A couple weeks ago we were on a plane that lost an engine during takeoff. Click here to watch a news clip about our harrowing adventure.
Those of us on the flight didn’t know exactly what had happened. We simply heard a loud explosion, and found ourselves careening to a stop rather than into the air as expected. In the ensuing moments, we sat in heavy silence until the pilot spoke, directing us to stay in our seats as the trucks rushed to make sure there was not a fire in the faulty engine. We waited. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he announced that all was well and we made our way back to the terminal to await a new plane and a later flight.
In the end, all I could think of beyond being incredibly grateful was that the pilots did an excellent job reacting quickly to a situation that could have ended our lives without their calm-under-pressure. It made me wonder what they had done in their years of training to prepare them for a moment like this.
In reflecting on it, I realized there are many ways that musicians think about working under pressure that relate to what those pilots did for us, though we don’t save lives when we get the notes right.
In spite of our lack of life-saving, here are some lessons that we can apply no matter what emergency drops into our lives.
1. Expect that pressure situations will come.
Seasoned musicians know to expect to be nervous in those moments of acute pressure and we cope by developing routines that counteract the nervousness. For example, one of the symptoms of nerves is a racing heart. In order to simulate that feeling, I’ll have a student run a couple laps up and down the hallway, then come into the room, pick up their horn and play through the piece of music for their audition.
We have to plan for the pressure, and prepare ourselves to meet it toe-to-toe. The Bible says it this way. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
Expect the test. Prepare for it. No one goes through life without the wheels coming off a few times. The question is not, “Will they come off?” The question is, “What will you do when they do?”
2. Trust the Pilot
On a much less life-or-death note, when one plays in an orchestra there are also moments where things can derail. For example, when we are playing new works we might have a piece where the meter of the music is constantly changing. Let’s say that in our orchestra of about 100 people things begin to feel like they’re falling apart and we’re not exactly together as we play. The worst thing we can do is bury ourselves in our own music, isolate and try to solve the problem ourselves. The second worse thing we can do is follow some haphazard musician (let’s say its the bass drum player) down the garden path as he does his own thing and ignores the leader. This could cause an even bigger problem, not to mention exacerbating the less-than-sparkling opinions about bass drummers everywhere.
Our best bet? To put our laser beam focus on the conductor. He knows we are struggling. He knows how all the parts are meant to fit together. He is in control. Now is the key time to watch him and let him cue us at just the right moment.
The Word says to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” God knows where we are struggling. He knows how our hearts fit together. He is in control, but he can only help us if we look up and take his direction.
3. Get honest
So how DO you react when the wheels come off? I don’t know if you’ve done this, but I’ve had to admit to myself that some of my “knee-jerk” responses to negative situations are more damaging than the situation itself.
So take a good look. When the milk gets spilled do you cry, curse or laugh? When the diagnosis is dire do you pray, whine, or go into denial? When the hurt is severe do you wallow, retreat, or complain? When the plane is going down, do you look to God as your keeper and lay your life in his hands or do you rush to the bar to self-medicate as soon as you’ve entered the terminal?
When you are the one who has failed do you punish yourself so severely as to elevate yourself as a more sovereign judge than God himself?
You might say, “I can’t change the way I respond in a crisis. That’s just how I am wired.” Take it from me, that’s not true. Great musicians all deal with nerves. We all deal with making mistakes. The phenomenal ones learn to train themselves to respond differently to negative circumstances than we are naturally inclined to.
When our engine exploded there were panic attacks, frantic prayers, and hands squeezed tight by loved ones. I had my own response in that moment. Overwhelming peace. Not a peace that told me that God would save my life, but a peace that told me my life was in the hands of one who knows best.
Not to be a Debbie-Downer, but face it. Your plane-going-down moment will come. It might already be here. Whether you’re in it or about to face it, let’s challenge ourselves to cultivate a new and improved crisis response plan. Implement it in the small things, deliberately changing your pattern and see how beautifully and gracefully you can face the gravest trials that life can deal you.
God said it best, “For I know the plans I have for you. Plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”