Having Expectations

One of the things that I have been blessed to be a part of, not only in groups that I participate, but in groups that I lead as well, is having expectations placed on the group. Every music group should have expectations placed on it, and almost all do. Those expectations may range from communication if you are not going to be at rehearsal to expectations of participation level to being prepared for rehearsals. These are all expectations, and there is nothing out of the ordinary in having those expectations.

As a director, I know that those expectations start with me. What am I expected to do? Primarily, be prepared, have a rehearsal that does not waste peoples’ time, and helps them to do their best. That takes work outside of the rehearsal. Thankfully, I have been blessed to see many great examples of this, so I have only heard horror stories of directors not being prepared and wasting time and not having experience with them.

The next step is communicating the expectations you have for the group to them. What is your expectation for communication? What is your expectation for participating in worship? Are you expecting the group to be prepared for rehearsal? All of these are extremely important when it comes to expectations. No matter what your expectations, communicate them!

Expectations are beneficial because it sets a bar for the group. Sometimes, I have set expectations a bit too high and unrealistic, and so, the simple way to deal with that is to honestly explain that those expectations were a little high, but we will try a different set of expectations. Sometimes you expect the group to learn a challenging piece in certain amount of time, and it just does not come. Instead of using that piece in its not completely prepared state, maybe you shelve it for a bit. There is nothing wrong with that. But it comes back once again to communicating those expectations. So, have some expectations of your group, make them reasonable and achievable, and have fun in the process!

Striving for excellence

When musicians first start learning music, it is drilled into their head to perform the music perfectly. I remember my paternal grandmother saying over and over to me “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until the good is better and the better is best.”

Perfection will not happen this side of heaven. We can set that as our goal, but we will fail. So, how about another direction? How about striving for excellence? I came across this concept in reading “The Heart of the Artist” by Rory Noland. It’s a great read that I highly recommend. Instead of making perfection be our goal, why not make our own personal excellence be our goal.

Why personal excellence? Well, that’s really all that we can control. When I’m playing the organ, that’s all I can control. My playing and my focus and concentration on the music. When I’m singing in a choir, I can only control my own personal excellence. When all are focused on their own personal excellence in a group setting, I believe that the group will be the best it can be as a group.

How do you achieve personal excellence? Going back to the words of my grandmother, not settling for good, or better, but focusing on best. If you play a piece and make one or two mistakes, do it again. Try to make zero or one mistakes. Challenge yourself to learn something new, no matter what level you are on. Find big challenges that may take you years to master, find medium challenges that may take you months to master, and find challenges that will take you weeks to master. Why? That way you’re not working on music that seems totally impossible to you, but will be a mix of challenges.

Please understand that this blog post is written to myself just as much as it is to any of you who are reading it. I know that for a long period in my life, I have settled for good, and not challenged myself to be better, and ultimately the best I can be. Recently, I have started to refocus myself on this, and I am already seeing improvements. It isn’t an impossible task. But it will take time and persistence. Keep at it. You can do it.

Music is our universal language

For many years, to be able to do business, you either had to speak English or have your business translated into English. For the most part, that is still true today, but I think there is a language that connects with people far greater than the spoken language. That is the language of music.

Just look at how music is used in our world. When you are in a store shopping, or a coffee house, or pretty much anywhere, it is not silent. There is music going on in the background, or sometimes, in the foreground. When you are at a sporting event, there is music going on to get the fans excited and cheering loudly. These are just a couple of examples of how music is used. There are plenty more.

Music connects emotionally on a level that simple words cannot. To say “I love you”, is powerful in and of itself, but to say “I love you” in a song set to music, there is a deeper and emotional connection. Why is it that a song that we may not have heard for 15 or 20 years comes on, and all of a sudden, we are taken back in time and flooded with memories? The emotional power of music.

An example of this in the Bible is after God delivers the Children of Israel from the Egyptians by helping them cross the Red Sea in a miraculous way. Simple words and shouts are not enough. Miriam, Moses’s sister breaks out into spontaneous song. When it comes to music, there is this emotional language and connection that it brings that transcends verbal language and context. And that is why music is our universal language. It is a language that connects internally as well as externally.

God is our refuge!

Today in the Lutheran church, the church body I am a part of, is the celebration of he Reformation. Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, realized that the Catholic Church was not following the Scriptures, and through Luther’s actions of nailing his 95 Theses, or complaints against the church, a worldwide transformation was set in motion.

One of the most famous hymns that Luther wrote was “A Mighty Fortress”, a paraphrase of Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength. An ever present help in times of trouble”. When we watch the news, it is easy to be down about what is going on. Political arguing, people scared of Ebola, school shootings, and much more. But yet, GOD is our refuge and strength. GOD is our help, not any leader, political party, doctor, or anyone else.

