In Search of Spiritual Excellence

In Brendon Burchard’s book, “The Motivation Manifesto,” he opens with the following admonition:

“There comes a time in the lives of those destined for greatness when we must stand before the mirror of meaning and ask: Why, having been endowed with the courageous heart of a lion, do we live as mice?”

He asks at the end of his first page, “When will we be ready to ascend to another level of existence?”

I would pose the question this way:  When will we step into the lives of excellence we are meant for and leave behind vain distractions, meager scraps, and the boredom that we currently accept as the norm?

I don’t know about you, but I am interested in a life of excellence.  I am interested in a life exceedingly and abundantly beyond anything I could imagine.  I’m interested in the life that God conceived of for me, not a small existence I can wrap my head around.

According to Aristotle, achieving this kind of excellence is never an accident.  He says it is the result of three things:

  1.  High intention
  2. Sincere Effort
  3. Intelligent execution

 

I would argue with you that we as humans actually thrive on excellence.

You see, excellence feeds the soul, whereas our steady diet of mediocrity numbs it.

Being exposed to excellence challenges the mind, whereas the status quo confirms what we already assume is true.

Encountering excellence spurs us to action rather than enslaving us to complacency.

The world of classical music is bound up in the pursuit of excellence.  The craft itself demands our very best. I would argue that in our professional spheres many of us find ourselves in a culture of that strives for excellence.

So why then aren’t our spiritual pursuits marked with the same sort of quest?  If we serve an excellent God in whose image we are made, what can we do to be more like him?  And what can we learn from the world of classical music and the words of Aristotle to get us on track?

  1. Live with High Intention

intentionAny musician worth their salt will tell you that notes played without intention are not music.  They are little more than noise.  Correct pitches and rhythms do not equal music-making.  That is like saying if you have a paint brush and some paint and you start swiping at a canvas, you are making fine art.  Great musicians go beyond the basics to make distinct musical choices, playing with purpose, with direction, and from the heart. Excellence in music making is intentional.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, are we that deliberate?  The Bible says it this way: “Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve.”  Like a great teacher, the good book is pushing us to decide.  It is implying that each day we will serve someone (or something).  I would agree with the assertion that whether we chose or not, we are servants.  Living our spiritual lives without intent guarantees that we have no conscience control over who (or what) our life serves.

Because of this Bible verse, I would add one word to Aristotle’s plan.  Let’s not just live with intention.  Let’s do that DAILY.   In the Motivation Manifesto, Bertrand encourages us to imagine ourselves standing before our creator and having him ask these questions, “How faithfully did you attend to the dream I sowed in your soul?” and “Did you use the time I gifted you with each day to be a purposeful being?”

2. Make a Sincere Effort:

Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent executionI hate the word try.  When someone says to me, ‘I will try,’ that communicates to me that they do not intend to succeed. As Yoda says, “Do or do not.  There is no try.”

As a child, if I said to my father that I would try when he asked me to do something, he would stop me and say, “Try to lift your foot.”  I remember the first time he did this I thought to myself, “What does this have to do with anything we were talking about?”  But again he said, “Try to lift your foot.”  I then put all my weight on one leg and feigned effort while not lifting my other foot off the ground.  He then said, “You either lift your foot or you don’t.”  From that point on, anytime I answered a directive with, “I will try,” all he had to do was remind me by saying, “Try to lift your foot.”

Aristotle is challenging us to sincere effort.  That does not mean trying, it means doing.  In music, it means submitting to the endless hours of preparation, study, scales, drills, and self-critique.  It means approaching a difficult passage with a steely resolve that says to your mind, “I will succeed.”

The Bible says that whatever our hands find to do, we should do it with all our might.  It doesn’t say we should “try” it with all our might.

 

3. Intelligently Execute Your Task:

Get-It-Done-RASTER-LOGO-PR200611-JPGIntelligent execution is about completion.  A task is not done until it is complete!  This sounds so simple, but I’d bet you are with me in that you can look around your life and see tasks that you started but never finished.

According to the Sacramento Business Journal, “Execution intelligence is the ability to convert smarts and plans into action.”

Achieving excellence starts with a plan.  As Luke says, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”

But a plan is not enough.  We must ‘begin with the end in mind’ as Stephen Covey said in his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

I talk a lot with my horn students about their practicing plan.  They’ve heard the lie ‘practice makes perfect,’ when in fact it does not.  Practice does not make perfect.  It makes ‘permanent!’  So if you go into your practice session without an outline of what you’re there to do, and therefore do not intelligently execute your plan, guess what?  You can leave that practice session worse than when you came.

Top musicians spend their time wisely, with the end goal at the top of their minds.

So, if we are to begin with the end in mind, what does that look like from a spiritual perspective?  What does an excellent end look like?


 

Allow me finish with this thought.  The path to excellence in any form starts with taking back control of our daily lives.  Let’s stop numbing ourselves with distractions, with constantly being on-call, with life’s endless frenzied race.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The day is always his who works with serenity and great aims.”  Let’s find the quiet we need to pursue spiritual excellence.  As we bravely seek such things, we will give others permission to do the same and we will affect great change in the culture around us.

