How Do I Reach the Next Level of Musicianship?

Every person can learn something new, regardless of their age or years of experience.  The operative question is not “Can I” or “May I,” but “How do I.”  It is a state of mind, an attitude.  Do you want to learn?

The challenge I face, and many of the people I have worked with, has been to acknowledge that we do not know it all and that we might have something to learn.  Choosing this point of view requires vulnerability, or humility.

Humility means primarily “not proud or arrogant, modest,” and comes from the root word humilis, which means “lowly, insignificant, on the ground.”  Humilis comes from the root word humus, which means “the dark organic material in soils . . . essential to the fertility of the earth.”

The resultant meaning of humility is not self-disrespect or self-demeaning or self-deprecating; those are actually reverse forms of pride, where we sabotage our own egos so that no one else can.  Humility is bringing yourself low enough that you make your heart a fertile place for things to grow.

Humility is described this way in Proverbs 25:6-7: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Once we acknowledge we do not know it all, then we are in a place to actually take steps forward in our musicianship.  The opera star Cecilia Bartoli takes lessons from her mother to this day, even though she has been on top of the vocal world for years.  The same was true of Beverly Sills.

And the same has been true of the great musicians I have known in church bands; they all find a way to learn and continue to grow.  If you do not have tons of money for lessons with a world class musician, here are some tips I have learned that can help you get a head start.

1.  Memorize.  You can memorize your music, and it will change your musicianship and worship experience.  The congregation will be thrilled to see you without a music stand in front of you.  So many worship bands are populated by music stands with heads.  Let me give you a hint: NOT engaging!

A friend of mine thought that memorization was out of his capability as a worship leader; memorizing all of the lyrics had always been difficult.  When he buckled down and worked at it – listening to the music every day, reviewing the words – he found he could do it, and he realized that he could focus so much more clearly on the congregation as he led.

  • So what’s your excuse?

2.  Take lessons.  OK, so right off the bat let me acknowledge that this can be costly, which is a challenge in this economical climate.  Lessons with a professional is optimal.  A guitarist friend of mine would take jazz guitar lessons for a while, then classical, then trumpet, and on down the line, increasing his overall musicianship.

If you do not have the cash, have you lead guitarists considered getting all of the lead guitarists together and having a show and tell on each person’s foot pedal techniques, equipment, and sounds?  (insert keyboardists, pianists, vocalists, whatever)  Of course, that would require a little humility, which is tough for us ego-heavy musicians.  The up side is . . . it’s FREE.  Everyone bring some nachos and munchies and make it a party (um, party – meaning fun and sober, not party – meaning pasted).  In the end something more important than musicianship happens: community.  When you work together like this, the whole team benefits and the atmosphere on the platform changes.

Another option is using technology to gain the input of other musicians.  Check out my example on point 3.

  • So what’s your excuse?

3.  Practice.  Yep, that’s right, good ol’ sweat and effort.  Nothing beats spending focused time on your instrument.  Note I said focused.  You might want to check out my friend Erica Sipes’ blog, where she is experimenting with practicing only 15 minutes a day as she prepares Beethoven’s third piano concerto for a competition.  Erica is a fabulous musician who is posting video of herself practicing and gaining input from other musicians who watch her blog and comment.  Talk about humility!

Her big push right now is to really focus and not practice for practice’s sake – no “junk” practicing, as her friend called it.  (By the way, she is playing by memory; notice that?)

Oh, and she is only practicing 15 minutes a day . . . for a concerto.  Not 60, 90, . . . . 15.

  • So what’s your excuse?

4.  Emulate.  Whether you are writing songs or learning music, and whether the style is rock or classical, one of the best things you can do is emulate great artists and try to figure out how they got their sounds.  This is one of the biggest reasons I recommend using recordings to guide the band in their preparation.  When you prepare a song and try to get your sounds and playing to be like the recording, you stretch your own musicianship and you grow.

When I was studying piano in my undergraduate degree, one of the first things we would do when we were assigned a new piece was to go listen to half a dozen different versions of it to see what the great artists have done.  Besides being a feast for the ears, you could look at how different artists resolved different issues in the piece and give yourself some options as a starting place.  Then we would go off and make the piece our own.

Emulation requires humility, though.  Enough humility to be willing to be accused of being a cover band when you are actually increasing your band’s musicianship.  Some bands are focused on being cover bands, duplicates.  You might get lumped in with them.  No matter.  You know what you are doing and why; who cares what the critics say.

  • So what’s your excuse?

By now I am starting to feel, as usual, convicted by my own writing.  I think I need to practice some more today!!

How have you encouraged your musicians to remain humble and teachable, and did it work?  How have you helped them to increase their musicianship?

