Mediocrity has no place here

Written directly across the top of my studio policy is the line “I want my students to be musically proficient. Bottom line - I have no interest in training them to be mediocre musicians.” I don’t really believe at the time I really realized how unusual this particular idea would be in our current culture. I frequently feel as if I’m a little out of the loop, not always connecting with others, because I, myself, and we as a family tend to view life very differently. This is one current way I find myself at odds with many around me and I’m left scratching my head as to why. Now I realize there is a certain irony here about now typing a blog post on mediocrity. A few weeks ago it was the evils of perfectionism…well it’s counterpart is definitely mediocrity. I believe this means there must be a third part to this “series” called balance. Ha! Definitely the daughter of a preacher…I think in groups of threes and always try to come up with some way to alliterate if possible. I see a distinct departure from the pursuit of excellence among families these days in general. When I was growing up, I was hugely competitive and so it became almost second nature to me to work hard for the things I wanted. Whether that was a piano competition, or a spelling bee, or graduating as the Valedictorian. There was the constant evaluation of the “cost” involved to apply myself in any particular direction - meaning mostly time/effort, and sacrifice. Sacrifice included time to spend with friends, time to myself to read or play, or just downtime. Nowadays, there’s no downtime for most families. Our family tends to find ourselves in this same boat - so there’s no condemnation here. With three very active, sports oriented children - we are on the go. We encourage the practice beyond the time spent at “practice”, and trying to work to develop discipline in the kids to work for the things they want. I’m not so sure that what we have in our culture currently is really helping us. In the studio, kids come in weekly that are not prepared in any way shape or form for a lesson. Now listen, I understand that there are weeks, where there is just not enough time. I totally and completely get it. I’m not speaking of the occasional difficulty or occasional missed effort. I’m talking consistent lack of preparation to demonstrate any mastery of skill in any small part. I do my best to encourage the practice, and the prep necessary but I fear it mostly goes in one ear and out the other because frankly, we (humans in general) don’t really enjoy hard work. Mediocre is easy because we don’t have to work at it - everyone can easily be average.

It’s not unusual at one of my recitals for certain students to be mentioned to me as being “so talented”. This is not a wrong statement by any means, but what I wish more people understood was the fact that these students who are “talented” are the ones who consistently week after week continue to work and practice and aren’t satisfied with an “ok”. They are the ones who feel it deeply when a performance doesn’t go well or when they don’t feel like they have made the progress they could have. They are not satisfied with mediocrity, because they know the value of their persistence and hard work. They are not content to just play or sing the right notes, and rhythms, but they add an extra dimension of musicality by working with dynamics, articulation and facial expression. It takes more work and more time and more sacrifice to be above average - but those who do the things necessary to become excellent know it’s worth it.

We miss out on so much when we are settle for average! We all look the same, sound the same, achieve the same and this is not what we were made for. Deep down I think we all want something more than this! I do believe that Biblical principles back me up on this - I can think of verses where we are told to do things with all our might (Ecc. 9:10), Honor the Lord with the “firstfruits” of our substance (Prov. 3:9) or the parable of the talents found in Luke 12. The Bible tells that we will reap what we sow and if we sow with diligence and work hard (another Scriptural principle from Proverbs) we will reap our efforts. It doesn’t take much review in the old testament books of Genesis and Exodus to see the precision with which God ordered Creation, delivered the Israelites from Egypt, and structured the beginnings of the priesthood. Take Ex 28:2-3 as an example and see that even the clothing that God wanted designed for the priests was very specific - “for glory and for beauty”. God also says to “speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill”. So God gives skill, and we are to develop and use it for the express purpose of bringing God glory. So average and mediocre doesn’t add up to me in this Biblical economy.

What about outside of this Christian line of thought? In life, we look up to those who achieve greatness. Whether they are on the basketball court, the football field, or in business - we have great respect for those who work hard and who are by no means average. This is not always the smartest person in the room. We all know those who are incredibly smart, but who are not successful because they can’t translate those smarts to daily life. Those who work hard, put in great time and effort in order to achieve goals, and to attain skill are the ones we celebrate. Increased skill separates the mediocre from the excellent. This doesn’t mean these folks are goodness the great inventors all have long histories of many failures before they achieved any amount of skill. Great sports players throughout history have persevered through failure in order to attain the level of skill that we all admire. Even businessmen who succeed in business many times go through failures, and loss before they acquire the necessary skill to achieve greatness in their business dealings.