 

 

 

 

 

My Way or the Highway: How charting our own path isn’t necessarily the smartest plan

Frank Sinatra sang, “I did it my way.”  We Americans like that sentiment and think that might be the pathway to success. Annual-clowns-gathering-i-011

My niece Addison, who is 4 years old likes to do it her way as well.  She often says things like, “I do it myseff!” before she puts her shoes on the wrong feet.

Aren’t we guilty of the same sentiments when it comes to our very souls? These days, it’s popular to find ones own way to God, or to be “spiritual but not religious”. To many, I think this is perceived as a more tolerant or enlightened path, but I propose, using music study as my point of reference, that figuring out one’s own path to God, or making it up as we go may leave us walking through life with our soul’s shoes on the wrong feet.

Here are three ways that submitting to spiritual instruction will help us along the journey.

1.  My-Hope-is-BuiltGetting a Firm Foundation

Have any of you musician folks ever had a student come to you after a mere few weeks of starting themselves on their instrument without much direction? The band director gave them a horn, but she’s been busy with all the other students and in the meantime, that student has figured out how to play.  It’s amazing the positions a horn player can contort their face into in order to get a sound to come out, and the odd ways they position their necks and bodies! What took that student just a couple of weeks of “making it up on their own” takes me (their private instructor) literally months to undo. If they’ve been left alone to their own devices for years, sometimes what they have done requires an entire “reset” and that’s very difficult once those habits are thoroughly ingrained.

So I think pretty much every musician I know would agree that starting yourself on an instrument without an instructor helping to set you up for success is a bad idea.

Since we agree that it makes no sense to start yourself on a musical path without some serious help, why would we take our souls so lightly as to assume we can figure that part of ourselves out without an able guide? Just as there are those of us who have spent well over 10,000 hours with an instrument, there are men and women who have spent their lives pursuing God and pouring over the Bible perhaps with an even more zealous passion. How prideful to assume that we don’t need them and that we can read some books about spirituality and make up our own path.

community-group2.  Having a Community to Learn With and From

A friend of mine who is an incredible musician and College Professor with a list of high profile accolades recently had a young musician come to audition for her, considering studying with her during college. Though the musician was terribly trained and sounded abysmal, she didn’t seem to know it and neither did her father who looked at my friend when she was done hearing his daughter and said, “So sell us. Why should my daughter study with you and what kind of money are we talking?” Talk about heads in the sand!

Isolation from community breeds this kind of ignorance.

I’ve been playing the horn now for 28 years and I still have questions. If I have questions about horn models I know just the friend to talk to- he has owned or tried every great horn out there. If I want to discuss mouthpieces, I’ve got a friend who has a gallon ziplock bag full of them and can wax poetic about each one. If I’m trying to find new and exciting music literature for my beginner students I go to this group I belong to and ask and within a couple days I have over 50 people from around the globe giving me their recommendations for the latest and greatest books to try with young students.

You get the point. Musicians cannot thrive in isolation. We must live and work and learn in community. We must be “Everlearners” with a community that knows more than us. It’s the same from a spiritual perspective. It’s popular these days to go to church once in a while, when you feel like it (or when you feel guilty), but if you are an “EverLearner” you will be there every time the doors are open, learning. Being challenged. Being fed. Church shouldn’t be the only place you are getting your meat though. What communities do you belong to that spur you on?   Who can you go to to ask hard and specific questions?

  1. Jazzie_Butter_submissive.101202712_stdTeaching us to Submit to Instruction

I can’t tell you how many times I have worked with a student who already thinks they know it all. A particular circumstance comes to mind where a student auditioned for the orchestra and was beat (again) by another student for first chair. The student who lost came to his teacher (a reknowned player with a major orchestra) in a huff explaining that he had nailed his audition, hadn’t missed a note and had even eavesdropped on the other guy’s audition and knew he had played better. The committee had gotten it wrong in his young and pride-filled opinion. My colleague, with a very firm tone explained to this young man that this attitude that he was exhibiting would limit his ability to ever be as good as he thought he was. Rather than fighting for what he believed, he should have carefully looked at what this other young man was bringing to these auditions that he lacked. Obviously, if this other guy was beating him consistently (even as the professional committee adjudicating changed), there must be a reason.

How many of us are guilty of this same behavior? Even when every sign is pointing to our own lack of deep understanding, we are reticent to submit ourselves enough to look for ways to learn from someone further along the journey than us.  The Bible says it this way,”Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”  Are you humble enough to submit to other’s leadership?  That ability to submit must be learned and cultivated.  It doesn’t come naturally to us!

Let me end with this thought.  Many of us struggle with having a deep and abiding peace in our lives.  As a person who likes to be in control myself, I relate very much to Frank Sinatra’s desire to do it his way.  What I am learning though is that if we can find the courage to place ourselves in the hands of an able teacher and learning community, and submit each day to the hands of a Sovereign God, we will find the peace that has been so lacking in our lives.

It may be that the uncomfortable feeling we’ve been walking around with is the result of our spiritual shoes having been on the wrong feet for far too long.  All we need is a trustworthy guide to point that out and begin to lead us down the path of spiritual success and significance.

Lies We Believe

Living; genuinely living is an act of courage. I am not talking about going through the motions of life; the getting up, the brushing of the teeth, the eating three meals a day, the watching of TV, the playing of games online, the tweeting every 3 hours. That, my friends is just surviving. I’m talking about REAL living.

YodaReal living involves risk. Real living involves butterflies. Real living involves… (gulp) failure. As John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death….. and saddling up anyway.”