Ambushed by Grief

You will be ambushed by grief. Count on it. If you have ever experienced any sort of loss or heartache in life, grief will surprise you from time to time.

Sometimes you can come to expect it, and then you’re somewhat prepared. Sometimes not.

I have been divorced for two years, and still I feel pangs of grief when I drop off the boys with their mom or hear that the boys got to do something special when I was not around. I imagine I will face these pangs from time to time for the rest of my life, but they are continually less difficult as I move on and adjust.

While we cannot always know when we will experience grief, we can choose ahead of time how we will respond. Let me suggest several things.

1. Acknowledge your grief. The worst thing you can do to yourself is deny your pain. Peace begins by being honest with yourself. Experiencing grief and sadness are part of the human condition. If you deny your pain you cut yourself off from the common experiences of the whole human race, denying yourself the permission to learn from them.

2. Honor your grief. We are only able to be injured by someone or something if we value them highly. If we minimize the grief we feel we deny the value of what we lost. Use the grief as a reminder to remember all of the good things you have experienced.

3. Walk through your grief. I don’t remember who said it, but a week or two ago I heard a writer on a copyblogger podcast say, “Shortcuts are the longest.” So true. The shortest way to the other side of pain and grief is simply to face it and walk through it. Here is where friends and counselors are immensely helpful at times; the right person can help guide us through this path, especially if they have been there before themselves. The truth is that you have to grieve. The longer you avoid it and put it off the longer it will take you to recover and move on.

4. Share your experience. You may be terrified of sharing your story with someone else, but as you walk with someone else through their pain and share your story with them, you heal yourself. You are no longer alone or hiding. Healing comes in community, and you can only have community if someone bares their soul.

How have you learned to deal with unexpected grief?

Stewardship of Your Story

The last few years has been a study for me in learning through pain, and this past Sunday my pastor added a new chapter in my notes.  If you want to hear the entire message, click here and listen to “Impact #3 Stewardship of Your Story.”  It is worth your time.

He asked the question, “What if God wants to use your pain to help others?”

We like to hide our failures so that we look the way we think people want us to look.  In the end we all end up hiding from each other, afraid to open up and get help when we need it.

The Scripture is full of examples of situations where people’s pain turned to salvation: Joseph saving his family after being sold as a slave, Abraham having to leave all he knew to go somewhere about which he knows nothing.  In Isaiah 53 we read that Christ’s pain was part of our redemption.

At a time when she was vulnerable, poor, a foreigner, and essentially a migrant worker, Ruth was working in Boaz’s fields.  Instead of exploiting her he had compassion on her.  Long story short they end up getting married and restoring the honor of her mother-in-law’s family.

Question: Where did Boaz learn to protect vulnerable women?

When the Israelites were preparing to attack Jericho, they sent in some spies.  Two of these spies got trapped and ended up escaping the authorities because a prostitute hid them.  Hmmm, what were they doing at the prostitute’s place?  But I digress . . .  In return the prostitute, Rahab, asks that she, her parents, and her brothers and sisters be spared when the Israelites attack.  The Israelites honored her request and Rahab went on to live with the Israelites.

Turns out she marries a man from the tribe of Judah.  His name was Salmon.  Their son was named . . you guessed it . . Boaz.  Boaz most likely learned to protect vulnerable women from his father, who married a prostitute and gave her honor back to her.

Check out Matthew 1 and you will find that Christ’s lineage goes through both Rahab and Ruth, two foreigners and one a prostitute.

Question: Would Boaz have learned the same lessons if Rahab had been afraid to live with the Israelites because of her reputation?

Pastor Ken’s point was this. If we have made it through our situation but keep it to ourselves, how will someone else in the same situation get encouragement?

Perhaps, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1, we are given comfort that we might comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received.  We can choose to hide our pain and be ashamed of it, or we can share it with others so that they can be encouraged and learn from it.

I was so grateful for my friend who was willing to share his painful story with me while I was going through separation and divorce.  He was such an encouragement to me.

Sharing the good things is easy, but sharing pain is something else altogether.  Do you have the courage to share your pain?

When have you been encouraged because someone shared their pain with you?  Have you been able to encourage someone else with your pain?

Life Is Fragile: Handle with Care

We often take life for granted, and people in particular. We shouldn’t.

Today was a reminder of this fact for me (I am writing this Tuesday night.).

Today a dear friend suffered a stroke and is in the hospital recovering, dealing with loss of speech and loss of mobility on one side.

Today my cousin’s wife gave birth to a little girl who cooed and cuddled with her mom before dying several hours later. We knew there was a possibility of this happening because the the baby had brain defects, but that fact in no way makes the loss easier.

