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!

A musician who didn’t listen to much music

For the longest time, I was a musician that didn’t listen to music. That seems strange, doesn’t it? I had my reasons. Since I was making music all the time, I needed to have a break from it. It was part of a deeper response to the struggles I was facing in my ministry positions. Needless to say, I quit allowing the passion and creativity of music to fuel me.

Fast forward to a few months ago. Something changed. I started looking for creative musical interpretations and creations. And guess what happened? That passion for music has been reignited in me. I have fallen back in love with music the way I did as a child. I still have my likes and dislikes, but I have found a joy in listening to music, just as much as making music.

So, if you’re wanting to be creative, listen to music. Not to copy or mimic, but to provide you the inspiration to make your own music as God has placed inside of you. If you’re finding yourself dry and in that rut, try listening to something different. Look for creative things. One of the things I’ve come across that I really enjoy is Postmodern Jukebox and their classic renditions of pop songs. But that’s just one example. There are plenty more out there! Go look for them!!

The work it takes to be creative

I’ve been thinking about this over the past couple of days that I have had a bit of a break, but it has been on my mind for a while.

I like writing music. I find that it challenges me in ways that I need to be challenged. I initially started writing music out of need. Serving in churches where there was no budget for music, personally needing extra income.

Now, in my new position, over the last 4+ months, I have found myself busy. With my wife working full-time, and trying to be the best husband and father I can be, I have set writing aside. I haven’t had any music published by any publisher, yet there are plenty of musicians in the same boat as I am, being in full-time positions and have music published. Are they doing something different? Yes, they are. They’re working at it.

See, being creative takes work. For the longest time, I doubted my ability to be creative. Yet, I didn’t work at it to improve, either. So I was stuck in this cycle of wanting to improve, making excuses, not working at it, and then being frustrated. I can just imagine the responses at what I sent in for publication.

So, how does it change? Simple, make it a priority. Focus on smaller, more achievable goals. Instead of writing a level 5 handbell piece, write some simple level 1 pieces. Instead of trying to write the next great choral anthem, start with simple, excellent unison children’s choir music.

I think part of my problem as well was trying to hit 8 different directions and not refine and focus in on what I can do and do it well. I know that I am capable of composing music that can be published. I have to work at it. I have to make it a priority. And that’s one of my goals for the next year. Make composing a priority. I know I can. And I will. I’d love your support and encouragement.

Why I am a strange church musician

I am strange. Unique may be a better term. Misfit may work as well. Or maybe eclectic. Whatever terminology you want to use toward me, I am a strange church musician. Why, you may ask? I am a trained organist who likes and appreciates, as well as sees value in all styles of music being used for worship.

So, that means that I don’t fit well with the typical organist crowd who likes to get together and talk about repertoire, organ sizes and stops and how awful that praise team group is.

I don’t fit in with the “worship leader” crowd, because I don’t wear skinny jeans (nor would I look good in them), there is always a raised eyebrow of questioning when I mention that I play the organ as well.

Here’s how I’ve come to this perspective relating to music. Ready? It’s a pretty difficult and challenging answer to explain. OK, here’s what it is. I used my eyes and I looked around.Yes. That’s it. I looked around and God’s creation. Nothing is exactly the same. The world is filled with colors and God’s creation, great and small. But I didn’t just stop there. I noticed something else deep and profound. There are many styles of music that people connect with. Isn’t that amazing? We don’t all listen to the same style of music. And what a boring world if we did!! But there are folks who like country music, rock music, organ music, choral music, instrumental music, jazz music, and many, many other styles. Since Scripture does not specify on what instruments or style of music is to be used in worship, just the command to worship, then as I view it, the style of music doesn’t matter, outside of personal comfort.

So that’s what makes me a strange musician in the church. It feels good to admit it and see it in type in front of me. If God is going to use all of us, with different skin colors, different abilities, different perspectives on things, I think He can also work through different musical styles and instruments.

The Beauty in music

What is it about music that makes it so beautiful? It is simply 7 musical notes (and accidentals) that are repeated. It is a hierarchy and structure of beat that usually equals 3 or 4 beats per measure. It is typically some type of overarching structure or form of music. Yet within all of this, there is beauty.

So what makes music beautiful?

Is it the lyrical content of the music?
Is it the musical ability of the musician?
Is it the creativity and genius of the composer?
Is it the context of the setting?
Is it the emotional feeling drawn out of the music?
Is the rhythmic accuracy of the player?
Is there more to it?