Musicians know this well. A teacher of mine from Juilliard who played first horn in a major orchestra for 30 years often says that being a brass player (especially a principal) requires consistent acts of courage. With this instrument there is nowhere to hide. You only, as Yoda said so well, “Do or Do not; there is no try.”

 

If you think I exaggerate, just listen to the first 2 minutes of Mahler 1 and imagine yourself in the seat of that first trumpeter.  (Start at :53 seconds in)


If you’re like me, you want to live your life to the fullest.  You want to achieve all that God has for you.  You don’t want any of your own self-imposed limitations to squelch your story or to limit your impact.  So in order to get there, first we need to get honest about the lies that we believe, knowing that “only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”   Thank you T.S. Eliott.

So here are a few common lies we believe.  Check them out and see if they ring a bell.

LIE #1:  Your calling will be in your comfort zone.

I was sitting with a young person who feels the call of God on their lives the other day and he began to thoughtfully share with me how he had systematically determined what his calling wasn’t.   It couldn’t be preaching, he said, because that just wasn’t him.  And it couldn’t be worship leading because that required a lot of energy and he’s just not an energetic person.  On and on he went through the list of ministries that were not for him because…..  they weren’t in the comfort zone.

Newsflash, peeps.  NOTHING worthwhile is comfortable.  Nothing worthwhile is going to feel in the pocket.  And nothing that God asks us to do will be able to be accomplished without walking into it in faith and continuing on in faith.  Why do you think the Bible gives us that great verse, “I can do ALL THINGS through Christ who strengthens me.”  That’s not just for those calamities that come upon you.  That verse is for the situations that you put yourself into out of obedience to God.  All you gotta do is look at some of those folks in the bible who were called and see how NOT in the comfort zone their ministries were.  The poster child has got to be Moses who was called to speak for Israel and he was a stutterer.  Talk about living life out of the comfort zone, but look how effective he was!

LIE #2:    Fear is your enemy.

Would you believe me if I told you fear is not the enemy?  Fear, instead, can be an incredible friend.  Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, not absence of fear.”

Allow me to give you a musical example.  The French Horn is this terrible instrument where without meaning to you can accidentally play pretty much every note on the instrument without touching a button.  Just by tightening or loosening your lips you can end up on all sorts of notes.  I work every day with my students on starting pieces, because as I like to say, “You only get one chance to get the first note right.”  We do something called the “first note challenge” in each lesson and they practice setting up, putting the horn to their face, counting off and then playing that first note perfectly.

Every week in these lessons, as I quiz them, I see these students muster up their courage and start those first notes. Sometimes they hit them, sometimes they miss them, but as they have the courage to practice starting over and over they get better at fighting through the fear of failure.

As I watch them go through this each week, I see a parallel to our human experience.  It’s scary to start something new. Especially when messing up is an inevitable part of that process.

LIE #3:  You will accomplish plenty without courage.

Muhammed Ali said it this way, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

Wow, that’s plain.  You might say to yourself, ‘I am no Mohammed Ali.’  You may look around and see others living acts of courage, and say, “I’m just not bold like that, “ or, “that’s just not me.”  But hear this.  Not only will a lack of courage keep you from accomplishing the things your heart desires, but it is also terribly displeasing to God.  Did you know that?  Check out this less-than-popular passage:  “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Wow, to God being cowardly is as detestable as all those other things?  Whoa, I don’t know about you, but I need to work on my courage!

I will end with one final story.  One of my youngest students played her first piece on a recital this week.  She came to her lesson and within the first measure of a piece that she had been working on for weeks missed two notes and burst into tears.  I then found out from her mom that she had been psyching herself out all week because she was scared to play in front of all those people.

photo-6After calming her down and getting her some tissues, I began to reveal something to her.  “Grace, I get scared too!”  Her sixth grade eyebrows raised, “Not you,” she said incredulously, “You’re so good!”  I then explained to her that the fear never goes away, but that seasoned musicians learn to compensate for it, plan for it, and combat it.  One of the ways we do that is by not expecting perfection.  Sounds simple, but many of us are so afraid of failing that we never try.

So here’s the little formula that I learned at Juilliard that I shared with her, and I will share with you in closing.

At Juilliard my teacher asked me, “On a scale of 1-10 how do you expect to perform in this audition?”  I said, in all honesty, “I expect myself to be a 10.”  He then said, “Rate your preparation for this audition from 1-10.”  I had to honestly give myself a 7.  He then explained to me that because an audition is a pressure situation, you should always prepare yourself mentally to play 1 level lower than you prepared.  So if you prepare a 7, expect a 6 not a 10.

This may sound so simple to you, but this was a major epiphany for me.  I always had such high expectations of myself even when I had not done the work.

So how does this relate to our spiritual walk?  Don’t psych yourself out of doing what you are here for.  Prepare diligently, then don’t expect yourself to go above and beyond the work you have done.  God will take care of that part.  You just put it out there and let it go.  And as you do, remember that you are not alone. “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summertime, and the livin’ is…..

I think we get it wrong when we make all of our fresh plans at the New Year. January is cold and uninspiring. No wonder we never actually stick with any of those resolutions.

