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.”










D is for…..

D is for discipline.


It’s also for difficult.

difficult people

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


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


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.

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


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


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


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.

Lessons on belief from a Cheetah (and Nelson Mandela)

We’ve all heard the saying,”All things are possible for one who believes.”

Let me tell you the story of how my believing began.

img056My father, a watercolorist, was always shuttling me around with him when I was a kid as he took photos for paintings he was working on. On one of our more adventurous jaunts we headed to the Cincinnati zoo. We wove our way around to the staff entrance in his big conversion van and were met there by a beanstalk-tall woman with frizzy lion’s mane hair named Catherine. Upon greeting us she led us to an enclosed grassy area, let us in and shut the gate.  Momentarily, she returned with two squirming, spotted cougar cubs – one neatly tucked beneath each lanky arm.  She knocked open the door with a raised khaki knee and plopped those cubs in with us.  “Be back in a couple hours,” she said and loped off casually as if she left civilians alone with wild animals on a daily basis.

Dad was loading film in his camera and one of the cubs automatically spotted its dangling strap and bounded his direction on paws too big for his body.  In the ensuing hours they swatted and tumbled and gnawed on each other and on my long hair.  My dad snapped photos and I tried to stay still so as not to get pounced on.  They were awfully cute, but wasn’t this dangerous?


This painting, called “Lakota” is the outcome of that day at the zoo.

As the afternoon wore on, they nibbled grass and catnapped (literally) and had me giggling at their clumsiness.  Soon I began to curiously explore their little bodies with my hands, growing bolder as they grew more tired.  And just as I was starting to feel comfortable the cat lady returned and whisked them away.  “Back in a minute,” she tersely said, kicking the gate shut behind her as she went.  Dad began to pack up his camera and before he had finished, she was back.  “I have one more thing to show you.”

We followed her to a nondescript cement building where we entered a narrow, dark hallway surrounded on both sides by floor-to-ceiling fencing.  As if on cue, a regal cheetah approached the front of the cage beside us and looked up at Catherine expectantly.  She undid the latch and the cheetah glided silently out into the narrow passage and stood with us, so close that her long tail would have touched me if she flicked it.  She didn’t flick it, though.  She stood as still as a statue, her teardrop eyes trained on Catherine.  The next moments seemed to play out in slow motion for me as I experienced them through a filter of awe and fear.

440083-1680x1050“This is Angel,” said Catherine.  She then wordlessly took Dad’s hand and placed it in front of her flat cheetah nose.  She smelled him curiously and vigorously began to lick the back of his hand.  I could hear the sandpaper roughness of her tongue resonating loudly against the cement walls and floor.  As she licked, the cat lady explained that Angel was what she called an ambassador cat.  She had spent her life in captivity and had dedicated her energies to raising money for her own endangered species by visiting schools and doing other appearances.  I could barely hear Catherine speaking; my eyes were too trained on the tongue licking dad’s hand, waiting for the teeth that peaked out to sink into his precious flesh.  I could hardly keep myself from saying something.  Maybe she didn’t know how important those hands were.  I mean, maybe she didn’t understand that without them he couldn’t paint, couldn’t make a living…..

At some point Catherine finished talking.  I honestly have no idea what else she said.  All I remember is that she sharply clicked her tongue twice and Angel abruptly stopped licking and reentered her cage.  Blurry thanks passed between the two adults, a short walk towards our van ensued and ice cream cones were gathered along the way.  I climbed up in my captain’s chair and we started home with me so dazed I didn’t even notice my melting cone.  Dad looked over at me gauging how I was, since the silence in our van was not something he was used to from his little chatterbox.   “Did you have fun?” he asked between licks.  “Yes.” I exhaled breathlessly.  Silence.  “Well,” he said slowly, “I want you to remember one thing.  Today we went to work.”  He stopped, letting that sink in.  Finally, he continued, “If you don’t love what you do this much, don’t do it.”

Duly noted, Dad.  Duly noted.

Yes, all things are possible for one who believes, but it helps to have someone live this out in front of us so we can experience firsthand an unbelievable life.  Then, it seems more possible to create our own.

Nelson Mandela said it best.  “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Give someone else permission to dream big by living your life with boldness.  Remember that playing small does not serve the world.  You are a child of God.  You were made to shine.

Click here to experience the art of Misty’s father, Mitchell Tolle.

To find out more about the Cheetah named Angel and the fund established in her name, click here.

2013 Copyright by Misty Tolle

All rights reserved

3 Ways to Listen Like a Pro

In the book Music: Ways of Listening, author Elliott Schwartz argues that our listening skills have been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out.”  I can’t help but agree with that and admit that I’ve been guilty of it myself.

The Bible says more than a dozen times, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In light of this, it seems this isn’t a 20th century phenomenon after all.

There’s nothing more important to a musician than how acutely we listen.  So how do we cultivate ‘ears that hear’?

1.  Listen More than Once

black woman listening

Sounds simple, right?  But how often do we receive sound advice, hear a great message, or read a great book and rush right on to the next thing without stopping to let it sink in?  The great violinist Itzhak Perlman said, “When we learn something slowly, it leaves us slowly.  When we learn something quickly, it departs our minds quickly.”  So, let’s take our time and embrace repetition.  Want to really know that piece of music?  Hear it over and over again.  Want to really learn that spiritual lesson?  Sit with it, meditate on it, listen again to the words that were spoken until you have internalized the message.

2.  Listen in Lots of Ways

man headphones

When I get called in to play a new Broadway show, I need to know it backwards and forwards before I show up in the pit that first night.  I prepare myself by listening to the music almost constantly.  Sometimes I listen while watching the musical score so I see the notes of the whole orchestra flying by.  Sometimes I listen while looking at my horn part, so that I really understand the specifics of what I need to play.  Sometimes I just listen in the background while driving, walking the dog, or doing other mundane tasks.  I listen to the cast recording, the original recording, and the current pit orchestra playing it themselves.  Sometimes I even listen to it while falling asleep at night.

Want to know what God has to say in your life? The Bible says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  Listen to the word while you exercise, while you cook, and while you travel to work.  Listen to a few different translations to hear interesting nuances of interpretation.  Listen when you are deliberately paying attention and when you are not.  The Bible says that God’s word will not return void, so no matter how and when you listen to it, there are promises attached to that hearing.

3.  Listen More than you Talk


At one point in my career I oversaw a team of artists from many arts disciplines. They were a mixed group of dancers, actors, musicians, potters, storytellers, etc.   Working with them all jumbled together I began to notice that the musicians seemed to be more adept collaborators than those from other disciplines.  They specifically flourished in the large group conversations.  As I began to grapple with the reasons why, it struck me that they were simply better listeners.  I noticed they spoke up less often in conversation.  They were thoughtful responders to what they had heard rather than steering the dialogue based on their own agendas.  It’s not that the people from the other arts disciplines didn’t listen; of course they did.  It’s that the musicians were able to listen with such focus and intention and understood the value of remaining quiet until they could truly contribute something of import to the dialogue.

Want to become more sensitive to what God is saying to you?  Spend less time talking at him when you pray and more time lingering in his presence.  Thoughtfully prepare questions for those spiritual mentors in your life and then listen while they pour out their wisdom to you.  Talk less.  Listen more.  The Greek philosopher Epictetus said it this way, “God gave man two ears but only one mouth that he might hear twice as much as he speaks.”  

Looking for a great way to listen to the Bible everyday?  Check out my favorite resource- Daily Audio Bible.  Subtle backgrounds of ocean waves and meditative music add to this daily dose of God’s word.

2013 Copyright by Misty Tolle

All rights reserved

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

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

All rights reserved