This brings me to my latest idea rolling around in my head. I believe this is why a certain Presidential candidate resonates with us. We don’t want someone who is average or mediocre to lead us. What kind of campaign slogan would that be - “we can all be President” “I’m nothing special”? I mean would anyone seriously vote for someone who was all about the average? I don’t think so…I think we all look for our leaders to be someone who we can admire and who achieves greatness. I know the campaign slogan of “make America great again” has rubbed many the wrong way. But I have to admit - I kind of agree! America is a great nation and always will be because there is no where else in the world that can compare with America and her freedoms - but we aren’t what we once were. By the way - that’s not a political endorsement - just an understanding of what he is saying and an agreement that we should want greatness again!

America has become rather average in her foreign policy. Starting to make deals, where we are on the losing end, making prisoner exchanges which creates more vulnerability for those traveling abroad and thanking nations who kidnap and propagandize our military men is really terrible foreign policy. We don’t take a stand for right and wrong, we give away too much information, weapons, cash, etc to those who care nothing for what we value and we get very little in return. We do not value human life - pre-born, disabled or elderly. We have an economy absolutely in the tank - we are saddling our children with extreme amounts of debt and we just continue to allow the ceiling on that debt to be raised. Our education system is a complete mess. Look no further than the recent undercover videos exposing the cronyism of common core and the major publishing houses for textbooks only highlights the disaster of the current system. Our political parties look the same and vote together even if that violates various campaign promises made to be elected. It is quite frankly disgusting and immoral.

So we have a candidate who stands up and says - let’s make America great again - I can understand and I agree! We have allowed mediocrity to slip in and keep us all where we are now…Excelling means rising above what we do now to become better. Mediocrity says hey I’m ok, you’re ok - we can all get the same color ribbons because we all showed up. Even our kids know this is pretty dumb, because they all know who the winner really is. They keep score in their heads, even if we the adults don’t keep score. We know in our minds this isn’t they way we really want things to be, but we don’t know how to change it. So we look to someone who challenges our way of thinking, and reminds us that greatness is not a bad thing - some people are meant for it…not because they were born rich, but because they worked hard for it. I have great respect for those who work hard and achieve much. I know how hard it is to get the grade, get the diploma, get the degree and to keep working on bettering your skills as you get older. I respect others who do the same.

Our culture is so confused. Nationally, the state of Wisconsin is now stating that students in high school can no longer say certain phrases at high school basketball games - “start the bus” or “airball”. These words and phrases, as well as booing are now actionable offenses by administrators. I guess we are just trying to make sure everyone feels good after a game.

Internationally, the Olympic committee has recently ruled that transgender athletes (pre-surgery) should be allowed to compete with women. That’s right we really won’t have women’s sports any longer because women will now compete with men. Our bodies are designed differently, our strengths are different, and now we are expected to compete with that. It’s infuriating - if we want to do that - have men and women all compete against each other - then ban the “category” of “women’s” sports or “mens” sports. But can you even imagine the underhanded dealings that are going to take place with nations that are far less principled than we are. I have no doubt that it will serve their purposes quite well, to have someone compete who is not truly “transgender” just for the sole purpose of collecting a win. We have seen all kinds of manipulations in the past - nothing at all will surprise me here.