But Summer, ah summer. Summer inspires. Summer invites. Summer compels.

bike

F. Scott Fitgerald said it best in The Great Gatsby, “I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”

So if summer is a time of beginnings, or at least an opportunity for them, how many people can admit with me that you’ve let summers slip away from you in the past. It’s like you have all these plans; to relax, to read, to learn to play the ukelele, and then BOOM it’s September and you never really relaxed, you started 3 books but didn’t finish any of them, and as for the uke? Well, what you mostly have is excuses.   Those, and a really dusty instrument.

So before us lies this opportunity. This warm, sun glazed chance to make something new or to make something MORE.  As you meditate on that and before you read more listen to this little piece of summer.

 

 

410662-cats-smiling-cat

Duly inspired, I hope.

It’s now time to make your summer plans.   So what can lessons from a musical life plus the Word of God teach us about setting and keeping our summer plans? Here are three ‘To-Dos’ that’ll have you looking back over the summer with this Cheshire-cat grin come September.

 

1.  Write them down

In order to bullet proof your plans you need to write them down. Why? Well, the best advice-giver of all time, God himself, said writing it would make it easy to run with it.

Check this out, “The Lord answered me, ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.” Why is writing it down so important? Because it will help clarify what you want to get done. It will help you START. Many times we accomplish very little because we do not have a clear focus.

  1. Get accountable

In the music world we have private teachers. On a weekly basis we are held accountable for what we’re supposed to be learning. When it comes to our spiritual and emotional life, we are much more likely to go it alone, making these goals for ourselves without anyone to ask us, “How’s it going?” or God forbid, “Did you pray today?” Whatever the goal, finding an accountability partner is key to your success. Trust me when I say accountability will not only keep you engaged, it will accelerate your performance.

  1. Don’t overplan

According to Forbes, “Many people…. make large bucket lists or attempt extreme makeovers, whether personal or professional.That’s a nice aspiration, experts say—but the average person has so many competing priorities that this type of approach is doomed to failure. Essentially, shooting for the moon can be so psychologically daunting, you end up failing to launch in the first place.”

So in the spirit of accountability and simplicity, I am picking 3 goals for this summer and I am encouraging you to do the same.  In line with this blog they are either musical or spiritual (or both). I have selected an accountability partner for each one.  If you care to read them you can find them below.  If you don’t care what I’m up to, skip that and just jump to the last paragraph.

  1. I am going to spend quality time with my spiritual mentor, an awesome woman of God in her 70’s. I’m going to ask her to talk to me on the phone weekly throughout the summer. (I hope she says yes!) For these conversations I am going to prepare questions so I can glean as much as possible from her wisdom and understanding.
  2. I’m getting real with my piano skills. It’s time to up my game specifically for church music. This will look like 20 mins a day 4 days a week.  That’s only a total of 80 minutes per week!  If I can’t do that, I should be fired from life!
  3. I am memorizing 1 bible verse per week.  My plan is to write it down on the chalk board in my kitchen and everyday erase a word.  My accountability partner for this one is my long-suffering husband.  What he doesn’t know is he’s about to get hoodwinked into memorizing with me.

So, this is me throwing down the gauntlet. It’s summer (almost). Time to begin anew, not because it’s a new year, but because it’s a fresh moment. Take this opportunity to seize these short months to propel yourself forward in your life goals and in your spiritual walk. And if you are bold enough, share them here with us.

Let’s make this a summer where the livin’ is more than easy.  Let’s make it a summer where the livin’ counts.

 

 

 

 

 

D is for…..

D is for discipline.

wpid-discipline-is-just-choosing-between-what-you-want-now-and-what-you-want-most

It’s also for difficult.

difficult people

D is also for Doohicky, but that’s not what this post is about.

doohicky

I think we’ve all struggled at times with the motivation to get to the gym, get into the prayer closet, or get to that practice room.  So how do we push ourselves to be faithful and disciplined in these activities when the payoff is so hard to assess?  How do we remain faithful when the progress seems interminably slow?  Here are some tips that work both in our musical & our spiritual lives.

  1. Remove distractions

distraction

I don’t know about you, but as soon as it’s time to hunker down and get something done I start to feel the need to clean, or check facebook, or fold that laundry that’s been laying on the guest bed unfolded for two days.  In the moment when it’s really time to practice or talk with God I can find myriad viable excuses for other “more pressing” things that need to be accomplished.

How do I tackle this?  I have create in my home two rooms that have no other purpose.  I call ’em the P rooms.  One is for practicing.  One is for prayer.  Everything in those spaces support the endeavor.  Because those spaces are not used for other activities there are no TVs, computers, telephones, or laundry baskets to distract.  These uncluttered spaces are an outward representation of the clarity of mind that comes when I spent time there.  I am there for one purpose and none other.  This allows me to close the door and give my all, unfettered by the lingering dust bunnies under the ottoman.

2.  Look for cracks of light along the way

shaft of light

Things that require discipline are slow-going.  When I think of the hours in my life that I have spent playing long tones and scales, it’s honestly a little mind numbing.  We’ve all heard that fake law of 10,000 hours (do anything for 10,000 hours and you’ll be an expert), but there’s more than a modicum of truth to that.  So how do we stay on task for as long as it takes to actually get somewhere?

Along the way, we must celebrate every small victory.  The Apostle Paul said it this way, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”  People, we are awful at this.  We are so quick to criticize and judge ourselves; picking apart the three things we did horribly in the midst of the 30 things we are finally getting right.  Notice the small victories, the cracks of light, the moments that herald something more is on the way!  As Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it,” not only in others, but in yourself.