The third verse to A Mighty Fortress is one of my most favorite hymn verses of all time. “Though Devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us. We tremble not, we fear no ill. They shall not overpower us.” I will never forget hearing Charles Ore, my college organ instructor, play an improvisation on this verse. He used both feet and held down about 6 or today 7 pedal notes, and then changed registrations randomly, making it sound like devils. While those devils can cause use alarm and fear, we know that our victory over sin, death and the devil is win because of the cross and empty tomb of Jesus.

So whether you go to church and sing A Mighty Fortress today, or you sing other songs, go with that reminder that God is YOUR refuge and strength. God is with YOU in times of trouble. Trust in Him and rely on His strength and protection!

Using your gifts, no matter where you are

As I was doing my early morning scrolling through Facebook, I came across a video. It had the title of “She set up on the street and proceeds to destroy everything you thought you knew about the clarinet”. Interesting, yes. But in the explanation, it says she’s from New Orleans. Watch the video.

It was obvious to me that this woman had a gift. And had put in work. So, I did a small amount of looking. Her name is Doreen Ketchens and she has been called “The female Louis Armstrong”. High praise when you live in the city of New Orleans! You can take a look at ther website here.

As I was thinking about it, she is using her gifts in a unique way. Yes, she’s a highly trained, professional musician who has performed for 4 Presidents. Yet, the love and passion for music leads her to make that music wherever she is and to use those gifts. This isn’t a highly paid gig, there’s a bucket that people are putting money in! But I really don’t think that’s the point. When you love music and you love making music, there isn’t a venue that you won’t share that love in.

That leads me to thinking about the church and music in the church. Many of the musicians that show up to rehearsals, or play their instruments in worship aren’t the most professional or polished. Their musicianship may not be of the highest caliber. However, if we who are leaders of music ministry see that passion and that desire and encourage them to take those gifts, work with them and better those gifts, you never know what may come!

So be inspired by Doreen. But realize that she didn’t wake up one morning and was able to play and sing like that. That took practice and training. That took time. But when you take that time to prepare and train, you can share that gift in so many ways. I am reminded of a saying that my grandmother always said to me. “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until the good is better and the better is best.” As musicians, that is what we should strive for. The best we possibly can do.

Encouragement helps!

Being a church musician, you hear lots of feedback. Sometimes it’s positive, sometimes it’s not so positive, sometimes it’s no feedback at all. I’ve heard plenty on all sides, and for every positive comment, just one comment that could be perceived as a slight negative can create that negative self-talk and that doubt in the mind of the musician. My friend Jon Acuff in his book “Start” calls this “Haters math”. And it’s very, very true.

My previous ministry experience is a great example of this. I was in a church where I did have people who supported and encouraged me, but there were those few influential people that either didn’t support and encouraged me, or did it in a very unique way. For most of my time at that congregation, I felt like I was on an island. The reality is, if you were to ask most of the congregation, I would have probably had 90-95% share favorable and positive feedback about me. But, in not hearing much feedback, and more often than not hearing negative feedback, my perception was skewed and I struggled mightily in so many ways.

But for the past 4 and a half months, I have been serving in a congregation where pretty much weekly, I have had people coming up to me with positive, encouraging feedback. I have rarely had those comments that feel negative toward me. Does that mean that those people aren’t there? Of course not! The church is filled with people, myself included, who have their own personal thoughts, likes and dislikes when it comes to what they want to see happen musically in worship. But, perception is reality, and in my current setting, I have experienced quite the opposite of hater’s math. And it is extremely refreshing.

So, if you’re a church musician, and you feel like there are more negative voices than positive voices, look for people you can trust and ask them for their honest opinion. Evaluate why people are saying the comments they are saying. Quite often, I have found that when people are being negative or cutting in their remarks toward me, there is something else completely unrelated in play, and I have been the place where that feeling of power or negativity goes. Not to excuse it, but it’s reality. In a few rare cases, that’s just how those people are. There’s no changing them. The most important thing is pray. Seek God’s direction. In my situation where I felt like I was on an island, I spent 3 years wrestling and praying with God to lead me elsewhere. I knew that was not where I was supposed to be. And in the waiting and frustration, God was using that time to prepare me for something better.

If you’re a person who feels a need to share your opinion with the church musician, stop and ask yourself a few things. While I am being honest in my sharing, is there a way that I can say this in a caring, loving manner? Is there more about the hymns and songs that I want to sing? Is there something that I can do to help improve the things that I am making these comments about? Sometimes, people mean well, but it can come across in not the most positive manner. One of the most important things you can do is to pray for your church musicians, as well as praying for all of your church leadership.That can help you to be supportive and encouraging in what you say and how you say it. And, if you see your church musician looking frazzled or beat up, let them know that you are praying for them. It means a whole lot!