said,  “Today we are GOING to fail.”   Some days we’ll fail in small ways and other days in larger ways.  The question is this: will we see these failures as opportunities to grow in ways that allow us to reach our dreams, both in life and in our walk with God?

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2013 Copyright by Misty Tolle

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