3.  Have a goal.

smart goal setting conceptYogi Berra once said, “You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”

When it comes to horn playing it’s easier since many of those goals are set up by external forces. I have this concert coming up, or that event I’m performing for or this audition which has these specific requirements.  With our spiritual walk it’s different.  Much more personal.  And it sounds odd to say “I have spiritual goals.”  But goals are key.  Tony Robbins said, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”

So looking now at your spiritual life, what isn’t there that you’d like to be there?

A few years ago I hadn’t read through the bible once EVER, and now because of a spiritual goal I set (and the Daily Audio Bible) I am in the midst of my 4th time through the word.  And my faith is transforming daily because of it.

A few years ago, I had NO prayer life.  Zero.  None.  I’d lay down at night and fall asleep while repenting AGAIN for the same sins I’d repented for the day before.  That was the extent of my relationship with God.  So my goal?  To pray daily.  I can tell you that since I set that goal there have been birthdays where I looked back over the year and could say honestly, this was a year marked by prayer.

As of late, I have a new spiritual goal.  It is to be missional daily.  Everyday in some small way I want to reach out to someone as Christ would, giving in some small way what I can.  Just one selfless act, every day.  Somedays that looks like a simple encouraging text message.  Somedays it’s much bigger than that.

So what’s your spiritual goal this year?  What’s the thing you are marching towards with fervor?

Let me close with this.  I teach about 15 horn students weekly.  Each time they see me, I assign them etudes, solos, exercises, etc.  Yes, we work hard in the lesson but the real work takes place between sessions.  If they are not disciplined during the week, it shows when they come and we are unable to accomplish much.  If they have worked incredibly hard, their pace accelerates and they leave other, less motivated students in the dust.

Why is it that we assume that we can get a once-a-week spiritual dose on Sundays and that it will be enough to sustain us?  We must instead view those moments of coming into God’s house as the litmus test which reminds us to keep pursuing Him, and the motivating kick-in-the-pants which encourages us to keep our spiritual disciplines intact.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, it’s that time spent everyday in prayer, the talking and the listening to God, and time spent in study (the pursuit of actually knowing the whole God through his word) that turn us over time into spiritual giants.  These are not sexy activities.  Our nature as humans doesn’t give us an appetite for such things.  But the word says that God can GIVE us a spirit of self-discipline.

So, let’s start today by setting a simple spiritual goal- one is all you need. Let’s set ourselves up for success by creating a space (both mentally and physically) to accomplish what we’ve set out to do.  Wouldn’t it be phenomenal if you could look back one year from now and see a whole year marked by the spiritual discipline that you decided upon and implemented today?

It’s Not About Me

Maybe I’m the only one, but I’ve struggled my whole life to grasp that the universe doesn’t revolve around me.  Perhaps it is because every great movie seems to have an epic French horn solo, and because that’s my instrument I too felt like my life was epic.  I could almost hear my own movie soundtrack playing as I walked the streets of New York, living my seemingly grandiose life.

I mean, in theory I understand that I’m this infinitesimally small being living on a sphere orbiting a sun in a galaxy which is one of many galaxies, but the struggle of my self-involvedness happens in day-to-day life.  In those small moments, I’m really guilty of making it all about me.  And in the end, NEWSFLASH, it’s not.  I guess I’m in good company, since God had to say to Job, “Where were you when I Iaid the earth’s foundations?”  Clearly, we all have a propensity to lose perspective.

The more I get that, the more useful I find myself becoming.  The more I get that, the more selfless I find my actions.  The more I get that, the less offense I take when others do their thing.  So how do we cultivate a lifestyle that’s not all about us when our nature is to walk through life hearing our epic soundtrack and its swooping melodies?  Here are some tips.

1.  Give Your Day Away

GiveI’m sure your thinking, ‘What?  Give my day away?  I have to work, raise my kids, study…. I already feel like I’m giving it away and there’s nothing left for me.’  Trust me, before we give our day to anything, we need to first present it as an offering to the Father.  The thing I have found is that when I do this, I actually end up laying down the anxieties, the stresses, the concerns, the selfishness, and the fears.  In their place I pick up peace, joy, long suffering, gentleness, kindness, meekness and goodness.  I also seem to pick up this radar that helps me see the heavy load that someone else is silently carrying.  This radar helps me find opportunities to love, lift up, encourage and give.  It’s like that time in the morning is a time of refreshing, refilling and drinking deep from the fount of life.  Then, as the day pulls at me from all sides I am drawing from a deep reservoir within and I am able to meet whatever comes.

2.  Commit Yourself

commitWe are so guilty of thinking only of ourselves when faced with things that require commitment.  We’d rather not commit to being in the choir because sometimes we like our Sundays to ourselves.  We’d rather not commit to leading a small group because we aren’t that much of a people person.  We’d rather not join that club because then we’ll have to pay dues.  Here’s the thing.  When we start to consider that just our presence there each Sunday could encourage someone, that’s not pride.  That’s not making it all about you.  That, my friends, is accepting responsibility.  When we realize that committing to that weekly prayer meeting not only lifts you (because it increases your relationship with God), but it also encourages the others that pray because they see they are not alone, we begin to see a purpose in being a part of the bigger picture.  Servanthood asks first, what can I do for my God and for my fellowman, not what do I feel like doing today?

