Playing Scared

I had a parking lot conversation the other night with another musician about his upcoming graduate recital.  We were talking about practice and preparation and the conversation naturally turned to dealing with performance anxiety.

If you are a musician, at some point you are going to perform for someone other than the family dog and that can generate a tremendous amount of angst.  Assuming you have prepared well (and if you are performing something that is not well prepared….well, that’s a whole different set of worries!), there is a point where you have done all you can do but still think:

I’m not sure I can do this!

This is gonna fall apart!

I will look like an idiot to EVERYONE in the audience.

The thing is is that this slippery slope leads to playing scared.  That means that you don’t take chances with the music and you think that slower/softer means safer.  What generally happens is that you still make those mistakes you feared PLUS the music is boring and lifeless.

What I said in that parking lot conversation is that I used to assume that a good performance was a “perfect” performance–all the notes and rhythms in the right place.  What I now believe is that a good performance is authentic.  It is musical.  It takes some risks.  It has life.  Yeah, there are some screwups.  But that is life too, isn’t it?

I think we play it scared in our religious practice some times, by the chances we take or not.  Lots of folks have written about witnessing: taking a stand at the water cooler at work and inviting your neighbor to church.  That demands that you be authentic.  And that you take a few risks.

But also–and it can be scary too at times–I think you have to take some risks at church.  Try something new.  Speak up when you don’t understand the theology you see performed in front of you.  Ask questions in that Bible study.  Be honest.  Just for once, don’t just smile, nod and agree.  Open your mouth and say: “You know, this passage has just never made sense to me.  What are we supposed to make of it?”

Afraid you will ask a stupid question?  Sound silly?  Well, maybe.  On the other hand, you just might learn something.  Your faith might be strengthened.

Peter is one of my heroes in the New Testament.  I wish I were more like him.  You have to cringe sometimes for him:

Hey, Jesus!  I can walk on water too!  Oops, wait!  No, I can’t!!”

Peter often seems to jump in before he has thought things through and say the wrong thing.  But he SAYS something (probably what everyone else was thinking but afraid to put into words).  I think Peter would have been a great trumpet player.  Sure, he would have missed some of those high notes.  But he would have gone after them and the ones he hit would have been glorious.

The musician I talked to in the parking lot was getting ready for a graduate recital and, as we all do, voiced some concerns about having things ready.  Last night at his recital he was in the midst of a particularly difficult number when something seemed to go wrong.  He hesitated, his pianist stopped and repeated an entrance.  The soloist put his horn down and abruptly walked to the front of the stage and addressed the audience:

A preacher was delivering a sermon on Genesis when he found his sermon pages to be out of order.  He suddenly stopped in the midst of his message to say:

‘Adam! Adam!’ Eve said. ‘You seem to have a leaf missing.’

I seem to have the pages of my music out of order.  Please excuse us while we start this section over.”

The audience roared with laughter at the joke and settled back to enjoy the rest of the program.  A flawless evening?  No, but authentic and joyful and full of life.  There was a lot of music played that night.

Let us come to our faith with the same enthusiasm and lack of fear.  With God’s grace, the music of our lives will likewise be authentic, joyful, and full of life.

Jazz in the Liturgy & More: Canterbury House at University of Michigan

Recently I reviewed Better Get It In Your Soul: What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz, a new resource on creativity in worship written by Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush, chaplain and music faculty advisor at Canterbury House at University of Michigan.  I was delighted with the book, wanted to learn more, and consequently contacted the authors, who were every bit as gracious and welcoming as their book had led me to expect.  The following is from my phone interview with Fr Reid, as well as information gleaned from the Canterbury House website, which is a great introduction to their people and programs.  The CH mission statement summarizes pretty well what they are all about:

  • A progressive alternative for Christians and other spiritual seekers
  • Devoted to the spiritual growth of the students, faculty and staff at the UofM
  • Committed to integrating the intellectual, spiritual, emotional and socially responsible dimensions of student life and culture
  • Dedicated to finding God without twisting arms or sacrificing reason
  • Combining new artistic expressions with ancient wisdom and tradition
  • Friendly to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people
  • A student organization and a ministry of the Episcopal Church

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved with social justice at CH.  Service projects include:  Casa Materna, a home and educational resource for expectant mothers in Matagalpa, Nicaragua;  Episcopal Relief & Development disaster relief work; and Brewing Hope, a fair trade coffee partnership.  A fundraiser is currently underway to help rebuild Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince.  Mass services frequently honor specific saints of the church, commemorating social activists and raising awareness within the U of M community.

It is in the area of music, as you might expect, that CH is really unique.  They are fortunate enough to have a full time chaplain—few Episcopal campus programs do—and are therefore able to provide both a jazz mass on Sunday night and either an Evensong or Taize service on Wednesday. The Chapel is heavily utilized by music students for senior recitals, as well as providing a quiet spot for piano practice. Typically six concerts are scheduled each semester: these are ticketed events whose proceeds are used to pay the musicians.  Fr Reid said that some students who come to concerts later come back for church services; others may come only for the concerts.  The music itself is a ministry and that is reason enough to do it.

What impressed me in my conversation with Fr Reid was the wisdom of finding that “one thing.” (Remember Jack Palance’s advice to Billy Crystal in City Slickers?)  Among all the various activities expected of a college church, perhaps what we need to do is to find that one ministry which, as Hamilton and Rush have said of music, “resonates” with your campus community.  Decide who you will be and what makes you unique.

Of course, the next step in establishing your identity is getting the word out to others.  Fr Reid said that it had been very helpful at CH to invest in creating a distinct and easily recognizeable logo.  That image has been used consistently for everything associated with CH: letterhead, brochures, posters, tee-shirts, and even–and I love this one–temporary tattoos!  (How about that for “branding”?)

The door is open at Canterbury House at U of M:

If you are exploring your faith, creating your ethic, looking for a safe place to ask hard questions, need a welcoming and open community, like new and interesting art and music, or are wondering how you can make a difference in the world, then Canterbury House is ready for you.  The atmosphere is relaxed, the worship is informal and accessible, and the teapot is on the stove….Come and be involved, be challenged, be fed, be comforted, or just be! We are happy to see you.”

More to come!  Thanks for reading!

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