Again nationally, and perhaps most dangerously, we have a complete lack of clear teaching on the constitution, the branches of government, etc and it’s created a terrifying combination of fresh new voters with no depth of knowledge of past history or present legislation in our school systems. A recent non scientific poll stated that approximately 10% of those polled in the millennial age group thought Judge Judy was a supreme court justice. If this is even remotely true it is quite a scary thought. The problem is these same young adults don’t and won’t realize the separation of powers that is inherent in the way our governmental institutions were set up. They are not being taught that executive actions are a run around a Congress that is setup to be a balance to an executive branch that runs pell mell toward whatever they please. They don’t see the dangers that allowing this kind of behavior to continue because they don’t know their history and history has taught us that absolute power (anything that can’t be balanced by another external force) corrupts absolutely. This is how we end up with a dictator instead of a president. Without an understanding of history, they will have no idea that the idea of capitalism and a free market economy is so much more favorable for a nation than socialism. They have no basis of economic understanding and so when someone says that college will be free, and everyone should get a higher minimum wage and we should tax the rich more so everyone can have nice things- they think hey that sounds great! They can’t see the “danger” signs flashing that the economy will collapse because business cannot sustain such a burden. They only see the benefit of the here and now. These are the future voters and they have been deliberately mislead, and not taught the details of our history and government. It’s really appalling.

Mediocrity exists because our vision is small and our wills are weak. When we sacrifice our futures on the altar of what we want right now, we will remain average and never find our true passion and purpose through excellence.

Stretching & Cliff Jumping

If I look back over the entirety of the year 2015, I am filled with awe at how the Lord has stretched me and our family throughout the year. I started the year filled with apprehension about getting our homeschool daughter graduated, and all her work finished, and getting her into a college with funding, etc. etc. I look back and thank the Lord for his sustaining grace through some days of unknowns, and turning things into beautiful endings and new beginnings. There is a great amount of doubt and anxiety involved in doing things for the first time. For whatever reason, when I can’t see the end of something I have trouble blazing the trail ahead without feeling a level of concern that I will be a huge failure.  Irony of ironies, as I am typing I am also texting - either a sign of genius or madness, you decide - and my friend expresses her season of stretching  - tingles!  I hadn't said a word about what I was currently doing - just checking in and seeing how she and her family were doing since we hadn't spoken in a while.  I couldn't believe when she described how she was being stretched .. whoa!  She and I shared common feelings that the stretching brings and most of it's uncomfortable frankly - but we experience these things so we can encourage others - don't forget that! So 2015 was a stretching year both for myself and for my family. We were very inwardly focused for a few months just handling the daily routine of work, travel for my husband, and getting her work finished, diploma ordered, and a graduation celebration organized. I also had two seniors graduating from the studio and needed to organize two different studio recitals a month early because of major conflicts in May with all events. So the first half of the year seemed to be internal stretch. God allowed us to begin working again with a small group of young people in our church - we love singles and young couples who are just getting married lives started. It’s an exciting age, and they have so much energy and passion for the things of the Lord. So we started working with this group during the same time frame.

Summer quickly came and rest was so wonderful - I look at the calendar and see lots of space and we spent a lot of time brainstorming with our small group how to grow the group, how to impact our community and to encourage our church family. This led to some big ideas which led to more of the stretching we discussed, as we launched the ideas of not just a 3 on 3 tournament for our community outreach and a mission project, as well as another men’s oriented event that had not been tried by our church before. I began to feel that God was calling me to really dive in and be more than I was at this point and I have already written how I was challenged to make a priority of time and space with the Lord in the mornings before my day ran off and away from me.

Starting in August, I spent dedicated time in prayer for these really big events - again events that had not been done and no idea how they would turn out - and to pray that God would use me to impact His kingdom. We also took the whole family and spent our Thanksgiving day serving a meal with a great group of folks to a side of our community that doesn’t have much. God is crossing our paths in significant and life changing ways with people that we would not have ordinarily met or become friends with in our normal way of life. It’s been life altering and the stretching continues.

From here, I had also known for some time that God was directing me to lead a trip to my favorite ministries in the Dominican Republic. I have a heart for what God is doing on this island, and I have people who are impacted through our past trips who want to go and be a part. But honestly I have dragged my feet - the idea of team leader is too much - too big a thing to be prepared for, to be in charge of, to be leading. But I submitted and began the process of the planning and preparation to put this trip together. God has continued to confirm and open doors for this trip - I am so excited to see what happens. He also began to put in my heart my desire to do this trip with our entire family. That’s right all 5 of us on mission together this summer. Wow…that’s a God sized dream that we are trusting Him to do for us.