If you are like me, you will be more faithful if you commit to things.  Make vows.  Tell others.  Be accountable.  Commit yourself.  The radical, almost instantaneous growth you will see in your spiritual walk will astound you.

3. Pick Three People

pick 3What if all of us just found three.  Three disenfranchised.  Three hurting.  Three oddballs that are kind of odd like we are odd.  And I’m not talking about family here (though I know we all have lots of oddballs in our families).  I’m talking about three people in your life that are near you right now.  What if we committed to pray for them daily, reach out to them, love them unconditionally, and find little ways to pour into their lives selflessly.   What if we eventually even told them what they were to us, how we weren’t going to let them go, how we are praying for them daily, how they are significant to someone.  I think that if we did this, we could begin to change the world.  Here’s the thing though.  We’ve gotta love those three expecting nothing back.  We’ve gotta pray for those 3 relentlessly no matter whether we see quick answers or not.

Christ gave himself.  So if we are to be Christians – AKA Christ-like- we too must give ourselves.  First to him and then to others.  To me, this means laying down myself, my dreams and my plans at the foot of the cross daily.  It also means that I am asking God to change my worldview from one that sees everything through a Misty-lens to one that sees through a God-lens.  Every time we catch ourselves feeling put-upon or upset by a situation, let’s stop, look up and ask, “Is this really about me, or is there some larger picture here that I am failing to see?”  If we get in this habit, he is sure to adjust our vision and get our eyes on the things that matter and off of ourselves.

Leader??!? Not me!

Do you feel like you’re called to lead, but are uncomfortable thinking of yourself in that way?  Or maybe you’re naturally charismatic, but lack the depth to back up your gifts.  Whatever the case, leadership is not for the chosen few that stand in front of audiences of thousands.  It is something many are called to and it takes myriad forms.  Here are a few tips to help you embrace the leadership mantle whether you’re feeling it or not.

1.  Begin Now

StartLineOne of my favorite quotes says, “There are seven days in the week and someday isn’t one of them.”

Here’s the thing.  Talk to anyone who is living their dream – I mean really out there doing what they feel called to do everyday.  They will tell you that they are not fully formed.  They are a work in progress.  They are learning things daily and often find themselves needing to seek advice from others who are wiser than they are.  Those who become great learn to step out in faith, study relentlessly, & labor intensively.  They are not waiting for their ship to come in, but are building opportunities daily.  They are pressing towards the mark, knowing that when we are “faithful in a few things, we become the master over many things.”

Just today, I was at a school and was practicing between lessons.  The band director came to me afterwards and said, “It was so refreshing to hear you practice.  Even after all these years and your accomplishments, you just spent the last hour playing scales and long tones without ever playing a piece of music.  I wish my kids could understand that and would practice that way.”  I thought to myself, ‘I play all those things because I need them.  I’ve not yet arrived.  I still have so much to work on and learn.’  Maybe others don’t see it that way, but I do.  Does that mean I’m not out there teaching and playing?  Of course I am, but I didn’t wait to be fully perfected to begin.  If musicians did that, there would be no one to play music for us anywhere, ever!

2.  Don’t Assume That You’re Not Good Enough

failure-sucksI think many of us are paralyzed by our fears that we are not worthy to be someone of value.  We determine that we aren’t able to be used for good, because we’ve done too much bad stuff or because we’re still holding onto some things we shouldn’t.

Look at the Bible for moment.  Moses was a murderer and God used him.  Sarah (the wife of Abraham) laughed at God and he still made her the mother of many nations.  Peter denied that he even knew Christ, and yet God then used him DAYS LATER to begin building his church.  Not only does God use imperfect people at some point in their lives, he uses imperfect people shortly after they have really been a screwup!

I think that we think of leadership all wrong, assuming that great leaders are forging ahead with everyone trailing behind them, but as Ghandi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”  Leading is servanthood.  So it’s not for the fabulous, the perfect, and all those other Shiny Happy People.  It’s for those that feel the call to live a life that is in and of itself a message to others.  A changed life.  A transformed life.  A life that GIVES life.

3.  Teach to Learn

Teacher Pointing at Map of WorldAre you hungry to get better?  To go deeper?  To find the next level of your craft or spiritual walk?  There is no better teacher than teaching.  There is no greater catalyst for in-depth study than being faced with real problems to solve, real quandaries to address, and real people needing answers.  In the last year alone, I have had the opportunity to teach over 25 young horn players and let me tell you, they are all different.  They have different needs & their needs challenge me.  They send me to Youtube looking up masterclasses on tone production. They send me to my own practice room trying out different exercises and techniques.    They send me deeper into a craft I have spent almost 30 years perfecting.  They challenge me to make it fun, relevant and interesting.  They remind me how important failure is to learning.  They remind me that as the great Mickey Mouse said, “To laugh at yourself is to love yourself.”

If you are hoping to go deeper in your spiritual walk, begin to teach others what you know, even if all you’ve really got down is the story of salvation.  Find an outlet that propels you into the study of The Word.  If you’re like me, you’ll do more when you have a looming deadline, or a regular meeting you are preparing for.  Find a mentor and bounce your ideas off of them.  Get their feedback on what you’re reading.  Allow them to push you, question you, and refine your thinking.  Don’t be afraid of their criticism.