Today is the anniversary of the death of my first cousin in his crib some 30+ years ago.

Who knows when our time will come, or when that time will come for our friends and family. Don’t wait to find out. Make use of now, while they are still with you.

I need this reminder as much as anyone. Keep vigil with me and remember these people by loving the ones you still have with you and living a full life.

5 Fantastic Ways to Get Burned in Ministry

Do you remember the Seinfeld episode where Kramer decided to use vegetable oil instead of tanning oil? At the end of the day he smelled like cooked chicken!

Some people we meet in ministry smell that way, like they’ve been burned. Usually you find a burnt out family to go with them as well.

In case you’ve ever wondered, here are 5 sure fire, personally tested ways to get burned in ministry.

1. Never speak up for yourself. When you discover in a meeting that someone has jumped ahead of you and done something that is your responsibility, or when a decision is made without your input that negatively impacts your ministry, definitely say nothing. Better yet, when the finance team cuts your already shoestring budget, make certain not to ask them to discuss it with you.

2. Work really long hours. Embrace the notion that the ministry that hires you owns you, and spend every waking moment trying to get it all done. Never shut off the computer, email, etc., and absolutely never take breaks or proper lunches.

3. Always place ministry over family. Ask God to take care of your family so that you can do your ministry. Get home late and leave early, skip the kids’ cub scout meetings for ministry events, never take a weekend off if you are a worship leader, and make certain to take any and every church call during your dates with your wife because, well, the church needs you.

4. Never exercise or take a break. That nonsense about everyone needing to change their activity or position every 1.5-2 hours is just that: nonsense. Those headaches are a medical condition, not the result of pushing the creative juices past their natural limit.

5. And, if none of those work, take everything people say and do personally. Mull over poisonous comments and innocuous disagreements for hours until you are fuming or depressed or both, and then go home and share with your family.

If these 5 things don’t get you smelling like Kramer, I don’t know what will. Oh, and there’s a bonus. If you fulfill all of these points perfectly you are also apt to end up divorced, in counseling and without a job.

Of course, if you prefer not to end up burnt out, divorced and unemployed, perhaps you should consider doing the opposite of all these things. Like I said, these methods have been personally tested, but so have the anti-dotes.

What burnout causes or cures have you discovered?

How I Got My Team’s Attention

Have you ever talked to your team about a concept until you were blue in the face and still got the feeling they were miles away?  I have, and I have not always been able to get their attention focused where it should be.

Today, however, I want to share an example of something that did work.

Last year I was working with my music team at a Saturday gathering specifically focused on connecting more deeply on a personal level with each other, and on digging into the preparation aspect of being part of the music team.  In the past month I have been posting excerpts from this time.  This past Monday I posted 5 Steps to Improve Your Preparation.  Wednesday we toyed with the question, What Are Your Goals?

Today I want to give you the illustration that helped the team to get involved in the discussion.

After discussing what our goals in practical preparation should and should not be, I introduced the 5 Steps.  If you remember, the 5 Steps were

  1. Listen – spend time with the example recording
  2. Read – spend time reading the music while listening to the recording to make certain you fully understand the piece
  3. Feel – listen through the set of songs without distraction and get a sense of where the songs want to go and how they want to flow together
  4. Worship – get beyond the notes and rhythms and be able to worship individually to the music you will be leading
  5. Lead – be past the rudiments of the music so that you can focus on God and the congregation while you lead.

The Illustration

In order to illustrate the steps and where we were or were not adhering to it, I drew a timeline representing the week a team member would be volunteering to lead worship.  On the right was the Sunday for which they were volunteering, and on the left was the Sunday prior.  In the middle I made a mark to represent the mid-week rehearsal.

Then I asked the team to help me note on the timeline where they thought we presently accomplished the 5 steps.  As expected, steps 1 and 2 were clustered right around the mid-week rehearsal, and 3, 4 and 5 were right on or close to Sunday.  In fact, some of 1 and 2 were also happening Sunday morning, where we were supposed to be simply running through music rather than rehearsing.

Next I graphed out where I felt we should be accomplishing the 5 steps.  We should be completely through the listening and reading stages early in the week.  We should be working through feel and worshipping at the rehearsal.  Finally, we should be completely ready to lead on Sunday at the first service, not the last one.  The Sunday morning run-through will naturally including more time of getting our feel together and preparing our hearts well for worship, but it should not be a rehearsal.

What followed was a lot of meaningful conversation about schedules, what I needed to provide for them so that they could improve their preparation, and many other things.

What successful methods have you used to get your team’s attention in regards to preparation?