Also during this time, internally I began to feel like that God was calling me to do some things that I haven’t pursued personally too much. When the kids are little, and the days are busy, it’s hard to think creatively and to pursue dreams and desires that we have. But as the kids age, and as we learn to manage our time in different ways, I have found that there is indeed time and space. The next obstacle then is our fears and doubts. What if what I have created - music, books, blogs, websites, etc.. isn’t received well or is criticized. I’ve always compared it to being such a personal process to share our creations with others - you want them to think your “baby” is beautiful - so in fear and doubt, we hide our “babies” and keep them to ourselves because we doubt what God is telling us to do.

So here we are already 12 days into 2016, and I can see that I’m done stretching - we have moved straight on into leaping off the edge…I’m cliff jumping and I’m scared to death. I am ready to move forward without holding back what it is that God gives me to do and to say. I am ready to trust Him completely with the results - good and bad, and just continue to be persistent and to continue improving. I have joked in previous blogs that I have so many words in my head and so I’ve decided to start writing so I can get them down on paper. One of my goals this week was that as I opened the studio up, I wanted to protect a certain portion of time and dedicate to writing. I am working on several projects right now, but sometimes there are ideas that just need to be written while they are popping around inside my brain. I set a goal to hit 1500 words a day during the week while I’m teaching. Yesterday was my first day and I went way beyond 2000! Today I’m over my goal again…so it looks like perhaps I set my sights too low.

So I am sitting and blogging here today during my time frame Ive set aside - and Mandisa is playing in the background - Waiting for Tomorrow - if you don't know it - take a listen.  I can't help but feel that God just continues to reinforce the things I am thinking and doing.  Maybe what I write doesn’t connect with anyone out there, but it’s just cathartic to release the words out there for me. That’s ok with me..I just have to take my next step in obedience and jump off that cliff, knowing that my “baby” is good enough for my Lord - since He has called me to obedience. What about you - have you been given a dream/desire but something is holding you back from pursuing it fully? Don’t let fear and doubt cripple you - God wants us to live full and overflowing lives for His glory. Come on - we are cliff jumping - won’t you join me?2015-09-04 15.31.05

Perfectionism is a Joy Killer

Perfectionism is a joy killer and a creative persons achilles heel! Twice this last week this issue reared it’s ugly head.  My problem is that I so readily recognize this problem, because I have it too.  Look up the word Perfectionist in the dictionary and I'm beyond sure my picture is next to it!  Over achiever extraordinaire - I have always struggled with perfectionism.  In school, in piano performance, life in general and its a heavy burden to bear.  The problem is that perfectionism robs us of the joy that we typical have in the things we like to do.  When I try to perfect a piece I’m playing at the piano, or a creative composition then the fun of playing the piano or being creative has now been hijacked and I’m left with frustration and and a lack of desire to finish a project I’ve started.

So when this happens in the studio I try as much as I can to nip it in the bud because I know the end result is frustration and most of the time the thing that happens next is quitting.  It’s unfortunate that the end of result of trying to get something perfected is ultimately failure because we quit too soon.

This doesn’t just affect young people - it can hit older ones also - for example this week I had both a 14 year old girl and a 56 year old lady struggling with perfectionism and feeling the ultimate frustration in the process.  The 14 year old is bearing the brunt of needing to achieve A+’s in school and it’s spilling into other areas of her life in the process.  She’s also spending hours playing basketball for her school team, and keeping her high grades in the process.  So the thing that suffers here is the piano and the voice lessons.  Since she doesn’t get a grade per se she lets that thing go the most.  So this semester we drilled it down as simple as we could so that she could enjoy the Christmas recital with a couple things to play.  The problem is though that as soon as you simplify the perfectionism only gets worse…It’s difficult to convince her that she’s only hurting herself both now and in the long term.  I have tried desperately to get her to realize that the music practice can be a safe haven or an emotional outlet so to speak to help her relax after all the pressures she feels at school and to use it as a way to unwind.  But she can’t see that right now, she just sees it as one more thing she has to perfect.  She can’t seem to stop herself and that makes me sad.