4.  Lead by Lifting Others

weriseLao Tzu said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”  Let me say it another way.  You know a great leader by how well things can function when he/she is not around.  Leaders equip others, build others up, finding ways to allow others to grow and shine brightly.  Leaders praise when praise is due.  Leaders assume the best, not the worst.  Great leaders spend more energy building capacity around them than they do on building capacity in themselves.  As the CEO of a Fortune 500 company said, “Every great leader has a generosity gene.”  Don’t have one?  Cultivate yours.  Spend your days adding value to others & watch how your influence grows.

One final note.  In the end, leading is nothing more than submitting to your call.  I think many of us feel a pull to do something that matters, but we spend much of our lives waiting for that moment when lightening will strike and suddenly we will be in a position of authority.  We think that then, all the sudden, we will be called into leadership.  Let me tell you folks, that’s not how it happens.  We must lead from where we are.  We must pursue the calling on our lives daily, even if it feels vague and unsure.  As you pursue it and pursue Him, I promise it will all become clear.

When the Wheels Come Off

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.  Allegiant

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.

pressureLast week one of my horn students mentioned that his nerves took him by surprise a few moments into each audition.  My response? “Never let them take you by surprise again.”

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

pilotImagine if everyone in the plane had bum-rushed the cockpit as soon as we had come to a complete stop, trying to get off the plane in that moment of fear.

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

pinnochioSo 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.”

Stop it now Christians! That’s Taboo.

Classical musicians know there are certain things that you JUST DON’T DO.  You don’t look directly at someone in your section while they are playing a solo.  You don’t show up right on time.  Right on time is late.  You don’t wave to your Aunt Mille during the concert even if this is the first time she’s ever seen you in a tuxedo.  That kind of thing honestly just ruins the mood for everyone there (except your Aunt Mille).

In all seriousness, some of these no-no’s are universal rules that should be abided by, not only by musicians, but by the church.

So allow me to introduce you to 5 “musician taboos” that anyone who calls herself a follower of Christ might want to consider adopting.

  1. Don’t Play Someone else’s part

OK, so you didn’t get first chair the last time auditions came around.  And you think maybe you are better than the guy that won.  Guess what?  He won, you didn’t.  So don’t go playing his big solo part while you are warming up with him in earshot.  It just makes you look petty (and jealous).

Church-goers can be quick to despise their role.  But all roles are necessary for the church to function as it was meant.  Check this out, ‘So the body is not one part but many. If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body…..God has placed each one of the parts in one body just as He wanted.’

So just because we might be smarter or more talented than those above us in the Lord, let’s hold back on the judgement.  So what’s our role?   It’s pretty simple.  We’ve gotta suck it up and play the part we’ve been assigned to the best of our abilities.

2.   Don’t talk back to the Maestro

When the conductor (who’s usually tall, old and German) tells you how to play your part, you don’t argue.  You don’t explain why your interpretation is better.  You don’t ask for a private meeting after rehearsal.  You just nod and do what he is asking of you to the best of your ability.  Even someone who raises their hands to ask one too many questions is likely on the road to getting booted.

So, when the pastor (who is usually old, slightly rotund, and spits a lot) tells you how to do X, Y or Z, don’t argue.  Don’t explain why your viewpoint is right.   Don’t explain why you like this other leader’s way of thinking about this or that better than his.  God ordains authority and our inability to submit to those God has appointed over us reflects our inability to submit to God himself.

3.   Don’t suddenly totally reinterpret Beethoven (or the Bible)

Beethoven is awesome.  His music is simple, yet profound.  He was a master at giving us exactly what we need, right on that page of music to tell us what he meant.  Orchestras have been interpreting his music for centuries, and the majority have settled on a reasonable understanding of “Beethoven style”.  When someone goes out in left field and starts messing with that style, it simply doesn’t work.  It’s just not true to what was written.  It’s just not Beethoven.

Same with the bible.  This thing has been around a long time.  Masterful minds have spent lifetimes plumbing the depths of its wisdom.  Any new interpretation of scripture which takes things in a totally new direction should be considered highly suspect.   God doesn’t suddenly give a revelation to some guy now that he refused to give 200 or 300 years ago.  If God thinks it’s that important, it’s been revealed to not just someone, but many trustworthy someones over the course of history.

4.  Don’t be a know-it-all

Musicians need each other to make music.  I mean, there are a handful in the whole world who wander around making a living as solo acts, but they are few and far between. Being successful in music is as much about how easy you are to be around as it is about how well you play.  If you are constantly nitpicking every player near you, guess what?  Even if you are the next Yo-Yo Ma people won’t invite you back.  In order to make our best music, we need to be in an environment that invites our best and doesn’t require us to constantly rise above the negative energy and attitudes of others.  Music is challenging enough without nay-sayers and judgie-judgersons critiquing our every note.

It’s the same in our Christian walk.  We need comrades who encourage, exhort, and uplift.  We naturally run screaming from those who want to tisk-tisk us about skirt length, hair length, or wearing non-mixed fibers.  Don’t be THAT guy, ok?  I promise, when you learn to encourage, and take time to laugh and love you will find yourself suddenly surrounded by friends and helpers.  Remember the journey is way better with a friend.  Even Christ sent the disciples out 2 by 2.