The answer to these questions is yes in proper context. What is it about music that stirs the soul when a choir of children sing a simple song only in the way that they can, just as much as when a trained choir sings the Hallelujah Chorus? That’s the beauty in music. It speaks to our souls in ways that simple words cannot express.

This is one of the big things I am being drawn back to in music. In making music as a job and encouraging others to make music, it can be easy to fall into the traps of not seeing the beauty and creativity in music. But music is beautiful in so many ways for so many reasons. We sometimes aren’t as conscious of it as we should be

Music education and the church

Throughout history, one of the primary places that music education has occurred is in the church. Whether that was in church choirs or other groups, music and the church go hand in hand. The Messiah was not composed of a specific concert setting. It was composed as a piece for worship.

Fast forward to today. Look at our public education system, and say what you will about it, but the reality is that music and the arts are being devalued and not supported in public education. Studies have shown that music learning and making is highly valuable in forming the young brain, making neural connections that will help throughout ones’ lifetime. Yet, many children lose out on that opportunity.

The thoughts I have had, and am trying to formulate a plan on, is to answer this one question. Why can’t the church fill that gap on music education? Whether that is community music lessons to learn a specific instrument, community choirs, and interactions with music as well as opportunities to learn about music.

Many church musicians will look at this and say, “Sure, that sounds good. But I don’t have the ideas or time to do it.” I’m hoping to start putting some type of curriculum or at least ideas together in how to do it, so that people will feel empowered. So far, what I’ve done in the position I’ve filled for 4 months is to have a 3 day music camp, start a K-5 choir and a 6-8 choir. I’ve been integrating music theory along with singing, and so, the kids have enjoyed it and keep coming back! I’ve also started a music academy for private music lessons and at this point, there are 9 students! So far, the focus has been for church families, because of trying to get a start and see what it will look like.

There is opportunity. As long as there is a shared vision for music education, as well as that need for it, there is plenty of opportunity. It really comes down to what is needed in a specific community and how that need is met. It’s an exciting and daunting challenge!

Sing!

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
    tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
    he is to be feared above all gods.

In Psalm 96 verses 1-4, there are some strong encouragements to sing. Sing God a new song. For all the earth to sing. The first 2 verses focus on the what. The next two begin the focus on why. We sing because God has saved us, because of His marvelous works among all the peoples, because God deserves the praise.

But we fall short. We don’t always sing. We complain that the worship service is too long. We complain that the new songs are too difficult to sing, too loud, not what we like, or too fancy. We put the focus on us instead of God. No matter what the excuse, when we put the focus on ourselves instead of God, our singing and our worship will be out of place.

So, how do we change? I’ve found myself in these places, even as a church musician. A few things that I’ve found is to start with prayer. That’s a simple, yet easy way to do. Ask God to change your heart. Before I do anything musical in worship, I pray that it is not about me and my glory but for God and His glory. The second thing is to get into Scripture. Those times that I have found myself being critical most often tend to coincide with spiritual dryness on my part. It’s usually that everything is out of balance. Finally, look around. See what God has created. Instead of focusing on the negative, focus on the blessings and amazing things God has done for you. All too often in our busy lives, we get distracted and take for granted those blessings that God gives. When we focus ourselves on what God has done and continues to do for us, our focus changes.

These are just a few thoughts that have worked for me. I pray that you are able to find ways to be encouraged to sing God’s praises for His amazing and miraculous work in your life!

Organizing

I recognize and readily admit that I am an atypical musician. The stereotype of musicians is that they are flaky, scatterbrained, disorganized and many more. When it comes to organization, I have been blessed to realize that if you are organized, you know where things are, and can easily find them when you need them.

Many musicians use this as an excuse. Still others use the time excuse. But really, a little time and effort in organizing will save time and money in the long run! When it comes to church music, I have seen plenty of disorganization and chaos. I’ve been the recipient of music libraries in disorganization and chaos.

How do you organize? Start simply. Just list title and composer, as well as number of copies. If you want to add more, great. You could add seasons, Scripture reference, or whatever you would like. Excel or any spreadsheet is a great resource to use. Many use filing boxes, or filing cabinets or whatever they have available for storage.

If you get a few people to help sort and organize, that makes the process go a lot faster. It’s time and energy, but I believe it’s time and energy well spent! I’m looking at putting together a written resource for church musicians that describes this in more detail, but for now, take a look at this YouTube video I’ve put together.