The other issue is really one and the same - stress affects my 56 year old student at work and at home.  She has an adult child and children that have moved back in with her and instead of her practice time being in piece and quiet, it’s now mixed in with a lot of background noise and chatter and singing along with her playing.  She’s trying to get comfortable playing for others, but she is allowing her perfectionism to interfere with the sheer joy of playing some songs that others will recognize and sing along too.  It’s creating more pressure in her life when what she really needs is some downtime and relaxation to be able to find time to enjoy the process.  I tried so desperately to get her to come and play a few Christmas carols that she was playing well at the nursing home with us.  The nursing home is such a safe place to perform especially for those who struggle with anxiety in performing in front of others.  The residents so enjoy the attention that our visit brings and the joy of music can be shared with others.  Most of the time they don’t care how the music sounds - they care mostly that we stopped long enough to spend time with them.

This has also happened frequently in the studio when we are working on compositions.  Everyone at some point believes it’s not “good enough”.  Or that they can’t create new things.  This is ridiculous - everyone is capable of creating new things and the creative process is hugely fun and satisfying.  Not everyone is good at it right away, but you have to be willing to start somewhere and gradually get better.   I mean that’s kind of the point, to learn something new we have to start with something we can’t already do and we can’t expect it to be perfect the first time we try it.  Working through how to make things better on one composition, helps to make it better for the next time and the next time after that.  I share with my students who struggle with composition whether at the beginning of the process or sometime in the middle when the ideas run out about an article I read once from a prolific sculptor.  He was asked how he had come to create so many masterpieces in his lifetime.  He stated that he didn’t wait until he was inspired, he would make himself create everyday even if he didn’t have any ideas.  Sometimes you just have to go and do it even when you don’t feel like it because you never know when a great idea will come!  But perfectionism can kill this process - the perfectionist thinks the idea isn’t good enough, all the really cool songs have already been created, it sounds too much like something else, etc etc.  The inevitable end of this thinking is to have partial bits and pieces but never a whole.   I’ve composed a lot of songs in my lifetime but I never quite finish too many because I don’t think it’s just right and I continue to make changes instead of just finishing for now.  SO I now encourage my students to finish "for now".  Make it complete and come back at a later time if you still feel it needs improving of editing.  At least you complete and have a finished product.

What’s the life lesson here?  Ultimately - don’t let perfectionism steal your joy!  The fun can be removed from any activity that we encounter in life when we allow perfectionism to overrun the sheer joy of being able to do the activity.  Is playing the piano or singing something that must be practiced and worked at - absolutely!  Does it have to be done perfectly to be enjoyed?  absolutely not.  At the end of the day we practice, we rehearse, we study, we breathe, we exercise, we vocalize, and we do all we can.  When it’s time to perform, it’s time to get out of our heads and enjoy the process of sharing something beautiful with others and enjoy the fact that we have the ability to even do what we do!  Relax and make beautiful music - even if it’s not perfect.  The only way I fhave ound around the perfectionism for myself is to let my mistakes happen and let everyone know around me that I made one (in practice or rehearsal) and I call them “jazz chords”.  I try to lighten up the desire to beat myself up over a mistake, by laughing at myself and giving it a name.  I mean jazz chords really do sound like mistakes most of the time right?  So I jokingly make myself relax and enjoy the process, and through in a few jazz chords on purpose (or do I) so that I can continue the process of having fun and enjoying the very thing that brings me joy - even if it’s not perfectly perfect.

This should hold true for you as well - whether you are making a meal for your family and friends, decorating your home based on a pinterest pin, or throwing a party.  I don’t care if you are presenting a project to your classroom, designing a game to be played with kids or just trying to do the myriad of things we try to do in a day.  Do things to the best of your ability, prepare, prepare, prepare -but then let go and enjoy.  It doesn’t really matter if the Christmas tree is really perfect for a photo shoot does it?  I mean if the kids are happy and fed, and enjoy being home isn’t that all we are really trying to do?    My daughter and I had this discussion around the tree just last week.  I had just gotten done mentally throwing my hands in the air and thinking well that’s as good as it gets…I just have to move on and maybe next year the tree will look better.  I sat down, and she said - I think that’s the best Christmas tree we have ever had.  What?!?  I laughed and told her what I was just thinking and she laughed too.

Stop putting so much pressure on yourselves to be perfect - it steals your joy and no one else realizes or sees things the way you do - you never know - they might already think it’s perfect!