5.  Don’t do the bare minimum

There are lots of menial jobs attached to being a musician.  Somebody’s got to put those music stands in place or restack those chairs.  Someone’s got to pick the music and organize it for everyone.  Somebody’s got to book the travel for that gig, or make sure there is an itinerary in place for all the musicians.  Great collaborators know that we add value not just by doing our “one job” well, but by being a team player who contributes in as many ways as possible.

As Christians, this is a great rule of thumb.  I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of wondering, ‘What’s the minimum amount of church-going, praying, and holiness that will get us to heaven?’  Here’s the thing.  When we go through our lives just doing the minimums we never get to the blissful stuff. We never experience the real power, the unspeakable joy, the full intimacy of relationship with God.  We just float along, missing the good stuff, hoping to avoid the bad stuff.  That’s no way to live.

And when we join a church in order to consume (consume relationships, consume sermons, consume worship) rather than contribute (by giving, praying, volunteering, and serving diligently), we actually become a weight rather than being one who helps to shoulder the load.  Imagine how different our churches would be (and how much more effective) if they were filled with individuals who instead of asking the church how it can serve them said, how can I serve my church?

I could go further, but these taboos are a good place to start.  Let’s get beyond the minimums, let’s encourage and exhort, and let’s know when to let the leader lead.  These “donts”  lead us to “do” the stuff that matters.

Be Ye Transformed!

Beethoven transformed the symphony.

Madonna transformed music videos.

The Real World transformed television (hello reality shows!).

In the beautiful piece Enigma Variations, the composer takes a musical theme and transforms it to represent the different personalities of 14 of his friends.  Listen here to the 1st movement to hear the initial theme and then compare it to my favorite movement, Nimrod.

So music, as it is transformed, is often simple to hear even for the novice listener.  In life on the other hand, those transformational moments might be a little harder to spot.  I remember for example the moment I fell in love with books.


It was library period and I was in the 1st grade.  I found myself aimlessly wondering among the pungent wooden shelves, looking for a book, not sure what I wanted to open.  On the bottom shelf of one particular bookcase stood a large rectangular book with a picture on the front of a boy and a cat.  We had a cat at home that I was very attached to, so I thought I might like to read a story about one.  As the story unfolded with only a sentence or two per page- the pictures illustrating for me as I stumbled over the big words- I got to know this little boy and his cat.  The cat was his best friend and the tale drew me into their fun daily adventures. At the end of the book, his cat grew ill and he watched it grow weaker and weaker and eventually die.

You may be thinking to yourself, what kind of book for first graders is this?!!?

Wait, don’t judge!  Out of this came an incredible experience.  I was there with that boy, experiencing his pain; amazed that a book could take me to this deep emotional place. For the first time in my life as I read a book, I wept.  I enjoyed that experience so much that I immediately opened the book again and started to read it from the beginning and was confused when I didn’t have the same emotional reaction the second time.  This book had transported me and this moment TRANSFORMED me into a life-long reader.

So, what lessons can we take from this simple story to help us remain open to life-altering moments as they come our way?  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to miss them!

1.  Enter the Library

Library

Sounds simple, right? But what if I decided before I ever gave the library a chance that it was a boring place where nothing fun happened thereby closing myself off to the experience?  Mark Twain once said,  “In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.”

And it’s not just libraries.  For example, I can listen to the 2nd movement of Beethoven 7 in my living room all day, but when I sit down in Carnegie Hall and let the strains of the symphony pour over me I am transported into another realm.  We owe it to ourselves to enter that church, to sit under that willow tree, or wander that beautiful museum for an afternoon and see what those spaces whisper to us that can’t be heard in the middle of our hustling and bustling lives.

2.  Test the waters

toes

The Bible says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Why would that be in there?  Because God knew that many of us would live our lives afraid to even have a taste of him.

True transformations come when we genuinely allow ourselves to test out a new experience.  I can’t tell you how many friends I have that are repulsed by the church and church people because of horrible things they have seen so-called Christians do and say in the name of Jesus.  I’ve witnessed some pretty awful stuff myself and can see why they feel that way.  That being said, some of these same people have a curiosity about who Jesus really is that has never been satisfied because they have never tested the waters themselves.

They’ve never stepped into the library.  They’ve never opened the book.

Testing the waters is risky.  But no true transformation is possible without leaving our comfort zones and entering a new space. Blaise Pascal said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing…”  We can only begin to fill that vacuum when we are bold enough to taste and see.

3. Go Beyond the Emotion

reflection

It’s important for us to grasp that transformational moments are deeper than the emotion that goes along with them.  If I’d left that book reading incident just experiencing the feelings, I wouldn’t have taken the time to notice and understand the deeper underlying truth of that moment.  The same is true in spiritual matters.  I think we often want to “feel” God so we leave an emotionally packed spiritual experience feeling better for a few hours, but not experiencing any lasting change.  It is left up to us to reflect deeply so that profound change is possible.  We’ve got to truly capture our learning so that these transformational opportunities aren’t lost in the ebb and flow of our hard-wired habits.

As William Wordsworth said,“Habit rules the unreflecting herd.” I don’t know about you, but the herd mentality is of no interest to me.  Instead, let’s be open to and aware of the moments in our lives where our minds and thoughts can be transformed for the better.